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Authors: Cynthia Kaplan

Why I'm Like This

Why I'm Like This

True Stories

Cynthia Kaplan

For David

The eyes are the windows of the head.

was always one girl at camp whom everyone hated. It had nothing to do with cliques or teams or personal dislikes, and it was not even that everyone had discussed it and a consensus had been raised based upon certain irrefutable evidence. It was just like everyone hated lima beans and the color brown. It was obvious and it was universal, so it didn't require organization.

Everyone at Queechy Lake Camp hated Lisa Hope Mermen. There were no reasons why and there were a million reasons why. Her breasts were too large and her hair was limp. She had probably had her period since she was ten. She was a
mediocre athlete. She was not nor ever would be considered coltish. She was nice to everyone and some peo
ple hate that. She had no friends and some people took that as a sign. She had two first names and insisted on using both. At best, she was ignored. At worst, she was teased and bullied and shoved into the lake. Tricks were played on her, food stolen from her. Intimate articles of her clothing, particularly her brassiere and large to-the-waist panties, were raised on the flagpole in the morning just before assembly. There they were buffeted unkindly by the Maine breeze, these colors of the enemy territory, to be saluted by smirking, suntanned cuties.

Why was she still here, Lisa Hope Mermen? Why did she return summer after summer to a camp where a philosophy of equality symbolized by a de rigueur camp uniform of simple white midi blouses and navy shorts still failed to work in her favor because
midi blouse required darts? Why didn't her parents switch her to music camp or send her to Europe where everyone had limp hair?


Queechy Lake Camp was certainly the most beautiful girls' camp in Maine. It was situated on a tree-topped hill which gracefully sloped down to the edge of the lake, clear, blue-black, and serene. At the high end of the camp the bunks formed a large circle around a perfectly manicured blanket of grass, unlike the bunks at Pine Forrest and Bluebird Lake, which were dotted willy-nilly throughout the woods. At the center of the circle was the aforementioned flagpole. As night fell, this happy configuration of lodgings, their lights
winking in the dusk, resembled nothing so much as a shoreline of exclusive summer cottages; the darkening courtyard, a navy lake. Paradise.

Then, a little lower down, there was Queechy House, an enormous green Adirondack affair standing exactly as it had for almost one hundred years, its plaque-covered walls a testament to the overachievements of past Queechy girls: Best Field Hockey, Best Basketball, Best Waterskiing. The Archery Award. The Craft Award. The Queechy Spirit Prize. On one side of Queechy House there were the living room and the commissary and the mail room, and on the other side were the dining room and the kitchen (which no one ever saw except on Cinnamon Toast Nights, when everyone in your bunk got to go in and eat as much cinnamon toast as they could. The record, set by Rose Bunnswanger in 1957, was something like forty-nine pieces). Behind Queechy House was a gathering of humongous old pine trees and beneath the trees were twenty or so Adirondack chairs, painted dark green. This spot was called Beneath the Pines, without sarcasm. Team rallies happened here, and Friday night services. If you were friends, one of you sat in the seat and one of you perched on the wide armrest, so you were connected, so there was no mistaking it.

Every building had a name. Please Come Inn and Nellie's Nest and The Barn and Hill House and Mildred,
Mildred, after an English lacrosse counselor who perished in the bombing of Dresden. She had gone there with false papers to
searchb! for two elderly cousins who were believed to have been in hiding. There was a field hockey field and a lacrosse field and two softball fields and there were tennis courts and volleyball courts and basketball courts and sailing and canoeing and waterskiing. And there was kickball and newcomb for the younger girls. The field hockey and lacrosse counselors came from England, like Mildred, because the English know those sports best.

There were no socials or dances with boys' camps because Queechy girls were renowned for their winning combination of athletic ability, teamwork, and pep, and pitting them against each other for the attentions of pimply-faced, perpetually engorged (that's Deb Edelstein's word, not mine) boys from, say, Camp Tonkahanni, might undermine the confidence of even the most spirited, talented Queechy girl, not to mention threaten many deep friendships. I, for one, was perfectly happy not to have to deal with some dopey tennis nerd trying to guess my bra size. There were male counselors, of course, but it was not the same because they were all over eighteen. There was Bill Ski and Mark Ski and Jamie Canoe and Jack Tennis and Bill Tennis and Chris Swim and Mike Softball. There was Somebody Riding whose name I never remembered because I hated riding. And there was Corey Silver Shop whom everyone assumed was gay even though most of us had no idea what we were talking about.

There was a theater called Marion's Tent, though no one remembered Marion and there was no tent. My theatrical
career at Queechy Lake Camp was distinguished by many memorable performances as the second lead; a girl named Wanda Massey always got the starring role. For seven summers, I was the male half of nearly every romantic coupling written for the musical theater. I was Oscar to her Charity, Captain Von Trapp to her Maria, Tony to her Maria. She was, metaphorically speaking,

The very moment parts were posted and scripts handed out, each of us would rush to the edge of some grassy slope to count our lines. The more lines, the bigger the part. Plot development and character were irrelevant. This summer we were doing
The Miracle Worker.
Wanda Massey was Annie Sullivan and I was Helen Keller. When I opened the script and saw that I had only one line for the entire first half of the play, and that line consisted of one word, “wawa,” I nearly went berserk.

Once a summer the Story of Queechy Lake Camp was retold by Aunt Jeanne, the camp director. The entire camp gathered Beneath the Pines, a tangle of interlocked arms and legs, with much tickling of forearms and backs and braiding of hair, to hear how during World War I the camp planted its playing fields with navy beans. Girls as young as nine years old pushed the seeds into the soil and two months later plucked the beans from the leafy vines. They sewed shirts and knitted socks. They were industrious and patriotic and occasionally had air-raid rehearsals. They wore baggy bloomers and smocks and maybe in those days it didn't mat
ter if you were bad at sports or had a large bosom. Some of these girls were the grandmothers and mothers and aunts of future Queechy girls. Katie Cohen was a legacy and so was Beth Reingold and so was Deb Edelstein. Tessie Green's grandmother won the spirit prize twice in a row and she was completely deaf in one ear. Joan Grobman's mother lost half her middle finger in a rock-climbing accident in 1968, the summer she was fifteen, and came back to camp as soon as she was out of the hospital. That's what Queechy girls did. When the story was over everyone sang Queechy Lake songs: “Spirit of Queechy,” “Far Above Dear Queechy Waters,” “Queechy Friends Forever.”

Surely Lisa Hope Mermen was not the only girl whose bathing suit, with its built-in brassiere, remained dry on the front following the backstroke race at swim meets. Surely she was not the only girl without a lilting voice or curly ringlets. And surely a lilting voice and curly ringlets were not the only prerequisites of a successful adolescence. Although who was I to say, since I had a reasonably lilting voice and a decent head of curly ringlets?

But did Lisa Hope Mermen really look all that unhappy? She cheered from the benches at softball and field hockey games, gave her ineffectual all on the “B” basketball squad, sang her heart out in the chorus of
Call Me Madam
. She befriended younger girls who either didn't know any better or were similarly ill suited to the demands of popularity.
Counselors were sympathetic. I was bewildered almost out of my complacency. Almost.


I'd had too many s'mores. I had a weakness for them. I liked the marshmallow to catch fire and burn the entire outside black. I liked the Hershey's chocolate to still be hard, even a little cold; it had to hold its own dually against the heat of the marshmallow and the firm crunch of the graham cracker. If you ate a s'more during a lunchtime campfire, chances were the chocolate bar would be melty from sitting in the sun. Then it melted even more when it came into contact with the marshmallow, and suddenly the graham cracker dominated. I hated that. I'd just as soon skip it if that was how it was going to be. At night, though, on the beach, when everything cooled down, the grains of sand a silver trickle between your toes, when the lake met the sky, when hooded sweatshirts were in order,
was the time to gorge yourself into oblivion on s'mores.

I'd had seven, which as anyone knows is four too many. And actually I was feeling all right until the camper–counselor game of duck duck goose. A few woozy moments after I'd chased Karen Basketball two loops around the circle, I felt the s'mores rising up. I felt a revolution of s'mores. I ran up the beach and gave them their freedom behind the sailing hut. I looked down to inspect the damage (everyone looks at their vomit, everyone) and catch my breath. Running and
then vomiting is harder than just vomiting. I leaned against the side of the hut. My breath was loud in my ear. Too loud. And there was a funny humming noise.
Mmmmm. Mmmmm.
It took me a minute to realize it wasn't coming from me. I inched forward, careful not to step in my pile of ex-s'mores, and moved around the corner of the sailing hut until I was crouching beneath its one open window, just next to the door.

At first I thought it was, I don't even know, just this big thing, this moving shadow, it was so dark in there.
Oh, God, it's a bear. Shit, fuck, shit.
But then,
—in that way you can see people in the movies when there are scenes in the dark, like there's an illogical light source but you accept it because it's the movies and you really want to see what's going on—
I saw her. Years later I realized the moon must have broken through some clouds.

Lisa Hope Mermen lay all but naked on a pile of sails. Her brassiere was wrapped like a bandage around one arm, her dark blue camp shorts scrunched between her legs. Her white body, all breasts and belly and thighs, was aglow. She was breathing heavily; her face looked…I didn't know. Like she was constipated but happy about it. What was she doing? My legs, already vomit-wobbly, were starting to ache from crouching at the window, but I couldn't tear my eyes away. I was watching the Lisa Hope Mermen Movie. The humming got louder. Why was she lying there, naked, humming?
It wasn't even a song. Then, suddenly, the dark shorts between her legs were moving and I saw that they weren't
her shorts. It was like realizing a piece of mud stuck to your ankle is really a leech. The thing between Lisa Hope Mermen's legs rose up and smiled. A glistening, mustached smile.

Mark Ski.

He moved out of the shadows, naked, his back to me, and stretched his neck to both sides. She said, “That was yummy.” He said, “Good.” There was a rushing noise in my ears. He lowered his whole body onto Lisa Hope Mermen very, very slowly. I saw his penis. My legs collapsed beneath me. I dropped onto the sand. Poomf.

When I returned to the beach everyone was sitting Indian style in a big circle around the fire and singing “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Joan Grobman and Deena Saks made a place for me between them. I guess I sang along.


A substantive discussion of What I Saw did not commence until after the campfire died and everyone more or less headed off to bed. It lasted until well after two and included my own eyewitness testimony, followed by a question-and-answer period and concluding with a sort of fake, sort of real hypnosis session, in case there was something I was repressing. Then we tried to levitate Beth Reingold.

We slept in pairs in canvas tents on the sand. Lying in my sleeping bag beside Deb Edelstein, her soft asthmatic wheezing keeping time in the dark, I realized this would be the last time. In the morning we would have blueberry pancakes and hot chocolate and go skinny-dipping in the glassy, dawn-cold
lake, and then head off up the hill to our various scheduled activities—lacrosse or archery or pottery. But this was the last senior overnight. The last campfire on the beach. And there was only one more swim meet to go and one more day trip to Acadia National Park and maybe one more pajama breakfast, if we were lucky. There was only the counselor show,
Man of La Mancha,
left to see. All the craft projects would have to be finished in the next week, all the bunk food eaten, all the lost things found. Suddenly it would be the very last night, the night of the Senior Serenade, when we would go by flashlight from bunk to bunk, like carolers, singing the old songs. I was not going to come back the next summer as a junior counselor because my parents wanted me to do a summer session at Andover. And anyway it wouldn't have been the same. When something's over, it's over.

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