When I was a kid—ten or eleven years old, maybe; I’ve blocked my exact age, along with many other details of the experience, from my memory—I went to sleepaway camp for the first and only time.
Since I’m afraid that the owners of said establishment might stumble upon this blog entry one day, I won’t use its real name. I will, however, mention that it had as its theme the fictional world of a time-honoured series of fantasy novels for children, a series that I didn’t care much about, and that it was located on one of the Gulf Islands, a whole ferry ride away from the city of my birth and upbringing.
My brother had attended this same camp several years in a row and came home after each seven-day stretch with enough memories to last an entire lifetime. I’m sure that jealousy, along with my ambition to be exactly like him, a wish that coloured many of my childhood actions, nurtured my persistence in devoting significant energy into pestering my parents to send me away on my own sleepaway-camp adventure, this despite the fact that I was a meek child who strongly disliked sleepovers of any variety, spending more than a day or two away from home, and talking to strangers (talking at all, really) and whose OCD demanded a series of bedtime rituals that would of course be difficult to maintain in a cabin environment. But these small details could be ignored by all involved in the decision-making process. My mother and father gave in, and I triumphantly began packing my bags and fantasizing about meeting various characters from books featuring girl heroes that I admired but had, if I was honest with myself, no desire to actually be (striking friendships with these valiant females would be enough for me).
My world, it turns out, was small. I had high hopes that camp would expand it.
I don’t remember who dropped me off, but I do remember sitting on the ferry so excited that I thought I was going to throw up. Or maybe what I was experiencing was gut-churning anxiety. In any case, I was pretty sure that I would vomit before we docked, and it’s not like I suffered from seasickness.
My memories of my days at camp are scattered, a fragmented blur interjected by calls to my parents begging to leave early. A bugle call, lasagne consumed in a semi-circle, an impossibly hard obstacle course: are these real recollections, or has my mind constructed them in accordance with some strange narrative with gaps that require filling?
It didn’t help that all of the other girls in my cabin had somewhat inexplicably flown in from Mexico. In fact, I was the only non-native Spanish speaker in what I had imagined, in advance of Camp Week, would be a tight clique of friendship-bracelet-knotting besties. Instead, I spent much of my time curled up in a ball counting from one to thirty under my breath—in English, not Spanish—in order to stop myself from crying. The overly cheery counsellor who had the misfortune of being assigned to care for me did her best to engage me in camp activities, to pull me out of my shell, to get me to communicate with my cabin mates, even if they admittedly couldn’t really speak my language and were content to chatter away to each other in their mother tongue, leaving me to wonder why I had given up my shelves full of Nancy Drew mysteries for this, but her attempts were by and large futile.
I was not adjusting, as my parents told me that I would every time I desperately called them. I was not a camper. This fantasy camp was my version of hell.
A few days in, it was all over. A child with an inexplicable guilt complex, I was, I’m sure, riddled with feelings of culpability, and for good reason—a sizeable chunk of cash had been spent to give me the opportunity to spread my proverbial wings, and not only had I been enough of a nuisance that it was agreed that it would be best for me to depart, but an unplanned, highly inconvenient trip had to be made to come fetch me.
But I was home. No more obstacle courses. No more lasagne semi-circles. No more huddles of Mexican girls gossiping in an idiom I couldn’t understand.
I don’t think I’ve had a sleepover since.