I. Swim Ladder
The white sun looks underwater from down here but it’s me, I’m drowning at summer camp, my torso stuck between the pool tiles and the broken swim ladder that Erin was holding away from the wall for me to swim through as a challenge before she forgot. I held it for her, she held it for me, it’s not easy to pull the unbolted metal tubing out far enough for a body to wriggle through, but we’re just becoming friends, the stakes are high, why did she let go? I’m running out of breath, watching the sun quivering up there, the surface a few inches from my mouth clamped tight, flailing, stretching hard to get my new hips free. After a while, I give up and relax. I focus on the hot center shimmering, rippling its fire in the cool sheer sparkling. Then there is a jerk and I float.
We have to hike for a long time to get to a wildflower field. We pass through a cement box with a rivulet running its length like a storm drain, but the counselor says this is the tornado shelter, and indeed there was a tornado sign at the opening, so this is where we would hide from the black swirl, echoing hole gaping at both ends, this is where we would hunch in the howl, but no, no, the low ceiling is draped with stringy dangles, what are those, someone asks, and the counselor says leeches.
III. Bus Ride
The bus ride from the school to Red Cedar Forest YMCA sleepaway camp was a hot windy journey of songs and knock-knock jokes, and I didn’t know any but now I do, I know the one about the beers and the one about the meatball whose melancholy path from table to floor and out the door is ultimately about metamorphosis, but I don’t understand, since the meatball grew into an entire tree of meatballs and sauce, blooming the very richness that had been lost, why the moral is that you should hold on to your meatball rather than letting it go. The bus took us, it seemed, to a whole different part of Kansas, with majestic cedars and river bluffs. But it turns out we’re only thirty-one minutes from home.
We’re playing baseball, I think just for fun but this could be an activity. I don’t know how to do it, I’m out in right field attempting alertness but it feels far away, the white ball is tiny and you have to focus on many things, someone is running and now someone else is running and the ball is whizzing, people are shouting. Sometimes it seems everyone is running at once. Across the road they are setting up for a craft, colorful fabrics spilling from boxes. And now pain is exploding in my face, apparently the ball hit me in the nose. The counselor says to go to the bathroom and get some toilet tissue. I see in the pocked mirror that my nostril is ripped, it looks purple and blotchy, a jagged flap. I hold a wad of tissue on it for a long time, and eventually the bleeding stops.
V. Ken Monroe
It’s a special night when all of us, boys and girls, are sleeping out together in a grove called The Graveyard, which is supposedly haunted by the founder of the camp, but mainly there is a heavy fog in the cedars and no counselors anywhere. A boy named Ken Monroe asked if I wanted to get into his sleeping bag, and I said sure because although he’s blond, handsome, not the sort of wry Jewish boy that I understand I should be interested in, he asked nicely and I can’t see any harm. He starts kissing me, and though it’s only my first kiss, I’m impressed. His lips aren’t too dry or too wet, and he explores my mouth with his tongue but also leaves room for me to explore his, which I might as well. I conclude that Ken Monroe is a terrific kisser. I return to my own bag. I’m awakened in the night by tickling on my neck and find that I’ve been invaded by daddy long legs.
We’re supposed to be doing trust falls, but I’m taking the long way to the forest outhouse, where I see a naked girl standing inside the open doorway, wiping herself from behind, her legs bony like an animal’s. I turn around, and galloping across the path in front of me is a shaggy brown dog as big as a bear.
This camp has an incredible swing. You walk along an eroding bluff edge and then, leaning against a soft-barked cedar, you grab a rope dangling from a branch bent over the river, launch yourself onto the stick at its end, swing out across to the other bank, and land on top of a picnic table, or, failing that, you eventually come to a stop and have to drop onto the slippery rocks. I’m standing in the shallows near the picnic table staring at the sand. I’ve discovered crawdads, camouflaged lobster dolls, they’ve been here this whole time, waving their delicate antennae. And now I’m facedown and I can’t breathe, I’m heaving and nothing is coming in. Eventually I’m able to rise and I realize that some kids on the bluff are staring at me, some are laughing, and I remember that I heard people yelling heads-up, heads-up, but people are always yelling that, I didn’t know they meant me. My clothes are soaked. The kid who was swinging is hurt, his shin bloody, he must not have held on after he slammed into me from behind. I didn’t know the swing could arc so wide. The injured boy hates me now. When you’re made soft, what the world does is try to turn you hard.
Cynthia Belmont is Professor of English and Gender and Women’s Studies at Northland College, an environmental liberal arts school located on the South Shore of Lake Superior, in Ashland, WI, where she teaches creative writing, literature, feminist theory, and intersections in gender studies and environmentalism. Her poems and essays have appeared in diverse journals, including Poetry, Cream City Review, Oyez Review, River Teeth, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and Terrain.org.