The blue car rolled down the dusty road, coming to an abrupt stop in an empty lot. I jumped out and twirled around to face the camp. The sweet smell of pine trees circled around my head and I inhaled. The head counselor came out to meet me and showed me to my bunk. As I approached the wooden cabin, my feet slowed, and I closed my eyes ever so slightly, listening to the sound of gravel beneath my black Converse. Later in the month I would bound up the stairs and slam the screen door, but right now I was quiet, tiptoeing up the creaky steps and slipping through the door.
“Hi,” one of the counselors said, smiling. There were about ten people sitting in a circle on the floor.
“What’s your name?”
“Nisha,” I muttered, looking at the ground.
Starting with the counselor to my right, everyone said their name, everyone with the same expression, like dolls in a department store, staring at you with fake smiles and stating their name in a perfunctory manner.
They asked me what I was most looking forward to. I told them that I was looking forward to wearing the new pajamas I had gotten (the words printed on the T-shirt read Ice cream for breakfast, cupcakes for lunch), and they laughed. As the new kid, I was worried about making friends, but I was feeling confident. Within the first few days, I noticed two girls whispering to each other. I ignored it; I didn’t really care if they had secrets between them. Throughout the day, I saw them talking to other girls in our bunk, laughing and flipping their high ponytails in the air like a fish on land. Later that night, they walked up to another girl and continued to whisper something in her ear. She smiled, and said the much expected, “Oh my God, really?”
“What? What’s so funny?” I asked, curiously.
“Um, it’s nothing. You, like, you wouldn’t get it,” one of them said, rolling her eyes, and they walked away.
“But you told everyone else,” I murmured under my breath after the girls were too far away to hear.
It started out small, but soon people didn’t want to sit next to me, and many of the girls didn’t talk to me when they passed by me during the day, or when we were sitting in the bunk at night. Walking to activities, the other girls would sprint until they were far away from me, and then they would slow down. If I got too close, they would sprint again. I got used to hearing the quiet crackling sound of pebbles flying in every direction as feet hit the ground.
While rehearsing for the upper-camp play, I asked one of the girls (who was playing Le Fou, Gaston’s sidekick, in Beauty and the Beast) if her character died in the end. I couldn’t quite remember, and I knew in some versions, Gaston did. She replied, “You should die in the end.” I looked away, and lightly tapped on the broken piano’s keys.
At night, I lay under my sheets, curled into a ball against the cold, and wondered, What was wrong with me? I fingered the boards protecting me from the floor, and waited for sleep to take a wrong turn and fall through my window.
I began to notice more and more how excluded I was. All seven girls hung out together and ran away when I would try to join, like trying to catch your shadow, or dance with your reflection. I wondered if I was exaggerating; was I really being excluded, or was I just not making myself heard? Was I even being excluded? I wondered if maybe it was something I’d done… Was I too talkative? Too quiet? Too hyper? Too calm? I was that one M&M that you have only one of, among a million others, trying to blend in.
Towards the end of the month, the girls began to act a little more friendly to me, including me in conversations, but all the conversations were about another girl in our bunk, whom everyone had turned on. While I wanted to be included and thought of as a friend, I didn’t want to participate in the awful things they said about her. Every time one of the girls said something bad about the girl, Carly, it seemed to hang in the air for a second, twirl in circles around each of our heads, mocking us, and run away into the forest, never to be found or taken back. I didn’t want to be searching for it with the other girls, trying to hide it so the object of their bullying never found out. I wanted to ask, Why do you suddenly like me, now that you hate someone else? But I also wanted them to continue to like me.
One day, as I was heading to my next activity, I suddenly was overcome by a feeling of hopelessness. I slowly climbed up the small hill and picked up a bow. I shot the arrow, and it landed in the woods. Feeling like I could never do anything right, I went to retrieve it. I closed my eyes and tried to relax. I focused entirely on the bull’s-eye, and I raised my left arm. I straightened my right arm and pulled the string back as far as I could. This is it, I thought. I let the string go… and the arrow fell in front of the target. I picked it up. This is why no one likes you, I told myself. And I shot the arrow. It hit red. I smiled, for the first time that day. I realized that I was OK, that the world hadn’t ended.
Once everyone forgave Carly, it was back to ignoring me. The last night of camp, the night I expected to be the best night, the one I was hoping I would spend with my new best friends, talking about the next year, I spent listening to them talk about writing each other letters, but not me. We put our mattresses on the floor, positioned so that everyone could sit together, but I found myself looking at the backs of heads, saying their names over and over again to get their attention and still not getting it. I moved up so I could be a part of the conversation, but was told there was no room for another person. I didn’t mind, though; I was going home the next day, and I knew I would be happier if I didn’t talk to them. I sat quietly, listening to their voices, landing on the silence, like acrobats in a circus, coming down from the ceiling to bow and jumping back up again. I could hear the scratching of hands, searching inside backpacks for pictures to show, and I wondered why I even cared what they thought of me. The whole month, I had been trying to get their approval, and would it even make a difference once I did? I still didn’t have it, and yet, I couldn’t really care less. It was as if I had been climbing a tree, and I was climbing higher and higher, trying to get to the top, needing to get to the top, and then, I decided I had gone as far as I wanted, and I climbed back down.
When I returned to my house and saw my friends, I thought again of how badly I had wanted them to like me.
“How was camp?” one friend asked me.
“It was OK,” I replied with a shrug.
“Did you do anything fun?”
Again, I shrugged, and we began talking about something else, leaving that subject tucked away somewhere in the attic, to be opened and looked through someday in the future.