Johann: historically masculine; Germanized form of the Hebrew וחנן, or Yohanan. Meaning: “God is merciful.” A form of the Latin and Germanic “Johannes”. Anglicized as “John”.
It wasn’t his father’s name or his grandfather’s name or anywhere else in the family, and he wasn’t even German, but something about it stuck the first time he heard it: music history, eleven o’clock, hard wooden seat in the lecture hall.
“Johann,” he whispered, and something inside of him shifted. Some part of him starting to rearrange.
Genevieve laughed, of course, when he told her. “Really?” she asked. “You’re gonna name yourself after some dead guy who wrote lullabies?”
“I like it,” he murmured.
“What do you even know about Bach?”
“He was an orphan by ten. And he was one of eight kids.”
He was only one of two, of course, his parents trying over and over again, rounds of primitive IVF and old wives’ tales and once, after three rum and cokes and a couple shots of whiskey, inviting their neighbor over. When they found out his mother was pregnant it was a miracle; when it turned out to be twins, two hungry mouths to feed on a poor man’s wages, it was a curse.
When he told his mother she cried. Soft tears, not angry, not even shocked. Just quiet. She dabbed a tissue under her eyes and it reminded him of the opera.
When he told his father, he didn’t say anything, just got up and went to the kitchen. A familiar sound: shots of liquor straight from the bottle, no chaser.
When he told his uncle, he let him sleep on the couch for a few nights. His aunt cooked breakfast. His cousin, two years old, was too young to question it. She wouldn’t even remember.
(1986, over a decade later: “Mom, who’s this?” Pointing to a faded Polaroid, two identical girls arm in arm, hair so blonde it was almost white, both of their faces painted with a lightning bolt in red and blue. Captioned: ‘the girls are obsessed with Bowie. ‘Lady Stardust’ is J’s favorite song.’)
Henry had just nodded, looked him over approvingly. “Johann,” he said, testing the word out in his mouth. Honey sweet. Like molasses. “Johann. I like it. It suits you.” Henry was on his way to class, upper-level poetry, book caught under his arm, hair disheveled, perpetually looking out of place and out of time.
In a show of irregular fraternity, he pulled Johann into a tight hug. “You’re like a brother to me,” he said, and when Johann cried, he only held him closer.
When his sister found out it was madness. “You’ve got to be shitting me,” she said first, monotone. And then, when the look on his face revealed that he wasn’t, in fact, shitting her, “you’re never gonna be able to come back here again.”
“I know,” he said, and it wasn’t even angry.
She crushed him to her chest. His hair, newly cut, just barely touched the bottom of her chin. She’d always been taller, and it didn’t help that she’d taken to wearing heels and he’d taken to slouching. “Promise me you’ll be safe,” she whispered into the top of his head.
He pretended not to hear. He’d never liked lying to her.
In some way it was easy to tell Ricky. In the alley behind his favorite bar, grimacing around a bummed cigarette, it was like pulling teeth without anaesthetic, and somehow it was the easiest confession he’d ever had to make.
Afterwards, Johann couldn’t stop thinking about the look on Ricky’s face. It was the same way he’d looked after the last time they’d fucked: like he’d stepped in something disgusting and couldn’t wait to scrape it off.
Johann stayed outside and smoked for awhile. He’d tried to quit a few times but never for long–it was the only thing he’d inherited from his father.
His living room: a few days later, and already the pictures of him had been removed. “I don’t understand,” he found himself saying, even though he understood perfectly well.
“You can’t stay here anymore,” his mother said, and even though she’d cried when he told her, she’d already made up her mind.
He opened his mouth to say something, and then realized there was nothing left for him to say.
“Joanna,” she said, “you need to leave.”
Ren Culliney is a queer writer based in Des Moines, IA. They’ve been writing since childhood, with at least four unfinished drafts of novels gathering dust on their mom’s old hard drive. While academic writing takes up most of their time at the moment, they prefer writing speculative fiction, creative nonfiction, and other forms of hybrid and experimental writing.