The Name Game
“Hi, I’m Rochelle.”
“No, Ro, Rochelle. With an R.”
“Yeah, yep. That’s it.”
This is how the conversation usually goes when I introduce myself to people. Even if I’m wearing a name tag, it makes no difference. When my sister began talking, she couldn’t say my name at all, so she called me Ro-Ro. Like row, row, row your boat. Every time she said my name, someone sang. My mom, dad, aunt, uncle, even our neighbor, Mr. Ed – they all had the same response to baby Shawna repeating “roro” over and over. My last name seems to give people even more trouble than my first, so when asked for it, at the doctor or when picking up an order I had placed for an ice cream cake, I usually just spell it out rather than struggling with explaining the difference between a hard and soft “g.” G as in girl, E as in excruciating, R as in really, M as in moron, O as in over, N as in numbnut, D as in dumb.
Starbucks is a big hurdle for me. Not the ordering part. I’ve got the iced venti non-fat double pump vanilla latte no whip extra foam thing down. It’s when I have to give the barista my name for the cup that’s the problem. Because when I say Rochelle and they look at me like I’m speaking another language before hurriedly scribbling with their Sharpie, I know it’s going to be a train wreck. I’ve been Roel, Raphael, Ro-flourish, flourish, flourish, Maybelle, and my favorite, Paula.
Sometimes I want to lie to the barista, tell him my name is Veronica or Heidi or something so simple – Jane, Mary, Beth – that it can’t possible get messed up. I’d just be whoever I happen to feel most like that day. But I never seem to feel like anything other than a Rochelle. The entire time I’m in line waiting to order I try to come up with anything else that fits. I usually end up thinking of the episode of Friends where Phoebe wants to change her name, settling on Princess Consuela Banana-Hammock. The episode ends with her changing it again, back to Phoebe.
One of my favorite classes in college was Spanish. We were required to choose a Spanish name to go by for the semester. I picked Rosa. Easy to pronounce, easy to spell. When doing a project in class one day, a boy in my group, who went by Pedro, asked what my real name was. And just when I thought my Spanish class was safe.
“Rochelle? Are your parents like, black or something?”
I was, and am, a very white girl, even by white people standards. Pale, freckly, my skin is thin enough to see the veins in my thighs, temple, chest, palms. In middle school someone asked if I was albino. That’s how white I am.
“No, they’re both white, too,” I said.
“Well is your mom black then?”
“I just told you both my parents are white.”
“Oh. Then why is your name Rochelle?”
In French, Rochelle means “little rock.” As in a pebble. My parents say they named me that because it was different than all the other baby names popular in the 90s. They didn’t want me to be an Ashley or a Britney or a Heather. My father says they almost named me Leah, after some song that was playing on the radio on their way to the hospital the day I was born. My mother says that she wanted me to be Siobhan, pronounced like Chevonne, but that it would’ve sounded too “sing-songy” with our last name. Thank god they realized that, at least, or I would’ve been called Sio-bon my entire life.
There’s another way an introduction with someone could go, besides mispronunciation, but it’s only happened once, with my high school psychology teacher on the first day of class.
“Rochelle?” Mr. Kalahar had pronounced it correctly, on his initial attempt. Something was off. I nodded. “Like Rochelle, Rochelle?”
A few boys in the class chuckled.
“Um, I’m not sure?”
“It’s from Seinfeld.”
Unfortunately, I had never watched Seinfeld. When I got home from school that day I Googled “Rochelle, Rochelle Seinfeld.” The first result was a link to the WikiSein, with an entry for Rochelle, Rochelle that sported this little gem of a definition: “A young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk.” Thanks, Mr. Kalahar, for that warm fuzzy.
On the first day of school I respond to anything that remotely sounds like it could be me when the teacher takes attendance. I get overly excited when someone else has my name. There’s a news anchor on one of the local Tampa stations who is also a Rochelle. I used to watch her every morning for no reason other than solidarity. I can never find my name on a mug or magnet or keychain in a souvenir shop. I had a lot of nicknames growing up. Roach, Rock, Rocky, German, Jumanji, etc. It goes without saying, but none of these are preferred. My parents call me Chelley sometimes, but even this is problematic. It’s pronounced with an sh- sound, not a c sound like in cello. If I’m lucky, I can sometimes find a keychain or mini state license plate that reads Shelly. When I do, I buy them all.
Someday I wouldn’t mind living in, or at least visiting, La Rochelle, France or maybe New Rochelle, New York. At least here my name would be pronounced correctly by the locals. They’d ask if I was named after the city. Or, if I’m really dreaming big, maybe they’d ask if the city was named after me, thanks, of course, to a miraculous mix-up in which the town planners were able to predict the very distant future. In any of these scenarios, as soon as they find out that I share a name with their beloved city, the citizens would no doubt throw parades in my honor, drown me with affection, respect, and free food, crown me reigning nobility, the equivalent of Kate Middleton in a from-commoner-to-royal sort of situation. I’d accept all of this graciously, of course, express my genuine and humble awe over how much love and adoration a name could produce, ask if they might bring me some more free macarons and champagne, please.
I’ve done a little internet research on both La Rochelle and New Rochelle. Hotel rooms in La Rochelle seem pretty affordable and it’s right on the Bay of Biscay, so that’s a definite plus, but airfare from North Carolina to France is a bit beyond my current grad student budget. New Rochelle was named the best city in New York State by Business Week in 2008 and was also named one of the most ideal places to raise children. Unfortunately, real estate there is some of the most expensive in the country, and again, grad school budget. There’s always Rochelle, Florida, a ghost town in Alachua County along Highway 301 that might suffice. I imagine the spirits there have probably just been waiting for someone with their city’s namesake to come along and revive them and their desolate town to their past splendor. But then again, there’s a reason it became a ghost town in the first place I suppose.
I keep a list on my iPhone of potential names for my future children. Whenever I come across one I like, I stop what I’m doing to type it in. I don’t plan on procreating for at least another ten years, but I’m picky about names and afraid that if I don’t keep track of the ones I like now, I’ll never remember them in a decade. Because here’s the thing: they’re not your average baby names. There are no Bens or Hannahs on my list, no Joes or even Veronicas and Heidis. Instead there’s Aslyn and Aurora, Cambria and Eoin. These are the kinds of names I want for my children. The hard-to-spell, easily mispronounced, ethnically ambiguous ones that will inevitably cause problems during school attendance and on vacation when we look for souvenirs, names that will confuse every Starbucks barista, prompting them to call out an iced venti non-fat double pump vanilla latte no whip extra foam for Ashley. Or Brent. Or Paula.
About the Author: Rochelle Germond holds an MFA in poetry from North Carolina State University. Her work has appeared in The Main Street Rag, Split Rock Review, Saw Palm, and The Coachella Review, among others. Some of her favorite things include snickerdoodle cookies, puppy videos, and the occasional alliteration. Originally from Florida, she currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband and their extensive collection of coffee mugs.