Mr. and Mrs. Green taught the oldest Sunday school class at church. I was too old for it, but they still let me come in as a helper. Normally, that wasn't allowed. They said I had proved that I wasn't just trying to get out of the adult service. I wasn't sure what I had done to prove that, but I wasn't going to question it when it allowed me to get out of the adult service.
Their son, Brandon, was a couple years younger than me, and their daughter, Ophelia, was a couple years younger than him. Mr. and Mrs. Green told me a few times that they appreciated the good example I set for the younger kids in class, especially their own.
Men always made me uncomfortable, but Mr. Green didn't make me tense up quite as much as the others. If anyone else had invited me to go camping, the answer would have been a quick and firm, "No." The idea that the Greens actually wanted to spend more time with me, even a fake version of me, was unexpected and touching.
The trip to the campsite mostly entailed everyone listening to me ramble about a book series no one else was actually interested in. My rant didn't end until I had recapped the entire story up to that point and enumerated my theories about what would happen in the books yet to come. Nonetheless, no one told me to shut up or called me annoying. I didn't have to hide my excitement for something that I loved.
When we arrived, I "helped" Mr. Green set up the rather large tent. Even though my contribution was more of a hindrance than a help, I didn't hear any frustration in his voice. When we went fishing, he didn't make fun of me for not wanting to bait my hook or cast my line. He didn't call me a liar when I told him about catching my own thumb at camp when I was eight: he laughed and said that it was a good story. In everything that we did, he made me feel good about myself. I wasn't bad; I wasn't stupid; I wasn't wrong. I was me, or at least as close to genuine as I had felt in a while.
Then Mrs. Green said it. "We all stink."
The campgrounds had showers, and we were going. I felt a knot in my stomach. I tried to come up with some excuse for why I couldn't take a shower, some way to get out of it. Would they believe that I was allergic to water? No, they would have known that, by now. Not to mention that I wouldn't have gone on a tiny fishing boat. The water allergy excuse was still my best option by the time we reached the shower building, so I knew I was in trouble.
My panic dwindled the tiniest bit when I saw that there were individual stalls. At least I would only be visible before and after, not during, my shower. I was doing my best not to shake, not to show how nervous I was about the situation. Before I could process what was happening, a man near us stripped down to nothing and walked to one of the stalls. I averted my eyes and sat down on a nearby bench. Clutching the bag of my clean clothes to my chest, I stared at the damp, tiled floor.
"This is a good spot," Mr. Green said. He and his son put their stuff down on the bench next to me. Leaning down to make eye contact, he said, "Why don't you take off your shoes and socks here. You can pass the rest of your clothes out to me from the stall."
My assumption was that I was either going to get out of the situation completely or expose myself to anyone and everyone. A reasonable middle ground wasn't something that even crossed my mind.
When I finished disrobing behind the comparable safety of a flimsy shower curtain, I gave my last article of clothing to the hand reaching just inside. "Mr. Green? Will you make sure anyone who comes in knows that I'm in this one so they don't open it up?"
"Sure, Michael." If he was frustrated, he didn't let it leak into his voice.
When I finished my shower, Mr. Green passed my grocery bag of clean clothes through the curtain to me. I emerged from the stall dressed and much less anxious. Brandon and I stared at the floor and talked to each other while Mr. Green took his shower.
On the way back to camp, my eyes were fixed on the ground in front of me. There were two reasons for this:
- I most definitely did not want to trip, fall down and get dirty, forcing us to repeat the events of the last thirty minutes.
- I was embarrassed for needing the special measures Mr. Green had taken for me. He might not have called me a pussy like Ian would have, but I couldn't help but believe that he was thinking it.
In my embarrassment, I mumbled, "Thank you, Mr. Green," as we walked.
Mr. Green put his hand on my shoulder and said, "You're a good kid, Michael."
I didn't understand why he said that instead of, "You're welcome," or something similar. I also didn't understand why hearing him say that meant so much to me. His touch didn't make me flinch; I didn't shrug his hand off my shoulder like I would have with almost anyone else. Instead, I reached up and held his hand, now draped over my shoulder, with both of mine.
We walked the rest of the way back to camp like that.