‘I was with my dad the first time I stole something: a little booklet of baby names.’
When I was born in the first year of the 1980s, I was just barely not named Maxi. I don’t mean Maxine, a lovely name – I mean Maxi, really, an inexorably eighties name, chipper and trendy. ‘It just sounded cool,’ Mom said when she told me about my almost-name. Maxi is cool. Maxi is a mall rat with a petrified crest of ideal bangs on her forehead; Maxi dates Tad and becomes a pharmaceutical rep. In grade school her classmates taunted her with Maxi Pad, but she becomes a mid-level cheerleader in high school with a really perfect jean jacket and the teasing is forgotten.
Instead I was named Molly after my grandpa’s sister, an old-fashioned name. And so I became a Molly, an old-fashioned child, quiet and haunted-looking. Big moony eyes on a big moony face like a blank doll. I hid in the library and made friends with plants and insects. I heard Molly McButter or Good-Golly-Miss-Molly, but other kids had it worse, I knew. Like poor Serena Isadork. Still, Molly was a quaintly round name in an era of spiky cool names like Jacki and Kimber, girls who knew how to use hair gel and how to peg their jeans just so.
I did not ever come to understand hair gel. It glued my hair into unappealing clumps and then flaked apart into terrifying dandruff-esque dust I’m sure I was teased for. I was a Molly.
‘Butch and Spike,’ Dad would say to my sister and me. ‘I would have named you Butch and Spike if you’d been boys.’ I would laugh, dismissive and grateful to not be a boy, and especially grateful I’d never have to be Dad’s boy.
But my sister, a little older and more anxious than me, would get a faraway look in her face. She was thinking about Butch and Spike, I could tell. I can be Butch and Spike, she was thinking, I can be what Dad really wants. My sister asked for a mullet at the salon when she was eight. A really intense mullet, with a painfully short, spiny top and just a thin ratty cape of her remaining girl-hair on her shoulders. She took up softball and asked for G.I. Joes for Christmas instead of Legos or Barbies. She hung a poster of a Corvette on her bedroom wall.
She enfolded the spirit of Butch and Spike into her, intently. Perhaps internalizing the feeling of one’s own name – or perceived name – is all a child can do to build identity at first. A name is a single small token of selfhood issued at birth, upon which all the rest of one’s person must be built. It’s hard to even imagine, but I’m certain I would have become a Maxi if I had been branded with that name.
Dad, he was a thief. Dad was a Joe – or, tried to be a Joe. He never quite managed the averageness his name implied. A gambler collapsing under his debts, he robbed banks when I was thirteen and then again when he was released after seven years of prison. But at that moment in the checkout line at the grocery store when I stole a small booklet of baby names, I didn’t know Dad was a thief. In that moment I was a thief, enchanted beyond reason by a simple list, a kind of dream of being. In each name was another person I imagined I could become – all of them seemed better than Molly. Reading the names relieved me of my failure in being a Molly and my failure at not becoming Butch or Spike – see, all of these other girls are neither Butch nor Spike, they are Allison and Beatrice and Catherine.
They – these imagined girls I saw in the pages of the booklet – were offered to me as alternatives, as possibilities of selves. These were names for people who were still spotless, mere possessions of their caretakers, possessions to hold and name and monitor, languageless but searched daily for iotas of expression, for identity, personality. An inaccessible personhood in there, we are sure, even if the roly-poly little people just want to eat and sleep and wail about the ineffable discomfort of living, and isn’t discomfort such an affront when it is new?
I think of this now as my first memorable experience with fiction. It was enough, just the names, to render worlds, useful and healthy visions of self. Abigail. Adrienne. Alana. Annette. No plot, no setting, no action. Just possibility.
Image courtesy of Richard Peacock