My mother once called me Hannah, though she didn’t know it was me.
A future preacher once called me a bribe from Satan as I sat in the front seat of his mid-90s ricer. He was driving me back to the bus stop after fucking me on top of pizza boxes and a pile of unmatched socks while his mom was in the other room, a voyeuristic crucifix judging overhead.
“You tricked me. You deceived me into sleeping with you.” If his knuckles could turn any whiter, the bone would protrude. He glared ahead, his hands twisting around the steering wheel. “You’re not the same girl you once were.”
He was right about that. A girl changes a lot between the ages of six and twenty. For example, I grew tits—small ones, but tits nonetheless. And he wasn’t complaining about them thirty minutes prior—he worshiped them.
“Correct, I have boobs now… And a period… And rent. Also, I can no longer play naked in the woods because I would be institutionalized. With that said, you are far from the boy you once were.” I bit my nails, the click of my teeth colliding punctuated his labored breaths of fury. “If I knew you’d be so pissed off after screwing me, I wouldn’t have come over. I just wanted to hang out and eat pizza and be kids again.”
“You should have been open with me about your virginity. You’re stained and used, unclean.” He wiped his mouth on his sleeve, the same mouth that had awkwardly mouthed my flesh like a roomba. “I’m supposed to be a servant of God, as pure as I can be in His eyes.”
“So—because I’m not a virgin, I’ve made you dirty. But if I were a virgin, it would be fine? How many women have you slept with? I think I’m dirty from you.”
He pulled the car off to the side of the road, the bus stop at least half a mile in the distance, and reached across me to pop up the lock. His hand and forearm gave my chest a wide berth, but his eyes filled in the space.
“Ah, I see we’re stopping prematurely.” I took my time gathering my things—which was just a backpack. Only after adjusting the straps, checking each pocket out of spite, removing my wallet, thumbing my bus card, sliding my wallet back into the main pocket, then the side pocket, deciding on the front Velcro pocket, and checking my reflection by turning the rearview mirror toward me, then feeling around for the door handle though it was right there, and finally exerting enough force to pull and effectively open the door, did I slowly push myself up from the aftermarket bucket seat and leave the car, and leave the future Pastor Nick to his penance.
As I walked toward the bus stop, I prayed too. I prayed that God would forgive him for his manners and scorn of natural instinct and prayed harder that he be sterilized for the sake of his devotion. Amen.
My mirror looks like a child’s papier mâché project, post-its with all of my names scrawled across them, save for a reflective oval for the physical representation of such names – Satan’s Bribe, Whore, Daughter, Little Shit, Goddess, Bitch, to name a few.
When I was born, my mother left me nameless for the first three days, then changed it four times afterwards during my first five years of life until ultimately deciding, or possibly reaching the maximum number of changes, on Hannah. I don’t feel like Hannah. I feel closer to Satan’s Bribe than Hannah. At least Satan’s Bribe is honest from the start, settling in a perceived connotation, a dark tone, suggesting the name’s owner to be seductive or terrifying, whereas Hannah is a “fun palindrome” as mother says, a name forever giddy in connotation, submissive in a schoolgirl way.
I scan each name reliving a memory as I search for the one that I identify with tonight. A different identity to assume perhaps because I feel like a shell, or perhaps it’s safer to safeguard oneself in such a manner. I hover over the fading post-it labeled Beautiful. The sharpied name shaky and uneven.
A boyfriend called me beautiful, his breath hot inside the nautilus of my ear. His words seeped with passion and want as he held my hands over my head with his knees and shoved a sock in my mouth, his fingers clutching my lower jaw. The imprint of his fingertips gave rise to blooming black dahlias. His lips brushed away my tears as a stranger, his friend, arrived and forced his body atop mine, stealing my breath, stealing my skin, stealing my sweat, plucking what wasn’t his. His calloused hands wrapped angrily around my defiant stem, squeezing until I gasped for air, squeezing until my shell crumbled with a pop beneath my flesh, squeezing until I submitted. “You’re so beautiful.”
The stalks of corn hid my body from the scorn of the moon and the prying eyes of the planes and satellites overhead. There wasn’t anything you could have done. You did what you had to make it out alive. I wasn’t convinced.
“But I’m shredded. My soul, my self-perception, my dignity, my trust, my being.” I shrugged on my jacket against the invasive fingers of midnight, shoving my hands deep in the pockets. A banded wad of money conformed to my palm, and I pulled it from my pocket. A whore. A victim. A survivor. “What am I?” The money slid from my hand.
You’re a woman. You’re resilient. You’re a redwood.
“But man has chainsaws…”
But you have roots.
The corn stalks towered over me in the dark like an encroaching audience waiting for my demise or resurrection. I didn’t walk out of perseverance or of fear. I didn’t walk with the intention of moving away from my trauma, or of starting anew. I walked simply because my muscles carried me forward. I walked because my rapists called me beautiful.
A part of me wants to burn that post-it, to shred it, to destroy it in a way that it could never rekindle those feelings of fear, of pain, of shame, of isolation. But instead, I leave it because it is a part of me, an identity forced upon me by two men failing to claim me as their property. I’m not beautiful because they called me beautiful. I’m beautiful because although they crushed me underfoot, over time, I grew back and bloomed once more.
I pull on my navy scrubs with the bleach stain on the sleeve, then pull my hair back into a loose hair tie. Attaching my badge to my breast pocket, my finger brushes the black inked name: Kirk, Hannah—what a stupid name.
My defunct father called me Kirk after he tucked me in bed, patting my shoulder so gently that I may have mistaken him for a phantom. Despite my girlish figure, I was his son—the boy he always wanted, the boy my mother failed to give him. I hid my dolls and sputtered spit-laden car sounds when I heard his heavy footfalls track down the hall. The sequins of my dresses glinted during his workhours, but as the sun set, they were hidden beneath baggy t-shirts and basketball shorts.
“Kirk, you want to help me change out the oil in the car? It’s high time you learned a thing or two under the hood.”
I nodded vigorously.
Father’s face twisted in confusion, the mouth of his fourth beer pressed to his lips. “Pull that long-ass hair out of your face then meet me outside.”
When his form disappeared from my doorway, I scrambled to pull my curls back into a tight ponytail, sliding a ballcap on, donning Kirk.
The truck was rusted out, exhaling and inhaling with every tweak my father made buried within its entrails. It didn’t need an oil change. It needed a new engine. Regardless, I climbed up on the bumper and hung my body over the edge next to father, surveying the machinery, nodding and grunting in tandem. Without a glance, he slid a full beer across the bumper, the bubbles rising eagerly through the gold liquid. His hands remained still until I pressed the bottle to my mouth and tilted my head back. “You’re a good kid, Kirk. Now, lean in here and let me show you how to do this.” I burped into my sleeve then leaned in.
Kelly in orthopedics calls me Han, occasionally Hans when she’s had too much to drink, and Hansy when she wants me to work on her car, but when she sees me tonight, she calls me Hannah, and I immediately know something is wrong. She moves without femininity or masculinity, without grace, without concern for dignity, but rather with the direct assuredness you would want from a surgeon who operates with bone saws under the gentle ambiance of heavy metal.
“I hate that name.”
“Hannah, this is serious.” She doesn’t roll her eyes or touch my face.
Within these walls, we can be nothing more than coworkers for the mental stability of our most delicate patients: bigots. Her hands twitch at her sides, so she shoves them in her pockets where still her knuckles roll. She wants to touch me, comfort me.
“Hannah, your mother was just admitted to the ICU.”
I see her neck recede into valleys as she holds back air, tears, and impulses, her body trembling to react.
My mother calls me Liar, Thief, Conspirator every twenty minutes when I visit her at her apartment. These names fail to break through the barrier of emotional scar tissue. I’ve watched her sink further and further into the dusty dark corners of her own mind, pulling on spiders’ webs for any reflection of light. Occasionally, she crawls out, her fingers buried in the soft skin of her thighs. For 16 minutes, she’s coherent, lucid.
“You need to take my social security card and keep it safe. It’s there in the lock box. I want you to take it now, while I’m thinking about it.” She points with a freshly manicured finger, before quickly returning her hand to her thigh, her fingernails finding their previous indentations next to the slivers of scabs. I’ve already removed all of her important documents, but I do as she says, mimicking the retrieval.
“Mom, while I have you, we need to talk about moving you somewhere where you can have a nurse on call 24/7. I can’t keep dropping everything to come by here because you’re worried. I can’t help you in the way that you need help.” I’m at my breaking point. “And… and I know you’re not going to like me after I say this, but I need your car keys. It’s become too dangerous for you to drive; you’re going to get hurt.”
She reels back astonished, her hands releasing her thighs, thin blood crescents rising to the surface. Her eyes widen with rage. To take a person’s car is equated to removing their freedom, to controlling them, to relinquish them to the clutches of their disease. I anticipated the screaming, the name-calling, the tantrum, but I don’t expect the coffee mug pelted at my back as I walk toward the key rack, or the shove when I reach out for the keys. I stumble, the keys falling from my fingertips to the floor.
“You’re a liar! You’re a thief! Thief! Thief! Help me, someone, please! I’m being robbed!” mother screams out into the small apartment.
She raises her fists to hit me again, but I catch her wrists. “Mother, please, you need to calm down.”
“You’re with them, aren’t you? You’re out to take me for all I’m worth. First my home, then my money, then my identity, and now my car?” Mother spits in my eyes as she pulls her wrists from my grip. “Take the fucking car. I don’t fucking need it, and I sure as hell don’t fucking need you.” Mother bends down to pick up the keys, her bones don’t pop, she doesn’t struggle, her hair isn’t gray, her skin isn’t slack. When she straightens, she holds them for a moment, as if committing them to the scraps of her memory—their jagged edges, their color-coded caps, the cold metal in her palm. When her eyes meet mine, my mother isn’t there. She clutches the keys in her hand and holds them to her chest as she backs away, her stare never wavering. “No, you’re lying,” she says desperately as she slams the door to her bedroom, the small lock clicking within the knob.
I check my watch.
“Mom,” I breathe through the seam of the door. “I have to go get ready for work. We’ll talk about this again tomorrow. We’ll have lunch at your favorite place. The one with the brioche buns and the good-looking bartender.” I heard her breathing just beyond the door, so I take a scrap of paper and scribble a note: I love you mom, then slide it under the door. I press my hand to the door and leave it there a moment, imagining her hand on the other side.
She’s awake in her bed, her ankles crossed beneath the thin white blankets, fingers drumming lightly on her stomach and laughing while watching the television high in the corner, despite the stitched-up lines crossing her face, the shaved spot on her head, and one swollen mulberry eye. Cautiously, I enter her room, where she immediately turns down her television, giving me her full range of attention.
“Aren’t you just the prettiest nurse I’ve ever seen,” she says, glowing through her black laced features.
“What happened out there?” I slide onto the edge of her bed.
“I guess I just couldn’t remember if I needed to go north or south when the highway splits, you know that part. Where one way goes off this direction,” she says shooting her left arm out to the side, “and the other way does this,” she does the same with her right arm, “and I guess I must have hit the barrier because I woke up here. They’re very nice here.” Her eyes flick up to the television.
I take her hand in mine, “I’m really worried about you.”
“I should hope so. But I’m doing just fine for now.” Her eyes fall to my name badge. “Hannah. I love that name. My family is Jewish, so the name Hannah is such a beautiful name for a young lady. It means ‘favored by God.’ And to be favored by God means a young lady is unstoppable, strong, and unbreakable. You know, I always said if I had a daughter, I would name her Hannah. My ex-husband hated that name, but then again, he always wanted a boy.” Her eyes glass over.
“If you had a daughter?” My heart fights its way into my throat where it hammers with pain.
“Unfortunately, my ex-husband and I never had any children. It’s probably one of my greatest regrets. I imagine she would be beautiful and smart and kind,” mother squeezes my hand, “much like you.” She winks.
I swallow hard, “Yes—Ms. Kirk—if she’s anything like you, she would be.”
“Do you think you could do me a favor? I know you’re busy, but will you take my keys and park my car in a handicapped spot. I don’t want to have to go exploring when they let me go. My purse is just over there.” She points to a small rolling table against the far wall, but I look at her for a minute longer, her hand cool in mine.
Only when she looks back to the television do I release her hand and move over to the purse. It’s empty inside, except for a small scrap of paper that reads, I love you mom.
Photo by Isi Parente on Unsplash