The summer after I turned thirteen, I decided that exactly two things needed to happen in order for my life to matter: I needed Rosie Collins to like me, and I needed my parents to send me to Bible Camp. Fortunately the two were largely interdependent, as Rosie’s family owned the most exclusive Bible camp in South Texas and all of her best friends attended.
Rosie Collins was the only girl in school who was allowed to wear New Balance sneakers to class. Most of us were supposed to wear saddle shoes, or the tacky Keds-brand dress shoes, but Rosie was allowed to wear New Balance sneakers because she had an extra bone in her foot, or something like that. Mrs. Barnes, the vice-principal of our small Episcopal school, told Rosie that the shoes had to be all-white so that the other kids wouldn’t “get any ideas.” No one was quite sure what that meant, but we envied the white shoes all the same.
Rosie, however, hated them. She hated their whiteness. One day she brought a brand-new toothbrush to school, unwrapped it at snack time, and plunged it into the fresh mud behind a bush in the courtyard. She scrubbed the muddy toothbrush over every crevice of her clean, white sneakers and then tossed the toothbrush in the trash. I watched as the shoes turned brown and couldn’t help but feel as if the act was in someway unholy, or at the very least ungrateful.
“What?” she said in my direction. I hadn’t realized I’d been staring at her.
“I just don’t like it when they’re too clean, OK?”
A few weeks earlier, Rosie had transferred to our school from the public middle school down the street, which, as far as I was concerned, was an institution overrun with punks and goths. Rosie was neither a punk nor a goth. In fact, she braided her smooth, blonde hair every morning and (for the most part) her uniform was always clean and pressed. Her tie, however, was always undone, like the laces of her white-brown shoes. She never wore the right color socks and would occasionally doodle on the inside of her forearm. She had a habit of fixing the hem of her skirt with Mrs. Dallagher’s stapler in class.
We became the kind of friends who belonged to a larger group of mutual friends. While Rosie and I occasionally had fleeting conversations about how creepy the P.E. teacher was, I would only see her laugh and laugh with other girls. I wanted her to laugh with me like that. Bible Camp was the obvious solution. I wasn’t exactly a Christian, but I was used to trying on identities. How hard could it be, really?
I had spent the summer before at a camp in West Texas, which had been forced out of its previous lakeside location by what was rumored to be a “Chinese cult.” I had excelled at useful activities like archery, riflery, and canoeing, but routinely embarrassed myself at crafts, choir, synchronized swimming, and dance – or, more generally, anything where I had to feign enthusiasm.
“You should come to my camp.” Rosie said to me as we were practicing drawing angels on pieces of wood in art class. “It’s much more fun. We don’t have structured activities, really, and we get to have shaving cream fights.”
I lit up. Not only was Rosie Collins trying to get me to go to camp with her, but shaving cream fights were something that I had a vested interest in.
“Plus, there are boys,” she said.
“Oooh.” I made a noise with my tongue that sounded more like a confused owl than an excited teenager. While the addition of pre-pubescent boys could possibly provide a welcome change from the all girls’ camp I had previously attended, I wasn’t quite sure how to explain to her that I didn’t really care whether or not there were boys where we were going.
In the days that followed, I convinced my parents to let me switch camps, employing every last bit of rhetoric I had in store for these kinds of occasions.
“But they have boys there!” I pleaded. While this might seem like an odd way for a thirteen-year-old girl to lobby her parents in hopes of attending a sleep-away social situation, this argument almost always worked on my mom, who secretly harbored suspicions of my latent homosexuality.
Soon enough, I was off to Generic Evangelical Bible Camp with a trunk full of medium-sized clothing from Old Navy and a brand new Bible tucked into my sweating armpit. It wasn’t until somewhere between C-town and A-ville that I realized that I was going to Bible Camp and I didn’t even know the first thing about the Bible. I went to an Episcopal school for the majority of my young life, but the only thing I could remember was that Adam and Eve happened and then a few years later God wiped everyone out with a shit-ton of rain. It was bad enough that my dad was making me arrive a day late because of a stupid basketball tournament, but the fact that I wasn’t a real Christian might actually ruin my chances of fitting in. What if they find out? I thought. What if Rosie finds out? I opened the front cover of my highlighter-blue King James Version. In the beginning…
When I finally arrived at the doorstep of Cabin E (“E for lov-E E-veryone”), a blonde, skinny girl jumped down from her top bunk and hugged me so tightly that I nearly lost the bagel I had choked down in the car.
“Umm…” I mumbled, perplexed, but trying not to sound rude. I had never seen this girl in my life.
“Hiiii,” she sang. “I’m so happy you’re here. I’m Erin.”
The rest of Generic Evangelical Bible Camp would continue in this fashion: nauseatingly cheery and over-caffeinated, which was severely detrimental to the most recent attitude I had adopted for Rosie’s sake — an attitude that I thought exuded a cool nonchalance, but probably came off as more of an awkward laziness. At Camp, however, Rosie was best friends with Erin. And the worst part was that in this place — which I had started to refer to as “Candyland” in letters to my friends at home — Rosie was no longer the carefree tomboy who scrubbed mud all over her shoes. She was excessively cheerful, incredibly preoccupied with shaving her legs, and not at all interested in breaking the rules. To make matters worse, Rosie wasn’t even in my cabin. She and Erin were in a cabin of “older” girls who had been together at Camp every year. But I still wanted her to like me, and I needed things to change immediately.
I decided to become a Christian.
It is a widely known fact among Texans that simply attending church or an Episcopal school doesn’t make one a Christian. No, you have to have a testimony, a religious conversion experience, a turning point along your path of sin that led you to the Lord Jesus Christ. This immediately posed a problem. I had no material. I wasn’t beaten or raped as a child, I didn’t have atheist parents, I never experimented with any drugs or prescription meds, no one in my family had died recently, and I sure as hell wasn’t ready to talk about the fact that I sometimes wanted to kiss girls. Also, I had never had sex, which in this world was an act of equal offense. I had only one thing, and it would have to do.
Every night after dinner we had Cabin Time. Cabin Time was a ritual in which the entirety of Cabin E would sit on the front porch and chit-chat about topics including, but not limited to “how to ask God for better friends,” and “what to do when you feel persecuted for your Christian beliefs.” One of these nights was devoted to sharing our testimonies as good Christian children with the entire cabin. It was supposed to make us feel closer to God and, by extension, each other.
“…and then after he touched me,” one of our counselors was saying. “I told him that it was over and that we could never see each other again after he did that. It wasn’t God’s plan for me. And after that, I just prayed and prayed that God would forgive me for letting him touch me, for being stupid. And here I am today,” she said. “I’m so happy.” And she was. Or maybe it was just her Southern accent.
The rest of the girls had similar experiences. Two recounted graphic tales of sexual abuse from family members, several told stories about how their boyfriends had once pressured them into “going too far,” and one girl expressed extreme remorse for shaving off her pubic hair in order to better find her own vagina. The counselors, in effort to assuage her sudden sobbing, assured her that God would forgive her if she just prayed about it. Eventually, she believed them and reduced to a quiet blubbering.
I hesitated when it was my turn. There is no way they’re gonna believe me, I thought. I wasn’t a real Christian and everyone knew it. But I didn’t have a choice, I had to say something.
“I almost died once,” I began.
Dammit, I thought. I screwed up. That wasn’t how I was supposed to say it. Everyone stared, waiting for me to explain myself. Their eyes felt like tiny, little video cameras with the red lights blinking. “Um… well… I mean, I thought I was dying.” One of the girls rolled her eyes and I tried to pretend that she was just a villain in a cartoon movie, easily foiled by simple-mindedness and innocence.
“Last year at camp,” I said, “I completely thought that I was going to die. This one time at like, 12:30 at night the room started spinning and I couldn’t see anything. So I stumbled over to my counselor’s bed and said ‘Rachel, I need to go to the infirmary.’ So it turns out that I had a fever of 103 and they had to call the doctor in. I spent the night in the infirmary and prayed and prayed and prayed for God to make me better, and He did. By the morning, my fever had reduced to normal and I was completely fine.”
What I hadn’t mentioned was that in actuality I had come down with an acute form of TSS, or Toxic Shock Syndrome. The thing they warn you about on the backs of tampon boxes. I had left a tampon inside of my body for over a day and I had started to notice a sticky, green puddle in my underwear. In a feverish haze that night I had gone to the bathroom and removed the tampon. My fever dropped drastically and by the morning I was fine. I had not once asked God to make me feel better.
“That must have been very scary,” one of the counselors said to me, breaking the silence.
No one else said a word. That was it, I thought. They definitely knew. I was going to be shunned from the rest of the group for my obvious lack of any “real life” experience. I was just a small and insignificant child who would never be taken seriously as a Christian. It was all over. What would Rosie think?
After Cabin Time, I slinked back into the cabin to sit on my bunk and cry to myself. No one would notice if I turned toward the wall. I tried not to listen to listen to Molly, the cartoon villain, and her cronies as they laughed and made a list of “Things We’ve Masturbated With.” Hairbrush… Bathtub faucet… vibrator. I rolled over and put the pillow over my head. The laughing didn’t stop.
Eventually I heard someone shouting my name over the now thunderous laughter. I was the only one not participating. Confused, I rolled back over and looked at Molly with tears sticking to my red, chipmunk-y face.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. I didn’t know whether or not to believe her.
“Oh,” I said, surprised. “I dunno, it was a long day.”
“Come down here,” she said.
I threw one leg after another over the ladder on the side of my bunk and slipped into the group next to Molly. She smiled at me through her dark eye makeup and I relaxed a little.
“Have you ever masturbated?” she asked, flatly.
The truth is that I had. A lot, actually. Or at least more than I thought was normal. I just didn’t understand why anyone would want to talk about it. In fact, I had never heard anyone say the word “masturbate” out loud before that day. The only way I knew what it meant was because it was written on a piece of paper that my mom brought home from the doctor one day. Rather than discuss it with me, she had left the paper in her bathroom underneath a stack of old magazines. I found it when I was peeing one day. “Masturbation is a normal part of teenage development,” the paper said. Perhaps that’s why she hid it.
“Well, yeah.” I answered finally. “Hasn’t everyone?”
The girls laughed and Molly said, “You little dirty whore.” One of the girls squealed and then everyone laughed again. Most of the girls there didn’t even know what masturbation meant, which Molly took great pleasure in explaining. To the other girls it felt dirty just to think about it. And it just so happens that God himself definitely frowns upon masturbation – and possibly every other sexual or pseudo-sexual act on the planet.
Masturbation conversations became the norm at Bible Camp. We would take turns sharing stories about touching ourselves and touching others and perhaps even touching each other (you never know). The point, it seemed, was to bring yourself to the brink of supposed moral deprivation so that you could experience the ritual of being saved. Each increasingly sexual conversation was followed by prayer, reflection, and public repentance. And admittedly, it did feel good. There was a build up and a break down. Like an orgasm, only holier.
That next night the entire Camp convened in the large hay barn/pit we used as a chapel. The counselors were going to perform a skit that illustrated what it meant to be a Christian. The girls in our cabin were excited because all of the hot boy counselors were in it. I just liked skits. We sat together in the middle row, chattering about last night’s conversations, trying to get a sideways glance from the younger girls in front of us. When the lights went down, everyone cheered as counselor Hot Rob emerged wearing a plain, white v-neck. Then, all of a sudden, he was swept into a whirlwind of other counselors who proceeded to dirty his shirt with things like beer, mustard, and lipstick. He held up his hand to this all-consuming whirlwind of debauchery and everything ceased. He held up a Bible and a bright light shone from the ceiling. A girl counselor wearing a clean white v-neck waked onstage and removed Hot Rob’s dirty shirt to reveal a clean, new v-neck underneath it. Hot Rob and the girl counselor walked off stage, hand-in-hand, and never looked back.
That night after cabin time and another casual masturbation conversation, I curled up in my bunk, waited until everyone fell asleep, and stuck my right hand down the inside of my pajama pants. I was finally gonna get this whole Christian thing, I thought as I reached for my clitoris. Tomorrow I would confess my “sins” to Rosie and she would laugh and tell me about hers. Together we would walk away, hand-in-hand, with matching white v-necks, pure and clean. It made perfect sense.
I found her sitting by the river the next day, in a rare moment of solitude. She was waiting for Erin to come out of the cabin for lunch. Nervous, but strangely excited, I sat down next to her and stared at the heat waves rippling on the water. She asked how I was liking Camp so far and I smiled and told her it had been Awesome so far (with a capital “A,” a favorite adjective at Camp). She smiled. I counted the seconds in my head or the beats in my heart until she turned to look at me. I looked back down at the river.
“So do you guys ever talk about masturbation and stuff?” I muttered.
“What?” she said “Ew. That’s gross.” She laughed nervously and threw a rock at the sun’s reflection on the water. It rippled for a second and then returned to a semi-perfect golden sphere. I felt older than Rosie Collins for the first time in my life. Secretly, I knew that soon enough Rosie would need to feel clean again one day, and I would be there waiting with a clean, white v-neck — or a new pair of shoes — whichever she preferred.
Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.