I took my puppy for a walk yesterday as the dusk fell behind cherry trees so swollen with blossoms that the outside of my home currently looks like a land formed out of fragrant pink cotton candy. There are times when the air manages to feel almost mystical, and I looked up at the flowers through the squint of the last sun flares of the day and I could hear the tinkling bells of the ice cream man in the distance and I said to the person walking beside me – the one holding the leash – Tonight smells like camp.
A friend at work recently told me that she’s vacillating about sending her young son to camp for three days a week this coming summer. She feels guilty about it, about not spending every single minute she can with her child. My guess is all the horseshit people post constantly on Facebook and Instagram has finally succeeded in driving her from somewhat-mad to completely-over-the-edge mad in the manner that too much exposure to sanitized social media is wont to do. You know the posts I’m talking about, right? You’ve seen all those parents writing epic poems about how they cannot fathom why anyone could possibly complain during a snow-day because what could be more blissful than an entire day spent stuck indoors with children? I see those posts and I giggle and my empty uterus does also. My very best friend – a mother of two children who are absolutely beautiful and never ever shut the fuck up, not even while they’re sleeping because they’ve been blessed with chatty night terrors – called my house during the last snow-day of the winter because she needed to talk to someone whose ass she never once had to diaper, not even on my twenty-first birthday, an evening that was basically sponsored by whichever maniac came up with a drink called The Cement Mixer. I picked up the phone and she didn’t even say hello. Instead, through clenched teeth, she spoke this sentence: “I hate snow-days even more than I hate my bitch of a grandmother,” and I laughed and I could hear her children arguing over a broken plastic truck in the background and I kindly asked if I could call her back after my mid-morning nap. “You’re an asshole,” she responded and I laughed again.
While I’ve never once heard my work friend call her children “monsters” the way my best friend does triweekly, I could still see that the Parent Propaganda she’s being exposed to on a daily basis is sinking in deep and fast. I tried to explain that all those people who boast that the finest twenty-four hours are twenty-four hours spent in the company of tiny beings who pull on you to open up yet another package of Goldfish crackers and never allow you to pee with the door closed are most likely the same people who scream into a pillow during hour twenty-five of that never-ending pretend-perfect day. I told her the people who post pictures of silent snuggly children also have pictures of those same kids mid-tantrum, their mouths wide open while they scream bloody murder because they were informed they can’t keep the ripped balloon they found in the Target parking lot forever, but nobody posts the negative stuff and what that means is she’s not getting the whole story from anyone and therefore she shouldn’t allow these mommy phantoms to judge anything she does with her child, including the way he spends his summers. Besides, I explained, being at camp is amazing! Who doesn’t want to be in a place where a bugle moves you from activity to activity and you’re constantly surrounded by rope so you’re always prepared for a throwdown round of Tug of War? Camp is not a punishment; it’s eight weeks of fucking joy that comes with a parting gift of rope burn!
It’s hard to explain the lure of camp to someone who has never felt the same pull – and maybe that’s why I should date Jewish men – but last night I tried. While Tallulah pranced across the petals that fell off the trees, tried to nibble on a rather large rock, and then had the bejeezus scared out of her by her own shadow, I did my very best to articulate why my childhood sleepaway camp still ranks as one of my favorite five places on Earth. (The others include a particular bluffside hotel in California and this one guy’s huge bed, but those are stories for another day.) For me, camp combined vastly opposing factors that somehow incited emotional comfort. It was a place run on perhaps the tightest schedule I’ve ever operated while managing to make me feel more free than I’d ever felt before. It was teeming with kids roaming in packs, but I was always able to spot that one boy I liked whenever I’d run down the trail of pebbles that led to the waterfront. It was being so desperately homesick some rainy evenings and never wanting the summer to end because it meant going home the very next night. It was my first slow dance to a song from the Footloose soundtrack in a dining hall where the tables had been pushed to the side to make room for pre-adolescent revelry. I remember that evening well. I was wearing my friend Jamie’s dark Guess jeans and a light blue halter top that had pom-poms on the hem and I’d put on my counselor’s frosted pink lipstick. My palms had started sweating the second I walked into the room because his friends had told my friends right after lunch that day that he wanted to kiss me that very night and the thought filled me with equal measures of panic and excitement and I wondered if he’d do it while we were dancing like I’d seen boys do in movies about lucky teenage girls or if he’d go the more traditional camp route and lead me behind the Arts and Crafts shack in the cover of total darkness. Turned out that his bravado was a bit of an act and I could feel his arms shaking slightly as we swayed from side to side. I recall looking at everything but his face: my feet in the Keds without the laces, the line of my friends staring at us from the sidelines, the mounted moose head on the wall that I always prayed was made from synthetic fibers. The song and then the dance itself ended and I remained unkissed. I’d expected to feel a wave of relief, but all I felt was that maybe I should have worn a different top – that maybe pom-poms were out – and I felt disappointed and quite ashamed as I met up with the rest of my bunk to get ready to trudge back up the dirt hill to our cabin where I’d go to sleep for one more night without knowing what a guy’s tongue felt like. Just as the group started walking away from the burnished light coming from inside the dining hall, I heard my name being said softly and I turned around and there he was and he leaned in and kissed me without a crowd staring at us and when it was over I looked right into his face and smiled shyly and then I rushed to catch up with my friends so I could tell them the entire story immediately because that’s what camp’s about, too.
Camp is where I made bracelets out of string that I wore for a year straight and keychains made from lanyards that my sweet mother carried in her purse every single day. I molded a vase out of dark grey clay and stuck it in a kiln and I gave it to my grandmother as a present that she swore she loved even though it leaned alarmingly to the right and water dribbled out of the bottom because I’d forgotten to use the proper shellac. I crafted jewelry boxes out of painted popsicle sticks and then decorated them with dabs of purple glitter. I tried out for a play and got the lead role and I took it seriously and I learned my lines in less than a day. I played tetherball and got stung by an entire nest of wasps and attempted to use a tampon for the first time in a communal bathroom and let some guy’s hands roam up my shirt where he felt a whole lot of nothing. I wrote letters to my father (Dear Daddy, Camp is great but nobody listens to Bruce or Joan Jett. Can you bring a tape of The River on Visiting Day and a few cans of black olives, too? Love Nell) and then some to my mother (Dear Mommy, I miss you so much that Cookie Monster is wet with my tears. Also, can you please bring me the new Sweet Valley High book and some of that cheese you squeeze out a tube on Visiting Day? Having that will make missing you so much easier, I just know it! Love, Nell PS: A carton of Twinkies will probably make me feel less sad, too) and I remember the feeling of pure hope when the mail was handed out each day after lunch and how exciting it was when someone passed an envelope my way. My mother wrote constantly and told me how much she missed me and how clean the house was while I was gone. My father’s letters included articles he thought I’d want to read and he signed his letters “Moi” and finally I asked in one of my own letters, “Who is ‘moi’?” and I’d bet he laughed for ten minutes straight when he saw the question.
By the time I was twelve, camp stopped being about the activities and instead became solely about the people. I could have happily sat on a rock with my group of friends and not moved for an entire summer except for meals, as long as it was Chicken Nugget Day. The camp I attended for six straight summers was not manicured; there were no meticulous flowerbeds, no landscaping at all except for infrequently cut grass, but the gruff terrain spoke to something inside of me that has never really stopped speaking. I’d wake up sometimes in the middle of the night and creep out of my bunk so I wouldn’t wake the person sleeping below and I’d sit on the front steps of the cabin. I’d stare up at the moon that always looked bolder in July than it did come September and I could smell the lake and the dirt roads. The faint whispers of the trees didn’t scare me, so I whispered back to them and they always kept my secrets.
I took a break from camp from the ages of thirteen to sixteen and those summers had a very different feel. The earlier ones were colored with loss – my father and a dear friend of mine died on the exact same day, one year apart, over the course of two summers – but the summer when I was sixteen was almost perfect and I realized it as it was happening so I felt grateful every single day. My gawky stage was officially over and my boobs suddenly filled out the top of my bikini and a ton of my friends had pools and I lived right near the beach. When I think of that sixteenth summer, the images come to me in flashes, and they come fast: eight girls lying like a row of roasting rotisserie chickens on the sand; passing a bag of crunchy cheese doodles around while the sun browned our shoulders; drinking enormous iced teas from the deli out of Styrofoam cups; never having a specific time we needed to be home. The music that scored those days spent in the sunshine was a mix of what was on the radio and the stuff we’d learned about from our older brothers and sisters so every place we’d find ourselves would eventually reverberate with the sounds of R.E.M., The Sundays, Cat Stevens, Credence, and Bob Marley. Strains of The Joker would blast from some car whenever I walked down Main Street to get ice cream and my bathroom floor was lined with a thin layer of sand, no matter how many times I went over it with our new dustbuster, no matter how many times my mother wondered aloud how I could be so bright and still remain remedial when it came to mopping one small tiled room.
The nights of that summer remain far more vivid than so many other evenings from so many other years. I recall even the small things, like how a light breeze would move through my hair as I sat straddling wooden porches while fireflies scooted by in the distance. There were no cell phones then, but everyone you expected or wanted to see just managed to somehow show up in exactly the same place. I remember swimming under the stars and climbing out of the water and wringing the liquid chlorine from my hair before pulling it back into a messy ponytail. I remember sitting on a diving board with my friend Greg for hours while everyone got drunk around us and we sipped water and spoke about love and life and what things you should allow yourself to actively hope for when you’ve already experienced so much loss and you’re kind of too cynical to even hope for hope. I remember the term “hooking up” officially becoming a part of our vernacular and I remember doing just that on everybody’s front lawn except for my own. I also remember everyone knowing about everything that happened while it was still happening.
The heat of those days heightened everything – every emotion, every thought – but the cool stillness of the nights tempered resentments before they burst. Without posted pictures and status updates and the minutiae of a moment shared instantly, those were days colored by a mystery that still feels seductive when I gaze back in retrospect.
There were house parties and beach parties and random nights spent in parks and some in parking lots. Sometimes we’d all go to the movies and I loved coming out of the theatre later in the evening, convening on the front steps with my friends where we’d talk about the plot and the ending while I fished the last few Jujyfruits from the bottom of the yellow box where they were stuck. I remember deep talks I had with my friends that summer, our legs dangling into the deep end or the two of us going for a walk down a tree-lined street, and how we really took each other seriously. I remember my friend Danielle stopping by around six one night, the time I still thought of as Shower Hour from all my years spent at camp where there was a term and a time for everything, and she handed me an envelope with a letter and a Langston Hughes poem about strength because she knew it was nearing the second anniversary of my father’s death and the first anniversary of the death of our friend and she wanted to let me know that she was proud of the way I always emotionally persevered and flashed only my cheeriness to the world. I have that envelope, that letter, and that poem still. I’ll forget a lot of things in my life – I already have – but I’ll never forget that summer evening when I was basically handed a letter that told me compassion is real and some people will actually see me for who I truly am.
My next four summers after the unrelenting magic of Summer #16 were spent at a different sleepaway camp than the one I’d attended as a child, and someone at this camp decided I had enough common sense to be a counselor in charge of the wellbeing of seven-year-olds. And since all of those children were still breathing by the end of the summer, I’d say I did a bang-up job. I adapted quickly to the rustic luxury of the place: colorful flowers that spelled out the camp’s name, a crystal aqua tint radiating off the swimming pool, and the lake stocked with sailboats and banana boats, a lake where I could actually see the bottom. At my old camp, the lake water was always murky and you could just sort of make out the shape of guppies as they went traveling between your toes. A visible maintenance crew mowed the lawns of my new camp every day and there were places called things like The Gymnastics Pavilion and quads and go-karts were ridden around a track up one of the hills and there was a mini golf course and all of those were places I ended up with my new boyfriend in the absolute dead of night because summer nights at camp teach you many things, and part of such a learning curve is figuring out where you can go to be alone with the person you’ve become smitten with in under a week when your entire courtship is occurring in a place almost completely devoid of conventional walls. I always first made sure there was some counselor remaining in the bunk with the kids and then I’d inch my way up an unlit trail at two in the morning so I could roll around a golf course or an amphitheater stage or a tennis court or a roller-hockey rink with my newest favorite person on the entire planet. When I think back to that particular July when I was seventeen, I remember always being hungry, always being tired, and waking up each morning to the sounds of horns and announcements and still feeling maybe happier than I’d ever been. I spent every afternoon in the sunshine and I’d never had a better or more even tan and my friends back home wrote me letters and I’d fall asleep thinking about how I’d soon be in college and how everything would be new and I guess I was at the stage in my life then when beginnings didn’t strike me as anything but thrilling opportunities. I rarely spent a second alone that summer. Even when I showered, there was someone just one flimsy curtain over who was showering next to me. Kids plopped on my lap every time I sat down and one would always stand behind me, her hands weaving through my long hair as she tried to master the French braid that I’d unwind after congratulating her on her progress because French braids look good on nobody.
It didn’t matter how hot it became when the sun would break through the clouds and the fog, how clammy we’d all get as the heat beat down on us as we stood without any source of shade on a soccer field – some camper would still want to hold my hand. And it didn’t matter how exhausted I was after that sun mercifully set many hours later or how desperately I needed to feel like I was alone, even if it was only accomplished through dreaming – I’d give up every last one of those temporary needs to meet my newest love on that same soccer field, the one that was now empty and cool, the one on which he lay still as I slid his belt from the buckle and peeled his cargo shorts down and quickly became aware of how salty skin can taste when you spend a summer at sleepaway camp.
Those cyclical eight summer weeks, so logistically condensed, manage to feel both frantic and calm at the same time. I know I have certainly been taught more during July and August than any other time of year. I still feel that way. It’s like that gorgeous line from No Surrender: “We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school.” I think maybe I’m just naturally more reflective once it becomes warm outside, as though the heightening and intensity of the environment makes all of my senses suddenly pop. There seems to be more of a stake to things in the heat. Even now as I think back on the most important lessons I’ve ever internalized, I see that so many of them happened as I stared at the glinting of the sun hitting the water. Sometimes I was on a boat and sometimes I stood on a dock and sometimes I was gliding across the waves myself on waterskis and sometimes I was simply sitting on the damp sand with my arms wrapped around knees I’d pulled close to my chest, the rumble of the tides posing the only questions really worth exploring: Who would I become? What would this love look like in a few years? Did that other guy ever find himself thinking about me at the same exact moment I found myself thinking about him? Could I – did I even want to – learn to forgive a person who treated me callously out of convenience? Would I be able to hold on to the kindness in my heart? And was there a way – any possible way – for me to slow time down, just temporarily, so I could relive this perfect summer moment for longer than it could ever really last?
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Also be sure to check out her website at nellkalter.com Her Twitter is @nell_kalter