Here are the things I knew about my birth father:
•His name was Jon.
•He was a career drug addict and alcoholic.
•He was Wampanoag.
•He played guitar.
•He had other children.
•He raised none of us.
I was a curious child but I was never curious about Jon. Jon was just Jon. He was a fact the size of a postage stamp, which my mother once wryly suggested he had never in his life purchased. Jon was not a mystery. Jon was a small suitcase that my parents unpacked for me as a child. See? they said. Here is what he left you. The neat circular vowels of biological and Wampanoag, the empty bottle with the skull and crossbones on its label, and the endless double helical strands of 50 percent of my DNA, glimmering coils as perfect as the skin of an apple peeled by my mother’s knife. Not much to see here, they shrugged. But it’s yours. I ran my fingers along the tops of those letters, felt the spine of the little b, the l’s, and the w. I looked through the glass bottle, my parents’ faces rippled on the other side. I repacked the suitcase and put it on the closet shelf. Over the years my mother warned me about the drinking. It’s hereditary, she told me. But little else was assigned to that half of my blue- print. You probably don’t have much in common with them, she said of my unknown half siblings.
Then, when I was eight, I started eating my pancakes with butter and salt instead of maple syrup. The rst time I reached for the saltshaker, my mother froze.
Jon used to eat his pancakes with butter and salt, she said, not in her usual voice, but slower, her mouth turning the words like prickly lozenges.
I put that saltshaker in the suitcase, too, but didn’t forget it like the other things.
Where did you come from? Amaia asked me, cupping my face in her hands, voice breathy with wonder. She splayed her ngers across my chest, belly, and hips—measured every part of me with her palms. I was a marvel. I was her Pandora. 0 And her desires were the gods who created me. You are so beautiful, she said again and again. Your mouth, your mouth reinvents the word “mouth.”
I squirmed under this scrutiny, laughed, but she stayed serious.
Your hips, she said, pressing her mouth against them. I didn’t know what hips were before yours.
Yeah, right, I murmured, burying my fingers in her hair.
I mean it, she said. Touching you makes me feel like I have a hundred hands, makes me wish I had a hundred more.
Hesiod doesn’t name Pandora in his Theogony; she is only a “beautiful evil,” the sight of whom seizes gods and mortals alike with wonder.
My girl, Amaia murmured, and repeated my name like a mantra, until it felt like a word carved by her mouth. Until I couldn’t remember what it had meant before she spoke it.
Our last day, we made love all afternoon, and at midnight she walked a mile to bring me back a piece of chocolate cake, tarry with sugared frosting. We ate the cake, and made love again, our mouths sweet, her hair smelling of the winter outside.
Then she went quiet. Worry sawed in my gut.
What’s wrong? I asked her.
Nothing, she said. I scoured the afternoon, searched for something I’d missed. I began to cry.
I tried many ways to name that feeling. For her and later for myself. The most accurate description and the one I give here is not mine. It is from The NeverEnding Story. The film’s protagonist is a native boy—Atreyu, an orphan. The antagonist is a force called the Nothing. The Nothing consumes all in its path, annihilates all life with its infectious despair. Even its name is a riddle, a vacuum—it can’t be fought. Like Odysseus, who tells the Cyclops Polyphemus that his name is Nobody. When Odysseus blinds the Cyclops, the Cyclops cries out that “Nobody” has blinded him, and no one understands or believes in his pain.
The feeling Amaia’s silence triggered in me was a Nothing, a Nobody. I could not name it—like hunger, it was an emptiness, an emptier.
We sat in that hotel room under the bed’s dark branches. She in her silence and me in my Nothing.
Finally, she explained. Te amo, she said. I need you.
Kissinger wrote that “History is the memory of states.” If that memory were recorded in my history textbooks and on the plaques of historical monuments, then where, I wondered, were the memories of the dead recorded? Where was the history of the people who survived them?
The French philosopher Theodule Ribot, in his 1881 work, The Maladies of Memory, claimed memory’s location in the nervous system, and thusly of material nature. Henri Bergson, in his rebuttal to Ribot—Matter and Memory—made a distinction between practical memory and pure memory, the latter of which trades in “image remembrance.” Bergson believed that the more a spirit draws from this true memory, and exists in an awareness of the past in conjunction with the immediacy of bodily experience, the more conscious she becomes. Impulsivity, according to the philosopher, is the symptom of a person trapped in her corporeal present, accessing only her practical memory. Despite their contention, both philosophers support what I knew empirically by fifteen—to exist in my body, and to hold the memory of my history, was to be searingly awake. I was not awake. I had exiled large swathes of my history, and been denied others. I had spent long stretches of time divorced from my body. I was a piñata, rattling with impulse and temptation, reacting to forces whose origins were mysterious to me.
My therapist once said, When we don’t react, something creative happens. She meant that we get to fully experience what happens. When we observe how the world affects us and let our defenses rest, when we consider the context of our greater history, we have an opportunity to act from our higher selves and perceptions. Not reacting gives us the agency to change. Or, in the famous words of Spanish philosopher George Santayana, Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. To repeat their same reactions to it for all time, despite even self-annihilation. It was a truth I beat my head against even as a child. Why did self-knowledge not stop me from repeating the same painful acts? Why this insanity as Einstein defined it—the repetition of the same act with an expectation of a different result? The bondage of reaction is stronger even than that of self-preservation.
In the small Texas town, the trains ran all day. Each morning, we woke at dawn and sat in an orange chair by the window to watch the sun rise, spill its mad colors across that enormous sky. Every sunrise was a carnival of color, to the sound- track of those trains. They barreled across the desert and their rumble in my chest, the bleat of those whistles, reminded me of the foghorns on the Cape. Whistle is too weak a word. When a human makes such a sound, it expresses only a few things: terrible grief, earth-shattering climax, triumph, or pain. Not broken-finger pain, but dying pain, child-birthing pain. That kind of sound is all body, all heart, out of mind. It’s ironic that both train whistles and fog horns should evoke such animal feeling, as they both exist specically for their listeners. Here I come, they say. Get off the tracks if you don’t want my two- hundred tons of steel barreling into your chest. Steer your prow elsewhere if you don’t want to wreck against my shore. Not a threat, but a warning: I can’t stop myself, so it’s up to you, stranger.
One afternoon, from a nearby café table, a local told us a story about a train conductor who’d fallen in love and had his heart broken by a woman in town. Every time he passed through, he’d sound his train’s whistle all the way, borrowing its wail for his own so that the whole town could feel his busted heart hum in their chests, rattle their teeth, shake their skulls. And after that, every time a train passed and I heard that cry, I wondered if it was a warning or a wailing or a hallelujah. I thought of my own heart, how much I feared her breaking it. It would sound like that, I thought. It would be the only sound I ever heard again. It would be wrecking against the shore of one person for the rest of my life.
I feared it so much that I broke my own heart every day that I loved her. I felt it when I watched her reading in a café, absentmindedly scratching her head and twirling a pen with her long fingers. I felt it when we drove thirty miles to swim in a pool of water risen from deep underground, her skin warm and smooth as clay under my hands. On the way back we stopped at the “Largest Rattlesnake Exhibit on the Planet,” where we paid five dollars to two petrified men in a warehouse with a hand-painted sign, steeped in the rot-dirt stench of snake shit, and stood in front of a rattler yellow as a fingernail and thicker than her long leg leaned against me, and I whispered that I didn’t have any underwear on because I had swam in them, and she laughed and told me a lady should always wear underpants to visit the Largest Rattlesnake Exhibit on the Planet. When I made love to her in that chair by the window, dawn glowing her body like a fruit split open to its wet center, I felt it—the way you feel a fall just looking over the edge of a roof.
Will you love me forever? she asked me. Yes, I said.
I couldn’t know, though. When that whistle spills over the desert, you can only hear the call of your own heart. When I looked at her, I wondered. Are you my wrecking shore? Are you my third rail? Or are you my hallelujah?
In his confessions, St. Augustine asks God “why tears are so sweet to the sorrowful.” Euripides, in The Trojan Women, asks, “How good are the tears, how sweet the dirges? I would rather sing dirges than eat or drink.” I, too, have always had a taste for tears. I was a colicky baby and an emotional child. I cried for The Fox and the Hound, for baby birds in our backyard, for bullied classmates on the school bus. Most of all, I cried when the Captain left. I watched him walk away again and again, and I sobbed, thinking Come back, come back. I hugged my crying mother and thought, I will do anything.
When he was gone, I kept a close watch on my mother, who was good at hiding her loneliness, but not good enough. Some days, a panic gripped me that she would never return from the grocery store. I stared at the driveway, Come back, come back.
I decided I needed to toughen up when I turned eight. On the bus, on the way home from school, I imagined each of my family members dying. When tears rose in my eyes, I suppressed them. You can’t cry, I told myself. Or they really will die.
Four months into loving her, I cried. Once I started, I could not stop. It was not voluptuous. It was not ecstatic. It was not sweet, except in the way that a sweet thing is a siren, its call impossible to ignore. Except in the way that a sweet thing, a thing you cannot ignore, can ravage. If sweet means irresistible, then my tears were sweet. But they were not pretty and they did not taste good.
In the past, I rarely cried over lovers. I never fought with lovers. I never waited for lovers. And I never lost control. My worst fear was to be needy. When I thought about neediness, I felt like there were snakes on me. When I thought about asking for something that someone couldn’t or wouldn’t give me, I felt like I had stepped in shit. Women who obsessed over men who did not give them what they needed repelled me, as if need were a contagious disease. I looked at the brokenhearted, at the needy, at the unrequited, at women who waited like my mother had waited and I thought, never.
In Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes, the fox desires the grapes. The grapes, however, are out of his reach. So the fox tells himself he does not want the grapes. The grapes make him sick. He convinces himself.
When I was still a child, I had decided that grapes weren’t so sweet after all. I would rather have lived in a world without the sweetness of grapes than in this world, where grapes were often out of reach, and did not lower themselves no matter how hard I cried. At thirty-two, I bit Amaia’s lip. That sweet flooded my mouth and I remembered.
I often kidded about the voracious need that must be hiding deep inside me. I sat for hours in therapy sessions, searching for my feelings. I wanted to “get in touch with them.” I thought that when I finally found them it would be like a reunion with a childhood friend—emotional, surely, but also sweet—a reward for all my hard work. I did not think that I was leaving messages for a serial killer. I did not think that my feelings, receiving my invitation, would arrive on my doorstep like a cabal of madwomen and refuse to leave. I thought that the host of the party decided when it ended and her guests went home. But feelings have terrible manners—they are like children, or drunks. They are mad. They gorge as the starved will gorge, until they are sick, until their stomachs split. As you or I would, if we were exiled for thirty years. They do not leave when you want them to. They leave when they are finished.
In my last year of college, I took a job as a dominatrix. At work, I dressed in nurse uniforms, in police uniforms, in fishnets and corsets like a saloon prostitute in an old western. Men paid me to be a mother, a maid, a customs officer, a nurse, a sadist. Sometimes, they paid to hurt me. They paid to want. Doctors, lawyers, janitors, teachers, politicians, husbands, soldiers, holy men and criminals, they brought it to me. They begged. They crawled across floors. They wept. They grasped at my ankles and howled with hunger. They were ecstatic with want, sainted with want, bodies writhing and cringing, burning up on pyres of want, grasping at the wet wick of my body.
When I was twenty-two, I saw a woman suspended from a ceiling by hooks dug through the flesh of her back. We were at a party in Manhattan. She went by the name Lola, and I Justine—my namesake the Marquis de Sade’s famous submissive heroine. In a rubber dress and stilettos, I stood on a staircase of a warehouse in Chelsea and tilted my head back. Lola’s eyes at half-mast, her face was beatific, body glittering with makeup and pearly sweat. The stainless steel hooks gathered and lifted the skin over her shoulder blades in two mounds. All 120 pounds of her hung from those two handfuls of flesh. The puncture wounds wept, but Lola did not. Her body glowed with the pain, as if electrified—as if Electra, brilliant with relief, with glory, with revenge, with kathartikos. She was beautiful. I looked up at her and imagined my younger self, at eleven or twelve years old, standing beside me on that staircase, all those leathered bodies writhing below us. Look, I imagined saying to that girl.
Later, when I remembered this, I understood it as a desire to annihilate my own innocence. I had conjured the child in me at her most hurting age and I showed her something shocking, incomprehensible. I wanted to break that innocence, so that she would never be shocked again.
Now, I think different. It was a tender impulse, not a violent one, and what I showed her was not incomprehensible. I don’t know what hoisted Lola up to those rafters, but I know she chose it. I know that she glowed like a planet, radiated light and gravity, colors like cosmic gases colliding, her body ringed as Saturn. When they lowered her, she was just a woman. Her face, slick with sweat, was softer than I had ever seen it, as if she’d just been born. Black hair wet against her forehead, she smiled at me, touched my face with her hot hand.
The Catholic monks of Opus Dei, like their thirteenth- century predecessors, practice self-flagellation in prayer. In India, Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran, some Shiites march in parades, practicing their versions—zanjeer zani and tatbir— sometimes with knives, blades, and chains. In Chinese medicine, coins are dragged across the body until blood rises to the surface in great striping hickeys. This treatment, cio gio, literally translates to “catch the wind,” and is believed to treat “wind illness” and restore the body’s balance. In this country, some teenage girls cut themselves with knives and scissors and few of them describe the urge as one to punish.
By the time I looked up at Lola, I had spent hours under tattoo guns, had slid poison needles into my arms, had shoved my own hand down my throat, had flung my body at so many perilous things, but I had never wanted to die. I was not a masochist. What I mean is, the difference between what is holy and what is pathological is sometimes a matter of fashion. What I mean is, maybe I already knew that my own healing would never look like a laying of hands, not the gentle kind. Maybe I wanted to spare that girl the extra hell of believing she was broken. We are all broken. And repair often hurts. And the ways we find to fix ourselves do not always look like fixing. Sometimes they fail, but they are never wrong.
Melissa Febos is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Whip Smart. Her work has been widely anthologized and appears in publications including the Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Glamour, Guernica, Post Road, Tin House, Salon, the New York Times, the Rumpus, and Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, and her essays have won prizes from Prairie Schooner, Story Quarterly, and the Center for Women Writers. The recipient of an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, she is currently an assistant professor of creative writing at Monmouth University and M.F.A. faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), and serves on the Board of Directors of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. The daughter of a sea captain and a psychotherapist, she was raised on Cape Cod and lives in Brooklyn.