Before Magnus learned that pain must always accompany beauty, his music was wild, random, and full of noise. We were five or six, and he vibrated with the force of containing the great volume that welled up inside of him. He played music with the lopsided happiness of someone discovering for the first time the thing that gives them a singular and boundless joy. Even mistakes were a surprise that made him squirm in delight. He drummed on his belly, slapped his hands together, and pushed air around in the hollows of his cheeks. The first notes he played were spittle-flecked and poorly supported, but they were his and he loved them.
It’s strange to begin my story with Magnus, but it would be stranger to begin it any other way because you can never really know yourself the way you know someone you’ve loved. You can never really see your own faults the way you can see the faults of someone you’ve closely interrogated before letting them deep inside of yourself. So it makes sense to begin with Magnus, because he is the person I know best. He is the person of whom I’m most afraid. How else would I start my story? Where else would I begin if not for those early years when we were little things shoehorned into an elite pre-school for gifted children on the shores of Lake Michigan.
When I think of my childhood, I remember wool damp from our mouths and the vast swaths of white. I remember cocoa and warm gingerbread. I remember the sound of ice groaning against windows. I remember the trees, thin, black spindles threading through forever-deep blue sky. The inflection of my memories from that time is wintry and Northern.
Magnus remembers the summer, the lake, alive with the fizz of foam and sunlight. The boats and the hum of the motors, the scent of gasoline and earthy bait. The fish, sliver flecks of light skimming through the air and water. The whir of lines spooling out and dropping, invisibly into the lake. He remembers how we were all bobbing then, separate constellations, clusters of stars brimming with life–our fathers and our mothers resting on the boats, drinking, laughing, the tinkling of their glasses. These memories hold no shape when I try to focus on them, but if Magnus remembers them, they must be true.
Our parents were very close, which is perhaps why we became close. Our mothers had been dancers in another life, born and bred in New England but trained in Madrid, in Paris, and in London. Our fathers were fraternity brothers. No one remembers who met whom first or which friend was taken along out of obligation. Their relationships coalesced out of what would had become a mutual need for disguise. That need, bone-deep, keen as any calling for water or food or love, would later drive my parents apart and my mother across seas and continents in search of herself. But for a time, we all seemed to be happy, living it up in yuppie comfort.
It would be reductive of me to presume that my mother was happy. I would like nothing more than to believe with every part of my heart that my mother was happy with us, that she was fulfilled and content to live with my father and me as a wife and mother. But then, our mothers were people before us, and they remain people even after we’ve left them. She was not happy. That much is obvious to me now, but back then, I believed she was happy. I believed that when I came bounding into the kitchen or into her quiet reading room, she lit up inside. I believed that when I pressed my face to her stomach and threw my arms around her hip, she embraced me back. But if I look at those moments, I can see the stiffness in her back, in her lips and her face. I can see through the distance of time, the inevitable erosion of a woman who had never been free except for a fleeting time when her future loomed in front of her as vast and infinite as the sea of stars over Paris. In that one moment, that single flickering moment, she had held someone she truly loved in her arms and embraced her, deeply, tenderly. In that moment, she knew what it was to be loved, to be wanted, to be needed, to be seen, and to be known for all that she was. No one saw her die the day she saw that person fall in love with someone else. But then, maybe hearts are meant to break in silence, and isn’t life like beauty, best performed with a grimace?
Sometime after Magnus and I grew from grubby little kids and into moody, aloof teenagers dressed in wool-sweaters, button-downs, and soft cardigans, my mother left. She didn’t flee. She didn’t throw a fit. She didn’t abandon me. She simply packed her things and filed for divorce from my father. She was okay with shared custody. She did not want to fight. She merely wanted to be free, as free as she could manage, even if it meant a gimping, limping kind of freedom. Without any resistance, my father’s rage burned out quickly, and they lapsed into a tedious casualness about their divorce. Magnus’s mother was devastated, heartbroken; she didn’t, couldn’t understand how someone she had known so intimately and clearly could suddenly become so opaque to her. They haven’t spoken since except in clipped conversations with more silence than words.
My mother took out a small studio apartment in the city, and I visited twice a week officially, but because the apartment was near our high school, I spent many lunch breaks there with Magnus. She had an impressive collection of jazz records and small-scale prints from minor romantic painters. But mostly, there was a lot of breezy, clean light whispering around the corners and brushing the oaken tables furnished with wooden keepsakes from the cities she had visited in what then must have seemed to her was another life. I always brought Magnus along with me on these unofficial excursions from the brick and suffocating Catholic cloisters of our private academy, where he was a brilliant student and I was woefully mediocre. I took him up with me, around the winding black staircase into the white air flickering with the bird-like shadows of falling leaves. Her window had a far-reaching view of the park and the city, humming with light and life. She had an old piano that Magnus sometimes coaxed into life and took around and around his baroque-influenced improvisations. His teachers were calling him a prodigy, brilliant by any standard. There were whispers of an elite school, of a training camp; summers were excruciating without him. As little ones, we had been plopped into the same day camps and sleep-away camps. But as his talent grew, he was sent further and further away until summer was a barren stretch of months over which I had to travel in order to reach Magnus.
Magnus was always sullen during this time. He had matured into a sulky, reserved young man. His eyes were sharp and clear, but smudged below, as if he were restraining tears or some incomprehensible sadness. Angst came to him naturally, as most things did.
My mother was sensitive enough to keep her distance during these small hours Magnus and I spent sitting around, gathering happiness before the famine, when he would go to music camp and I would go to the lake alone.
One day, when we were seventeen and on the brink of graduation, I pushed him. He pushed me back, and we wound up punching and biting each other on the floor.
I didn’t mean to do it, I honestly didn’t, I truly, truly didn’t, but I crushed his hand beneath my foot. For a moment, there was utter silence. In the cracking of his bones, we both went deaf, and our eyes swung to the place on the floor where my feet were grinding against his fingers, crushed and pale like worms. He let out the wildest, deepest cry I’ve ever heard. It still vibrates inside of me when I’m quiet. My mother materialized and was immediately drawing Magnus against her chest and whispering to him, trying to soothe him. She hissed at me and bared her teeth: “Call his mother.”
I remember it being cold that day, because when we stumbled out on to the sidewalk, my eyes welled up. I had forgotten my coat, my hat, my gloves. Magnus’s sallow cheeks turned deep red. Our eyes met, and I knew then and there, that I loved him. He smiled at me, and I thought in that moment that everything would be fine.
His mother blamed my mother, and the freeze between them deepened. Magnus blamed himself and me. I blamed myself. Even when his bones knit back together over the course of a long winter and longer, soggy spring, things between us remained fractured.
Magnus did not go to camp that summer, and for the first time in years, we went to the lake together. During the day, Magnus lay with his shoulders in the sand, staring up at the sun through the fringe of pine trees. I watched him from the shade, keeping a distance between us so that I didn’t have to watch him tense when my shadow fell over his hand. We swam together, passing over and around one another. He had grown over the winter, and now he was long and broad. Underwater, his pale skin glowed. I wanted very much to reach out for him, but when I did, he kicked away, and I was left with his spectral afterimage.
One evening, I was sitting on the beach, feeling terrible and sorry about the whole thing when Magnus sat down next to me. He put his thigh against my thigh and looped his arm around my shoulder. Our damp sides touched. I could feel his heart beating hard and fast against my ribs. My eyes went immediately to ghostly scar across the back of his knuckles. A gritty heat stuck to the back of my throat. Magnus knotted his hand into a fist and smiled at me.
“We graduate next year,” Magnus said. “Can you believe it?”
“No,” I found myself saying. The lake was quiet, perfectly still.
“Me either,” Magnus said softly, and he looked away from me to the shore.
“Still going to Michigan?”
“Ah, no. No, I don’t think I will.”
“Why not? We always…”
“But do they have to?”
“Sometimes, we don’t get a choice.” Magnus turned his gaze to me. The corners of my eyes stung with a bristling heat.
“I guess we don’t,” I managed to say.
“Sometimes,” Magnus said with a sly smile, “the choice makes itself. I was kind of ready to leave the Midwest anyway.”
Magnus hummed, and I could feel it in my chest. I watched a bead of sweat slide into the hollow of his throat. His smile faded.
“Because a bone needs to be properly set before it heals.”
“I’m so sorry about your hand,” I choked out.
“Me too,” Magnus said, sighing. He flexed his hand into another fist. “But it’s better, now. It’s stronger.”
He smiled at me and I touched his scar with my lips.
“I can’t feel that,” he said. “I can barely feel anything at all.”
I pressed my lips more firmly to his scar, which was salty and hot from the sun. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, Magnus had taken his hand away.
“It’ll be just like camp,” he said. “I’ll go, and you’ll stay.”
My laughter was soft and bitter. It stung the back of my throat.
“Just like that,” I said.
“Just like that—easy.”
Brandon Taylor is currently a PhD student in biochemistry at The University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studies stem cells in tiny animals. He was selected a 2015 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction.