A blank sheet is placed in front of me. I stare at it.
Somewhere through the fog of exhaustion I hear a voice say over the sound system, “Here’s a blank sheet of paper. Write yourself a letter. Write about your summer: what you learned or maybe a favorite memory. Fold the letter and put it in an envelope addressed to you, but don’t seal it. We will put a group picture in the envelope with the letter and send it to you later in the year.”
There is a rustling all around me. The others sit hunched over the festively decorated tables and begin writing.
My hand reverently traces the edges of the blank sheet of paper.
Blank paper. Not photocopied pieces of paper filled with lists of names of campers, counselors, and cabins. Not crumpled pieces of paper covered with scrawl reminding me to order ice-cream for the snack shop. It’s a piece of paper as empty as my gaze, and as fresh as I was at the beginning of the summer. I tentatively pick up the pen emblazoned with the camp logo. It has been so long since I was allowed the time to fill a piece of paper with myself. I’ve forgotten how. If I had the energy, I would cry. Cry for myself. Cry for the words which used to come so easily and are now so elusive. Cry for the despair I feel because I have to be here when I don’t want to be. But I’m too tired to cry or feel sad, so I let the pen’s point rest at the top of the glaring white sheet.
There was the voice. Not the one over the sound system, but the one inside me. Hello? She says, Hello? Can you hear me?
“Time’s up, guys. Finish your letters and meanwhile, I’ll open the floor for any of you that would like to publicly thank another staff member.” So loud. The voice over the loudspeaker is so loud and the shadowy voice in my head disappears.
“I think Jessie deserves a big round of applause.” My name. Why was someone saying my name? Who is that behind the microphone now? I can’t remember her name. I’ve spent the last seven weeks with her, seeing her every day, but I am too tired to remember her name. “Whenever I turned around, Jessie was running somewhere; running to the office, to organize the campers’ activities, running to the snack shop to dip ice-cream, running to a counselor to encourage her. She made her job look so easy, didn’t she?” People clap. They clap for me, but actually, not for me. They applaud a person that is a façade; that gives them what they want to see. I smile mechanically and the person behind the microphone continues, “I’ve spent a few summers here and I’ve seen Jessie go from kitchen worker to program coordinator. She’s great at every job she does, and is such a support to all of us.” More clapping for someone they think I am.
If I had the energy, I would laugh. Laugh at the irony. Laugh at them because they think I enjoyed the summer. Laugh at the way everyone thinks I am just like them. But I am too tired to laugh, so I let my hand fall numbly onto the tabletop. The pen rolls from my fingers.
Hello? Hello, are you there? The tremulous voice again. Without thinking, I grab the pen as it rolls along the table.
Yeah, what do you want? I write.
The buried voice surfaces again and I transcribe the words she whispers. Nothing much. I guess I just want to know what you’ve been up to…
Like you care. Why should you care?
I care about how your summer went. I want to know what you learned. The kind of growth you had, the kind of discoveries you made…
None. It was a boring summer. I hated every moment of it and I wanted nothing more that to leave. I want to leave NOW, OK?!
No, wait, please don’t go. I know you must have learned something…
…All right then, what was one of your highlights?
I don’t have one. I don’t even remember anything.
No, I can’t remember anything. I remember a few things…
…Like things I was involved in. But I don’t know why I was involved or what my motivation was.
So, what things do you remember?
It doesn’t matter.
No, it doesn’t.
Because I don’t care.
Are you angry?
Are you angry?
I… What’s it to you?
Are you angry?
IT DOESN’T MATTER!
Yes, it does. Why are you angry?
Because I am, OK?
Are you hurt?
Would you stop asking these questions?
Are you hurt?
Are you confused?
I don’t want to talk about his anymore.
I know you don’t.
Then why are you making me?
I’m not making you. You spoke of your own will. You know you need to talk.
I hate you.
No, you don’t. You hate yourself for not doing the right thing.
All the voices around me fade. I don’t hear them anymore. I can’t hear them babbling about their religion and talking to me as if I agree with them. I can’t hear my parents’ voices pressing me to fit in, to put my own preferences aside for the summer and build up the faith of others. I can’t hear my own voice saying amen to statements I know in my heart aren’t true. All I can hear is the voice inside, my true voice that I locked away so it wouldn’t say anything that would offend others. It says over and over: You hate yourself for not doing the right thing. You didn’t do the right thing.
I… Oh God, you’re right.
Stop fighting it.
I’m gonna tell you something, OK?
I’ve never felt so dead in my whole life. I feel like my nerves are totally dead. I thought at first that I was just tired, but I think it’s more than that. I sacrificed myself for the sake of group conformity. Everyone thinks that I’m someone I’m not, and I haven’t resisted it. I’ve just drifted along. I have no idea who I am. No one really cares about who I really am. Actually, they don’t know. They haven’t had the chance because I’ve been too afraid to let them see. But, I guess it doesn’t matter.
I’m not going to whine about how I have to hide who I am so that it won’t challenge anyone else, or about how I have to live at camp whether I like it or not. I’m not a baby; I’m a big girl, I can take it. But it’s gone much deeper this summer. Before, I was one of them. But this past year, I’ve changed; I have a faith of my own. It’s not like their faith, but still I have to pretend that I hold their beliefs. I can’t just hide the truth I know, I have to suffocate it. I have to forget about it… otherwise it might slip out. Now I hardly know what truth is.
It won’t be hard to start fresh; it already feels like this summer never happened. It’s all a dream—a freaky, ghoulish nightmare that is over. I’m wide awake, and I’m moving on with my life.
“Jessie?” I blink and look up as she stands above me.
“You look like you’re ready to fall asleep. Tired?”
“No, I’m fine. Nice banquet, huh?”
“Yes, very nice. But I’m so sad that the summer’s over. I was just starting to enjoy it.” I laugh along with her. She thinks mine is a real laugh. “If I come back next year, will you be here?” she asks.
My hand covers the scribbling that fills the paper in front of me. “Oh, sure. I’ll be here. My dad is the camp director; I’m not going anywhere.”
Six months later, a letter peeks up at me from the mailbox. Tearing the seal, I find the piece of paper, covered with my angry writing. Tucked inside is a picture: there is the camp staff, and I’m seated in the front row, smiling my happiest smile. I’m just beginning to recover from the summer and the photo brings it all back. I’m not doing that again.
You lost too much.
I did, and I’ll never give it up again.
You have to be there again. Next summer…
Yes, but I will be there. I. I and no one else. No imposters. No pretenders. I will be there, and I will not lie.
I tuck the picture back into the envelope and bury it all in a deep drawer.