I never went to summer camp as a kid—never really even considered it. I grew up the only child of a single mother, and by the time I was eight, all of my grandparents had died. And so, in my little boy eyes, leaving home for any extended amount of time always seemed like a pretty big risk. What if something happens to my mom while I’m away? I wondered. What if I come home and she’s gone?
At least that was part of it.
But this psychological coin had another side to it, too—one less dramatic and considerably more selfish. You see, when I was growing up, the majority of my friends did go to camp. Every summer, as May became June, my buddies all packed their trunks and hopped up into their parents’ Suburbans, vanishing off into the Texas Hill Country, where they spent months flirting with girls, earning merit badges and diving off of something called “The Blob.” And while I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t waste most of my summers being bored and sick with envy, there was one thing about their collective experience that didn’t seem so great. And that was the end of camp. Come August each year, while all the now-unhappy campers came home sad-faced and deflated, I found myself in the pleasant position of watching my friends return—of welcoming back the departed masses. Sure they’d had a great time while they were gone, but now they were back in San Antonio, back from the dream world of arts & crafts and summer flings that had so pleasantly been their summertime realities. And so, as they struggled to cope, as they tried to re-assimilate and forget all about the fun they’d had, I found myself smiling—feeling almost superior—for the first time in months. Yes, I might’ve missed out, I knew, but at least I wasn’t starting off another school year down in the dumps.
Our recent writers’ colony on Chincoteague Island in many ways mirrored closely what I’d always thought camp might be like. Upon arriving, over Memorial Day Weekend, I found myself timid and nervous. I’d been close with Roger for years, and while I was more than friendly with fellow Trop writers Evan and Tom—whom I’d met respectively through grad school and mutual friends—as a trio, we were anything but tight. Here was Tom, I thought, the pleasantly-eccentric, mustachioed writer from California who’d passed through New Orleans for a couple of drunken visits, charming me as he effortlessly charms everyone he meets; and here was Evan, my funniest classmate at Georgia College, and the guy over whom, upon making my MFA exit, I kicked myself for not taking the time to know better.
And so there we were: four campers in our cabin. And on those first days, while we unpacked our bags and chose our sleeping arrangements, each of us careful to appear diplomatic, all of us anxious to accommodate each other’s eating and writing and sleeping schedules—on those days, I felt very unsettled, very far from home. To be honest, I wondered if coming to Zoe House, if committing to nearly three weeks of writing on Virginia’s Eastern shore, was something beyond my capabilities.
But that feeling faded fast. And just as we would’ve as kiddies at a camp, the four of us honed a routine—and one we stuck to firmly, one that held up, never mind the absence of any supervising counselors. For our morning activities, there was breakfast and solo writing; after lunch, there were fieldtrips to the Island Library or the Y; and after reading time and naps, there was Polish Horseshoes and dinnertime and then, yes, God yes, the Bud Light Limes. My God, I’ve never thought I could possibly consume so many goddamn Bud Light Limes. In the evenings, had we been good (and, on most days, we had), we’d take nighttime Main Street strolls to Chattie’s, watching televised basketball and drinking pitchers of self-mixed Cheladas; on weekends, we’d leave camp altogether and make journeys to the beach, lying beside one another in the sunlight, swimming in the Atlantic’s electric-cold surf. And all the while, I found myself growing closer with everyone—with Roger and Tom and Evan. All the while, I found myself thinking two and half weeks wouldn’t be enough.
And then, like Christmas come early, we had a visit from the girl’s camp, a three-day bender of a celebration, where we sat around in a circle in the backyard and drank beers, where we broke free of our routines and broke our rules and stayed out late, drinking Caipiroskas and too many bourbons. And, on the next night, when the weather turned cool and rainy, we huddled all together around the kitchen, drinking beers and playing cards and laughing like I hadn’t in what felt like forever. And then, walking home from the Chincoteague Inn, carrying in my hand a go-cup of booze for the first time since I’d left New Orleans, I met my camp crush, my summertime fling, and I found myself laughing even harder—laughing not only because she was funny, but laughing, really, at my luck.
But, sadly, where Chincoteague felt most like camp was when I woke up on that final day. It was before dawn, and as I lay beside my camp crush, feverishly wishing there was one more day, cursing my luck with timing, asking her, asking myself, asking fate why it was that I always felt the happiest and most comfortable in a place right when it was time to leave. And then, as if to stall the inevitable, before the others woke, before I bent down over Tom and Evan’s air mattresses and gave them the biggest hugs I could muster, before a sad breakfast, and before Rog and I drove off in one direction, and she drove off in another—the two of us quietly tiptoed through the sleeping beach house and out to the outdoor shower.
And as the warm water rained down, as it skated off our shoulders and we stood there talking about writing and life—about the magic of being alone together in this beautiful place, I thought to myself, God, this is nice, God how badly I don’t want this to end. But as we switched off the shower, standing there side by side as the last of water rolled down the drain, I thought to myself, but this is the way it has to be. This is the beauty and the pain camp. You want to run home the moment you get there. You’re surrounded by strangers and feel nothing like yourself. But when it’s finally time to make your exit, when it’s time to pack up and go, you’d rather die than leave. And so you linger. You keep hugging and holding and kissing these people—these people who two weeks or two days ago were strangers. And as you stand there holding them you marvel—absolutely marvel—at the lovely suddenness with which intimacy comes.
And then you say goodbye.
Because there’s always next year.
William Torrey lives and works in Baton Rouge. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, The North American Review, Washington Square Review, Colorado Review, the Hawai'i Review, New Madrid and Zone 3, where his story "Trabajar" won the 2011 Editors' Prize. He is currently at work on a novel. @wshametorrey | firstname.lastname@example.org.