Names are just what we all agree to call things. They have nothing to do with the intrinsic reality of the objects they name.
I have been thinking about names, actually my name in particular, for about ﬁfteen minutes now. What I should be doing is working on my college application essay. That’s one of three things I have to do this summer. The other two are running between seventy and seventy-ﬁve miles per week, and getting to know my father, whom I just met. I’ve made a training schedule for running, and the essay only needs to be between three and ﬁve hundred words, so those two shouldn’t be that hard.
My father ﬂew me out here to Los Angeles ﬁve days ago. I wouldn’t say that I know him yet.
Anyway, before I get to the essay, I’ve got to ﬁll out the personal information section on these forms: name, gender, ethnic afﬁliation. “Who are you? What are you?”
It’s a very American kind of question, “What are you?” People are always telling you how they are Sicilian, or Polish, one-sixteenth Cherokee. People might hear my last name, and say, “Oh, is that English? Your family is from England?” And I will say, “No, my family is from America.” Because when it was your great-to-the-eighth power grandparents who emigrated here from England I feel like, “Yeah, I’m not really English, okay?”
I guess this doesn’t happen so much in other countries, where they don’t have an Ellis Island to chop off two syllables and six letters from your last name. Imagine this kind of conversation going on in Tokyo:
Japanese Speaker One: Hello, my name is Fumio Watanabe.
Japanese Speaker Two: Water . . . NOB . . . hay? Am I saying that right? What is that? Russian?
Yesterday I visited my dad for the ﬁrst time on the set of his TV show and there was a little confusion at the security booth. I gave my last name, “Prescott,” but the ID tag they had for me said “Franco.” I guess they assumed that I would have my father’s last name. It seems weird that he would have told them I do. Anyway, Mark Franco isn’t even my father’s real name.
My father’s real name is Anthony Boyle. He had to change it when he became an actor because when you do a movie or a television show you have to join the Screen Actors Guild and there was already an Anthony Boyle registered in the union. Two actors can’t have the same name, so my father had to change his. He didn’t make “Franco” up: it’s his mother’s maiden name. She is second-generation Mexican. (His father was “maybe Irish and something else.”) I forgot to ask where he got the “Mark” part.
My father told me that if people ask him what he is, he says he is Italian. His manager told him to do that because being Italian sounds sexy and being half Mexican and half maybe-partly Irish sounds “kind of random.”
If my father had kept his real name, then we—my family—would have made the connection that the guy on television and in movies was my dad. But since he and Sara—that’s my mom—didn’t really know each other that long, well, not really at all really, and Sara didn’t have any pictures of him, and she never watches action movies anyway, and you don’t usually consider that famous people’s names aren’t actually their names, you can see how the whole thing got lost in translation.
Knowing this about my father’s background, I see that I could check off the “Hispanic” box right here on my applications, but that seems shady. I just met my father. It doesn’t seem ethical to try and cash in on his partial ethnicity, and furthermore out him as a not-so-sexy-as-Italian half Mexican. And like I said, I don’t even have his last name, either Boyle or Franco, since he and my mother were never married.
Sara was married once and that is how I have my two sisters, Aurora and Pearl, but after she got divorced she took back her maiden name. This was all before I was born. So all three of us kids have always been Prescotts and when we moved in with Sara’s mother—my Nana—that really worked out because Nana is also a Prescott.
Nana is a Prescott by marriage, but her ancestors have been in America for a long time too. She has a special Bible from the seventeenth century with her maternal family tree written down on the inside covers. I guess it was a good way to keep track of people. And the family Bible they wrote in often became a keepsake kind of thing, something to pass on to your children, especially if you were poor and the only other things you had to leave your children were, like, a calico blanket and a thimble.
I should say that Nana’s family Bible is not a collectible item. It’s held together with masking tape, and there is water damage and ripped pages and stuff. Nana has it stored now in a special acid-free box. Before that, she kept the Bible inside a ziplock bag at the bottom of her nightgown drawer.
One night when I was about nine, I guess, Nana said at dinner, “Well, I suppose after we clear the table, I might show the children the family Bible,” and maybe we all said, “Yay,” or whatever because we had all heard about it but never seen it. Nana brought it down from her room—at that point it was still in a ziplock baggy—and we all sat around and looked at the names of our ancestors.
Daniel Perkins (b. 1657, d. 1709)—Abigail Perkins (b. 1664, d. 1738)
That was the ﬁrst line. The dates might be off by a year or two.
“Abigail Perkins,” Sara told us, “was one of the women who were accused of witchcraft in the Salem trials.”
My sisters Aurora and Pearl sort of oohed at that; so I oohed too even though I hadn’t gotten to the Salem witch trials in school yet.
“Did they hang her?” Aurora asked.
“Oh no,” Nana said. “She had to go to prison for a little while and then they let her go. She was just ﬁne.”
“She must have been terriﬁed,” Pearl said, liking the sound of that. “Absolutely terriﬁed.”
“It’s nothing to worry about,” Nana said. “We don’t really know anything about it.”
“Aunt Nancy did some research on Abigail Perkins,” Sara said. “She thinks Abigail might have confessed and that’s why they let her go.”
“Not that she really was a witch, of course,” Nana said.
“Maybe she was,” Pearl suggested. “Maybe she was the one real witch and gave the one real confession.”
“That’s a very creative idea,” Sara said.
“They weren’t witches,” Aurora announced with authority. “They were probably midwives or healer women.”
“Anyway,” Nana said.
“Let’s read all the names out loud,” Sara suggested. “Everybody can do one line.” So we did that. They ﬁlled the front inside cover of the Bible and continued on the back, right down to the bottom of the page. The handwriting got much clearer, regular cursive mostly toward the end where we got to Nana and her two sisters, and Sara and her two sisters, and then my two sisters and me. Aurora read that one out loud, and we all applauded ourselves.
“I’ll just make some tea,” Nana said, going into the kitchen.
“There are a lot of Emilys.” Pearl leaned over the Bible. “I wish my name was Emily. It’s a million times better than Pearl.”
“You can be anything you like.” This was what Sara always said to Pearl when Pearl complained about her name. “You tell us what you want us to call you, and we will call you that.”
“Everybody had girls,” I said, looking at the names. “Unless they left out the boys’ names?”
“They didn’t leave them out,” Sara said. “There weren’t any boys. Does anybody see another pattern?”
We all leaned in closer.
“There’s always three,” Aurora said. “Three girls. Unless people are missing.”
“No, that’s exactly right,” Sara said. “And only one person in a generation ever had children. See how there’s only one line coming down from every set? Only one of the sisters ever had children, and when she did, it was always three girls.”
“Oh yeah,” Aurora said. “I get it now.”
“Pretty cool, right?”
“Is it supposed to mean something?” I asked.
“Well, what do you think?”
“I think it means something,” Aurora said.
“It means something if you believe it does,” Sara said. “Remember, it’s not, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’ It’s, ‘I’ll see it when I believe it.’ ”
That was when I suddenly thought of the Plinko game. I had played Plinko at the county fair with my sisters that very summer. It’s this game where you are given a ping-pong ball to drop at the top of a wooden board with nails sticking out of it. It’s like a kind of maze. You drop your ball in at the top and it falls down, bouncing left or right depending on which nails it hits, and what angle it hits them on, and eventually your ball falls into a bottom slot. The object of the game is to have your ball land in the WINNING slot in the middle of the bottom, and if you do, you get a prize. You watch other people do it, and you strategize and think, “Okay, I’m going to start my ball at the far left corner, because then it will have to mostly bounce right, and it’ll kind of work itself over to the middle.” But of course strategies like that don’t work when the game is entirely random. You can’t do anything to improve your odds.
So thinking about that, and looking at the names running down the pages of the Bible, it didn’t look to me like a family tree. It looked like a family Plinko game, with girls ricocheting off of girls.
A few years later I did a search on Ancestry.com and found out that those names in the Bible are accurate. None of those women had any boys and there were only three girls to a generation and all of those girls always came from a single member of the previous generation.
It’s hard to say why. Take Nana and her sisters, for example. Her younger sister Eileen is still alive, but she never visits because she breeds Dandie Dinmont terriers and says she can’t ever leave them. She lives in Nebraska, and sends my sisters and me checks for fourteen dollars on our birthdays and at Christmas. “The mystery of Great-Aunt Eileen,” Aurora says, “is not, ‘Why did she never marry and have children?’ but, ‘Why fourteen dollars?’ ” No one has an answer for this. But I guess we can take it that Great-Aunt Eileen’s reproductive interests are pretty much canine.
The other of my grandmother’s sisters, the one my mother was really close to—Great-Aunt Nora—died the year my sister Pearl was born. It is Sara’s belief that Pearl is actually Great-Aunt Nora reincarnated. (Pearl is totally not into this idea and says that it is “an invasion of her free will” and also “gross.”) According to Sara, her aunt Nora was very spiritual and had these amazing psychic powers and through those powers she always knew that she was not “the one” of her generation to have children.
So Nana was the one. Not that she would ever describe herself that way. If you ask her about the whole thing she will just say, “Yes, our family has always run to girls.”
The precise geometry—not to mention redundancy—of how our family has run to girls is not especially mysterious to Nana because it falls into the general mystery category of God’s will, which is also something you will see only when you believe it.
How did it work out for my mother and her sisters? Aunt Nancy didn’t really like children. Our aunt Caroline liked children, but she was married to a really old guy, my uncle Louis, who is almost as old as Nana. Not that old men can’t have children, but I knew that Aunt Caroline had to have her ovaries removed because they had cysts in them and that you needed ovaries for babies. Sara studied the human body when she learned massage therapy, and so she had this great Anatomy Coloring Book, and she would show us all the pictures and explain stuff. I had seen the ovaries. Sara had made them gold. (The testes, on another page, had been colored blue.) Sara left college after two years to get married when she was really young to a guy named Paul. At that point, neither of her younger sisters was married and everybody’s ovaries were intact, so the playing ﬁeld was level. But after a couple of years, Sara got pregnant and had my sister Aurora. By the end of the following year she had my sister Pearl, or, if you will, the reincarnation of Great-aunt Nora.
So that was two girls down, one more to go. Plain sailing for Sara, you would think.
Except that about a year after Pearl was born, Sara’s husband Paul decided to renounce his life in New York City, all his worldly goods (and girls), change his name from Paul to Deepak, and join an ashram in India. Sara, who had met Paul at a yoga retreat in Boulder in 1982, seems to have been generally supportive of all of Paul’s previous renouncements: Judaism, grad school, meat, Paul’s investment-banker brother Barry, shoes with laces. To India, however, I guess she was not prepared to go or not anyway, as the renounced wife of Deepak.
So Sara had no husband and potential father for the third daughter. If she had never known about the three-daughters thing, would she have decided that two children were enough? She did know, though. And she believed she had a destiny. She’s said that.
The actual facts were vague to me up until just a few months ago, but the basic outline is that my mother met my father one day and they spent a magical night together and she got pregnant. They didn’t get married, though, or keep in contact, because they were on very different paths and my father was more like a comet that blazed through my mother’s sky.
So that is how Sara had her three children: Aurora, Pearl, and me: three children born of (the mystically chosen?) one of three daughters who was herself born of the (randomly selected?) daughter of three daughters and on and on. So it seems like, hey, mystic or random, everything happened just as was expected, just as was planned, just as it had happened before, just as it had always been for twelve, and now thirteen, generations. There’s a kind of ﬂow to the whole thing. Or was, anyway. Because just when Sara thought her ping-pong ball was about to go in the winning slot, it bounced off a nail and went left. What are the odds? When Sara’s third child was born, she got what she least expected.
She got a boy.
As you can see at the top of my personal information sheet, my name is Luke.
It’s not like I didn’t know I was expected to be a girl.
“Your name was going to be Leila,” my sisters liked to tell me.
I just didn’t know the extent to which I was expected to be a girl until that day we all looked at the family Bible. My sisters didn’t know either, I guess.
“So, Luke messes the whole thing up,” Pearl had said after Sara pointed out the patterns.
“It’d be perfect if he was a girl,” Pearl said, frowning at the Bible. “Pearl,” Sara said. “I’d like to hear more mindful language from you.”
“Luke was sort of a mistake, I guess,” Pearl shrugged. “Too late now.”
Then Sara and Pearl got into it, and by the time Nana came back with tea Sara had sent Pearl to her room to think about the ways in which words can be hurtful and Aurora had told Pearl that her new name was going to be “Insensitive Jerk” so Aurora got sent to the laundry room to fold sheets and think about how you can defend someone without being hurtful yourself. (Aurora and Pearl shared a room and you couldn’t exile them in there together.) Nana put the Bible back into ziplock and went upstairs.
“Pearl likes playing with words,” Sara told me, once she had some tea and calmed down. “She didn’t mean to be hurtful. You know she adores you.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I don’t think it means anything,” I said, indicating the spot on the table where the Bible had been.
“Then it doesn’t to you,” Sara said. “And that’s perfectly okay.”
On a side note: I’ve done a little research on Abigail Perkins, accused witch of Salem. She’s listed in all of the books on the trials, usually with a little parenthetical statement after her name: (convicted, but not executed). There’s nothing to indicate whether she confessed or not, although they did let people go if they confessed. I also found out that most of the accused weren’t midwives or healers or anything like that. Mostly they were people in the town that no one else liked because they were troublemakers, or argued with their neighbors, or were involved in lawsuits with the parents of the accusers, stuff like that. I actually just read an interesting article suggesting that the hysterical symptoms of the accusers might have been caused by ergot poisoning from the rye bread that was a staple food of Salem.
I don’t know that any of this will make a good essay, though. I know good writing is supposed to be showing, not telling, but for the essay it’s not really about showing or telling. It’s about selling. Selling myself as the possibly gender-confused descendent of a false confessor and victim of rye bread–munching hysterics isn’t going to get me into a good college.
And with that thought, Luke pushes himself away from the desk where he has been typing.
Luke slides back (the chair he’s sitting on has casters) to the desk, scrolls through what he has written, and makes a few grammatical changes. Luke does not consider himself to be a writer, but he has writers in his family. His Nana wrote a series of books for young adults called The Mountjoy Girls. His mother, Sara, is writing a book on alternative healing, and contributes articles to various journals. His aunt Nancy has written a book on Lucrezia de’ Medici. His sister Pearl has had her poetry published. His great-aunt Eileen has written a manual on the proper care and training of Dandie Dinmont terriers.
Luke saves his writing under the title “Notes #1.”
He wonders how accurately he has remembered that evening when they all looked at the Bible. Luke was the star pupil of his AP Biology class and is a subscriber to Scientiﬁc American, so he understands the basic synaptic principle of memory creation, and that the act of memory retrieval will—to some extent—alter the memory being retrieved. Deprived of the exact stimuli that produced a unique neuronal sequence, cells will reconsolidate in a new way, depending on where and what and who Luke is at the time he remembers. Luke’s brain—presupposing there is a “Luke” separate from his “brain”—can only remember a memory of the memory from the last time he remembered the memory.
Example: Luke did not think of the Plinko game while looking at the Bible that night. He constructed the analogy two years later, under totally different circumstances, but it so exactly suited the bouncing helplessness of looking at three hundred years’ worth of girls’ names that it seemed as if he had always made that connection: that he must have thought of the Plinko game at that moment, and forgotten about it, and that he was—two years later—remembering it at last.
But he wasn’t.
Also, Luke didn’t point at the names in Nana’s family Bible and tell Sara, “I don’t think it means anything.” What he said was, “Yeah,” and then, “Can I have a small piece of cake?” Luke was both alarmed and angered by the revelation of his family history. Luke knew Sara was worried about how he felt, along with feeling bad about losing her temper and yelling at Pearl. Luke wanted cake and knew that if he asked for a speciﬁcally small piece, he would get a larger one than if he had not speciﬁed the size. Luke could not stop himself from feeling alarm or anger. He could, however, and did, get dessert.
Luke is on the move now, leaving the bedroom for the kitchen. He does not think of the bedroom as “his” bedroom yet, even though his father introduced it to Luke with: “So this is your room.” For four days, Luke has been moving cautiously about his father’s house, putting anything he uses or touches back very carefully. Luke does not stand in his father’s house and shout, “Who are you? What does this mean? Are we supposed to love each other? Why didn’t you ever want to know me before?” Luke puts magazines down at the same angle he picks them up, ﬂattens them into stacks, and says to himself, “I like keeping things neat too.”
“What’s his house like?” Pearl asked Luke by phone the day after Luke’s arrival in Los Angeles. “Is it really fancy?”
“It’s awesome. But it’s not, like, super huge or anything.” Luke looked around the living room where he was standing.
“Well, describe it,” said Pearl.
“Um . . . it’s really sort of empty.”
“Empty? Like no furniture?”
“No, there’s furniture. But everything is put away inside it. All the stuff. It’s really organized.”
“So it’s impersonal,” Pearl mused. “Cold.”
“Oh no. It’s really nice. No clutter. I’ll take some pictures,” Luke said.
Luke is in the kitchen now, which has all new appliances. He admires the refrigerator particularly, which is full of food in clear containers. His father told him to help himself to anything at all, and so Luke forks broccoli salad into a green rectangular dish. Even the dishes are cool: Japanese style, he thinks. Luke munches broccoli, thinks brieﬂy about sex, which he has never had, and then his jeans pocket rings. It is the new cell phone his father’s assistant, Kati, gave to him. (Kati, who, three seconds before, Luke was imagining sitting naked on top of the kitchen counter.)
There is a text from Luke’s father: Done in 1 hr. C U at home. Evrythng ok? Luke smiles. Mark likes texting. Luke is not used to it because the cell phone plan allotted to him by Sara on his old phone has very limited texting. He likes that Mark texts him about ten times a day, sometimes with information, sometimes with an observation, or a description of what he is doing. Luke types back: Great! See you then. After a moment he changes this to: evrythng cool! C U when.
Luke puts the now empty dish, the fork, and the glass in the dishwasher, closes the door, thinks, takes everything out and washes them by hand over the sink, dries them with a brown dish towel, restacks them in cupboards and drawers.
Luke sees that somehow, in transferring salad from container to bowl, he has left blobs of salad dressing on the marble countertop. Luke grabs a sponge.
Now that he is examining them more closely, Luke thinks that the tiny blobs of dressing look like cells, and the splattered threads of dressing spreading out from the blobs look like the dendrites and axons that extend from a neuron.
Luke separates a dressing axon from a neighboring dressing neuron with the tip of his index ﬁnger. He knows that the axons of neurons do not actually touch other surrounding neurons. There is a space between them, a synaptic cleft. This space is where information is relayed from neuron to neuron. Neurotransmitter molecules move across the tiny space (ﬁve thousand of which would equal the width of a human hair) to neurotransmitter protein receptors. Electrical signals become chemical signals, and are converted back to electrical signals.
Signals, Luke thinks, sponging up the dressing. He thinks of Nana’s family Bible and conceptualizes the names as cells, the lines connecting the names as dendrites, the spaces between the names as synaptic clefts. Signals, he thinks again. Signals being sent. Signals being sent from a mother to a daughter, then another, then another. Electrical signals. Chemical signals. Luke decides now to take his father’s copy of Fitness magazine outside and look at it on the patio.
It had taken Luke awhile to think through the ramiﬁcations of his ancestral history, but once he did it had seemed pretty obvious to him that Sara had sex with his father for the sole purpose of conceiving a third daughter. A Sara in the grips of a mystical idea made more sense to Luke than a Sara who had a random one-night stand. So what happened? Did an embryonic Luke receive signals to become a girl and then ignore them? Refuse in the womb to obey his mother’s electrical and chemical desires to produce a third daughter? Whatever happened, Luke has spent much of his conscious life attempting to correctly read and interpret the signals being sent from one female in his household to another. He is very, very good at it.
Sitting in the California sun, looking at a photograph of a man who appears nearly crazed by his own outsized musculature, and reading an article debating the merits of various protein powders, Luke appreciates the feel of the sun on the tops of his feet, imprecisely imagines sex with Kati (now on all fours with the moon-faced serenity of the Kama Sutra), wonders if he should start drinking protein shakes, thinks about sex again, is slightly disgusted with himself, then not. Luke closes his eyes, visualizes the spaces between the neurons in his brain widening and expanding, no longer synaptic clefts but synaptic seas, with room for swimming, ﬂoating on his back, letting the water cover his ears, hearing his heartbeat underwater. Drifting quietly, knowing for a quick second himself to be himself, forgetting all his names.
Luke cannot quite believe he is where he is, and for a moment he wishes the summer already over: hours running logged, essay written, father known. Questions begin to form, and so Luke opens his eyes and returns to the article about supplements. He wonders what doubling up on his protein intake would do to his body chemistry and if doing so would make him look more like his father, who is extremely muscular.