Once my mother realized that summer camp was a socially acceptable option, even something that could make her seem middle class, she signed me up for another summer camp. This time it was a sleep-away, Surprise Lake in Poughkeepsie NY. Never mind that the camp was Zionist, while my parents were anti-Zionist; never mind that they made us say prayers on Shabbos, while my parents were devout atheists; my mother finagled a financial sponsorship from some Jewish group and off I went to a truly strange new land among a breed of people I'd never really known: American Jews.
American Jews and European Jews are such different kinds of Jews it deserves several volumes as a subject. So everything about Surprise Lake boggled my mind. In some ways, the kids seemed infinitely more assimilated than I'd ever be, with American attitudes and American arrogance and entitlement and a kind of crudeness you didn't see among the well-mannered children of European Jews. In other ways, they were so much more Jewish than me -- they knew all the prayers and rituals and holidays, things about which I was mainly ignorant.
Also, for the first time in my life (or consciousness, really), boys and girls were completely segregated. Until then, I thought that kind of puritanism only happened at Catholic schools. One side of the lake was for girls; the other for boys; and between us lay a very long dirt road. On Friday nights, the older boys would be allowed to attend a social on the girls' campus. I remember perching in the woods not far from the bungalow where they danced, watching the shadows of bodies doing "The Freddy." It looked, really, like they were dancing the way Africans did in Tarzan movies, flinging limbs around in ancient rituals.
Girls, in reverse, made chaperoned trips to the boy's side for events at their very beautiful theatre, named after its benefactor, the vaudeville star Eddie Cantor. I'd joined a camp theatre group and we were staging a production of "Bye Bye Birdie" so I got to go there a few extra times.
One of the reasons I'd first signed up with the theatre group was because there were two counselors on my side of the lake who were involved in its production. I met them by being magnetically drawn to the woman, Jean, who was the arts and crafts counselor that year. They were the coolest couple I'd ever met. They were so sweet, so interesting, and always acted glad to see me. Jean was tall and blonde and fair, with the palest blue eyes I'd ever seen; Jim looked to me then about 8 feet tall (probably closer to 6), with black hair and chestnut eyes and a white smile that came real easy. He looked like a Jewish lumberjack and she looked like a sea goddess. They were perfect to me.
What I remember most, though, is the night we performed Bye Bye Birdie. It was one of the happiest nights of my childhood. I was filled with joy and hope about my future (which I assumed would be devoted to the theatre, since the only thing I ever really wanted to be in life was an actress). Jean was there, praising me, and Jim gave me that billion dollar smile that let me know I'd done good. I had just turned ten and I had never received that kind of parental attention. I was high as a kite on the goodness of life.
I was also only about half a year away from menstruating. Not only didn't I know that my hormones were already in burbling turmoil inside my undeveloped body, but until the first time I got my period, I had no idea there even was such a thing. I mention this because it was after the theatre performance that something in me, and my relationship to males, shifted and I know my hormones were the reason why.
All the kids were completely exhausted by the time the show and its after-events were finally over. I could barely keep my head up. I walked with Jean and Jim but after a few minutes, I was finding it hard to keep up. Someone, perhaps Jean, perhaps Jim, suggested that he should try to carry me the rest of the way back. He was, at first, more than willing and before I knew it, I was hoisted up into his powerful arms, raised to what felt like a towering height.
Where does sex begin? Where do sexual feelings begin? How to measure it? I was so young, I had no thought in any way, shape, or form that night of actually having sex with this man. I wouldn't kiss him or anything him! He was practically married to the most beautiful goddess who ever lived.
And yet...and yet...
Within moments of him lifting me into his arms, I woke up. Every part of me woke up. I was completely alive and awake and energetic. And I loved being in his arms. I just loved it more than anything I'd ever loved before. I could feel his strong forearms wrapped tightly around me, cradling me gently, as he gallantly trudged forward with his increasingly heavy bundle. I suspect he was more interested in impressing his girlfriend but all I could think of was how I never wanted to leave his arms.
So when he noticed my eyes opening, and, later, that I didn't look half as tired as I should have, he would softly ask, "Do you think you can walk now?" "Are you awake?"
Each time, I would immediately shut my eyes and pretend to softly snore, as if whatever fit of awakedness he'd witnessed was some strange tic I had during my coma of sleep.
Jim must have been about 19 or 20, but to me at that time, he was all men. And so, I made that poor, chivalrous, sweet boy carry me a mile in his arms until he laid me down in my bed, and he and Jean whispered goodnights.
I felt horribly horribly guilty about my lie the next day and for many years after, but it was my first awakening to an emotion that I had never before had and I just could not let go of it, no matter what.
Perhaps what I felt the most shame about, though, was that even as I felt him struggling to carry me home, even though I knew he must be even more exhausted than I was, I liked it that he had suffered for me.