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We Were Never Here by Jennifer Gilmore (1)

This is how it starts. Like this: The head counselor takes me off the field and I go to the camp infirmary, a place that’s kind of like a regular camp cabin and kind of how I imagine an old-fashioned country doctor’s office would be: jars on metal counters filled with tongue depressors and cotton balls, all this dust shifting in the light, like no one has moved in here for a week. It’s time for afternoon swim, so I imagine the lake. I can picture the girls in our cabin walking down the path, towels folded over their arms as they stick their gum on the gum tree, which is really an evergreen whose trunk is stuck with everyone’s chewed gum. Then I think of the kids all lining up after swimming, tilting their heads so Frank and Rhonda, the lake counselors, can squeeze alcohol into everyone’s ears so they don’t get ear infections from the moldy lake water. When I was a camper, we’d make paper boats and put candles inside and push them, lighted, out onto the water. I wish I wish I wish, I’d think. I wished to be skinnier, to be prettier, for green eyes. I think I also wanted to be more like my sister, Zoe, who is a year older and does everything first, including having a boyfriend, this super-nice guy named Tim, who she’s been with for over six months. Every day after school the two of them go up to Zoe’s room and close the door.

I think for a moment of David B and me. How we could hear the sound of Raymond and Nora giggling, Ray trying for Nora like everyone else had. Guys never like me that way. Only Dave, who uses the word “wicked” all the time because he’s from Bangor, Maine, near our camp, and I guess they say that a ton there. Dave is a tennis instructor, and while he has really nice legs, tan and smooth, strangely hairless, he also makes birdhouses and God’s eyes. Like constantly. I never thought of him at all until the Fourth of July when he bought illegal fireworks and set them off, howling. There was something so reckless about that. It made me rethink David B.

Now I lie down on the dusty cot—the pillowcase smells like a combination of insects and wildflowers—and I hold my hands across my stomach. I throw up until I’m empty. I can’t even drink water, because that will make me throw up again. The nurse calls my mother, and I tell her: I have no idea what’s happening to me. No, I say, it’s not like the flu at all. I have had the flu before, and when I did, after it was over, my mother set a flat Coke by my bed and there was this feeling of, I don’t know, finishedness. But now it just goes on and on and on, and, to add to that misery, I go to the bathroom all night long. All night. And my mother isn’t anywhere near here.

Whatever an infirmary feels like in the day, at night it is the setting for a horror movie; everywhere there is blackness except for the gleaming bits of glass and metal that glimmer in the dark.

I hate horror movies. Sometimes I think they are the only things that truly scare the hell out of me. I like roller coasters and running hard and I like being in the woods at night, but I don’t understand anyone seeking the fear inspired by the kind of horror in a movie.

But now? What if every day of my life is like this? That is different fear.

Nora sneaks in through the window that night, while everyone’s asleep, and she climbs into my little cot and we turn on our backs and look up to the wooden beams crossing the ceiling, the cobwebs threading the corners like the Jacob’s ladders the campers make with string.

“I kissed Angelo,” Nora tells me. I can see her eyes are wide-open, like two black holes, staring in the dark.

I wonder why she didn’t choose Raymond. Did he kiss so terribly she had to unhook him and throw him back like a bad fish? I know the real reason. Nora isn’t into anyone who wants her. She’s barely into wanting to be my friend, because I do what she says. I guess that registers as me wanting her more in some crazy way.

“No. Way!” I hit her on the shoulder. Angelo is the oldest boys’ counselor, and he’s been here since we were little and he is wickedly handsome, long-haired and tanned, always barefoot, kind of dangerous. Last week he snuck out of camp, got drunk in the town, and shaved off his eyebrows.

Nora is silent. I don’t say anything either. I’m thinking about how no one wants David B. No one sits in a circle and says, I wish that guy would make me a God’s eye, in purple. It’s always the freaks who like me, never the normal, beautiful ones who tie sailor’s knots and swim the butterfly. Truthfully, though, I always like the freaks back. And truthfully, I have a soft spot for David, so eager to please. I think I’m just the opposite. I seem so normal. I play field hockey, for God’s sake. I spend a lot of time trying to get my brown hair to turn blond in the sun. I’m pretty tall. I think too much—I can see other people watching me, judging. Let’s just say I could never dance, not outside of my room anyway. I don’t hold hands with my mother. In hockey I’m the kamikaze. I’m the one between the goalie and the world. I come out screaming for the free hits.

In that silence with Nora, the pain bites into me, like it takes out a huge chunk, and then I have to throw up, and also go to the bathroom, and so at the same time as I’m going to the bathroom, I’m throwing up in a metal bowl. Why are those bowls you throw up in shaped like lima beans? Or sad smiles? I have no idea.

“You should go,” I tell Nora. I don’t want her to see me like this. I don’t even want to see myself like this. “I don’t know what’s wrong.” I’m crying for a lot of reasons, all at once.

Nora is crying too.

“Why are you crying?” I say.

“Angelo scares the piss out of me without his eyebrows,” is what Nora says. I know it’s a friendship that, as Nana says, You need to turn the light out on and close the door, but I can’t.

I run to the bathroom again—this time I make it—and when I come back, Nora is sliding out the same window she came in from. She gives me a salute and then she’s gone.

Anchors aweigh, I think, because at camp, this is how we talk.

Also because the final regatta is on my mind. And the camp talent show. And that hockey tryouts at school are in two days. And that soon all the campers and counselors will be hugging one another good-bye.

The next day and night I’m in that infirmary and nothing changes, only I am more in a daze now and I have that feeling inside that is just like watching some crazy person come out of the woods with an ax, ready to kill the couple in the lighted house. It’s that kind of awful fluttery panic. I can hear the nurse on the phone with my mother again. Now I can only nod my head when she places the phone at my ear, but of course my mother can’t hear that.

Outside, though, I know there is all the bustle and thrill and sadness we wait all summer for during those last two days of camp. It’s the whole summer wrapped up, the most important days.

The last night event I had been to was a hypnotist—Rhonda from the lake got hypnotized, and she walked across the stage and sang a little of the song “Yellow,” and when the hypnotist snapped his fingers and she came to, she said she didn’t know the lyrics to that song. I wasn’t sure if I totally believed it, but I kind of did, and even if you believe it just a little, that’s all it takes really. Just the littlest part, then it can be true.

I wish I could be hypnotized to not feel this but no, I’m in and out of this crazy haze of pain and sleep and throwing up. There is also the feel of the camp nurse and her cold and hot compresses on my forehead, like she can’t decide which one is the right one.

Then, camp’s over. And I’m gone.

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