"Hector," it turned out, was his second try at a new name; he hadn’t had much luck with Nicholas.
It was August, the height of a hot and glorious summer, and the streets of New York seemed like an open-air locker room, soaked with sweat and the potential for sex. The bars were packed with half-dressed boys. In one insalubrious joint, I locked eyes with a younger guy: tall, rail-thin, arms on display, blond hair cropped like a soldier’s. In a city where anonymous sex can seem like a birthright, he introduced himself by name.
“My name’s Hector,” he said.
I told him it was a beautiful name, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to hook up with a hero from the Trojan War.
Never mind that this particular hero was a recent college grad with no job, and no clue what sort of job he ought to pursue. (English major) Hector couldn’t afford his own apartment or even his own bed. He and his best friend shared a studio way up in the northern stretches of Manhattan, bunking together on a single air mattress on the floor. But he was at the beginning of something—not like me, forever bemoaning that my life was over at 27. He read the right books, drank like a pro, and made me laugh.
We took our time getting home that first night, raving about the brutal heat and the absurdity of the just-passed debt-ceiling crisis. It was worth the wait. Hector was old enough to know what he was doing, but he was shot through with the eagerness of youth, and it made me ravenous. He was up for everything. That first night, the temperature above 90 and the air conditioning off, we went at it for the better part of an hour with our jeans still on. (His idea.) “Hector,” I whispered as he lay on top of me. I shouted it twice before he kissed me to shut me up.
I searched for him on Facebook after our first night, and I didn’t find him among my web of connections that seemed at times to include every bookish gay lad on the East Coast. Not a big deal, I told myself: I assumed he didn’t have an account (in fact, that was almost a turn-on). Undeterred, I Googled his name along with his university. No relevant hits. So I did what once would have branded me a stalker, but in our brave new world of instant accessibility I consider the most basic due diligence: I pulled up the PDF of the brochure from his college commencement. It listed all the students awarded degrees that year. I searched for “Hector.” Nothing. Perhaps he hadn’t graduated?
“It’s such a lovely name, Hector,” I told him one night. “But uncommon.”
“You’re not Greek, are you?”
“Not Greek.” He smiled, knowing he’d been found out. “I’ve actually only been Hector for a few months.”
He was actually born something like Max—or was it Mark? He had christened himself Hector that spring, just before his arrival in New York. “I don’t see why you should go through life with the name your parents picked out for you. It can’t possibly represent who you really are,” he told me. Hector, it turned out, was his second try at a new name; he hadn’t had much luck with Nicholas.
“But a name is such a fundamental component of who you are,” I said. “Of your history. What do your parents think?”
“I haven’t really told them; it’s not so important what they call me. Actually, I’ve changed my last name, too.” His new last name was a string of alternating consonants and vowels, vaguely Italian.
“Doesn’t a last name imply an ethnicity, or at least a family?” I asked him. He insisted otherwise. His had just come to him one day.
He was dressing by this point, and I won’t pretend there wasn’t something at least a bit alluring about what he’d just told me. Hector wasn’t just young, he was a newborn. By now, he’d found himself a job as an English tutor at a Korean cram school, a place of his own to sleep, and something resembling a lover: not bad for a person who’d only existed since May. If he’d really wanted to pick a figure of mythology as a forebear, it should have been Aphrodite, a fully grown adult arisen out of the waves.
But things soon turned strange. I got a naughty text from him the next day that put a smile on my face. But above it, in bold, was his name, first and last, the name he’d given me and given himself, as insubstantial as air. It made me feel queasy. “My name’s Hector” was beginning to sound like a pickup line as fictitious as “Haven’t we met before?”I imagined him with his new clients, ambitious immigrants hoping to get their children into a top-tier college. “I’ll be a great tutor—I went to one of the best schools in the country,” he probably told them. To which I wanted to footnote: No, Max, or Mark, or Nicholas went there! You, Hector Whoever-You-Are, have only been alive for 12 weeks!
He must have thought that his bold identity switch had creeped me out. But it wasn’t that, not precisely. It was that the name made him seem formless, like a man without a past—or, worse, a man who didn’t want one. When we went out to dinner the next week, at a dark French spot whose regulars have been there for decades, I had to guide him through the menu like a dog owner training a not particularly smart beagle. We talked about something inane. When we went back to my place, the sex was different, like something with a stranger. I’d spent a month getting to know him, and now I felt I had no idea who I was in bed with.
That was the last time I saw him. A name, Hector swore, can’t signify who you really are. But from my view, Hector had claimed something more radical: that a name therefore signifies nothing, and that a lover who moans that name in the darkness might as well be alone in the world. I probably should have explained that to him. But I’m not sure whether I could, or even what I would call him.