Image: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr
If you know me, and chances are you do not, you’ve probably heard me say “I’m from the ’90s.” This one statement encompasses all you need to hear to get to the center of who I am. Of course, you need to know what I mean, which is not at all clear from that statement, but, being from the ’90s, I’m also often averse to explaining myself. Allow me to explain.
“I’m from the ’90s” is a blanket statement of authenticity, as opposed to being, well, not from the ’90s. It’s a joke insofar as everything I say is, but it also tells you a lot about me. It’s not ironic, so much as it is both a point of pride (I am authentic) and a point of self-deprecation (authenticity is bullshit). I am self-deprecating not because I am from the ’90s but because I am from Pittsburgh.
A general observation: people from Pittsburgh and from the ’90s (meaning the 25 people I know and grew up with) are so focused on “being themselves” that we often are stubborn about things like success. Being successful must, in some way, be evidence of having sold out, of having diluted your essence, of having well, failed yourself in some way. I never bought into this observation all the way, even though it is, in fact, my own observation, but I have known plenty of people just like this: smart, artistic characters who never try too hard because trying too hard is evidence that you care, and caring is like, whatever, man.
But I am, in fact, a person who cares plenty. I’ve fought against myself at every juncture in adulthood, pushed back at the idea, so deeply rooted inside of who I am and where I’ve come from, that trying too hard is bad. That one should simply float through life, allowing whatever waves of misfortune or good fortune to wash over me, to just live life as it comes, to remain somehow who I was and always have been.
But I’m not who I was. I’m not the same teenager who sat in her room in the 1990s wondering how I could be both a writer and never fail at writing, who couldn’t envision anything other than a joke narrative of my own, often very sad existence. I could joke about the sad state of my affairs—broken home, alcoholics all around—though I couldn’t, as a ward of the world, not yet of myself, do anything about it yet. But could I make something else, something beside an amateur stand-up routine, out of the bare facts of my existence?
It is, perhaps, then, no mistake that I ended up publishing under what is, for most purposes, a fake name. My given name—Laura June Dziuban—and my married one—Laura June Topolsky—discarded in favor of something “simpler,” something to divorce me from association with both my husband and my Polishness. I moved away from myself, I made a new name, and though it was a split-second decision, as the years have worn on, the name I chose became my own.
When I left Pittsburgh, I didn’t like it very much. It’s where I was from, and life hadn’t really been very generous to me yet. Many of the good things about my life today were still in the future. I left Pittsburgh with a different name and worse credit, and when, soon after I moved I chose a new one, it wasn’t, I would point out, “totally fake.” But it was, I knew, fake enough.
But it took me another 7 years to write anything about myself, pushed over the edge by the life-changing magic of childbirth and motherhood, and that was when, I realized, the name was a blessing. Here, with this fake name, basically Google-proof. If you knew me when I was 10, you had to know who you were looking for in order to find me. I wasn’t hiding, exactly. But thinking back on it now, I realize, to a great extent, that fake byline, “Laura June,” gave me the freedom, the distance from who I was, to be who I am.
I haven’t lived in Pittsburgh for more than a decade and now, when I go back, I can see its charm. Its beauty, its culture. I gloss over the wrinkles, the cracks, the annoying characters, the memories that verge on nightmares. The body count. I paved over the old Pittsburgh with the new one: my parents now grandparents, driving my daughter up to the playground of my old elementary school. I don’t cringe and recall the time I was thrown up on during recess, but now I think of my daughter, a fat baby, swinging on those same swings I once swung upon, holding a friend’s baby cousin in my arms, before falling over backwards, hitting my head, and dropping the baby. If I do remember these things, anyway, they don’t sting like they did for decades longer than they should have.
I’m not who I used to be, I’ve changed. And in that, I’ve accepted who I was and where I came from. I see now that I lived a long time afraid of being anything other than myself, that I clung to who I was rather than thinking about who I could be. There’s no big lesson here, or if there is, I don’t even know who could benefit or make use of it other than me. I don’t want to let go of the past, I want to connect it to now. I don’t want to forget who I was, but I do want to contain her and keep her at a distance. I don’t want to be from the ’90s, I want to be from now. And the only person my fake name ever mattered to knows now that choosing a fake name wasn’t the big deal it seemed; growing into it was.
FAKES is The Awl’s year-end holiday series for 2017. You can read the whole collection here.