man in hooded sweatshirt
Award Winners Creative Non-Fiction

Cree

What the hell did you do to your hair?

My father had just whipped back the hood of my sweatshirt, something I’d been hoping the whole morning no one would do.

Ladies and gentlemen. Flight 317 to Los Angeles will be boarding rows 23 through 27.

My mother chimed in.

Ian! You’ve ruined it!

I sat between both parents at Gate C 7 waiting for my row to be called for forty-five minutes. From our seats, we could see the runway littered with rain puddles and planes taxiing around like lost wet dogs. My mother and father insisted on coming with me to the gate to see me off, something I normally would have been fine with but today was different.

My father shrugged his shoulders, still bulky in their 55 years, and shook his head of whitening hair.

Well, you’re on your own now, you can do whatever you want.

My mother stared at my hair like it’d been turned to snakes. Her dark eyes weren’t scorched with anger as she took in my new look, but gave more space to a look of awe. Tucked beneath a grey corduroy baseball cap was creamy blonde hair that reached the nape of my neck. Yesterday it had been its usual chestnut brown.

Why did you do that to yourself?

I had no merited response other than I just wanted to.

My hair wouldn’t have looked unusual to just my parents. Since my father is white, more so than milk, with his strong Irish heritage, while my mother is dark chocolate brown, the common skin-color of her native Peru, between them I was a strange blend of chocolate milk. In my own features, it looks like there is a struggle for racial familiarity: pale brown skin, light brunette hair, soft but sturdy bone structure, and big but not thick lips. The struggle was real.

I squirmed in my seat. My scalp still felt hot and tender from the dye. My parents’ usual response to things was anger, well-intentioned most of the time, but still anger nonetheless. Much of it came from the irritation nestled between them for long as I could remember, underlined by my father winning the game of “where should we live?” after they were married, the prize being a small logger town in one of the wettest states of the country. Even though there were enough times their volatility extended towards me, this time I may have overloaded their neural networks by going blonde.

The announcement for my rows of seating came overhead which gave me the window to stand up, give them hugs, my love, my promises to call. Flight 317 would be taking me to my Freshman year of college in Los Angeles, the only place I’d wanted to go since I was thirteen years old. I was moving away from a life in the Northwest to a new one where no one knew me, where I could fill in the blanks as I pleased. The new hair was a start.

Outside my window the sky was a block of deep blue, something uncommon in Washington state. I looked beneath the wing of the plane where far below the Pacific Ocean matched the sky’s hue and contrasted against the rolling faded green hills of the California coast line. I read the whole flight while intermittently fantasizing about how life was going to be. I’d altered my wardrobe to include baggy pants, skater shoes, sweatshirts, and plenty of t-shirts to wear over long-sleeved ones. I looked like a snowboarder from the Northwest although I didn’t snowboard as much as I did in my head. It was a look that I’d syphoned from my high school roommate, Chris, who was from Alaska and probably snowboarded more than he did in his head. He was everything I wanted to be – extroverted, witty, cunning, creative, stylish, and an individual. Those traits became their opposites when applied to me; now was my chance to reverse that.

I wasn’t thinking about Chris in that moment as I sat staring out the window. I was thinking about the kind of characteristics people like him had, the kind I wanted to take on. As I thought about the opportunity to become someone more like whom I wanted to be it dawned on me that I could use a new name. I’d wanted to change Ian for so many years and now that opportunity was right before me.

I think I was born wanting to be born someone else, a desire that stemmed perhaps from my not inheriting the name of John Morris McClelland, a name had by three generations of patriarchs ahead of me. Instead, I was Ian, and even though it was the Scottish counterpart to John, I felt robbed enough to start signing my homework as such, thus causing me to flunk two weeks of kindergarten.

Even in the early years of school I had the inclination to want to be more like my classmates and friends. I not only wanted a name like theirs, I wanted their sleek Nikes and bright-colored Converse, their stylish neon-checkered windbreakers and tapered Levi Jeans, along with their glow-in-the-dark watches and complete collections of GI Joes. I even wanted the same snacks of Pop Tarts or Fruit Rollups, things I would sometimes trade all my lunch money for. I mimicked the way they walked and talked. I learned pop stars’ names, song titles, and television plotlines, pretending that I, too, held and had access to these same interests. Whatever it was that persisted in me to mirror others, it made me feel like a hole needing to be filled.

Ladies and gentlemen, the seatbelt light is now on as we’ll be making our descent to Los Angeles. We should touch ground in about twenty minutes.

The Captain’s announcement seemed to put a timer on my new challenge. I remember when I was five I wanted to be called Mike. That wouldn’t do. Eric? Brady? Lane? I was looking for something with a concreteness to it, something that evoked a character, a persona, like when musicians would change their names to ones that captured their spirit, style, and personality.

I felt the plane drop giving me that tightness in my stomach, the same kind I got whenever a car I was in would go down a sudden big dip in the road. The wing outside the window tilted thirty degrees as we turned in the air, passing through tufts of white clouds, an effect I always wanted to be more like passing through a web of cotton candy. As the plane descended, the more antsy I got about picking a name. I wasn’t sure why I felt I needed to think one up before we landed but I suppose I was superstitious in the sense that it had to be done while still in the ethereal sky, that touching solid ground was birth and one needed to be named before being born. It was then that I remembered Chris. Memories came at me as did the serpentine freeways and their rivers of automobiles the closer the plane got to earth. I recalled one day when he asked me, “what do you think of the name, Cree?” He told me kids used to call him that in Kindergarten because they couldn’t pronounce Chris. Should he go by that? I immediately responded if he didn’t then I would because I thought it was the coolest name I’d ever heard. He never went by it. Right when the plane’s tires kissed and pressed against the heat shimmering landing strip is when I chose the name Cree to wear over my own.

I checked into my hotel, one where there was Spanish tile everywhere and a two-tiered fountain in the open court lobby. Palm trees grazed cool stone walls, jubilant flowers announced themselves around every corner. I didn’t know where to eat outside of the hotel and I was too shy to find the restaurant inside (I hadn’t tapped the inherent powers of “Cree” yet), so I ordered a hamburger from room service and watched television. Night was coming and with it the sounds of traffic, evening hollers, murmurs from behind closing room doors. I felt small. Foreign. Already a fake. Alone. I cried in a moment of sudden homesickness as I felt the wide canyon between my heart and the comforts of family a thousand miles away. A deep breath and I went to sleep beneath the heavy starched hotel comforter.

The taxi dropped me off in front of the college’s gleaming white chapel. My freshman orientation sheet had said to be at the campus by 11 am. The driver fumbled my whale-sized suitcase out from the trunk where I then took over pulling its weight on its wheels. I didn’t see anywhere to sign in as I stood in the top crescent of a circular driveway. St. Mary was next to me in full bleached stone, her hands lowered and open, her eyes cast to the ground. She looked cool under the high and hot sun. It didn’t help that I was in my Northwestern gear – a large green corduroy jacket, chunky cargo pants, a long-sleeved tee, Dock Martens, and my grey cap. The clothing felt like my armor even though I was sweating beneath them.

I rolled the suitcase over smooth curved walking paths past terra cotta roofed buildings that housed classrooms and offices. A sign that read “Main Office” perched before two huge glass doors that lead to endless hallway where the carpet muffled the swerves of my suitcase. I entered with caution one of the rooms where behind a large wooden counter sat a woman who took one look and directed me to a bench down the end of the hall in front of the one counselor’s offices. On that bench was another student, a young man dressed in similar garb to mine but appropriate for the weather with is lighter material baggy pants, airy shoes, tank top, and cotton hat. He also sported long blondish hair although his looked natural from time in the sun. Behind bee-like sunglasses he looked over at me and nodded as I sat.

“You lost, too?” he asked. I answered in the affirmative. We whipped up a small chat where I learned he was from San Diego, skateboarded, and surfed. It was a persistent dream of mine to surf so I immediately glommed onto him for information. I wrangled in my being from Washington State where I could only snowboard.

“Don’t worry man, we’ll get you out on the water.” This both thrilled me and filled me with some anxiety. My adeptness on snow was not even intermediate so I assumed he would be expecting a certain level of experience with balance were we ever to enter the ocean. I voiced my laid-back gratitude before a counselor came out and informed us where to go. They also noted my suitcase.

“Have you been to the dorms yet?” I shook my head. “You were supposed to go there first before coming here. I’ll drive you later.”

In one of the cool hallways of another building a long line of students moved along towards a row of tables set up with pamphlets and students who were making nametags. At the sight of the nametags I began to feel an extra rise in my pulse already high from being around the cacophony of the line with all its unknown faces. Thoughts of resistance pilfered my earlier excitement of rebranding myself with a new name, doubt banging away in my head.

This is ridiculous. This feels ridiculous. This is stupid. What should I do?

The name Cree felt like I’d picked out the wrong sized or colored shirt. Buyer’s remorse. As I got closer to the girl who was filling out the nametags which were large pieces of paper stuck to small sticks like flags for new citizenry, that same feeling of immediacy I had in the plane took over. It was as if I was choosing to jump out of a plane or not. I stepped up when it was my turn.

“Hi!” She was genuine in her enthusiasm and greeting. “Aren’t you hot in that jacket?

“No, I’m a bit cold actually.” I had no idea why I said that, why I lied.

“Really? It’s like over 80. What’s your name?” Her pen was poised over the nametag. I jumped out of the plane.

“Cree,” I said. I waited for a smirk or look of confusion.

“Seriously? That is an awesome name!” She asked me how to spell it and wrote it out slowly and deliberately before handing it to me. “Cree. Very cool. It’s nice to meet you.”

I held the name tag, a little in awe of seeing the name written down, a solidification of sorts settled into my being. The line continued towards the end of the hallway where two double doors opened out onto yellow-grassed lawn. We stepped out into the heavy afternoon heat, following a student leader to a distant soccer field.  On the other side of the field the landscape rolled itself out to the far edge of a titanic cliff. Above, the sky exploded and choked with blue, a blue that plunged to the far and deep horizon of the Pacific below.

I’d never seen anything like it. At home the views were of hillsides scratched to death by the tools of the logging trade, or long low wet-gray skies. Something in me moved, something disarming that recognized the immensity before and within me. For a moment, there was no me, no Ian, no Cree. There was no-thing. For a moment. After that, I recognized the tingling confines of my skin and thin thoughts.

On the field, we played games, the kind where people raced around cones while carrying eggs balanced on spoons, figuring which different-sized buckets of water would perfectly fill an even bigger bucket, before ending with the classic competition of tug-o-war.  We were then paired off and expected to interview our partners, the exercise meant to reveal commonalities, as if learning our favorite foods, colors, and movies, would forge bonds among us.

“Aren’t you hot, man?” We were parceled out in small groups across the grass, sitting and laying in the hot angled sunlight. I turned to the questioner who’d laid near me. The sun in my eyes, orange and yellow spots freckled my retinas. I could make out a young man’s lithe frame and the outline of a baseball cap. It was as if he had California itself in his DNA. 

“Nah, man – I’m good,” I smiled, offering that lie up for the second time that day. After a few seconds, I sensed if I didn’t say anything more it might seem rude.

“My name’s Cree.” Saying the name had gotten easier during introductions between the orientation games.

“Cree? Is that your real name?” Shit. I didn’t expect that. Someone was already calling me out and I hadn’t thought of an origin story yet. I remembered my old high school roommate Chris again, the memory of how he’d gotten the nickname.

“It’s from my middle name, Craig.” In truth, it was my middle name, and hopefully a sufficient substitution. “When I was little no one could say it, and it came out Cree.” Even as the words were spoken I felt fraudulent in every cell of my body.

“I can see that. Interesting.” His body leaned back and rested on his elbows, allowing me to get a better look of him in new light. Unmarked golden skin, sun-bleached blonde hair, blue laser eyes, knotty muscles. It was as if he had California in his DNA.

“What was your name?” I couldn’t remember if I’d overheard it earlier. He crossed his ankles, the little hairs on his legs gold silk in the sunlight.

“Chris.”

I felt my cheeks grow hot, the burn returning to the scabs on my scalp. Looking down I saw my shadow over the grass stretching away from me, as if wanting to find another better more solid host.  

“Nice to meet you, Chris.” His name felt pure, unfiltered on my tongue. The paper flag with my name on it looked childish and foolish. I felt the urge to rip off my coat while wanting to wallow deeper into it.

“You, too, man.” Bodies started to stand up around us. The call to head back to the main buildings landed on us from a bull-horn down the field. I stood, my legs numb and tingly. The earth felt unsteady, the sky overripe.

“Hey, do you board?” I didn’t want to answer his question. I wanted to be out of focus, to not be the lie standing next to the truth.

“Trying to, man. Might be pretty hard down here though.” I put my name flag in the inner pocket of my jacket.

“Dude, we have insane riding.” We walked behind a group of girls who all seemed to be wearing cut-off jean shorts and t-shirts with the sleeves rolled high. “It’s like two hours away. There’s a girl who’s trying to put together a snowboard club.”

I nodded. I even tried to put a little bounce in my step. “That sounds great. I’m definitely going to sign up.”

“I’ll point her out. She has like no eyebrows, super long and straight dark hair. I think I heard someone say she uses Mane N’ Tail or something.”

The students formed a line as if by instinct, ingrained from grade school days, making our way down the low-grade hill towards the building which we’d came out of earlier. On return we looked like Noah’s chosen ones, going two by two into the bowels of the Ark, bearers of the future.

I adjusted my hat tighter and bended the bill, hoping this creature “Cree” could be broken in the same way. The thing about a name is that it’s a transaction. Socially, psychologically. It’s like they biologically solidify you, giving you body, skin on your teeth. As humans, we persist to feed and multiply. Identity is not necessary for this. Ever since I can remember, I’ve hungered for identity as if it was survival. I was born wanting to be born someone else, which really, meant that I hadn’t been born yet.

Cree wasn’t a Frankenstein’s monster made up of multiple personas. It was a lie. In time, it would become a comfortable one until, like most monsters, it met its reluctant but inevitable end. Chris wandered off to speak to one of the student leaders. I walked alone towards the entrance. As the sun hit my back I found myself looking forward to the coolness inside. But I had to admit that yes, I was hot.

Ian McClelland
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Ian McClelland is a life student whose world is inhabited by film, books, and imagination while being immersed in the day-to-day emergencies of humans as an EMT. He finds meaning in his family, surfing, art, writing, and the mysteries of the human kingdom.