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A Woman's Vow
Camp was exhausting. Turn on ABC Family for a minute and one of their premiers will give you a nice picture of the typical wear and tear of summer fun and games- swimming, canoeing, hiking, arts and crafts, running- its an outlet for children’s predisposed urge for adventure. But Oregon Camp* had one nurse, one guidance counselor, and 30 perverted CITs to watch over the physical and emotional welfare of 3,000 kids dumped in the middle of nowhere. I felt exhausted beyond homesickness. I’d gotten over missing the comfort of my down-feathered mattress. I’d gotten used to being without my mother’s hearty, Slavic dinners. I felt exhausted in that my muscles were taunt against my skin, the little cuts on my wrist were cracking open from the sweltering summer heat, and I swear someone was trying to file note cards in between my brain’s gyri. I wanted to go see the nurse, but after waiting in line for 20 minutes, I realized I had a tank top on. One look at my scars and I’d be in the loony bin. Just that realization alone made my head hurt even more.
Instead I went up to one of the Counselors, Niles*- he was this Australian mountain biker with a dirty blond scruff who’d been working there so long he had his own little house across the street from the compound. He was notorious for eating popcorn and watching movies rather than actually doing his job. Knowing this, I figured he could spare the time for my complaint. I walked across the road and knocked on his door, which happened to be a tattered screen with a lock on it. In Pennsylvania you could get away with a security system like that, not that there was anything worth breaking in to steal. I heard him call from inside for me to come in, and when I did sure enough there was the smell of burnt popcorn and the sound of static on his TV filling the room.
“Hey kiddo, hungry?”
I said I was fine, because really, greasy popcorn and lemonade? One week of Pilates and triathlon practice and I was watching my weight. “No, listen I just have this really bad headache, I think I need some Advil”.
“Sorry there, no can do. You gotta go to the nurse for Advil; I’m not allowed to give out medication to the campers. How about a cold compress?”
He took out a white packet with large blue print on the front from his freezer. Niles hiked his foot up on the counter and cracked it on his knee, throwing the mushy bag in my direction. I caught it and put it on my head and immediately felt some relief. I figured that would be my source of solace- anytime I feel sick; get an ice pack from Niles. But then he walked a little closer to me.
“What’s your name?”
I was sufficiently creeped out. I was feeling better, and considered if I was faster than him.
“Does it matter?”
‘Which bunk are you in?”
“Shouldn’t you know that?”
He let his head fall back and let out a roaring laugh, “Smartass. Listen if you see Laura Soult, big girl, light red hair, tell her to I said hi”
And with that I ran out of his cabin. As far as I was concerned he was just a slacker. A guy who took up the job as an opportunity to visit the city during the counselors’ once-a-week out of grounds trip and have a little vacation. Foreign counselors were paid 200 dollars a session- it cost over 1200 for his ticket there and back. I figured there must have been some other incentive to work there, but if he were a creepy guy, I would’ve known. The creepy counselors, they applied themselves. If they were paid by the number of campers they hooked up with, they’d have made a hell of a lot more than 200 dollars a session, that’s what I know.
Days went on and my headache faded, a mild case of dehydration. But I was learning things, too, and it caused my head to feel cramped in a nondescript way. I watched my bunkmates go out every night, dolled up like the pinup girls in old fashioned magazines trying to cover their prepubescent sheen which was all I ever knew. I had braces and once, in fourth grade, fell off my scooter and sprained my wrist. In fifth grade I got a concussion. But I’d started to see a new kind of pain people experienced, awe for the things outside of themselves, and the slow and grueling attempts to become them. Everyone just looked like walking caricatures whose sex and drama came to life at night under the dim glow of fluorescent lights that surrounded the campgrounds. Looking back, I guess it was like any other preteen summer experience, but what I saw was a playing field for sexual athletes.
One day after dinner went out to the back of our bunk, and disrobed on a rock that was wet from the night before. Shaking my towel up and down in the humid air, I finally laid down on a mossy rock to breath. The whole atmosphere seemed so congested with a sort of pretentiousness that being naked, ironically, was the most liberating and least sexual thing I could do. It was relieving. Then I heard someone coming out from the back door and quickly gathered by towel around myself, pretending to be looking on the ground for something I’d lost.
It was Laura, this obese, voluptuous 15 year old girl who liked to try to sneak a smoke whenever she could. My mother chain-smoked ever since I could remember, so Laura’s pressing prescence felt comforting in a maternal sort of way.
“Hey, sorry I don’t think I’m going out tonight”
“Eh, me either. I never do. You should stay in with us, a couple of us just, you know, talk, set up pranks, eat food from everyone’s bunks”
I laughed, relieved that someone else in my bunk agreed that soul searching in your adolescence was less problematic when your not eating out of someone else’s face, but rather out of someone’s care package.
“Yeah of course sounds great. I know Izzy has Oreos”
“We ate them already, but we’ll find you more. Listen you really shouldn’t walk around here buck-naked, I wouldn’t trust the CITs”
I’d learned that, but I’d thought I was keen enough to distinguish a body from a bush whenever something rustled.
“Yeah I won’t do it again. I needed to breathe for a minute, ya know?’
“Completely understand. Are you a virgin?”
Of course I was. I was in seventh grade and went to a predominantly Jewish and Indian prep school whose mascot was the Minuteman. Redcoat Soldiers at pep rallies didn’t really reve anyone’s engine back in New Jersey. Even the Bat and Bar Mitzvahs were censored. The raunchiest thing we ever did got us kicked out of the party. We pretended to “ride the Torah” when a rabbi left it out after one of the services. So apparently I’m banned from the entire Jewish community. Everywhere. For eternity. It was a mortal sin but I didn’t feel bad, because kids in urban schools were getting STDs and their sweet catholic priests were offering forgiveness every Sunday.
Sure, I knew eventually I’d be probed with questions about my sexual encounters, dissected by the imaginations of curious boys whom were more than 5 years my senior and that much more experienced. I didn’t feel so much physiologically threatened by their attempts to explore me- I was comfortable with my body and knew I could put up a fair fight if I ever felt pressured. But psychologically, their stares felt like an incessant rape. These people who’d become so familiar to me in the daytime- during band practice, soccer games, hiking trips- were measuring me up like a piece of meat at the deli once the sun went down. The fact that I hadn’t reciprocated the curiosity or fed into their urges made the other girls question what the hell I was at camp for. I had come for the soccer.
Laura was surprised my own curiosity hadn’t given into anyone’s whim in the week I’d been there. If anything, what I saw and heard at Oregon Camp has the reason for my prolonged hesitation to get involved in relationships throughout adolescence. It also drove me to take up as many sports as possible, if only to deflect any vulnerability I may have shown. When I turned 17 my mother promptly told me I’d have a hell of a hard time getting husband, if ever. It’s the only time I can distinctly remember my mother criticizing me, and never apologizing afterwards.
Laura stared me down and knew the answer. Like everyone else from that day forward, they would know the answer- Emily is a naïve. I have since done everything and anything in my power to reverse this initial perception. I’ve willingly hurt and submitted myself to hospitals, held back tears and faced my worse fears, all to become a little bit tougher. Now I come off as frigid, tough and stubborn, and I can’t tell if it was worth it. Not yet.
I must have looked like a deer caught in headlights because Laura sat down on the rock next to me and put her hand on my shoulder. She told me it was okay to feel uncomfortable with what people were doing around me. This prolonged game of dress up wasn’t as mature as I’d assumed. In her attempt to comfort me and make me feel less alone, she stripped me of my naivety and provided my first vicarious exposure to the dark side of adolescence.
Laura explained how she grew up in a city in Pennsylvania, where her parents worked as high school teachers who spent their nights having coworkers over to get drunk. Supposedly, when they could only grade papers when they had had a few rounds of Raki. Ever wonder why Pennsylvania schools have a higher drop out rate that new jerseys’? I have a theory in mind.
Thus, Laura felt generally neglected by her parents. Bored with their careers and bored with her, she would easily walk out the front door at midnight to go to the weekly rave her friends hosted just a few blocks away. They lived in apartments, where whole floors would be turned into all night ragers- strobe lights, cocaine, methametaphine, PCP, reefers, and a rainbow of spiked drinks. It sounds kind of glamorous, but Laura said everything looked pretty bleak. Everyone wore black and the girls wore chokers, like someone dragged out the ‘90’s and it never went away. Laura said she always had boyfriends, and every night right there in the open they’d hook up, pumped with whatever drugs or drinks they decided that night. Like in clueless, right? Not really. Laura had been through hell. When she was 12, her first boyfriend was a 16-year-old delivery boy who dropped out of school. One night at a party, in front of everyone, he pushed apart her legs and raped her. Right there, on a cough in the corner, Laura crying and knocking on the wall hoping the noise could reach over the music. And people heard. And no one moved an inch. The next day he broke up with Laura while she was crying in his arms, because, he said, he bled on his work jacket. It was her first time. He said that’s the only reason it was fun.
When Laura was 14 she had her second boyfriend. He was 21 and the first time they met is when she was out on a jog and he pulled over to give her a ride home. He had had her father as a teacher in high school and failed his class. He told her, as payback, that they should date, that her dad would really get a rise out of it. She thought he was clever so she said yes. Every time I go over the story in my head I’m stunned at how easily Laura could be romanced. I thought women had raised their standards after gaining suffrage. Equity in legislation does not mean equity in expectation, as I’ve since learned. This is not how I imagined a relationship to be- while my parents never deceived me with a wildly idealistic picture of what love was really like, I did know that any good relationship started out with friendship. If I couldn’t appreciate someone as an individual, if I couldn’t respect him or her as a single entity, then I could never feel for him or her romantically. First, make me laugh. Then, make me love. But she was depressed, because coming home on a Tuesday night to your dad throwing up on your bedroom, velour carpet is traumatizing. Because running downstairs to get help shouldn’t mean finding your mother ripping apart pillows and making snow angels in the feathers. It’s imaginatively quite funny, and if I today saw my parents like that, I’d take pictures. I’d say cheers and start on the couch with a pair of scissors, get some Elmer’s glue and make permanent snowmen in the middle of the living room. But Laura lived in a big city where people got f***ed up all the time and when the two people she could rely on to give her boundaries were weaving all over the lines, well then she laughed and it nauseated her. They made her laugh, but they didn’t make her love. They made her attempt suicide.
She went upstairs and locked her father in her room who went on to black out in a pool if his own stomach acid. She watched her mother fall asleep on a big white metaphoric cloud and turned on Moonlight Sonata to help carry their slumber through the night. Then Laura went under her parents’ bed, got out her father’s gun, and locked herself in the bathroom. She said all the loathing she had had for her body, condensed in that moment and she felt “inspired” to make it disappear. Inspired? To this day when someone says they’ve been inspired by so-and-so to do this-and-that, my throat grips. She steadied the gun under her tongue and then her phone rang. Her boyfriend was bored and he was coming over. I guess she was sort of shell shocked, because she didn’t get up and dispatch the whole idea nor did she execute it.
There’s a phenomena in place that I’ve noticed through movies and my obsession with law & order: ever wonder why the high school recluse who threatens to jump off the building freezes when a crowd accumulates below? Or why the kidnapper intentionally leaves hints along his trail that make a pattern the police can use to locate him? Or, even, why the overly emotional teenager who confesses her feelings of despair to everyone she meets acts shocked when they try to diagnose it? There comes a point when everyone is pulled out of their little selfish imagination and made more aware of them. When someone we trust steps in and describes us in clear, legibly, and painfully honest print, and we can suddenly view ourselves from a 3rd perspective. The sixth sense. The third eye. The subconscious revealed. We step back and look in the mirror and are scared of what we see. Laura froze, and her boyfriend came over and saw her with the gun. He was someone she trusted, and his reaction to her, in fetal position on the floor and a gun in her hand, would be the impression of herself she would never forget. She trusted him, so she trusted his reaction. He consoled her, and then he raped her. He took out the bullets, and he left. She never saw him again. It had happened a year earlier, when she was 14. I was 14 hearing this story and had a boyfriend at camp the next week. God knows what his intentions were.
I emerged from the camp both victim and heroine in the cold, cold tale of teenage sexuality in the 21st century. My mother would tell me as a tiny tot in my Barbie-ridden pajamas the story of her two cousins Ivan and Bojan; Their father was a die-hard alcoholic who failed to acknowledge anything about the sons he was responsible to raise. While he wasn’t abusive, he was absent both emotional and physically from their lives from a very young age. Ivan and Bojan watched from a distance as their father’s life spiraled out of control, taking them, inevitably, with them, as he lost their home and their savings, along with severing ties with the majority of their beloved family. Ivan went on to follow in his father’s footsteps- along with being an alcoholic, Ivan became highly addicted to pot and repeated the same heart wrenching mistakes his father had in raising his family. On the other hand, Bojan saw the destruction alcohol had caused him and his brother, and took a personal vow to never touch a glass of wine, a bottle of beer, or a shot of vodka for as long as he lived.
This story had enraptured me when I was young; it convinced me that in life, whatever circumstances may come at us we always have a choice to either fall victim to the negative influence around us, or to have the guts and gusto to move beyond it. Needless to say, I always thought myself to be more like Bojan and made my own personal vows to never allow something to hinder me from reaching my full potential. Now I see that neither brothers reflect, realistically, someone I could become. I am not one of them but I am both- I have allowed myself to fall prey to men who only want me for my body, but from those experiences have morphed into a strong and defiant woman. I am still naïve in my own ways, but as I come to terms with my sexuality and what it means in the relationships I have and will continue to form, I have made a promise try with all my heart never to jeopardize the one thing I’ll always be entitled to; a sense of self respect.
*Name has been changed