My face is not my own. It’s very odd, to look in the mirror and see someone else.

My name is not my own. It’s quite comforting, to hear another in its stead.

Like my face, my name was not something I chose. It is unwieldy, too long, too grandiose. Uncomfortable. I tried various nicknames through the years, each of them snagging like raspy clothes tags. None fit.

I once had a girlfriend who had this running joke with her sister, blaming anything she did while out partying on her drunk alter ego. She had given her a name, a personality, a backstory. When I started exploring my sexuality in more public spaces, I took a page out of her book and also adopted a different name: my grandmother’s. It was an obvious choice, close enough to my own name, a name that people had already called me erroneously quite a few times in my life. It was a rite of passage for a time and a place that had no such things.

I don’t want to equate the trans experience with participating in the kink scene, perish the thought and the myriad bad takes it brings with it, but without them being equal, there is a point of comparision I wish to make. Taking a new name, one I chose, was incredibly freeing. Much more than exploring kink, it allowed me to explore who I was and who I could become. Valentina was quiet, shy, insecure. SHe suffered in silence and sacrificed anything she had for others. She was scared of rejection, of failure.

Valeria, on the other hand, had no such hangups. Turning into Valeria was like turning on the light from the inside. I felt desirable, irresistible, powerful, and more than ever in my life, free. I was a star glimmering in the darkness of a thousand nightclubs, sharp as a knife and twice as shiny. I was the whore to my own Madonna.

three superimposed images of me

Sharp as a knife and twice as shiny.

Then, something odd started to happen. Beyond the spaces where I introduced myself as Valeria, people started calling me Valeria. I politely corrected them, over and over, sometimes to the point of exhasperation. One day, it occured to me this was a ghost story. I started saying, “I’m not Valeria, I’m Valentina, you must be refering to my grandmother’s ghost.” I asked, half-joking, “Oh, you can see my grandmother? She’s Valeria, she’s been dead a while now, but still keeps me company.” Some people laughed, some apologised, some gave me odd looks.

“I started thinking maybe it’s not just a ghost. Maybe I was missing something.”

I’ve been called by my grandmother’s name more times than by my own now. It’s true our names share two syllables and a meaning, Valentina turning to Valeria and vice versa in a confusion of alliterative vowels. Our names rhyme and it stands to reason we would, too. That’s about the only thing we shared, though. She was tall where I am short, she was strong where I am soft, dark where I am fair. I remember her rolling up a shirt cuff to show off a muscled forearm, saying “I used to have a braid as thick as this arm when I was your age.” I didn’t, still don’t. Alliteration, not repetition.

However, as Valentina bled into Valeria, I started thinking maybe it’s not just a ghost. Maybe I was missing something.

Here’s everything I know about my grandmother:
1. She drank a lot, but not as much as any of my grandfathers.
2. She was strong and sturdy, but she had a hernia, which kept her in bed some days. Either that, or she just said that when she was too hungover to move.
3. She made her own clothes. She knew how to weave, sew and embroider, but never taught me because her eyes were too weak by the time I was born, her nimble fingers too tired, her heart too broken. I did get to see her make wool into thread with a spindle and weave that same wool into a blanket at her loom.
4. She was a decent cook, but she didn’t enjoy it and you could see it in the way she trudged through the entire process, from cutting vegetables to setting the table. She did, however, make the most amazing bread.
5. I don’t remember her as particularly smothering, she wasn’t the kind to spoil and coddle children, although she showed her preference for me by asking for my help with anything she was doing. She was patient with my clumsy attempts, correcting and prompting, but always firm, always allowing me to take responsibility of anything I did. She taught me how to make bread, how to cook a chicken, how to feed the animals, how to milk the cow, how to weed the garden. She gave me the names of trees and grasses and spices and fruits and bugs. My nature vocabulary is almost entirely hers.
6. She was funny, darkly so. She was probably very depressed, having lived through a war at a young age, then having spent most of her life under an opressive regime, plus a dead first born and a dead nephew. I realise now most of her jokes wouldn’t be out of place for a nihilistic millenial, someone like me, perhaps.
7. She died when I was eleven, barely a week after her 69th birthday and a year and a half after my grandfather’s death. She spent that year and a half obsessively repeating the Romanian version of that old addage, better the devil you know. I didn’t cry at her funeral.

I recognise parts of myself in this list, more than I expected before making it. I guess I took my grandmother’s name because I thought she dealt in certainties and strength. I wanted to be strong like her, to be confident like her. I didn’t consider her trauma, her life’s hardships, how what I saw as strength and confidence was just her doing her best in a world less complicated than mine, but still far from simple.

I’m thinking of making the change permanent, legal. I wonder, would she approve? Have I grown enough into her name to deserve it? And if there are gaps still, would she forgive me if I filled them with things entirely my own?