She was a beauty queen when we met.
She had been on cable TV, worn the sash of her home state, smiled at the judges. It was kind of an impromptu thing, she said. She needed the scholarship money. Then she got to college and shaved her head. I thought: this woman is a total bad-butt—to use a PG-rated code word, the kind that camp counselors have to use around the kids.
And we were camp counselors. I was 18; she was 19. We were working at a Quaker camp in Pennsylvania, on a green farm that buzzed with chores and mosquitoes and 30 joyful campers. Things got off to a not-awesome start. During counselor orientation, a half dozen of us huddled up one night with a pair of guitars. I had one, and was plunking some high-volume Bob Marley. She had the other guitar. I guess she thought I wasn’t sharing the space, or really, no guesswork is required. She fixed me with one eye and asked the song circle, “Does he always do that? Just play over other people?” These were probably her first words to me. I felt gutted. I was trying to impress her.
We moved on. We picked blueberries, watered the goats, pulled pigweed from the garden. We led campers on creek hikes, urged them to try arugula, chased them when they didn’t brush their teeth. I have a paperback that I was reading that summer, with a line penciled in the margin: “A thunderstorm’s coming and everything’s cool.” I now know that lots of people keep special memories of summer camp. I’m one of them. And I still return to the fields and nooks of that farm—mostly in dreams, when my sleeping self needs to summon a place of safety.
By chance, I had just enrolled at the same Ohio college where she had finished her first year. During quiet moments, I pestered her with questions about meal plans and professors. We sang together, nicely. (She had a Garfunklian ability to harmonize.) I have a snapshot memory of the two of us eating ice cream together—two spoons, one tub—though this sweet scene has gotten hazy with nostalgia because it’s inconceivable there were fewer than five or six spoons in the ice cream. Once, at a staff meeting, she announced that “a friend” would be visiting on her day off. This friend arrived, miserably for me, on a motorcycle. And by the time he rode away, some latent inside feelings had become clear to me. I liked her bad. Then there’s the thing with the chickens.
It was late, close to midnight. A group of us counselors were flopped around the apple shed when a weasel slipped into the hen house nearby. One of the chickens made a noise that I hope to never hear again. It was as if, at the moment of death, the chicken released all its future clucks in a single chilling scream-squawk. It was the kind of sound that is heard less by the ears than by the spine. By great fortune, she was next to me. We reached for one another. A couple farm-seasoned counselors left to chase the weasel away, and we held hands in the dark.
That was all. Camp ended. We made vague promises to meet for a campus tour. A few weeks later, at the college in Ohio, she called my dorm room. It happened. I got the tour. Later, we got married.
If a pioneering research team ever maps the courtship rituals of Friends, they’ll surely find plenty of other couplings at camp, plus all its grown-up variations: the gatherings, conferences, and spiritual retreats. I have a friend from meeting, a widower, who has had two serious partners since his wife died. He met both at Quaker functions. “People are just like people everywhere,” he told me, but these get-togethers pre-screened the dating pool. “You know you’ve a lot in common.” True enough.
But then there’s the serious relationship building that starts happening once everybody’s together. The efforts to form community, the sharing, the all-night conversations; this stuff sets you up for real, electric connections. Friendly or romantic. At camp, it seems not only possible but entirely reasonable that you might spend a night lying on a sleeping bag, waiting for shooting stars, and eating a biggie jar of nutritional yeast till the sky turned orange. And that any person (or persons) you did this with would be granted lifetime membership in your circle of trust.
Let me pull up one last memory from that summer. It was during counselor orientation. We had gathered in the hayloft for a “get to know you” activity. A really personal one. You had to pair up, touch your partner’s face for three minutes, then spend three more minutes getting your own face touched. That was the whole exercise. And let it be an indication of my teenage discomfort with real intimacy that I have blocked out who my partner was. But I can remember, with hi-def clarity, the strange, callous-y feeling of those hands touching my face. How the fingers had this tangy, cut-garlic smell. How they moved gently from my forehead to my chin. I didn’t like it; I’m uneasy just writing about it so many years later, but I think it mattered. I climbed down from the hayloft feeling unmasked, and also accepted, and maybe a tiny bit braver for having endured a three-minute face-touching. I felt primed for something real. I was ready to jump in the pond, then to lay down my towel beside a certain buzz-cut beauty queen.