Manicured ladies in stilettos navigate ancient smooth stoned pathways, corridors assembled during Roman times. Their legs, butt cracks, and cleavage pattern the night, wafts of perfume mingle with the smell of grilled octopus and cigarettes. Some cling to tan wrinkled arms of sugar daddies, men with white chest hairs attached to fortunes drenched in cologne. I never visit the island for Gucci or Fendi, air-conditioned square shops of consumer luxury. The purring cicadas surrounded by sea are my siren song, blue water darkening as it journeys to Tunisia. Pulsating, my calves quiver up and down steps to Villa Jovis where Tiberius reigned supreme, decadently tossing the unwanted off cliffs into the watery chasm of time. The ruins sit unaffected by sun’s sweat dripping from my elbows. I rest in pine tree shadows, imagine when Neruda was here, arranging verse in his head. Away from the glitz, everything is as it was, as it is, ants, jasmine, laughter of the old women who were born in Capri, born by the sea.
So let me start by saying there was no tongue involved, but there was sweat, anticipation, nerves, so it counts. Camp Friendship in Palmyra, Virginia, end of session dance on the outdoor basketball court, where every counselor and kid goes crazy. I am eleven. My cabin’s counselor Matt has his face painted half black, half white, wearing a button down shirt like some 80’s version of Kiss. We (all the boys) slick our hair back with water and borrow drops of Brut from Daron who already has stray whiskers and has been preparing for this evening for weeks. The first songs are heavy with Billy Idol, in the midnight hour she cried, more, more, more, nothing age appropriate, not that any of us are listening to the words. We are too busy following Matt, jumping up and down skipping like ska dancers. The girls sport side ponytails, wearing colorful gimp necklaces and short jean cut-offs. We all commingle on the ground as the B-52’s blast Rock Lobster, down, down, form breakdance circles, spaz out to “Come On Eileen,” then slow it down for the Bee Gees, “How Deep Is Your Love.” I’m standing next to my best friend Sean, when Carla and Erica make eye contact with us. Do you guys want to dance? I ask. It is a fingers to shoulders slow motion waltz, with all the couples doing their best to look at anyone other than their dance partner. I’m swaying with Erica, she has short hair like Pat Benatar, her pink polo shirt collar popped. I can smell the watermelon Bubblicious that she casually swishes in her mouth. Sean gives me a huge grin like he’s a toddler with his very first scoop of ice cream. The next song is by The Cars as we awkwardly detach ourselves from the girls. There is the lingering feeling of Erica’s hands. Around 9:30pm the prepubescent party starts to wind down like the sweaty end of a sugar rush, Luna moths and mosquitoes flutter and nip getting ready to take over the night. As I head back to the cabin with Sean, Carla calls out, You guys wanna come to our cabin? We have Oreos. Going to girls village after dark is against the rules, but we don’t hesitate to follow Carla. After devouring a couple cookies and handfuls of care package M&M’s, Sean and I prepare to leave. As we begin to walk away I hear Angie’s voice. Aren’t you two going to kiss these girls goodnight? We turn around to see Angie’s large boobs in a tight white t-shirt; she’s their 15-year old CIT (counselor in training). She reminds me of Rizzo from Grease. Erica is standing only a few feet away, it is like I’m on the high dive and she is the water. I’m nervous, but the pressure is on, I have an audience. For a second the crickets stop chirping, the stars stop twinkling, I stride back to Erica almost lunging. I manage to cradle both her cheeks with my hands like I’d seen in movies, then plant a kiss directly on her soft lips, and say good night. Sean is able to do the same with Carla and we immediately take off running like two cowboys into the wilderness, our eleven-year old adrenaline pumping faster than our legs will go. We move across the dark grassy field like boys escaping the future, like miniature men.
Most of my friends don’t go to church on Sundays, they go to the pool. I give my family’s member number at the front desk, but everyone knows my sister and me, we’ve been going for years. I quickly pass through the locker room, trying to avoid seeing the ancient hanging testicles of older men drying themselves. Quickly out the door, it appears majestic like Memorial Stadium where the Orioles play, the pool. A thick blue chlorinated backwards L, two connected rectangles filled with the tanned bodies of summer. I look over at the distant grassy area where the high school girls in curvy bikinis are splayed out on towels talking about Guiding Light and General Hospital, listening to Q107 on their transistor radios. The upper area has the baby pool, shallow warm urine-filled liquid where chubby diapered legs splash and play with exhausted parents. I check out the high dive, see if anyone is trying for a can opener or leaping off headfirst. The warped Ping-Pong table is in action, sandpaper paddles hitting the ball from all angles, while onlookers chomp on frozen 3 Musketeers bars. I opt for a jump off the low dive, then get into the sharks and minnows game. Sun high in the sky, no one is wearing sunscreen, as timeless moments pass at the glistening watery oasis. An hour later, kids compete in relays, dive for quarters, try to dunk lifeguards. The greased watermelon is the grand finale. I see it resting like an oval green buttery pig, on the edge of the high dive board. We all gather around the perimeter, maybe 70 of us, waiting for the oblong sphere to be shoved into the prepubescent abyss. The head lifeguard slowly climbs the ladder allowing the excitement for the time-honored tradition to build. Then with a nudge of his foot the thing is released to gravity with a cannonball splash. We are a kicking thrashing throng, Lord of the Flies, elbows and hands jutting out in all directions, like the start to a sugar-drunk triathlon. I can’t see anything, never wear goggles; I’m in the center of the wet stampede. Then I feel it, hard against my foot, of the earth, not someone’s thigh, the watermelon. I move it gradually, careful to guide it with my feet, barely paddling. Seconds later I heave it up to the side of the pool, hop out, struggle to hold it up, declare victory. A minute passes before everyone realizes the game is over, then they see me with it. A moment of awe, invincible, me, a man among boys. Walking up the stairs to the exit, I want to think it was my skill, my power, my stellar swimming, but no, just blind luck. Before I leave, I stare at the photo of the 1966 swim team, their taut smooth baby boomer muscles at life’s physical apex. I clutch my watermelon thinking about my dad who went to Vietnam in ’67, shifting the weight from arm to arm, I hope I can carry it all the way home.