The last two items Jimmy Perkins pulled from the envelopes his girl had sent with him to band camp were a safety pin and a disposable butane lighter. There was no note, but he seemed to know what she expected him to do with them. A look of sickness passed across his body like a rear-projected car crash in an old black-and-white movie. His eyes slid up from the pin to us.
The other envelopes, one for each day, had been a fascinating daily horror. The first contained a Ziplock bag of pubic hair, presumably hers; he let us grind the coarse hairs between our fingertips but told us not to open the bag. We didn’t want to. The second contained a pair of underpants that appeared to be soiled in some way. We’d never seen a pair of girl’s underwear up close before and wanted to know everything. We were skittish; we leaned in and reared back like dogs around a dead bird. We could tell Jimmy thought about the underpants all day on the field, pulling his snare drum on and off his shoulders, staring into the hash marks painted into the grass.
My own girl had sent an envelope to camp with me too, but just the one. By its size and shape I could tell that all it contained was a simple letter. I didn’t open it the first day because I was too distracted by Jimmy’s bag of pubes. I didn’t open it the second day because I wanted to save it for later. On the third day, at breakfast in the cafeteria, Jimmy opened one of his own envelopes and peeked inside. The look on his face could best be described as disconcerted. He didn’t show us what was in it. He didn’t say anything about it––in fact he didn’t speak at all for a long time. Back in my room, getting dressed and prepped for the day, I folded my envelope in half and stuffed it in my gig bag with my drumsticks and white tape.
After dinner on the last day, Jimmy pulled the safety pin and lighter from the envelope they’d come in and set them on his bed. He took off his shirt revealing his pale body, the little copse of coiled hairs on his sternum. He held a piece of ice from the ice machine tight to his left nipple while I used the butane lighter to sterilize the needle head of the safety pin. We’d been given a bottle of rubbing alcohol by then with orders to use it––on the pin and Jimmy’s nipple––from Destiny, who played mallet percussion and pronounced us all cretins. She told us we were developmentally delayed and looked at us with real sadness in her eyes. Shamed, I kept my hands in my pockets, rubbing the pad of my finger along the thin braid of hair that I always kept tucked inside.
When Jimmy felt ready, he held the tip of the safety pin to the side of his left nipple and pressed it in. His pain was sonic, expanding like a bubble until it filled the room and burst. A thread of drool hung from his bottom lip and quavered.
The thing I had going was much more chaste. I felt, in that moment with Jimmy, so terribly far behind. My girl––we were like two round-bellied children with black buttons for eyes. But we learned quickly. We wanted only to be alone together. We wanted only to brush skin against skin. We felt electricity when we pressed parts of ourselves together and we concealed that feeling like a wild conspiracy. The secret was a current that hummed between us, and I felt it always. I felt it then when I rubbed the braid of hair.
As Jimmy labored, his body glistening, I wanted to show him. It felt like something he would understand. It was the most startling gift I’d ever been given, a gesture so intimate it filled me with fear––a piece of her body, cut from the hairline behind her left ear.
“It’s the pain that makes it real,” Jimmy was explaining to nobody. His eyes were watering, his lips bloodless, as he pushed the safety pin through his flesh in increments too small to be measured. “If it didn’t hurt,” he was saying, “it wouldn’t mean anything.” The others had grown bored and moved on. They stood on the beds throwing their dirty clothes at each other, doing the things that boys do. I sat with Jimmy, flicking the tiny gears of the lighter with my thumb, thinking about my envelope stuffed away in my gig bag in another room, beginning to understand why I hadn’t opened it and why, when I touched it, I felt a different kind of electricity pulsing through me. I knew I’d never open it––knew I’d never need to open it for it to hurt me.
“It’s really only the pain that matters,” Jimmy was saying through a mouthful of spit. The silver head of the pin crowned his skin in a drop of blood, and we were born anew. I flicked the lighter with one hand, rubbed the braid in my pocket with the other. A gift so intimate. “Yeah,” I said, my head swimming. “I get it.”