My niece is eleven years old. My nephew is fourteen -- that one seems crazy since, in my mind, he's still only a few months old, rocking a yellow terry-cloth onesie with duckies on it. But they're grown now. And yesterday was Visiting Day at their sleepaway camp and, for the first time, I got to go.
I think you're just innately a camp person or you're not. My family -- we are camp people. We see it as the perfect summer setting, a place where you are fortunate to get to sleep in a wooden bunk that smells like a special thread of mildew, to get to shower wearing shoes, filing into those tiny showers according to an order designated by a chart a counselor created earlier in the week.
Obviously showering in the first wave is best. You get the hottest water, and you get a chance to spend the most time doing your hair afterwards. It was actually in camp when I was a counselor when one of my campers, Brooke, straightened my hair for the first time with some hair dryer thing that had a brush attached to the end of it. She was ten. I was eighteen, and I had never had straight hair before.
And: Oh. My. God.
I think the moment is right up there with the most illuminating events I've ever experienced, along with deciding to teach, embracing the goal to write, cutting a lunatic out of my life, and forgiving my parents for their divorce, realizing that maybe doing so would allow me to move forward in a healthy way while allowing them to forgive themselves in the process.
But altruism aside, the straight hair might trump all of that.
I ran out of my bunk that night during Shower Hour -- yes, every moment of camp time has a name -- booking at full-speed towards my friend's bunk, just a few down from mine.
"Carley!" I bellowed. "Come outside!"
She was never the most effusive of people, but she stared in disbelief and then pet my head in the way a true friend would.
For years I couldn't straighten my hair myself. I didn't have the skill -- or the patience. (And really, it was way more about not having the patience.) During college, my friend Nicole would do it for me, and I have really long, really thick hair. If she'd had a minor in Philosophy, she would have had to drop it to have the necessary time to get my hair done right. We'd put on Dave Matthews or Alanis Morissette and she'd pull and straighten and divide my hair into sections to do it perfectly.
I miss those days.
But back to Visiting Day, something that should be capitalized like it's as important as Halloween or Kwanza or Ryan Gosling.
The kids go to a camp in the middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania, and it turns out it's on the very same road as the camp where I was a counselor for four years in the 90s. The camp my niece and nephew attend now didn't exist back then. The land where there's now a trapeze set up that they swing from daily was just farmland then, where we all figured the spawn of the children of the corn lived, plotting to murder the rest of us who lived down the road for eight summer weeks, figuring they'd get extra kill points for bludgeoning victims from the Westchester/Long Island/suburban New Jersey area -- or really any place that had a Nordstrom within driving distance. That we weren't murdered actually surprised me every year, but it never stopped me from going back.
On our drive there yesterday, once the GPS had finally given up due to ending up on roads with no names, we made the wrong turn as we bounced along a gravel road. My mother saw a pickup in the distance and pulled her Lexus up along the side, rolling down her window.
"Can you tell me where the camp is?" she asked.
They explained that we'd missed the turn near the guard rail, but my mother's confused expression lead to them offering for us to follow them.
They'd show us personally where it was.
As she turned around to follow the truck, I looked at her, stunned.
"Have you never seen I Spit On Your Grave?" I asked with puzzlement. "Cause we've just met the people who are going to kill us. And you're way nicer than I am. At least you'll get to live and enjoy Final Girl status. But I'm wearing a short skirt. I'm going down. Ah well. I've had a decent life."
"Don't be silly," my mother answered, following closely behind the mountain men as I tried to come to terms with my demise, trying to find a peace in the fact that it was going to happen in a setting that had meant something true to me and not at a DSW where I always figured it might after being trampled during a sale -- or at hot yoga, where I swear I had once really seen that white light, but that was probably just me almost blacking out from mass dehydration.
My mother's "it's nothing" response to the clear danger we were in? That's what horror characters always say before one of them is sawed in three. It's not, though, what the character who lives says. That character has the gaze and recognizes the danger. I started looking through the car for potential weapons. Had we been in my car, there would have been sequin dresses to try to blind the men with, sharp skirt hangers to heave their way, and Tina Fey's hardcover book to try to stop the blow of a chainsaw blade.
My mother's car is spotless. And this is why it's just way better to live like a slob.
Last questions in my mind before what I was sure would be certain death: Had my mommy also never seen Deliverance? Had one of those guys been holding a banjo, or had my terrified mind merely constructed the image?
Turns out, the men didn't slaughter us. That was quite kind of them. They drove to the turn we'd missed and waved for us to turn left. We thanked them profusely, and I tried to memorize their features in case I ever needed to identify them in a line-up.
(It might be time for me to start teaching more romantic comedies instead of focusing my efforts on slashers, possession films, rape-revenge films, and watching every episode of Dateline MysteriesI can find.)
I said "might." Let's not get crazy.
At the entrance to the camp, the snacks we'd brought the kids were examined by women at an official-looking table. Nothing that included a nut, had ever lived near a nut, or had once made friends with a nut in an nut-adjacent factory was allowed onto the premises. Nuts are now feared like mountain men used to be. The kit kats we'd brought were confiscated, but the One Direction perfume I'd brought my niece and the Drake CD with the "explicit" label were sanctioned.
Thank goodness neither had been created in a factory near a pecan.
My sister has been working at the camp this summer, so Visiting Day meant something different to the kids this year.
(Letter from Jadyn: "Dear Aunt Nell, camp is great even though my mom's here." That note is on my fridge now, along with her letter from last year that told me, "I made you a bowl in Arts and Crafts because I didn't want to catch you a lizard newt as a pet like you asked." My response to her: "Dear Jadyn: why can my newt -- whom I've already named Harrison and grown to love -- not live in the bowl you made me? You've got to start thinking things through!")
Never got the newt. May Harrison live and prosper in the countryside always before he's sacrificed in the way we humans were spared.
At ten on the dot, we were allowed in. I saw my niece and nephew and ran towards them, and I got teary doing so in a way I didn't expect. They looked happy, taller, and very proud to show us their camp.
Both kids have top bunks. I used to as well. The bunks were cleaner than they had been all summer, and I knew that neatness would last until -- latest -- this morning. We met the kids' friends and their counselors and we walked the grounds and it was fucking freezing. I'd shown up hoping for a good tan: strappy tank, short skirt, low wedge flip flops -- totally appropriate camp-wear for me. But it was so cold, I ended up buying a pair of camp pajama bottoms, and I threw them under my skirt and then just shimmied that skirt off. Peeing in poison ivy, learning archery, and changing modestly in public are just skills you learn at camp. (According to my friend Becky, so are blowjobs, which is why she swears her daughter will never go to camp. But that's a blog for another time.)
We watched a gymnastics show and a trapeze exhibition and we ate a nice lunch and then we walked all around and, I swear, it was all uphill. But then I saw the ropes course in the farthest of the distance, and I saw it was open for parents, so I guessed that meant aunts could go too.
Back when I had been a camper, a huge ropes course was constructed, really high up in the trees. I had no fear then. I completed the course quickly and then I did it backwards. At one point, I was part of an exhibition on Visiting Day where I did the course blindfolded. (My poor mother.)
But then there was one time when I was eleven when I had gotten through the whole thing as usual but then something weird happened and I balked and couldn't make myself do the zipline at the end. I'd done that zipline a hundred times before, but something stopped me that time.
I almost did it.
I told myself I had done it before, dozens of times.
I told myself the fear I suddenly had was silly and that I was bigger than that fear.
And still, I was stuck with a momentary mental paralysis and the instructor, after over an hour of encouragement and cajoling, finally had to climb up and carry me down.
I've never gotten over that moment -- because I never understood it.
And so yesterday, I saw in those trees my potential for redemption. Plus, I'm into living a little more dangerously these days, so I was definitely in.
My outfit was a problem. I had to keep the pajama pants on, put on my nephew's too-big (!!!!!) sneakers, threw my hair into first a hair net (yikes) and then into a helmet, and then pulled on a harness hooked up by adorable men from New Zealand who worked the ropes course. I'd maybe never looked worse, including that day after my 21st birthday when I legitimately suffered from alcohol poisoning during a blizzard and had turned the most bile shade of pea green that had ever existed outside of a Crayola box or a hospital.
I had to climb a pole to get to a tiny platform where another guy hooked me up to something he swore would stop me from crashing head first into a tree -- a good thing, because I refuse to be eulogized while wearing a hair net. Then he told me to slide down to a kind of seated position on the platform and just let go.
And I did.
I didn't hesitate, not for one single second.
I kept my eyes closed for a brief moment and then I opened them up and I flew through the clean Pennsylvania air faster than I'd expected I would and then I suddenly stopped and a new set of boys were there to unhook me.
That harness at the end was hurting like a motherfucker. I was sure I had only half of an ovary left, so crushing it had become.
"How do men do this?" I asked as they reached towards my crotch and unhooked me.
"Painfully," they answered with a smile.
I walked back to my nephew who had stood waiting for me.
"I did it, Michael!" I exclaimed. "Want to go next?"
"Nah. Can I get my sneakers back?"
We exchanged them right there, him putting his kicks back on, me sliding into my flip flops, and we walked down the hill to find the rest of the family where my mother and I soon said goodbye, hugging the kids tightly, and then drove back to a land without a gymnastics pavilion, without chore wheels, but to rooms with beds large enough to hold at least six fluffy pillows.
And I'd give them all up -- every last one of those pillows -- in a single second for just one more night of freedom spent on a wooden top bunk.