By Dean Kostos
Trees along the highway spiraled through the eyepiece of my kaleidoscope—our car speeding home to Cinnaminson, New Jersey. Mom and Dad had gone for marriage counseling in Philadelphia. My brother Phillip and I had tagged along. Dad shared something he’d read in a law journal, “New York cops use a technique when a criminal resists arrest. The Adam’s apple is so sensitive—if they push on it, the guy can’t move.”
“You mean they jam it into his throat?” my brother asked.
“Exactly—makes the assailant mute, except for guttural gasping.”
“Ted, please stop it. This isn’t the kind of conversation to have in front of the boys. Besides, it’s making me sick.” My mother turned the radio to soft music.
Phil continued, “So the guy falls on the ground, or he just can’t talk?”
“Can’t talk. But if the pressure’s strong enough, he collapses, convulsing.”
That snapped something inside Mom. She started crying uncontrollably with the high-pitched wails of a young girl. We pulled over to a gas station, where the only noncarbonated drink Dad could find was Yoo-hoo. Mom gulped down her Miltown tranquillizer. Scared, we waited for the person we knew to come back.
Dad cradled her, “It’ll be all right, it’ll be …”
My eyes must have conveyed my confusion. He blurted something about Mom having bad memories that scared her. “Should’ve kept my damn mouth shut,” he mumbled to himself. I sat stone-still as onlookers approached. Drawn to us like zombies, fifteen or so people circled our car, staring. Because of the sun’s glare, some pressed their faces up against our windows to get a better look. Dad gunned the engine. The people scattered. I wanted to protect Mom, even though I knew she had a special doctor—just for that purpose.
I thought his name was Dr. Sex. It was really Sachs, Mom’s shrink. While some kids’ parents were religious zealots, my mother had become a devotee of a new religion, psychiatry. It could have been her reaction against her mother’s religiosity, replacing a priest’s authority with a shrink’s. Her adherence to this new faith had grown in the years since her release from the mental hospital, The Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital. Everyone called it “The Toot.” Luckily, Dad’s success as a lawyer made it possible for Mom to pursue her expensive religion. And as she’d been forced to embrace to her mother’s faith, we had to practice hers. Her shrink’s unholy ghost floated around us, filling her sentences with expressions such as, “That’s your problem, not mine.”
Even though Dr. Sex never met me, he reasoned that because I was the younger son, I’d benefit from boarding school. Far away, I wouldn’t suffer through my parents’ impending divorce or any dangerous incidents with my brother’s gun.
But why wasn’t Phil sent away? Why was I the scapegoat for his behavior? As for the divorce, we’d survived our parents’ countless separations and their marriage that Phil and I called “World War III.”
School was bad enough. At least I could go home. I told my parents if the kids at boarding school were as bad as the ones in Cinnaminson, it would be a hundred times worse—I’d be trapped. My parents, like most adults, had no idea how violent Cinnaminson High was. I explained how bloody fistfights broke out after 3 PM. Kids raced toward the side exit, chanting, “Bash his teeth in, bash his teeth in!” If they knew the poor victim’s name, they’d use it. What did it matter? The undesirables were all the same. 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 know if 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. Were they making bets?
Thanks to band practice, I left school late twice a week, avoiding violent older kids. I had become our school band’s first flutist. Kids teased that I played the “skin flute.” While I didn’t understand what that meant, I sensed it was one of many reasons for their growing hatred of me—another reason to punch and trip me as I rushed up and down stairs between classes.
Despite the humiliation associated with playing the flute, I took home practice seriously: left hand turned toward me, right hand facing out, upper lip pulled taut, air pushed over my lower one. But sometimes I couldn’t focus, anger and dread stifling the sound. I tried again. Breath, but no music. “To hell with stupid Handel!” I shrieked, thwacking the flute over the back of the couch, until it bent into a curve. In the moment, it was liberating, but then I realized what I had done: it would cost a considerable amount of money to repair. My parents added the flute incident to my growing résumé of troubled behavior. When the flute was finally repaired, I returned to band practice.
Otherwise, I stayed in the library. I had become as silent as paper, no longer raising my hand in class, except in Art or Advanced English, where I excelled, where the other kids were outcasts too. I was thirteen. 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. I stayed after school to get their advice on homework.
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, but knew it was my fault. I studied myself, trying to identify what despicable thing I said, did, or gave off, so I could stop doing it. I could no longer simply be, like other kids. Unchecked, my revolting behavior would make kids attack me. And who could blame them? I tried to uproot everything wrong with me. But even when I thought I’d succeeded, my behavior and voice provoked mockery and threats.
As kids 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 formed a circle, cheering, “Get Kostos good!”
The snow’s whiteness became a metaphor for my thoughts: I went blank. 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, “Leave him alone. You’re gonna hurt him!” Then, the most amazing thing happened—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 vowed to make my life hell from that moment on, vengeance when I least expected it. I worried about retaliation the rest of the year, often losing sleep. Dread snaked in my gut.
While he never did attack me, every day in the bus, the same kids now chanted my name in a drawn-out, 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 lived under their tyranny, waiting to go home.
There, I wrote angry letters, but never delivered them. I put an aluminum baking sheet in the middle of my bedroom floor, burning the letters, growling 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? Was I now the one to be feared? Secret discussions took place between my parents and Dr. Sex.
Solution: my parents trundled me off to see a new shrink, Dr. Briarly. He was convinced arson was not in me. In fact, he said there was something healthy in what I was doing: sublimating anger in a harmless fashion. He did suggest, quite reasonably, that I do similar burnings in the fireplace or by the creek. Even though he sided with me, I couldn’t get him to convince my parents not to send me to boarding school. Worse: he told them it was an excellent idea. I never felt comfortable standing up for myself—verbally or with my fists. The one time I’d done so resulted in constant fear. Besides, I was terrified of my own anger—terrified of expressing it to the people who made it boil.
So, I tried a different tactic. I presented my case as I imagined Dad argued cases in court. I reminded my parents my grades were excellent (except in Math), I didn’t get in trouble, and teachers liked me (except in Phys-Ed). Shocked by my description of Cinnaminson High’s violence, my parents saw it as another justification to ship me off.
“But what if the kids at boarding school are as bad or worse?” I asked.
Mom and Dad said the boarding school administrators assured them it was a peaceful, disciplined environment. I didn’t believe it. Worse yet, Dr. Sex spouted some mumbo-jumbo about fourteen being an ideal time to separate from my family, given their problems. Despite my best attempts to use reason, my parents wouldn’t budge—the shrinks’ words buttressing their stubbornness.
Having researched schools for months, the one my parents finally picked certainly cost enough: Bakely Academy, a supposedly reputable boarding school in the rolling hills of upstate New York. Before I went, Mom bought me a plaid wool blanket, embroidering my name in fat, red letters along the upper hem, so it wouldn’t be lost or stolen. It wasn’t, but starting my second day at Bakely Academy, my other belongings started to disappear. It began with little acts of cruelty: stealing a box of Bayard’s fudge Mom had sent me from Cinnaminson. Then I’d find missing book reports: one stuck together with chewing gum, another torn to shreds. Some primitive code had already marked me as the valid brunt of harassment. It took very little time for my classmates to realize I wasn’t interested in having sex with the opposite gender. And even though our dorm was for boys only, adults never supervised. Girls were there having sex with boys. Their whimpering sounded like Mom’s cries after her nervous breakdown.
Mornings. Having helped in Mess Hall, I showered after breakfast—alone. Showering with other nude boys the first couple of days, my eyes had drifted south. A boy caught me looking.
Nights. My roommate and a group of boys—including a girl smoking a cigarette like a thirsty person sucking a straw—would barge into my room. Shining flashlights in my face, they howled, “Hey, Kostos, get the fuck outta bed!” Startled from sleep, I laughed, hoping they’d eventually like me if I showed I was a good sport. I tried to learn the art of blending in. I tried to act like someone else, or better—no one at all. Those skills had worked for me—after a fashion—at Cinnaminson High. Why didn’t they work here? What was I doing wrong?
Kids gathered by the fireplace in our dorm. I still thought I could show I was a regular guy if I joined them. Addressing an audience of boys and girls, many in couples, my roommate said, “I can blow cigarettes out my ass. That’s why I got stains on my underwear. Right, Kostos?”
I said nothing, smiling as though I got his dumb joke.
“Answer the man, you been checkin’ out his butt? Get it, butt?” The boy laughed.
“Listen, I’m having a rough time with this essay. You guys are funny, but I—”
“Hey, Kostos, ever done it? Fucked a girl?” another boy asked. The girls in the group snickered, either approving or nervous. I wasn’t sure. That boy had his hand inside his girlfriend’s sweater, squeezing her breast as one might play with a set of keys.
“There’s a fuckin’ bad smell in this dorm,” another boy said.
“Yeah, eau de fag!” a girl said.
“I smell it too,” a boy said. “Fee, fie, foe, fum!” The group laughed.
The boy squeezing his girlfriend’s breast said, “What ya think, Kostos? Smell it?”
I was terrified but tried to act cool. “Think?” I said. “I think they’re fuckin’ disgusting—fags, that is. If there are any around here, make sure you—”
“How do we know you ain’t one of ‘em? Never seen you with a chick. We kinda got you pegged as a cocksucker. Hear you been checkin’ guys out in the shower.”
“That’s bullshit, man. I told ya, I hate fags. Fuckin’ disgusting.”
“So what’s your fuckin’ excuse?”
“Leslie … my girlfriend. She’s coming to see me for Thanksgiving. We’re committed and all. That’s why I haven’t hooked up—”
“Aw… so romantic,” one of the girls cooed.
The guy with his hand in his girlfriend’s cardigan said, “I guess time’ll tell. And if there ain’t no Leslie, there’s always the burlap bag.”
“Bag?” I asked.
“Yeah, a whole lotta fun—for us at least. See, we tie you up in it, throw it outside, and take turns kickin’. Great exercise!”
Another boy added, “The last kid suffocated. Hey, just a harmless prank gone wrong. Nobody got in trouble.”
I didn’t want to find out if it was true. “C’mon guys, I gotta finish a report on To the Lighthouse, and it’s hard.”
“Yeah, I bet it’s hard!” The kids laughed.
My roommate said, “Lucky me, gettin’ a perv for a roommate.”
I hoped he’d ask to be reassigned but didn’t dare say it. After all, he had insisted that I say please before speaking to him, or he’d break my nose.
“Only reason I didn’t tell nobody was ’cause you gave me that nice box of fudge your mommy sent.”
“Look, I gotta study,” I said, trying to make my way up the slate stairs. From behind, two boys thrust me down the steps to the basement. I hit my shoulder on a flagstone ledge and curled into myself, signaling, Okay, I’m the loser you think I am. Now leave me the fuck alone. Footsteps and laughter. A scratchy fabric covered my head. Laughing harder, the kids pulled the bag around my body, kicking me. I balled up, covering my face. The kicks to my back felt hot and hotter.
And this too shall pass … My grandmother’s embroidered motto of survival had hung in our dining room. Whenever scared, I retreated to that phrase: and this too shall pass, and this too shall pass. Nothing, good or horrible, could last forever. All events have boundaries beyond which they cease to exist.
Hyperventilating, I couldn’t catch my breath. My wheezing grew louder until one of the girls made them let me go. She said she didn’t want to get in trouble if I died.
Next morning—breakfast duty at Mess Hall. Every student had a chore at some meal. It was supposed to build character and camaraderie. I had to be in the kitchen by 6:30 AM. There I was, on line next to my roommate and one of the boys from the previous night. Hell-bent on getting them to like me, I figured I could even make fun of myself. After all, who can hate a person who saves them the trouble by hating himself? I saw a burlap bag full of potatoes to be peeled by the kids on lunch shift. I said, “Hey guys, they’re gonna turn these into mashed potatoes anyway. Why don’t we give ‘em a head start by kicking the potatoes first?”
“Don’t fuckin’ tempt me, Kostos.” His eyes glared.
I went silent.
In the following weeks, I pretended I wasn’t there—like the space inside the outline of a murder victim. I spent spare time in the Art Barn, drawing and throwing pottery. I made a budvase in the shape and color of a pomegranate. I found a slab of wood, gessoed it, and drew a goddess in a blue dress. She held her hands open, receiving flowers that rained from the sky. Using a woodcut gouge, I chiseled lines around her, as if she were about to step free of the slab. In those hours, fear vanished. The art teacher was so impressed with my dedication that he gave me a set of keys to the Art Barn.
Otherwise, I spent time in the library with its cathedral ceiling and skylight. The kids who hated me hated the library, so it was hallowed ground. Dust-angels cavorted in shafts of light.
I increasingly worried the kids would kill me, and it would be my fault. They’d already figured out no girlfriend was coming. I had one ally—my biology teacher, Josh London. In October, he led us outside to examine the forest surrounding Bakely Academy. “Notice how most of these trees have turned color, except this group here,” he said. “They’re all scarlet oak, so it’s not because they’re another species.” Nobody agreed on the cause. But I couldn’t participate. I shut down, obsessively worrying about future confrontations. Was I another species?
I went to Josh about the bullying. He tried to have something done, but as a new teacher, had no clout. No witnesses would come forward. Living in fear pushed me into the familiar quicksand: depression.
Josh’s class was a sanctuary. He integrated science with philosophy and literature. He had us inspect gardens we had planted. Some of us, lovers of van Gogh, planted sunflowers. When we got back to the classroom with notes and clippings, Josh read “The Sunflower,” by Eugenio Montale: “They surrender their shapes in a flow / Of color: color flows into music.” Josh asked if we knew about reincarnation, a Hindu concept.
I said I hadn’t and then imagined not being Dean, but a whole succession of me’s leading up to this point, funneling like specks of light into future lifetimes. Josh read from the Bhagavad-Gita, returning to Montale’s poem: “ ‘Life evaporates as an essence.’ You see, as Einstein proved, everything’s energy.”
I had felt the same warmth wash over me two years earlier, after deciding not to hang myself. With the noose around my neck and one foot off the chair, I heard my favorite Beatles’ song come on the radio: “Eleanor Rigby.” In that instant, I decided, no, I knew beauty was enough to live for. It became my religion.
The next day, Josh announced an overnight class trip to Kent Falls, Connecticut. He’d escort us. Because attendance was optional, the jocks stayed behind, including my roommate. Once we arrived, Josh, the ten other kids, and I trudged up paths, reached the overlook, and peered straight down—200 feet. Although I suffered from acrophobia, beauty obliterated fear. Cascades roared down stepped boulders. Pools of sky mirrored fiery leaves. Slithering onto the surface, they vanished into undercurrents.
Later, we settled in for the night in sleeping bags. Lying on my back, I’d never seen so many stars—a smear of light. The waterfalls’ shee-shee-shee in the background rinsed away all my dread. The next day, I returned to Bakely a new person.
Then I entered my dorm room. My book report on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse was missing. I’d first written it the previous year in Mrs. White’s advanced English class in Cinnaminson. She once gave us an assignment to confront the person we imagined we’d be as an adult. I wrote a dialogue between Past Self and Present Self, as though I were already in the future. Impressed by the psychological complexity, she gave me an A. But Woolf’s novel was much harder. Miraculously, I got an A+. When I had to come up with a book report for English at Bakely Academy, I resurrected the report for To the Lighthouse from memory, making some important changes with a fountain pen. I finished it before leaving for Kent Falls and tucked the handwritten pages in my desk’s top drawer. When I came back, I emptied the desk. The report was gone.
Just then, a posse of kids, faces blurred together like some collective organism, barged into my room: “Hey, Kostos, that sure was a crappy report you wrote. Good thing it ended up in the right place.”
“Crappy?” I figured it out. I ran to the bathroom and found a toilet with three turds floating in urine. Beneath them—my report: its blue ink quivering, phantoms of words released into the yellow liquid.
“Shit, man, he’s gonna stick his hand in there. Hope he doesn’t ever try to shake my hand,” another of the Faceless said.
Gawked at and taunted, I fished out the pages with the toilet scrubber, flushed the stinking mess away, and blotted the pages with paper towels. I found the process nauseating, but the prospect of losing my report as I had rewritten it was worse. Although I could have recreated what I had originally pulled from memory, I wasn’t sure all the turns of phrase would come through. I hoped they’d impress my teacher. That outweighed this humiliation.
My rage at what these kids had done, were doing, and the sadistic delight it gave them, was more than I could express. I had, after all, programmed myself to be invisible. I had no right to human reactions. I believed this policy would protect me, if only I strictly adhered to it. Now, everything happening to me was my fault. I hadn’t been disciplined, hadn’t erased myself enough. These kids’ actions were a living metaphor for what I felt about myself—and they knew it better than I. This incident was a turning point. Not only was I not liked, I would never, despite my earnest efforts, be liked. What was worse, I wasn’t safe, as the following weeks would prove: ostracized, punched, and threatened by overprivileged brats. I considered calling home, explaining my situation—far worse than in public school—but decided it was pointless. I’d already told my parents and Dr. Sex that something like this would happen, but they didn’t care. After a month and a half, I had to figure a way out of this misery called Bakely Academy. My strategy: get myself admitted to the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital. While it might not occur to most teens to get committed to a mental hospital as a strategy for escaping boarding school—it was survival. I remembered the Toot from Mom’s time there as a serene oasis with tree-shaded grounds. Patients got three meals a day, rooms to themselves, beds with fresh sheets, and an area to work on art. The Toot would give me a quiet place to observe myself, to recalibrate my thoughts. When I was ready, I’d ask and would be released. I set my plan in motion by telling Josh I had tried to hang myself back in Cinnaminson and fantasized about doing it again—both true. His eyes grew large, his voice tight. He handed me the number of a Presbyterian minister in town who was also a psychologist.
I told the minister-psychologist about being punched, kicked, almost suffocated, and my fear of being killed. I told him when I closed my eyes at night, a picture pulsed behind my eyelids: broken, black glass gnashing like teeth. I’d open my eyes to make the picture go away. But when I closed them, it lunged back—more ferocious than before.
I said I needed to be in a place where I could speak to a kind, understanding therapist, like him. I revealed things I hadn’t told anyone: that I was too afraid to sleep and was becoming an insomniac. That I wanted to stop my painful thoughts by shooting a bullet through my head—how comforting that fantasy was. While unburdening myself, I was also aware these details could get me out of Bakely Academy.
I figured it would then take two weeks, a month, tops, till the shrink at the Toot would agree I no longer needed treatment. Where would I go after that? Home with my parents in Cinnaminson. Even they would understand Bakely Academy had been a horrible mistake. It didn’t occur to me that my growing psychological problems genuinely warranted psychiatric care. But I had lost all faith in adults. Worse than being trapped in a nightmare where no one can hear you scream, I lived in a world where adults heard but chose to ignore me. So, how could I trust the minister? He seemed nice, but so did the others. Until it mattered. It was safer to scheme. My life depended on it.
I kept my motive to myself.
After meeting with him a second time, he agreed the school was doing me harm. If I took my life, he’d be responsible. He added that adolescent suicide had become a silent epidemic. I didn’t care much about the stats. It might have been more helpful to have known the risk factors: previous suicide attempts (yes); family history of psychiatric problems (yes); a family divorce (an impending one, yes); social isolation (yes); exposure to violence in the home (if verbal violence counts, yes); handguns in the home (yes).
Then he asked if I knew that “homosexual adolescents” were more likely to take their lives. Boys especially. I shrugged. That ugly “h” word curdled in my mind. I wasn’t about to share sexual feelings with an adult. Least of all a minister. Had I told him about my Jesus sex-fantasies, he probably would’ve pressed some secret button, releasing a silver chute, plunging me into the caverns of hell.
Looking up at him, I said, “So … can ya help me?”
“I’ll write letters to your parents and to the school administrators tomorrow.”
“Thank you—thank you …” I said, almost choking on the words.
The minister-psychologist composed a written statement that got me out of Bakely Academy and committed me to the Toot.
I had no idea I’d be there for two years.