“I wanted to be able to keep up with her, but I simply couldn’t. I tried to pretend that I was ready, willing, and able—but really I was just a scared little boy in a man’s body, a very long way from home.”
“I’m really into The Cars.” That was Cathy’s pick-up line—though I wouldn’t have known it as a pick-up line if she’d smacked me in the head with a two-by-four.
I didn’t want to look totally stupid, though, so my mind worked a million miles an hour for an appropriate response. The Cars were the hottest band in 1978. Their song, “Just What I Needed,” had become an overnight sensation, starting as a demo tape before getting heavy play on Boston rock stations before they even had a record or a record deal.
I had no clue who The Cars were, even though I lived in Massachusetts and was a teenager. But I had enough sense to figure out that she must be talking about music.
“I like Quadrophenia,” I finally sputtered after racking my brain for the name of the album my older brother down the hall played at ridiculously loud decibels at all hours of the day and night.
Cathy had long brown hair, a pretty face, and a body flowering into womanhood in just the way that could paralyze a boy—like man as if I were a deer caught in headlights, unable to move a muscle as a result of some mysterious reflex despite grave danger. I also remember her being petite in a cute kind of way. I had been huge for my age growing up and had an odd attraction to shorter girls, as if their smaller stature might make them less scary and equalize my Frankenstein height.
But from the start, I got the sense that Cathy’s stature had no bearing on her relative strength.
We were sitting at the side of a lake, both hunched over disgusting dinner pots and trying to figure out how best to clean them. We’d consumed chicken “glop” cooked over an open fire, a meal that consisted of canned chicken, milk, flour, noodles, canned peas, and enough black pepper to mask the flavor of the grossness of the dish.
“Here, let me show you,” Cathy said, taking the steel wool out of my hands and applying some elbow grease where I had been swirling in a gentle circular motion that moved the lake water but made no progress on the sticky, burned-on glop at the bottom of the pot.
In our house, the newspaper was more or less a religion—nothing more so than the Sunday Times. At 13, I once made a point of reading the whole thing—every single word—just to see if I could. Most weeks, I leafed through the magazine to try and travel to another world in the images and words on the page.
Mine was not an easy childhood. I was freakishly large, shy, and awkward. My parents were intellectuals of the activist sort, making my skin crawl with talk of sex and politics and race.
One Sunday morning, while my dad watched football and my mom baked raisin bread, I found a one-inch square ad in the back of the magazine. It featured a boy in a canoe, and its words spoke of adventure in the Canadian wilderness.
That’s how I found myself on a plane from Hartford to Toronto and then taking an endless bus ride north, scared to the point of tears.
To my parents’ credit, they took my pronouncement about wanting to go canoeing seriously, even if it was more than a little ill-founded. In a household with very little extra money, they scraped together enough to send me. Maybe phone calls were made to my grandmother for financial assistance; I don’t know.
I’d been to sleep-away camp twice, once for a week and once for a month, and both times were a disaster. I suffered from acute homesickness. I wasn’t happy at home, but I clung to it for dear life until one day when, at 17, I left for good—in some ways never to return.
Why I thought two months in the wilderness portaging canoes and canned goods—with our only brush with civilization being a floatplane bringing supplies and letters from home at the midway point—was a good idea, I have no clue. I suppose the instinct to escape—to run—was strong even then. But I didn’t have the guts to follow that instinct without bawling for my mama.
The first sign of trouble was when we had finally arrived at the launch point after what must have been a ten-hour ride along timber roads. The guy who ran the camp—a gruff older man with a beard and a temper—took a kid no older than ten, who apparently had failed to listen to instructions, in his arms, walked him down to the dock, and “laked” him by launching him, screaming, into the frigid water.
It was meant as evidence to the rest of us that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. We were in the wilds, where breaking rules had direct and immediate consequences—and where the wilderness could swallow us whole if we weren’t careful.
I watched in horror and outrage. But there was nothing I could do but get my blue duffle bag, holding all my possessions, and find my coed group of a dozen campers and two college-aged counselors, toss my bag into a canoe, and start paddling.
On the plane I had sat next to a very nice female counselor. My hormones told me she was pretty, but in my brain that was a signal that didn’t compute. I had the physical presence of a 25-year-old and the intellect of most college students, but the social skills of a kindergartner. I had always been a loner, afraid of girls. The sum total of my sexual encounters involved one mandatory kiss with a swimming teammate in a spin-the-bottle game in the back of a Greyhound bus after an away meet.
Since each group had to meet up at the same rendezvous point four weeks into the trip to re-provision, our general direction had been set—further, much further, into the wilderness northward. But each set of counselors plotted a different course, and the Lake Region in Northern Ontario is so vast that we very rarely saw another soul or group until the day we met the plane.
I quickly learned two things on the trip: I wasn’t going to get enough to eat, and there really is no use paddling into a severe headwind.
The trip was provisioned for normal teenagers (though even for someone of normal size paddling and portaging canoes all day, I’ve got to believe you would get hungry). But at well over six feet tall, I wasn’t a normal-sized 15-year-old. Because of my strength, it was left to me to carry canoes on my shoulders and lug heavy bags of canned goods across sometimes mile-long portages—and I just didn’t get enough to eat. For lunch we had ten Triscuit crackers, a tablespoon of peanut butter and jelly, a handful of raisins, and lake water. Breakfast and dinner were only moderately better. Over the course of the two months I lost twenty pounds—and I started out already thin.
Because we had a midpoint destination to reach by a determined date and then a return point back where we started, our course was set. That meant that when we ran into big headwinds, there really was nothing to do but set up camp and wait it out. We couldn’t change course or turn around.
The first week of the trip, we hit a couple bad days in a row—fierce wind in our faces. So we set up camp and hunkered down. It was on the first of these days that Cathy and I started talking music.
Given my homesickness and general state of misery, on the second straight day of wind I decided to head back to my tent to climb into my sleeping back and sulk away the day.
To my surprise, Cathy, who had chosen to sleep in my tent from the start of the trip, followed. I was reading Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle. She pretended to read a book too, but soon was asking me questions. I was kind of annoyed but didn’t want to be rude so pretended to listen.
Cathy told me about her high school (she was two years older than I was), her family, and a bunch of other things I can’t remember now. But I do remember being surprised how nice she was. And easy to talk to she was. I didn’t admit to being homesick, but I did tell her that I was struggling a bit with all the bad weather and the shitty food.
At some point, she asked if she could climb in my sleeping bag to make me feel better. I really don’t know if at the time she was talking about a hug or what, but before I knew it this 17-year-old girl was right next to me and we were no longer talking.
Here’s the thing. I’ve heard a zillion women talk about how their dads taught them as teenagers, “Boys will lie to you to have sex with you. They will tell you they love you and all kinds of other crazy things, but what they really want is to get in your pants”—as if teenage boys have fully formed sexual appetites and teenage girls have not a clue.
This sleeping bag trick kept up for a couple nights, even after the weather had cleared and we were back to long days of paddling. She’d just wait until the other members of the tent were snoring and then clamber over with a giggle.
At one point, Cathy took off her underwear (up until that point it had been a lot of heavy kissing with our shirts off) and told me in all seriousness, “I don’t do this with just any guy.” I wasn’t sure what exactly she meant, but the continued advancement of our physical relationship scared the shit out of me.
My knowledge of female anatomy at that point consisted of the spotting of female boobs around our feminist-lesbian-hippie communal living situation at home. And a copy of The Joy of Sex that my parents left around the house, because they felt it really was nothing to hide.
But the reality was that my sexuality was too fragile, confusing, awkward, and downright terrifying for me to admit my lack of experience to this gorgeous young woman who had made her way into my sleeping bag without so much as an invitation. It wasn’t that I was or am gay—as the following years of agonizing over missed opportunities with Cathy can attest—or that she was not attractive enough. It was that she was too attractive—and I simply was overwhelmed and unable to admit my panic attack.
At some level I wanted desperately to want to “round the bases” with Cathy, but to do that required a level of self-revelation that I was simply incapable of at that point. It would take years, and in some ways decades, to be able to show my physical vulnerability.
I don’t remember so much as mild arousal in the nether regions during the sleeping bag slumber parties. I was doing battle in my head, not in my pants. I hit a brick wall of fear that would not allow my body to take its natural course even in the presence of a lovely young female body in the buff, rubbing herself up against me with desire.
Shortly after she removed her panties, I confessed to my first would-be lover that I just wanted to be friends. She was shocked and upset … and then mad. Apparently boys didn’t break up with her; she did the breaking up. I tried to explain to her that she was beautiful and that I had really appreciated her being so nice to me. (Although looking back over thirty years later, I really have no idea what I actually said other than something on the order of “Please stop.”)
Don’t get me wrong; there was no molestation in this story. Cathy was a sweet, and sexually liberated, young woman. I wanted to be able to keep up with her, but I simply couldn’t. I tried to pretend that I was ready, willing, and able—but really I was just a scared little boy in a man’s body, a very long way from home.
The worst part, of course, was that the two of us were now stranded more or less alone for another six weeks in the wilderness, would-be lovers who had met a bitter end. Cathy moved on not to another boy but to some pot that she apparently got past the bag search. I focused on Ken Follett and surviving the physical labor, starvation, and my demons.
It wasn’t a happy summer. But as I look back now, there is a certain bittersweet nostalgia in recalling a time when that raw part of myself lay bare for a girl like Cathy to see—even though I had no ability to see it myself.