The day camp was an activity for children designed to give parents time alone together. But my parents never seemed to want time alone together--at least not at the same time--or to know what to do when they had it. Running out from the deck with Shelley and Rachel following, it occurred to me to wonder what they would talk about when we were gone. I assumed we would be part of their conversation and worried briefly, and then forgot about it, for, taking Shelley and Rachel along the paths to the circus tent, my mind began to fill with what was awaiting me.
To be honest, even before I knew what they would be, I was dreading the circus lessons. I believed that I would inevitably disgrace myself in any activity that required physical powers. Three years ago, my father had told me I was "uncoordinated," and, in fact, had enrolled me in a Saturday morning gymnastics class at the Y.M.C.A. to correct this defect. I learned how to climb a rope; to execute forward and backward rolls on a mat; and jump, sit down, and jump up again on a trampoline, but I never learned how to do handstands, walkovers, or cartwheels, which other children my own age performed so effortlessly, and I was afraid of the rings, the balance beam, and the parallel bars. I remembered Bel Lowry, a tall girl in first grade, who would always climb to the very top of the jungle gym and stand astraddle the bars, without holding on to anything, in easy balance. I admired her greatly but would never have followed her.
I feared circus day camp would be all too similar to those Saturday gymnastics classes, demonstrations of what I did not want to attempt, the pressure to attempt it, and my subsequent failure. Yet, when we arrived at the tent, it was so gaily striped and inviting that Shelley, Rachel, and I immediately wanted to enter it.
I inhaled the odor of the sawdust that covered the floor and a fainter smell left by the animals that weren't there while camp was in session. Inside, we were met by counselors who divided us into groups by age. Shelley and Rachel were in one group together, and I in another.
The tent seemed huge--so much so that I felt completely separated from my sisters. We were all taken to areas around the edge, away from the two performing rings. I was led to a small group of five or six gathered around a trapeze that had been set up rather low, obviously for our purposes. "We'll wait a few minutes more to see if others arrive," our counselor said. I don't remember what the counselor looked like because I was realizing I was seeing her--the one I knew I wanted to be my friend. There she was waiting like I was, in a light-blue shorts outfit with a matching sleeveless top. Her limbs were lightly muscled and deeply tanned. She had blond hair cut short in a pixie haircut, a style I'd wanted which my mother had forbidden me to have.
Normally I was shy, but she wasn't talking to anyone, and I went up to her and asked her her name.
"Margie. What's yours?"
The class was just beginning, which cut off our exchange. I knew that Margie would be agile on the trapeze, and so she was; and, the first day at least, I did not have to make a fool of myself. Although I held all teachers in awe and was nervous, I was only required to mount and dismount, and I didn't volunteer to do anything more.
After the trapeze, while we were waiting for another group to vacate the trampoline, I resumed my conversation with Margie. She told me she was from Georgia, and that she had a younger brother and sister, whom she was required to watch as I had to watch Shelley and Rachel. This discovery was our first bond.
That afternoon I saw her at the lake with her brother and sister. This was after we'd learned about the problem with the circulation system, and I was feeling terribly disappointed, because it was so hot, and all that water was there, and I couldn't go into it.
"When will it be fixed?" I asked the lifeguard, whose job it was now to keep people out of the deep part of the lake.
"In a couple of weeks."
"That's too late," I said. "We'll be gone."
He shrugged his shoulders, and behind him, I saw Margie approaching. I ran off towards her.
"Do you know about the lake?" I said.
"Yes," she said. "We play on the beach, and anyway they let you wade in the water." It seemed natural after that for us to play together. In fact, with our siblings with us, I had the fantasy that Margie and I were two young mothers, and they were our children. My parents were farther back on the beach, lying on deck chairs with closed eyes, their skins shiny with suntan oil. My mother had not been so disappointed about the lake, because she never swam anyway, and now she wasn't obliged to watch us, for she never trusted lifeguards, and claimed our father wouldn't notice if we drowned.
I took little notice of my parents that afternoon; I was too interested in Margie, and I had to pay attention anyway to Shelley and Rachel. We were building sandcastles. Because this was a lake and not a tidal ocean, we had to transport the water for our moat. I liked giving Shelley and Rachel tasks to do, and they were young enough--six and five--to like to fulfill them. I watched them go down to the water's edge with buckets. Margie's sister and brother were filling buckets with sand that got muddier as it went deeper. I don;t know why it occurred to me then to ask Margie her religion.
"Oh, what kind?" I asked.
"A Christian," she repeated, emphasizing it.
"I mean kinds, like Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian," I rattled them off. I was not being raised in the Bible Belt for nothing.
"I'm not any kind. I'm just a Christian."
"But you have to be."
"No, I don't. What are you?"
"I'm not Christian. I'm Jewish."
"Oh." She seemed uninterested, and I wondered if she knew what being Jewish was, since she seemed to know so little about her own religion. I thought I knew all the different churches from classmates back home, but now I wondered if Margie was ignorant, or if hers was an entirely new and strange church I'd never heard of.
At any rate, it seemed fruitless to pursue it. I went back to our sandcastles. After we tired of them, Rachel ran off to find our parents, and came back, puffed with self-importance, to tell Shelley and me we were leaving.
"Mom said to tell you to come right away or else."
"Okay." I felt a little embarrassed to have to go so abruptly, when Margie's parents were not around and seemed not to care how long she stayed. She had puzzled me with her pronouncement about being a Christian, but I still liked her a lot, and was proud that on my first day I'd found the person I wanted to be my friend.
I looked forward to seeing her the next day, in spite of my worry that day camp was bound to get harder, and she'd soon see how bad I was at what she was good at. But Margie did not appear in our group the next morning; I was distracted all through the session, watching for her. At lunch that day, Rachel and Shelley were vocal, and I was quiet. Shelley, who was much more fearless an athlete than I was, was detailing her accomplishments, while Rachel interrupted and corrected her.
"No, that was after we did the somersaults that we jumped through the hoops."
We were eating tuna fish sandwiches. I would always leave the crusts, and my father would say, "That's the best part," and I would say, "You eat them then," and he would start lecturing about waste and how hard he worked to feed us, until my mother said, "Don't be ridiculous, Morris," and then he'd eat the crusts himself, muttering about how ungrateful we were, and how things were different when he was young.
Interchanges like this made me feel trapped and impatient; all I wanted to do was leave. Why didn't I just take the easy way out and swallow the crusts, or whatever it was that was at issue? Afterwards, I would always feel guilty, but when the next time, came, I would still find myself unable to do as I was told, and not think twice about it.
Family life was a constant war, with continually shifting allegiances between the participants. From one skirmish to another, I never knew who was with me and who was against. I never knew whom to trust. In contrast, the outside world seemed easier, a relief compared to this one.
"Can we go to the lake again this afternoon?" I asked my parents.
"Yes, yes," my sisters chimed. But my parents did not want to come. What surprised me was their willingness to let us go alone. For them it was unusual, though it was what we all wanted, and so none of us questioned it. I was hoping to find Margie there, since I hadn't seen her at day camp. Neither Shelley, Rachel, nor I felt industrious enough today for sandcastles; instead we brought along a big, blow-up plastic beach ball, as multi-colored as the circus tent, that we were playing with.
In between one of our volleys, I suddenly noticed Margie a distance away, down by the edge of the water. She was with her brother and sister. They weren't approaching; I couldn't tell what they were doing. I could just distinguish her features; she looked tan and elfin, with her light, short hair.
I left Shelley and Rachel with the ball and rushed down to meet her. "Margie," I called from several yards away, "where were you this morning?" Before my own eyes, I saw her not look at me, but turn away and begin walking off in the opposite direction. I stood dumbfounded. What had I done? "Margie," I called again. She did not stop. I started to follow her, and then I heard what she said to her brother and sister just as I saw she was hurrying them away. "Mommy says we're not supposed to speak to Jews."
I heard her say this, and I stopped in my tracks. I trudged back to my sisters. I did not tell them what Margie had said, why she would no longer play with us. I knew about prejudice and anti-Semitism, but never before had they been applied to me. In my silence, I experienced my fantasy of friendship in ruins. I felt a terrible loss. During the rest of the vacation, I did not try to make another friend. Margie did not reappear in our day camp group, and I learned she had switched into another, I assumed to avoid me.