You once told me there were over thirty ways to say I love you in your mother’s native tongue. I didn’t realize then that you were fucking with me. You were nineteen, and I was seventeen, and we were Boy Scout camp counsellors at Lake Arrowhead. You passed me the joint with your left arm and itched at your calves with your prosthesis and said something in Spanish, and because you knew I didn’t understand Spanish, you told me it was just one of those ways. And then you grinned.
It was wilderness survival night. Earlier, we’d sat around the fire with thirteen boy scouts who needed to erect a survival shelter and sleep in it overnight. We discussed various tenting strategies, distributed tarps and ropes and pointed out the best places to build lean-tos. And then you told those boys, if they needed to, they could knock on our cabin door and sleep inside and we wouldn’t tell anyone.
One by one the boys filtered out to their claimed spots. It was past dusk, already dark. Beams of light swung across the field and the boys cursed and laughed at each other as they struggled with their shelters. Branches snapped and tarps rustled and tore and you and I sat side by side in front of the fire and listened. Bats swooped. I asked you why you told them they could sleep inside. It was one of those rules I’d learned not to bend: rules for the merit badge, rules for survival. I could build a lean-to out of nothing but what the forest offered. I could tie a bowline knot in five seconds with my eyes closed. My father had drilled it into me when I was still a Tenderfoot. I thought, then, that these were useful skills.
You said, ‘Cause they won’t come. ‘Cause they wanna be men, and men sleep in the woods and scared little kids sleep inside. Besides, you added, they’re scared of me.
And it was true, you had scared them. But I didn’t think they were afraid of you. After dinner, you took off your prosthetic arm. You told them about that day when you were fifteen and mowing the lawn. When you found the bump on your wrist and ignored it. How that bump was a tumor and how the next two years of your life were spent flying to and from the Mayo clinic, fighting that bump. You waved your stump and said you were lucky. I watched their faces pale. I watched them study their own arms. They wouldn’t make eye contact with you.
In the cabin, we lay in the same twin bed, on the bottom bunk. I was on top of the quilt and you were underneath and you whispered to me about your girlfriend, about your parent’s church, about moving out of their house at last. I felt your hand beneath the quilt searching for me. Your prosthesis lay on the windowsill. Outside the lightning bugs sparked. The cabin was sweltering in the summer humidity and I still had all my clothes on. I was sweating, but I didn’t dare move to open a window or undress. I felt my throat closing up. The room was spinning and I wasn’t sure if it was the marijuana. I’d never been high before. You had your eyes closed. Your voice grew softer and softer and I watched your lips part only just. There was a bead of sweat on your upper lip. I wanted to brush it away. I wanted to know all the ways you could say I love you.
When the week ended, you gave me your phone number and we kept in touch over the years. A text every now and then, or a phone call around Christmas. Soon after, you split with your girlfriend. You moved to Colorado and met a rancher. I always talked about making a trip out to meet him, but I found an excuse to not fly out for the wedding. We never saw each other again, and I don’t know what would’ve happened if there hadn’t been a sheepish knock at the door.
You just smiled and shook your head, your eyes still closed. I stood to let the boys slip in, one after another, the mosquitoes chasing them inside. They turned on the lights, giddy and overenergized and scattering their pillows and packs around the floor, and you rolled over and put your head beneath your pillow and I climbed onto the top bunk and crawled beneath the covers.
Goodnight, you murmured, and I could barely hear you above their chatter.