I’ve been struggling to write about the current times. I’ve been struggling to write fiction. There’s a niggling part of my brain that keeps saying WHAT IS THE POINT?
So I decided instead to write about a memory. Not because it holds an important lesson, not because I learned something from it, not because it even has a point. (You’ve been warned) Just because it was a different time, ages ago, when I was young and the world was all new to me and happiness came easy. And writing it will, for a while, take me there.
At age fifteen I went to camp. Church camp, to be exact. I went to be a “junior” counselor. This meant being responsible for a pack of middle school girls at bedtime in our cabin and leading a few bible study nights, but mostly it meant following the “real” counselors around and doing their grunt work.
I’d been a pretty active member at church for the last few years. Went to church camp myself, wrote for the church newspaper, attended and organized youth group activities, and faithfully attended confirmation every Wednesday and church every Sunday.
(If it were up to me I would have skipped Sunday and slept in but both my parents and confirmation class required my attendance)
I was fifteen, though, and I’d met a boy a few months ago that captured my attention, which left less for church. I’d made a commitment to camp, and I knew about integrity and responsibility, so I went begrudgingly even though I was SO over it.
Besides, my boyfriend would be coming to get me at week end. His best friend drove the church bus that would bring us home, and he was going to tag along. I set aside my best outfit, saving it for going home day.
You might be wondering why at age fifteen my boyfriend’s friend was driving a bus. Well, it’s because they were 20, and Gene, my boyfriend’s friend, had been driving school bus part time, when he wasn’t working at his dad’s machine shop, for a couple of years.
My 20 year old boyfriend also had a trans am and a motorcycle. He was every fifteen year old girl’s parent’s worst nightmare, but I didn’t realize that until much later. His name was Kevin and we’d only been dating three months by the time I went to camp. He’d asked me to be his exclusive (ok he said, “will you go with me?” which was the same thing) during the Fourth of July fireworks. It sounds romantic but really his best friend Wade was in the backseat listening to every word and fulfilling the role of peanut gallery. Regardless, we were officially a couple.
On the first day of camp, everyone got their cabin assignments and quick intros were made. I sensed a collective eye roll when Kathy and I introduced ourselves as “junior” counselors.
First up after our luggage was deposited and beds were chosen was the swimming test. As an adult, this is as horrific to me now as it was that day.
I knew about camp, like I said, I was a church kid. These first couple of days would determine the hierarchy for the week. Who were the leaders, the “cool kids” and who were not. There would be coupling, but the cool and the not did not mix classes. At eighth grade bible camp they’d made us play this game of tag at a picnic table and a boy named Christopher, who tragically had let his nuts hang out of his swimsuit liner for all the kids to see earlier in the week, set his sights on me. That’s where I usually fell in the hierarchy.
To have to start off the bat with the swimsuit competition was terrifying to me. Not because of the swimming part. My parents dutifully signed me up for swimming lessons when I was a child and I am a strong swimmer and a great floater, it was because of the swim suit part.
At fifteen I was skinny. This was primarily because my best friend Kelly who moved to town from some other city where I presume all the kids were bad, taught me how to stick my fingers down my throat and throw up. So it happened that I lost a lot of weight and also developed a set of breasts. Now, these two things, 1. skinny and 2. nice perky breasts would make me feel confident today, but when you are a teenager just learning how to navigate this new world, not so much. Plus, swimming wrecks your hair and this was 1988, hair was supposed to be big. Much time was invested.
I wore a T-shirt over my swimsuit for the swimming test, passed for “over my head” swimming and ran as fast as I could back to the cabin to change and fix my hair. Free time until dinner and then it was a sing along at the campfire ring with the amphitheater.
I fixed my hair, changed into dry clothes, put on some mascara and went about trying to figure out how to solve my next problem. Where in this place I could have a cigarette.
Smoking was another thing I learned from my best friend Kelly, although I blame her for neither the smoking habit I still have 30 years later or the vomiting. I knew what I was doing. Did she influence me? Yes, but only because I was more desperate to be cool than I was to be healthy. I made my own choices, knowing all the facts.
(She was also the one who introduced me to my boyfriend, come to think of it)
Her parents were smokers, and they smoked in the house, leaving plenty of smoke-able butts just laying around. Kelly taught me how to inhale, and not long after I had a boyfriend old enough to buy cigarettes. I wasn’t old enough to drive but I never took the bus to school, because everyone knew Nic had smokes. People offered me rides everyday. I had a standing babysitting job on Sunday nights that netted me $5.75 a week, enough for two packs of cigarettes, more than I myself would ever smoke and enough to pay my rides in smokes for the week.
But, I did still smoke, sometimes, and the stress of the swimming test made me want to find a place to hide and smoke. When you are 15 you can only smoke when you’re hiding, so I was pretty good at it. I thought.
Lucky for me the counselor who caught me was a smoker, and he told me where smoking was allowed. Only behind the staff cabin, where kids were not allowed. He was not giving me the ok, but he was also not saying no. I saw him quite a few times that week behind the staff cabin, he never said another word to me.
The sing a-long that night was awesome, the counselors sang a catchy, fast, acapella song that we all wanted to learn. By the end of the week I’d know them all, and own a new cassette of them purchased at the Canteen.
I worked at the canteen for parts of some days, scrubbed toilets in the cabins and washed floors. Like I said, we were the grunts. In exchange, we were invited with the rest of the counselors to LEAVE THE CAMP AND GO TO A PARTY. Granted, the party was at the house of the camp director and it was somewhat innocent- no alcohol or drugs in sight, but there was loud music and talking and laughing and feeling like an honorary grown up.
(Although in reality they were college kids, and not really grown ups quite yet, this was their summer job)
Maybe that was where I first met Mike, I’m not really sure. I know I met him again with a mop bucket in his hand, and again at the beach. I don’t remember how it progressed to us talking about how it would be so cool to sleep on the floating lifeguard platform beneath the stars.
The lifeguard platform was out in the deep water, floating, with a ladder that led to the platform a good ten feet above the water. A row boat sat at the dock, used by the lifeguards to get there and back.
Angie, who was pretty low on the totem pole as far as counselors went, which was why she was assigned to me, sat on the other side of me in the sand.
“We should do it,” Mike said.
He was a skinny guy, with a pronounced Adam’s apple and thick, loosely curled brown hair that he wore kinda longish, like a Beatle.
It was our last night at camp. I had survived toilet cleaning, floor mopping, cooking, hauling firewood and long hours at the canteen. I had made some friends and allies. I was young and sleeping under the stars seemed like an opportunity too good to pass up. If we got caught, I was leaving the next day, anyway.
We were smart enough to know we needed Angie. It could not be a girl and a boy together if we were caught, that would cost him his job. It wouldn’t matter that I had a boyfriend and our relationship was not LIKE THAT.
We all had roommates to escape from, and it was better to tell them than to risk them being in a panic because they found us missing. Kathy agreed not to tell on me if I agreed to try to quit smoking, a bargain I never kept my end of the deal on even though I agreed to it.
(Sorry, Kathy! Also, since I’m doing confessions: I’m the one who reported you for cheating in AP English. I couldn’t take it, you walking around with your academic letter jacket, test answers written on the insides of your arms. Anyhoo, thanks for covering for me at camp!)
Long after dark, after the kids were asleep and the counselors inside for the night, the three of us met at the dock with our sleeping bags and pillows. Mike rowed us out to the platform and tied us up. We tried not to giggle, everything echoes on the lake.
It was light enough to see, with the moon and the stars and we soon had our sleeping bags lined up three across, me in the middle. We lay on our backs, spotting satellites and star gazing. We talked in whispers about our lives. When I happened to mention that my boyfriend was 20, Mike expressed his disapproval.
“A 20 year old dating a fifteen year old is only after one thing,” he said.
“We’ve been dating three months and we haven’t had sex,” I countered.
When I think about this now, I wonder how old Mike was. I didn’t think to ask him at the time, or else it’s not a detail my brain decided to remember, but I think he was probably 18 or 19 himself.
We talked long into the night about our families and our lives and what we wanted to be when we grew up. At some point, Angie fell asleep. Mike noticed.
He shifted a little closer by millimeters. I knew he was doing it and it was both exhilarating and exasperating (I have a boyfriend!). I was laying on my back, and he was laying on his side, head on his hand, raised on his elbow. His face was close to mine. He was smart, I had discovered as we talked, smart and funny.
He made me laugh a lot, and eventually one of those times, when I was freely laughing without a care in the world, he leaned down and kissed me.
I admit, I kissed him back. I had limited kissing experience and I was curious. It ended with what you would expect.
“I have a boyfriend.”
“You know he’s not right for you, and you know he’s just using you. You are smart and sweet and beautiful and you deserve better. He’s not your type.”
“You don’t even know him!” I argued, “I’m in love with him.”
Mike flopped onto his back and stared at the sky.
“Maybe tomorrow when he comes I’ll tell him that you kissed me,” he said after a while.
“Why would you? You kissed me!”
Everything changed after that. We didn’t laugh or talk, we stared at the sky, lost in our own thoughts until we fell asleep, waking to Angie and the break of dawn, her shooing us off the platform before the camp woke up and we were busted.
Back on the dock she said, “I heard you two last night, you’re disgusting,” she looked at me, “maybe I’ll tell your boyfriend myself,” and she stalked off.
This would turn into an all out war that raged all day. The counselors took sides, were they on my side or were they on Angie’s? I didn’t even want to know! All I knew was a handful of people, minimum, threatened to tell my boyfriend. What was supposed to be a secret night on the platform, everybody suddenly knew about.
Mike did not partake in the ruckus. He went from cabin to cabin with his mop, sulking and glancing over at me morosely.
I put on my clean outfit and fixed my hair. My boyfriend and his friend arrived with our bus, and they were invited by the youth director to join us for a last buffet meal before we departed.
I took my place in the buffet line with Kevin and Gene. I was prepared for anyone at anytime to walk up to us and ruin my life. Mike had stopped his cleaning routine, and was standing with his head leaned on the end of the mop staring at me. I pretended not to notice.
My boyfriend, it turned out, had not ridden on the bus, but had followed behind it in his car. I had to call my parents and have them give me permission to leave with him, since I was technically a charge of the church. My parents agreed.
I said goodbye to the few people who were still speaking to me, but not Mike, who was still standing with his chin on his mop.
I got into the shiny black sports car, glancing back one more time. I raised a hand to Mike. He did not raise one back. I left with my boyfriend.
The next year, I did not sign up for junior counselor. I was still dating Kevin, still in love with him, and was not about to willingly sign up for a week away from him.
Jenny, the girl who went in my place, flagged me down afterward at church and said, “A guy named Mike asked about you, he said to tell you hi.”
So he’s finally forgiven me, I thought.
It is worth mentioning that Kevin turned out to be an abusive boyfriend in the end. As I got older, and smarter, and became an adult myself, he became less cool. He was like Spicoli, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, an adult who likes to hang out with high school kids, because he’s exactly the same amount of mature.
It’s one of those “things I would do differently if I had it to do over” situations.
It’s been fun, writing and remembering, thanks for coming along. And if your name is Mike, and you worked at Camp Wapogasset in the summer of 1988, you should know, you were right.
Be well and stay well, Nic