I’m visiting my dear friend Julie in California, and she’s introducing me to someone.
“I’m Nicole,” I say, extending my hand just as Julie says, “This is Nikki.”
The stranger looks between us, clearly confused. Julie looks at me, equally confused.
“Which do you prefer,” asks my friend of many years. “Nicole or Nikki?”
I can’t answer her.
To nickname or not to nickname… that is the question.
My troubles began in college. Before that, I was always Nikki. This isn’t because I’d chosen my nickname, but because my family had always called me Nikki and my parents were veteran teachers in the district. On the rosters of my elementary, middle, and high school classes my name may have been Nicole Peeler, but every teacher knew to shout “Nikki!”
Then I went to college on the other side of the country. Suddenly, my professors were looking around for someone named Nicole Peeler and I realized I would have to make a choice.
Was I a Nikki or a Nicole?
This was not the first opportunity I’d had to change my name. When I was 16, I’d done a summer program at a university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a long way from the western suburb of Chicago in which I’d been raised. This was the first time I’d been entirely surrounded by people who didn’t already know me or my family, or for whom my entire history wasn’t freely available if they asked the person standing next to me.
In other words, this was the first time I could choose who I wanted to be.
And I wanted to be someone completely different! I was 16, unchaperoned in a real city, and hyper-aware that I was a suburban mouse from the Midwest surrounded by hepcats from exciting places like New York City and Miami. One new friend could salsa. They all knew how to work public transportation. Many spoke different languages, and one girl carried condoms in her fancy leather planner.
I was a virgin who didn’t own a planner!