Toni with an ‘i’

 

As a young teenager, I usually spent my summers nursing crushes on teen idols that I found in Teen Beat magazine, and scotch taping pictures of Ricky Shroder, Rob Lowe, and eventually Axle Rose all over my bedroom walls. When I finally realized that these men were not within my reach, I moved on to more tangible crushes – boys in high school who made fun of my unshaved legs and faint, but noticeable, moustache. I wasted hours in the bathroom pasting scotch tape to my upper lip and ripping it off the way my mother did with the Sally Hansen wax strips she bought from Woolworth’s. When my mother realized that my interests were limited to scotch tape and the occasional magazine, she decided to send me away to an Armenian summer camp in Connecticut for two weeks. The agreement was that if I liked it there, I could stay longer.

The night before we were leaving I went into the living room where my mother was watching T.V. I braced myself before asking her the one most important question that had been on my mind since she had told me she was carting me off to this place.

“Can I please shave my legs?” I blurted out.

Instead of yelling at me to drop it like she usually did, she stared at the television screen and dipped her hand into a bag of salted watermelon seeds and cracked one between her teeth. An old-fashioned Lebanese-Armenian woman, my mother believed that girls should not shave their legs until they reached the age of fifteen. Where this number was derived from is still a mystery to me, and what made it worse – I was still a year away from it.

“Please?” I asked.

She usually had two reactions during these moments: she either screamed at me to stop asking stupid questions and disappear, or ignore me. I stood there waiting for an answer, and, after a few minutes, I also became absorbed with the entanglements of the characters in Knots Landing, as Paige Mattheson walked across the screen wearing a pink mini-skirt. When I shave my legs, I’m going to buy that mini-skirt and wear it on the weekends, I promised myself.

 

After our bus pulled in and unloaded, I found myself sitting on an enormous rock and watching campers running over to each other, shooting questions back and forth in rapid succession, “How are you?” “When did your bus pull in?” “What cabin number are you?” “Who’s your counselor?” Some of the campers were familiar to me because I knew them from the small community of Armenians in New York. When no one spoke to me on the bus, I chalked it up to the fact that they were waiting out the formalities until we reached the campsite.

Eventually, all the campers and counselors had evacuated the main area and I had the campsite to myself. I started walking around, unconcerned of my whereabouts, although I was experiencing the nagging sensation that I had misplaced myself. Finally a random counselor spotted me and said, “Are you lost?” I wasn’t sure how to answer. I was lost, in fact, but was unbothered by it.

“I’m not sure where everyone is,” I said.

“Well, what’s your cabin number?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, feeling the usual humiliation reddening my face.

“Who’s your counselor?” she asked, a bit more perturbed.

“I don’t know,” I repeated, panicking. My lovely nature walk had turned into an annoying interrogation.

“Hang on,” she said. There was the vague scent of Charlie perfume in the air, her charm bracelets jingling as she flipped through the pages on her clipboard.            “What’s your name?”

“Toni,” I said, surprising myself. “Toni with an ‘i’.”

Last name, please,” she said, more irritated and without looking up at me.

“Zilelian.”

After a few moments she said, “I see an Aida Zilelian here, but not a Toni Zilelian.”

“Aida’s my middle name,” I said, correcting her, “but I guess my mother put it down like that.”

“Okay, Toni,” she said, and because I was so elated by the sound of my newfound identity I didn’t pay attention to a word she was saying.

“ – and that’s where you’ll find your counselor, so if you have any questions you can ask her.”

“What was my cabin number again?” I asked.

“Five,” she repeated tersely. “Are you like, alive? Hello?” she said, waving a hand across my face.

After finding cabin number five, I walked in and a group of what appeared to be my bunkmates was sitting on the floor and attentively listening to the counselor, who was in the midst of explaining the campground rules. I quietly parked myself next to the door to continue listening, but she stopped speaking and looked at me. “Hi.” But from her tone what she really meant to say was, ‘Who the hell are you?’

“Hi,” I said, as the girls started to whisper. I was wearing long denim shorts that cut off at the knees, and I was hoping they weren’t staring at what they could see of my legs.

“Can I help you?”

“Um, I was a little lost and one of the counselors said I’m in this cabin.”

Lost?” she repeated. “How did you getlost? What’s your name?”

“Toni,” I said, with more confidence.

Last name,” she emphasized, as I mentally flagged myself for repeating the same mistake.

The conversation that followed was the same one I had suffered through with the first counselor, and then she noticed the discrepancy of my first name.

“How is your name ‘Toni’,” she said mockingly, “if it says ‘Aida’ here?” she asked, tapping on her clipboard with a pen that had a pink fluffy cap on top.

“I guess my mother thought since it’s an Armenian camp we should use my Armenian name, which is my middle name,” I explained, “but I’m really used to Toni, with an ‘i’,” I added quickly under my breath.

It’s not that this counselor was blatantly mean, or maybe she was. But more notably, she was wearing those big Benetton socks I hated so much and frosted pink lipstick with her hair tied in a lop-sided ponytail. She was the Armenian version of the girls in my junior high school. Her nose was also suspiciously small, which was not typical for most Armenians. Although my nose is not particularly large, I do have a slight bump that I inherited from my father’s side of the family. I decided this girl had had a nose job, and I felt sorry for her. I imagined her first nose resembling something akin to a pelican’s beak, but flesh-colored.

“Why don’t you take a seat then, Toni,” she said. I couldn’t tell if she was impressed with my name or had figured out that I had invented it.

I came to find out that my counselor’s name was Taline, a very typical Armenian name that was popular in our small ethnic community. All my bunkmates trailed after her as if she was their big sister, and they had adopted the same enthusiasm for my name as she had. “Toni, have you seen my Agree conditioner?” or “Toni, why don’t you shave your legs?” They were probably jealous, since they had been condemned to names similar to Taline’s: Hasmig, Kohar, and Adrine, for example. There was no room in their circle for the likes of a Toni –  from New York, no less.

Even among these characters there were a few who were unlike the others. There was Janet, who was a tomboy and was always playing with a soccer ball. She had very short blondish hair with one extremely long strand that was always kept braided. Her name was not an Armenian one, and after a brief investigation the girls’ findings revealed Janet’s black mark that would isolate her from the rest: she was only half Armenian. Tamar, who did not suffer Janet’s affliction, carried around a small black Bible and rarely spoke to anyone. On the rare occasions that she set it down to go use the bathroom or take a shower, my bunkmates hid her Bible and watched with quiet amusement as she desperately searched for it, nearly in tears until someone took pity and slipped it under her pillow when she wasn’t looking.

Their playful pranks on me were less imaginative and more cliché, inspired by the typical 80’s summer camp movies, no doubt: dipping my hand in cold water while I was sleeping, pouring honey into the bottom of my sleeping bag before lights out, magic-markering the Turkish flag on my forehead when I was asleep.

Similar to the handsome celebrities at home, I didn’t need to talk to any boys to have crushes on them. Raffi Sevajian was a first-year counselor who had been spending his summers at the camp since he was in grade school. The campers welcomed him warmly, and my bunkmates, who had been there the years before, lavished him with compliments and offered to do him favors. I sat back quietly, admiring his boyish smile and navy blue Converse sneakers. Although he was not particularly talkative, he was keenly aware of the girls’ tizzy every time he walked by. What added to Raffi’s status was that once he returned home in the fall he would be a senior in high school. It did not help matters that he had green eyes, an unheard-of feature since most Armenians have brown.

Perhaps if I’d had a confidant, my crush on Raffi would not have intensified so. He didn’t know who I was until the fifth day at camp when I was sitting on the steps of my cabin and sipping a bottle of water. I looked up and noticed him walking across the field in my general direction. I temporarily lost my ability to swallow and started coughing uncontrollably. He approached me as I turned red and tears streamed down my face.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

I nodded and kept coughing as I pointed to the water bottle, unable to choke out any words.

“Ooooh, the water went down the wrong way,” he concluded, and I nodded again relieved that he would not be able to discern the redness from my blush of embarrassment.

He walked away and once I recovered from my choking I replayed the incident in my head. Clearly, he had been concerned. Maybe he liked me. Why else would he take the time to walk up to me and make sure I was okay. “Are you okay?” I would hear his voice echo in my mind as I fell asleep at night.

 

There were two days of camp left, although my mother reminded me when I had called her that I had the option of staying for another two weeks. That afternoon, I snuck out of swimming early, and was relieved to find the cabin empty. I lay down on my cot and thought of my course of action concerning Raffi. We hadn’t spoken since the water bottle incident. Instead of telling him how I felt, I decided to give up my infatuation and go home at the end of the week. Three of my bunkmates walked in. Usually they would walk through the door and keep chatting away, not noticing me, but this time they stopped and approached me.

“Can we talk to you?” one girl said. Her name was Hasmig. She was wearing her hair in a sideways ponytail, and her lips were smeared with glittered lip-gloss. I could smell the strawberry scent from where I was sitting.

“Sure.”

“We want to tell you something, but you have to promise not to tell anyone or you’ll mess everything up,” Hasmig continued. I looked at the other two girls – Karine and Kohar – and they stood behind Hasmig like two meek bodyguards.

“Okay, what is it?”

“We talked to Raffi today.”

“Uh-uh.”

“He really really likes you, but he’s so shy and he doesn’t know if you like him.”

“Okay…”

They all stared at me. A moment passed.

“Well?” Hasmig asked, irritated.

“Well what?”

“Do you like him?” Unwilling to give an answer, I stared at her.

“Listen, you can tell us. He wants to know so he can ask you to the dance tomorrow night.”

“There’s a dance?” I asked, sitting up nervously.

I had a vision of Molly Ringwald in “Pretty in Pink” wearing her hand-made gown to the prom, how her unlikely counterpart had confessed his love at the end of the movie.

“You didn’t know? At the end of every session there’s a dance.”

“Well, he’s nice – ” I started to say.

“Yesss!” Hasmig squealed and jumped up. “I knew it. Listen,” she was talking so quickly I could barely keep up. “Tomorrow night he’s going to be alone by the swimming pool at 7:15pm right after dinner. All you have to do is come up to him and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

“For what?”

“Ugh!” Hasmig looked back at the two girls and rolled her eyes. “Say ‘yes’ if you want to go to the dance with him or ‘no’ if you don’t. That way you save him the embarrassment of rejection.”

I took two showers the next day: one in the morning and one before dinner. Hasmig even let me borrow her strawberry glitter lip-gloss and purple mascara.

“You look so hot!” she said. “He’ll probably want to kiss you, so be prepared. Here, you can even borrow my lip-gloss,” and she put it in my hand.

After she left I sat on my bunk bed considering the possibility of being kissed by Raffi. I had never actually kissed a boy on the lips before. One time when I was ten, my mother caught me kissing the television set during a re-run of Batman, when I knew that Boy Wonder would appear on the screen for more than seven seconds. I didn’t know what was more jolting: my mother grabbing my arm to tear me away or the static that sizzled my lips upon first contact. I decided that I would kiss him the way I kissed a person on the cheek: lips firmly making contact with his, waiting two seconds – I didn’t want to seem greedy – and then stepping back.

After dinner I slowly made way through the main circle to the swimming pool. My heart was banging away in my chest and my mouth was uncomfortably dry. I was gripping Hasmig’s lip-gloss so hard in my hand that it kept slipping from the perspiration. As I approached the area I saw not one, but two figures by the swimming pool. One was definitely Raffi and the other was my cabin counselor, Taline. They were standing very close to one another talking.

“Hi,” I said, and stood in front of them, and they stepped back from each other.

“Aren’t you supposed to be with the girls for the camp fire?” Taline asked.

I ignored her and looked at Raffi, almost shaking with nerves.

“Yes,” I said, looking into his eyes, smiling hard.

“‘Yes’ what?” he replied, looking completely confused.

 

“Yes,” I repeated. “We can go to the dance,” I said.

“Who?” he said.

“Me. You.”

“Oh my God,” Taline said under her breath in a low chuckle, and looked away.

“Listen,” he began and then asked, “What’s your name again?”

“Toni.”

“Toni. Okay, Toni. I’m not sure why you’re here, but – ”

He was interrupted by Taline, who finally lost complete control and started cackling.

“Oh my God!” she laughed loudly.

I watched them both for a moment, and she continued laughing as Raffi looked down at the floor sheepishly. In one swift motion, I turned and sprinted across the campgrounds to my cabin. Thankfully, there was no one there and as nighttime approached I dozed off until the next morning. When I woke up I saw Hasmig and her two cohorts getting dressed and chatting away. I turned my back to them, feigning sleep, but it was too late and they noticed I was up.

“So Toni,” I heard Hasmig’s voice, “how did it go last night?”

I pretended to be asleep for the next three hours until Taline came into the bunk to see why I wasn’t up with the rest of the campers.

“I think I have a fever,” I said weakly, which gave me the allowance of staying in my cabin all day Saturday through Sunday morning when the bus would be waiting to take me back home.

As I packed, I made a mental list of things I wished I’d had the gumption to do. For the first time, I wanted to use a razor on something other than my legs; I wished that I could shave off Hasmig’s and Taline’s eyebrows while they were sleeping or dump Nair hair remover into their shampoo bottles. I wanted revenge and I didn’t have the patience to wait.

In the end, I didn’t do anything. As I stood on the long line of campers boarding the bus I was grateful to be heading home. I got to my seat and looked through the window watching other campers who were staying another session. They were headed towards the swimming pool. No particular realizations dawned on me. I wondered in passing if experimenting with my name is what had ultimately alienated me from the rest of the girls. I heard the other kids on the bus chatting away and exchanging phone numbers and addresses, and I felt the regret of leaving empty-handed. But after the bus pulled onto I95 I remembered Hasmig’s lip-gloss. I wish I could say I had cleverly withheld it from her, but the truth was that I had forgotten to give it back. I took it out of my small carry-on duffel bag and carefully applied it to my lips, smiling as I made my way back home.

Red Fez – Fall 2011

http://www.redfez.net/nonfiction/327