I was about six weeks short of my 11th birthday when I spotted Martin at the new summer camp I went to after Surprise Lake. It was the first time the sight of a boy made me freeze in my tracks.
I was still settling in at the new camp. It was more my speed. All the campers, counselors and administrators were either Holocaust Survivors or their children. Camp Hemshekh, which means "the continuation" in Yiddish, was founded by Bundists , with a distinctly liberal, Socialist political outlook and a secular approach to Judaism that emphasized cultural heritage over religion. Our common ground as Jewish assimilationists and children of Survivors added a luster of purpose and idealism to the enterprise.
More important to me, though, was that the camp was filled with studious weirdos like me. I was dimly aware of hippies, and impressed by the looks and attitudes of the older boys and girls who openly talked about sex and relationships. Free love? As in no shame about sex and no pointless restrictions on who you have sex with or what kind of sex you have with them? Fantastic! I felt like I'd finally landed on an island of sanity in the sea of bizarre American morality.
As early as 11, I resolved never to marry. I knew I would never be able to love only one person for the rest of my life. It was not in my blood. I never had a time in my life when I loved only one boy. From the day I became conscious that boys were sexy, there were always at least two, or three, and often more, who I crushed on. My parents had taken me to see The Sandpiper the year before: it showed me that women could choose to be sexually free.
Thus even as I romanced my pain-suffering sweetheart Walter, for example, I was consumed with desire for the After School Center supervisor, a rail-thin young male teacher with jet black hair. I also had a love/hate relationship with the boy who’d asked me out on my first date, a strong, handsome boy named Luis Rivera. It was manageable until one day he popped my bra straps, causing me to flee home holding onto my tits in a fit of embarrassment. That was the end of Luis in my affections. His younger brother, two grades behind us, however, had fallen helplessly under my spell and kept following me around and getting in my face until I'd have to push him off me. Then he'd fall to the ground, writhing and moaning loudly as if I'd struck him with a sledgehammer, then he'd get up and try to instigate the same scenario all over again. It baffled me but I didn't entirely dislike it.
Meanwhile, in the background of all these curious asexual yet intensely romantic interludes, I still had hopes of one day being with Spartacus, or at least his earthly incarnation, Kirk Douglas. Ever since seeing the actor tied nearly naked to a cross in that movie, I had been fantasizing about him obsessively at night. I didn't know how I'd ever get to meet him, I just knew it was in my destiny to tenderly wipe his brow and kiss his forehead while he twisted in agony.
Boys and men were everywhere, and while some were deeply annoying, others were strangely entertaining and a handful were phenomenally attractive and overwhelmingly magnetic. No matter what, they were almost never boring. It seemed only natural to get to know as many as possible.
I wanted to live the way free people lived, like the romantic heroes in plays and Hollywood films. They never held back. They risked everything for the mere chance of ecstasy! and if they suffered, well that was romantic too. If I wanted to grow up to be like them, I had to start thinking and acting like them. I would live with my mistakes because even mistakes are beautiful when they are made for the sake of love. If it killed you, it was horrible, yes, but it was epic, it’s what made your love the most memorable love of all. According to my reading, all the greatest loves ended in death or disfigurement – Anna Karenina, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Abelard and Heloise. It struck me as the most romantic thing in the world to die of a broken heart, a victim of a tragic love that someone would memorialize in great works of literature.
From the instant I laid eyes on Martin, I thought he was the Romeo to my Juliet. Which, at that age, translated into my trailing after him with puppy dog eyes, and seizing every opportunity to sit beside him in dining hall or during the after-dinner counselors’ break. Martin was a much older man, you see: 16 to my 11. And while I was starry-eyed with romantic longing, he treated me like an older brother and cheerfully tolerated my incessant peskiness, even when it interfered with him chatting up girls his own age.
The next summer, I was much more grown up. Many more age-inappropriate touching episodes had occurred. I was developing breasts. My interest in boys was changing from indifferently friendly and aloof, to keenly observant and hungry for approval. My feelings for Martin were as steady as a rock. Again, I traipsed after him all summer, and our deep conversations about our lives and our future plans continued as if uninterrupted by the 10 months of separation. He promised to take me to the Bronx Zoo and show me the yak, and I told him all my hopes and dreams.
The summer after that, I was a teenager. My obsession with Martin was now full-blown and dripping with lust. It had been another hectic year of erotic experiences for me, including my first French kiss with another older boy. I was ready for love, I thought. I was ready for sex.
Oh, I was so young. I thought I was ready but Martin knew I was not. I remember he was hesitant when I snuck into his bunk one night and stole under his blanket. He was fully dressed, which surprised me. I climbed on top of him, gently winding my arms around his neck. I pouted my lips and he kissed them. I tasted stale, bitter tobacco on his lips. It turned me off, then it totally turned me on. I kissed him harder and kissed him again and then suddenly felt his belt buckle sticking me through my jeans.
“Ouch, your buckle,” I said, trying to shift.
“It’s not my buckle,” he said.
“What is it, then?”
There was a long pause before Martin answered.
“You really should go back to your bunk. You’re really young.”
I never visited him at night again, but that experience opened a door to sex for me that I couldn’t wait to race through. And though I never did fuck Martin, he was in and out of my life for almost two more decades, and – ironically – was instrumental in introducing me to the first boy I did fuck. But you’ll have to wait for the next part to read about that.