Some of the following is a lie. I worry I am beginning to believe it true.
July 20th, at around 10 p.m., maybe 10:15—some of the papers say 10:30—a fifteen-year-old boy drowned at my summer camp. His name was Jason Waxberg. I didn’t know him. That part is true.
The summer camp is in Decatur, MI, just outside of Benton Harbor, Portage, Battle Creek, and Paw Paw. It’s made up of counselors from cool places like New Zealand, the UK, and Australia. The campers are a bunch of Jews from the north shore of Chicago.
I attended the camp because 1) I am Jewish and 2) my friend Jake went and said it was the shit. I started going when I was nine. I stopped going when I was eighteen. In between those years I checked off a list of things I pretend not to be proud of: Piss in the lake. Check. Put toothpaste on my balls. Check. Have an allergic reaction to toothpaste on my balls. Check. Skip half of my activities. Check. Shout, “get some” to my counselor as he’s consoling a crying girl camper. Check. The list goes on.
I loved camp more than home. I loved my camp friends more than my home friends. Most of my friends stayed until their CIT (counselor in training) years because they loved camp more than home, too. They quit because they hated kids. But Jake, Chris, and I stayed for two more years. We quit because Jason Waxberg died. That is one of the lies.
We quit because we were sick of camp, because the kids began to annoy us, because it was time to grow up.
I taught waterskiing. Jake taught sailing. Chris taught both. We were all certified lifeguards. All took a swim test that I probably didn’t deserve to pass. I finished the swim with a smoker’s cough and an undeserved sense of accomplishment.
If you hear one whistle from the swim dock it means campers are getting in the water. If you hear two whistles it means campers are getting out of the water. If you hear three whistles it means there’s an emergency in the water. It means run.
It was around 10 p.m., July 20, 2011. I was sitting with my camp “girlfriend”—my weekly make-out partner—Megan, on the infirmary porch when I heard the whistles.
I ran through the driving range, the basketball court, the volleyball court, the ping-pong tables, the tetherball poles, the cabin area, and finally reached the lake. The lights of pontoon boats bobbed in the distance. The usual mix of Decatur fishermen, water-skiers, and tubers had all gone to sleep.
Waves crashed, muffling counselors’ screams. The moon hung low—an orange bully. I jumped in the water with my clothes on, noticing other counselors had theirs on, too. Thirty other counselors and I formed a wall on one side of the swimming ropes. The campers who were on this night-swim sat on the water trampoline nearby, watching.
We had done this drill before with a Pepsi bottle. Each counselor would spread across the swim area and dive down at the same time, feeling for the bottle. Then we would come back up. We covered most of the swimming area by repeating these dives, inching forward with each dive down. Not once had we found the Pepsi bottle on the first sweep through.
This time it was not a drill.
We dove down, swept our hands through thick sand and thicker seaweed, feeling for something, for someone, and came up together, all with nothing in our hands. We did this until we reached the other side of the swimming ropes. We were out of breath, helplessly looking for a fifteen-year-old camper, hoping we wouldn’t be the one to touch him when we reached the bottom.
There were multiple dives when I couldn’t reach the bottom, physically unable to swim deeper, scared I might not make it back up.
Chris touched Jason Waxberg. As did another counselor, who came up screaming, “I grabbed his foot. He kicked me! He kicked!” We couldn’t bring him to the surface.
A search-and-rescue team was called. It took them ten minutes to find Jason Waxberg. I remember his body when they pulled him out. He was blue, a pale, icy blue. The sky is sometimes this color, and when it is I try not looking up.
This was, for the most part, the story I told to my roommate freshman year. He sat on his bed leaning against the wall, his hand cradling his forehead, muttering, “Oh my God, oh my God,” over and over again. After I told this story, our relationship changed. We were more open with each other; I began introducing him as my “friend” instead of “roommate” when family came to visit.
In reality, I was not in the water that night. Jake and Chris were. I was with my camp “girlfriend” Megan, hoping she’d finally give me head. She didn’t.
But the second I heard there was a missing camper, I did run through the driving range, the basketball court, the volleyball court, the ping-pong tables, the tetherball poles, the cabin area, and finally reached the lake. They pulled Jason Waxberg’s body out of the water the moment I arrived. He was blue, a pale, icy blue. The sky is sometimes this color, and when it is I try not looking up.
The story I heard, the story I often tell as my own, is Jake’s story. He told me what happened minutes after getting out of the water. He told me while he hugged me, as his tears were on my face.
I didn’t even hear the whistles. I wish I heard those goddamn whistles.
I heard Jake’s story so many times. I listened as Chris—high and drunk—cried and confessed his every thought during that night. I felt like I was there.
The second or third time I told Jake’s story as my own, I told it to a girl I liked. This girl didn’t like me; I knew that. No matter how many drinks I bought her at bars, the amount of time spent crafting text messages—the feelings weren’t mutual. But the second I finished telling her about Jason Waxberg, she looked at me with these brown eyes that said, “fuck me.” We ended up making out for a good twenty minutes.
If camp ever came up in conversation, if anyone asked why I stopped going back, I told Jake’s story as my own. I began to believe it. I could see myself in the water, pushing myself deep, deep, deeper, praying to God I wouldn’t be the one to touch the kid.
Jake called me recently to tell me one of his fraternity brothers went cliff jumping, hit his head on a rock, and was badly hurt. Jake was there, burst into tears the second it happened. He said it brought him right back to Jason Waxberg, he said he had to tell me because he knew I would understand.
I didn’t understand. Not one fucking bit.
I haven’t shared my fake Jason Waxberg story since. I still haven’t told any of my college friends what actually happened. There hasn’t been a good time.
Camp did not shut down afterward. In fact, not a single person left. But camp no longer felt like home to me as it once had. One of my best memories was when I was thirteen, our counselor playing Indian Moon around a campfire. Our whole cabin looked at one another, eyes slippery, letting the fire’s flames and strings vibrations fill the void of breath and whispers. Now, in the background of this image I sometimes see Jason Waxberg getting pulled from the water, limp and dripping.
The day after he drowned, and each day of camp after that, memories of Jason Waxberg were shared. A “Smile4Waxy” wristband was made. The young campers would ask questions like “What color hair did he have?” or “Was he nice?” or “Didn’t he know how to swim?”
Camp counselors who tried to save Jason would talk with grief counselors as I helped kids get their skis on in the water, cheered them on as they stood up, told them how great they did when they fell seconds later.
Once camp ended, campers posted “Smile4Waxy” on Facebook every Wednesday. I look at all of these posts and force myself to smile. At first hundreds of these posts would accumulate—only a few campers will post this status now, a few more will “like” them.
Jake and I visited camp on Fourth of July the summer after Waxberg died. I walked around with American flags tattooed on my arms, hugging old camp friends, lying my ass off to campers asking if I remembered them. I didn’t see anyone wearing “Smile4Waxy” wristbands. The campers who knew Jason Waxberg stopped going to camp—they were too old, didn’t want to be CIT’s.
Jake and I walked to the lake; looked out at boats idling, their passengers drinking beer, ready to shoot off fireworks. We didn’t bring up Jason Waxberg. We didn’t bring up the nine years previous where we sat on the grass hill at night watching the fireworks or trying to sneak away from our cabin to get with girls who didn’t really like us. We walked on the path past the lake and looked for more people to say “what’s up” to until there was no one else worth seeing. We said thank you to the camp director for letting us visit. Then we drove home.