I boarded the school bus to Cinnaminson High. We crossed "Bloody Route 130," a notoriously treacherous highway. It felt like a dividing line between a past I knew and a future I dreaded. I was entering seventh grade. The buildings we approached accommodated grades seven through twelve. Afraid of kids my age, I agonized over confrontations with older ones, who seemed even more menacing.
I soon became the brunt of jokes I didn't understand, pranks (like cutting the back of my favorite shirt), and attacks in stairwells. I lied to teachers and my parents about an occasional black eye or bloody nose. No one probed further. I thought I'd brought it on myself but had no idea how to stop it. While terrified of bullies, I liked the teachers—except the dictator Phys-Ed coach. I was lousy at sports, with one exception: track. I was the fastest runner in school. When I ran, I felt like I was flying. But track was the sport we practiced least.
By the first month, boys engaged in Greco-Roman wrestling. The girls were off doing something else. As we waited on the bleachers to be paired with a partner, the boy behind me jammed his knee into my back. Hoping it was a mistake, I squirmed away. He pushed harder. I got the message: I was unwelcome. Then I smelled something sweet, like blue candy. The coach finally called my name and that of my opponent, a new kid. He reeked of body odor, his hair greasy. As we wrestled, other boys found it hysterical, making loud kissing sounds on the backs of their hands. Furious, the coach abruptly stopped me for getting chewing gum on the mat. He accused me of having dropped it from my mouth. I could never explain that the kid behind me had stuck it on my shirt. Identifying him would have resulted in my getting beaten by his entourage of underlings. I knew these unwritten laws. My default response: silence.
Boys made sure I overheard them say they were happy as hell not to wrestle with that "fag Kostos." Those comments started to sound normal. Survival consisted of absorbing humiliation.
It also demanded avoidance. I'd stay after school for band practice; I played the flute. Kids teased that I played the "skin flute." And while I didn't understand what that meant, I sensed it was one of the many reasons for their attacks on me. When I didn't have band practice, I'd stay late to talk to a teacher. I intentionally missed the bus. On occasions when I had to take it, students chanted my name in a long, effeminate whine—a busload in unison. I was filled with frozen rage.
When I got home, I watched Dark Shadows, accompanied by a MoonPie, and then buckled down to homework. New Math equaled misery. It made less sense than regular math, but I was determined to get it right. I got straight A's in other subjects.
My perfectionism had intensified when my father, instead of being proud of my consistently being on the honor roll, once said I could never compete with him. He belonged to Mensa. I had no desire to compete with him, with boys in Phys-Ed, or with anyone. I stayed in my room, alone, the radio playing. That was my best friend. I wished I could stay there all the time. I knew the songs played on my radio were the same ones cool kids listened to. So, I reasoned, I was fitting in, even if nobody knew it.
Over the wailing guitars of "Light My Fire," I heard knocking on my bedroom door. It was Dad. I was surprised to see him home so early. In addition to being a lawyer, he was the mayor of our South Jersey town, Cinnaminson. He usually drove from his office to the municipal building where he worked for hours, sometimes not even joining us for dinner. On this particular day, somehow, he got home before me. Having noticed that I stomped upstairs to my bedroom, he asked if I was okay. I wanted to tell him to leave me alone. Even though I'd convinced myself he wasn't to be trusted, I couldn't resist basking in his gentler moods (when he had them). I didn't tell him about the incident at Phys-Ed. He'd be ashamed of me. I did, however, tell him I couldn't solve the New Math equations. I was my own taskmaster and wouldn't take a break until my homework was done perfectly—no snacks, no TV. I became irritable. Dad showed me a simpler way to do the equations.
He claimed to have been like me and suggested we go for a stroll, saying you can think more clearly when you get away from the source of frustration. We ambled down Wayne Drive, chatting till the angry knot inside me loosened. After we circled home, he said he'd bought a box of chocolate-covered strawberries and that eating one would complete the process. His caring moments managed to impart wisdom, for which I was grateful but confused, because that side of him usually hid from me. I wondered where it went or if something I did (or was) made him avoid me. I headed back to my bedroom, finished my homework, and went to sleep.
Two a.m. My parents' loud bickering woke me up. I watched from my bedroom window as Dad bolted into the dark, turned the car's ignition, swerved from our driveway. I assumed he was headed to the Oasis Motel—equidistant between our house and his Philadelphia law office. He'd stayed at that appropriately named motel before.
Weeks went by before we heard from him. In the past, he stayed away for a day or two. It was already mid-October. Central heat gave off a hot-dust smell. Smudging grainy paper with the side of charcoal, I drew into the darkness with an eraser. Wraithlike figures emerged—absence found its form.
My brother Phil and I didn't discuss the situation, not that we spoke to each other much anyway. He spent his time with friends, coming home late, reeking of cigarettes and whisky. Mom stayed in bed, crying, as she had after her nervous breakdown. But my own problems were mounting. Overcome by waves of panic that surged up from nowhere, I could no longer be her guardian. I was trying to cope, to hold back my creeping anxiety.
Eventually, she and Dad started talking on the phone. In a week, he slunk through the front door, briefcase in hand. He looked sweaty and defeated. Over dinner, we acted as if nothing had happened. I pushed my food, my stomach twisting.
"Don't you think it's time to repaint the dining room?" Mom asked. "I was thinking maybe olive green."
Dad rubbed his face into his hands, as if trying to erase it. Then he walked to the turntable and put on The Mikado. He drowned himself in Gilbert and Sullivan. Phil was seventeen; I was thirteen and a half. Even though we usually laughed at "Tit-Willow," we chewed silently, knowing how much that music meant to Dad.
Asking to be excused, I fled to my bedroom to study Mom's book of Aubrey Beardsley's drawings. My art teacher had invited me to her wedding. Inspired by the book, I decided to give her a black-ink drawing. My subject: a dead rose, rescued from the trash. When I showed the picture to my mother, she said it was morbid. But most beautiful songs were sad, I reasoned, so why not a sad-but-beautiful drawing? She winced.
My next project: a pen-and-ink drawing of a holly sprig. Mom said she'd have it printed and sent as our Christmas card—to friends, family, Dad's clients. I worked on it obsessively for weeks. Art helped me shift my focus from school, where I felt increasingly unsafe.
My parents had no idea how violent Cinnaminson High was. Over dinner, I explained how bloody fistfights broke out after three p.m. Kids raced toward the side exit, chanting, "Bash his teeth in!" If they knew the victim's name, they'd use it. What did it matter? The outcasts were interchangeable. I never attended the daily beatings, but a friend had. Hoping to protect the boy, who was beaten unconscious, my friend was too scared to help. The following week, the school buzzed with a horrible story: a boy had his elbow snapped back the wrong way by one of the bullies. I didn't believe that was even possible. I did know this: every day an ambulance parked by the exit, to speed maimed kids to the hospital. According to my friend, the drivers sat there watching, smoking cigarettes, making bets.
Horrified, Mom and Dad said they'd speak to the school authorities. I asked them not to, explaining the kids responsible would retaliate against me. My parents asked if I'd ever been beaten up. I said I'd been taunted, punched, and kicked in the stairwells. It was the first time they seemed to show concern. I added I'd been threatened almost every morning on the school bus, which is why I usually walked home.
Still upset about the school beatings, my mother took me aside. When she was my age, she had fought back against her violent sister. Now Mom showed me how to use my fists. I doubted I'd have the nerve to defend myself. I thanked her and went to practice my flute. Trying to shove my anger toward the bullies out of my mind by playing "Etudes for Flute," I couldn't focus. Rage boiled inside me. I got the embouchure all wrong. I tried again: nothing. I wanted to scream. Finally, I snapped, "To hell with this shit," thwacking the instrument over the back of the couch until it bent. In that very moment, it was cathartic, but in the next, I realized what I had done. It would cost a considerable amount of money to repair.
My parents added the incident to my growing résumé of troubled behavior. When the flute was finally fixed, I returned to band practice. Otherwise, I stayed in the library. I flattened my anger, quiet as paper, no longer raising my hand in class, except in Art or Advanced English, where I excelled. Those kids were outcasts, too.
My nose was big, my skin oily. I felt ugly. But my classmates viewed me as something less pardonable: soft. Most of my friends were girls. Others were teachers. And even though they knew about the beatings, they couldn't get the administrators to listen. I usually stayed after class to talk to a kindly teacher.
But a January blizzard made that impossible. School closed early. On the bus ride home, kids chanted, "We're gonna wash Kostos's face with snow, we're gonna wash Kostos's face with snow!"
I didn't know what made them hate me. I studied myself, trying to identify what despicable thing I said, did, or gave off, like a stench, so I could stop doing it. I could no longer simply be, like other kids.
As they tumbled out of the bus, the one who'd started the chanting—a short boy who lived up the hill—rushed at me, volleying punches into my stomach and face. The other kids circled us, cheering, "Get Kostos good!"
The snow's whiteness became a metaphor for my thoughts: I went blank. I'd had enough. I couldn't hold back my fury. Without realizing what I was doing, I started punching, kicking, everywhere and all at once. The short boy fell hard on his back. I jumped on top of him, pummeled his chest and face, his blood splattering the snow. The girl who had shouted, "Give that fag Kostos what he deserves," now yelled at me, "Leave him alone. You're gonna hurt him!"
Then, the bully's mother called him home from the end of the block. Everyone laughed, which felt like a triumph. I released the bloody boy. As he got up, he promised to make my life hell from that moment on, vengeance when I least expected it. I worried about retaliation, losing sleep. I didn't tell my parents or anyone else. I thought it was my own stupid fault. Besides, my parents had problems of their own.
While the boy never did attack me, every day on the bus to school, the same kids chanted my name in an effeminate whine: "Hiiii, Deeeeeaaaan." I lived under the threat of being beaten, as they delighted in reminding me. I'd get kneed in the back so hard I'd almost puke or have the strings on my hood yanked around my neck. On the rare occasion when my brother took the same bus, he came to my defense. The rest of the time, I put up with the kids' tyranny.
Back home, I wrote angry letters but never delivered them. I put an aluminum baking sheet in the middle of my bedroom, burning the letters, snarling things I'd never dare say in person: You're a stupid asshole! I can't wait till you die! Someday, you'll be afraid of me! The letters dissolved into wafers of ash. Performing a ceremony made my anger less scary, even honorable. But Mom smelled the smoke. My "rituals" became the topic of conversation for weeks. Would I burn the house down? I convinced her I wouldn't and promised to stop burning the letters (as empowering as that act had been). I felt safe at home, so that's where I stayed—my refuge.
On the Friday before Christmas, Mom and Dad had driven to Philadelphia for a professional party, their social life keeping tune to Dad's political aspirations. Thrilled to be alone, I sat in a rocking chair with reheated chicken oreganato and a giant bottle of Coke. MoonPies for dessert. I was watching a movie on TV: White Christmas. Old movies transported me to what seemed a happier, easier time.
Too soon, my parents' car pulled into our driveway. They clomped up the pavement, quarreling—something about her lavish spending. The front door flew open. They had never looked more beautiful: he in a tuxedo with slicked-back hair; she in a deep-blue, velvet evening gown with long, watery earrings.
"I told you I don't want to talk about it," he snapped.
"Ted, that's the way it is with you. Drop it when you feel like it."
"For cryin' out loud, Sofia, quit your yapping."
"Like a dog? No, if I were a dog you wouldn't ignore—"
"Who's ignoring you? You have no goddamn idea what pressures—"
"Pressures? You?" With tear-blurred makeup, Mom unclasped her earrings, flung off her satin shoes, and ran upstairs, her voice trailing, "You don't have much of a memory, do you?" She slammed the door.
I was furious at Dad for disturbing my comfortable world and for upsetting Mom. I was sick of forgiving him, only to learn he'd reverted to his cruel self again. As if I weren't there, he sat on the couch, Bing Crosby's voice warbling in the background. Dad loosened his white bowtie, removed his tux jacket, and grabbed the Philadelphia Inquirer, holding it up so I couldn't see his face.
Worried about Mom since her nervous breakdown six years earlier, I harbored distrust and hatred toward him. He crisped newspaper pages into verticals, releasing fold after fold. The turning of pages seemed to get louder, irking me. My mind started spinning. I tried breaking the tension, chatting about my day. He ignored me for forty minutes, finally sliding the newspaper down, asking, "Oh, were you talking to me?"
I became molten anger—for what he'd done to me, for what he was doing to Mom. I couldn't control myself. Words erupted from my mouth, "Why do you hate everyone?"
Kicking the wooden tray where my empty dish and glass sat, he snarled,
The dish and glass collided midair, smashing onto the floor. I bolted to my room, never wanting to go back downstairs, never wanting to see him again.
A force took over. Heat thumped in my temples, pounding out the words: kill the hurt. Neckties. I had a dozen: striped, plain, paisley. Having learned knot tying as a cub scout, I bound them together. I stood on top of a chair, looped the knot to a bracket, and slipped the noose around my neck, the radio playing.
My thoughts blurred like oily muck. Couldn't catch my breath—didn't want to. I felt like I'd split open my body. Everything sped up, the muck replaced by whirling lights. I was incandescent. Convinced that's what death felt like, I welcomed it. I stepped forward, lifting one foot off the chair. I hadn't paid attention to the radio, but at the moment I was about to raise my second foot, my favorite Beatles' song came on, "Eleanor Rigby." Its refrain, "All the lonely people," seemed sung to me. With the words of the song pouring into my ears, my mind thought beyond words. The music filled me the way watercolor drenches paper.
Then it hit me—one ally would always be there when everything and everyone else abandoned me, whenever I looked or listened. Beauty: leaves shot through with lightning veins. Beauty: a brush dripping with color. Beauty: light streaming from a painting. Beauty: this song keening from my radio.
I decided to live.
A thread of tears burned my cheek. I loosened the noose, climbed off the chair, stared into space. I had been one step from death. A warm sensation swam through my body. An hour passed, maybe two. The radio lulled me to sleep.