Free Fiction Monday: Name-calling
LizBet wants to accept Van’s marriage proposal, but she can’t say yes until she figures out what to do about her last name. Should she take his? Should she keep hers? Such a simple thing. How come it feels so hard?
“Name-calling,” by bestselling author Kristine Grayson, is free on this website for one week only. The story is also available in ebook here. It is also available in ebook, paperback, and audiobook as part of the five-story collection Geek Romance: Stories of Love Amidst the Oddballs, available here.
Such a simple decision, really, and yet it held her up. She couldn’t say she would marry Van unless she knew what she would do about her name.
LizBet leaned back on the brown leather desk chair and stared out the wall of windows. Her office was in one of the tallest buildings in Portland, not quite on the top floor, but close enough. She could see the Columbia River and beyond to the mountain ranges narrowing into the Willamette Valley. Her desk, shiny oak, still smelled as woodsy as the day she bought it. Van had once teased her that she bought her furniture because it smelled good, not because it looked good.
She doodled on her Palm, the Mac humming on the credenza to her side. Mrs. Van L. Lyndale. Elizabeth Lyndale. Elizabeth Lyndale-Hayes. Mrs. Elizabeth Hayes. Elizabeth Hayes-Lyndale. She drew little hearts over the “I” in her first name, just as she had done in middle school, and made the period after “Mrs.” Into a small flower. Then she sighed and erased it all, and glanced at her brag wall for reassurance.
Her undergraduate degree from Vassar read Elizabeth Hayes, and so did the sign on her desk. She was just beginning to get a reputation, and the reputation came under the name Hayes. If she dropped it, she would have to start all over again.
Van had said he wouldn’t mind if she kept her name, and the statement, in the middle of a romantic dinner at her favorite restaurant near the river, had left her feeling unsettled. Even though she had expected the proposal, she hadn’t thought of the name thing until that moment. And instead of the resounding “yes” she had planned, she had smiled weakly and had asked a chance to think it over.
She put the Palm away and returned to the notes she had been studying for the deposition she had at three.
She would have to decide—and soon.
* * *
LizBet canceled lunch with Van, pleading a heavy caseload, and instead called her sister, Maggie. They met at a coffee shop near LizBet’s office. The shop had rickety tables and alternative music, old signs announcing Grunge Rock concerts, and posters of the Beats that probably dated from the late fifties. At the counter, LizBet ordered a double espresso and a croissant sandwich heavy on the veggies and herbed cream cheese, then took a table near the rain-streaked window to wait for her sister.
Maggie was a dressmaker who lived near Lewis and Clark College in an apartment as funky as the coffee shop. She made a marginal living full of occasional windfalls, and she spent her free time thinking about things. She hadn’t gone to college; she said, at age twenty, that she still had time to review that decision later.
She was fifteen minutes late. She bustled into the shop, raindrops glistening on her red and orange hair. As she hurried to the counter, she waved at LizBet, and while she ordered, she pulled the multicolored tasseled scarf that was supposed to protect her from the rain off her shoulders, and tied it around her waist. Her simple black shirt and skirt suddenly became an ensemble as fresh and personal as LizBet’s suit was corporate.
“I don’t see why this is an issue,” Maggie said as she brought her latte to the table. “Your name is your identity, and you keep it.”
“Lots of women don’t,” LizBet said.
“Professional women do. Look at Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke.”
Maggie waved her hand. “Not because of the name thing.”
“We don’t know that,” LizBet said, knowing she was being unreasonable. “I mean, maybe it started there and little events made it worse and worse.”
The girl behind the counter brought LizBet’s sandwich on a clear glass plate. She also brought a handmade ceramic bowl full of tabouli for Maggie.
“You haven’t said yes yet, have you?” Maggie asked.
Maggie took a spoonful of the tabouli. The scent of vinegar and onions wafted toward LizBet. “Because this is clearly an issue for you and it shouldn’t be. Beta, you’re not twenty-one years old. You need to figure out why you are even considering losing your identity to some man. That’s what our grandmothers did. And once you decide that, then you can see me about making your dress.”
LizBet cut her sandwich into bite-sized pieces. “Van isn’t some man.”
Maggie snorted. “Yeah, right. He’s the one who showed up when the world said, ‘Time to get married.’ Otherwise he’s no different from all the other bozos you’ve been with. You watch. Three years from now, we’ll be sitting at this same table, and you’ll be saying, ‘Mags, what did I ever see in that jerk?’ just like you did about all the guys before.”
“No, Maggie,” LizBet said. “He’s the right one.”
“Uh-huh. That’s why you can’t decide what role to play. If he were Mister Right, you wouldn’t have to play any roles at all.”
* * *
LizBet refused to let herself think about marriage during the staff meetings. She left the office at seven, stopped at Safeway on the way to her apartment, bought ice cream for dinner and rented three movies: The Philadelphia Story, Sleepless in Seattle, and Adam’s Rib. She ate Chocolate Ripple Fudge out of the carton while she watched, bare feet tucked under her sweats, her cat sleeping on the embroidered pillow beside her. She found herself wondering why Spencer Tracy had never left his wife, why Katharine Hepburn never married, and how anyone could divorce Cary Grant. She asked the cat how Nora Ephron, author of Heartburn, could write a romance as sweet as Sleepless in Seattle, and why nothing was as certain in real life. And she wished her mother was alive so she could ask what it was like to spend twenty years as a missus, and still remain even passingly sane.
When the movie fest was over, and the ice cream was gone, she called up Van and asked him to give her three more days.
* * *
“It causes problems,” Zeke said. His jeans were rolled up to his calves and his bare feet were stuck in the sand. LizBet shivered in the cool ocean breeze. Gulls circled overhead, and children ran down to the water’s edge, parents screaming cautions behind them.
She usually didn’t take Saturdays off, but this time she felt she owed herself and Zeke, who had been her best friend since high school, loved the beach at Seaside. He had married his freshman year in college and his wife had kept her own name.
“I mean, we’re constantly explaining to people that we are married and not just living together. And then there’s the decision of what to name the kids. We thought maybe we’d let half of them take her name and half of them take mine—until it wasn’t an issue anymore.” He paused and dug his feet deeper in the sand. His mouth twisted slightly in the non-smile that had become routine whenever children were mentioned. Zeke and Audrey couldn’t have children and they were the only people LizBet know who really, really wanted them. “So it’s not as trivial as Maggie says. Besides, it says a lot about who you are.”
“Who I am?” LizBet brushed a strand of hair from her face.
“Yeah.” Zeke faced the water. “I mean, are you the kind of woman who takes marriage so lightly that you’re not willing to make any changes? I’ve seen a lot of marriages end because the couples are unwilling to do the compromising necessary to live together.”
“You and Audrey have been together over fifteen years.”
He grinned, but still wouldn’t look at her. “Well, then there’s the kind of woman who is so sure of herself and her identity that she allows her husband to spend Saturday afternoon on a beach with another woman. Confidence. Audrey has confidence.”
LizBet’s throat was dry. “Did you talk about her changing her name?”
He shook his head. “We never discussed it.”
“Not at all.”
* * *
“So what does Van think?” Dani asked as she paused before her second serve. The tennis club was nearly empty at 7 a.m. on Sunday mornings, so Dani and LizBet picked that time as theirs. LizBet’s white frou-frou tennis outfit—required wear, just like gym class only upscale—stuck to her back. Tennis was out, which was precisely why they liked it. It meant they had a sport all their own.
“Van?” Lizbet wiped the sweat off her forehead with the back of her wrist brace. “He says he doesn’t mind.”
Dani bounced a green ball against the ground, her first preparation for a serve. “He doesn’t mind?”
“That’s what he said.”
“So nice of him to give you permission.” Dani tossed the ball in the air and hit it with her racquet so hard that the sound echoed in the confined space.
The ball cleared the net and bounced. LizBet swung and barely connected. The ball wobbled crazily before tripping over the top of the net. “He didn’t give me permission,” she said.
“Sure he did. He doesn’t mind. If he didn’t mind, he wouldn’t mention it at all.”
LizBet picked up the ball and tossed it back at Dani. “I think he was trying to reassure me.”
Dani caught the ball with one hand. “I thought you said it wasn’t a problem until he mentioned it.”
LizBet swallowed. “How come all my friends try to put Van in a bad light?”
“We don’t have to,” Dani said, bouncing the ball once before she prepared to serve. “He does it so well himself.”
* * *
LizBet begged off the traditional post-tennis brunch and went back to her apartment. She picked up the phone to call Van, then hung up. She had asked for three days and only used two. And she wasn’t thinking very clearly. Who was she, listening to Dani? Dani had never been married. Dani thought all men were evil and out to get women. Dani believed every woman who screamed sexual harassment and believed that all men were after only one thing. Dani did not believe in shades of gray.
With a sigh, LizBet sank into her scratched pine kitchen chair. But Dani had placed her finger on the very thing that was bothering LizBet. The comment that started the whole inquiry. Her name. Her name, not his.
This time she did pick up the phone and hit the speed dial. Van answered on the second ring.
“How about meeting me for brunch at Capewell’s?” she said, without preamble.
“What about the sisterly morning with Dani?” he said, his emphasis on the word “sisterly” making her wince.
“She beat me soundly. My mind wasn’t on the game.”
“What was it on?” he asked, his voice sinking into a lower register.
“You,” she said, and felt odd as if she were lying. “And changing my name.”
He sucked in air. She frowned. That comment could be taken too many ways. “Does that mean—?”
“Nothing,” she said. “It means I’m still thinking. Look, I’ll get us a reservation for 11 and I’ll meet you there. Oh, and Van, the reservation will be in my name.”
* * *
Capewell’s was a new restaurant on the Columbia River downtown. It had a spectacular view of the bridges crisscrossing the city and of the buildings that made Portland feel like new money. The restaurant was fancy, and it was expensive. She wasn’t sure why she chose it. It always made her feel uncomfortable—and not just because the prices were outrageous. Because, the place felt like a special place, a place she had always expected a man to propose.
LizBet arrived late. Her stomach growled, unused to going so long without food after her weekly tennis match. Van had a table down three small flights of stairs and pressed up against the window. He was nursing a cup of coffee, and had already bunched up the white linen table cloth.
She nodded to the maître d’ and stood on the steps for a moment, just watching Van. He was striking in a forties movie star sort of way. His features were chiseled, his nose aquiline, his skin darkly tan. He had dark black hair, and dreamy blue eyes. When he saw her, he stood.
Old fashioned. Of course, he would give her permission. She had liked old fashioned, she thought, like Cary Grant and Clark Gable. Only the movie star Gable wouldn’t have cared if his wife kept her name, and Grant would have chided her, but in a loving fashion. Hanks, Ephron’s modern sex symbol, would have said nothing at all.
As Van slipped back into his seat, he glanced at her and she saw a new expression on his face: uncertainty.
He was a contractor, and had been since high school. He worked for one of the best in the city. He was a man used to dealing with men, a man whose hands bore the scars of hard labor.
He was as different from her as rain was from sunshine.
“Hello,” she said.
He nodded. Then he set his coffee cup down and put his hands on the seat beside him as if he didn’t know what to do with them. “I was going to order for us, but I thought I’d better wait.”
“Thanks,” she said. This hesitancy didn’t suit him. And she had caused it.
“Look, Beta, I’m sorry—.” He sighed, ran a hand through his thick hair, and glanced out the window. Then he glanced at her. “When I proposed, I didn’t expect this. A hearty yes, maybe or an are you kidding? But not this. Three days of silence, of not knowing how you feel at all. And then your sister calls me and chastises me for trying to make you change your name—”
“Mags called you?”
He nodded, his lips a thin line. His hair, tousled over his tanned forehead, made him look like a three-year-old boy fresh out of school instead of a man who’d been on his own for years. “I didn’t say you should take my name, Beta.”
“I know,” she said. “You just told me it would be okay with you if I kept mine.”
“Isn’t that right? I mean, it’s up to you these days, isn’t it?”
“It is,” she said. “And I’m having trouble deciding.”
“What to call myself.”
His eyes widened for a moment, then he seemed to get his expression under control. “Does that mean…?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know why this bothers me so much. Mags says—well, forget what Mags says. Zeke says it’s all about identity, and Dani says you took the choice away from me by telling me it was okay.”
“And what do you say?” His tone was low. It had a thread of anger in it.
“I say I’ve never been more confused in my life.”
The waiter set down two mimosas, then took their order brusquely as if he could tell from their posture that they needed privacy. LizBet tapped her fingernails against the crystal.
“I mean,” she said without missing a beat, “it’s my dad’s name, not mine, and it was given to him by his dad, and his dad before him, right? And Elizabeth is my mother’s name, and LizBet is what they called me to distinguish me from her, and Beta is my friends’ nickname for me. I wanted people to call me Beth in school, but no one did, except one girl who kept forgetting and calling me Liz which is worse, but really, Van, it’s not like I’m deciding the fate of a nation here. I’m only deciding what to have people call me.”
Van took a sip of the mimosa, grimaced, and set it down. “No,” he said. “You’re deciding how you want people to perceive you.”
LizBet stopped tapping her fingernails. She gripped the glass’s stem as if the crystal’s fragility could give her support. “What?”
He spread his fingers on the bunched linen and stared at them. “I thought about this before asking you. Whether or not a woman like you would want to marry. Your mother didn’t have a career, and Maggie has made certain every man around her knows that she has chosen to live her life alone because she’s afraid that a companion will take it over. Then I thought about how I would feel if you asked me to change my name—” he looked up “—and I considered it, I really did, but my name is all anybody knows me by. Then I remembered how your name is on the door of your office and on the company stationary, and I figured if you married at all you would do it under the same terms as me, and so I asked, in my inept way, and I wanted to reassure you that you don’t have to fend me off with a stick like Maggie does, that it’s okay to be the same woman you are now because you’re the one I fell in love with.”
LizBet drew in her breath. If he hadn’t spoken in so many run-on sentences, she would have thought someone scripted his lines for him. She could almost hear Spencer Tracy (it was a Spencer Tracy speech from a movie like Woman of the Year or Adam’s Rib), still masculine, but confused about the changing roles, willing to play along, but not willing to give up an essential masculine part of himself. And perfect, so perfect. If this were an old movie, she would be in his arms, bunching up the tablecloth herself in her haste to kiss him.
But no cameras were rolling, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t be Katharine Hepburn.
“It’s not you,” LizBet said. She looked down, the sudden realization embarrassing her. “It’s me. I’m like Mags. I don’t think I can be a wife and a person at the same time.”
* * *
The future wasn’t supposed to be like this. She lay back on the warm wood, sweat running down her stomach, her skin already pink even though she had only been in the sauna for a few minutes. Her mother’s generation was supposed to have fought this fight. It was supposed to be easy to be a wife, a mother, and a climber on the corporate ladder. She had a lot of opportunities growing up. Everyone told her she was equal to the boys. She knew she wasn’t going to be her father’s daughter, or her husband’s wife. She would be a person in her own right.
A strong woman.
Who didn’t need a man.
And somehow she had gone from a woman who didn’t need a man to a woman who was afraid to be with one. Afraid that all the magic and promise that she had felt as a little girl would disappear when she said, “I do.”
So simple and yet so hard. It wasn’t as if she could just marry Van now that she made the realization. If anything, the realization made marriage tougher. She would constantly be on guard, constantly vigilant, punishing him for things that had nothing to do with him and everything to do with her past and her perceptions.
Sweat poured down her body. Her throat ached from the dry heat. Her skin was rosy. She hadn’t realized that she could choose something other than the extremes represented by her mother and her sister. She could remain herself.
But only if she had a man who understood the dilemma. A man like Zeke.
Or like Van.
* * *
“I think it’s wrong,” Maggie said, her mouth full of pins. She was kneeling, pinning the hem on LizBet’s white satin dress. She wanted a simple ceremony, she had said to Van, not too traditional. He had insisted that it be dressy and that a few friends be there. I want people to know we’re proud to be together, he said. They need to know that. “He’ll want you to stay home and make babies.”
“Men and women make babies together,” LizBet said. She’d been having this argument with Maggie for two weeks, ever since she had let her know about the wedding. “Besides, neither of us want children.”
“And what about your political career?”
“What political career?”
“The one you would have had if you hadn’t met him.”
LizBet frowned at her reflection in the full length mirror. The white set off her skin, the gathered waist gave the dress a festive feel. Perfect for dancing. Even if Maggie didn’t approve, she was designing a hell of a dress.
“I never wanted a political career,” LizBet said.
“Gave me an excellent education.” She sighed. “Are you almost done?”
“One more pin.” Maggie stuck the pin in the hem then took the remaining pins from her mouth and placed them in her tray. “Well,” she said, leaning back and surveying the dress. “It’s not what Mother would have wanted.”
LizBet grinned. “Mother got married in brocade covered with a thousand tiny seed pearls. Have you seen those pictures? She looked like she was wearing armor.”
“She needed to.”
LizBet crouched down beside her sister. Pins poked her legs. “It’s not a battle, Mags. I’m not trying to vanquish an enemy here. I’m just trying to share a life with another person.”
“He’ll change you,” Maggie said.
“Oh, probably. And I’ll probably change him. That’s normal.” LizBet stood. “Can you unzip me?”
Maggie stood also and took a step back to examine the dress. She scanned LizBet’s length, then reached up for the zipper. “I still think you should wear heels.”
“They hurt my feet.”
“They flatter your legs.”
The zipper let go and the dress’s softness gathered around LizBet’s waist. LizBet caught it so that it wouldn’t slip to the floor. Not white lace and promises, but still a special dress that made her feel pretty. Maggie understood with her art, even if she didn’t understand with her mind.
“Thanks for the dress,” LizBet said.
“You’re welcome,” Maggie said and turned away, but not before LizBet caught the shine of tears in her sister’s gray eyes.
* * *
Maggie gave her away, and Zeke was her maid of honor. They didn’t ask her what changes she would make. Neither did Van. They figured, apparently, that she had already made her decision. And she had.
After the ceremony, the entire wedding party shuffled into the minister’s office. The minister spread the marriage certificate on the desk. LizBet used Van’s pen and more than the usual flourish, signed first her mother’s name, Elizabeth, and then her father’s, Hayes. In parenthesis, she added the name given her by the people she loved the most—Beta—not to indicate that she was second in importance, but to indicate that she was who she had always been and no one else.
She watched as Van signed his name. Then they linked fingers—two strong independent people, facing the future, together.
Copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published as an Amazon Short on Amazon.com in 2005
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2019 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Valuavitaly/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.