Wilderness Camp

My Aunt Phoebe is ugly now and I’m not even saying that to be mean. In pictures it’s clear that when she was young, she looked like me. But that sort of thinking is terrifying so I try not to pay attention to it often. Or I pay attention to it only when I can conjure both of them up in my head: Phoebe and my father in the ‘80s, wearing bell-bottom jeans. Since then, Phoebe’s face has gotten longer. Her shoulders are broader. She slouched her back so much when she was a kid that now she’s all curled in on herself with a weird bump in her spine that makes her neck jut out like a turtle.

Her children are all pretty nice which surprised me because Aunt Phoebe is the most pessimistic person my mother has ever met. Phoebe drives with both feet. She has one for the gas and one for the brake; when she took my mother wedding dress shopping the trip was so jolty that Mom spilled her coffee all over the passenger seat and Phoebe made her clean it up with gas station napkins. It’s possible that this was the tipping point. We don’t speak to Phoebe now. She lives in New Mexico with a new husband and all her daughters are in college. “What a charmed life,” my mother said. But she said it the same way she tells waiters at restaurants that they messed up her order, so it’s hard to figure what she meant by it.

There was one summer when Phoebe lived close enough to us that we couldn’t avoid her. She moved to Saline — maybe to be near my father, maybe to taunt us with familial obligation. It was 2009, I think. And I think sensing that having Phoebe’s family in Ann Arbor would invite Phoebe back into my mother’s life, my mother decided to send us away: first me and then my father. They went to divorce court and I went to Camp Lookout.

When Justina broke her ankle we were all so jealous because it was Matt who had been in charge of soccer that morning and so it was Matt who drove her to the hospital. There was speculation that it happened so fast that no other counselors went with them at the time of the accident and so Justina got a whole hour and half car ride alone with Matt. This theory was shot down, however, when we realized Megan, the camp nurse, was gone too. That made Rachel pretty angry. “What are we supposed to do if one of us breaks our ankles and there’s no nurse here?”

Maybe we were all jealous because Violet swore she saw Matt carry Justina bridal style to the camp van, the one with our pine tree logo peeling half-off. Or maybe it was that all the secret camp romances had dried up since the night Sarah-Rose snuck over to boys’ side to see Oliver because he promised to kiss her in the woods under the moon, but instead he chickened out and told his friend Jack who in turn told their counselor who just so happened to be Matt, and Matt caught Sarah-Rose out of her cabin at night and brought her to the camp office, and that was the last we saw of Sarah-Rose.

None of us were particularly sad about Sarah-Rose. She was short and beautiful. At flagpole every morning we could see boys’ side staring at her, and so, true to our upbringing, we started rumors about her. Petty stuff. We would whisper loud enough for Matt’s cabin to hear us say: “Sarah-Rose told me she gave a hand-job to her friend’s boyfriend,” or, “Sarah-Rose snuck out of a JCC meeting to make out with Scotty Steinel.”

None of it ever stuck and none of it ever worked. Nobody likes a slut, we thought; at the same time we wondered what it would be like to kiss someone and have it mean nothing. We liked the idea. Zero-attachment, like a lucky penny we’d pick up on State Street only to lose it the next day. Later, we’d say the same thing to boys at high school parties, the guy we met in our Biology class, the man who stopped us in Espresso Royale to say we looked so pretty and could I get your number? We’d say to them all, “I don’t have to mean anything to you,” which of course meant: I feel really ugly in this button-down shirt, and I’m hoping you won’t notice that it’s been a few days since I shaved my legs and that I’m not wearing deodorant right now.

At flagpole there was nothing to do but stare at Matt. Those of us at the front of the line would report back down to the rest of us:

“Matt’s wearing a red shirt today.”

“Matt hasn’t shaved, do you think he’s growing a beard?”

“Matt’s carrying a volleyball,” which meant he’d be at the sandpit during free time. Which meant the coolest of us, those who’d had their first kiss already and wore the camp uniform just long enough that they could crouch over when asked to prove that yes their skirts really were longer than their arms, those who knew how to make it look like they’d eaten more than they really had, or knew the best bathroom to throw up in after lunch, those were the girls who would be there sitting on the bench, watching Matt tell his cabin, “One more match and then it’s lunchtime, boys.”

As an adult, I would find myself embarrassed to have been a member of that group, would look back on time wasted: scarfing down cafeteria potatoes, sticking my fingers down my throat, abandoning the arts and crafts cabin to swat at mosquitos by the volleyball courts, tugging my tank top a little lower hoping someone would notice and fall in love with me for it. When we watched the boys we were careful to quit giggling for a few moments and paint a look on our faces — like dejected girls at the beginning of rom-coms, before they meet the man of their dreams.

Of course there were others of us on girls’ side who hiked, pitched tents, started fires, ate and kept it all down. Followed the Camp Lookout mission statement as exactly as possible. But we didn’t speak to them except to smile in passing and maybe say hello in order to maintain a polite distance. They made us angry. We lorded summer romances over their heads and in turn they asked the mess hall staff for a big scoop of potatoes and filled their cups to the brim with bug juice. We hated them and they envied us. Their envy only spurned our hatred: “Those fat bitches,” Olivia might say while we sat on the beach in the expensive bathing suits we begged our mothers to buy. Rather than respond to her — agree or disagree — we would just sigh and turn our heads to the right just enough so Matt wouldn’t notice we were staring at him, sitting shirtless in the lifeguard chair.

The first time my Aunt Phoebe came to our house, I was thirteen. I was in a goth phase that would pass within two months and yet I insisted to my mother that this was who I really was and there was no point trying to get me to wear a dress ever again. Phoebe knocked on our door wearing a grey cardigan and high-waisted jeans. Her teeth had gotten yellower, which made my father wonder if she’d started to smoke, but he’d never ask her because she was the big sister and he was the little brother and this meant that he had no authority to ask about her personal life.

She didn’t bring her new husband, though we’d all heard about him. My mother bitching in the kitchen while stirring black bean soup: “I just don’t get it.” Then, quieter, “Who would want to marry her?” My mother’s hair long and blond down her back, swinging just softly enough to let you know she’d been so beautiful once. “Her second husband. Jesus.”

Phoebe wandered into the house looking like she’d just gotten off a Greyhound. She was coming from the suburbs and we knew this. We lived in the West side of Ann Arbor. All the houses were strung together in a way that resembled the suburbs, but the closer you looked, the more obvious it became that we’d spent less on our house than my Aunt Phoebe. We didn’t have a backyard.

Either way, she stayed for dinner, and the conversation was interrupted by only a few awkward silences because someone (my mother) had said something that might be construed as offensive if we’re reading the room the right way. Then Phoebe got into her Buick and drove away. “God I hate that woman,” my mother said, and it was a weight off all of our shoulders — knowing we’d never have to see Phoebe again, watching her walk out of our lives and back to sunny Albuquerque.

Maybe we were all jealous of Justina because no one could tell who she was. When we were hiking to the waterfall one day, Justina said loud enough for us all to hear: “I’m so hungry.” But Justina was skinny the way we all wanted to be. Like she wasn’t even trying. Like she didn’t even know she had what the rest of us wanted.

At Camp Lookout, the mission is to teach children to survive in the wilderness of Northern Michigan. They’ll teach you how to navigate the woods, how to light a fire, how to find shelter or build a lean-to out of branches. Every week each cabin goes on a new trip. Last Monday we got sent down the river in canoes. Even the counselors were miserable because someone made the mistake of putting Stacy and Marie in the same canoe, even though everyone knew that Stacy was going around telling boys’ side that Marie smelled like Costco bologna; even though no one really knew what that meant, we took it as fact because Stacy had blonde hair and she taught us that a spoonful of peanut butter will keep you full longer if you chug a bottle of water right before you eat it.

Sometimes, when I spend too much time at a bathroom mirror, I can see the resemblances to Aunt Phoebe. I don’t look like my mother at all. If you saw the two of us walking down the street you may not even guess that we’re related. But Aunt Phoebe looks like she could be my mother. I have the same bump in my nose as her. She called it the “Jew-bump” even though, in an effort to ditch tradition, Aunt Phoebe attended College of the Holy Cross.

No one in my family likes looking like each other. Me, especially, watching Aunt Phoebe post new profile pictures on Facebook with bags underneath her eyes. It makes me scrutinize. It makes me late for appointments because I have to change my outfit. It makes me wonder about ten years from now, or twenty, or thirty. My mother would remind me to sit up straight. Wouldn’t want to to need a back-brace like my Aunt Phoebe.

On the first day of our last week at Camp Lookout, when the summer was coming to an end, and the nights were colder, and everytime we sang “Way Up in Northern Michigan” we felt like crying, the counselors decided to do a joint survival expedition. For the first time ever, boys’ side and and girls’ side would band together for the ultimate hike in Sleeping Bear Dunes.

When I talk about Michigan now I can’t make anyone believe it’s beautiful. But when we set off into the dunes, Matt leading both his cabin and ours to our first stop at Devil’s Bowl, there was a perfect fog that made it so we could barely see anything but the sand in front of us and the thin outline of the ghost forest to our left. There was a boat horn in the distance and we couldn’t help but think this was the best place we’d been, even though our feet sunk into the sand each time we took a step, making the hike harder and harder as we went along. We chanted along to “Benji Met the Bear” and, even though the boys refused, we did a rendition of “Princess Pat”, and then we were too out of breath to sing, so we hiked in silence to our campsite.

That night, around the fire Matt built, he told us we were a bunch of complainers. It was August, and the nights were no longer cool and pleasant. The cold made us shiver.

“You kids don’t know anything about the cold,” he said.

The fire crackled and we all backed away from it, not wanting to be the sort of children who sought heat when we were cold. Not wanting to be the sort of children who took an extra peanut butter sandwich when we were hungry. Not wanting to be children at all. All of a sudden, Matt pulled his left foot out of his sneaker, peeled off his sock, and showed us his missing toe.

While everyone else oohed and ahhed — Violet and Rachel and Alice, I knew it was my chance to say something to Matt. Few of us had actually spoken to him. The idea of interaction was terrifying; maybe because we’d say the wrong thing and be shooed away. Maybe because we could say the right thing and be invited closer, and what then? So we delegated the talking to the bravest of us and we said only the simplest things because anything else was asking for too much.



“How are you?”

It was exhilarating. It was boring. So my mouth opened suddenly: “My Aunt Phoebe only has nine toes, too.”

I said it too loud and didn’t like the way my voice carried, but Matt looked up. I had caught his attention. “Oh yeah? What happened?”

Everyone was looking at me now.

“Frostbite.” Then, realizing that wasn’t a lot of information, “She missed her train one night while she was wearing sandals.”

“I lost mine hiking in Alaska.”

“Wicked.” I said, even though I wasn’t the sort of person who said “wicked” and Matt nodded like he understood me before walking to the water, filling the Nalgene bottle we all kept track of (whether he held it in his hands or tossed it in his backpack), and dumping its contents on the fire.

“Time for bed,” he said, and we were reminded, once again, that he was much older than us, and had probably had many girlfriends, and probably had one now — blonde, and tall, and beautiful, and nothing like the children he met at his summer job.

When I talk about my Aunt Phoebe now I can’t make anyone believe I loved her. Maybe I didn’t. When my mother cut her off, I did, too; by default or by familial obligation, I guess. But before all of that, I loved to listen to her. She was never boring. She would tell me about growing up with my father, how they lived in New York, which was far superior to my small, midwestern town. Once she told us that my father tried to mail fireworks to their cousin and the FBI knocked on their door and questioned him. But my favorite story was the one about her little toe.

One night, in March, when she must have been 19 or 20, when she figured spring was coming and the world had thawed enough, she went to a concert in her brand new Birkenstocks. Her friends all lived far away from her and took different trains home, so she was left alone at the stop. Maybe they’d been drinking so she wasn’t very cold. Maybe she hadn’t slept the night before so she was very tired. The details change with every retelling. But, in the end, she let me in on the secret: “I fell asleep on the bench waiting for the train.”

She remembers waking up and not noticing her feet at all, just worried she had kept her parents up. She got on the next train and, sitting there, finally warming up, she noticed she couldn’t feel her toes.

My mother hates this story. She thinks it’s disgusting.

“More or less,” Aunt Phoebe said, “I reached down to poke at my little toe, and it just fell right off.” The way she said it sounded so easy. If my toe fell off I would have screamed. But Aunt Phoebe wasn’t worried.

That was the story I thought about when, four years after Camp Lookout, Matt friend-requested me on Facebook. In his profile picture I could see he’d pierced his eyebrow. He had grown a terrible moustache. I almost didn’t recognize him. When I accepted, he sent a message almost a minute later. He wanted to know how I’d been. I never responded, but I wondered about his toe — if he’d really lost it in Alaska. Was it still there, in Denali National Park? Maybe just the bones? Had it been eaten? Had it blown away?

I’m pretty sure Aunt Phoebe left her toe on the train out of shock, maybe. It must have been pretty shocking.

“It’s okay.” My Aunt Phoebe said. “I didn’t even feel it.”

That’s true, I guess. I could see how it might comfort me. But the picture still hovered in the back of my mind like the final murder in a horror movie: How it didn’t bleed, and it didn’t hurt, but she also didn’t have ten toes anymore.

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