When I was nine or ten years old, I was sent to a posh summer camp in the mountains. I was sent to this camp because my mother had gone to it and because my grandfather was paying for it. For reasons I didn’t entirely understand, there was a lot to do with King Arthur and Camelot and chivalry in the camp’s remarkably arcane mythos, and at the close of each season there was a pageant to this effect. The older girls would dress as knights and there were songs and a torch and a bonfire and faces wet with tears: another summer dead, and every one of us in drag.
My first year there, I was placed in a cabin with a cadre of cruel girls from New Orleans. They wore thick scrunchy socks and Daisy Dukes when they could get away with it, and they talked about beignets, Hard Candy nail polish, and the multitude of ways in which I was inferior to them. They played mean pranks and got suntans; I cried a lot, had to wear vastly more sunscreen than any of the other girls, generally failed at all outdoor pursuits, and got no help or sympathy from grown ups. I think I must have been an awful, strange, peevish, truculent kid because I almost never got any sympathy or help from grown ups. I think I must not have been very likable at all.
The following year I was sent back to the posh camp in the mountains, and this time I was placed in a cabin with other weird girls. I had a better time; I was left alone. I took advantage of this and found places to hide from other people because I didn’t feel like the other people there. My enthusiasm was always misplaced, there were frequent accusations of lesbianism among the campers and I wished very much to avoid being made the subject of these, my athleticism was in no way improving, I hated every song in the camp’s songbook, and I was obviously never going to get a tan. I felt essentially locked out of the camp’s esprit de corps and I was utterly unable to muster a sense of belonging, so I hid along the lakeshore, and I hid in the mossy hollows behind the cabins, and I hid among the blackberries by the stables, and I hid in the camp’s library, where I read a huge amount of terrible fiction and spent a lot of time staring into space.
I’ve spent the past decade trying to replicate the experience of being in that library, at that camp. The smell of damp paper and wood and mildew, the dusty rugs and musty cushions and the isolation — the library was in an attic that could only be reached by ascending the hill behind the building and crossing a short bridge. Up high, surrounded by trees, totally alone, with music in the distance and the rain falling on the laurels beyond the unscreened windows. In a place where I’d almost figured out how to deal with feeling like a stranger. I don’t think I’ll ever get it right.
My third year at camp, I was placed with the same weirdos because by then we were friends and had put in requests to be stuck together. The extra bed in the cabin was given to an even weirder girl. We were mean to her, just like the girls from New Orleans had been mean to me. But she was odd-looking and dull, a little cross-eyed, and she didn’t bathe very often, so obviously she deserved to be censured. Anyway, she got lice. Or we did. But we believed the lice had come from her, and that was what mattered.
I don’t remember whether or not I actually had lice – a few of us didn’t, but we were all sent to the nurse’s station and our scalps were inspected and we were each sent away with a bottle of RID, which we spent the afternoon applying outside of the bathhouse. Our clothes and bedding were all taken from us to be laundered. We were left with only our nit-white Sunday uniforms (this camp had uniforms) that signified in their deviance from the weekday grey and green, our stigma and our shame.
Without bedding, without pajamas, we slept in our clothes on undressed vinyl cots, with only our plastic rain ponchos to keep us warm when the night turned cold and damp. Why were we not given blankets? That year I was the color Yellow in the Rainbow Chorus, in the camp’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The girl who gave us lice was the color Yellow too. I was repulsed by the idea that we were equals. I never wondered whether she ever hid from us, and where did she go. But I am inclined to think that there is a lie at the heart of every song sung around a campfire by girls dressed up like boys: you cannot ever know these people. False feelings are abundant in the world.