By Any Other Name
I am in the kitchen chopping vegetables, broccoli and shiitake mushrooms and cabbage and carrots, the smell of soy sauce perfuming the air, when my mother comes in and starts crying. She sits at the small table near the doorway and she is wearing her favorite sweater and I can hear her chest heaving with the sobs before I turn around to see her lips pressed together while the tears prick the corners of her eyes.
What’s wrong, I ask, putting down my knife.
Her shoulders shake as I walk over. I just don’t understand why you don’t like who you are.
There are three weeks left before I leave again for college and my mother is here in the kitchen crying as I put my hand on her shoulder. This is the second time in my life I have seen her like this.
What do you mean, I ask.
Your name, she says, and I knew somehow before she entered the room that this is what she would say, what was always coming. It’s special. We picked it out for you, and it has history…
As her words trail off into fragile sobs, I am thinking about how I hope the soy sauce won’t burn and how I should open a window once this conversation is over. It’s not that I don’t like who I am, I say finally. And I know it’s an important name to you. It’s not about that.
Then what is it about. She’s started to collect herself again, but I can see in her eyes that I have hurt her deeply and I know that there is no undoing it. But I can’t make my own hurt leave, either.
I shrug. I let go of her shoulders and return to the stove. It just doesn’t fit me right.
There’s a thick silence for ten full minutes. I add the vegetables to the wok, stir them into the sauce, prod at them and refuse to look up. The broccoli is almost completely softened when she finally speaks again.
I’m sorry, she says. It’s just hard for me. I’m your mother.
I know. It’s okay.
I love you, she says, and sits there for another moment before shaking her head and getting up from the stool, leaving the kitchen. The floorboards shudder and moan behind her.
This is what I know about my birth name: it belonged to a great-great-great-grandmother who neither me nor my mother ever met, and it was not chosen for me until the day I was born. My parents wanted to meet me before they decided what to call me; they wanted me to be a surprise, which I suppose worked out somewhat literally when I decided to enter the world three weeks before my due date. I was small and wrinkled and that name felt just right to them as they cradled my head in the artificial glow of the hospital room. If I had been given any say in the matter, I’m not sure I would have objected—I was too tired at the time to care.
The name they wrote so carefully on my birth certificate is German in origin and has two possible meanings, one of which is simply ‘work,’ not very helpful in my cautious yearning for metaphor. The other meaning, however, is ‘rival,’ which I must admit appeals more to my writerly sensibilities: at times I feel quite at odds with my old self, when the name appears on my bank statements and a sudden wave of cognitive dissonance makes me briefly forget where I am. When I sign my chosen name out of habit on important forms and have to start all over again. When I open cards addressed to someone I’ve begun to wonder if I ever was. It’s so easy, especially in the narrative of identity that recent discourse has created, to see your origin as your enemy. What have I been doing if not running away from that ghost at full speed?
She sends the recipes I request to my old email account, which forwards automatically to my new one. I reply without switching back and she says, Oh, you have a new Gmail? and I say, yeah, but I’ll still get stuff here if you forget to use that address. Later I remember that this noncommittal attitude is my first mistake: if I don’t ask her explicitly to make a change, I can’t expect her to do so. This is, however, easier said than done—mostly because if I don’t ask, I don’t have to feel the sharp disappointment when she forgets it anyway for the seventeenth time.
When I first started school, I wore a dress or skirt every day for two and a half years. I can’t say exactly what it was about the sleek, swirling fabric that fascinated me back then, or even remember what it was like to look into a mirror and jump for joy. Except, well, dresses are beautiful, aren’t they? And I was beautiful, too—something I remember mostly from the photographs—a tiny bundle of energy, blurred around the edges as she spins around the kitchen without stopping until she falls over onto the tile floor and gasps for breath between peals of laughter.
Some of the dresses were solid colors, others patterned with stripes or polka dots; some were cashmere and some velvet like the deep red one I wore to The Nutcracker at least three Christmases in a row. I loved them all, but my favorites were the ones decorated with flowers—roses and daisies and dandelions that matched the ones I pulled from the backyard garden, plucking the delicate petals off one at a time. When I wore my flowers, I wore everything I loved most about the world, and in that way a dress could become a suit of armor. But softer, prettier. Armor that didn’t deflect the sword so much as embrace it.
At some point, I’m not sure when, I found out that dresses were for girls. Of course I already knew this, but there’s a difference between when you just know something and when you suddenly understand it. A few days later, I decided it was time to switch to pants, and the beautiful things were tucked away at the back of my closet—brought out reluctantly for family portraits and weddings only.
Do not misunderstand. When I look to my younger self, she is she, because that’s who I was to me back then. I wore dresses, I had long hair, I wanted to be a princess or a benevolent witch when I grew up. But when my mother flips through the old scrapbook pages and says to me, it’s harder for me to call you Ari in these pictures than it is to call you that now, is that wrong, I shrug my shoulders and without meeting her eyes answer, it’s not wrong but I would appreciate if you would try not to say that to anyone else. Please don’t say this to anyone else.
In the place where I now live, about two hundred miles from home, an official name change costs $167.00 and requires only a piece of photo identification, a court hearing, and a single page of paperwork. As long as you are not a registered sex offender or changing your name for fraud-related reasons, there are no questions asked and no standards to meet. I am told that it takes less than ten minutes of a Friday afternoon for you to be freshly minted, brand new, certified for all intents and purposes as though you have always been the person that you finally decided to become.
I could print the paper today, proclaim my intentions and sign on the dotted line, and set up a hearing for the end of this week. After that, it’s just a matter of contacting everyone important: my bank, my employer, my landlord, my phone company. I would have to get a new passport and a new state ID. But I could do it, if I wanted to. I’ve had the file open in my browser for at least six weeks. Staring at the blank fields and wondering why I can’t just make myself commit, even though I know why. I know who I want to ask first.
One of my friends who has only ever heard my chosen name had theirs legally changed two months ago. They said the hearing took less time than the walk from the parking lot to the courtroom, and, at the end, one of the clerks gave everyone in the room a foil-wrapped square of dark chocolate. A little something sweet for your special day.
Upon further reflection, maybe ‘work’ isn’t so meaningless to my identity after all. To understand who I am, to create a self that is not contradictory to everything I have been but rather grows outward like the rings of a sturdy tree, takes a lot of work indeed. The trouble is, sometimes those rings are imperceptible until a branch is snapped from its trunk.
An imagined scene or maybe a dream: I am two or three years older than I am now, and I’m home for a short visit, maybe the holidays. I have a real job. I have stories published. My mother reads my name in a literary journal and she does not weep. There’s a suitcase in my hand, and I am not nervous to open the front door because all the lights are on.
When I step inside, the house smells like the best kind of warmth and goodness, there must be something in the oven, and she’s standing right there waiting for me. She envelops me in her arms and holds me against her for three of her heartbeats (I can hear them, we’re so close) before releasing me and taking a long look.
It’s so good to see you. I’m so glad you came.
It’s good to see you too. What are you baking?
She smiles. Come and see, and I follow her into the kitchen. Everything is as I remember it except for a few new drawings taped up to the fridge. There are three cookbooks resting on the granite countertop and several dirty bowls in the sink, and then I see it at the end of the counter, the masterpiece that makes me stop in my tracks: a two-tiered cake, frosted with a hundred tiny roses in every color. My birthday—it must be my birthday that I am here for.
I know I’m not supposed to let you see it yet, she says, a glimmer of pride in her eyes, but what do you think?
It’s beautiful. I take a deep breath. Wow.
It’s chocolate with raspberry in the middle. Do you still like raspberry?
Of course I still like raspberry. The cake looks like all of my childhood birthday parties rolled into one and my mouth is already watering.
Don’t be ridiculous, I say, stepping forward and pulling her into my arms. Raspberry is perfect. I love you.
I love you too, she says, and I do not feel small.
Later, when we cut into the rainbow buttercream, the only sound in the room is that old, familiar song, wrapped around my name like soft hands lifting me up to the light.