Sherry’s acne, protruding like smallpox pustules, is one of the things I’m going to miss about summer camp. Closing the cabin door behind her, she heads down the hill. The other girls peek through the shutters to see whether she’s out of earshot.
Ellen speaks first, turning with a grin as soon as Sherry is on the path through the pines.
“There she goes.” Ellen cocks an eyebrow, insinuation in every syllable, “The girl who keeps Noxzema in business.”
Ellen is the one who dyes the cafeteria milk green, smears Ben-Gay on the boys’ toilet seats, and makes animal noises after lights out.
Ellen never gets into trouble. She has mastered the art of looking innocent when culpable. Although I’m always innocent, since I’m too scared to break a single rule, I usually feel guilty, so the counselors suspect me of misdemeanors that take place only in my dreams. I love Ellen’s wild ways and admire her guts. She seems happy all the time.
“And her face still looks like a dartboard,” Ellen adds. Weak giggles. We’ve heard the dartboard joke all summer. We want some new Sherry joke, since it’s the end of the season.
“So what could Sherry do with her face?” Ellen asks.
“Hide it!” I say, since that’s what I’d like to do with my own. Seven other thirteen-year-old girls choke and fart with laughter. I am so surprised that I jump and nearly tumble out of my bunk.
“That’s what I’ll miss,” Ellen gasps, when she catches her breath. She doesn’t mean my startle reflex.
But I start to cry.
Before I know it, she puts her arm around me. I freeze with embarrassment; sympathy makes me cry, and I’m afraid to think of Ellen as a friend. I pull back, and Ellen eyes me cautiously.
“You should maybe see the camp psychologist.”
“I was sad and she helped.”
“When I got my first period, my mother slapped me.”
“Why would she do that?”
Ellen’s face twists and I wish I’d kept my mouth shut. After a moment she says, “The psychologist talked to her, and my mom and I get along now. Sort of.”
I follow directions through the pines down to the small house by the lake. A blonde, roly-poly lady in a tie-dye muumuu opens the door, setting the wind chimes on her porch tinkling.
“Well, hello there!” she chirps, and I stiffen. “Come right in.” A veritable jungle of spider plants hangs from her windows; yucca and cactus line the walls. Pine-scented candles burn in corners around the room, and beneath them a faint odor of pot and cigarettes can be detected.
She waves me toward a large, comfy armchair and starts opening windows as I ease into it. Swish, swish goes the muumuu, and she sits across from me.
“How about some tea?” She reaches for a dusty pottery bowl wavy with some camper’s best efforts, and filled with to the brim with mint tea bags. I hope it’s not mixed with pot. She’s already setting a battered kettle on a hot plate.
“I don’t like tea,” I say.
I used to drink coffee with my father every morning--hot milk, sugary coffee and biscuits he made to go with it all. That was three years ago. We called our early morning coffee “secret tea.” Even then, I left the house breathing a sigh of relief: “Eight whole hours before I have to come home.”
She looks slightly disappointed. Now that I think of it, I bet she never drinks coffee.
“Let’s hear your story. Just what brought you here.”
“A mistake. It’s nothing—I was crying and a girl in my bunk thought I should come. I’m really fine now.”
I get up.
“Of course,” she says, her voice so soft it is almost a whisper. “I understand.” But, she asks, would I mind telling her why I’d felt sadbefore? I burst into tears yet again. I don’t remember what I tell her but images flash through my mind of my red-faced, disheveled father exhaling gin, a shock of hair falling over his forehead, grabbing me, slapping me, my mother, eyes wide, running out of the room, my brother reeking of pot and sweat. The thought of going home makes me want to dig a hole and hide. I talk in a frenzy, stopping when I notice the light darkening from golden to pale orange as afternoon moves toward evening.
I am in the oldest group so cannot return, unless I want to train as a counselor next summer. I hate the thought of telling other campers what to do; I want to get lost in the group, sticking gobs of paper-maché onto a mask. I’ve been running to summer camps since I was ten, when I found out they existed, not because I enjoy campfires and mountain-climbing, although I do, but because eight solid weeks away from my family seems a godsend.
Except for visiting day. On the least disastrous of these, my mother swims from her bed-and-breakfast across the cove to the camp, hauling herself up unexpectedly on a grassy lakefront area near the tennis courts while practically the whole camp is there: we are all heading toward the dining hall for lunch.
“Who’s that lady? She’s waving at you. Do you know her? Is that your, your . . .?” the girls giggle, bug-eyed with horror or amusement, as Mom, in a suit that looks like a white ballerina tutu, waves and makes an extravagant curtsy.
“Oh, just some monkey.” I hope to pass her off as a wandering lunatic, unrelated to me, but when she calls my name loudly, adding, “It’sMom!” as though I’d accidentally failed to recognize her, I have to wave back, or watch her make friends with anyone willing to talk to her. She sings louder, claps harder, expresses everything more than anyone else. At least Dad isn’t with her. My brother is back at the B&B sleeping off whatever drug he’d tried the night before. He never does visit that year even though my mother drags him all the way from New York and tells him the sun is good for him and maybe he’d like to swim with her.
“Your whole family should go into therapy together,” the muumuu lady breathes. “You need family therapy.” She never says what family therapy is, but the way she waves her arms around while her eyes mist over makes me think it works like magic.
I imagine my family sitting around this room, my father grinding his jaw and jigging his knee, my mother grinning angrily, my brother chatting with persons whom neither I nor anyone else can see or hear. I remember my father throwing the radio and how it smashed into many pieces against the wall after I ducked. What will he throw when I tell him the camp psychologist says we should all go to family therapy? She’s telling me she’s willing to talk with my father alone or with my family, “whenever you feel ready.” I want to say that I’ve been feeling ready for the past thirteen years, all my life, where have you been, and do you provide shields or armor? As she talks, I can almost hear her muumuu dragging across the floor while she herds Dad, Mom and Roland into those overstuffed armchairs. I sit back and watch. Dad agrees to abandon drinking and violence. Mom announces she’ll learn to be a mother. My brother’s eyes come into focus as he expresses regret for getting stoned: he’d like to finish high school after all. The whole thing takes maybe twenty minutes and we’re done.
I tell the lady everything I can think of about my family, not mentioning that if I look at a mirror, a girl so hideous that passersby flinch at the sight of her stares back. But I am already gloating: after family therapy, my problems won’t hold a candle to the hair-brained scrapes that characters in The Brady Bunch endure. Plus, I’ll have smooth-as-silk skin that never needs Noxzema.
“We should go into family therapy,” I tell my mother when she comes to pick me up. “The camp psychologist told me that.” Mom places her hands on her hips, raises her eyebrows exaggeratedly and stares.
“You know, I almost didn’t recognize you! You’re, well, taller,” she lies, staring with disapproval at my newly sprouted breasts.
I’ve put on ten pounds too, mostly on my newly widened hips. At this camp you could buy candy whenever you wanted, instead of only once a week, like at my old camp.
I drop the subject, but raise it later, while my father is watching TV and I am cleaning the guinea pigs’ cage.
My father starts shaking me. My head snaps back and forth and I think about dying before we get to try family therapy.
Lately, he grabs my hand anytime we leave the house together. I hate this.
“When are you going to get a family therapist?” I ask my mother the next day. Soon I’d be asking her to get a divorce, something that, like family therapy, is hardly necessary, she informs me.
Daddy goes to a psychoanalyst, and that works just fine, she says in her low voice, without looking me in the eye, as if she’s afraid he will hear her, and he might. She has a psychoanalyst too, she says, and it is time I had one of my own. The way she talks, I think of going to the psychoanalyst as something you just do, as an embarrassing and unexpected consequence of growing up, the way you get your period. I remember telling Mom that I’d finally gotten mine, and how she seemed not to know which way to look. A year earlier I took her aside and begged for a trainer bra, because girls at school were laughing at me for still wearing an undershirt. Mom made a point of telling Dad that we were going to buy school shoes, “and maybe a bra!” as if a more ridiculous request could not be imagined. At the local department store, a harassed saleslady could find no bra small enough to fit my ribcage. I stood in the unflattering light of the changing room with that thing flopping down to my navel as my mother smirked (“Serves you right! You don’t need one!”) The saleslady shook her head sympathetically, saying, “You got to let your puppies grow.”
My mother says she will interview psychoanalysts and let me know when she finds a good one. I am still disappointed about family therapy, but it is beginning to dawn on me that I’ll get to see this analyst after school. That’ll shave off a few of the hours I would otherwise have to spend with my family.
A few days later, Mom hands me a phone number and urges me to call and make my own appointment. Perhaps unwittingly she chooses the one who will tell me that she is a wonderful mother and that I should be grateful to her. I do call and the slightly foreign male accent that I cannot place intrigues me—I’ve never heard an accent like that, having no idea that an army of such accents populate Central Park West where the analyst lives and works in the same apartment. His waiting room, directly in front of French doors opening into his kitchen, is filled with the aroma of roasting pork or baking Guglhupf, redolent of butter and sugar.
After a few sessions, I begin to research new ways to get away from home, buying a book called Runaways, filled with black-and-white photos of young people hitchhiking to big cities where drug addiction and prostitution invariably claim them, at least according to the authors, who warn that running away from home “is a crime!” I buy landlubber bell-bottoms and embroider them with “War Is Not Healthy For Children And Other Living Things,” a slogan that has no effect on my parents’ knock-down drag-out cocktail-and-dinner hours. I read Summerhill, look into free schools, insist on applying to one, and start dance classes (which lead to even more time away from home!) I tell the analyst I don’t really like Freud. I like William Reich, with his ideas about orgonomy and orgasms, the latter something I have never experienced, still imagining that they do not occur without a boy on hand.
At which point according to the analyst therapy begins, because don’t I see that hippies are psychotic, bell-bottoms ugly, my embroidery crude, free schools only for disturbed children? That I am no dancer but only a dance student? That Alvin Ailey is awful, that opera is better than ballet, that jazz is horrible, that I think about sex too much (“You are a whore!”) and above all, that I should listen to him and focus on my schoolwork?
Reader, I don’t. I find in the journal I kept when I was fourteen and a half, in 1971, the following remarks, after a year of psychotherapy: “a girl was unable to express certain feelings to her analyst because she believed they were beyond the realm of his experience (cultural & otherwise). To enable herself to communicate with him she adopted his values and ethics, abandoned hers. She became his moral shadow.”
Forty years later, I can’t disagree with a word that kid wrote. At the time, however, I barely gave her the time of day.
About the author:
Melissa Knox teaches American Literature and Culture at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Her poems have been published in Aberration-Labyrinth, Undergroundbooks.org, The Voices Project, The Feminist Wire, and NonBinary Review. She has written extensively on Oscar Wilde and other nineteenth-century writers.