It was my second day of college ever and classes hadn’t started yet. I woke up in a top bunk bed I’d never slept in before and tried from the moment my eyes flickered open to convince myself that this – that all of this – was simply my new existence and therefore every part of it was completely normal. Yes, I repeated in my head while I stood behind a flimsy curtain in the shower of the communal bathroom, it was normal to live in an L-shaped shoebox with two strangers. It was normal to tote a bathrobe with me into the shower so I would not run the risk of ending up naked in public, not even during a fire drill caused by some drunk person pulling the fire alarm. It was normal that my soap, shampoo, and razor were kept in a turquoise plastic bucket with a handle instead of on a shower shelf that belonged only to me. And it was totally normal that I was showering in flip-flops to avoid getting whatever sort of fungus had surely been left behind by the stranger who had showered before me and then bequeathed me a tangle of her blonde hair in the drain as a disgusting form of souvenir.
Every bit of my life during those first weeks of college felt like an obstacle course of challenges (Find real friends! Locate your classes! Don’t get roofied in a fraternity house basement!), and I have never been great at leaving behind what once felt emotionally snuggly and safe. I did it, of course. It may have been difficult and there were definitely sleepless months filled with the trembles of anticipation, but I was always somehow aware that life itself was just a series of trajectories and winding paths and I also knew I had no real choice but to become a traveler. I knew – always – that I could ultimately handle anything. Listen, when your father dies in front of you in public when you’re fourteen years old and you don’t end up crumbling forever and completely, a whisper forms in your soul and it tells you something important on a semi-regular basis: You handled that; you can handle the rest of it, too. Still, those first days of college were so bizarre, so uniformly other, that I can remember much of it to this day, the constant weirdness spiking the most vivid of memories. There were three of us in a room meant to house only two and we all had long-distance boyfriends. We shared a tiny refrigerator and one phone. Sixteen thousand people roamed that campus and that statistic felt daunting, so for the first few days we bonded as one unit and went in tandem to all the places freshmen are supposed to go. We went to the dining hall and stared open-mouthed at the self-serve frozen yogurt machine and at the twenty-three different kinds of cereal we could choose from every single day. (The cereal selection included Apple Jax, which my mother never let me eat at home and which I promptly got sick of after three days. I then switched back to eating mother-sanctioned Raisin Bran.) We went to the mandatory ice-breaking exercises our Resident Advisor swore would be so much fun. And we went to the University Bookstore and purchased hulking textbooks for classes like Contemporary Moral Problems that we probably should never have taken in the first place because it was a legitimate Philosophy class and we didn’t understand what Philosophy was yet, but we were lured by the cool-sounding class title. It was at that Bookstore – well, on its front stone steps – that I heard my name being said as a shocked question by a girl I did not recognize.
It’s me, she said. Steph.
I took a closer look at the stranger standing before me and then I burst into laughter because this person was Stephanie, a girl who had been my best friend at sleepaway camp for six summers, from the time I was six until I was twelve years old. We hadn’t seen each other since then, but that thing – that weird and wonderful thing – happened as we spoke: her face morphed slowly before my searching eyes back into the exact Stephanie of twelve and we hugged and exchanged our new college phone numbers and swore to have dinner together soon.
Only a year later, Stephanie transferred from our college and ended up back in New York at the school where my mother was Dean of Students. But what I didn’t yet know back on that second day – along with the knowledge that I’d soon get my very first F due to a Math class that made zero sense and the fact that having a long-distance boyfriend when you’re seventeen years old is moronic – was that two other girls I’d been exceptionally close to at sleepaway camp back when I was a child had also ended up at the University of Delaware. One would eventually pledge my sorority and one I would discover only when her name was called during attendance in a Sociology class I took as a junior. The two of us stared stunned across a lecture hall and waved frantically and then rushed to hug each other after class. We didn’t remain close after that, but we did find a moment to exclaim how fucking weird it was that half of our childhood bunk had wound up in the exact same place.
I think now of Camp Norwich as the very first of My Safe Places. I eventually knew every single inch of its terrain and I could – and I did – run careening down rock and vine-laced hills with my eyes closed without tripping once. Being there brought me a respite from a home where I was a child of divorce, where, though muted, the anger and anxiety my mother was experiencing felt palpable and contagious. I would inhale deeply sometimes as I sat at our kitchen table and I’d feel somehow older afterwards, like I’d just taken in a grown up’s bitterness and the awareness of daily struggle. That sort of shit never happened at camp. Sure, the food at the camp dinner table was nowhere near as yummy as the stuff my mommy churned out, but the air felt stiller. I could feel my heart unclench the moment I stepped off the bus and onto that dirt road on the first day of summer and, though I may not have fully understood the shift at the time, I can still feel my gratitude for all of it today.
A lot of life firsts took place with Norwich’s bumpy hills as a backdrop – and that right there is some clear fucking symbolism I certainly did not recognize at the time. I tried my first cigarette at camp. We pilfered a few from one of the counselors and lit up right there in the woods because we were simply too dumb then to realize one poorly-flicked fiery ash could potentially torch the place. My first co-ed sleepover also happened at camp, right on the floor of the dining hall. My guess is that the “adults” in charge – and by “adults” I mean eighteen year old counselors who were most definitely high most of the time – figured we couldn’t get ourselves into too much mischief if we were all under the same roof, but that plan didn’t stop my group of friends from playing a rather productive game of Truth or Dare that resulted in the guy I had a crush on sucking on my fingers until I felt it in my toes. I no longer recollect why finger sucking was even on the menu, but my presumption is we figured we could get away with doing that in a way that full on making out probably would not have been deemed acceptable.
As for some of my other camp firsts, those include the following:
· Waterskiing – and my first time getting up and dropping a ski as I skimmed the entire circumference of the huge lake and I felt like I was flying.
· Successfully inserting a tampon while five older girls stood outside the stall and shouted very specific directions, like stick it in on a slant.
· Surviving bouts of homesickness, strep throat, and a particularly hideous experience with pneumonia all without the presence of my mother or my father.
· Eating cheese squeezed out of a can into the shape of a perfect flower.
· Receiving my very first gift ever from a boy. It was a silver necklace that turned my neck green, but still…
Between all those firsts and because I spent eight weeks each year tromping across the literal lay of the land, being at camp made me feel like I was an explorer, but instead of discovering a new place, I was discovering myself. I was brave at camp. There would be nothing in my head that would stop me from crawling out of the bunk in the dead of night with a friend and slinking our way through the woods to the Boys’ Side to surprise them with our presence and to allow them to revel in our flair for youthful rebellion. Today, I would think of every horror movie I have ever seen and I would be convinced before I even set out on my mini-quest that creeping through the wilderness by just the glow of the moon would almost surely result in my dismemberment, but back then? All I didn’t yet know in those days was beneficial. That void of not knowing allowed me to live freely. I’m sure it helped that I wasn’t in any way alone during those summers. There was a group of us, and we did everything together – and that included making mistakes. Eight people, three guys and five girls, and we were a unit. We rarely to never saw each another during the rest of the year, but it never seemed to matter the second our feet hit the grounds of the camp.
Most of the girls I was closest to at the time were far prettier than I was as we all began that slow limp towards puberty. Their gawky stages happened, but they never reached Full Ugly the way I did during my last year at camp. Only Stephanie and I had actually developed for real. We both had the start of curvy bodies and we got monthly periods and our skin sometimes hurt because our tits were bursting through. We arrived that last summer with just-in-case bras packed in our trunks; by the end of August, we had to wear one every single day. The other girls in our group were still flat and they were still rail-skinny and I remember thinking that clothing just looked better on a girl who didn’t resemble an hourglass.
(Camp was also the first place where I experienced the first bit of self-loathing. I suppose it had to happen somewhere. At least the misery occurred at a place with a pretty view.)
I recall walking around in those striped nylon shorts that I knew had to be very fashionable because Jessica Wakefield was wearing them on the cover of one of the Sweet Valley High books I consumed like crack. My shorts weren’t the “right” brand, though. The designer ones were more than my mother could afford. I had the knockoff version and though I felt a bit of shame about it, by the end of the summer I hardly even remembered that I wasn’t wearing the same stuff as everyone else. When you live together and you eat together and you swim together and you shower together and you sweat your ass off together on days so humid that your survival almost seems impossible, the differences that once appeared emphatic and pronounced disappear. When ten months slip by and there is nothing but silence during those months between an entire group of friends and still you all fall back into synch immediately, you realize something special must exist within all of you. When your guy friend is twelve years old and you have known him since you were an actual child and he walks over to you with tears in his eyes after a bonfire where Cats in the Cradle was played by a counselor with a guitar and he pulls you over to a huge rock to hug you tightly while sobbing his eyes out and he whispers into your ear, “That song reminds me so much of my father,” you learn a lot of things all at once and those will be lessons that will loom large in all the days of your life that follow. You learn, for example, that everyone can cry like you sometimes do – even boys, so to hell with the bullshit messages society will eventually try to shove down your throat. You learn that particular boy chose you in that moment because you can offer comfort and wisdom in a crisis and he inherently knew it. You learn there are times you should keep a secret, even if the request to do so is never explicitly made. And you learn that all of the leaving you will have to do in your life shouldn’t frighten you nearly as much as you sometimes almost allow it to because wherever you end up, you will always be the person you were on that rock and who you were when you went slinking through those woods at night and who you were all those years later on the stone university steps and, even if you aren’t able to recognize someone else immediately, you will always be able to recognize yourself.
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. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter