I have a photo of a girl whose name I do not know. There was a time when she was my best friend. For one week, seven wonderful days, we were best friends. The reason we're not anymore is not something tragic, like a horrible accident. It's so commonplace, so entirely average that it's barely even worth a blip on my radar.
The photo in my hand was taken mid-laughter. We were probably laughing at some silly inside joke that seemed a lot more funny than it really was. Our sweaty, badly cut hair is escaping the ponytails that we so inexpertly secured it into. Mine is brown, hers is bright red. Freckles are splashed across her arms and cheekbones, lighting her smile up with something that only redheads have. Our riding helmets dangle from our elbows, filled with treats for the horses. My whole left side is covered in dust from the fall I had suffered earlier that morning.
I can't even recall which summer this picture is from, or how old we were. Twelve, thirteen? It doesn't matter. For all intents and purposes, we were outside of real time. Summer camp will do that to you.
After the photographer took the photo, we probably ran off, because twelve year olds run everywhere, scattering bits of the horse treats. The horses would look at us with their big, sweet eyes as we hand fed them each bit, drawing it out on purpose to enjoy the time as much as possible. They took the bits of food daintily, their soft lips brushing our hands and snuffling as they greedily looked for more treats. Pedro bumped my hand, begging for more, and I scratched that favorite spot between and just behind his ears. He nibbled my fingers gently, his version of a kiss.
We braided the horse's manes, and talked and giggled. The world outside camp was a distant, fading memory. It was real, and it mattered, but only a little. Just enough to talk about, but not enough to really take seriously.
"This is the only time I ever get to see horses," she says. "I live in the middle of the city."
"You could take lessons outside the city," I suggest.
"Dad says it's too expensive. Getting him to let me come here every summer is a battle."
"You can come to my house anytime you like and ride our horses."
She smiles her special, redheaded, freckly smile. "I'd like that. We're going to be friends forever, aren't we?"
"Forever and ever. Where else could you go to ride horses after camp?"
For seven days, the entire world ended at the edge of the field where the horses grazed. And at the other end, the fence with the big red signs that read "POISON OAK—KEEP OUT." We could believe that nothing would change when we went home. We exchanged phone numbers and agreed to visit each other as often as we could.
Phone calls happened a few times, but suddenly we were both always busy. Just like that, the girl who had been my best friend became nothing more than a memory that I can't name.
Looking at those photos, I can name every single horse flawlessly. For the ones I took care of, I can name their favorite treats, itchy spots, and idiosyncrasies. Gypsy would stick her whole head in the water barrel to drink, right up to her ear. Seabreeze threw a monstrous temper tantrum if Pedro left his side. Bandit would stretch her head forward and twist her neck in joy if you scratched the spot on her belly. Troy didn't like carrots much, but he would do absolutely anything for a Kashi granola bar.
So how is it that I can remember all that, but not the name of my best friend?
I put the photo back in its box, and put the box back in the closet.
"Are you ready to go, honey?"
I look up. My husband is standing in the doorway with my purse. Our daughter, Alexa, has been at camp this past week, and it's finally time to go pick her up. When we get there, she bounces towards us and hugs us tightly. She introduces us to all her friends and her counselors, some with normal names and some with strange camp names. Some things never change, even twenty-five years later. Her friends introduce her to their parents, some using the name "Thumbelina." I laugh to myself. She really is small.
I remember the wonderful naivety of that last day of camp, and it makes me a little sad. Sad that we never properly said goodbye, and that my daughter and her friends won't either. Because they truly believe that this is not the last time they will be together. We load her suitcase and sleeping bag into the car as she gives a last round of tight hugs and complex high-fives that are clearly their "secret camp handshakes". They all promise to email every day and call at least once a week.
The entire ride home, she talks about her friends. She had so much fun, it seems like she hardly missed us at all.
"Sara tried to teach us how to make friendship bracelets. I figured out some of the simpler ones. But I really like this zig-zaggy one she made me. Look, Mom!"
I look. The bracelet is turquoise, pink, and black.
"Can you make me one?" I ask.
"I can make a knotted one. This one is complicated. And Coco Puff taught me how to do flips off the diving board. She's going to be in the Olympics. And Carrie won night Capture the Flag all by herself!"
"Really? She was on her own team?"
"Well, no. But she was so fast that she could have been! We're going to be friends forever, Mom. I know we live far away from each other, but that's what phones and email are for, right? And you can take me to visit sometime, right?"
"Sure, I'd be glad to." I don't tell her, of course. It would be so cruel, for her to know the truth about camp friends. She will find out too soon anyway.
But it's not exactly a bad thing. Whether she can only remember their nickname or none at all, they were still her best friend for a week. They saw her get homesick, and comforted her. They put a cupcake on her chair and Tabasco sauce in her soda. Together, they shared a time that is separate from this world, because they were at camp. They have the memories of their giggles and games, of dodging the counselors after lights-out and getting an earful when they were caught. A name would almost make it real, and camp is nothing if not unreal.