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by any other name

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The year was 1964, and Baby hadn’t told any of the girls in her South Hadley home that she could count the times she’s heard her real name on one hand. It wasn’t their fault, of course—they were all great women, women with big plans and bright ideas, and even their strict house mother had a sense of humor that would make Baby’s father crack a smile. But whenever Baby heard, hey, someone tell Frances supper is ready, or Franny should come out with us tonight, she had to take a moment to remind herself that that was her.

She didn’t think twice about keeping her nickname from the other girls. She introduced herself as Fran, but that didn’t seem to stick—it was either Frances, which sounded a bit too chic to Baby, or Franny, which she detested. Franny was hardly a step up from Baby. Fran sounded like the sort of name that demanded respect. Fran was strong, powerful.

“Franny, there’s a man on the phone for you,” said Carol, popping her blonde head into the bedroom Baby shared with Sue, a senior girl. Carol grinned, snapping her gum lasciviously. “His voice is so deep.”

Baby tried to ignore the nickname as her heart thumped wildly in her chest. “Thanks,” she said, getting up from her bed, political science books scattering onto the floor. The hall phone was too public for any kind of telephone romance, but if the house mother was downstairs, the other girls would try to give a girl some privacy.

“Hello?” Her hand was sweaty on the receiver.

Did I hear her call you Franny?” Johnny’s voice was deep and smooth, tinged in a hint of humor he didn't let loose too often.

Baby blushed down to her toes. “Unfortunately. Don’t make a habit of it.”

Johnny laughed, and Baby could hear dishes clattering and people chattering in the background. She realized with a start that the summer season had begun—not her summer season; it was still spring for college kids and she still had three weeks of class. But dancers, servers, and staff were already filtering into resorts to get ready for three months of go, go, go.

“Johnny,” she said, words sticking in her throat, “I forgot. I’m sorry.”

Don’t be,” Johnny said easily, and she’s known him long enough to know when he’s telling the truth. “Remember in October when I forgot about your first Civic Engagement exam and sent you flowers a week late?” Baby did remember, and it was lovely—they were pink carnations, her favorite. She wasn’t hurt at all. “Don’t think I’m lettin’ you off the hook about the Franny business.

Baby groaned, drawing a titter from the girls sitting in the living room. “I can’t go by Baby forever. You know that.” She twirled the phone cord around her finger. “I’ve got to grow up sometime.”

I think you’re plenty grown,” Johnny said, voice husky, sending a shiver down Baby’s spine. “Tell me, do you feel like a Baby or do you feel like a Franny?

“I’ll never feel like a Franny,” Baby said with a laugh.

And thank god for that,” Johnny said. “Hurry up and finish your first year, Baby. I miss you.

Ginny, one of the girls from the third floor, passed by on her way to the living room. As she rounded the corner, Baby heard her whisper, “Oh my goodness, he called her Baby,” to the other girls, starting a peal of muffled laughter.

Baby just smiled, biting her lip. “I’ll hurry,” she said. “And I’ve been practicing my moves all year.”

After that, nobody called her Frances or Franny again. She’d be forever known as Baby, the girl with the deep-voiced boyfriend who danced.

 

The year was 1971, and Baby was on an airplane coming into Albany International Airport from Addis Ababa, where she’d been assigned to for the past two and half years. She already spent the first half of the fourteen-hour flight trying not to cry, sandwiched between businessmen and fellow Corps volunteers. She didn’t even know what she was aching for—was she happy to be in America again? Was she sad to leave Ethiopia, one of the most amazing countries she’d ever seen, behind?

Deep down, she knew why her chest ached. She was coming home to her parents, to her bed and three hearty meals a day, and Johnny was still getting shot at overseas in a war Baby protested.

Baby was a different person completely, her hair tied back under a bandana, her skin tanned, her muscles toned. She’d seen and done things she never imagined she would. She didn’t regret a second of it. But she felt so hollow, like the past twenty-seven months were a dream, like she’d forget it all once she stepped off the plane.

Spoiled little Baby, she thought bitterly. Sandra, the woman who was assigned the same location as Baby and became her fast friend, was asleep next to her. Sandra was a single mother a two, a devout Catholic, a woman who put her life and family on hold to help people in need. Look where you are now, College Girl. Back in the world you wanted to leave.

Her parents and Lisa would be waiting at the airport—they bought her flight home, after all. Baby was practicing her excited homecoming smile already; they expected it, they needed it. Her mother sent her letter after letter describing how some Corps volunteers came home shell-shocked like soldiers, like Johnny, whose letters never stopped, even though they were weeks late by the time they made their runaround path from country to country, from continent to continent. They came heavily censored but still smelling so vaguely of Johnny’s skin—not his cologne, but the natural smell of him that didn’t even dissipate in the Laotian wetlands.

Baby wasn’t shell-shocked. She didn’t have to stare down the barrel of a gun every day.

Sandra jolted awake as the plane eased into a landing. “Home,” she breathed, a smile spreading across her face. Her mother and children would be waiting for her.

Baby tried to smile back, but she was never a very convincing liar. All she had was a carry-on, so she was able to head right from tarmac to terminal, body numb the entire way. A part of her wanted to avoid the whole scene and take a bus home, tell her family her flight came in early and she didn’t want to bother them, but she knew her father wouldn’t believe her, and she could already hear Lisa’s scandalized voice—“You took the city bus alone?

She looked up, shielding her eyes from the sun, but instead of her parents and sister, she saw Johnny Castle leaning against a bay of pay phones in blue jeans and work boots, looking like everything Baby went to sleep dreaming about every night she was away.

“Johnny,” she blurted out, much to the chagrin of the old couple walking next to her. Her steps quickened, battered carry-on banging against her hip. “Johnny, Johnny…”

He met her halfway, his big arms encircling her waist and lifting her off the ground. “Yeah, it’s me,” he said into her neck, nose buried in her hair. “I know. You hate surprises.” He set her down, face and neck flushing—he was still shy about affection in public. Baby felt a surge of love for him.

“When?” She was crying, but she didn’t care.

Johnny wiped her tears away with his thumbs, laughing softly. “Eight days ago. I’m okay, I swear it, really. Just gotta watch the shoulder for a while.” He rolled his arm back with a wince.

Baby knew that two years before, the idea of Johnny getting shot or injured on the battlefield would’ve sent her into hysterics; she’d be hyperventilating on the floor, crying like a child. But she prepared herself for this. There were no radios or TV or books to keep her entertained in Ethiopia—she only had her daydreams and nightmares. She smoothed her hands down Johnny’s chest. “Does it hurt? Be honest.”

Johnny shook his head, a lock of hair falling into his eyes. “Only when I laugh.”

For a moment, they just looked at each other, then they both broke out laughing. It was a good laugh—tears rolling down their cheeks, sides aching, Johnny holding Baby up so she didn't pass out. Then Johnny wrapped her up in his arms again, holding her close, the noise of the airport fading away around them.

“This is different,” he whispered, chin resting on top of her head. “Not bad. Just different.”

We’re different,” Baby said. The revelation didn’t hurt. The truth couldn’t hurt her anymore.

“Yeah,” Johnny agreed. Without her even realizing it, Johnny was swaying her gently, their feet hardly even moving—a slow, sweet dance, shared just between the two of them. “But can I still call you Baby?”

Baby closed her eyes and smiled. “Always.”

 

The year was 1973, and Baby was far too pregnant to dance.

“I feel like you’re gonna fall right over,” Johnny said from where he was putting together the crib on the living room floor. He was only about halfway done, but he’d already abandoned his shirt and crumpled the instructions three times. “You really should sit down more.”

“Oh, should I?” Baby teased, putting the finishing touches on her letter to Lisa, who was on her honeymoon with a nice oncology doctor from New Brunswick. “If I sit down anymore, I’ll go crazy.” She stood up to put her letter on the counter for the next day’s post, swaying gently from side to side to the beat of the Marvin Gaye song on the radio. “I like this one. Seems like a song that would get us in trouble in the practice room at Kellerman’s.”

Johnny snorted out a laugh, tossing the instructions on the floor before standing. “I think it already got us into enough trouble,” he said, coming up behind his wife and pressing his big, warm palms to her swollen belly.

“No, that was “Let's Get It On",” Baby said, leaning back into his touch. “Pretty apt.” She hummed along to the song, letting Johnny’s warmth envelope her. They’d danced hundreds of times since getting back to New York—at parties and socials, in bars and clubs, in their home, at their wedding. There were no more lifts (Johnny’s shoulder wouldn’t allow it) or, more recently, high heels (Baby’s swollen ankles wouldn’t allow it), but there would always be dancing. “I’m ready to meet her.”

Johnny smiled against her neck. “Or him.”

“Definitely a girl,” Baby said with a firm nod, making Johnny laugh. “We need a name.”

“How about,” Johnny said, gently spinning Baby out on the kitchen floor, her feet automatically forming a slow waltz, “Baby?”

“Good lord,” Baby said. “Poor kid.”

“No, I mean it,” Johnny said. He tugged her back in, their hips swaying in time. On another night, they’d already be in bed, but the conversation was turning serious. “It’s a good name. Good enough for you.”

“It’s a nickname,” Baby said, but she was already turning it over in her head. Babe for a boy, maybe, she thought, even though neither of us are baseball fans. And I suppose Barbara for a girl would allow the nickname. “I didn’t ask for it.”

Johnny’s movements stilled. He turned Baby around to face him. His mouth was turned into a quiet, secret smile. “And it’s lasted a lifetime. So far, I s’pose.”

“Baby,” Baby whispered to herself, snuggling into Johnny’s chest. Their little one kicked a bit between them, putting up a fuss as usual. “How I’ve tried to get rid of that damn name.”

“And how it just seems to stick,” Johnny said, stroking her hair. The music played on, the song fading out and the radio announcer bringing out the next one. Their apartment was never quiet; there were too many people arguing and babies crying, foods cooking, music playing. But it was theirs.

“I’ll think about it,” Baby said, but knew that whoever their child would become, they’d be a Baby, just like their mother.

And with Johnny, she was weirdly okay with it.