How to Make It to the Promised Land
A short story explores what happens when a camp game goes horribly awry
“Hey,” he says, folding his hands in front of him. “Look who we have here.” He is smiling. Tiny holes ring the neck of his worn T-shirt, which reads “Once Is Never Enough.”
I breathe. “Hey,” I say and smile back.
He brushes hair out of his eyes, clears his throat. He asks for my papers.
“You’re married,” he says, “with four kids.” He tells me this like he’s telling me, You can stay out all night.
I bite my lip. “I’ve been busy,” I say.
He laughs. “Clearly,” he says. And I laugh, too.
He swivels around, checking names on the paper behind him. I stare at the curve of his tanned neck, the point at which his curls stop and the knob of his spine appears. There is a dime-sized patch of peeling skin, and I resist the urge to reach out and tear it off. Maybe he’ll give me a train pass for later this afternoon; maybe I’ll get to wait here for hours with him.
Rafi turns back around, places his hands flat on the table. Can he tell that I’ve been with older guys before? That I’m not just some silly 15-year-old who doesn’t know anything?
“I can’t let you through.”
“What?” Stupidly, I smile some more.
He leans closer; his lips are a little chapped. His skin smells like clean laundry. “I can’t give you a stamp.”
“What do you mean?” I say, and I need to swallow, badly. “You can let me through. I know you can.”
He shrugs. “Sorry.”
I hate myself for what happens next. I know it’s just a game, but it doesn’t feel that way anymore, and the tears well up. “I don’t understand,” I say, and my voice is a pathetic whisper. “Please.”
“You’ll be fine.” He tips his chair back on its hind legs, gives me what I’m sure he thinks is an encouraging nod. “See you on the other side.”
The sky is too blue, hard with color and cleared of any clouds. The basketball court is a ghost town. The back door to the kitchen is padlocked shut; the window Kron and I crawled through is now covered with yellow caution tape. There is the soft hum of a generator, and an oceany rush that I know is the flow of cars on the PCH.
I peek through the back window of the infirmary, but all the beds are empty. Where is Kron? Why didn’t she warn me she was going to throw up? I would have told her that I couldn’t do it. Maybe she knew that; maybe she wanted to get rid of me and go over to the other side. Maybe everyone will make it but me.
I lean against the stuccoed wall. I’ll do what I should have done in the first place, what I should have done that first week of camp. I’ll hike down to the cars careering up and down the highway, and I’ll hitch a ride north to Santa Barbara or Los Ojos. I’ll learn to waitress, to balance plates on my arm and know what people want before they ask. I unlace my sneakers, easing my sticky heels out of the canvas. The smell is so strong, so deep and purely rank that for a second I breathe it in, opening my lungs, impressed. I close my eyes and daydream about Topanga and my mother; her hard freckled shoulders and her cigarettes and the orangy-brown lipstick she’s been wearing since I was four. She’d probably hate this game, even more than I do, and I’m thinking about how the summer will be over in three weeks and maybe I should write her back when I feel something brush against my foot. I slit my eyes open.
Standing above me is a boy I recognize from volleyball. He has a wide, sun-dusted face, and the stiffest hair I’ve ever seen, sand-colored hair that must add two inches to his height. Larry, Gary? Whoever he is, he is cooing “who, who” at me.
“Hey.” I blink.
“Hello, Jew,” he said. He toes his right sneaker in the dirt, pointing it into the ground and making a hole. “Jew, let’s see your papers.”
I can’t even speak. His eyes are dark, water-slicked rocks. “Jew, where’s your star?”
Jew? “Bullshit,” I feel like spitting. I want to say, “No, I’m not. Not in real life.” But I am and I know it and I just stare. None of this can be happening. None of it at all.
“Get out of here.” He taps the words out against my bare leg with his dirt-encrusted toe. “You should be long gone.”
He could haul me in; he could march me down to the soccer field and collect whatever stupid reward they’re handing out. This should keep me quiet, but it doesn’t. “Why don’t you go bother a midget your own size?”
He kicks my ankle. “Because I can bother you, Jew.”
Tears spring to my eyes. “Fuck you,” I say, and grab his left leg with both my hands. I throw him off balance, and he spins around, hopping. I give it a furious yank, and he falls. “You’re a Jew, too.”
“Not now I’m not.” We’re both in the dirt, and he’s grabbing me, clutching my mouth, my throat. He pins my arms back so far; I swear something inside of me crests and breaks. All I want in this world is to be gone.
“Okay, okay!” I start laughing. “Please, stop, please.”
He moves his mouth to my ear. “Why should I?”
“Because I’m asking you nicely. Please.”
His fingers are still around my collarbone. He speaks in almost a pleasant tone. “Okay. Get the fuck out of here.”
And I do.
He has my shoes. The bastard has my sneakers. I run hard anyway, wincing as I step on sharp rocks, twigs that scrape against the softness of my soles. I try to tell myself that I don’t care, that it’s good for me. My feet need to toughen up anyway. But I do care, I do.
I head up the incline, fast. There is the shallow rhythm of my breathing, the sound of leaves and twigs cracking beneath my feet. My forehead is covered in a fine, light mist. This fucked-up game isn’t funny anymore. I’m almost at the top of the hill when I hear a tangle of noises. I reach the stone arches that lead into the amphitheater. The noise is now a steady hum. An orange banner hangs limply at the entrance, a remnant of the color wars held last week. I was picked second to last for green and spent most of the time on the sidelines, cheering for blue.
My feet hurt. I am hot and tired and I can’t imagine the noises being anything good. Why should I go inside? I wonder this and it’s as if the wondering is my answer. Stepping gingerly on the balls of my sore feet, I pass under the orange flag.
The amphitheater is ours. Hot damp bodies crowd the stage. They throng the makeshift aisles, stepping over piles of clothing, pools of brightly colored plastic beads, bins of sneakers and flip-flops, pyramids of baseball caps. There are Walkmans and headless Barbies and Gameboys galore. There are dozens of voices braiding together, high- and low-pitched throbs that vibrate long past the words. All are clamoring for attention. Nothing is not for sale.
“A pass for a dozen beads. Get your passage here!”
“Exit for exchanges!”
“Music for cash!”
It is a quick business. People don’t linger. They file out like a steady stream. They want to get to the other side.
I hang back, stunned. Has this been going on all day? Has everyone known about it but me? I notice that Jill and Jesse have beat me here, and I watch as they hand over a fistful of beads and a Lakers cap for sweat-stained visas.
Everyone is going to the other side. Why can’t I?