Summer of Love

The Romance a Teenage Camper Couldn't Have Today

This is an innocent story. In 1967, the summer before my 15th birthday, I fell in love. It was my first intense erotic love, and its object was the photography counselor at camp—a lean, bearded, blue-eyed guy I'll call Jake. He was 26. Nothing sexual happened. Still, I think of those two months as the summer of my épanouissement, a French word meaning blossoming or opening, which also means glow. Jake took hundreds of pictures of me, and his affirmation and his camera opened me to myself. They helped me begin, sexually, to glow.

If the same events had occurred in 2002, they would not be viewed as innocent. The adults around me would write my chaste romance as a perverse tale, casting Jake as a predator and me as his hapless, clueless prey. Had I started my sex education with good-touch-bad-touch lessons in kindergarten or listened for a decade to media reporting on a world allegedly crowded with sexual malefactors sniffing the world for young flesh, I might even have believed that my friend and mentor Jake was one of them. That sweet idyll would have been, instead, the summer of my victimization. And instead of opening me, Jake's attentions might have closed me down in fear and confusion.

The photographs were another kid's idea. Jake and I and a few other campers were messing around in the dining room after supper early in the summer, and a boy named Ezra suggested I model for Jake. "Judy would make a gas model," he said. Gas, in 1967, meant cool. And looking back, I have to say, I was a cool kid. I wrote poetry; I played guitar and piano pretty well. According to the adults who knew me then, I was precocious and perceptive. My friends remember me as witty and impassioned. I affected a late-beatnik-early-hippie look: skimpy tank tops worn without a bra (I didn't need one anyway), low-slung bell-bottoms that revealed the curve of my belly where it dipped between my hipbones. Come to think of it, the clothes weren't so different from the ones today's parents (who wore them as kids!) condemn for prematurely "sexualizing" their daughters. The clothes were sexy then; they are sexy now. And to this day I can almost taste how good I felt in them. Before that summer, I still considered myself a little ugly and plenty awkward. In my high school, girls like me, who didn't have pageboy haircuts and didn't wear mohair sweaters with matching knee socks—and worse, who were smart—were untouchable.

Levine at 14: Blossoming under the lens of her counselor's camera
photo: Courtesy Judith Levine
Levine at 14: Blossoming under the lens of her counselor's camera

At camp, though, I had suitors to spare. That summer several boys pursued me. One wore wire-rimmed glasses—avant-garde at the time. Another kept pleading with me to take my first acid trip with him. I was unmoved. I idolized the glamorous Jake, who had spent a year photographing guerrillas somewhere in Africa, who drove a battered Volkswagen, who meditated at an ashram. And he—miracle of miracles—liked me, a lot.

He liked me, I felt, and he saw me—saw the person I was beginning to know as myself. I could read his recognition in the photographs. They are straightforward, not arty, not pushy. I posed as I wanted; he shot. My body in them is at that heart-stopping stage between baby plump and adolescent fleshy. My face varies from picture to picture: Here I am a giggly kid, here a dreamy near-woman. One photo, which still hangs on my mother's wall, shows me holding Queen Anne's lace, gazing into the distance. It's a bit hokey: I'm working hard at looking soulful. But Jake's camera didn't mock. It's as if he believed I really was thinking deep thoughts.

What I was thinking about was sex. I tried to seduce him. In the flowery fields where we often went, I struck what I thought were enticing poses, leaning back in the long, scratchy grass, arching my back to reveal a bit of belly, dropping a shoulder so that a strap would fall invitingly off. In the little hand mirror I kept in my bunk, I rehearsed sucking in my cheeks and pouting my lips. And in the evergreen-smelling nights, I fantasized the day Jake would ask me to take my shirt off, brush his lips over my nipples, then pull down the short zipper of my pants. I imagined the bristles of his beard as he kissed me there.

He never did. In fact, he mentioned sex only once that I remember, as I sat on the counter in his darkroom, watching his red-lit face concentrate on the images emerging in the trays (the smell of developing fluid is still erotic to me). He said, "There are two things I know I can't do while I'm working here: smoke pot or make love to a woman." Was that woman me? I closed my eyes for a second and imagined I was, pictured him stepping between my dangling legs, taking my face in his hands, and kissing me. I opened my eyes, unkissed.

Maybe Jake considered me a little girl, not a woman at all. But somehow, as he gazed at me through that lens, I began to see myself as a woman, at least a little. One hot sunny afternoon, shingling a roof with Jake and some other campers, I admired the muscles of his tan, bare back flexing with each hammer swing. The bitter-salty odor of his sweat drifted toward me on a breeze. "Hmm," I said to myself, smiling as I noticed that I liked the smell. "This must mean I'm growing up." Once, skinny-dipping, I felt my body go as liquid as the lake as I watched him climb onto the shore, the red-blond fuzz on his body beaded with water.

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