My co-workers greeted me in the faculty lounge of the Las Vegas private school where I teach American literature with hugs and slaps on the back, as if I’d just finished a long, grueling race, a race I’d run with such speed, made up with such endurance and stamina, that I’d broken records. We stood around the water cooler, and I told them about the drugs and the sick; I told them about how good it was to get back to work to get my mind off things. I was purposely vague, telling them, “Just to be here is great. To not think about things.” I didn’t elaborate, and they didn’t ask me to define “things,” but there it was. They knew what I was talking about. They had to have.
“Things,” I muttered as a I’d pour a cup of coffee into the little styrofoam cups near the coffee machine. “Mind off things,” I’d say ripping open two packets of sugar and pouring them into the black coffee, a noise like a tightening coming up from the cup, as the sugar disappeared to the bottom.
“Well, it’s just good to have you back,” they’d said. “Glad to have you back.” What else should they’ve said?
“Great to be back,” I told them. “Great to be anywhere,” I’d say under my breathe, stirring my coffee with a wooden stirrer.
Someone got some water from the cooler, and as they pulled the lever a huge bubble of water glugged up from the bottom, and I turned to watch it as it dissipated.
I ate a donut.
They stared at me, gripped my shoulder, or stood close.
They said things like, “Well. You look amazing.” They told me, “You look like nothing happened.” I was wearing a hat not because I lost any hair yet, but I was readying them for a day when I would show up and my head would be patchy, a grid of of scalp and loose hair. I was becoming the cancer patient before their eyes so they wouldn’t see him when he was really there, in their face, a reminder of things.
A history teacher named Gary, a guy known at work for always wearing a Hawaiian shirt, gave me a fist bump. He said, “ Most excellent, brother. Most excellent.” He winked. Said, “Most excellent.”
I smiled, left the room, walked to my classroom, and popped some pills to help with the nausea. I also popped some pain pills to help with the bone pain and severe headaches, the residual effects of the chemo cocktail I’d been shot up with one week earlier.
Despite the lingering hangover it felt good to be back in the classroom and leading my kids through The Catcher in the Rye. One of my favorite students, Stevie Cavallero (yes, “Stevie.” Not “Steven.” Or “Steve.”), raised his hand within the first two minutes of our first class. The thing about Stevie is that he’s always got his hand in the air, and so when I saw it I didn’t think much of it. It’s like he walks into my classroom and he’s got things he needs to get off his chest. Sometimes it’s the most irritating thing I’ve ever experienced as a teacher, and I’ve worked in all kinds of neighborhoods, including a few years as the Dean of Students at a southside Chicago Jesuit school where the feud between the Latin Kings and Satan Disciples was my biggest problem.
But there’s Stevie Cavallero and his hand in the air. He’s got it high today like it might even hurt his shoulder socket it’s stretched so high. I had just started class and said something like, “Ok. Last time we met we were talking about –,” and there’s Stevie’s hand high in the air. I might have tried to ignore it for a time, but it’s like he’s always trying to out match me, like we’re in a teacher/student stare down. Stevie is all about calling my bluff somedays and most days, to be honest, Stevie wins. Stevie gets the best of me, and it’s something I haven’ t figure ou t yet. I might get up in the middle of the night in a fit because in my dream there’s Stevie’s hand, and he’s itching to speak.
Anyway, there I was in third period class, Stevie’s period, and I was like, “Good to be back.” (Insert Stevie’s hand here). “As you can imagine we’ve got a lot of work to do … (Stevie’s hand. Still in the air) … alot of catch-up with me being out and all, but before we begin I want to talk a little about my treatment.”
I pace my classroom alot, and so there is plenty of times when my back is to an entire group of students. Somedays, the pacing isn’t a way for me to gather my ideas or mull over the discussion happening amongst my kids about the novel, but it’s the only way I’ve figured to keep Stevie’s hand out of my vision. Yet here I was, turning around because there’s no more room to pace, there’s nowhere else to go, and there’s Stevie’s hand in the air. Waiting. Like something out of a Sartre novel. Like I was a character in Sarte’s vision of hell, and it’s me and Stevie and Stevie’s hand in the air — in eternal inquiry before anything has even freaking happened that would even remotely beg of curiosity.
I wanted to talk to them about what I would need them to do over the next week. I had to require that they clean their desks and hands with antibacterial wipes because I knew my white blood cell count would get low. I knew that there’d be days when they’d be coughing and sniffling and that germs would be everywhere. Being in a high school is not the best of atmospheres for a guy who has just been through chemotherapy, especially days seven to 14, when the white cells are at their lowest (mine would go as radically low as 0.02, which I don’t really even know what that means, but my doctor broke out the SARS mask the other day for me to wear, which I refused). I was telling them I’d have to take my temperature three times a day and that I had already been given a shot called Neulasta that would help promote the growth of white blood cells in my bones. Until this time passed, they’d have to do their part in the health of the room. I felt that being this open about the process, the basic parts of the method, would help eliminate any fear they may be having in regards to my treatment for the two spots growing in my right lung. It was, as some of my colleagues would say, “a teachable moment.”
And there was Stevie’s hand.
“Stevie?” I asked. “Stevie, you got a question?” I asked with all the patience I’ve learned to have as a high school teacher. “I didn’t see your hand,” I said with all the irony I’ve learned to have as a high school English teacher.
“Yeah. So. You still, like, have hair,” he said as if he was wildly disappointed in the way the side effects had yet to take hold. Like he’d been gipped out of something. Like this whole experience for him, my return, wasn’ t really wor th the price of admission. I could just picture Stevie Cavallero walking around school, through the streets of his gated community in summerlin, a master-planned community outside of Las Vegas, eating dinner with his folks in their massive house, thinking, “What’s Torch gonna look like? What’d he mean when told us he’d have no hair? Like, no hair at all? Or patches?” Cavallero at his locker: “I mean. Like. His head’ll be bald. Like. Just skin?” Cavallero in gym class trying to do as many sit-ups as he could in a minute, thinking, “Eyebrows. Like no eyebrows?” Cavallero spacing out while cramming for his Chemistry exam. “Eyelashes. That’s hair. All his hair ? I mean. Like. No eyelashes? What the hell will Torch be like?”
I laughed and said, “You sound disappointed, Stevie.”
He looked around at his classmates because they all started laughing. They were on the verge when he asked the question because they knew Stevie the way I knew Stevie. They grew up with him, the school being a pre-K through 12th grade private institution. They saw his hand way before his hand shot up into the air above his head in real time. They knew what was coming. See, Stevie Cavallero is highly neurotic. It’s not some dangerous psychic condition that’ll bring the boy down, but rather there’s something New York about the kid, some cross between Woody Allen and Richard Lewis. He sits at his desk like he’s holding the sucker down with his hands, his whole body hugging the desk portion. Most days it seems like it’s the only thing holding him to the ground, his hold on his desk. He’s not very big, a skinny kid, sort of nerdy, and he wears his uniform (khaki pants and navy blue polo shirt) all perfect-like (he’s a throwback in a way. Like he still believes that pants should be worn at the waist and not halfway down his ass like his boys. So, there’s Cavallero with his pants hiked up on his real waist and kept tight by a brown, braided belt, shirt tucked. He’s the dean’s dream, Cavallero is). Beyond the build and uniform there’s his head of hair, which is more of a kind of helmet of tightly wound, blond curls (i.e. a young Gene Wilder).
Anyway, the whole class was waiting for it. He was known for asking these kinds of questions, and usually, because they’d be sort of provocative, seeing things in the texts most other kids were too bored or not yet able to see, kids’d snicker and roll their eyes because what it meant was he and I were going to some other place, digging deeper into something substantial and meaningful, something beyond plot and narrative arc. Yet, when everyone’d laugh the way they did that day, he looked around at everyone’s reaction. Sometimes his hand would go to his head and he’d hit his forehead and respond as if he were drawing new responses out of himself with his hands. Like maybe they were laughing or snickering or moaning because he didn’t say it right, and so he’d try to reformulate it and he’d get all twisted up and say more than necessary, working through the problem of articulating the exact nature of his inquiry.
He’s the kind of kid who knows he’s getting an A, and I’m not talking about an A- but the full on A. Stevie’s A is so A that it’s obscene, almost 100%, maybe more somedays. Yet, there’s Cavallero walking into my office with all seriousness asking, “Uh, yeah. I was. Like. I’m like wondering what my grade is. I mean. Like. What’s the grade? Like what am I getting in your class?”
And he’d stand there, behind me, as I looked it up on my computer, with full knowledge of the kind of A that will stand out in the last column of the grade book. He’d stand there. Pace. Work his hands through his hair. Like he was on trial or waiting for trial or waiting for the verdict of some trial only he is working through, as the accused, the judge, the jury, and executioner. The computer is doing it’s business and Cavallero is spinning through the various levels of Dante’s Hell he’s so fond of because he references it with almost everything we discuss in my class. He’s clutching his hair like he’s in pain and the intervening silence is breaking him down, pulling him apart at the molecular level and the pain is so great that the only way to manage it is to pace behind my back and pull at his hair and mutter things like, “I mean. I know I could’ve done better on that last quiz. I mean. I know. Like. That last thesis sentence, boy. What a killer. Like. I mean. Man, I should have run it by you. I mean –”
“Stevie. You’ve got an A,” I’d tell him. “Look.” I’d pull my seat away from the desk slightly so he could get a better look and watch him lean in.
Cavallero’d lean in over my shoulder, his eyes squinting to mine through the data of the screen, the sub-par performances of everyone else, and search out his A. He’d then scan the whole long line of A’s like it was a line of poetry he was saying under his breath the shortened name I’d given each assignment, finding a meter and rhythm to it, trying to discern what went into making that one A. Then he’d smile, deeply relieved. Like the boy’d just barely managed to avoid some kind of existential shipwreck. I always was trying to not laugh. He was 15, and this was his great worry. I admired the boy for his intensity. I like Stevie a lot. He’s incredibly smart. He’s one of my best students. Ever.
So, anyway, everyone was laughing because Cavallero felt ripped off that I’d not lost my hair yet, and I’m standing there in front of them, under their gaze, after a round of chemotherapy. I’m standing there looking pretty healthy. Cavallero thought I’d be skinny, have the bony look of a stage IV cancer patient, a being I fear deeply because I know how close I am to that vision Stevie has built for me in his mind. But I wasn’t that. I’d suffered for sure, was sick for days before I returned to work, was so sick I couldn’t see straight and so I didn’t open my eyes for days. Eating Ativan to try to sleep it away and taking Hydrocodone to ease the pain of headaches that swept down on me without mercy. He wanted that vision there, in front of him, and so he put his hand in the air and said, “You still have all your hair.”
Stevie’s re-articulating the statement, yet his ideas are everywhere and his thoughts are scattered in the wild landscape of his mind in the back of the classroom where he’s sat all year in total fear of me and also challenging almost all of my prepared readings into The Scarlet Letter, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and so on from Columbus to Delillo. This is probably why I adore him, his fearlessness goes right after my University-of-Chicago-trained-mind from Whitman to Dickinson, from Kerouac to Ellison. He’s near berserk in the back of the room that day about my hair because they’re all laughing, and I was standing there with hair and holding down the fort with, “You sound disappointed, Steven.”
What’s so funny here is that we’re all laughing at this joke about cancer. I have a very rare cancer, and this is the third recurrence, and, on some level I know that I am merely buying a little more time with each new treatment and surgery. The whole thing with cancer for me is deeply serious in private and I rarely bring it to work, but when I first told them about my cancer in August, because I was going to miss some time for some surgery, they were very wary, as I knew they would be. They didn’t know what to say, but it needed to be said. I stood there, at my podium, and told them, “I have cancer. It’ll be fine. There’ll be a surgery and then, boom, done. Quick and easy.” Little did they know how much I was lying, how the smile I wore and the joking nature I acquired for the experience of telling 75 students was a put on; how afraid I was to look at Cavallero in the back when I had to tell his class because I think he knew how scared I was. Hell, he knew how scared he’d be. He asked me later, “Are you scared? I mean. Are you afraid. Like what’s it like? I mean. You won’t die, right?” He was trying to maneuver through death by measuring my proximity to it, by the fear I had for it. Like if I wasn’t scared then I wouldn’t die and vice versa. I wished it was that easy. I told him I was scared.
Back in August, I told them the standard things. I said, “I’m strong. I’ll get through this.” I said, “It’s a little spot on a muscle in my back. They’ll just snip it out.” I made a motion with my right hand like cutting something in the air with scissors. “I’ll be gone for a little while. Then I’ll be back.”
But this time. Oh boy. This time was much different. I had to tell them I had cancer in my right lung. That the little thing from before, a mass that grew along a muscle deep in the abdomen grew up and had enough know-how, was intelligent enough, to navigate it’s way from my pelvis to my lung.
“I have cancer in my right lung,” I think I told them. I said, “I’ll need a few rounds of pretty high-grade chemotherapy. I tell you all this, guys, because I’m going to change a little bit. I’m going to get really skinny and probably lose all my hair.”
When I told them this it was like I was telling myself to be cool, that there was no need for alarm. It was like putting on an old hat. But cancer isn’t like putting on an old hat, no matter how many times you’ve had it because it’s not you doing the damage in your body. You’re the medium for some spectacular biological and molecular warfare, an ancient battle ground for control of DNA. I have nothing to do with it or the outcome. So I told my kids, I said, “I’m going to get hell, and then I’m going to give it back.” And in the back of my own mind I smelled the fear I have of the dark places of my mind and how much time I give to things: the idea of death everyday, and how I wake up to the bone-chilling word. Like right when the alarm goes off, there’s “C A N C E R.” Like a billboard for a new resort and casino that I’m forever staying at in the Las Vegas of my mind.
When I stood there telling them I was telling me. Because whether I like it or not, those kids, however much they get under my skin most everyday, those kids are my life. I teach them to try to get them to ask themselves, through the study of literature, about their own lives and the meaning of what they have and are living through. I ask them to write well, and I ride them hard if their topic sentences and thesis statements are weak, and I sort of go crazy when they don’t provide me with textual evidence. Telling them all this stuff about cancer I realize they are a huge part of my life. I see them during the school year more than I see my wife, and when I’m with her I’m trying to get her to understand the experience of being with them. All of them. Like Stevie Cavallero and Max Newman and Jess Molasky and Chloe Spiltoro. I’m trying to fill her in on the weird things James Castle and Anthony Gord and all the other teenagers I live with for 8 hours a day for nearly nine months do all day long as sophomores in something so innocent as high school.
“I have cancer. I’m going to be all right,” I told them. Even though I had no clue. Telling them was telling me. It was like looking in the mirror. Who knows. I could be dead in four months. I didn’t know. It’s terrible not knowing.
Anyway, there was Cavallero, freaking out like Larry David, and he finally spits out, “I mean. I mean. What I’m trying to say is. I mean, what I’m trying to say here is that I thought. I mean. I thought your hair falls out when you get chemo. And. I mean. I mean. You stand there. You have hair. I just want to know. I mean. You have hair. Chemo takes hair. So,why do you have hair?”
It’ s a valid que stion. I tell him, “You sound so … I don’t know. Disappointed. Like I’ve taken an experience away from you. Like you paid to see the freak behind the curtain at a carnival, and once you get behind the curtain, the freak isn’t too freaky and so you’re all like, ‘Hey, man. like. I want my freaking money back!’”
I tell him this with a big smile on my face so he knows I’m kidding him, ribbing him good. And there we were. Laughter all over my classroom. I’m laughing so hard that I hide my face because I’ve been playing this tough-guy role all year because I’m new to the school and I’ve been making them toe the line since the beginning and they’ve been pushing and shoving back. I’m trying to hide my laughter, but it’s not working. I’ve been holding them to this standard, holding this bar over their head like I was holding the sword of Damocles over their pretty little heads. But there we were. mid-March, and we’re all laughing at Cavallero because I have cancer in my right lung and he had expectations after my first round of chemotherapy and I wasn’t quite meeting them yet.
“No. No. No,” he said with his hands in the air, clutching his head and hair, a grin coming over his face. “Not a freak. I mean. I mean I just want to know why you have hair.”
“It’ll fall out, Stevie. Trust me. I can’t stop what’s coming,” I told him. I said, “It’s all going to come out. You’ll see. It takes time. They don’t just shoot you with the medicine and, wham!, it falls out. It’s a gradual process.”
Yet his question is a poignant one, and one that I had been thinking about for the couple of days before I went back to school. The more I kid Cavallero, the more I think to myself, He’s right. It’s weird that my hair hasn’t fallen out. His questions and the intensity of his inquiry is equal to mine with my wife. Sometimes I think I didn’t get enough chemotherapy. I’ll tell my wife, “I don’t think they gave me the drugs.”
She says to me, “No? What do you think they did to you then in the hospital? What do you think they put in your veins? What do you think made you so confused and sick and lay around for days without your eyes open because your head hurt so bad? Was it a joke, your vomiting, the pain?”
And she’s right. But I’m Stevie Cavallero all of a sudden. The eternal skeptic. I’m Diogenes at the gates of chemo.
After the kids settle we begin our work on The Catcher in the Rye. They are moved by Holden’s descent into near madness. Things get heavy in the novel, and I have to take on Allie’s death and I have to talk to them about dying and I have to ask them to dig deep and think about losing someone they love so they can see with what pain Holden shoulders and wanders into the landscape of New York City. Sometimes the room is so quiet as they listen to me read or listen to me talk about dying with an urgency that I haven’t felt before in my teaching, there’s silence so heavy and so right-there that I think we could eat it and get full on it for many years. And recently we dig so deep that when the bell rings as the end of the class we jump in our seats and look around in embarrassment because none of us want to think we’d gone that far in and stared at it so willingly or given ourselves over to the thing we’d stared at with so much courage even though our own self-interest was begging us to look the other way.
Two days ago, going to the bathroom in the faculty restroom near my office, I realized that my hair was falling out. There, in the restroom, at, like, 11 a.m. Whole clumps of pubic hair were coming out. I could pull them, with really no effort at all, from my skin. Whole clumps were in my hand, and I dropped them into the toilet and watched the little hairs fall away into the yellow water below.
I didn’t think I’d feel weird about it.
But, it was like, “Wow. Ok. Now it begins.”
I zipped up and washed my hands and stared at myself in the mirror. I said to me, “You’re going to have to fight again. Fight like a mean bastard. You’ve cancer. Right lung. Two spots.”
This morning when I woke up, the hair on my head felt weird, crunchy almost. It was like the follicles in my head were gaping holes. I pulled at the little hair I had left (I had shaved it almost bald in anticipation of the chemotherapy) and little fingertip clumps of it came out. I showed this trick to my wife at lunch today. I pulled a little out and said, “See. Look at this,” half amazed and half appalled.
She just stared at it. We stared at it. We were silent.
“I guess the drugs are working,” I finally said.
She rolled her eyes.
It’s like a trick I can perform, this pulling it out on cue. I do it again and again throughout the day until my wife finally has to say, “Are you kidding me? Is it necessary? Please stop. It’s just gross.”
Like a circus freak, the guy behind the curtain, the song and dance show. Dog and Pony. Tricks on command. I laughed. But it’s bothersome. In a week or less I’ll be bald. A new man. But what will follow? Now there’s a question for my boy, Stevie Cavallero.