Camp sucks so I’ve started corresponding with Richard Nixon. We both like the same things. We’re grouchy and people misunderstand us. We both like cocker spaniels. We both like getting our rest and get angry when people interrupt us. We both had troubled childhoods. We dress in a classic style. We don’t give in to the passing trends. We are around for the long haul—we’ve had our struggles, but we’re like ostriches: we burrow in and keep our heads down—and in the end we will emerge. We like tape cassettes. We may be guilty of occasional eavesdropping. We may be disliked among our peers—those newfangled citizens who believe in change and transparency and staying up all hours of the night. We have neat penmanship, but in private we let go; we let our souls loose upon the page, our secret IDs. We are secretly mad men—or mad women. We know the importance of order and the danger where chaos leads; we like ketchup; we need twelve hours of rest a night; we sleep lightly and sweat into our sheets; we dream of secret pasts and unaccessed presents; we are terrified of not reaching our full potential. We are constantly eclipsed: by JFK, by the Democratic Party, by people who wish to witch-hunt us; by the bat mitzvah girls—Liz, Rach, Naomi—the ones who believe in the Communal Shower and not shaving your pits—of brandishing your underarms like some woodsy flag.
Day Three, 13:00 hours (August 4, 1975)
I’ve started keeping military time. This was a Nixon thing. He was a Navy man. While he was waiting for the powers that be to seal his fate, he counted the hours—thirteen o’clock, fourteen. Mornings we are awakened. This often takes the form of song. We are serenaded with tunes from bygone eras—the permissive ’60s—something to get us in the mood, to kiss boys and cast our clothes off. To share bodily fluids and ingest illegal substances. They think: how can we make this worse? How can we torment our campers more? How can we awaken them to something that will make their souls cringe in repugnance and the hairs on their arms shriek—more than even the Communal Shower.
The Communal Shower. It is a large industrial area reminiscent of the gas chambers, ironic, considering this is a Jewish camp. Girls mill about in towels. We stand in line. The cattle herders—Maria and her fat, evil twin Barbara—mill the cattle. I am last. I am always last. Last to wake up mornings and last to throw myself in the ice-water pool—last to grow hair between my legs. I am a bald cat. A chihuahua. I am the only hairless in our herd. There’s also Sari but she doesn’t count. Sari is from New Jersey. Camp is also in New Jersey but no one hails from here. We come from other places: Manhattan, NY; New York, NY; Greenwich—some of us from other time zones. We wash ourselves efficiently. And by “we” I mean “they.”
Liz and Naomi talk. They are squawking about their bat mitzvahs. Naomi goes every Sunday to Hebrew. Me too, Liz says. Liz has hair under her arms. She was awkward about this at first—you could tell—she kept her arms planted at all times. It seemed like a sign; though I lack hair growth of any kind, I thought we would be friends. I tend to make friends with hairy people. But then Naomi saw something in her. Maybe it was Liz’s comparative plainness. Somehow Naomi’s always the prettiest in a room, or the shower, in this case. She has bright curls and a slightly darker patch between her legs. Both in ringlets, those on her head looser.
—My bat mitzvah is going to be at this hall, three hundred guests. Do you think that’s too many, Liz? What if I mess up?
It’s clear to both me and Liz and anyone in the room—even the showerheads themselves—that Naomi’s not going to mess up.
They don’t know me. They don’t speak to me. It’s the cardinal rule of being me. I watch. I watch the floor. I watch Maria and fat twin Barbara. I watch my feet turn color, the fetid green of the communal shower. I put on Normal Face, which is like a mask, for weirdos. It’s not like a mask-mask. It involves arranging your features in a certain way—saying “like” enough but not to, like, sound stupid. It involves acting like you are so normal and so bored and you can’t believe you’re here, but now that you are, you’re going to make the best of it. You’re going to stay up all fucking night. You don’t need sleep. You’re the undead. You’re a bloody vampire.
Nixon can relate. His Normal Face is terrible. It’s why he lost the televised debate with JFK. His mouth twitches. He has insomnia: this is something that we share. In my case it is because of micro-problems—the bat mitzvah girls. I like to think that we’re up, together. That right now, as I’m thinking about him, Nixon is awake. He can feel me. He can feel my Greatness or my Potential Greatness. And internally he warns me. He says—(?) (?) (?) (???)—it’s hard to hear him. Everyone is speaking. I stretch as if to traverse time. Nixon, I whisper, what is it?
—Billy’s got the biggest cock. Have you seen his cock? It’s huge.
—You’ve never seen his cock, Naomi, you’re a freakin virgin.
Nixon, I repeat. But he is gone. In his place is Billy’s cock. It hovers over Bunk Five, a menace, purple and engorged.
Dear Mr. Nixon,
Our camp counselor is Debbie. She is an extrovert. She is also possibly a vampire. She doesn’t sleep; sleep comes and she tells him where to go (“Bunk Four,” she says). All night, words knock together. They sound like this:
—Naomi French-kissed Neil!
—Jacob kissed Rebecca!
—That Rachel is such a slut! No, not you Rachel. Bunk Four Rachel. Sorry, Rach.
I can’t turn off. I turn on, and on, and on. I know—this is nothing like what you’re dealing with. I am so sorry—but I think I might go mad. I think I am already there. I feel like Sylvia, before the oven. Only I’m not a poet. I cannot capitalize on my distress. So I write to you—
P.S.: Me and your wife share a name. I don’t mean this in a creepy sense.
When I can’t take it anymore, I retreat to the infirmary. I tell the nurse that I am sick—maybe even gravely sick.
—I need sleep.
—Why aren’t you sleeping?
I explain: No one in Bunk Five ever sleeps.
—So how are they all walking around?
—I don’t know. (They’re vampires, I add silently.)
When I can’t sleep, I write to you. Sometimes I just make lists—
Your middle name is Milhous, which means “mysterious.”
You did some good things, which tend to get overshadowed by the Bad. Good: ending Vietnam, initiating detente (not to be confused with Dentyne).
We have ailments; we are constitutionally fragile. I have poison ivy. You have a blood clot in your leg.
In some ways, you had an enviable upbringing. Your parents swore off booze. They didn’t curse. They didn’t fornicate with others, and if they did, they did it behind closed doors.
We both have an angry line between our eyes. You are sixty-two. I am thirteen.
You are a fan of cottage cheese. I am not a fan of cottage cheese but for this I can forgive you.
It was you against the World. And me against the Bunk. Your stress in 1970 equals my stress in the Camp. You had to deal with Cambodia, Vietnam, student protest. I am dealing with all-nighters and French kissing and the swapping of spit just overhead, the poisonous perfume of Debbie, the Morse code of candles and of incense, Free Love—belated from the ’60s—a personal War on Drugs.
We’re both good at arguing. You were a debater. I, too, am a debater. I debate with my fellow campers: Why can’t we turn the lights off? Why must we talk about X now? I say most of this under my breath. While you, Nix (I hope you don’t mind the familiarity), were on a formal team, my adversaries tend to be my relations.
My father is a shrink. He studies serial killers. His favorite topic of conversation: Charles Manson. He calls him Charlie, like a pet. Charlie is just so misunderstood. Charlie is actually very bright; the difference between you and he is that you’ve had a stable upbringing. Charlie was a neglected child. Charlie has talent that could have been channeled differently, like with music. Charlie has leadership potential—and if only it was sublimated differently—into art.
Sometimes, at home, I dreamed he examined me with a microscope. He looked for some defining thread, some commonality between him and me. Not finding one, he poured into his books, dreaming Charlie—which I guess is something that we share. I don’t have a thing for serial killers. But my penchant for disgraced presidents is similarly fierce, passionate, consuming. I champion the underdog. Whereas my parents are lovers of JFK. They admire his fluency, his goodness, and—in my father’s case—his ability to bed women.
Sometimes I research my favorite kind of people—Those Worse Off Than Me. They exist in the encyclopedia. There are two kinds:
One: General. Those who suffered early death, like Amelia Earhart. I have no interest in Amelia Earhart. She reminds me of Debbie, windblown and unafraid.
I much prefer category two, the Sickies. The sicker, the better. My favorite are the ALS cases. Stroke victims. They don’t mention particulars in the encyclopedia—there are no Amelia Earharts of ALS. So I settle for an aggregate. I love reading about illness progression, the loss of limb function, first in the small ways and then in the much larger, the helplessness, the return to infancy. Before you think I’m a terrible person, I should add that I don’t wish these people harm. I simply like knowing they exist. It comforts me, that while I’m suffering, someone is suffering in much greater terrible ways. It’s like watching the news. I told my parents I was interested in pursuing journalism (maybe), but really I like the heartache, not to mention all the drama.
If you look carefully, Those Worse Off can be found anywhere. Go to your average supermarket. The older people stocking the shelves, trying to feed their families, with their hurt backs and aching joints. At the same time they give me pause. Those people care. They care enough to say: OK, my back hurts, these knees don’t work—but damn it my family needs me. I would just lie back and watch game shows.
Robert knows this. I haven’t mentioned it but he still knows. Robert is our shrink. His real name is Mr. Bean. I just don’t understand adults. They are supposed to be providing a safe haven, protecting us from the evils of this world—and how do they begin? Just-call-me-Robert. Robert wants to save us. He thinks that we should love each other more. He doesn’t think that we need curfew or three balanced meals or two glasses of milk a day. He thinks Debbie’s governance is acceptable. He thinks counselors (and accredited psychologists) should be addressed by their first names, that none of us should sleep, that you are a loser (no offense).
—I think you need a Someone, he says.
I want to tell him I have a Someone: you. Instead I adjust my Normal Face.
—I think taking care of someone else will distract you from yourself. I think you need that.
So I decide to take him up on it. What else is there to do? Robert wants me to adopt one of the younger kids—like a mentee kind of situation. Screw that. An animal, then, he says. I was thinking more like a pet rock. We compromise. I “adopt” a crab. His name is Lester. He is a hermit crab. I keep him in a case, perched so I can see him at all times. He was annoying at first—annoying in the sense he never did anything. But now I like him. He’s clearly trying to catch up on his sleep. He obviously hates the other girls. When I approach his ears perk up—and while I have no way of knowing for sure that they’re ears, I have my ways. I can tell by the way Lester cocks his head, or his shell. He looks inquisitive, like I do when I watch the news—like, isn’t this all horrifying but fascinating, too?
I feel bad for him. He probably wants to take some notes. He probably craves record-keeping, some documentation for when I release him back into the wild.
I do the record-keeping for us both:
Nix, Mr. Nixon, friend,
The camp head-shrinker told me I need a “someone,” so I got a hermit crab. His name is Lester.
P.S.: I always sign off this way. I am tempted to write “love.” Or even ?. I want to say, yeah, the world sucks, but I know just who you are, and I respect you.
Sorry. I didn’t ask how you are. How’s the leg? Did they get it all? I hope it’s better. I hope you’re feeling better and planning your revenge, which I know we promised not to speak of. I promised. You’re not really there. I know this even though I don’t know this.
One thing about not getting any sleep: you’re real. You are so real that sometimes I can feel you. You watch me like I watch Lester. You don’t tell me: it’s going to be OK. This earns my respect. My trust. You never lie. Sure, you may fib about some other stuff—but when it matters you give it to me straight. You say: it’s a hard life. The world stinks. They’re all a bunch of rotten apples. They’ll give you blood clots if you aren’t careful.
I picture you in California. Your wife makes you some eggs. She brings you yogurt, which you love. Your daughters call, but they aren’t your “spiritual daughters.” They are sunny and feel good toward their fellow man; they share your wife’s genes, her goodness, her extroversion. They’d probably love it here. You wish for me. You say: bring me more hot sauce, Pat, but really you wish for me. A real spiritual daughter, who likes eggs and ketchup and eggs with ketchup (and yogurt on the side)—who is prematurely aged, with a line, like yours.
I picture this letter. I picture it crossing state lines. Some broad man carries it. He hands it off to someone else. I travel in the dark. You are eating your eggs, but you can feel me. It feels like the wind, shifting. You tell your wife to bring a sweater. She rolls her eyes. She doesn’t bother hiding it. She used to—before Watergate. Now she’s shameless. I travel to you. I don’t tell you: it’s going to be OK. I bring tidings from camp, hermit crabs, asshole camp counselors, bat mitzvah girls. It’s the only thing I have. My pale offering. (I am sorry.)
I bring the smell of Cedar Lake, poison ivy, Calamine cream. Adorn hairspray. In the end I throw in everything—everything—this yellow paper, this leaky pen, the Communal Shower, my Normal Face. I lick before I can feel regret. I feel the crackly bits of Lester’s shell. By the time I finish this he’s dead. I forgot to feed him or maybe he just couldn’t hack it. He needed sleep, as I need sleep. As we do.