By Any Other Name
My mother hadn’t spoken to me since she woke me up at eight.
“Wake up,” she’d said. “It’s time.”
Then she closed the door to my room just hard enough to make me flinch.
Before I dressed, I tried to look at myself in the full-length mirror on my wall. I could only manage for a moment. Hot shame spread from my face, out to my fingers and toes, at the sight of my naked body. As quickly as I could, I covered my breasts and privates with underwear. It was late spring but I still chose to wear a hoodie and thick pants despite the heat.
Breakfast (if you could call it that, since neither of us ate much) was a silent affair. On the drive over, my mother didn’t even bother to turn on the radio. We listened instead to the tires on the road and the occasional car horn.
In the parking lot of the county courthouse, she missed an unoccupied space near the entrance. I opened my mouth to call attention to it but thought better of it. There would be another one, and I was afraid of what her reaction to my voice would be. Our relationship seemed balanced on the edge of a knife. One false step, and either one of us might be sliced in half.
After we parked the car, we stood in line at the clerk’s office. The courthouse building felt cavernous. Among its high ceilings and columned doorways, even the quietest conversations carried a long distance. Footsteps clattered loudly across the marble floors. We stayed quiet for fear of being heard.
There were a dozen people in front of us in line. Slowly but surely, the space behind us filled out as well. Before long, we were trapped in the middle of a queue, and I began to feel exposed to all these people. Naked again. Every time I looked around, I thought I saw someone’s eyes dart quickly away, as though they’d been watching me.
Did they recognize me? Had they seen it?
Nausea crept up from my gut and thickened at the base of my tongue. I looked around for a way out, but our only escape existed in ducking under the vinyl belts that snaked through the waiting area and kept us in file. Making a break for it would only ensure that more people would notice me. We would simply have to make it to the head of the line and do what we came here to do.
My mother looked terribly uncomfortable. She clutched her handbag to her body like a shield, and her lips were frozen in a nervous curl on one side. These people were not our kind. They were there to protest evictions or pay fines or contest custody judgements. They dressed poorly and smelled like cigarettes. Some of them had taken the bus to get here. Our family had our shit together. She drove a Mercedes. Dad worked at a high rise in the city. She was the president of the PTA, for God’s sake.
Well, she used to be. We were moving in a few weeks, and she’d have been forced to resign even if we’d chosen to stay.
At least none of the other people wanted to talk, so she and I were able to maintain our tacitly agreed upon muteness. If the other people had been talking, our silence would have felt inappropriate. We would have felt compelled to fill the void between us with sound, just so there wasn’t such a noticeable vacuum in the room. In my family, we cared a lot about what other people might think.
Every couple of minutes the line shuffled forward. One person left the room, another took their place at the service counter. The rest of us stepped dutifully forward into our new areas. I looked at my mother after a while, hoping she might offer some words of assurance, a single sentence of maternal support. I didn’t want a conversation (I couldn’t handle a whole conversation), just an acknowledgment that I’d still feel like her daughter after this.
But she stood with her arms crossed and her eyes straight ahead. She must have felt my gaze, but she didn’t acknowledge it. Her lips, now pressed tightly together into a thin pink line, looked as though they might never find their way apart again.
Suddenly, a commotion at the front of the line disrupted the placid atmosphere of the room.
“This is bullshit!” A man was pressing a piece of paper against the plexiglass partition and pointing menacingly.
“Sir,” said the clerk, “all I’m able to do is give you the information you’re asking for and file any additional paperwork you might care to file. If you take issue with the interim judgment, I can give you a copy of the appropriate form with which to appeal it, but that’s all I can do.”
The customer slammed the glass with an open hand. My mother and I jumped as though we were the targets of his outburst. The man stormed out, releasing a litany of profanity on his way. The way he turned his head and gestured, some of it even seemed to be directed at the rest of us in the line, as though our presence alone was enough to shoulder some of the blame for his bad luck.
A few people in line snickered and exchanged knowing looks. They seemed almost comfortable, practiced at being in the presence of that sort of chaos. My mother and I weren’t. We were out of our depth, and I felt the disturbance in our equilibrium. She exhaled sharply out her nose. She shook her head.
“I’m just glad your grandmother isn’t around to see this. She was so happy when we named you after her. At least she got to enjoy having a namesake while she was alive.”
“I didn’t have a choice, Mom. We all agreed that we’d do this.”
She kept shaking her head. My stomach turned over when I saw the tears beginning to form in her eyes. For the first time all morning, she looked directly at me.
“Couldn’t you just rearrange the names? Make your middle name your first name or something?”
The sight of my mother’s emotions set fire to my own. The heat of embarrassment flushed the skin on my entire body. A sharp tone rang in my ears. My mouth dried out and I tasted copper. The feelings gave way to memories, and they flooded my mind in quick succession.
The first time someone showed me the video, posted so brazenly on the internet for everyone to see. (I’ve never been punched in the stomach before, but at that moment I’m sure knew how it felt.)
The looks I’d gotten at school the next day. (I hadn’t expected to sense so much whispered delight. Teenagers do love a scandal.)
My boyfriend’s frightening ambivalence when I’d confronted him about it. (Of course he never thought it would get out. He’d only sent it to a few people, how could I blame him?)
The tragedy written in my parents’ faces when they’d found out. (Clearly, they’d never prepared for this eventuality. No chapter in any parenting book for this.)
Before the tears escaped my eyes, I forced myself to be angry instead. The shame I actually felt would never have allowed me to speak. It would have forced me into a ball, crying on that cool marble floor.
“That’s not how search engines work, we talked about this,” I spat. “The order of the words doesn’t matter. I’d still come up when people searched the names.”
My mother’s bottom lip quivered. She fumbled in her bag with one hand until she found her sunglasses. She put them on and stared straight ahead again. Guilt mixed with the anger I’d manufactured and the shame I’d tried to sublimate.
What had she done to deserve that except exist?
We waded through the muck that we’d created around us until it was our turn at the front of the line. Every step felt like pulling my foot out of a deep swamp, only to plunge it back in again. When finally we positioned ourselves in front of the window, I was exhausted.
“How can I help you?” asked the clerk.
For some reason, the woman looked at me. Now that it was time, I couldn’t find the words. They lodged in my throat and choked me. My mother glanced at me and saw the paralysis in my face. She took over.
“My daughter would like to change her name.”
“And how old is she?”
The clerk nodded. “Do you have the ‘Juvenile Petition for Change of Name’ form?”
“Yes.” My mother slid the form through the gap in the window. The clerk looked at the data written in the form.
“I see Rose’s father is the co-petitioner, so there’s no need for a non-custodial parent notification. Do you have a copy of Rose’s FBI fingerprint-based background and criminal history check?”
“Very good. Judge Banner’s courtroom will reach out within a week and provide you with a date of your hearing. Please ensure that you, your husband, and Rose are all in attendance or the judge may choose to postpone the hearing. Once the judge has granted the name change request, you’ll have to provide sufficient publication in an approved newspaper—”
“Actually,” my mother said, “we’ll be petitioning to have the record sealed due to the circumstances.”
“Alright.” The clerk made a note. “In any case, once that’s all done, Rose Elise Pearl will officially become Juliet Ava Pearl. One moment please.”
The clerk disappeared into a back office. During their back and forth, I had inched my way closer to my mother. I cowered behind her now, eyes cast down at the floor. The clerk returned and slid two sets of papers under the glass, stamped with the county seal. My mother handed them to me. They were still warm from the copier.
“Have a nice day.”
We exited the clerk’s room and stepped back out into the great hallway of the courthouse. My mother looked around for a moment, regaining her bearings, before walking in the direction of the exit nearest our car. I followed, wanting nothing more than for her to take my hand in hers.
Only now did I feel the full weight of what we had set in motion. A necessary step, maybe, but it still felt very nearly like the end of the world.
To never be called Rose again? It was defeat at the hands of a stupid, thoughtless, cruel boy. Was it worth erasing sixteen years of Rose’s life in order to rid her future of one horrible moment?
But, of course, I knew the calculus wasn’t that simple.
My mother never slowed to take my hand. She walked out into the sun and directly to the car. She got in and started it before I’d caught up. When I got into the passenger seat the air conditioning was blowing at full power. We sat in the rushing air for a while, silent once more.
All at once, the fatigue stripped away the defenses I’d put up. My bottom lip began to quiver. I recognized the growing feeling in my throat. The tears were coming, and they would be sobbing, debilitating tears.
Just when the cold air had begun to cause goosebumps on my skin, just when I was on the verge of a breakdown, my mother turned down the air conditioning. She took off her sunglasses.
“Now that I really hear it,” she said, tears welling in her eyes, “Juliet is a lovely name.”
R. B. Miner is a New York City native, Army veteran, and occupational dilettante. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Rock and a Hard Place Magazine, Soliloquies Anthology, and Bullshit Lit. He lives in Kansas City with his wife, daughter, and dog.