You say, "Nice to meet you," as I introduce myself, we seem to have hit it off, and now we’re knocking back cordial quips, bouncing affection against insult, but it’s all in good fun. I don’t know, though, if you really heard me when I told you my name. Your eyebrows raise, your pupils dilate just a little bit, "Ah-jay, was it?"
I entered a new school during the first grade. My time was moving along fairly well until my third year there. On an autumn day, I had shown up at the steps of our home practically in tears.
It was 1995.
In between sobs I let out what had bothered me all day to my mother, "Everyone at school is calling me O.J., I don’t kill people." America had transformed itself into a blood-sucking spectator of what was to become the trial of the decade. It consumed everything though this was a time when social media wasn’t a thing, yet. From the chatter encompassing every nail salon, tabloid or curbside conversation, at every intersection, really; you better have had an opinion about whether O.J. Simpson had done it because evidently that was the most trending topic in America.
I thought I had understood exactly what the name meant, to be called it—teased—because for the past few weeks I had witnessed my parents closely following the nightly news. I’d spied on them actually through the breaks in the hallway steps that led upstairs–a space where a clandestine observer could oversee the space that was our kitchen.
And I remembered as they watched a white Bronco-led police chase on some interstate or highway. From an adolescent perspective, that highway seemed endless like it stretched across the entire country. People everywhere were saying that O.J. Simpson had committed a crime, a murder, but I was more in tune with pleasant things back then, a mutual classroom excitement over the vibrant mid-90s New York Knicks for instance. To ease my anxieties with my given name, my mother’s discretion asserted that I should not cower to the judgments of other children. Her prescribed response was nothing short of superb.
“The next person who says that to you, you can tell them, ‘Fine, if I’m O.J., you better watch out!’ Then they will stop bothering you," she said.
Around the time I reached the seventh-grade things were apparently leveling off, like the confusion I suffered through my earlier years of grade school would soon evaporate. My name was just a name. Its pronunciation wasn’t anything short of typical.
A girl on my school bus, a year younger, began explaining my name to her younger brother:
“It’s not A-J” she declared. "It’s Ahhh-jay. Like when you stick your hands in ice. Ahhh, that feels good.”
Wow, I thought, someone finally gets it.
Arriving in Nashville in the autumn of 2005, was like someone had hit the reset button. I would have to start all over again. Unknowing teenagers and upperclassmen but these were adults so it should be easy, right?
Enter AJ. The re-definition of a person. The bane of my existence. Someone else’s idea of who I was.
“Why can’t I just call you AJ? It’s so much easier.”
This was iterated as though I had made some profound error in selecting a name that might have been unheard of. It wasn’t a sentiment and I felt it a jab at the person who I was. Slighted, but it was like elementary all over again. Though this time we weren’t adolescents packed into a classroom. We were ostensibly all cherry-picked persons from across the United States, held at a standard, meant to emulate academic excellence to an elevated degree.
It’s been some years since my time in Nashville has ended. Does it carry some type of weight on the person that I have since become? After one year in NYC, it’s clearer. My name is a name. I am Ah-jay, spelled A-j-a-y, that is understood. I do think it’s possible that it is kind of like sticking one’s hand in ice. I’m going to continue writing. With certainty, I am the opposite of me, the person who more than a half a decade ago was intent on divesting or depriving the soul its right to breathe.
The writer Joan Didion has held one’s examination with the self, more eloquently and to purpose better than those of us who are trying to say something ever could. I’ve found certain words a guide since embarking, hers especially as one of the more modern mantra’s I can nestle myself beside. From "Why I Write," “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” What ensued in Tennessee in 2009 was a horror. Unable to justify rationale, I’ve since turned to writing, and Didion’s words are nascent enough: I am able to feel better equipped to tackle this feat.