My wife said, "I'm thinking of changing my name."

We were sitting side by side in the last seats of an air-conditioned bus. She always walked straight to the last seat, and I always followed her there. We'd been doing this for years.

The hot craziness of the city welled up in every window. It was as if each were showing a different frame of a horror movie.

I took my wife's hand and said, "I like your name. It makes me think of you."

She didn't say anything. She didn't even laugh. We'd spent so much time sitting beside each other on buses like this we could almost communicate telepathically.

"I never liked my name," she said finally. "It holds me back. It keeps me from doing so much in life. I could be somebody else."

"That might work," I said. "You might change your name and become somebody else, but that's probably very rare."

"Maybe if I knocked a letter off the beginning or end. A single letter. A consonant."

"Why do you want to be somebody else?"

"You can honestly tell me you don't?"

She fell into a silence, tapping her fingers on the seat in front of us. She had never, to my knowledge, been a finger-tapper. She was changing before my eyes.

When the bus arrived at our stop the driver opened the door, and the city bounded in and smothered us with heat.

So we hopped out and started walking. There were people everywhere. There were so many people moving up and down the street it felt like we were robbing one another's air. There wasn't an unbreathed pocket of air in that city.

A man lay on the sidewalk, his skinny legs shining like a girl's. It was as if they had suddenly withered in the heat and he fell down and went to sleep.

I said, "Shouldn't we do something? Call someone?"

My wife said, "That guy's always there. He lives in a box."

"A box? I don't see any box."

"Maybe somebody stole it."

"Jesus, that's awful. I wonder what his name is."

"You think he still has one?"

We kept going. My wife had to sign some papers at a lawyer's office. She'd inherited the house we'd been living in for years. It was hers now. She just had to sign some papers.

"Artists and singers and writers change their names," she said. "It happens every day. No one makes a fuss about it. They change their names and become someone else - some separate personality that was hiding inside them. Maybe we all have one of those."

"I don't know," I said.

"You think you know who you are, but what if you were someone else and you didn't know it?"

"Your name is who you are," I said.

"Everybody knows your name, but nobody knows who you are."

"This is more confusing than I thought," I admitted.

We got to the lawyer's office. In the elevator I said, "So you are you, and I'm me, but that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with our names - though if you happen to have the wrong name, it can hurt you, it can hold you back. You've taken me that far. But, wait a minute, didn't your mother know who you were when you were a tiny baby and she named you?"

"I don't think you know what you're talking about?"

"Names have power," I said. "They mean something."

"They mean something when you're dead," said my wife.

"What? What?"

"When you're dead, it's all you have left."

The lawyer was waiting for us in his office. My wife signed his papers, and just like that she owned our house.

"That's your name there," I said, pointing.

"Yes, I signed my own name," said my wife.

Then she turned to the lawyer and said, "We were discussing the significance of names as we rode up in the elevator."

The lawyer said, "Know what? I have a theory about names. If you change your name, you change your destiny."

"That could be true," said my wife.

I thought, "Peeing in the right urinal instead of the left urinal changes your destiny," but I was too afraid of the lawyer to say it.

We got in the elevator and went down to the street. My wife had her homeowner papers in her backpack. Her name was signed at the bottom.

"If you changed your name," I said, "I might feel like I don't know you."

"No less than you know me now."

"I don't know," I said. "I don't know."

The sun was burning my hair. My wife was walking too fast. I was suffocating on the fumes coming out of a hundred thousand tailpipes. The grit of the city flew into my eyes and mouth.

"I need something to drink," I said.

We went into a restaurant, and I bought a bottle of apple juice.

"All the workers are wearing name tags," I said.


"So you could write whatever you want on those things. You could make up a false identity and pin it right to your shirt."

"That's one way of going crazy."

"Speaks the woman who wants to change her name."

"So now I'm going crazy? Is that what you're saying?"

"I didn't say anything about crazy. You did. You want some of this?"

I passed her the bottle of apple juice. She took a sip and gave it back like she didn't even notice she was doing it.

"You don't want any more than that?" I said.

"I'm fine."

"You sure?"

"I only had that sip because I knew you'd hector me if I didn't. You don't relent. In my opinion apple juice is for babies."

"You don't give apple juice to babies," I said. "God, it's nothing but sugar water. It'll rot their teeth out."

She looked at me and said, "Babies don't have teeth."

"But when they come in. When they cut a tooth or two. They're very delicate."

"Since when do you know about babies?"

"I don't know anything about babies. Not really."

We were walking again. A city worker was breaking up the sidewalk with a jack hammer. In such heat something like that could be terrifying. My teeth rattled. My skull swished around inside my head.

We skirted the jack hammer and ran across the road.

"Don't change your name," I said.

"Shit, I think it might storm later on."

"Your name is your name."

"You don't relent."

We sat on the edge of a fountain and waited for the bus to come. When the bus came I followed my wife to the last seat and sat down.

"Let me see those papers," I said.

She unzipped her backpack and took the papers out.

"I can't believe these things mean you own our house," I said.

"You don't believe in anything."

"That's not exactly true," I reminded her.

"OK, you believe in death."

"That and the mystery of names."

"I suppose you just made that up on the spot?"

"Yeah, I guess it just came out of me from somewhere. I didn't even know I was going to say it."

I read through the legal papers. My wife was right. I didn't believe in them. They were absurd. I didn't believe in anything.

"It's not that I don't believe in this stuff," I said. "I believe in its power over me, I just don't accept it as part of reality."

"You don't believe in anything you can't put inside your mouth."

I looked at her. "Is that an insult?"

"You should be asking yourself that question, not me."

I saw my wife's signature at the bottom of the page.

"Well, there's your name," I said.

"That name now owns our house."

We got off the bus and walked to our house in the blinding heat. We'd been living there for so long I could barely see the place anymore.

"I don't own this house," said my wife, opening the front door with her key. "My name owns this house."

"That makes no sense whatsoever. Is your name somehow apart from you? Does it exist in this world?"

"See? You don't believe in anything you can't put in your mouth."

"Stop attacking me."

"My name is a legal agreement," she said. "The state chooses to recognize me legally as represented by my name, and also various numbers assigned to that name. My friends, on the other hand, call me whatever the hell they want, as you may have noticed."

The inside of the house was cool and dark. The south side was banked by tall mature pine trees, which my wife's father had planted with his hands. He'd tended to them when they were saplings. He'd watered them daily during the hot months. And now he was dead. His name was on his tombstone for anyone to see.