The Big O

Home, to some extent, is Omaha, Nebraska. It’s where I was born and raised. For those used to flying over the areas referred to as flyovers, it’s in the middle. Like for nearly everything, geographically, demographically, entertainment-wise. Not quite politically. It’s a firm red state, but as one of only two states that split their electoral college votes, it threw one of its votes to Obama (in ’08), the first time it ever actually split the vote in history. Omaha is like a large small town. It has nearly a million people in the metro area, but I can generally run into someone I know going any place. Either I went to high school with them. Or college. Or my dad played softball with their dad. Or. Or. Or. It’s a city without a tremendous identity. It’s a lot of strip malls and average-looking houses with huge yards. Everyone has a dog. Everyone talks about their part of town based on their parish. Everyone bleeds Husker red, the Cornhuskers football team being the unofficial state everything. I only remember one distinct thing throughout the first half of my life I spent in Omaha: I do not belong here.

That’s not to say I didn’t have fun, or that the friends and family I have there are some of the greatest people I know, but it’s just not me, even as it’s inarguably a part of me. I spent seven years (nearly a third of my time there) as a vegetarian, and Nebraska is where the meat comes from. Just one of the (many, many) ways I rejected any semblance of adhering to the norms of my surroundings. Another was eschewing football.

On the one hand, I don’t get it. My brother grew up speaking fluent Dallas Cowboys, but I just can’t. I can watch basketball, hockey, baseball, tennis I get, even volleyball. But football is long, boring, has stupid rules, no sense of momentum. And nearly everyone I met growing up, this thing-Nebraska Football-was a huge part of their lives.

“What are you doing for the game?” is the most popular conversation starter. Even people that don’t particularly care about college football in general will still schedule their time around when the Huskers are playing. I wish there were smart phones around for the first million hours I was forced to spend in front of some TV, having been dragged along to some party by family or friends, secretly playing cartoons over and over in my head and/or writing notes on my arm because I didn’t have a notebook. If there’s a hell, a place I’m assured to be graduating to someday, mine will involve lots of football.

People don’t leave Omaha a lot. They may travel, visit a lot of places, but it’s easy to get entangled by your roots. I know multiple friends that are living in a house they bought from their parents (I also know multiple people that live in a house that someone else I knew used to live in, with no connection whatsoever, but that’s neither here nor there), and it makes sense to me because so much of your formative years are spent in your neighborhood. Your neighborhood is what defines you, at least at first.

I grew up in the middle of town, at least it was mid-town at the point. With the Missouri River marking the end of town to the East, as it grew, Omaha spread mostly West and the middle of town moved with it. Our house was a cute, little brick number on 58th and Pine Street. It wasn’t the first house I lived in but the first I can remember, having moved in when I was about three. I’ve driven by the house I was born in (well, I was born in a hospital, Omaha isn’t like a farm town or anything, but you know what I mean), and I’ve heard the story about being two years old and locking my grandfather who was babysitting me out of the house enough times that it feels like a memory, but it’s all manufactured, like feeling I’ve been on the Death Star because I’ve seen Star Wars a gajillion times.

There was a fence around our house on Pine, but fences back then were barely suggestions. It was nothing to hop the fence on the east side and traipse through the back yards of the seven or eight houses in order to get to my friends’ houses down the block. It was nothing to be playing hide and seek and to jump into the window well of a house three mailboxes down, whether I knew who lived there or not. I could hop on my bike and ride over to my friend Ryan’s house a few blocks away and spend hours there. In the summer, playing outside could go on forever. Except for that one year where young boys were getting kidnapped and murdered. We didn’t play outside so much that year until the serial killer-John Joubert-was caught. He was the boogeyman when I was a kid, a very real threat that informed some of my more fear-based instincts. He was caught around my tenth birthday and, even though I’m generally anti-death penalty, I felt a weird sense of justice in college when he was finally put to death, my friends and I having spent the entire day following the coverage.

But I digress. Where was I? Childhood. Right.

For me, the easiest, most-defining aspect of my childhood is being accident prone. It’s still the case, I can hardly ever walk fully through a door without banging a shoulder against it. I have more than three stories about falling UP stairs. A few years back when I was visiting home and broke my arm, my dad was taking me to the ER and we started counting how many times he had to do so when I was a kid. We lost count.

Here’s my childhood in a nutshell (and I’ll be honest, I think this is the accident that goes with this story but I really can’t be sure).

It was a typical summer day. Hot. I was maybe in between second and third grade. I was riding my bike a few hills over, probably at my friend Dan’s house. As I rode back, lost in thought I’m sure, I ran over a loose manhole cover and went headfirst over the handlebars and smacked onto the curb. Looking back, I don’t even know if I was wearing a helmet (the eighties), but I do remember blood everywhere, mostly my face (nose was broken, maybe the second or third of the five times that happened), and that I completely pissed myself. I screamed in pain, and didn’t have time to register the shame. I walked by bike up the painfully large hill back to my house, bawling the entire way and I ran screaming into the backyard where my parents were.

Actually, I am getting my stories mixed up. Forget all that. I was riding my bike home from Dan’s house. That’s true. But it wasn’t the time I hit the manhole cover. It was the time I skidded through a stop sign and got hit by a car. Still peed my pants. Still broke my nose. Still walked home screaming to my parents. I forget what happened to the guy that hit me, but I think I just walked home because I figured it was my fault for running through the stop sign.

So yes, back to my bawling in the backyard, screaming for my parents, wet and sticky with blood and urine.

A little backstory: my mom had recently had surgery on her wrist and was in a cast. My dad was pulling weeds and was wearing a tank top, the specific kind often referred to by the horrendous colloquialism “wife-beater,” which is unfortunately semi-relevant to this story. My parents scooped me up, plopped me in the car and sped off to the ER, everyone in their present state.

This was not my first ER visit. Probably not even my fifth time, given the questions I was eventually asked. Now, it’s worth reminding you that I had peed my pants. I wet the bed long after it was normal, so sitting in my warm, piss-soaked jeans did not fill me with joy. As he stitched me up, the doctor asked me what happened.

My father started to answer, but the doctor stopped him.

“I’m asking your son.”

They all turned to me.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” was all I could muster, head hanging down, unable to make eye contact.

Further backstory-my father is a sweet and gentle man. But he has volume control issues in that he’s not always aware of how loud he can be. He’s not mean, but in that moment, in his wife-beater, his wife in a cast, annoyed that I wasn’t talking about something so meaningless, his urgent and stern order to me to “just tell him what happened,” was a little louder, a little more forceful than intended.

“Sir, we are going to need you to step outside for a moment.”

That was the first time I was questioned by social services.

My parents were nothing but sweet, loving caretakers (if they weren’t I would at least have better material for an actual memoir) so it’s somewhat comical to me that anyone could think that they were abusive in any way. Though, at the time it wasn’t met with laughs.

There is a surreal quality to driving by my old house. I still dream about it, maybe as often as every month or two, mostly about not being able to lock the doors, so it’s not unfamiliar. But when I look at it now, I remember so many little things: getting my head stuck in a barstool, playing with our dog’s choker chain and my dad’s vice grip and somehow getting stuck there too. I remember squeezing by the car in the driveway scraping the side of my head on that metal green thing that our hose hanged on so badly that I needed stitches. I remember being locked out of the house and my friend kicking in the window in back cutting the shit out of myself climbing in. I remember sitting in the corner after nearly getting arrested shoplifting at Target because my mom wouldn’t buy me the X-Men comic book I wanted. There were a whole mess of bad decisions made around that house.

The backyard became whatever our imaginations could muster. I completely embarrassed my brother when he and his friend, Tim, invited me to join them on the Death Star as they were playing Star Wars. My brother was Han Solo and Tim was Luke Skywalker. They asked me who I wanted to be.

“Can I be Princess Leia?” I asked.

“No,” my brother shot back. “You can be Chewbacca.”

I mean, fuck Chewbacca. I would’ve picked Solo in a heartbeat, but I still would’ve opted for Leia over her whinier, mopier brother (spoiler alert, if you’ve never seen a movie ever). She strangled Jabba the Hutt. Luke had daddy issues. It was no contest. But little boys couldn’t pretend to be space princesses in Omaha, that’s not okay. Even if I just wanted to be someone that shot a laser. So, I sucked it up and played the hairy wookie.

Trying to be Princess Leia was but one way that childhood me raged against that machine of normality. I learned quickly how to adapt with my brother and my friends. But when I was alone I could do whatever I want. I channeled my imagination into the toys with whom I would play. I collected everything, Star Wars, Masters of the Universe, but my favorites by far were my GI Joe action figures. I got my hands on as many as I could. Sure, I dug the cartoon (even though watching it as an adult revealed that was surprisingly terrible. There was one episode where Snake Eyes and Shipwreck went undercover at Cobra, the evil nazi-like enemy of the Joes. Despite trying to blend in, Shipwreck wore his sailor cap over his uniform. And Snake Eyes just put the Cobra helmet over his mask. Yeah.), but when I played with the action figures, I created a whole new set of characters, relationships and scenarios unique to my toys. I called it SHIELD because I stole it from the Marvel comics and they didn’t seem to be doing much with it (they would eventually, you have discovered). When I would play, I would always do a “previously on…” and would recap the last time I played, and when I was done it was “next time…” and I would set up ideas for the next time. Yeah, television was an influence.

Despite the overwhelming sense that I was meant to be somewhere else, I wasn’t an unhappy kid. I don’t think. I just, even then, especially then, had a low tolerance for bullshit, and all of the little things that you were supposed to do because someone said it was so, I would challenge. I would play sports. I would go to camp. I would get a paper route. I would go to school and get straight A’s, but all the while I would argue and challenge and push against everything. I was an obstinate little shit, as my parents would note. Not then, at least I never heard it then, though I’m sure they said it.

When I was back home recently, I went driving by my old house on Pine street. I took pictures, hopefully not creeping out the current owners. The bush in front was different. The yard was smaller than I expected it to be. It was still the house I grew up in. It was still the roof I could climb onto from our bathroom window in the attic bedroom I shared with my brother. Every now and then that house pops up in my dreams, in a variety of contexts, though one theme that recurs is that I am constantly trying to lock the doors, and failing. Sometimes it’s distressing, a bad guy is trying to get in. Sometimes it’s nothing, an afterthought and I’m a kid getting yelled at by my parents for failing to secure the house. Seeing the house that day wasn’t trippy, it wasn’t this wave of nostalgia, because that house has stayed with me even if I haven’t set foot inside in three decades.

We moved the winter before I went to high school. I wasn’t upset. There was something appealing about change, it’s probably why I still rearrange my furniture every six months. As much as I liked our house on Pine street, I knew, ultimately, I wasn’t meant to be there. Much like catholic school. Much like Omaha.

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