Rooted In Something Called Friendship
Copyright 2002-2004 Audrey Beth Stein
All Rights Reserved.
The first thing Allie said to me after telling me her name was "I lost
my virginity today."
It was the very beginning of staff week at camp, and we were both
eighteen. I'd been driven up that morning by my dad, and had already met
my co-counselor and rearranged all the beds and shelves in my bunk and
unpacked. When Allie arrived, late in the day, and wandered into my
bunk, my co-counselor had taken off for the evening and I was up in the
rafters writing my name on the wall. I was writing it in chalk, ILANA
'90-'96, in a place where I could hide the graffiti with luggage so no
campers would see.
She wore a rope-and-bead necklace and a tie-dye shirt and had a small
glow about her, a certain genuineness to her every movement that made her
someone to instantly like.
"Why chalk?" she asked.
"I like the way it stands out against the wood," I told her, "and how
it can be removed so easily yet my chalk graffiti from
nineteen-ninety-two is still around."
She climbed up to the rafters to take a closer look, then borrowed the
chalk to draw a picture of a fish. I had already asked if she played
guitar--she did, and she offered to teach me--and learned that it was her
first summer and she was the boating instructor before I realized that I
didn't know her name.
"It hurt a little," Allie said, sitting Indian-style across from me,
"but he was gentle." She described how she and her friend Ben had been
sitting on his couch watching movies all morning, wanting to hang out a
little longer before she took off for the summer. They were talking
about sex and she said she thought it was time, she was ready to not be a
virgin, and he offered to do it with her. It wasn't a romantic thing,
she said, and Ben wasn't a virgin, and she thought that made it better
for the first time. "I'm glad I did it," she said.
"Did you use protection?" I asked.
"Of course," she said. "I'm on the pill anyway for my periods, but we
used a condom too. His girlfriend would kill him if we didn't."
"Does she know?" I asked, having missed the fact that Ben had a
"Probably, by now," Allie said. "She won't mind. She knows we're
just good friends. I'm the one who set them up."
I'd never heard of anyone losing their virginity like that before. I
was still a virgin, and most of my friends were too. I had had one camp
boyfriend, back when I was fifteen, and dates for three school formals,
and a youth group sort-of-boyfriend who had never even kissed me
goodnight. When Allie mentioned that Ben had driven her up to camp, I
realized I was the first person she'd told.
Allie and I kissed five weeks and two days later.
She had a boyfriend by then, but unlike my supposed best friend Tamar,
she still had time for friends. We hung out mostly with a motley
assortment of people, new staff and the uncool, whoever didn't have a car
to get away in the evenings. Some nights Allie would take out her guitar
and a bunch of us would go down by the beach or out to machaneh
gimel and sing. I'd also visit her on my free time during the day
sometimes, hop into her rowboat and vent to her about my campers and my
co-counselor and she'd listen and we'd boat around and I'd forget for a
little while that I was in the middle of the summer from hell.
The fact that we were in such a secluded spot that night, alone, was
unusual, but that was because Allie had been trying to teach me guitar
and I kept freezing up around other people. She was showing me how to
play "Closer to Fine," which was hard because I couldn't get my fingers
in the right positions and she only sort of knew how to play it herself.
Her fingers adjusted mine on the strings, shoulder leaning up against
mine. While I strummed, she told me about her grandfather, who had died
that past year. I told her about Cassie.
I wasn't sure how to tell about Cassie. I never really talked about
her, this counselor I had gotten close to when I was fifteen, like the
sister I never had. Cassie had asked me do you believe in God
just at the moment I'd been asking myself, and she listened like what I
felt mattered. I told Allie how it felt to be understood that way. How
I hadn't know what to do the time I saw Cassie crying. How Cassie was
the reason I'd asked to be a counselor for the fourteen-year-olds, not
realizing what being fourteen was really about. How I hadn't seen Cassie
since that summer, and had gotten exactly one letter. Talking about
Cassie, I started missing her again.
Allie was from Cassie's hometown, a couple of hours away from mine.
She didn't exactly know Cassie but she knew who she was. "You should
call her," Allie said. "I'm sure she'd be glad to hear from you." I
wasn't sure but Allie promised to get me a phone number or address or
something, and I decided if she did, maybe I would call.
Then Allie asked me, "Have you ever kissed a girl?"
I shook my head. "Have you?"
"No, but I want to sometime."
Was she trying to tell me she was gay? Did she think I was? It
wasn't the first time someone had thought so.
I didn't look at her. I saw the knot on my Eastlands and the way it
was fraying and I felt the little places along my body where hers was
barely touching and I noticed that her sneaker was becoming untied. It
was still in a bow, but loose. I reached over and tightened it.
"Thanks," she said, her breath catching a little.
I didn't trust my voice, but I looked up at her then, briefly, a small
"you're welcome" smile. I looked down again and sensed she was looking
down too, and then she had the Eastland knot of my shoelace between her
thumb and index finger. "Want to?" she asked. And I knew she meant us,
"Okay," I said.
I looked up, and leaned my head in a little, and Allie leaned over and
kissed my lips and I tried to kiss back and then it was done.
"Soft," Allie said. "Neat." I didn't say anything. Inside a little
voice was saying I kissed a girl I kissed a girl I kissed a girl.
Then Allie leaned over again, and she opened her mouth a little this
time and I opened mine a little, against her tongue, which was gentle,
and I felt the softness too. And I kept my eyes opened but watched hers
close, and let my tongue explore, touching her tongue, her teeth, and I
tried closing my eyes and it still felt nice and safe.
I felt her hands touch my back, lightly, almost resting, and they
stayed there as she kept kissing me, coming up for air and returning our
mouths together. You could say the kissing was about an experience but
in her palms and fingertips I felt love, love that was rooted in
something called friendship but couldn't be contained by that word. I
wanted to put my hands on her back too, but I needed them for balance. I
was leaning on them, arms out behind me in the dirt, and kissing Allie.
I couldn't say why we stopped, or who initiated the stopping. My eyes
opened and hers were open too and I can't describe what was there.
I wanted to touch her hand. I shifted my weight, automatically wiping
the dirt off my hand onto my jeans, and then heard voices coming into the
area. "Good thing they didn't come five minutes ago," I said, and we
laughed together, quietly, listening until the voices went away. I could
hear Allie's breathing, still a little fast, and smell the mixture of her
sunscreen and sweat.
"Do you know the constellations?" Allie asked, and I said no and she
said, "Me either," and we moved over to a place where there was more
grass and lay back next to each other looking up at the sky. Allie put
her hand up against mine, fingertip to fingertip, and they were the same
size. I knew this was something that people did in movies and I think
Allie knew it too, she wasn't trying to be profound, but I suddenly
understood why it was the perfect gesture because there was just
something so nice about it. And then discovering all the different ways
hands could touch and time could melt away.
We walked back to our bunks holding hands. I didn't know if we'd kiss
again but it didn't matter.
The next evening I was back to counselor hell. My co-counselor and
Allie both had their overnight days off--they wouldn't be back until
dinnertime the next day--and the
campers just wouldn't get in bed.
Three campers were racing around the bunk in their underwear. A
fourth was asking if she could go to the marp, which was camp slang for
infirmary, and I was sure she was faking. The kid who always got picked
on was asking me for a Tylenol. I had Tylenol but it was completely
against the rules to give a camper any sort of medicine and that was one
of those rules you couldn't really mess with.
The deal with the marp was that if it was after curfew you were supposed
to walk the camper down yourself, but only if it was an emergency,
otherwise you were supposed to get them into bed and send them after
breakfast. "Can it wait until morning?" I asked, since I was on my own
and had to get eleven other campers to bed.
The picked-on kid shook her head while the other one accused me of not
caring if she lived or died. I could remember being a camper and my
counselor not letting me go fetch my Advil when I felt a migraine coming
on, and I hated how we had to treat these kids like sheep just because it
was so much easier to handle their complaints that way. I knew most of
their aches and pains were invented, but I didn't want to chance being
wrong, so I gave both campers permission to go to the
marp--directly to the marp--without me.
"She was totally faking, why'd you let her go?" whined one camper, as
soon as they were gone.
The picked-on kid's friend asked, "Is she okay, can I go see if she's
okay?" She was one of the good kids usually, but she was sitting on her
bed smearing grape jelly on the outside of a styrofoam cup. I decided to
let that go and hope the bugs stayed on her side of the bunk. I told her
she could see her friend in the morning.
I tried to give my attention to what was going on in the rest of the
bunk. The three girls were still running around in their underwear and a
fourth had joined them and a boy was at the door of the bunk asking, "Can
I talk to So-and-So? It's important," and I said no and So-and-So headed
to the back of the bunk. I knew she was heading out the back door but I
let it go for just then. I went back to the bathroom though, where
someone was screaming in one of the showers, and told the mean camper to
stop doing that thing with the faucets that makes the shower freezing,
and told the girl in the shower to hurry up.
I could hear the shmira person come to the door and knock and
say, "Y'all need to shut up and get in bed," and one of the campers
saying to him, "Go away, our counselor's here," and I missed the next
thing and then someone else said, "Yeah she is, hear her in back?" and I
heard his feet thump down the bunk porch steps.
I gave ultimatums, okay you've lost your harga'ah, okay lights off
in five minutes no matter what. I pulled on a sweatshirt since it
was getting colder, and gave a two minute warning, at which point most of
the campers were at least near their beds, and a one minute warning, and
then flipped the lights.
Immediately someone said, "Oops, I forgot to take out my contacts,"
and headed to the bathroom, and someone else said, "Eek there's something
in my bed turn the lights on." I didn't of course and someone else
jumped up and flipped them on and I turned them off and Mean Camper
flipped them on again saying to me, "What the hell? She's got something
in her bed." And it turned out she did, it was a soggy gummy worm from
when the underwear girls tried making them grow by soaking them in water
earlier that week, and she insisted she had to change her sheets now.
I stood there and said, "Everybody in bed" and "Let's do
shm'a," and started, "Sh'ma, yisrael..." but no one was
"We like doing it ourselves," said one of the obnoxious cool kids.
I didn't know what to say to that. I wasn't so into the idea of
forced prayer anyway, so I said, "Is that everybody? Does anyone want to
do shm'a aloud?" knowing of course that no one would speak up even
if they did.
Then I said, "Okay, Jenny, two minutes to finish getting your sheets
on, then I'm turning off the lights and you're all going to be quiet,"
and they actually started to settle down and then someone said, "Oh, I
forgot about that package from my mom."
The flashlights went on and three or four people gathered around Mean
Camper's bottom bunk and she opened up the package and it was a stuffed
animal and she shook it and someone got her a scissor to open up the back
and inside there were jellybeans. Which were not supposed to be mailed
to campers but I figured that wasn't my responsibility.
Mean Camper started handing out jellybeans, and I was contemplating
confiscating the package until morning when she actually offered me some,
and I wasn't sure whether to accept or not, but I did and said thank you
and there were four, two licorice and a white and a purple.
I knew I was supposed to wait until they were all in bed, but at that
point I just said, "Alright, you all need to get in bed now, if I hear
anything none of you will be going to Rondeau's Ice Cream next week," and
I left, door creak-banging behind me. As I walked away I could hear
noise and saw out of the corner of my eye that the lights were back on
and I could tell that shmira was all the way on the far side of the field
by the tennis courts and I just kept going.
I dumped the licorice jellybeans in the first trashcan I passed, then
ate the white one then the purple, debating licking my palm to clean off
the stickiness but deciding on the more adult route. At the staff lounge
I went in the back entrance and miraculously there was an open bathroom.
I went in and washed my hand, cleaned it with real softsoap, pants down
put down paper then sat on the toilet. I didn't have to go but there
wasn't a lid to the toilet. Then I let the crying start for real. This
was not the first time, not nearly the first.
The air conditioning--the staff lounge was the only place around with
real air conditioning--dried up my sweat, my salty face. I could feel
the stinging in my eyes. It didn't make sense to me, tears were salty
too so why was the sweat mixed in making my eyes sting? I got up to
rinse my hands again, squeezing my eyes tight as I tried to clean with
water then reached for paper towel to dry, more sting as I tried to open
up a little more to get all the wet.
After a while I left the bathroom, people waiting, and went out to the
phones but there were people on them and a line. Someone came up and
said there was a line at the one by the mercaz too, and I was sure
it was the same by the office on A-side and that was a long walk. Four
phones for two hundred something staffpeople.
I wandered back into the air-conditioned staff lounge. A couple of
people playing chess, bearded guy I didn't know reading some Hebrew
thing, and then the same group of people I'd been hanging out all summer
with in the corner. We didn't have much in common except the ability to
tell stories about campers, and I didn't feel like talking, but one of
them had gotten ahold of a car for the evening, so I crammed into the
back seat for a visit to Friendly's.
On the way into the restaurant we passed by Tamar and her boyfriend
and some other counselors I didn't know. Tamar told me they were going
out drinking. "Shh, don't tell," she said. "That guy you're with would
rat on us. Sorry there's not enough room in the car for you to come
along." It was safe for her to say that becuase she knew I wouldn't have
joined them anyway. I didn't drink because I didn't like to not be in
control, and I was plenty out of control already, with the campers. The
previous night with Allie seemed like an eternity ago, and for the first
year I could remember--though probably it wasn't the first at all--I
wished that camp was over already.
The next morning at breakfast someone stopped by and said to me,
"There's a note on the mercaz for you." The mercaz was
mail central and it was also where the camp left phone messages. I
headed over after birchat hamazon and found the pink message paper
with my name. It was from Allie, Cassie's phone number. Two of my
campers were with me picking up packages, so I shoved the note in my
pocket before they could see and ask me about it. Then the rosh
edah called out my name and pulled me over to where no one could
overhear. She'd heard from shmira about my noisy bunk the night
before. "You can't just leave your bunk like that," she said.
"What am I supposed to do?" I asked.
"Get them quiet. Get them in bed."
She wasn't offering any advice on how to do that, and I didn't see the
point in further conversation.
"I have to go help plan a Shabbat activity," I said, excusing myself.
Passing the staff lounge, I noticed a phone was open for once.
I jogged over and put my hand on the receiver to claim it. First I
thought of calling my folks, but I didn't want them to worry, and then I
remembered the crumpled number in my pocket. It had a 202 area code.
After a couple of minutes I got Cassie on the phone.
She was doing an internship in Washington, D.C., with National
Geographic. She told me she got to open the mail and was now looking at
pictures of a tiger on her desk, his fur glistening like he had just
preened. I told her where I was, and she asked how it was going.
"It's good," I said, because of Allie, and then I said, "No it's not.
I have one good friend here, but camp is horrible, I think I understand
why you didn't want to come back."
"Listen, Ilana," she said. "I don't want you to think of me as the
one who burst your bubble, but maybe I can give you a little perspective.
All the talk about kids having fun and growing Jewishly--I mean basically
the way camp works is that they treat the counselors like shit, but they
brainwashed you enough as campers that you come back anyway, you feel
this obligation, but it's full of all these people who can't handle what
they're doing. And the whole values thing, you probably believe it more
than anyone else in that place. You know they wouldn't hire me back at
all, not even as kitchen staff, because I wasn't a good enough counselor
"I'm thinking of quitting," I said. I knew already this was my last
summer here, although I didn't realize I knew it until that moment. The
place had changed, or I had, or maybe I was finally learning to see
clearly. I had the sense camp was eating away at me. It had taught me a
lot but it wasn't a place where you could digest what you were taught.
"I'm not sure what to tell you about that," Cassie said. "My one
saving grace from that summer was knowing I'd done my best. But I can't
deny that it fucked me up for a while." I didn't want to know what she
meant by that.
"I know I have some letters of yours I never wrote back to," Cassie
said next. "I just didn't know what to say, you were so enthusiastic in
them. Listen, thanks for calling me, and do keep in touch, okay? I
don't always write back and I'm sorry about that but I do read anything
you send me."
That night my co-counselor got the kids in bed fast and then looked at
me like, "This is how you do it," and then Allie knocked on my window and
I left the bunk and we walked until we reached an empty moadon.
She carved her name but for once I didn't, I didn't want a record of me
here, now, fucked up beyond. Like I was slipping into a black hole. For
the first time in two days I felt like I could relax around someone else,
and so I let myself relax and all I could do was cry, and Allie hugged me
and listened and sang to me.
"The thing I always liked about Judaism," I said, between sobs, "is
how I could make my beliefs fit by reinterpreting it differently. But
I'm starting to figure out I don't want to do that. I believe in things
like writing on Shabbat, because peace and creation go together for me.
I believe in chicken quesadillas if you're not vegetarian because
chickens don't give milk so what's the problem with chicken and cheese
together. I'm scared of really learning Hebrew because I know as soon as
I do and start understanding the meaning of the prayers and songs, I'll
have to stop singing." I didn't know if I was making sense to Allie, but
she was hugging me, and wiping away my tears with her sweatshirt sleeve.
How I left was a funeral, my great-uncle. My father called to tell me
he died. I wasn't ever close to Uncle Lloyd but I asked if I could go.
My father said yes and figured out how to get me from Massachusetts down
to New York, lots of buses, and when my mother saw me she could tell I
wasn't the Ilana she'd let go off at the beginning of the summer.
When we got back home I sat on their bed and talked. I told them
about everything except Allie, and my mom said, "I don't want you back at
that place." She said it gently, so it was clear, "I'm not telling you
you can't go back, if you want to I'll drive you up tomorrow and wish you
well, but it hurts me to see what they're doing to my little baby."
I looked at my hands and the pattern in the bedspread and the
pinking-sheared edges of the newspaper with their pink tinge of color and
I asked, "What would I do if I didn't go back?"
And my mother said, "Well, Helen is coming out of surgery, maybe she'd
want help in the store. Or you could volunteer although I don't know
what you'd do then for spending money for the fall. And there's also
that temp agency downtown, and I'm sure your father knows of someone too,
all those favors he does for people I'm sure he's due." I didn't hear the
specifics, what I heard was my mother saying, It's okay if you come
home, I won't be mad, I won't think of you as a quitter.
I slept on it and the next afternoon I called the camp office, and in
the evening I got Allie on the phone. I told her where my clothes were
and my socks and where to find my towel on the line and my clip-on fan,
and which was my cubby with my books and alarm clock, and not to worry
about the shampoo and razors and stuff, and she'd recognize my trunk in
the rafters. And she said she'd go the next morning while my bunk was at
chug and pack it all up, then get someone to help her carry it
over to the office, don't worry about it Ilana, and meet us
there around three.
Once we loaded up the car my dad wanted to just head off, have you
done everything you need to do? but I persuaded him one stop at
Rondeau's Ice Cream, with Allie, I'd treat. He insisted on being the one
to treat, and he thanked Allie a bunch of times, for helping, and she
said "No problem," and then to me, "I really hope it's better when you're
home, I'll miss you," and I gave her a huge hug and she said she'd see me
when she got back.
It turned out that Allie wound up leaving camp herself two weeks
later, fed up with the place and figuring she could make more money
temping. She drove the two hours to my house and we went to Maggie
McFly's and we didn't really talk about how we would be going to schools
across the country from each other, or if we'd stay in touch, and neither
of us mentioned her boyfriend who neither of us had mentioned since the
night we kissed.
"I'm still glad I went," she said.
We were sharing one of those mocha drinks, two straws one glass, and
we both reached for it at the same time and our hands covered one another
on the glass. As we reached the bottom of the mocha, she slurped, and I
laughed, and then I slurped back. And then we were in the midst of a
slurp-fest, a call-and-response, silly and dumb and I swear it was the
most romantic thing, ever.
Two months later when I'm in college I meet Matt, all dreads and
breath, and we become buddies, and I think about Allie telling me about
losing her virginity. One night he's playing around with my guitar the
one I bought when I got home and still hadn't really learned to play, and
he's got this glow about him, and I come close to asking but I don't, and
when he fades away, as friends often do, I realize it's Allie I saw in