You Can Call Me Kate. Please.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

I was in kindergarten when I asked my mother to call my elementary school & inform them that I did, in fact, go by Katie & not Sara, & no, I wasn’t just playing one of those games that 5-year-olds sometimes play, where they insist their name is something else & try to make everyone call them by it. Yes, Katie is really Katie; it’s just her middle name. A nickname of her middle name, actually, but no, she never goes by Sara.

Throughout my childhood, I was one of three Katies in my class. One of them was a Catie, really, & she soon adopted Catherine instead, so it was just me and the other Katie B –in case it wasn’t bad enough to have the same first name, we also had the same last initial. “Katie B-I” & “Katie B-Y,” they called us, like using our actual last names wasn’t an option.

I was 11 when I decided I’d be Kati instead of Katie, but that didn’t last long, only long enough for someone to buy me a puffy-painted T-shirt with that spelling of my name on it. It got a solid summer’s worth of wear before I reclaimed my missing E.

I was 12 when I insisted that my rabbi please stop calling me Sara Kathryn when she was being stern with me during bat mitzvah training, because even my mother never calls me that, not ever. When she’s mad at me, she’ll say “Katy B___!” (except where B___ is my actual last name), each name punctuated with a tone of voice that sounds equal parts astonished & furious. My rabbi was so amused by my insistence that she not use my given first name – my Hebrew name! – that she worked that anecdote into her address at my bat mitzvah service, a tribute to my stubbornness.

I think I was 13 when I decided I’d be Katy instead of Katie, “because there’s no I or E in the way I spell Kathryn” – which makes sense, really, but was actually just a convenient excuse for differentiating myself from every other goddamned Katie in middle school in the ‘90s. When high school began, kids from three middle schools would come together to form our freshman class, & I was from the smallest of the three. Two-thirds of my peers never knew me as anything but Katy, with a Y, & that was that.

But still, there was Sara. I was 16 when I fought with the Ohio DMV to include my middle name on my brand new driver’s license. When they said no, I left empty-handed, no license that day, & returned with my grandmother, Annetta Jeanne (who went by Jeanne), & used her septuagenarian’s ID, granted by the same state, as my trump card. The DMV complied, & my Ohio license still bears my full name. It’s the only state to ever grant me the favor of doing so.

I was 18 when I decided I would be Kate, starting college with a clean slate that didn’t include the name I’d fought with my whole life. It felt more mature, I thought, though I didn’t like the way it flowed (or not) with my surname, a hard & uncomfortable stop between the two, a full pause after my first name in order to properly pronounce my last name. In truth, Katy flowed better, but I’d made the decision that Katy was dead to me. “Hi,” I’d say when I met people at frat parties & in class discussion groups, “I’m Kate,” smiling externally out of friendliness & internally out of a bizarre sense of pride at fooling all of these suckers into thinking this was my name. Except now it was.

And it still is.

I miss Katy sometimes. No one calls me Katy anymore – not even my mother, for the most part, or my boyfriend, who met me when I still went by it. When I attended my high school reunion in August, almost everyone called me Kate, like Facebook had taught them to. Katy has been dead to me since I was 18, but now she’s dead to everyone else, too. Now, I’m just Kate.

Except when I’m not.

Just a few months ago, I visited a Manhattan Bagel in town, & when the meek guy behind the counter asked for a name to go with my order, I gave it to him: “Kate,” of course, because that’s my name now, just like it has been for the last decade. When I paid, though, the manager who swiped my debit card took a look at the name printed on raised letters on my Visa & told me cheerily, “We’ll bring that out to you when it’s ready, Sara!” As I took a table around the corner, I heard him yell back to the kid who’d taken the order: “The name with that order isn’t Kate, Brian! Her name is Sara! Why would you put ‘Kate’ down?!” Later, after I’d eaten & was about to walk out the door, the manager shouted at me, “Have a great day, Sara!” & I fought the urge to run back in there & inform him that it’s not at all uncommon for people to go by their middle names (J. Edgar Hoover, anyone?!), so leave poor Brian alone because he got it right & you didn’t, OK?

Yes, I’m forever fighting the battle to make my name exist. I was 26 when I argued with a Chase Bank representative to put “Sara Kathryn” on my debit card instead of just “Sara.” I was 27 when I fought with the New Hampshire DMV to include my middle name on my driver’s license, & I was 28 when I had the same fight with the DMV here in New Jersey. I lost all three battles, fucking bureaucrats. That means that now, I have to do everything official as “Sara K,” as though my middle name – the one that is my actual name ­– doesn’t exist. I book flights as Sara K, I sign my tax documents as Sara K, I make doctor’s appointments as Sara K. I don’t even know who Sara K is, but she’s the one living my official life, the one that exists on paperwork. Katy is long dead, & Kate still isn’t even real.

I always told myself that I would wait until my grandmother’s passing to legally change my name, to drop the name of her mother, for whom I am named, so that I wouldn’t hurt her feelings. But my grandmother is dead now – may her name be for a blessing – and here I am, Sara Kathryn still. Suddenly, I worry: What will life be like without the fight over this imaginary Sara person? Who will I be if I am given permission to take my name for granted? Am I ready – will I ever be ready – to give up membership in this club I’ve loathed my whole life, the one that includes Woodrow Wilson & Ashton Kutcher & Rudyard Kipling & Rupert Murdoch & Beatrix Potter & Mitt Romney & Reese Witherspoon & Paul McCartney & even my own grandmother? The truth is that I find myself quite angry about this, about the fact that I’ve spent my whole life ready to shed the name that’s so long plagued me & now, just as the time is right, I seem to have developed an unexpected attachment to it, as though its godforsaken existence has shaped my character.

Except maybe, in some ways, it has.

This month, I'm participating in a writing group that Kristen of Aw, Shucks invited me to. Each day, we receive a writing prompt to follow, or not. I'm not doing all of the daily prompts, but I'm doing the ones that appeal to me. Today's prompt was "Write about your name."

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