The day it happened was colder than usual, which was especially odd given the stifling humidity of a Maine summer. It began as camp days usually did. After the trumpet wake-up call, we rushed to get dressed, go to breakfast, and return to our cabin for clean up and inspection. Then we split up, each girl headed to her first activity of the day. I changed into my swimsuit and ran to the lake for water skiing, then changed again and went to volleyball. At lunch, we scarfed down cheesy lasagna and then frozen lemonade pops. Afterwards, we trudged back to the cabin, exhausted from a jam packed morning and the prospect of an even busier afternoon.
Rest hour was about half way through when I saw the first jagged crease in the sky. We sat in silence, some girls on their beds with books, others on the floor playing cards. We counted the seconds until the thunder came. The storm was 11 miles away. We would be locked in the cabin for a while, per camp rules, until it passed. Coincidentally, our counselor had left the cabin minutes before in search of friendship bracelet string. So, it was just us twelve girls together. I flinched at the next sound of thunder, which was louder, closer. Our youngest camper, Aislinn, began to cry. Someone giggled. We all glared at her. Another girl rushed to the floor to comfort Aislinn. I probably could have guessed even then that things would rapidly become tumultuous.
Pretty quickly, we got bored with our respective cards and books. If only we had had that bracelet string. We unanimously decided that it was time for a game of truth or dare. It started out innocently enough. After all, we did not have many other options for how to pass the time. I can still remember the first question, “Which counselor do you think is the cutest,” one girl asked another. It only escalated from there.
“Why is your bed so messy?”
“Is your hair always so dirty?”
“How come you cry so much?”
In retrospect, we should have stopped it then. I should have stopped it then. But we kept going. Every mean comment, secret, stray thought that anyone had ever heard was shared. Once we started, we just kept on spewing our sentiments like vomit. Before I knew it, we had forgone actual truths or dares in favor of cruel questions about the most sensitive parts of each other’s lives.
“Do you have some sort of disease? Is that why you need to take medicine every night before bed?”
“Why does your dad never come on visiting day?”
They say that the truth will set you free, but in that moment, stuck in a crowded cabin with girls I would have to face for the next month, the truth felt like a boulder that had been hoisted upon our shoulders without our consent. We were trapped by our truths, our anger, and our guilt.
Why did we do it? I still think about this sometimes. We had no reason really, to be so mean to each other. Before that day, there had been the occasional squabble, over whose turn it was to sweep the floor or who had used whose shampoo. But for the most part, camp was extraordinary. It was one of the only places I felt like I could really be myself, where I got to decide which activities I did and who I spent time with. I loved it, and I know the other girls did too.
We also did not have this outburst because we were bored, because boredom does not cause this. It does not cause the feeling of your hair being ripped out of your skull, of pure rage and betrayal and disbelief all at once.
Thus the only plausible reason left, in my mind at least, is that we were young teenage girls living in a world that trains us to be envious of each other, to feed off of one another’s defeat, to wish for the other’s downfall. Because as much pain as this ravaging truth-bender gave us, it also made us feel better about ourselves. I imagine it is nearly identical to the way a bully feels after taking a scrawny freshman’s lunch money, or at least how this is portrayed in movies.
Finally, it was my turn. I would have given practically anything to not go, but I refused to be perceived as a chicken, so I said, with my voice trembling slightly,
“Why are you so fat?” a girl named Samantha asked, with an acidic smile plastered across her face.
I had pretended to myself that I had no idea what the question would be. But the voice lurking in the back of my head had suspected all along.
Years later, as I sat on my best friend’s bed, and heard from the bathroom, yet again, the telltale sound of her hurling after sticking two fingers down her throat, I remembered this moment. I can pinpoint it as exactly when I started to feel bad about how much space I took up and began to notice how my thighs spread out like jelly when I sit down. I wonder if other girls have this too, a single moment they can look back on, when everything began to get so messed up.
To this day, I am still kind of proud of how I responded to that heart lurching question. I laughed. I smile when I am nervous, so perhaps the laugh was just a response to me being super nervous. Or maybe I wanted to distract from just how much those words hurt. I also remember the look in Samantha’s eyes, one of sheer surprise, when she thought that her words did not have their desired effect.
The next morning, Samantha approached me. She was tall and razor thin, with icy blue eyes so piercing that you felt they could see the inside of your skull. She looked at me straight on and said that she had only lashed out at my body because of how insecure she was about her own. After she told me this, we both started to cry. It was hard to differentiate the sweat from the tears through my own soggy vision but I saw her cheeks redden and I knew then that she felt as badly about the whole thing as I did.
After that, Samantha and I quickly became best friends. We had been close even before the incident, but the way she apologized gave me a newfound admiration for her. I thought she was so brave, and her braveness made me want to do the same. I still hadn’t apologized to Natalie, the girl who had been the recipient of my question. I was too ashamed to look Natalie in the eyes and explain why I had asked, in front of the entire group, about her mother’s death, something she had told me about only in a hushed whisper, after we had locked pinkies. But when I did, finally, the truth did set me free. Next Natalie apologized to Victoria, who said sorry to Zoe, and so on. Pretty soon our whole cabin felt a lot better.
The rest of the summer was largely uneventful. It rushed by in a frenzied blur, the way only a session of sleepaway camp can, but I will never forget that day. It was when I truly realized, for the first time, that what I say is often deeply tangled up with my own emotions, that when I feel broken I have a tendency to want to break others.
I wish I could say that I am still best friends with Samantha. We both live in Manhattan, and occasionally I run into her and we smile at each other from across a crowded street. Our friendship slowly fizzled as we both grew up and put our camp years behind us. However, I will never forget how Samantha took responsibility for her words, how she looked me in the eyes when she said sorry, and how freeing her truth was for both of us.
The most crucial lesson, though, I had to teach myself. It took a lot longer to internalize, and while I am being radically honest, I’ll admit that I still struggle with it sometimes. The truth is, no matter how confident I try to be, I cannot really “fake it till I make it.” None of us can. Until I completely accept myself, I cannot expect anyone else to do so either. And really, once I do, I think that I will finally stop to crave their approval.
It brings me comfort to know that somewhere, probably in a cotton-candy colored bedroom overlooking the Upper East Side, Samantha is going through the same struggle. I smile as I have this thought, and I pray for courage, for both of us.