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The Joys and Perils of Having a Nickname

Legally, I’m Nicole — but everyone knows me as Nikki. Who am I, really?

Illustration: Lennard Kok

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!

Nikki Peeler had to go. I thought long and hard about who she would become — Nicole was never an option, because I’d always assumed Nicole was a boring name. After much thought, I made my choice. To me, this new name spoke of danger, and mystery. It would make me a beautiful enigma simply by uttering it aloud.

I couldn’t wait to introduce myself.

Soon enough, I met Paul. He was a sweet-faced boy with lustrous black hair. We instantly struck up a friendship, and he asked me to write down my name and dorm number (this was before cell phones). I took the pen, and instead of paper, I used the back of his hand.

NYX, I wrote, in bold letters, along with my extension.

“Nyx, huh?” he asked, and I immediately regretted my decision. Paul was also from the Midwest, and also from a suburb of Chicago. I knew he could see through me — could see I wasn’t someone who deserved a name that made me sound like an assassin or a mutant superhero.

“Nyx,” I ground out through clenched teeth, forcing myself to stick to my story.

Paul and I are still friends, and he still calls me Nyx. I die a little inside each time, but I never correct him. It keeps me humble.

Luckily, I learned my lesson. I told everyone else I met that summer to call me Nikki — until they all started calling me Kiki, another name I had no control over. Unfortunately, it stuck. “Kiki” followed me from summer school into my college years, when I told some friends how much I’d hated that nickname.

So they, of course, started calling me Kiki.

The truth is I’m not Nicole or Nikki. I’m both, at all times.

Because that’s what nicknames really are, aren’t they? They’re the names we don’t choose for ourselves. They’re the names given to us by others for the faces we show only to those we love best.

And that’s why I don’t know who I want to be. Nicole is the name on my birth certificate. It’s a dignified name. My parents wanted me to have a name that could be shortened (Nikki!) but that could also be emblazoned on a Nobel Prize (Nicole!). Nicole became the name my college professors called me. It’s the name I wrote on the inside covers of the books I read, and on the top left corners of the essays I wrote. Those books and essays helped lead me to my true passions of literature and creativity, and so Nicole is printed on the spine of my own novels and diplomas. Nicole leads workshops; she’s the one you hire to give a talk. Nicole is sensible and strong. She’s got the game face that means she can perform even when her world’s been turned upside down.

But I love Nikki, too, because she’s a goofball. She was nominated “Class Clown” in high school and is still absurdly proud of that fact. She’s way too emotional. She cries at Hallmark commercials because she’s angry at being manipulated into crying at a Hallmark commercial. She loves passionately, with an alarming lack of self-preservation or good sense. And she’s so embarrassing! Nikki once fell ass-over-teakettle in a muddy ditch running from the cops after a high school bonfire and truly believes the worst part of that story is that she was wearing denim overalls at the time. Nikki knows the words to every song from the Young Guns soundtrack and she once ate foie gras three times in a 24-hour trip to Paris. You know if she likes you and you know if she doesn’t. She’s a good egg, even if she’s a bit of a spaz.

So, I never quite know what to call myself. It’s easy when I introduce myself to a lecture hall: They’re getting Nicole, whether they like it or not. But for close friends who met me after I moved away from my hometown — especially those who met professional Nicole but with whom Nikki has fallen in love — I always want to tell them to call me Nikki. It’s like I want to give them the gift of my most awkward self. This sounds like a shitty gift, when I put it that way, but it’s a heartfelt one.

I hope they see my inner Nikki.

But maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe, like I do with my carefully curated social media pages, I’m trying to control my narrative, starting with my introduction. Maybe my real problem is that — not unlike my 16-year-old self away from home for the first time — I think I can control how people perceive me. In choosing the right persona, I believe I have power over how I’m treated.

I felt this tension recently, when someone I loved dearly went right ahead and broke my heart. I knew I was in trouble when he called me Nicole in our last conversation, after a decade of calling me by a nickname.

Maybe it was easier to break her heart than to break that of the girl he knew so well, but didn’t care about quite enough.

Either way, it hurt the same.

Because the truth is I’m not Nicole or Nikki. I’m both, at all times. I’m on a stage, saying wise things in a competent voice, even if I’m falling apart on the inside and wishing I could be someone who felt less, felt differently, felt okay.

I’m my best self and my worst pretty much all of the time, as most of us undoubtedly are. What I call myself really doesn’t matter.

So if we meet anytime soon, you can call me Nikki or you can call me Nicole because, obviously, they’re the same person.

Just please don’t call me Kiki.

Novelist and essayist. Director of the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. Find out more at http://nicolepeeler.com.

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