My parents almost named me Georgia.
I’m convinced that if I had grown up a Georgia instead of a Dana, I would have been infinitely more glamorous. Instead being Dana, five foot two with a Buddha belly, wearing leggings and pink Converse high-tops and one of those T-shirt that might lead well-mannered straphangers to give up their seat for me, I would be Georgia, five foot ten and wearing one of those hats with a swoopy brim and high heels. (Yes, the simple fact of a different name would have overcome genetic science and the fact that I really, really hate wearing heels. “That which we call a rose,” my ass.)
As I remember the story, it was my four-year-old sister who liked “Dana” better, which is ridiculous, because if you had asked four-year-old me what I wanted to name my little sister, she would have been named “Vicky Pat Rice” and the swoopy-brimmed hat store wouldn’t have even looked at her. Anyway, I don’t have a little sister, which is probably for the best, and I’m Dana.
More specifically, I’m “Danacass.” One word, not two; sometimes with the inflection on third syllable alone and sometimes on all three equally. (“DanaCASS!” “DANACASS.”) Or I’m “Dacass,” which, yes, if you say it wrong, sounds like a weird reference to anal sex, but it’s really just a relic of when I went to Vassar and my email was firstname.lastname@example.org. Kind of like how in the 40’s, the girls were all Bootsie and Betsy and Bitsy, it was trendy when I was at Vassar to call people by their email names, if you were lucky enough to have one that rolled easily off the tongue (first two letters of your first named followed by your last name, unless you were unlucky enough to have a last name like Wong or Smith, in which case you might have three or four letters appended to the front of your email and you’d never hear about all the trendy events happening that weekend in your dorm).
It makes me nervous to hear my own name. Nobody calls me plain vanilla “Dana” unless something grave and serious is about to happen, like if I’m in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, or I was supposed to send someone a PowerPoint but instead I drank three beers and fell asleep with my shoes on. I’m “Dana” when I’m about to be called on to do something I don’t want to do, like get a Pap smear or give a presentation that I’ve invariably forgotten to rehearse.
Nicknames mean that somebody cares enough about you to give you some special call sign that means that they like you more than your boss or your dentist does. When I was thirteen, my best friend found a new best friend and the surest sign was that they had given each other nicknames and I was still just Dana. My sister called me “Monster,” or “Dollface,” if I was being nice, and my dad called me “Buddy,” but my friends called me “Dana” and so I knew that something was wrong. I might as well have been in class, answering math problems, if they were going to call each other special friend names and I was still and always and only Dana.
It was a source of great pleasure for me when I went to college and I finally got a nickname. It felt like the first time that to a few people on the planet, I was more special than everyone else in the universe. My friends and I thrive on stories: our friendship, now that we don’t see one another that often, is built on a foundation of narrative that we are constantly hashing and rehashing. We’re always jumping to explain to an incurious audience why we use the names we do, and our favorite nicknames are the ones that require ten minutes of backstory to explain: “We call me ‘Shmiggs’ because of the time that I was in my room—oh, and I was always in my room, did I mention that? I was a terrible housemate, they’d have been better off with a plant, it would have been more social—but anyway, I was in my room and there was a cheesecake and…” and ten minutes later, no conclusion has been reached and we’ve gone down into that precious rabbit hole that is the time that we actually got to be friends in real life and not just in our memories and every so often at weddings.
We used to give our love interests nicknames, too. Code names, rather, the only way to gossip when you go to a college small enough that your ex-boyfriend’s roommate’s best friend is definitely sitting next to you at the dining hall talking about how you miss him, but you don’t really miss how his “chill and awesome” iTunes playlist that he always insisted on playing when you had sex. We would spend more time crafting up complex and layered code names like we were little kids playing spies and not almost-grown women who could have been in Sex and the City (minus the city and, except occasionally, the sex). And of course, it was college, so within a week’s time a code name might quickly become an expletive, but even that meant that you, Mister Chill and Awesome, had done something to cement yourself a place in my address book.
I work now at a company where everyone who was there in the first four years or so has a nickname. I missed that cutoff by a year or two and so at work I am Dana, and when I hear it, someone’s about to ask me to do something at six o’clock on a Friday night and it isn’t to join them at happy hour. I react like a golden retriever when I hear my name, and I almost wish that people would append it with some assurance that even though they’re calling me Dana and not “DANACASS” or “Shmiggs” or “Dane” or “Monster” or “Dollface” or “Dacass” or “Daney,” it’s not because they’re mad at me. Like how my high school dance teacher used to say “Can you see me after class? You’re not in trouble” so you wouldn’t spend the next hour and a half wondering if you were about to get expelled for going to Port of Subs during fourth period last week.
I still maintain that I would have been a different person if I had been a Georgia. Can you imagine, though? email@example.com? That’s not the kind of call sign you can respond to with a disco pose, the way I liked to in college when someone called my name from across the room when I came into a party on a Friday night. I wonder if I would have pictured some spunky alterna-verse Dana, envied that girl across the aisle, cozy in leggings and high-tops and drinking cheap wine and staring at her computer with bug eyes, pounding at her keyboard, hopelessly unfashionable but at least she’s carved out some very small, Buddha-shaped place in the universe.