Sam and I were camp friends, which meant that from the ages of six to fourteen we spent a month of every summer together at Camp du Nord in northern Minnesota, swimming, horseback riding, going on nature hikes, singing around the campfire, and every other camp activity you can name. She was from Oxnard, California, though the way she talked about it, you’d have thought she lived in Hollywood itself; I was a farm kid from Wisconsin. She taught me how to French braid my hair, how to craft friendship bracelets, how to do the Macarena. I taught her how to pee outside, how to identify poison ivy, how to whistle using a blade of grass. Looking back, I can no longer remember if we really were such stereotypes of our upbringings, or if it was just camp that turned everyone into a caricature of themselves.
I can state with confidence now that camp was a different world, that we each reinvented ourselves for four weeks every summer. I embraced my outdoorsy, tomboy side, in part because my doing so made Sam declare that she was going to help me “be a girl,” like that was the end goal for all girls, everywhere. I can laugh at that now, but as a child, all I wanted was to be a girl. A normal girl, who didn’t show up in overalls on her first day of sixth grade at the new middle school, who had a curling iron to form her bangs into perfect poofs above her forehead, who had dresses hanging in her closet that she could slip into and no one would mention how odd it was that she wasn’t in jeans.
Sam and I didn’t talk during the rest of the year. We exchanged a handful of letters—postcards, mostly, mine always with cows or the cheese castle in Kenosha or the state capitol building, hers of the Hollywood sign, the ocean, the Los Angeles skyline. “Can’t wait to see you this summer,” we’d write, and we meant it.
Our last year at camp was the summer we were 14. We’d be in high school in the fall, and if we returned to camp, it would be as junior counselors. I think both of us knew that we wouldn’t be coming back, but neither of us had said it. The last few summers had been more strained than in the past. It took us a couple days to slip back into our friendship, and we each had more references to events from our regular lives. I had brought my school yearbook for the first time and spent much of the first day showing her pictures of all my friends, most of whom were mere acquaintances, if that. But we were still close, still inseparable, and if you had asked me, I’d have said that we’d remain that way for the rest of our lives, with or without camp. I’d have known that it wasn’t true, but still, I wanted to believe it.
At the end of each camp session, there was a dance for the older campers, those entering middle school and above. The girls wore dresses that they’d kept in their lockers in their cabin the entire session, and the boys wore slacks and button-down shirts. Some of them gelled their hair into spikes, a practice that for the most part fell by the wayside during normal camp life. Sam, like many of the other girls, had a camp boyfriend from the time of our first dance. His name was also, coincidentally, Sam, and when I’d asked her if that wasn’t confusing, she’d laughed and said she liked it.
Sam and I had looked forward to the camp dance all month. Sam had brought makeup, and she helped me get ready. She said that her Sam had a friend who liked me, who had told her Sam that he wanted to kiss me. I had never been kissed before, though I’d told Sam that I had. I was nervous and excited.
We took over an hour to get ready. It was the age of glitter, and we applied glitter eyeshadow, glitter stars next to our eyelids, glitter lip gloss. Sam had a tub of silver glitter dust that we threw in the air and spun under as it fell, so we sparkled and shone with each movement. When I look back at photos from that night, I can see how obvious our efforts were: the eyeshadow weighing down our lids, the mascara clumpy on our lashes, our lips sticky with lip gloss that came off in thick strands against the plastic cups we drank from. We were beautiful.
The music at these dances was always terrible. The camp director would play entire albums at a time, sometimes multiple times in a row. They were never the pop and R&B artists that we listened to in our own time, but rather music from the sixties and seventies, the sort of music he’d cut his teeth on at his own middle school dances. The dance was held in the mess hall, cleared of its tables, with a disco ball suspended from the ceiling and crepe paper along the walls. Cameras flashed in the semi-dark, capturing campers gyrating against one another as counselors attempted to break them up and ensure six inches remained between their bodies.
“There’s Sam and Tyler,” Sam said when we entered. Tyler was the boy who liked me. I blushed as they approached, but knew they couldn’t tell in the dim light. Sam kissed her Sam, their lips smashed against one another for an interminably long second while Tyler and I scuffed our feet against the floor that still bore signs of its everyday use in the form of food stains that would never come out.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” I said.
The Beach Boys were playing, and Sam—my Sam—said, “Should we dance?” even though none of us knew how to dance to these songs. We hadn’t yet gained the control of our bodies needed to pick out a beat on our own, hadn’t yet gained the confidence to make fools of ourselves.
“Okay,” I said. I had never danced with a boy before, but I mimicked Sam’s stance, her cocked hip, her head toss, her smile like it was nothing. “Do you want to?” I asked Tyler.
“Sure,” he said, and we followed the Sams onto the dance floor. They were instantly pressed against each other, hip to hip, cheek to cheek, his arms wrapped around her back, her hands straying down to his butt. Tyler and I maintained the requisite six inches between us, our feet shuffling against the floor, our toes kicking each other. His hands were on my shoulders, covering the spaghetti straps of my dress. His palms were clammy with sweat.
“Sorry,” I said as our feet bumped.
“Sorry,” he said.
I knew, without being told, that when the song ended, he would kiss me. That was how it worked at camp dances. Songs ended. Dancers kissed. Sometimes it was just a peck on the cheek, other times a full-blown make out session with tongues, but regardless, if you danced with someone, you kissed them.
The song ended. Tyler dropped his hands. He took a step back. “Well. Thanks,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. I leaned forward. I didn’t purse my lips, but when I replay the scene in my mind, I do, and the image makes me cringe.
“Well. I guess I’ll see ya,” he said. He backed away from me and then walked quickly toward the snack table.
I remained on the dance floor as the next song started, another one by the Beach Boys. I could feel the tears filling my eyes, but I didn’t move. If I moved, I would start crying. If I moved, everyone would see me.
The Sams swayed together in front of me. There weren’t six inches between their bodies. There wasn’t even an inch. One of the counselors came up to them and said something, held her hands up to demonstrate the distance. My Sam laughed and they scooted apart, but as soon as the counselor left, they pressed their bodies together again. My Sam laid her head on her Sam’s shoulder so she was looking at me. She smiled, but I could tell she didn’t really see me. If she’d seen me, she’d have left her Sam, come to my side, taken my hand, and walked me off the dance floor. If she’d seen me, she’d have let me cry and known that it wasn’t just about the kiss or the rejection, even though I didn’t know that myself.
But she kept dancing with her Sam and I stood by myself as campers swayed around me and the Beach Boys asked did I want to dance and I answered silently, yes. Yes.
—Emma Riehle Bohmann