I was seven on my first camping trip. My mom forgot to pack my bag and I spent the whole weekend barefoot, wearing ice cream cone pajamas.
Years later, the wilderness was where my Aunt Mary kept saying we’d have to “flee to” when the financial institutions collapsed. I’d watch in horror as she filled our garage with supplies for the end of the world. We had three yellow vats of blackstrap molasses in there. I didn’t know what anyone would do with all that molasses. And I didn’t want to find out.
At twelve, the wilderness was the last place I would voluntarily be.
A couple days into summer vacation before sixth grade, my friend Skye invited me to a month-long sleep away camp in the woods near Fresno.
Nooooooope, I thought emphatically. But that would have been rude to say. Skye and I had grown apart since our days in Montessori school. I didn’t want to make it worse by being honest.
I responded, “Skye, I’d love to go. But we just can’t afford it.”
It was an indefensible answer. Skye’s mother was a doctor. My mother was a writer. The wage gap was the size of The Mariana Trench. Skye would have been so, so rude to press the issue further. Everyone knows that talking about money is universally so, so rude.
I planned on a lovely summer reading The Hatchet— a cautionary tale about the dangers of nature— and swimming in the local pool until my hair turned green.
The next day, my mom came into my room, beaming. “I just got off the phone with Skye’s mom,” she said. “She is going to pay for you to go to summer camp!”
I should have already learned this lesson: lying to get out of something ALWAYS backfires.
My mom felt so guilty about being so happy to have a month without me that I leveraged her joy. I persuaded her to buy me something she would never have otherwise bought me: a two-piece bathing suit. It was lime-green velvet with halter straps at the neck. I loved it so much I named it My Lime Green Popsicle. I even sang secret songs about it in the bathtub. It was the only thing that made the idea of summer camp tolerable.
A week later, in the deathly heat of June, I was shuttled to camp. Along with My Lime Green Popsicle, I packed hiking boots (cringe), khaki shorts (double cringe), and enough organic, chemical-free sunscreen to drown a small village.
Skye and I were assigned a cabin. We shared it with five other girls and our camp counselor, Janet. She was a college student who loved Shania Twain music and had a tattoo of a mushroom on her ankle.
I watched Skye bond with the three “cool” girls in our cabin. Sitting, jealous, on my bunk bed, I watched the cool four of them talk about which member of *NSYNC was the cutest, how many homeruns The Dodger’s Mike Piazza hit so far that year, and what their favorite tennis shoes were. I, of course, had nothing to add to any of these subjects.
Then I realized why Skye’s mom had paid for me to come. Skye didn’t want me there. She wanted to feel comfortable enough to meet new friends, but if she didn’t right away, I was her fallback.
I was Skye’s summer camp accessory: a human lanyard.
The third day, we all went swimming. The cool girls all wore athletic, black one-pieces.
I didn’t realize how much My Lime Green Popsicle would stand out. At home, it made me feel glamorous and exotic. At home, I had allies for my eccentricity. But at camp, I was wearing a neon sign saying, “She’s not like you!” and it felt awful.
“Why is your bathing suit so fancy?” one girl asked. She said it like it was a question, but we all knew it was a rhetorical insult.
Frozen, I just sat on the dock, watching, while they all went in the water.
It just became easier not to try. During non-regulated “summer fun,” I’d sneak back to the dark, quiet cabin to read alone.
Janet became concerned. She advised me to socialize more, suggesting I play with Mariah and Jessica, the two other girls in our cabin who hadn’t made the “cool club.”
Once more, I put on the Lime Popsicle, trying to ignore the voices of doubt in my head, and walked to the lake.
Jessica was soft-spoken and had the face of a plastic baby-doll. Mariah, who looked like a permanently exhausted cartoon ghost, had her back turned to us. She stood knee-deep where the wooden dock blocked the sun. She’d plunge her hands into the water, lift them out, and let the water drain from the cracks in her fingers. I assumed she was shy, and I could relate.
I talked with Jessica. She had read The Hatchet too. We both agreed that skinning rabbits was outside our skill-set. Jessica’s bathing suit, although a one-piece, was turquoise. I finally felt a less alone.
Then I got up the nerve to take My Lime Green Popsicle into the open lake. I really wanted to swim and it was so hot. Jessica said she’d love to go swimming with me. With my newfound social skills moving to the next level, I went to ask Mariah to join us.
I walked over just in time to see her scoop out a tiny, silver minnow from the tiny, silver school just below the water’s surface. The water drained from her hands. She watched, delighted, as the fish flapped around, struggling to survive. Then, she chucked the carcass back in the water.
“What are you doing?!” I yelled.
The answer was: being a trainee serial killer.
I tried to save the fish, but its little body floated to the surface. Around Mariah’s legs bobbed six other dead minnow victims.
“Mind your own business.” Mariah stared at me like I was a minnow she wanted to torture. I looked around for a counselor, but there were none in sight.
“Don’t say a word. Or else,” Mariah threatened. Then she left the lake. Jessica trailed behind her, mouthing “sorry.”
By the end of three weeks at camp, I’d lost five pounds. I’d made one terrible lanyard. I’d failed to make a single friend who wasn’t a sociopath, or a sociopath’s camp accessory.
Sitting by the trees with my book, I was interrupted by Janet again.
“There has to be something you like to do?” she suggested.
I sighed. “I like reading.”
“What about something that’s not reading?”
“At home, I like to swim,” I offered up.
“Why don’t you do the lake swim?” Janet said.
“What’s that?” I asked suspiciously, already feeling judged.
“It’s a last-day tradition. You swim from the dock to the island. Or from the island to the dock. It’s not easy. It’s about half a mile. If you like swimming, it’s fun.”
“I dunno…” I said, “I’m not very sporty.”
“You’re only competing against yourself.”
I thought about it.
What if I get eaten by a radioactive catfish? What if I can’t do it? What if everyone makes fun of me? What if Mariah has a secret plot to minnow me?
I think I said yes because I was so grateful Janet was so nice to me. The next day, I regretted it.
All six girls from our cabin decided to watch me do the swim. I had an audience of the cool girls, in their athletic, black one-pieces. They weren’t even going to swim, much less get wet. Janet got the boat revved up. All of a sudden, Mariah said she wanted to swim the lake, too.
I told Janet I’d swim on the way back, from the island to shore. You know, just in case Mariah’s proclivity for drowning living things escalated the past few weeks. I also hoped if I waited, maybe a chain of misfortunate circumstances would occur and I wouldn’t have to swim.
By the time we’d got to the island, the sky started to blur from blue to pink. No unfortunate circumstance in sight.
Mariah, now on the boat in her mildew-y white towel, wheezed. She made the swim look terrifyingly hard. But, beside that, I didn’t have any excuse but cowardice to not swim.
I got out of the boat, and climbed up on a rock. I could hear a group of older boys playing on the shore.
The boat took off toward camp. It was now or never. I dove into the cool water. I swam under for a few strokes and popped up to take a breath. The moment my head came up from the water, I knew something was wrong.
I looked down. My bathing suit top was missing. My Lime Green Popsicle’s velvet halter straps had failed me.
I stopped swimming. I covered myself with one hand, treaded water, and spun around with the other. Janet realized I was dragging behind and stopped the boat.
She yelled, “Are you okay?” very loudly.
I whispered, now panicked. “I lost my top!”
“What?” she yelled, ready to dive in and save me from drowning. Drowning would have embarrassed me less.
“I lost my swim top!” I said.
I heard an echo behind me. “You LOST YOUR SWIM TOP?” said the chorus of boys.
I was shamed. I couldn’t swim anymore. I just dipped my body under the water and hid beneath the surface. I wanted to be left there, in the lake. Or better yet, take me to the woods, where I’d live like Brian from The Hatchet. If it meant I never had to see another person again for the rest of my life, I could learn to skin a rabbit.
I felt a hand reach for mine. I came up again. It was Skye. She was holding a towel, which she covered me with. In her other hand, was the swim top. She dove in to rescue it. To rescue me.
Skye helped secure my top, triple knotting the back strap so much it pinched my neck skin. And for the first time all month, I didn’t feel alone.
“Do you wanna get back in?” Janet said. The boat was now close. I could just jump inside, and speed back to the dark cabin, to my book, to my solitude.
The cool girls all stared at me. I looked at Skye, who still treaded water beside me.
“I think you should swim,” Skye said.
“Okay.” I smiled.
She got back in the boat, and I swam.
I followed the boat until my arms hurt. Until my lungs felt like pincushions. Until I didn’t think I could swim anymore. But I did swim. I swam to the very end.
Before I climbed up the ladder onto the dock, I took just a moment to turn around and look. The island was covered in black pine trees up against an orange-red sky. The lake sparkled. It looked so far away. I couldn’t believe I’d conquered it.
Suddenly, the wilderness didn’t seem so bad. I survived the lake. I survived total humiliation.
And as I climbed up the ladder and stood on the dock, I received a round of thunderous applause. Even from the cool girls.
But it didn’t matter one bit. Because standing there, in My Lime Green Popsicle, knowing I hadn’t given up, I became my own cool girl.