I follow many hilarious bot accounts on Twitter, quite a few of which cater to gamer and game developer humor. The Elder Scrolls item bot is one such treasure that is never short on laughs and inspiration, and if you’re unfamiliar with the reliquary of the game, there’s a couple different ways the bot comes up with names but the most common is “This adjective and material-thing or clothing article-of a random noun”, like the following:
(That’d be “Novice Pants of Arcane Crapping” if the tweet isn’t loading.)
Upon going for a walk and spying an errant wristband on the ground while laughing at Elder Scrolls items, suddenly my memory was jogged.
Now, I’m no stranger to wristbands in my three and half decades on this earth. I’ve gotten god knows how many for punk shows and games industry events that just wind up in the trash once the event’s over, especially if they’re the sticky type like the kind in this post’s thumbnail and it’s an epic battle trying to remove it without scissors.
But this wristband hurtled me back for I hadn’t seen this particular color in at least 24 years or so, a stunning teal green that I suddenly recalled was an important and aspirational color for what seems like a heartbreakingly brief chapter in my life, but was an ethereal suspension of reality to a 10-year-old who also wishes it could’ve been longer but it felt just right.
Two months flash by when you’re in your thirties and have to juggle work, bills, family, and trying to have a social life, while summer months also likely don’t hold meaning to you anymore (especially if you’re self-employed and don’t have kids: hello, off-peak vacations!) But that’s an incredibly significant chunk of your life when you’re a kid. It’s why kids can have drastic reactions to things like child abuse and bullying, and take decades to heal from trauma as adults, if they can even heal at all. They’re under the impression that when they get older, time will still pass so slowly except there’s no quantifiable end in sight like a school year.
I’m one of those kids who had a traumatic upbringing with an abusive parent, but summers were a rare bright spot. The way that I looked forward to the weekend all week long during the school year, because at least it meant I didn’t have to be around the other kids who made things so bad? I looked forward to summers more than anything because I could get away from both school and home for a protracted timeframe. One year, my mother decided I should go to summer camp to supposedly “get me out of her hair” and clean our overly-cluttered house. The latter…didn’t happen. It never did. And come to think of it, I probably don’t want to know what she was doing with my father and sister at work and me at camp. But while she did a lot of things solely to antagonize us, the joke was ultimately on her because I loved camp and went until I aged out of the program.
It was just a simple day camp at the local community college. If those MacWorld discs that came in the mail every month were demo versions of full-length games I longed to own, camp was a demo version of the life and childhood I could’ve had and I treasured every second.
I wasn’t that depressed girl who was emotionally, and sometimes physically, beaten up. I could just make crafts, take any number of classes, play outside, eat the same food they ate, and I even found other kids who were just as into computer games whereas it was a taboo subject at school. This was before cell phones and constant surveillance, it was an exhilarating burst of temporary independence getting to navigate a college campus by myself with just one isometric paper map for assistance. I was exposed to pop culture that was relevant at the very moment instead of being suffocated by Boomer and Silent Generation culture, except I wasn’t made fun of for not knowing about a TV show or band, like I was at school. Life could be fucking normal for a change.
And part of that normalcy was swimming. A lot of my classmates’ families had memberships at pools and athletic clubs, but it wasn’t something my family would consider. They were pretty divorced from the community, after all, our lives and family were 70 miles away back in NYC and I wasn’t that keen on hanging around the same kids who subjected me to shit outlawed under the Geneva Convention throughout the school year. So I immediately jumped at the opportunity to go swimming almost every day of the week in a totally different place. The college had an Olympic-size pool that went up to 12 feet deep with a diving board and everything, something I’d never seen when we went to our usual hotel on the Jersey shore that had a small pool outside. Swim time ended at 5:30 when my dad or sister would get me on the way home from work, and I’d wish I could stay so much longer.
But while there wasn’t much of a screening process to get your child admitted to the swim program, they made everyone take a “swimming test” which wasn’t much of a test really. You just jumped in the water and whoever could swim to the deep end the fastest would get a teal wristband that would grant them access to the deep end and diving board, purple wristbands meant you couldn’t go past the 6-feet point and certainly no diving. If you went past the shallow end, you’d get treated to the screech of the lifeguard’s whistle and told to tread back once, and if you did it again then you got a timeout.
They were thick polyurethane wristbands that looked and felt sturdier than the types I’d get at game industry events over the years, and they had holes like a belt and were closed with a hard black plastic clasp designed to adjust to each wearer’s wrist size. On the first day of camp, they laid in pristine sheets in a clear plastic bag under the lifeguard’s chair and I’d gaze at the teal ones with pure longing.
While I’m not the best swimmer in the world and wouldn’t be entering any competitions, I’m basically part amphibious and hydrophilia is a common Cancerian trait so I take to water easily. What I lack in speed, I make up for in endurance as I could outlast my entire family at the hotel pool and do a decent butterfly and breast stroke. Yet EVERY year without fail, I got a stupid fucking purple wristband. It wasn’t fair. Plenty of kids I could swim better than got a teal one! Christ, it was just like what I dealt with at home and at school.
Then one day, I thought my eyes were deceiving me out of wishful thinking as I spied it just laying there in a relatively quiet corner of the shallow end: a teal green wristband. It was a little bigger than the purple one I wore, but it fit my wrist well enough to be convincing that they fitted it on me this way.
That teal wristband laying there might as well have been a Cartier tennis bracelet, that’s how much I gaped at it in awe.
Like Indiana Jones gunning for an irreplaceable artifact before some foreboding temple doors could seal me inside, I pretended I was getting out of the pool to empty water from my goggles but I swiped the wristband in true adventure game fashion and hastily hid it under my Wayne’s World beach towel. It was more exhilarating than any car chase scene in celluloid history.
No one seemed to notice the act, despite the frisson of fear that just trickled down my spine. Would someone come looking for it, even though it was clear entire sheets of those wristbands were in the office between the locker rooms if you lost yours? Should I just turn it in to one of the lifeguards, dinky purple wristband shamefully adorning my wrist as I hand it to them?
Finders keepers, losers weepers!
I’m not in the demilitarized hellhole known as school and I’m not under my abusive mother’s and overly analytic father’s eyes at home where I will get chewed out over the stupidest, tiniest things on a daily basis to the point it gives me severe PTSD and GI tract issues as an adult. I’m at camp and the normal rules don’t apply. I can just be a kid here, not one who’s constantly being pulled aside by an adult or told I can’t do the thing some other kid just did.
Carefully concealing my giddiness, I don’t tell my swim buddy and keep the teal wristband hidden. It immediately goes into my backpack and out of sight when we get to the locker room. After changing, I jettison that stupid purple wristband, a symbol of the unfairness and oppression I constantly have to tolerate, in the garbage can inside the PE building lounge by the vending machines where people are too busy to notice, feeling it would arouse less suspicion if I started wearing my new teal treasure the next day.
The next day, I still feel a teensy bit of trepidation swimming to the deep end and getting in line for the diving board in case anyone remembers me having a purple wristband before. But no one ever notices, not even the other kids. We don’t get the same lifeguards every day and sometimes, the same groups of kids aren’t always there either.
I did it. I snuck in. I went where I was told not to go, and made it the whole summer without being bothered for it. I infiltrated that deep end and fucking loved every glorious minute. But is it really infiltration if you had enough skills to belong there in the first place?
I wear that teal wristband every day until camp is over for the summer, luxuriating in every minute of doing powerful laps and kicks in 12-foot deep water and getting to use a real, actual diving board when I’d only seen that in movies. That summer I turn 11 is when I say kaddish for my mostly-forgone childhood and am about to begin the daily terrorism of junior high, but am grateful for these all-too-brief moments I got to be a normal kid and take risks without being hovered over. The last day of camp comes and goes with tears and hugs for the friends I wish could be at my side but who I only see in the summers, mournfully awaiting two boring weeks at home putting up with my mom’s bullshit until it’s time to start another traumatizing school year that makes me see my childhood as just some hellish endurance test until I turn 18.
As my mother puts my bathing suit, goggles, and combination lock in a box in the closet, I wrap the teal wristband around the lock just in case I get judged unfairly in the swimming test again and will need it next year.
I now cannot recall for the life of me if it worked again the next summer, or any others until I aged out of the program at 14, or if I finally got the wristband I should’ve gotten. But I remember the sheer rebellious delight of finding the wristband and just taking it — it’s not like there was a limited number of wristbands to dole out, they were probably mass-produced in China by the hundreds of thousands and ordered by some byzantine purchasing department and forgotten about year after year.
But I think of how at this stage of my life, people are telling me not to move to Los Angeles: but my career and lease on life are the teal wristband here. People told me to just get some accounting job and not go into video games or write, but I grabbed that teal wristband numerous times and they’re still in the shallow end of the pool.
I smiled as I walked past the errant wristband amid the debris and detritus on Tremont Avenue, fondly recalling my Emerald Wristband of Defiance. I may no longer have access to that Olympic swimming pool or need to hold onto any wristbands for prolonged periods in case I need them again, but I’ve never forgotten that girl who experienced such triumph in the face of constant abuse.