The name that stares at her is Winter Autumn Leems. Autumn wants to rip up the certified copy of her birth certificate, as if she could also tear herself up in two. Instead, she holds on to it, inspecting it as if it is an exhibit, additional proof that she was an accident.
It is a week before Christmas. Her college roommate—whose name is confirmed as Penelope—has just left. She is on her way to the airport to catch a flight out of the country to Vancouver, where her family lives.
Autumn sits on the floor against their sofa in their living room, wearing her I’m-my-own-holiday outfit featuring various shades of her favorite color, navy-blue dress, cobalt-blue stockings, baby-blue high-heels, staring at the unfolded document.
Before Penelope left ten minutes before, she told her despondent friend, “You can fix it, Autumn.”
“Don’t call me Autumn. According to this, I’m Winter.”
“I’ll call you on Christmas Winter,” Penelope said, kneeling down to hug her good-bye.
“Say hi to Vancouver for me, oh, and your family too,” Winter said, quite relieved she didn’t let go of the document when Penelope embraced her. If she had, she wouldn’t have let go of her roommate.
Winter would have made her miss her flight, breaking down in tears, begging Penelope to stay with her in their campus apartment. To celebrate Christmas together by watching superhero-themed movies instead of opening gifts. Drink sangria instead of nutmeg-infused egg nog. Listen to old-school hip-hop instead of Christmas carols.
Winter had planned to travel with her roommate to her family’s home in Vancouver for the holidays. She was going to be Penelope’s happy guest, the content, welcomed, lines-clearly-drawn outsider.
Winter, having worked two part-time jobs to support herself through college, saved up money to make the trip to Vancouver, her advance graduation gift to herself as she has never traveled out-of-state, let alone out-of-country. In order to obtain a passport for the first time, she needed to provide a certified copy of her birth certificate. She assumed she couldn’t get the original from either parent soon enough as they were occupied with their second-try-for-happiness families.
She ordered it online, at first a blessing as it saved her time, but now a burden as this document confirms to her what she has always suspected—she was her parents’ technicality, warmly accepted, idly addressed.
Winter is when her parents got engaged. Her mother cried when her father proposed to her outside of a movie theater as snow fell around them. Their engagement was new and shiny like the diamond ring Winter’s father gave her mother. Very shiny. Very disposable.
Their wedding took place during the following spring. They honeymooned during that summer. Autumn was when Winter was conceived. They divorced ten years after Winter was born.
The certified copy of her birth certificate is a reminder of all of this. She finally releases the document, setting it on the coffee table. She grabs her cell phone and calls her mother.
“It’s about time you called. Herman’s sons are here. They’re spending time with their sisters but you’re not. You need to spend more time with your sisters.”
Her sisters Adaeze and Amarachi—her mother’s five-year-old twin daughters with Herman. Adaeze and Amarachi, her half-sisters holding names with magnificent meanings standing on their own, prevailing beyond one season. Winter would have loved for her mother to have given her an Igbo name like her half-sisters, since like her sisters, Winter is also of Igbo heritage. She would have loved to have been given a beautiful name honoring much more than a season featuring a glorious engagement followed by another season featuring an amazing wedding followed by another season featuring a wonderful honeymoon followed by more seasons featuring a flailing and eventually failed marriage.
Her parents made the seasons of autumn and winter symbols of their love. Now that they no longer love each other, what does she now represent to them?
“I don’t understand why you never visit,” her mother continues. “After your graduation, you could live here with us. You are always welcomed.”
Winter hunches her shoulders. “Like a guest.”
“I guess. I guess I should visit more.”
“Yes, you should. Autumn, I have to go–”
“What’s my name?”
“Please tell me what my full name is.”
“Autumn Winter Leems.”
“On this certified copy of my birth certificate, it says ‘Winter Autumn Leems.’”
“Why did you order a copy? Your father has the original.”
“All of my documents say my first name is Autumn.”
“We’ll talk later, Autumn–”
“It’s Winter now,” Winter says and then hangs up. She calls her father.
“Autumn, hey, I’m glad you finally called back. Usually when a baby is born, you call and say congratulations. Especially when the new arrival is your sibling.”
Winter says nothing.
“She’s beautiful. If you change your mind about staying with us, we just replaced the old couch with a brand new sofa in the living room, one that turns into a bed. I thought you didn’t want to stay with us because Winnie turned your room into a nursery for the baby.”
“It’s because your wife is condescending.”
“You didn’t say ‘untrue.’”
He offers no response.
“What is your new daughter’s name?”
“Your sister’s name is Rose.”
“Very nice,” Winter says. “What’s my name?”
“I don’t follow.”
“Would you tell me what my full name is?”
“Autumn Winter Leems.”
“I ordered a copy of my birth certificate. It says my first name is Winter.”
“Why would you order a copy? Your mother has the original.”
Winter breathes in air and holds it.
“She wanted Winter as your first name,” her father asserts. “I fought for Autumn and we stuck with that. Your mother probably put Winter first out of spite and forgot about it.”
Winter exhales. “I have to go to court to change my name to what I originally thought it was.”
“Talk to your mother about that. Anyway, you need to meet your new sister–”
“I hear her crying. You should go,” Winter says, rubbing falling tears on and around her cheeks like face cream with her icy-blue nail-polished fingers. She hangs up.
Winter takes out her laptop and logs into a live chat with a group of artists. She joins the conversation by typing out the question: What is in a name?
One person responds: “It’s who you are.”
Another person writes: “Names don’t mean anything, though many people believe they do.”
The reply that hurts Winter’s eyes is the one where she sees the most truth: “Your name tells the world who you belong with.”
She types thank you and closes the page. She searches online for information about name changes. She thinks about celebrations, the forced ones. Instead of Vancouver, she thinks of a new graduation gift, a new destination. A new celebration.
She grabs her cell phone and records a new voicemail greeting, re-introducing herself with what her new name, first and last, will be. She laughs after she hears herself. She laughs not because she finds her solution funny. She laughs because she knows how applicable her new name will be.
Kem Joy Ukwu’s fiction has appeared in BLACKBERRY: a magazine, PANK, Carve, TINGE, Blue Lake Review, Jabberwock Review, Auburn Avenue and Day One. She served as an Institute Scholar in the Writing from the Margins Institute at Bloomfield College. She currently lives in New Jersey with her husband. More of her work can be found at kemjoyukwu.com.