When I was about fourteen, ....
... I had a crush on my scout leader. Her scout name was Ramita. For a whole school year I was under the spell of a woman twenty years older than I. Even though we lived only five minutes from each other, we wrote lengthy letters, at first at least one a day. She picked me up from school, organized her family life (she was married and had children) so that we could go out and walk along the beach, and went dancing with me.
I joined the scouts because my classmate, Judith, took me with her once to a meeting. During summer camp, Judith and I turned out to be good scouts. Our troop's tent, with six scouts in it, was always tidy. The sink and table-top stove in our kitchen were solidly lashed down with rope and posts as thick as your wrist. They didn't collapse as in other kitchens. We checked everything every day.
We were well disciplined. We kept the fire burning under the huge kettle all day so there was always warm water for everybody; especially our leader. We managed to use the right knot to tie the guy rope to the tent peg. When walking through camp we picked up candy wrappers and loose objects: pieces of rope, tent pegs, tin mugs, and stored them away. We did whatever needed to be done.
We didn't like simple, silly songs with no harmony line, like “She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain” but were fond of complex German rounds like “Alles
ist eitel, du aber bleibst.” We wanted to be good scouts: pure in thought, Word, and deed. We wanted to earn our camping merit badge, but more importantly, we wanted Ramita to see us and pay us compliments. After all, she saw everything, didn't she, even when we thought that nobody was noticing.
There was always a lot to talk about in our troop of twenty infatuated and fretful
thirteen-, fourteen- and
fifteen-year old girls. Some had had their first period, others hadn't. Some were rich, some poor. Some girls were college prep students, some attended vocational trade schools. Some were from strict
protestant families, others had atheist parents.
Despite the disparities, we shared one common fascination. As if spellbound, we discussed the intimate friendship between our two leaders, Ramita and Orion. There was a lot for us to fantasize about. They never let on that there was much more between them than an especially close friendship. Yes, we knew they sometimes sat up all night talking. But what else did they do besides talk?
Judith and I didn't hang around with each other all the time, and like everybody else we added in our own way to the miracle of turning a motley bunch into a coherent, summer camp community in ten days' time. What was it that inspired us, not just Judith and me, but the other scouts as well? It was the “magnificent, unsurpassed” Ramita, as she was called in one of the log books.
We were building-blocks in Ramita's hands. She it was who cemented us into a close-knit structure. She knew how to create a special atmosphere with little things. At night, when it was dark and we were in our tents, she and Orion sang us quiet, peaceful songs. When they prepared a nice dinner for us and someone asked her what ingredients she had used, Ramita replied, “It was made with love.”
Even though Ramita was twenty years older, she was much more our equal than our school teachers. Whatever she taught us, she taught with great enthusiasm, whether folk dancing or braiding a lanyard for a whistle. When dealing with a serious issue, like the morning service (something that should never be taken casually), or when talking to us about insensitive behavior towards each other, she was always sincere and wise, convinced of the values she instilled in us.
Ramita was someone we liked to listen to. She talked to us in a different way than did our teachers and parents. She made us feel that we could discuss anything with her. One of the ways to gain her complete attention was to have a “problem.” Having a problem provided you with the opportunity to be alone with her, to go for a walk outside the campsite. You could win this special privilege by remaining silent for a long time, staring pensively into nothing, hoping against hope that she would ask, “What's troubling you?” That was the ultimate in intimacy!
She expected a lot from us, but, unlike our other educators who just nagged us, she challenged us to fulfill the expectations she had of us. We ran around doing anything for her. She energized us. There's nothing as highly charged as a bunch of adolescents looking for a way to get rid of their tension.
As the camp days wore on, I became more and more obsessed with being a good scout in order to win a special place in Ramita's heart. Moreover, she was my Manitou. At the beginning of camp everybody drew a name by secret lot and then that person became your Manitou. You had to keep an eye on her and do nice things for her.
At the beginning of the ten long days of summer camp I didn't know quite what I was expected to do. But half way through I got the hang of it: Does Ramita want another mug of tea? I had poured it before she even realized that she wanted it. Is she warm enough? Does she want to wear my sweater? (My sweater against her body, that's what I wanted!) Does she look worried? If I thought she did then I could ask her if anything was wrong. That was how I became intimate with her, how I got to see her in the morning when I served Orion and her their breakfast in their tent. She whispered to me to be very quiet because Orion was still sleeping.
They had been talking well into the night.
During the last campfire evening everybody had to guess who their Manitou had been, and then sit down next to her. So Ramita sat down next to me. The whole evening! The whole troop was being so sentimental.
It was so terrible that camp was nearly over. Besides, it was also Ramita's final evening. This camp would be her last: she was leaving scouting. We all knew how hard it must be for her to part from us. She was addicted to us. At the end of the campfire it all became too much, and I burst into tears. Then sweet comfort, she put her arm around me and pulled me tight against her. I was already sharing her blanket, because I was cold.
When camp was over I felt desperate. We had had such a good time together, had managed to make this camp into a little piece of heaven on earth. Ramita had given us so much. It wasn't just Judith and I who wanted to hold on to the camp atmosphere and talk about Ramita and Orion. During the last week of summer holidays, we campers kept looking each other up. We went for walks on the beach at six o'clock in the morning, until we couldn't walk any further. We paid nervous little visits to Ramita, and went biking in the woods with her and her small children. The only ray of hope to us was that in the end Ramita would somehow remain the leader of our scout troop.
By the time I had to return to school in September, I was suffering from loss and even feigning illness. While my mother cleaned out my closet and while my classmates were learning French, I was in bed writing letters to Ramita. Because of my illness, of course it was impossible for me to look her up. She just had to know everything about me, but where to begin? “Dearest Ramita”
— no, that was no good. For me, in the past, everything dearest was stupid and sentimental, not how I felt about Ramita. “Dear” was completely impossible, and a simple, “Hello” was much too lighthearted.
I finally decided on “Dearest” and then told her everything — why animals were my best friends and how that happened. Until then I had told everything to my pony, stabled in a nearby, run-down barn. I told
Ramita how I felt about life, how unreliable people were, about my time at camp, and my feelings there.
It was at camp that I began to think about myself, maybe provoked by all the talking and singing the campers did together. Had my spiritual deepening come through the scout ceremonies? For the first time in my life I felt awakening in me a consciousness of something deeper. I wanted to tell her all about it: she was the one who had started the whole process.
All day I thought about her; carried on imaginary conversations with her. The vague emotions I felt were so intense that I simply didn't understand what was coming over me. For the first time in my life I needed another person to whom I could express my feelings. A human reaction to what I am going
through — her reaction — was now to me indispensable. Weakened by passion, I yearned for her support, needed her to balance the crises in my school life: homework, bad grades, peer pressure, wearing nylons, attending dance classes. Everything was a crisis only she could solve.
I also started to write letters to the other scouts who were attending the same school, and they to me. Our hidden purpose was to imitate Orion and Ramita, who wrote letters to each other all the time. My letters were a subterfuge for discussing her. The letter-writing mania began to infect girls in my class who were not even scouts. The letters, sometimes written on test paper, sometimes in our school note book, were mostly composed during class.
We didn't mail them — that took too much time for an
answer — but hand-delivered the letters to each other during breaks.
Ramita also preferred to hand her letters to me in person. Her secret words thrilled me,
“I took this letter back home again because you were not around and I did not feel like handing it to your sister. Not everybody needs to know that we write to each other.”
The whole affair was exhausting me.
Of all my other scout friends, I was most in touch with Gonnie, not because we were really
friends — in fact, I thought she was quite detestable — but because she was trying to get involved with Orion the way I was with Ramita. I could think of nothing except Ramita and certainly could not concentrate on school and homework. At the end of the school year, I knew I would be kept back.
I wrote the following advice to Gonnie, who suffered the same problems with Orion:
“It's terribly annoying to have to constantly think of Orion. It makes you an outsider in class, because your mind is so busy on something they can't understand, because they have never experienced anything like it. They can't understand that you can love somebody so much that it almost drives you crazy. (Of course I experience the same with Ramita). There is nothing to talk about with your classmates and you keep your distance from them. I'm almost over it now, at least when I am at school, but at home it's impossible to keep my thoughts together. I can't even do my homework. You really have to try to put Orion out of your mind and think of something else. I know it's incredibly hard, but I'm sure you will manage, otherwise you will end up all cut about it.”
I longed for the intimate friendship with Ramita that she had with Orion. I was in love with their friendship, the intimacy I sensed at camp that they had together. That was my goal: to take Orion's place. I dressed like her, went to Amsterdam to buy the same unfashionable orthopedic shoes she wore, tried to find the exact same skirt, even imitated her handwriting.
The letters we scouts wrote to each other touched on all kinds of superficial subjects: the French lessons I was taking, the latest record by Françoise Hardy, “Dis moi que tu as.” In my letters to Ramita I set myself a different standard: not to drivel on. I dared to touch on more subjects in writing than I was willing to share in her presence.
The tone of her letters to me was a mixture of seduction and scout leadership. Distance only increased the tension, required countless drafts. On the back of an envelope, which had contained one of her letters, I wrote an a clear hand:
“Oh Ramita, how I long to tell you everything, but I am not sure how. You are so terribly sweet. If only you knew how much I love you, and how incredibly much I appreciate you.”
I never had the courage to send it.
As soon as one of her letters arrived, I read her closing. At first she simply wrote “love,” followed soon by “lots of love” and then “lots and lots of love,” or “'bye, little darling, all my love.”
We devised plans to meet each other outside our daily exchanges, for instance by attending a song-fest weekend with the whole scout troop. I corresponded with her about where she wanted to sleep and was beside myself with joy when she wrote,
“I want a bed next to you.”
I wrote her name on all the pages of my notebook. I lived for the moments I could see her or receive one of her letters. Often, on my way from school, I joined her for tea and handed her that day's letter. Every now and then she picked me up from school, with one of her small children seated on the back and one on the front of her bike. I held the handlebar and when her hand closed over mine I felt violent shocks.
Perhaps what I felt was the same as what Carla, a classmate, felt when Hans, a twelfth grade student she went steady with, touched her. I could hear myself telling her,
“I know what that feeling is you're having with Hans. I feel the same when Ramita touches me.”
And the feeling was getting stronger all the time.
Saturday afternoons I visited the church community center where Ramita ran a folk-dancing group. She had insisted that I join the group. We danced the polka together a zillion times. She grabbed me firmly around the waist and made me float all over the tiny dance floor. We spun around and around and I was perfectly happy. I looked deeply into her eyes, in an agony. Later, at home, I couldn't do anything except gaze aimlessly for hours trying to recapture the slowly waning electricity of the moment.
Then, quite suddenly, in mid-October, after a month and a half of feeling this way, the situation changed quite dramatically. Ramita informed us that we should no longer write or visit her, but she continued to correspond occasionally with a few of us scouts, and with me daily. I was more convinced than ever that she had something special with me.
In early October, she had even written that she missed me terribly when I wasn't at a scout meeting.
“Sometimes I just miss you. Then I am inclined to look you up and ask you to do I-don't-know-what with me.”
I remember clearly, it was a Monday evening. She had picked me up from my confirmation class. She told me that, for the time being, she was renouncing all contact with us. Suddenly too, there I was, all lumped together with the other scouts. “All of you,” she said devastatingly.
I thought I had enough to distract me. Besides homework and tests, I was busy preparing for the school musical revue. It involved half of my classmates and almost all the scouts in the school. But I missed Ramita terribly. I went to our front door twenty times a day to check the doormat for any white envelopes, and ran as many times to my room to hide my disappointment from the rest of the family.
Judith had to run an errand to Ramita's house and I told her to give Ramita a note saying to get in touch with me. One evening, Ramita picked me up at my confirmation class and handed me a letter. It was stem,
“It is indeed the right decision to break off visits and letters with all of you. I hope you feel about this the same way I do. In every respect it's better to put a stop to this highly emotional behavior and all this clinging to each other.”
She went on then, treating me like an adult, sharing with me the emotional confusion between her and Orion:
“Sadly, I have hardly seen Orion, and the times I really could and had the time to, Gonnie was there. All of midterm break she sat there clinging tooth and nail to Orion.”
At least her letter gave me the chance of answering, and so our correspondence started again, but not as frequently as before.
In November, Ramita kept completely aloof. The school revue was claiming all my attention. Everyone in the musical was so worked up about it: the cheering crowds, the lights, the costumes, the make-up. I could rid myself of all that weighty, sentimental business!
When I saw Ramita in church, I was the one who was now aloof, even surly. She couldn't stand that. Just after Christmas I received two letters in one envelope. One was so sweet it was almost too much so, but the other was frank,
“There must be something wrong. I want to know the truth. You act as though you no longer appreciate my company. I think this is terrible and I can't bear it any longer.
I've been laying awake all night thinking about it. What have I done to hurt you?”
In my reply I kept my distance. I didn't feel any more like carrying on. I didn't have the stomach, or cruel streak, to hurt her.
But the old fire flared up in me again. Where did she stand? What attitude should I adopt? It was time to call her by her first name, not her scout name, I thought. So, I wrote a passionate letter to explain it all to her.
During Christmas holidays, Ramita and Orion went off on a trip together. When they got back, Ramita confessed to me that she had never informed Orion about our friendship or correspondence. “I had no special reason to tell her,” she wrote by way of excuse. I had my own theory, that she was afraid that Orion would be jealous of the intensity or our friendship.
About a month later, when she and I were making plans to bicycle to summer camp together, she asked me not to tell Orion about our plans. Their friendship was tough going again. I knew it was. But, when I saw Ramita and Orion dancing together at the festivities on Baden-Powell day, I was madly jealous. She never paid any attention to me at all. Afterwards, she wrote lamely,
“Darling, I know it's little or no use to explain. I know what it feels like from bitter experience. You shouldn't be jealous of Orion. Please try to get over it. Don't ever forget that I love you very much and wouldn't let you down for 30 Orions!”
By March, however, our letters were gradually becoming more level-headed. Ramita was becoming less superior, less the adult writing to the adolescent, less tense. She writes,
“I feel that our relationship is steady enough now for us not to slide back into the foolishness of September and October. Our friendship is real now, much less sentimental. You've seen enough of my follies to know that I am just a human being, with all the accompanying faults and failings.”
That summer bike trip we spent endless moments fantasizing about
was suddenly canceled. She is pregnant, constantly busy with her pregnancy. She keeps telling me how happy her husband and she are about it. I don't want to hear anything about it. Last year, my mother had played the same trick on me. You just can't do that to a girl in puberty. Our relationship begins to trail off.
* * *
Now, more than twenty years later
... I am amazed that we never had sex together, or even kissed. It might have relieved the intensity. In a way though, writing about it here, and thinking it over, I am also glad that we did not. I felt confused enough as it was.
I felt that I had gained insight into her life, but to what avail? It had only left me impotent, jealous, filled with yearning, filled with obscure but nonetheless intense emotions. Hadn't our relationship been erotic enough already? Would I have been able to deal with adult sexuality?
To me even kissing seemed frightening, dirty. My erotic fantasies about boys did not go far. A little walking hand in hand with a boy down a busy street was enough to excite me. I knew about sex though. My friend Judith's family subscribed to one of the Dutch sexological magazines and there were articles about fucking. I loathed the idea that my parents had actually done something like that, or, even worse, still did it.
My desires were certainly sexual; sexuality must have been one of the motives for doing everything for her, why I waited so expectantly for every meeting and every letter. I don't think that I then had the slightest idea of how I could have fulfilled those desires.
In a certain way, not having sex made things clear. She was married and had children and a busy social life. I had to adjust to the facts. My rights in the friendship were not so clearly defined. Without sex I was not in the position to claim anything from her. All I could do was confront her with my expectations, as for instance when I asked her why she had danced with Orion and not with me. She pulled the
strings, set the limits, had the upper hand.
My view of those scouting years has
In the seventies, when I first hung out in women's cafes, having been a scout appeared to be an advantage. Some of the best feminists had also once earned their merit badges. Now I suddenly understood the hot-blooded atmosphere at the camps, the constant longing to see each other afterwards. Without ever having been there, I experienced the sensation of the women's camps at Femo, where women fell in love with each other in huge numbers. In those days we feminists put everything into a lesbian perspective.
I looked back upon my scouting years and all of a sudden I noticed all kinds of crushes. Many of us were in love with Ramita, especially me; but Judith and I were in love with each other, and Connie with Orion. Ramita was a lesbian woman who was channeling her desires. She had had her favorites before. There had been, in the years prior to my knowing her, two scouts who were always circling around her, even outside of scouting. They were referred to as her paladins. I was now convinced that she and Orion had had an affair. My infatuation with Ramita acquired a clarity and a label that it had not had before: my first lesbian experience.
But now, after another fifteen years have passed
... and I have had the chance to reread the letters, I doubt whether it ever occurred to her that making love to another female person was even possible.