Melissa Febos Navigates Fear and Desire in the Striking Collection, Girlhood
Author: Edit Team
March 30, 2021
The following is an excerpt from Melissa Febos’ highly anticipated collection of essays, entitled Girlhood, set to be released on March 30th from Bloomsbury Publishing. Girlhood is a striking assortment of essays that examine the expectations of womanhood, the forces that perpetuate them, and what it takes to reject these narratives and define one’s own life. A genre-bending work that combines journalism, memoir, and scholarship, Girlhood is a sincere and searing guide to transforming the self and society.
Melissa Febos is also the author of the memoir Whip Smart and the essay collection Abandon Me. Febos is an associate professor at the University of Iowa and has received numerous awards and fellowships, including Lambda’s Jeanne Córdova Prize for Lesbian/Queer Nonfiction in 2018.
His name was Alex and he lived at the end of a long unpaved driveway off the same wooded road that my family did. It took ten minutes to walk between our homes, both of which sat on the bank of Deep Pond. Like many of the ponds on Cape Cod, ours formed some fifteen thousand years ago when a block of ice broke from a melting glacier and drove deep into the solidifying land of my future backyard. When the ice block melted, the deep depression filled with water and became what is called a “kettle hole lake.”
Despite its small circumference, our pond plummeted fifty feet at its deepest point. My brother and I and all the children raised on the pond spent our summers getting wet, chasing one another through invented games, our happy screams garbled with water. I often swam out to the deepest point—not the center of the pond, but to its left—and treaded water over this heart cavity. In summer, the sun warmed the surface to bath temperatures, but a few feet deeper it went cold. Face warm, arms flapping, I dangled my feet into that colder depth and shivered. Fifty feet was taller than any building in our town, was more than ten of me laid head to foot. It was a mystery big enough to hold a whole city. I could swim in it my whole life and never know what lay at its bottom.
An entry in my diary from age ten announces: Today Alex came over and swam with us. I think he likes me.
Alex was a grade ahead of me and a foot taller. He had a wide mouth, tapered brown eyes, and a laugh that brayed clouds in the chill of fall mornings at our bus stop. He wore the same shirt for four out of five school days and I thought he was beautiful. I had known Alex for years but that recorded swim is the first clear memory I have of him. A few months later, he spat on me for the first time.
When I turned eleven, I enrolled in the public middle school with all the other fifth and sixth graders in our town. The new bus stop was further down the wooded road, where ended at the perpendicular intersection of another. On that corner was a large house, owned by Robert Ballard, the oceanographer who discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985. Early in his career, Ballard had worked with the local Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and it was during his deep-sea dives off the coast of Massachusetts that his obsession with shipwrecks was born. Sometimes I studied that house—its many gleaming windows and ivy-choked tennis court—and thought about the difference between Ballard and my father, who was a captain in the Merchant Marines. One man carried his cargo across oceans; the other ventured deep inside them to discover his. I was drawn to the romance of each: to slice across the glittering surface, and also to plunge into the cold depths. A stone wall wrapped around Ballard’s yard. Here, we waited for the school bus.
I read books as I walked to the bus stop. Reading ate time. Whole hours disappeared in stretches. It shortened the length of my father’s voyages, moved me closer to his returns with every page. I was a magician with a single power: to disappear the world. I emerged from whole afternoons of reading, my life a foggy half-dream through which I drifted as my self bled back into me like steeping tea.
The start of fifth grade marked more change than the location of my bus stop. My parents had separated that summer. My body, that once reliable vessel, began to transform. But what emerged from it was no happy magic, no abracadabra. It went kaboom. And this new body was harder to disappear.
I wish people didn’t change sometimes, I wrote in my diary. By people, I meant my parents. I meant me. I meant the boy who swam across that lake toward my new body with its power to compel but not control.
Before puberty, I moved through the world and toward other people without hesitance or self-consciousness. I read hungrily and kept lists of all the words I wanted to look up in a notebook with a red velvet cover. I still have the notebook. Ersatz, it reads. Entropy. Mnemonic. Morass. Corpulent. Hoary. I was smart and strong and my power lay in these things alone. My parents loved me well and mirrored these strengths back to me.
Perhaps more so than other girls, my early world was a safe one. My mother banned cable TV and sugar cereals, and made feminist corrections to my children’s books with Sharpie. Despite the sorrow of my father’s departures, I was protected from the darker leagues of what it meant to be female. I think now of the Titanic—not the familiar tragedy of its wreck, the scream of ice against her starboard flank, the thunder of seawater gushing through her cracked hull. I think of the short miracle of her passage. The 375 miles she floated, immaculate, across the Atlantic. My early passage was a miracle, too. And like the Titanic’s, it did not last.
My mother noticed first. “Your body is a temple,” she told me. But the bra she bought me felt more straightjacket than vestment. I wore baggy T-shirts and hunched my shoulders. I tried to bury my body. It was too big in all the wrong ways. My hips went purple from crashing them into table corners; I no longer knew my own shape. My mother brought home a book called The What’s Happening to My Body? Book for Girls. It explained hormonal shifts, the science of breasts and pubic hair. It was not The What’s Happening to the World as I Knew It? Book for Girls and did not explain why being the only girl on the baseball team no longer felt like a triumph. It did not explain why grown men in passing cars, to whom I had always been happily invisible, now leered at me. It did not explain why or even acknowledge that what was happening to my body changed my value in the world.
I did not ask about these other changes. Maybe some children do. But what if I asked and my parents did not have answers? It already seemed a risk to reveal myself. If the changes I felt were not indexed in the book they gave me, perhaps they were mine alone.
Children know so little of the world. Every new thing might be our own creation. If a logic is not given, we invent one. How would my mother have explained it to me, at ten? I can’t imagine. She taught me the world she wished for me.
One autumn afternoon, Alex invited me and my little brother to his house to play soccer. I was not a soccer player, but I dragged my little brother down the road and up that dirt driveway to where Alex and his cousin kicked the ball back and forth across the patchy grass. The sky hung low over his dusty yard and silvery clouds ripened overhead. At eleven, I could still win a race against the boys on my baseball team. Even holding my T-shirt tented in front of my chest, I could win. They still called me Mrs. Babe Ruth. But Alex was a year older than me and twice as big. He did not let me win.
He pummeled the net with goals. He kicked the ball so hard that I jumped out of its path, then burned with shame and chased it into the woods.
“Eat that!” he sneered and spat into the cloud of dust kicked up by our feet. He sauntered back to his side of our makeshift field and swiped his forehead with the hem of his T-shirt, baring his flat stomach, ridged with muscle.
An hour into our game, the sky broke, dumping water onto our dusty field. Alex didn’t stop, so neither did I. I ran, wet hair plastered to my face and neck. My oversized T-shirt clung to my chest, translucent and sopping. Even that didn’t stop me. I ran, thighs burning, lungs heaving, mud splattered up the legs of my jeans. Alex was a machine, dribbling the ball through inches-deep puddles of mud, driving it into our goal. He barely looked at me, but every kick felt personal, aimed at my body. I did not understand what we were fighting for, only that I could not surrender.
I drilled into that day with everything I had and it was not enough. Not even close. It was the last day that I believed my body’s power lay in its strength.
Twenty-five years later, I read that day’s entry in my diary. Today, I wrote, I played soccer at Alex’s house for FOUR HOURS! It was SO FUN!
It was not fun. It was a humiliation. It was a mystery. It was a punishment, though I did not know for what. The instinct in me to hide it was so strong that I lied in my diary. I wanted no record of that wreck.
The Titanic was named after the Greek Titans, an order of divine beings that preceded the Olympic deities. I loved Greek mythology as a girl, and among my favorite gods was Mnemosyne, a Titaness and the mother of the Muses. According to fourth century BC Greek texts, the dead were given a choice to drink either from the river Lethe, which would erase their memories of the life before reincarnation, or to drink from the river Mnemosyne, and carry those memories with them into the next life. In his Aeneid, Virgil wrote that the dead could not achieve reincarnation without forgetting. At the age of twelve, I had made my choice.
The other regulars on the stone wall of our bus stop were two girls, Sarah and Chloe. They were also a grade ahead of me. Sarah was blond and nervous. Chloe and Alex were cousins.
Alex had ignored all three of us at our previous bus stop, but not anymore. Sometimes he whispered to one girl about the other two, mean words that we laughed at with the faint hysteria of relief that it was not our turn. He teased Chloe about boys in their class or how small she was. Once, he picked her up and pretended to throw her over the stone wall.
“Stop it, Alex!” she shouted. She blushed furiously and rolled her eyes while Sarah and I envied her. Sarah blanched when bullied and we could immediately see the crumple behind her face that preceded tears. Alex always stopped before she cried. Eventually, he didn’t bother with her anymore. With me he was relentless.
My insults were not as effective, but I always fought back. He challenged me to contests, with Sarah as the enthusiastic judge. Races that I could never win. Staring contests. Arm wrestling matches in which we knelt in the damp grass and he slammed the back of my hand onto the stone wall’s surface. He pretended it was a game or a joke and though they all laughed, we knew it wasn’t. There was none of the coddling he gave to Chloe or the caution with which he approached Sarah. Still, I would not accept victimhood. Though I woke filled with sickening dread every morning and went to sleep with it every night, to tell my mother or ask her to drive me to school was unthinkable; the idea was abhorrent to me.
I was the daughter of a sea captain. I would not be rescued. Idiom, maritime tradition, and even law have insisted that “the captain goes down with the ship.” The rule implies both a sense of responsibility to the rescue of a captain’s passengers and to his pride. Captain Edward Smith of the Titanic was seen on the ship’s bridge moments before it was engulfed in water. My own stubbornness reflected this same ethos—to protect my tenderest wards, or go down trying, alone.
One day he began chasing me. I don’t know what he planned to do if he caught me and I don’t think he knew either. To my relief, the bus arrived before we found out. He chased me up the bus steps but stopped short behind me and strolled past as I slid into a seat. I didn’t realize that he’d spat on me until I felt the wet between my hair and the vinyl bus seat. I reached behind my head and pulled my fingers away, wiping them on the leg of my jeans as I stared out the bus window. I felt a new sensation in my chest, behind my breastbone. It pulled, a hand gathering cloth.
The second time, I spat back. Over a period of weeks, he spat in my hair, my face, my books, my backpack. I rarely got him back, but I always tried. Once, I dodged him well enough to board the bus behind him, unscathed. At the last minute, as I stepped onto the bus, he bounded back down the aisle and hocked a great wad of mucus onto my cheek.
I knew that if I gave in to tears or stopped fighting back that he would stop. I could not. My defiance matched my suffering.
One afternoon I did not see him on the bus after school and realized, with tentative relief, that I would not have to fight my way home. I hurried off the bus to get a head start on Sarah and Chloe, uninterested in the conversation that we three might share in his absence. I retrieved my book from my backpack as I passed the end of Alex’s street.
I felt him behind me before I heard him. I flinched so hard and my despair came so fast and strong that I did not have time to steel myself before the tears fell. I pushed out a single, gasped, “fuck you,” but could not form words after that. He followed silently, watching me in profile. I raised my book between our faces to block his view. He pushed it down.
“I’m sorry,” he said. I cried harder, my breath stuttering, and raised my book again. He pushed it down again. “I didn’t know it bothered you,” he said. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think you could take it,” he said. “It’s not because I don’t like you,” he said. “I do.”
I believed him. Superstition makes Greek fishermen spit three times in their nets before setting sail, to ward off evil. King Minos forced the philosopher Polyeidus to teach his foolish son magic, and when granted freedom, the philosopher asked the fool to spit into his mouth, to make him forget. Perhaps there is no spit given without desire, without a fear of powers enormous enough to destroy you. But Alex’s mouth was my awakening. In some inchoate way, I understood that desire led to fear which could lead to hate—all without ever obliterating that original want. It was a power struggle that would take me twenty more years to truly understand.
Girlhood by Melissa Febos, reprinted with the permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2021 by Melissa Febos