Sometimes living with the name you are given, first name or family name, is not easy. There are names that are difficult to pronounce, names that are ‘weighty’, names that tag you as foreign. Mine, both of mine, were all three. What in the world is a little girl born in the United States to do with a name like Brianda when everyone around her is called Sue or Jane or Ann or Wendy? During roll call it could sound something like Brai -(long ‘i’)- Yanda, Braiyanda. Friends took to calling me Bri (pronounced like brie cheese) which made my father furious.
“I didn’t give you a beautiful name to have it massacred” he snorted, and I asked my friends to stop calling me that. There are moments in life when Fathers are more important even than your best friend. After that “Bri” was not an option.
We moved to Mexico and, although I never met anyone else with the same name, at least most people pronounced it correctly when they addressed me. Then, when I went away to boarding school in the States, first names were dropped completely and I became “Dome” (short for Domecq, but also an allusion to my rather large schnozzola ) while others of my friends were called “Mule” (for Möeller, but also because she was taller than any of us), “Hen or Hendey-lard” (she was plump) and “Stu” (for Stuart). For a while it was great just being one of the crowd and not standing out because of a name.
After a year at college in New York, I decided to move back home to Mexico and try to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and that was when I discovered that I had a “weighty” last name. Somewhere in between Bri and Dome, my father had managed to become an important and well respected business man and I began to think that having his last name would open doors even for a young upstart such as me. I remember one very special occasion, when I was all of fourteen, where I used it to show off and one-up my possible competition in the arena of love. It was the older cousin of my boyfriend (at the time). She came from Texas and was visiting with her aunt and uncle. From where I stood with my nose too big, my hair too blond (almost albino), my waist non-existent and the pimples on my chin she looked like a young version of Elizabeth Taylor. She wore make-up, high heels and skirts so tight they dipped under her bum which was –mine considered- divine. I hated her, and Freddy, my boyfriend, absolutely drooled whenever she was around which was always, because now he couldn’t do anything without including his cousin. So I decided to one-up the hussy and put her in her place. I had a plan.
Using my last name and identifying myself as my father’s daughter, I called his favorite restaurant and made a reservation for three for lunch. I then persuaded my best friend to come with me so I would have support. When I invited –shall we call her ET… for Elizabeth Taylor, of course- she immediately accepted. Then I took my recent savings out of the bank and emptied my piggy down to the last cent just for good measure. I didn’t expect my best friend’s lunch and mine to cost that much and naturally supposed that ET would pay for her own; after all she was at least two years my senior.
The day of the lunch, I dressed as best I could but, of course, I didn’t even own a pair of high heels, much less a body suit in the form of a tight skirt. So I had to make do with moccasins, bobby socks (the thick white kind that you rolled over at the top; I’m talking 1950’s), a wide skirt and about 8 crinolines to make sure it stood out all around. My friend and I took a bus to the restaurant and waited at the door for ET’s arrival. She was fashionably late which meant we had been standing on the curb for half an hour when she finally descended from a cab and joined us.
Over the phone I had definitely given the man who answered instructions to reserve us the best table in the place and presumed that my father’s name was enough to assure that. Much to my surprise and chagrin, the head waiter couldn’t even find our reservation (from my childish voice they must have thought it was a practical joke) and they ended up sitting us at a back table right in front of a mirror that allowed me to compare myself to the elegantly dressed ET at every turn of my head.
One glance at the menu told me I was in for trouble. Only if we ordered the very least expensive dishes would my scanty savings be enough. I tried to catch my friend’s eye to forewarn her, but she was deep in conversation with the enemy. They had found a mutual interest: horses and my friend had apparently forgotten that we were here to squash the horrid creature and was actually acting as if she were best friends with her and not me. Suddenly the panic began knotting up my stomach: things were not going as planned.
To make a long story, short: ET ordered the most expensive dish on the menu and my friend followed suit. I picked the least expensive appetizer insisting that I was really not hungry. By that time, I had obviously lost my appetite. When the meal was over, ET and my friend kept on chatting as if they had nothing better to do in the world, and I was left with the horrifying responsibility of asking for the bill. When it came, they ignored it as if it had nothing to do with them. I was caught, as the saying goes, between a rock and a hard place, and I could only wish it were high enough to jump off and disappear. The total was quite a bit over what I had in my wallet so in order to cover it I would have to resort to the piggy’s coins; on the other hand, there would be absolutely no one-upping in asking the enemy to pay her own way and I was not ready to voluntarily humiliate myself in front of her. To make things worse, the waiter stood ominously beside my chair as if suspecting we might be short of cash and try to make a run for it.
Hoping no one would notice, I extracted the plastic bag full of loose change and placed it in my lap but there was no way of counting it like that, so I plopped it on the table. ET and my friend immediately stopped talking and looked directly at the plastic bag. If shame has a name it was mine at that moment, but with only 14 years to my credit and no savoir faire there nothing else occurred to me but to count out the coins without looking up so as to avoid seeing if there was a smirk on ET’s face. The third count finally produced the right amount and I piled the coins noisily on top of the bills (there was definitely nothing left over for a tip), managed to say “Let’s go” before turning and practically running out of the restaurant.
Needless to say, I learned from that day that my father’s last name was not mine, and if I used it to open doors, I had better have the way-with-all to pay for the responsibilities it also entailed. It continued to be a heavy name to carry and with time I learned that many people were interested in me only because of whose daughter I was. My discomfort grew as the name itself grew so when I fell in love and married a young man whose last name was among the most common in the Spanish speaking world I was more than delighted to switch over and lose my father’s identity.
But identities are sticky things and it seems that no matter how hard one tries to lose them, they keep bouncing back or being handed back by others. As I stopped using my father’s last name, my husband picked it up to insure we always got the best tables at restaurants and night clubs. And soon, even though wanting the anonymity of my married name, I realized that there were advantages to being Domecq, at least on the social front. So when I began writing, I went back to using my maiden name knowing that I was more likely to stand out and be read that way. By the time my first short story was published, I was using my maiden name on everything but my checks. Obviously, as an aspiring writer, the last thing I wanted was anonymity.
Once again, the price of a weighty identity was to catch up with me, for in getting myself known not as a writer but as my father’s daughter, I also got myself targeted as a kidnap victim. However, nothing is ever all bad and the experience of being kidnapped gave me the material for my first novel. This was important in learning about how to take advantage of the positive things in my identity instead of trying to get rid of it. So I more or less trundled through life with an outstanding first name and a weighty last one until things began to change.
That life should eventually manage to have my first name become a household word was not in my plans (unless, of course it was because my books were best sellers), so imagine my surprise when a friend called to tell me that a well known Mexican actress, Daniela Romo, had just appeared in a television soap opera bearing the name of Brianda Portugal. I was horrified. It was like being plagiarized: my identity had been stolen. For a while I couldn’t believe it and every time someone mentioned the fact that my name, which up to that moment only I was in possession of as far as I knew, was being flaunted daily on a national channel, I would get furious. When the soap opera folded after 15 chapters, I was delighted and hoped that the memory of the protagonist would be wiped from the annals of television history.
If it was because that did not happen, or because so many people read and liked my book that they named their daughters after me, or because there were really more Brianda’s out there than either my father or I imagined, I will never know. But my name has definitely stopped being out of the ordinary as I ascertained the other day typing it into the search machine of Facebook: 500 of us at least popped up, so my identity, at one time so definite and unmistakable has been immensely diluted.
What’s more, had I entertained at any moment the thought that at least I would be saved by my last name, I would have been mistaken. Fortunately identity is something I have little use for anymore, so upon arriving in Salies and discovering that there are Domecqs all over the place, that if I order something in a store, I must also use my first name because there are at least 15 other Domecqs all ordering things from the same store, that everyone would know automatically how to spell Domecq with the “cq” in place because every other last name and town name has that same ending, that there would be multiple variations such as Domercq and Dumecq, I have felt nothing but absolute joy. I am finally just one of the crowd, one more indistinguishable human being with a name like everyone else’s name. I am just me, and, thank goodness, most of the time not even that.