When I got on a northbound train to go to a paying gig at a summer camp, I wasn’t thinking about what had happened six months earlier. They needed a camp counselor; I needed money. I was also escaping the squalor of East Fourth Street, Manhattan. Two attacks on the street that year, an attempted robbery of my apartment while I was home, and the theft of my bicycle, these are mighty convincers.
So, Camp Queequeg it was.
The trip upstate was uneventful. I read, and then smoked cigarettes alone on the gangway of the clanking train car. ‘Nausea’ by Jean-Paul Sartre—this book, I remember, raised a few eyebrows among the senior staff. I supposed they wondered how a nineteen-year-old could be reading that, or it might have been the silly parachute pants. I promised myself not to
upend the responsible impression I had given at the interview, but I loved upending things.
I’d tried to keep other promises on the trip to Montauk the January before. The trouble was, I wasn't in control of the demon that took my personality and turned it inside out, making a timid ghost of me one moment and a raving banshee the next. That excursion was meant to deal with it as forcefully as I knew how. I might have realized that Sandoz was only one way to go.
That summer, I was to have shooting stars and piney campgrounds on a small mountain lake, as well as twelve kids to watch over. That was medicine. Five rustic lodges sat in a clearing near the water, nestled amid granite boulders. Wood and wind, rippling water and bird calls were a world of difference from the pissed-on sidewalks, leering strangers and police sirens back home. The demon was mute with surprise.
We arrived one week before the campers, to be trained, which I felt was magnanimous, though puzzling. What was there to master, I thought, that merited paying the fifteen-person staff an entire week’s salary? No matter, I liked them, and it was a fine place.
There was Alice. Tall and blue-eyed, she had a beautiful voice. Her skin was pale and fresh-looking. We buddied up for the activities and talked the heartfelt talk. The other was Megan, who threw me cigarettes and had witheringly funny insults for everything—Megan, I think that was her name. It’s so hard to remember now because I never saw either of them again.
It seemed inevitable that these acquaintances should not continue. Nothing so idyllic could last. We were all conscious of being in a bubble of perfect harmony with each other and our surroundings. It bordered on the mythic and/or nauseating, depending on how you react to that kumbaya factor. The atmosphere was real yet chimerical. All this fitting in, this cheery goodwill, was magical, but to a hardened city girl like me, suspect, to be bracketed for further analysis.
There was comaraderie on the trip to Montauk too. It was a three day getaway with my rich-kid friends to an A-frame beach house, stocked with everything you needed for a weekend blast, the most spectacular item being pure Owsley acid, vintage stock preserved in deep-freeze since 1972, one hit each. I was expecting my life to end right there and then, or to change radically. Funny thing depression does to people, to want that kind of choice, that kind of intensity. I wanted to poison the demon with it, but no such luck.
Another sorry surprise: it was not the mind-melting psychotic episode I anticipated. I had had stronger trips with mushrooms in California, and peyote, which turned me into a telepath for five or six hours, but neither was it a waking nightmare. The acid mainly heightened my visual and auditory senses. A winter walk on the shore became a crashing Mahler symphony, and I heard the voices of every singing fiber as I tore one hundred and sixty tissues in half, one after another. Tame stuff. But maybe this was because it was not over. Like a relapse of Chikungunya, it returned six months later. To my chagrin, the night before the campers were to arrive.
I woke up around two in the morning in the bunk they had assigned me. These had wooden posts at five-foot intervals all around it to support the roof, and were built into the low walls. Roll-up canvas curtains tied up during the day hung flush with the ceiling. At night, security lights outside cast rectilinear patterns of light around them with the shades down.
I knew something was up when these patterns in the dark permuted like a sinister Mondrian painting. It was enough to make me tear out of bed and run out onto the lawn. A flashback? Hyperventilating, I thought, I’m afraid so. This is happening.
What other proof did I need? The grass glowed so hard in the moonlight it seemed glasslike.The moon itself, like a white-faced mime, was mouthing a message I couldn’t make out, but I knew was for me alone.
The deer came noiselessly out of the woods to greet me with their dark eyes glistening. Despite their reticent nature, they stood stock still, and we communed. I knew this was what was occurring because it had already happened to me once before with horses and without acid. (a different story)
The deer came closer, unafraid, and were conducting what had to be some secret exercise known only to other Odocoileus virginianus. I felt quite honored and not at all like an outsider, also thankful that my drug-addled brain was not forcing hallucinations on me. None of the white tails were asking for directions to the nearest Walmart, or singing the Marseillaise. Instead, the fluid power of nature was extending its invitation, and I was serenely taking my place in it. In their placid way, they finally left me, and I went on to hob nob with the mushrooms and insects.
Around four-thirty in the morning, I got a little maudlin. I thought of my dear cousins, one thousand, six hundred and fifty-four miles away, and wanted to write to them before the enigmatic glory of all this faded.
I ran back to the cabin and got my notebook. Dear Gini and Becky, I began. But I could not continue without using the Rebus format. Only the little pictures made sense for certain nouns, and I worried that my cousins would not understand. The message became more and more coded as I continued, until it devolved into a demotic script I was inventing on the spot, and then disintegrated into an abstract drawing, pregnant with meaning, and wholly indecipherable even to myself. This was because it was already seven o’clock, the acid had worn off, the campers would arrive in one hour, and I had to pee.
I plastered an imposter’s smile on my face, and in grass-stained parachute pants, moonwalked to where the parents and children were, yelling, “Hi!”the louder, the better to mask my desperate need of sleep, and oh yes, an anxious concern that I should not be fired right on the first day.
I told no one about my sacred nocturnal flashback, not even Megan, who loved drugs, but the foray into persistent hallucinogenic perception had improved my mood and opinion of the camp.
Those six weeks flew by.
The day came to take down phone numbers, and the little arts and crafts presents I'd pinned up over my bed. We got on the bus. The ride back to the city seemed so much shorter than the train ride up. It gave the Magic little time to dissipate, but dissipate it did. At Port Authority, we all hugged goodbye.
If some transformative arc in my character is expected, you’ve come to the wrong story. Stepping onto the subway platform and emerging into the miasma that is New York City in the summer, I saw a knife fight, stepped over junkies to get to my apartment, and went right back to my routine foul humor. Something like this:
Me: what a wonderful, sensitizing and transformative summer experience. I would have changed for the better if you hadn't already spoiled it for me.
NYC: And I have so much more shit to rain down on your head.
As if to underscore its unrelenting desire for my continued suffering, I was badly shaken when I called Alice one day, only to be told by her brother that she had died in a car crash not two months after that summer. A beautiful life lost to this world.
NYC: Out of flashbacks, I see.
Me: Always more where they come from. Incidentally, bitch, I’m leaving.
NYC: This is the best place in the world, demons aside.
Me: —to be with the white tails.
NYC: Suit yourself.
WHITE TAIL AND THE FABULOUS FLASHBACKS © 2O23