I imagine my cat and I living in Buffalo which, I admit, is a pretty lackluster daydream, but in the one philosophy course I took we learned about Epicurus who said we should limit our desires so we only want simple, attainable things, and that way we’ll always be happy. The professor told us Epicurus was an ass who was basically encouraging us to short circuit life, and to fear what Aristotle called “excellence.” I thought Epicurus was smart. I’ve always hated Disney movies and questions like what’s on your bucket list or where do you see yourself in five years, so I wrote my essay on him and the professor gave me a C-.
I call my sister to tell her about Buffalo and she laughs. The name is stupid, she says, the ‘u’ caught in the back of the throat and then the double-fs stuttering out like a fart (her simile, not mine). Somehow I find this argument compelling and for the next few nights I stay up drinking decaf coffee switching the lights in my apartment on and off, wondering what it means to name a place something like ‘Buffalo,’ or a person something like ‘Eugene,’ and do names actually affect the way people think of themselves, or do you become numb to it after a while, like that scene in Spirited Away where the mean witch-lady raises the Japanese characters from the page and squishes them in her hands. I realize that places can’t ever become numb to their names, even when history tries to rewrite them the name remains, like with ‘Constantinople’ or ‘Turtle Island,’ and certainly anyone would have a hard time replacing something like ‘Buffalo,’ so I decide it’s okay to live there and log back into Trulia to find a one bedroom apartment that allows pets.
The semester after my philosophy class I was funneled into a Milton seminar, where the dean of Renaissance studies spent a full two hours on the part of Paradise Lost where Adam names all the animals. The dean explained how language, and specifically naming, likens Adam to God in that it creates something ex nihilo, and this scene is second only to the one where Adam and Eve bang, because sex is the ultimate generative act. I was happy he said that because personally I find sex pretty God-like and any academic who tries to tell me that naming something is better than fucking has a lot of explaining to do. But then a cute girl raised her hand and said that naming was the most primitive and nefarious power structure at play, and she referenced Harry Potter and Ladybird as two contemporary works which acknowledge this structure and seek to overturn it, and I wrote that down in my notebook, resolving to finally read those damn wizarding books because they’d made their way into the university, which means they must be important in some big, epistemological way. After the lecture I told the girl she was smart and mentioned that I never named my cat, I hated the responsibility of it and kept putting it off until a few years went by and finally he was just ‘the cat.’ She said that was nice but reminded me that the very taxonomy of animals was part of the problem, so really calling him ‘the cat’ didn’t help, and I nodded as if I had already thought of this, which I hadn’t, and then decided she was probably too smart for me to ask out. Last week I saw her at a coffee shop by campus but didn’t say hello because my cat and I are moving to Buffalo, so what’s the point?
The next time I call home I’ve put a deposit down on a tiny place that has exactly three windows but borders a rich neighborhood where I can waitress and pay rent through tips. My sister answers but I ask for my mom because I don’t want to tell someone who will laugh that I’m moving 487 miles north to a city whose football team has never won the Superbowl. (I’ve been doing research on my new home. OJ Simpson played for the Buffalo Bills, and they went to the Superbowl four times but never won. F. Scott Fitzgerald also grew up in Buffalo, but moved away when he could, which I found both demoralizing and ironic.) I don’t even end up telling my mom I’m going to move. Instead I ask her how she chose our names and if she was nervous about it, or if it came naturally to her.
A bit of both, she says. Yours was easy because I had horrible morning sickness all through your pregnancy and sage was the only spice I could stand to smell. So we called you Sage.
I try not to think about this, the fact that my name was chosen purely for its non-nauseating implications, and what that might mean for my general sense of self-worth. I tell my mom I love her and three weeks later my cat and I are I-90 North, my car packed with all my belongings and still half empty. As we enter the city’s limits, a sign reads Welcome to Buffalo: An All-American City, and I imagine Epicurus sitting next to me, saying, you’ve done it, you’ve hacked life to its core, and now you can sit back and watch without fear, and I smile and bask in this glory, this tiny victory no one will ever know about. The feeling only disappears when I pull up to my new apartment and I realize I am here, in Buffalo, stranded in a place lined with streets and people whose names I do not know.
Sheila Mulrooney has an MA in English Literature from the University
of Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of journals including the
White Wall Review (forthcoming), The Wayfarer, Rejection Letters, and
others. She lives and works in New York State.