Identification anxiety: the making of a name

Freshman year, during the initial onslaught of new people, I rarely saved real names in my phone. There was just no way to differentiate Tyler Ps from Tyler Ts, Julies from Julianas, so I saved numbers with context instead. My contacts became searchable by names like Birnkrant, Polo and GE, and remembering people got infinitely easier.

I maintain that naming people for their relation to you rather than their name by itself is a good strategy. It’s a psychological phenomenon that you’ll remember something better if you relate it to yourself (it’s real, look it up). I can’t claim that this is my motivation for referring to my romantic attachments as I do, but it certainly justifies it.

I’ve always struggled with how to refer to the person I’m seeing to other people. The easy answer would be by name, but their name holds significance to me, not necessarily to my friends. Clarifying every time with the cumbersome moniker “the one I’ve been seeing (no not that one, the new one)” is tiring. God forbid a mutual friend shares the same name and the already unwieldy title becomes something like “Michael, high school-boyfriend Michael, not Michael, BK Michael.”

So I took a page from my freshman year handbook and referred to my romantic attachments by their context. The guy who avidly pursued me despite my having made it abundantly clear that I was already monogamously involved became “Overeager Frat Boy.” The aloof and vaguely mystical man I pursued to no avail became “Bad Boy Hippie.” And as high school faded into the distance, the boyfriend I started college with became simply “High School Boyfriend.”

The first person to earn an actual name was someone I dated this past summer. He began simply as “Tinder Boy,” then morphed as I got to know him into things like “Summer Boy” and “The Chef” (he was a chef) as I got to know him. Soon, there were so many permutations that it seemed like I was dating 12 people instead of one, so I broke down and gave him a real name.

But I gave him a real name because I liked him too, not just because the variants got too confusing. He had become a part of my reality to the point that my friends felt like they knew him from the stories I told, and several of them had actually met him. They knew his name and who he was, so there was no more need for contextual pet names.

After we broke up, he was demoted back to relative anonymity. Continuing to use his name felt too familiar since our shared context no longer existed. I still talked about him sometimes, of course — he had occupied a pretty significant chunk of my time — but depending on what I wanted to share, he went back to things like “Summer Boy” and “The Chef.”

Eventually, he was reduced to “OG Tinder Boy,” limiting his identity and significance in my storytelling to a mere distinction between he and my new flame, who I had also met via Tinder. As the new boy now occupied a role more significant to my day-to-day doings, he took over as the reigning “Tinder Boy.”

A week or so ago, my friend asked how it was going with this new Tinder Boy, but used his actual name. It caught me off guard – I wasn’t aware he had reached that level. Of course “Tinder Boy” has been steadily rising through the ranks for some time now, but because I hadn’t initiated the change, I felt disoriented. How could he have suddenly become a real individual without my consent?

The answer is easy. I’ve spent a lot of time on him, and my friends have noticed. But there’s a commitment in a real name, acknowledging that someone isn’t just anyone anymore, and an added sense of risk that comes with it. If there’s never a name, I can just transition from “Tinder Boy” to “Tinder Boy” without really feeling the change — in conversation at least. If he gets to be an individual and not just a concept, it’s harder to sever myself. And I know I’ll have to sever myself at some point — I won’t be in L.A. forever.

But named he is, for better or for worse. For better, probably. My friends can learn new, real names as new, real people come in and out of my life (they’re smart, they go to college). Artificially limiting each mate’s identity to a restricted context isn’t fair to them and isn’t honest with myself. My friends saw my flippancy as a front well before I did, but now that I know, I can go about this more maturely. I can acknowledge intimacy rather than burying it in fake names.

Rica Maestas is a senior majoring in cognitive science and narrative studies. Her column, “Cuffing Season,” runs on Wednesdays.