I was so feverish, I could feel both my carefully catalogued memories and my disjointed future goals slipping away from my skin and rising like a lilac haze across the dense summer sky. Anything I tried to grip in my hands slipped away from me. Anyone I tried to concentrate on began to move like broken waves in front of my heavy eyes. Moments that had already passed me by began to play on repeat before skidding to a sudden stop and then starting again, sometimes playing in reverse, sometimes just playing in shattered fragments.
I was ten years old and I had pneumonia – and I was away at sleepaway camp.
My seventeen-year-old counselor eventually felt my scorching forehead with her cool hand and then she leaned down to place her lips gently against my forehead like how my mother checked to see if I had a temperature. Through my slow blinking, I saw a flash of real concern wash over her features even though it was dark out then and the only light in the bunk came from the flashlights people were using in their beds to read Sweet Valley High books. She pulled me to my feet and told me to put on some socks and then to hop on her back, and this girl who was not a mother and who had no medical training whatsoever promised me that I’d feel better soon and then she lifted me onto her in a piggy-back style and did one of those shifts to make sure she had me gripped tightly before she carried me out of a wooden bunk and down a steep dirt trail to the infirmary.
I was in that infirmary for six days, my longest visit by far. When I was bit by an entire nest of wasps and had welts all over my body, I was only in the infirmary for one day, so this one felt serious. For the first twenty-four hours or so I would wake up only to take my medicine and then I’d drift back into that kind of sleep that never feels restful and never feels pure because it is a mess of druggy slow-motion dream cycles and I’d drift through scores of them before waking up for real, gazing at the artificial lights that lined the ceiling of that infirmary room and first I’d remember where I was and then I’d know that my tee-shirt was sweaty because my fever finally broke.
Back then, it never occurred to anybody that maybe I should be sent home until I became healthier and the only reason I can come up with for such a bizarre oversight is that it was a different time. Nobody had a cell phone and my mother could not possibly know just how foggy her child’s head was or that I was waking in the dead of night and clutching a thin infirmary pillow to my cheek at a sleepaway camp in the wilderness of Massachusetts and that the pillow was not covered with a Cookie Monster pillowcase but was instead stamped with “Property of Camp Norwich.” It was the kind of pillow that felt anonymous, the kind of pillow that was not all white but instead had blue lines all over it. It was the kind of pillow that never felt cool, no matter how many times I flipped it over.
Once I became alert – once the medicine actually kicked it and began to battle the germs instead of just allowing them to consume me – I noticed that I was not the only person in that large room. The other beds were occupied too. Nobody had pneumonia (I was special), but there were regular colds and strep throat and stomach viruses galore surrounding me, and because we were children who didn’t know any better than to insist that we shouldn’t all be exposed to one another’s ailments, we all just felt grateful for the company.
My sister, four years older than me, would stop by the infirmary at least twice a day, usually on her way back from the dining hall. Sometimes the nurse would allow her in to visit and sometimes she was banned for reasons I still don’t understand, but when that happened, she would press her face against the window of the sick ward and whisper my name until I heard her and then I would creep out of my bed and go to the window and tell her that I was feeling better but could she please bring me Coca Cola, my teddy bear? Once she managed to get that window really far open and she beckoned me close and pressed into my hand a thin napkin with a piece of the vanilla cake they had just served at lunch wrapped inside because it was my favorite and she wanted to make me smile.
Other than the random deliveries of dessert, there wasn’t much to do while locked in the infirmary and the monotony was made even more pronounced by the constant ringing of the bugles and the sounds of the booming announcements because it just made us all realize that camp life was going on all around us and we were stuck in a room. But one day the kid who had the bad strep throat was released and the sheets of his bed were changed and almost right away one of the older girls who had crippling cramps became our newest roommate. She was one of those girls I’d seen before. I’d noticed her recently when I passed by a dock where she was pulling on waterskies – which meant she was in the highest swim group while I was only in the intermediate group – and she wore thin, soft tees and she could coil her long and tangled brown hair into a messy bun and tie it with just one lone strand and that bun would stay up and, well, I couldn’t help but admire her. I was ten and she was sixteen, but for the day that she was stuck in a small room with me, she kind of changed my life because it was she who introduced me to the adult work of Judy Blume.
I knew of Judy Blume, of course. I’d read and loved Superfudge and Blubber and one day when I was very little, my parents took my sister and me to this enormous book fair in Manhattan and we both waited on line for our favorite authors to sign our books. She got Judy Blume’s signature. I got my copy of Where the Wild Things Are autographed by Maurice Sendack, and though I was disappointed that he looked almost nothing like the creatures his vivid brain had created, he was a very nice man and it was a sunny day and I was five years old and my parents were still married and those are the kinds of moments I should train myself to think about when I find myself waking up at 3:43 AM and mulling over only the very worst of times.
What I didn’t know at ten was that Judy Blume also wrote books that weren’t meant for kids, and this girl had with her a copy of Forever.
“What are you reading?” I asked her early in the day. I was a little shy because she was older and, even writhing in pain, she seemed glamorous, but she was there and I needed some company.
“A Judy Blume book,” she answered.
“I love her!” I exclaimed. “I love Fudge the most.”
“This isn’t a Fudge book,” she told me gently. But then she looked at me and she either realized that I was her only companion for the day or that it might be kind of fun to corrupt a child and she held up the book so that I could see a white cover and the image of a blonde teenager and she smiled and said, “This book’s about love and sex.”
So there I was, ten years old. I hadn’t yet kissed a boy, but recently I’d thought about kissing endlessly, and I knew just the boy I wanted to be my first real kiss. He was my age and he’d arrived at camp with dirty blonde hair but the never-ending sun had turned his hair the color of really pale corn. I’d caught him smiling at me during the announcements at the flagpole in the morning and one time I looked up after I’d wailed the tetherball so hard that it soared over my opponent’s head and went winding all the way around the pole and I saw that he’d been watching me and I’d wiped my dirty fingers through my hair and hoped that having tetherball skills was exactly the kind of thing that made a girl the most attractive to a boy, but even at ten, I was pretty sure that having tits mattered.
I was right on the cusp of becoming boy crazy, but my driving desire was really about the romance that came with it all. Still, that day in the sick ward when the older girl told me about the most graphic sex parts of the book – including that scene where Michael and Katherine are about to finally have sex but he comes before he even gets inside of her – resonated big time and when she read me the scene where they have sex on the floor of the bathroom, I felt both stunned and kind of excited because until that very moment it had never occurred to me that sex could happen anywhere but on a bed in a dark room. My mind was blown and eventually the girl passed me the book with a few of the pages folded over so I could read “the good parts” and I read them once and then again and couldn’t even believe that the same person who wrote Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing named a guy’s dick Ralph.
There have been some real constants for me through the tumultuous passage of all of my years, no matter what home I lived in, no matter which parent I lived with. I have always liked the color yellow. I have and continue to wear a lot of black. I’ve always really loved any food that comes on a stick. I have never gone through a stage where I stopped liking Springsteen or where I was totally and completely satisfied with my appearance. I loved dark and damaging psychological thrillers – I still do – and I never once stopped loving Judy Blume. I got my own copy of Forever eventually. I have it still today. It lives on my bookshelf next to the other books that have really mattered to me: The Virgin Suicides; Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; The Great Gatsby. It is smaller than the rest of the books on the shelf both in length and in height but it belongs there because it’s a book that changed me in ways I think might be very important.
Forever – and later Wifey – taught me what desire would feel like and that there would be complications brought about by intimacy, though I didn’t experience that myself until the final years of high school. The closeness and bonds formed through those awkward autumn nights on green lawns and in basements and on beaches and really anywhere besides a place with a bed became complicated bonds. There were those moments where we would stop that endless kissing and our foreheads would sort of press together and we would both be still for a second and I could feel his breath against my chin and that part of it often felt more intimate and exciting than it did when he finally learned how to unhook my bra. But there was a promise made too sometimes and it was facilitated by how we’d toss our legs over one another while we watched TV and it got confusing because the promise was one that was made without words and I never did all that well without words.
What I didn’t know then, and what Forever turned out to be right about, was how it was possible to move beyond one love and all but stumble into another and that the feelings brought about by a connection with someone new could feel just as heightened as they did the first time I’d experienced them with somebody else. I remember being devastated that Katherine and Michael broke up in the book and that the story ended on the potential she had with that tennis guy she’d met at camp, but later on – when I’d not only finally experienced desire but also a fully broken heart – the book’s resolution began to serve as a comfort.
Forever taught me that boys like a girl who wears baby blue, that something called cheese fondue exists, that some people make noise while they’re having sex, that the first time might hurt a little, and that – once a relationship veers in a direction that becomes defined by intimacy – you can never go back to simply holding hands. It was probably that last lesson that was the most complicated for me to learn. There would be times when I was with a boyfriend I’d had for many years and we would start kissing and then the next move seemed to always be sex, but sometimes I would kind of long for those earlier days when sex was not an expected outcome, when we’d spend what felt like hours kissing and he’d hold my face softly, his thumb kind of dragging down my jawline. And years later, after we had broken up and tried to remain friends, I remember seeing him one night and we holed up in a corner of a bar and had a long talk and I could still feel that cosmic pull we had for one another even though our lives had changed and we each loved somebody new. I remember that I was wearing a top that had a halter neckline and that my shoulders and my back were bare and that when we hugged goodbye, he kissed me on my shoulder and I felt that kiss in my knees.
That guy will always hold a place of total esteem in a small storage area I keep in the way back of my heart, but one of the greatest lessons I learned from Judy Blume was to never settle when it came to love. She weaved together adult characters who had good marriages that were welded tight by mutual regard, humor, and a sexual attraction that never faded away. Something about those verbal portraits settled somewhere within me that was permanent, and it became a goal early in my life that I would never settle for less than I thought I was worth and that, when I was in a relationship, I would never stop trying to be interesting for him and to be attractive for him and to be sexually adventurous for both him and for me. I learned, especially from Wifey, that love takes effort and I was determined to grow into the kind of woman willing to make such an effort.
I wanted to find the kind of man willing to make an effort for me.
I think what allowed Judy Blume’s work to sink into my soul with such indelible permanence involves a combination of factors. She created relatable but complex characters who were caught in often transitional situations and she described it all with the kind of atmospheric language that simultaneously created a mental image while stringing the chords of my emotions like a perfectly-tuned violin. The friendships in her books were deep and complicated and ever-evolving. The relationships parents had with their children illustrated both steadfast trust and total humiliation. The emotions described as characters experienced love and death and growth and betrayal were written as though they were actually painted in Technicolor. And this I know for sure: painting with words is not easy.
I found out just a few months ago that Judy Blume has a new book for adults coming out this summer. In the Unlikely Event will be released in early June, and I have already preordered my copy. There is a delicious anticipation knowing that I will soon be able to take another Judy Blume journey and this internal eagerness manages to feel both nostalgic and brand new. That’s a tough combination to pull off, and I cannot wait for my book to arrive because I haven’t headed down such a perfectly constructed written path in far too long, and this time I feel prepared because I know all about consuming love and complicated desire and permanent loss now – and I don’t even need a pneumonia-created fever dream to make the images pop.