Independent Names

I know the most beautiful names generally contain five letters or less and never more than two syllables. I also know sugar is hygroscopic, meaning it naturally absorbs water; a surefire anodyne for the bacteria that resides in the carmine canons of a wound. Lastly, I know life is best lived through the eyes of collage artists. Straight lines and steady patterns are lacerations, the sum of all injuries time affords us after we’re dried off and named.

I engage in a conversation with a lady friend concerning the mythical resonance of names. It’s summer, possibly Tuesday, probably July. Trapped in the momentary thickness that sweeps in around sunset, we settle on a front porch, the rasps of cicadas bouncing off walls. She’s eight months pregnant and I’m drunk, so it’s her duty to steer the oars. She’s expecting a boy. She summons my opinions. I take a moment to calibrate my tongue on the roof of my mouth, a preventive remedy for slurred speech.

“Asa,” I explain, breathless, succumbing to the thickness, “is Hebrew for healer, so there’s a likelihood he’ll apply sugar to wounds. Milo, on the other hand, is Latin, I think meaning solider—but I’ve also heard it’s Teutonic for merciful. If the better part of human nature presides, I wouldn’t know which way to go.”

“I’ve always liked Alexander.”

“Too many letters. Too many syllables. The impact is vague.”

“I could always shorten it to Alex,” she suggests, her voice softening, her eyes drifting, her mind slipping into some private place. “It would still mean protector, helper, defender of men. I guess some people might just think it’s an abbreviation—something bite-sized, more compact—but they’d be wrong and he’d tell them so. I believe it could stand as an independent name.”

I retrace the trajectory of her gaze. Tears. No words between us, only invisible waves. If I were a sensible man, I would conclude her expression hormonal, a brief melancholy brought about by a critique of favored names. But sensible men walk in straight lines. Their ability to discern diagonals is questionable. For all I know, they’d just assume it’s something in her eye.

The sky is molten now, dripping tangerine, crimson, amethyst, black. The air is a barbiturate. I summon words at random, as I sink into its haze. “Did you know that at birth, in addition to their mother’s voice, infants can recognize their native language?” I ask, belaying her, pulling her back to the present, this evening, this front porch. She takes a breath and laughs to prove she’s somewhere near. “They recognize, you see, but they don’t understand. I’d imagine it’s just a bunch of rhythms to them, a network of sounds, meandering percussion. But just because they don’t understand the words doesn’t mean they don’t find meaning. Maybe by the time they start reciting names like cat, raccoon, fire truck, toilet, what’s truly knowable has already dissolved. It’s a tradeoff. At least I think that’s what I’m trying to say.”

“I thought we were talking about names,” she murmurs, racked across time, preparing for leaves that may never fall. She plummets into a million trusts and suspicions, trying to preconceive an unknown betrayal or the joyful glint of a little smile spraying through the curtains of a future room.

“Well, that’s the trade off—we’re always talking about names. We organize everything—stratify everything, which, at its base level, is just the assignment of names. Once we name it, we exchange it, replace it or disregard it. We forget a name’s true gift isn’t to distinguish tombstones or lunchboxes, just as we forget what we use to sweeten our coffee is a potent alexipharmic. Names rekindle a fire that, at best, can only light halfway. Candles for light bulbs, sugar for penicillin… I forgot what else I was going to say.”

Another halfway smile. Another distant gaze. I now know she knows when we name something, we wrap it up tight, though the string will fail and the foam will falter. She knows of choices made and distances measured within the insular space between a letter and a name. She knows of all the possibilities: something untied, scratched or misplaced. She knows of the remarkable joy hidden inside a shoelace, kneecap or pillowcase. But she also knows no sentence is guaranteed. Paragraphs crumble, chapters decay. It’s only in hindsight that we structure the narrative, that we assess the damage and determine if everything panned out okay. The real magic is hidden in the spaces between words, the tiny indentions, the cave inside the letter a.

The sun sinks, alleviating her distance. “I don’t know,” she whispers, seduced by the abating light. “Besides the touch and the shape, names are all we really have. Perhaps, it’s for the best to discover them at random, based upon the colors they convey. Anyway, I should probably wait until I understand the pigmentation of his eyes. Maybe everything will sort itself out and I can name him Jade.”

 

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