Look, I knew that we were going to encounter challenges even before we left Maine to head on over to River’s Run (www.riverruncanoe.com) in Fryeberg, Maine. In the first place, my friend Pauline had been dumped by her boyfriend, Bobo, about a week before. Bobo was a former football jock who stood as big as a mountain and had the personality of a rock (and a member as hard as one, too, apparently). It had been an abrupt and stormy break-up after about five weeks of blissfully sunny weather (including repeated declarations of love and “you’re the one for me” on his part after just two weeks of dating). Now, he was out of the picture, and had even changed his cell phone number to avoid talking to her, and she was beside herself, particularly when her old boyfriend Bob (who had been on F.B. status for about three years before this, and then unceremoniously dumped once she found Bob), declined to take Bob’s place. Too bad. I had always adored Bob, and since he was 20 years Pauline’s senior, I was looking forward to a bit of inter-generational mirroring. Anyway, I knew that Pauline was going to be a fairly gloomy camper.
CHAPTER TWO: Fun and games with Amber Rose, Dreams of Lava, the Crying Game, and other Water Sports.
Secondly, there was always the Amber challenge, no matter Pauline’s mood. Amber is Pauline’s daughter, and she can be a bit trying (not that my kids are a picnic all the time). She’s one of the most intelligent kids I know, but she’s also fiercely competitive and will win at any cost, in every way imaginable. She also hates the fact that she’s female, and will only dress in blue in outfits that deliberately hide any trace of femininity she may possess: typically, baggy shorts, a loose T-shirt, baseball cap turned backward, and small, Harry Potter glasses. Her blond hair is cut into a pageboy. And this year, she hit thirteen, and is undergoing a particularly sullen puberty spurt. I don't know what the next few years will bring.
Amber had brought her best friend, April, with her. April’s a quiet girl with beautiful brown hair—very sweet tempered and friendly, and totally devoted to Amber. In a few years, she’ll definitely be Marcie to Amber’s Pepperment Patty.
Corb and I arrived in Maine at around three o’clock, well after everyone else had arrived. The weather was fairly sunny, and after being teased about being so late, we started to pitch the tent. Of course, the kids hadn’t seen me in three days, so it was a struggle to set up amidst talk of the week-end and repeated requests to play Yu-Gi-Oh with Tiger and give Ashley a ride on my shoulders.
Annie had driven behind Pauline all the way to Maine, taking with her the other kids, Prince, and her boyfriend Chad. I like Chad a lot—I think he’s friendly, outgoing, and usually fairly responsible (although he can be sneaky...but then, so can I). But as we were finishing up setting up the tent, I turned and watched him take a can of Off, spray it, and then light a match, causing a stream of flames to shoot out. Not the brightest thing to do in the woods; in fact, pretty goddamn stupid. And when I asked him not to do that again, he brushed it off, causing me to take Annie aside and set some ground rules. She wasn’t happy with this and started to cry. After talking it through, I discovered that it was her time of the month, and she was moody, but she could understand my point.
We all went for a swim down the river after that. Corb stayed in the raft, while I held on to the rope and navigated him downstream.
Shortly after we reached the campsite, it started to sprinkle, and by the time supper was cooked, it was raining fairly heavily. As we tried to snarf down soggy hamburgers, we debated which tent to head into. “You can’t go into my mom’s,” warned Amber. “She doesn’t want any dirt in it!” But it’s okay to cram everyone into mine?
As it turned out, we did go into her tent, and started to play Survivor. Amber immediately went on the offensive, striking deals to vote Corb off, then me, then her mother. Knowing that Ashley was clearly next, and also that she was manipulating Tiger, who didn’t have a clue what was going on, I turned to him and whispered in his ear, “Vote Amber off and I’ll buy you a Yu-Gi-Oh deck.”
Tiger shook his head, clearly afraid of Amber’s wrath.
“What did he just say to you?” asked Amber shrilly. Tiger repeated what I had said to him. “Well, I’ll give you some of my best cards if you go with me,” she replied.
I whispered in his ear, “Vote her off and I’ll buy you a Yu-Gi-Oh video.”
“Mom!” shrieked Amber. “He’s trying to buy off Tiger, and that’s NOT FAIR!”
Well, in any event, Amber didn’t win. Tiger was tied for first place with April.
That night, lying next to Corb, I had a lot of trouble sleeping, thinking—and worrying—about so many things. The kids, Annie’s college education, bills, money, rent, money, how I was going to survive once my nest egg runs out in October.
When I finally fell asleep, I dreamed about the house that Josie and I owned, only it was built over an active volcano, which the authorities were desperately trying to fix. I was determined to walk across the driveway, but suddenly a burst of lava spewed out of the volcano, covering me from head to toe. I woke up screaming, with Corb caressing my shoulders and whispering to me that everything was going to be all right.
That morning we awoke to sunshine, thank Bob. Breakfast over the campfire was pretty good. I cooked the bacon and Corb cooked the eggs, and April did a great job with pancakes and keeping the fire stoked. Amber took out her notebook and started plotting the order of the day.
“We couldn’t play Capture the Flag last night, so we’ll do that this afternoon,” she instructed everyone. “I have the teams all worked out. Tonight, we’ll play Manhunt.”
She had worked it out so that Ashley, Tiger, Annie, and myself were on one team, while she had a team that consisted of herself, April, Corb, and Chad. In other words, our team consisted of two adults, a seven-year-old, and an eleven-year-old. The youngest person on her team was 13.
“Hold on,” said Annie, her back arching. “Let’s talk about these teams.”
“Well, they’re only uneven because I had my Mom on your team, and she decided she didn’t want to play,” replied Amber.
“That’s not the point,” I replied. “The fact is, she’s not playing, so you have to adjust the teams.”
“Fine,” said Amber with a grin. “You take Corb, we’ll get Tiger.”
“And you’re saying that you’re hiding your flag anywhere on our campsite, and we’re hiding ours anywhere on yours?” asked Annie. “That seems like a lot of space to look for a flag. Why don’t we have one person on each team be a searcher? They can look around for the flag, but can’t be tagged, unless they cross the line back into their team’s territory.”
“Fine with me,” said Amber, grinning at April.
“Wait a minute,” said Annie, looking Amber over. “Are you using walkie-talkies?”
"Are you?" repeated Annie.
“Yeah,” she replied. “You didn’t say we couldn’t!”
“In that case, I want our team to have Chad’s walkie-talkies,” said Annie, and started moving to our tent to claim them.
As it turned out, the walkie-talkies were only the first ‘letter of the law’ trick that Amber had planned out with April. Another trick included getting behind the enemy line by swimming downstream in the water—a trick, which, while clever, could have been potentially disastrous, had Tiger tried to do it, unsupervised. They also bent the other end of the boundaries, crawling through the brush to our left in order to move past us without being seen. Again, not something I really wanted Tiger doing. After a while, we had to call a time out, in order to establish boundaries.
“They’re being sneaky,” Annie whispered to me. “So listen. Once I find the flag, I’m not going to cross the border and tell you where it is. Instead, I’m going to write the location in the sand, right by the border, so I’ll still have immunity.”
This sounded fine in theory, until Annie located the flag, and I discovered that I couldn’t decipher what she was trying to write. She eventually ran to her tent, wrote the location of the flag on a piece of paper, and threw it over the border to me.
Now we knew where the flag was. We started a full-fledged offensive to capture the flag, but it ended in disaster, with all of us being captured. We were placed in jail for a minute, and then started to head back. But at the last moment, Annie turned around and headed in the opposite direction before she crossed over to our side.
“Where’s she going?” asked Amber.
“She said she has to go to the bathroom,” said Corb.
But in actuality, she walked over to where the flag was, placed it under her sweatshirt, and headed back to our side, at which point she took it out.
“No fair!” screamed Amber, jumping up and down. “You said you were going to the bathroom.”
“No, I did,” replied Corbett. “She didn’t say anything.”
Of course, Amber accused us of cheating, and even accused Annie of using paper from her notebook to write to me (which hadn’t been the case). Eventually, she dragged her mother in to adjudicate, and miraculously, Pauline sided with us, indicating that no “time out” had been called.
Well, Amber lost that round, but still had plans up her sleeve for Manhunt, which we started after supper, which consisted of pizza from a small restaurant ten miles away.
The first round of Manhunt went well—in fact, Tiger and I hid in my car with a blanket over us and won it handily. Having won, we were designated as the seekers in the next round, along with Corb. We counted for two minutes and then headed off in the darkness to find the hiders, whom had all been paired off into teams.
Our first pair was easy—Chad and Annie. We located them by their flashlight, but it was soon evident that something was wrong, because Annie was crying.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I was hiding by my tent, and heard something behind me,” said Annie. “I asked who it was, and no one answered. There’s someone out there, and I don’t know who it is.”
We headed out in that direction, the four of us, and started searching through the area around the tent. In the brush, we found April, but no Amber.
“I think you probably heard April,” I said to Annie. “But where’s Amber?”
April shook her head, and wouldn’t say a word. We left her where she was, and started walking around. A few seconds later, we heard her start to clap.
“She’s trying to tell Amber where she is,” I replied.
We kept searching, through the darkness. The woods seemed eerie and still. Eventually, we found Pauline and Ashley, hiding in a shrub by the water. But still no Amber.
After half an hour, we finally decided to give up. We returned to April, who said that she was getting nervous, because she hadn’t heard from Amber, either. She led us to where she had last seen Amber.
“Okay, we give up, Amber,” called out Pauline. “Where are you?”
“Right here!” The call came from overhead. We looked up, and heard scrambling from a large pine tree. Amber, it turns out, had climbed 30 feet up to hide from us. How we would have captured her, had we located her, is beyond me; but also, all I could think about was what would have happened had she fallen. Would we have been able to locate her in that darkness?
Annie, it turns out, was still shaken by the scare she had received during Manhunt. “I don’t want to sleep alone with Ashley,” she said.
“That’s fine,” I replied. “Pauline’s sleeping alone, and hates it. Stay with her tonight.”
“No, she’ll keep me up all night,” she replied. “She’ll jump at every little thing. It’ll drive me crazy.”
“Well, you could sleep in my tent,” I offered. She shook her head. I didn’t have any options, so I moved to go into my tent.
I heard whispering behind me, and then heard Ashley say, “Dad, we have a solution!”
“Shhh!” said Annie.
Suspicious, I turned around. “And what might that be, baby?”
“I’m going to stay with Pauline, and Chad offered to let Annie stay with her!” said Ashley.
“Ummm...no. I don’t think so.”
“Fine,” said Chad, a bit peeved. “I was only trying to be helpful.
Sure you were.
The next day, unfortunately, was mostly rainy. We spent the time playing Monopoly. Amber won. But the good news is, Ashley came in second place. The better news is, we had two great meals at the Greek restaurant—breakfast and supper. Both meals were a struggle, because Amber raised a stink about not roughing it, insisting she could start a fire. Which really wasn’t the point—the thought of eating soggy food didn’t really appeal to anyone but Amber.
Amber is a purist about camping. In fact, she complained bitterly about her mother traveling with an air mattress this year.
After the restaurant, we returned to our camp site, exhausted, and about to collapse. Annie decided to take Pauline up on her offer to sleep in her tent, while Ashley asked to sleep in mine. It wasn’t hard to get to sleep that night, not one bit.
What did make me sad was missing Josie’s birthday that night. We did call her to sing Happy Birthday, but I felt awful about the fact that the kids were away. At the restaurant, we called her a second time, and I had a long conversation with her, in the parking lot, waiting for dinner. It was hard to get a read on how she was feeling, but I tried to keep things light by telling Amber stories.
Annie and Chad left early the next day, using directions that Corb mapped out for them. The rest of left at around twelve, a few minutes before checkout. We stopped for breakfast in North Conway, and then went back through the Kankamangas. When we reached 93, Pauline, who looked awful, and had spent much of the week crying, headed for home, but Corb and I decided to take the kids to the Lost River.
I’m glad we did, because they had a great time. After that, the ride home was filled with ghost stories and a long tale I made up about the spirit of Lucretia Stonehenge, a vengeful ghost looking to destroy a lover who had jilted her for another woman. In despair, Lucretia ran into the woods surrounding her house and was eaten by a bear, so that only her head, hands, and big smelly feet remained. Her ghost consisted only of the three body parts, connected by thin whisps of fog. In order to destroy her, the heroes had to dig up her body and toss the remains of the body parts into the specter; at which point, the body parts would disappear, one by one.
We arrived at home at nine that night. Josie was there about a half an hour later, and we celebrated her birthday with KFC and birthday cards. Tiger fell asleep first, then I moved into Josie’s bedroom, where Ashley was sleeping.
“I’d better leave,” I said to Josie.
Ashley turned around, clearly upset. “No!” she screamed. “You can’t leave! I don’t want you to! It’s not fair!” and then she started to crying.
I lay next to her, stroking her shoulder. Josie lay on the other side. Our eyes met. I closed my eyes, and could feel the tears welling up. I lowered my head, so that she couldn’t see, but it was obvious what was going on. Josie moved over and touched my hand, in sympathy. I cried until I couldn’t cry any more, then got up out of the bed. Ashley was asleep.
I started to pack up in the living room. Josie came out of the bedroom a few minutes after that. We both were unsure what to say, and decided that the best course of action was silence; was not to talk about it.
“Good night,” I said to her, trying desperately to sound light.
“Good night,” she replied. I willed myself to move forward and return to the apartment.