When I arrived in San Antonio for basic training nearly 16 years ago, I didn’t have a name. Technically, I had one, but nobody there cared what it was. I was called “female,” if I was called anything at all. It was very strange how quickly I became used to my new name: female. It came with a certain ambiguous identity. I had a place, but it was along with all the other female basic recruits. And I didn’t have to settle into that name: female. I didn’t have to put it on, button it up, wear it, truly inhabit it, believe in it, or define it. It already came with a body, and I just had to stay in its shadow. Then, when I graduated basic training, I was recognized in a new way, the name I was born with: Thurman.
The military moves in graduations. We never jump in, head-first, full-bodied into the next phase. We are gingerly allowed to dip a toe, then up to the knee, then wade to the neck into the too shallow tub of individualism. In keeping with the tradition of less individuality is more, my first name was not used by my newly created friends, but I was allowed my surname. Being called by my last name was strange, but not uncharted territory. I played sports for many years, and the military wasn’t so different from the athletic world in the regard of last names. But, my teammates called me by my nickname more often than not: Red. No one calls me Red anymore. Maybe I’ve outgrown it; maybe it’s too strange a name to call a nearly 40-year-old woman. So, what happened to Red? In fact, what happens to any names I’ve carried, but no longer wear? I think there is a Lost and Found.
Before I married so many years ago, my fiancé and I discussed what name I would use–it was a discussion initiated by me. For him, taking on his last name was a foregone conclusion. A done deal. No discussion necessary. I remember trying to talk to him about how nervous it made me to no longer be Thurman after 24 years of being Thurman. Who was this Clemens person? What made her tick? How did she navigate the world? He saw my nerves as rejection. His name was a source of pride for him, and he wanted his wife to wear his name. In love, trusting that I was loved in return, the discussion ended. I acquiesced. Passive. I would no longer wear the name I had worn since birth. I would just put on a new one. Clemens was born.
With slightly less ease than he exerted when he gave me his name, the gift that he was convinced made me more his than not his, he jumped away from me, but left his name behind. And when we divorced, my children, young, strapping Clemens’ boys, were upset at the thought of me shedding the name they had worn since birth. “If you’re not a Clemens, you won’t be our mom anymore!” They are worried. For them, my existence is wrapped up in the name. And, again, I acquiesce, and wear it, a strip on my military uniform, a flourish on my driver’s license.
Just go back, someone suggested. Be Thurman again. If only. But I’m not Thurman anymore; I abandoned her. She was less changed, less formed by names she no longer carries. Will I still fit her? I worry she will not have me back. Thurman died at 24. Can I resurrect her? I’m not Red anymore, either. I didn’t leave Red, but she left me when I turned–what–22 or maybe before? Regardless, I’m too old for cute nicknames, now. And I’m beginning to grow out of my Clemens’ skin. Someone else is filling the clothes of Mrs. Clemens now.
What name will I wear moving forward? When I achieve something, who will get the achievement? Will I still be the same mother to my Clemens’ boys? I don’t know.