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Father Mike checks on Desdemona on the third day she refuses to get out of bed, and Desdemona explains that she doesn’t like being left behind on Earth and that a woman’s life is over once her husband dies. Father Mike reassures the family that this happens to widows often, and it will pass. However, Desdemona stays in bed. She asks Callie to pray for her to die so she can be with Lefty.
While on vacation in Pomerania, Cal and Julie start talking in hypotheticals about moving there together. On the drive home, Cal thinks with dread about the next phase of the relationship becoming sexual and starts acting cold toward Julie. He refuses to answer her calls. Now, like Desdemona, he has no plans for a future.
Desdemona insists she’s ill, but Dr. Philobosian can find nothing wrong with her. Desdemona begins to make funeral preparations. She tells Tessie to get rid of her clothes and asks Milton to ensure she gets the burial plot next to Lefty.
Meanwhile, Milton plans a new business venture involving hot dog stands. These eventually become a fast food franchise called Hercules Hot Dogs. Chapter Eleven figures out a way to make the hot dogs flex when cooked, and this becomes their branding gimmick.
As a pre-teen, Callie is arrestingly beautiful. Everyone stares at her, from Milton’s Sunday guests to her own brother. She finds the full force of everyone’s gaze upon her unnerving. However, she does like looking at herself in the mirror.
Because Chapter Eleven is older, Callie hears the word “puberty” often and finds it frightening because she doesn’t know exactly what it means. Neither Dr. Philobosian nor Tessie feel up to explaining sex to Callie. In 1972, at summer camp, she sees another girl get her first period while wearing white shorts and is shocked and horrified. When school begins, Callie starts sixth grade and notices that the other girls are starting to grow breasts. She doesn’t mind still having a flat chest, but she’s terrified of starting her period and throws out all her white clothes.
Meanwhile, a doctor begins to research Desdemona’s longevity, theorizing that the Mediterranean diet she eats has caused her to age more slowly. Callie becomes convinced the same diet is preventing her from maturing and argues with her mom about eating Greek foods.
A judge declares the Detroit school system to be illegally segregated and orders busing between affluent suburban and impoverished inner-city schools. Callie starts attending an all-girls prep school because Milton doesn’t want her going to school in the city. Callie plays goalie on the school field hockey team, the Wolverettes, because despite her ineptitude with sports, the team needs players. Callie often feels physical pain in her abdomen, but she doesn’t know why.
After losing a game when the ball hits the side of her mask and deflects into the goal, Callie goes as slowly as possible to the locker room because she doesn’t want to face her classmates while changing. The most frightening are the “Charm Bracelets,” wealthy white girls who have attended the school since kindergarten. Callie feels superior to them because they’re unintellectual but also intimidated. Next are the unremarkable girls who Callie thinks of as the “Kilt Pins” for being necessary but not memorable. Callie’s place is with the “ethnic” girls. Cal, as narrator, wonders why the Charm Bracelets weren’t considered ethnic because they also had their own lingo and rituals. Nevertheless, they make Callie feel unamerican.
Chapter Eleven has been attending college at the University of Michigan. Over the summer at home, he learns he might get drafted and panics. Callie, watching her brother listen to the draft numbers anxiously on the radio, wonders which sex is considered truly expendable. Fortunately, the draft number Chapter Eleven receives is far too high to ever be called.
Finally, Callie starts growing, but she begins to exude traditional masculinity. Her voice deepens. Her classmates respond to her as if she’s a boy, and she becomes temporarily popular. However, this masculinity soon turns unattractive. Callie starts growing the hair on her head long in order to maintain some semblance of control over her body. Her hair is coarse, like Zizmo’s, instead of silky like Desdemona’s, and it gets everywhere. However, Callie insists on keeping it long because it hides her face.
As Callie grows up, she notices that two things set her apart: her body and her heritage. In Chapter 15, Callie’s growing awareness of herself as different from her classmates in her physical appearance becomes conflated with their differences in cultural background. Like her intersex body, Callie’s Greek heritage is something inherited that she cannot control. These two differences coalesce in the locker room—a place of both social segregation and nudity. Her Greek heritage, not her interests or social skills, determines who she gets to hang out with. Furthering her isolation, she never allows herself the same quick, casual nudity that her classmates can experience in the locker room, even denying herself a post-game shower because she hates her underdeveloped body. When she blames the Mediterranean diet for her slow development, she blames her Greekness—the difference whose cause she understands—for causing the physical difference whose cause she doesn’t understand. Callie’s anger at her family’s Greek customs and her desire for American food are representative of her wish to be what she thinks of as normal.
Cal connects himself to Desdemona at the beginning of Chapter 15 because they both sabotage their chances at happiness over the guilt they feel. After Lefty’s death, Desdemona, left alone with her secret, cuts herself off from the family by isolating herself in the guesthouse. Cal, in shutting himself off from Julie, isolates himself emotionally and once again denies himself all possibility of romantic love. Another important dimension of their connection lies in how Desdemona’s secret actually causes Cal’s. He is living proof of Desdemona’s incest. However, the novel never portrays Desdemona as depraved or terrible but rather as complicated, sensitive, and deeply caring, which suggests she does not actually have reason to hate herself. As we’ve examined in previous chapters, the novel also routinely undercuts Cal’s assumption that he cannot be loved. Therefore, Cal and Desdemona punish themselves based on their own feelings of guilt, not out of any objective judgment. The guilt they carry so closely stems from the secrets they believe they must keep for their own safety. However, keeping those secrets comes at the cost of closeness and intimacy.
Callie, as she approaches puberty, becomes uncomfortably aware of the male gaze. Chapter 15 includes a series of disturbing events in which men who should not look at Callie sexually, like Milton’s Sunday dinner crew and Chapter Eleven, do so, implicitly because her beauty is simply too striking. Although Callie doesn’t cultivate or desire the male gaze, the narrative treats this gaze as inevitable, something that can’t be stopped. This view of desire and sexuality ties into the conservative leanings of the Stephanides family, in which sex is something mysterious, powerful, and shameful. Both Lefty and Desdemona’s and Milton and Tessie’s courtships contain this undercurrent of both unsavory and irresistible desire. Furthermore, in light of her new awareness of male attention, Callie’s enjoyment of gazing at herself in the mirror foreshadows her later transformation. She is, in effect, enacting the male gaze on herself. As she begins to undergo puberty, Callie’s discomfort with the gaze transforms into a complete unwillingness to be seen. Although some of this comes from her understanding that her body is different from other girls’ her age, it also coincides with a greater understanding of what sex is and therefore greater shame around her private body.
As in earlier chapters, secrets, or the need to keep secrets, hinder relationships and the possibility of closeness. In Chapters 15 and 16, the secrecy around puberty keeps Callie from understanding herself. Callie thinks of puberty as something that will come for her, a frightening force she can’t control. She also associates her physical development with the shocking experience of seeing another girl bleed through her shorts in front of the entire camp. The secrecy around puberty also makes the grown-up Cal associate it with something shameful. Cal’s observation that his hair is like Zizmo’s ties Callie’s use of her hair to hide her face with Zizmo’s disguising of his true self and his ability to hide in plain sight. Zizmo’s need to keep his identity secret cuts him off from the world around him, which Callie does too, using her hair. Zizmo is also a dangerous conman, which associates Callie hiding herself with her hair with her trying to cover up something similarly threatening or false. This juxtaposition does not suggest any ill-intent on Callie’s part but rather represents her fear of her own body as a mysterious and threatening thing she doesn’t understand.