Something I remember from second grade: “If you’re cold, close your eyes and imagine Hawaii.”
Something I remember from now: I’ve never been to Hawaii. Instead when I squint shut and think of summer, it’s a clump of rocks and brambles scorched hard on my brain.
It’s not just me – there were two hundred of us, I think, tangled together with soil-scratched knees and grass-latched lashes. We were at summer camp, but not the normal kind. Somehow this place had no rules, no boundaries, and (we knew) no way it could last.
On my first night, age eleven, my bunk of four girls got “combined” with four boys. “Just shove everything together,” said our counselors, two California kindreds with halos for hearts and lots of Grateful Dead. We worshiped them right from the beginning, so we did what they said. August was spent in coed blanket leftovers, grossed out and thrilled.
Days were the same: Sometimes we’d sleep through noon and sing Bob Dylan by fly-flecked trees. Sometimes we’d get “kidnapped” at dawn, zooming through state lines to climb rocks or build churches. Once we made a windmill out of junked trucks. It worked.
But one morning I woke with a thud in my gut, and even though it was Taco Night, I still wasn’t happy. I skidded into morning that day too fast and too sharp, and two seconds from the door, I fell.
I don’t remember the blood but I do remember the rage, a crying I couldn’t stop, even bundled into the arms of counselors who were, we knew, invincible. “What’s broken?” they asked and I shrieked “My heart!” even though I didn’t know why. I felt empty. I felt scraped. And after a coughing fit, I knew my diagnosis. “I’m alone,” I spat, a curse.
“You’re eleven,” they laughed, “Someone will catch up to you soon.” They wrapped me in an India weave and fed me cookies until I was calm. But I still asked “What if nobody does?” and they laughed again and said, “You’re young. You’re beautiful. And there’s always rock n’ roll.”
I have never wanted anything impossible – no love potions, no talking pets, no modeling jobs for Chanel. But if I could have one thing, it would be a path back to camp the way it was. The counselors were right – eventually, somebodies did catch up to me – but now there is a new emptiness, one for the paradise that was windblown and scratchy, and just perfect enough to be dying.
[ANNIE DILLARD - AM I THE IMAGINARY SOCIALITE?]