“A co-counselor? For Lots of Light? It’s the most-the-rocking-special needs camp, even if the rules are absolutely nuts!”
finger the doorknob and turn it slightly. It’s locked — figures. I slink away before she discovers me loitering. I know I can technically go onto the porch and peek through the window shade slats; I’ve done it before. But I’ve already seen enough, and don’t want to see any more.
An hour later, Ma stumbles into the kitchen as I sip a smoothie and peruse my Chumash notes. I don’t need to look up to see her vacant stare as she robotically gathers the ingredients for supper. Ugh, the noise is irking me. I gather up my things and head onto the patio. Hands full, I kick the sliding door closed behind me. It slams with a bang that echoes satisfyingly. It’s too humid for October, and I’m sure to make a feast for the mosquitos. But the welcome silence is all I need. Settling onto the chaise lounge, I lift the smoothie to my lips. Somehow, though it’s my favorite strawberry-pineapple-orange blend, it tastes bitter.
Ugh, where’s my blue zebra pen? I root around in my bag. My fingers fumble through wrappers and fidget toys and scraps of paper. Yuck, what a mess. And just a month into school! Around me, the clamor ricochets off the ceiling as the class wraps up recess and prepares for the Chumash test. I make a split-second decision and turn my knapsack over, watching an avalanche of papers, snacks, and random junk tumble into my lap.
“Chava, what are you doing?” my friend Tzippy shrieks.
I shrug. “I can’t live with messes. Don’t worry, I’ll make it fast.”
“But Mrs. Schlesinger will be here any second!” she protests. “She’s gonna be fuming mad if she catches you like this.”
I shrug again. “Leave it, Tzip,” I mutter. A wad of crumpled papers has caught my attention, banishing all thoughts of the approaching teacher and her impending test. Tzippy moves to her seat, miffed, but I’m too busy smoothing out the booklet to think about her. It’s the application for Lots of Light, the camp for children with special needs. The bright yellow page is already filled with my personal information, written in my tiny, soldier-straight letters. The deadline looms, and I remember the warning from literally everyone that applied or worked in the camp: “Crazy background checks into every counselor, you must apply early!”
Tzippy is totally under the impression that I submitted the application the first week of school, the same time as her. But as much as I’m desperate to go, it’s still here, only just rescued from the depths of my school bag. My stomach clenches. The reason? One very blank line at the bottom of Section 3, Rules and Takanos.
“Chava!” Tzippy whispers fiercely. She’s overlooked her hurt in her desperation to protect me. I look up, see the silhouette of Mrs. Schlesinger in the door window. I dump everything back into my briefcase randomly, just as the doorknob turns. Flashing my friend a grateful and apologetic smile, I stand up, and whisper back.
“Do you have an extra blue pen?”
MY knapsack weighs a ton with the weight of those dreaded papers. The door swings open, and I stop and sniff, like a search and rescue dog on a trail. Something is different. Something is cooking. The lights are on, the house feels… welcoming. I go straight into the kitchen, the load on my shoulder suddenly feeling lighter. Ma’s standing by the stove stirring a pot of… soup? It’s been ages since we had soup, even if we used to have soup nearly every day, whatever the season. That was then.
“There’s nothing as filling as a bowl of homemade soup!” Ma would say cheerfully, whether it was snowing or sweltering. These days, Ma doesn’t do cheerful, and she doesn’t have patience for soup. She says it takes too long to make, and chicken and rice is perfectly fine for the two of us, thank you.
“Ma, you’re making soup? Yum! Vegetable soup, my favorite! I can’t wait to taste some! When is it gonna be ready?” I blabber. Hope is a little crocus flower peeking out of my frozen heart.
“Yeah, I’m making soup.” Ma says. “I had some extra time today.”
“You’re… you’re not on the computer?” I venture.
“Oh, the computer.” She laughs woodenly. “I can’t use it now. It’s been updating for the last few hours.”
Just like that, the hopeful little flower is crushed, dying slowly in the cold, cold snow.
Upstairs in my room, I haul my knapsack onto a chair, and snatch out the forms. The colorful heading flashes in cheerful mockery. Lots of Light! You can make THE difference! I fish out a red pen and start filling out the form angrily. Do you have a computer or any other device in your home? YES. Do you have access to the internet? YES. Do your children have access to the computer? I write NO, then angrily add T YET. NOT YET. My pen scratches so hard into the paper, it rips a hole right through. That feels good. I start filling up the pages with scarlet Xs, they scrape and rip the defenseless page into a bloody mess.
Finally, energy spent, I fling it onto my desk, throwing the pen after it. The page flutters to the floor, a hopelessly punctured parachute. The pen misses completely, making a hard landing in the empty garbage bin. I don’t bother to take it out. Me, Chava Stein, neat freak, perfectionist, the perfect girl, school poster child, sinks onto the floor. My life is a lie, a LIE! Cradling my head, I stare numbly at the mutilated pages. I have a wild urge to submit them this way. I’m past caring. Let them all know! So I won’t be accepted to camp. So everyone will talk. So I’ll lose my friends, my status. Who knows about loss but me? I already lost my father, and now it’s clear to me that I’ve lost my mother, too.
“SO,girls, when the food enters the stomach…” The lunch bell rings loudly, interrupting Mrs. Eisen’s biology lesson. I turn to Tzippy.
“I’m glad she didn’t get any further.” I exhale in relief. “Otherwise, no lunch for me!”
She laughs, and I thank Hashem once again for the steady, dependable, and resilient Tzippy Weinstein. Luckily for me, she can’t seem to hang onto her grudges for too long.
“What do you have?” she asks.
“One great friend.” I joke. “Her name is Tzipora Leah Weinstein. Know her?”
“Aww.” She swipes at me, but I duck. “What’s for lunch, you clown?”
“I’m actually not so in the mood… I’m craving a roll.”
“Perfect, let’s switch!” She tosses a foil wrapped baguette to me. “Cream cheese.”
“Great! Let’s go downstairs.”
The lunchroom is packed. The noise hits us as solidly as the smell.
“Eeew, smells like warmed toes for lunch!” Tzippy wrinkles her nose.
“Naaa, it’s just fish sticks, like every Wednesday. That’s why we bring our own lunch, right?”
It’s only on the way up that Tzippy brings up the topic.
“Sooo… did you put me down as a preference?”
“Preference?” I ask, even if I know exactly what she means.
“Yeah, as a co-counselor? For Lots of Light? It’s the most-the-rocking-special needs camp, even if the rules are absolutely nuts!”
As she complains about knee socks and music, my mind is racing ahead frantically. The forms! I left them on the floor yesterday, taking pleasure in stomping on them every time I passed. Are they still on the floor? Ohmygoodness! Ma is going to find them!
“You okay?” Tzippy is staring at me strangely. I shove the thoughts to the corner of my brain; it’s like moving a car with my bare hands.
“Yeah, just a headache.” It’s true. But it’s not just a headache, this one’s a whopper. And it’s my own dumb fault.
“You want Tylenol?” she offers. “I have some in my bag. Don’t tell the nurse!” She winks and I smile back weakly. I down two tablets, if only to placate Tzippy. I already know they won’t help a thing.
The rest of the day is spent in a daze, part of me wishing to be home already so I can assess the damage, part of me wishing that I would never have to go home again.
Stepping cautiously through the doorway, I find the lights off, as usual. I run upstairs to my room, desperate to reassure myself that the booklet is still there, where I abandoned it on the floor. The bare floor mocks me. Neat freak, eh? I’m nauseous. My desk seems so far away, but my feet are wobbly. I drag myself over.
Slam. My heart stops. The incriminating pages are neatly stacked on my desk, red pen lying alongside them. There’s something more. A note. Trembling, I peel it off and force myself to read it. The words are penned in a familiar red, and the handwriting is shaky. From emotion? From disuse? I can’t tell. The words are few and simple:
Dearest Chava, I’m sorry for looking through your things, but I’m happy I did. I want to talk to you. When you’re ready, I’ll be in my room. Love you, Ma.
My heart is pounding so loudly, I think my ears will burst. I look at the note with revulsion. So, she wants to talk? Let her come to me! I get up and pace angrily. It’s all her fault! Hers! We were doing just fine until she got hooked on the horrible world of the Internet. She thought I wouldn’t know? Who was she kidding? You can’t fool me, for Heaven’s sake. I’m 14! I’m not a baby. I knew she spent her days watching videos, the news, social media, and who knows what else. I even saw her do it! The memory of my discovery, watching her through the narrow slats between the shades in horrified stupefaction, hits me between the ribs.
My nausea creeps up my throat. I clap my hands over my mouth, and run to the bathroom, my lunch coming up in heaves. Ugh, I’ll never be able to look at a cream cheese sandwich again.
The door opens behind me. I stiffen, but don’t turn around. Then the sink is running, and a cool washcloth is pressed into my hand. I push it away, get up and wash my face.
She follows me out of the bathroom, sits on my bed, and points to the space near her.
“Chava. Sit, please.” Her voice is both commanding and pleading. I eye the door and then surrender, sitting as far away as possible. She flinches, and I feel a stab of vindication.
“I… I saw the forms, Chava,” she says hesitantly.
“I can tell,” I retort frostily.
“Chava… I’m so sorry. Can you let me… explain?” Her voice is shaky. I swipe at my tears. Silly tears, now you show up? Too little, too late.
“Explain exactly what?” I demand. “How you got… addicted? That you spend way too much time on the Internet? That when I had you, only you, you left me, you ignored me, you traded me in…?”
“You’re right,” she acknowledges sadly. “I did get trapped in the web to escape my pain. And then I couldn’t untangle myself. I suffered for it, and I let you, my only daughter, the love of my life, suffer for it.”
Her despondence touches me, and my anger moves over slightly to let in a little compassion.
She forges on. “When I saw your camp forms, I realized that I owed it to you to get the help I need to… get better.”
“And how exactly do you plan on doing that?” My voice is harsh, accusing, and she recoils. I tack on a lukewarm, “Sorry.”
“That’s what we have daas Torah for. I called… D-Daddy’s rav.”
“You — what? Really?”
“Yes, really. It wasn’t easy.” Her cheeks color at the memory. I reach out to touch her arm, and she holds my hand gratefully. “But b’ezras Hashem, and with… the right kind of… help… for both of us, things will get better.”
I think the sun must have entered the space where my heart used to be. I feel the tingling warmth of being awake and alive, and… loved. “Thank you, Ma.” I slip my arms around her narrow shoulders. It’s the first time I’ve cried in a long, long time.
“Okay, Chava.” Her voice is hoarse and exhausted. I study her raw cheeks and red eyes as she holds me at arm’s length. Oh. She must’ve cried a lot today, I realize.
“There’s something we need to do first. Two things, actually.”
Still holding me close, we walk over to her room. I look on in distaste as she lifts her laptop and slides it into a bag.
“How would you like to take a trip to get this filtered?” she asks.
“You mean it? That would be awesome!” It makes me really believe that change is actually in store in the suddenly hopeful future. How can I learn to trust again? I hope that Ma will be finding the right kind of help for me, too.
“Just a minute, there’s something else.” I let out a disappointed breath as she whips out her iPhone. Was my relief premature?
She dials a number, puts the phone to her ear.
“Lots of Light, how can I help you?” The receptionist is so loud, I can hear her voice clearly.
“Hi, this is Debby Stein. I was wondering if you could send me another application for my daughter Chava?”
“Didn’t you get it in the mail? They were sent out three weeks ago!”
“Er, we did, but ours got a bit… messed up.” She listens. “Email? That should be fine…”
I frown slightly, pointing to the bag on the bed.
“Oh… You know what?” she asks. She looks at me, and for the first time in forever, there’s a twinkle in her eyes. “Would it be possible for you to mail another blank application? We’re updating our filter.”
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 926)
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