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It’s rush hour on a California freeway, and I am going the right direction.
A wall of white lights trace out the highway in front of me for a string of blinding miles. In my lane, red lights are sparser than I would think they would be on a holiday weekend. For one moment as I round a sweeping curve, there are no cars in sight. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to ever be alone in an metropolis of such millions.
A familiar anxiety settles over me as I enter the city. It all moves faster than I am accustomed, cars squeezing in on all sides of me, pushing against the warning of yellow signals, cresting steep hills, merging through splashes of pedestrians. I park tentatively in an area that simultaneously warns”no parking” but permits it, depending on the time.
We gather beneath a large clock tower that marks the ferry building, draping forearms against our bikes, feathering brakes, leaning over tires as the regulars hug each other and the newbies shake hands. A bike bell marks the end of social time. Then the pack of us fan out, breezing in the bike lane, jockeying amid each other. The ocean laps on one side. Cars ease around us on the other. Despite the early darkness, the city is alive with blinking signs and street performers and car horns. We make periodic stops in the light-less enclaves of parks, clicking off our headlamps so our voices must find each through the dim. The familiar silhouette of the Golden Gate Bridge provides orientation.
Then five of us break off from those with thinner tires and head onto dirt lanes under the shelter of trees. We hop from park to park, where swathes of vegetation seem displaced in a city. The pace is quicker now with fewer people. Now that we have begun the serious portion of the ride, our stops lack the leisure of before.
There is something soothing about riding in the dark. It is quiet. The circle of light in front of you is your present reality. Nothing else exists. Each challenge comes one at a time. That makes them seem less daunting. If only life were like that.
Ahead of me, the others have peddled over a dirt lip back onto the next patch of pavement. Red lights on backpacks and seat posts flash at intermittent intervals. My heart is pounding.
Later in bed I feel stretched and thinned and parched. But I plot the next time I can do it again.
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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.
You set the stars in the sky and shaped the mountains, so you can take care of my mess. I’m giving you the broom.
I have just slowed the peddles of the stationary bike at the gym when I see him, a guy strolling into the open door of the ladies bathroom. He’s looking at his phone, not the sign that says “WOMEN” in all caps, or the photo of a woman jogger at the entryway.
A moment later, as I round the turn near the doorway, he comes back out, a sheepish look on his face. Our eyes meet, and we both giggle.
“Sorry,” he says to to me, as if I am somehow a representative of the entire female gender he has wronged by treading on our sacred turf.
I’m walking home from the farmer’s market. I shift the bag of vegetables I carry, whose strap is wearing a track over my shoulder. It’s unseasonably warm, or maybe there’s no such thing in California. The car is parked on the street, both of its street-side doors hanging open. A woman leans one arm on the roof and rests the other on the door. Her face is twisted in anger.
“Get out of the car, Jordan,” she says.
“Sit your a** down,” says a man from the driver’s seat.
A young boy sits frozen in the back seat, caught between the wills of two people I assume are his parents.
“Get out of the car Jordan,” she yells.
“Sit your a** down,” the dad counters.
My heart breaks for the boy as I pass. No matter what he does, he makes one of the two opposing decision makers in this life mad.
My car is stopped at a red light when I catch a glimpse of him in my rear view mirror. He is unabashedly, fervently singing. I can’t hear the words, but I can see them taking the form of his lips, as he bellows into the cab of his car. I smile at his theatrics.
Somehow, it is endearing to catch an adult in a child-like state. For one minute, he has forgotten the bills and the chores and the stresses of today, and is instead letting them swell from his lungs in the form of song.
I think about it sometimes, how I have these brief encounters with people who have entire lives I will never know, understand or probably ever encounter again. Yet for a few seconds, we cross paths, and I get a glimpse of a stranger’s present moment. Their joy, their embarrassment, their pain.
For them, these seconds are part of their stories. For me, they are moments with strangers.