What’s in a name?

When I was younger, my cousin and I used to have sleepovers. We’d take showers together and stay so long that we’d steam up the whole bathroom.

One such time, I remember writing words on the shower’s sliding door—words meaningless at first and ones that you often write for spelling exercises: FUN, FLOWERS, HOUSE.

Then I wrote JULIA. J-U-L-I-A.

I stared at the letters for a moment.

My mom walked into the bathroom, delivering our dry towels. I remained standing naked in the shower, staring at my own name. “Isn’t it weird,” I mused, “that that’s my name?”

My mom and cousin exchanged looks.

“What do you mean?” my mom asked.

“I mean those letters spell out my name!”

“Well…” She dropped her chin and lifted her eyebrows. “…yeah…”

My mom and cousin snickered.

“No! I mean,” (I was already getting frustrated), “isn’t it weird that those letters represent…me?!”

Amusement lit their faces and they continued to laugh at me.

That night, I remember feeling foolish for what I had said. But more than foolish, I felt indignant. I knew that I was onto something but I just couldn’t quite articulate it.

*****

Years later, I reconnected with a friend of mine who lives in New York City. We started writing each other when she found out I was moving to the city.

“You gonna jump into this world?” she asked (meaning the world of theater).

“Nah,” I wrote.

*****

Yeah, I was a musical theater kid. I attended a performing arts high school.

Even then I knew I was never leading role material: I had an okay voice but couldn’t belt; my vocal range was pretty minimal; my acting was average; and I didn’t have the body or confidence of a professional dancer.

So I was pretty much average among a talented pool of musicians, actors, dancers, and child prodigies.

But you know what? I was happy.

I was fucking elated to be cast in the ensemble—more than elated, actually, because it meant that I got to participate in something special, something that inspired and moved people—something that had them singing in their showers, dancing in the streets, and picking up guitars they had abandoned twenty years ago. THAT was why I did musical theater—not to get the leading role.

So whatever happened to that girl? When did I become so serious?

*****

There have been a few U-turns I’ve taken in my life. The first was when I was 14 years-old and realized I would never become a professional ballerina. I was too short, had big boobs, and was too wide. I remember a seamstress making eyes at a fellow seamstress, whispering about how they’d have to loosen the hem around my waist because I was thicker than the other girls. Translation: you’re fat. I used to pinch the skin in my armpit, hoping the ‘fat’ would disappear.

The next U-turn was teaching. Immediately following graduate school, I landed an adjunct faculty role thanks to the help of a supportive professor. I had no office, no mentor, and syllabi I had to develop from scratch (including quizzes and tests). That semester, I had to handle students Facebooking during my lectures and one athlete who plagiarized her essay.

I really fucked up that semester—really bad. In fact, students wrote in lots of complaints about my teaching, questioning my credentials. The head of the department offered to coach me and suggested I give it another go.

Instead I quit.

*****

That was eight years ago.

Today in my apartment, I listened to A Chorus Line. I can’t remember the last time I heard that musical but somehow, inexplicably, I knew every single song and every single lyric. And I started to dance—post-shower, naked in my room.

Something had awakened.

It’s bizarre that I’m stepping into a new chapter of my life but at the same time, a very old chapter—where people connect to the things that matter most to them and are happy bathing in that experience without the relentless compare/contrast, failure/success dichotomy we’ve built up.

Today I also remember why I was so pissed in that shower: because JULIA will never fully represent who I am. J-U-L-I-A will never capture all the complexities and relentless churnings of my mind; names just can’t do that.

But here’s what names can do: they can be written in big letters on a marquee, on a printed playbill of a Broadway musical, and in a New York Times article. They can be spoken at dinner parties, pressed against a cork board or saved on someone’s desktop. Names can be associated with talent, beauty, legacies and tragedies.

Names can represent leading roles.

And here’s what else: names can be written on shower doors, too. They can be the stars of your bathroom musical, if only for a short time.

 

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