Theater Geeks & Anorexic Alpha Bitches: Summer at Performing Arts Camp

Julie Klausner's first YA novel, Art Girls Are Easy, is being released as an original e-book on May 7th; the paperback hits on June 1. Set in the exclusive world of an upscale fine and performing arts camp, Art Girls Are Easy features Indigo Hamlisch, a fifteen-year-old art prodigy. She looks forward to her last summer at camp… but what follows is a comedy of errors involving her BFF Lucy and her longtime crush, art instructor Nick. In this excerpt, Indy's on her way to camp and seeing all of her old pals.

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As she made her way down the bus aisle, Indy waved breezily to Puja Nair, the aspiring playwright, and Yvonne Bremis, the frizzy-haired stand-up comedian. Beside them was teacher and adviser Jen Rant, a onetime Silver Springs camper who was now a twentysomething performance artist. Jen won an Obie award that winter for her one-woman show at P.S. 122 in New York City, themed on slaughterhouses and her experience of growing up adopted. And finally, like a blinding turn into a sunny street or a record scratch in the middle of a movie preview, there was Lucy.

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Lucy Serrano, who stood five-foot-two in kitten heels, was a petite slip of a girl, with a heart-shaped face and big, straight teeth. Lucy couldn’t tan—she only burned—and her whiteblond hair was the kind you’d see only on dolls and in shampoo commercials. So it was no surprise when Lucy landed the gig as the spokesmodel for Pantene’s new line of tween hair care when she went out for the role last fall. Indigo walked to her private school in Manhattan during the year and often passed bus-shelter ads starring Lucy and her golden mop. At first, Indy would swell with pride when she saw them—she felt the need to snap cell-phone pictures of each billboard and text them to Lucy constantly. But the novelty had worn off after a while, and it got to the point where Indy’s brain no longer associated the posters with her best friend. Plus, it didn’t really replace the experience of seeing Lucy in person. It kind of just highlighted the fact that they couldn’t hang out as much as Indy wanted, which was sort of a bummer.

But now her famous friend was there in the flesh, standing tall for such a tiny girl, with the confidence of a tabloid mainstay who knew she wore it better. As Lucy floated down the aisle toward her, Indy shoved the army-navy bag she used as a purse under her seat to make room for Lucy.

"Indy!" Lucy bleated.

"Luce!" she squealed back.

Lucy flung her black Dolce&Gabbana leather duffel into the overhead compartment, exposing her navel as she did. Indigo noticed the flatness of her friend's stomach, and instinctively compared it to the bellies of the statues she'd seen just yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she went to sketch every Saturday morning. Indy had become especially interested in drawing the human form lately, maybe because her own body had just gone such an epic transformation.

But Lucy was another story. Hers wasn't a tummy, or belly, or anything else with a y at the end of it. Lucy had abs, a core, a midriff— it was the anatomical shorthand of the term "hard work." Like a swimmer who shaves his legs to move faster in the water, Lucy had shed the weight she thought was getting in her way on camera. Her ambition was great enough that the vague promise of stardom was enough to make her forget, most of the time, that she hated her life a little more now that ravioli and cake were no longer a part of it. But sometimes art was worth sacrificing things for. Indy knew that all too well, but was relieved hers didn't involve giving up grilled cheese or anything.

Lucy scooted over next to Indigo and hugged her like it was the last time she’d ever see her. “Girl, I missed you,” Lucy said. Indy squeezed her back, then playfully shoved her aside. “All right, all right. You’re suffocating me with Pantween fumes. Do you get a free case of that shit with every paycheck or something?” Indy joked as Lucy took off her cropped jean jacket and settled in. Her best friend laughed. “Not with every one.”

Indigo noticed the bright yellow “Staff ” T-shirt Lucy was wearing, which fit her like a worn, broken-in pair of jeans. The sleeves rested at the exact right spot of her slender upper arms, and the fabric was perfectly faded. She looked effortless, casual, and gorgeous. Suddenly, next to Lucy, Indy felt childish and overdressed in her sunflower-print baby-doll minidress. Why hadn’t she just worn her favorite Ramones shirt instead? She hoisted up the front of her dress to minimize cleavage exposure.

“So,” Lucy gushed, popping the cap off a tube of Carmex and applying the lip balm. “The first thing I have to update you about: remember that guy I told you about on G-chat? Tyler? From Cedarquist?” Lucy’s school seemed to host an endless supply of attractive boys who wanted to date her.

“Tyler or Taylor?” Indigo asked. She vaguely remembered IMing with Lucy in the last month or two and fielding some heartbreak-related exposition about a guy in her class who’d been jerking her around over an invitation to his junior prom. It was one of those chats where Indy could go to the kitchen and fix herself a snack—even toast—and upon her return, Lucy would still be going on and on about so and so’s text and what does it mean, and here’s what she thinks it means, and why. Lucy’s brand of drama did not, on many occasions, need an audience. But usually Indigo didn’t mind typing the appropriate responses, which ranged anywhere from “Aww, how sweet!” to “Ugh. Eff that psycho.”

“Tyler. Not Taylor. Tyler. With the skateboard.”

“The one with all the head injuries?”

“Right, him. He’s semipro now.” Lucy beamed before she launched into the complicated saga of their courtship.

Indy only half listened, relieved to be back in the company of a girl who made her feel like she was the relatively sane one. She was baffled by Lucy’s interest in guys their age. And they were always guys, teenagers that Lucy herself would call “boys” or “kids”—never men. Indy, meanwhile, lusted after authority figures: actors in their forties, friends of her dad’s. She liked the unavailability of older men, and their libido-charged appreciation of her precocity. Indigo couldn’t really take a compliment seriously unless it came from a man who remembered a time before the dial-up modem. Maybe it came from hanging out with her dad’s friends at their cocktail parties growing up, maybe she’d read Lolita before she was old enough to know it was a comedy. Either way, Lucy’s appreciation of boys their age was another of their differences.

In actuality, Indigo was pretty inexperienced with guys. She’d never gone further than an ill-advised make-out or two, but all of the dirty thoughts and scenarios she’d played out in her mind made her feel ten times more experienced than her bubbly friend. And while Lucy cast a wide net with her romantic pursuits, Indy crushed on only a select few. But when a man she liked finally did come around, Indy fell hard. As she did for Nick. She wanted him like crazy.

Lucy grabbed Indy’s arm, practically bursting with girlish excitement. “And, oh my God, Indy. You should see his body. It was just sick. I mean, he wasn’t Jersey Shore buff, but he was fit. We only made out, but I swear, I remember thinking I would go all the way with him.” Now she had Indigo’s full attention. Lucy leaned in close and added in a dramatic stage whisper, “I’d never felt that with anybody else before.”

“So are you going to do it, then?” Indy asked, wide-eyed. “Lose your virginity to Tyler the hot skateboarder?” This was big news. The kind of dirt she was hoping for.

Lucy exhaled loudly, and her mouth twisted into a pout. “Probably not. I mean, we’re going to be at camp for so long and everything.... Also, he started writing me some really weird poems.”

“What kind?” Indy giggled. “Dirty sonnets? Haikus?”

“Not even. Just some really poorly written stuff comparing my body to a smooth half-pipe ramp that he’d like to ride for all eternity.”

Indy guffawed. “Ew! A half-pipe? He sounds like a creep. And maybe a stalker!”

Lucy shrugged her shoulders. “At least he was hot.”

“Speaking of stalking,” Indigo remembered, “I read an article in the Post about this guy that would root around in his ex-girlfriend’s garbage for old Q-tips.”

“Ew! For reals?” “Yup. Apparently, he was collecting her earwax so he could make a candle out of it. He was obsessed with her.”

“Oh my God!”

“I know. Isn’t that insane?”

Indigo began to smile just as the sound in the distance of fifth graders singing show tunes hit Lucy’s ears like a scent reaching a cartoon skunk.

“Ooh!” Lucy squealed. “That’s my cue! See you in a bit?”

Lucy bolted to the front of the bus, where the theater majors held court, and sat next to an annoying actress-y girl whose name Indigo didn’t know. Tiffany? Melissa? Something. Soon, the vehicle ached with a three-part-harmony version of an emo anthem from Spring Awakening. The Silver Springs musical theater geeks had clearly warmed up before boarding the bus.

Before going any further, a distinction should be made between Silver Springs and other camps—the ones with counselors and bunks and color war and relay races and campfires and mosquitos and those kinds of things. Because Silver Springs was by no means a typical summer camp experience.

Set in the dominantly Unitarian section of the Massachusetts Berkshires, Silver Springs was founded in 1972 by the since-deceased “it” couple of Nic and Sunny Heavenfeather-Strauss, a beat poet and ballerina who, before embarking on a dual suicide pact, retired to the least humid section of the Northeast to focus on their mission of teaching watercolors and the Alexander technique to disabled children.

Since then, Silver Springs, named after Sunny’s hometown near Bethesda, Maryland—as well as the haunting Stevie Nicks song—evolved into the premier fine and performing arts summer institution for 175 lucky young women.

There were no counselors at Silver Springs, despite the C in Lucy’s C.I.T. title. There were only instructors and professors that specialized in the camp’s four fields of study: drama, music, dance, and visual art. The Silver Springs campers slept in airconditioned chalets, not cabins, named after famous composers and choreographers—not woodland creatures. The young women of S.S. looked toward Broadway. SoHo galleries. Juilliard. Mark Morris Dance Group. Lincoln Center. And the ones self-aware enough to know that theirs was a mediocre talent were already figuring out how to marry well.

But Indigo and Lucy were never mediocre talents.

Indigo plugged her headphones into her iPod and blasted a playlist made up of Shins and Vampire Weekend songs as she watched the scenery wipe her window from left to right with new trees and sky. They were driving into the Greenwich area of Connecticut for another pickup, and this stop boasted even bigger SUVs, glitzier luggage, and more natural-looking face-lifts and fillers on campers’ mothers than the stop before. Indy scrambled for her bag or for something else she could put on Lucy’s vacated seat next to her so that Eleanor Dash wouldn’t take it. But it was too late.

Eleanor Dash, alpha bitch and professional anorexic, took small, deliberate steps toward her target. Her tiny dancer’s feet made no noise as she approached with intention, and her small eyes narrowed back into her gel-slicked, dirty-blond widow’s peak. She had eyebrows that were plucked into apostrophes. Eleanor looked like a snake circling a mouse, or a Disney villainess.

“Hello, Indigo.” Eleanor slid her bony silhouette into the aisle seat next to Indy.

“Eleanor,” she replied curtly. “How are you?”
“I’m extremely well,” she sneered, crossing her knock-kneed legs, which were already tucked into saggy ballerina tights. Indy shrank toward the window so she didn’t have to be so close—what if her horrible personality was contagious? Eleanor wore a knitted shrug and a short black dress. It seemed basic but probably cost a fortune.

Eleanor’s spiky elbow jabbed Indy in the side as she slid her purse below the seat in front of her. She didn’t apologize. Indy was aghast that Eleanor managed to somehow lose weight since last summer; she was so flat-chested she was practically concave, having halted her body’s baby steps toward puberty with unhealthy weight-loss methods. Indy and Lucy used to joke that for a girl named Dash, it was funny that Eleanor didn’t come with a period.

“So. Did you hear the latest?” asked Eleanor, with the matterof- factness of a seasoned gossiper. Indigo didn’t respond, and even put one of her earbuds back in. But her seatmate persisted.

“...About Nick Estep.”

Indigo dropped her iPod onto the floor, where it narrowly missed the remains of Yvonne’s Caramel Frapp, which seeped aggressively toward the back of the bus. Indy’s chest heaved as she fumbled with the cords, blushing and hiding her face from Eleanor as best she could.

“No,” Indy stammered. “What happened with Nick?”

“He’s not coming back this year.”

Indigo felt her heart begin to thump, and a feeling of dread crept up into her throat like acid reflux.

“Oh, yeah?” she asked. “Why not?” Indy tried to sound casual.

What did Eleanor know about Nick, anyway? She was a dance major; her interactions with the art department were few to none. It went without saying that Nick was the best-looking instructor on site, and you’d have to be blind or from outer space not to know it. But the way Eleanor spoke, it was like she knew him socially. And that made Indy feel sick.

“Why isn’t Nick coming back?”

“I don’t know,” Eleanor continued, inspecting her perfectly manicured pink claws. “Maybe somebody got him fired. And maybe he should have been more careful when it came to pissing off campers with influential parents.”

Indigo’s panic level rose. Eleanor was a creative genius when it came to making up the right lie in order to get people fired—specifically, teachers who’d “wronged” her in some way.

Two years ago, an Alvin Ailey dancer who taught a master class at Silver Springs made the mistake of expressing concern to Eleanor that her pelvis was possibly misaligned. He was fired shortly after Eleanor found a blurry clip of an episode of My Strange Addiction about a man who ate rocks and happened to bear a slight physical resemblance to that very teacher. Apparently, gravel-munching staff members—who were dumb enough to go on TV—did not reflect well on the camp’s reputation.

“So,” Eleanor continued, “what’s new with you and Lucy? Does she still return your calls now that she’s a shampoo star?”

At the mention of her name, Lucy peeked her head into the aisle and glanced her blue mosaic-tile eyes toward Eleanor and Indy. The theater majors around her were still singing, but Lucy’s attention shifted back toward the closely seated duo. She looked concerned and mouthed, “I’m sorry!” It was kind of her fault Indigo was now stuck sitting next to Eleanor.

Indy and Lucy both knew about Eleanor’s rich history of trying to undermine their friendship and generally being the worst person alive. But even so, there was a chance that what Eleanor said was true. Indy’s belly churned with anxiety and melancholy. Hers was a belly, not a ’riff or a stomach or anything else that could be described by words with sharp guttural consonants.

She thought about the e-mail Nick had sent her back in May. Indy didn’t tell anyone about it—not even Lucy, who knew about her crush on Nick since it began, at age eleven, when Nick took Indy’s pudgy hand to guide her as she mixed red powdered pigment and linseed oil with her palette knife. Nick, who was as good on e-mail as he was dispensing quippy advice to the room of art students he taught, had written to Indy to see whether she was coming back to camp this summer. He said he hoped she definitely would, and that she was a “talented girl.” He also mentioned that there was a Gilbert and George exhibition at the New Museum she might want to check out, and ended his e-mail with “Later,” and then “xo, Nick.” Just seeing his name in her inbox made Indy sweat. What’s more, she couldn’t believe that Nick had remembered a detail so specific as that she liked the bold, odd art of Gilbert and George.

Indy wasn’t sure if he was suggesting they go to the show together, but it still took her two weeks to formulate the perfect, casual-seeming response. She signed it with the same “xo” and hoped to God it meant that they were flirting. Much to her disappointment, he’d never written back, but Indy still held on to the original e-mail like a secret treasure. Telling anyone about it—even Lucy—would have caused her to overanalyze Nick’s intentions. It was better to think he’d wanted to meet up with her but just couldn’t.

Indy pictured his face for the millionth time that morning. Nick Estep could be described only as handsome. Not “cute,” as Lucy often called her crushes. Handsome. With his scruffy, dark hair and eyes that seemed to alternate between brooding and amused, Nick looked mature in a way that Indigo found irresistible. He looked strong and real—capable of heavy physical exertion, like he could pick her up in an excited embrace and swing her around after a long time apart.

But the most attractive thing about Nick was his passion. For the process of creating art, the beauty of free speech, his opinion about how the Rolling Stones were better than the Beatles. He was never serious but always serious, in that if he wasn’t committed to his artwork, he would have long ago taken his father up on his offer to work for him back in Newton, Massachusetts. It was lucky he didn’t. Nick was so incredible and amazing at what he did. His art mainly consisted of elaborate photorealistic paintings and metal sculptures that were dark and twisty. His work made him even more deep and fascinating—especially since, in person, he was usually warm and friendly. At least he was whenever he saw Indy.

Indigo hoped Eleanor was just trying to mess with her, saying Nick wouldn’t be there this year. The thought was so unappealing, Indigo closed her eyes and willed it to go away.

She didn’t even realize she’d drifted off until she received another bony jab to the ribs. “Wake up!” Eleanor hissed. Sure enough, the bus was pulling up to campus, and the sign welcoming motorists to Silver Springs elicited cheers and general rabble from the peanut gallery of young campers at the front.

Indigo felt disoriented and groggy. She rubbed her eyes carefully so as not to smudge her mascara and looked out the window. They were just pulling up to the front of the camp. Indy could make out the lush lawn and blue buildings with sloping gray roofs in the near distance. Massive shady trees were spaced evenly throughout the campus, and the Silver Springs camp flag, which bore a feminized coat of arms that represented each discipline taught at camp above the Latin phrase Ars Gratia Artis (“Art is the reward of art”), danced lightly in the breeze. The overall effect was quite ethereal. Indigo began to imagine which colors she would mix to achieve the specific shades of the scene if she were to paint a landscape right now. Chartreuse and goldenrod. Maybe some cerulean.

“You were snoring.” Eleanor smirked, her thin lips a line graph of contempt under her Lancôme burgundy matte stick. “It was pretty annoying.”

That was rich, coming from her. Indy gathered her things: she couldn’t wait to get off this bus and avoid Eleanor for the rest of the summer.

As the girls lined up like elegant, talented cattle down the bus aisle, the camp director, Lillian Meehan, greeted each camper as she exited with a lei made from organic peonies tied together with red kabbalah string. Lillian was tall and amiable, and thin enough to look great in clothes, though not necessarily pretty. Basically, she was Glenn Close with dark hair and a whistle around her neck.

Lucy looked back at a still-sleepy, rumpled Indigo before getting off the bus. As the two girls made eye contact for the first time since their light dish session about Tyler or Taylor or whoever, Lucy smiled and winked at her friend, and Indy felt the warm rush of camaraderie wash over her. She smiled back and soon enough emerged from the bus into the warm kiss of sunlight on the grassy patch, where Lillian greeted her with a lei. And when she lifted her face to take in the familiar postcard of the sprawling green campus before her, Indigo found something small and sublime in its composition.

There, on the lawn of the main sprawl of Silver Springs, right near the office, stood Nick Estep, holding a blowtorch to a lifesize rectangular metal sculpture. Goggles rested over his longish hair, which trickled onto the collar of his Nirvana T-shirt in the Berkshires sunlight. Indigo’s heart rocketed to every point on the surface of her skin. He was here after all.

“What. The fuck.” Eleanor said, to no one in particular, putting her spindly hand on her hip in protest. Indy crossed her hands over her chest as though she was trying to keep her heart from leaping out into the fire at the end of Nick’s torch, and made her way toward the main house, where the staff were handing out bunk assignments. Indigo smiled. She was in a beautiful setting with an endless supply of paints; her best friend was there, and so was Nick. All of the elements of a brilliant summer were perfectly in place. Now it was just up to her to create it.

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From Art Girls Are Easy by Julie Klausner. Republished with permission. Follow Julie Klausner on Tumblr and Twitter.