The first essay is “Kettle Holes.” Spitting. Puberty. The Titanic: a ship thought to be too strong to sink. A
friend boy chases her and spits on her, and the scale moves from friend to enemy predator. Men leer from their cars. Her body keeps changing. The Titanic sinks. Is forgetting the only way to move forward?
Melissa: “There was a pleasure in compelling them. The way they could not stay away. But as soon as they touched me, it was gone. I had no control over what happened next, the names they called me in school, the crude gestures, the prank phone calls—not even when my mother answered the phone. She wanted to help me, but I had no words for what was happening. My chambers were breached. They filled with that weight. I was sunk. How could she have prepared me for this? You cannot win against an ocean. There is no good strategy in a rigged game. There are only new ways to lose.”
Me: Immediately I understand that these seven essays are living things, that they know things about me that other people don’t. It’s clear that each one will conjure some memory out of me from the realm of my girlhood. A muscle memory first: she writes about a boy chasing her down the street and spitting on her and my eyes instinctively close. The one time it happened to me, my mind went to a bizarre place: that eye exam where they shoot the burst of air into your eye. Since then, every time I take the actual eye exam, my eyes burn, remembering.
The second essay is “The Mirror Test.” There is a short story: “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid—“the slut you are so bent on becoming.” There is a test: the mirror self-recognition test (MSR), used to gage an animal’s ability to recognize that it is looking at itself, not another animal, in a mirror. There is a word: slut appeared in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary as a term that referred to a dirty woman, without any sexual meaning. The 1960s turned the word into something else: a promiscuous woman. Humans and chimps seem to recognize their reflections at about six months old, but the ages at which girls begin to recognize themselves and others as sluts tends to vary.
Melissa: “The self becomes a collaboration with other people, a series of fantasies that lead to ‘the armour of an alienating identity.’ Have you seen a suit of armor? There are so many pieces. Here is where a strange man named me. Here is where the girls stared. Here is the school report card. The plates clink and move together like one. The self underneath is invisible to others. We are completely alone inside ourselves.”
Me: Ages 17, 27, and 30.
The third essay is “Wild America.” Animals and people, instincts and body parts. She hates her hands—they are massive; they are manly. She studies the hands of prospective female lovers, and they study hers. She worries she is doomed to be the man. She cancels romance for a year. She reads and rereads Audre Lorde: “The erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”
Melissa: “I simply had no reference but the most base heterosexual model of how to be attractive to another human.”
And: “Part of learning to receive things is learning to do so when you haven’t even asked for them. To let love sneak up on you with its warm splash of light and just stand there squinting. It can be a lot to take.”
And: “Oh, the frightful pleasure of making the most known place in the world an alien landscape.”
Me: I remember that we were sitting so close at the small table in the dark corner of the bar, five or six of us, and she was next to me, and her knee kept resting against mine. I could tell she didn’t know that she was doing it, electrifying me. She talked with her hands, and sometimes when she was really getting into a story, a hand or a finger would brush against me and, oh, the frightful pleasure, and I had no idea what was happening to me, except that, in an animal way, I knew exactly what.
The fourth essay is “Intrusions.” A window in New York: a peeping tom. The bizarre normality of it. All of the movies and TV shows that put it to a soundtrack and recruit a hot actor: Body Double, Revenge of the Nerds, Law & Order, Mindhunter, True Detective, Prime Suspect, Rear Window, Animal House, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, The Girl Next Door. 89 percent of murdered women were stalked in the twelve months before their killings, and 54 percent of murdered women reported stalking to the police beforehand.
Melissa: “His reaction had confused me. There had been no evidence of shame on his face, no acknowledgment that he had done anything inappropriate, let alone threatening. There hadn’t been any particular menace in his manner as he propositioned me. He’d acted just like so many men I passed in the street every day: as though I were a legitimate sexual interest, a woman drinking at the same bar instead of someone he’d been harassing and stalking. As though these behaviors all fell under the same umbrella of romantic pursuit.”
Me: I have my own experience with a peeping tom, but that isn’t what I remember first. I remember the man who came into the sandwich shop where I worked when I was nineteen and told my female coworker and I that he wanted to push one of us up against the wall and rape us while the other one stood by and watched. My coworker was also nineteen. The two of us were working the closing shift alone with no security. I remember that he did specify which one of us he wanted to rape, but I can’t now recall who it was. I remember the way he spoke: very matter-of-fact, and then he laughed about it, like it was a joke between the three of us. I remember I moved all the knives away from the counter when he wasn’t looking. I remember he eventually left, and we closed at the normal time. I remember telling a few friends, who were properly horrified and told me to tell the manager, and I remember telling her, and I remember her telling the police. Then I guess I forgot about it.
I think about the first essay again. Is forgetting the only way to move forward?
The fifth essay is “Thesmophoria.” It’s the name of an ancient Greek fertility festival. She goes with her mother to Italy, or she tries to, but they get their dates wrong. The myth of Persephone: she thinks she’s smarter than Hades, but he tricks her and abducts her. If only she could have asked her mother for advice.
Melissa: “A daughter is wedded to her mother first.”
Me: The first time I lived away from home, and by that I mean away from my home state, after college, when I went from living a six-hour drive away to a six-day drive away, I would leave the apartment to find a store to walk around, and I’d call my mom for advice. I don’t remember the exact advice I needed except that it was about everything because I was 22 and earnestly stupid. It was the furthest I’d lived from her at the time and the closest we’d ever been, me walking around Target or the bookstore, her pressed tightly to my ear.
The sixth essay is “Thank You For Taking Care of Yourself.” The “cuddle party” is a real thing, and it goes like this: everyone remains fully clothed, and you must ask participants for consent before any type of touching occurs: hand holding, hugging, spooning, shoulder massage. If you ask a person and they refuse, you say this: Thank you for taking care of yourself. “Skin hunger” is a real thing, and it goes like this: scientists believe that many experiences of depression are actually symptoms of touch deprivation.
Melissa: “Adam led us through the familiar cuddle party rules. ‘You can simply say, “I’m done,” or, “This isn’t working,”’ he told us. As he spoke, I felt my eyes prickle with tears. What a simple and gorgeous idea that was. What if we had all been taught that we could walk away whenever we wanted? What if we had learned that saying no was a necessary way of taking care of ourselves? I imagined living in a society that acknowledged that fact as the cuddle party did.”
Me: The pandemic has complicated my feelings of touch, and it’s hard for me to remember how I felt before. Is forgetting the only way to move forward? Now all I know is the touch I crave: a hug from a friend, someone squeezing your hand, the one who always puts his hand on my back when we’re about to cross the street. Hunger changes you; it is your body remembering.
The seventh essay is “Les Calanques.” Seventeen years since her last visit to France. She hears the cicadas. Cicadas stay underground for seventeen years before climbing out of the ground and out of their bodies. She stretches her injury. She remembers the other her in the other trip: younger, running from addiction, a relationship, herself. This newer version in an older body goes for a hike to the ocean, writes, eats a peach by the sink, remembers.
Melissa: “As a young woman I struck myself against everything—other bodies, cities, myself—but I could never make sense of the marks I made on them, or the marks they made on me. A thing of unknown value has no value, and I treated myself as such. I beat against my life as if it could tell me how to stop hurting, until I was black and blue on the inside. The small softnesses I found, however fleeting, were precious. They may have saved my life.”
Me: I remember the two versions of me who went to France: the younger one, in her twenties, running from a failed relationship and all the dark corners of her life. And the older one, in her thirties, beating against another new city to see what would happen and finding, surprisingly, that the landing was soft. The small softnesses I found. The light that came in from my windows in the morning. The walk to the bakery, the library on Wednesday nights, the word nuage. Going for a hike to the ocean, writing, eating a peach by the sink, remembering.