Maybe we should have called her Original Christy. Unlike most of the American exchange students living in Worcester Hall, she had been enrolled at the University of Wolverhampton since the fall. The new Christy arrived at the Dudley Campus a few days after I did in February 1997. She and I would spend only the spring semester abroad.
We could have called her West Coast or California Christy. She hailed from Orange County while the student who shared her name longed to be back in Baltimore. But only the Americans asked each other what state we called home. Although we Americans relied on each other, we did socialize with the Brits and other international students who were satisfied to lump us together as being from the US. A geographical nickname wouldn’t do.
We might have called her Happy Christy. Her sunny, SoCal personality shone through as she escorted the newbies to Dudley’s town centre, helping us locate the grocery and Boots the chemist. She introduced us to the closest chippy and initiated us to scrumpy cider at The Struggling Man. She organized Thursday night outings to The Full Moon pub, making sure we went in even numbers to take advantage of the buy one/get one free meals. She led excursions to Birmingham to catch the latest films at the Odeon. She was fully taking advantage of her year abroad and wanted to make sure the rest of us did, too.
The other Christy appreciated the shared knowledge and accompanied us on errands, but she was already counting down the days to when it was all over. She missed her family. She hated the weather and landlocked terrain of the West Midlands. Each week brought a new complaint about our temporary home. While I spent spring break traveling from hostel to hostel throughout England, Christy returned to Maryland. She came back smiling and telling stories about holding her newborn niece and visiting Ocean City. Yet, the joy soon leached from her. She spent the rest of the semester calculating how soon she would finish and catch the earliest flight stateside. I never figured out why she had come or what she expected, but I knew she was disappointed. Her moniker could have been Miserable Christy.
Instead, she became known as Little Christy. The label was apt. She was petite, mousy and pale. To save up for her spring break trip home, she scrimped on meals and lost weight from her already slim frame. She was soft-spoken and preferred reading in her room to a night at the student union. She seemed unable to share in the others’ excitement of being in a foreign country.
The Original/California/Happy Christy was her polar opposite. She was tall, broad-shouldered and outgoing. The locals probably thought of her as a typical, loud American. Her self-assurance radiated around her, and she seemed to fill the room. That’s why, when distinguishing between the two, we referred to her as Big Christy. It captured her essence as much as it did her physique.
Big Christy knew that we called the other Little Christy. She did it, too. Then, one late spring day, as a group of American students chatted in the dorm kitchen, she stopped in the middle of a conversation and asked, “Wait. Do you call me Big Christy?”
We glanced at each other. We knew we meant no malice, yet we were all women. We may have been from different states, but we shared a popular culture that told us thin is beautiful. We all knew that ladylike meant quiet and reserved. We were raised to apologize for taking up space with our bodies or our personalities.
We tried to explain ourselves to Christy, but I don’t think she heard us. She couldn’t hear our admiration for her confidence. She couldn’t hear our respect for her leadership. She couldn’t hear our gratitude for her friendliness. All that she heard was that we called her big.
The moment passed. Out of habit, we still used the nickname but not when she was around. Her disposition was such that she held no grudge, but I remained resentful. Not at her, but at a society that let little three letters cause that one big moment of shame.