Few will readily admit their own lives to be anything other than a series of happy fated circumstances. Spouses are soul mates. Careers are destiny. Our very body is an instrument of God himself and each step begins a life changing journey.
That narrative is hypnotic, seductive and, at least in my case, an utter lie.
My very birth was a medical curiosity. My mother was thirty, in a time when childless thirty-year-old women stayed that way. Additionally, at least two doctors had actually diagnosed her as barren. The second pronouncement spurring my mother to begin adoption proceedings for my uncle’s bastard son.
Barren. Bastard. Already you know that my story is set far far away from today’s world of political correctness and black Presidents. It’s 1974 and my thirty-year-old mother has just been told that she is in a family way. Oh, and that I will be a boy.
I guess I could build up the suspense a bit and drag this announcement out for a few pages, but I won’t. My story is long and chock full of enough cliches and cheap tricks.
I was not a boy.
Oh, don’t get the wrong impression, it’s not that I *am* a boy now or anything. I’m not. I am, as I was on the hot July night when I was born, a girl. Well, I am thirty-five years old, so not so much “girl”, but you know what I mean. Female.
“A girl? But Dr. Friedman said I was having a boy.”
And pretty much everytime I heard this story as a child, I tried to imagine the nurse’s expression just then. What on earth could she have said?
“Well, I don’t know what the doctor told you lady, but I’ve seen boy babies and I’ve seen girl babies and this one here, definitely NOT a boy baby.”
“Well, if that’s what the doctor told you, then congratulations, it’s a boy, maam.”
My mother’s version of the story goes straight from disappointment to annoyance.
“I don’t have any girl names.”
Quite the pickle indeed for the parent of a newborn baby girl.
She then settled on one of the Afro-centric girl names popular in inner cities during the seventies. Something ending in -asha or -iqua. My aunt, five years my mother’s junior, had a better idea.
“How about Stephanie”?
She was the live-in maid for a white family on Long Island and the youngest child, a four-year-old girl, was named Stephanie.
At this, and here is my favorite part of the story, my mother shrugged and said “Okay. Whatever.”
In her defense, I was born four days late after 35 hours of labor AND I had a vagina. Already I was something of a pain in the ass. (Literally, or so I thought for a long time. When I was five, I asked my mother where babies came from and without hestitation she replied “my butt.”)
My mother was handed a hospital issued birth certificate with my name hand printed in black ink: Stephanie Clare. She was also given her screaming daughter. My aunt walked alongside her as she was wheeled to the hospital entrance, and together they took a cab back to our two bedroom apartment in East Flatbush.
My parents were high school sweethearts, who married young. They were together for 16 years before I was before I was born. My father was a relentless philanderer. However, since my mother thought she couldn’t have kids, she tolerated his infidelity. A few months into her pregnancy, though, she told him that since they would be parents now — he would have to make a choice between being a cad or being a dad. He chose the former and she threw him out about seven weeks before I was born.
My mother quickly arranged for my baptism into the Catholic church and bought a plane ticket to Panama. My grandparents still lived in the small town where she grew up and (and here I’m quoting) “I had to get out of the apartment before I threw you out of a window.” And so, at 21 days I was baptised. At 22 days I was on a plane to Central America. We lived in Panama for four months. I got my ears pierced in my grandparents’ living room by the octogenarian who pierced my mom’s ears and the ears of all the women in my family for the previous 30 years. I don’t remember this, obviously, but the story drives me to rub peroxide on my ears every now and then. Just in case.
We returned home to the two bedroom apartment, a pile of bills, late notices regarding same and an eviction notice. Someday I’ll tell you more about my mother’s irresponsible younger sister and what she did with the money that my mother sent her every month to pay the rent and bills. But today, we’re telling the story of my name.
I was a few months shy of my sixth birthday when I found my official New York State issued birth certificate in my mother’s closet. It had already started to yellow and the two creases, from where it had been folded in three, were now permanent. An oblong form, it contained type written information regarding the particulars of my birth.
I stared at the form. Something was not right.
I confronted my mother immediately.
“This is my birth certificate.”
“What were you doing in my closet?”
Focus, woman. That’s not important!
“It says my name is Stephane!”
“So? That’s your name.”
“But you’ve been writing it Stephanie!”
“Well, they spelled it wrong.”
“But this is my birth certificate! It can’t be wrong. If it says “Stephane,” then THAT’S MY NAME!”
She explained that she had requested an expedited birth certificate, so that I could fly internationally. When she opened the mail from the Department of childbirths, or whatever beaucratic name the agency had for itself at the time, she noticed the error in my name. But we were leaving for Panama the next day, and there was nothing to be done. She called the D.O.C., when we got back and they informed her that the grace period for making changes to the birth certificate was 90 days. After that, there was a $300 fee to correct any mistakes on the birth certificate. She hung up the phone, looked at the pile of bills for extravangances like rent and electricity and decided Stephane was close enough. She would just spell it the regular way and no one would be the wiser.
In fact, my bedroom wall was covered with cards for Stephanie and certificates of achievement from my Day Care Center touting Stephanie’s reading ability. There were programs from Stephanie’s stirring turn as “teapot Number 1” sitting on my dresser. My bracelets and chains were beautifully adorned with gold script letters reading: Stephanie.
They were all lies! A fraud! My present-day self would have cried “racism”! I am NOT Stephanie! I went through the rest of documents in my mother’s closet: a social security card for Stephane. A passport for Stephane. According to the United States government Stephanie Clare did not exist!
“I want to start using my right name.”
And for the second time, my mother simply shrugged and said “Okay. Whatever.”
There are many things I didn’t know when I made this decision. Understandable. I was five. Like, for instance, I didn’t know how about cellophane. I also didn’t know about France. If I had known that for the next thirty years, idiots would be rhyming my name with window pane and strangers would see my resume and assume I was a French man, would I have made another choice? Probably not, but I didn’t know, so it didn’t matter.
I systematically removed all remnants of Stephanie and stubbornly insisted upon my government identity. I became intimately familiar with the following sentences:
“There’s no i. No, not in my last name either. NO EYES ANYWHERE.”
When I was feeling particularly hostile, I would add “Eyes cost money that I don’t have.”
Somewhere around fourth grade I started drawing two vertical lines through the S and a single vertical line through the C.
$tephane ¢lare became the only acceptable alternate spelling to my government name. I now had new jewelry. Awards with the right name on them. Stephane had pictures in the school yearbook. Everything was as it should be.
Unfortunately, my birth certificate also listed my eye color as black. I stared into the mirror’s reflection of my brown eyes for a long time and furrowed my brow.