Immediately after joining the troop, we noticed Oni was sleeping around. We learned that Winston had advised Oni to tent with a different boy each campout, so as to open himself up to the rest of us at camp. That was how Oni met Baxter Künz, who was, despite Winston’s assurances to the contrary, rather cruel. He rebutted Oni not with silent stony opprobrium but with a sort of jocular ridicule new and unfamiliar to Oni and of which he was hard-pressed to find adequate reproof. When Oni got up early one morning and made muffins for the Albatross Patrol, Bax came up from behind and hugged his waist as a husband to his wife, said, “Thanks bitch,” and thrust. Oni cried over it sometimes, not from the injustice of the bullying itself, but at his inability to win out over Bax. And yet, in the tent, after everyone had tucked in for the night, Baxter spoke affectionately of his mother and about his plans to buy a monster truck on his sixteenth birthday, the funds for which he was already accumulating working odd, under-the-table construction jobs, so that he might involve himself in the difficult and physically demanding sport that is professional mudding and by seventeen become a child prodigy. In listening to Baxter perform an eminently reasonable-sounding cost-benefit analysis of various brands of monster truck tires, Oni was able to look across a void and find a real person there in Bax. He wasn’t ornamented or complex the way Oni’s friends usually were, his passions lying on the surface of himself, like his veins were there for just anyone to touch or singe, but he was alive, more alive somehow than any of the rest of us, and he made Oni want to be more alive too. To be sure, it helped that Oni found the way Baxter spoke, his full lips, irresistible.
Winston viewed the brewing friendship with Baxter as a particularly bizarre exponent of a new side of Oni that was springing up without warning, and fast. It was boggling and somehow personally offensive to watch a boy who ten minutes ago was reeling off to you the names of all the Oscar nominees for Best Picture—in 1987—to then, with no apparent irony, nod along in quiet affirmation as Baxter bemoaned the imposition of public education and extolled the undervalued merits of the antebellum South in the lead-up to the War of Northern Aggression. From a camp chair, Baxter yawned out the details of what appeared even to Winston as objectively petty, soggy life pursuits in need of some serious rejiggering, meanwhile Oni putting up the tent himself. Winston could not recall a time he had ever seen Oni so submissive. When Baxter called him out for doing “faggy” stuff, Oni looked appropriately chagrined but also weirdly pleased, as if maybe as much helium went to his brain when people debased him as when they congratulated him.
Off-put by this turn, Winston demanded Oni tent with him, exclusively. He posed it as a mock-self-effacing “I’m jealous”-type situation and was oblivious to the fact that his ruse was more truth than fiction. After a few campouts, Winston applauded himself for having singlehandedly pulled Oni out of Baxter’s orbit and bent back his trajectory towards its original course. Of any of us, it was Oni alone who might be Great, and Baxter Künz could not help him get there. Bax flattened Oni, made him commonplace, and crude. Yes he seemed happier but Winston liked the aura of painful novelty that surrounded Oni when he was out contradistinguishing himself against the backdrop of brutish smuttiness that so characterized this impoverished Southern life. And so he wanted to ensure that Oni’s life remained pained and novel in keeping with his own crude fantasy of what greatness was. This tack left Oni exposed to the perils such new forms of living always bring, while leaving Winston, pleasantly, no longer quite so discombobulated. Oni, to his credit, played along nicely with Winston’s puppeteering, and we’re not sure but it seemed sometimes like he even relished how fervid Winston got in his mission to protect Oni from the stain of the world.
Oni was riffing hard on Chekhov and Nadine Gordimer again and Winston could rest easy letting the words float over him, but the reversal was not to last. The retreat back into the limp coziness of fraternity was Oni’s final attempt to make peace with something hard and inexorable that was about to burst its way out of confinement and rip the hinges off the doorframe as it went. Bax had turned something on in Oni, a new thing that had never been irrepressible but that Oni had done a very good job up until then of repressing. It was there in the way he moved, jittery and stilted, something about him ever teeming: a tensile, nervous energy. In short, Oni wanted to get his dick wet, and he was unsure how to go about doing it.
It’s weird how certain figures of speech can be so accurate as to be literal, like we who incant them just forgot that they weren’t figures of speech at all. “Twinkling stars,” Oni discovers on the campouts, is one such phrase, and he doesn’t comprehend the why or how of it but if you look at the starscape long enough, you’ll notice the stars get a little brighter, recede into themselves, and then dart out again. It’s sort of like how Oni went about becoming a sexual being. He did it twinkling, in fits and spurts. “Bust a nut,” it turns out, is another such phrase, and we’re mercifully now so far away from our scouting careers and our adolescence as to have mostly forgotten how endless that long tread of years appeared to us then, how much it actually hurt to just sit there and not be fucking someone.
What Oni did was bad. Like unspeakably, unforgivably bad. Although, in time, Winston did forgive him, and, even though doing so was questionable to our lights, he blamed himself a bit for it having happened, for failing his friendship and not perceiving what was so clearly there in Oni, in reading the signs of Oni’s steely inner blockade as “No Trespassing” or “Kindly Stop Here, Inquirer” instead of “I’m Gay And I Don’t Know What To Do About It” or “I Can’t Say This For Myself, So Can You Please Say It For Me” or “Help Me.” For being built to understand men were built for women, and women men, and blind to all evidence to the contrary.
At Winston’s behest on an October backpacking trip, Oni paired off with him and slept in his tent. It had been raining the whole day and everything was gross, the tarps we laid down beneath the tents to insulate them still letting water in at the corner seams and soaking the outer perimeter of the groundspace. Those huge backpacks with all our stuff had to fit with us in the tent somewhere, the pair of them forming a lumpy third body at our feet and pushing us up uncomfortably close to our sleeping mate. Winston and Oni spoke like they always did before falling asleep, in those notes of true concord that evince a lasting and worthwhile friendship, but this time their bodies were closer, and Oni could feel Winston breathing on his face. Dick hard, Oni listened to Winston snore. Dick hard, Oni didn’t fall asleep. Dick hard, Oni unzipped Winston’s sleeping bag, burrowed his hand into it, felt around for the thick cotton of Winston’s boxers and let himself in. It didn’t last long, several seconds or perhaps a full minute at most, and then Oni was pulling the zipper back up, hand shaking, and silently jerking until he came all over the inner silk lining of his sleeping bag, Winston snoring on.
Oni knew what he had done was a huge mistake at best, you-should-just-off-yourself-now treachery at worst. He had crossed that unfenced border the trespass of which was made all the more horrible for its being undefended, an unmarked zone that bore no signs by which, other than being a better person, Oni could have recognized it as inviolable. So he retreated into himself to analyze and reconsider the whole of it, to make sure he wasn’t evil and to reconfigure the parts of himself that were. Winston said nothing unordinary over the course of the next day, and by dusk Oni felt he could breathe again, though he didn’t attempt anything approaching a reprisal that night and instead zipped up his bag almost prudishly to the neckline, prompting Winston to remark, “Well I know which one of us definitely won’t be getting hypothermia tonight.”
But Oni knew. But Oni really really knew. He tried to figure the why of it, going so far as to entertain the idea that secretly Winston loved him, that it was Winston, in his feigned state of paralysis, who was incapable of declaring his feelings for Oni, like Oni had so bravely done in tugging on Winston’s dick without his permission or consent. That Winston had been awake the whole time. That Oni had been dreaming. That it might have been rape. That it was light rape. That it wasn’t rape. He felt inside of him the wish for Winston to be gay almost as fiercely as the wish he felt not to be. In either case, it was a prayer for extradition from these moral badlands.
A dry-eyed Oni understood, finally, what had happened, what he had done, an inexcusable but not at all uncommon series of events: We want something, and we take it, and later we contrive the reasons how come.