(I will never forgive Millais for painting Ophelia calm in the water. My cousin Noah died shoeless and struggling under a lonely mans hands, his eyes full of rain runoff. Real people dont sink as pretty as oil on canvas: Noah was four feet five on the autopsy slab, no flowers, no frames. I am ruled by the aesthetic, but I would embrace his every imperfection if it meant having him back. This clumsy dilettante still loves Noah with the scabs on his shins, sitting sloppy at Sams recitals in sneakers and shorts. Give me the asymmetry of his eyelashes. For the first time in my life, the art is optional.
There is a reason I keep this part peripheral: this is not about drowning. Boys in deep lakes know nothing of footholds, and Noah left the rest of us grateful for something to stand on. Don't expect closure. This is about hindsight. Today, we know that we are spoiled by floors.)
Emily is seeing suicide in Sams staff paper. He severs his sweetest phrases between staves. Notes dive off the margins. When I finally confronted him about it, he let the piano lid fall like punctuation, flinging aside a stack of scores just so he could watch them sail away.
I cant believe Im still trying to hear music, he said. The things we do to copetheyre all so wrong now.
I had sketched the casket spray on the back of my funeral program, sharp angry leaves, the freckled faces of the stargazer lilies. Emily danced when they released the doves. If someone had gifted Noah with a final lungful of air, he wouldve used it all on the rock verse of Stairway to Heaven. Where had Sam gotten the idea that expression need context? He was all fury on his polished piano bench, thirteen years old and out one brother, sick because something inside him was still singing.
Noah would want you to keep creating, I said. Emily agrees.
Im trying to create a way to get your ass out of my room, said Sam, and it worked. His latest concerto: A Thousand Ways to Slam the Proverbial Door. Movement One ended with a bang.
That was last Monday, when it was still March. Now its April and Im on suicide watch in Sams too-quiet house, his newly knifeless kitchen, bedroom by Beethoven. Sams walls have strings and hammers. He keeps piano posters plastered on his ceiling like pinups. Yesterday he even had presence of mind to flip the page in his calendar: Lady April is an eight-octave ivory upright, seductively supported by long fluted legs. Sam stares at the photo when he cant sleep. He longs impotently toward her like a married man outside a massage parlor, his eyes hungry and platonic.
His remorse represses him. Sam is nothing if not faithful.
Sam and Noah were half-brothers. They shared the second-story bathroom and their mothers smile. Back in January (calendar counterpart: fretted clavichord with tiny brass tangents) they sat down together and drafted the opening of the worlds worst operetta. Sam kept his chord progressions simple so Noah could pick up the tonal slack. Noah, singing like a huge light in a dark room, got two lines in--
The poo pâtissier caters crap!
Ordure hors d'oeuvres with fecal treacle--
--before his dad said, Good shit, boys and closed the piano lid.
Sam and Noah were foreign countries, diplomatic about their differences. They managed a thousand true moments in low-key dinners, toilet humor, sharing the good headphones during road trips. Out of respect for his mourning, I let Sam get away with a lot of clichés. He didnt know I loved him was never one he had to use.
Emily is sixteen, like me. She is a potpourri of our good features: Sams sincerity, Noahs easy pronunciation of apricot, my ability to float. After they found Noahs body, she jetéd for hours across her apartment roof, surrounded by solar panels and the sweet smells of the buildings laundry. I sat down to watch her. Her silhouette was poetry, limbs unfolding in adagio like blooming roses. She began to cry when she reached the coda. I sketched the shape of her legs during warm-downs, pointe work, demi-plié, the way she used the broken lightening rod as a barre.
Hes dead, she wept again and again, over the sounds of the city. I can't believe Noahs dead.
The three of us measured those days in ink and reams. Police reports. The obit, the eulogies. Sam had printed off a hundred Missing Child flyers and thrown them from the roof, and Noahs face speckled the streets for weeks, silently underfoot like subliminal advertising. When I am lonely, thats how I remember my cousins: a dead singing voice, a musician with Missing Person posters, a shadow dancing between the drainpipes.
I only draw. I only write terrible poetry. But for that brief period of suspension, I was not alone in my limitations. With Noahs name in the newsletters, Sam and Emily knew how it felt to be held hostage by paper.
Are you still going to be alive when I wake up?
Two weeks until May (close-up of baby grand bowels, solid spruce soundboard; I peeked ahead). Sam still has these nights where he craves too many sleeping pills. I ask him trenchant questions whenever I have to slip into the bed beside him. If I can guilt him out of murdering himself, I will.
Will you kill me if Im not? he says. He sets his glass of water down on the untouched staff paper I keep printing out for him, watches the dark lines bleed into a ring. Em suggested I pick out some new hobbies. Right now its a toss-up between football and skateboarding. What do you think?
I think you should shut up. Hes only trying out these identities to test me. Our family maps itself across an archipelago of artistic mediums; its nothing to us if you cant sing it, sculpt it, spell it in a swing of the hip. Sams got the wrong feet for boarding or backfield. His toes were built for pedals, to measure time, to know pressure. Give it a while longer, Sam. Youre still afraid of hearing him in your music.
If I wait too long, Ill lose it, says Sam. Im going to forget it all.
He doesnt mean Noah. Noah reverberates endlessly between us, emotional echo chambers that we are, and we are learning again how to take tiny steps forward. Emily can do fouettés forever now. I can draw a whole face in one blind line. Only Sam remains lost between clefs. The three notes hes written today sound lonely and deficient, like theyre still waiting for someone to answer.
I miss him, he says.
I miss him, too. I do.
He closes his eyes, and I watch him until his breathing becomes steady. I wish I could convince him that he will be okay. After all, Ive seen how he sleeps. Flushed with the memory of Noahs murder, Sam still prays his Beethoven across my stomach with restless fingers, his dreams stained by Steinways.