Life Camp is also available in Joyland Retro Vol. 1 No. 3.
We are told the sea monkeys need a special place to live. They are handed out, three per plastic sandwich bag, to our teenage mothers preparation class. Brenda, my only friend from the outside, who is six months pregnant and still not showing, does a quick scan of the room—the vision boards with Hilary and Angelina and Oprah, the cradle dioramas, our oblivious teacher with her ironed three piece suit and ponytailed grey hair —and plops the bag in her purse.
I’m more careful. My sea monkeys are already batting at each other like angry siblings. On the way back to my room I hold them up to the sunlight, which leaks in over the chain link fence we sometimes scale to get to the Pacific Ocean. Inside there’s nothing better than the prospect of that ocean, so we don’t take things for granted. Our rooms are 10x12 so we’ll learn how to maximize space, and when I get back to mine I separate the monkeys into cereal bowls, pouring carefully so they don’t bite me. I label them red, green, blue hoping that they’ll feel special, and I put them by the window so that they’ll get light.
“What do you think sea monkeys eat?” I ask Brenda. I’ve Skyped her one building over but I can’t see her; she likes to give the impression of always being absent and has her laptop facing a poster of the Washington State Ballet.
“Lint, probably, piss, probably,” Brenda calls. She’s four months older than me and thinks that means she knows more. I put my hands over the bowls so the monkeys can’t hear. “They’re little grey shrimp sperm, Justine.”
“Not these guys,” I say. “These guys will grow, I’ll prove it.” I take her silence to mean she’s doing yoga, crushing Brenda, Jr. (or Bradley if it’s a boy) in superman pose. Since the outside, Brenda’s had this habit of taking good intentions and distorting them; once she decided to sanitize the bathroom floor and used so much Lysol everyone slipped.
“You’re not supposed to put pressure on your stomach,” I say, watching monkey blue explore the bottom of his bowl. “You’re supposed to sleep. And eat dairy. Have you thought about greek yogurt?”
The cafeteria has greek yogurt labeled “Good For You,” frozen yogurt, “Much Less Good for You,” plates divided up like airplane food and at least two compartments filled with green.
“Don’t tell me how to raise my kid,” Brenda says.
My stepdad, Dallas, calls me from the road. He makes a living selling vitamin supplements and every summer there’s this big convention and he comes home with a suitcase of new samples and we - minus my mother - have a party with them, just for kicks. Among the things we’ve discovered: flu medicine makes your nails grow faster and calcium tablets, if you take too many, turn your skin totally white.
“How’s my favorite pregnant step-kid?” Dallas asks. He’s from Seattle, same as me, but because of his name he speaks with a slight southern drawl. “They got you doing fifty pull ups yet?”
“That’s not the point.” We come here cause of petty crime, promiscuity, social anxiety; we have classes in accountability and deadlines, we learn how to operate ovens without putting our body parts anywhere near them, we learn how to sit without hunching; the glossy Life Camp brochure says we’ll learn how to initiate flirtation without being too pushy or going to far.
“Yeah,” Dallas says, “one of these days your mother will tell me the point.”
“Or not,” I say, and Dallas laughs.
“Dallas,” I ask, “do you remember what I liked as a baby?”
This is sort of a trick question. Dallas knows. Usually I’m trying to figure out how long he’s known my mother—the constant mystery of before or after my father died—but this time I really want an answer.
“You’re asking the wrong person, doll,” Dallas says, voice tight. He gets the kind of angry that throws things.
“Well, OK, but my mom has told you, right? What were things I really liked?”
“I don’t have a clue. Apple sauce, teddy bears, Baby Beluga in the Deep Blue Sea? I don’t know, Justine, you’re a good kid, but sometimes you piss me off.”
Even with sunlight and music and the Google recommended diet of mint leaves, the monkeys don’t really thrive until they hit their fourth week. Then I start to see differences in their faces - monkey red has a wide forehead, monkey green hasn’t outgrown his wrinkles, monkey blue is smaller than the others with these great pointy ears like an alien. They’ve gotten bigger, too, and need to be transferred to mason jars I decorate with stickers; they’ve always been well behaved but the first thing they do is try to get out.
“Can’t you see they don’t like it?” Brenda asks.
I glare. Brenda’s stretching on my floor in a blue spandex gym suit, black hair spiked into a ponytail, a candy cigarette in one hand and a can of Tab in the other. She’s gotten even skinnier if that’s possible. The monkeys like watching her; whenever she’s here they put on a show.
“Not shrimp,” I say. “Actual monkeys.” I have accomplished something here, which is more than I can say for her. I’m scrunched on my bed and so I point, “they actually have faces, voila, see.” Brenda rolls over to the jars and taps on them.
“Hello monkeys,” Brenda says. “Hello pals.”
That’s all it takes. Monkey red and monkey green flip around like dolphins while monkey blue, my favorite to be honest, does this little underwater tap dance. Then she shoots her leg up in the air and with this crazy grace she catches it. The monkeys go nuts, tiny mouths wide with excitement, arms pressed against the glass, like they’ve been waiting to see her all day.
I don’t ask what happened to hers.
For our final we’re supposed to bring back the sea monkeys and whoever has the healthiest and least grey will get ten points towards a weekend pass, which means two days with mom and Dallas and if I’m lucky he’ll still have loot from his Vegas trip. The rest of the class has basically slacked off. They bring the monkeys back the way they got them, a little puffier and angrier, as if you don’t have to help them, things grow on their own. Our teacher makes marks on a check sheet and this is the part she didn’t tell us: after she’s finished grading, she takes them away.
Monkey blue looks at the shopping cart they’re piled in. Then he looks up at me, ears even pointier, eyes bulged as far as possible for a creature with a half-inch face. What can he do without me? They’re not blank slates anymore, so where will they go?
Our teacher kneels in front of him. She wants to know if they were misbehaved, which I say they weren’t. She wants to know how much time I spent with them, how many hours they slept each night, if I gave them treats when they were good. I point out that they’re the biggest by far. They’ve got color in their faces, they’re happy, they’re healthy, they’ve thrived in their surroundings.
“I hate to say this,” the teacher says, pushing reading glasses up her stiff grey hair. “But you coddled them. You gave them too much love. You didn’t let them fend for themselves.”
Brenda has a hand over her mouth and I can’t tell if she’s suppressing a yawn or a smirk. If it’s a smirk I’ll kick her.
The teacher reaches for the monkeys. I block her way. She doesn’t fight me, she gives me plastic sandwich bags. Apparently if I don’t complete the assignment by turning them in my mother might not let me leave. The teacher pats my arm and says I’m looking peppier, which isn’t how I feel—my stomach is bowling ball-swollen and there might as well be a piano on my back.
The next day Brenda and I get up two hours early. We slip the mason jars under the chain link fence, me slogging up one side and down the other, Brenda flinging herself over. Then, somehow, we’re at the Pacific Ocean, one of those spots with too much brush; when we were kids we came here and let waves crash into us, water fill our ears. Before sunrise it’s totally calm and totally blue.
“Come on,” Brenda says. We get the monkeys in their mason jars. We let them float, water rushing in and out, getting used to the idea, and then the sun peeks over the horizon and Brenda and I say the same thing—stop stalling—and then we tip them over, and then we set them free.