Sarah Cavar is a PhD student, writer, and critically Mad transgender-about-town, and serves as Managing Editor at Stone of Madness Press. Author of two chapbooks, A HOLE WALKED IN (Sword & Kettle Press) and THE DREAM JOURNALS (giallo lit), they have also had work in Bitch Magazine, Electric Literature, The Offing, Luna Luna Magazine, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. Cavar navel-gazes at cavar.club and tweets @cavarsarah.
"Again Soon," I'll call him. He is a large chestnut-bearded man. He looks like a large rock in the form of a person. He is satisfactorily tan in the summer months, pallid in the winter, always sporting several moles at the margins of his face. He enjoys literary fiction, but only ironically. Likewise he reads The New Yorker, mostly to poke quiet fun at the little dashes: teen-ager, e-mail––bull-shit, he says, nose-deep in film reviews. In the classroom he enjoys drawing little cartoons, each of which dances its way across the blackboard he refuses to switch to dry-erase, calling student after student to write shrieking, illegible words with white chalk, powder parachuting onto their shoulders.
Again Soon teaches underclassmen. He wishes he taught them exclusively. He says that unlike greener students, aware of their place within a wide sea of ignorance, upperclassmen believe themselves wise the moment we find any archipelago of wisdom. So he sticks with the squeaky little freshmen, sophomores who believe a year of high school has them world-weary, and keeps his office door open to strays and longstanding mentees like myself. I had worked with him on my college essay for months, from a desperate summertime outline to an intelligent, polished sob-story. When I told him that in mid-December, he laughed as he shooed me out the door, said, "a decent sob-story'll usually get you where you need to go." It did.
The last time I went to his office, two months ago –– about two weeks before it all happened, because right now before and after The Event are my only measurements of time ––he had a sign taped halfway up his little plexiglass office door window. In his all-caps block print, he had written on the grid-ruled paper
"A GRIM SENSE OF FOREBODING"
in thick black marker, no explanation given.
I'd gone up to his door, done the little door's-open-so-I'll-half-knock thing. He said, "Mallory!" as he always did, as if my arrival were a great surprise. He scooted from his undersized desk in his undersized wheelie -chair to a small, two-person table several paces from the door. We sat, his knees cramped beneath its low top.
I reached into my backpack and pulled out a thick red envelope. "I've decided on ––– U. I just...I wanted to, um, tell you. To let you know –– to say thank you, you know, for everything. For your help."
"A respectable choice, indeed!" he said, presumably of the U. His eyes smiled grudgingly. His mouth was business.
"Yeah. Glad you think so. That's more or less it... I just wanted to let you know. But, like, how are you doing?" I asked him, not wanting to be rude. A teetering stack of essays sat behind him, red pen lazing like a princess on top. He cleared his throat, smoothed several stray brown curls back into place, behind his ears. "Just ––" he opened a gas-station-sized bag of pretzels (lower sodium) from a heretofore unseen place on his bookcase. "––Getting excited about March! Camp!" Several pretzels firmly in his mouth, he drummed the table with his fingertips. No mind to the essays. "We've got baseball, football ("by which I mean 'soccer,'" he quickly added, rolling his eyes), swimming, we've got kayaks, tents, sleeping bags, bug spray, all the good shit."
"And pretzels, I assume?" I asked, taking, as I always did, illicit pleasure in hearing him curse.
"Oh, no. They've got, like, Doritos. Don't worry about that. "
I watched him take another handful of pretzels, crunch them, staring into space all the while.
An annual Spring Break tradition, free to anyone at the Academy who could sign up quickly enough, Camp was a beloved destination even for those who could afford Cancun. Nine days in tents, playing sports, scary stories and manhunt in the darkness, all while reveling in the familial atmosphere the Academy sold to parents for $30,000 a year.
"Sorry, I can't stay," I said, glancing at my phone. "I have to go to class in a second."
"Then go forth, Mallory!" He slid the red envelope, now open, back toward me. He had glanced through it without my noticing. I read the name, ––– UNIVERSITY, in its bold capitals, the carefully-posed photos of attractive, well-dressed, diverse students camped out in the library and on the green. Anxiety rushed to my mouth like bile.
"Thanks for letting me stop in," I repeated, trembling only slightly. "I want to, you know, use my time wisely now that I haven't got long left. See people I'm going to miss next year."
"Sure, sure," Again Soon rose from his tiny chair, cracking each knuckle in turn. "But it's not over yet, Malloy. No need to freak out. Solid three months to go, you know?"
I knew. I felt as if my stomach were made of glass. I imagined my life without his office, without the safety –– however wounded –– I felt after four Academy years. This must be the Grim Sense of Foreboding, I thought. I left the door ajar behind me and walked to class, oddly relieved that, in however small and foolish a way, I shared my pain with the universe.
Again Soon had a couple of different personalities, each curated for a different situation. In class he had the whole To Sir, With Love thing going on, except he was surrounded by white Academy kids with little American flags, slashed through with a thin blue line, stuck to the backs of their cars. These types were orders of magnitude more pigheaded than any so-called "urban youth,” yet Again Soon, with his unpretentious insight, wrangled even the worst of them.
As soon as the 2:00 bell rang, Again Soon metamorphosed from teacher to coach, a process in fact initiated not by the bell but one hour earlier, when he removed his button-down for his trademark mesh tank top. He would teach a raucous last period class in it, then run with the rest from the classroom to the fields, voice booming SPORTS! As if he had discovered the word himself.
His last personality was the rarest. I received it by accident the February of my freshman year. I was miserable at the time, but no one said anything about it. I sensed that it wafted off of me as a stench those in my life chose to ignore. Either that or Again Soon was exceptionally well-attuned. He confronted me that February with a shocking tenderness I did not know how to comprehend.
"Mallory," he had said, having already taken to calling me by my surname. I was the last person packing up after a last period class. Winter be damned, he wore the tank top.
"Sorry, almost done –– I know you have to go," I mumbled. He said nothing, walked over to my desk holding a packet of papers. It was my first essay of the semester, marked with a big red A.
"Best in the class. Excellent attention to detail. Astute." He pronounced the T sharply and chuckled to himself. I thanked him awkwardly, all of this feeling uncannily like a Lifetime movie.
"But I haven't kept you about the essay," he continued. "I've kept you because the person who wrote this
," he pressed his index finger against the packet I now held, "isn't the person I've seen in my classroom. Isn't the person I've heard in my classroom, considering all I've heard so far is crickets. You hardly come to class at all these days."
I bowed my head.
"So now, here I am –– acting in my capacity as a teacher –– asking, what's going on?"
And so opened the floodgates. All the fourteen-year-old angst I had piled away behind myself, until now addressed only in the language of blood, came crashing out with embarrassing speed. I was depressed. I was suicidal. I was covered in grotesque evidence of this and unable to resist the blade. On top of that, I berated myself, I was meta-depressed: berating myself for the fact of my depression when I had little to be sad
about. Though only a freshman, the few friends I had were genuine. My parents loved me. I was queer, and no one made a fuss about it. My grades were good; my appearance, as far as I could tell, about average. But even still this unremarkable life had me coming home from school to sit on my bed, head several beats outside my body, eyes too tired to tear, with my headphones screaming loudly enough that perhaps, if I continued listening, my eardrums would deflate like birthday balloons. I couldn't read, couldn't write, could hardly stand to think, and would thus attempt to drown the thoughts in screeching tones, themselves soon proving insufficient.
The cutting had begun as fall turned into long-sleeved winter. Not itself an attempt at suicide, I viewed the cutting as an engagement with death: reminding me of my existence as well as my cartoonish fragility. Either way, I was here, and had evidence, even if nobody cared to see. Again Soon didn't cringe or cry as I explained all this, not even when I later, hesitantly, rolled my sleeve halfway up. He only asked, "And do you have a plan?"
"If I tell you 'yes', you're going to tell the counselor, who will tell my doctor and my parents, and then..." I trailed off. For a moment we only stared at each other.
"Here's the deal. You get this." He took a pen from his pocket, wrote a phone number in the margins of my essay. And any time of day or night, you can tell me."
I made use of the number several times, probably should have done so several more. All this is beside the point. Again Soon paid attention to me. He asked me what I was reading. When he started to ask me what I was listening to, I hesitated, reluctant to say "Korn at full volume in complete darkness," like some overwrought stereotype.
Again Soon told me, grinning, that whatever was behind my hesitation probably meant I needed to learn better taste. To this end, he instructed me to listen to several bands, all of which, to my amusement, sounded exactly like Mumford and Sons. I told him so, and he pantomimed manic strumming as if confirming what I meant.
This was how he became my mentor, the only adult who dealt with the whole of me without making me feel inhuman; a much-needed contrast to the contemporaneous parade of counsellors that treated me at once like a child and like an escaped prisoner. I quickly shut up about my problems around the counsellors, bringing them instead to Again Soon. He made me feel heard. I shared my personal writing. I even (once he lifted his informal ban on Woolf, Plath, or Sexton) shared my perspective on suicidality and literature. Sometimes I'd send an interesting, unrelated article to the phone number he wrote on my paper all those years ago and get a little thumbs-up emoticon in return. Later, he would help me with the successful college essay about the power of collective care, chosen kin, and mentors beyond the family unit.
After all of this, he felt like a family member, a friend. I looked forward to changing his contact name to his first, no more Mr.-this-or-that. It was March. We were marching toward the end, the today I wish were here. But then Until Tomorrow stepped off that chair into a great emptiness called The Event and I christened Again Soon Again Soon.
The story as I heard it went like this. Until Tomorrow, a sophomore, went to camp. I didn't know much about the kid beforehand, but I had seen him around: a generic fifteen-year-old boy, brown hair, arms and legs a bit too long and a bit too skinny for the rest of him. When I try to recall what else I knew before the papers hijacked him, I draw a shameful blank. Until Tomorrow had decided to go to camp only after, we later learned, establishing a rapport with Again Soon. The two had spent the better part of a year periodically discussing Until Tomorrow's depression. Until Tomorrow suffered severely from loneliness. Again Soon
had apparently advised him to come to camp –– an "antidote to any loneliness" –– to make friends, kayak and eat Doritos.
So Until Tomorrow went to camp. To his great dismay, so did four unremarkable boys who slept just a few tents down. These boys had, unbeknownst to Again Soon, been responsible for much of the preceding year's depression, an ongoing campaign of harassment Until Tomorrow was too ashamed to disclose.
The boys' camp-specific acts of terror started small: a rotten banana in the back corner of his tent, a "misplaced" lantern in the middle of the night. Sometimes, in good fun, the boys would tease or wrestle with Until Tomorrow in the presence of Again Soon, like cats pawing at a little mouse. Everybody aww’s, but really, they’re playing with their food.
On the second-to-last day of camp, a Friday, the boys stole Until Tomorrow's knapsack while he swam nude in a secluded lake nearby. To retrieve the bag he walked two miles through the forest shoeless, naked, and cold, body on display for hiking passers-by. The boys watched through violent peals of laughter. That evening all the campers ate their s'mores by firelight and nothing seemed amiss.
Campers returned home the following day, two days before school started up again. I'm sure Until Tomorrow was relieved with this temporary reprieve from the boys, at least until he saw the photos: cell phone pictures of varying quality, all depicting his freezing, naked form, face red with anguish, and penis –– the subject, as one might expect, of much online ridicule –– dangling as he ran.
His father found him in the garage Monday morning.
News spread like sawdust. It got into everyone. My mother learned about it from the morning newspaper.
TRAGEDY STRIKES ––– ACADEMY. Cyberbullying A Factor in Teen's Suicide. She hid the paper from me, but I had already found out, waking up to a flurry of texts. They were all all dotted with are you okays and do you need someones. It was as if I were once again made of glass, a giant sign screaming SUICIDE hanging from my neck. Most of all, I wished selfishly for different timing, better timing, and shamefully raged at the ruin of my senior spring. I had by all accounts reached the dawn-side of my depression. I gripped my future, my U, with a trembling fist. And then this, this brutal conspiracy of fate, which shamed me for having the audacity to survive.
It’s been two weeks since then.
The boys have since admitted to "teasing" Until Tomorrow. At the request of their respective coaches, they were each given no more than three day's suspension so as not to disadvantage the Academy's varsity record. I would keep each newspaper article I could find on the "Tragedy at the Academy" in a manila envelope, read them each several times over, and mark them up with pen and highlighter until the typed text is hardly visible beneath. I made a list:
To understand the epidemic of teen suicide. To understand the epidemic of cyber-
bullying. We ought to change the conversation on mental health. Start the
conversation. No, change. No change. Ask where were the parents? Confront the
scourge of online bullying. To understand unfair emotional standards placed on
young boys. No picturesque campus is safe. No safe spaces. Snow. The way
tvinternetvideogames strips youth of their compassion, their very humanity.
Flakes. But where were the parents? Where were the teachers? In decline.
Again Soon declines requests for comment.
He is still teaching and coaching. He now keeps his office door closed and unadorned. At the school-wide assembly a week after the news, he appeared in the auditorium with hands clasped gently at his belt buckle and eyes downcast, body among all of our bodies in our identical grief.
For a moment it was as though we were all living inside the news stories, lives governed by nothing but sheets of manila text. Students cried in the halls. Students cried in classrooms. Students walked out of class and onto the green and stared at the springtime clouds, sometimes in large numbers, and in all our manic solidarity, we allowed them. I did not see Again Soon joining mourners on the green, but then, after that first assembly, I did not see Again Soon at all.
As spring passed and the flowers opened, the Until Tomorrow stories continued, unrelenting.
Again Soon once commented that writers enjoy death, enjoy tragedy, because they were free to pontificate on a subject who could not meet their gaze.
All my U brochures come by snail mail. In the warming weather I have taken to waiting for the beautiful postwoman, who unknowingly assuages my loneliness each afternoon at 3:45 sharp, on the front porch. She looks young for a postal worker, strawberry blonde and plump with freckles on her face and on her upper chest. She has a cherry blossom tree tattooed on her right calf, with branches extending up her thigh and beneath her shorts. I let myself desire her, stomach fizzing, relieved each day to feel human still.
It’s not like I’m back to old habits, or whatever else I’m supposed to call the cutting. I’ve committed already, that is, chosen. Instead I ritual my envelopes: Upon arriving home from school, I first brush my sour teeth. Then, I make one sandwich with tomatoes, lettuce, Swiss cheese, and mayonnaise and fill my favorite old mug with ice water. I bring my school books and food to the porch and camp out on the wooden steps, knowing that when the postwoman arrives I will rise and two particular spots on my ass will ache with the memory of the unforgiving wood, and I will be grateful for my ache as my desire, grateful simply to feel
I attempt to read while I wait, but most often end up staring at some particular word on the page –– one with interesting vowels, like vacuum –– until I hear the grey sound of the postal truck bobbing along the road. I check my face for food scraps in my phone's front-facing camera before going down to meet the postwoman.
The shifts get lonely, sometimes, she's said to me. Going to door after door, knowing you're supposed to leave the mail and just leave, as if you don't exist. I always smile sadly and tell her that I hope she feels better soon. She says see you tomorrow.
Today we get two bills, a catalog, a thin afternoon paper, and a large Academy envelope, a premature issue of their Alumni Quarterly. The papers and Academy have quit discussing Until Tomorrow's suicide, protracted murder, or whatever it was, so I toss both aside with the bills. I suck on my water.
The U, I imagine, will soon send another round of glossy welcome cards, a parade of which already march across our family refrigerator: one congratulating me on my admission, one awarding me the coveted ––– U Admissions Essay Prize, another congratulating me for choosing to attend. We cannot wait to have you.
I return to my steps with the stack of mail. With my other hand, I pick up my untouched sandwich from the plate and throw it as far as I possibly can, past our empty driveway and into the hedges. I watch the bread and toppings peel apart in slow-motion, hearing several splatters as pieces reach the earth. By tomorrow it will have all vanished into possum bellies or raccoons'; birds, surely, will have played vulture with the lettuce and tomato.
When I'm through, I slip the stack of worthless mail below me as an ersatz cushion and sip my water. The time reads just-past-five, springtime sun shining still; my parents will not be home for hours.
I sit straight-up on my pile like some minute-monarch, still as my disfigured sandwich. Birds arrive.