Baxter

Mandi Nyambi

Rebecca F. Elliott '14

When I call my brother to say that I’m thinking of writing about him in the magazine, he tells me he’s in Vail for the weekend with his new girlfriend. They rented skis and are staying in a small cabin; it’s cold, really cold. I explain to him how this Endpaper thing works—that I have a page to write just about anything—and that I’m thinking he might feature prominently.

“So it’s gonna be a page all about me?” Owen asks. “Sounds pretty sweet.” Then he promptly drops his phone in the snow. After a few muffled seconds: “Baxter, you there?”

*****

To my brother, I am no longer Rebecca. She left a handful of years ago (neither one of us remembers precisely when) to be replaced with Baxter: her slightly more eccentric, playful counterpart. It happened over a dinner conversation—one of those weeknight family affairs in our yellow-walled Manhattan apartment. Maybe we had just returned home sweaty and mud-stained from soccer practice, or else had been working on homework through the early evening. It may have been fajita night. Most of the details aren’t important, though. Except for these: Owen called me Baxter, I told him no—that it sounded more like a dog’s name than a person’s—he laughed, and the name stuck.

It began like just like that, as a way for Owen to annoy his older sister. To get back at her for all the years when her three-years-older self was able to pin him to the living room carpet and tickle him ’till he begged for mercy. But the title soon grew more serious. The nickname was catchy; even I didn’t deny that. My dad began to adopt it, and within a few months Owen had ceased calling me anything else. Baxter has a certain ring to it.

However, I generally stayed away from broadcasting the name. I suppose I viewed it in a similar way as I viewed the baby photos sprinkled around my house: mostly embarrassing, and somewhat endearing in the right context. Baxter was alright for family, but that was about it. As its usage became more commonplace, though, I would occasionally tell my friends about Baxter—bring it up as an entertaining family anecdote over dinner—and a silly grin would break out over their faces as they promised that they would never be able to keep a straight face if they ever actually heard me called Baxter.

I’ve asked my brother to explain the name’s origins to me a few times before, a request that always makes him smile. He eagerly obliges. The evolution went like this: Rebecca—Becca—Bec—Bax—Baxt—Baxter. “It makes total sense,” he always explains. “Also, it just sounds so much better. Baxt-er,” he will say slowly, emphasizing the twang in the first syllable.

For Owen, Baxter has moved from the realm of nickname to that of name. It is the identity he created for me, and it is one that I have grown into over the years.

Owen graduated last June, and it was an extravagant outdoor affair on the dew-damp grass of his Bronx high school’s football field. There were speeches and roses pinned to lapels, boys looking uncomfortable when their grandmothers kissed them on the head, girls beaming as their too-tall heels sunk into the mud.

I was on camera duty at the time, entrusted to obediently follow Owen around and take photos of him alongside friends and teachers. As we wandered, classmate after classmate approached us, gave Owen a congratulatory hug, and then turned to me with small upturned smiles. Their eyes lit up: “Is this Baxter?”

The first few times this happened, I reached out for a handshake and said, “Hi, I’m Rebecca.” I wished to correct them as unobtrusively as possible. But eventually I realized that in Owen’s world, Rebecca no longer exists. So I gave up and just began saying, “Yep, nice to meet you.”

It was my way of saying: Okay Owen, you won.

*****

“Anything else you want me to add?” I ask. Owen tells me no, so I ask how Vail is going, if he’s gotten to the double black diamonds yet. He chuckles as he describes more questionably accurate details of his whereabouts. (Owen cannot afford to fly himself to Vail, and has never introduced me to a girlfriend.) The snow does crunch around him though, and Owen’s gloved hand continues to struggle maintaining its grip on the phone.

“Call back any time if there’s a need for an interview,” he notes before I hang up. “I’m here all day.”

—Rebecca F. Elliott ’14, a Crimson magazine chair, is a literature concentrator in Winthrop House. She is not a dog, but sometimes she laughs like one.

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