by Dayna Cobarrubias
“I need you to do something for me,” you said as you sat across from me in the locker room. I stared back at you and it was like I was looking into a mirror, the two us in our plaid skirt replicas that were supposed to make us the same as all the other girls. This was your request, your version of a petition, like the ones we recited during school mass. It was unusual, in contrast to your typical directives that started with, “Listen.”
I obliged because that’s what friends are for, especially our kind. We were girls who battled to find our place in hallways gilded in histories that weren’t our own. We bore bright smiles, hoping no one would question whether we belonged.
The day we showed up to St. Martha’s Academy, we expected to be like all the other girls. When we arrived, there were the white girls and then there was us: the others. At first we pretended not to notice. We tried to hide our differences in the pleats of our uniforms, embarrassed by the daily reminders that we could never remain discrete. Things like the kebabs you’d always bring for lunch that you feared would stink up the locker room, our halos of frizz that demanded a flat iron and palmfuls of sticky serum, or my hairy arms that I tried to conceal with long sleeves until the Southern California sun burned through, forcing me to surrender to a razor, and much later in life, a laser. The gravity of all the things that separated us from our classmates bound us to each other.
Even your name was a reminder that our efforts to blend in were splotchy at best, like the foundation we tried to wear two shades too light. I watched you always having to explain it, pronounce it, find a way to make it fit into other people’s mouths. So when you said, “I need you to call me by my new name,” I obliged even though my own tongue resisted. My palate rejected its taste. I was scared you would lose your ability to see yourself through your parents’ eyes. Instead, I wanted to remind you of what they named you, what your name meant in Farsi: precious and beloved. I worried you would forget this is who you were as your name described you. But I understood your cravings more than anybody, like the ones we held as we counted down the minutes until we escaped campus, wasting gas just to order fries through a drive-thru window. Your new American name was so much easier to pronounce, gave you a clean slate, a way to introduce yourself on your own terms without having to explain yourself. Isn’t that what we all wanted anyway? To define ourselves?
You saw the concern in my eyes, my hesitation. I didn’t want you to get lost in translation.
“It was cheaper this way,” you assured me as you tried to convince yourself. Unlike you, I had lost my language generations before I was born. Spanish was like devil-talk my ancestors learned to slough off their tongues. When I was born, all I was given was a boring name that made up for my ethnic looks. You still had a name and a language that you could claim. I envied you for this — and now you were going to give it away.
You told me that becoming a citizen and a name change went hand in hand. A two-for-one deal. The woman who administered your test gave you this tip. She is the only reason you passed. Using her long acrylics that reminded you of death and coffins, she tapped on her desk in the sterile government building, some form of morse code to indicate the correct answer when you took too long to respond to a question. She made up hints to throw your way just so you could earn the right to be claimed by the government. What type of athlete is Muhammad Ali? Boxer, Barbara Boxer. That’s who your senator was. You didn’t even want to take this test in the first place, you reminded me. Your mom was the one who made you. You didn’t need to take some test to prove what you already felt — American. “You don’t understand,” you told me. “You’re already from here.”
“But then why does everyone keep asking me where I’m from?” I protested. Sometimes when we were together, people confused us for kin. I didn’t mind. I was always mistaken for being from anywhere but where I was from, America.
We were once tethered by the long, braided list of what separated them from us — or rather, us from them. You wanted to let go. I still clung to the past, trapped in a time capsule filled with memories of the times we revealed where our hearts were bashed in by all the people we could never please: our parents, our boyfriends, our classmates, ourselves. Times when we let each other touch the wounds in our sides that oozed like honey, being sure to conceal them when our classmates passed us in the locker room. At some point between freshman year and graduation, though, you released our rope. We were once sharp and pointy together and you decided you no longer wanted to be dangerous. After all, if you became American, you could no longer be a threat. You hopped the fence to the promised land not caring if the barbs sliced your shins so long as you made it.
After your name change, you convinced us all, even the white girls, that you were one of them — maybe even better. Your carefree jaunt across campus, the Catholic school girl look you mastered since you started wearing loafers. You perfected your California girl accent, elongated words with vowels that dripped from your mouth like condensation from the can of diet Pepsi you drank with your legs sprawled out. You said you were inspired by that Cindy Crawford commercial.
I wanted to know what happened to your old name, if you buried it under your bed with the glass pipe the color of Pacific Ocean waves and foam marbled together, the one we used when we first learned to “smoke out.” If it was next to the box of epic love letters we spent hours crafting, full of lyrics from The Smiths, Depeche Mode, and The Cure, the soundtrack of depressed freshmen transcribed and sent to boys in coats and navy-striped ties. I wondered if you would ever pull your old name out again. Dust it off, smile and think to yourself, remember when...
We prepared ourselves to graduate and I wondered who we had become, you with your new name, me still craving your old one, nostalgic for the version of you that once provided me refuge. You, ready to create your future, me, still trying to unearth my roots. I wondered if you still needed me, if we were still friends. New year, new name, new you. I wondered if you wanted to dig me a grave under your bed, next to the one where you laid your old name — one I could crawl into just to remember you.
Dayna Cobarrubias is a third generation Angelena whose writing explores the role race, ethnicity, and class play for Latinx diasporic communities when they are generations removed from the immigrant experience. Themes of racial and cultural ambivalence, authenticity, and assimilation permeate her work. She is an alumna of Voices of Our Nation (VONA) Summer Workshop, Tin House Summer Workshop, and a graduate of Stanford University. Dayna is currently completing her first novel which explores the adolescent identity politics of a privileged Chicana in prep school.
Featured artwork created by Meg Sykes in response to Dayna’s flash piece.