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 openmouthed. Melissa, my teacher called each morning. Here, I inched.
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 or Katrina. 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 our captain 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 Jon, 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 bringing a ribbon to a swordfight. Melissa was leading with my softest part.
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 blonde, 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.
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 a 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 wooden yardsticks against him and his brothers were not. My abuela told them to be good, to pray, to beg the help of no one but God. My abuelo had beaten 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 Subaru 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.
The 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. Jon, 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 then who would I be?
My history seemed to end, or begin, with this name. Melissa. We packed those seven letters and a few boxes in the car. 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 a 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.