Saturday, October 17, 2009

Diary of a Camper

4:17 p.m. I've just arrived at the Marriott Residence Inn in beautiful downtown...somewhere. The traffic was terrible and I have a splitting headache, but am instantly cheered by the junk food in the lobby. I get some Coke and cookies and wheel my bag up to my room, which is like an apartment, with a full kitchen and living room. I contemplate staying here for a week, naked and covered in cookie crumbs. But the reunion awaits.

4:58 p.m. Cocktail hour is about to start, and I still can't decide what to wear. Clearly, I am not doing my nails at this point, and I'll just pretend I didn't just rake a big ladder up the leg of my new stockings. And what's up with my blood-shot eyes? I stare in the mirror and despair. Time to heat up the flat iron.

5:35 p.m. Finally ready to walk out the door. I think I'm looking decent, though I'm too terrified to work it. I'm hoping this thing is running on Jewish Standard Time since I'm already quite late.

5:40 p.m. This Jewish Community Center looks like a palace. As I walk in the door, I see Jeff and Karen, who must be the greeters. They sort of recognize me as I approach them. "So, how's it going?" Jeff asks, which makes me want to crack up, since I haven't talked to him in like 20 years but made out with him once. All I can think of is "Good! You?"

5:42 p.m. I storm the gates with false bravado, heading towards the din in the lobby. People check me out, hoping to recognize me. Nope. I'm searching the name tags when I see Andrea. Whee! I haven't seen her in years, but we stayed friends after camp because we both went to college on the east coast. She is still in Boston. She also looks just as dazzling as she did the last time I saw her. We hug and shout questions over the crowd. Funny how this sort of thing has you delving into your life choices in the first 30 seconds of pleasantries. I beg her to sit with me at dinner.

6:00 p.m. A familiar face is smiling at me. It's Robin! Haven't seen her in years, either, but we also went to high school together. We've been chit-chatting on Facebook for a year, but this is the first time I've seen her in a couple decades. She looks smashing and chic and--like Andrea--weirdly young.

6:30 p.m. I've lost track of Andrea and Robin and am feeling really self-conscious. A dog approaches me, dragging his owner. "You must have pets." "No," I say. "I guess I just smell good." Somehow, no conversation ensues. I inspect the cheese and crackers and pour myself a drink. I feel highly absurd. Everyone around me is talking and laughing, but I really have no idea who they are. I timidly approach Robin in the hope that she'll introduce me to the two guys she's chatting with, and we all chat briefly about Michael Stuhlbarg, former CK camper (not present) who is currently starring in the latest Coen Brothers movie. Robin and I keep talking until someone reaches for my arm and starts leading me out of the room...

7:00 p.m. ...and it's David Hillinger. I mentioned him in my camp post--he was dance director. He had brown hair then, and it's gray now, and he looks uncannily like a very small Steve Martin. I'm not sure why he's pulling me, but it turns out it's time for a pre-dinner prayer service.

7:02 p.m. I'm sitting next to Robin in the front row of a "theater in the round" bamboo-covered outdoor shelter, and a woman in white is calling for everyone to be seated. She is very familiar to me, and when I see her name tag, I remember that she used to lead prayers at camp, too. "And what is she, a rabbi now?" I joke to Robin." "Yes," says Robin, not joking. Emily is a high-drama sort of reverend, and her intensity makes me want to giggle. She doesn't look any older to me. But now that we are all sitting down and I can look around, I see that is not true for the rest of us. We look older. Graying, balding, wrinkled. I have a sobering few minutes contemplating how I must look much, much older than I think I do. I knew these people when we weren't even grown yet, I think. Wow. The singing starts.

7:20 p.m. "Why don't I know these songs?" I whisper to Robin, and she laughs. She knows them. I don't seem to remember anyone or anything. It's disconcerting. Later, I discover that Robin was at camp for SEVEN years, to my two. So that lets me off the hook, a little.

7:40 p.m. Lots of singing. Lots of putting our arms around people we don't know. I remember that part well. Not so into it anymore. When we get to the Kaddish, which is the Jewish prayer of mourning, Emily invites us to say a few words about campers who are no longer with us. I get a bit choked up when Laurie, who was briefly married to Glenn, places his CK sweatshirt in the middle of the circle. He was the one who took us for sundaes back in the day. He died of stomach cancer when he was very young.

8:00 p.m. We're invited to the dining hall, where the walls are covered with hand-made posters invoking camp memories. "Tiger Milk bars!" I marvel. "I'll never forget those." We weren't allowed to have real chocolate at camp, but you could buy Tiger Milk Bars at the canteen after lunch. I think I had one every day. I point this out to Andrea, but she doesn't remember them at all. That's okay--I don't seem to remember ANY of the others. You can see where my priorities were.

8:15 p.m. I am really hungry, but there are some speeches and some thank-yous and a reading of the evening's menu in Hebrew. I can tell that I'm supposed to remember this ritual from camp, but I don't. Also, everyone else seems to remember the Hebrew words for everything. Again, I got nothin'. Finally, it's time to eat.

8:30 p.m. Food is sort of hotel banquet-hall like. Chicken, rice, salad. It's okay. I'm very hungry and eat a lot. I realize suddenly that I've been concentrating on my food and haven't really talked to anyone in 15 minutes, but everyone else is laughing and shrieking and circulating, already. Andrea has vanished. I don't know the other people at my table at all, and can't imagine what to say.

8:35 p.m. I get up on the pretense of getting a drink, and drift into the hallway to text David. I am wallflower after all, I write. Lonely. I wander the halls a bit, drawn back to the empty cocktail room because I hear our little voices. One summer, we made a tape of us singing all the camp songs. We sound so young. I stare at myself in the mirror awhile. Why can't I see the part that has clearly gotten old? I notice a bowl of Hershey's miniatures, and furtively stuff some in my purse for later. David texts back: Well, go find the other wallflowers and ask them what they're up to. It's good advice. He's a smart man. I don't see any others, I write back, but I'll try.

9:00 p.m. Back in the room, I decide I've had enough of my table. I haven't exchanged two words with my dining companions, and I'm tired of looking at my uneaten chicken. I spot Robin across the room with an empty seat next to her, and swoop in. She seems genuinely glad to see me. I'm instantly relieved. We end up talking pretty seriously through a presentation of old photos with rather obscene captions in both Hebrew and English. Then we do some singing with a guitarist like in the old days, but somehow it doesn't spark any sentiment, seemingly in anyone.

9:30 p.m. Our revered director, Norm, he of the froggy voice, yellow beard (now mostly gray) and diminutive stature, takes the mike, and we launch into a call and response thing about spirit and body parts. I remember it only vaguely. I'm starting to get paranoid about how little I seem to remember.

10:00 p.m. Flipping through an album of photos at the table. I can't find me in any of them. There are a lot of too-short shorts, a lot of feathered hair. We comment that it looks like the '70s to us, even though it wasn't. All the photos are turning yellow. I spot my brother in one of the group photos, wearing a pink alligator shirt, standing right next to a guy I made out with. I'd forgotten that my brother went to CK--we weren't there at the same time.

10:15 p.m. Dancing is announced, and I am more than ready. I'm pleased that the people I've been talking to are also into dancing. I'm shy at first--I'd forgotten how fast the movements are, and how many steps you have to remember. But then I decide to go for it, and kick off my shoes. Many of the dances are done in a circle, holding hands, but everyone is very welcoming. About 30 or 40 of us hang in for every song. Ah, now I'm remembering something.

10:45 p.m. David Hillinger is amazing, a force of life. All my old crush feelings come swooping back. Apparently, he's also a dentist now, but I've never seen a man, of whatever age, so light on his feet. Sometimes he seems to be floating. The music is harsh and tinny--good lord, are these cassette tapes?--but fills my heart with song just the same. There are three dances which open the floodgates of muscle memory for me. I can't stop smiling and wish they would go on forever. The last one, with the high side leaps, feels so incredible that I ignore how much my hips are going to hurt tomorrow.

12:00 a.m. I am dripping wet, standing off to the side chit-chatting with Karen, one of the organizers. She friended me on Facebook about a year ago, and she's a lovely, lively person whom I'm fairly certain I've never met before in my life. She seems to think otherwise, which is fine. I'm glad we're having an actual conversation IRL--swapping community theater stories. The dancing winds down with some incredibly complicated moves set to "Footloose" that--say it with me--I don't remember. Robin is still out there, going strong. I kind of love her, even though I haven't seen her in like 20 years.

12:30 a.m. I say goodnight to Andrea and we exchange numbers, talk about having breakfast at our shared hotel. I also exchange numbers with Robin, and after she tells me that her husband and twin boys are coming up for the BBQ tomorrow, I start rethinking my cowardly plan to flee in the morning. I want to stick it out and introduce David and Jarrah to this strange little world. When I get to my car, I'm smiling and feeling pretty good.

1:00 a.m. Rattling the door of my hotel room in terror, thinking someone might ooze out of a crevice and kill me. Why did I agree to an upstairs room in the back again? Then I look at the number on the door. "1223." I say out loud. That is not my room. Oh. I run down the stairs.

1:15 a.m. I could get used to this. I've shed my finery all around the room (which I never let my husband or child do) and am stuffing cookies and stolen chocolate in my mouth while flipping through channels. Next I'm going to take a long, hot shower and use ALL the towels. I really know how to live.

5:00-ish a.m. I startle awake, thinking I hear an ax murderer outside my door. Did I use both the dead bolts? I'm frozen. No, I guess the ax murderer was just using my stairs to get to someone else's room. Or maybe people are actually up and about at this hour. Horrors. It takes me an hour to get back to sleep.

8:30 a.m. Wake up, feeling like death's less stylish cousin. Walk to buffet in lobby, teeming with unruly children wrestling with the "make your own waffle" machine. Head is reverberating. And I didn't even drink anything. I get a bagel and orange juice and go outside with some trashy mags. Behind me, I hear other reunion-goers laughing merrily about the previous evening's exploits and making plans for today. I don't turn around. I don't know them anyway.

12:00 p.m. Check out time. Can't I just live here for a while? Now I am a wandering Jew. I do have my day pass to the JCC, so I head back over there. Why did I shower, if I was going to work out? The place is a frozen tundra today, not a soul in sight. I have to go through a lot of security to get to the gym, but eventually I bust in and have a good workout. Now I need another shower, and there are no towels. Ruh-oh. I have a shopping bag with my stuff like a homeless person, and I end up using one of my shirts to dry off.

1:30 p.m. David and Jarrah pull up to the JCC parking lot. I've never been so glad to see them. We decide to start driving, figuring we'll hit the Long Beach Marina with the help of the GPS. But you know what? That little stinker is no help at all unless you have an actual address. We drive aimlessly for a while, with Jarrah repeating "Where are we going, and will it have lunch?"

2:00 p.m. Almost by accident, we pull up to the Queen Mary. Man, that boat is grand. We wonder if we can find some lunch on it. Turns out we can. And then we take a self-guided tour of fascinating little rooms filled with equipment and old furniture. Unfortunately, we also pass an expensive guided tour about ghosts on the way in, and every moment of our visit is punctuated with "Yeah, nice...but let's go see the GHOSTS now!" from our supernatural-obsessed daughter. But the ghost tour, luckily for us, isn't starting until the reunion BBQ is already underway, so we have an excuse.

5:00 p.m. We return to the JCC. I decide to send David and Jarrah in without me and try to make myself presentable in the car. I'm beginning to adapt to this vagabond lifestyle, and not only do I patch up my makeup, I strip to my skivvies in the back seat and shimmy into a new outfit. I'm sort of proud of my surfer-like nonchalance. My hair, however, is not salvageable without a flat iron, and I can't plug it in in the car.

5:30 p.m. Now this is the setting we needed last night. Pinkish late-afternoon sun glimmers off the pool as people recline around small tables, listening to old camp standards like "Cowgirl in the Sand" and "Both Sides Now." The music and the kids splashing in the water are incredibly soothing. I help Karen set up sodas in buckets of ice, and feel useful. I look up and Rhonda--who was my tentmate one summer--is smiling at me. I smile back, thinking we will finally have a catch-up conversation, and she says: "Are you the one who's going to cut the tomatoes?" That is unexpected. "I don't know if I was the one," I say brightly, "but I can do it." She praises my tomato-cutting abilities to the heavens, but that's as far as our conversation goes.

She and a group of women friends--some of whom I remember--have been sticking together all weekend. They sit in groups, ranks tight, and I have moved past marveling that I'm going to go the whole reunion without even making small talk with them. Maybe they don't remember me at all. That's certainly possible, though inconceivable to me. Or maybe they've planned this reunion as their own little get-together, and are too busy catching up with each other to pay attention to people they don't know. I know for certain I've done the same thing at other times and in other places. So, it is what it is. I decide to just let it go.

6:30 p.m. And I'm glad I do. Robin has returned for the BBQ with her husband and twin sons, who are seven, and it's great to meet them. We all sit together and eat burgers and hot dogs, and it's a beautiful evening, so relaxed. And because I'm not striving for anything, everything gets easier. I end up chatting with several people I haven't met yet, including Naomi, who I didn't attend camp with, but is lovely and fun and a great dancer. I love the idea of making new friends at a reunion. She turns out to be friends with David Wolfson, who was my little boyfriend one summer. I ask her to tell him hello, and then--suddenly uncertain about memory--add that we met in the infirmary.

7:30 p.m. It's getting dark, and the familiar songs start up at the other end of the pool. David is back with his masterful moves. I join the dancers, feeling a lot more confident tonight. Give me a week of reunion and I'll be willing to lead a couple numbers. I'm also much less sweaty, since we're outside. Someone mentions that David teaches ballroom. Ah, so he's not just a dentist. That explains it. I realize that I'm having the fun now that I thought I'd be having last night, but it's a different fun. One where I've released my expectations. I'm sure I'm supposed to learn something from this.

8:30 p.m. Jeff and cohorts hand out the Havdalah paraphernalia. I haven't had much contact with Jeff during the weekend, but when he cooks me a burger or dances near me, I'm reminded of how sweet he was, like a teddy bear. I remember making out with him as a very cuddly, teddy-bear-like experience. As I was saying, Havdalah is a ceremony that separates the Sabbath from the rest of the week with a few prayers and rituals, like a three-wicked candle that you snuff out in a cup of wine. Jeff hands me the wine cup, and I'm stoked. I haven't felt intrinsic to the celebration until now. Havdalah at camp each week was a big deal. We sang and swayed arm in arm. Now I'm grown up and in charge of the wine, and I feel cool. Looking around the swaying, smiling circle, I'm amazed that in 24 hours, I've come to recognize most of the faces here.

And maybe that's enough to take away, you know? Feeling that I've reconnected with a time, an experience, and some people who understand that experience. On Friday night, Norm's speech was all over the map, but one thing he said sticks with me: "Who knows when and if we'll ever get together again." Right. It's not like this reunion is a regularly scheduled event. It's probably a one-time deal. And it's pretty cool that over a 100 people chose to be a part of it.

I have this sense that the weekend has been a bit like camp itself. I always spent the first few days a bit lonely, a little homesick, a tad marooned on an island of my own insecurities and self-consciousness. And gradually, I got comfortable. People became familiar, days developed into a pattern, rituals emerged. The more we shared, the more I relaxed. And eventually the strangers around me became friends, and by the end--a sort of family away from home. We haven't had a summer together, just a couple of days. But somehow I know that if we had, that experience would have been familiar, too.


Stephanie said...

Being in charge of the wine is a very good thing and you already learned the lesson my dear, you simply recognized what already happened.
ps good advice from (your) David, I will remember that...

LunaMoonbeam said...

Glad you had fun. What a -unique- experience!! (And I think I would have been like you: I married my hubs because he was my FRIEND...and i miss him when he's not at parties with me. :-))

erin said...

Wow! That's a mouthful...or a pageful. Hm.

I loved reading this, I can imagine myself in all those situations...especially being befriended by someone on facebook that I'm sure I've never known in real life, but who knows everything about me.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this; it was so wonderful to read and you enabled a visual from words I'd lacked when trying to describe the CK Reunion Feeling on Monday. My elation carried through Tuesday, but Wednesday (yesterday) I was so sad - I began to miss everyone I'd reconnected with, because, as you said, being at the Reunion was like being at Camp, and now I remember what it felt like on the "Last Day".

mira said...


DrSpouse said...

We spent the night on the QM for my birthday this year (Feb), it is SO nice, glad you found it by accident!

I've never been to any of this type of reunion - have always been in the wrong country - glad you made it and (sort of) liked it.