Listening to Bikini Kill with Julia Stiles
Julia Stiles was straight. But that didn’t stop me from thinking about kissing her pretty moon face, with its tiny mouth and nose, her cheeks smooth and delicately furred as an apricot.
We met at summer camp. Our summer camp was not the kind filled with campfires, canoes, and crudely woven friendship bracelets. Our camp offered workshops like “existential crises on the back porch,” zine-making, and creative writing led by a six and half foot tall Nick Cave lookalike named Dave, who gave us Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and said only one sentence all afternoon: “I hate white people.”
At our camp, we chain-smoked cigarettes, swam at a coed nude beach, shaved each other’s heads at 3 a.m., and traded mixtapes studded with Sonic Youth concert bootlegs. It was at camp that I had first heard all my favorite bands: The Pixies, The Cure, PJ Harvey. And in the summer of 1994, Julia introduced me to Bikini Kill.
She and I met in our first year at camp, and had traded letters ever since. Every time an envelope arrived in my mailbox with her SoHo address scrawled in the corner, I tore it open, basking in the parallels between my rural Cape Cod adolescent life and her cosmopolitan Manhattan one. (We BOTH hated everyone at our school! We BOTH thought meat was murder! We BOTH liked to cut the necks out of our thrift store t-shirts!).
Rock & Roll Day was an annual camp event. All day, teenagers plugged in on a tiny outdoor stage, and played covers of their favorite songs. Someone always played “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and somebody always sang “No Woman No Cry.” Though I was so obsessed with music that I’d developed an unpleasant ear condition by wearing my Walkman headphones even while sleeping, I had never considered performing.
I didn’t want to be a rock star, like everyone else at camp. I didn’t want to be a movie star, like Julia did, either. I wanted to be a writer. But I loved Billie Holiday’s voice, and I had a feeling in me that matched it. So I took secret voice lessons from a plump woman named Shirley who ran scales with me in the musty top floor of our local music shop, and I made her teach me “God Bless the Child,” “Summertime,” and “Don’t Explain.”
That year, on Rock and Roll Day’s eve, Julia grabbed me and said, “I signed us up.” We were a band, she informed me, with her on guitar and me on vocals. “We get two songs,” she said. “What’s your pick?”
Without thinking, I answered: “Gigantic.”
“Great,” she said. “Here’s our other song — go learn it.” She handed me a cassette tape.
For the next eight hours, I locked myself in the Rec Hall restroom, and listened to Kathleen Hanna sing “Feels Blind.” Singing was the only way I knew how to articulate my loneliness, but I hadn’t known it was also a way to articulate anger. Until I heard my own voice ricocheting off the tiled walls of that bathroom — what have you taught me, you’ve taught me fucking nothing — I hadn’t even known that I was angry.
On that stage in my torn jeans and Pixies t-shirt, I was so nervous that my voice cracked as I murmured, Hey Paul hey Paul hey Paul let’s have a ball, and I glanced across the stage at Julia in her torn slip and black lipstick. She nodded at me, and I kept going — What a big black mess, what a hunk of love.
But when I sang “Feels Blind,” I didn’t stutter, and I didn’t have to look at Julia, or the handful of dirty teenagers watching us from the grass — I closed my eyes, brought my lips to the cool microphone, and it was better than Billie, better even kissing Julia, which I never got to do.
A year later, I was supposed to go visit her in Manhattan, but instead, I met my first girlfriend, and blew Julia off because we were too busy kissing and fighting and dry humping to Kristin Hersh. The next time I wrote her, she wrote back to tell me that her career was taking off and she didn’t have much time anymore for letters.
We never spoke again, but if I wrote her one last letter, it would say this:
Thank you for Bikini Kill.
P.S. Your solo at the end of Save The Last Dance killed.
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Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press). Her work has been widely anthologized and appears in publications including The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Glamour, Post Road, Salon, New York Times, Hunger Mountain, Portland Review, Dissent, The Brooklyn Rail, and Bitch Magazine. Her essays have won prizes from Prairie Schooner and StoryQuarterly, and she is the recipient of a 2012 Bread Loaf nonfiction fellowship, a 2013 Barbara Deming Memorial Fund artist grant, a 2014 Virginia Center for Creative Arts fellowship, a 2015 Vermont Studio Center fellowship, a 2015 Lower Manhattan Cultural Council “Process Space” fellowship, and MacDowell Colony fellowships in 2010, 2011, & 2014. Currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), she serves on the Board of Directors of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and has co-curated the Manhattan reading series Mixer for eight years. The daughter of a sea captain and a psychotherapist, she was raised on Cape Cod, and lives in Brooklyn.