The first time I saw Melissa Febos in person she was dressed in all black, her shoulders pinned to the brick wall of an alleyway in the East Village. She was standing in a garden that was nestled in that alley way, surrounded by laundry hanging like colored paper. It was a decoration the hosts of LitCrawl NYC had thought up for a themed reading called Dirty Laundry: Loads of Prose. It was fall, the time of year when the air tips into a chill like a promise.
I had just finished reading Abandon Me when I settled in behind the intimate crowd, angling myself between heads and shoulders. Finishing the book felt like lying in bed after sex with a new lover, hoping arms would close around me but not wanting to ask for it. (Clasped, disembodied arms float unattached on its cover.) This is in fact what Febos is writing about not only in Abandon Me, but also her memoir Whip Smart—which explores her client’s perversities while she works as dominatrix in New York City. Abandon Me, however, dissects her own taboo desires. It’s perverse, Febos argues in her latest memoir, to want to be loved and to desire intimacy with something or someone. It’s easier still to be abandoned, which might make one sick, but at least not ashamed. Reading the book is an intimate experience, and afterwards I wanted Febos to meet my direct look. Instead, she took to the stage and gazed over my head.
This is the kind of satisfying desperation Abandon Me draws on. It’s as if the book itself is Amaia, Febos’s long-distance lover and the memoir’s sometimes center, asking from you, the reader, what it can never return: loyalty, a forever love. It’s allowed to touch you, but you are never allowed to touch back. You become a home for it, light a fire for it. You can’t help but try and contain it.
This is the feeling a lover (and a reader) reluctantly desires, Febos writes: “and who does not want to be wanted?”
Amaia creeps in and out of the first half of the memoir, a collection of shorter essays, until finally dominating the book like a hungry shadow in the second half: a 173-page essay that reads like a love letter to abandonment, or withdrawal. Amaia seems ever present, but gone when called by name. To touch a shadow is not to touch the thing itself, but whatever it has attached itself to. There is as much security in autumn air.
Febos’s past heroin use, her birth father’s alcoholism, and the other addictions that manifest throughout Abandon Me are devastating and lyrical, but nothing compares to her “wrecking shore” of a love affair. This part of the book, which I can only critique by lamenting that it was not long enough, is as difficult to leave as a toxic relationship. As suffocating as a gaslight. And once you become a home for a thing you love, Febos writes, what you contain (Abandon Me, in this case) is impossible to forget.
“You cannot erase yourself,” she argues. “You can only abandon it. But that piece doesn’t die; it lives in exile.”
Standing in that East Village garden, I wanted badly for Melissa to sign my review copy, and was waiting for the perfect moment to ask. Before I could say a word, she slipped out before the reading ended so she could make the ballet. I had no choice but surrender my efforts.
“Sometimes you love someone most of all when you are leaving them,” Febos writes.
Things are most beautiful when they are ending, which is why I reread the final ten pages a dozen times. Eventually, though, the thing you are delaying must come to an end. And would we still want a thing if it didn’t?
Melissa Febos never returned my look, but that’s the point. Although “surrender” and “abandon” appear as synonyms in the thesaurus, the two imply different power dynamics (a Febos expertise). The first suggests a voluntary action, while the latter entails a usurpation; as if Febos were still armoured in leather boots and a riding crop, her writing in Abandon Me commands an attention you’d have to beg for to be returned. (And, rather, it makes you feel as though you’re lucky, in the end, to have read and been left by it at all.) As Febos writes, in explanation of this paradox, “we are all the conquered and conquerors.” So then, if to be left by Febos’s writing is not the greatest pleasure you’ve ever felt, then you’ve read her book wrong. And that is the worst kind of abandonment.
We sat down with Melissa Febos last month on Facebook Live: check it out here.