How to Say I Love You
After three summers as an overnight camp counselor, I got promoted to Program Director. I was twenty-one. The other admin ranged from nineteen to twenty-four: Chris (from Liverpool, England), Pat (assistant director’s son; grew up working on camp), Bridget (the director’s niece), and Laura (her older sister had been my first boss). Laura was dating one of the ropes course instructors, Pat was dating one of the girls cabin counselors, I was dating the pool director, and Chris and Bridget were dating each other.
We knew at some point we’d have to fire somebody. Every summer an average of three to five staff got sent home: getting too friendly in the laundry room; drinking on camp; holding a seance in the woods (it was Catholic camp; the visiting priest was ruffled). One year our gentle-giant camp director, Steve, fired his own kid. That’s the way it went.
I know what you’re thinking: I had to fire my boyfriend. No. That's too easy. I walked the tightrope of managing his less-than-stellar job performance (“does not play well with others”) amid the circus of camp relationships. Remember, we were supervising fifty hormonal teenagers and young twenty-somethings who were also our best friends and/or relatives. There were some tears.
Usually someone got sent home during staff training week. This year was a win: just a last-chance warning to British Eddie, who was tanked up at the airport when we went to collect him off the plane.
Weather was a bigger challenge than staff behavior. The rain started the first night of orientation and kept up most of the week. Persistent wetness brought out the skunks. They skulked around at night, going after larvae and grubs in the damp ground, and liked to den underneath the elevated cabins. During staff week more than one counselor made a run for it across the field after meeting a pair of yellow eyes in the darkness. Skunks dislike being cornered or chased: you had to be careful not to startle them with any sudden movements or loud noises.
The counselors weren’t held back by the rain; they flapped around camp in garbage bags hacked up into ponchos. The girls counselors stole the guys’ bathing suits off their back porch line, put them on and surprised the boys with a dance flash mob under the downpour. Staff training week was an important flirtation period; the summer dating draft was underway. At night on porches both sides of camp discussed their prospects. The guys were practical and openly laid out their intentions. Timing was everything; if a guy spent three days of staff week pursuing his first draft pick but then lost her to the hottest alpha, he had to scramble among limited options by the end of the week. A moneyball strategist went after a low-ranked pick from the start to lock down a guaranteed outcome. Meanwhile, the girls discussed the guys at length but were more covert about sharing the identity of their target crush, engaging in silent competition that shook out to a few confirmed couples by the end of staff training. The rest paired off over the next few weeks. Because it was a shame-oriented Catholic environment in the early 2000s, the gay staff weren’t out yet and had to move quietly under the radar. I think we can all agree they deserve an all-expenses-paid full recreation of the summer camp experience, including the waffles-and-bacon breakfast spread, so they can enjoy their own draft. Pin it.
While the counselors weighed up who was going to date who, our admin team was busy in the summer office (wistful damp wood smell; He-Man and Popples bed sheets repurposed into curtains) getting things ready before the kids arrived.
Laura and I did the supply runs, taking the camp Jeep to WalMart for eight pounds of spaghetti and three coconuts (Survivor Week challenges: worm pit; shot put). The program staff for Living and Learning, the religious activity area, always asked for obscure supplies. We drove to the St. Jude Shop (how does a store selling strictly Catholic goods stay in business? Discuss), requested a pile of Saint Patrick prayer cards, and handed over our Archdiocese of Philadelphia credit card. The woman at the register eyed us and asked to see some ID. I don’t know what kind of heist she thought two college kids had planned, going straight to the St. Jude Shop for 27 Saint Patrick prayer cards with a stolen Archdiocesan credit card, but I’m glad she can sleep at night.
We gathered costumes for each theme week, kicking off the summer with Easter Week. Pat (over six foot; later served in Iraq as an Air Force crew chief) debuted the bunny suit by leaping over a bush during flagpole ceremony and running through the crowd of three hundred campers. He walked around all week with ears flopping.
There was a great vault of old costumes for America Week: Martha Washington, Betsy Ross, Uncle Sam. We were planning the Spirit of America parade for Wednesday night and Channel Six Action News was coming; we prayed the weather would cooperate. The rule was, you had to go inside for thunder, but rain was okay as long as you could stand it. By Wednesday night it was still raining, but it wasn't thundering. We squirted red and blue food coloring into that night's dinner mashed potatoes and lined up the parade floats. The news crew rolled into the parking lot.
While we were getting ready the camp killed time in the cafeteria, singing the Ridin’ That Pony cheer. The Ridin’ That Pony cheer went like this: “Here we go, ridin’ that pony, ridin’ around that great big pony, here we go, ridin’ that pony, this is how we do it.” Then there were accompanying dance moves: “Front to front to front, my baby, back to back to back, my baby, side to side to side, my baby, this is how we do it.” Over and over, increasing in volume each time. I think the song might have been inappropriate.
Bridget and I led the parade of three hundred campers down the gravel path in the pouring rain. The kitchen staff had decorated the flatbed truck and banged pots and pans; the John Deere and the Jeep were draped in streamers. Chris took the Martha Washington costume and Pat was Betsy Ross. They had full petticoats and lustrous billowing skirts with patriotic sequin detail, plus shiny white bonnets with lace edging. Laura wore Uncle Sam: an oversize top hat and white beard. The vehicles rolled and beeped, the rain poured, the campers made noise, and everyone waved at no one. We arrived at the split in the path that led to either the boys’ side or girls’ side of camp.
“Which way?” Bridget asked. Everyone waited behind us.
“This way!” I decided. I waved my flag to the left. We marched the procession around the girls’ field, wrapped up, and dismissed everyone to cabins for the night.
The admin team regrouped. Chris’s Martha Washington and Pat’s Betsy Ross had held up; the rain rolled right off the polyester. Laura’s Uncle Sam beard was getting stringy. Steve, the camp director, walked toward us in his sandals with socks.
“Did we get on the news?” Bridget and I asked.
“No,” he said. “You went the wrong way. Chris and Pat, I need to speak with you for a moment.”
A kid in the nine-year-old boys’ cabin had found a bottle of Jack Daniels in British Eddie’s bunk. Chris and Pat, in charge of the boys counselors, had to take care of it immediately. Eddie was called over to the front porch of the camp office. Still dressed as Martha Washington and Betsy Ross, Chris and Pat fired him. They had the decency to take off their bonnets.
Eddie was taken to the airport the next day to fly back to England. The rest of us carried on through the rainy days. It was a challenge. Rain meant rearranging schedules and listening to everyone’s frustration. (“We were at Ropes, and I heard thunder, so I said, girls, let’s go in!” “But it’s MY program area, so I AM THE ONE who says when we go in, and then she said IN FRONT OF THE KIDS that if she got hit by lightning, she would sue me!” “Well he was being a jerk!”) The sports field was never not soggy, so crab-walk soccer was a no go. The sound of thunder became a triggering noise. It got to the point where if there was a roll of thunder, we would pretend we hadn’t heard anything until at least two other people insisted they’d heard it. “It’s just construction,” Chris liked to say.
The wet conditions kept the skunks active. We had to be especially alert when we were on night duty. Twice a week I took my turn staying on camp instead of joining the staff who walked to the bar down the road or went into town and jammed twelve to a table at Friendly’s. Pat always relieved me of campfire building; he was better at it and I was afraid of fire. I delivered s’mores supplies and checked on cabins.
When I walked around camp at night, I made every effort to make my presence known. I didn’t want to startle any skunks. I also didn’t want to accidentally sneak up on anyone. You never knew where you were going to run into a camp couple making out, especially when it was dark out. They were everywhere.
I wasn’t innocent, though. Remember, I told you I was dating the pool director? Sometimes when I was on duty he would sit with me in the camp golf cart, parked on the grass on the boys field. It was in full view in case anyone needed me, but with enough privacy to talk.
I’d been going out with the guy, Kevin, for a while, and it was feeling as serious as a relationship can feel when you’re at summer camp and everything speeds up like an episode of Love is Blind. We hadn’t said “I love you” yet, but I felt that we were going to any day now. I had never said it before in my life. I had never had a guy say it to me. This was exciting.
One night during Olympic Week, Kevin and I sat in the golf cart under the starry sky. The cicadas chatted in the trees. It was chilly; I’d borrowed track pants from Scottish Marion and was wearing my favorite red Winters Landscaping sweatshirt. We talked about our day and the latest camp news. It shifted into relationship conversation; this went on a lot lately. I was on full alert, aware that something was about to happen.
“How do you feel about me?” Kevin asked. “Really?” It was just like him, trying to worm it out of me before he said it himself. I was twenty-one; I played along.
“You know how I feel,” I said.
“Do you love me?” he asked.
It was a low move, but he’d said the L word out loud: exciting. I hedged. “Of course I love you, like I love all our friends and all the people I care about,” I said.
“But you don’t feel the way about me like you do your friends,” he said.
“No,” I said.
“So, do you love me?” He looked at me, waiting.
God, he was the worst! But I wanted to say it. I was going to say it, and he was going to say it back. We were at summer camp, under the stars, looking at each other, and we were going to say I love you. This was the stuff. The real stuff of life.
“Yeah,” I said. “I love you.”
The words left my mouth.
Kevin’s eyes flicked to the side.
He rose half out of his seat and yelled, “AHHHH!”
A skunk, on the grass five feet away from us, leapt up and hissed.
The skunk sprayed.
The stench was immediate, like a bomb. We both screamed. Kevin jumped out of the golf cart and ran downhill. I jumped out and ran uphill.
When I was seven years old, a few of us had a toy sale in front of my friend Kristen’s apartment house. Her upstairs toddler neighbor, who liked to run around naked, came over and peed all over the comic books for sale. It was a horrified thrill, running up the block like Paul Revere, yelling to no one, “Nicky peed on the table! Nicky peed on the table!”
This was the same feeling. I ran without purpose or agenda, calling in a weak voice, “Skunk! Skunk!” My arms jangled like a rookie runner faced with the harsh reality that they started the 5k at a non-sustainable speed. Kevin and I had instinctively shot in two different directions: him to his cabin, me to mine. My mind was jumbled. When had he actually taken off? Was it the skunk? Was it when I said I love you?
I ran into the cafeteria. Dan, who worked in the kitchen, was sitting at a table with his girlfriend Teresa, a counselor for the oldest girls' cabin. She was wearing her “I Survived the 1993 Blizzard” t-shirt and enormous skater pants.
“I got sprayed!” I said.
“Ugh!” Teresa immediately got to her feet and started backing away. “You stink!”
“Get the lemon dish soap from the back!” Dan yelled over his shoulder as they cleared out the front double doors. It was charitable of him. I was the third person to get sprayed that summer. No one wanted to be associated with anyone who stunk. It was a blame-the-victim scenario.
I found an economy-size jug of industrial-strength lemon dish soap, lugged it back to my cabin and got into the shower. It was terrifying that my own body was the source of a horrible smell: the stench had traveled with me from field to kitchen to bathroom. I dumped half the container of soap over my head, rubbing it into my hair and all over my arms and legs. Lemon scent overlaid the steady whiff of skunk. The fruity addition almost made it worse, like a teenage boy dousing himself with Axe after gym class. I squeezed out my wet hair, got into clean sweats and walked outside to throw my clothes in the dumpster. It was devastating to lose the red sweatshirt. I’d have to tell Marion I was sorry about her pants.
I showered again with the lemon soap in the morning. I hunted for air freshener, misted myself with it, and stuck a stick of Secret in my overalls pocket to carry for extra security. By now the whole camp knew I’d been sprayed. The youngest boys cabin yelled out for their flagpole report, “Hey Martha, you stink!”
“Do I smell?” I asked the other admin. It was a desperate feeling, not knowing what was real.
“No,” Bridget said.
“Yes,” said Chris. Everybody knew the best way to mess with someone who’d been sprayed was to keep telling them they smelled, even when they didn’t. That way you kept them paranoid for the rest of the summer.
The oldest boys group hosed down the golf cart for a Living and Learning service project. For the remaining weeks of camp, the rain was relentless. Counselors who’d never touched a cigarette took up smoking just to escape to the staff lounge and get a break. We had to move the International Week food fest indoors (Australian Ryan made Vegemite sandwiches; Tim from Philly served cheesesteaks). For Nature Week, Pat dressed as a squirrel.
That was the last summer; the Archdiocese shut down camp and sold the land. A few years ago, I sneaked onto the property to walk around, see the trees and fields and walk the gravel path. I wish I hadn’t. Trying to time travel, and being reminded you can't, hurts worse than never seeing a place again.
Oh yeah. A week after the skunk, Kevin told me he loved me. It was pretty anticlimactic.