I was starting to realize I always notice smells. This room smelled of bureaucratic dust and the yeasty, lingeringly angry odor of people standing in line all day, exactly how I imagined the county recorder’s office to smell. We stood right up front, because we made sure to get here just as the building opened. Warned of the epic wait times in Los Angeles municipal buildings, a lifetime of lengthy DMV lines and once, a four-hour wait to apply for SNAP benefits, had prepared us.
I had taken the morning off work and met my future husband here, this beige hub of government business. Paperwork must be filed, names must be changed, and this is where you came to do it. I tried to make the outing romantic and exciting in my mind, taking more care with my appearance than I ordinarily would, but really there was no getting around the blandness of the occasion.
Just a line to wait in, a few forms to fill out.
We were getting married; I would change my name.
I always assumed I would take my future husband’s name. That’s just what you did in my small, conservative world. Only militant feminists kept, or gasp, hyphenated their last names upon marriage. I was not a militant feminist. I fancied myself a sort of friendly feminist, happy to vote and own my own property, but not willing to upset the status quo, which might rob me of my fairy tale ending. I was going to have that wedding, life was going to be fabulous, and no one was going to stop me. That mindset emerges when you are two parts romantic fool and three parts relentless terrier. Goal-oriented, I like to think.
Anyway, that’s just how it was done. I was going to become a person I didn’t know yet. She seemed okay. Nice enough. But I didn’t know her at all. I didn’t trust her.
Natalie DeYoung was still a person I was just getting to know. I had circled her warily for decades, trying to make her into who I wanted her to be. Responsible. Sweet. Successful. Beautiful. Selfless. Married with two-point-five children. Legitimized by those relationships. I would finally know who I was because I was the wife of X and the mother of Y and Z.
Recovering from alcoholism taught me otherwise; to acknowledge myself – the real self, not just the version I’d constructed based on proximity to stronger personalities and other people’s desires. This self was a gnarled web of contradictions I was just learning to fight for, because I finally understood that no one else was going to do it for me.
I wasn’t sure if I liked her. Until I got to know her. Until I started to become her.
Earlier that week, I had sent in my thesis, the culmination of ten years of study, for publishing. Natalie Marie DeYoung, it said on the copyright page. DeYoung, it said on the spine. DeYoung, it would say on my diploma.
I was going to trade her in for someone I didn’t know at all.
Suddenly, standing in that line and staring at the back of my fiancé’s head in that painfully beige municipal building, I felt adrenaline pour through my body like I was Wonder Woman; or better yet, She-Ra, Princess of Power. I had to protect this girl.
I didn’t even know I was going to do it until I stared down the boxes on the marriage license forms.
I wasn’t ready to give up on her yet.