The Story of My Name(s)
essay - nonfiction
At present, though I don’t know the exact location, I have three birth certificates. I recall handing them over, folded and paper clipped together when obtaining my second passport, only for the receptionist to exclaim, “What the hell is all this!”
I shrugged, the way I always did, the way I always still do, when people ask me anything about my name. Things like, “Interesting, do you know what it means?” or, “How did your parents decide on a name like that?”, or even, “Am I pronouncing it right?” are typically met with non-responses, even though I know the answers: yes, it means sunshine, my mom came across it in a Hawaiian baby name book (though make no mistake, we’re not Hawaiian), and no, you’re definitely not pronouncing it right.
The story goes kind of like this: my father, who filled out the birth certificate and had hoped for a more common name like Ashley, spelled my middle name incorrectly. My mother, irritable and exhausted, told him to fix it, and they had to fill out an amended certificate. Realizing she had given her daughter the first gift of life and the second gift of a very difficult name, my mom also opted for a third certificate, encouraging the use of a nickname. This would allow me, so should I choose, to move through class lists, seating charts, etc. with an easier to pronounce identifier.
This “nickname” became my true name quickly, because when you’re looking at a tiny baby, the name KAY-lee fits so perfectly between coddling sounds. I am often amused when thinking about the women of my generation becoming elderly with names like Britney, Tiffany, and Holly. I, too, became attached to the modified, more childlike version of my name, Kaley, while my true name was reserved for doctor’s visits and the rare times I was in trouble.
Before I left for college in 2008, I had every intention of switching to my adult name. Afterall, I was nearly 18 and moving to a new city to study psychology. For all intents and purposes, I was an adult. What people don’t tell you about having two names is that you will find it immensely difficult to switch over to the other one, especially if you’ve rarely been referred to by it. I’m at the age now where many of my friends are planning for or expecting children, and they usually offer, “But I’d like to call them x” when deciding on names. I always kind of cringe when this comes up, knowing that this soon-to-be person will go through the rest of their life wondering who the hell they are: the nickname version of themselves, or the legal version?
That’s the thing isn’t it, someone named Kaley and someone named Kaleena cannot be the same. I tried to walk the halls of my new campus, shaking hands with dorm-mates and potential hookups and the world saying, “My name is Kaleena”, but every time I tried, “I’m Kaley,” would come out instead. I couldn’t shove it back in. I couldn’t say “Oh, what I meant to say was…”, it was too late! I was Kaley before, and I had to be Kaley now. Ironically, I’d only utilized Kaleena on every piece of higher education paperwork to make the transition easier, but I was so used to saying “it’s KAY-lee” with an additional eye roll for pronunciation purposes (I’d been mislabeled as a Callie [KA-lee, rhymes with rally] in almost every classroom and waiting room since I could walk, and had developed a dislike for any girl with the name), I didn’t even let an opportunity for my true name to surface.
Facebook was in its early stages of mass consumption when I was a college freshman. I remember staring at the blinking cursor on my account creation screen, wondering who I’d be for the next four years. I settled on keeping Kaley, not wanting to look desperate or too artistic to all my new college friends, and thus Kaleena went back into hiding.
The thing about Kaley is that she matches my voice and appearance the most. When talking to bankers or loan distributors or collectors or things of that nature on the phone, I say: “Kaleena, K-A-L-E-E-N-A”, knowing that they’re likely picturing someone exotic with flowing black hair and healthy arms and sparkling tanned skin, like the Disney princess Moana. But alas, I am barely five feet tall with no exciting ethnic features. My hair is blonde and short and my skin is white and, truth be told, I could easily be swapped out for a Jessica, Ashley, or Courtney without anyone really noticing. Kaley has always felt the safest to me. Kaley has two parents and a younger brother and a dog and good grades and she drives a little red beetle and sleeps in a pink canopy bed. Kaleena, I’d assume, wears a power suit, has a great job and a boyfriend with a motorcycle and expensive clothes and a Siamese cat who only eats wet food. I don’t know her, but I feel like she wouldn’t like me all that much.
Still, the burden of Kaleena continued to hang over me. People would say things like, “You’re going to be famous with a name like that!”, so I automatically attached the name to things not yet accomplished. I had grown up very awkward in my body and was frequently labeled with “ugly duckling” disorder in my twenties, so having a beautiful name only made me feel less so. I would be doing Kaleena a disservice by taking her name. Or maybe I just wasn’t ready for her yet.
In the summer of 2014 I was experiencing the biggest wave of depression I had ever felt. My father, whose name is Pete, was always just hovering under the waters of the disease, and living in closer proximity to him somehow made it feel contagious. I had moved back to my hometown after college two years prior and had not made any significant steps in my life, causing me to constantly feel like I was moving in reverse. In my second year at college I had switched my major to creative writing, which was not proving to be a very lucrative career field. Not only was I no longer social, independent, or surrounded by far-left free loving San Franciscans, I was certainly in no place to explore a new name.
I had once again solidified myself as Kaley, but this time it was worse, because I was the Kaley who thought she was better than everyone for moving to a new city only to come back home and work at a restaurant. It sucked. My diploma was still in an envelope, my parents had divorced while I was away, and I had a difficult time shaking my sense of collegiate/big city superiority complex around my childhood friends, whose lives had seemed to have remained in a block of ice, unchanging, since I’d left six years ago.
I decided that while a complete name change was out of the question, a minor adjustment was just what I needed. Still left bristling every time the barista called me Callie, I made the choice to drop the “na” from Kaleena, and go by “Kalee”. The pronunciation would of course remain the same, but this new Kalee felt edgier and less childish, someone who was not a girl, not yet a woman, to quote a poet I’ve always loved.
I knew I wasn’t in a mental/financial/emotional state to be the Kaleena that God and my birth certificate had intended, but I could at least give Kalee a try. I’ll probably regret saying this when I’m older, but thank goodness for social media because all I had to do was swap out the y for an additional e on every account and people had no choice but to oblige. I certainly wasn’t going to add a fourth birth certificate to my collection. In truth, my oldest friends and my father still have me as “Kaley” in their phones. My mother, who admitted to me later in life she’d always wanted to change her name (a choice I understood since she has the same name as Lindsay Lohan’s mom and a Jersey Shore cast member), adjusted to my upgrade easier.
Right around the time I settled on my rebranding, I met the man who would become my husband and then my ex-husband. He, too, had swapped out some new letters in his name in the pursuit of a modeling/acting career. It became clear to me over the course of our short-lived romance and longer-lived fallout that we had both so desperately wanted an identity to claim. It’s funny how you think an arrangement of letters can do that for you.
After my divorce (a process that called for me writing “Kaleena” over and over until my eyes bled) my 2014 depression seemed like something I would have begged for. The drowning sensation that took over my mind, body, and soul was crippling, and I had officially run out of names. In an act of desperation and isolation, I spent six months focusing on my writing. I applied to grad schools across the country, only utilizing the name “Kaleena” because it was the name that matched my debit card and social security card, two items I was forced to use to extensively during the application process.
I was accepted to two universities: one in San Francisco, and one in Chicago. Kaley had already lived a college life in San Francisco, and Kalee was starting to die where she was. But none of my names had ever had their time in Chicago. No one there knew me, any version of her, so I sold nearly all of my belongings and I left, knowing all the while that whether I was ready or not, it was time to become Kaleena. It was my last chance.
For reasons that still aren’t one hundred percent clear to me, once I was in Chicago, Kaleena became a jacket I could slip on and off with ease. It was a name I knew when and where to use, it gave me power when I needed it, and eventually, it started to feel like mine. I wasn’t the Kaleena with the power suit and the powerful life, but I was some version of her, she was growing. When I met the man who will become my second husband, I remember saying, “I’m Kaleena...but I like Kalee”.
This morning, despite it being six degrees (but felt like -11, according to my weather app), I headed to Starbucks for my favorite drink. When my cup arrived at the counter, I glanced at the name: Kaley. I didn’t hate seeing my name spelled that way. Now, as I sit and write in my apartment, I can feel all these versions living inside me, they each have their space. I like to picture all of us, sharing stories, laughing and crying and holding hands knowing that none of us could have ever existed without the other.