“Come here,” our camp counselor said. “All of you guys.” His name was Joe and he
smelled like cigarettes. We crowded around him in the middle of the cabin, squeezing together and leaning our heads forward. I was twelve years old, and this was my first summer at camp.
“Do you know what an oral fixation is?” Joe said.
Most of us shook our heads no. Eli said, “Well, I’ve seen one once, but . . .”
“Shut up,” Joe said. “You don’t know. That’s OK,” he said, and we all relaxed a little. “I’m going to show you, but you have to promise”—he looked us each in the eye, all five of us, one at time—“you have to promise that you won’t tell Michael. Deal?”
We nodded vigorously. Deal.
“An oral fixation is when you can’t stop touching your mouth. It’s like, you’re obsessed with your mouth.”
“My little brother has that,” Eli said.
“He’s probably a baby though, right?”
“What I’m talking about is when older kids do it. Just wait. Tonight, after lights
out, you guys pretend to go to sleep and then I’ll turn on my flashlight and show you.
But remember—don’t tell Michael.”
On the way out of the dining hall after dinner Michael caught up to Steve, my best
friend at camp, and me.
“Hey guys,” he said, panting. Like most fat kids, Michael was always a little out
of breath. Michael also had to be the only kid named Michael who didn’t just go by
Mike. His parents were weird, was what everyone said. His mother wrote poetry that
she published herself in little books and had hair down to her butt, and his dad wore a
beret all the time—even when he showered, some of the kids said.
“What do you think, Sam,” Michael said, turning to me, “do you want to go for a
ghost hunt in the woods tonight?”
“I don’t know. I think we might just go to bed early,” I said, nudging Steve.
“Oh yeah,” Steve said. He reached his hands up, stretching. “I’ve been feeling so
“Yeah,” I said, stifling a yawn. “Really tired.”
“Whatever,” Michael said. “If you guys don’t want to hang out with me, you can
just say it.”
And he huffed on ahead before we could reply.
After lights out I waited in the dark for what seemed like a long time. An owl
hooted in the woods. I could hear the other kids breathing steadily in their bunks and I
wondered if maybe the whole thing was off—if maybe the joke was on us for thinking
something was going to happen. Maybe even the joke was just on me, and when Joe’s
flashlight came on everyone would be gathered around my bunk, pointing and laughing at
me. The longer I waited in the dark the more this seemed like a real possibility, and I
began to imagine I could hear them rustling around my bed, could see them gathering
above me, preparing themselves for my humiliation. For what reason I couldn’t have told
you. I was twelve, and the idea of everyone conspiring to make fun of me was a constant
fear I had.
Finally, a flashlight clicked on. The yellow beam swept through the darkness--
passing me, thankfully—and landed on a strange scene. It took me a moment to
understand what I was seeing. There were white flurries over an open mouth . . . fingers,
chubby white fingers moving over Michael’s open mouth, the silver of his braces glinting
while the fingers like engorged silver fish worked in steady crazy patterns over the small
black hole of his mouth. I did not see a tongue. The flashlight held steady as Michael,
deeply asleep, moved his hands over his lips, his teeth, touching his mouth in a way that
suggested a deep self-interest—a deep fascination with his own body—that made me
After a few minutes the yellow beam swept across the room to shine under Joe’s
face, like people hold it when they tell scary stories.
“And that, my boys, is what you call an oral fixation,” Joe said in a deep voice,
then clicked the flashlight off.
The next morning Steve pulled me aside on the way to breakfast
“That was super weird last night,” he said, looking around to make sure no one
else could hear us.
“For sure,” I said. “I can’t believe Michael does that.”
Steve gave me a look.
“No, I mean, it was weird that Joe showed us.”
“It was just a joke.”
“I don’t think it was very cool of him. I mean, it’s that guy’s job to protect us,
“It was just Michael. That kid’s so weird—who cares about him anyway?”
“You don’t have to be friends with him to see that it’s not cool what Joe did,”
Steve said. He stepped back, shaking his head, and ran on ahead to breakfast without me.
After that Steve and I drifted apart. We’d been fast friends, but then, just as
fast—faster even—we weren’t friends any more. And that was that.
That’s how it happened. How I remember it, anyway. For a long time I forgot all
about that night. It was just a small incident from my childhood, after all. But ever since
I turned fifty I’ve started having these nightmares that feature Michael’s mouth, that
small, black hole with silver glinting inside it. My ex-wife crawls from the hole and
shakes her finger at me. My eldest son, who has not spoken to me in over a decade,
walks slowly out of it, his head hanging down in disappointment. Even my dead dog
whimpers from in there, dragging the frayed leash that broke one day, allowing him to
run into the path of a teenager’s charging pickup.
But I don’t feel guilty, when I wake up from these dreams. I don’t feel remorse
for the way I’ve lived my life—the way I treated Michael, and everything that came after.
What I feel is relief. Actually, relief isn’t strong enough. I feel redemption, when I wake
up. Saved, is what I feel. Because I can still remember how terrified I was, lying there in
the dark with only the owl hooting outside, imagining I could hear my tormentors
gathering around me. And how glad, how terribly happy I felt when the flashlight finally
clicked on, and it was pointing at someone else, and not at me.