Chapter 4 - AJ AF! (Part 2/3)

 Okay, maybe I wasn’t protecting that sexuality secret as well as I’d thought, OR I was a young crusader against gender norms and toxic masculinity!

Okay, maybe I wasn’t protecting that sexuality secret as well as I’d thought, OR I was a young crusader against gender norms and toxic masculinity!

This way of thinking started a pattern that would take hold of my life for nearly thirty years. More often than not, I’ve taken ownership of far more than I should. It’s not a healthy habit to create, but as a child, so much of what was going on around me felt like a direct result of my existence, and my brother’s words that day only reaffirmed that belief.

It’s funny how a simple phrase that I know my brother forgot about moments after uttering it has stuck with me for over three decades. Not funny like “ha ha,” but funny like, “That’s a shitty thing to say, and I can’t wait to spend the next thirty years carrying the burden of your off-the-cuff remark as my own personal baggage.”

Scott, I know you didn’t mean those words the way I received them, and I know my brain is borderline crazy, but I’m being as transparent as I can be here, so just know that I love you and don’t blame you for a thing.

Well, I definitely blame you for that time you murdered those baby bunny rabbits we found in the VFW parking lot behind our house when we were little. That was cruel, and I DEFINITELY blame you for it.

Side note: While Emile was helping me edit this chapter, he said, “This is funny, but what is ‘VFW’? Can you tell us in parentheses for those who didn’t grow up in Ohio?”

He’s adorable.

It stands for Veterans of Foreign Wars, and it’s sort of similar to the American Legion or to a Moose Lodge. Basically, it’s a place where you go up to a door with one-way mirrored glass and you ring a bell so that someone can buzz you in. You have to be a member, but once you’re in, you can drink canned beer and eat fried food to your heart’s content. Oh yeah, there are a lot of American flags hanging everywhere, and they sell a lot of those little gambling ticket things where you unfold one end to see if you win cash. In small towns, this is where the adults spend their evenings and where EVERYONE has their wedding reception.

I’ve spent my fair share of time in each establishment and made some great memories. I’m totally taking Emile to one the next time we go to my hometown. Lucky for him, Celina, Ohio, has all three!

Back to the story about my murderous older brother.

That day wasn’t exactly a high point for him, but I am quite proud that he didn’t make a habit out of that sort of behavior, because I’ve seen enough documentaries to know that’s TOTALLY how serial killers get their start. So Scott, I’m so proud of you for not becoming a serial killer! That would’ve probably led to way more emotional baggage for me to unpack, so thanks for not burdening me with that. The bunny rabbit thing did really suck, though, but the video game thing, totally not your fault!

As I share these stories of events that impacted and molded my character at a very young age, I’m aware of how illogical some of these reactions might seem, but I also know how illogical life can be. Our brains comprehend information based on our individual life experiences, and through that process, oftentimes unknowingly, we start forming patterns that, over time, feel like truth. The longer we allow these patterns to form, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish actual truth from perceived truth. That is a lesson I’m learning as I write this book.

By the time I was about nine years old, our parents had officially divorced.

They gathered the entire family in the living room of our humble home on Grand Avenue to tell us as a family. My big sister Chris held me on her lap while I held Kari on mine. We were all squeezed into a single recliner as our big brother Scott stood behind us. I was young, but I knew exactly what was happening; I was an oddly intuitive kid. Our parents stood before us in our living room, just in front of the TV.

“Kari and AJ,” Mom said, “you’re going to be living with me.”  

I was being torn from my older siblings and had no say in the matter. Scott and Chris were actually my dad’s kids from his first marriage; my mom was his third wife. Their mother had died of cancer when they were one and two, and their first stepmom used to lock them in a closet while my dad went to work, so my mom was essentially the only mom they’d ever really known.

The thought of not seeing my dad, brother, and older sister every day terrified me, and in that moment, I grew up long before I was ready to. This event and the time period just before and after it have impacted my life more than anything else I’ve experienced.  Divorce is no joke, and although I spent years convinced that I wasn’t affected, it’s now clear to me that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

The moment they split, I became the man of the house and took on the role of protecting both my mom and more importantly, my sister Kari. It’s a role that I cherished for the next three decades, but also one that altered the course of my life completely in ways I was not even aware of until recently. It became my responsibility to make sure that the women in my life were taken care of. Now, as a little boy, I wasn’t about to go out and get a job, so I supported my mom and sister the only way I knew how: emotionally.

I became the backbone of the family. For nearly thirty years, my role wouldn’t change all that much. My mom did eventually move on, meet a great guy, and marry him (the other Steve, a.k.a. Pops), but in my own mind, I would always be the one and only true man of the house. In my mind, my real dad had walked out on us, so what on earth would convince me that my stepdad wouldn’t someday do the same? The answer: nothing.

(Come back Friday for the conclusion to this chapter...)