I wonder to myself, much later in life, if it’s all right to be given a name by your peers, your teachers. I don’t remember being asked for a preference or if it was alright with me. The questions might have been there, but the memory of permission doesn’t register in my mind now. Too happy to have complied—too happy to have not been the difficult student—I suppose I smiled and said yes. But what I was really saying yes to was the motion to move away from the early chants of Nicorette gum; being dismissed as Nicoretta at the end of most school days.
Niki is cool, I thought to myself after trying the name on for size. My tongue tickled the back of my throat when I sounded out the ‘k,’ and I liked the soft tap it made. It fit. Short and sweet with a little bit of umph. I needed some umph.
I laugh now because “Niki” is a big part of my identity. It’s the school-aged me. The American me. The boisterous me. Nikis aren’t shy or withdrawn. They didn’t need to take ESL classes in the first grade. I wrapped the identity around me like a warm, puffy jacket.
But on dark days; sad days; overwhelming days—I fold into myself and can’t escape that stupid, silly, nonsensical nickname—the echoes of fifth graders laughing after shouting Nicorette gum—and nothing takes me down faster than the memory of being a punchline.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody 13-years-old
I scrunch up my face in the bathroom mirror, getting so close I can count all the extra eyebrow hairs I want to pluck. I survey my face like a map.
Stray hairs are growing around my upper lip, light and flimsy, as if they too are unsure of their existence.
Oily cheeks and forehead glisten beneath the bathroom’s fluorescent light.
“Oily skin is good,” my mom tells me. “You won’t get any wrinkles later in life.”
But wrinkles seem like a far smaller concern than whiteheads sprouting up overnight to remind me that I don’t belong at the pretty girls’ lunch table.
I look at my subtle unibrow and think of ways to approach my mom about getting my own pair of tweezers, but I’m too embarrassed. “You’re too young,” she’ll tell me. And I might be—just barely out of 8th grade.
But the weather outside is growing warm and sticky as summer inches closer each day. My legs don’t understand anything about age, young or old, and I dread—yet again—exposing my rail thin legs covered with thick, dark, European hair. They never got the memo: You can’t be here yet. I don’t know what to do with you. I can’t hide forever.
Crazy in Love 20-years-old
We’re so liquored up on that old rooftop deck that the midnight sky is spinning above us. My back fits comfortably against his chest as we rest on the lounge chair. Ask me now when I knew he was the nice boy that always seemed so out of reach for me, and I’ll tell you it was long after this night, when words kept building within us, but bravery ran short.
But that would be a lie. If I quiet the world around me and let my mind reach back—far back—to this hazy night in 2009, I’ll remember this:
the smell of warm red wine being poured into two glasses;
the sound of said glasses clinking;
biting my lower lip to remove the dry skin that’s stained purple;
his laptop softly crooning music;
the whitest night clouds I’d ever seen, canopying our frames, the only bodies on any rooftop deck in sight;
Nikoletta Gjoni is a fiction and creative nonfiction writer living outside of Washington, DC. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Kindling Volume III, Cleaver Magazine, Rhythm & Bones Lit, and Riggwelter Press, among others. Her work has been previously nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau prize and for Best of the Net. Website: www.ngjoni.com.