What if today I announced to my children that from now on I would call them different names? The younger one would be Helen, and the older one would be, say, Hazel. They would now be sisters with the same first initial, more matchy-matchy, I would tell them. Beautiful new names for beautiful children, I would say.
Of course, being nine and eleven, they would reject this notion. They would cry and say they don’t understand. I would assure them this is how it must be, that their old names were temporary, stand-ins for their real ones. I had already taken care of the paperwork. I would love them just as much. Nothing else would change.
Helen and Hazel would grow older, and see each other a few times a year, sometimes with a partner, sometimes on their own. One of them would have a job that requires travel, and the other would share a house with three friends and two dogs. One would fracture her ankle skiing, and the other would research home remedies. One would host Thanksgiving, and the other would be a vegetarian for five years until one night after a comedy show she’d try a bite of her friend’s hamburger and decide to eat meat again, “just once a week, not even.” Helen and Hazel would be very different from one another, and would joke that they might not be friends if they weren’t sisters. One would give the other a photo of the two of them on a hiking trail, taken by a stranger. The frame would have been ordered online. It would be made of wood and the engraving would say, Best Friends.
Sometimes, on the phone, or at a café that serves hot chocolate with pink marshmallows and tiny spoons, Helen and Hazel would talk about their childhood, about the time one of them burned her hand making quesadillas, or the time one of them got stuck in a tree. They’d wonder what happened to old friends, and that doll, the one with the fabric belly and the little black boots that always went missing. They’d talk about the birthday party with the boy who wouldn’t stop crying and The Night Of The Big Fight. They’d remember sparklers, baking soda volcanoes, periods, school exams, scary movies, and flashlights under sheets. One of them would ask, “What was that teacher’s name?” and the other would erupt into a fit of giggles, “Mr. Langley! Mr. Langley!”
Sometimes, usually preceded by a pause in the conversation, one of them would bring up the name change. Why do you think Mom did that? Who does that? Helen and Hazel would talk about their old names, remember learning to spell them, and recall magnetic letters and laminated placemats. They would wonder how their lives would be different with their old names, or what else might have been taken from them. Saying their old names aloud, they would feel naughty and exhilarated. They would feel like they were talking about other people, two girls that used to exist but no longer do.