Chapter 4 - AJ AF! (Part 1/3)

Little AJ in the truck that "murdered" Buddy #1.

Little AJ in the truck that "murdered" Buddy #1.

Scene 5: The Making of AJ

We OPEN on a street sign titled BITTERSWEET DRIVE.

We CLOSE IN on a small house surrounded by cut green grass and a cracked pavement sidewalk leading up to the front door.

A little hand grips a spoon, stirring a creamy mixture within a repurposed plastic margarine bowl.

We PAN back from the small hands to meet AJ as a child, sitting next to his older brother and sister, Scott and Chris.  The three hold their ice cream up to the black, wood-burning stove to speed up the melting process.

The siblings use their spoons to create peaks of half melted ice cream that they refer to as “birthday candles.”

The living room’s decor is very late ’70s vintage. The dingy, rust color of the carpet is reminiscent of red clay soil.

The ice cream reaches the proper consistency and the three dig in.

Little AJ was in constant awe of his older siblings. I wanted to be like them, I wanted to be around them, and I wanted to do everything they did. I was a typical baby brother in some ways.

My mom often jokes that she suffers from Half-Zheimer’s, because she remembers about half of everything that she’s experienced in life. Mental health is not something to joke about, but my mom literally does forget 50 percent of everything, so don’t get all worked up over a few words, this isn’t that kind of book.  And to be honest, I’m 99 percent sure she has no idea that the actual condition is even spelled Alzheimer’s, not All Zheimer’s, so let’s cut the woman some slack.

Or not. If you wanna make fun of her, she probably won’t remember anyway, so it’s your call. Me, I remember everything. I was probably four years old when I sat next to that wood-burning stove with my older brother and sister, melting our ice cream, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I’ve always been that way, which is probably why recalling stories from my childhood comes so naturally to me.

It’s also why I remember so vividly the moment our first dog “went to live on a farm” around the same time. I didn’t find out until years later that my dad had actually run over Buddy #1 with his pickup truck. It was an accident, of course, but all I remember from that day is walking to the screen door of our little house to see what all the fuss was about and my siblings stopping and distracting me while our dad apparently peeled our family pet off the pavement.

Those same siblings also attended to me months later when I got clocked in the head by a fire log while my dad unloaded that same truck. As always, I’d wanted in on the action but was really just getting in the way. My dad warned me several times, but my stubbornness had already developed by that age, so I ignored him until he got my attention —with a log!

This too was an accident, I think. Just like with my mom’s understanding of the origin of the word Alzheimer’s, I’m 99 percent sure my dad wasn’t trying to knock me out on purpose, even though I’m sure I was annoying the hell out of him that day. Either way, he clocked me right on the noggin, and I still have the scar to prove it. I wear it with pride. That scar is the first of many battle wounds I’ve accumulated over the years, most of which are internal and only seen by a select few whom I allow close enough to really get to know me.

Also, I am an absurdly observant human being, always have been.

It’s my first memory of truly being coddled. I’m sure my parents were annoyed that I hadn’t heeded their warnings and gotten out of the way, but the moment that log struck my forehead, my mom and older sister Chris sprang into caretaker mode. This is my very first memory of being nurtured, one that has stuck with me for the over thirty years since.

On that day, I learned that even when mistakes are made, a family comes together in a crisis. My forehead was in crisis, and my family took action.

From the beginning, I knew that I was loved. My parents didn’t always get along and would split just a few short years later, but I always knew that I would be taken care of. In spite of their split, I knew that family would always come first.

Instinctively, I’ve always known that I was different. I’m not just talking about the gay thing here, although that is one of the ways society has pegged me as being different, I’m talking about the way I perceive everything around me. From people to situations and everything in between, I’m always observing and measuring. Little AJ was no different.

When I was maybe five or six, I remember sitting in our family station wagon with my older brother and sister in the parking lot outside of our local Radio Shack. Our parents had been arguing, so there was a collective tension in the air. I guess Radio Shack must have sold Atari games back then, because my siblings had asked for a new one and been shut down by our parents. The moment Mom and Dad got out of the car, I was a sitting duck.

“Ever since you were born, we never get new video games anymore. I wish you’d never been born at all!”

My brother was still a kid at the time, maybe thirteen or fourteen, so I don’t blame him for feeling that way anymore, but at the time, those words hurt. As a child, I processed his words as, “I hate you, I wish you weren’t alive, and you are the reason everything is going wrong in our family.”

Our parents fought all the time and were near the end of their marriage, so his words impacted me differently than they would have had things been a little rosier on the home front. For so many years, I held onto small moments like that. I internalized such guilt over my parents’ divorce, as if I’d somehow caused it. My brother and sister were just doing what older brothers and sisters do, but to me it felt different. Those words felt true. I knew my personal truth could one day tear my family apart, so I protected that secret.

(Come back Wednesday for Part 2 of this chapter...)