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 brief?
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.