Hate is a strong word. But when I repeatedly, vocally declared my hatred of camp, I meant it with every fiber of my young being. That was my voice, my truth. In my diary, however, I laid the praise on thick to appease my imaginary audience: “Today I went to camp. It was fun. First me and my friend and my counselor went into a canoe and we tipped! It was wicked fun!” Yeah, I remember that fucking canoe. It was not fun. When you’re a child, you’re an unreliable narrator, and you don’t even know it.
My first summer torture sessions were long days at this woodland camp about twenty minutes from my home. I was eight years old, young for my grade. This was the summer after I got a checkmark on my report card in the “Plays well with others” box. Let there be no mistake. A checkmark is not a gold star. In a group of strangers, I played better with my toys.
Right off the bat, camp and I were a bad fit. The experience tapped into my issues with authority figures. I didn’t believe in the “trust exercises” because I didn’t feel safe. The counselors weren’t teachers. They were teenagers. Like in Porky’s. I liked my leaders to look like adults.
I especially loathed the part of the day where we had to change into our bathing suits. Like it or not, strip, little bitch, strip. So, of course, I lied about having my period to get out of swimming. I look back now, remember the dank air in that little medical place in the woods, and think of the poor nurse who had to deal with me.
Nurse: “So, you’re getting your period?”
Nurse: “Should we call your mom?”
Me: “No, I can spend the day in here. Do you guys have a TV?”
That nurse was kind. She let me hang out in there for a while even though she must have known I was lying. There was no blood. I didn’t even have the wits to ask for some kind of feminine hygiene product. I didn’t fucking know how periods worked, exactly. I was little. I had yet to read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. But I did have a dollhouse, and there was a lot of crazy shit going down in there. A secret room occupied by a Glamour Gal who wore a gown at all hours; a G.I. Joe action figure recast as a domestic bellhop/pot-stirrer. Making up stories on my own was empowering. It’s when you do it in real life that you get into trouble.
One day, a counselor asked if I was psyched for the day, and I nodded. I remember that moment so vividly: the pressure to respond, to be psyched. I remember other kids singing the Tears for Fears school-bus power anthem “Shout.”
“Shout … shout … let it all out … these are the things I can do without …”
I felt like the opposite of that song. I was overwhelmed with a sense that I had signed a social contract to lie without even realizing it. Everyone was so fucking happy when I looked around, and I felt weird for not being psyched. I had never used the word out loud before. It was a word other people said.
So of course, I repeated the word in my response. “Yes,” I said. “I’m psyched for camp.”
I sounded stupid. Like, very stupid. It’s not that I mispronounced it, but you could tell that I’d never said it aloud before. Of course she laughed. Hard. Loud. In my face. I don’t blame her. When you’re vulnerable, you’re fodder. Especially on a hot bus. No doubt she had her own web of anxiety with the other counselors. And my inability to mask the misery on my face served as her comic relief. I was never good at hiding my feelings.