I was ten and I’d become interested in the female form, or rather, in the baring of it. We are told to write the story we long to read; I drew dirty pictures on the stationery I was supposed to be using to write to my grandmother. Images were seeming to be fed into my mind like quarters through a slot machine. The naked woman’s hands were often up behind her head – I was a mess with joints and drew the elbows curved, snakes for arms. I was in camp, and I tucked the sketches under my pillow.
A short while later, our counselors pinned us to our beds in a game of “straitjacket.” Our arms were removed from our sweatshirt sleeves (it must have been a cold, rainy day, which was why we were spending all that time in the bunk) and the sleeves then tied tightly behind our backs so that we couldn’t move. When they came to me I struggled, because you were supposed to, and when finally they roped me down, we all realized something had been knocked to the floor.
“Don’t,” I said, flipping onto my back like a fish on a dock. I swung my legs over the side and watched, hands tied, as they unfolded the paper.
“I didn’t do that,” I said, but the stationery, which my mother had ordered in the mail, bore my name.
By silent conference, the two of them decided what must be done next. Chava, who was freckled and fat and always either too hot or too cold, refolded it and brought it to her cubby, where she fastened it to a clipboard. Still later the same day – why didn’t the camp have anything planned for rain? – they gathered us on the sandy cabin floor, and by now everyone had been released, so their hands were available to pass my drawings around the circle.
“How do you all feel about this?” Melody, the other counselor, asked. She was Sephardic looking, with hair-sprayed bangs and an anklet. “Should we show this to Bobbi and Roberta?” Those were the unit leaders, women in their fifties with the same name whose marbled calf veins showed beneath their khaki shorts.
I still don’t know why this was done to me. I’d never given Chava and Melody a problem, so it wasn’t in retaliation. I can only explain it by saying that, despite the Riot Grrrl movement happening simultaneously across the country, we were submerged in a community of female hatred. It would happen again three years later, different counselor, same camp, when my nighttime masturbation alerted my bunkmates’ sense of decency, they went to the counselor for advice, and she approached me alongside them, asking if I touched myself.
“No. Do you?”
“No,” the counselor said before all of us who were on the eve of becoming Bat Mitzvah. “That’s a guy thing.”
To my surprise, none of my bunkmates now voted to bring my depravity to Roberta and Bobbi. Perhaps in their own stationery Caboodles they kept similar things.
My way around the shame was to pretend I didn’t have any. I desisted from drawing and went back to being a tomboy, because tomboys never thought about sex. I regressed. I befriended a group of younger campers and led them through the woods to Cropsey’s house. We glimpsed the shack with its propane tanks, no signs of (murderer’s) life or (victim’s) death. Then we trod on past the eruv, a piece of string that surrounded the property with the purpose of pardoning rule breakers. This had been explained to us at Shabbat services. According to Halakah (the Way), a Jew shouldn’t perform work of any sort – even the schlepping of objects – on the seventh day. To get around this problem, an eruv encloses Jewish communities. Within the string, you’re pardoned.
Luckily. Because this was a Saturday, and just inside the boundary I discovered a long, thick bone and picked it up. The younger campers circled me as I held it gingerly between forefinger and thumb. It dangled heavily, and so I gripped it beneath the joint, raised it overhead like a biblical staff, and marched my clan back to the main grounds, across the field, up the steep hill to the infirmary, where I threw open the squealing screen door and set the bone on a cot.
“If it’s human,” I told the nurse, “somebody’s in trouble.”
But she didn’t bother to investigate, just wrapped the bone in a paper towel and flung it out the door. She wiped the cot with Lysol. She lined us in front of the sink to scrub our hands, although I was the only one who’d handled the remain.
Back in the bunk a flu began to make its rounds. Jacqueline Rosenblum vomited and the smell lingered for weeks of Twizzlers. She was lain flat in the infirmary. Despite the threat of contagion, my bunkmates continued doubling up for showers.
It wasn’t required that we shower in pairs. There was, as I’ve said, an overabundance of free time, and besides, the stall was very narrow. Purposeful touching didn’t occur, nor ogling – perhaps just a comparison of chest size, and I do remember in detail a line of soap sliding down Rivka’s belly, over a dangling tongue of sparse hair.
It was a system of social stratification. A matriarchy in miniature, wherein assignments were determined both by merit and genes. For example, Talia, who was pretty in the sense of becoming flushed during a soccer match and subsequently being cooled by a raft of paper fans, never washed alongside Samara, who looked lumpy in her swimsuit and sang an overeager rendition of the ’88 Olympic theme when we staged vocal contests at night, in the dark, from our beds. But if you fell somewhere in the middle and also performed a daring feat, such as dashing into Grandma Mabel’s cabin to swipe a brick of Fig Newtons, and then doling out the cookies to the important members of the group, you might suddenly be taken by the hand of Annie Siegel, who was already getting noticed by boys’ side, or Sarah Blum, who wasn’t pretty but charismatic, and could interlace her fingers and jump rope through her arms, dislocating her shoulders as the “rope” rose up behind her head. You could, if you were in the middle like I was, be invited to shower with the best.
Only, after the drawings had been discovered, Chava and Melody forbid me from partner showering at all. They sat me on a picnic table a few days after the group meeting and told me that it was “perverted” to picture those of your own sex in the nude, and that, in order to protect the other girls from my mind, they’d have to bar me from the ritual.
And so, several nights in a row I slipped off the line of toweled bodies, two and two until my one, dressed swiftly, wrapped a towel around my dry head, and went out in flip flops to the court behind the bunks to play boxball.
My state of disrepair opened me wide to the virus, and the day Jacqueline returned, I crumpled during tennis lessons, knees folding, cheek pressed desperately to the red clay. The infirmary was a full house, and the nurse who’d discarded my bone assigned me a room already occupied by a male counselor.
He was English or Irish. He was pink-faced and blonde and I couldn’t understand a word he said. The thought of going to sleep at night beside a man intensified my dizziness, and when he spoke to me from his cot, I answered woozily, “Yes.”
“Yes?” He laughed. “I haven’t asked ye a question.”
I passed out again and again while trying to page through my Archie comics. The girls from my bunk visited one day at the window, and looking out over their lively, unblemished faces, I collapsed again, falling from view. I heard one of my bunkmates laugh nervously and another scream for help. My roommate hobbled in from the bathroom. He didn’t have an internal illness, he’d broken his ankle playing a sport I couldn’t make out. And they’d paired him with a flu patient. What was wrong with that place?
He bent to lift me by the armpits. I recall the feeling of being raised from the floor, held in strong male arms, and the view of the room upside down as my head dangled backwards.
Barbara Strauss’ work has appeared in Five on the Fifth (forthcoming 4/5/22), OpenDoor Magazine’s “Adoration” issue, The Ilanot Review, Rock & Sling, The Charles Carter Working Anthology at UNC Chapel Hill (forthcoming), and bioStories, among other publications. She lives outside Boston.