If my life were a film, capable of being re-wound in that almost God-like fashion we use in modern cinema, the phases of my adolescence would be defined by my years at camp.
You could look through that magnifying glass and see me as I am now, 17 and no longer a camper, almost an adult. You would press that magical button and see my hair shooting back into my head, infrequent haircuts resembling skips in a record, pauses in between long and short. The scars on my legs would disappear. You would see several pounds of ashes pour out of cigar boxes, only to be absorbed by fire and made to materialize, imperfect atoms, into my grandfathers. You would see teeth gradually become crooked again, and then retreat back into my gums, replaced by lesser pearls. Thunder would come crashing down before lightning one July night in 2012, and I would slowly loosen my 12-year grip on a bed rail as the green flashes burst all around. Rain would pour up from the grass and move on from Cache lake, the site of my childhood, and go off to find some other paradise to frequent. You would see the words to camp songs come out of my mouth in that garbled backward speak, until I would no longer know any of the words and sit like the new girls do now, silent while others sing on. A Harry Potter book would be flipped backward, information lost, getting cleaner and cleaner from the dirty copy I make of all my books, and then a decade’s wait, before the previous volume would be opened and forgotten all over again. The giant squid will become lost again, still searched for by oceanographers and sperm whales worldwide. Beads of tears and sweat would curl themselves up from my face, back to that magic land they were summoned from, while the rest of my body would grow paler and paler. Breasts would shrink like mosquito bites back into the cavities of my chest, bones would compress. The weariness would wear off, the mechanism of speech falling apart, and there I would go, suffering small droughts of faith, forgetting heartbreaks and crushes and people who would later change my life, until we are only a caricature of people slowly drifting apart.
Trees disappear back into roots and the lines in Brooke’s face erase themselves like miracle cream, my feud with God starts up again, and then discontinues itself into the blissful unawareness of Sunday School, planet Earth makes several backward rotations upon its axis as if spun by Superman, but in my eyes the world is always shrinking, shrinking, until there I am, standing, at eight years old, on the rickety docks of Northway Lodge.
There are very few things I remember from my first year at camp. I remember my counselor, who after nine years of bad stories I would meet again, at the end of a portage from Rock to Louisa, two lakes on the penultimate day of a canoe trip. I remember the Assistant Director, “Babin” as we all called her. Her name is changed now, and I saw her sterning a canoe, almost 30 years old, but in my mind she’s still waving her hands like an insane conductor as the canoes swayed back to the dock. That phrase strikes me – “in my mind.” I think I’m still a camper in my mind, my stubborn brain sticking to old patterns, clashing with the values that a counselor should be displaying. I tell secrets to 14-year-olds, race campers to the front of the line, and discuss teddy bear names with seven-year-olds as seriously as I would politics. I want to make this place for these girls what it is for me; a refuge, a home.
The first moment I ever felt at home was one untraceable night before I turned 11. Younger campers are not allowed out of their tents after 9:30, so that they can bond with their fellow tent mates. It was my third summer, and I had never broken a rule before that night. My counselor came over to my bed and told me we were going on an adventure. I trekked down the tent line with her, yawning to cover up how truly excited I was. I was not familiar with the older part of the camp. While the girls in my age range, the Juniors, were greeted with a view of the shining lake every morning – the trees sparse in our part of the peninsula – the woods that surrounded the Senior tents were wild, caged in by pine trees and brush. The girls were also extraordinary, at least to a 10-year-old. They seemed like women, in body and character, while I was still a girl. I was afraid.
Laura, my counselor, held my hand as we climbed up the stairs to the glowing tent, which seemed its own being, clustered with whispers from those inside. She pushed back the canvas flaps, and there they were. More than 20 girls sat in that 130 foot tent, their faces masked by the light of headlamps, shadows hurling themselves against the makeshift walls. It must have been the last night of the session, as all the furnishings were gone, the sea-chests empty, the beds stripped of sheets. I sat next to Laura, and put the back of my head against the iron edge of a cot. The tent seemed so much bigger from the floor.
A girl began to sing. Another joined her, and then another, until the tent was echoing with voices. “I’m tryin’ to tell you something about my life/ Maybe give me insight between black and white/ The best thing you’ve ever done for me/ Is to help me take my life less seriously/ It’s only life, after all.” At this, some of the girls smiled, some reached out for the hand of their friend. That was what consumed me – the love expressed. I had seen it before, in the way my grandfather would always have a smile on his face when my grandmother was around, how my mother rested her head against my father’s shoulder, how he would dance in the kitchen. But it wasn’t until then, in the flickering light of flashlights and shadows, that I truly knew love.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.