I always wanted a nick name. I tried to cautiously insert one myself. That strategy never works. Instead, I was always called my name with the last “A” dropped off. I didn’t hate it. But I didn’t love it either. And it didn’t qualify as a true nickname.
I was 29 when I finally succeeded.
“You should do it now when you are moving,” my friend said. We were sitting on a rocky beach in Seattle, talking about my fruitless pursuit of an alternative. This was a last hurrah trip shortly before I was to take another job in another area.
For the rest of the trip, she began introducing me with a new name.
It’s one thing to play along with a friend, it’s another to decide you are going to change your own name. The decision came impulsively with the first person I introduced myself to in my new town. “Hi, I’m A…,” I said. The name sounded foreign on my lips … insincere … strange. But the person believed me. They accepted that answer and shook my hand without blinking.
At first, when people called me by my new name, I had to remind myself of who they were talking to. A few times, the name would float in the air unanswered, until the realization bubbled to my mind – that’s me.
It’s been five years since then and something funny happened. I became that new girl they called by a shorter name. The new name fits me now, as if I was a toddler who grew into big shoes. Now my old name sounds foreign and unnatural. As a group of friends used the old name recently, I had to remind myself that they were talking about me.
My friends from my past life give me sideways glances when they find out. They insist I am who I was. My new friends are incredulous I ever had another name. They insist I am who I am now.
It seems silly that I would change my name at 29. It did to me even as I was making the change. But looking back, I realize I needed that new identity at the time. I needed to start fresh. To disconnect from the person I had become. To take a new paint brush and fill in the letters of who I was with new colors.
It was in giving myself a new name, I found the person I wanted to be.
I have the phone tucked in the crook of my shoulder as I listen to him from the seat of my desk in my dorm room. Dad is trying to talk me out of quitting my music minor. “It’s too hard,” I protest. “Most of the other students have dropped out.” Somehow, in his quiet, coaxing way, he is bringing me back around. It’s been 14 years since then. With “music minor” scrawled securely on my diploma, I am glad he did.
Fast forward from that phone call. We stand in the dealership as I look around. “Which is it?” I can’t stop smiling. Dad points. There in the center of the floor is a cherry red Chevy with a gigantic bow on the top of its roof. It is so perfect — unscathed, unscratched. It has 18 miles on it. It is mine. A few months later, I pack it up and drive to California. It has been 10 years since then. It is now scathed and scratched with the paint peeling back from its roof where the bow was and 92,000 miles on its odometer. It is at mile 91,254 I find out how Dad really felt when we hugged goodbye. “It was really hard for him when you left,” mom tells me.
Fast forward from the day in the dealership. I am sitting next to my sister on her wedding day, wearing a maroon taffeta dress. She is glowing. I think she is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in that moment. My dad stands in front of a crop of round tables, as people in dresses and suits look on, their chins on their fists or tucked in their laps. In the midst of his speech, he sings brokenly the song he used to sing my sister when colic kept her restless through long nights, “Amanda, the love of my life, you will make a gentleman’s wife.” I am overcome. I absently wonder what he will say at my wedding. Six years have passed since then, and he still hasn’t had the chance.
These are the things that wash over my mind tonight — all those little memories that sum up my picture of him: wise, supportive, loving. I’m sitting on the laminate floor of my hallway, a passage way too narrow to sit with my legs outstretched. “Please God, don’t take my dad.” I’m crying. Not the pretty, subdued kind. The sobbing, gut-wrenching, begging kind. Like somehow, if I cry the hardest I have ever cried in my life, God will take mercy on me and answer my prayer. “Don’t take my dad, or I will walk away and never look back.”
The threat scares me a little. Do I mean it? I wonder. I don’t know.
I have lived life believing a fallacy: That there is some sort of quota on hardships. Once someone has reached that magic mark, they are done. But I am learning that past losses don’t exclude you from the present ones. Sometimes the inverse is true. For some people, it’s as if one begets another, like a snowball tucking in more snow to its girth as it gains speed downhill. I thought once my mom was diagnosed with cancer, that meant my family was done. I feel silly for believing that now.
My dad told me about her diagnosis while I was driving my car on the highway. “I have some bad news…” he started and I started sobbing. He has always been uneasy with tears.
That was four years ago. Tonight I was in my car again when he tells me about his own. “I have some bad news …” he starts. This time I hold back so he can’t hear me. But the tears come and don’t stop long past when I am sitting on the floor in my hallway. Long past after I go to bed. Long past the treatments are over and the tests come back clear.
Part of me is waiting for the next phone call as I’m driving , as if my mind is walking on the eggshells that are my family’s health and happiness. I can’t stop thinking about the advice and the wedding and the other big life events I need him for. So the pleading doesn’t stop with the good news.
“Please God, don’t take my dad.”
They all look the same but different. They all act the same but different.
Another wedding has brought us together. There seems to be one about every two years that sparks a reunion. We fall into the same rhythms, but with a twist of maturity. Well a little at least.
We are sitting on a couple leather couches looking through old pictures the morning after the wedding. It is now the passing time becomes apparent. We start at how the skin around our eyes is smooth. We look fresher. We look so energetic and optimistic … and well, often drunk.
“I don’t feel like an adult,” at least three people say at various points over the weekend.
But then again, our nights end earlier and our mornings require more coffee than they used to.
A baby dictates some of our schedule, and I for one, am OK with that.
When you are young, you think adulthood is going to feel so official. Suddenly you will be the one with the answers and the plans. You think you will have finally come into your own. You think the heavy weight of responsibility will sap the silliness and fun out of you. But you will be fine with that as you take on that mantel.
But adulthood creeps in slowly. Suddenly we are making decisions about carpet and finances and gym memberships and baby strollers. We find ourselves checking work email accounts and sneaking in a business call on vacation. We realize that injury in athletics has a higher cost. That drinking has less of a draw. But in the midst of those responsibilities and shifts, none of us feel old.
We still make fun of each other. We still act goofy on the dance floor. We still dream about the future.
Turns out, adulthood is a moving target no one feels ready to hit, but that we kind of already have.
That boy – the one I thought I was going to marry – is married now to someone else.
When I found out, I was strangely unphased, and phased, at the same time. He had been engaged for what felt like six years. It’s about time, I thought.
At the same time, it was a unsettling and anticlimactic conclusion to a chapter that should have been closed along time ago. He was the only one who ever had real potential. Our relationship was not a fantasy or a fairy tail like many others had been. It had all the uncompromisable parts, and some added bonuses too.
The night I broke up with him on the phone, he told me he would come find me in two years. He never did. Instead he met a girl on a plane. No one ever meets the love of their life that way.
I have wondered what would have happened if he had shown up at my door after those two years instead. And immediately when I have that thought, I’m glad he didn’t.
I know it happened the way it should have.
And then I wonder.
This is the tension between what’s lost and found.
He was perfect.
He was tall and dark and had an essence of mystery about him. He was kind and open and honest. He had a little curve to his right upper lip that pulled up when he smiled. He knew how to look at me and really see me. He made me feel beautiful and smart. He was adventurous. He could talk with me for hours and then stop when it was important to. He eyes were sympathetic. He had a great laugh. He was honest and raw and powerful with a pen.
He was perfect except when he was not.
Except when he waffled between women who loved him. Except when he broke promises. Except when he loved me and then didn’t. Except when he was reckless with people’s hearts. Except when he was toxic for me and then came back to apologize. Except when the apology made everything worse because it just made me love him more.
Except when he made me realize that no one is perfect. Not ever.
He wasn’t even perfect for me. He might be for someone else. But even that is not any kind of perfection. That’s the thing about it. Perfection is a mirage you think you see in the desert. Fleeting and unreachable. For a moment though, you think it is in your sight. Until the picture wavers and flutters against it’s real backdrop.
He was perfect in my mind, for a moment. And now I know he is not. And the act of knowing, the process of realizing, cost me.
In some ways, I barely recognize the house I lived in when I was 12.
Instead of the simple four walls in a neat box, dormers launch off its roof and angles fetter its corners. It’s shingles are a darker tone. A deck adds an element of luxury I never experienced as a resident.
In others, nothing has changed.
A piece of scrap carpet still softens the cement floor in the living room. The bathroom still has a wood floor and a tub trimmed in exposed sheet rock. Its kitchen still lacks doors on its cabinets. There are always mud footprints across the kitchen floor and a stack of ruffled papers on a desk.
This house will probably always be a work in progress — a masterpiece not yet mastered. That is the fate of many a home of a contractor.
When I was young, it was an adventure. We helped pound nails and oil siding. We got dressed near the fireplace because its heat didn’t reach the back rooms. We were excited at every new development.
When I was a teenager, it was an annoyance. I just wanted lush carpet to sprawl out on and working facets and a house that was like everyone else’s. With six people and only three rooms, it was noisy and messy and full.
Now, it is a refuge. It is refreshing stepping back to this home. In all the upset of it’s constantly morphing state, its walls provide a slice peace. Life is simpler here, without cell phone reception and no TV as a centerpiece to its living room. It is tucked in the trees off a Montana dirt road. It is set on a hill over a lake. It is always green here, always lush. The air is clean and the night is so still, sometimes I can’t sleep without noise to fill the vacuum.
And tonight, as I listen to the rain on the roof of the newest room added to this house, it still feels like home.
Ruthild always left vases of flowers on the dining room table. The kitchen often wafted with a bouquet of scents from the variety of confections she baked. In the mornings, opera or classical music floated from a small stereo on a bench in the dining room.
Then, Ruthild sat with her coffee, cheese, bread and homemade jam spread out on the table and read the newspaper. During the two months I I rented a room from her in Berlin on a fellowship, my breakfast frequently coincided with hers. We sat and chatted, often about trivialities like the weather, politics or our weekends.
One particular morning, the paper lay folded neatly to her side when I pulled up my chair with my granola and tea. She sat with her chin in her hands, gazing out the fifth-story window at the grey that masked Berlin from the sun.
We started with our usual conversation: It’s supposed to warm up later in the week, she said. I had a great time in Potsdam on Saturday, I offered. She rode bikes with her boyfriend along the river in the small town of Walldorf, where she often spends the weekends, she mentioned.
At the time, Ruthild was a retired 50-year-old who grew up in eastern Germany. In her retirement, she was a part of a project to educate people about various religions. She moved to Berlin when it was a divided city, and watched in disbelief as the pieces of the wall came down one day at a time. I would later glean a deeper understanding of her experience of that era, but only after this morning set the stage for a closer relationship.
When I first arrived, she was on vacation and had left a list of rules likely puzzled together with a dictionary. Those who grew up in the east learned Russian instead of English like those in the west. Maybe as a result of her limited English vocabulary, the rules were strict in tone: Take off your shoes when in the flat; quiet after 10 p.m.; close the window and lock to door when leaving the flat. The quiet, gentle manner about her when we finally met were hard to reconcile with the author of those rules. She pronounced her words clearly and slowly, as if paced by a metronome, and almost sang my name before she began a conversation with me.
This particular morning, I ventured beyond previous boarders of our regular morning conversation. “Do you own a house in Walgart?” I asked. Yes, she has a house in this small town on the coast, she said, her eyes brightening. It was more like a hut, with one room with only a bed, toilet and kitchen. It is enough, she said.
“I’ll show you,” she said, pushing back her chair and padding up the stairs like a child on Christmas morning. She returned with a small photo album, filled with pictures of the home. They show a small rectangle house, trimmed with grass and set with a view of the sea.
Ruthild’s pride was a garden that grew wildly like unbrushed hair. Daisies and irises were its centerpiece, near a small brush labyrinth. Other photos boasted apple and plum trees heavy with fruit. A small table and two chairs sat in the backyard waiting for tea.
Ruthild and her boyfriend, Bernd, bought the house about five or six years prior, she told me. She was looking for a getaway and saw an ad in a paper after a fruitless search through other means. The pruned gardens stacked next to each other like playing cards on the street leading to the house almost turned her away when she went to see it. Then she arrived at the one for sale, on the end, with a beautiful view and an untamed garden instead of the rigid rows of her neighbors.
Yes, the “rules of the house” were an unfair introduction to Ruthild.