Storytime: Howl

Please enjoy this post where I tell you a story about an event from my life. Nothing more, nothing less. Today’s story: Three summers at camp.

I’m back at camp after five years. Its an entirely different camp from the one before, half the island away. This one is much less formal with less supervision and fewer “classic” camp activities.

It’s kind of an educational camp. Sometimes we learn about robotics or thermal transfer. Sometimes we go in the woods and spend hours identifying plants and talking about root structures. There’s the usual swimming and hiking and archery and crafts but there’s also self defense classes, math lessons, and a table read of Shakespeare one day.

I don’t like everything at camp but after two weeks I tell my mom I don’t hate it – high praise from a 10 year old.

The third week of camp starts just like any other. My mom drops me off at the library where the bus to picks me up and takes me to camp. Every week there is a rotating set of children but I’m there for all ten weeks because I won a scholarship. I tell myself I don’t care if I go to camp or not, that I didn’t mind being alone all summer but that’s not true. Summer is a lonely time which I spend on the floor, miserable with heat, and thinking about non-existence. Or curled up in the cool tub and wondering what it feels like to be a mermaid or a seal. I bet mermaids never sweat.

So camp is better then that I guess. Camp is full of girls who almost want to be my friend. One of these girls appears during the third week of camp. She is coy looking, her face pinched like she’s just eaten something sour and her blue eyes drilling into the people around her. She looks at once suspicious and curious. She is tall but not remarkably so, simply taller than me. She is thin and her blond hair seems dusted on top of her head and cuts off in a straight line at her shoulder. Unkempt, threatening to become a nest at the slightest breeze. Her name is Joan and she chooses me.

She doesn’t do it right away, instead she waits until we are at camp. Waits until we’ve all been divided into groups and assigned councilors since every week at camp starts the same. We’re given our groups, name tags, nicknames, and then a job to do. Once they divide us we are supposed to pick a partner and race to collect the most trash in an hour. This works on a lot of levels. The camp gets cleaned every week, some of the shy girls are forced to make friends, and the councilors figure out who the trouble makers are going to be.

The previous two weeks happened like every gym class on Earth so I don’t look forward to this part but for the first time in life, when the picking starts, I am picked first. In fact Joan runs up to me immediately and without any hesitation tells me that we are now friends and she intends to win. I don’t intend to win. I intend to sit on my ass and not touch garbage and have the councilor tell me she is “very disappointed” by my lack of enthusiasm. Or camp spirit. Or whatever they want to call it.

Joan tells me that she doesn’t have camp spirit, she just likes winning.

She grabs my wrist in one hand and two garbage bags in the other. She says she has a plan but she needs me. How can she need me? I think, she doesn’t even know me. But she does need me, kind of. She needs someone small enough to crawl under the base of the wooden structures that dot the edges of the camp grounds to get all the trash stuck underneath them. I start laughing when I realize that’s why she picked me. I’m the smallest girl in our group.

We do win. We fill seven bags of garbage, the most bags of anyone in the entire camp for the whole summer. She laughs like a maniac and elbows me in ribs when they give us our prize.

Despite the enthusiasm for the trash game, Joan actually wants almost nothing else to do with camp. The only activity she doesn’t seem to hate openly is swimming. She hates when we play volleyball and hates telling stories. She doesn’t like to hike with the councilors, she hates everyone’s favorites: archery and horseback riding. She even hates when we make a solar oven. When the week ends she tells me how angry and disgusted she is with camp but she says she really likes me.

I don’t know what there is to like.

I don’t ask if she’ll be back the next week but she is. In fact, she is back every single week. We never talk about it though. She simply sees me on Monday and acts like she wasn’t worried I would never return. I worry.

In week six a new girl, Lara, comes. Lara is wild and she loves to cause trouble. In week seven we befriend Sam who is quiet but good at sneaking away from the councilors. The four of us go through the woods, far far away from the campgrounds. We get so lost we miss the bus home and we have to explain what happened. An accident, Sam says, we stayed together because we know the buddy system. No one yells at us for some reason.

Lara’s mom comes first, then Sam’s parents and brother, and then my mom. I don’t see Joan get picked up and by then it’s almost 7pm. I worry.

We meet Dana, a frail looking girl, the last week of camp. She seems nice enough but she is allergic to everything and sick all the time. She says she signed up for more weeks of camp but was too sick to come. I think Joan feels pity for her so we take her on an adventure. When we’re deep in the woods Joan pulls out a candy bar and breaks pieces off for the three of us. Dana says she’s not allowed to eat candy bars or chocolate but it doesn’t take much convincing for her to eat it.

She throws up for too long afterwards and we have to take her to the medical tent. I feel terrible but Joan just beams with pride. “She looked happy” Joan tells me, her arm slung around my shoulder. She did. But we almost killed her.

At the end of the week I don’t ask Joan if she’s coming back next year, I don’t even know if I’m coming back next year. I try to ask her for an address to write or a number to call but she stops me and tells me that she doesn’t want me to call or write her. I don’t understand because I thought we were friends. When my mom picks me up I stare back at her, it feels reckless to leave her alone there.

She is there at camp from day one the next year. She is much taller and thinner. She is bony shoulders and sharp looks. She is crueler to strangers but softer to me. The other girls we met last year filter in and out during the weeks again but Joan and I are always there, constant for each other. The other girls seem less changed than Joan. Joan is more reckless now. She spends less time pretending to like camp and we spend less time doing the “assigned” activities. Camp is now mostly wandering off by ourselves and returning before the bus leaves.

Sometimes we talk nonstop for hours until my throat feels like it will crack and bleed with overuse but other times we simply walk through the wood, not looking at each other, in dead silence. Joan doesn’t seem to care about anything but being caught. Because being caught will end our game. She thinks if we miss the bus again, if her parents know she’s been doing the wrong thing, that she won’t be allowed at camp again.

One day I start talking about my parents and how my dad returned. How odd it is and how difficult things have been. I ask her about her parents. She yells at me that it’s none of my business. She tells me to go fuck myself. I don’t bring it up again. I worry.

At the end of the summer, I ask her if she’s coming back. She says she’s going to the sleep away camp instead next year. I want to ask if she wants me there. I want her to want me there. I want her to need me like she needed me to win that first time. But I don’t ask. Instead I just hold her hand the entire bus ride home.

The second after I close the door to my moms car, I beg to be allowed to go to sleep away camp.

The next summer my heart actually aches with joy when I see Joan across the welcoming lawn at sleep away camp. But there’s a problem. There’s so many girls who are 12 and 13 that they’ve divided them in two group: green and purple and we’re not in the same group. I panic but then, I know exactly what to do. I have a meltdown cry in front of everyone. I sob and wail until they ask me if anything will help. I tell them I want Joan in my group and they immediately give in. Joan gives me a startled face, pulling her bag tight around her shoulders and for a second I worry she will reject me. Instead she bumps her shoulder into mine but says nothing until we’re alone in the little bungalows almost an hour later.

“Why’d you do that”, she looks at me like she is suddenly very scared, the color running out of her face, hands pulling at the ends of her hair. “Just seemed like the easiest way to switch groups” I shrug at her. I think she might still be mad so I switch topics. We never talk about it again.

Sleep away camp, it turns out, is much less lax. Leaving activities isn’t allowed at all. We can choose not to participate but we often get stuck, sitting at the edge of the lake or a clearing watching others do camp things. It feels like being singled out instead of free. The only benefits of sleep away are that the food is much better and at night, there is real freedom.

The first few nights at camp are weird. It’s weird to sleep near another human. I’ve only been this close to someone at night during a sleepover but I never sleep during those. Joan is strangely quiet at night always looking worn and empty after dinner. She plods back and forth on the creaky wooden floor. She watches me write and listen to my CD player while ignoring her. Or pretending to ignore her when we are both watching each other. I don’t know what I am looking for though.

Maybe she does.

Lara is with us for two weeks, she is shuffled into our group so I don’t even have to pull any hysterics. We escape to a store that week via hitchhiking but it almost ends our entire camp adventure. They forgive us but I don’t let Joan out of the campgrounds again after that, too worried I will lose her. She still won’t give me her phone number or her address. She still won’t talk about her home or her school or her family. She frowns more every week. She seems more restless. We talk less.

About halfway through the summer the routine is so easy that on Saturday when the parents come to pick everyone up, I saunter confidently over to Joan to wait for my mom. A woman in a red convertible drives up, honks, and Joan looks at me like she is frightened animal. “Oh, it’s,” she pauses a little, “my mom.”

Her mom is a too short woman with a heart shaped face, wearing thick sunglasses that obscure her eyes. Her hair is an unnatural red set in a deep perm. She looks soft but not sweet and nothing like Joan. I clap Joan on the shoulder and tell her that I’ll see her next week. Joan looks betrayed but I don’t understand so I just walk away.

The next Monday Joan is already waiting on the lawn with her name tag on by the time I am dropped off. She looks mad. I don’t ask though and when night rolls around, after the last tent check Joan suddenly says, “come on.”

We almost always sneak out after the tent check but it doesn’t feel right this time. Joan has been acting cagey and angry all day and with the strangeness of last week I’m not sure what I should expect.

My shoes dig in to the wet shore by the lake and I wonder for a minute if Joan meant for us to go swimming. Instead, she sits on the edge of the dock, stills her feet over the water, and taps it gently with one toe breaking the surface tension. She wrings her hands and presses her elbows painfully into the tops of her legs.

“I’m adopted” she mutters.

“Oh, okay” I move closer to her assuming this is the start of a confession, that more will be coming.

“Okay” her jaw straightens, defiant.

She stops breathing for a second and then it comes spilling out like a fountain. Tears and tears until there’s a thick wet sheen on her face and she’s gasping for air. I don’t touch her or say anything. I don’t know why she’s crying.

She never tells me. Not really. She talks about being born in Arizona but says she doesn’t know, it’s just what they tell her. She talks about her feelings after that mostly. The anger she has. How she feels disconnected and how she doesn’t really belong, like she’s not a part of anything. It’s never really about her adopted parents or her home life or her school. Same as before but somehow after all that confession she seems less animated and less alive.

We spend three more weeks together  and then I ask her for a phone number and address one last time. She tells me no but asks for my address instead. I write it on her hand and on a note card I sneak into her bag also. I want her to write to me even if I can never write back. I want her to know I’m here and real and waiting.

“Are you coming back to camp again?” her silence hangs between us and she just frowns until I say, “Okay.”

She writes me six times before the next summer. The letters are just as vague as our conversations and they contain no return address. I get a letter in the spring about her 14th birthday party right before we move. I worry that without a way to tell her where I am she won’t know that I’m not getting her letters. That I’m still here. I’m still waiting.

I don’t go to camp that summer and I worry she’ll see it as betrayal.  It doesn’t seem she went to camp either when I receive a forwarded a letter the next month though. And the month after that.

Then there is no letter. There is no letter for two whole months. Two months is a short time compared to the eight months I used to wait between summers. When the next letter finally comes, it isn’t like the others. This letter has a return address in the corner and it’s written in bulky block letters instead of Joan’s curling print.

This is the last letter because Joan is gone. All I can do is sit in the hallway and howl.

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