It happened in a crazy long line for barbecue, which is a pretty good place for subtle, profound things to happen. I had been in Nashville for the weekend, and we were in the thick of the Sunday After Church lunch crowd, and the restaurant we had chosen was noisy and packed and delicious. I was preoccupied with chatting with my friends, worrying we might not get a table, dodging sweaty waiters, and trying not to eat my dessert before I had even paid for it. (I tried REALLY hard.)
And inside the chaos, I just happened to meet the eye of the woman standing in line behind me. We smiled and glanced away before the length of eye contact could move past Polite into Just Plain Creepy (there’s a thin line drawn by Uncomfortable), when in that moment I knew her.
And by the expression on her face, she knew me too.
I put my barbecue nacho dreams on hold and we hugged like old friends, which is exactly what we were.
See, Sarah and I first went to Kindergarten together far from barbecue in Nashville. It had been a year-long string of so many other Firsts that can be collectively remembered in the briefest of flashes: a field trip to the rodeo, the name of my teacher, my best friend Marianne whispering something ticklish in my ear, a haircut bad enough to stay home from school that day, the precociousness of boasting how I already knew cursive, a girl named Sarah getting in trouble for licking her paper to see if the scented marker tasted as good as it smelled.
But then I moved away and across the world and then on and then back; and then Sarah and I were in junior high school together. I remembered her from before, but junior high was awkward enough without admitting how scary efficient my memory was. But one day in German class it leaked out, like everything juicy does, and we talked about being five years old once at the same time and in the same place. Reminiscing is an experience universal, no matter the age, no matter the depth.
Then Sarah-in-the-now turned me toward the man standing between us who was a boy the last time I knew him, the boy who accidentally pulled the fire alarm one morning, and the entire school stood in the middle of downtown Montgomery for surely hours while fire trucks screeched to a halt and hunted all four floors for the flame. And Jared was a hero that morning, a man among a bunch of nerdy, artsy kids, someone with the guts to pull the fire alarm, even if it wasn’t on purpose.
And then Sarah introduced me to the third person in their party, her husband (who I didn’t know before but know now), and she introduced me as “Jessie” just as I shook his hand and said, “I’m Jessica.” And Sarah and I both laughed and corrected each other, because I was only Jessie then, but mostly Jessica now, though usually just at first and rarely to anyone who knows me even a little or at all. I’m still Jessie, or Jess, or Mom to my most beloveds, or a thousand other secret names to my lifelong family, and I caught myself marveling how so much life can fit into versions of the same.
I’ve carried names my whole life, dropping some unfortunate ones in favor of those more fitting. I once thought I was trying them on just to see what stuck. (And let’s be honest, I’m pretty grateful that some didn’t.)
But maybe all this time I was just unfolding and expanding into the ones that were mine all along. And they’re really just language to wrap around a girl who loves words and faith and thoughts and people and laughter and doughnuts. They’re really just a way for me to come when you call.
Sarah probably doesn’t lick paper anymore, and she has a husband and a tattoo now, but the same gorgeous smile. I’ve stopped getting bad haircuts and try not to write in cursive, but whispers still tickle the whole way down my spine.
And it might not matter if you call me Jessica or Jessie or some other shortcut along the way, because I’ll always know who I am, and you’ll always know how to find me.