I was 3 years old, I decided I no longer wanted to be myself anymore, and I wrote (with some assistance) my name on a shriveled tangerine from the trees that littered our backyard and buried it in my mother’s cherry tomato garden bed.
I was a red-brick, starter-home, backyard kid smack dab in the middle of Phoenix, Arizona—racing outside anytime my mother threatened to use a hairbrush on my shaggy mane. I was constantly barefoot in the mud, catching lizards, and picking cicada skins off the bark of eucalyptus trees, as a mutt the size of a small pony chased after me.
The dog is important in this story because he's the only boy my father had, so he gets a name, which none of us can agree on. We children (my sister and I) call him Tugg because of his ability to win any tug of war, including one he had with a backyard peach tree in which the peach tree lost. However, my father calls him Barney … because reasons I still don’t understand.
Tugg was supposed to be a fully-grown lab mix according to the animal shelter when we got him, still small enough to sit on my dad’s lap as they watched TV and had a beer. But Tugg was actually a puppy mixed with Alaskan Malamute, and god knows what else, and turned into a 120-pound goober of a dog who wanted, like us, to be outside and wild. It wasn’t uncommon for me to barrel in out of the house through Tugg’s doggy door, much to the consternation of my mother.
I was a storyteller kid—confusing what really happened with make-believe that made me sound much cooler than I was. My parents called it lying when I was inside the house and said things like a mysterious stranger must have broken in through the doggie door and fed the dog all the hotdogs. But outside, in my backyard, I could lie freely about whatever I wanted, and it was a good thing. They’d say, she’s playing pretend and that’s what kids do. It’s healthy. So, I ran back and forth in the backyard slashing at the imaginary time-traveling monsters with lizard faces and cicada armor, the dog chasing after us as we brutally sliced and diced our foes with tangerine tree branches.
The reason I had decided to abandon my name and everything that came with it was that it had become synonymous with bad in my family. The black sheep title was in no way unwarranted. If Harry Potter houses existed back then, I would have been announced a Slytherin before the Sorting Hat touched a hair on my head.
My first word was “no.” My first sentence was: “No, I am not going to do that.” My hobbies included pinching other kids at daycare, cheating at Chutes And Ladders, shaking soda cans and opening them to see if I could hit the ceiling (I had several notable successes), and feigning various illnesses at daycare so the kids I pinched couldn’t exact revenge on me during recess.
When I noticed no one seemed very interested in playing with me anymore, and my parents had learned to predict my schemes, I resorted to waiting until my sister, a few years older than me and already in kindergarten, to go to sleep each night in our shared bedroom. I would crawl in her bed beside her and, once I could tell she was completely passed out and her breaths grew deeper, I would move her lips and make her talk to me. Sleep Sister was an agreeable playmate and always thought my ideas were great—quite the opposite of Conscious Sister, who demanded we did homework instead of playtime, which consisted of adding and subtracting M&Ms, which I wasn’t allowed to eat ... But I did eat them, of course, so I had been booted from Conscious Sister’s playtime.
The most unfortunate issue I had with Sleep Sister is that eventually, at some point in the night, she’d wake up. Usually, it was because the play had become too vigorous—such as I needed her to sit up or raise her hand to ask a question, or I was pretending to be an eye doctor and felt (for authenticity’s sake) the need to pull open her eyelids. When Sleep Sister jolted awake, the jig was instantly up. She’d scream for my mother, and my bad-child branding was only further reinforced.
The solution was to give my sister her own bedroom and leave me to my stuffed animals as companions. But when it came to other human beings, I had burned all of my bridges. Despite attempting many redemptive acts—letting my sister keep all her M&Ms, allowing my hair an every-other-day brushing, not riding the dog like a pony, and not pinching anyone for at least a day—it was clear the shadow I cast had been too dark to ever fully reach the light.
I had to rebrand.
I started with an inward look at the name that was yelled throughout the house in one breathless “KatieJeanTuxfordgetoverhereRIGHTNOW!”
It seemed pretty obvious most of the name had to be scrapped, if not all of it. I came up with an identity removal ritual in the backyard and buried a tangerine with my name on it. If a tangerine tree grew in that spot, I would reclaim my name. Until then, it was time to find someone else to be.
But much like facing a blank page has become a horrifying prospect as an adult writer, I found inventing a brand-new identity incredibly daunting. I had too many questions for my three-year-old brain—where was I from? Did I have superpowers? Could that superpower be teleporting AND flying? But the hardest question was, what would my name be?
Seeing that all this work could still create another black sheep of the family, I opted for the security of rebooting my sister’s identity which had polled extremely well with my parents for the last five years. My sister had an adorably girly name, too, which had clearly been the source of more pitching and workshopping than my own—Annie.
One day, I took it.
I told all of my daycare workers I was now Annie. I only responded to Annie. I was written up for not following directions or listening to my caretakers, but the joke was on all of them—those write-ups were for Katie, and who knows who that chick was anymore? Annie had a clean record!
In one day, I had exhausted the staff, who spent 20 minutes calling me to the front desk to get picked up by my mother. My mother was having none of this name-changing business, and I sulked in the car vowing silently to never respond even remotely to my old name. It might take weeks, or months, or years, but I would prove myself with fortitude. Every time she said my name, I didn’t even offer an arched eyebrow, just bewilderment. Huh? Who could that devil child be? Not me. Only Annies sitting here in the car.
My sister, obviously, was the most upset by this identity theft. Not only did she have to bear the brunt of a little sister eating all her math candy and puppeteering her into friendship at night, but now when she was called to dinner, she had a twin answering, “I’m coming!” in unison with her. She told me to cut it out dozens of times at the dinner table, and when I was sent to my room for not cutting it out, I walked to her room and tucked myself into her bed, as if recreating some plot of a lost Ingmar Bergman film.
It was probably my fault my sister's spirit was somewhat broken by this devastating psychological warfare, and she failed at her skipping test in kindergarten. Receiving the first F of her life, my sister’s golden-child status was shaken—and therefore my own was as well. What? I chose the identity of a person who can’t skip? This was the sure thing I had given up flying/teleporting for?? Surely, this was just the beginning of a spiral of failures for my sister, and I was, without meaning to, about to wind up back to Katie status, if not lower, as an Annie.
For days, my sister sobbed and skipped throughout the backyard, determined that she could become a champion skipper and win the hearts of every American … and thus get her "perfect" status back. She was miles behind my way of thinking, which is that a name once sullied is dead forever. I dropped my Annie persona faster than a Hypercolor shirt changed in the July sun and set my sights on becoming someone new.
I briefly considered going back to Katie, but the tangerine was still softly underground, awaiting the rainy season if anything, at all, was going to happen. Katie was gone for now, according to the rules I made up. And if I didn’t follow my rules, who would?
Annie had been too high of a profile name. I had been too optimistic I could overtake the market … it turned out my parents were pretty okay with the original model. So, I decided instead to look for a niche I could fill instead. I spent days scrutinizing my family members to find what was missing in our lives. We seemed pretty complete, save for the dog, who could use a more constant tug of war companion, and my father, who wished he could sit with someone on the couch while he watched Star Wars and drank beers.
My father was funny and knew catchphrases and how to get everyone talking. He always knew a joke. While in utero, my parents had been assured by our doctor I was going to be a boy based on the old school method of listening to the baby’s heart rate. My dad had been very excited to have some gender balance in the house. However, my slapdash name was an improvisation from Kenneth when I came out very much a girl. He had a joke he always told the grocery clerk, that he wasn’t married and didn’t have kids, and if he did, they’d be two little boys. And everyone would awkwardly laugh because they didn’t get he was trying to make himself the butt of his joke. We all pretended we understood and laughed for him.
It occurred to me that I could fill in for the expected boy that never arrived and there would be no competition. As a 3-year-old, becoming a boy is a relatively simple feat, especially when you can dig through your cousins’ hand-me-downs and find jeans and a Ninja Turtles T-shirt easily. This boy I assumed the identity of, Kenny, got my storyteller treatment and a fully fleshed-out backstory to explain away his long absence from the family … you see, he was accidentally lost in the hospital at birth, shipped with medical supplies to Guam, and befriended a puma and RODE IT BACK TO ARIZONA.
My dad accepted the announcement I was Kenny one morning during cartoons, no questions asked—which sadly made my over-prepared backstory sit out, unused. I didn’t understand then, but now I see his loneliness and my own were both desperate enough to take whatever scraps we could. We watched guy shows like "Cops" and "Unsolved Mysteries," and we would wrestle and play catch, pumping out as much machismo as we could. I’m sure my mom was more than worried about my ongoing identity crisis and the fact that I was responding to Kenny now, but he’d always assure her, “don’t worry, we're just playing pretend.” It wasn’t a lie. We needed it not to be a lie. It’s pretend.
I didn’t really enjoy being the Kenny persona once the initial fun wore off and I found attempting to pee standing up highly overrated and learned dressing my GI Joes in Gem and the Hologram clothes a bit frowned upon in boy-world, but I committed to it enough to humor my Dad while at home. It gets fuzzy in my memory for a bit, but there are two things I know for sure that did happen:
The tangerine never sprouted.
My parents were on their way to divorce.
They would fight and cry and try for a bit longer, but it was coming, and the myriad of reasons took me to adulthood to comprehend. My sister knew, but I couldn’t see it. I just could feel like we were losing something a bit more every day, and it felt like if I figured out the secret combo of being the right person at the right time and knowing the right thing to stay would make it stop.
The idea that love was something that could be taken away was new to me, and counter to everything that had been reassured by my family. But no, it could end, and that thought was terrifying and very real. Watching my mother cry and sleep in our beds at night. Watching my father proceed to have another beer. And if my dad, a long-standing member, and creator, of this family could go, I stood no chance.
I was the bad child.
Despite my reforms and rebranding as of late, I suspected that I hadn’t had enough time to truly escape my past. I began to hope they would fall in love again, that he would come back. Because if he came back, I’d have someone voting to keep me in the family. He was the biggest fan of my Kenny act, he’d definitely vote to keep me in.
And, if he could be loved again, I could be loved again.
One night after their separation, my mother, my sister, and I came home from dinner to find my dad had broken into the house and was drunk on the couch watching TV. I was excited and screamed, “It’s Daddy!” I sat down on the couch with him, I resumed being Kenny, resumed our pretend because it meant we could both stay. And he let me sit on the couch and called me “Buddy” like he always did as my mother had a meltdown.
It never occurred to me that my dad had simply forgotten where he lived, and this wasn’t a heroic act to return to the family. Later, as an adult with a more fully formed brain, I realized that’s exactly what it was and that he must have crawled in through the doggie door, just like I had an infinite number of times, to his former spot because that was at least a place he could picture himself. Outside, it was all just unknown of who he was.
The story above is a true story, or as true as a jumbled-up memory of a three-year-old can be. And it is all of us, as writers, scrambling to be loved—willing ourselves to be someone, anyone to get in the good graces of a reader, a manager, a publisher, an agent.
I can honestly say I don’t spew personal essays of childhood feelings too often, but this I felt I needed to go there—to show you to what extent I tried to be someone else to stay lovable so I can tell you: it’s a futile one. At best, you’ll be useful to someone else’s lie and you’ll know it wasn’t exactly you that they wanted, and at worst, you’ll never convince them of your facsimile—and then you just won’t be anybody at all.
Often we are told to find our voices as artists, and the instinct is to open our eyes wider, look around—compare ourselves to the observed data, hunting for a match out of an infinite combination of possibilities—never being physically able to look inward the same way. Be like this famous writer! Imitate this director! Paint like so and so! But also be unique! But be on brand! Make sure people want you! It can lead us to spin wildly into what-ifs. “Could I be? But if I’m not, what am I?” It's an empty and amnesiac feeling, so much so that the person you truly do not love at all by the end of it is yourself.
Yes, I wasn’t wrong when I learned the harsh lesson as a kid that love in this world does come and go. And sometimes you are powerless to stop it. But love does leave a mark. It makes a trail. You can follow it and revisit it, whenever you need it, and it will light a path leading you to your true voice.
For me, my path of love always starts with the petrichor scent of creosote leaves crushed between my fingers, and I can see the paper boats my sister and I sent down the gutter during monsoon rain (mine collapsed instantly, of course). It’s my family trying their best to get through a hard time and come out the other side better for it in a red-brick house with a dog chasing after my skipping sister as I fight back imaginary hordes of monsters trying to get inside.
There have been a million times I’ve woken up wishing I was a writer with a different background: maybe a life traveling the globe, learning three languages, and heck, maybe an on-the-side modeling career—just for a little fun money.
Brainy, traveled, beautiful.
Sounds hecking good, sign me up.
But none of those things will ever be my voice. My voice is what grew inside me the day I buried a tangerine among the cherry tomato seedlings. And though at times I put on faces and make voices for characters, it is only pretend, and it is only for a little while because I have learned to miss myself.
*Feature Photo: Kay Tuxford and sister, circa 1986