I was fifteen, Sharon a year my senior, both of us "Equestrian Counselors" at a sleep-away camp in the Adirondacks, hired on for the season-trading three months of strenuous, stall-mucking labor for a token salary and the privilege of riding in our spare time. I was tall and timid, with olive complexion and a sun-streaked auburn mane; Sharon small and confident, her face all Irish contrasts, flawless skin creating a pleasing pale distinction to a frame of black hair. Though probably plain to an unbiased eye, to me she was beautiful-everything about her, but especially her shoulders: broadly set for a girl, the angles tanned and rounded like brown eggs, they beckoned to my fingers; never before had I known such a desire to caress.
Deferring to Sharon 's superior knowledge, I followed her lead as we worked in the paddock and barn and took campers on the trail. She seemed happy for my company and assistance, and clearly enjoyed as much as I did the opportunity to discuss bits and saddles, to argue schools of equitation, or simply to exchange horse platitudes about Hanoverians and Thoroughbreds, Arabians and Swedish Warmbloods. I was surprised and gladdened when, little by little, as if she were testing a decision to befriend me, she began to share with me more personal thoughts. Before very long, she confided to me a sad story of alcoholic parents and a childhood of neglect and emotional abuse.
I was deeply gratified that Sharon had made me her confidante, a role which was new in my experience. I was sensible of a need to reciprocate, and perhaps because I had no story to offer that was comparable to hers in pathetic depth (and perhaps, too, because I had an unconscious need to unburden myself), I began to detail every experience or thought that had ever caused me emotional pain or mental turmoil. With almost saintly patience, Sharon listened while I described my insecurities, fretted over my chronic asocialness, agonized over my appearance. Through it all she remained tranquil, sympathetic, uncritical-until I mentioned my obsessive escape to self-pleasuring, whereupon she suddenly raised a quizzical eyebrow.
I was mortified. Had I made an awful mistake? Had zealousness clouded my judgment, leading me to attribute a liberality to my confessor she didn't possess? I felt cold perspiration beading on my forehead as waves of humiliation and dread washed over me. My face must have gone ashen, for Sharon noticed my discomfort and asked if I was feeling sick. I hesitated, unsure if I should explain the true cause of my sudden distress. Something benevolent in Sharon's expression-the genuine concern I saw reflected in her gaze, or a sympathetic inclination I read in the curve of her neck-decided my answer, and in that instant it seemed to me that I was making a great wager, risking a friendship that, although only days old and more incipient than fulfilled, had already become profoundly important to me.
I blurted out the truth: that I feared my admission of excessive masturbation had repulsed her-then awaited her reaction with a nearly unbearable sense of impending loss. Her answer was to gather my head to her breast and start giggling. What was this? I asked myself. Was she making fun of me? But if so, why the tenderness?
Still smiling, Sharon explained that it wasn't my masturbatory habits that had given her pause, only my description of them as "obsessive." Sexual release, she said-whether by self-stimulation or otherwise-had always been as natural to her as breathing. And no one, she added, would call themselves air-obsessed.
"Oxygen, Claire. You look like the type who needs it all the time. I'm going to tell your friends!"
I laughed and hugged her to me, holding back tears of relief as the tension broke.