Dara and I followed a winding dirt road through the Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia, cutting sharp corners and losing our cell phone reception in the process. A ways up, the trees parted to make room for a massive overhead sign that read Welcome to Camp Carl Cove. The dirt road widened until it transformed into a parking lot, where rows of cars had already begun lining up.
"Are we really doing this?" I asked, nervous.
"We're absolutely doing this," Dara confirmed, no trace of hesitation in her voice.
As kids, Dara and I had always wanted to live the camp life, where for a few weeks of each summer, you left your home behind and hid away in the woods to become someone new. There was a show about summer camp on Disney Channel that we were obsessed with, Bug Juice, that only fueled the fantasy. We spent night after night dreaming of that kind of escape, sleeping in log cabins and cannonballing into a cold lake, free from our everyday problems. If there was mold in the corners of those cabins, it wouldn't be our job to scrub it. If the adults there were angry at one another, we wouldn't be the ones tasked with lightening their moods or offering them advice. We would be kids in the most wholesome sense. The kind of kids you only saw on TV.
Our parents never entertained the idea of sending Dara and me away, though by the way they treated us, constantly frustrated by our mere presence, they should have been eager for a chance to be child-free for a while. We'd grown up in hot, dry Arizona, and the closest Dara and I ever got to the escape we longed for was when our oldest sister, Bess-who turned sixteen the year I was born and moved out when I was two-would come around the house and take us to a lumberjack-themed mini-golf place.
Now Dara and I were in our thirties, and we'd finally made it to a real summer camp after all. It was the exact kind of impossible-seeming thing that had come to overwhelm me, because it felt too good to be true. In my experience, if life had indeed brought me a nice thing, something bad would inevitably arrive to balance it all out. I had come to depend on living in the middle. The middle didn't crush my spirit as thoroughly as the lows did.
In the distance, a pear-shaped lake glistened in the sunlight. It was the heartbeat of the campgrounds, with dirt paths spreading out around it like veins, leading to more than a dozen idyllic wooden cabins and buildings. The scene looked serene in the way vintage oil paintings did-gentle water glistening under the watchful sun, with the soft greens and browns of the trees hugging the edges.
"It looks fake," I said. "Like an art piece that would be hanging in the living room of happily retired grandparents or something."
"I was just thinking the same thing," Dara responded. "Except I think it would belong to someone young and cool."
"You're right. This is a painting for a hot girl who lives alone in a cottage surrounded by woodland animals."
Dara nodded, pleased. "My destiny."
A wooden sign staked in front said Hello Campers! in a crisp white font. Tim and Tommy framed either side, waving at cars as they pulled up.
One sunny afternoon back in February-exactly a year to the day after love had failed me and I'd started crashing on a blow-up mattress at Dara's apartment in Asheville and working as a rideshare driver-twin men had crawled in through the back door of my lime-green Mazda and said hello to me in a joyous singsong tone. Then they asked in perfect synchronicity how I was doing, making all of us crack up within three seconds of knowing one another. I knew then that their story would stay with me somehow.
Never could I have guessed how much.
The twins were fraternal. They made sure to clarify that when they said their names were Tim and Tommy. According to them, nearly everyone got them mixed up. Their differences had seemed immediately obvious to me, even as I clocked them through quick glances in my rearview mirror.
Tim, the slightly taller twin, had longer features and a more outgoing personality. Tommy, the shorter one, was more aloof. He'd laughed and beamed like Tim, but he had a reservation about him that was wholly his own. He said he'd experimented with going by Thomas for a while. Recently he'd come around to using Tommy again. They were Vietnamese, and they'd been adopted at birth by a white Christian couple they did not have a relationship with anymore. They'd grown up right outside Asheville, but they lived in New York City now. They were both gay. They'd been flying into town a few times a month for a big project.
I had learned all that within five minutes of knowing them, which made for my dream ride-willing conversationalists in my back seat, eagerly sharing their hearts with me for no real reason other than that we were in the car together and we might as well chat along the way. They were so openhearted that my cheeks ached from grinning, even though our conversation veered between intense and playful at speeds far faster than my car was driving.
"What's the big project?" I'd finally asked them.
"Oh, you know. The usual. We bought a summer camp," Tim told me, bursting into laughter as he said it.
I'd heard a lot of random things over the several months I'd spent driving strangers around town. Purchasing a summer camp ranked up there among the randomest. Right behind the woman who went to different morgues asking for dead people's teeth so she could make jewelry.
The twins were very handsome, and they'd smelled fantastic. Their elegant cologne wafted up to me as the air circulated in the car. It reminded me of the pricy candles Dara liked to burn in the living room. Musky wealth, I called it. They both had on fitted tees that showed their penchant for exercise, and Tommy had hung a pair of expensive sunglasses on the neckline of his. Tim wore a watch that might have been worth more than my life savings. I could only imagine what kind of money they needed to purchase an entire camp.
Now I was driving my car up to the entrance of that very summer camp, and there stood the twins, beaming the same way they had four months earlier when they'd first told me about this place.
"Garland Moore!" Tim cheered when he recognized my Mazda.
Tommy gestured for us to turn left.
Even though I'd spent more of my life with my maiden name than my married name, it surprised me to hear Moore again. I'd only been Garland Sanders for two years, but I'd wanted to be Garland Sanders for what seemed like my entire life.
The twins jogged after my car. As soon as I got out, they hugged me like I was their close friend. Honestly, I felt like I was. They'd posted so many camp and life updates on their social media, it had tricked me into believing we'd spent the last few months in close contact, when really we had only shared that one fateful car ride. They couldn't believe I'd never been to sleepaway camp before, and as I drove them, I'd playfully entertained their pleas that I come for their adults-only week. I'd written the whole thing off as the kind of exchange that floated into the wind as soon as someone vacated my back seat. But Dara hadn't. When I told her about the conversation, she thought it was a sign. She insisted we go.
"Still want to leave?" she asked me as the twins made their way to my trunk to help unload our bags.
"I never said I wanted to leave," I whispered. "I'm really excited, actually. I'm also just scared."
"What scares you? That you'll like the experience too much?"
"Exactly," I confirmed. "Because when it's over I'll go back to my glamorous life of being a nuisance to your existence."
"When have I ever called you a nuisance?" she asked.
I pretended to pull a notebook out of my pocket. "Let's see," I said as I shuffled through imaginary pages. "April of 2006, when I left my curling iron plugged in and almost burned down the house. December of 2011, when I tripped walking into the kitchen and ruined everyone's Christmas with my rolled ankle."
"The curling iron thing was 2005." Smirking, we gave each other a beat, appreciating our ability to remember our shared history. Then Dara added, "You are welcome at my apartment for as long as you need to live there, and you know that. I don't mind the company."
I was supposed to stay for one week. One week had turned into one year and I still hadn't left. I never wanted Dara to think I planned to intrude upon her life in a permanent way. No matter what she said, I felt like I was a bother, and I hated being a bother.
"Let's make the most of this week, okay? I don't use my PTO for just anything," she continued.
I gave her a salute and headed to the trunk. She'd asked me to do this camp with her, and she never asked me for anything. I couldn't even begin to pay her back for all she'd done for me. The least I could do was enjoy this week, which started with checking all my anxiety at the door.
Tommy pointed to my bumper sticker. "You're divorced?" he asked me.
"Aren't we all?" I said as I popped my trunk.
Tim leaned toward me and whispered, "We saw the sticker after you dropped us off in February. He's been dying to ask you about it."
Right before I drove my car across the country to live with Dara, I'd put on a bumper sticker that said honk if you're divorced. It was a real crowd-pleaser on highways.
I hauled my giant suitcase over the lip of my trunk, then let it thump onto the dirt. "I am the proud product of a dysfunctional marriage who went and failed her own marriage," I told Tommy. "You know what they say. It takes a village."
Tommy's eyebrows crinkled with what I could only guess was pleasant shock. "I'm divorced too."
I held up my hand for a high five. "Failed marriage on three?"
"One, two, three," I counted.
"Failed marriage!" we yelled in unison as our palms connected.
Our siblings laughed with an edge of unease. They didn't understand, and that was for the best. Dara handled her struggles the same way she handled everything else-with steadfast competence. When her appendix burst, she had me bring her laptop to the hospital so she could log in to work remotely. It wasn't that she loved her job that much. She just didn't want anyone to know anything was wrong with her. Ever.
I, however, wore my struggles like Girl Scout badges. My divorce was something I found myself mentioning as often as possible, as if the more I talked about it, the less painful it would feel.
In some ways, it worked. The word no longer bottomed me out. In other ways, it was a wound I poked at too much, never letting it properly heal. Ultimately, acknowledging my divorce as often as possible took the edge off other people's opinions of it. No one could ever judge me too harshly if I judged myself harder and louder than they'd ever dare.
"Quite the rollout for you, Miss Divorcée," Dara whispered to me as Tim grabbed our suitcases and started wheeling them toward the sign-in area. She always took great note of small gestures of kindness, like when a cashier gave a sincere greeting or a stranger went out of their way to pick up a piece of trash.
"It's for the both of us," I told her.
She laughed. "Please. You're the crowd-pleaser here. I'm just the bank account."
"Hey," I said softly. "You're also the Parent Trap enthusiast. That's a really important piece of you."
"Soon it will be a piece of you too. When you cut my hair in our cabin in the middle of the night . . ."
It sounded like she was joking, but she was being one hundred percent serious. Ever since we'd signed up, she'd told me she wanted to use this camp to let go of her bitterness. She had a lot of resentment about the way we'd grown up and how everyone had treated us. This was her second chance at childhood. To her, letting go apparently meant re-creating what Hallie had done for Annie in The Parent Trap-cutting her hair. In the movie, they did it because they were secret twins about to swap lives. Dara and I were far from twins, and we already lived together. But Dara had been watching every movie and piece of media about summer camp in preparation for this week, and she'd come up with this milestone to prove she'd gotten something transformative from this experience.
That was how people used sleepaway camp in the middle school years. They hid away for a summer and returned as someone brand-new. Since the divorce, I'd cut several inches off my hair and dyed it an even darker brown. I'd also become really committed to wearing oversized T-shirts with frayed jean shorts and combat boots that took ages to break in and still gave me blisters. I didn't smile in pictures anymore. I smoldered. If anyone from camp saw my social media, they'd think I seemed mysterious and detached. Two words no one who really knew me would ever use to describe my personality. Everything about my life felt like a placeholder: where I lived, what I wore, how I moved through the world. So much had gone wrong in my life that pressing the reset button seemed not only necessary but fun. I wanted something transformative too. Who could I become to a group of strangers who'd never met me? How different could I be?
The twins continued to shower us in special attention as we approached the main area. We definitely drew the notice of the other campers who had already arrived. There were ten to fifteen adults already there, sitting at picnic tables near the lake, watching the owners of the camp personally escort my sister and me to the sign-in table that sat just outside a tall log building aptly labeled MAIN HALL.
"Michelle will get you all checked in," Tommy said. "She's actually one of your roommates! And one of our counselors." He did air quotes as he said it.
Copyright © 2023 by Bridget Morrissey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.