The Nickname Game

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
May/June 2008

Hannah Gottlieb-Graham

Rain and warm mist stick to the windowsills. My face is leaning towards light, pressed against glass. It’s a sun shower. Always such an unnerving thing, as most adults put it. I think we need more of these sun showers in life. It’s too rare a moment to pass up, and it brings such joy.

I am sitting on one of the various window seats that my home-decorator mother insisted on for our house when I was born, the last of seven children. There is one window seat for each of us, with cluttered cubbies and our names underneath. Other than my parents, we kids don’t care whose window seat belongs to whom, and we take whichever is available. I’m currently sitting on Mark’s.

For the past couple of days I’ve been thinking more intently than I’m used to, and less selfishly than my thoughts usually turn out to be. I’m thinking about people, and what I’m missing when I look at them.

*          *          *

I met Loraline at art camp, at the beginning of summer. She came up to me, popped a big bubblegum bubble in my face, and asked, “Are you the new camper?”

“Yes,” I’d answered, a bit shell-shocked, not so much because of what she’d asked, but because of her forwardness, and her appearance: a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, overalls, and wild, dirty-blond hair.

“Of course, you gotta be,” Loraline said, hitting her forehead with her palm, “how many new campers are there! Simonee said one new camper, not plural, more than one. So you’re obviously it.” I was already a bit frazzled, but the sudden mention of a girl with an odd name like Simonee—not Simone—made me even more confused. I asked who Simonee was, and she just laughed.

The Nickname Game sitting by the window

It’s too rare a moment to pass up, and it brings such joy

“Who’s Simonee! Good one, real good one. I’m Loraline. You’ll get used to me blowing bubbles—I use gum for my art projects. I’m very original.”

Now that that was established, I didn’t ask anything else about this mysterious Simonee girl—until I met her. There was such an anticipation to meet the girl who apparently everyone except me knew that I found myself asking, “When will Simonee come to camp?” about every minute of my first day.

“What, are you in love with her or something?!” joked Gabriel, who Loraline had introduced me to as “the calm guy.” Gabe smiled gently beneath his curly brown hair, and he indeed didn’t look like someone who liked arguing. In fact, he was the one who had suggested the idea of creating a clay music box to the camp counselors—a project that we were working on today I was painting mine with waves and mermaids, for the calming ocean. I noticed that Loraline’s was bright pink, and had pictures of ballerinas popping bubbles, and that Gabe’s had faces of smiling people looking straight at you. I wondered what Simonee’s music box would have looked like if she were here.

My second day at camp, Simonee arrived. And ohh, did she arrive in style.

“There she is!” Gabriel pointed out, as she strutted through the doors to the art room. Everything surprised me. First, I overheard that she was fourteen. And I thought / was short! She could pass for an eleven-year-old, honestly The second surprise was that when she entered with her four dalmatians and huge fur coat and mittens (in summertime!), the three camp counselors—Stacey, Joe, and Abigail—cleared a sort of path for her, as did the campers. The four dalmatians barked wildly as Simonee got them to shut up for a few minutes, leading them off to a corner where they obediently stayed put. She shrugged off her heavy fur coat and handed it to Joe, who quickly hung it up.

Just as Simonee was walking over to our art table (I’d figured out by now that Gabriel and Loraline were her friends, and by establishing myself with them, I was too) and I wasn’t ready for more surprises, every single camper minus myself sang out, “Hi, Simoneeeee!”

Simonee ignored the cheers and claps for her and plopped down right next to me.

“Tell me your name,” she commanded.

“Why?” I couldn’t help asking.

“Tell it.”

“Deliah.”

“Deliah,” she repeated, gazing at Loraline for a minute, then at Gabriel. “Hmmm. We’ll have to think up something for you.”

“Think up something for me?”

I was shot a look that had never before been aimed at me: a look that told me right off that I was an ignorant fool with gravy for brains.

Simonee’s answer was simple. “A nickname. Are you mentally challenged?”

“No, she’s just new,” said Loraline, quickly. She was immediately shot The Look of Dumbnosity.

“Newbies always start out mentally challenged. Some, like me and you and Gabriel, get over it, and some…” Simonee looked straight at me “…might not.”

*          *          *

The third and fourth days of camp were a blur of Simonee bossing people around, Loraline constantly popping her bubbles to re-use them for her art projects, and Gabriel acting as the peacemaker, while I sat silent as a mime. On the fifth day, Simonee poked me during collage-making. Loraline, obviously, was looking for pink backgrounds to match her bubblegum scene, Simonee was trying to find cute dog pictures, Gabriel was on a hunt for caramel colors to match his skin in the self-portrait he was making, and I was on the lookout for pictures of children— especially friends. I’d never experienced friendships with kids as different as these three, and I wanted my artwork to reflect upon them in some way.

“Don’t you ever talk?” Simonee asked simply.

“Yes, I do talk. I just haven’t been given much of an opportunity to prove my chatting skills yet. At the right moment, I assure you that I will please you with talk.” Apparently I had answered correctly Loraline blew a bubble and tipped her cowboy hat at me, and Gabriel gave me a thumbs-up. Simonee just smiled slyly, and I felt a sense of triumph for getting her lips to turn upward.

*          *          *

On the sixth day, at snack time, Simonee sat beside me at a picnic table, her bright white feather boa resting statuesquely on her shoulders. She bit into a small cracker with expensive-looking cheese slathered on, and said, “We have started a club of names. The club consists of me and Gabriel and Loraline, and it doesn’t serve much of a purpose, but it’s fun. During summer, we have our nicknames, and in the school year, we’re back to our normal ones.” I don’t think I had yet heard—or imagined hearing—the word fun being uttered out of Simonee’s lips. But it did sound interesting. I wished I could be part of the club.

“So what’s Gabe’s nickname?” I had asked.

“Gabriel.”

“Oh. So what’s his real name?”

Simonee stared at me for a minute—a piercing look, eye-to-eye. “You’ll have to ask him.”

I was shocked. “You mean you don’t know?”

“Of course I know. I just don’t give out that sort of private information.”

Gabriel rolled his eyes. “Julian,” he said. Now that I’d gotten used to his soft smile and rational nature, I couldn’t imagine Gabe having a name as cold-sounding as Julian. I turned to Loraline.

“Jasmine,” she said simply. Now that, I wasn’t prepared for. Loraline, with the somehow distinct but soft southern accent and cowgirl-wear, was a Jasmine? Loraline suited her much better.

The Nickname Game walking away

“Nobody knows what her real name is,” said Loraline, “and I doubt anybody ever will”

“And what’s your real name, Simonee?” I asked, wondering what it was. I couldn’t imagine her anything but Simonee.

Simonee put down her cracker and gazed into my eyes—not giving me The Look or the Too Private for Me to Say stare that I had received just moments earlier—and I saw real fear in her eyes. Without saying anything else, she got up from our picnic table, threw her crackers in the garbage and shrugged off her fur before walking back inside to the building.

“Nobody knows what her real name is,” said Loraline, “and I doubt anybody ever will.”

*          *          *

Simonee’s dalmatians went with her everywhere, like a four-dogged posse. Her favorite, Rootbear, was the only male, and Simonee gave him the most affection possible. She’d scratch behind his ears and pet him and pat his belly and kiss him, and be the Ice Queen to everyone else. But the strange thing was, they didn’t seem to mind.

On the seventh day of camp, the suspense was killing me. I had to ask Loraline.

“Why does everyone let Simonee treat them like dirt?” I questioned, while Simonee lingered in the bathroom.

My three new friends were getting used to my constant questions, and now just rolled their eyes before answering. Loraline blew another bubble and said,

“Her father owns this building.” “And all the other buildings, too,” added Gabriel.

“Other buildings?”

He and Loraline exchanged eye rollings. “The camps. They’re famous summer art camps, scattered around all fifty states,” said Gabriel.

“And her dad’s addicted to art,” stated Loraline. “They’re filthy stinking rich and that’s why she gets away with furs in summer and a bunch of dogs and walking all over people.”

There was a short silence.

“But we all love it,” I said, already understanding. “We love that she treats us like crud.”

“Exactly,” said Gabriel. Loraline popped a bubble that splattered all over her face, and, while wiping it off’, added,

“And we don’t know why.”

*          *          *

My mother, after each day at camp, asked me how it was. My siblings, too, were curious about how I spent my days. I was happy to share, since as the youngest, I’m not used to shining on center stage. At the same time, I didn’t want to reveal too much, because it felt like a secret that had taken me some time to figure out. The nicknames and the rich family and my three new friends, who were different and strange, and that’s what I needed. So I told everyone about the collages and beaded jewelry and pottery and music boxes that I had made. It wasn’t a lie. Just not everything.

In the next four days of camp, I learned about art, and names, and people. I lay awake in bed all night thinking about impressions. Would I have been able to tell that Gabriel’s real name was Julian just by looking at him, before I knew his nickname? What do our names say about who we are as people? They were hard questions. It was a hard world, I was figuring out.

*          *          *

“This is important,” said Gabriel on Tuesday, right as camp was about to end, grabbing my hand and pulling me into the hallway “You’re going to be dubbed.”

“Dubbed?”

Dubbed. It’s a big deal. Huge deal!”

Loraline, at that moment, walked out of the girls’ bathroom and nodded solemnly.

Slowly, carefully, I took my first steps into the World of Nicknames. I had yearned to get a nickname, to be part of the club. And here I was.

“I’m ready for you,” Simonee said abruptly the second I entered the bathroom. I looked behind me and noticed that Gabriel hadn’t followed. I looked quizzically at Loraline.

“He’s like the bouncer,” she explained. “He makes sure that no one else comes in during the ceremony.”

I opened wide my anxious, dark blue eyes and looked at my reflection in the mirror: my brown hair dangled scruffily off my shoulders, my thin lips were pursed shut in anticipation. I wondered if I would feel or look different with my nickname. Just as Simonee was whispering into my ear, I noticed a tiny crack on the mirror. It was like a hole, almost. I thought of this ritual—a small hole where a new name began, and as it becomes more used, like a real name, the hole grows bigger.

It took a few seconds to process the name that I had just heard.

“Excuse me?” I asked, bewildered. “Marshmallow?!”

“Yes,” proclaimed Simonee. “Marshmallow.”

“Marshee for short!” added Loraline.

“We’ve put much thought into your nickname,” Simonee chided, “so take it or leave it.”

“I take it, I take it!” I said quickly “But I don’t understand why I’m Marshmallow.”

“It’s because of the softness of your soul, and how you mean well with everything you do,” Simonee explained. “You are mushy and sweet, yet fiesty like the fire you can be put on. You are Marshmallow.” And so I was.

*          *          *

Camp would end after our art show. Dalmatians and fur coats and overalls and bubblegum and Gabe’s soft eyes would be over until next summer, when I planned to come back. I didn’t want to wait that long to see my friends. But mostly I couldn’t wait to be Marshmallow again.

The day of the art show, I displayed my favorite creations for my family—the music box and collage, which lay on a table in the art room. I felt proud of my work, and glad to have gone to camp.

The Nickname Game box full of imagination

While my siblings and parents admired one of my self-portraits and talked to my counselors while munching at the refreshment table, Loraline, Gabriel, Simonee and I snuck away to the hall.

“I have something important to say,” said Simonee, suddenly looking more emotional than ever. “I’ve never felt like this before,” she continued, “but I’d like to share it. My real name.” None of us had expected this to happen. Ever.

And then the words came out. “My real name is Simonee.” There was a silence like no other that I have experienced before, and it was broken only by the sound of Simonee’s tears. “I didn’t want anyone to get upset with me!” she sobbed. “I’m so… useless. I made up the nicknames because I thought it would be fun to have a new person inside of us. But I’m such a fraud. Please don’t be angry.”

“You don’t need a nickname,” I told her. “Your name suits you perfectly.”

Simonee lifted her eyes and smiled shyly, as if thankful for what I had said. The four of us walked back to the party, where her dalmatians licked us and barked and stole one of Loraline’s cookies. We exchanged e-mail addresses and phone numbers and promised to return to camp next year. Me as Marshmallow, Julian as Gabriel, Jasmine as Loraline, and Simonee as Simonee.

*          *          *

Sun showers are such rare but beautiful things that, now that I think about it, I’m glad they don’t happen every day If they did, their utter remarkableness would be an ordinary, expected rainfall. It reminds me of my secret name. If I were Marshmallow every day, Julian always Gabriel, Jasmine always Loraline, and Simonee the Simonee that she is at camp, life would always be the same. With these nicknames, we are allowed to change our personalities. I’m quite willing to wait for Marshmallow next summer—when my name will last as long as a sun shower.

That’s what makes it special.

The Nickname Game Hannah Gottlieb-Graham

Hannah Gottlieb-Graham,12
Urbana, Illinois

The Nickname Game Nancy Yan

Nancy Yan,13
Louisville, Colorado

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One Comment
 
  1. kathleenhemsey@yahoo.com June 18, 2018 at 12:37 am Reply

    I like Gabe’s real name because my brother is Julian and it’s funny that some people consider the name “Julian” cold-sounding

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