Most people spent their childhood summers being carefree: sucking down Slurpees, watching cartoons, going on vacation, playing with their friends, the works. I spent one of those precious summers, the one sandwiched in between 4th and 5th grade, stuck in a low-quality “day camp” bored out of my mind. It was a summer filled with (un)intentional social solitude, new and interesting experiences, kids with personalities far greater than their puny bodies, and a tremendous dose of cold hard reality. What I first thought was a disastrous summer turned in my mind to be what I consider to be the best summer I’ve ever had, the summer of 2013.
The “day camp” was at a place I’ll refer to as the DDLC, which was a place that kids would normally go after school to have fun before their parents picked them up. Since there was obviously no school in the summer, it was temporarily converted into a “day camp.” The DDLC is a solid two-story brick building with windows that no one looks out of and a bench out front that no one has ever sat on. Inside, there were two rooms that were primarily being used for the “day camp.” One was for grades K-3, and it was on the upper level. The other was on the lower level, and was for grades 4-6; it was called the Star Room. I was in there for what seemed like an eternity, wasting away precious summer days wishing I was somewhere else. There was an assortment of other rooms that we would occasionally venture into: a computer room, two gyms, a game room, and more. Very rarely would we venture outside to what was called The Back, which was just an unused parking lot and a plot of grass that we would play on. In the Star Room, there was a medium-sized bookshelf with worn-out paperback books, a Wii, a large plastic container filled to the brim with Legos, two or three desktop computers, an old TV, a pantry stocked with rationed snacks, and two narrow tables with laminate tops paired with 10 or so cheap generic chairs. It was overall a somewhat small room made even smaller by all the furniture, toys, and people squeezed in there. I spent a good portion of my summer cooped up in there, a place I didn’t want to be with a lot of people I didn’t want to be with.
The kids. Some made my blood boil, some made me laugh, some made me feel invisible, some made me feel wanted, some did it all. There were a lot of them, but I can only remember a few: Amica, Felix, Saeva, Rubrum, Cattus, and my sister. Amica was an affable girl with sleepy eyes, dirty blonde hair, and glasses. Amica was one of those rare people who was like the embodiment of all the good in the world. She was a grade below me, but only about a week younger. Felix was a childish girl with a squirrel-brown bob that stopped at her chin. Her skin below her eyes and part of her nose bridge was dusted with freckles that looked like very coarse cocoa powder. She was a bit eccentric and had a questionable fashion sense, even for a kid. Felix was also a grade below me, but she and I had befriended each other nonetheless. Rubrum was a boy my age with fiery hair. It was a vibrant red-orange hue and it jutted out of his head like grass on a golf course. Saeva was a girl who already had a cell phone and wore makeup. She was without a doubt the most popular person there. She quickly thought of effective rebuttals in conversation and recited them so perfectly, as if she had practiced them in a mirror. Cattus was a remarkably short girl with immaculate blonde hair, blue doe eyes, and fair milky skin who was popular and admired the boyband One Direction. She looked almost like an antique porcelain doll brought to life, except she was always dressed in skimpy denim shorts, a T-shirt, and sometimes an oversized black North Face fleece, typical popular kid attire. My sister, who was at the “day camp” as well, was on the back burner at this period in my life. I was meeting new people and finding my own friends. Then there was me, the then 9-year-old girl with curly hair, who had little knowledge and experience concerning social interactions, yet had a strong desire for popularity.
My memories of the summer of 2013 are scattered, some clear as crystal, while others are faint and almost forgotten. By sifting through all of what I recall from that summer, I’ve created a story that more or less goes in chronological order.
It all started with this girl named Saeva. She had long ebony hair and eyes, a flawless natural tan, long glossy painted fingernails, and an incredibly useful skill that I’ll mention later on. We were friends for two, maybe even three whole days. The only memory I have of us being friendly was when we both sat on a faded worn-out couch at the DDLC just talking to each other, and I was bursting with euphoria from the sheer joy of simply conversing with a popular kid. I learned that she was the youngest child in her family like I am and I began to think that popular people weren’t mean after all (many popular kids in the media I was exposed to were portrayed as being sinister, so to find a nice and popular kid was surprising to me). I genuinely thought that if things kept going this way, I could actually be popular in middle school. I remember though, on one average summer day, we were exiting the large gymnasium at the DDLC after likely playing some kind of game there. Saeva kicked another kid, Rubrum, in the butt from behind for no reason. I told one of the supervisors, thinking I was doing the right thing. Saeva was absolutely livid. She snapped at me with malice, “See, Claire, this is why you have no friends,” in such a degrading tone for only a nine or ten-year-old kid. Not having thick skin and being sensitive, this remark affected me deeply. The impact of her comment was only emphasized because it was coming from someone incredibly powerful and influential in my eyes. Needless to say, we weren’t friends after that.
Saeva’s incredible skill was manipulating people, or at least I like to think that the others just didn’t like me because of her opinion of me. One day, we all walked to the community pool. At the time, I did not know how to swim, unlike the other kids who could transform into fish whenever they were in water. Saeva and the others made fun of me for not knowing how to swim, so I decided to do what seemed the most logical: learn how to swim. According to just about everything the media had taught me, if I learned how to swim, the other kids would like me. So I actually endured all the obstacles and suffering that came with learning how to swim. The next time we went to the pool, I showed them I could now swim. I was so proud of myself, I had always hated water and was a slow learner, so this accomplishment made me beam with pride. As a novice swimmer, even the task of staying afloat was appreciated, but my swimming was still inferior to theirs. I was soon disappointed, however, because the kids shifted from making fun of me because I could not swim, to making fun of me for swimming badly. I didn’t try to get better at swimming after that.
On a lighter note, some pleasant memories were sprinkled into the bowl of failure, solitude, and heartless reality that I thought defined that summer. For instance, sometimes, we would walk to the local movie theater and watch a free movie whenever they were playing one (they were much too frugal to waste a penny on us). Although the movies were popular, overplayed, steaming heaps of garbage with a much younger audience intended, going to these was quite enjoyable because of Felix. We would often share junk food with one another and laugh about the terrible quality of the film being shown. There were these hilarious animated Little People song and dance numbers played before the movie started, like a trailer. Me and Felix ironically liked them and would mock how completely senseless and lazily put together they were. Felix would also play with me in The Back; I happily recall playing with jump ropes and drawing with chalk on the sizzling pavement together. Another one of the very few people I befriended was Amica, the girl with dirty-blonde hair and glasses. I don’t remember much about her from that summer, I just remembered she would talk to me instead of logically talking to anyone else besides me. Amica even played with me on excursions to the community pool, even though it may have been out of pity. I was grateful for her company; it was a breather that made me temporarily forget all the unpleasant experiences that had occurred.
There is one random memory I can’t get out of my head, like an annoying song on the radio that repeats itself over and over. One scorching day, we were walking to the community pool, and there was a rabbit. It was lying on its side in a stretch of grass in between the sidewalk and the curb of the road. As we drew closer, the rabbit did not move. It just laid there, allowing the accumulating flies to buzz around it. Its rib cage rose and fell at a fast pace as it stared at us wide eyed. I became as wide eyed as the rabbit when I laid my eyes upon the gruesome scene; everything seemed so out of place. The rabbit looked uninjured and no blood was to be seen, but it lay sprawled out on the ground as if it were paralyzed or gravely wounded. I wanted to call the ASPCA or someone who could help the rabbit, but the supervisors said to just let it be. It was dead when we walked back. Its one visible eye was wiped of life and had become a bottomless, empty circle of darkness, like a black hole. Flies clustered together in various places on the poor rabbit’s almond brown fur, picking and prodding at its corpse without mercy. It was like they wanted to break it down smaller and smaller until it was nothing. The rabbit’s lifeless body hugged the earth for solace. Kids pointed their fingers and stared like it was a circus act. This incident has burned a place in my memory for just being so miscellaneous and bizarre.
When the summer ended, it had not yet squashed my quest for acceptance and popularity amongst my peers. This resulted in two atrocious years of my life spent trying, and failing, to become popular. Over time, I had become rejected by just about every social circle my school had to offer due to me and me alone. If anything, I moved down in the invisible social ladder rather than up. I had sunken myself onto the lowest rung in the ladder of social hierarchy in my school; a rung that I uncomfortably remained on throughout the entirety of my middle school years.
Afterwards, Saeva and me never settled our differences. Later that year, in the fifth grade, she made fun of me for wearing pigtails. Instead of insulting me herself, she remained comfortably in her sea of friends and told my sister to tell me her insult. This resulted in an awkward interaction where my sister came up to me and said, “Saeva told me to tell you your hair looks like a horse’s ass,” in a monotone voice devoid of emotion, as if she were a puppet or a robot. I could only manage to reply with, “Okay…”. I never remember wearing pigtails in middle school after that. The next year, in the sixth grade, I heard she was calling me a slang term for someone who has multiple romantic relationships simultaneously. This was in fact the polar opposite of me and still is, so I was utterly confused by that remark. The year after that, grade 7, we had assigned seats in science class. Knowing my luck, Saeva and I were forced to sit next to each other. I thought there would be a lot of conflict, but in reality it was just her talking to other popular kids nearby as I sat as envious as ever and often mentally insulted her for just about any reason I could think of, like failing a test or wearing the same sweatshirt for a week straight. This went on for about a month, until I heard this: Saeva is moving away. This was music to my ears, as I immaturely still held a grudge against her. The seat next to me in science class was empty, but I was full of optimism for the future to come. In my then 12-year-old mind I made the satisfactory conclusion that I had successfully done nothing to solve a problem.
Even after she moved away, that summer had scarred me. I typically consider a person who is drinking a Diet Coke to be untrustworthy (Saeva was constantly gulping down a can of it from the vending machines), despite there not being a very logical correlation. A flashy silver colored Diet Coke can reminded me of the bitter memories that couldn’t be buried by time. Years after that summer, my mom took me to a clothing store that shared Saeva’s name. My mom thought that I would like the store’s clothes, but I had unintentionally developed a strong negative connotation with her name. I also gave up trying to be popular by coming to the realization that the reason I was not popular was not because of someone else, but simply because of how I am. I always sank like a stone to the bottom of the social pool without even trying. It was as if some sort of all-powerful enigmatic force had permanently pinned me down to the very bottom from birth without me ever noticing. I was sentenced to live out my days engulfed in my shortcomings. They would always remind me at how I was at the lowest level and would never be worthy enough to rise above. They flooded my lungs like they had to my heart, consuming me like rot to a tomato. I was drowning and choking in all my mistakes, they were a liquid darkness I couldn’t see past. Anyhow, I also didn’t want to be associated with people like Saeva, much less become like her if that’s what popularity called for. From about age 11 or 12, I attempted to assert myself as an “edgy teen,” something equally as bad, if not worse. I often contemplate whether or not I am currently trapped in this phase.
I often reflect on this summer, unable to move on without a sense of closure. A stigma had unconsciously developed around that summer; people never discussed it, it was treated as if it had never existed. I pity myself for once having read several chapters of a self-help book titled How to Win Friends and Influence People, or something of that nature, in my early middle school years. It was like I was in a state of mid-life crisis, yet I was only a child. Despite feigning a normal social life for years, envy continued to fester in me over the social lives that the popular girls led. I look back on that summer and the years following and cringe in disapproval of my actions, rarely of theirs. I just seemed to be so ignorant about everything, and so, so lonely. Over the the years I emerged from the cage of ignorance I had grown up in and became enlightened by my experiences. However, my later efforts against my non-existent social life proved to be futile. I had unknowingly burned bridges with just about every kid in my grade, trapping and isolating myself on a self-made island of monotony that I would be stuck on for a long time.
Although I once liked to believe that it was a summer of great hardship that I triumphantly endured, it was probably just a mediocre and piddling summer to an outsider. But to me now, I view it as the best summer that I’ll ever have. The protagonist of this story should not have been me, it should have been Saeva because she had inadvertently pried my eyes open to other things in life besides popularity, made me not care about what others think, and forced me to grow a thick protective skin. Sure, that skin sometimes deflected the positive things too, but it was good to me in the long run. And sure, I spent a good chunk of middle school with little to no social skills or friends, but rock bottom isn’t that bad when you don’t realize that you’re on it in the first place. Despite being portrayed as a bad person and a scapegoat for my unpopularity, people like Saeva are necessary. I was so disgustingly crass at that age from a lack of understanding the fundamentals of socialization, so much so that it now makes me feel as if my insides are rotting. But Saeva helped me to eventually grow socially; it was the sweet little rewarding candy at the bottom of the jug of bleach I had been drinking from for years. I don’t know if she regrets her actions, or if she believes that they were just, or if the trifling affair is nothing but a tangled, neglected chain of fuzzy memories that occupy a dusty corner in her brain. My hope is that more purposeful occurrences and memories will have the privilege of capturing valuable real estate in my mind, Saeva’s too, if she needs it. And despite myself never forgiving or forgetting her or this matter, I have been shuffling through life just fine.