Three thousand mile sunrise

On small intimacies

My friend Monday has been sending me videos of the sunrise from the top of Buena Vista Park. I didn’t ask for this—the videos just started showing up after I gave them my phone number, which took a weirdly long time. Before that we’d been skulking in the imperfect DMs of various social media networks, because we met on Usenet and IRC and this is what we’re used to. Text messages didn’t exist back then. I have a distinct memory of talking to Monday on the phone, once, from a pay phone in the basement of a college building, near the computer lab; I couldn’t call from my dorm room because of long-distance charges (remember those?). Anyway, I finally gave them my number and the next morning they sent me a video of a coyote. And then all these sunrises, all the same and all different: a way of feeling, from 3,000 miles away, as if you might be standing on the same hill.

Monday is, of course, not Monday’s name. I think I am the last person left who calls them Monday. It’s what they went by on the networks where we met, which we didn’t call “social media” yet, and where almost everyone had a carefully-chosen sobriquet. (Monday also uses my name from back then, which I’m not going to tell you because I don’t know you that way.) Unlike today’s social media, which pricks itself through your real life like embroidery, these were bounded spaces: entering them required a state change, often even a physical relocation to some grim computer lab. You put on your name like a cloak when you stepped into the circle. When we met it was the height of intimacy to know someone’s “real” name, which is to say the name they were born into—or rather, the intimacy of a “real name” changed depending on context. Somewhere out there, family members and coworkers and telemarketers might be calling someone “Dave” without a second thought, but online, if you knew Grimdark was “Dave” you were part of an enviable club. (I made this one up, but one especially mysterious friend did in fact turn out to be Dave, a level of mundanity that sat strangely with the depth of the secret.) It was a specialized name economy, where the commonplace became suddenly precious.

Buena Vista Park, where the sunrises come from, is also the setting of Chris Adrian’s book The Great Night, a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in 2008 San Francisco. If you haven’t read it, you might have read the New Yorker story that became one of its chapters, which has the distinction of being the only piece of fiction to make me ugly-cry about a blanket. (It’s an alive blanket! There’s a lot to cry about in the story but for some reason it all crystallizes around the alive blanket for me.) In this version, the lovers are instead three lonely people whose personal traumas stem from being touched in some way by Faerie, and who are again imperiled when they step inside the fairy domain of the park—the fairies live in the park, of course—in a time of crisis. I read the book on the same weekend as one of the most real-magic experiences of my life, but that’s a story for another time; anyway, it’s imperfect (it got a Bad Sex Award nomination) but unforgettable, and it proves that you can move all these fairyland shenanigans to an urban green space without making people suspend additional disbelief. Like those old spaces of the internet, the park is both bounded and wild, a magic circle you can step into. I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but in New York the Google Street View images inside the major parks are many years older than the surrounding streets. A park is a pool of slow time—as is Faerie, where the unwitting are often spirited away and returned after years to discover no time has passed, or else that it’s centuries later and everyone they knew is dead.

There’s a famous Tumblr post (the closest thing we have to modern folklore, or at least the closest non-sinister thing) about how you should never answer a fairy who says “may I have your name,” because they mean to keep it. This has deep roots in traditional stories—the power of real names, the importance of preventing bad magical actors (including fairies) from knowing it, and the corresponding power of deception, of telling the fairy that your name is “Myself” so he can only say “it was Myself who hurt me.” This post builds on that by looking at the structure of the question: the danger is in answering “may I have your name?” or “your name, please?” Instead you should say “I will not give you my name, but I will tell you that it’s [name].” In true Tumblr fashion, this is followed by a sweet little story inspired by the post, clearly written for the joy of it—a kind of writing that sometimes seems to only still exist on Tumblr, where people publish under the names they chose. (This one is by linkedsoul.) The story is, in short, about a woman who secretly meets with a fairy many times and doesn’t give him her name until she’s ready to leave humanity behind. The climax, deferred until the last possible moment, is the handing over of the name, at which point she is whisked away. Once your real name is in the clutches of the Fae, it no longer belongs to you, and you no longer belong to the world.

But what’s a “real” name? Is there truly so much power in the name someone else chose for you? Or is a name a composite organism, like a Portuguese man-o-war: all your old pelts annealed together, a coat with many linings, some much closer to the skin? Let the fairies take the name you were born with—who cares? The government has that too, good luck being more sinister than them. And any name is just an abstraction anyway, one step more specific than a pronoun: a way of referring to a thing, not the thing itself. The power is not in the fact of a name but in its action, the way it calls you: you can hear your name flare out of a hushed conversation because your brain literally responds to it in a different way. So different names call different selves, or different parts of selves. Give the fairies your government name and they will leave, at least, a ghost.

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On the current internet, the value system of naming has inverted: given names are cheap as water, online handles are part of a deep shared past. Using someone’s old username carries the same intimacy as a long-standing inside joke, which eventually becomes not a vehicle for humor but a way of marking time, specifically your time together. It doesn’t necessarily mean someone knows you better than other people; Monday and I mostly talk about Ted Lasso, puns, coyotes, and how Republicans are full of shit. (It doesn’t even mean they like you better, or vice versa. Ten years ago, a real jerk from our old Usenet group, a guy who hated me and who I hated, sent me an email to say that he “ran into some gal using your old name on the interwebs” and hoped I was well. Common history has a way of softening you towards a person, even one who sucks.) But it means they knew a version of you who has mostly been rolled up and put away. The name, once a fancy coat you put on over your everyday clothes, has become somehow a part of yourself, a selkie skin in storage. Someone who can speak that name knows where the body is hidden, and the body is you.

I keep saying “intimacy” and I realize this word has bent towards the euphemistic (it was the name of the sex shop in my college town, for a start). But I want to be clear I mean “intimate” in the way a small room is intimate, not the way “intimate apparel” is intimate. I mean the sense of being close to someone, of standing near them in some metaphorical way. After a year of six-foot distances and social isolation, metaphorical nearness is important in a way I don’t think we ever anticipated, even those of us who once cultivated intimacies across the globe from chilly, fluorescent, midnight-empty computer labs. Maybe this is why it feels important to hear from someone who knows one of my secret names. A small togetherness, like looking at the same sunrise from miles apart.