When I went to farm camp there was a girl, Abby, who I now think was schizophrenic. I mean, in psychology classes, I can’t help but think of her. When I was younger I didn’t think of these things in much complexity. I thought of her as “retarded,” I think. But I’d never met any kids who were actually retarded. I meant she had a sense of being guileless. And that I liked talking to her because it was like going somewhere else.
Our camp was a camp for kids with problems. Except for some kids who were going to Yale. In retrospect it sounds kind of messed up, like they were slumming, us and them—but it didn’t feel that way. You could maybe briefly pretend you were another kind of kid. How did the Group know if your parents had sent you here because they couldn’t control you, or if you were just interested in planting vegetables and living without light?
Except, Abby was apparent. In Group, the counselors would weirdly spur us to new heights of backbiting. For example one time we were told—all fifty of us—to go around and say something we thought was wrong with the way people acted at camp. We would work ourselves up into a fervor even if we didn’t want to. If we tried to say, “Um, people are cliquey?” we were told to say exactly who we meant. “Paca and Jake always sit together and I feel like it wouldn’t be allowed to sit with them,” we would finally get out, slowly, gnawing at the hems of our jeans with our hands. Then Paca would cry while Jake glared at us, trying to open his eyes wide as possible to look sincere. I mean, no one was supposed to be mad. But Abby became distraught, and when it was her turn she said, “We’re broken, we’re all shattered apart, in pieces. There’s been a schism, we’re everywhere. I’m very worried about the schism, I don’t know how we’ll find ourselves. We have to get back together.”
One time I was sent to get Abby because she didn’t show up in the morning to plant vegetables. Abby was in the creepy bathroom that caused me for the only time in my life to stop wearing makeup. She was taking a shower, her pink towel draped over the bar. I reminded her about crew but she said, “I’m taking a shower. I’m cleaning myself. I’m not done.”
Abby wasn’t concerned about the shower curtain and I could see her inside. I’d never seen a girl in the shower before. Abby’s body was skinny and calm and she looked different without her glasses. Later, digging holes for beets, we looked up and saw her coming slantily along the road, with the dawn breaking briefly, the trees starting to beam with yellow light.
I was the favorite girl of Becky, a tiny thirteen-year-old who had depression and anorexia and smoked cigarettes. There were two kids with Asperger’s Syndrome, Noah and me. I loved Noah because it’s always easier to forgive your faults in someone else and even find them charming. I defended Noah constantly to my friend Chase, who had a wide white face and dark hair, was openly against Group and wore Salad Fingers shirts. “He’s fifteen,” I remember Chase saying about Noah, “fifteen!” and I started crying and Chase apologized for making me cry. I think Chase was talking about how Noah should have the sense that other fifteen-year-olds, like Chase, had. I think Chase, in specific, was talking about Noah’s horrible unintentional love affair with the twelve-year-old Sara, who was tone-deaf with a face like a distracted frog. Sara just said they were in love and Noah didn’t say anything, just frowned or smiled to himself. It was hard to tell.
I miss Noah because he was like me, he blundered into problems and then spent time apologizing, over and over, for everything he might have done. Noah was so small he looked younger than Sara, which made it a little less creepy in my mind. I was seventeen but at farm camp I took advantage of whatever it was that made Noah and me pass for younger; I hung out with Sara for a while, letting people take me for a smart and mature fourteen-year-old instead of a hopelessly droopy and spacey almost-adult.
Noah’s face looked nearly deformed in its tenderness, his eyes like marbles behind round wire glasses, his tiny, pointy nose. Noah was just all-around tiny and pointy, certain counselors took a liking to him and would just hold him during Group, his small shoulders burrowed into Dave’s sweatered side, Dave’s hand on Noah’s arm. Noah was like a leech or a suction cup maybe. He was easy to love.
Maybe I also was and didn’t know it. It’s the apologizing maybe that shocks affection out of people when they least expect it. This girl who wanted to be a missionary was hugging me on the last day of camp, crying inconsolably and staring into my eyes, telling me not to be so hard on myself. My cabin told me I was brave.
So maybe it was stupid for me to imagine I passed. Everyone probably knew I was a Noah, an Abby. Although when I first met Noah, I didn’t know he was a Noah. We fed the pigs together one morning and talked about aliens, stuck our heads into the pen.
Once Jesse, the gay counselor, said in Group that he had something to say to me. Then in the art and music cabin, in the rain, he told me he was afraid to apply for a job at Banana Republic. He said he didn’t think he was good enough for anything, that it was hard to even look at people. Jesse had a clear voice and a deferential manner. Sara had a crush on him; she was loudly homophobic but very naïve. I had a crush on him too, kind of. I always used to get crushes on gay men and not understand it, but I guess it’s just like the way I love Noah, the surprise of seeing your problems in someone else’s mind.
Jesse said I was pretty and shouldn’t always go around saying I was fat. He started to tear up. I told him about my dogs and he recognized they were named after characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We complained that people no longer watched it or knew what it was.
One day before Group started, Jesse complimented me because I was always writing down what was happening on my arms and legs. My parents were upset about me doing this, they sometimes cried and said people would know that I cut myself because I didn’t care about the state of my skin. Jesse explained how he was going to be a singer and he could tell because he sang all the time, everywhere, and I was the same.
I wanted to tell Jesse I was gay but I didn’t. Eventually I told my cabin and they said I was brave. Becky was excited and struck up the same kind of relationship Sara stuck up with Noah, but with less implied consent this time around. For a long time I thought farm camp was important because it was the first time people didn’t know I was gay, I could control it, because I could be a good person if people just didn’t know. I was sure a lot meaner to Becky after she found out.
However, my feelings about farm camp are now more diffuse. Sort of like when my dog Xander is curled into me during a thunderstorm, I wake up and there is this fleecey substance pressed into me, a wide, round heart beating hard against my own—and it’s like, why would you come to me? Don’t you know any better than to trust me like this?