My friends call me Nia. Since I left college and people started calling me by my legal name, the one my mother chose because her favorite book at the time I was born (so the story goes) was Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, “my friends call me Nia” is what I end up telling them, eventually. Once we get to know each other well enough that having them call me “Antonia,” like a stranger, feels odd.
“Nia” is not a nickname that’s easily explained like Katie or Jenny or Jess. It requires a story, a narrative—where it came from, its genesis. When I started working at real jobs, in offices where I was an employee or freelancer or temp, I had to make a choice: was I going to be in each office long enough to warrant erasing my legal name in favor of the one I’d used my whole life? Explaining made me squirm, like flinging open window into my interior person so strangers could peer around inside.
When I was younger it was easier: my parents called me Nia (KNEE-ya, not NIGH-a, the version the local barista is stuck on; I’m too shy or too nice to correct her) from infancy and it was my second-grade teacher, struggling with pronunciation, who informed me otherwise. “How do you pronounce your middle name?” she asked. “What middle name?” not being aware I had one (it turned out I had two). “This one, after your first name, E-, or is that a U-?” This was before everything in the country had to be typewritten, in semi-rural Montana, and someone had scrawled all my long, difficult names illegibly on the class roster. “My first name is Nia.” Evidently, it wasn’t.
In high school one boyfriend after another fell in love with my first name. They thought they loved me, but it was an image cast by the light of my name, Antonia. We moved around a lot; in school, the unknown quantity, the new kid, is open to interpretation. I learned—Antonia learned—how to fill the shadow boxes created for her. Nia never did. She retreated into books—Narnia and Middle Earth and Xanth and many regions of outer space—and let Antonia do all the work.
It took nearly forty years to grow into my name. When I moved overseas and then started temp work back in the U.S., it was clear that “Nia” was difficult not just for non-English speakers but even for Americans. Aside from the inevitable questioning over this curious moniker, they heard, almost always, something else. I was Nina, Leah, Annie (my husband tells me the problem is that I mumble), which I enjoyed as a sort of armor. As long as a person didn’t call me by my name, I was safe inside myself, invulnerable. When I started to use Antonia, I pronounced it incorrectly, on purpose, because the correct pronunciation seemed too elegant for who I was. It was raising me above myself, a false parvenu. ÁN-to-knee-ya, pronounced like the Willa Cather novel, couldn’t be a person who picked at her cuticles, had too many cavities, slouched. An-TOE-nia did, though. That was me. I smashed my name flat, removed its lyricism and music. My mother gave that name to a baby she thought beautiful, at least for a while. I am not beautiful, I told it. I am dark inside, and messy, a mistake.
I preferred being Nia. She was the name I’d grown up with, which meant that she contained any potential I ever had to be whole, even if I could never find it.
I used to tell people that I didn’t use Antonia because it’s what my mother called me when she was yelling at me, which was true. When all those boyfriends called me Antonia (such a lovely name, so full of enchantment and mystery), I involuntarily cringed, and not just because the girl they were speaking to encompassed a person I did not feel myself to be. My stomach became a nest of squirrels running around and around and around trying to be useful because they—we—weren’t sure what we were in trouble for this time. My mother could, and did, yell about anything. Everything. Every day. She’d yell and call me all sorts of names, none of them mine, until my sense of self became obliterated and I dissolved into a mess of tears and began to embody and believe everything she called me: stupid, selfish, manipulative, nasty.
Growing up, Antonia had taken the abuse outside, while Nia inside hid and read books and whimpered and grew angry, so angry that it took many years for me to stop tearing myself into pieces on the inside because that was the only place for the anger to go. I still, at thirty-eight years old, have to breathe through a daily anxiety attack between three and four in the afternoon because that’s when I had to leave the safe sanctuary of school and come home to whatever nightmarish argument waited for me and my sisters.
My middle names, Evgenia and Louise, have always felt like unnecessary flourishes, especially for someone being raised in the semi-rural West where single-syllable names are handy and manageable. I have the sloppiest signature the DMV has ever seen, but, as I point out, anyone might develop a lazy signature with that many syllables to contend with.
What’s harder are the stories they bear. Louise was my maternal grandmother’s middle name, passed down from generations of her grandmothers. It’s a manageable name; I’ve thought of using it as a pseudonym but would have to build an entire Louise-type personality full of intelligence and humor and self-respect, no broken, tearful childhood. Since I’ve spent so much of my life transforming into versions of myself to please others, that just seems exhausting.
My grandmother’s family were the ones with an inheritance—no money left, but linens, woven with a family name, silver engraved in 1845, two or three pieces of jewelry with diamonds in cuts that no longer exist, the portrait of a governor’s wife from the Louisiana Purchase days. Louise was given to me by a family that collected narratives like damask; it’s almost impossible to keep track of it all, as each generation gets lost in some variety of depression or addiction and passes the stories on to the next, leaving no organization or cohesive sense of family, but a strong impression of how important it all is, the silver, the tablecloths, the portrait, the ancestry.
Evgenia comes from the Russian side, my father’s family, which seems to have an equally manic need to shed stories as my mother’s does to collect them. My father’s parents, along with so many Jews, walked away from the Pale of Settlement, the Ukrainian and Belorussian ghettoes, to build a new Russia after the revolution—more, a new Russian narrative, unburdened by the past. I am named for my father’s cousin, Euzhenie, Zhenya, whom I love dearly and can barely communicate with. He was Yeltsin’s finance minister after the 1992 coup, an economist who thinks the old ways should be swept away once again, who wants free markets, free movement, free will. Evgenia might be an inherited family name, but it’s all about moving towards the future.
My sisters, like a surprising number of my contemporaries, changed their last names when they married. I didn’t. My husband—my fiancé then—and I fought over this. I saw no reason to give up my last name, and no reason why love for him should change that decision. He’d been raised in a whole family, a loving one; he’d always dreamed of being half of a Mr. and Mrs. who would also be whole and loving. I hadn’t. My family was fractured. It was explosive. My mother’s temper blew several times a day, like land mines, and I spent my childhood drawing fragments of myself—a self—around me like a beggar’s garment. It took me decades to become something resembling my name, Antonia Malchik, to inhabit it as a human being instead of allowing it to reflect back what others—my mother, all the boyfriends I’d ever had, all the teachers I had ached to please—wanted to see. I’d fought tooth and nail to become whole, and damned if I was going to break it apart again.
That name, though, Malchik, it was always a tough one. Growing up in Montana in the early eighties, a small town, a Russian father, the Cold War, insular social groups—“milkshake” was the least of the nicknames. Malchik. It means “boy” in Russian, and my father tells me his sister used to get teased mercilessly in their Leningrad schoolyards. That name will die with me, at least for my family. All the children of my generation, a paltry five counting my two sisters and a Russian cousin, are women. The cousin isn’t married and doesn’t want children. The other relative, Zhenya’s daughter, did have a child—also a daughter, who has her father’s name.
I told my future husband that my name was me, and represents a family I want to remain connected to, but the truth is it came from my father, who got it from his father, who got it from his, who was adopted. This name, which I refused to give up for my husband, was grafted onto my bloodline a scant three generations ago. Maybe in keeping it I am only attempting to create a solidity, a history, for myself that doesn’t exist.
Antonia Evgenia Louise. It sounds like a name inherited by a princess. My father used to call me “princess,” I’m not sure why, but it gave me a tether, somehow, in a young life that was defined by fear of my mother’s violence and dark moods, of when I’d wake up in the middle of the night while we were camping in the cold Rockies to find her beating him, or when she yelled at me for washing the tiles around the woodstove when I should have intuited that folding laundry was required. When she used to tell me, a child as young as eight, how selfish I was, how nasty, how manipulative. When she used to pick apart my sense of reality, her ownership of words and their amorphous meanings, of time and its ambiguity, made me desperate for something I knew was real, was true. I was never a princess, or even acted like one, but it was a line, an anchor, to the unspoken knowledge that there was a self in there, a person I might find through that name or in spite of it.
I frequently get called Antonio to my face, and, although I tell people I’m not fussy about what they call me (“Antonia” lends itself to nicknames, like Toni or Tonya or even Ann, and I can always tell what my relationship with a person will be by their desire to choose a name for me that pleases them), Antonio, a man’s name, edges on annoying. Even in an age of fluid gender definition, I am clearly female. It’s not just the skirts or curves or long hair or the fact that two children are always clamoring “Mommy” by my side, but the wary eyes, and the way I hunch my shoulders to de-emphasize my breasts, as do most shy girls who went through puberty.
But I still don’t care that much, and maybe that’s a sign that I still haven’t grown into my name, that I haven’t taken possession of it. Or maybe I’m still trying to protect myself inside, and always will be. Maybe I know who I am but don’t want you to know. Or maybe it’s all just a mouthful.
Or maybe when I put out my hand and tell you my friends call me Nia, I’m lying.