I wasn’t the sort of kid who told the other children where babies came from.  Those messengers were most often the kind of pale, sneering boys who loitered in the back of the second grade classroom with a crusty ring of snot dried around their nostrils.  These were the boys who licked their lips till they chapped, and lifted the lids of their desks when the teacher wasn’t looking just long enough for you to glimpse their father’s heisted Perfect 10 magazine.

As a child I was a baseball player, a tree-climber, the last blue-lipped kid to crawl out of the pond at dusk.  It was not that I did not also covet the frilly, mesmeric trappings of girlishness; I doggedly wore down my mother’s opposition to Barbie dolls and their cripplingly tiny feet, and she let me keep the ones gifted by less enlightened relations. I was not one of those tomboys who didn’t realize she was a girl until she got her first period, or noticed that her bathing suit was different from her brother’s.  There was simply never any mistaking myself for the kind of girl for whom ruffled socks and coddling was appropriate.  I was strong and brown and fell down a lot, not because I was frail; but because I moved through life with a force not always containable, a haphazard need to get to someplace just beyond where I was.  Nicknamed “Crash” by my parents, by the time I was ten I was falling down the stairs that led to my attic bedroom on a daily basis, and was perpetually pocked with bruises from banging into the edge of cabinets, doorways, railings, tables, and bookcases. I once suffered a lump on my forehead that lasted for days after walking into a light-switch.

My kindergarten class photo features me in the front row.  A gift from my grandmother (a woman with native expertise in the art of all things feminine), I am wearing a pink sweater-skirt with rows of yellow ducks and a matching top.  My hair is long and shiny with pink barrettes, and the smile on my face belies the pleasure I remember feeling at my girliness that day.  I would have gotten away with it, at least in retrospect, had I not been in the front row.  The image is perfect, until you travel below the hem of my skirt, where my sturdy legs are encrusted with fresh scabs, and anchored by a pair of dilapidated sneakers.  It was not often that I attempted this disguise, and the feeling was never lost that it was a futile task to obscure my unkempt underneath.

It wasn’t the implication of sex that made me nervous in dresses.  My parents sat me down the first time I asked, around the age of four or five, and told me exactly where babies came from.  They drew pictures and gave proper names.  There was no element of shock or shame in this information; it simply was, exciting in the way of moths in chrysalis, whose cottony sacks clung to the trees in our yard.  In my house we peed with the bathroom door open, and I knew what everyone in my family looked like naked.  Bodies were curious, mesmerizing, but the only one I ever remember embarrassing me was my own.

Jessie was my first best friend.  When I was five, my family moved to Cape Cod to be closer to the maritime base where my father, a sea captain, shipped out from.  We lived on a dirt road with a farm at the end, a stone’s throw from Otis Air Force Base, so that the apocalyptic rumble and whoosh of jets flying overhead was a common disruption.  Chatting in backyards, we would pause and stare into each other’s faces for whole minutes while engine thunder filled the air, waiting to pick up our words like a dropped laundry line.  Jessie’s family lived a few houses down. Blond and impish, she and her brother Ben were the same ages as my younger brother and me.  Our friendships flourished accordingly.  Her parents were a concrete foundation layer and a housewife, and I don’t believe I ever saw either of them without a sweating glass of orange juice in their hand.

“They’re called screwdrivers,” my parents informed me.  “It’s not just orange juice in their glasses, and that’s why you come home before dark.”

You are not there,” I pointed out.  “You don’t see.  I know what orange juice looks like.”

I thought that I knew what a lot of things were like.  Bed sheets were worn soft and flannel, toiletries came in bulk gallon bottles from the health food co-op and were under the sink, and nicknames were Crash, Boo, and sometimes Punkin.  I had the confidence we do during the period of childhood grace when everything we know is taken for granted as the way of everything in the world, before we have some basis for comparison, and what we have becomes forever not good enough.  I had never seen cable television, or tasted snack foods with refined sugar until I went to Jessie’s house. While I gulped in awe and desire, my parents exchanged looks that I now recognize as some combination of pity and dismay.  They also shared the wordless phew of two working-class kids from Jersey who grew into an educated, white-collar liberalism that allowed their own children to be spared the perils of meeting Daddy at the bar after school enough times to name “Lady in Red” as a favorite song, as Jessie did.

Jessie’s daddy called her Kitten (my request for the same courtesy was met with laughter), and her whole family used words like ca-ca, an all-inclusive term not only meaning shit, but any kind of nasty substance that might get stuck to you, smell bad, or induce a flinch with its given name.  My family’s comparative lack of flourish (poop meant only poop, never mind its grievous onomatopoeia) struck me as both embarrassing and dull.  On Christmas afternoon, when she stopped over for cookies, my brother and I touted how not only the cookies we had left with a note for Santa had been eaten, but also the carrots we’d left for the reindeer.

“Yeah,” she replied. “Santa ate all our cookies too, and he had a beer.”

Like so many loves, Jessie was the perfect combination of that which I recognized in myself, and that which I sought to possess.  There was an effortlessness to her prettiness: the thrust of her little hand as it reached for things, for me, discarded worries, gum wrappers, tears; the speed of her mouth as it spoke, and her seamless inflections; her cheap clothes, and milky skin.  Jessie knew how to lie, how to cry at will, and even in her sadness I saw none of the bald coarseness of my own grief.

It was I that poured hydrogen peroxide on the tooth-marked gash in her left buttock after Ben bit her in one of his tantrums, blowing as my mother did on the frothing wound while she whimpered, clutching a box of Band-Aids.  It was me that told her where babies come from.

One afternoon in her bedroom, we were playing Barbies. Watching her mash the two nude, sexless bodies of a Ken and Barbie doll together in a series of frustrated clicks, I wondered aloud what Jessie’s couple was doing.

“They’re making a baby,” she replied.  “They are kissing without their clothes, and then Barbie’s belly is going to get fat, and then the stork is going to come with the baby.”

“A stork?” She was clearly lost in some hideous deficit of information, so I offered my expertise on the subject, proudly enunciating the multi-syllabic vocabulary: fallopian tubes, ovaries, uterus, intercourse.  I felt satisfied by her widened eyes, powerful in my knowing.

Later that day, as we sat in the back seat of her family’s minivan, she crawled onto the armrest between the two front seats.

“Melissa said that storks don’t bring babies, Mom.  She said that babies come from intercourse.”

I sensed instantly in her mother’s silence my faux pas.  Staring at the back of her frizzy head, my face grew hot, insides curling like those little shreds of fabric and plastic that I burned in the Mason jar in my closet, conducting my secret “experiments.”  Though not yet tall enough to touch the floor of the van with my feet, I felt myself grow in conspicuousness, as if self-consciousness were bloating my body: a great vesicle of crass knowledge, lodged in the back seat of the van.

I knew that my error had not been one of fact.  What I had mistaken is the atmosphere in which it was told me for that larger context of the world.  It was an instant awakening to the fact that truth could be a crass thing to know.  I did not play so often at Jessie’s after that, but I did not forget Jessie.  I think of her every time I hear “Lady in Red.”  I also did not forget that in this greater world, for the privilege of sweeter tastes, for prettier names, toys, and smells, one has to pay in the integrity of things whose truth defies the coy obfuscation of prettiness.

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MELISSA FEBOS is the author of the memoir, WHIP SMART (St. Martin’s Press, 2010). Her writing has been published in Hunger Mountain, Salon, Dissent, Glamour, The Southeast Review, ReDivider, Storyscape Journal, The New York Times, Bitch Magazine, and The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, among other places, and she has been profiled in venues ranging from the cover of the New York Post to NPR’s Fresh Air. A 2010 & 2011 MacDowell Colony fellow, she has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, The New School, and NYU, and holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence. Currently Assistant Professor of English at Utica College, Melissa splits her time between Brooklyn and Clinton, NY. She is currently at work on a novel. More info at melissafebos.com.

16 responses to “Lady in Red”

  1. Joe Daly says:

    Typically well-done piece, Febos. Really interesting contrast of you learning lessons as a little girl, compared to some of your later experiences.

    Sort of struck a chord, too, as I too smashed a friend’s image of the origin of little brothers and sisters. I grew up thinking that sex (whatever that was), was a deviant practice carried on by very few, reprehensible people. An older kid finally explained to me that pretty much everyone had sex, including my parents. He concluded his lecture by scoffing, “What the hell did you think, you came from a test tube??”

    Mortified, I resolved to never ever let anyone think I had such naive notions about life.

    So when a younger friend implied some months later that he too held on to my former beliefs re: sex and babies, I seized the opportunity to grab that same upper hand, repeating that phrase, word for word- “What the hell did you think, you came from a test tube??”

    His face got red and he began stammering, as the light went on in his head. He was so embarrassed, I thought he was going to cry. And so I learned a lesson like yours- sometimes you can find self-esteem in simply keeping your mouth shut.

  2. Aaron Dietz says:

    I grew up without cable TV, and so of course, I had to learn everything from others.

    Fortunately, though, I was quiet. So quiet that everyone thought I already knew everything. Sometimes, this still works.

  3. Brad Listi says:

    This was awesome.

    I have absolutely no recollection of ever getting any kind of birds-n-bees speech.

    Nothing.

    I remember the old TV guide. The little cable tv guide thingy that we would get in the mail.

    And I remember planning an entire slumber party with my buddies around an HBO screening of The Man with Two Brains, because I thought Steve Martin was hilarious and I knew that the movie had nudity.

    I remember having a serious crush on Julie, the Cruise Director on The Love Boat.

    And that’s pretty much it.

    This post made me realize that I have no memory of how I learned how babies are made.

    I have a terrible memory.

    But I do remember that song “The Lady in Red.”

    I feel like we should have it here on the comment board so that people can listen to it.

    So here it is:

  4. Brad Listi says:

    PS. I think it’s great that a song reminds you of someone from your childhood who you haven’t seen or spoken to in years. I have that. I think everybody probably has that. Whenever I hear that Don Henley song “Boys of Summer,” for example, I think of being in the back of my mother’s station wagon — the “way back” — looking over the seat trying to eavesdrop on the conversation between my older sister and her girlfriends. And I remember the priest from our Catholic church and how he was really close friends with this woman who lived on Bridge Street (?), this woman who sort of served as his secretary, and I remember my parents speculating that a love affair was going on between the priest and this woman. So maybe my memory only sucks completely if there’s not a song involved. Songs are good for memories.

    Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    Thank God I never had to sit through the sex speech from my folks. I had an older brother. Information just kinda passed between us like osmosis.

    Although I did have the owner of being the first kid in our group to curse in front of another’s kid’s parents.

    Heh.

    Regretted asking me how my day was then, didn’t you, ma’am?

  6. Judy Prince says:

    There’s a beautiful flow to this, Melissa, and alongside the giggle parts is a tender sadness for losing that kid-happiness for Reality.

    This part stopped me; I love it, especially the last 4 words: “I had the confidence we do during the period of childhood grace when everything we know is taken for granted as the way of everything in the world, before we have some basis for comparison, and what we have becomes forever not good enough.”

  7. JM Blaine says:

    you are such
    a smart sharp writer
    never had that speech either
    but we had bootleg HBO

  8. Alexis says:

    Great article! I think you got us all musing on how we discovered the truth of sex.

    My parents tried to keep me sheltered, but Television alluded to the realities despite my restricted viewing choices. The real knowledge came from the more precocious children in school. I remember fellow sixth graders who used to cup one hand tightly, leaving a small hole. Then they’d theatrically stick their other hand’s index finger in and out of the cupped palm, proudly demonstrating while singing “Stick it in, pull it out, that’s what sex is all about”

  9. melissa says:

    Thanks, guys. And oh my god, I’m loving these “how I learned” stories! More, MORE!!

    Thanks for posting LIR, Brad – I can’t believe I didn’t think of that. Shame on the the blogger who forgets YouTube – for shame!

    • Brad Listi says:

      It’s such a great song. I remember being really into when I was a kid. Like, it was serious to me. I think I might’ve even slow-danced to it at my sixth grade dance. It was called “The Sixer Mixer.”

  10. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    Beautifully written — I love this! Descriptions like the way items curled in a jar when burned, just one of the many amazing passages here I read over and over. And congrats on the Memoirs, Ink award!

  11. angela says:

    melissa, this was a great read. i love the weird way kids think and try to make sense of the world with their limited knowledge.

    going to someone else’s house was indeed like visiting another country. why didn’t other people remove their shoes inside? why did they feel the need to decorate their bathrooms with toilet paper cozies and signs that warned people about “tinkling” on the seat? i found it fascinating.

    how the heck did i learn how babies were made? i can’t even remember now. partly health class at school, partly Cinemax. my parents were not involved.

  12. Erika Rae says:

    Gorgeous read, Melissa. The first I remember hearing about where babies come was in the 5th grade. We were sitting in Social Studies and some kid had drawn a penis on a piece of frayed notebook paper. It was the size of the paper and was outlined in ripply lines. I remember thinking, wow, it’s so WRINKLY. And even then, I really didn’t have a clue. Except the drawing really did get me to thinking… Heh. Anyhow, you painted this bit from your childhood in living color.

  13. Marni Grossman says:

    What a brilliant last line! A perfect ending to a perfect piece.

    I never told another child where babies come from, but I did relate to a friend that as long as there was a local sperm bank, she didn’t need to bother with boys in order to have a child. My sister had explained it all to me and I was merely passing along the information.

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