“These are the facts of life,” our camp bunk counselor Peggy would say, minutes before any camp social, glancing at her watch ticking away as if we were connected to the time bomb that each boy contained behind his jeans fly.
“The average teenage male’s brain is soaked in sex,” she told us, and I thought of a towel dropped in a bathtub, too heavy with water to wring.
As for the fourteen-year-old girls who were in her charge, we were no different than the boys. Maybe even more dangerous, our eggs all revved up and ready to go, like a souped-up Mustang in a drag race.
Peggy was from Arkansas – a state none of us had ever heard and could have been as distant as Mars. Every morning she brushed her long bone-colored hair eighty strokes a minute
and then massaged Vaseline into her scalp. She had lost her left eye to a stray golf ball and in the empty pocket she could see miracles of light, bursts of purple, green and gold, a constellation of the Lord’s color. A large gold crucifix flapped against her concave chest as Peggy shouted out directions for lifesaving as we swam in the cold Maine lake. She could teach us not to sink if our sailboats capsized but when it came to boys, we were all hell bent on drowning.
She prayed quietly in the middle of our cabin, her words competing with the
buzzing mosquitoes and The Archie’s Sugar, Sugar. We traded lipsticks, practiced kissing our Bobby Sherman posters, tongues licking the crinkled paper that tasted like Cutter repellant. We, the girls of Cabin Nine, were all lost causes.
“Please stop,” Peggy begged as we stuffed our bras with Kleenex.
Peggy also had the gift for predicting the future. One night, during a thunderstorm, she made us sit in a circle and announced our names: Cindy, Diana, Helen, Jill, Karen, Sylvia and Rachel. I wondered why I, Rachel, was the last on her list. Cindy, who wore thick rimmed-glasses and had braces, would be a film star. Diana, who was already a tennis star at the camp, would one day play at stadiums around the world. Helen would be a nurse, although we had seen Helen once faint at the sight of blood when she scraped her knee. Jill, the only girl who had divorced parents, would never be married but find happiness in a place filled with deserts and camels. Karen would have six children with three different men. As she spoke, her face would be lit up by the streaks of lightening outside. She never predicted anyone else’s future because the lightning went out and we all screamed. “Now that’s enough,” she told us, leaving the cabin to inspect if there was damage outside our cabin because of the storm. Later that week I begged her to tell me what would happen to me, but she only took a deep breath and exhaled so deeply that I could feel her breath across my face.
That Sunday, the bus that took Peggy to church overturned and bounced down the mountain like a “yellow rubber ball,” according to one witness. We did not know how to grieve and just read our Tiger Beat magazines.
Our new counselor was named Summer, a beautiful California hippie who had been to Altamont and told us how she had seen the Hells Angels beat up people. Summer was the opposite of Peggy, and several of the girls sprayed lemon juice on their scalps so they could have her same butter blonde hair color.
Yet Peggy still hovered us, her warnings hot against our skin like a sunburn that wouldn’t heal. We couldn’t explain to Summer why none of wanted to attend that last camp social.
Instead, we sat in a circle outside our cabin, staring at the stars in the night sky, each girl holding each other’s hands. This was our own memorial service. It was as if Peggy sacrificed herself for our collective virginity, our eggs safely nestled inside us mute and idle like dead car batteries.
Penny Jackson is an award-winning writer who lives in New York City. Her books include BECOMING THE BUTLERS (Bantam Books) and a short story collection L.A. CHILD and other stories (Untried Reads.) She has won a Pushcart Prize for her short fiction and was a McDowell Colony Fellow. Penny is also a playwright with plays produced in New York, Los Angeles, Edinburgh, and Dublin. www.pennybrandtjackson.com.
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