If you sneak out of your cabin late at night, grab a flashlight and trek across the dense trees of the camp’s 600 acres, you can escape the confines of Camp Chi.
It takes some ingenuity, but once you wind your way through the camp, past the swimming pools and horse stables, past the painted cabins, the arts and crafts village, the dining hall and the flag post, you reach the edge of campus and a highway that will take you to the Wisconsin Dells in a few minutes. My mother tells me she snuck out her first year at the camp, but I’m not sure I believe her.
Campers are not allowed to leave. The wilderness is a terrifying place for Chicagoans, even suburban ones. The trees extend on past the horizon, and some part of us knew that nature could be cruel to those who lived in it. The power and terror of nature is inexorably tied in with my memories of my first year at camp and the promise of first love, especially after I was stuck waiting out a tornado warning with a cabin full of lovestruck girls.
What the Wisconsin weather inspired in me was electrifying; I felt the summer unfurling ahead of me, fast and sweltering with possibility, the starry Midwestern sky and the inexorable temptation of potential romance. I was ten going on eleven and wanted nothing more than to be in love. At the behest of my minimal pubescence, I spent almost every day fantasizing about kissing and being kissed. I had no idea of the machinery behind it (can you kiss with lipgloss? What should tongues do, and why?) but because camp was only two weeks every moment seemed vital preparation.
I could flirt with Ben at the pool and maybe I would realize we were madly in love; I could flit my way into waterskiing right next to Jordan and put on waterproof mascara like Amy and Lauren did.
The first week of camp I had impressed Ben with my backwards dive, and he asked me to the Shabbat dance. I envisioned myself touching his pale lips with my own and got skittish; two days later I promptly dumped him behind the canteen. A week of single life later, I had set my goal on Jordan, who had a penchant for lingering hugs and quiet conversation. I had planned on sitting next to him next to the pool that afternoon, but I would never get the chance.
A thunderstorm that started as a lake-effect rainfall surged into a full-blown tornado warning, and we were suspended from our activities for the day. The closest shelter was the cabin bathroom, which was not large but turned out to be just big enough to fit the entire Chaverim camp group. Rain battered the windows in gales; I shuffled through the bathroom doors along with the other girls and slid against the wall. As the rain grew louder, I crouched next to Lauren and Amy and sat, petrified, as the water on the concrete bathroom floor seeped through my shorts.
I knew with absolute certainty that I was going to die on this bathroom floor. I was going to die never having lived or loved. I was ten years old. The future was great, it was so great, and no one else in the bathroom seemed to be panicking, so I stared down at my shoes as small frogs hopped around them.
The counselors were doing their best job to keep everyone calm as the storm raged around the small bathroom; we sat close to the walls and held our knees to our chests in tornado posture. Amy fidgeted beside me, head burrowed between her knees. I placed my hand on her knee and mustered my most consoling voice; she didn’t need to be scared, we were safe, and besides, we were all together.
“I’m not sad,” she said, lifting her head. Her face shone with true euphoria. “Guess what,” she said. I told her I was all out of guesses. “I,” she hiss-whispered for dramatic effect, “kissed Jordan yesterday at the campfire. And he kissed me back!
My stomach clenched. She turned towards me, radiant. “Rachel, do you know what that means?”
I said I didn’t. Lauren giggled next to me.
“It’s all gonna be okay,” Amy said. “Even if these are my last words. Thank God I’m gonna die knowing what it’s like to kiss a boy!
About twenty minutes later the counselors were given the okay to clear everyone from the bathroom. I gathered myself and my heartbreak and walked out through the bathroom doors, past my cabin, and out onto the grass where the sky gloomed a strange shade of green. I had been spared. I exhaled and began to laugh.
I would get my first kiss at Camp Chi a year later, a nervous peck on the cheek close enough to the lip that I forgave the distance. The attraction was one-sided; there was no tongue. I told no one this. Instead, when anyone asks me about the circumstances of my first kiss, I tell them how the timing was perfect.
Rachel Stone is a Princeton student ‘17, where she is managing editor of the alt weekly student publication the Nassau Weekly. Her work can also be found on The Toast, The Awl, and select circles of the Deep Web. She tweets @sorcerersstawne.