Just the other night, I spent over two hours on the phone with a guy I have known since the summer when I was seventeen. That was one of those monumental summers, the kind for which really good movies and really bad pop songs are written. It was this hyper-condensed series of weeks where I dealt with my first real experience with total heartbreak followed by the first time I fell in a great, healthy love and the entire time my mind was trying to prepare itself for the fact that soon I’d be going away to college. It all played out – every heightened minute of those heady days – at a sleepaway camp in the middle of Pennsylvania.
I don’t remember becoming friends with Jason; I just remember being friends with him. On the surface, we seemed an odd pair. He was several years older – something that seemed like it would matter at the time – and he was from North Dakota, a state I didn’t fully believe existed, despite what maps had told me over the years and despite the fact that it was part of that song I had to learn in fourth grade Chorus when we sang all the states in alphabetical order.
It’s funny – I fully remember the actual moment of meeting many people I grew to truly care about that summer, just as I remember the first time the guy who would grow to be my boyfriend and I kissed. (It was at a bar. And the first time we fully made out, it was on a pool table in the Canteen, which we entered illegally in the dead of night when we should have been watching the children of adults who paid a fortune for their kids to attend a well-supervised summer camp. I’ll just go ahead and apologize for all of that now, but really, not one child I was tasked with protecting was ever eaten by a bear, and for that I think I deserve just a little bit of credit.) But when it comes to Jason, I don’t have that one moment that pops out that made us develop a bond. We kind of weirdly just always had one.
When I think about those long-ago days that were riddled with mosquitoes and never nearly enough sleep and those ice cream cups that were half vanilla and half chocolate and were eaten with a flat wooden stick, I see Jason with a big smile on his face. He was always pretty calm – except when he was furious – and he laughed really easily – except when he was telling someone to fuck off. I’m sure I saw him often during the daytime at camp when we would pass one another on the dirt trail on the way up or down the big hill that led to the place where we rode quads, but I can hardly recall any of the moments that took place in the sunlight.
When I think of Jason, I think of him at night.
After announcements in the morning, counselors who were not on call that night to stay in camp and take care of the kids were allowed to go out and, in those days, there would be these vans we were allowed to take out. I never drove one of those vans – and nobody ever tried to ask me to drive one because I think I clearly look like the kind of girl who operates far more delicate machinery – but it was a fight to get into one of those vans because eventually someone would agree to drive it and that vehicle was your ticket to a night of freedom. Still, I was a loyal van-rider. I always tried to make sure that my boyfriend and my best friend also had a slot, but after a while I stopped worrying because it turned out that my boyfriend was just the kind of guy who took care of that kind of thing. I never had to run anymore towards a wooden fence to scrawl my name on a sheet for a van. He began to do it for me, and he made sure that my best friend – someone he basically considered to be like a cousin to him – made it in too.
I think I’ve just always been attracted to the kind of guys who can get things done.
There weren’t too many places that we could go when we basically existed in the wilderness, but we would head in one of two directions. One road took us to – well, let’s just go ahead and call it a town. There was a bar and a pizza place and that’s kind of all any of us needed to feel like we were back in the land of civilization. We often started at the pizza place and ate dinner #2. I was always hungry that summer when I was seventeen. There was this rumbling ravenousness inside of me that I wanted to fill constantly and so I would eat whatever was served at camp – I was a big fan of the chicken nuggets – and then I’d go out and eat some pizza or a chicken parm sub and I burned so much energy walking the hills and playing sports that I managed not to gain a pound.
I was also seventeen. You don’t often gain a lot of weight when you’re seventeen.
Eventually we would make our way down to the bar and it was there that Craig and I had our first kiss and I remember that he tasted like woo-woos, some revolting drink that was pink that we ordered because we were kids who drank anything stuck in front of us. The truth actually is that I did drink sometimes, but I have never been a big drinker and that practice held during those bar nights. I had no problem drinking a Diet Coke while everyone around me became hammered beyond belief except for the driver of the van, and I think back now and I finally realize that the lack of beer was what stopped me from gaining some of that puffy weight that you can gain at seventeen.
I had this shitty fake ID to get into that bar and the other one we went to frequently and neither place gave me a problem even though I looked young then and I still get carded today. The other place we’d go was a bar that literally popped up out of a cornfield. Try to imagine this: twelve kids – most from Long Island or the New Jersey suburbs – riding in a van down a country road where there is not one street light but several families of frolicking deer. All you can see out of the windows are thousands of acres of rolling cornfields and total darkness and then, out of absolutely nowhere, a bar pops out in the distance. I don’t think I’m remembering it inaccurately when I say that we were the only people who had full sets of teeth in that bar and we were definitely the only people who showed up decked out, because we might have been at a dilapidated bar in the rural countryside, but it was still an excuse to look cute.
At those bars, Jason drank a lot. I only remember him ever drinking beer, but I could be remembering that inaccurately. He was always the life of the party, always the guy telling the story. He was kind to everybody and he was good friends with my boyfriend, but he and I developed our own close relationship quickly and he was the kind of guy who gave a lot of hugs and I have always been a cuddly kind of girl, so we were very affectionate and yet we would also sometimes find ourselves at a table just us and we would have these long philosophical talks while the reveling went on around us. The girl he was with that summer never minded and neither did my boyfriend; both trusted us implicitly, and when there’s that kind of allowance given to you, you get to be exactly who you are.
There was one day off when, for some reason, only a few of us could go somewhere, and I’m not positive who went that day, but I know it was definitely me and my friend Carley and this guy Chris and Jason. Chris was another guy who was a little older and he was from the middle of the country too and he was a great athlete and very blonde and smiley. I’ve always responded nicely to smiley. I don’t know what we did for the rest of the day, but I know that for a while we went to a park and they brought bottles of beer and I think I probably had less than one and we went on the swings and just laughed a lot in the sunshine and talked about the summer. At one point as a joke, I pretended to deep-throat the bottle and I don’t have any idea why I did it other than the fact that when you’re not drinking, holding a bottle can get kind of boring. What I do remember is that Jason’s jaw dropped and skidded across the ground and I just laughed and shrugged and I would have forgotten about it – it’s not a parlor trick I drag out all that often – but to this day, he still mentions it and I could be embarrassed by that I suppose, but instead I just try to be flattered that I guess I have some skills.
At the very end of that first summer, I experienced my first Color War and holy shit, did that camp take its Color War seriously. There would be some choreographed Color War breakout and the next thing that happened was that the bunks were divided into two groups and everywhere you looked, people started to wear only two colors and I guess I was looking forward to the big event that everybody kept talking about, but I also didn’t really care that much. It was my first year there. I was more than happy to sit back and observe and try to quiet the awareness that was beginning to pipe up inside of me that was starting to whisper that all of this was coming to an end soon and that it was almost time to start a new life. I’ve always been a person who manages to find safe harbors amongst unfamiliar places and people – but then, like everyone else, I have to leave them to move on to the next step. Leaving for me is always hard. I don’t do leaving or being left very well.
But let's get back to the happy…
It was drizzling when Color War finally broke out that crazy summer and we were all in the Dining Hall and I was sitting with my friend Tracey and the rest of my bunk. They were seven-year-old girls and they were very cute. All they wanted to do all summer was play with my hair and sit on my lap and they were kind of my first real exposure to kids and it turned out that I kind of likedkids. Tracey was Carley’s older sister, and I had known her since I was just a fetus and she was a Group Leader that summer and leaving camp a few days early to return to the University of Miami for sorority rush. What that meant – besides the fact that I was already devastated to see her go and she hadn’t even left yet and that I would soon down be down one of my very favorite silver rings that I wore every day because she used to compliment me on it all the time and when she left, I gave her that ring because I knew it would matter to her – was that she would be a Judge for Color War, not a Captain or a Lieutenant. Again, I didn’t really know what it meant at this place to be anointed either, but when the screaming and the clapping started, I just helped myself to a few more fries and watched to see what went down.
I can’t remember what the teams were anymore, but what I do remember perfectly is that Carley’s name was bellowed out as a Lieutenant and the first reaction Tracey and I had was to dissolve into bursts of laughter. Carley didn’t know what she was doing! And more than that, Carley could care less about shit like Color War and that she had been selected was the kind of thing that would probably annoy her. And as we watched her move to the front of the Dining Hall to get the tee shirt handed to her by the camp director, the laughter suddenly stopped because the next thing I knew, my name was called too.
“Fuck,” I whispered to Tracey, but I kept a smile on my face and then I was given an ugly gold tee shirt too that had “Lieutenant” written on it in white fabric letters that would end up being similar to the shirts I’d wear soon for my sorority. But I didn’t know any of that then. All I knew was that I had to be a Lieutenant for something these crazy camp people took very seriously and I had no idea what I was supposed to do next and then a meeting was called and it took place on the basketball court that was right next to the scenic lake and all of these children sat cross-legged on the court and looked up at me with excitement and expectation and Carley and I stared at one another and knew that we’d better figure shit out quickly.
I’m the adaptable sort. I quickly ascertained what my responsibilities were and I helped write the songs necessary and then I single-handedly taught those songs to hundred of kids, which was only difficult because I’m basically tone-deaf and it all could have gone very wrong. But I liked corralling the kids and getting them where there needed to be and I got closer with the other people in charge and I screamed myself almost hoarse during the Tug of War and my palms were raw from clapping and I got to carry a walkie talkie for the entire week and I would just laugh when my boyfriend told me that he had been at that camp for ten years, first as a camper and the as a counselor, and that it was bullshit that he wasn’t a Lieutenant too.
The only one who seemed genuinely annoyed that week was Jason. Apparently, he really wanted to be in charge of Color War and I have no idea why he wasn’t chosen because I had never been one of the people who debated any of it, but he was not picked and he was allegedly furious. The counselors, like the kids, were also divided and assigned to teams, and when someone early that week noticed that Jason was on our list, I remember the guy sighing and shaking his head.
“He’s going to give you trouble,” said the guy who took Color War – and camp in general – far too seriously.
“He won’t give me any trouble,” I said back instantly – and I was right.
I found Jason later that day up on one of the high fields and he was chopping wood. I think there must have been some reason why he was chopping wood, but I can’t recall any of that at this time.
“You okay?” I asked while he swung an axe high into the air.
“Yup,” he said, and he brought the axe down swiftly onto some wood in a manner I figured must have been learned in North Dakota because the pretty Long Island boys I know would have accidentally taken one of their pinky toes off if they even got close to an axe.
“You know none of this really matters, right?” I asked him. “You know that this is sleepaway camp and this is just the end and none of us really wants to go home.”
“I do know that,” he said – and then he gave me a little smile.
“People think you’re gonna give me a hard time this week,” I told him then.
“I would never give you a hard time, darlin’,” he responded.
And he didn’t.
When that summer ended, a bunch of us stayed in touch and most of us returned to camp the following summer. I think it was like that for about four years. Camp began to feel more like home for me than anywhere else and some of the friends I made are people who are still in my life, all these years later. There’s a bond, I think, that develops when you are woken just as the sun rises by a bugle and you all move passed one another all day long on the way to activities. You get to know each other very well, and there will always be a comfort I’ll feel when I think about a lot of those friends.
When Facebook came around, we all got into more instant touch, and then, about five years ago, a camp reunion was held at some bar that was just up the street from my friend’s apartment. I was wearing a long tight skirt that night and a halter top that left a little of my back bare and it was the first time I had seen my old boyfriend in a really long time and I remember walking down the stairs to the event and that the room was packed with people and that my former boyfriend was literally the very first person I saw and that we locked eyes and he came through the room to be the first one to greet me. It was great seeing him and it felt oddly fluttery – which I guess is something you can only understand if you are the kind of person who also, upon seeing someone you used to love almost beyond comprehension, has felt oddly fluttery – and then I started to hug some other people in the crowd. As I leaned over to say hello to my friend Matt, the back of my halter moved up and the next thing I know, my ex-boyfriend was whispering hotly in my ear a question about the tattoo on my lower back.
“I didn’t get a tattoo,” I told him with a laugh. “I was at my niece’s birthday party and my nephew stuck a fake tattoo on my lower back and it’s hard to reach to scrub off completely. I know we’ve both changed, but do you really think I got a Dora the Explorer tramp stamp?”
At some point soon after I arrived, I saw Jason walk through the crowd and I hugged him harder than I hugged maybe anybody else. We sat together for a while in a banquette and we talked about my life and about his life and I thought it was so sweet that he had traveled so far for this reunion. He told me then that going to that camp was one of the most profound choices of his life. He’d taken a risk and traveled to somewhere he knew nothing about and he made friends with all these east coast people who, on paper, were the kinds of people with whom he should have little in common. But we’d all developed bonds and there was something deep there, and those summers at that camp had meant something very special to me too.
Just a month or so ago, I saw on Facebook that there might be another reunion this summer, but I don’t think I’ll be attending this one. I know my former boyfriend will be there and he’s kind of annoyed at me these days for reasons that I just have to swallow – and I suppose that I could now make a deep throat joke, but it seems like maybe it’s just not the right time. Anyway, I still care about him and I have always seen camp as more his than mine and I want the reunion to be completely enjoyable for him and I don’t think it will be if I show up and so I am choosing to bow out. But Jason called me just the other night so we could talk about that and about everything else too and we stayed on the phone for longer than I usually talk to anybody and so many years have passed now and we’re both so different and we’re both so much the same, and for me, that got to be my reunion – and for all of it, I am just so profoundly grateful.