Melissa Febos reads from her new essay collection, Abandon Me, published on February 28 by Bloomsbury.
Call My Name
When I was seven, my sea captain father at sea, my mother a strobing lighthouse of missing, I stood alone in my bedroom, renaming all my toys Melissa. You, and you, and you. A child’s narcissism, maybe. A punishment for my dolls. I didn’t choose my name, but I could choose to give it away. A small triumph. But no matter how many dolls I christened Melissa, the sound of my name still shocked me: hum of M, soft L, hiss ending open-mouthed. Melissa, my teacher called each morning. Here, I flinched.
It was a ribbon of sound, a yielding sibilant thing. Drag it along a scissor blade and it curls. I wanted a box, something with corners I could feel. Zoe, Katrina, Natalie. Those girls ruled the school bus. You could press your fingers into Melissa. It was hum and ah, and esssss—more sigh than spit.
On family vacation in Florida, after days pickling in the hotel pool, eyes pinked from its blue brine, my mother asked me, Melissa, why, when the ocean was steps away, Why the pool? Because the pool has sides, I told her. I was already spilling out, grasping for edges. And what chance did I stand against the ocean? How many times had the sea taken my father, and left her beating the shore with her hands?
It was an early lesson. The ocean disappears things. It is a hungry, grabbing thing. In its deep, there is nothing to reach for. Next to it, I was a girl gulping a woman’s grief.
Jean Piaget believed object permanence to be learned within the first two years of life. That is, a thing disappeared continues to exist. But what if it never appears again? Or disappears long enough to learn to live without it? By two years old I had already learned two fathers. One addict. One sea captain. My birth father was Tom, a name like him, just a man. The captain had two names: Robert for the merchant marine, and rounder Bob for his intimates. Bob, so close to Dad. Both taught me how to watch someone leave and not chase them.
When I asked my mother, why Melissa? I already wanted a new name. Jackie, Britt, Tina. You can drill a hole with Jackie. You can slingshot a rock with Britt. Even Tina can hurt somebody. Melissa was the ribbon in a swordfight. Melissa was leading with my softest part.
It was Tom who chose your name, my mother told me.
Or did I already know that when I began hating it?
A word shapes the mouth with want and wonder for its object. By six, I knew that Jessie down the street fit her name. Jessie was fast and blong, a streak of girl, hook of J, dot of i, bared teeth of long e. It is no wonder that to hold Jessie in my mouth came to feel like holding Jessie in my mouth.
On her knees on the bedroom floor, Jessie pressed two naked dolls together, clicking their immovable parts. What are they doing? I asked. You know, she said. And I did, so I told her. I named the sex parts I knew. She repeated them back to me. Those strange sounds turned in the space between us. And they were ours.
I used to repeat words under my breath, on the way to school, in the bath, chanting their sounds until they detached from their meaning. The moment when those sounds fell free of their object—like the moment the swing hung horizontal to its frame, the body weightless, just before gravity clutched it back—giddying. It unlatched something in me, the proof that anything could be pulled apart, could scatter into dumb freedom, a bell ringing not for dinner or church or alarm, but for the simple pleasure of making it ring. Any word could be shaken like a crumpled skirt, motes of meaning swirling into miniscule autonomy.
Just as Jessie and I chanted those words, unlocking the riddles of our bodies, I chanted my name. I pressed it against my teeth. To give it edges. To shake loose what it carried. To teach it meaning.
I learned the magic of repetition from Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, which I found on a thrift store shelf, filmed with dust. I studied it as Franny Glass studied The Way of the Pilgrim, mesmerized by the idea of incessant prayer. Like me, Franny incanted a set of words—the Jesus Prayer—hoping to syncopate their intention with her heart’s beat, the surge of her blood, turn even the mysterious work of her organs holy.
Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, goes the prayer.
Jesus was a cool guy, the captain said. But religion was not. The nuns who swung wire hangers against him and his brothers were not. My abuela had made them kneel on rice, a Bible in each hand. She told them to be good, to pray, to beg the help of no one but God. My abuelo had beat them senseless. Help never came.
Praying to Jesus was not for anyone in our family. But I loved the word mercy. The idea of falling to one’s knees moved something in me that I tended like a secret.
So I left out Jesus. Have mercy on me. Under my breath, on the way to school, in the ripped back seat of a white Suburu with a hand up my shirt I waited to detach from the definition of my daily life, to feel the blooming quiet of something holier.
Even those ancient monks, writers of the Philokalia, believed that the repetition of words, and willingness, was all one needed. Faith could be summoned in the self, in saying, in the body. One didn’t need to believe in God to walk toward God. I only had to believe in a word. So I started looking for it.
My captain did not give me religion. He gave me other treasures. A bloom of desert roses the size of my arm, a freckled ostrich egg, true pirate stories. Tom, on the other hand, had given me native blood, which meant something only because it showed on my face. It was the one thing that reminded me of him, every time someone asked me, What are you?
I wished it had meant something to him, that he had given me a name I could decipher. Then everything might be different. He might be someone other than a drunk stranger living in a Florida trailer. And who would I be?
My history seemed to end, or begin, with this name. Melissa. Those seven letters, a few boxes in the car, and my mother and I drove away from him. We didn’t take anything else. Lucky, I was told, to have wrecked so young, to have washed ashore with no memory.
True, I did not remember my first father. But forgetting, like leaving, does not erase someone. The captain became the only dad I knew. And every time he left port, we wrecked again.
A new father brought me a new name. One from Puerto Rico.
The origin of Febos is not simple. There aren’t many of us. My abuela told me that Febos was changed from Febo, because my great grandfather thought it too close to feo, which means ugly in Spanish. A cute story. And a lie. Or myth, maybe. The uglier our own stories, the more some of us need pretty ones.
The captain’s grandfather, Amador, was a jíbaro – mountain dwelling peasants, laborers of mixed indigenous Taino and Spanish blood who had worked alongside slaves on the cane, tobacco, and coffee plantations.
Amador, from the Latin amare, meaning to love. Ironic, as he was a monstruo. Or alcohol, and that breaking work, made him one. My guess: he was a lover. Sometimes the only cure for a soft heart is hard hands, or the elixirs that change them.
In the mountain village of Cayey, Taino for “a place of waters,” the captain’s father, my grandfather, Modesto, at the age of seven, woke from sleep to find his father attempting to hang him by noose from the ceiling. He never slept in Amador’s house again, but under the cars of neighbors, returning days to care for his mother and younger siblings.
Modesto, from the Latin modestus, means “moderate, sober,” though he also drank himself mad. The terrible legacy of his father was nothing a name could remedy. Those hard hands carved my own father, whose first mercy was the sea.
The captain, on his voyages, made a habit of searching the phone books for Febos. The only reference he ever encountered was in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, in which the Febos gang are a band of marauders who roam the Pyrenees.
He was looking for something, too.
At ten, in my bedroom, under alpaca blankets brought home by my captain, I read the dictionary. The book an anchor sunk into my hips, I broke it open, each half covering a thigh. All afternoon I mouthed its wonders, this marvel I could open and close, soothed by the murmur of its onionskin pages.
Books were fickle ships, their mercy finite. The longer the better—Roots, Clan of the Cave Bear, Les Miserables, Gone with the Wind. I never wanted to go home. The twilight of stories fell like those of late autumn: all sweet and scary in their slipping, purpled shadows and smell of winter. Still I hurtled through them, my dread thickening as the remaining pages shrunk.
But the dictionary. All books held words, but the dictionary was words. It was a solar system of names, like the stars my father pointed out over our house: Polaris, Mizar, Arcturus, Vega, Mnemonic, Chasm, Nautilus. It pulsed from that low shelf in our living room, more magnetic than the crap black and white television on the old Singer sewing machine, than the fetal pig suspended in the jar in my science classroom. I looked into words, as I looked up to those celestial bodies, calling out their names.
Mnemosyne. First generation Goddess, namer of all things. Titanness from whose own name we derived mnemonic, a word I loved for its swell—a wave of sound, the break of it. A word that moved but knew its own end.
Mnemosyne. When they met her, the dead faced a choice: drink from the river Lethe and forget the terror of this human life, or drink from the river Mnemosyne and remember. Those who drank to forget were reborn. Those who chose to remember continued, carted their dark histories across the western ocean, to paradise.
Memory: my first drink. I stole a dusty bottle from my kitchen cabinet, labeled in a language I could not read. I poured that potion into me and felt the heat and churn of its work. I forgot myself. I forgot my mother leaving, this time, to live somewhere else. I forgot my father’s grief, how it sank every object in our home: the desert rose, the ostrich egg, me. I forgot my own missing.
I drank to forget and I stopped caring where words came from. I stopped wondering what made them, what made me.
Something drew taut in me at 12, and by 14 it snapped. I said yes and no at all the wrong times. Yes of my thumb jut over Route 151, summoning the open door of an unknown car. Yes with a lighter flame held to anything that would burn. Yes to my friends’ older brothers’ hands and brothers’ friends’ hands. Yes, yes, yes. Is anything wrong? No.
The summer before ninth grade, I kissed my best friend. By soccer season, I had no best friend. I cut off my hair. When a senior grabbed my breast in the hall between classes, I said nothing. I quit high school after one year. What could they teach me that I didn’t already know? The captain did not approve, but what else was new? He was a rule follower. Half the time, he was gone. Soon, I would be, too.
I changed my name from Melissa with an I, to Melysa with a Y and a single S. The double S had been a liability. That soft middle. All those curves. The small i—I’d found a way cut it out of me. Melissa was unmoored, like the dinghies in the harbor that local boys hijacked and abandoned in the marsh grass, or left knocking against a far dock, oarless. An X, or a K, or a T would have been ideal, but I settled for Y. Not barbed wire, but rope. Melysa, with that Y, would stay tethered.
In the United States, approximately 17,000 people change their names each year. In nearly all states, “A person cannot choose a name that is intended to mislead.” But what if one’s given name is misleading? Melissa made promises I didn’t want to keep.
Melysa with a Y lasted a year. I still occasionally find it printed inside the cover of a book. The first feeling is shame. Because I wanted to change myself? Or because I thought it would be that easy?
Shortening my name did not lessen me for long. I moved into the basement and Melissa swelled again to fill it. I read Plath and Lorde and lay on the floor and wished for Duras’ lover. No, to be that lover. To say everything in so few words. I wished to be silent but blistered with sound. I breathed it into my dark basement, into girls’ mouths, into my hands. I prayed for such small hands but I was a Hekatonkheir, hundred-handed and hungry. You touch too hard, said the first girl I loved. I rode my bike from ocean to ocean but her words followed me.
So I left home. And though I loved that dirty water, Boston was not box enough. Even New York could not quiet me.
Then heroin did. Drugs emptied me, refilled that space with vapors. Even the fiery melt of crack was an emptying: inhale it, and exhale the unseen self in a smoky swarm. The crackling splatter of me in that hot glass skillet—the abracadabra of evaporation.
How can I explain this? To hear my name and feel nothing. Freedom. Melissa became a mannequin of moveable parts. I could make her do anything. Dye my hair. Change my clothes. Answer an advertisement in the newspaper: Young woman wanted for roleplay and domination. Good money. No sex. It was a challenge, and I had something to prove. Names meant nothing in that place. Melissa stepped into the elevator and Justine stepped out. It wasn’t me. Those men could call me anything and I never flinched. It felt like choice.
At the end, when I had descended so far beyond the bare fact of myself that it was no longer escaped, but lost, I’d whisper into my cupped hand, Melissa. A caught bee, its familiar hum held to my ear. Melissa. I wanted to go home. I wanted a new word for help. I wanted a name for what remained underneath what I had become. It was the first time I admitted that Melissa might be such a name.
My mother kept bees when I was a girl. They lived in a white wooden hive behind her garden that resembled a chest of drawers. A small buzzing bureau. From the kitchen window, I could just make out the black specs of them, moving in and out, sometimes crawling on the face of it.
When she harvested, I stood in the yard and watched her careful movements. She wore head-to-toe white and a veiled hat—Victorian, astronautical—a bride of bees with a smoking can in her glove instead of flowers. Her hand on the bellows, smoke streamed from the spout, a potion to slow the bees as she plundered their hive.
She lifted out the frames so carefully, the ready combs heavy with honey and capped with wax. The bees’ song swelled across the yard as they rested on her white arms and clung to the netting over her face.
With a knife’s stroke she uncapped the comb and revealed each oozing hexagonal hole.
Sometimes, she handed me a broken comb and I held that warm hunk, its sweetness dripping down my forearm as I fought not to crush it, ached to close my hand around its torn geometry and feel its honey cover my knuckles.
Melissa fed the infant Zeus honey. That mountain nymph’s bees delivered it straight into his mouth. This is the most common story, though there are many. I have looked for myself in all of them.
The bee nymph was known for introducing sweetness to men in the form of honey and thus taming them of eating one another. A civilizing influence. My mother didn’t feed me sugar until I was nearly four years old. Honey was the only sweet my mouth knew and her undressed cakes more manna than any frosted future ones.
She tried. Honey might have tamed a different daughter. Sugar’s grit might have better smoothed my wild. I suspect I would have eaten myself alive either way.
In other versions, Melissa hides the sticky-lipped baby to prevent him being eaten by his father, Cronus.
Find me a history without a monstrous father. Find me my father. There, in the shallow of our pond, dragging a metal rake, water darkening his cuffed pants. He’s at it again, said my mother, shaking her head. He raked that muck all day, tried to beat it back and clear a path. But our pond was algae and animal—its murky depths could not be cleared. It is a waste of time, my mother said, when there is so much to be done. Overnight, the path disappeared. Again, he raked. My mother left him. Still, he kept raking. He did not crush gold cans of Presidente, like his father. He did not collapse the drywall with our bodies. But I saw him weep in the yard. One hand on the fence, he folded over.
You are so lucky, he would say to me. I lay in bed and tried to make a prayer of it. I am so lucky. I am so lucky. Through the wall, I heard him scream in his sleep.
In this story, I was not the hider, but the hidden. My captain is no monster. He tried to save me from those other fathers, but it was impossible. Even when we write our own stories there’s no place to hide.
The sound of my name still shocks me. Melissa, and I startle, as if the sayer has called out to and seen some hidden part of me. It strikes me as both stranger and skeleton key; part cuss, part promise, part secret. Melissa, and I open sesame.
When lovers call my name—in the bathtub, in bed, over the telephone, into a microphone or my ear—it closes my eyes, buckles me, thralls my insides with the sweet terror of being recognized. Sometimes we cannot bear the thing we crave.
This is not a story about learning to love myself. I am not happy ended with Melissa. My name is not a symbol. It is coded with all of this: the unseen, the near-known, the rather-not-known.
It hurts to hear everything my name holds, but I choose to drink from that river now, to carry that tangled history. I no longer want to change my name. I never did, really. I only wanted to know where I ended and everything else began, and I still do, in these oceanic days.
Like Franny Glass, I have begged of myself a prayer, begged of my name an answer. Made them the same powerful thing. Aren’t they both gestures of surrender?
In all these utterings, I have not always found answers. Melissa may not be another word for mercy. But I have found that every name is a name for God.
From Abandon Me by Melissa Febos. Copyright © 2017 by Melissa Febos. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. All rights reserved.