I know it was just a personalized pencil, but that stupid specimen of well-dressed graphite ended up being foreshadowing for the rest of my life.
It was red and sharp and perfect with the name Jennifer etched neatly into the side and I couldn’t have one because my name sounded like a sneeze. There were customized pencils for the Ashleys and the Brittanys and the Bobbys and the Lisas but there was no such thing for me, the Cézanne.
My mother assured me that it was because I was “special”, and I was. So special, in fact, that I wasn’t worth the production costs to manufacture pencils with my name on them. It doesn’t get much more special than that.
My paternal grandmother had the audacity not only to appoint herself head of the baby-naming committee of my parents’ first child but to then name me after a creepy-looking French Post-Impressionist painter. Art history is about as dead as Latin, however, as no one’s eyes ever light up with nostalgia for slide shows, dates and still life when they hear my name. Instead, I’m always met with confusion.
On the first day of school, without fail, I always knew when the teacher had reached my name when taking attendance because he or she would pause and inhale theatrically, as if I and my weird name should know that it was my cue to step in and interrupt the impending butchering. Sometimes, they’d skip it entirely and just go for my last name, like I was at basketball practice. Other times, they’d slowly try to sound it out with the hope that I would finish for them and we could all move past the excruciating exercise. However, more often than not, they’d ask me if I had a nickname.
“No,” I would reply. “It’s just Cézanne.”
They’d stare at me, disappointed, and ask me to repeat it. “Say-zaughn,” I’d say again, careful to enunciate two of the most apparently complex syllables in the world slowly while they scribbled the phonetic spelling on their attendance sheets.
“Oookay, Says-anne,” they’d say triumphantly. Wrong. Then they’d move on and ask cheerfully, “Is Rachel here?” The two Rachels of the class, already besties by popular baby naming fate, would then look at each other, giggle and ask, “Which one?”
I would have given anything to be a third Rachel. The time had come for a nickname.
It was then that I reinvented myself as Cezie (rhymes with pezzy, or lezzy, as my classmates soon discovered). A few years later, I started going by Cici, an inappropriately peppy twist on my first and last name initials, and it was with this name that I finally fit in. No one raised any eyebrows when they met me. No one stumbled over the pronunciation when they needed to address me by name. I was just another dopey face in the crowd.
For a long time, I loved it. I loved feeling “normal”.
Although I’d conditioned myself to respond to basically anything at this point and I liked that my name was no longer a source of anxiety, something weird happened: I started to miss being Cézanne, pretentious accent mark and all. I missed being me.
So I went back to using my real name. And you know what? It’s okay that there aren’t pre-made pencils awaiting my purchase and that I don’t respond to the first call in doctor’s waiting rooms because I don’t know who Susan is. It’s okay that I have to repeat myself a few times when I meet someone and subsequently cringe the first few times they try to say it. It’s okay that some people smirk and say, “That’s different” or “That’s weird” or even laugh uncomfortably in response to my name. It’s okay that I’ve accidentally overheard people say, “But that isn’t even a real name!” about me when they think I’m out of earshot. It’s okay because it’s my name and I like it. You don’t have to.
Plus, it just isn’t a a trip to Jamba Juice without seeing a Peach Pleasure pushed onto the pick-up counter and hearing a hesitant voice call out, “… Season?”