Hannanh was a live wire and the doors of the cabin were bolted. She ran the show and no one objected. Her resume outdid us all: an edgy undercut, experience in the field, and interactions with druggies. And nobody else would do it. “How many of you really want one? One hundred percent sure you want one?” She asked, looming over us in the same manner a father adopts to scare off his teenager’s new boyfriend. Nine of us were mishmashed across the floor. Four raised our hands. “Okay. Show up at the Mo at three or I’m not doing it.” *** In the summer of 2016, Camp Ahavah was mainly fueled by forty rich New York families who wanted their eleven to sixteen-year-old kids to feel “more Jewish," and perhaps thought that the sweet, redneck-infused air of the upstate border with Pennsylvania would heighten the spirituality of their bundles of diminishing joy. Ahavah was stretched and beaten to within an inch of its life at the center of a tug-of-war between the campers and the invisible, elusive board. The board fought to make us “more Jewish,” implementing longer prayer services, employing confused Israeli counselors, and slapping Hebrew names on everything within a mile’s radius. The lake wasn’t the lake. It was the “agam.” Electives were “chugim.” Our clubhouse was the “Mo,” short for “moadon.” We retaliated by subconsciously breaking every Jewish law we could break. In this we were united. In our Mo was the following: A box of Strawberry Fields tic-tacs, seven seltzers, a crate of ramen, two Sprites, and a bag of peach gummies. Seven folding chairs that failed to accommodate the nine of us, so lap-sitting was encouraged and frequently practiced. Fairy lights and a broom. Yellowing paper signs wilting to the floor; faded announcements of each camp takeover: Super-coup 2008, Zion-zman 2011. Shrek-coup 2016. An order painted on the barn-style door: “STOMP!” So we stomped the stairs to groaning, scaring mice back into the walls. Temporarily a portable kettle, paper towels, alcohol wipes, India ink, a pile of needles. *** A swell of crop-topped, short-shorted teens ran sweaty from the basketball court, and I thought of my mother. She knew nothing of my crop tops stashed in a jewelry box, folded tight in a hidden compartment. She told me at seven years old that crop tops were against Jewish law, which I didn’t believe one bit, that forgetting to wash the dishes would cause God to detract a mitzvah from my record, which I didn’t believe one bit, and that Jews who got tattoos couldn’t be buried in Jewish cemeteries, which my brain inhaled and absorbed and folded tight in its own hidden compartment. It was the only time I thought of my mother that night. Down from the basketball court, along the row of cabins, and to the kitchen. Friends beckoned from inside the walk-in freezer, the chill of which I embraced with gusto similar to those films where long-lost children slow motion sprint into their mother’s arms. A popular spot following hours of Israeli line dancing, forty square feet of frosted metal reverberated with chatter. “Maybe I’ll just watch a movie tonight or something. Still haven’t seen the new Avengers.” “Bo-ring. We’re playing cards on the roof later, come and bring a sleeping bag.” “What are you gonna do, Soph?” I felt multiple hands clamp my shoulders, stiff and tense. I shrugged. “Uh, no idea.” *** Ahavah provided hearty samplings of the New York City boroughs, as well as some small towns on the outskirts of the city. My age group, the eldest, was an East Coast melding of kids, but still, over half hailed from the Empire State. Enter Manhattan. Manhattan gave me Abby, a lawyer-parented girl who managed to wear the same “pugs, not drugs” shirt everyday. She brought two chairs from home. Her five duffel bags had to be paraded to the cabin by an army of eleven-year-olds. She smuggled in boxes upon boxes of strawberry licorice--and not Twizzlers, but the good stuff--which automatically promoted her to the status of top bitch. The “B” boroughs were simple: Brooklyn made the pretty girls and the Bronx made the pretty boys. The majority of Brooklyn and the Bronx arrived in the later years, ushering in the inevitable era of sexual frenzy. This era existed generally only between those two species, but occasionally a lucky outsider would slink themselves in, unnoticed. We had two from White Plains, just north of the city. Their main attributes were thier lankiness, their plaid shirts, and eagerness to have philosophical discussions at unusual hours of the night. “Do you think you’re honest with yourself, Sophia? Like… about… time?” I think they might have also smuggled something into camp. White Plains kids taught me how to misbehave, to the extent that a middle-class Jewish girl from New England is willing to misbehave. I visited the two of them over the year once, and we stopped for lunch at a Chipotle. I wanted soda, and was instructed by one to simply ask for a water cup and fill it with soft drink. I approached the counter. I’m breaking the law, holy cow, I’m breaking the law. “Can I get a cup for water, please?” In retrospect, the half-asleep teen taking orders probably knew I wasn’t getting water. I bet nine out of ten times kids say “water,” they mean “cola” or “lemonade” or “a smooth blend of ice and all fifteen bubbly drinks in the machine.” I learned to drink soda the White Plains way. *** I sat in the bed of my “It’s Complicated” of two summers, attempting to cuddle and eat Sour Patch Kids simultaneously. He was a Bronxite. I, a complete Connecticut outsider, considered myself lucky. “What are you getting? Your hand went up like a bullet when Hannanh asked.” I chewed a lime candy, swallowed, and dusted sugar from my fingers. “A sun.” I responded. “Like the way little kids draw it; a circle and a bunch of lines. I dunno, it’s something positive, you know? What about you?” “A ‘Y’.” “A ‘Why’?” “The letter ‘Y’.” He explained his reasoning. “I mean, it’s a great conversation starter. A “Y” on your leg. It doesn’t have to have any hidden meaning or anything, which means the focus is on the story of getting it.”
*** At three in the morning I reached the stairs of the Mo, stomped any rodents away, heaved the rotting wooden door sideways, and occupied a folding chair. They were now arranged in a jumbled circle around one of the more comfortable ones in the middle. Shira from Brooklyn (“I want a lovely little crescent moon on my hip”) was first, and fluttered into her thirty-minute throne like the Jewish-American Princess she was. With a flip of her hair and a predictably fake tinkling laugh she had Hannanh play Katy Perry from her phone and instructed the closest boy to hold her hand, her sole remedy for possible pain. Whenever a new person sat in the chair, either lowering themselves down hesitantly or in a casual, sitting-down-to-dinner way, we became a machine. Hannanh would tear an alcoholic wipe and dab at the chosen spot; a hip, a thigh, the side of a torso. One boy stood by the cheap portable kettle, pouring steaming water into a bowl, monitoring as it washed over a needle. I was seated closest to the door, so I would take the bowl and slosh excess water into the trees outside, and simultaneously keep an eye out for flashlight-clad counselors. The sanitized needle would dip into ink and we would all lean in, looking intently at where Hannanh carefully poked patterns. Wipes were torn open and used again, stinging as the liquid seeped from gauze into fleshy indents. Large band-aids were applied, and the process repeated. First was Shira’s moon, then a lightning bolt, then a “Y,” and finally a sun, the way little kids draw it. Three of us remained; Hannanh etching ink into the flimsy skin webbing the side of my ribcage, myself stretching awkwardly in the center chair, and Shira hovering over the scene, interjecting as frequently as possible, “Can you hurry up?” Hannanh’s response was to both glare up at her and jab extra painfully into my side. The rest of the age group had snuck a mile out to the lake, and were waiting. *** Camp Ahavah shut down after the summer of 2016. Underfunded, apparently. *** Five in the morning, and we were a small group of Jewish kids sprawled across a dock and sprawled across each other, limbs dangling nonchalantly above the water. Pre-dawn mist rose up across the lake and sifted through trees. And there was a sun on my ribcage.
-- Sophia Bruce is a high school student in the 10th grade at ACES ECA in New Haven, Connecticut. She is sixteen years old. She has won two Scholastic gold keys and one silver key for previous works of poetry and memoir.