The following is a short story from The Sewanee Review, “Mass.” Brandon Taylor is the author of the novel Real Life, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. His work has appeared in Guernica, American Short Fiction, Gulf Coast, Buzzfeed Reader, O: The Oprah Magazine, Gay Mag, The New Yorker online, The Literary Review, and elsewhere. He is a staff writer at Lit Hub. He holds graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow.
Aleksander Igorevich Shapovalov—Sasha to those who loved him most in the world and Alek to everyone else, including himself—stared at the radiographic scans presented to him by his doctor in the intimate corner examination room and tried to think of what he’d tell his mother.
“There’s a good chance it’s nothing,” Dr. Ngost said. “But you’ll have to get a biopsy.”
“A biopsy,” Alek said.
“Yes. We’ll take a small piece of the mass and examine it. Then we’ll know more.”
“But I don’t feel sick,” Alek said. “I just came because of this cough. I don’t feel sick.”
“There’s a chance that you aren’t. There’s a chance it’s just a mass that we can take out. It happens sometimes. The body is full of odd turns.”
“Full of odd turns,” Alek repeated—a nonsense phrase, too casual. Full of odd turns, like a clock or some other machine, routes and paths inside him swerving this way and that, and then suddenly an aberration, a deviation, a mass swelling up from below.
Dr. Ngost put a hand on Alek’s arm, and Alek turned his head toward him slowly, away from the scan that showed his insides, ghostly white on a black backdrop.
“One step at a time,” he said warmly. “Biopsy. Then we know.”
Alek almost repeated the doctor’s words again but stopped himself by biting the very tip of his tongue. He nodded firmly a couple of times, then climbed from the bench. He pulled up his jeans beneath the crinkling paper gown. The room was cool as a small cave. Dr. Ngost watched him dress, and when they shook hands, Dr. Ngost held on just a little longer: “Don’t worry. It’s going to be okay,” he said.
On the bus, Alek considered calling his brothers. Grigori was a first‑year surgical resident at Mass Gen, and Igor was starting at Columbia medical school. They would know how to explain it to their mother best, how to articulate the parameters of the thing in a way that wouldn’t scare her. It seemed foolish not to call them. The bus turned onto the more corporate corner of Capitol Square. All that chrome and glass against the slate‑gray winter sky. Alek had a seat to himself, which felt like a minor miracle. Downtown was emptying before it began to fill again. Luminescent snowdrifts covered bike racks and lampposts.
He had pulled up the text chain with Grigori—they hadn’t texted in months, since he’d first arrived in the Midwest, to say that he’d made it. He’d sent a couple pics of the apartment he’d found. It had come furnished and felt lived in. He’d sent both Grigori and Igor pictures of the tub and the room with its decent but kind of soft mattress. And they’d texted back cool and nice and faggot style :).
When they were younger, Grigori’s favorite pastime was to pull hairs from Alek’s body. Igor held him while he twisted and tried to get loose. Then Grigori plucked out his eyelashes one at a time, fine white hairs invisible the moment they left his body. Alek remembered the little shooting stars of pain with each hair. He remembered Igor’s sweaty hands holding him down. He remembered the damp odor of their panting filling the closet.
As they grew older, the punishments evolved. Soon, it wasn’t enough to pull the hairs out of Alek’s body. They had to burn him, too. By then, both Igor and Grigori were smoking in the alleyway behind their apartment building after and before school, when their parents weren’t watching, sending up white trails. Alek caught them one day and ran to tell their parents, his body thrumming with the pleasure of finally having a secret on them, some measure of power. But as he turned to run, he didn’t see their bodies growing taut with pursuit. They caught him before he even reached the end of the alley. Grigori came around first, pushed Alek up against the wall. A cigarette jutted out of his thick lips.
“Ah, Sasha,” he taunted. “Sasha with his pretty hair.”
Igor whistled as he came up next to him. He flicked some ashes to the ground. Grigori first pinched Alek’s nose and then caught him under the chin, gripping his throat.
“What are you going to do, huh?”
“Nothing,” Alek said hoarsely. Grigori had grown five inches that year, and he was terrifying. His body smelled musky, like fear itself. Grigori shoved Alek’s head back against the wall, and suddenly the alley, the ground, the sky, his brother’s faces, and even the very stench of the garbage swam, started spinning around and around. The dull thud of his skull on concrete filled his ears. He felt then that Grigori could have done him any kind of harm without the slightest bit of remorse. Grigori, his own brother, could have kept hitting his head against the wall until there was nothing left on his little shoulders but a meaty pulp. He was seven or eight then, and they were older and stronger. Back then, strength seemed to be the only justification anyone needed to do anything.
Grigori took the cigarette from Igor’s mouth. Igor looked disappointed and angry. Then Grigori pushed its burning tip into Alek’s arm. The pain was immediate and infinite, and it hurt so bad that he was sure it would never stop, that it would go on burning him forever and ever. Grigori bared his teeth as he twisted the burning cigarette into his arm. Alek didn’t even scream. He couldn’t muster a sound loud enough.
They were not as bad now as they were then. There had been minor skirmishes as Alek grew stronger and better able to defend himself, and their relationship had resolved into a steady, tense stalemate. Perhaps it was always this way with brothers, a truce brokered only after an equilibrium of physical strength had been met, as if the potential for mutual destruction were the only thing that kept them from tearing each other limb from limb.
Love was not between them. He could call them, one or both. He knew what they would say. There would be a long silence at first, a curious pause, and then, You’re such a little baby, it’s a cough, that’s it, all you do is complain, such a whiny baby, grow up, stop being such a little faggot, stop being such a girl, little sister crying about a cough. They did not trust him to know anything, even about his own body. They would want to speak to Dr. Ngost and then to the specialist to whom he had been referred. Only then would they believe him.
The bus didn’t actually go through downtown, not to where Alek lived. He got out on the other side of the square and walked down Mifflin, toward the lake. He lived in an old apartment building, right at the head of frat row, with a guy named Mike who was from near Eau Claire. He had decamped earlier that week for fall break on his family farm and Alek had been pleased to have the apartment to himself.
Since he’d developed the cough, Mike, who was nice in a passive‑aggressive midwestern sort of way, had politely inquired as to whether Alek had seen a doctor. And, if not, would he consider doing it soon? And then he’d said, My grandma suggests a ginger tea. She sent some ginger. He’d even left a pack of cough drops on the kitchen counter with a note for Alek, saying Help yourself! But as the weeks went on, and the cough did not abate, Mike had grown irritable and silent. He didn’t leave his bedroom. He didn’t eat at the kitchen island anymore. He stopped offering to split the groceries with Alek, and when it came time to pay their renter’s insurance, Alek had to slide his portion under Mike’s door in an envelope.
The apartment was drafty, but they’d already shoved stray socks and old shirts into every corner they could find. There was nothing to be done about it. The bathroom was perhaps the best room, with its deep tub and old tile. During the more intense part of the dance season, when Alek was doing three‑a‑day full run‑throughs and two classes, one in the morning and one in the evening, he came home with huge bags of ice, which he poured into the tub and sank himself into. Or he made warm baths with Epsom salt. He didn’t have to make the trip across campus to use the rehab facility in the new rec center. He could make his own ice baths at home.
He ran the tub full of water, just short of skin‑stripping hot. He tried to wash off the smell of the doctor’s office, that bitter, burned hazelnut coffee smell. That smell like antiseptic. It was true, what he had told the doctor: He was not sick. He didn’t feel ill. It was just a persistent cough, something rattling but not painful. He coughed and coughed, through morning ballet, through his classes, through rehearsal, through dinner, through sleep. There was nothing that his cough didn’t infiltrate. He could feel the cough coming on even now in the bath, gathering at the base of his lungs like something caught there that he couldn’t expel, a kind of fibrous feeling spreading out along the edges of his ribs.
His mother was going to lose her shit. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to think of it, but there was the image of her face. Her bright blue eyes. The stern teacher’s eyebrows. He saw the play of every muscle in her face, the relaxation in her jaw that suggested grief, the fleeting alleviation of pressure in the left temple. The subtle slackening of her throat. The faucet dripped. He tried to see the space as it was cleaved by each drop, the surface rippling and then going still again. He tried to breathe.
Since Alek had started dance, he had lived in perpetual fear of disappointing his mother and father. His brothers were good at science, like their parents. His mother taught earth science in high school. His father was a plumber at first, then an engineer. His brothers had attended the advanced science and math magnet school. Alek had attended the elementary school, and had very few prospects of following them into the science and math school, but he was put into an after‑school arts program by chance, and the teacher, always on the look out for boy dancers, scouted him.
At first, his parents had only stared in disbelief. Clumsy Sasha? Hyperactive Sasha? Unfocused, lazy Sasha? No, impossible. Yes, the teacher said. He had excellent balance, a good ear for music, for timing, rhythm. He could be a good dancer one day.
Good would never have been enough for his father. If you tried your best and all you were was good, then it was time to try something else. His father believed in the optimal, and if you weren’t able to get to the highest level, then you were doing something for which you were not optimally suited. Good was an insult. Good was mediocre.
And so, every lesson, Alek tried to be more than good. Every lesson, he tried to be perfect. Every position, every line, every angle, every turn, everything perfect. If he didn’t get something right, he tried harder, again and again, each time imagining himself going sharper and sharper, until he was so sharp he felt he might cut himself. It was a ferocity in him that he’d never known he possessed—a ferocity that gave him something—and for the first time, he felt his parents were proud of him, that he wasn’t just messing up.
It was not an original story. Every ballet parent was a monster of ambition. Every ballet parent knew the terrible math. Only a few people got to be elite dancers. Everything else was just preparation for a time when dance would be something they used to do, a person they used to be. Starting ballet was like entering a second, more intense gravitational field. At any moment, an injury could end it all. Or the mind could snap and there you went, done, burned out, exhausted.
A mass in his body meant that something had gone wrong, and if that was true, he might not be able to dance again. If he couldn’t dance again, what would he do? And there was the possibility that the mass meant cancer, and cancer might mean death. What would he tell his mother? What would she do? How could he tell her this, so soon after his father had died in a way that was somehow both slow and quick?
He’d be betraying her.
Alek climbed out of the bath and wrapped a towel around himself. He made a sandwich and sat on his bed. The afternoon was over. He had a view of the lake from his window. People were skating. Their voices were lost to him, but he could hear the sounds of their happiness.
The rehearsal hall was empty when he arrived. How long would it be before the evening class began? True, there were fewer people in the evening class because, unlike the morning class, attendance was not compulsory. Instead of one of the main ballet masters, evening class was led by a retired senior soloist. The evening class was mainly a way of working out things that had gone wrong during the day or had been skipped in the morning.
It was during an evening class that he had first begun to cough, back in the summer. The cough had come on slowly, small little fits of tension in his chest, an irritating heat, a scratchiness in his throat and chest. At first, he didn’t notice at all, or he didn’t think very much of it. In the morning he was phlegmy, spitting yolky goop into the sink or the toilet. But he couldn’t get it all out. Inside he felt both wet and dry.
In class that day, though, it was something else entirely. During a five‑minute break, he’d gone out into the air to clear his lungs. All night, he’d been a beat behind, his movements dragging. In summer, this part of the country was slow to darken. He watched the trees in the distance. He took a deep breath, but the air wouldn’t move. It came into contact with something hard in his chest, and he tried again to breathe, to push the air down, to force it, but it wouldn’t go. It was like all those years ago, when he used to sit and hold his breath. He remembered the game he used to play then, the locking down of his diaphragm, the restraint of it, the slow burn working its way up and out. But now his body was refusing him, betraying him, acting of its own volition.
Then the coughing came, and it was like choking on air itself, as if air were made of fine wool, as if it were fibrous, tickling his throat, exciting a gag reflex. Alek put his hand to the wall outside the low building that housed the ballet studio. He could feel his stomach muscles contracting, a shuddering heave up against a wall inside him, solid and unyielding. He couldn’t breathe for coughing, coughing until he could taste blood, but nothing splashed the gravel below his feet. His body was still hot from dance, sore, aching, and he gripped his stomach and squeezed his body with all his strength, as if he could force the cough out. He saw spinning clots of light in front of him, stars from some inverted galaxy behind his eyelids.
A couple of other dancers stood nearby, drinking from clear water bottles. They looked his way at first and then away. But when he doubled over, they came to him and put their palms against his back, which was damp with sweat. They leaned down to him, and he could smell their sour scent, their breath like smoke. He strained to look at them. Who was it that was looking at him? A girl, blond: Sophie. She put her small fingers around his wrist and tried to draw him up.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “Are you all right?”
He couldn’t speak. She slid her palm down his forearm to his elbow and then motioned for him to sit. But he kept coughing and tried to turn away so that he wouldn’t get anything on her. Still, she pulled at him, insisting that he should sit down, and he did. He slid down into the warm gravel, felt the stones through his tights, knew that their azure dust would cling to the spandex. All over, he was on fire. The sun, hazy, distant, white on the horizon, the trees, spindly fibers whirling in the distance.
Eventually the coughing subsided—it had been bronchial in nature, that hollow, echoing sound—and he could breathe again. He felt stunned, slapped, like he’d been dipped into some other world tucked just under this one and brought back too quickly. Sophie was sitting next to him, one hand gripping his, the other making circles on his back.
A bead of sweat clung to the corner of her mouth. A red clip kept hair off her face. He had always admired her, thought her talent terrifying. Sophie. She gave him a tentative, sad smile. She let him drink from her bottle. The water was flat and warm. It had a coppery taste.
“We better get inside,” she said.
“All right,” he said, and he let her take him by the arm again, to get him on his feet. But then he was ready to stand on his own, or else he didn’t want her to think that he couldn’t. She put her arm around his waist to steady him and they went into the hall, where they could already hear the music starting up again.
How long had it been since he’d spoken to Sophie? Alek sat on the floor now and began to stretch. First his legs. Then his back. He stretched to the tips of his toes, pressing himself flush against the tops of his thighs, holding the position for as long as he could. He could feel the cough gathering along the edge of his lungs, that tickling heat. He suppressed it as best he could. He counted to twenty and released the stretch, then lay on his back. The cough came quickly, loudly, and filled the empty room in the way a lonely prayer might fill a cathedral. The last time that he’d spoken to Sophie was at the end of the summer. They were sleeping in his bed, her body tight to his. The fan drew the heavy air through the window, animated it slightly, and cooled their skin. They slept naked on top of his thin sheet. Sophie’s hair writhed in the fan’s breeze, and he lay there, watching her sleep. He had sensed a distancing between them for a couple of weeks, ever since they had seen Charles at the bonfire that night after the concert in the park. Sophie left Alek’s lap to speak to Charles, and he had been forced to watch it all unfurl. Charles, thick, as if cut from the side of a mountain. Charles with his decent but unremarkable technique. Charles with his curls and handsome face—he and Sophie had gone around together for as long as Alek had known them both, but Sophie had surprised him by letting him kiss her the night after the cough began. Sophie had let him put his hand on her lower back and draw her to him, had let him feel so much bigger for it, in control of both of their bodies. It was like partnering, how one only appears to surrender to the illusion of grace. And then he’d thought, perhaps, that she liked him enough, that he was enough for her. That she and Charles were done. They made small dinners. They spoke together in low voices outside the practice hall. They held hands in the casual, easy way that comes to people in relationships. Alek had begun to imagine a lifetime of such minor joys, small intimacies, which were all he could manage. They would be dancers and in love. But when she left him by the fire to stand next to Charles, he had known that the thing between them, for all its easiness and the joy it brought him, would end. And so for weeks he had watched her recede. Watched her from the back of morning exercises, from the back of the library as she looked over old choreography. Watched her over dinner and coffee, even watched her buy cigarettes from the corner store, waiting for her to turn to him and smile and shrug. Waiting and watching. The last time he spoke to Sophie was some morning, when she was putting on her clothes and tying up her hair, shrugging. He watched the expanse of her back vanish into her shirt, and she turned, kissed his palm, and said she would call him later. But she didn’t.
Voices in the hall. Alek rolled onto his side, could smell the fresh polish of the floor. He pushed himself up, rolled his shoulders, and spread his legs. He leaned forward. The door slid open—Mats and Octavius came into the room. They were talking loudly about something, about someone, and Alek tried not to listen, but their voices came closer and closer until the two of them were standing over him. Octavius’s purple‑black skin almost gleamed. Mats was shorter than Octavius, who was a giant for a dancer, a slash of a man. They wore sweaters from East Coast colleges that neither had attended, hand‑me‑downs from their parents. Mats in a blue Yale sweater and Octavius in a crimson Harvard sweatshirt. They’d known each other since they were little boys and had attended the same prep schools. Their parents knew one another, belonged to the same African American Ivy League associations.
Mats and Octavius were as close as one could come to an arranged marriage in this country. The two of them were in love with each other, but seemed not to know it yet, or so Alek thought. Mainly because they never seemed to be in love with each other at the same time, seemed to always be pointed past one another. In the fall, Mats could think of nothing other than Octavius, his kindness, his body, his winning shyness. But that fall, Octavius was in love with a white boy named James from one of his poetry seminars. And in the spring, Mats had moved on to Charles, and Octavius fell in love with the space left when Mats lost interest. That is, Octavius found Mats to be indifferent to him for the first time in his life, so he reacted by falling deeply in love with him. They each, in different ways and on different days, spoke to Alek about the other. Octavius is so stupid. Why doesn’t he get it? I’m in his room all the time. I’m lying here, half naked, basically wide open to him, and he does nothing, nothing. Why? Or, Mats is so cold to me these days. Why is he like this? He’s always gone now. He’s always out. What’s going on with him and Charles?
“Can you believe it?”
“Charlie and Sophie, you mean?” Alek asked, leaning back on his palms. He flexed his leg from left to right. Mats sat down next to him and started to stretch, too. Octavius took the spot on the other side of Alek.
“They’re back together,” Mats said over Alek’s head to Octavius, who let out a whistle. “I mean, it was pretty obvious, but consider it confirmed.”
“I guess some people can’t make up their minds,” Alek said flatly, meaning nothing at all by it, but then Mats turned to look at him with a gleaming hurt in his eyes, and he realized he’d strayed too close to the bone. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Mats said, voice leaping. “It’s so fine. Don’t even worry about it.”
“About what?” Octavius said, cutting his eyes across the two of them.
“Please,” Mats said, rolling his eyes, this time putting a fine point at the end of the word.
Alek coughed into the crook of his arm, and the noise overrode everything else.
“You said you’d go to the doctor.”
“I did,” Alek said. “I went.”
“It’s nothing,” he said, tossing it off as if he hadn’t a care in the world. “It’s fine.”
“It’s been weeks? Months? Is it fine?”
“I knew someone with a cough like that once,” Octavius said. “Turned out to be a pretty nasty infection.”
“Well, the doctor said I was fine, so I’m fine.”
Mats dug an elbow into Alek’s side, which dislodged some hard knot and made the coughing worse. He could taste blood again. The world blotted, shifting. He took a deep breath.
“You don’t look so hot, Alek,” Mats said. “Maybe you should go home.”
“I’ve never missed a class.”
“You should go home,” Octavius pressed. “Do you want me to walk with you?”
“You just want to cut class,” Alek said wryly, trying to smile, but there was a hard, jagged heat running down his body, and it hurt to breathe.
“Come on, let’s go,” Octavius said, reaching for him, but Alek pulled away.
“No, it’s fine.”
Mats put his palm to Alek’s back, and Alek looked away from him because he didn’t want to see Mats’s fine features screwed up in a mask of worry. Alek was always causing so much trouble.
“I’ll go, I’ll go,” he said. “You two stay. Cavort, whatever it is you do.” He pulled himself up to a standing position, put his palms up as if to say that he had been disarmed by their care, by their love, and he gathered his things and left.
On the way home, he paused in the cold and dialed Grigori. Night was not yet upon them. The sky was a bowl of blue light pierced from some other, outer light glowing on the horizon. He stood outside his favorite coffee shop and thought of going in, but he didn’t because it would be loud there and Grigori would complain about the noise on the line.
“Hello?” came Grigori’s voice, a bellow even at low volume.
“Grigori,” Alek said.
“What do you want?”
Alek paused on the line. He didn’t know how to begin it, his request, if it was a request. He didn’t know how to say the words.
“Hello? Sasha? Hello?”
“I went to the doctor today.”
“For what? You sick?”
“I’ve been coughing.”
“So you have a cold? Flu? What?”
“I don’t know,” Alek said. He could feel Grigori’s irritation growing.
Grigori’s voice was hard when he said: “What do you mean you don’t know? What did the doctor say? Who is this doctor? Some midwestern quack? Who is this? What did he say?”
“He said I might have a mass.”
“Might? What mass? You a Catholic now?”
Alek wanted to laugh and to cry, both, simultaneously, but he just coughed into the phone. He tried to block the sound of it, but he could feel Grigori’s judgment. Snow was falling now. It clung to his eyelashes. The streetlight was staggering into life.
“Yes, I guess, something like that.”
“I don’t know, Grigori. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“So what do you want?”
“I don’t know.”
“Stop saying that!” Grigori shouted, but there was something more than anger or irritation in his voice this time. No, it was something worse—something like fear, which he had never seen Grigori experience. It spoke to something in him, too, spurred his own fear into life. Stop saying that! was a declaration, a desperate plea to speak it out of existence, and now Alek wanted to say it back to him, until they’d both said it back to each other and would never have to say another word again.
“I’m sorry,” Alek said.
“Sasha—did you tell Mom?”
“No, just you.”
“Just me,” Grigori said. It was the first secret they’d ever had together, just the two of them. They were standing now in a world of their own.
“What do I tell her about this?”
“Nothing,” Grigori said, sharply. “Absolutely nothing. You don’t know anything. We don’t know anything. It’s nothing.”
“It’s nothing,” Alek said.
“Do you have an appointment? What’s happening next?” “I have a scan,” Alek said. “Just to see. A biopsy. To confirm. That it’s nothing.”
“Okay, sounds good. Do you want me to come?”
“Hello, Space Cadet Sasha, do you want me to come?”
Alek held the phone out from himself and regarded it. It had never occurred to him that his brother might want to come and be with him, to be in any way involved. He had never considered that possibility, and now, faced with it, he didn’t know what to do with it.
“You don’t have to.”
“I know—but do you want me to? I can. It must be scary.” There was a gentleness in his voice then, a gathering calm, and he didn’t seem like Alek’s brother at all.
“It’s not like I’m dying,” Alek said, and Grigori seemed to relax.
“Yeah. You’re not. It’s fine. You’re fine. But if you need… well, you know. It’s fine.”
“It’s fine,” Alek said.
There was a silence over the line, but Alek found it comforting. There was a time when he might not have, when silence would have meant being frozen out, lined up for trouble. But tonight, on the street, in the snow, it was enough. It was enough. It was enough.
“Okay, Sasha. Okay. Good night,” Grigori said. “Good night,” Alek said.
Once the call clicked off, Alek held up the phone and took a picture of the capitol, all lit up, the snow falling through the streetlights, slanted and whirling. The photo had a reddish tint to it, like a faded wine stain. He looked at the photo for a long time, cropping out a car and the awkward corner of a building, but then he deleted the photo. He turned in the direction of the lake and took a photo of that instead. It was blurry, hazy from the night and from the phone’s weak zoom lens. Grayed out, slashed through with black and white. He texted the photo to Igor and Grigori. He watched for a moment, until dots appeared below it, suggesting that they were typing, and then disappeared. They appeared again and again they disappeared. The snow was still falling. It landed on his fingers and the screen. Melted as the dots rose and fell. They were like a score. He could hear a kind of music to them. Each time they punctured the silence, it was a different note they played.
He walked home and sat for a little while in the living room without turning on the light. Igor texted him: nice.
Alek texted back, thx.
U happy out there?