My Name Is Barbara, by Carolyn Southard
All of my life I’ve been mistaken for someone named Barbara. It started back in grade school, when one of my teachers called me “Barbara” on the first day and then continued to do it no matter how many times I squeaked, “I’m Carolyn.” It went on for so long that she finally gave up calling me anything and would just clear her throat and point at me when she wanted me to speak. In high school, people always told me that I looked just like Barbara, who they’d known at another school or in another state. When I was in my early twenties and still easily intimidated by sophisticated people, there was one very famous local publisher who insisted on calling me “Barbara” every time I managed to get an invitation to one of the many glittering parties at his manor house. He would do it in a very lordly way ~ a dramatic sweep of one hand and “Ah, I see Barbara is joining us!” I was far too awed to correct him, even after I realized that he knew perfectly well what my name was and that he was mis-naming me on purpose. Was it some kind of test? Was it punishment for reminding him of someone named “Barbara”, someone who he clearly didn’t like? The old Groucho Marx “how dare you look like someone I hate” joke? Who knows? He left off doing it eventually, but the damage was done, as far as I was concerned.
When I lived in San Francisco, I was constantly approached by people who were so happy to see “Barbara!” until they got closer and saw it was me, whoever I was. Even when I changed my hair color, it still happened now and then. I always wondered who “Barbara” was and if people ever rushed up to her, shouting, “Carolyn!” I didn’t think so – surely one of my friends would have mentioned it over the years? Nobody ever told me that they’d seen someone who looked just like me, and none of the “Barbaras” that I met looked anything like me.
Barbaras aside, I’ve also always had problems going to movies by myself. I don’t know why, but the strangest things happen to me in movie theaters. Not just the usual things, like the person with the giant hair who sits down in front of you just before the movie starts, when the theater is full and there’s nowhere to go, or the person who kicks your seat all through the movie. I got those too, but it doesn’t stop with them, oh no.
Years ago, before I had entirely given up going to movies alone, I went by myself to see a scary movie. I can’t remember what it was now – something with a vampire – but I was forced to go alone because none of my friends liked scary movies and all of them flatly refused to accompany me. But I was determined, back in those halcyon days, so one sunny Saturday I stood in line, got my ticket, and went in alone to the comfortingly-empty lobby. Got my popcorn, took a deep breath, and headed for the door to the theater.
The theater itself was fairly empty and I swept the room with my eyes, looking for a likely spot. The floor sloped upwards towards the back, so a seat in the middle of the room promised a view over any heads in front of me; also, most of the people in the theater seemed to be in the first two or three rows – the true horror fans, no doubt. I checked out the back of the theater and found that the last row, against the wall, was entirely occupied from one end to the other. Aha, thought I – and there are the people who want to avoid their chairs being kicked through the whole movie. (Where you sit in a theater says a lot about you, apparently.) Otherwise there was a scattering of people throughout the room, mostly in twos and threes, and nobody at all sitting in the middle. I headed for there, the Promised Land, and sat down, keeping an eye in both directions in case any large noisy groups arrived and headed my way.
Everything was pretty quiet for a while – soft background music, dim lighting, people talking in whispers. I actually began to relax and think maybe everything would be ok this time. A few people came and sat down, nowhere near me, and a couple of people in my line of sight made trips to the lobby and returned bearing munchies, but otherwise all was well in my small world. The lights dimmed a bit more, getting ready to go out completely with the start of the movie.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone come down the aisle and stop at the row I was sitting in, all by myself. It was a male person. He looked around for a while and then turned into my row and started walking towards where I was sitting. I stared stonily ahead, thinking, well, so he sits in the same row, big deal, not a problem. But he didn’t sit down until he was right next to me, and then he plopped down and spread out like he belonged there. I was so surprised that I froze on the spot, staring straight ahead. After a second or two he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “You’re pretty cute, baby.”
I didn’t even look at him – I just stood up, popcorn box in hand, turned around, stomped about ten seats away, and sat down in a big huff, staring straight ahead. I have very wide peripheral vision and could see, out of the corner of one eye, that he was staring at me, and I thought, oh no, am I going to have to call an usher for help?? Then he leaned forward and seemed to be looking at the seats leading down to the first row. And then he turned around and looked back, towards the wall. I rotated my head a bit to get a better view. He stood up, walked back to the aisle, and then walked down about a dozen rows, where he turned and walked over to almost the same position he’d been at when he sat down next to me. I was watching with interest now. There was a woman sitting at the seat that he stopped at; she looked up and said something to him. He did a for-real double-take and looked back at me, then at her again, and at me yet again, and then he shouted in my direction, “Jesus, lady, I’m sorry! I thought you were my girlfriend!”
The whole wall-side back row behind me busted up laughing – apparently they’d been watching the whole thing. The girlfriend turned around and looked back at me, while the guy kept shouting apologies. People who hadn’t seen anything began turning around to see what was so funny and why that guy in Row 7 keeps yelling “sorry” over and over. The girlfriend – who, it must be said, could easily have been me from behind, called out to me, “A good start for a horror movie, isn’t it?” That was the last time I went to a movie by myself.
Years later, at a dry cleaners in a small mid-valley California town, I was picking up my clothes when I realized I had left my wallet in the car. In order to get it I had to walk past a group of what looked like young, scary gang-bangers, lounging about by some very funky lowriders. It was too late to avoid walking right past them – going around would have just called attention to myself – so I carried on, figuring they had no reason to bother a middle-aged woman like me. I was old enough to be their mother, every last one of them. As I passed them, one of them said, “Lookin’ good, homegirl!” This was really the last thing I expected to hear. I was so surprised I stopped, looked at the kid, said, “Thank you!” and walked on, not looking back. Got my wallet and steeled myself for Walk No. 2, which would for sure have to be right past them this time, but as I approached I could see they were all grouped up talking to each other and looking at me in a very funny way. When I got up to them, the one who’d spoke said, “Lady, I’m sorry, I thought you were my buddy’s mother! You look just like her!”
Sometimes when the Universe is playing a little joke on you, it likes to play the joke on the other people too. What I said next came straight from the Great Comeback Department of the Cosmic Clearing House – I could never have thought of it myself. I said, “Wow, now I’m bummed.” Young banger boy, looking concerned, said, “Why?” I replied, “For a minute there, I thought I was cute and groovy again.”
When everybody, including me, had stopped laughing, I asked the kid, “What’s your buddy’s mother’s name?” He said, “Her name is Barbara.” I said, “Tell her Carolyn said hello. We’re old friends.”
Carolyn has been writing ever since she learned how ~ her first story was written in second grade (for which she received an “A+”). She has another story published, in 59Five Publishing’s “Winter” selection, available online at issuu.com. Despite the lack of publishing to her credit, she persists stubbornly.
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Tags: Carolyn Southard, identity, mistakes