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Notes on Camp

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS
















In the vernacularof my twelfth year, 1982 sucked butt. That year, my mother
left my father for an airplane mechanic. She and I left Germany — and my
father — and moved to Texas with said mechanic. I was simultaneously
introduced to

promotion

puberty and the Texas public school system. I was fat and we
were Lutheran. Although I wasn’t nearly the bulbous beast that I imagined
myself to be, I wasn’t Lutheran either. Not really.

    

Cash incentives must have been offered to members of the Lutheran church, because moments after my mother chose the Lutheran space for her wedding to the
mechanic, we were Lutheran. We attended services every Sunday, and I was
promptly dispatched to Vacation Bible School. In the woods. In Texas. For
two weeks.

    

So there I was, a fat, fake Lutheran twelve year old, about to be shipped off to spend fourteen days with strange Southwestern children who had been attending this yearly retreat together for as long as they had been able to pee unassisted. I had no friends in Texas yet, had never heard of MTV, spent my free time reading and re-reading The Wrath of Khan novelization and tended to sunburn easily, turn red and peel horribly. Bible Camp was a monumentally horrific idea, but I had to be supportive of Mother. Support began with a wedding at That Church and somehow hinged on my camp attendance, so I sucked it up. I stood in front of the mirror in each of my droopy new JCPenney camp outfits and determined that I looked less fat if I stood with my feet in a “T” position, hands rammed deep in my pockets. I resolved to keep them there.

    

Upon arriving at camp, I was immediately sequestered in a fluorescent-lit room for four hours of daily Bible study. I emerged into daylight only to be stepped on by a senile horse, have an allergic reaction to a spider bite and get sunburned so
severely that my lips swelled up, stuck together and peeled off in a pair of
bloody leather strips. But I only remember this anecdotally. What I remember viscerally and with appropriate tingles is my first experience as a Sex Object.

    

One night after dinner, I visited the nurse to have one of my hideous injuries inspected. I was walking back to the seventh-grade girls’ cabin by myself while everyone else was changing for evening activities. On the way,
I passed the seventh-grade boys’ cabin. I snuck around to the back window,
hid behind a tree and saw my first non-baby penis.

    

In what would come to be the
rule of my sexual nature, what I saw was not nearly so breathtaking as what I
overheard: the seventh-grade boys were sizing up the seventh-grade girls as
make-out material.

    

I knew they were talking about me when they singled out “the one who always
has her hands in her pockets.” My cheeks burned and my mouth dried up. I
stopped watching and leaned my back up against the cabin, next to the window,
where I could neither see nor be seen but could hear.

    

“You know why she keeps her hands in her pockets, don’t you?” one boy asked
the others.

    

A few laughed knowingly, but when no one would compromise their cool long enough to ask the question, the Expert volunteered: “She’s feeling herself up!”

    

What?! I was not! Though I’d been a chronic masturbator since age tiny,
humping spoons and pillows, stuffed animals and my mother’s “back massager,”
it had never occurred to me to touch myself in public. What if someone
noticed? The idea was suddenly irresistible. I tried it out right then and there: with a minor adjustment, I was able to tickle my clit (though I’m sure I
didn’t know the term) through my pocket. I closed my eyes, rubbed and
listened.

    

As I stood tickling myself and eavesdropping on the boy talk, I noticed that
no one was mentioning my hideous obesity. Someone even said I was hot. The
Expert agreed and explained that he had recognized me as a sex-crazed maniac
because my hands were always in my pockets and I tended to lean forward when on
horseback. (I thought I did this because I was terrified. Apparently, I was
humping the senile horse.) The Expert went on to describe the female anatomy
in terms that I regrettably don’t recall because I was demonstrating on
myself at the time.

    

What was getting me off — even more than the novelty of fingering myself
through my clothes in a vaguely public place — was the idea that seventh-grade boys were talking about me as a sex object. I would’ve written in my diary that I felt pretty, but I had felt pretty before. What I felt, for the first time, was sexy. And thus I became a Chronic Covert Jerk-Off Artist. The fear of getting caught fingering myself through my pockets in public was erotic as hell. I eschewed panties for the remainder of camp to facilitate my thrilling new skill. Okay, I thought about it more than I actually did it, but my secret shame and the gusty Texas winds nonetheless conspired to engorge my labia for the remainder of camp.

    

I did make out with one of the seventh-grade boys behind the girls’ cabin the
night before camp ended, though. We’ll call him Chuck, because I think that
was his name. I wanted to confess my eavesdropping, newfound lewdness
and liberation, but I held my tongue for fear that he’d be morally outraged, or worse — I’d find out that the boys had been talking about someone else. Sadly, by the time Chuck had me alone behind the cabin, Bible study kicked in, and he talked a lot about how much he liked me. He limited himself to some awkward kissing and hand-holding. I remember my attention drifting to a quivering mass of Daddy Longlegs on the cabin wall near his head. I suggested we get a jar and catch some. It was probably for the best. We were twelve.

    

Chuck and I made solemn oaths to write to each other faithfully during the
winter and to meet up again the next year. Of course, neither happened, and by the time 1983 rolled around, I was Catholic again.

    

I had, however, stopped wearing panties.

 

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