article says the Indigo Girls are lesbians." Rachel said this like she expected
Tamar and me to be incensed. Rachel was sprawled across the beanbag chair our
counselor had brought for the bunk at the beginning of the summer, eating Hydrox
and flipping through the Sassy magazine my parents had sent me the day
before. I hadn't read it yet and was annoyed that Rachel had already gotten crumbs
on the pages. I was stomach-down on Rachel's bed, and Tamar was sitting Indian-style
by my feet.|
"So what, they are," said Tamar. "Will you just shut up so I can finish writing my letter and we can go to canteen before rest hour is over?"
Rachel didn't shut up. "They shouldn't print stuff like that."
Tamar ignored her. Rachel went back to reading but a minute later she spoke up again: "Amy can't be a lesbian. How could a lesbian sing 'Romeo and Juliet'?"
Rachel had turned fifteen the second Shabbat of camp and we had all chipped in to get her the Rites of Passage album. She hadn't been an Indigo Girls fan before the summer, but recently decided that 'Romeo and Juliet' was her favorite song. I didn't want to get into this conversation but felt compelled to respond. "A Jew wrote 'White Christmas.' It's art, Rachel."
"So what about all the songs she writes? Amy I mean. Are they made up?"
"I don't think so."
"So are they writing about each other?" Rachel looked horrified.
I glanced at Tamar. She shook her head but kept looking down at her letter -- she wasn't getting involved. The week before Tamar had told us she'd once tried pot with her brother, and Rachel had pulled a holier-than-thou attitude. Tamar and Rachel been somewhat cold and distant to each other since. I wondered if they would be speaking at all if they weren't both friends with me.
"Are they like a couple?" Rachel wanted to know now. "Do they kiss each other and stuff? That's so gross." She shuddered. "Eww. I don't even want to think about it."
I knew Amy and Emily weren't a couple but decided to let Rachel wonder. "What's so gross about it?" I asked instead. "I would kiss a girl."
Rachel just stared at me. I could tell she was processing this new piece of information, as though her entire understanding of me had changed with my one comment. I wondered if I would take it back if I could. I didn't think so. I enjoyed challenging Rachel's narrow view of the world. It was the same impulse that watched live action footage of natural disasters on television and stared at the accident wreckage we sometimes passed on the highway.
"So are you a lesbian?" Rachel asked finally.
I wanted to say yes even though it wasn't true. I wanted to see how Rachel would react. The word was shaping itself on my tongue when I realized it was quiet, that there were quite a few of our bunkmates listening to our conversation. I looked at Tamar; her eyes were on her half-written page but her pen was still and I knew she wasn't paying attention to the letter. Tamar had kissed a girl once during a game of truth-or-dare. She'd told me that it was no big deal, that she hadn't been turned on by it or anything, but she asked me to please not tell anyone else about it, that people were just too weird about that stuff. I wished Tamar would say something, change the topic, but Tamar wasn't saying anything.
"No, I'm not a lesbian," I told Rachel, loud enough that my eavesdropping bunkmates couldn't misconstrue my response. I felt bad, wondering if someone in the bunk really was a lesbian and if I shouldn't have answered so quickly, as though it was a bad thing to be, but I didn't know what else I could have said. There were five weeks left of camp, and if I'd hesitated, by dinnertime the whole edah -- including my boyfriend Aron -- would have heard the rumor that I was a lesbian.
Our counselor's alarm went off, meaning there were ten minutes left of rest hour. She had been napping on her bed in the far corner of the bunk, and now she told us in a chunky voice to put our letters on the edge of her bed if we hadn't already and leave for chug, afternoon activity. Mostly she didn't care if we actually went to chug as long as we were out of the bunk so she didn't get in trouble from the head of our edah.
Rachel reached under her bed for her underwear bag and began searching through it to find something to tie-dye in omanut and I stood up and wove my way through beds, shelves, and bunkmates to the back of the bunk where the bathroom was.
I covered the seat with toilet paper so I could sit down fully, then let down my weight on the seat and tried to relax my muscles, staring at the graffiti on the wall. Flush hard it's a long way to the kitchen sometimes made me laugh but not today. Here I sit brokenhearted tried to shit but only farted was written in marker at eye-level. I always tried not to read that one, but it was like trying not to think of a purple elephant. It never worked. I kept meaning to cover it up but never did, maybe not wanting to show my discomfort. Instead I added my own graffiti, ILANA '93, and various inside jokes, all over the bunk, though not in the bathroom.
Graffiti was a tradition at camp, and counselors had trouble disciplining us for it when their own names covered so many walls. I saw it as an art form. It was important to add your name, just as important to add the inside jokes which made your summer unique or connected you to your friends, but bathroom graffiti was crude; it broke some unspoken code of graffiti ethics. I reached into my pocket and found a pen, tried to scribble over the rhyme but the blue ink barely showed over the thick black letters. I wondered why I felt so close to tears, so weird and tangled and twisted up inside.
Someone knocked on the stall door but I didn't answer. I could hear the counselor moving through the bunk, yelling at everyone to go to chug. I liked my chug -- I was in omanut, arts and crafts -- but I didn't want to go, didn't want to see anyone. I didn't want to stay the rest of the summer in a bathroom stall either, though. There was another knock and then Rachel's voice. "Ilana, are you okay in there?"
I breathed a couple of times to make sure my voice would stay steady before I answered. "Yeah, I'm fine, I just have diarrhea."
"Do you need Pepto Bismol?" she asked.
Someone else hollered out, "Tell her to use Lysol when she's done."
"I took some already," I said to Rachel, and she seemed to believe me. She said she was leaving for omanut and she'd tell the counselor I'd gone already. I didn't respond but I listened to hear her tell the counselor and then leave the bunk. I felt anger rising I didn't understand.
The counselor kept hounding the stragglers to get out, and then finally the bunk's screen door slammed again and it was quiet. At first I thought I was safe, but then the counselor came into the bathroom. She didn't notice me, though I could tell from the crack she was going into the shower. I watched as she flossed her teeth and admired her breasts in the mirror. I thought about saying something, letting her know I was here and maybe telling her about what had happened, but then the thought crossed my mind that maybe she hadn't been asleep for all of it. Maybe she had heard part of the conversation, and if she had and was pretending she hadn't then maybe talking to her about it wasn't such a good idea.
She moved out of my line of visibility, but I could tell from the sounds that she had stepped into the shower and turned on the hot water. She hummed some tune that had been on the radio that morning as she showered and dried off and put on deodorant and left the bathroom and then came back in to check her hair in the mirror one last time as her boyfriend called her name from outside the bunk. There wasn't anything particularly attractive about her, I decided, as the door slammed again and she greeted her boyfriend. I wondered if he just gave her a peck on the cheek or whether he would slip her the tongue in public.
I unlocked the stall door, not flushing the toilet, leaving the mess for my bunkmates. I ran hot water over my washcloth -- lukewarm, really, because the counselor had used up most of the hot water from her shower -- and held it over my face for a while, then looked up and studied myself in the mirror. I looked the same. I thought about the counselor looking in that same mirror earlier and admiring her breasts. I didn't think I would like to kiss her but I still didn't think there was anything inherently gross about kissing a girl. It was probably nicer to kiss their smooth skin than the nicked-up faces of the guys in our edah. Most of them had started to shave this summer, even though they didn't really need to. Tamar said they were doing it just to prove they could. Aron had messed up a couple of times and I'd liked kissing him better two weeks earlier when we'd started going out and he had peach fuzz.
I grabbed my sunglasses so no one would see my eyes, then left out the back way, through the fire door which was supposed to stay locked. Part of me wanted my bunkmates to get in trouble for it. Why were they all so uptight about the idea that someone might be a lesbian? Why did Tamar feel like she couldn't speak up? A girl in the other bunk had been sent to a private all-girls school the year before and she and all her friends joked about it constantly, calling it "Dyke Academy." Hadn't they all been brought up in the same tradition as me? Wasn't this a religious camp? What happened to the Judaism I learned and practiced, the one which taught tolerance and acceptance?
I wasn't exactly sure where I was walking although I knew it wasn't in the direction of the omanut building. I passed by the baseball field and entered machaneh gimel, the huge field where we'd have evening campfires and rocky mountain toast breakfasts and the tug-of-war at the end of Yom Sport. There was a rock at the edge where Aron and I went to make out. At night it was a good place to be alone but during the day it was visible to the campers doing archery in the field and anyone who passed by and looked in that direction. I kept walking and eventually found myself in the woods by the hermit's house. The official story was that had originally been the home of the camp cook, but camp legend had grown and now counselors took their campers up there at night to give them a good scare. During the day, though, it was usually deserted and a good place to be alone if you didn't mind the cobwebs and the dirt.
I stepped into the first of the two rooms, hearing the creak of the floor below me and hoping it wasn't so rotted that it would break under my feet, then paused as I heard voices. Familiar voices. My counselor was speaking. "So then all of a sudden they shut up and they're all listening to Rachel and Ilana. Ilana was pretty quick to say she wasn't gay." Her voice trailed off, implying something more than what her words said.
"You can't be sure about anyone." That was her boyfriend. "But if I had to bet on it I'd put my money on Rachel being gay, not Ilana."
I turned away and stepped out of the hermit's house, careful not to make another creak. I wanted to listen further but also knew I probably didn't want to hear any more. I couldn't tell what my counselor thought, and maybe she was just idly wondering, but now I knew she had heard the conversation. She had heard the conversation and not only didn't she jump in to say anything to Rachel, she was also telling other people about it. Damn her. Damn her for pretending to be asleep, damn her for believing Rachel about me being at omanut and not even looking to see where I was.
I didn't know what else to do so I went to omanut.
There were purple and green dyes for tie-dye, which were two of my favorite colors, but Rachel was tie-dying so I crossed to the other side of the omanut building hoping she didn't see me and dug through the box of gimp until I found a full spool each of brown and black. I started to unwind them but then slid the spools onto my lap, checking first to make sure no one was watching. There was enough to make a huge king cobra, maybe even long enough to be a belt. I didn't know why that was suddenly important, but it was. Gimp was in high demand so no one ever did anything bigger than a bracelet or a key chain or the occasional necklace. But there was another spool of black and no one ever used the brown, so I could make a masterpiece and make everyone envious or at least admiring.
As I made this decision the head omanut lady came over to tell me it was time to clean up. She didn't see the spools, so I waited until her back was turned and then shoved them in my pocket. There was a bulge but if I kept my hands shoved in there too and didn't stop to talk no one would notice. I kept them that way as I went back to the bunk. The fire door was still open so I came in through the back and shoved the spools into my pillowcase, then ran back across the field to the hadar ochel for dinner.
I was late. There was a seat left at the far end, though, away from Rachel and the counselor. Tamar was at the end closest to the kitchen because she was the waitress for our bunk that day. I felt separated from the conversation and strangely that was a comfortable feeling. I stayed quiet and passed food when asked, asking in Hebrew for anything I needed passed to me. Someone made a comment about me showing off but it was a way to get the food, to communicate, without using English. It was a way to stay separate and private in this place where your entire life was on constant display. There was something inherently wrong with that lack of privacy but I didn't know what else to do about it other than staying quiet or speaking Hebrew or putting on my headphones. Dessert was ice cream sandwiches, and the head counselor came around asking Jewish holiday trivia questions and giving the extra sandwiches to whoever got them right.
I answered the questions in my head -- the five kinds of grains prohibited on Passover are wheat, oat, barley, rye, and spelt; we read from the book of Eycha on Tisha B'Av, which commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples; no clue what the Hebrew date of Shavuot is.
Aron guessed the date of Shavuot loudest and quickest, then made a big show of stopping by my end of the table and asking if I wanted half his ice cream sandwich, and if I wanted to meet up with him during the free hour before curfew. I declined the ice cream but said yes to the meeting, glad to have an excuse to get away from my bunkmates.
Aron was my first boyfriend who had lasted more than a week. We would break up at the end of the summer because that's what you did at camp, so you would be free to go out with other people during the year. If you really liked each other, you could go out again the next summer. The way I figured it, I had written to my school friends about Aron already, so in September everyone at school would know that Ilana always has a boyfriend at camp and then one of the cool boys at school would ask me out and I would date him for the year. Everyone at camp knew that I hadn't gone out with anyone at school and they knew who I'd gone out with at camp, but next year I would come back to camp experienced, and there would be someone new or someone from another edah or someone who just hadn't paid attention to me before, and we would fall in love.
The scheduled edah evening game of capture-the-counselor was easy to skip, and Aron and I wound up at our rock in machaneh gimel. At first I wanted to tell Aron about the conversation with Rachel but when he started kissing me I decided I didn't want him to know. I had a sinking feeling he'd go back and tell his bunkmates, tell them how his hands were there and there and he'd been kissing me and sucking my neck and was trying to unhook my bra when I started talking about Amy the lesbian, and then all of them would laugh. I kissed Aron back for a while but when he slid his left hand down towards my breasts I stopped and pushed him away.
"Sorry," he said, but he was already sliding his tongue back into my mouth. He was a better kisser than my previous two boyfriends had been, so it felt good, but it also felt wrong though I didn't quite know why. I couldn't find words for it so I just pulled back again and shifted my position so I was as far away from him as I could be while still sitting on the rock. "What, what did I do?" he asked. "Whatever it is, I'm sorry." His words sounded empty. He tried to put his arm around me and I shrugged him off.
I looked at him, this -- stranger -- I had let run his tongue along mine, thinking it was fun. "No. I can't do this."
"I don't get it," he said, and I almost said, "That's why," before I stopped myself. I tried to think what I should say, what other people might say in this position, what people in movies said.
"Aron, it's just not right." That sounded okay, non-judgmental at least. But he was expecting more, like he wasn't sure exactly what I meant. "I can't do this anymore. I can't see you anymore." That was a definite unmistakable breakup line, and I could see in his face that he knew it too. I got up. "I wish I could say I was sorry." It was the nicest thing I could think of, and I left before he could say anything else. I left him there adolescently lustful and surprised, and I left knowing that somehow I'd just doomed the rest of my summer, given fuel to the rumors I was sure had already started.