Hi, I'm Joy. Well, not exactly. I'm Peter Joy Satenig Engel, according to my birth certificate. I am a girl named Peter. Along with my hazel eyes, a passionate temper, and wide birthing hips, my father gave me his own name.
The sitcom about the grade school experiences of a tall girl named Peter writes itself. Substitute teachers often sent me to the principal's office, thinking I was pulling an elaborate roll call prank. But my home life was more like a Lifetime movie. I never knew what I'd meet when I hopped off the school bus: a doting father or the beast who threw my Trapper Keeper out the window and twisted my wrist until it burned. My father was controlling and hateful, once refusing to speak to me for a week because I forgot to wind the clock in the study and timing how long it took my mother to return home from work.
I am more fortunate than most who are born into that situation, thanks to the strength of my mother. She shielded me from most of his terror, and when I was 11 she plotted our escape. While my father was away on a business trip, she packed me and our cat, Yoda, into her old Toyota and we started a new life in a small apartment a few miles away. He was livid when he returned, harassing us with late night phone calls and threats to remove me from my school. But we were free.
During the first few years on our own, my dazzling, incredible, hero of a mother did what she could to make life happy. At first we didn't even have a table to eat on, but she made breakfast on the stairs seem like a bold new adventure. We survived, slowly working together to crawl out from his shadow, but the task seemed impossible when I spent the first part of any acquaintance explaining my gender-bending name. Who wants to introduce themselves as the sad girl with the terrible dad? His name hung on me like a curse, something I was doomed to carry with me for the rest of my life.
I tried dropping the Peter when I reached high school, but it was a challenge: these were peers I'd known for years, and there is no force in the world crueler than a team of high school field hockey girls. Peter (Peter, pumpkin eater) stuck with me until the day I graduated.
By college I was desperate. I quickly swapped out the "Welcome Peter" sign the RA made for me with my second name: Joy. I was Joy Engel to every person I met, and the partial name change helped me take another step away from my father. My cutting wit softened a little and I learned to channel my temper into feelings more appropriate than anger. I thought about changing my first name legally, but it seemed like a logistical nightmare, so I settled for changing it emotionally instead.
After college, I started jobs and left others, and moved back and forth across the country a few times, always looking for other ways to reinvent myself. When I was 22, in 2005, my mother married her long-term partner, teaching me what a relationship based on mutual affection, respect and solid communication really looked like. That example wasn't immediately useful—I'd just ended a relationship with my college boyfriend and had no real romantic prospects—but it did present the opportunity to take my step-father's last name. The idea of being a three-person family unit, connected in love and name, was appealing to me, but I was an adult and I decided that I would soon be married anyway (probably? I guessed?), and opted to keep Engel for the time being. Some day I would name-change the man out of my life on my own.
I was in a windowless conference room of a co-working space in San Francisco when I learned my father died. I had not seen or spoken to him in 16 years. The news suffocated me, not because I was overcome with emotion, but because I was struck by the absolute absence of it. My father—the man who was supposed to guide me through life's challenges, tell me goofy jokes, walk me down the aisle and spoil my children—was dead. And I felt nothing. When the numbness faded, it wasn't sadness in its place, but anger. Anger that the man who tried to define me from the day I was born would never see that I'd been able to thrive without him.
Now, six years after that suffocating conference room, I am about to embark on my life's next big reinvention. On July 9, I will promise the man I love very much to argue over whose turn it is to pick up the dog's poop for as long as we both shall live. I thought I would be excited to change my name, but the months leading up to your wedding are weird in ways nobody can predict. If you're a woman, people who hardly know you will ask you what you plan on doing with your last name. Uber drivers who noticed the ring on my finger have been so bold.
"Of course you'll keep your name, you're a feminist," said one friend.
"No, she'll take Ben's name, of course," offered another.
"Of course you will. Your father was a monster. Why would you want to hold onto his name?" she said, as if the decision were as easy as ordering another glass of rosé.
I've considered it for months now, but as wedding day draws closer, I find it impossible to let my name go. I was desperate for so long to get rid of it, but when faced with the actual decision, I realized my own identity—the one I built for myself—is tied too tightly to it. The decision to keep my name, to hold onto the identity I created, feels like defiance to the man who tried to make me into his own image. It is my rebellion; a statement of victory over the fires I walked through to bring me to this place. I am claiming Peter Engel as my own, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the man who gave it to me.
I rarely think of it now except when making conversation with TSA agents or when filling out new hire paperwork. It's a party joke, something I reveal as my "fun fact" at corporate retreats. My fiancé calls me "Petey" from time-to-time and I even find it endearing.
Someday, in my next reinvention as a mother, I will have a daughter of my own. I will give her a name filled with all of my good intentions for her. Something strong, something that represents all her father and I think she can achieve. But the true achievement will be when she makes her name her own, like her mother did.
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