Jean wasn’t the first or only female who I perceived to be an image of womanly perfection, nor was that image uniquely dependent on how women looked. I was curious about women, eager to make friendships, and found it easier and less stressful to spend time with them. Boys were invariably aggressive or over-active or invasive. Girls, in my very limited experienced, enjoyed doing things together and lazily gossiping and exchanging information on the business of being female.
I was never prepared for girls to be mean, though, and always was surprised and even disappointed when a girl behaved really badly. Which meant, of course, that I didn't get along well with most of the girls my age. They interpreted my solitary ways as snottiness and my disinterest in their pranks and mischief as suspicious, goody-two-shoedness.
I gravitated towards counselors instead. I never returned to Surprise Lake, but every year I spent in sleep-away camps (five in total) there was always an older girl who I idolized or wished I could be. There was Anya, the pampered daughter of a Canadian politician, who loaned me books about socialism, and existentialism, and objectivism. There was Annabelle of the long curly hair, beautiful as a fairy princess. She had bright blue eyes, a gift for laughter and a voice as pure as mountain water. Boys clustered around her when she sang, and I knew they were all in love with her, just as I was in love with her from a distance. There was my favorite, Claudia, an ethereal teenager with eyes as big as plates and an impossibly slim, perfect figure. Claudia was troubled like me, and restless like me, and passionate too; but Claudia was so beautiful and free, unlike me, and dressed so fashionably, I always felt like a puddle of mess in her shadow. Claudia followed crazy whims every day, and was wildly unstable. It made me love her most of all.
As much as I could, I avoided cruel girls. They were almost unmistakeable: the first to snipe, the first to say something shitty when you were at your lowest, and the last to offer help when you were in trouble. Some bunks were filled with them, and for two of my four years at my next summer camp, I was in bunks like that. Fortunately, I never was in the hell that was a "sister" bunk, where the female campers forcibly stripped their counselor naked and threatened her harm, based on rumors that she was sexually active. That was so ugly to me I didn't even believe the story until I was an adult and one of the participants confirmed its hideous details.
I suffered mainly small slights and indignities, most of it the stuff of teenage life and the mundane problem of being smaller and nerdier than your peers. It didn't upset me that mean girls didn't consider me friend-material. I despised them.
I preferred interesting intelligent women, is how I framed it in my head. I was enchanted when a really beautiful and kind girl named Lila cajoled me to hang out in bed with her.
As a lifelong night-owl, it was a joyful revelation that, at summer camp, you could hang out with other night-owls and yak the night away. At home, I'd lie awake and stare at the walls, desperate for company. Summer camp was the beginning of my abiding love of sitting up in the dark with a beverage in hand and a voluble friend beside you.
I gleefully climbed in beside Lila under the blankets. I was not quite 11 and she was an older woman of 12.All I remember of our conversation is that she positively overflowed with dirty jokes. I don’t know if she got them from an older sibling or a relative, but she had so many bad jokes that it was impressive. I was just a little too young to understand most of them – at one point, she had to explain to me that the reason the “ant” got lost in the "jungle” was because when women grow up, they get hair between their legs (and that hairy patch was the "jungle" to the ant).
I don’t know exactly why Lila wanted to tell me the jokes but she then began kissing me, which made me uncomfortable. I’d already had a couple of childhood girlfriends whose obsessive kissing bothered me, so that was the end of my interlude with Lila, despite the really enjoyable jokes she told. We stayed friends, too, but I didn't want her to kiss me again, so I stayed in my own bed.
Almost every year I attended sleep-away camp, I’d develop friendships that led to late-night, even all-night, conversations. The best of the best was my friend Gwen, who’s my friend on FaceBook these days (WOOT!), because we would have what we considered to be the deepest, most important conversations any two young women could have. Of course, I remember nothing about them whatever, just that when night fell and I got to hang with my bestie and we would dream aloud together, and tell each other everything, I felt the happiest.
But there were two other girls I remember spending nights with, and those memories are clearer.
The first was an immensely popular girl. She wasn’t in my bunk but like everyone who knew her, I was smitten with Sara’s wholesome good looks and self-confidence. When she suggested I sneak into her bunk for late-night chatter, I was flattered. Though we'd barely ever talked, an invitation to the bed of one of the social butterflies was irresistible.
When I crept into the cabin that night and climbed into her upper bunk, she made me feel like she was dying to get to know me. For me, at that age, that only meant one thing: she wanted to plumb my innermost thoughts. Before I could prop my head on her pillow to begin what I hoped would be another fascinating dialogue about the meaning of life, she was holding me down tight and whispering wetly in my ear. I could have sworn, when I first walked in, that people were awake in their beds. Now the bunk had fallen silent, as if everyone was holding their breath to listen.
I went ballistic and fought back. I still remember the look on her face when I broke free. She looked terribly surprised and very hurt. We never spoke again. She had crossed a boundary with me, though at that age I didn't see it as a boundary. She had made me feel kind of creepy and nervous, and that was enough for me to steer clear.
The last time I shared a summer camp bed with a girl was during my last year. Carmen was a bunk-mate too, an extremely intelligent girl, but somewhat introverted and mysterious. She was very polite, very thoughtful, very masculine, and very solitary. For me, it was impossible not to like an independent character like that. That she had a wall up around her thicker than permafrost only made me feel empathy, because I sensed she must be wounded to act that way.
Again, my memory can’t dredge up actual dialogue from that ancient period but I remember this. One night she called to me softly in the dark. The other girls were sleeping but she and I were still tossing and turning in bed. She asked if I’d like to talk in bed for a while and, as usual, I was game. We weren’t long into our conversation when suddenly she began confessing something she’d never told anyone before. Her father had sexually abused her. The whole family knew. He wouldn’t stop. The details scared me. They disgusted me. They made me feel an agonizing pain. As soon as she’d finished, I returned to my own bed, shaken but relieved to be alone in my head as much as my bed.
It was the last time I shared a late-night bed with a girl at summer camp. Aside from Gwen, most of those late-night encounters ended up in the strange zone. I had never expected girls to be as fucked up as my own mother and sister were. It was a lot for me to digest.