The winning entry of the 2015 Center for Women Writers Prize in Creative Nonfiction
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Handels
By Melissa Febos
1. First, the knees. They meet the gravel, the street, the blunt hips of curbs. Pain is the bright light flashing, forgotten for Vega’s colors, then Haley’s Comet – a burning streak behind the clouds. Your sea captain father holds you up to the sky, tells you, Look. Tells you, Remember this. You, small animal in the pink dress from your abuela, dirty sneakers, bloody knees, looking up.
2. The oven is eye level, and your forearms striped with burns. A tally of each time you reach over your depth. Are you just a child, or already Einstein’s definition of insanity? You like to be marked. Your mother, though, wails when she drops a blueberry pie from that height, sinks into the gory glory of its mess just before your father leaves port again. Oh, to stripe the floor with your own scalding compote. You stay closed, you hot box, you little teapot. You fill, but never empty. You stay striped.
3. They call it a faggot test. Do you know what a faggot is, or only that you are part boy? Rub the pencil’s pink end across the back of your hand until it erases you. The circle of boys claps when you draw blood. After school, your mother’s stricken face scares you, but later, you are glad she saw the peeled pink of it — saw that it was in you.
4. Your best friend flowers your limbs with bruises—indian sunburn, snake bite, monkey bite, her pale knuckles vised into your thigh. Her fingernails carve you, one time permanently. Only your body flinches. You know the need to engrave things. After baseball practice, still in cleats, when she presses her mouth against your neck under the mildewed blanket in your basement, you are sorry her hot mouth leaves no mark.
5. So you like dark boys, says your mother, watching you watch a boy on your baseball team. She never meets your first love, a Cape Verdean boy to whom you barely speak. Verdean, Verdean, you whisper, craving sounds that fill your mouth. What are you? he asks. You whisper cerulean, figlia, Wampanoag, Melitta, querida. You are nothing, just a shard beating the shore. Just a small animal you fling into the sea. Behind the mall, break-dancers spin on sheets of cardboard, and from that circle of boys, he throws a rock that finds your face. Blood on your mouth, you call your father from a payphone. Baseball at dusk? You know better, he says, though he is proud of your lie. He wraps ice packs in dish towels, makes you hold them against the new scar. Your eyes blacken anyway.
6. In the locker room, you perfect the art of changing your clothes under your clothes. Your body is a secret you keep, a white rabbit, and you the magician who disappears it. Remember: this is a hard hustle to break. It is difficult to keep some secrets, and not others. Hustle now, across that field, forgetting your body as only this allows, and reach for the ball that scorches your hand with pain. See what happens when you forget yourself? It is better to choose your pain, than to let it choose you.
7. In the tiny bathroom of your father’s house, you tuck your fingers into your mouth until sweat beads your body and your throat bitters. All day, you rub your tongue against the scraped inside, the bitten knuckle. You are sore for days, but it doesn’t keep. You choose it, and then it chooses you.
8. At sixteen, you shave your head, disappointed that no curb or wall or rock has altered its perfect sphere. Your father’s stricken face pleases you. When you pierce your nose, he tells you no one will ever see your face again for the glare. You don’t tell him that’s the point. When he looks at you, he sees only the message you carry, written in a language he never taught you, not Spanish, but the other language of his childhood, the one that leaves marks. You quit baseball and move out of his house.
9. Instead of 10 holes, your body now has 23. You stop returning your father’s phone calls. You don’t listen to his messages. At night, you touch each opening, drawing the constellation of your body: Lyra, Libra, Big Dipper, flickering Vega, binary Mizar, you bucket of light, you horse and rider. You lick your fingers and tuck them inside, tug on these mouths and others, the knots of skin between you, and you, and you.
10. The first time, you look away as your lover slides the needle into the crook of your arm. Your body beads with sweat and your throat bitters. You choose it—this pale boy, this new hole, this fill, this empty, this orphaning—and then it chooses you.
11. Your father once gave you a picture book of knots, a smooth length of rope looped around its spine. Half Hitch, Figure Eight, Clove Hitch, Bowline, Anchor Bend, Slip Knot. The only one you remember the first time you tie two wrists together is a square knot, but it’s the only one you need. The first time a man pays to tie your wrists, he doesn’t know right over left, left over right. Only a Better Bow, rabbit in the hole, but not disappeared. Every time, you slip away—pinched nerves, pinked thighs, wax stars sealing your dark parts. They tuck their fingers into your mouth and tug until your body beads with sweat and your throat bitters. You choose them, and then they choose you.
12. Like you, he is part feral, part vessel. Nights, he tucks into the curve of you, sings a rippled sigh across your pillow. In sleep you burn, a glowing ember, soaking the sheets. You wake sticky-chested, heart a drum, and listen to him cry. You clench his twitching paws. Like you, he fears his own kind and leads with his teeth. You fling yourself into his fights—tooth to knuckle, street to knee, and you never make a sound, forget yourself as only this allows. After, you touch each opening with trembling hands, drawing the constellation of this animal: Sirius, dog star, Polaris, and you Orioned with bloody hands. You pick the gravel out of your knees, wince every time you close your hand, but he makes you a hunter.
13. The year your father leaves port for the last time, you draw the needle out. Your body beads with sweat and your throat bitters. In sleep, you burn, and wake shaking wet. Remember this supernova, you black hole, you cosmic shard, your dark matter spilling out. When it lifts, you are peeled pink, pain the bright light flashing, but in it you see everything.
14. You don’t choose her—a woman dark as your father—but she finds you, smooth shard, and tucks you away. In love, your hair and fingernails grow bone-bright, wax-white, needle-thin, then tear off and fall away. You run. Marked thing, you run until your knees throb, toenails loosen, skull’s bowl tipping open. You fling yourself against her. You wear yourself away. Hot ember in her hands, you glow. At night, she touches every opening, drawing the constellation of your burning body, and when you leave her, it finally cools.
15. This time, you choose the needle, and the hand that holds it. You carve the things you want to remember into your shoulder, your hip, the crook of your arm. You carve yourself into paper. These are not secrets, but they keep. You bare these new marks, and your father says nothing, but he looks at you. You look, too, and finally, you both see it. Cepheus and Andromeda, Mizar and Alcor, Zeus and Athena, you binary creatures, you star and sextant, navigator and horizon. You draw the constellation of your history, connecting the dots of your heavenly body. This is your celestial heart. You choose it, and it chooses you.
Melissa Febos is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press). Her work has been widely anthologized and appears in publications including The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Glamour, Post Road, Salon, The New York Times, Hunger Mountain, Portland Review, Dissent, The Brooklyn Rail, The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, Bitch Magazine, and Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York. She has been featured on NPR’s Fresh Air, CNN, Anderson Cooper Live, and elsewhere. Her essays have won prizes from Prairie Schooner, Story Quarterly, and The Center for Women Writers. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and The MacDowell Colony. The recipient of an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, she is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). She serves on the Executive Board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and co-curated the Manhattan reading and music series, Mixer,for eight years. The daughter of a sea captain and a psychotherapist, she was raised on Cape Cod and lives in Brooklyn.