The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo - Amy Schumer (2016)
When I was fourteen, I volunteered at a camp for people with special needs. Camp Anchor is still around today; it’s an amazing program that now serves more than seven hundred campers a year. People volunteer there because you can help those in need, it’s good for your soul, and it enriches your life. I did it because the boys were doing it, and I wanted to have a soccer player’s tongue in my mouth before I died.
I would like to say that I went into it wanting to help others. But let’s be real—I was a teenager who only cared about herself. Adolescence is full of awkwardness and insecurity for most people. But in my case it was also full of grand delusions. Besides wanting boys to like me, I also wanted to embody all the impossible combinations: I wanted to be both beautiful and kind, smart and selfless. My mom was a teacher for the deaf, so I’d been around kids with special needs for as long as I could remember. I thought it would be easy, and I knew how to talk to these children like adults. I’d show them love and respect and be giving of myself. I pictured teaching a little girl how to swim and was already patting myself on the back for being such a great person: Saint Amy. People would line up around the block just so I’d smile at them and once in a while give them a hug, like I was a Buddhist street monk, and they’d be eternally blessed. But mostly I was excited to ride the bus and try to fit in with the cute guys.
A lot of the cool older boys from my high school volunteered at Camp Anchor, but I only had eyes for Tyler Cheney. He had soulful brown eyes and a mess of curly hair. He was a great soccer player but also loved Phish and the Grateful Dead. (Wow—could there be any limits to how diverse this guy’s interests were?) I loved making Tyler laugh, which wasn’t hard to do because he was a complete stoner and his double-digit IQ wasn’t what made him attractive. For most of my life I have had the habit of being attracted to hot guys with the intelligence of a jack-o’-lantern and a distended belly. I always loved a belly. Tyler was no different. All I would have to do to make him laugh was quote the movie Tommy Boy. I knew it by heart, so he basically thought I was George Carlin. I think he’s in finance now and has a hedge fund or something else I can’t understand. (How come stupid people can still make money like that? I don’t know what a hedge fund is. I want a hedgehog fund. They are so cute and I think I need one. But I would probably kill it by accident. I can’t even keep a plant alive. Okay, never mind.)
Tyler sat in front of me in Spanish class and I’d stare at the back of his curly head, trying to will him to turn around and declare his love for me, something that never even came close to happening. But when I heard he was going to volunteer at Camp Anchor, well, guess what, Tyler Cheney? So was I. I’d save the shit out of some kids to be close to him.
On our first day at Camp Anchor, we waited for the bus to pick us up at an elementary school parking lot. I remember I’d laid out my first-day-of-work outfit on my bed the night before. Wait until Tyler sees me in this, I thought. A Twitter-blue T-shirt. My flannel plaid blue-and-green boxer shorts that had penn state on them (and not even on the butt; this was a few years before the marketing geniuses decided to put their paws right on the spot where every dude’s and most curious women’s eyes go right away). I pulled up those shorts, did a half turn in the mirror, and hoped deeply and sadly that this would be the outfit I’d be wearing when Tyler realized I could be good for him. I knew I had a long way to go, because so far I was still just the oily-faced girl whose idea of seduction was to whisper impersonations of America’s favorite sweaty three-hundred-pound male comic in his ear. But maybe camp was the place where he would see me in a new light. If I could just make myself become more his type, I thought. I tied up my hair in one of those ballerina buns and took a hair dryer to my bangs, but within ten seconds they blew up in the summer humidity so that I bore a striking resemblance to Sammy Hagar.
I sat one row away from Tyler on the bus and was already sweating through my carefully selected outfit, sticking to the green pleather seats, which were torn up and graffitied by badasses whose parents were failing. I listened to Roxette on my Walkman and tried to seem distant and interesting, like Brenda on Beverly Hills, 90210, whom I’ve modeled myself on for most of my life. She was the queen of the impossible combinations. She seemed to have been born with an innocence (me) yet she oozed sex appeal (totally me) and she would fit right in doing something as pure as a sing-along, but only if it ended with her getting railed from behind by Dylan under the bleachers. Sweet, with a dark, dirty edge, just like fourteen-year-old me. Except none of that, and I’d never even been fingered and was deeply heinous looking at the time. But I wanted so badly to make the shoe fit, to be the kind of impossible person Brenda was. Anyway, when the bus pulled up to camp, I took a break from envisioning myself as the center of attention at the Peach Pit, peeled my legs off the seat, and got off the bus. We walked to registration en masse, while I was channeling We’re gonna be a cool, fun group all summer, right, you guys? I’m one of the guys, but you have feelings for me. You will give yourself over to me around the Fourth of July, RIGHT, TYLER?–type energy.
As I approached the registration desk where we were going to find out what group we were assigned to, I had only two wishes: 1) that Tyler and I would be assigned to the same group, and 2) that I’d get the cutest littlest kids—the five-to-eight-year-old girls, called the “Junior 3s.” The groups were divided by sex and age, and I’d seen the Junior 3s listed in the brochure when I was considering volunteering. I wanted to be their cool big sister who’d impact their lives forever. They were adorable, and I pictured us doing the annual talent show and laughing and hugging. I’d give them each a piggyback ride and Tyler would say, “Wow, you must be sore . . . need a massage?” And I’d say, “Sure, maybe later. I just have to make sure everyone gets a turn first.” Like a hero. And then I’d give him a massage and slip and fall on his penis and get pregnant and trap him and be on the first season of Teen Mom.
“Senior Ten!” announced the elderly woman who I thought was a man until she barked at me.
“Excuse me?” I barked back.
“You will be working with Senior Ten—that is women thirty-five and up. There is your group,” she said, pointing to a herd of ladies who looked more Golden Girls than little girls.
I was thrown off. “I didn’t know there were campers older than me,” I demurred.
The woman, who resembled my grandpa when he let his hair grow a little too long, gave me an expressionless nonreply.
“What a fun surprise,” I said.
I was a flake, and she could smell it on me. I’d come to Camp Anchor to flirt with boys and put something on my college applications, and she knew it. She saw right through my Chia Pet bangs into my shallow heart and frowned. She handed me my paperwork and sent me on my way.
I slowly approached another volunteer, a beautiful Latina girl from a couple towns over. “Hi, I’m Carli!” she said, beaming goodness. She was here for the right reasons, I thought. She was a beautiful, pure-souled girl, and I was a pug-nosed disaster. She was a Brenda with a twist. Even more gorgeous, sexy without seeming slutty, and charitable on top of it all. That kind of perfection didn’t yet make me furious. It just made me want to be exactly like her. Then there was Dave Mack, a gorgeous guy whom I would have immediately fallen in deep West Beverly High love with except for the fact that I could see he’d already set his sights on Carli. Man, maybe if I had gotten here first I’d have gotten him, I lied to myself. But he was smart and could see that Carli was a living angel with perfect olive skin and a sweet little tush.
Our group leader, Joanne, was a pretty woman with frizzy blond hair, a pronounced Italian-looking nose, a fanny pack, and a great rack. She was the only one of us who got paid, though I can’t imagine it was a lot. She was a kind, strong woman who’d been around the block with these ladies. She was no-nonsense, but she’d still laugh with the rest of us when ridiculousness occurred. Which was often.
Every day, I’d put so much mental energy into wanting to be appealing to Tyler—or wanting to be as flawless as Carli. But the Senior 10 chicks who I was now spending all my time with had much better strategies. They generally didn’t waste energy hiding who they were or faking who they weren’t. There was Mona, who was always wearing a baseball hat and a huge muscle T-shirt with Mickey Mouse on it. She was strong and masculine, and her smile would light up a room. Mona had Down syndrome, as did her best friend, Lucy, who had a short, boyish haircut and knock-knock jokes for days. I almost never understood the punch lines, but she was so delighted by reciting them you couldn’t help but laugh right along with her.
Another camper, Debbie, was openly flirtatious and boy crazy. She kept her hair braided perfectly so she felt pretty. Plump and youthful, she was like a Juliet looking for her Romeo. She had Down syndrome, too. Blanche had a long, thin, freckled face. She didn’t mind being mean and made it clear early on that she didn’t like me one bit. I respected that and stayed out of her way. No energy wasted between us faking it.
Enid was schizophrenic and reminded me of Woody Allen in terms of her voice and her physical movements. She had short red hair with tight curls and was very neurotic. She’d often pace around and talk to herself. Once, I nudged her to tell her it was time for lunch, and she replied, “Don’t interrupt me, can’t you see I’m having a conversation?” Well, damn, she was right. I didn’t let it happen again. She couldn’t stomach small talk but was kind enough to engage in some good debates with me. She was so bright that I’d forget about her ailments. Much like a stoic big sister, Enid would sometimes refuse to have anything to do with me, but other days we were thick as thieves. By the end of the summer, I was closest with her.
One sunny day it was my job to hang with a camper named Beatrice, a sweet sixty-year-old woman who spoke like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings and had an even bigger crush on Dave than I did. Dave and Beatrice were sweet on each other. At all the dancing events it was understood that no one danced with Dave but Big B. She was only four feet tall but weighed about two hundred pounds, and though her words were, in general, indeterminable, listening to her speak was a treat. She’d mumble something that sounded like it would only make sense in the Shire, and laugh wildly to herself and slap her knee.
On this particular day we had a huge game of Marco Polo planned for the campers in the pool. Nothing says summer like a game centered around a Venetian merchant sailor who may or may not have traveled through Asia in the 1200s to 1300s. I was fully prepared to win the game: I was younger and faster than my Senior 10s and I knew I could dominate that pool. I was extra motivated knowing that being in bathing suits always made the campers grabby with one another’s bodies. Especially mine. They thought it was funny to grab my breasts, and if one of them caught up to me, my boobs would be squeezed like lemons at a lemonade stand. Not that I don’t like affection, but they grabbed hard and I bruise like a peach. But before the game started, Joanne asked me to take Beatrice to the bathroom and wait for her while she put on her bathing suit.
I brought her into the muggy bathroom and while she was in the stall changing, I looked at myself in the foggy mirror. I didn’t recognize myself. My body was in the adolescent state where I would get frequent growing pains in my legs. Exactly every other day I looked either long and lanky or chubby and potatolike. The only constant at the time was the difference in the size of my breasts. My right one was very much in the lead. The left wouldn’t catch up for years and never fully has. The mirror got foggier as I stood and stood and waited and waited.
She made a Nell-like grumble from within the stall. “Whloppppr.”
“Bea, what’s goin’ on, sister? Let’s go, we’re gonna miss the game.”
After several minutes the door was flung open and out came Beatrice ready for the chlorine in her bathing suit and Teva sandals. There was just one problem: her bathing suit was on backward. Her scoop-back one-piece was facing very much the wrong way, which meant that I was getting a full-frontal view of what used to be Beatrice’s breasts. They were long and old; at the time, I’d never seen anything hang on for dear life like this before. They looked like those fake snakes that pop out of trick cans of peanuts. Her cans were attached to her chest and those snakes were loose, skin-colored, and almost to the floor. She looked around the bathroom, anywhere but at me. I looked right at her. I was mesmerized: here I’d been afraid of one of the campers grabbing my breasts, and I was now faced with hers. I could tell that she had absolutely no clue about the wardrobe malfunction and she made a beeline for the door.
“Whoa whoa whoa!” I yelled, trying to block her.
She knew something was off, but she was fired up about the pool. “Poo poo,” she said, meaning “pool.” I think.
“You need to turn your suit around. It’s on backward, honey.”
She looked at me with anger in her always-red eyes. I could see that she was ready to go and wasn’t going to let me stop her. She was not interested in turning that suit around; it was game time.
I body-blocked the exit, led her gently but forcibly back into the stall, and did what needed to be done. I took those bathing-suit straps in my hands and yanked them down. It was a struggle. The suit was so tight I had to drop down to my knees and use my body weight to get it off her. There we were, Beatrice nude, staring and blinking, and me trying to grip and pull at the spandex swimwear, my face inches away from her vagina and breasts, which at this point were very much in the same general area. Her soft, stretched-out nips rested on my sunburned shoulders while I twisted her suit around and told her to step back into it. She ignored me. She was probably daydreaming about her and Dave summering on Martha’s Vineyard next year. Undeterred, I picked up her white and soft-as-porcelain-looking foot and placed it in one leg hole, did the same with the other leg, and then, with all of my might, pulled that tiny suit over her pear-shaped body.
I was dripping with sweat by the time we were finished, and the bathroom could have doubled as a steam room. We walked out hand in hand to the pool. Finally, someone at this camp wanted to hold my hand. I think she knew I needed it. Almost whistling, she led me to the pool, but I was too exhausted and freaked out to join the Marco Polo game. Instead, I sat on a deck chair, staring off into space without moving, as Beatrice splashed around with the other ladies. One of them probably grabbed my breast, but I felt nothing for the next forty-eight hours.
Coming face-to-face with B’s unmentionables wasn’t even the most memorable moment in the Camp Anchor bathroom. That one is reserved for Sally. She was a Senior 10 who had some sort of aging disorder. Even though she was forty years old, she had the body of a seven-year-old and the face of a much older woman. She had Peter Pan–short black hair with some grays mixed in, tons of freckles, a furrowed brow, and a harsh look in her black eyes. She was very thin, spoke like a child, and always kept to herself. To get her jazzed about any group activity was beyond impossible. I remember approaching her once and, mustering up some false enthusiasm, telling her, “Sally, we’re going to the arts-and-crafts tent to make picture frames now!” She stared into my eyes and looked through my soul. She didn’t care. She knew I didn’t care. She knew I knew she didn’t care. In that moment we nodded and made a silent contract to keep it more real with each other.
One day in the last week of camp, there was a fun hangout planned for all the volunteers at the end of the day. I was wearing cut-off denim shorts with my uniform T-shirt sleeves rolled up. I’d planned a special outfit because I had confirmed that Tyler would definitely be there (I knew because I’d asked him and all his friends three hundred times). I’d noticed earlier that I was the only person not wearing Converse sneakers (like a dolt), so I’d bought a pair that were blue and white and almost identical to Carli’s. She’d noticed, and instead of being annoyed, she’d said, “Cool! We have the same shoes!” Did this girl’s perfection ever stop? Could you drop the ball just once, Carli? A queef . . . something . . . anything to let me know you’re human and not an American Girl doll with perfect titties?
By that point in the summer I was pretty sure she and Dave were an item; they found excuses to touch each other and giggle when they were away from the pack. That night, Dave was whispering something into Carli’s ear, and I was left alone with my new sneakers and socks that were too big for them, standing around a piano with the girls in the music tent, failing to learn the words to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” I would have done anything to trade places with Carli. The shoes weren’t cutting it. She was like Cinderella and I was one of the stepsisters trying to force the glass slipper on my foot so the prince would marry me. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Sally tugged on my sleeve and pointed to the bathroom. She was a woman of few words and she obviously had to go. Members of Senior 10 were always to be accompanied to the bathroom, and on this occasion Sally designated me the lucky escort. Truth be told, I was honored that she chose me to walk her. We headed over to the bathroom together in silence. By that time we were like coworkers. She was about twenty years older than me and had laid it on the line: no pleasantries, bitch. Which I completely appreciated.
We stood in line for the cramped four-stall bathroom where we’d stood dozens of times before, and when she was on deck, she again pulled on my sleeve and I looked down at her (she was no more than three feet tall). She was gazing up at me very intensely, like she was casting a spell of some sort. But you can’t yell at one of your campers, “Are you casting a spell on me?!” So instead I asked, “What’s up, Sal?” She didn’t answer, and she didn’t need to. I looked down at the floor and noticed there was liquid shit running down not one but both of her legs and onto her feet, and onto my very new shoes. I resisted the urge to scream my way out of the bathroom and run to the nearest lake. Instead, I kept staring into her black eyes until she was finished. She seemed to want to hold eye contact in this moment and by God, I gave that to her.
After it was over, I focused on mouth breathing while I threw my Converse sneakers in the garbage. The jig was up. I would never be Carli. I put Sally in a stall and told her, “It’s okay, Sally, everything is fine.” But she wasn’t worried. She was kind of looking at me like, Well, what now, skank? And my answer to that was . . .
That’s how I spent my last memorable moment at Camp Anchor—standing barefoot in human excrement, calling for help. Joanne did come and bail me out, but when camp ended a few days later, I rode home alone in the back of the bus. Word had traveled that I had been knee-deep in doo-doo, and believe it or not, people weren’t falling over themselves to hang out with old shoeless Schums. I never got to spend time with the other volunteers that night, and I still didn’t know a single line to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” I never came anywhere close to making out with Tyler or Dave. Back at school that fall, Tyler dated this unbelievably beautiful blonde named Stacey. They were our school’s Brad and Angelina. Had there been a tabloid magazine about them, I would have subscribed. They kind of looked like siblings, which didn’t bother me, but in retrospect it is very creepy and also explains why I am drawn to Game of Thrones.
Anyway, I got a lot more than I bargained for that summer. I didn’t achieve my goal of getting the boy I liked to fall for me. I was running out of Chris Farley jokes for Tyler, and Dave barely even knew I was alive. But I got so much more than knowing that a few teenage stoners I was crushing on could get semihard around me. I got to spend time with the women of Senior 10. I went through war with those chicks. We did it all together, and I would be honored to be in the trenches again with any of those gals. Except for Martha, the oldest one in the group. She dressed like Marilyn Monroe and smelled like a bag of dicks left out in the sun for a year. I would still fight on her side, but I would have to be a sniper stationed far away or something.
Twenty years later, I still keep their faces and names in my heart. They are people and they have feelings—and bodies—like everyone else. And sometimes those bodies produce a ton of poop and you have to stand in it, and sometimes you have to scoop their boobies back into their very backward bathing suits. And they didn’t give a fuck about any of that. And it made me feel the same. For a teenager like me, learning to give zero fucks was nothing short of revelatory.
People often romanticize children or adults with special needs, as if they are innocent-yet-wise creatures who can humble us all into becoming better humans. First of all, nobody can be innocent and wise at the same time. That’s another one of those impossible combinations. It’s as unachievable and improbable as Brenda. Or Carli. And secondly, I’m not suggesting the ladies of Camp Anchor were either one of those things in particular. But they owned their own flaws, and I am grateful I got to meet them when I was only fourteen. I left camp knowing a bunch of women who weren’t afraid to claim the guy they wanted to dance with; they didn’t change a thing for the men they loved. They weren’t ashamed of their bodily functions and they didn’t lie to themselves or others. They had no patience for small talk or false pretenses. They would laugh when they wanted to like there was no tomorrow, and cry their eyes out when they felt like it. Basically, I had finally found my people.