Oh God, Oh God, There’s Blood Everywhere was the name of the game and the fourteen year olds loved every second of it. We went around the cabin, one at a time, sharing stories of our most gruesome accidents – each teller required to insert the titular phrase at least once – with John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good” blasting on repeat throughout. Every so often, a camper over-shared and the room got quiet, but eventually we would course correct with a proper tale of mutilation and mayhem. “I was being really dumb” was almost always the punch line.
I was very good at this game. I’ve broken both my arms twice, gotten stitches five times and had three separate surgeries. This Saturday, I stepped on a thumbtack and pinned a photo of my housemate on his vacation in Uganda to my instep. I spent a lot of time in high school trying to smooth myself out, hoping I might be able to shake off my clumsiness. Then again, I also spent a lot of time in high school setting things on fire in my sister’s bathroom with my friend Kojiro. My parents thought my sister smoked (she did) but I guess they never questioned why the room smelled less like tobacco and more like burning Kleenex.
For counselors, summer camp was a way to aim our destructive tendencies. So long as we looked after our campers and didn’t make too much noise after Taps, we had total autonomy. We stole camp mini-vans and harassed late shift Walmart employees. We’d place a lone red Gatorade bottle within a tower of blue Gatorades. We would hang out with the female counselors, drink forties, and go skinny-dipping. We built massive bonfires every week - we called them the Manhattan Projects. And at breakfast the next morning, we’d take inventory of scrapes and burns that never seemed to leave any scars.
I spent my time as a junior counselor working with ten year olds, but the following year I swapped units and was sent lakeside to help with the older kids. Huge upgrade. I’d trade sincerity and bedwetting for sarcasm and body odor any day. I landed two back-to-back periods of waterskiing for the whole summer, and because YMCA instructors are required to ski alongside their campers, I was out on beautiful Lake George every morning.
I asked my supervisor if she had any advice on how to be a successful teacher. “There’s only one big must for waterskiers,” she said. “You always have to get up. Every time, no exceptions.” Of course I always have to get up, I thought. I can do that. If it’s my job I can make that happen. But as the days ticked by, the always in her request became increasingly daunting. I’d never dealt with an always before, just usually and sometimes.
I made it to late July before I had my first fall. There were whitecaps all across the lake, and the camper said “hit it” to the driver before I had both hands on the rope. A fall nonetheless. I didn’t stand a chance against the inevitability of always. I couldn’t even always remember to floss.
Now, always reminds me of post-op New York winter F train rides, hearing “do you need to sit down?” as I pop the stitches on the in-seam of my knee. Working the volume on my iPod like a morphine drip and thinking abject thoughts like where do subway rats go when they bang? Every morning after an ampoule of coffee, it was “today, this” and “no more of that,” making promises to myself that were never more than hollow. I wrote lists of objectives that I hoped to accomplish –go to physical therapy, write something funny, take one fewer pill - and achieved maybe one of them. I set deadlines and napped through them. It will always feel a little different, my surgeon said. He still didn’t have any definitive answers for what had happened to my knee. Why couldn’t I run anymore? Where did the cartilage go? Would this happen to my other knee?
* * *
The fourth time I broke my arm was way worse than the others. Two of my friends were going through a BMX phase and built a ten-foot dirt ramp in their backyard. While they were executing effortless wheelies and 360s, I could barely clear the jump. After a few days of practice, I worked up the courage to start trying tricks. I lost control of my bike mid air and landed on my wrist, destroying it. As soon as I hit the ground, I popped back up to my feet, adrenalin pumping. Oh god, oh god there was blood everywhere. I biked home and greeted my 90-year-old grandmother. She was already starting to lose it, then, but she grabbed her cane and my dad’s car keys and took me to the hospital. A few months later, I was good as new, only now I wipe with my left hand. That’s the story I tell. It always gets laughs, people understand cuts and breaks.
* * *
On off nights, we took our checks to Lake George village and spent them all on food and laser-tag. We saw faces gnawed at by exhaustion and indifference, and we consumed them just like we did the food they served us. In them, we received validation of our youth – the waitress’s real life a moon orbiting the unknowable difficulty of adulthood and subsistence. In her we saw what we weren’t and what we would never become. We covered ourselves in the plaster they use to make fake trees on Putt Putt courses. We drank the water’s too-blue dye. We believed in Santa Claus, because we could see his abused elves.
Nobody wants to think too far under the skin: it’s never as funny when you tear at the stuff that holds you together.