I was born missing my left hand, and as a teen, I attended a camp for children with limb differences, which we lovingly called Amp Camp. In middle-of-nowhere, Ohio, with hundreds of other 10- to 17-year-old amputees, we did all the things able-bodied kids do at camp: we sang by the fire, we challenged each other on the obstacle course, we created those quintessentially useless arts-and-crafts creations with raw spaghetti and glue. And as is true for all camp kids, we couldn’t wait till it was lights out, so we could freely talk about sex.
I was almost 17 years old when my parents brought up sending me, and at first, I didn’t want to go. I was insulted by the assumption that disabled people would be friends just because they share a disability: it seemed like sending a bunch of brunettes to camp and telling them they have to bond over their hair. But my mom insisted that I attend. “You have to go,” she said. “I know it’ll change your life.”
“My life is fine,” I said. “I don’t need to hang out with a bunch of other one-handed people to know that.”
“Then go to give back. Show them you’re fine. You could inspire someone.”
I hated the word inspire. But I could tell I wasn’t getting out of this.
As we packed up the car, my dad said, “Maybe you’ll find a boyfriend there!”
I rolled my eyes. Why did he think I could only date another disabled person? I was confused about my sexuality at this point—but even more confused about the assumptions already placed upon my differently abled body. I was used to being told something along the lines of, “My cousin has a friend who has a friend who once saw a guy in Starbucks that has one hand! You should date!” It wasn’t that I didn’t find disabled people dateable; I did. I just didn’t understand why everyone assumed we could only date each other.
My dad poked me in my side. “Come on, I’m kidding. You can laugh,” he said. I didn’t, because I knew he wasn’t kidding at all.
I didn’t find a boyfriend at amp camp, or a girlfriend, or any partner. But it turns out being surrounded by people with limb differences like mine was exactly what I needed, particularly when it came to learning about sex.
Outsiders might think that a group of disabled teenagers at camp wouldn’t be sexually experienced or curious. Disabled women often get deemed asexual, if we’re not fetishized in hyper-aggressive ways. (Google “amputees and devotees” and you’ll get the point.) But like most teenagers, we at amp camp were sluts in training.
After my parents drove away, I felt sick to my stomach with anxiety—until the prettiest girl that I had ever seen grabbed my bags and took me to my cabin. Lisa had long brown hair, olive skin, and a killer body. I admired her breasts under her white t-shirt, her high-tech prosthetic leg stretching out from under her ass, which was perfectly situated in blue Soffe shorts.
I assumed she was too cool for me. And then I realized that she was too cool for me, officially: she was my counselor.
“Make some friends!” Lisa said, before she turned to head out to greet the rest of the campers. I was anxious all over again. The cabin was filled with rows of bunk beds, the bottom ones taken up by pretty, sweet-smelling girls with long hair and painted fingernails—even on their prosthetics, if they had them. They were a clique. I put my suitcase down on the one remaining bottom bunk that didn’t look taken.
“That bed is taken,” said a girl with long braids wrapped into a bun on top of her head. She stood on two long prosthetic legs. I awkwardly crawled up to a top bunk and sat in silence, nervously dripping with sweat.
My fellow top bunkmates were on a different level. The girl to my right was picking her scabs, the girl to my left was staring at a Gameboy. They were not sweet-smelling. I had vowed to myself that I would be social, so I called out “Hey” to no girl in particular. The girl picking her scabs said “Hey” back, flicking dead skin from under her nails.
Alexandria, the scab girl, was my first friend at camp. She had chronic acne and only wore (decidedly uncool) Aeropostale sweat suits; she was also missing her left arm. We hardly had anything in common besides that.
The first day, we sort of followed each other around, awkwardly playing sports and sharing meals in silence. She cringed whenever I cursed, and eventually asked me not to. I felt her silently judging me for every joke I made or story I told. I told her I had asked for Britney Spears and Nicki Minaj tickets for my birthday and she said she “didn’t listen to radio music.” She was a loser, I thought.
“Pull your shorts down. I can see your butt cheeks.” she told me as we were walking back to the cabin.
“So?” I said.
That night, when she asked if I wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons, I knew I had to figure out a way to make it to the bottom bunk kingdom. I had enough of being in the weirdo group at my high school. I wanted to know what it felt like to be cool. I couldn’t sleep because of Alexandria’s snoring across from me and the incessant giggling below me.
After two days, for the first time in my life, I gained entry to the cool group through Sandra, a blonde girl with one arm, the unspoken queen bee of the cabin. She had been at camp the longest out of everyone, and a prize bottom bunk was always reserved for her. Her missing arm was the result of trauma—a story she made us beg to hear (ATV accident). She had also been crowned Miss Teen Texas and boasted a tanning bed in her room as well as a yellow Camaro that was not equipped for a one-handed driver.
That morning, I had been watching Sandra put her hair in a ponytail. “How do you do that?” I asked, slightly embarrassed that I had spoken to her.
“It’s easy. Go put on a ring and I’ll show you,” she said, in a thick Southern accent.
I felt my heart sink into my ass when I realized I didn’t have a ring. I turned to pretend to look for one when another one of the cool girls came to my rescue. She had no arms—just two fingers at the top of each of her shoulders. She fiercely wriggled a finger with a blue flower ring on it. I raised my eyebrows at her—was she offering it? She nodded, and I slid the ring off her finger and onto mine.
“It’ll be even easier for you because you’ve got a stump,” Sandra added.
I’d never used the word stump to describe my arm before; it always weirded me out. But Sandra said it so casually, and so cute, like it wasn’t a bad word. Stump is the new “little arm,” I thought to myself. The cool girls say stump, so I will too.
I watched Sandra wrap the elastic around her fingers, the ring keeping it from sliding onto her wrist. I did the same. She gathered her hair in her fingers and with some finagling, slid the elastic around the hair. She twisted it and wrapped it around and around till it was tight. Then she put one section of hair in her mouth, the other in her hand and tugged in opposite directions so the pony tail would tighten. I copied her, until we both had messy side ponytails, which we’d done all by ourselves. It was the first time I’d ever put my hair up without help.
I burst into tears. Fuck, I thought. Just when the cool girl talks to me, I cry.
But she understood. She took me in her arm and stroked my back. And after that, I was squadding with the cool amputees. And the cool amputees loved to talk about sex.
Our group consisted of Sandra, the beauty queen; Michaela, the hot lesbian emo girl; Joanie, the cute and innocent virgin; Tomi, the tall and beautiful athlete; Deanna, the funny double arm amputee, and me, the newbie. We were all 17. After lights out, the group of us would all cram into one bed to play “Never Have I Ever.” We took off our makeup, and our prosthetics if we were wearing them. I can still picture Sandra in her Jesus Loves Southern Girls t-shirt, Michaela in her My Chemical Romance t-shirt, Joanie in her matching silk pajamas, Tomi in a basketball t-shirt and shorts, Deanna in a tank top and men’s sweatpants. While the top bunk girls tried to ignore us, we all held up 10 fingers and put one down when we had done something that someone else has never.
“Never have I ever given a blow job,” Joanie said. She giggled. Everyone put a finger down. When the upper arm amputees inevitably ran out of fingers first, we reverted to toes.
“Child’s play,” Deanna said. Usually she had done whatever was said. She was the only double-arm amputee, and we were fascinated by her. She was confident, hilarious, and the most sexually experienced. We were intrigued about how she did everything from straightening her hair (which she did with her feet) to giving a hand job (which she did with her feet, too).
“Whatever you’re thinking about my sex life, the answer is yes,” she said.
“If I don’t want to swallow, where do I spit?” Sandra asked Deanna.
“I just always ask the guy to come on my chest,” Deanna answered. I could tell we were all taking mental notes.
“Have you ever fucked a girl with your stump?” Michaela asked me.
“EW! Sicko,” I responded, followed by a pause. Then: “Yes.”
I really had, right before I left for camp. I couldn’t take it seriously and neither could my girlfriend at the time, so we’d just burst out laughing. So did my friends at camp.
It took us a while to stop laughing.
“Do you keep your prosthetic on when you have sex?” Joanie asked Michaela. They were both leg amputees.
“Never.” Michaela answered. They turned to Tomi.
“It depends on how I feel,” she said. “Every time is different. I’ve only had sex twice, though.”
At the time, I felt so empowered, so charged, so sexy, and so confident around these girls. I felt like I finally had a group of friends like girls in the movies. I’d never felt this way before camp. I’d had sexual experiences (with people equally as uncool as me), but I didn’t talk about them. At Amp Camp I felt like one of The Cheetah Girls, except I was bi and missing a limb.
In reality, a lot of this was big talk mixed with a little wishful thinking. We weren’t that experienced. Some of us had long-time boyfriends, some of us slept around, some of us hadn’t had sex yet. But together, in the comfort that comes from being around other people with limb differences, we were able to work through the complications of sex that come along with people assuming you’re not sexual. We were able to form language for what all of that means.
The organizers of camp knew that sex was on our minds. On day four, the teen boys and girls were separated into different rooms and given speeches about sex by older counselors. They told us we’d be sexualized, even if we weren’t beautiful, because of our physical differences. One of the counselors said, “We will never be on the cover of a magazine, but we’re beautiful on the inside.’”
She meant this statement to be positive, but it bothered me. Partly, I knew she was right. I’d never be on the cover of a magazine. But, I thought, wasn’t this mostly, or at least partly, because I wasn’t thin or tall? Deep as I was inside my teenage obsession with utterly conventional beauty, this disqualification seemed more fair than being considered undesirable because of a limb. Sandra, I thought, was really beautiful, with her long blonde hair, blue eyes, white teeth, tan skin, her belly ring. (I wasn’t allowed to get one.) She deserved to be on magazine covers. And even if I didn’t, I thought, at least I was more beautiful than Alexandria.
The night before camp ended, we cried. We were leaving our family. We stayed up all night until it was time to get on our buses to leave, then we cried some more. We all had been so used to the narrative pushed upon disabled people: that we are inspiring and “beautiful,” but not sexual. Now we knew different. Amp camp had taught me that disabled people are not just there to inspire you or make you feel grateful for your able body; we are sexual and complicated beings. Amp camp taught me friendship, taught me feminism, taught me community, taught me pride, taught me strength, taught me independence, and taught me bravery.
It also taught me to be mean, because I was a teenager. I didn’t say goodbye to Alexandria.
It was another way I didn’t fit the “inspiring” category. Disabled people are thought of as innocent, good, saintly, sometimes pitiful. The focus of so many lessons for disabled children is that we are beautiful on the inside. But we’re people. And sometimes we’re not.
When dad picked me up. “How was it? Did you meet a boyfriend?”
“Yes,” I said. I figured I’d humor him. I stared out the window, smirking.
Camp, in all its glory and all its ugliness, is always a staging ground for the real world; it’s where you learn that looks matter and social hierarchy will forever recreate itself. It’s where you learn that sex sells. But at camp, you also learn that confidence and togetherness can complicate these absolutes—that cliques are real, but so is self-discovery within and outside of them. So is acceptance, and so is friendship.
After amp camp, we all stayed in touch over social media. I went back the following year as a counselor-in-training. I immediately went for a bottom bunk.
Dayna Troisi is a poetry MFA student and poetry Teaching Fellow at Hofstra University. She works as a research assistant for the Berkshire Conference, the largest gathering for women historians worldwide. Her work has been published in Rena’s Promise Anthologies and The Great South Bay Magazine and performed as spoken word at KGB Bar, Canios and Harbor Books. Her main projects include poems and nonfiction essays, and an independent study at Hofstra University for which she wrote a thesis on disability and fetish.
All names have been changed.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona