BY ANNIE SHAH
"ANNIE! ANNIE! ANNIE! ANNIE!"
Twelve of them are screaming my name at once. Their voices are making me feel crazy. In the month that we've been together, they've never seen me scream or freak out… but if they keep yelling my name like that, I swear, I just might not be able to control myself…
"Stop talking at me! Shut the fuck up!" I just lost it. Waymond is laughing, but Sharice starts screaming.
"But your towel's on fire!"
Waymond grabs the towel out of my hand and throws it into the five-foot raging fire dancing in front of us. He hurls his body into the fire in an attempt to smother it.
Pause. We are all about to die.
"Waymond, get the hell out of there…"
To my left, Steven is running away.
"Ya'll are about to start a forest fire."
Way to look after the group, Steven. He's gone, and the rest of my kids are on fire. My heart's in my head. This officially proves that I am the worst camp counselor ever.
Rewind. How the hell did I get here?
I knock on Jon's office door nervously.
"Ah, you must be Annie. Have a seat."
I am in trouble. He's beautiful. His freckles kiss the side of his cheeks. He has haphazard curly black hair. I bet it's soft. His goatee gives his boyishly charming smile a devilish flair. If there is any doubt at this point, I know I'm doomed to have a hopeless crush on this Jon Cole as soon as I hear Ben Harper's Roses from my Friends strumming on his CD/ROM. We talk about Ben Harper and shoot the shit about our lives and our day. And that's it. The interview is completely informal. The only question he has asked me is if I like to be outside. I am befuddled when Jon walks me out of his office. I mean, I shaved my legs and put on a damn dress for this interview and what he and I just had did not constitute an interview. We just talked. Standing outside Beacon Street, I look at him. My eyebrows have a mind of their own. One is raised, the other is down, and I am staring him down quizzically.
"So… Jon, do I have the job?" I ask, sounding a little annoyed.
"Yeah, of course. I feel really good about this."
I walk to the T-station through the park with a big doofy grin on my face. I feel good about this too, but I'm not exactly sure why.
Jon, 12 black teenagers and I are en route to our first overnight trip to Thompson's Island. It's this tiny island off the coast of Boston where Outward Bound volunteers train. I have never felt so white in my entire life, and I am brown. I am shy. Jon is cuter than ever. He's smoking a cigarette at 11 p.m. looking out at the stars. I wouldn't have pegged him as a smoker. I pride myself at being a good judge of character, but I don't have him figured out at all. What's he thinking about, looking at the sky like that?
Fast-forward one week. Pause.
Two of my campers, Teisha and Terrell, are talking about climbing the Alpine Tower at Thompson's Island.
"Hey, Annie, why didn't you come to Thompson's Island, grrrrllll?"
"Terrell, I was at Thompson's Island. Don't you remember how I accidentally kicked Waymond in the face?" I had been a little on edge, causing me to be a complete clutz that first weekend.
"Oh yeah, Li'l Annie was at Thompson's Island. I remember that… she's so short we probably saw right over her."
"Teisha… I might be short… but, but, I'll bite you."
"Damn, that girl and her biting fetish have got to go."
Conversation is starting to flow smoothly. I smile. I like this moment.
"I seench you on the cona. I'm gonna cut you." Larrice tells me to repeat after her.
"I sawtch you on the corner and I'm going to cut you," I repeat, looking self-assured. My look fades into humored embarrassment as all twelve of them laugh at me.
"Aw… look it li'l Annie all trying to talk ghetto but really talkin' all proper."
My kids were trying to teach me "how to be black." I didn't want to tell them that that was not my goal… we were finally getting some progress.
We're in Vermont and reared and ready to go for three days of camping. Okay, maybe the youth aren't exactly jumping for joy… but we're ready. When you bring 12 inner-city kids to rural Vermont their favorite place to be is in the 15-passenger air-conditioned van.
"Guys, are you straight? Get out of the car. We're gonna Learn About Forests!"
The jokes start right away.
"Or not… Game Over," says Dana.
"Li'l Annie, why don't you learn about forests and tell me about it?" Porsha smiles.
Walking as slowly as they possibly can, they start to file out of the car.
"Annie, you don't understand, I'm a city boy… I can't be here," pleads Ralph.
I see a glass bottle hanging out of Ralph's pocket.
"Ralph, what the hell is that?"
"Annie, be quiet. It's a frog. I'm taking it home with me."
"Honey, that's great that you wanna take it back with you, but I don't think Kermit there and the city of Dorchester would really get along and besides, I thought you were a boy from the city." I am cockily self-contented. This camp thing is actually working.
Jon wakes me up at 8 AM.
"Okay, Annie, now I am going to be out with another group today, which means that you are in charge all day long. I will be back at 6 tonight. I trust you."
Things are perfect until 2 o'clock, when it gets a little dull. We decide to rent paddleboats. The sprinkling rain feels good on my closed eyelids. When the rain starts to get heavy, we're laughing and spraying water at each other. The thunder and lightning that follow aren't as humorous. Dana turns into a lifeguard in a bad Baywatch episode. She's pulling our kids out of the paddleboats from the ass of their pants onto shore. They are falling all over the place. We run through mud to an underpass.
Steven comes up behind me and slowly says, "Annie, don't get mad but we kinda left all of the food and all of our clothes out."
Meanwhile, Larrice and Sharice are sitting in Jon's Subaru, watching all of our belongings get drenched. Not amused, Dana pulls Larrice out of the car.
"You lazy-ass nigger. That's why I'm always pissed. Because niggers be lazy."
I step in the middle of them. They are both substantially larger than I am and they could both break me. But, respectfully, they back off. The rain dies and we're cold.
"You guys, I'm going to get firewood."
When I try to light the fire, I realize I don't have a damn clue. Nothing is lighting; everything is damp. I rack my brain.
"Does someone have a tampon?"
The 14-of us are sitting by the fire, lighting tampons on fire with a cheap yellow BIC lighter… nothing is happening. The tampons turned into a little lesson for the boys.
"How the hell does this work?" asks Waymond.
The girls are all giving demonstrations. Porsha puts her hand into a fist…
"Okay, so say this is a girl's cooch-"
"OKAY… enough," I yell, mildly entertained.
"Annie, Jon always adds a little gas to the fire," Dana says, as she proceeds to pour a capful of gas into the fire. Poof! There's a tiny burst, and a flame.
"Dana, don't do that again."
I turn my head slowly to look at her. She's pouring a four-gallon tank of white gas into a cap right over the grill. The cap overflows, the flame meets the gas halfway in the air, sets the cap on fire, travels up Dana's arm and ignites the entire four gallons into flames. Dana's face contorts in a way that I didn't think was humanly possible as she drops the gas tank onto the ground. As long as I live, I will never forget the expression on her face. When she drops the tank on the ground, Larrice's leg catches on fire. Larrice is looking at Dana; Dana's looking at Larrice.
"Dana! You are on fire!"
"Larrice! You are on fire!"
Larrice and Dana are smacking on each other trying to put out each other's fire. This from the same girls who were ready to kill each other an hour prior.
"Stop! Drop! And rolllll!" someone yells.
I'm knocked back into the current moment. I see a wet towel and start smacking the hell out of the fire. Monique is just running back and forth with her hands cupped on her cheeks.
"The country is dangerous. I am going back to the city!"
"Wait till I tell my mutha about this shit!"
Jahbrill grabs a gallon of water and throws it on the oil-feeding fire. The water separates the oil and the fire spreads. We're dead, and Jon is destined to spend the rest of his life in prison because… he trusted me.
"Annie, you have to go get help!" screams Pia. I hop into Jon's car, throw Monique into the passenger seat and off-road it through campsites to the front desk. I bark out of my window.
"Campsite 11. Come quick! Fire!" I gas it back to the campsite. My boy Waymond had wet a sleeping bag and suffocated the fire. I was proud.
We are delirious. What is it about reminiscing about things that just happened that creates such a bonding experience?
"Oh man! Our group is called the Trailblazers. The newspapers would have had a field day with that."
"Did you see Annie? She lost it."
"I can't believe Dana and Larrice are okay… you guys were just looking out for each other."
"My mom's never letting me come camping again."
I'm enjoying a couple of beers with Jon later that night. So, Jon, I have a funny story for you. His slight buzz keeps him from freaking out at the events of the day. He is between tears and laughter at the end of my story.
"So, Jon, do you still trust me?"
"We're sitting here aren't we, Annie?"
Fast-forward. Pause. My favorite scene… the one that I rewind over and over again. The one that makes the movie worth it for me.
Teisha and I are driving back to Boston. We're driving Jon's car and following the van back home.
"Teisha, I was really nervous working with you guys. I'm this little Indian girl. I am supposed to be a mentor but sometimes it's hard for us to get each other because we come from such different worlds. We speak differently. You guys don't know what I'm saying sometimes."
Then she looks at me and says, "Li'l Annie, you are the same exact as us, only with nicer hair."
Credits are rolling.
Jon and I are playing pool at a place called the Milkyway in Jamaica Plains.
"So Annie, what'd you think? How would you rate your summer?" He's wearing this offbeat bowling shirt and he looks cute as hell.
"I feel like I'm in a movie… I can't wait to see what happens next."