I Knew I Loved You
by Claire Comstock-Gay
When Lauren Lafond was thirteen years old, she was scared to start high school and scared of her own body, but she still believed in love, and she believed in movies with a prom at the end, and she believed in 105.5 WJYY New Hampshire’s Top 40. She liked the Savage Garden song that went like this: “I knew I loved you before I met you, I have been waiting all my life.” She liked the BBMak song that went like this: “There’s a feeling inside, I want you to know, you are the one and I can’t let you go.” She liked the Brian McKnight song that went like this: “One: you’re like a dream come true, two: just wanna be with you.”
These songs made her heart ache all funny inside of her, and she tried to imagine the girls they were about—what did they look like, what did they wear? How did they live inside this ultimate love? Every day after school, she went to her friend Casey’s house to drink Pepsi and watch MTV. Casey usually got bored quickly, but Lauren watched each show studiously, seriously, hoping that the girls on TRL could show her their secrets.
Each year, Casey went away to summer camp up in Maine and drove Lauren wild with jealousy when she returned in August, all tan and covered in friendship bracelets. Finally, the summer that Lauren was thirteen, her parents let her go to camp too. A different camp than Casey’s, but Lauren didn’t mind. It would be better this way, probably. Things were supposed to be different at camp. She knew; she’d seen The Parent Trap. People made magical new friends when they went to camp, they cut each other’s hair, they learned how to ride horses, they pulled pranks. They found whole new selves at camp, under all the pines, swimming in the sweet blue lake.
The minute her parents dropped her off, Lauren saw that she’d been all wrong. The other girls in Cabin D wore halter tops and little skirts that sat low on their hips. Their lips were shiny, their legs were smooth, their eyebrows were plucked into skinny lines. Lauren hadn’t packed any skirts. She only owned one bathing suit. She hadn’t even brought a CD player. She walked into the cabin and the other girls looked up at her like she was wild, like they weren’t sure yet that she wasn’t carrying some kind of disease. Nobody was going to want to be her swimming buddy, and no one was going to want to pull pranks with her, and nobody would tell secrets with her after lights out. But nobody was going to be mean, either, even though on the first night, as they all got ready for bed, she thought she heard her bunkmate Shayna whisper to Monique, already the clear queen of Cabin D, “What is wrong with Lauren’s face?”
The days stretched past, slow and sparkling and hot. Cabin D went swimming, they took archery lessons, they took a self-defense class, they made collages and origami birds. They lost capture the flag to Cabin B. They got second place in the talent show for a routine where Monique did a backflip.
After lunch each day, all of the girls returned to their cabins for an hour of rest. It was dark and quiet inside, and they lay on their bunks, all sweaty-haired and hushed in the buzzing afternoon heat. Some girls listened to music on their headphones, some girls passed notes, some girls had hissing, whispered conversations. This was Lauren’s favorite part of the day. She’d lie on her back in the quiet cabin, breathing in the smell of pine sap and cucumber-melon body spray. She’d turn over onto her stomach and write in her diary: Today I made stationery at the craft shop, or Today I rode a horse, or I hate when we get chicken salad for lunch. She wasn’t stupid: she’d heard about the girl who went home early last year because the rest of her cabin read her diary and teased her about it. She kept her real diary under the mattress and only wrote in it at night when everyone else was asleep.
And Cabin D went canoeing, and they decorated a cake for the Fourth of July, and they snuck cookies out of the dining hall, and they competed in the camp dance contest with a routine to a Britney Spears song. Lauren danced in the back. She watched Shayna shimmy at the front of the stage, and something quiet and bright started to bloom inside her heart, and she thought: What if she plucked her eyebrows thin and arched like Shayna’s? What if she wore darker eyeliner? If she bought those same little pink shorts, would her legs look that good? And if she did all these things, would she get asked on dates? Would boys look at her all dreamy during Spanish class? Would they want to hold her hand in movie theaters? Would she get invited on double dates, would she get invited to football games? Would they look at her the way Savage Garden looked at their girlfriends; would she know what it was like?
At night, while the other girls slept and while the loons called out over the moonlit lake, she tried to imagine what it would be to be touched. She tried to imagine how many boys Shayna had kissed in her life, whether she’d frenched any of them, whether any of them had put their hands under her shirt, whether she’d ever gone to third base. She tried to decide who she would have a crush on when she got back home, but all she could think of was Shayna, those eyes, those shorts.
Campers weren’t allowed to hang out in the cabins during afternoon free time, but Lauren snuck back sometimes, just to get a few minutes to herself. To read, or to sneak looks at Tessa’s massive collection of Seventeen magazines, or to listen to music on Allie’s Discman, or to try on Kat and Lucy’s platform sandals. She never got caught, not even at her boldest and most uncontrollable, not even the time she saw Shayna’s makeup bag sitting up on her bunk and opened it slowly, trembling, afraid she’d be seen and afraid of the magic she might unlock. The treasure inside was better than she expected. Five black eyeliners (two from Maybelline, two from Cover Girl, one so old that the label had rubbed off) and five lip glosses (Baby Rose, Creamy Coral, Diva, Enchanted, Sunset Strip) and two eyeshadow palettes (Pacific Summer, Gentle Glow). Lauren smudged a bit of color from Pacific Summer onto the inside of her wrist, and it didn’t look like the kind of thing that could turn her into a girl who gets loved, but she trusted Shayna more than herself, so she wrote all the makeup names down in her secret diary, then hid it back under her bunk and ran down to the lodge to buy some gummy worms before dinner. Late that night, as Shayna quietly snored in the top bunk, Lauren took out the list of makeup names and studied it, like it was homework, like it was a holy text.
In her public diary, Lauren wrote: “Today we went canoeing around the lake. I didn’t want to go at first, but it was fun in the end.” In her secret diary, she didn’t write anything, though she took it out that night and sat for a while, pen in her hand. She did not know how to write the thing she kept thinking about, which was that she and Shayna had been assigned to a canoe together, Shayna in front and Lauren in back, and all day she could hardly even breathe. And when two speedboats tore by, leaving wakes as tall as Lauren’s head, their canoe flipped right over. The water wasn’t deep, and the two of them pulled it to shore, their clothes sopping, Shayna’s makeup bright and blurred all across her face. “What are you looking at?” she snapped at Lauren. Lauren gasped and sputtered. She didn’t say anything. She was looking at the best face she’d ever seen, she was looking at the face of a girl she could imagine even BBMak, even Brian McKnight, singing to. She was looking at a face that made her feel like she’d been waiting all her life.
They dumped the water out, and Lauren crawled to the front of the canoe, and Shayna pushed off. They caught up with the rest of the group quickly. They didn’t talk the whole way back.
The next night in the cabin while everyone got ready for bed, Shayna sat down on Lauren’s bed. “Listen.” As if Lauren weren’t already listening, as if she weren’t always listening. As if Lauren had any other choice, when Shayna’s lips were this close to her own. “I think your life would be a lot better if you would just do something about your eyebrows.” She took out a pair of tweezers and smiled. And through each tiny pinprick of pain, eyes watering, Lauren saw flashes of a bright kind of wonder, visions of ways that the world might start to open up, visions of a sweet new face being born out of the rough and clumsy one she had now. Maybe this was the secret; maybe this was the thing. Maybe somebody could look at her now and think: There’s a feeling inside, I want you to know, you are the one and I can’t let you go.
But she was disappointed, afterward, when she looked in the mirror and her face was the same. “It’s a start,” Shayna said, and smiled, and climbed back up onto her bunk. That night Lauren dreamed that she ran into Shayna at school and kissed her right on her shiny lips. She dreamed that Shayna reached out and touched her hand. She dreamed that Shayna looked straight at her and didn’t look away.
Lauren woke up sweating all over, freezing cold in the dense, blue night. Down by the lake, the loons called out. On the bunk above her, Shayna mumbled in her sleep. On the next bunk over, Kat breathed quietly. Lauren dug her secret journal out from under the mattress and looked at the list of makeup, mouthing the names soundlessly to herself.
Toward the end of the summer, they had a dance with a boys’ camp from a couple miles away, and Lauren had nothing to wear. Kat took pity on her and let her borrow a stretchy green tank top with sequins across the neck. “Guys, doesn’t Lauren look really pretty?” she shouted to the rest of the cabin. Lauren knew they didn’t quite mean it, but it still made her hope. Tessa even let her use some of her eyeshadow. Not the blue one, but the purple, which was almost as good. They were trying, and Lauren felt bad that she’d called Kat stupid in her secret diary. She felt bad that yesterday she’d stolen three photos of Mandy Moore from one of Tessa’s magazines.
The dance was full of boys wearing their best cargo shorts. One with braces and hair gel asked Lauren to dance during a loud song about going out to the club. This was not ideal, but she didn’t even mind so much. His name was Brian, and he was from Keene, and he just finished eighth grade, same as Lauren. He wandered off to find them something to drink and Lauren watched Shayna get kissed on the cheek by a very tall boy with tan arms and clean hair. Brian came back with two paper cups of punch. Lauren thought she might die.
At the end of the night, Brian wrote his AIM screen name on the inside of her wrist. She wondered if he would think of her later. She wondered if he’d listen to BBMak, if he’d go, “I wonder are you ever coming back in my life.” He probably wouldn’t. But she had new eyebrows, and she was wearing Kat’s makeup, so at least it was possible.
In the bathroom later, before bed, she scrubbed Brian’s screen name off of her wrist. Shayna scrubbed the tall boy’s screen name off of hers. They made eye contact in the mirror. Lauren looked down at her hands. She looked back up. “Lauren, oh my god, stop staring at me.” Lauren mumbled that she was sorry and disappeared into a stall. “You know,” came Shayna’s voice, “you could probably be pretty if you would just try a little.” Teach me how to try, Lauren thought at her. Teach me how to do what you do. “See you back at the cabin,” said Shayna, and let the screen door slam shut behind her.
Lauren thought that maybe Shayna was warming to her. She thought that at this rate, they could be friends by the end of the summer. Maybe they could visit each other when camp was over, maybe they could just write, maybe they could chat online, come up with funny inside jokes to show off next summer. But Shayna did not speak a single word to her for the rest of camp. Lauren’s eyebrows started growing back, and no one helped her, and she was ashamed to ask. She watched Shayna ignore her, and every day she hoped, standing on the weedy tennis courts before lunch, that maybe she’d get heat stroke, maybe she’d get popped in the head by a tennis ball, nothing bad enough to hurt her, just bad enough that Shayna would have to come visit her in the infirmary.
On the last day of camp, Shayna won the Best Dancer award. Lauren got the Best Attitude award. Everyone applauded and shared their screen names with each other. And parents started to arrive, and the girls in Cabin D left, one by one, until Lauren was the last one. She lay on her bare mattress, waiting, writing her name on her bunk frame with a red marker. On the ground, something glinted in the light, and she leaned over to look. Shayna had forgotten one of her eyeliners. Something electric spread across Lauren’s skin and she shoved the eyeliner in her pocket as her parents finally rolled up to the cabin.
“So…” Her mom smiled, as they carried her things to the car. “Was camp everything you expected? Do you want to come back again next year?”
Lauren shrugged, and then she nodded, and then she blushed all the way down to her toes, and Shayna’s eyeliner beat like a heart in her pocket.