Max was never mean. When the prissy girls in my cabin hid my glasses, Max gave them back. That was the year my parents lied and sent me to summer camp that wasn’t really summer camp. I’d been promised horses. Maybe the grassless paddock had held horses once. Now it was dust-dry and rutted with tire tracks. The lake was dry too. Counselors would give directions, “Take the path up the hill past Lake Manzanita,” and I kept looking for the lake, wondering why I’d missed it, until Max pointed out the muddy bottom of a gravel pit in the woods. All the buildings looked industrial, like we worked in some World War II paint factory. Every morning we woke to the blare of a double-barreled horn mounted on a flagpole. Mandatory prayer outside, rain or shine. No phones, no TV, no internet. Not a single luxury,we would sing. They taught gender-appropriate crafts, like cooking and crochet. Counselors did random bed checks. Even sitting on the edge of another girl’s bed got you one strike, two if she was in it. There was nowhere else to sit except the floor, where press-on vinyl tiles pulled up in the corners so you could see the anthills underneath.
I could stand it because Max was my friend. Counselors called her Marissa, but she said Max was her true self name.
Our spot was the empty paddock. We watched the ghosts of horses prance their fancy tails and speculated about the boys’ camp, two miles and 100 yards of barbed wire down the road. Max said they made them watch porn.
But isn’t that sinful, I asked.
It’s old porn, Max said. Black and white. And the counselors say things like “Look at those knockers!” and “Isn’t she a hot tomato!”
I laughed, but believed her. Max always knew. We stood in the trampled-down field, our shadow selves holding hands, our bodies monster-size, heads tiny. I wore my long Indian-print dress. Max said I looked like a sister wife. She wore her dress short, with pants underneath. She told the counselors her legs were cold. That was how she got away with it.
We talked about all the things we’d do when we ran away and lived in the city. Max would shave one side of her head, do the rest in shades of turquoise and purple and flame, like a sunset in the painted desert.
Will you love girls? I asked.
Maybe, Max said. Maybe boys, too. I hate that they make you check one box and that’s the only thing you can be, forever. Why do they care if I wear pants or a dress? Why can’t I wear both? Why can’t anybody?
The sun sank down. Our shadows got longer. Our arms veed like the spire of a cathedral. We could have been a king and queen. A bride and groom. Our bodies leaned toward each other.
Kathryn Kulpa makes up songs in her sleep, then forgets them by morning. She was a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest for her chapbook Girls on Film(Paper Nautilus) and has published work in Jellyfish Review, Monkeybicycle, and Smokelong Quarterly. Kathryn was a visiting writer at Wheaton College and has led writing workshops in public libraries throughout Rhode Island. She was born in a small state, and she writes short stories.