Married Name by Rachel Mann
The damp winter chill slaps Jennifer’s cheeks as she comes through the revolving door, leaving the overheated, recirculated office building air behind. How easy it was to invent a dentist appointment! How necessary to escape a few hours early from her blindingly boring job as an editorial assistant at a textbook publisher. No one would think well of her, if they knew: not her husband, not her in-laws, not her parents, and not her boss.
She rushes to the subway. Though she has only been a New Yorker for six months, she is already navigating the city with the urgency of a native.
It is too early to go home. Michael won’t be home for hours. She gets off the R train at Prince Street. She buys a coffee and uses her credit card to pay for it. Michael prefers that she uses her card, so that he can keep track of expenses. She walks around, peeking in stores, looking for who-knows-what. She tries on skinny jeans. She prances in pointy heels. She runs her fingers over sheets of handmade paper. She smells soaps and samples lip gloss. She pops in tiny fashion shops with tiny collections of silky dresses arranged by color along the walls, and handles the posh fabrics, ignoring the scowls of the shop girls who can tell she isn’t buying.
She enters an art supply shop. Her mouth waters at the rainbow of paint tubes, and the brushes lined up by size; everything is perfectly arranged, like a Michelin-starred entree. With a rapture that surprises her, she starts filling a cart with brushes and paints. It is absurd—she doesn’t paint anymore. She and Michael live in a one-bedroom apartment on Third Avenue. It has a doorman, and a sliver of a river view from the bathroom, but it is not large enough for hobbies—the living room barely fits a dining table, let alone an easel. She rounds a corner and comes face to face with stacks of clean, taut canvases. Staring at the piles of beautiful blank slates as if they are completed works of art, she remembers that she learned to stretch her own canvas in a high school art class. She’d used it to make a painting of her self, full of color and light; a depiction of a Jennifer confident of all the things she knew were waiting for her. She raises an eyebrow, wondering where the self-portrait is, now. She hasn’t seen it in years.
Jennifer grabs the biggest canvas she can carry and heads toward the register, struggling to push the cart.
She almost abandons it at the sight of three long lines. But she has already begun to think of these things, the brushes and paints and pop-art-sized canvas in her cart, as if they are hers. She has to have them. She picks the shortest line, and waits.
“Next!” the cashier girl call finally calls. As scans each item in the cart, Jennifer notices that she isn’t actually a girl, but a woman who looks to be around her own age, which is twenty-four. Her hair is dyed Crayola red, except for the roots, which are dark brown. She has thick black makeup around her eyes, a dragon tattoo on her forearm, and a lip ring.
“That’ll be a hundred and fifty nine dollars and forty three cents,” says Cashier Girl.
Jennifer’s lungs feel depleted of air, but she does not flinch. She reaches in her bag and flips open her wallet. But her credit card is missing.
“Just a second,” she says. “I know it was here. I just used it.” She puts down the canvas and leans her wallet against the counter, using her finger nails to search behind her health insurance card, her library card, and an old torn photo of her and Michael from college. In the cash pocket, she finds a twenty and two singles. Not nearly enough.
“Um, I can’t find it.” She can feel the breath of the tall skinny student standing behind her. “Will you take a check?”
“Yeah, with two forms of ID,” said Cashier Girl.
“No problem,” says Jennifer, relieved. She speedily writes out a check and hands it to Cashier Girl along with her driver’s license and her work ID.
Cashier Girl lifts her black-ringed eyes and stares Jennifer in the face. “The names don’t match,” she says, flatly.
“Huh?” Jennifer replies, although she heard what the girl said. She can feel the impatience behind her, the patrons shifting their weight from one foot to the other, damning their own bad luck.
“These names. They’re not the same. The license says Jennifer Martin. And this check says Jennifer Greenberg.”
“No, well, yes, that’s my married name. Yup, that’s me.”
“I’m sorry, hon, but I can’t take this. Checks have to match the ID.” Cashier Girl points to a crumpled photocopy taped to the side of the counter, with the words “NO EXCEPTIONS” all-capped in red.
Jennifer feels hot to the core, still wearing her down coat in the overheated shop. She knows she can leave, but she doesn’t want to. It is her checkbook, after all, the one Michael gave her when he opened up twin checking accounts after their wedding. She hasn’t told him that she never actually, technically, changed her name. It was a detail she meant to take care of, but, like repainting the peeling bathroom ceiling, had yet to do.
“I’d like to see the manager,” she says boldly.
The student behind her mutters, “For fucks sake!” Others in the back catch on and start defecting from her queue.
It takes two eternal minutes for the overweight, balding manager in ripped jeans to appear at the counter. “What’s the problem?”
Cashier Girl shows him the check and the IDs. “These belong to me. I have a check. I have money. Please, I’d like to buy these things,” Jennifer says.
“Sorry, no can do. We’ve seen every trick in the book —kids’ll do anything for free art supplies—so how am I to know that Miss Greenberg ain’t your roommate or somethin’? Why don’t you get outta here and come back when you got your names sorted out?”
The manager winks at Cashier Girl, who shrugs her shoulders and rolls her eyes.
“Fine,” Jennifer seethes under her breath. Then, with a gust of angry energy that surprises her as much as the other patrons, she kicks the cart hard, sending the canvas crashing to the floor. The manager reaches to get it and in that moment, though she can feel the heat of a hundred eyes, Jennifer grabs a small brush from the cart and shoves it in her purse. She flies out of the store and doesn’t stop running until she’s rounded the corner and cleared three blocks.
Ducking into a crowded gourmet market, she catches her breath while feigning interest in imported cheeses. She thinks:I’ve lost my credit card. I’ve stolen a paintbrush. I’m supposed to be at work. I’ve never stolen anything before. Maybe I can mail the paintbrush back? I had my credit card at Starbucks. Could I be arrested? I don’t want to be Mrs. Greenberg.
She steps outside and does something she has been conditioned to avoid since changing status from occasional tourist to Manhattan resident: she hails a cab.
Jennifer flies through the lobby of her building, and sighs with relief when the heavy front door of her apartment slams shut behind her.
The apartment is very neat. Michael does not like chaos, and besides he feels very strongly that the spare modern décor, purchased with their wedding checks at some expense, requires empty surfaces and tidy shelves. Since she is not a naturally neat person, her approach to disciplined housekeeping has thus far been to simply avoid acquiring things. If she buys a new article of clothing, she donates the old counterpart to Goodwill. In this way, the household possessions remain finite and manageable.
Still standing at the door, her gaze falls over the geometric black and white rug, the red sofa, too deep and too boxy to be comfortable, two white plastic bucket chairs, and a black lacquer table. She puts her hand in her purse and feels the paintbrush, it’s smooth wooden shaft and synthetic bristles. This object doesn’t belong here, she thinks.
Entering the small galley kitchen, she fills a stemless wine glass with the red she opened last night. As she tips the glass to her lips, the phone rings.
“Hi Jen,” Michael says. “It’ll be a late night tonight. Something came up with a case, and Brian needs me to stay. We might go for drinks later.” Brian is a partner and Michael’s boss. It goes without saying that Brian trumps Jennifer in all circumstances, even on Friday evenings, which used to be hers.
Jennifer can’t remember when they last sat down and talked. They rarely eat dinner together, because he’s always working. In the late evening sometimes they sit side by side at their shared desk, she surfing the web on her laptop, he reading briefs on his. Or they watch TV, which they never used to do when they were only dating—it would have been a waste of time. Perhaps, she thinks, this what it is to be married; their togetherness has become quiet and common.
“Okay,” Jennifer says. “But I have to tell you something.” She puts the wine glass down and steadies herself on the granite counter. She feels lightheaded and flushed.
“What is it? I have to go, I’m completely swamped.”
“I didn’t take your name.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I never changed my name. I meant to, and I know you wanted me to, but I didn’t, and now I don’t want to.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I like my name. It is who I am.” She feels better, as if this confession absolves her ever so slightly of her other transgressions. She takes another sip of wine. It is pleasantly bitter on her tongue.
© Rachel Mann, 2013
Rachel Mann is a writer in NYC. While living in London not too long ago, she completed the Certificate in Novel Writing course at City University and wrote her first novel, a coming-of-age-magical-romance, On Blackberry Hill. Her stories have appeared in the Fish Anthology and The New Writer. Currently she’s an editor at Bytethebook, a website set up to help writers and publishers in the digital age.
Married Name was read by Samantha Jane Gurewitz on 6th November 2013