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Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants: Based on a True Storyby Jill Soloway
Chapter One: Coming Home
When I was twelve my favorite book was about a girl named Marjorie. Marjorie wore pigtails and went to sleepaway camp, with woods and water and tents and friends. I wanted to hang out with Marjorie, or if that wasn't possible, have a life more like hers. Overnight camp sounded like the perfect place to help turn me into a real girl instead of the Formica girl I was becoming in our hi-rise luxury apartment. It was 1977, and we had just moved to the Gold Coast, a neighborhood on the near north side of Chicago.
Ours was a universe of glass, chrome, Berber carpet, and many, many cubes my mom lovingly referred to as Our Parsons Tables. Everything was clean and shiny and in a specific order that never budged. Dinner always featured one of four rotating meats (ground beef, chicken, pork chop, lamb chop, repeat) followed by a Jim Brooks or Burroughs sitcom, then a Pudding Pop. It never changed. Well, to be fair, for a few months in 1982, we tried Tuscan Bars, but returned to Pudding Pops shortly after.
Some deeply longing part of me believed there was something better than the four walls of our airconditioned splendor, a real place without decoratorchosen taupes and caramels and corners. Even though the capability to google the words "summer camp-Midwest" was two full decades into the future, I was a crafty information gatherer and ordered myself a handbook called The Camp and School Guide out of the back of the New York Times Magazine section.
After poring over the book for a few days, I found the perfect place: Camp Pinecrest, a couple hours north, in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Its brother camp was across the lake and contained boys with whom we would surely share socials and underpants-centered pranking. We asked around the families we knew and found out that Faith's best friend Shelly had been going there for years and loved it. Faith agreed to join me.
"I'm not sure if you're a sleepaway camp person," my mom warned me. But I knew she knew nothing! (said haughtily, to self) and had no idea about the new me, the me who would soon be whittling things from corncobs and singing, arm in arm, with other real girls. I hovered my hot breath over my mom's shoulder as she filled out the forms. She suggested we start with two weeks and see how it went, but I knew anything less than the full eight would be a disappointment. A week later, the welcome packet arrived, and I sharpened my pencil and began marching around, ticking items off the "Things to Bring" list.
The packet suggested we buy our supplies at a place called the Camp and School Store. It was in downtown Chicago, on the seventh floor of an old-style building on Wabash, all the units darkened by the L trains rushing past outside. The whole entity smelled like dentistry, with elevators that had kindly black men calling out the floors and gates that slid open revealing marble halls and gold-leaf lettering on cloudy white glass doors.
The store was all business: ceiling-high stacks of boxes and forms, forms, forms being checked off everywhere we looked. A pudgy, white-haired Jewish man led us around the store, looking over his half-glasses and pointing at exactly what the list demanded. In reverence to the camp colors, we got Brown and Gold everything — stiff brown shorts, three crusty mustard polo shirts, brown army-issue wool blankets, stiff white sheets, pillow and duffel bag, labels for our names, brown socks, and canteens made of aluminum with brown canvas covers. My mom paid an exorbitant amount of money, and we packed the shopping bags into a cab and went home.
The next week was made up of more planning and meticulous packing. Whenever anyone asked me if I was scared, I'd harrumph and brush them off. After all, my sister would be there and so would Shelly, who I kinda knew, and soon I'd have friends of my own.
When the day came to leave, all of the parents drove their children to a parking lot where everyone bravely hugged good-bye. I hopped on the yellow bus. My sister sat with Shelly and I sat behind them. As they chatted about the eighth-grade girls, I looked around to try to spot the ones going into seventh who would soon be my terrific new bunkmates. The city was leaving us behind and nature, beautiful, real nature, filled the windows as we buzzed up I-94, then off into the north woods of Wisconsin.
We arrived and hopped off the bus. Camp looked exactly how I expected — mossy, meandering paths with leaves everywhere, tall trees and sun-dappled trails to our tent cabins. It was beautiful and crunchy and rustic and it smelled of wet wood. My counselor, a tall, bossy, Naomi-type with big camp thighs and a homemade leather belt, met with my expectations. But sadly, my bunkmates did not. Marjorie was not among them.
They were seven buzzing girls who had known each other since their parents began sending them sleepaway to camp, probably from the age of three. These people were Not Jews. Not at all. But they weren't nature-y either. They were exactly like those old-money blondes with names like Paige and Braeden who went to the private schools in downtown Chicago. They had the hardened, sun-burnt shells of children raised by alcoholic women, left in the yard to play during two-day family parties. Nothing like us Soloway sisters. We were watched like hawks, never out of sight of our mother, never hungry, never bored. I was sure they'd love the way my bubbly personality would provide antidote to their leathered gentile lackadaisy.
Boy, was I wrong. They hated the living shit out of me. Maybe it was my ebullience. But probably, it was my wardrobe. It turned out the Camp and School Store list had just been a SUGGESTED list and not a REQUIRED list. As I made my bed with the itchy brown wool blanket, I noticed the rest of the girls had fluffy pink comforters plus sheets pulled from their home linen cabinets, soft as butter, washed weekly since forever.
In addition to their home bedding, each girl also brought mostly regular clothes. Regular clothes. Brown and Gold were only to be worn on Spirit Days, and then only if you were an enormous dork. Certainly not every day. And when it was Spirit Day, everyone wore lemon yellow cotton scoop-necks and satiny brown jogging shorts with white piping. Like a travel-anxiety nightmare, something had gone wrong in my packing. I had brought almost entirely mustard shirts and cardboard brown army shorts that my mother hadn't even washed first. Just one set of regular clothes. I started crying that night and became known as the Brown-and-Gold Crybaby to the Seven Shiksas. I had eight whole weeks to get through. But I didn't think I could stand one more second.
Faith, on the other hand, was doing fine, probably dabbling in a burgeoning lesbianism with her best friend, Shelly. Her cabin was chockful of tomboys who took their camping seriously and didn't judge one another on things like clothes. Faith loved camp, which should have come as no surprise, as she was incredibly athletic and a great swimmer. I hated things that involved rowing and floating, which most things there did. I have no idea why this didn't occur to me when I signed on. Perhaps I should have looked for a camp where girls filled their days with activities like impeccable research, ordering brochures through the mail, and economical packing.
Plus, this place had mosquitoes and bugs and spiders everywhere, including in the toilet and on the toilet seat, and thus, potentially, up my vagina. I was an outcast — the freak in the stiff regulation camp clothes who slept under an army blanket and never peed. In the brutal heat of the Wisconsin summer, I was lonely and boiling and sweaty and sad.
Nothing went right for me. On the second night there, I found myself awake in the middle of the night, outside, lying on the ground. I had no idea how I got there. It turned out I had rolled out of bed in my sleep, and onto the floor, then right out of the space between the tent flap and the bunk floor. I may have slept outside for an hour. I got up, snuck back around to the front, and let myself in while the rest of the girls snored. I slipped back under my hard white sheets, covered in bits of stick, and prayed I would make friends soon with whom I could laugh about such an incident.
But friends were not in the cards for me. The girls not only didn't talk to me, they even appeared to not see me. They lived in a bubble where they held loud private conversations in front of me that left no way in. They never specifically bullied me, they just behaved as if I wasn't there. In fact, I bet if you found any of these Paiges or Braedens today, they wouldn't even remember me.
My loneliness was overwhelming and my crying myself to sleep wasn't attracting the attention it was supposed to. Even though my sister was at the same camp, our paths didn't cross. I was campaigning to get them to let me sign up for an all-indoor day, a triple class in Lanyards followed by two sessions of Advanced God's Eye. Faith was out getting Best New Water-skier medals and captaining a Sunfish solo.
Between activities, Faith and I could find very little time to talk. I finally arranged a meeting with her at the Canteen (not the silver ones with the brown covers but the one where you could buy a candy bar and stamps, like prison). I had hoped Faith would hug me and introduce me to some eighth graders who might wish to take me under their eighth-grade wings. But as soon as she saw my tears she gave me an excuse about having to get to the stables to muck out her new horse, Lucky, and made a mad dash. It turned out Faith was thrilled to finally have some friends who didn't know about her association with, apparently, the biggest crybaby in the world, me. Away from home and our mom's sweet inclusiveness rules, she didn't have to pretend like she cared.
The last straw came on day four, when my counselor — who was supposed to protect me from my meangirl bunkmates — pointed out to them something they hadn't noticed. She made fun of the way I was eating. I guess I pushed my food onto my fork with my fingers instead of my knife. I still do this today, having picked up this shtetl-fabulous habit from my parents, who for some reason, have no idea how to eat. At my table, Paige, Braeden, and crew knew how to use both pieces of silverware. They thought they were so big. The waterworks started again. I looked around to find Faith, but she had her back to me. I feigned a stomach flu and went back to the cabin to lie down.
The next morning I went to the camp director, Miss Wurher, who the rest of the year played the banker Miss Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies. I told her to call my parents — that I was going home. She brought me to the screened-in camp office and showed me the phone, certain my mom would comfort me by telling me how strong I was and that I would get through it. She obviously had never met my mom, a woman whose parenting style could be boiled down to one sentence, repeated lovingly to me and Faith on the hour throughout our childhood: "Whatever your little hearts desire."My mom told me she was on her way. I hung up the phone and smiled smugly at Miss Wurher.
A few hours later my parents were there with a silver Volvo and an empty trunk. Miss Wurher scowled and suggested the three of us go for a walk. My dad got out a can of Off, sprayed us all down, and we followed her into the woods. She led us to a stump and a log in an area that may have been called The Sharing Glen.
"I really must tell you," Miss Wurher said liplessly, "that if Jill goes home from camp early, it will be a mistake she will regret for the REST OF HER LIFE."
The rest of my life. Wow. That was heavy. Could this bitch in the brown poly pants be right? She didn't even know me. And she obviously hated Jews. I did my best to dismiss her. I stared at the way the sun made patterns on my shoes. I looked at my dad's sandals, and his black socks against his hairy white legs. I contemplated the internal life of a nearby potato bug.
My parents stood up. "We appreciate your opinion, but we disagree," my mom smiled, and we all headed for the car. My dad had missed most of the conversation, because, as usual, he was listening to a Cubs game, with a skin-colored knob in his ear and beige cord down his shirt and into his pants pocket. In retrospect, he was actually a very forward-thinking early iPod advocate, the first person I knew to spend time in between his ears in public.
In fact, throughout my entire childhood, my dad was always listening to a Cubs game. Most of the time he did it covertly, only causing trouble during one of my sister's high school orchestra recitals when, during a sotto movement, he screamed out, "Run You Fat Bastard!"
Trying to hide my smile from Miss Wurher, I followed my parents back toward the main office and to the car. Once the doors were closed and we were on our way, I cried and cried, this time pink and purple tears of joy, not brown and gold tears of shame. When we got to the airconditioned splendor of our downtown Chicago apartment, I knew I would never go anywhere again, and that the ABC lineup — All My Children, One Life to Live, and General Hospital — plus a Lean Cuisine for lunch and another for dinner, were the perfect summer program for me.
I had our apartment and my mother to myself for the rest of the summer. When Faith finally came home, she was tan, had long, thin tennis muscles in her arms, and a woven headband in her hair. I was bloated from the Stouffers salt content, happy, and pale. I didn't care. I knew Miss Wurher was wrong and that it wasn't a mistake at all. I was sure there'd be other travels and new adventures, places that were mine, where I would know how to stay, instead of run.
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