Name Panic on Election Day, 2008

 

 
 
 
The first time I went to vote for president, I returned to the suburbs,
waited in line at the elementary school, ahead of the table
 
where three old white ladies flipped through check-marked pages.
I stepped up when one of them asked for my name,
 
and as I had long learned to do by then, I tiptoed to peer over
the list to search for the twenty letters my parents tagged
 
to my birth certificate. I pointed to it and the woman’s face
slowly recoiled into embellished dread, into: oh my god. what is this—
 
she slid the sheet to the others to share her amused horror,
now morphed into a blaring exchange of exaggerated tries
 
to pronounce it. Other voters swiveled to watch this riot,
to listen to sounds ridiculed, pushed out of the women’s mouths
 
like it was phlegm. A gymnasium of citizens waited for me to speak,
not much different than the time I handed my seventh grade teacher
 
the slip, who pressed it to his eyes, then extended it in a gesture
of theatrical repetition, until he concluded: I’m not going to say this;
 
a new student in front of a classroom of Samanthas and Jonathans,
how was I to respond but with a body full of apology;
 
we don’t assign our own nicknames.
It was only one instance in a lifetime of carrying the guilt
 
of an innocent thing, a bitter inconvenience I forced
onto the lips of those expecting a piece of cake.
 
Had I known when I was born—I thought when I was twelve—
I would have cried to my mother that here, a foreign name
 
is attempted with reluctance, like a disease hyphenated or a dictator deceased.
But that evening, on Election Day, in the hushed wait for me to answer,
 
I said: this, is from the Arabic root for blessing,
and this, last name, ancient, from the word for leaning,

 
and this, middle name here, is good. It means good, means handsome,
and you will hear it most among Muslims. Yes, Muslims,

 
mostly Shiite Muslims, that’s minority sect Muslims, but, of course,
I was talking about the name on the presidential ballot.
 
 
 

Mehrnoosh Torbatnejad is the daughter of Irooni immigrants, a worshipper of space and hyacinths, and an Oscar the Grouch apologist. Her poetry has appeared in Asian American Writers’ Workshop, The Missing Slate and is forthcoming in Waxwing. She is the poetry editor for Noble / Gas Qtrly, and a Best of the Net, Pushchart Prize and Best New Poets nominee. She lives in New York where she practices matrimonial law.