There’s a three year-old at my summer camp whose favorite color is black. Faith is tiny, and fair-skinned, and looks to be the type who insists on wearing a pink, sparkly tutu, every time she leaves the house. The first time I ask her about it, I barely pause to hear the response. I assume it’s “glitter,” because the girls that look like her are saying that, every time.
It’s 2003 and I just finished my first year of college. I’m the second-oldest person on staff, but it’s the first job I’ve had where someone’s mom doesn’t hand me a wad of cash when I’m done with it. Some days, when my insecurity is talking, I wonder if I still don’t have a career at thirty because I got such a late start at nineteen.
Determined to fly under the “first-job” radar, I’m doing my best to fake ease and maturity, especially when other people are watching. Pretty quickly it’s clear that no one is paying attention. The other kids grew up here and have been working together for multiple, consecutive summers. Four weeks have passed and I’m still struggling to shake the outsider persona. Anything even slightly left or right of “center of attention” is far outside my comfort zone and I’m desperate to sneak into the cool group.
This week, I’m assigned a thirteen year-old junior counselor to “help” me out with my kids. So far my relationship to the junior counselors feels like babysitting a gawky, needy adolescent while chasing and entertaining 10 three year olds, all by myself.
I have no hope for this one. He’s short and keeps his curly dark hair poking out under a dirty, navy blue baseball cap. He wears tall, white, socks and long, black shorts and I decide, right away, he’s one of those dark, brooding, angsty boys who listens to punk rock and loves the color black. I already can’t relate to him, and it’s clear he’s out place at a children’s summer camp.
“It’s going to be a long week.”
By Tuesday, I’ve gleefully determined he’s the least annoying and most competent of the junior counselors. I still hope we don’t end up alone in conversation together because I don’t know anything about angry music or what it feels like to be tortured and deep. Also, I don’t trust what I might say about his pre-pubescent mustache, if we end up face to face.
I step right into the fire of my anxiety when I see him standing alone at the craft table, twenty minutes after our campers were sent to lunch. I approach him with caution, and remind myself to stay focused on his eyeballs to avoid landing my gaze on his upper lip.
I see him carefully pasting grey and black strips of paper on a sturdy, homemade hat. He is intent on creating smooth creases and straight lines. Our craft that day was “Cat in the Hat” Hats, an unthinkably ambitious project for kids who can barely remember their own names.
Peter is finishing the last of our hats for Faith. He tells me, matter-of-factly, “I figured she’d only wear it like this.”
My heart melts and I vow never to judge another person again. I barely keep my promise through the end of the day, but Peter is embedded in my heart, forever.
In the next three days, we laugh and joke and mess with our kids, like we’ve been best friends for three lifetimes. I discover that Peter is smart and hilarious and weirder than anyone I’d ever met who wasn’t related to me. I’ve suddenly lost interest in breaking through the inner circle because I’m preoccupied with spending more time with my new friend.
Peter has a summer birthday and turns fourteen. He’s talking to me about starting high school and I remind him I’m already in college. We talk about school and romance and other kids at the summer camp. We share stories about our parents and siblings, and once in a while, I listen as he educates me about all the music he’s “into” right now.
Peter is my first friend that doesn’t look or act like the rest of them. He’s not the right age or the right image and it’s clear we’ll never go to a concert together. But for seven more summers, we are what we’ve always been to each other.
In 2004, my real-life best friend comes to work with us and is immediately sad and jealous. She’s been my partner in crime since we were thirteen and she’s not settling for someone else interfering. She throws three fits per week until, eventually, she senses the specialness of our bond and surrenders to unexpected truth of it.
In 2005, I decide I’m too old to sing songs and play tag for eight weeks and accept a serious, world-saving internship for the summer. Two and a half weeks later I’m on the bumper boats at Scandia Family Fun Center, taunting Peter about his loss in miniature golf.
The next morning I call my supervisor to tell her I’m moving home for “personal reasons.”
Peter graduated from high school and went away to college and things never changed between us. He was still my soulmate and my best friend and the boundary of age and experience continued to not matter to either of us. He grew up and confessed how awesome it was to have the attention of a nineteen year old woman when he was barely a high school freshman. I felt humiliated and naive as I admitted it was something I never considered.
It’s been over a decade since I met Peter, and three years since I left Camp Have a lot of Fun. In the time between, there have been other, unconventional friendships. Most of them were born out of the unique and beautiful family at summer camp, but some of them blossomed organically at the yoga studio or the high school where I used to work.
My friendship with Peter opened me to the possibility that “my people” could be something other than who they’d always been. It taught me that the people we belong to, and belong with, are out there for us to find and connect to. Our job is to seek them. Our “tribe”, our “community”, “our people”, are the ones who were always meant for us. The ones with whom we never had to fake it. The people who see us, and get us, and accept us as we are, no matter what. The people we spark with, and the ones who make us feel safe. The people we show our weirdest and deepest and ugliest to, right away.
I cherish the thirteen year-old boy who loved me unconditionally, because I’ve been able to spot the ones who were capable of it, ever since.