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In a Name
The first day of second grade, she casts off her name like an old skin, a tattered jacket. She throws it away like a broken crayon, an empty box of cereal. She is tired of it, and she imagines she can feel the new name pulsing through her, struggling to break out into the open. She spreads her arms wide and lets her name go.
“Elise Harris,” the teacher says, but the girl will not be fooled. She will not answer to that name. Not when they must sit quietly at their desks and listen to Mrs. Diamond tell them about spiders. Not when they are allowed to color pictures, or when they have circle time.
“Winifred,” she tells Jane who has pigtails and skin the color of the crayon called Peach Fuzz. “My name is Winifred.” It’s a name she stole out of a book, picked apart from between the words that her mother read her at bedtime. The name slipped between the edges of her dreams and attached itself to her, like a butterfly’s wings. She doesn’t feel like an Elise anymore.
From then on, things will be ever so slightly different. The other children will have settled into their names. They are Jane and John, Michael and Madison, Guadalupe and Gary. But her own name will feel loose, as if once cast off, it has trouble returning. She will not care; she will brush it away and seek out new names, new identities pleasing and shiny as the diamonds her mother cries over at night.
Five years on, her names, once so new and full of promise, will be dusty and dry, brittle and as light as feathers a hard gust of wind could blow away. Their hold will loosen, become tenuous as she struggles to hold on to them. Having wanted her old name to disappear for so long, it will now become a necessary object, symbolizing her identity. She will grasp for its weakened tether, trying fruitlessly to re-create broken bonds.
She dreams at night. Her name struggles within her, sliding into her dreams that are a mysterious mix of shadow and light. She learns a word in school: chiaroscuro. The word is her personal motto, her secret; she holds it close to her chest and breathes in its heady fragrance. She doesn’t tell any of her friends, just as she doesn’t tell them about her broken name, the way her ears no longer want to hear it, her brain does not want to respond. When they call her she struggles to pick her name out from the rest. It no longer stands out.
In two more years, they will offer her a cigarette; smoking is bad, but she’s forgotten her name, the one her parents always used to address her, to lecture her on the important things. It has slipped out of her grasp and run off, taking her with it.
The girl drifts. Her life floats past her in layers of color and shades of grey; eclectic realizations and things she learned long ago mix and swirl. She is a new person with each day, eating up the memories, dancing between skins. Without a name, she comes loose from life. There is university to consider, a job, a home, a family. Her parents speak to her, but her mind is far away. No longer does their repetition of her name bring her back to earth; the sound no longer binds her.
Going away was suggested by the counselor; an escape from the parents she no longer relates to. They’ve found a nice school out in the country, and she goes, though the paper with her name printed on it has no hold on her, and it bothers her to see it, an unsettling feeling, like she is lost. She had no idea of the ramifications of her simple action, a child’s play, releasing herself from her name.
She keeps no friends, and the teachers forget her from day to day. It is not hard to see why; she is floating, loose. Gravity has no hold on her, and assignments can hardly pin her to the earth. She meets a man, but he is not the right one, and though they become engaged, even the vows are empty, devoid of the power that would name her. It is worrying, and anxiety eats at her, taunting her for the day she intends to marry.
Walking along the river on a cloudless night when the moon makes reflections, she contemplates that fateful day when she relinquished her name. She wonders if she can find it again, if lost in the folds of her childhood, in crayon drawings and paper clips, marbles and the shoelace charm, resides her name. Will it recognize her, and return with joy? She wonders nervously, letting herself stray too close to the river on accident. Can a name be reclaimed so easily? Are there qualifications, proof to be shown, a slip of metaphorical paper denoting the name as her own?
When the night wanes into day and the silver edges of dawn bleed into the sky, the girl will have gone back home, sneaking through the night and the dreary traffic of the city. She will rifle through the books and the papers, pausing at a child’s smeared painting, tenderly touching the locks of hair a mother always saves. Among the memories, neatly folded and pressed, she will find her name at last, where it has been waiting this whole time, cast off by a conceited child of seven, patiently awaiting the day its owner would return to claim it.