There was nothing about that land that wasn’t ugly and you could tell it didn’t mind. It was low and hot and flat and where roots reached down for soil they hit sand. If my early geography lessons serve, it was once a beach, but then the ocean went away so the sand took up with lakes and pine trees and these attracted platform tents big enough to sleep ten and rustic crosses and outdoor pews hewn from tree trunks and low ceilinged dining halls filled wall to wall with heavy scarred wooden tables. All this meant that, in fall and winter, the sea-lonely land was run over with women, women on retreat—ladies circles, quilt circles, garden clubs—and in summer: it was for children.
Camp. Cotton shorts. Toothbrushes. Sunscreen. Sugar cereal. Shower-caddies. Nylon bathing suits. Hand-held fans. Footlockers at the end of our metal beds, painted with our names and decorated with tiny American flags. Ghost stories. Arts and crafts. The embarrassment of archery. Forced sports. Hiking. Something called a color war. A canteen. Candy.
Music. We’d sing around a fire at the end of every day, knees bumping together, squinting to read our laminated songbooks. Peter, Peter. One Tin Soldier. The one that starts off Je-eeee-su-ssss, precious lamb of God, the one that goes You are my only lah-ah-ah-vvvve.
The music would tingle. Run down my throat. Shimmer. Enter me. Make me cry in the dark where no one else could see. I named this feeling God and I kept it secret.
Water. At camp there was water to make you dirty and water to make you clean and I didn’t mind one and avoided the other entirely. My own sweat was fine, wet then dry on my skin, salty to lick, pleasant and sticky and the lake was silty, a deep green, almost black. I must have drank from it because I can taste it too or maybe that’s just memory confusing taste for smell, either way, it was tangy and alive.
But no showering. The showers terrified me. All the voices amplified, echoing off the walls, all those girl bodies, so close and naked, whatever comes before desire gurgling in the darkest part of me. Ricocheting laughter, names I knew and names I didn’t being called out in playful screams, Can I have my shampoo back Ainsley? Mary Masters can I borrowyour towel please? And then the one time we found a used tampon, cotton tip stained red, clinging to the drain. Nah-uh. No thank-you. No way.
I didn’t brush my hair either. One summer I got my hair tie hopelessly tangled and I just left it there, kept it a secret. I pulled my hair up in a messy bun; no one noticed. It was an immense pleasure to get away with this.
Dose. Every night, before bed, I reported to the nurse’s office. There was always a little crew of us waiting outside, looking around at each other in the porch light like what are you in for? When other kids asked me, I told them I took medicine for allergies or ADD. I had both of those and both of those were normal things to have, but my pills were actually for fear.
In second grade, I’d started to wash my hands so hard and so often I made them bleed. It wasn’t dirt so much as germs that scared me. And after I got the facts of life, I had to worry about sperm too, lying dormant and dried on any surface, waiting to reawaken, wriggle into my vaginal canal, and impregnate me.
In order to win God’s favor and protection, I started reading the bible every night. And I started at the very beginning, back when God still had expectations. I quit wearing jewelry. I tried not to dress ostentatiously. I stole English muffins out of the fridge and sacrificed them on my porch, hoping they were unleavened enough to please the Lord.
My parents tolerated all this as eccentricity until, finally, the chewing. I needed to chew each bite 12 times before I swallowed. Then 24. Then 48. Then 96. I didn’t even have a reason, but I couldn’t stop.
I lost weight. I was the object of concern. I needed the attention of experts.
Secret. To the dermatologist for hand healing lotion and assurance that God made our bodies perfect and invulnerable to disease (liar). To the pediatrician for vitals (low weight, low blood pressure, slow heartbeat). To the psychologist for therapy and a diagnosis (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, classic case). To the psychiatrist for medicine (2.5 pills, 2 times a day).
The pills helped a lot. They made me almost normal. I taught myself to swallow them without water.
Camp. Scrambled eggs in a giant metal tray, heated by a Bunsen burner, made by bandanna-clad teens blasting Santana and flirting over the roar of an industrial dishwasher. The talent show. The end-of-week dance I liked once I learned you didn’t have to wait for a boy to ask you. Singing grace at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The goodnight song we all sang together, holding hands, mispronouncing all the Hebrew words. How fast you could fall for a girl who slept in the metal bed next to yours, somebody from a county over, with an accent as thick and sweet as what glopped out of the bargain-sized Mrs. Butterworth’s bottle. Communion wafers so dry and thin they wicked the moisture from your mouth, made you need the blood of Christ to keep from choking, though I never swallowed the wine, I was afraid I’d get arrested. Instead, I’d put my lips to the chalice, let the sacrament splash against my teeth, and swallow air instead, pretending.
Girls. One summer there was a slim twin with short hair who loved her chubbier opposite. The chubby twin kept her hair long, dyed it auburn, and wouldn’t been seen with her pixie-cut sister. They were fraternal, but they did look alike and their older brothers, who were counselors, made them stand next to each other at lunch so everyone could come and see how each girl had a freckle in one of her eyes. One girl the freckle in her left eye and one girl had the freckle in her right. Like mirrors their brothers said, proudly. The chubby twin liked the attention but ran away with her friends as soon as the show was over, leaving her sister to stand there alone, blinking that one-freckle eye.
It was a universal fact that the chubby twin with long hair was prettier and more likeable than the slim one, but I couldn’t see why. The slim twin slept in my tent. She wore a yellow one-piece. She often cried.
The blob. A slug-shaped balloon, enormous, rubber, I think, striped with red and green and blue and yellow. It stretched from a dock near the shore all the way out to the middle of the lake. To “do the blob”, one camper crawled the far end of the beast, and then, once situated, another camper jumped from a high platform onto the other end, catapulting the first camper into the air. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
The blob was “the best part of camp.” I pretended to like the blob the same way I’d pretend to like live music in my early twenties. Because concerts and blobs are “fun.” Loud noises? Smoke? 40-500 strangers and they’re all screaming? Sign me up. Whiplash? Terror? Needles of pain as my body breaks the surface of the water? Yes. Please. I love this.
I did the blob exactly one time every year because I was afraid some one would notice if I didn’t. I wanted to be normal. I would have given back everything to be normal, even my secret shimmering God.
Then I killed someone. I was sure I killed someone. I had been putting in my time. Gritting my teeth through my annual blob ritual: 1) Stand in line. 2) Leap down from the platform. 3) Send someone flying. 4) crawl, crawl, crawl. 5) Wait and hate this. 6) Air-born 7) Free-fall 8) See a body in the water underneath you. 9) Realize you are going to hit her. 10) Feel her limbs, knock her unconscious, send her sinking 11) Swim to shore.
I reported my accident to the first counselor I saw. All the campers got called out of the water. We had a buddy system. Each person who entered the lake clipped their clothespin to their buddy’s and clipped those clothespins to The Buddy Board. The counselor read every name on every clothespin through a megaphone. Each camper raised a hand for themselves and a hand for their buddy. I don’t remember who my buddy was that day. I sat by the counselor’s feet, waiting.
Water. Does the ocean miss the sand—not the sand she knows now, but the sand she left behind? I wonder if she wonders how it’s doing, whether it still tastes like salt, whether it held on to the shells she deposited. As the earth gets hotter and the waters rise, will she feel like she’s coming home? Or will she have to rush, pushed too fast, making shores into sea-beds, cities into shores, no time to recognize where she’s going is the same as where she’s been? Will she see as we try to run inland? Will she regret our fear? If we drown, will she know it? Will she feel our bodies sink into hers like chiggers into skin? Will she mistake our camps in the piney woods for dollhouses and turn them over to her children: fish in the dining hall, fish in the tents, little fishies getting drunk off communion wine.
Judgment. Name. Hand-up. Name. Hand-up. Name. Hand-up. I wanted my guilt confirmed already, the same way, when I was feeling car sick in the backseat, I wanted to go ahead and throw-up.
Every name called. Every buddy answered for. Everyone back in the water. Emergency over. Emergency forgotten. A line formed behind the blob. The counselor put his hand on my back. He was a grown-up to me, but, in my memory, I can see he was only sixteen— not a hair of on his freckled chest, probably didn’t even need to shave yet. He said You didthe right thing. His hand was warm and the sand was warm and the sun was warm and I felt cold and hot inside.
Fear. I worried there’d been a mistake. Someone snuck into the water without pinning her name and they’d discover her missing at bedtime. I’d be swallowing my white pills in the nurse’s office, hearing them call for her. When that didn’t happen, I worried they’d figure it out at the end of the week. Some parents would show up and they wouldn’t be able to find their kid anywhere. I’d be on the way home by the time they realized she was really missing, really gone. I’d be buckled in the back of my parents Honda, my Dad’s hands at ten and two, my mom toggling the dial between N.P.R.s, when a cadre of ambulances and police cars would careen by in the opposite direction, sirens wailing, throwing red and blue light onto the pine trees. Or maybe, having gotten word that she was already gone, they’d turn their sirens off and pass by in a silent procession. And what would people think when they fished out her body? How would they tell it in the newspapers? In the coroner’s report? In the ghost stories?
They might never find out what happened; they might never know it was me.
Reflection. I never had a solid theory, just two incompatible truths—there was someone in the water and there was no one there. The implications, manslaughter or hallucination, were too scary to consider so I never tried to come to any conclusions.
I told the blob story to a group of other artists at a bar this summer. My friend Liz offered the following casual analysis: So, you saw your own reflection in the water…
This possibility had never occurred to me.
Music. Light the fire was my favorite camp song. The original words, without the benefit of musical underscoring, are too hokey to take seriously, but imagine fifty children and twenty teenagers with most of their lives and sins ahead of them singing the following prayer in unison underneath the stars, sanctifying the stinky lake, the damp towels, the wetted beds, and the shower drain:
Light the Fire (a translation) When I try to pray, I become terrified of how weak I am.
God, you know exactly what I am made of. You see my weakness and the strength. Please take the part of me that wants to do better and give me the capacity.
I can feel it happening right now. The sensation is physical. You are giving me the capacity to become better than I am.
Sensation. College was a lot like camp, but I didn’t do as well socially. There was a dining hall and trees and even Jesus songs if you went looking for them, which I did, once or twice, slipping into a pew next to boys wearing loafers and girls with long glossy hair. I never had the right clothes on or the right clothes didn’t look right on me and I could not accessorize at all and I knew by these signs that I was not one of God’s chosen children but I still meant to fake my way into heaven or at least a minor sorority. The preacher, from a national organization with outposts on many college campuses, kept his wife onstage with him like Dr. Phil. At the first worship service I attended, he offered to pay for a porn-blocker on any guy’s computer before images of sex ruined their future marriages. The next and final time I went, he assured us he loved his wife even when she was nine months pregnant. I told her Yuck! Gross! He said, shielding his eyes from the memory of wife heavy with child. But I love you. I still love you.
I stopped taking the pills. It wasn’t on purpose. At home, my mom used to leave them out for me in a pillbox with fourteen sections for the seven days of the week, morning and night marked with a sun and a moon. I brought the box with me to college but I couldn’t remember to refill it once it was empty and there was no one there to remind me. I detoxed. My brain, accustomed to being bathed in serotonin twice a daily, did not take this change lightly. I spent most of freshman year scouting campus for private places to cry, then sobbing alone or into the phone to my parents or my old high school friends. I imagine I was dehydrated. But when it was over, I noticed the fears didn’t come back. I was normal, finally, almost, except--
Secret. Decreased libido: a side effect of fluvoxamine, the only SSRI approved for use in children in the early 2000s. Without pills, desire inundated me. Everywhere I looked, a flood. I was lying on the top bunk in my dorm room while my roommate and a friend watched Patton down below the moment my vagina woke up. At first I couldn’t tell what it meant by this tingling, it seemed nonspecific, until it didn’t and I knew what it was demanding: to touch and be touched by women. The verdict was untenable to me, but I what place could I go that wasn’t my body?
A ghost story. All fall and winter, she sleeps. In summer, she stirs. Even from way down there she can smell sunscreen and bug repellent, make out the campfire hymns; those baby voices raised in praise on the first night of camp are enough to rouse her. Muffled by distance and water, they sound like a low moan.
She senses campers swimming above her even though she can’t see (she’s got no eyes, only black hollows in her moon-bright skull). Oh how her bone body glows, sucked smooth and clean by curious fish. Only her hair remains intact. It grows longer and longer, gets knotted with algae. In fall and winter, it wraps her like a shroud. In summer, it’s a tangled veil that trails behind her as she swims upwards.
Before you tell the camper on the platform that you’re ready, wait on the edge of the blob. Grip the rubber so you don’t fall in while you scan the lake. If it’s as still as a black sheet of glass, go ahead. But if you see a cluster of bubbles, that could be her. Campers have seen her from the air before, the underwater girl, floating facedown an inch below the surface.
As you fall towards her, her head spins around, each vertebrae twirling on its axis and clicking into the opposite position. She takes you in, sightlessly. If you’re not the one she wants, she flashes a lipless grin and disappears before you land. You’ll never see her again except in your nightmares. But if you’re the one she’s looking for, she’s taking you down, wrapping you up in her arms and legs, snapping your spine so you don’t struggle, pinning you to the bottom of the lake for the rest of summer, then fall, until the water washes your bones clean and you’re eyes are gone. By next summer, you’ll be twins. Moaning will wake you from both from your wet sleeps and you’ll rise together, intertwining your wasted fingers, waiting for the next camper who looks like good company.
-- Annabel Lang is a writer/performer based in Chicago by way of the Carolinas. She is the co-founder and co-host of Junior Varsity, a workshop/variety hour. “Underwater Girl” is her first published essay.