Tony Rossi was a little portly with tight curly hair and a mustache. He was a very well-liked teacher. He was even a good teacher.
He liked the Italian tough guys in the class: John Squitieri, Sal Vitolo and me. Squitieri and Vitolo were born in Italy; they could speak fluently with him. I had only learned enough Sicilian from my grandparents to know the curse words. He joked with the three of us, calling us “disgraziado” and “pazzo,” crazy.
We read Shakespeare in the beginning of the year. He made the stories come to life, impersonating the doting Polonious and the brooding Hamlet. Even Squitieri, who loved cars and machinery but hated Shakespeare, laughed at his Hamlet jokes. .
“Why didn’t Hamlet kill his father immediately?” Mr. Rossi asked the class, holding the book open in the palm of his hand, suddenly very serious.
“Because he wanted to find the right time,” said Sal.
“Sal’s right,” said Squitieri, “he could have killed him at prayer, but then his father would have gone to heaven.” The way they talked it sounded like a gangster movie.
“Hamlet didn’t kill him because he was a coward,” I said. Everyone got quiet, like I’d said the wrong thing.
“Maybe he was a coward,” said Rossi. “Perhaps Hamlet had to struggle with his conscience to show us the difficulty of his choice.” Then Rossi walked up and down the aisles of the classroom quoting the “To be or not to be” speech verbatim.
Then one morning Rossi called me to follow him to an adjoining classroom.
"What happened to you?" he asked, pointing to the bandage on my hand. The bandage was from an accident I’d had over the weekend. I’d had a few similar incidences over the past two or three months. Black-eye, nearly severed finger and now this.
“Are you ok?” he asked, holding me by my wrist to see my palm.
“I’m ok,” I said.
I had seen Squitieri smash a bottle at Party Palace a few weeks earlier. When he smashed it on the ground the spout of the bottle broke off perfectly as the body crumbled into bits. I was stoned when I saw it. After smoking pot and drinking beer in a Party Palace with Joey D, I tried it myself, only with different results. For the few seconds it took to raise my hand, I was invincible. Like an intergalactic being, I could smash a bottle and walk away uninjured. I was made of glass; the bottle would become a part of me, dissolve into my being. But by the time the bottle hit the cement, it had ripped through my flesh. I was back on earth, sitting in Party Palace, a mere human, shards of glass dug into my skin. I laughed, saying I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t. Joey D called 911 and I went to the hospital to get stitches. My parents met me at the hospital. My father didn’t look at me.
There was a lot going on at home. My father's gambling had reached even farther into our home. Now my older sister was loaning him money. Thugs had come to our house banging on the apartment door, demanding we open it, or else.
When Rossi asked me what was wrong, my mind launched into a whirlwind. The bottle, my mother yelling at my father, my father sitting at the table staring into space, the bottle breaking into tiny bits into my hand, my father sitting at the table in darkness at night, the blood dripping down my fingers. For one split second, one minute stich of time, the bottle was a spaceship and I flew through the darkness of space inside of it. I was the character in the science-fiction stories I had been reading. I was translucent, like a cosmic jellyfish. You could see the blue of space through my eyes. I was space itself, the light of the stars breezed through me. And then I was just flesh and blood again. I was just a kid in the park, breaking a bottle with blood pouring down my skin onto the ground.
“What’s the matter?” asked Rossi. “Why the puss?” I stared off into the distance, like I didn’t see him, like I walked through him.
"Nothing's the matter," I said.
"You're upset about something, right?
"No," I insisted.
He reached out and rubbed my shoulder. "It's ok," he said. "You can tell me. Things are rough at home?"
I nodded yes.
"That's ok," he said reassuringly. "I can help you." He continued stroking my shoulder. I saw blood dripping from my hand, the thick redness of the blood inching across my palm to wrist, then flowing down my arm. I saw the heavy red blood pulsing from my arm in big drops forming a soupy pool on the cement.
"That'a boy," he said, rubbing my shoulder. Then he put his arm around me. "Come with me."
I followed him into the school bathroom. He lit a cigarette and handed it to me. "You're crying because no one understands the pain you feel, right?"
I took a drag on the cigarette and nodded in agreement.
He stroked my back again. As the tears trickled down my face, he then reached out to touch my crotch. I jumped back. I didn't understand why he touched me down there. He did it again. This time I didn't stop it. I looked up at the crucifix hanging above the row urinals, my body shaking as I continued crying.
"We can talk about these things," he said. "Do you want to talk about these things?" Still stroking my crotch he said, "I can help you." I didn't want to be touched in my private parts. I didn't like it.
I threw the cigarette on the floor and stamped it out with my foot. Then I dashed out of the bathroom.
The next day, Rossi called me out to the adjoining class, waiving his index finger. I walked towards him.
“You know I want to help you, right?” he asked.
I looked at my feet and didn’t say anything.
“Are you mad at me?”
I shook my head no.
Then he asked me if I wanted to smoke a cigarette with him.
I nodded yes.
He said to follow him to the bathroom. I did.
“They, I mean your parents, don’t realize what all of this is doing to you at home,” he said, handing me the cigarette.
I didn’t’ say anything, but held the cigarette with my thumb and index finger and took a long drag on it.
“I know they don’t realize how the troubles are affecting you. Parents sometimes don’t understand,” he said.
Just talking about these things pried open the pain in my heart. I could feel the blood pumping in my veins, moving in my eye sockets, my skull. I could hear my blood moving in my head like a snake.
I took another puff on the cigarette, feeling tears crawl down my cheeks, like they had little feet. As I took a few fast drags, he reached down to stroke my pants. I felt disconnected by his actions. I didn’t get an erection. I was both violated and comforted by the same gesture. He kept touching me as the tears rolled down my face. The tears felt like boiling blood, burning ducts into my skin.
Then he reached out, took my hand and placed it his crotch. He humped into my left hand as I wiped the tears from my eyes with my right hand. He was doing to me the same things I was doing to Diana Perez, Rachel Fernandez and other girls I was messing around with in the neighborhood. The difference being that I wasn't getting excited.
"I know you don't try, but I can see how smart you are. You need to learn to apply yourself," he said, unzipping his pants, now putting my hand on his cock. "Yes apply yourself," he said as he held my hand, bringing it towards his cock. "You're such a handsome and smart boy," he said.
My gaze meanwhile was fixed on the crucifix that hung in the bathroom. The whirlwind came again. I saw the bottle, the blood oozing thick and hot like wax. I saw my mother crying at the table. I saw the look of death in my father’s face. I wanted to vomit.
Suddenly the bathroom door swung open. Rossi stopped and backed away. A kid from another class walked in. The kid walked over to the urinal and peed. Then he washed his hands and left.
We'd sometimes spend thirty to forty minutes, maybe once a week this way.
It became more normal as the semester continued. After a while, I stopped retching when he touched me. The other kids were jealous that I got called out of class. While they toiled on assignments, I was excused for being the teacher’s pet. I was special.
Then he started unzipping my pants and playing with my private parts. But I was limp. I couldn't get a hard-on. I stopped seeing the blood dripping. I was somewhere else. I was in a capsule flying in the darkness of space. I flicked the switches, making the vessel change speeds. I traveled to the moon, to Mars. My capsule had even sailed to distant stars, like the stars I had fixed in my memory looking up in the night sky.
I even stopped crying. I became stoic. I stared up into the vacancy of the crucifix.
Would I go to hell if I died now?
He then gave up playing with my limp dick, pulled out his own dick and jerked off. Then he grabbed my hand, having me jerk him off. I looked away at the urinals. I focused in on the water in the bottom of the urinal, gurgling like a brook.
"You can get an A," he said.
"How so?" I asked knowing the answer.
"Put it in your mouth," he said "and you'll get an A."
"I can't do that," I said.
He kept asking me to do this throughout the year. And I refused over and over. This all became so normal we even joked about my not sucking his dick.
On graduation day, we all said goodbye to each other. Our little lives were being let out into the bigger world. I was moving on to a private Catholic high school. Mostly everyone else was going to the local public school.
When I said my farewell to Rossi, he held my face in his hand, saying "I'll miss you so much," as tears flowed poured out of his eyes. I cried too, now for the last time, my tears like scorching blood. I would miss him. I wasn’t sure if he had cared about me, or what had happened. For those weeks, I had felt the universe had cut me open and a knife had been plunged inside me. I couldn’t believe the universe could be so cruel. But I couldn’t have put it into those words. There weren’t any words. There was an aching, like the feeling of a punch in your stomach, after the punch has hit you. You can feel your heart beating, you feel the blood in your body pumping. Your heart races as your brain tries to find itself.
As I walked away from the school, I looked up at the giant golden cross. The Jesus on the St. Patrick’s church was nailed to a cross but he was dressed in a robe. He was dignified, looking upwards towards heaven. He looked like a hero. I understood what the Jesus on that cross felt. He had suffered. He had come through something so terrible and wrong that he didn’t want to think about it. But now he could look up at heaven. He could look up and feel that he had held himself together. He had had courage. He had never been a coward.