Camp Utopia and the Forgiveness Diet

Camp Utopia and the Forgiveness Diet

by Jenny Ruden


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Sixteen-year-old Baltimore teen Bethany Stern knows the only way out of spending her summer at Camp Utopia, a fat camp in Northern California, is weight-loss. Desperate, she tries The Forgiveness Diet, the latest fad whose infomercial promises that all she has to do is forgive her deadbeat dad, her scandalous sister, and the teenage magician next door and (unrequited) love of her life. But when the diet fails and her camp nemesis delivers the ultimate blow, Bee bids sayonara to Camp-not-Utopian-at-all to begin what she believes will be her "real" summer adventure, only to learn that running away isn't as easy-or as healing-as it seems. Her wry and honest voice bring humor and poignancy for anyone, fat or thin, tired of hearing "you'd be so pretty if...[insert unwelcome judgment about your appearance from loved one or perfect stranger]."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781940192314
Publisher: Koehler Books
Publication date: 07/01/2014
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

Jenny Ruden has published short stories and essays in Nerve, Salon, Eclectica Magazine, Literary Mama and High Desert Journal. She won an Orlando award for creative nonfiction, and has been nominated for the Pushcart prize two years in a row. She has worked with teenagers for over fifteen years as a teacher of Reading, Writing and GED, and has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Oregon. She lives with her husband, two daughters, two basset hounds and cat in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Visit her website at

Read an Excerpt



The night before Utopia, TJ and I had a goodbye dinner at China Hon. Everything about the evening was romantic. Magical. Perfect. All that stuff that happened between us last year? Forgotten.
Right after TJ fetched beef and broccoli from the buffet, he guided me by the elbow, saying, “I have a better idea.” Then he sat down in a horseshoe booth across the aisle and patted the space beside him. “Let’s sit here tonight. That way you can sit next to me.”
So we sat in the same booth, next to each other, our thighs brushing lightly like they do in all the Delilah Rogers romance novels I read. TJ looked at me deeply then back to his plate, where he speared a green stalk of broccoli.
He sighed. “I don’t think you need fat camp. I think you’re beautiful just the way you are. Especially now that you gained back all that weight you lost last year.’’ He squeezed my hand. “Face it, Bethany Stern, you put the Bee in obesity.”
“That’s sweet, TJ, but I really should go to Utopia. I know it’s far, and it will be hard not to see each other all summer, but I’ll write to you every day.”
“You should not go,” he argued, feeding me a sliver of beef from his chopstick. “We should stay together. I mean I’m eighteen and you’re sixteen. We can make our own decisions.” He moved closer to me, the heat between us like a blazing netherworld. “It just doesn’t feel right, Bee. You not watching me graduate. You missing my American Envy audition.” He stopped, lips poised in front of mine. “This is our last summer together. Don’t leave.”
After hearing this confession, I became so overwhelmed I couldn’t even finish my fried wontons.
“But, TJ, we’re neighbors.” I ticked off all the obstacles in our path. “You’re gorgeous. I’m not. You’re graduating in two weeks, and I’ll only be a lowly junior. You’re a magician and an athlete, and I’m athletically—and magically— challenged. The place we live,”—I gestured to Baltimore outside the restaurant’s curtains—“why, it’s practically a ghetto. Nothing good ever happens here.” Then I got all-out impassioned. I pounded my fist on the table. The silverware jumped, and the waiters stared. “We’ve been best friends for eight years, TJ. Let’s not ruin it by becoming lovers.”
“Oh let’s,” TJ replied, scooching even closer to me, his hot breath on my neck. “Let’s!”
I climbed on TJ’s lap and, behind me, he cleared the bone- white dishes off the table in one magician’s swoosh. He leaned me back on packets of duck sauce and rice debris while the waiters screamed, “You two need hotel! Get out China Hon!”
TJ then carried me—yes, carried me—out of the restaurant, the doorbells jing-jangling behind us. We drove to a remote Maryland beach and scrumped as the passionate surf unreeled behind us.

The End.

Yeah. That was how it was supposed to happen.



So here’s what really went down the night before fat camp. The bells on China Hon’s front door jingled their same greasy song when TJ and I walked through them. Outside, Baltimore was a sweltering inferno. Inside, China Hon felt like a boiling pit. When the waiter seated us at the table closest to the dingy aquarium and across from the noisy kitchen, I thought I should really ease up on the romance novels. Maybe if I read Russian tomes about suffering and famine, it wouldn’t bother me that TJ’s red polo shirt sported a bird poop stain near the collar. And maybe the restaurant’s plum-colored carpet would look downright chic with all those duct tape X’s over the rips. I’d bet a good dose of practical, serious books would prepare me for the vinyl seats that stuck to the backs of my sweaty legs. And who knows, right? Maybe I wouldn’t get so gut-twistingly disappointed when TJ looked right at me and didn’t talk me out of Camp Utopia, as he’d done in my imagination, but attempted to talk me into it.
“It’s supposed to be beautiful, Bee, and isn’t the camp located at California University of the Pacific?”
I nodded, unimpressed.
TJ straightened his collar. “That’s one of the best colleges in the country.”
I stared at the restaurant fans spinning lopsidedly on the ceiling.
“Besides,” he went on, “the camp’s website didn’t look bad. It’s pretty posh. Famous people go there.”
“I’ll hate it,” I said.
“How do you know that?”
“I just know.”
TJ chirped this part, like a bird. “You could meet great people, see the country, and fall in love.”
“You sound like the brochure.”
“And who knows,” he said, snapping open a napkin theatrically, “you might even lose weight.”
There we have it—even more reality hovering between us, like the steam from the egg roll I just split open.
Before we visited the buffet table where vats of food bubbled, TJ appeared some chopsticks from behind my ear, and then, a dollar. He kept appearing objects (a penny, a shell, a tampon— WTF?!) until I smiled. Maybe most boys gave up magic tricks by age nine, but TJ wasn’t most boys. TJ had skill. Finesse. Magic was like a fever he caught and never let go. While other people suspected he had a knack for magic, even for dove training, only I knew how obsessive he was about it—and how professional. Magic tricks were the one thing he reserved for me.
He rounded the buffet and claimed beef and broccoli, his favorite. I slopped some lo mein and chicken fried rice on my plate. As we made our way back to the table (no booths here), all the things I wanted to say inched up my throat. Now would’ve been a good time, for instance, to bring up the unfortunate fact that I loved him, still, even after everything that happened between us last year. I might mention the three thousand miles that separated Baltimore from California. Or I could ask him, “Don’t you want me to stay?”
But when I caught sight of our table, I noticed that my drink, originally a Sprite, had turned a putrid yellow. Liquid smoke tumbled from the glass.
“Now isn’t that interesting,” noted TJ, nodding toward my beverage.
I swallowed the words crawling up my throat and decided to play along. Truth be told, I never got tired of his illusions. “How strange, TJ,” I said in my best TV voice. “I thought for sure I ordered a Sprite.”
“That’s definitely not a Sprite, Bee,” TJ replied. “That looks dangerous.”
Fog funneled around our table and drifted over my thighs in an icy cloud.
“Dare me to drink it?” I asked. He knew his lines. I knew mine. Our exchange was like a dance.
TJ shook his head. “I wouldn’t swallow that if I were you.”
I reached for the glass brimming with a liquid so yellow it could’ve been pee.
TJ feigned surprise. “Oh my goodness, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, signaling to a nonexistent crowd. “Will she drink it? Will she really drink it?”
I swirled my glass, and raised it high. Smoke swooshed from my cup. “A toast,” I said.
In response, TJ lifted his normal cola-colored drink.
“To your American Envy audition,” I said, a little emotionally. “To your summer.”
TJ cocked his head. “And to your utopia,” he replied. “May it be everything you imagine.”
Our cups tapped each other’s, and I hastily swallowed. “Blech!” I exclaimed. “Can I drink this stuff? I mean, it’s kind of sour-tasting.”
TJ appeared to ponder this. “The doves never showed any toxic reaction to the powder. I’m sure it’s fine. I mean, does it taste poisonous?”
And even though it tasted really bad and was probably radioactive, I drank it. Every last bit. “Not at all,” I said, trying my hardest to enjoy it. I mean, I wouldn’t see him all summer. I figured it was the least I could do.

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