I love words. I like how they taste, how you can roll them around in your mouth or snap them between your teeth or melt them on your tongue when you write. I can feel them, the outline of them and the shape; I can feel their weight and their give. I know their nooks and crannies, I know how to use the spaces between them, I know commas and colons and em dashes like old friends. Sometimes I think I love words more than the sentences they make.
Listen, I really like words. Down to the letter.
The name on my birth certificate is Kate Wang Tam, Kate with a K. My mother named me after Cate Blanchett.
“She was not the typical actress—always played strong, smart, independent roles,” my mom explained.
So my dad was the one who changed it to a K?
“Your dad didn’t want you to spend your entire life telling people how to spell your name,” she said. “I guess I wanted you to be different—he wanted you to blend in.”
Despite my father’s efforts, I will most likely spend my entire life telling people how to spell my name. This is because I care too much about words—down to the letter. In second grade, I decided that I wanted my name to be written with a C instead. Earlier that year, I had toyed with names like Laura and Clara, disyllabic names that I could roll in my mouth like a lozenge with their l’s and their r’s, the a’s at the end suggesting a certain feminine elegance I felt my own name lacked. “Kate” was too short, too sharp. There was nothing pretty about it; where Laura was sweet and full, “Kate” was naked, angular, and dry. Kate was boring.
My parents put me in summer school that year. My mom came to pick me up one day and told the teacher she was here for Kate Tam. The teacher was confused. She didn’t have a Kate in her class.
“That’s her,” my mom said, pointing at me.
“Oh, you mean Laura!” the teacher said.
I had gone by Laura the whole day, writing the name in the corner of all my drawings, trying it on for size. Shortly afterward, I became taken with the name Clara, which was essentially just Laura with a C at the beginning. However, as much as I loved these names that felt and tasted like candy in comparison to mine, I never really felt that they were meant for me: dresses never look as good on you as they do on the mannequin. “Cate” was my compromise.
“All the things you like started with C: candy, cookies, cake,” my mom explained when I asked her what reason I had given for wanting to change my name. “You also liked the rounded form of the C. You didn’t like how angular the K was.”
“Wow,” was all I could think to reply. I had hoped that my younger self might have had a better justification for the sudden change, for adopting the new spelling so absolutely that none of my classmates next year knew my real name, for being so insistent that even my teachers humored me and allowed me to write my name how I wanted to on my assignments, for having the school (and the school after that) change my name in their official records, for disassociating myself from “Kate” so completely that my dad helped me legally change my name when I was fifteen, but no. I liked desserts and I thought the letter K was too spiky. That was it.
Or maybe it was this: I liked to read. I liked to read a lot. I woke up at six in the morning every weekend to read. I would sit on the couch and read until everyone was awake and even then I wouldn’t stop. I would read walking around the house, up and down the stairs, in the bathroom. My parents both told me, independently of each other, that I should probably stop reading in the bathroom. I did not. I was addicted to books, to stories and sentences. Let me tell you, when you’re that obsessed with reading, you will become equally obsessed with words. And what is a name if not a word that denotes you? I had absorbed and processed so many words that letters began to take on weight of their own, assuming distinctive textures and tastes: Cate is bright and crisp, as short as “Kate” but not so stark. It’s softer. Still tart but not too acidic.
My obsession with words sometimes gets me into trouble. My ninth-grade English teacher was Mr. Ralston, a generally encouraging but blunt and incredibly picky middle-aged man who loved his dog and had very strong opinions about literature. After giving me As on nearly every assignment I turned in that year, he wrote on my report card:
Cate, it pains me to have to give you a B+ in English for the semester, but I’m afraid I must. Both papers of your final exam continued a trend you began earlier this semester: trying to make essay-writing into personal, creative expression. Analytic writing must be well-structured and, above all, persuasive. Take the challenge seriously and I know you will master it.
After stewing in equal parts furious indignity and feelings of inadequacy for a few days, I re-read my final essay, realized it was indeed mediocre at best, and decided I would “take the challenge seriously.” In 10th grade, I learned to kill my darlings (well, most of them). I learned how to structure an essay and the paragraphs within the essay and the sentences within the paragraphs, not caring so much about the words that formed those sentences. My 10th grade English teacher loved my writing. Students in her other section told me that she constantly brought up my essays in their class; it became a bit of a running joke. “Ms. Salhab loves you,” they would marvel, laughing. I laughed it off with them, but I felt a swell of pride whenever it happened; I was so happy to be good at English again. I don’t really remember anything I wrote that year.
I cared too much about how the words tasted, how they fit together and broke apart, more than anything else. My school’s English rubric did not care about how words tasted. It cared about knowledge and understanding and organization and presentation. All I wanted was for people to want to read my writing. I wanted to build sentences around words I loved instead of choosing words to fit the sentence. I wanted to make the letters dance.
I love the unbounded possibilities that words give us, I do. But I also love their atoms, their stardust. How the letters look on the page. How the syllables feel against your teeth when you mouth them as you write. To me, a kid who became obsessed with the word “milkweed” in second grade because I loved how it broke so delicately against the roof of my mouth, words are more than what is written beneath them in the dictionary. Words are also letters. Lines and loops and arcs and plosives and fricatives and sibilants. I think this is too often forgotten. Is it so wrong to love the stars more than the constellation?