Art by Joan Nelson
Excerpted from the novel Optimistic Decade
On the fifth day of Rebecca’s tenure as a counselor, she did something unforgiveable.
When her girls found out, they placed their hands on their small hips. Their gaping mouths shimmered with lip balm. “No way,” Tanaya said and six other fourteen-year-olds echoed: “No way.” “Oh God,” she said. “Oh God,” they said.
They were sitting around a green-painted picnic table. Nobody carved initials into the paint. Nobody drew cocks in black ink. They loved it here too much. All around them, kids were smearing peanut butter and jelly onto brown bread, preparing to spend the day hiking with their counselors to a beach along the Utefork River or the smaller Marcellena Creek. They would stay until dinner. This was the routine every Sunday. It was a time to be removed from the social intricacies of the camp, and counselors, discouraged from encountering other groups, signed up for the coveted and the undesirable spots. That is, if they knew the difference. Rebecca had chosen at random: the evocatively named Salamander Spit.
“What’s wrong with Salamander Spit?” Rebecca asked.
“Don’t you know?” Shauna asked.
Well, no, she didn’t. Salamander Spit was clearly code for particular experiences and retellings of these experiences, all of which she’d missed. She’d arrived in this remote high desert five days ago, and the camp’s private language still exhausted her. There were acronyms she didn’t understand and strange little rituals she kept forgetting. There was a rule that stated which direction the bread basket should be passed and about who should make the batch of sticky herbal lip balm that smelled like urine, and that stipulated it be made on the first Friday of every session. There was a rule about who could ring the dinner bell. But there was no rule that the campers must like their counselors.
Rebecca was surprised at their dislike. She’d carefully chosen books to bring, but they weren’t interested in her reading aloud. She’d imagined intimacies, secrets shared, vulnerabilities laid out in front of her like offerings to the gods. She’d imagined guiding them from the pedestal of her nearly nineteen years, from the flashing lighthouse of college, but instead they sat on Tanaya’s bed singing Top 40 songs she didn’t know.
"She’d arrived in this remote high desert five days ago, and the camp’s private language still exhausted her. There were acronyms she didn’t understand and strange little rituals she kept forgetting. There was a rule about who could ring the dinner bell. But there was no rule that the campers must like their counselors."
“It’ll be fine,” she told them. “Why would Salamander Spit be an option if it wasn’t fine?”
“As a joke,” Tanaya said. “Everyone knows Salamander Spit’s on the list as a joke.” She rolled her eyes, muttered something. Freaker, Rebecca heard. Those nearest clasped their mouths, astonished smiles behind their hands.
Stung, Rebecca walked away from the girls to fill her water bottle. What she hated most about their disdain was that it felt so outdated. Sure, in grade school she’d been a strange girl with inexplicable clothes and an insistence on talking about Japanese internment camps. Kids like Tanaya had shunned her. But at Berkeley, Rebecca had used her lefty cachet to become a semi-celebrity; her friends all knew about the time Angela Davis brought her to see a seal washed up on the oily Oakland sand; the bee sting she’d endured picking lavender at Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda’s Santa Barbara ranch; how she’d played hopscotch with the children of both jailed and wanted members of the Weather Underground. And she’d told everyone, friends and acquaintances, about her father, Ira Silver, publisher of a small, radical newspaper out of Los Angeles that they all pretended to have already heard of.
She wished, as she held her bottle under the spigot, that when meeting new people there was a way to offer up an image of yourself that would provide pertinent additional information. She’d choose, for example, for her campers to see, concurrent with her actual self, a hologram of her on the day she stood outside the Oakland BART station distributing fliers that said, WILL YOU BE READY WHEN THE MILITARY DRAFT RETURNS?
Pleased with this memory, she let it play out for a while, imagining the campers and counselors seeing her as she really was — combat boots, vintage frock, teaching the feint and philosophy of draft dodging — until she recalled with flaring embarrassment how the lessons had actually gone. Nearly every boy she’d approached, saying, “Excuse me, do you want to learn about conscientious objection?” had answered with some variation on “I dunno, you want to suck my dick?”
Rebecca, who had some complicated feelings about dick-sucking, never having had the opportunity to try it, unsure of how exactly one did it (teeth?) had found no clever rejoinder, and the boys slipped away into the leafy streets. Who felt the pulse, the fright of an approaching war? Not Berkeley’s fine young men, all apparently stoned and happy, proud to come of age in peacetime.
So no, she thought, dropping the water bottle into her backpack, perhaps not a hologram of that precise moment.
Like the prow of a boat, Tanaya and Shauna led the way down the steep path, the other girls and Rebecca tripping along in their wake. They were descending a red canyon, passing the gnarled shapes of sagebrush. The air was thin and hot. A single, bald-headed mountain towered above them. But did the girls notice any of this? Shauna stepped on a lupine. Jenny P. picked a columbine and then dropped it.
As the trail turned to follow the river, Rebecca could see, all along the shoreline, first one group from camp and then another already spread out under the shade of tamarisk or floating in the green water. But Salamander Spit turned out to be, unsurprisingly, neither shaded nor sandy. Just a length of sun-blasted shore with small, cement-colored rocks and the occasional rusted crushed can. Even the river seemed stale here, brown and shallow. Just downstream, the river narrowed and bucked dangerously, pushing between boulders. Upstream, two strands of barbed wire were hung with a BB-pimpled sign: KEEP OUT. PROPERTY OF THE TUCKER RANCH.
Rebecca caught up to the girls assessing their bad luck and dropped her pack. The back of her shirt was soaked with sweat. “It’s going to be fine,” she said, holding her shirt from her skin. “I brought cards, you know.”
“Cards?” Tanaya said.
“I might already have heatstroke,” Shauna said.
“How about we just go back to camp?” Tanaya said.
Rebecca removed a gray plastic canteen from her backpack and told the girls to drink. She saw that upstream, beyond the barbed wire, beauty resumed. A single cottonwood cast its leafy umbrella over the beach. Large flat stones, perfect for lying on, jutted from the water like resting seals. There, the river was deep and dark, the rocks causing it to pool into flat eddies.
“Let’s go,” Rebecca said.
“Thank god,” said Shauna.
“I mean, this way.” Rebecca walked toward the barbed wire. At the fence, she pushed down the lower wire with her foot and held the upper cord high, forming a diamond for them to crawl through. “Come on.”
“I’m not going through there.”
“We’re not allowed,” Tanaya said. “That’s someone’s property.”
And so Rebecca told them, standing with her boot on the wire, about a man named Ira Silver who walked wherever he wanted, a man who spit when he said the phrase “private property,” who bounded over NO TRESPASSING signs, proclaiming that the land belonged to everyone, this land was your land, this land was mine. She didn’t mention her scraped palm, her tincture of pride and shame—proud of him, ashamed of her own fears—as he’d pushed her through the barbed wire on Catalina Island just to have a picnic on some greener pasture beyond.
Soon they were sitting on the roots of a tree on the Tucker Ranch, enjoying its shade, eating flattened sandwiches. The girls asked her to tell them more about Ira. She described the wiretappings, the FBI file, the time he’d taken her to trespass at the Nevada Test Site, passing around her cloth diapers as a nuclear bomb exploded underground and contaminated soil hummed into the eyes and mouths of the protesters.
As the girls reconsidered their counselor, she could feel herself changing—her hair glossening and flattening, her splotchy cheeks paling, her features taking prettier form.
There was, she felt, a cheapness to the transformation this time, but how would she live without it? After they finished eating, they shucked off their halter tops and plaid shorts, exposing small fluorescent bikinis and examining each other. Oh, I love yours. No, I love yours. Rebecca realized she wasn’t wearing a suit and shoveled through her backpack, knowing already that she hadn’t remembered to pack it. Here was the always-lurking embarrassment, of doing it wrong, not knowing, forgetting the essentials. The girls began racing to the water. “Wait!” she shouted.
She didn’t know what she would say, but as they turned toward her, their ponytails bobbing, their small faces expectant, she understood that she could, right now at least, make them do anything. “We’re not wearing suits here.”
“No, really. It’s a camp rule. At the Tucker Ranch, suits are completely forbidden.”
They looked around as if she might have read a sign they’d missed.
“I’m serious about this.”
She bent down to unlace the double knots of her boots. She pulled off her shirt and unfastened her bra. She tugged down her shorts and underwear simultaneously and stepped out of them. All the while they stared, arms folded in front of their bodies, and in their silence, she heard the rapids, the roar of pride, the roar of shame.
Finally, Tanaya shrugged. “What are you all waiting for?” She untied the small nylon strings and there she was, a branch-like little girl, her breasts like small mounds of salt. The other girls looked carefully downward as they, too, undressed, but Rebecca couldn’t help but glance at everything they worked so hard to hide.
The water was colder on a naked body, greener and slippery. They hollered as they emerged, gasping for air. They were kids now, splashing each other, diving under, becoming sea creatures. The sun sloughed off a cloud, and its light hit the water, turning algae into glitter. After a while, Rebecca climbed out of the water and onto a rock. There was bird shit on it, along with brittle dried grasses, but she lay down. They climbed up after her and stretched out on rocks near her, panting with the effort, pressing their wet hair against the white-streaked shit and sand. She sat up and saw, against so much skin, little hillocks of fur like hidden animals.
“Tell us more,” they said. “Did you really never see TV? Not even The Facts of Life?”
“What’s that?” She said this just to please them.
They asked her for more stories, but she was, perhaps for the first time, bored of her own history and aware of how at turns strident and coyly naïve she would become in the telling of it. Her limbs were suddenly weighty, as if she’d been swimming against rapids, and she wanted nothing but the press of her chilled skin against the heat of this rock.
“Imagine the Indians who lived here first,” Rebecca finally said.
They were quiet, and she realized they might start laughing at her, but Jenny L. asked, “Where’d they go?”
She told them the story of Ishi: Last of His Tribe, which was one of the books she’d brought, although she couldn’t really remember it and worried she might be confusing it with Island of the Blue Dolphins. Ishi, she explained, had been wholly insulated from the white world until the rest of his tribe died one by one from something. He only knew the Indian language and the Indian way of cooking with manzanita branches, but he’d heard that there was a world out there, and he understood he couldn’t live alone. He walked over mountains and across rivers, eating his manzanita berries.
Here she paused, still expecting their derision, but Jenny P. said, “So? What happened to him?”
Ishi, Rebecca explained, made it to Redding, California, where he saw buses and electricity and sandwiches. In the end, though, a professor brought him to a museum, and he spent his days on a Navajo rug, under a sign that said LAST LIVING INDIAN.
Rebecca’s girls wanted to hear another story, to stay all night, to sleep on the boulders, to never return to camp or put on clothes again, but she wouldn’t defy all the rules. When they had dressed and become teenagers again, sexier with short shorts on than without, she said, testing them, “How about we pretend we’re Ishi while we’re walking back. We’re Ishi, walking to find the people who we think will rescue us but who will imprison us instead.”
They bent to crawl through the barbed wire, and as they stood they were each of them Ishi, walking alone and silently, assessing all they were losing. On the trail above the river, they came upon another camp group, but Rebecca’s girls wouldn’t look at them, wouldn’t respond to their calls, couldn’t even understand their language.
Rebecca, too, was Ishi, the last of her tribe, walking up the hill to become an exhibit in a museum. She thought she would always like to feel this loneliness, with her lonely girls following her. Now they saw what they hadn’t seen on the hike down: A clique of black-eyed Susans. Bees humming over a pool of blue lupine. The trembling lips of columbine. And high and gray above them, the single mountain, as lonely as they were.