Chelli Riddiough, 18
West High School
Teacher: Timothy Storm
Sometimes the name they give you is all wrong. As if they really know who you were, kicking your way out of the womb. As if any purple-faced baby, bald and blurry-eyed, looked different from the one across the hospital’s hall. But they claimed you were special, that your bawls sounded less like suffering and more like singing. And your eyes, they used to say with wonder, were the most splendid shade of bright blue. So your parents called you Jay, like the bird. Like the bird with the obnoxious call that wakes you up at 5:00 a.m. most days of your childhood.
The thing is, when you’re six months old, your eyes turn brown. A lot of human babies, like kittens, are born blue-eyed. Once the melanin branched through your little skull, your eyes deepened to the color of dirt after a storm, Dark, sticky brown, more like a sparrow than a jay. But that would have been a pretty stupid name, too. Your sister got the easy way out. They named her Grace, which wasn’t wrong for her at all. She is ballerina, as graceful as little bird swooping through the air.
When you’re 13 your English teacher makes everyone write a report about their name so you go to the library and check out every book about the North American birds. You pick one up and turn to page 84: the blue jay. Cyanocitta Cristata. You frown as you read the list of characteristics. The blue jay, says the book, is noisy and bold. A scavenger and garbage-eater. A handsome and conspicuous flirt. A common, cruel bully. Everything you’re not.
After you print your report, you look in the mirror. No, not very bird-like. Well, your nose is sort of beakish. But your tan hair, wild and spiraled, looks more like a lion’s mane than the preened feathers of a jay. Look at your square jaw and sharp teeth. You could have been a Leo; you want to tell your parents. But they wouldn’t understand. They don’t know you at all, they just think they do. They don’t know you any better than the day came out of the womb, little hands balled into fists. They owned you, so they named you. Just like all their little goldfish and Barnaby, the dog.
One January morning, your senior year in high school, you’re taking out the trash, and when you open the garbage door, you find a little dead blue jay curled on the floor. Its talons clutch air; its tiny eyes are clenched shut. Its beak is open but no sound comes out. You put your bags of trash in the can, pick up the dead bird, and place it on top of the pile. Then you close the bin, close the garage, walk up to your house, and close the door. You wash your hands in the sink, take a shower, and put on clean clothes. Your name dies that day.
By the time summer rolls around, you’ve changed your name to Leo and moved on Manhattan. New York’s state bird, you note with an ironic smile, is the bluebird. You like the city because it’s a jungle, full of all kinds of animals and all sorts of names. You’re not common there. You get an apartment in a tall building and look out the window. Good, you think. Not a bird in sight.
Your parents and sister stay in the Midwest. They’re afraid to leave their comfortable little nest. You fly back there a couple of times a year before stopping. Life should be like birds, you think. You raise your kids and let them go and fly your separate ways. Just let me go, you want to tell them. But they won’t, you know they won’t. So you let them go.
The phone rings one day, deep into your life as Leo, and you pick it up.
“Hello?” you say.
“Jay?” says the voice. It’s your sister Grace. Your sister with the plain name but the voice so whispery and full of needles that you’d recognize it anywhere, hidden among the calls of hundred birds, or channeled through a telephone receiver eight states away and two years apart.
“Grace,” you say
“Mom and Dad are dead,” she says.
Always plain with her words, Grace was. She never lied; she never pretended to know things she didn’t. She never tried to own you or give you a label. You don’t know what to say so you don’t say anything. You can’t name these emotions, so you don’t try. You would just be calling them by names that aren’t quite right. Your insides feel as cold as a January morning, and your heart starts to feel small and curled up, like a little dead blue jay lying on the floor of a garage.
“Jay?” she asks. “Jay? Are you there?”
Your name rattles empty inside your ears. Of course. Of course you’re Jay, and they knew it all along. You were their son. Who are you to say they didn’t know who you were? In fact, they probably knew you better than you know yourself. When you start to cry, it even sounds like singing.