There is a waiter at a Waffle House in South Florida who calls himself the Lone Timber Wolf. Follow him outside, 3 AM on his smoke break. He’ll sit there, this big middle-age, middle-race man, with the street lights glinting off his eyes– red, green, red, green, like some kind of Loki. And he’ll tell you how in a woods far away he stumbled into himself, into his Seminole heritage and the wildness he recognizes in himself. And, you, too, will recognize it.
I believe in the ability to chose our own names. Or, rather, to discover them. When my father was five years old, his father died. My father took the name of his stepfather as soon as his mother remarried. He didn’t get along well with the man. He told me he did it because it was a small town, did it because to have a different name might have brought scandal to his mother, who he loved very much.
My father was the one who wanted to name me Rikki. Only, he was out rug shopping when I was born. And for reasons she never fully explained, my mother wrote “Erika,” on the birth certificate.
Yet my parents both called me “Rik.” They cut my hair short as a boy’s. And maybe that’s why I always was more impressed with bugs than barbies, why I spent my time in the woods and not the kitchen. I was only distantly aware I had a different, more legal name until I went to junior high and began to find myself in a clumsy woman’s body.
The teachers didn’t know my name. During role call, they would always pause to let you correct their pronunciation. I remember bracing myself to say “Rikki.” The girl before me told the teacher her name wasn’t Elizabeth– it was “no no bad dog.”
And I got all hot with shame and embarrassed. I felt absurd. And I didn’t speak up when they called “Erika.”
Erika came to represent everything I hated about being female. It made me feel weak, made me too aware of the cheap talk of having blond hair and big blue eyes. People began to define me by my gender, and I let them.
It took me almost a decade to fully understand myself as Rikki. To reclaim myself as a person who is more than their sex. To reconcile the tomboy and young woman and the hundred scars on my legs from roaming the woods. Somewhere between it all, in a forest in Michigan, I found myself and came to believe in my names– the one my father gave us to honor his mother, and the one I have come to accept. I carry my names with as much pride as the Timber Wolf. I hope someday to see him again, stuck in the city but full off a wildness and pride that transcends the pettiness of societal conventions and shames.
This I believe: my name is Rikki.
What is yours?