This has to be the most exciting year of my life. For starters I finally made it to sixteen. Mathematically that should take only sixteen years, but with overprotective parents like mine, it seems more like thirty. Still, in the end they really came through. They gave me the most fantastic surprise sweet sixteen party.
My best friend Steffi helped them with the guest list, and what with friends and friends of friends and crashers, we had almost sixty people. My mother and father made all the food themselves, and it was fabulous. And the incredible thing was that I never saw them doing a thing. Even El Creepo (that's Nina, my thirteen-year-old sister) helped. Nobody seemed to know exactly how she helped, but it didn't matter, because the very best thing she did was to go away for the whole weekend. Do you know what it's like not to have your thirteen-year-old sister at your Sweet Sixteen? It's the best present in the world.
The party was a sensational success. Everybody in school was talking about it for weeks. My father is a lawyer, and one of his clients is a music arranger for the Rolling Stones, and we had their brand-new record, autographed by the arranger himself. It hadn't even been released yet. It was the sensation of the party.
So was Jenny Groppo and her latest love, Robert Boyer. That's her fourth steady this year, and it was only May. She's probably going to have a thousand husbands before she's finished. Anyway, she and Robert sneaked off to one of the bedrooms to make out (guess which bedroom the dummy picks?) and, of course, you-know-who walks into his own room and turns on the light right in the middle of some heavy stuff. That was last month, and my father is still recovering.
Now the second fabulous thing is starting. I'm packing my trunk to go away for the whole summer. I'm going to be a camper-waitress in a summer camp in the mountains in Upstate New York. Being a camper-waitress means that you wait on tables and get to be involved in all the camp activities. For all that, your parents have to pay only $740 out of the usual $1000 fee and the camp pays you a big $260. I know it's not a whole lot of money, but Steffi says the place is terrific. She knows because she's been going there for the last five years. It's called Mohaph. Sounds like an Indian tribe, but it's not -- it's named for the owners, Mo, Harry, and Phil.
The job is a snap. All we have to do is set the tables and serve three meals a day. We don't wash the dishes or anything like that. Steffi and I figured it all out. You know how kids don't like to sit at the table too long, so they jam the food down real fast and then they're gone. We figured that each meal should take tops forty-five minutes from beginning to end, so that's forty-five times three, or two hours and fifteen minutes of work a day, and then freedom!!! After that we can do whatever we want. Can you picture it -- two hundred miles from home, completely on our own, with the easiest work in the world? And getting paid for it! I can hardly wait.
Another great thing is that I practically don't have to wait. I mean, we're leaving next week. The season doesn't actually start for another week, but we're going to get there early for a training period. Can't imagine what kind of training anyone needs to serve dinner to a few kids. I could do it with my eyes closed.
There is one small drawback. My parents thought the place sounded so great that they signed up El Creepo as a camper. It's a pretty big camp, though, so if I'm careful maybe I can keep far away. Except we're not even there yet, and she's giving me trouble already. I leave a week before she does, which means that anything I don't take with me she'll wear. I can't fit all my things into one trunk, but the idea of her dancing around in my best clothes sends me right up the wall. Of course I can tell her not to touch my things, and, of course she'll say she won't. In fact she says she never does, but that's baloney. The minute I leave this house, she's into my wardrobe. Not only does she wear my things, but then she has the gall to lend them to her gross friend Annette, a greasy-haired beauty who probably hasn't had a bath since Christmas. Just thinking about them almost makes me want to stay home. If only I could electrify my room. I wouldn't even mind barbed wire.
I had a thing with her just last week about my fabulous new bathing suit. It's a one-piece, white with gold threads running through it, cut high on the thighs and off one shoulder. Very sexy. Any-way, I've worn it only a couple of times. I was saving it for camp. I folded it very carefully, and every time I looked at it, it seemed to be slightly different. I don't know, it just looked like someone was messing with it. Naturally I asked Nina, and naturally she swore she never touched it. The minute you ask her anything she always swears on everybody's life she's innocent. I try never to stand too close to her when she does that because, for sure, one day a bolt of lightning is going to get her. Anyway, I asked her nicely, and she denied it completely, but something about the way she said it made me suspect her.
"Look, jerk" -- I stopped being so nice -- "I know you've been at my bathing suit. And if you touch it once more, I'll destroy you, Creepo!"
"I never touched your lousy bathing suit," she lied, "and if you don't leave me alone, I'm going to tell Mommy! And don't call me Creepo!"
"Try and stop me, Creepo."
"It makes me crazy when she lies straight out like that. "Oh, sorry, honey," I said, not so accidentally knocking a pile of her newly folded underwear to the floor as I turn to make my exit.
"Mom!" she shrieked, like she was being murdered.
And my mother and Norman, our giant sheep-dog, came running. They almost collided at the door, and Norman went bounding into the fallen laundry, sending it flying in all directions.
"What's going on here?" my mother said, throwing up her hands and not waiting for an answer. "Can't you girls get along for five minutes without fighting? For God's sake, Nina, how many times do I have to tell you not to throw your clothes on the floor?"
"She did it!" the little ghoul said, pointing at me.
"Prove it," I answered, staying very calm.
That did it. She went right into her crying act. She must have the most highly developed tear ducts in the world. She cries at least four times a day. She doesn't even have to have a reason -- all she needs is an audience, preferably my parents, who are the biggest suckers in the world when it comes to their baby.
She did the entire number about how I always blame her for everything; I'm always picking on her, and on and on. Naturally I denied everything, because it wasn't true. She's the one who makes my life miserable with her borrowing and lying and snooping and everything. We had this big argument with my mother in the middle and, of course, she took Nina's side because she said you can't just run around accusing people without any proof, and on top of that said I owed the creep an apology. Of course, I didn't want to give her one, but my mother said I had to or I was grounded for the whole day.
There she was, the little creep, really winning, standing there in her room changing her clothes and telling me that I better apologize fast because she was in a hurry. And she had me, because my mother was standing right there, waiting. All the while she was unbuttoning her shirt and smiling that vomit smile, just waiting for me to start crawling.
I figured I'd make her pay for the next hundred years, but I was trapped right then, so I started to say how maybe I had misjudged her, and she was lapping it all up and asking for more when she began pulling off her shirt.
"She's so mean to me, Mommy," she said, "and I never even touch anything of hers."
The biggest out-and-out lie of the century. And on and on she whined about how cruel I was to poor little innocent her. She pulled off her shirt and let her skirt drop, and my mother and I were standing there with our mouths hanging open. There she was, perfect little Saint Nina, standing there without a stitch on except for the outline of my one-shoulder bathing suit suntanned onto her skin.
It turned out to be a glorious day. For me, anyway. Nina spent the rest of it in her room, contemplating the disadvantages of messing around with her big sister. She probably didn't learn anything except to cover her tracks better.
But that still doesn't help me with my problem now. I'm not going to think about it anymore. With luck, she'll get the flu for a week, and all she'll borrow will be my nightgowns. I decided to hide my best nightgown behind my chemistry books.
Even though I'm very excited about going, there are a couple of things that make it sort of hard to leave. One is Todd Walken and the other is Judy First. Todd has been my boyfriend for the last three months. He's terrific, and I like him very much. In fact I more than like him, but I don't think I'm in love with him. At least not the way Steffi is in love with Robbie, the guy from camp. Actually I don't think I've ever been in love that way. Steffi's just totally gone on Robbie. Not even interested in anyone else at all. She must write to him at least twice a day, and she doesn't even care if she never has another date with anyone else. I know I don't feel that way about Todd, but I am very attracted to him, and I certainly like him more than anyone else at the moment. But I know that the minute I get on that bus, Judy First is going to move right into my territory.
She's been dying to get near him all winter. She must have asked him to ten different things at her parents' club and anything else she could think of. But he always said no because I was around. As of next week, I won't be. Personally, I have nothing against Judy First. If Todd likes dumpy dodos with bananas for brains, dyed hair, and no personality, he's welcome to her. Wait till he tries to drag that klutz around the dance floor. Of course, there is one thing she seems to do very well, and often, and with anyone. If that's all he's interested in, he's going to have a wonderful summer.
Steffi says there's no point in working myself up since the only way to solve the problem is to stay at home, and I'm certainly not going to do that.
Boy, I really hate that Judy First.
Why do they always stack up two good things and then make you choose? How nice it would be if everything were like this -- would you like to spend the summer chatting with Nina or be a waitress in a summer camp? That's the kind of choice I'd like to have.
It's nearly impossible to decide what to take with me, particularly when everything I own is absolutely terrible. I must have the ugliest clothes in America. Even the things I pick out myself turn awful after a couple of weeks. Fortunately Steffi has some great things, and we're the same size. That's very important in a friendship, you know. And the best part is that she hates her clothing too. So we switch. I probably should be packing her trunk and she mine.
Every few minutes my mother comes in to tell me not to forget my heavy sweaters and my down jacket. And my rain boots. I can't believe her. She must think I'm going to the North Pole or something. I shake my head yes, but I'm definitely not taking my rain boots. When will she ever learn that I'm not ten anymore? Never, I suppose. Funny, but sometimes when I hear my grandmother talking to my mother, it sounds like she's talking to a little girl. I suppose if someone is your child, they're always your child in some ways.
My aunt Laura gave me a beautiful case just for makeup for my birthday. I figure my makeup will fill that plus a couple of shopping bags, and then I can buy things up there if I need them.
Besides leaving Todd and my family, I'm a little nervous about the camp. I know I have Steffi, but she's been going there for a long time, so she knows everybody and I know only her. What if I don't like it? I can't change my mind and just come home. I guess if it was awful I could, but when I take on something it's very important to my parents that I go through with it to the end. My father, especially, is very firm about not being a quitter.
I'm going to miss them very much. Even though you're sixteen, you can still get lonely for your parents. I know I did last year at Fire Island, especially when there was any trouble. I guess it's natural to worry about something new. And I'm good at worrying. I hope there aren't too many disgusting things, like bugs and wild animals. I've always lived in the city so the only animals I'm comfortable with are dogs and cats.
I am also going to miss Norman very much. Norman has been our family failure. Nina and I took him to a dog-training course when he was a puppy. He was beyond a doubt the sweetest dog in the class. He loved all the other dogs, even the most vicious ones. And he did get his diploma, but there was no question that he was simply pushed through. You can say "heel" and commands like that until you're blue in the face and get no reaction, but there are certain words he understands perfectly -- go out, eat, cookie, cake, bread, lamb chop, steak, ice cream, and get off the bed, Mommy's coming.
This is the first summer both Nina and I have been away at the same time. My parents are going to miss us terribly, especially when it comes to walking Norman.
"Who's going to walk Norman in the mornings?" I asked over dinner the other night.
"Daddy is," my mother shot back instantly. Then, in a sweeter, softer voice, she said to my father, "Well, darling, you have to get up at that time anyway."
"But not on the weekends," he said, and then matching her for sweetness said, "Mommy will walk him on the weekends."
"But I like to sleep late on the weekends, too," she said very reasonably.
By now Nina had stopped eating her meatloaf, which happens to be her favorite dinner, to pay more attention.
"Then maybe you want to walk him a couple of mornings during the week," my father suggested.
"I walk him every afternoon when you're not home." My mother's face was getting a little stiff. "Maybe you'd like to come home early a couple of times a week and walk him?"
I don't know if it was the meatloaf, or that he sensed the conversation was crucial to his future, but Norman pulled all one hundred and twenty pounds of fur and dog up from his favorite resting place under the table and stood alongside Nina, his chin resting on the table.
"You know, darling," my dad said, trying a smile, "I can't be stopped in the middle of a brief to come home and walk the dog." Feeling he'd scored a good point, he looked to Nina and me for a little agreement. Neither of us was stupid enough to take sides or to disturb the flow. This was too beautiful to end too quickly.
"Who's going to walk him at night?" Nina stoked the fire a little.
"Eat your salad," my father snapped at Nina, who hasn't eaten salad in thirteen years.
"Sure, Daddy," she said, actually spearing a tiny piece of lettuce with her fork. "Don't you think you should walk him at night if Mommy walks him every afternoon?" That would teach him to mess with Nina.
"But I walk him every morning," my father defended.
"But not on the weekends," my mother attacked.
"We could share the weekends," he offered.
"Oh, and what about the nights?"
"That's not fair," my father said, and that's when Nina and I cracked up.
"Good Lord," my mother said, "where have I heard that before?" And we all cracked up.
That's the terrific thing about my parents. They have a sense of humor. They seem to have developed it fairly recently. Seems to me they took everything so seriously when I was younger. At least everything about their children. They're still heavily into the parent thing, but they're getting better at it. Better and worse. My father is still terrible when it comes to boys. I dread bringing home a date, because I can see that my dad doesn't like him before he comes in the door. It's like he's guarding the palace. Most of the time I think he would like to throw all of the guys into a crocodile moat. A lot of them probably belong there.
Most guys I know are either creeps or semicreeps. I guess there are a couple of okay ones around. Todd, for one. But even Todd can be a pain sometimes. Especially when we go out at night. We have a great time. He's a terrific dancer with a great sense of humour, smart, fun, and everything, and then suddenly at the end of the evening he turns into Dracula. Sometimes I feel like I ought to get myself one of those big wooden crosses to keep him away. It's not that I don't like fooling around, but unless you're really in love with someone, I can't see me getting that involved. I don't know how I'd feel if I were in love, but so far it hasn't happened.
We have to be at the bus station by 7:45 A.M. For some reason it's a group activity. That means not only my parents but El Creepo and Norman.
"Are you wearing jeans?" That's me, asking my mother.
"Don't start, please." That's my mother answering.
I have to explain a little about my mother. She's very pretty and very young looking. Which is good. I mean it's ideal to have that kind of mother, but sometimes I'd like her to look a little more like everybody else's mother.
There's some last-minute craziness because Nina says it's my turn to walk Norman, but my father says it's obvious that I'm too busy, and Nina says something stupid like I'm always too busy, just to have the last word. My father is in no mood for her nonsense and tells her simply to walk Norman. She grumbles, whines, moans, and does the full Nina act, even throwing in a couple of quick tears. It's a tired act and nobody is impressed. Certainly not Norman, who simply waits at the door for the loser.
By 7:30 we're still not out of the house, and now it's getting frantic.
When we finally arrive, the bus station is jammed. It looks like a billion different camps are leaving this morning. It takes us forever to find our bus, and then I don't see Steffi. One bad thing about Steffi, and her mother, too, is that they're always late. Incredibly enough, they've never missed a train or a plane, but it's always a sweat at the end.
I look around but, naturally, I don't know anyone. My mother gets busy looking for the person in charge. She's always very big with people in charge. It's as though, if she makes herself known, they'll know they'd better take good care of her child. Let them know someone cares. In this case, the man in charge is Uncle Roger, and I'm introduced to him like a six-year-old. Nobody really has anything much to say to Uncle Roger. The message has been delivered. This camper-waitress has a family, and a dog, and you'll be held accountable for anything that happens to her.
It's time to get on the bus. I'm starting to get in a small panic because Steffi isn't here and I'm having trouble saving her a seat. Somehow, everyone seems to want that particular seat.
Big parting scene, hugs, kisses. Norman, in a frenzy, knows something unusual is happening and is pulling, not in any special direction, just pulling. That's a hundred and twenty pounds of pulling.
Steffi finally arrives. There's all kinds of squealing and hugging and kissing. Obviously my friend Steffi is very popular. Strangely enough, this makes me a little uneasy. Not that I'm jealous, that's not it, it's just that she's the only one I know at camp, and I'm not anxious to share her with a million other people.
And that's what happens right away. I'm saving her a seat next to me, but though she dumps all her stuff on it, she whispers that she's going to sit with Ellen Rafferty for a bit. Ellen lives next door to the famous Robbie in Connecticut, and Steffi's dying for information. I can understand. I really can.
The bus pulls away, and my wonderful parents, fabulous sister, and adorable dog get smaller and smaller and further away. Two minutes into the summer and I hate the whole thing, because my best friend is sitting next to someone else. Can you be sixteen and six at the same time? The only thing left is a few tears, which I could easily work up. I don't, though. Instead I bury my head in my new book, but that's all I can do because I have to keep my eyes closed. I get nauseous if I read in a car or a bus.
Funny how people look when you meet them for the first time. After you get to know them, they never look the same again. Right now I look around and everyone seems sort of formal and cold, like they could never be my friends. They all look much older, too. That's possible, because camper-waitresses can be as old as seventeen. I hope I'm not the youngest. I can see right away that one girl looks, at most, twelve. There's always someone who looks so young, and then you find out that they're really seventeen. Even when they're twenty-five, they still look like kids. I don't think I'd like that. Life's hard enough without having to explain all the time that you're really not twelve. This particular girl seems pretty nice and she's sitting right across from me, so I figure I'll act a little grown-up and try being friendly.
"Hi, I'm Victoria Martin," I say.
And she smiles and says she's Annie Engle.
I go on with the usual things about how this is my first year up here, and how I'm sort of nervous about it.
"It's my first year too," she says, and she is so natural and easygoing, I hit it off with her right away. She's got a nice innocence about her that's really adorable, and I know we're going to be good friends. With some people you can tell right away.
"Naturally I'm a little nervous about the work because I never waited on tables before, but the way my friend Steffi and I figure it, it's going to be a snap," I say. "Have you ever done this before?"
"You mean wait tables?"
"No, I think I'm too little."
"Hey, don't worry," I tell her. "I don't think it makes any difference if you're short."
Surprisingly, she gets really indignant. "I don't think I'm so short."
We're not even out of Manhattan, and I've had my first failure. I'm the Norman of the camp set. "I didn't mean it that way." I start falling all over, trying to ingratiate myself. "I always wanted to be petite. It's so cute." Once I start burying myself, there's no stopping me. "Tiny hands and feet."
Now she's really insulted. "I was next to tallest in my class last year."
I'm beginning to get a sinking feeling about my new friend. "What class was that?" I ask.
No wonder she looks twelve.
I go right back to my book. Things are tough enough without latching on to a twelve-year-old. They must have put her in here just to trick me. Like a decoy. God, I hate this place.
I'm sitting there with my eyes closed, turning the pages at the proper time, when I sense someone looking over me.
"That's a great way to read a book if you don't like it," the guy leaning over me says, in a friendly voice that has the little bumps and chuckles running through it. I like him before I can even twist around to see his face.
He pulls back and stands up straight. I was right -- he is nice, tall and lanky, with silky straight brown hair that hangs over his forehead and always will. He's got a nice face. It's not gorgeous, but lively and smart, with a few freckles sprinkled across the top of his nose to give him a casual, easygoing look. He must be at least six one. Probably a tall twelve-year-old.
"I'm Ken Irving. I work in the front office."
"Hi, I'm Victoria Martin and I'm going to be a waitress."
"You mind?" he says, sweeping Steffi's stuff toy one side and sliding into her seat. "You're going to be a waitress, huh?'
"Is that bad?"
"No, it sounds great, I guess."
Suddenly I'm nervous. "What do you mean, you guess?"
"Hey, I didn't mean anything." I can see I've thrown him off balance, which I didn't mean to do. "This is my first year here so I'm just guessing at everything. Waiting tables sounds terrific."
I smile to let him know everything's all right. "You think so?"
"Are you kidding, it's great. I guess." Now he's smiling back, and I have to smile too.
Waiting on tables, what could be so great about a job like that -- except if it's your first adult job? Not like babysitting or mother's helper or some other kind of gofer kid job. Being a waitress is the real world, and so it is great. Naturally, I don't tell him all that. He'd think I was off my nut.
"What are you going to be doing in the office?" I ask him.
"I'm not even sure. So far all they told me was that I'd be answering phones."
"Boy, that's a snap. How'd you get such an easy job?"
"The usual way."
"From an ad in the paper?"
"Are you kidding? That's the easy way. We had to get my mother's cousin Caroline's daughter to marry Mo of Mohaph's son. Then Caroline put in the fix, and, voilà, here I am. How'd you get your job?"
"Obvious," I tell him. "I'm Mo's son."
And we both laugh. I like Ken because he's one of those people you feel comfortable with instantly. It's as if we're old friends after five minutes. Only trouble might be if he tries to make it more than that. Right now, I don't feel like it. I can sense a little something else from him, but not from me, not yet, anyway. Good friends, that's all.
And we're gabbing away a mile a minute, having such a good time that I don't even see Steffi come over. Ken sees her first, and he gets a funny look on his face. Uh-oh, looks like I won't have to worry about Ken bothering me. I think he just got zonked. Too bad, but I know there's no chance for him against Robbie.
"This is my friend Steffi," I say. "This is Ken...uh..."
"Irving," he adds, not taking his eyes of Steffi.
"Hi," Steffi says, open and friendly as always. And not noticing a thing.
Now, straight off, I want to make it clear that I don't have any real interest in Ken Irving. None at all. Not even the slightest bit, though I like him as a friend. A lot. But no other way. However, it does make you feel a little frumpy, dumpy, gross, and highly rejectable when, after spending fifteen minutes dazzling someone, one look at your best friend and he forgets you ever lived. And she isn't even trying. This is not my day. In fact, what with Judy First probably making out with Todd the minute I got on the bus, this may not be my summer. But I'm not going to let it bother me. After all, it's only my whole life.
While Steffi chats with Ken, I sit there not allowing the destruction of my entire summer ruin a lovely bus trip. Just as I'm being overcome, Ken reluctantly tears himself away from Steffi and goes back to his seat. And Steffi turns to me.
"He's cute," she says. "Do you think he likes you or what?"
"Or what what?" I kid her. That's her new thing, everything ends in "or what?" Last year it was "you know." When she gets these things it can sometimes take months to get rid of. And they're very catching.
"Seriously, Torrie, I really think he likes you."
Even smart people can be so dense sometimes. "He is cute," I tell her, "but it isn't me he likes."
"Come on, all he did was say three words to me."
"Sometimes you don't even need that," I tell her.
"Oh, Victoria, you're so romantic. You read too much. It doesn't happen like that. Whammo, and you're in love."
"How did it happen with Robbie? Didn't you know the minute you saw him?"
"Not really. At first I thought, gee, he's cute. Then after a couple of minutes talking to him, I thought, gee, he's smart and nice and even better looking than I thought. By the end of the first date I thought he was gorgeous and brilliant and the most exciting guy I'd ever met. And when he didn't call me the first thing the next morning, my stomach got so knotted up I couldn't even cat breakfast or talk or even think. It was either a twenty-four-hour virus or I was in love. Since I didn't have any fever, it had to be love."
"You see too many movies."
We both laugh, and then Steffi gets serious. "Wait till you meet him, Victoria, he's so terrific you're just going to love him. I've never met anyone like Robbie before. He's not like any of the people we know at school. Most of them are just stupid kids.
"I mean, all they care about is making out. But Robbie's different. He's a real person. He cares. Not just about the people close to him, but everybody. Whole countries, the world. If something happens in Afghanistan, it really matters to him. And he's ready to pitch in and help or donate something or write a letter or whatever. He's the kind of person who could be president. I mean it, he's so special. I really am in love with him, Torrie."
I never heard Steffi talk that way about a boy before. Even her voice has a different sound to it. You can probably hear the love. I'm really happy for her and I tell her so. "I can't wait to meet Robbie. I like him already," I say, and I mean it. Anyone who's that important to my best friend is going to be very important to me, too.
Steffi goes back to her daydreaming about Robbie, and I sit worrying about the summer, watching the countryside zip past. The sight of green meadows begins to relax my fears. I've lived in the city all my life, and I still get very excited when I get into the country; show me a brook and I go nuts, or those farmhouses that look like the ones I used to draw in fourth grade. And the sight of a herd of cows just hanging out in somebody's front yard still knocks me out. Steffi spends every summer up here, so she's not nearly as impressed as I am. "I think she'd rather stick with her Robbie fantasies than listen to my babbling about the beauties of nature, so I just stay quiet and take it all in. It's hard for me to imagine what it would be like living in any of these small towns we're passing through. Sometimes I think it might be a nice life, sort of easy, in a place where everyone knows and cares about everyone else. Somewhere warm and friendly and safe, with lots of country fairs and hay rides. Or maybe it's only like that in the movies. Come to think of it, it might not be so great having everyone know everything about you. You can get lost in a big city if you want. Still, I think I might like to try a small town for a while. Maybe after college. Just to find out what they do in between hay rides and country fairs.
I'm so busy planning the rest of my life that I almost don't notice that we've turned off the main road and are on a single-lane country road. Everybody is grabbing stuff off the racks and putting things together.
"Another five minutes," Steffi says, stuffing her jacket into her overnight case.
"I'm so excited," I tell her.
"Me too. You're going to love it, Victoria. It's going to be our best summer. Nothing but fun from early morning to late, late, late, late as you want at night. Nobody's going to be standing over us. We're on our own."
"Excellent! I just hope I can handle the work, though. I've never waited on tables before."
"Are you kidding or what? It's a cinch. It's not like you're serving real people in a restaurant. These are just kids. You just shove the food in front of them and they eat it in two seconds and then you're finished. Free! Nothing to do for the rest of the day but lie around in the sun, swim, curl our hair, polish our nails, and dress for fabulous parties every night. The hardest thing you'll have to do is fight the boys off. They're going to just love you, Victoria. Wait'll you see." With that, the bus pulls up to a big iron gate and stops.
"Are we here?" I ask.
"Yup, this is picturesque Camp Mohaph on Mohaph Road. High on Mount Mohaph above beautiful Lake Mohaph. Remember from the brochure?"
"It's beautiful," I say, and it is. We drive through the high iron gates up a winding tree-lined gravel road, and at the very top of the hill stands the camp. It's divided into two circles of bunkhouses, one for the boys and one for the girls. Both are fantastic. It looks more like a hotel than a camp. I thought they said it was an old camp, but all the bunks look brand new.
From the bus, if you look down behind us, you can see the lake. It's small but sparkling, with a tiny island right in the middle (Mohaph island, I guess) crowded with weeping willows that drip their long branches into the water. Along the banks there are acres of green lawns carpeting the hills, and in the distance you can see the playing fields, playground for the little kids, and a gigantic pool shining aqua in the sun. Steffi's right. I'm going to love it here.
The bus pulls into the parking lot, and we all grab our stuff and, loaded like pack horses, slowly make our way out of the bus. Uncle Roger leads the way. The closer we get, the better it looks. The bunks are glossy white, so freshly painted they look almost wet. Each bunk has different color shutters. On the girls' side, wonderful violets, soft mauves and pinks, with an occasional splash of burgundy. On the boys' side, the bunks are also sparkling white, but the shutters are in the more traditional browns, grays, deep blues, and reds. I love it all.
With Uncle Roger in the lead, we all start moving toward the bunks.
"I hope it's the one with the mauve shutters," I whisper to Steffi. "It's my favorite color."
"Actually, these are for the campers. Ours are further back." For some reason Steffi seems a little uncomfortable.
"Great," I tell her. "More privacy." And I mean it. I'd hate to be in the first row with all the little kids.
Uncle Roger turns around and holds up his hands for us to stop. "Waitresses can head over to the right," he says, pointing toward a big, beautiful building, almost like one of those New England meeting halls.
"Fantastic," I tell Steffi, "it's the best one of all."
For some reason Steffi is hanging back a little. Almost like she's trying to keep away from me. Maybe she's worried that I'll be disappointed because it's not one of the little bunks. I try to reassure her. "Steffi, I love being in the big building away from everyone else, and we'll have the whole place to ourselves. Just waitresses. Fabulous."
"It's not that building." She sounds positively glum.
"Big, small, it's all the same to me."
She mumbles something I don't catch and heads around the back of what everyone is referring to as the social hall. That's where they hold all the dances and entertainment. Terrific, we'll be close by the fun place.
I accidentally drop my backpack and bend down to pick it up; when I get up again, I see Steffi picking up speed, and without a backward glance, she disappears around the back of the big hall. She's acting strange. I hope it isn't anything I've done.
I turn the corner of the building, but I don't see her. She's vanished -- I must have come around the wrong side of the building, because there's nothing here but a couple of rundown old ramshackle buildings in the middle of what looks like a rubbish dump.
The buildings themselves must be old storage shacks that they don't use anymore. Half the shutters are falling off on the one closest to us, the front steps are broken and what remains of a front porch just barely clings to the building. Could our bunk be in the wooded area behind these shacks? It must be. I hope it's far enough away from the mess. I pick up my backpack and start walking around the back of the shack.
"Victoria...Torrie...here." A tiny voice come from inside the first shack. Then a head sticks out Steffi's head, then I see the rest of her.
"What are you doing in there?" I ask.
She comes out of the shack gingerly moving her feet around, searching for a fairly safe spot on the porch, smiling the weirdest smile I've ever seen. Sort of what "I'm sorry" would look like if it was written in lips.
I open my mouth to say "What's up?" Then it hit me. Suddenly I know exactly what's up, and it's not good.
"Oh, no, Steffi, I can't believe it..."
"I'm sorry, Torrie, I swear it didn't look this bad last year. I remember it as sort of quaint and charming."
"Yeah, like the Black Hole of Calcutta."
"Do you hate me or what?"
"I'll tell you when I see the inside."
I make my first mistake. I bound up the stair and right through the porch. And I mean through it. My foot sinks down up to my ankle and sticks there.
Steffi helps me pull it out. I don't say anything. With one slightly scratched leg, I make my way to the doorway. And just stare. There's only one thing I can think of to say. And I turn to Steffi to say it, but I don't. Her eyes are afloat with tears. Nothing running down her cheeks, but one word from me would start a cascade.
"I just wanted you to come so badly. And you never asked me what it looked like. If you did I would have told you, I really would have."
"Let me look again," I say, and go back to the doorway. That was my second mistake. Looking again. It's even worse the second time. I'm mesmerized by its awfulness. Eight terrible iron cots, most of them bent out of shape, with legs that don't exactly touch the floor on all four corners and sagging hundred-year-old mattresses that look like someone bought them at the prison rummage sale. Each bed has a small cubby next to it. And I mean small. Three shelves on top and a tiny cabinet underneath. Perfect to hold everything for a short weekend. A single naked bulb (probably no more than forty watts) hangs down in the middle of the room with a broken piece of chain dangling from it. No problem reaching it if you're over six three.
You can't lie to your best friend. "It's the worst, ugliest rathole I've ever seen," I tell her.
"Sure, it needs some work, but if we all pitched in we could do it in no time."
"Certainly -- by Christmas."
"Come on, Victoria. All it takes are some pretty curtains, maybe a cute bedspread, and some throw pillows. We could even get some pictures and posters. Maybe my mother could send me my Stones poster. We could hang it right over this rough spot," she says, indicating a gaping hole in the wall the size of a bowling ball.
But Steffi is only warming up. She's got a million ideas on how to turn this dump into Buckingham Palace, but I've stopped listening. Instead I'm hunting for the showers. But I can't find them mainly because they aren't there. The only thing in the back is one crummy toilet with a cracked seat, guaranteed to pinch you every time you use it.
"It's positively primitive," I tell her.
"It's the country."
"What country? Where's the showers?"
"A little way..."
"Three blocks away. But they're very tiny blocks Victoria. I know it's not perfect, but..." There's no way to finish that sentence.
I look around once more. It's dark and ugly. And then I look at my best friend Steffi, and I feel dark and ugly because I'm giving her such a bad time okay, so it's not great, but we could fix it up, and besides, what with all the parties and great things to do, we're hardly ever going to be in the bunks anyway.
"My mother had some material left over from my curtains she could send to me," I say.
Suddenly Steffi's whole face lights up, and she runs over to me and hugs me. I hug her back, and everything is terrific again.
Then we both start to giggle. "It's the pits, isn't it?" she says, beginning to crack up.
"You think it's that good?"
"Nothing a demolition crew wouldn't cure."
"Or a bomb."
"I think they've tried that."
"Well," I say, looking around, "which bed do you think is the best?"
"The least horrendous or what?"
"Well." Steffi starts walking around the room, inspecting all the bunks. "This is a tough one, but I think it would be terrible to be under the hole."
"You mean the rough spot?"
"Yeah, the rough spot. Anyway, wise guy, I think that side near the bathroom is the worst. This side has the most light."
"Mainly because the shutter is broken and hanging off."
"When it falls off, you'll really have some nice sunlight. Anyway, it seems to me that far and away the best bed in the bunk is..."
And just as Steffi is announcing her choice and pointing to the bed in the far corner nearest the door, a very pretty blond girl sweeps in and, with one quick survey of the room, flings her stuff down on the very bed Steffi was pointing to.
"That one!" Steffi finishes too late.
"Are you referring to my bed?" the yellow-haired girl asks, in an accent that's a cross between phony American and phony British and sincerely unpleasant.
"It's okay." Steffi smiles. "Hi, welcome to the Black Hole of Calcutta. I'm Steffi Klinger, and this is my friend Victoria Martin."
"I'm Dena Joyce Fuller," she announces, with such aplomb that I feel we should applaud.
There's a tiny silence. She seems to be waiting. Maybe she thinks we should applaud too.
Before anything more can be said, another girl comes in and, while Steffi and I stand there, grabs the second-best bed, and within ten seconds, four more girls race in, and the next thing we know we're stuck with the only two beds left in the bunk. One is next to the toilet, and the other is under the hole in the wall.
We both shrug and move to the closest bed. There's no real choice, since they're both such beauties. I end up under the hole. I hope nothing big crawls in while I'm sleeping.
There's a lot of introductions around, and with the exception of Dena Joyce and maybe Claire everyone else seems pretty okay.
There's a Liza from New Jersey who Steffi knows from last year. They were in the same bunk. And the Mackinow twins -- I'll never learn to tell them apart. Alexandra from Boston, who looks very nice, and Claire, who's got a black mark against her from the beginning. She's a friend of Dena Joyce, a Miss Perfect type. I can tell already we're not going to hit it off.
Before anyone can unpack, the PA starts screaming a frantic announcement. "Attention all camper-waitresses. Attention all camper-waitresses."
"My God!" I say. "What's wrong?"
"It's nothing, take it easy," Steffi says. "It's only Edna at the office. She always makes everything sound like a five-alarm fire."
"You should hear her when she's really excited," Liza says, and then she starts laughing about some time last year, but it's cut off by the rest of Edna's announcement.
"All camper-waitresses report to the flagpole. Immediately. Right this minute! On the double! Let's go, girls! Ten...nine...eight...seven...Move it, girls!...six..."
"Hurry, everybody!" Steffi shouts, flinging her bags on the bed, grabbing my hand and yanking me out the door. "It's the gargoyles."
"Oh, no," Liza moans, flying after us. Now everybody, even the cool Dena Joyce, is beating it down to the flagpole, wherever that is. Steffi's got my hand, and I never saw her move so fast.
From all directions, the sixteen camper-waitresses come running. All the while the shrill command of Edna can be heard over the pounding, panting girls. I'm dying to ask Steffi what's going on, but I'm running too hard to get out the words. There's such a mob behind us that we're almost rammed into the flagpole.
"What's going on?" I finally find enough breath.
"Later, Torrie, later. For now just stand next to me with your hands at your sides."
"Is this a joke, Steffi?"
"No, no. Not in the front line," she says, pulling me into the second tier behind two of the tallest girls in the group.
"I can't see," I protest.
"Neither can they."
Just then all sound stops. It gets so quiet you could hear a pin drop. That's even quieter than you think, since we're standing on grass. I can't see past the girl in front of me, but I see everyone else turn their heads toward the side nearest the administrative offices. I see them following something with their heads until the whole group is looking straight forward.
I peek around between the two giants in front of me. Oh God! I'm sorry I looked. I pull back and turn my shocked face toward Steffi.
"Nothing's perfect," she whispers, and snaps he head forward again.
So do I, only now for some reason the girl in front of me has switched places with her partner and I have no trouble seeing what had to be the gargoyles.
Without hesitation, a broad-shouldered, two hundred pound monster lady, a hands-down winner for prison matron of the year, introduces herself.
"Welcome," she spits out at the quaking group. "I am Madame Katzoff, and this," pointing to a skinny little man next to her, dressed for riding in jodhpurs and boots and riding crop, "is Dr. Davis." The only thing Dr. Davis is missing is a monocle -- otherwise he's a perfect old-movie Gestapo officer.
He smiles, and we're all ready to turn in our mothers.
"Who are these people?" I ask Steffi, but all she does is gulp.
Maybe they're just passing through.
"You!" Madame Katzoff shouts, and it looks like she's pointing in my direction. "You!" Again, but this time the shout has a built-in growl. Poor 'you' whoever that is. I look around.
But everybody is looking at me.
I look at Steffi, and she shakes her head yes.
My God, I'm you. Some place way back in the bottom of my throat I find enough of a squeak to answer, "Yes, ma'am."
"If you have any questions, ask me. That's what we're here for. Right, Dr. Davis?"
He does another one of those terrifying smiles cracks his crop against the ground, and shakes his head. For some strange reason he doesn't click his heels.
"Now, your name?"
With that, Dr. Davis consults a chart he has, and stretching up on his toes, he whispers something to Madame Katzoff.
"You," she snaps, "you're thirteen."
"No, ma'am, I'm sixteen."
"I know that, but your number here is thirteen. We don't use names. Now, thirteen. What is the question that was so important as to hold us up for a full..."
Dr. Davis supplies the time. "Four minutes."
In all my entire head there is not one question. So I just shake the whole stupid thing and say, "I'm sorry, ma'am, but I forgot."
"That will cost you a fifty-cent fine," she says, and goes right on.
Fifty cents! What is that all about?
"Let me read you a few of the rules and regulations that are going to make summer at Mohaph a joy for everyone," she continues. "Dr. Davis and I think the best way to start any day is singing. Don't you agree, girls?"
"Yes, absolutely," lots of heads nodding in agreement. It sounds okay to me. Maybe I misjudged them.
"Good," Madame Katzoff says, flashing a carnivorous smile. "Then be here lined up in front of the flagpole every morning..."
"...at six thirty. In your uniform, with the caps. Following the flag-raising and the camp song, there will be daily instruction and appointment of volunteers."
"Appointment of volunteers?" I whisper to Steffi, but I've lost her. She won't even look at me. Before I can poke her, Madame Katzoff launches into a list of our duties.
"Each waitress will have two tables..."
Not so bad.
"...of twelve kids and three counselors."
pardThat's thirty humans!
"She will be responsible for seeing the tables are wiped clean and set, the trays are washed, the glasses sparkling, and the Batricide room is spic and span...."
"Steffi, what's the Batricide room?"
"The kitchen after we disinfect it."
"There will be fifty-cent fines for the following infractions of the rules," the matron, I mean, Madame Katzoff, continues, and for the first time both she and Dr. Davis smile. "Lateness, talking back, peanut butter and jelly on the tables or chairs, spilling, dripping, unpressed uniforms, missed curfews, smoking, drinking, sloppy bunks, oversleeping, undersleeping, bikinis on the soccer field..." and on and on she goes. I panic.
"I'll never remember all that," I whisper to Steffi.
Without moving her lips she says something that either sounds like, "Everything's going to be all right," or "We'll never make it through the night."
In pure Steffi style I ask myself, "Could this be a horrendous mistake or what?"
First Simon Pulse edition May 2003
Copyright © 1985 by Francine Pascal