Rumpus Exclusive: “Bye, Baby”

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Kimmy’s house is filled with men. Her fridge is full of popsicles and orange cheese. There are scratchy yellow curtains and a bathroom too narrow for two bodies. I’m never sure how many brothers there are, or brothers’ friends. I spend at least one night of every weekend during sixth grade at Kimmy’s house. Every week it is a battle. “There’s no supervision!” my mother yells. “You’re only twelve years old!” Kimmy’s mother has the name of a boxer, or a gangster in a black-and-white movie: Pinky. After their brief phone conversations, my mother is not comforted, only exhausted enough to cave.

Kimmy’s oldest brother is a football hero at the high school. He irons his T-shirts every morning and never brings his girlfriend home. It is the first real hot day of summer and we are watching him and his friends play basketball in Kimmy’s driveway. There is Ty, a pretty-faced kid with tennis-ball biceps, and three of Kimmy’s brothers. It is at least ninety degrees. My hair is stuck to the back of my neck with sweat and the cars are too hot to lean against. Down the potholed street a mirage shimmers, a puddle of heat.

They are huge, these boys. They smell like Old Spice and menthol cigarettes. There is anger pushing up inside them. I can hear it in their clipped voices, feel it in the sharpness of their gaze. Their bodies, even in graceful motion, are always fighting. Their limbs swing and fly, threads of sweat tumbling off them. They are louder when we watch, push each other harder, show off. Watching them, I shimmer like that mirage at the end of the street.

After a while, an older man named Vega comes around looking for Pinky. When one of the boys yells Vega’s name, I lurch in recognition. It is the name of my favorite star. When I was a child, my sea captain father would lift me up to the sky and teach me their names. He would tuck his hands under my arms, his voice beside my ear, breathing their strange sounds into the dark. Sirius, Polaris, Arcturus, Vega. In summer, Vega could always be found above the top of our street, flickering its changing colors. That was its atmosphere shifting, my father told me. It was bigger than my brain could hold and still it was always becoming, second by second, a different kind of beautiful.

This Vega in Kimmy’s driveway is kind of beautiful, too, with his tiny moustache and golden arms. He is, in the way of men and space, both unfathomable and familiar.

Kimmy is bored. She wants to go to the mall and get an Icee. She wants to steal a bathing suit from TJ Maxx and go to the beach. She is yelling at one of the twins as her oldest brother points at me and winks.

“This one’s for you,” he says, and weaves his way through the grunting clot of bodies to sink the ball through the hoop. Kimmy screams. Everyone freezes, then runs to her. She has fallen on a tree branch and a piece of wood the thickness of a finger has lodged itself in her shin. It barely bleeds, the nugget of wood like a cork in her flesh. She wails, suddenly a child. Her brother carries her into a car and someone drives them to the hospital. I am left behind.

After Kimmy and her brother are gone, the rest pile into the house to raid Pinky’s fridge. I follow, but stop in the living room and sit on the couch. On the mute TV screen, a girl in a miniskirt talks on a phone to a man sitting across from her, a plate of glass between them. I hear scuffles and burps from the kitchen, a bray of laughter. Ty walks out of the kitchen. “We’re going to my house,” he says. My stomach twists. “You coming?” His friends titter behind him.

“C’mon man, let’s go. Let the little girl alone.”

“I’m not bothering her, am I?”

I shake my head.

“So, you coming?”

I tell him I’d better wait for Kimmy. He tells me I’m a good friend. I know I’m not, but I smile anyway.

“Bye, baby,” he says.

Vega lingers as they leave.

“I’ve got to get some Odor-Eaters, bro, I’ve got to wait for Pinky.”

Odor-Eaters? Whatever, man, take a shower.” They wave him off and get into the car outside. He watches them drive away, jingling the change in his pocket. He turns to me.

“You need anything, Mamacita? At the store, when I get my Odor-Eaters?”

 

I flip through channels while he’s gone, turn the sound on. I go into the kitchen, with its avocado-green fridge. I take a sip of fruit punch from the plastic jug inside and wish it was grape-flavored. I love Kimmy’s house despite searing moments of homesickness. During these months when my father is at sea, I sometimes can’t bear to think of my mother alone, steeping in the quiet of our house.

“You want a beer?” Vega asks me when he gets back. He carries two out of the kitchen. Milwaukee’s Best. I set mine down on the carpet by my foot. I have only ever tasted the foam from my father’s occasional Dos Equis. He sits next to me on the couch. MTV is on, a man and a woman rolling around on the beach, sand stuck to their faces. The man looks at us over the woman’s shoulder, squinting as he croons. The couch is too deep to lean back, so I perch on the edge.

Vega takes a long drink from his can, then balances it on the arm of the couch. He leans over and digs in the plastic bag between his feet. I can see the muscles of his back shifting through his white T-shirt. It’s new; I can make out the creases from its fold inside the plastic package it came in. A black tattoo creeps out of the sleeve and down his arm. A cross, maybe. He is handsome, with sharp features and long eyelashes, but at least thirty, a grown man.

“Uh-huh,” he says, and pulls a long box out of the bag and turns to me. “Odor-Eaters.”

I nod. “You have stinky feet?”

“Yeah mama, I got some stinky feet.”

“I can’t smell them.”

“That’s good for you, girl.” He rips open the box and pulls out a long insole.

“They didn’t have the powder, so I got these. Even better, right?”

I nod and frown in agreement.

He leaves the room to look for scissors.

On the TV a woman stands beside a poster of a fatter version of herself. She kicks the picture away from her and marches toward me, holding her arms out to display her new skinny body. “Aha!” comes a muffled yell from one of the bedrooms.

Vega returns, brandishing a tiny pair of scissors with purple handles. “I found them in the twins’ room.” He grins at me.

I smile back.

He begins to trim the insole with the scissors. Shreds of foam snow between his knees, onto the carpet. “So, you got a boyfriend?”

“No,” I  say. There have been a few boys who called themselves my boyfriend. There was one I only spoke to on the phone, one who gave me a Claddagh ring with a tiny black heart clasped in gold hands.

“Oh yeah?” says Vega. “You ever date a Puerto Rican boy?”

No, I tell him, but my dad is Puerto Rican.

“Oh yeah?” he says. “So you are a little mamacita, huh?”

When I walk across the room toward the bathroom, my sneakers sink into the carpet like it’s sand. I close the door but the lock is broken. I pee, running the faucet to hide the sound. When I’m done, I lean in to inspect my face in the medicine-cabinet mirror.

When the door opens, I  am surprised and not surprised at the same time. He slides his body into the narrow space behind me. I hunch forward, as if to let him pass.

He doesn’t pass. My hips press against the sink. Afraid to see his face in the mirror, I look down at the shape of my breasts under my T-shirt. I can feel the outline of his body in the aura of its warmth. Its heat is an image reflected on me. My body could wither in an instant, extinguished, a streak of smoke in the air.

He kisses the side of my neck. He breathes against my hair, my ear, my neck, and puts his hands on my waist. His index fingers press into the bare skin above the belt of my jeans. My breath comes shallow, like it does when I am afraid. I am afraid. The empty house around us feels suddenly vast, as if we were in the center of the sky or at the bottom of a hole. Vega’s stubbly cheek grazes the back of my neck, and his hands slide upward. His touch is both immediate and distant: a planetary movement, a relocation of heat, light, and gravity.

A car door thunks outside. I raise my eyes, meeting his in the mirror. It feels like bursting up out of water, into light. I can move suddenly and I do, clasping my chest. I feel his fingers shift beneath my hands, and even with the fabric of my shirt between us, his hands feel as if they are inside of me, a part of my own body. I know I will never tell anyone about this. Voices in the driveway grow louder, then spill into the house through an opened door. Vega’s hands slide down my belly. He leans back against the wall and I push the door open and rush into the hall, where Kimmy and her brothers wait.

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Rumpus original art by Lizz Ehrenpreis.

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Text © 2019 by Melissa Febos. Excerpted from Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the Me Too Movement, edited by Shelly Oria. Used with permission of the author and McSweeney’s.


Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir, Whip Smart, and the essay collection, Abandon Me. She is the winner of the Jeanne Córdova Nonfiction Award from LAMBDA Literary, The Sarah Verdone Writing Award from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, The BAU Institute, The Barbara Deming Memorial Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, and others. Her work has recently appeared in Tin House, Granta, The Believer, The Sewanee Review, and the New York Times. Her third book, Girlhood, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2021. She’s an associate professor and MFA director at Monmouth University and lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →