Rachel was beside herself. Jesus with talons, that’s how she felt scanning the reception area at Senior Camp 2010. The talons were curling and uncurling for prey, all while her smile and greetings seemed helpful and caring—Jesus-like. All normal Rachel; except she had decided not for this year. She had promised big changes this camp; no duties (the one nature walk on Saturday would be all), no work, instead just one of the gang, have fun, relax, find her joy, that was the thing.
Her nervous squint was acting up, the obvious prey was too large a temptation. Just too classic! Look at her sniffing and breathing the mountain air like medicine (pine/fir smell seemed to do the same to all the newbies) and the pasted-on smile while she rolled her shoulders in a healthy stretch. All the behaviors shouting to Rachel’s practiced eye that this one wouldn’t survive the day…without her help, of course.
Just do this little bit, a voice inside urged like it was nothing, don’t even think, just follow your kindly impulse. The squawks of her new resolve to not take-care-of melted like ice in coffee.
Hand out for greeting, quick smile, assistance offered and received with a smile, and now Rachel ushered her guest through the crowd. The annual familiar laughing and joking surrounded her; it was the arrival gathering, the sounds deep and raucous. This had made her flinch last year. But right now, it felt comradely, perhaps due to her new resolve.
“Gang, this is Cambria, a first timer,” Rachel said to a trio of elders gathered in the middle of the reception room.
“Oh fresh meat, we love fresh meat. I’m Elizabeth.” The woman stuck out her pudgy hand, laughing, and gave Cambria a warm shake, “Welcome.”
“She’s not meat. Don’t mind her,” shooting a scolding look at Liz. “Cambria is clearly an elegant lady, and we’re glad to have you. I’m Selma.”
As Selma heard “Thank you,” she also felt her pinned gray hair, cotton sweater, and pressed, khaki pants scanned and accepted by Cambria.
Earl moved in, gave his name, making what he hoped was good eye contact, held onto Cambria’s hand a second more than expected, and said, “Happy you’re here.”
Cambria reacted with a cocktail-party smile. Behind that habitual disguise, she wanted to run from these morons, run to her BMW convertible, skid out of the dirt lot heading for the safety of her apartment, especially away from the oaf who tried to flirt with her, the one wearing wrinkled shorts and large hiking boots.
Coming to this camp had not been her idea. No, the social worker had stubbornly made the arrangements: “Depression is always dangerous, Cambria.” This was his idea of beginning treatment. But she wasn’t depressed. Bored—angry—yes. Tired, for sure. But she knew what she was doing when she took the pills.
Her smile held, she rooted her feet, and heard the nicely attired woman say, “And don’t look so worried; we’ll take good care of you.”
“Yeah, hang with us, you’ll have fun,” added the annoying, roundish one.
Rachel watched it play out and felt she had new eyes this year. She admired the style of these two women, the way they just spurted it all out, no worries about how they looked to others, what was proper, just have fun; no calculation.
“Yes, I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. Thank you.” Cambria now felt overdressed. She didn’t blend with this lodge clothing. Except for little Mary sunshine here, and her garish pink sweatshirt with kittens batting at each other. The rest was plaid, khaki, or nylon hiking gear.
“So, now that we’re all friends,” Rachel said, “I’m sure Cambria would like to be let in on the big joke we walked into?”
Earl went over to the cookie table and poured himself a cup of coffee.
“Dave of course,” Selma said, the nicely turned out one; “what else with Liz around?” jerking her thumb at the woman whose rolling laughter was now causing the sweatshirt kittens to look like they were riding rapids over her chest.
Elizabeth or Liz said, “We’re referring to Dave, our nudist,” looking and smiling right at Cambria’s uncurious face.
“Oh… I see,” Cambria said, reaching up and fingering the salamander pin in her lapel.
Earl peered back over his coffee at them all.
Rachel felt the need to explain that Dave was the guy who loved to swim naked. Trouble was, it was against the rules.
“And the management,” Selma joined in with a serious face, “told our senior camp organizer that they couldn’t permit it this year.”
“Our little fun and excitement,” Liz said, her eyes crinkling; “Dave’s stubborn.”
“I see,” Cambria smiled, and continued before any of them could refocus, “Where might I find the ladies room?”
When she was out of range, Earl sauntered back over, “Stick up her ass, rich bitch, ya think?” he said, roving eyes daring a rebuttal.
“Just shy. She’s new,” Rachel said, trying to convince by nodding her head.
“No, spoiled brat and grew up that way,” Selma said with finality.
Earl bent into the group and almost whispered, “Well now, I love an attractive woman, but this one ain’t gonna give me no lovin'.”
“Upgrade your dress code, Earl, and try again,” Elizabeth said, eyeing his crummy shorts.
“I still think she’s just nervous. Give her time,” Rachel said. Then she caught the impatience on Selma’s face before she heard, “Quit being the Girl Scout, Rachel.”
“Rachel has needs,” Elizabeth laughed.
“Oh, stop you guys. I think she’s going through something big.”
“Like I said, a stick up her…”
“Earl, we got it already, and enough with the potty mouth,” Selma said smiling…but not really.
Rachel finally caught herself and relaxed a little, “I know she’s difficult.”
“Thank you, Rachel, you are human after all.” Elizabeth made a show of relieved breathing, “If she fits, great, but I’m not working at it.”
Coming back, Cambria felt their eyes on her. Yes, the cardigan’s silk, she wanted to smirk, and I love my pressed navy pants and shiny black pumps. But instead she went for the silver and emerald-eyed salamander. The one her father had made. You don’t need to be a slob or a baggy hausfrau even in a mountain lodge, she reminded herself as she fingered the pendant.
“Cambria, do you live alone, or do you have a partner?”
“I was married for forty-six years, but he passed away two years ago.”
“I’m sorry.” Rachel nodded her head, encouraging. “It must leave a big hole.”
Cambria nodded. The sounds of small groups chatting and laughing filled the silence.
“It’s hard, I know, starting over, getting your bearings,” said Rachel.
Cambria nodded again, and then said in a small voice, “I’m wandering a bit, I think.” She touched her salamander and smiled the way they knew she would.
Rachel saw the opening, “Finding new meaning?” She said it loud to overcome the din around them, but the volume stripped it down and it sounded harsh.
“I have meaning, of course.” Cambria looked around at the crowd. “What brought you three here?” She aimed at the nearest one, Elizabeth, was it?
“I come to hang with these wild women,” Elizabeth said, looping her arm through Selma’s.
“Me too,” Earl said, moving up behind the two, and putting his hands on their shoulders.
Cambria flashed a real smile, and asked, “Rachel, are you the one leading the nature walk tomorrow? I saw it on the board.”
“Oh, that’s good. I love plants.”
“Well, you’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know,” Elizabeth said, looking distracted, and then waved to a person across the room.
“Well, that takes care of the morning, doesn’t it?” Cambria said with a forced smile.
“Then there’s the afternoon.” Elizabeth’s remark hung there. It made Rachel worry for Cambria, but the woman took it, smiled a pretty good imitation, and agreed that, yes it did leave planning for the afternoon.
“Time to get to the introduction meeting.” Selma started herding them in that direction, but Rachel lingered behind, Why do I care? She’s hurting, probably her husband dying. We can help. No! Back off, you’ve done enough, more than enough! Take care of yourself. It all made Rachel look forward to the four squares of dark chocolate she allowed herself each night.
Of course, most people had already heard the rehearsal of the rules and routines last year. But when the President concluded his opening welcome and snickers erupted, Rachel looked over at Cambria. The crowd was responding to the mention of the rules about swimming permitted only with the proper attire. Elizabeth forgot her own study of the perplexed newbie with automatic nudges to her side.
On the way out, Cambria walked close to Rachel, and said over the surrounding laughing comments, “Thank you so much, Rachel, for the help in making me feel comfortable today,” and then, nodding to the others, she walked—pumps clicking on the wooden floor—toward the front door and her cabin.
“Ooh Rachel, she thanked you,” said Elizabeth.
Before coming this year, Rachel surprised herself by thinking Elizabeth was the way she would like to be: What you saw, was what you got. And people felt comfortable around her. Even her near constant joking was all in fun.
But now, Rachel’s face grew firmer. “Sometimes even I wonder why I try,” she said doing her best to smile.
“Well, well…I know I don’t get it” said Elizabeth, wagging her head, eyes half closed.
“She lives to be of service. What’s to get?”
“So bring us some cookies and decaf before bed. We will love you.”
Earl chimed in, “You have to first be a lost soul, Elizabeth.”
“Well, someone has to look out for the poor waifs,” said Rachel.
They looked at her. Each started to talk, but then stopped. Even Rachel didn’t know if she was joking or not.
“The poor waif,” Selma said, “is a snob. She can’t see past her clothes and that expensive ornament she fondles.”
Elizabeth moved forward like a conspirator, “Rachel, I have a mission for you. The crafts people need rescuing. They’re delusional about fabric, pine cones, bark, bits of fur, scat for I know…”
“And colors, ribbons, and glues,” Selma added.
“Oh god… adhesives, please, Selma. We call them adhesives, and there are many kinds for the many uses, and don’t you forget it, and let’s discuss them all until we are blue in the face and everyone around us wants to puke,” said Elizabeth, erasing the tension with rolling laughter, which almost scuttled the kittens on their sweatshirt raft.
“Rachel, leave her alone, and find your own fun.”
Rachel looked stuck…and then blurted, “Because she’s a human being…and she’s obviously hurting,” and for once heard the tone she used at times like this.
“I care,” Selma said, “just like when a new student needs help.”
“But when one wouldn’t try herself, wouldn’t take the help, or God help us, complained about the help, that was it.”
“She’s just uncomfortable and she hasn’t complained about anything.”
“Just give her time, Rachel,” Selma said with a promising look, “like really soon.” She was nodding at Rachel, trying to get her to agree. “You’ve introduced her, that’s the help, now let her sink or swim.”
“Perfect swimming weather,” Elizabeth said, coming over and unloading five or six small breakfast plates next to where Cambria and Selma were sitting.
Selma glanced at the plates, and said, “Think you got your money’s worth?”
Cambria smiled and quickly hid her face.
Selma said to Liz, “I’m guessing the twinkle is more about drama than your love of swimming.”
“I live for excitement.” The kittens had turned this morning into three butterflies fluttering on cue with Elizabeth’s chuckle.
“The nudist issue?” asked Cambria, making a gesture by enlarging her eyes, looking up from scooping her grapefruit.
“It’s the only one we could cook up this summer,” said Selma, laughing.
“See the man over there,” Elizabeth said, pointing to a mostly bald and rather bulky man three tables away. “That’s Dave the Nudist.”
“Big, isn’t it?” Elizabeth said.
“Gigantic,” Cambria said firmly, and they all giggled, and Cambria joined in finally, almost when the others had run out of steam, and then blushed over her spontaneous remark.
Rachel came up just then and saw the light mood. “Something’s funny?”
“Cambria is righteously shocked by Dave’s gigantic mustache.”
“And I’m with you,” Selma said. “Walrus is too small a word.”
“Men are such mysterious creatures,” Rachel said, sitting down and taking a contented bite out of her toast as she winked at the group.
The hikers dribbled into the lunchroom noisily, filling their trays for “replenishment,” making a din of chattering, happy people sharing the morning adventures.
Cambria was quietly eating her soup and salad.
“How was it, Cambria?” Elizabeth asked.
“I enjoyed it.”
“Not so much though?” Selma said, looking over.
“I expected a longer hike, work our bodies a little more,” Cambria said, then smiled.
“My body worked just fine,” Elizabeth said. “Have to save it anyway for the rigors of the afternoon.”
“I suppose you are referring once again to the nude swimming episode that seems to have all of your attention.”
“That is the one, yes Cambria,” Elizabeth said, “a human drama of silly rules versus self-determination played out for our entertainment.”
“Hardly educational or inspiring, I would think.”
Earl came with his tray, “Did you hear? Ross asked Dave to back down…for the good of the camp.”
“Dave nodded. That’s all.”
“I don’t believe it,” Elizabeth said.
“Ross told him they threatened to bar the group from coming back again.”
“Well, shit,” Rachel said. “That isn’t fair.”
“Language please,” Selma said, looking at Rachel, “even though I agree.”
“Yeah, and it’s no fun,” said Elizabeth.
The increasing volume of voices made it clear that all the campers were hearing the same story.
“It appears,” Cambria said, “that I’m not alone in finding it all a bit childish.”
“Why is that, Cambria? I think I’m missing something here,” Rachel said, her voice thin, controlled.
Chewing at the table suddenly slowed to careful bites, no sounds coming from soupspoons either.
“I think you’re missing the real point, Cambria,” Selma said.
“There’s a real point here?”
“Cambria,” it came out brittle from Selma, “I am not accustomed to public nudity, nor being faced with ridiculously ponderous testicles, but you know what, I cheer him on, becau—”
“—Well, I apologize; I didn’t mean to upset anyone.”
The table turned to look at Cambria.
Rachel opened her mouth to say something. Earl caught it and stared, then others followed his stare and watched the swelling muscles along her jaw bulge, a red flush appear on her neck, then progress up her cheeks.
Rachel hurriedly chewed the lettuce and tomato, swallowed it, struggled with her impulse and her discipline, giving into the former with, “Then what did you mean to do, Cambria?”
“Rachel!” Selma’s black face grew dramatically lighter.
No one moved.
Then Cambria: “I’m entitled to my opinions, Rachel. Or do you always have to be the one to be right?”
The heads swung in unison to stare at Cambria.
“I apologize, Cambria, I think I’m a bit tired from the hike I led.” She excused herself and cleared her tray.
Her wake was filled with silence until Selma quietly said, “We care about you, Cambria.”
Cambria looked at her and smiled that smile again, “I know…this group is having fun, but…”
“But maybe you don’t know us well enough yet. Don’t know our losses, what we’ve done, struggles we’ve had, how we are also trying to overcome. You are not alone here, many are like you, women who could trade on their good looks, no struggles they couldn’t easily handle. But that’s not the ticket now, is it? It’s hard now, isn’t it?”
Her tablemates were nodding. Earl smiled, curious, hidden from Cambria. Elizabeth felt her stomach float and her eyes moisten.
“There’s no silver spoon anymore,” said Elizabeth. “Now we make it work, or it gets worse. Life’s a bitch, and getting older is not golden all by itself.”
Cambria’s face flushed a pinkish-red, muscles around her mouth were tightening and rolling, and her eyes were blinking.
No one looked around, no one moved.
Then Elizabeth said, “That was cheery,” and went back to finishing her sandwich.
Off by herself, first Rachel felt a blooming in her chest; the fluffing radiated. Her brain felt swollen in its shell. She dumped her plates into the dirty dish bin without caring about the noise. Good God, I just exploded at her. An image of herself as a screaming bitch flashed in her mind. Her stomach rose, maybe coming up. Her eyes swelled, her chest fluttered, then she forced two swallows down, working a stubborn lump, nodding her head, and turned and walked toward the front entrance, careful to steady herself.
Halfway there, she felt free of the pain, but felt a charge buzz her body, making her feel light. She looked up at the huge crossbeams, spread her eyes wide, smiled. She put her hands in her pockets to stop herself from yelling, “Yippee;” but still felt the joy of her ripping free with Cambria.
I could run up a mountain right now, Rachel thought, feeling the jizz in her system. What if the bitch leaves? She probably will. Who would want to stay after that? Rachel hunted for empathy, understanding. Shit, I just don’t care. She realized she hadn’t been breathing, and quickly inhaled and slowly let it out while walking out the doors and stood closer to the trees enjoying the sun on the deck. She couldn’t deny she felt lighter and even a little warmer in her belly.
Poolside, the young woman sitting in the raised lifeguard chair wore a gray STAFF t-shirt over her trunks, also the obligatory sunglasses and ball cap. But the thing she did not wear today was a smile. She looked pale.
The main event was walking down the path from his cabin. He wore his blue and gold striped robe, a baseball cap, and his gigantic mustache. His robe would open as he loped along, and flesh flashed loose. His face held no sign of worry, nor notice that seniors were sitting all along the stone wall lining the path, bare legs dangling (exposing a multitude of varicose veins and flesh). Nor did he seem to notice that three times as many people crowded around the pool, and that all the patio lounge chairs were taken.
Rachel didn’t like swimming. The water just made her cold and she got her exercise walking and hiking. But today she sat on the wall and wondered how the drama would unfold. She told Selma and Elizabeth she was betting on Dave.
Cambria tore off to the destination of her luggage. But even with the ringing in her head, the smell of dusty, smoky timber as she fled through the lodge hooked memories of the same feelings in her childhood camping trips. Her laid-back, hippy parents always hyped these as great fun. But she was often left in a lodge lobby soothing herself. They said she was too young to go with them, and coaxed her by asking, Wasn’t the vacation and fresh air enough?
But it never was enough, she was left out—didn’t get to go horseback riding that afternoon—and alone; she had to face the tall older boy telling her she was too skinny.
Years later, an ambitious lawyer husband and his four-star hotels had blurred those early pains. But the smell now brought it home again, as did the familiar creaking the lodge wooden floors made.
But good memories came back now too: screams of first wading into cold lake water, and later, crushes on older boys, easy fun, dirt, sun, and mountain air; quiet and predictable until the occasional jet drew on the sky forcing you back to cities.
She walked out on the deck. The sting had blunted, as it did the day after she was called skinny (besides he was all over her the next summer). She remembered she had threaded worms on hooks, threw mud pies, and learned to weave baskets.
Now, as she got closer to the rear of the buildings, the chatter from the pool drifted up to her. It sounded louder all of a sudden and then quieted down. It drew her to the rail and steps, and she looked down at the crowded and spirited throng. Then the pull to get closer to the action brought her the rest of the way.
The lodge’s office sat on the hill above and behind the lifeguard stand, and today the window was open and the shade was raised. The man inside, who had been pacing, now stopped.
The heavily mustached man went over and stuck his foot in the water, testing this year’s temperature. Smiling, he went over to a chair, quickly abandoned by a fellow camper, took off his cap, and…
The lifeguard sprang down, whipped a large bath towel out from under the chair and, heedless of the no running rule, sprinted over to the bulky, disrobing man. As his robe fell away, she, with practiced dexterity and youthful innocence, flung the large towel around him, so thoroughly that not even a testicle flashed.
The pulsing crowd became mute.
“How considerate of you,” Dave said, and smiled.
But now what? It appeared to the onlookers that she had performed her instructions flawlessly, but they had now run out, and neither the large man nor the situation seemed handled. What else could she do? Both of her hands were holding the towel around him. Dave patiently smiled down at her. At this moment she resembled an adoring acolyte.
“Ya got to hand it to her; she’s got guts,” Earl said.
“And she’s so young,” added Selma.
“But good with a towel,” replied Elizabeth.
The girl twisted her neck and looked behind her and up toward the blank office window. She looked back at Dave, then back up to the office.
“She can’t keep that up forever.”
“The dude hasn’t been that close to a woman in ages, I’ll bet,” said Earl, with a whiff of yearning.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” another man said. “He’s an old goat.”
“In your dreams,” said Selma.
“Hey, it gets more interesting with age.”
“You mean slower and softer?” Elizabeth chimed in.
“I mean interesting. Threesomes, fantasy play, dirty talk…”
“Now, Selma, it’s all they have,” Elizabeth teased.
“Whatever. I just don’t see Dave being up to it,” Selma said.
“He’s tit to tit with a hottie now,” Earl said, beaming a firm smile at Selma.
“It looks like she’s tiring.”
“This isn’t going to last. It’s only a Band-Aid anyway.”
“And Dave’s moving.”
The girl looked terrified. She couldn’t let go, but she was being dragged along by the sheer bulk of her captive. Like a child losing her lines in a school play, she searched again for instructions from above. Dave had now dragged himself and his worshiper five feet closer to the pool.
A crackle and then a loud and authoritative voice boomed from a speaker: “You cannot enter the pool without a swimsuit.”
The couple danced closer to the pool. The lifeguard bent her knees and tried to dig into the cement border of the pool. When she stepped on his bare foot, he squawked in pain. Now she apologized while still fighting him to reverse course.
“She’s outweighed by at least a hundred pounds,” Elizabeth said.
“Poor thing, doesn’t know what to do now,” said Rachel.
It became inevitable: She could let go of the towel and stay dry, or she could hold onto the towel, fight him for toeholds until she was dragged in with him.
But Dave moved suddenly and forced her to tumble in with him. She let go in midair, eyes stretched open, arms flailing to push off from Dave’s shoulders, and then shoving away from his chest to avoid the parts below—male parts which she only recently explored with her summer boyfriend—and splashed sideways into the water, went under and kicked to the surface. After a quick glance up to her boss, she watched Dave, the walrus, swim away like the simple and uncomplicated man he saw himself to be.
It had passed quietly. They were unloading their dinners from the trays. The afternoon fun still reverberated in the dining hall. Dave had completed his twenty-five laps; others joined him in the pool or drifted off to various interests. The afternoon faded.
“He did enter the pool with a swimsuit, you know,” Rachel said.
“He did not.”
“The girl had on a suit, and she entered with him.”
They laughed hard with Rachel.
Earl said, “What is the big deal really? We don’t care and we’re the only ones at the place.”
“I still can’t get over the look on that young girl’s face holding the towel and frantically looking up to the office for instructions,” said Elizabeth.
“And they never came from that chicken-shit manager,” Selma said, and then reddened knowing she had violated one of her rules. Automatically, the others wagged their fingers at her.
Earl noticed her first and looked out, away from the table. She looked thin and a little frail. The others followed his look and saw Cambria walking toward the table. She stopped when she was three feet away.
“May I say something?”
“You don’t need to ask permission, dear,” Selma said.
“Well…I’m thinking… I’m the ‘chicken shit’ manager. Selma, excuse my language.”
“Here, sit,” Earl said making room, and then got another chair for himself and brought it over. They continued to look at her.
“I know I’m critical. I’m not really a bitch, not really. But I have nothing to offer, nothing real, I mean. You all scare me.” She touched her lapel, but then noticed she was doing it, laughed weakly, shot a quick smile that for once didn’t look pasted on, and continued, “And Rachel, you’re right, my life’s been easy. Some time ago, I just went on automatic. I’ve got a great shell, but what’s inside…” Her upper lip quivered a little; she brushed her eye. “I just don’t know what to do...” she looked at Selma, tried a weak smile, “who I am.”
Rachel continued to look at her, breathing carefully. Her smile came slowly. She wasn’t happy or sad for Cambria. She thought she would probably be all right, but more interesting to Rachel was that she was comfortable, just sitting, joking, laughing with friends, old friends, peers.
No one knew what to do for Cambria, so they did little things: Said little encouragements, touched her shoulder, gave her encouraging smiles.
“But I am coming back next year,” Cambria blurted.
“Well, you better, girl,” said Liz.
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