Thursday, February 28, 2008

The New Nicholas Rigby

Category: Issue 9

I could barely sleep the night before I legally changed my name. Although it might have seemed hasty to other people, my girlfriend and extended family, it was anything but hasty to me. It gave me great pleasure to know I’d never have to write Mr. Chuck Hubert Henson on any document—legal or otherwise—ever again.

“You’re going to change the whole thing?” my live-in girlfriend asked me, with some skepticism, as we readied ourselves for bed. I had a notepad out on the mattress and was reading aloud my list: my favorites, the meanings of each, and possible combinations scribbled in the margins.

Of course I was going to change the whole thing. “Need I remind you of Chucky boy, Chucky boy?” I questioned. “Even my little brother used to tease me… Chuck is an ugly name, and I curse my mother for choosing it for me.”

“I thought you said you were named after your grandfather,” she replied, trying to get a peek at my notepad. I wasn’t ready to show her all the names, just yet. I wanted it to be a surprise.

“I was -”

“Didn’t he die at War?”

“Not valiantly in battle, he was run over by a truck. My mother thought it was the gesture that counted. Do you know what Chuck means?” I didn’t wait for her reply, “Impulsive and rash.” I hesitated, “I know what you’re thinking, that this decision is the only rash thing I’ve ever done.” It wasn’t even true; I’d given it years of thought, even if I’d never confessed it aloud.

“You certainly aren’t usually impulsive, no,” she concurred, resting against the bed frame and turning her attention to her fingernails. “Heck, it took you nearly five years to ask me to move in with you. You’re very cautious, maybe even too cautious.”

“This isn’t your attempt to character assassinate me again, is it?” I said, with a playful smirk, tapping her forearm lightly with my pencil. She stuck her tongue out at me and I returned to the list, crossing out Aaron from the potential candidates. A fine name, perhaps, meaning strong and exalted, but I’d known an Aaron in preschool, and I didn’t want to share my name with a prick like that. “My surname isn’t much better, Hun,” I added, “Henson means quiet, and Hubert means intellectual.”

“You’re right,” she cried. “You aren’t the least bit quiet, and intellectual, well…”

“Gee thanks,” I sighed. I knew she was right though, after all, I’d always prided myself on my expressive nature. I enjoyed gesticulating wildly, speaking with a commanding tone, and talking at great length about nearly anything. And well, though I wasn’t a scholar, I was very ambitious. I had been an aspiring sports announcer, since I was a child. I’d always seen myself as the television anchor type - even if I didn’t much have the face for it. I still had the teeth for it: shiny veneers that I intended to show off while yammering off the scores in a loud, enthusiastic manner.

I flashed her one of my infamous smiles and she giggled. “Are you sure about this?” she asked. I expected her concern: She came from two traditionalist parents who would never understand my need for such a gesture. “Don’t get me wrong, Chuck, shouldn’t you just think it over more, or something?”

I was quick with my rebuttal, “ But baby, now that I’m between careers, the timing’s perfect. The papers will be here before I get an interview. Besides, no successful sportscaster can make it in the biz with a name like Chuck Henson. I sound like a hick Muppet.” She laughed, despite herself. “It’s for my career.”

But it wasn’t entirely true. The truth was that her childhood had been different from mine, and her name had never held her back. Well, held back sounds like a rather nonspecific excuse to justify such a brazen move. It wasn’t. It was just that whenever I spoke my name aloud, it never came out proudly. Not like it had when my peers said theirs. From Kindergarten to my fourth year of University, whenever introductions rolled around on that first day of class, I’d meekly state, “I’m Chuck Henson. I like to play with Tonka trucks!” Or in the latter case, “I’m majoring in Kinesiology.” It wasn’t just that there was always a laugh following what I said—because Tonka trucks weren’t cool or Kinesiology was for the imbeciles—I just knew it had everything to do with my name.

“Don’t keep me in suspense, Chuck,” she pleaded. “What’s your new name?”

I smiled, “What do you think of Igor?” She grimaced. “It’s Russian for warrior… Okay, what about Ludwig? It means talented.”

“I thought you were going for something more, more, average?”

“Not average - something memorable!”

“I have nothing against Igor or Ludwig, but you’re from a small rural town in Northern Ontario , what happens when they start asking you if you’re Slavic?”

“Who would ask me that?” I demanded.

“Someone might. My old roommate used to always get asked whether she was Irish because of her Gaelic name.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“She was from Korea .”

I paused for a second, running the eraser of the pencil up and down my cheek. “I could make up a story about the fact that I have ancient Russian roots, we’re Bolsheviks, in the witness protection program.” I snickered but she didn’t. “Alright, what about Mallory? It means wild spirit. Scratch that, it’s too androgynous.”

“You don’t need to go tomorrow, you know. We don’t have to decide tonight,” she rationalized. “Can’t it wait, baby?”

“No.” It couldn’t. Presuming my upbringing had been fair, I probably wouldn’t have cowered at the thought of speaking my name aloud, but the idea that I’d start a new job in a few weeks from now, and have to announce myself—in my choice career, at that—as Chuck, or worse still hearing Chucky Boy whispered by my colleagues around the water cooler, was all too unpleasant a thought. Besides, it would finally give me that new beginning I sought. Last year, when I confessed to my therapist that I thought a name change would keep me from succumbing to my own self-loathing, he’d laughed and told me a superficial modification wouldn’t help me. “You can’t just start over,” he’d said. But – I wanted to believe I could. At the very least, he could have humored me. I blamed my upbringing, even if I wasn’t prepared to admit it aloud.

I glanced at my girlfriend and she offered to rub my shoulders. I knew she knew. I placed the pencil on the notepad and relaxed against her, as she began to rub the knots at the nape of my neck. “You’ve come so far, Hun,” she praised.

“Sure have,” I admitted. “ But it’s still not enough… Say your name aloud.”


“Say your name.”

“Chloe Mueller?”

“See, there you go,” I replied. “Your name is rather ridiculous and you can say it proudly.” She prodded my chicken wings in objection, looking like she might shove me off the bed. “I didn’t mean it as an insult, baby. Just listen to me: Chuck Henson. See?! I say it too fast, and quiet, like I can’t wait to stop speaking. I loathe my name.”

I felt tempted to again relay the story of that day in grade ten drama class. Everyone was forced to choose an adjective that began with the same letter of their first name. My peers came up clever and apropos choices: radical Randall, cute Carly, alluring Allison, and menacing Marcus (Marcus was menacing - and proud of it!) All I could come up with was chubby Chuck. When I told Chloe the story the first time, I’d said with great repugnance, “I wasn’t even chubby; I was the most sickly thin, depressed, and introverted guy in our graduating class. It was an atrocity.” She’d suggested compassionate Chuck, and I’d balked, “No fifteen year old boy wants to be called compassionate. It’s worse than chubby.”

She continued to rub my shoulders, working the tension from my trapezius, while kissing my neck softly. “I like Chuck.”

Her sweet words did little to make me feel better. “I owe this confusion to my mother,” I stated, with a heavy sigh, “and that boy in my grade two class. Michael David Somerset, or was it David Michael? No it was Michael David. Anyway, David’s mother eventually inverted the order after habitually calling him Michael instead of David. His birth certificate didn’t change or anything. But for the next nine years he went by Michael instead of David.”

“What does that have to do with you?” Chloe asked, pinching a chord in my neck.

“After my mother heard about this, she came to me all concerned. I remember it vividly. She’d come into my room to tuck me in. She was perched on the edge of my bed, adjusting the bedding, when she asked whether I’d rather go by your middle name instead. I know, can you believe she asked me this?” I demanded. “At the time I’d felt strange about it. I didn’t understand. I had this idea that the attention a parent paid to naming a child, was somehow synonymous with the love they felt for their child. So the fact that she was suddenly expressing uncertainty about my name, suggested she felt similarly uncertain whether she liked me anymore.”

Chloe tried to console me, “That’s nonsense, your mother loves you. Is that what this is about?”

But my mother hadn’t let it go. I’d have preferred to have woken up the next morning and pretended it had been a weird nightmare, but she hadn’t forgotten. She only asked me more and more often, usually at the most inopportune times, like in the line-up at the movie cinema, and over a Big Mac meal at our local McDonald’s at peak time. The first time I’d been resolute with my, “No.” But after the fifth inquiry, I was wavering. “Maybe she was dissatisfied with her decision to not only name me, but have a child to begin with.”

“Then why’d she have your brother?”

“As a do over.”

“Well I’m glad you’re not a Hubert.”

I was too. Chloe motioned for me to continue with my list and I did. “How about Henri Dubois? Or Raoul? Raoul means confident, a quality I hope to exude shortly.”

“It’s worse than Ludwig,” she cried. “What about Sebastian? I’ve always loved the name Sebastian.”

“Didn’t you call your dead fish Sebastian?”

“But it means dramatic. That’s perfect for you.”

“I am not an aspiring poet. No self-respecting announcer can go by Sebastian either.”

“But I like that name,” she whined.

I continued, pretending she wasn’t seriously considering such a heinous suggestion. “I like Edgar, it means success.” She cringed. “Liam,” this time I immediately winced. I couldn’t fathom going to the grave as a Liam. It dawned on me then that I was going to die with this new name. Be born a Chuck, and die a Chad , or an Edgar, or an Ian. I felt my stomach lurch upwards toward my esophagus.

“This is so permanent, baby,” Chloe continued, as though she were reading my thoughts. I shook her off my shoulders and returned to the notepad.

“Say a few of them, and see which ones I respond to most,” I suggested, attempting to change the subject as best I could.

She did. When I was least expecting it, she called them out, one by one. Much to my dismay, my head only turned to Chuck. I was like a dog trained to a whistle, a clicker, or my squeaking chicken. “I suppose it’ll take some getting used to,” I decided.

She patted me on the back. “You will,” she reassured. “What about the name Miles, I like Miles?” I shook my head. “Connor? Ethan? Bryce? Keagan?”

I rolled my eyes, “How about something that doesn’t sound like my name was selected from the top 100 baby names of 2008 list.”

“Well, you were on the website.”

“Do you know I found the name ESPN on that site too? And it was in capitals?”

“You’re kidding me?”

“No - it means sports network,” I laughed, remembering how appalled I’d been when I’d let my cursor hover over it in disbelief and seen the link appear asking whether I’d like to save it to my favorites list.

“You should pick it,” she teased. I poked her again with my eraser. “I can’t imagine anyone naming their child Espn? How would you even pronounce it?”

I nodded. “Now what do you think of this combination: Nicholas Rigby? As a full name?”


“It means high energy.”

“How fitting.”

“Or Nicholas Penn Rigby? Penn as the middle name of course. Penn means strong-willed. And Nicholas means winner. I think that’s my favourite combination, personally.”

“Mine too,” she agreed.

“Than that settles it,” I stated. “Meet the new Nicholas P. Rigby.”

I offered out my hand and she shook it. “What will my parents call you? And my sister? And your mother?”

“Whatever you they want to, I suppose,” I replied quickly. “I mean, for now we can tell them it’s just my stage name, for work purposes.” That’s how I’d always figured it, even if it was a guise of a kind.

“And me? What will I call you?”

“Baby,” I beamed, “I wouldn’t expect you to go around calling me Nick right away or anything.”

“I can just see the looks we’ll get in public. When I introduce you as Nick, and then accidentally call you Chuck, and then throw in the occasional bedroom nickname.” She winked at me and I leaned over to kiss her.

“They’ll really think we’re mad,” I grinned, kissing the tip of her nose. She recoiled and I could see on her face she didn’t find it nearly as amusing as I did. She wasn’t like me. She was susceptible to the scrutiny of others, much more conventional than I’d ever been.

I practiced my future signature while she went to get ready for bed. She washed her face. I practiced my signature for bank receipts. When she took out her contact lenses, I practiced the signature for the back of my driver’s license. Even if my handwriting had always been rather illegible, it was strange to start with an “N” instead of a “C.” And I was unaccustomed to the natural rhythm of the pen inking out my name, just as I was unaccustomed to the sound of my name spoken aloud. I hoped it would become more natural with time. As she returned to the bed, I retreated to the washroom with the notebook. Instead of brushing my teeth, I found myself practicing the signature I might pen on the front flap of a sports almanac or for a fan of my evening broadcasts that I happened to run into on the street.

She was asleep by the time I rejoined her. I lay awake, thinking about the significance of names. I thought about what Richard Dawkins had mentioned in the book on Chloe’s nightstand, that no molecule in the human body is the same from birth to death. We are in a constant process of dying. So why do we have names that keep us bound to an identity that is never really fixed? And why should a parent get to determine what name we go by for life, if we don’t like it why must we worry about facing scorn and judgment for staking claim on what should be rightfully ours from birth. I felt like an advocate of the people: for all those that were born with dreadful names and desperate for a change.

I fell asleep saying my new name, over and over.

The following day I approached the desk, proudly, with a smile upon my face. I had a woman behind the desk authenticate the legal documents. She said she liked the name Nicholas. I felt validated. I handed over the nominal fee. I slipped the papers into a stamped, addressed envelope and mailed it off before I retreated to my car. It was easy, too easy. And I felt contented and confident. I called Chloe at work to tell her it was on its way, that I’d receive my new birth certificate in 4-6 weeks. And I practiced a line or two in character. “This is Nick Rigby, and tonight I’m interviewing Kobe Bryant.”

She applauded me, and inquired when I’d be changing everything else.

“Everything else?” I hadn’t thought about the rest of the changes. Perhaps I’d just been hoping it would happen without me. That the government handled all of that.

“Your health card, insurance, optometrist, the neighbors, your social insurance number, credit cards, your passport before our next vacation,” she reminded. I felt my heart sink. I was greatly opposed to chores even as simple as renewing my license plate sticker. If I could renew it every two years, I would. Now I’d have to do it all, even the most menial of tasks. “Your library card,” she continued, “And probably your transcripts and reference letters.”

I’d probably have to justify the new name too. And have to convince my future employers that I’d not changed my name because I was a fugitive. And they might not understand my need for such a gesture.

Chloe’s voice was consoling, “I’m sure they won’t think you’re a criminal.”

“I hadn’t thought about it all,” I confessed.

“You can do it. It’ll only take a few weeks I’m sure.”

I hung up feeling perturbed, and while stopped at a red light, I set to work on a to-do list. I felt exhausted just thinking about it. But I had to keep my resolve, after all, the mere formalities were worth it in the end, to have a new name, to no longer have to go by Chuck.

I put the list away, driving the last few blocks toward home. I thought about my life as Nick Rigby. And my eventual death. I thought about my grave site. I wondered if Chuck would be listed on my obituary. Whether Nicholas P. Rigby “Chuck” would be carved neatly into the limestone. I cringed. For all eternity, would passerby’s walk over my soil and think, “Poor Nick, getting stuck with a hideous nickname like Chuck!” or “He must’ve preferred Chuck, maybe even wanted to change it from Nick to Chuck, if he went so far as to have it etched on his grave.” And if Chuck wasn’t listed, where would people who’d only known me as Chuck go to grieve?

And what about greeting cards? Would I write Chuck, or Nick, or a combination of both or alternate between the two? And on table settings, address labels etc. My new name, I realized, required explanation which was only more grief, was it not? And how would anyone understand it was more a gesture than a disdain for my name? Chuck felt like an inescapable apparition, the shadow that Peter Pan couldn’t chop off.

Sure, it was a mixed blessing. Now I had the gift of total anonymity on Facebook and Myspace. And if we are constantly in the process of dying, what is really left if the name changes? I was beginning to realize this went deeper than a piece of paper or a quarter life crisis. Who was I, if I was not my name? And who would I be now that I had become Nick Rigby?

As I turned down the street toward our house, I felt myself struggle to keep my foot pressed to the gas. What if I wasn’t ready to become someone new? What if I didn’t know who I really was? So much for being sure, I thought, as I picked my cell phone back up and hit the redial button. This time Chloe didn’t answer. She was probably with a prospective client, having no idea of the kind of crisis I now battled as I pulled into our garage.

I went inside. I took off Chuck’s shoes and looked at Nicholas in the mirror. And then I retreated to our collective computer. The page was still open to the baby naming website. And while the paper list was tucked away out of sight, the computer generated favorites was waiting for me. I scrolled it again: Nicholas, Penn, Rigby. Nick Rigby. I felt momentarily contented. But the feeling didn’t last. I saw a name I hadn’t remembered: Cole. It was near the bottom, and it meant victory of the people.

I liked it. Within seconds I was saying it over and over again, like a mantra, each time more certain that this was my new name. How had I missed it? Had I made the wrong choice? Cole Rigby! Nick Rigby seemed so ordinary suddenly. Even Nicholas Rigby seemed too ordinary. I bit my lip. Could I change it again? Was there a limit on the amount of times I could change my name? Wouldn’t I only get more confused? My identity destined to become infinitely more muddled the more I marched myself back to the bureau. Was I destined to become the symbol formally known as Chuck? Would I eventually change it back to Chuck, just to keep my sanity in check?

As I contemplated the fate of my existence, the phone rang. It was my mother. I didn’t pick up, I was too shaken up to speak, and I knew I’d only end up cursing her again for naming me in the first place. When the phone went dead, I paced. Cole. Rigby. Chuck. Damn you, Mother. Nick. Nicholas. Ludwig? Would I end up a Ludwig? I eventually returned to the receiver, hesitating before dialing Chloe once more.

She answered on the second ring. “Good afternoon, this is Chloe speaking.”

I felt instantly soothed, she said her name so confidently. “Hey,” I began. “It’s me.”

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