One More Day

CAS for Database

Elisa Hsieh

Chicago, Illinois, USA

University of Chicago Laboratory Schools

Creative Nonfiction

               You wake. Or rather, you don’t. The radiator rattled moist air into your room all night long. You sat in your chair, stared at your computer screen, headphones on, and didn't move all night. Now, the Saturday morning sunlight creeps through your shades even though you keep them completely closed. You don’t wake. There’s nothing to wake from.


               Last night was Friday night. You wanted a break. You didn’t have class tomorrow, and you didn’t have a roommate. At first, you resented that, because you knew it would be hard enough to make friends. Eventually, after so many nights spent up in your little room by yourself, you’re grateful. You are in your room long before lights out, and you hear chatter in the hallways and the common rooms. You note as it abruptly cuts out at 10:59, but it does not change your actions in the slightest. You have access to your sister’s Amazon Prime account. You still have options, still have plans for the night. What could a roommate do but limit them?


               You love the night. It’s the best part of the day. It’s so slow and peaceful, in comparison to the rush of the daylight hours. The lights are off in your room, though. You don’t want to break the rules. But a lamppost shines directly into your second-story room, which is right above the path to the dorms.


               At three, you see your TA walk back into the dorms with an RA. She stares directly into your window and makes a “go to bed” motion. You jump in fear. You forgot to close the blinds. Does she recognize you? If not, does she know which room she was looking into? You were supposed to go to bed at eleven, yet here you are, flagrantly breaking the rules. Your heart squeezes in your chest in terror as you think, and overthink, and overthink.


               Then you think: hypocrite. It’s three in the morning, and you turn back to your computer screen. Merlin isn’t going to watch itself. Perhaps she didn’t care, or perhaps she thought it wasn’t worth the effort, but you’ll never get in trouble.


               At five in the morning, you try to go to sleep. You shut your laptop screen silently and slip out of your comfy swivel chair. In two swift steps, you’re beside the creaky bed, stripping off your mauve-colored Abercrombie sweater. You’re not tired, but you know you should sleep.


               But here’s the thing: you can’t. You feel dirty. On the second day of camp, you took a fifteen-minute shower in the evening. You haven’t taken a shower since then. It’s not that you don’t want to, you just haven’t had the energy to. You’re curled up on top of your bed. You’re cold, but you refuse to get under the blanket, because your sheets are cleaner than you. Eventually, after the longest ten minutes of the night, you return to your computer screen.


               The sun rises. You do not. It will soon be time for breakfast. You will not go. You are used to rising with an alarm. You forgot to set one the first day, and the second day, the ringer was off. After missing breakfast for the two first days of camp, you did not know who to go with. The last camp you were with, the cabins ate meals together. Now you are older, and given more freedom by the camp administration. The cafeteria is two blocks away, and you are expected to make it there on your own. It occurs to you on the third day when you finally wake up on time that you will enter the cafeteria, get your food, and sit with absolutely no one. You know that you could walk up to a table and say, “hey, can I sit with you?” They will say yes. Assuming there is an empty seat, they move their tray over and make room. You will sit down. Then they will turn back to their conversations, and you will sit there, surrounded by people who are talking, laughing, and sharing stories, and you will be even more alone than before.


               So you do not do that. You do not ask, or sit alone. You do not even go to the cafeteria. After the second day, you will wonder why they do not seem to care that you missed breakfast two days in a row. Perhaps they think that two days is hardly anything, and that you will surely make up for it. Perhaps they think you are responsible enough to eat three meals a day–a fair assumption. Perhaps they do not care. Later, you see in the report that you had “issues arriving on time” but that after “collaborating with the faculty and staff” you fixed yourself. You won't say that the faculty and staff never helped so much as humiliated you. You won’t say that all you did was remember to turn on your alarm this time, that all they did was unhelpfully involve themselves in a situation they didn’t care about other than to report to the parents that they facilitated character growth for their child, because in the end you’re just a story they need to spin into a success story to make the money your parents paid seem worth it. You won’t mention the letter your teacher made you write which she promised not to read, that she read. She wasn’t ashamed of it, either. She’s the one who told you she read it, because you asked three times whether someone would and after saying no three times she decided she simply had to know what it was you wrote. Your TA isn’t ashamed either. She’s the one who tells you they won’t give your letter back. You’re ashamed, though, of what you wrote, of this story that is no longer in your control.


               Is it such a shame, then, that you have a story to tell?


               You will never go to dinner either. You have more interesting things to do than sit alone in a cafeteria, like sit alone in your room. One is a choice, a sworn oath of solitude. The other is a careless ostracization. Each lunch is hell. A warzone. A battle that you have already lost. The class walks over to the cafeteria for lunch and walks back to the classroom afterwards. By the time you finish getting your pizza slice, the table is full. You sit alone at a two-person table and stare at your phone. You recall the teachers complaining about how much time your generation spends on your phone. You wonder if any of them are watching you right now. Judging you. You are humiliated when you walk over to the fruit section and discreetly put apples and bananas in your backpack. You hope no one notices. You don’t know what they would think if they did. Perhaps they would assume that you just want to bring a snack back to your room.


               The sun rises. You do not go to breakfast. Instead, you reach for an apple. You have a bag of chocolates, and you eat a few. Not too many—you need them to last, after all. You have a water bottle that you bring with you everywhere. You will not starve. You don’t want to go hungry. That’s not why you’re skipping meals.


               The sun rises. At some point, you will go to the bathroom to wash your face and fill your water bottle. It is right next to your room. It is Saturday. There are no classes. There’s lunch, if you want it. Eventually, they have an activity. Freedom or not, responsible or not, they can’t just let a bunch of teenagers do nothing all day. You signed up for it earlier, although now you can barely remember the choices. You will get in a bus with a bunch of other kids, sit by yourself, and drive to the zoo. The bus roars and rattles, and still you will doze off. Normally, you have trouble falling asleep on a bed at night, much less on a shaking bus. But this is your second all-nighter ever, and you already know that you’ll crash eventually. You get to the zoo. You’ve been here before—it’s your city, after all. But last time, you were with your family. Now you are an outsider. It’s as if you’re just watching the others experience the zoo.


               It’s August and cloudless. That’s all you need to know about the midday sun. Eventually, you and the other students will all sit at a bench. A staff member will come out with a giant tub of chocolate ice cream (“they were selling ice cream for a cheap price, and I thought, hey, I’ve a bunch of teenagers”) and a lot of spoons. You don’t want to be aggressive. You don’t want to take too much. But the others aren’t that interested, and you love chocolate ice cream. It’s too hot, and the ice cream is blessedly cool. It’s the only substantial food you’ll see that day. You know that ice cream isn’t healthy, and that you shouldn’t eat too much of it, so surely eating too much makes up for one lost meal. At least, your stomach will stop growling. You end up eating most of it.


               Camp wasn’t supposed to be this hard. You never wanted to go in the first place, it’s true, but you hoped that you would make some friends. How did it get this bad? You didn’t think you were this bad at social interaction. They’re nice people. You will hold a few conversations, and none of them are awkward. They’re pleasant. You can hold a conversation. But you don’t know how to start one, nor how to continue one. You text your friends in the evening. Partly because you miss them, and partly because you want to remind yourself that you do have friends. You tell yourself that the kids at camp are just not your sort of people. You’re the type of person that has a few close friends. You wonder what you’re doing at a civic leadership camp.


               You will give a presentation on mental health. You are self-aware enough to know just how many of those signs and symptoms apply to you. You will say that you chose the topic of mental health because of how it applies to your friends and your school, and yes, that’s why you chose it. But you will stare at these rooms filled with civic leaders, and you wonder despairingly how none of them have noticed. They’re just kids, you remind yourself, but there’s so many counter arguments to that, starting with and what of the adults? and ending with so am I. And yet you tell yourself that it’s just for camp. After camp, life will return to normal. You will eat three meals a day, and sleep at least eight hours a night. You will go on walks with your sister, meet up with your friends, and everything will be alright. Three weeks isn’t that long. You will survive. You always do.


               You do not know it at the time, but months later, you realize how much easier this camp made this choice. Because you no longer eat breakfast in the mornings. You’re still hollow with hunger during Spanish class, but there’s nothing you can do about it and, well, you’ll survive. You thought you would go back to eating three meals a day, but you’d taught yourself that you could survive without it. So sometimes you will bring a breakfast to school, and sometimes you won’t, and that will be okay. And yes, on one Saturday claimed by a diving meet you will forget to eat both breakfast and lunch.


               Strangely enough, you will never cry during camp. You never even consider it. You will crawl into your bed at night, whether it’s eleven or three or five in the morning, and pretend the day was fine. One more day, you tell yourself. Just one more day.

EDITORIAL PRAISE

Gut-wrenchingly honest and admirably specific, this essay uses meticulously chosen details and significant moments to evoke a vivid camp setting even through a seemingly monotone experience. Invited by the sharp, strong voice of the second-hand perspective, readers are able to view daily life of a typical, bustling summer camp from a new angle through the keen yet isolated observations of a lonely narrator.

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