Houdini Had a Brother

Most people know about Houdini. He was the illusionist who locked himself up in a milk can, filled it with water, and advertised that failure meant a drowning death. Few people know about his brother, Theodore Hardeen, who continued to perform the act long after Houdini died of appendicitis, a protracted, unnecessary illness that could have been cured had Houdini not been too proud to seek treatment. I used to wonder if it was an act of love or hate that impelled Hardeen to replace his brother. Now, I know why he did it. He did it because he could not do otherwise. He had lost an un-loseable person.

            When my brother was ten years old, he convinced me to tie him up with fishing line and dump him into the pool. He fought so hard to get free, the wire cut into his skin. Blood blossomed in the water like ink. My mom jumped in with her clothes—hat and all—to drag him out. As she untied him with careful fingers, she shouted in French, looking lunatic with mascara streaking down her face. Merde, Luke! Tu vas te faire tué! Rage had a way of hijacking the part of her brain that knew English. Years later, he did the same trick with chains and emerged dry. Chilling stuff. He never was old enough to get famous, but he was gifted—a genius, too. He ate magic mushrooms before the SATs and fell just short of a perfect score. Later, he said he would have gotten a 2400 if his writing hand hadn’t turned into a Mackerel right at the end.         

            My brother was certifiably obsessed with Houdini, knew every single one of his escape acts. Once, when we were smoking in the basement—him, a joint, me, a cigarette—he told me, in that condescending way of his, that the brilliance of the act was in the wait. I can still see him on that ugly corduroy sofa, lanky body sprawled out, smoke rising up in the half-light, video game music in the background. His dark, almost grayish hair had grown so long that he peered through bangs. “You know he could instantly break free of those handcuffs—specially commissioned by the Daily Mirror, no less. He’s Houdini. But the audience waited for a whole hour while he struggled behind a curtain. That’s how you make them love you. You make them agonize, make them hate you, before you emerge, victorious.” In retrospect, I think Luke had a fanboy crush on him.

            My parents probably knew that he was gay—it was in his voice and mannerisms—but no one ever talked about it. They were aristocratic French Catholics whose immigration to Massachusetts had done nothing to water down their conservatism. If this bothered my brother, he rarely let it show. The closest we came to broaching the subject was the night after prom when I brought my girlfriend home. She spent the night in my bedroom and left early the next morning, dressed in my sweats and clutching her silk dress in a turquoise ball. The moment she left, my father burst out laughing. My mother pursed her small mouth. “C’est pas un peut tot pour tout ca, George?” My brother sat at the marble kitchen counter, hunched over in his hoodie, likely hung over from some expensive drug, courtesy of my parents’ inexhaustible inheritance. “Du calme,” my father said, “he’s a healthy boy. It’s about time he started experimenting with” — I held up a hand. “Ok thank you.” My parents simultaneously glanced at Luke, who stood up and walked toward me, red eyed. “You are a lucky man, George Maillot.” Then he continued on past me, through the door, up the stairs and—slam—into his bedroom. That was the only moment in my life when I felt myself superior to Luke, something that shames me deeply now.

            It would be wrong to say that my parents faulted my brother for his sexuality. To them, it did not exist at all. He never confronted them with it and was, as far as I know, completely celibate. I may have been the only one to notice the occasional crushes he had on his friends, which he expressed in sullenness and, often times, the sudden abandonment of the friend in question. He had no time for relationships, anyway. There were escapes to be conceived of, to be mastered. No teacher would have allowed him to perform such dangerous acts at school but he had a cult following who gathered in unexpected places—a lake, a rooftop, a shopping mall—to watch him perform feats of evasion that were slightly amateurish but always successful. Meanwhile, he nonchalantly aced every class.

            In a way, my family worshipped him. We loved him in the only way you can love an imbalanced person: with crippling anxiety. There was something wrong with him, but he wouldn’t let us take him to a therapist. During his low points, he would spend hours sitting by the pool, stirring the water with his foot. “I don’t believe in therapy,” he’d say. We’d carefully tip toe around him, talk in low voices, offer him sandwiches, foie gras, cigarettes, pot, hard liquor, anything to make him happy again. We loved him so hard it felt like a hand squeezing our hearts. He would stop going to school, start failing tests. He would scream at my parents if they came into his bedroom—a cavern of mysterious objects: chains, cloaks, a saw, a large red box, a glowing fish-less fish tank. I was the only one granted admission and, when I cautiously entered, there was a moaning, whimpering lump under the blue comforter. “When will it be over, George? What if it never ends this time?” He was sixteen, then. I was fourteen, a child. I didn’t know when it would end. “Just escape it,” I whispered. “Faut l’évader completement.”

            Then, for no reason at all, he would be himself again. He’d come downstairs, showered, eyes bright with Adderall. “I’ve got it! I’ll have the audience hold their breath with me while I’m submerged under water.” Dad would sigh and say that he should really discourage this obsession. But I could tell by the way he glanced at Mom that he was happy. They believed that Luke was perpetually planning an act he would never carry out. They had no idea that he had already risked his life many times. I’m not even sure they would have discouraged it. They were always cautious to protect anything that made Luke happy. There was something magic about his highs, those sharp, fragile bouts of ecstasy. Our house filled with the shouts and laughter of many friends who adored Luke and tolerated me. But his joy had the intensity and the lifespan of a flame. Remembering that time pains me now. It flares up in my memory, unbidden, a fire that burns.

            It was during one of his highs that he mastered the swimming pool escape. He didn’t let me watch him practice but he let me be his assistant during the final rehearsals when his performance day drew closer. My role was to hand the long chain and the three padlocks to the audience so they could verify their durability. Then I would wrap the chain six times around his tall, thin frame, and lock the ends three times. The key I’d used would be tossed into the audience. I knew how he broke free of the chains—a second key under his tongue—but he never told me how he emerged from the swimming pool dry. Back then, I whole-heartedly believed it was magic. I realized later how he did it, very shortly after he died, but that’s between him and me.

            The first and final swimming pool performance was on a weekend, a bright, hot Saturday, just a few weeks to summer vacation. That morning, when I went into Luke’s chaotic bedroom, I found him sobbing. It was so foreign to me that it took me a minute to understand the animal sounds coming out of his throat. I was instinctively disgusted, as anyone would be to see something unnatural: a missing limb, an open wound. I sat down beside him and waited for him to stop. When he quieted down, I reminded him that we were supposed to be rehearsing. We only had a few hours to the main event. Was he ready to go? We were so maddeningly ineffective at saying anything real to each other. As I recount the event, I find I have an irrepressible desire to put the right words in our mouths. Why are you so sad? Why are you so sad for no reason? His dark eyes reminded me of a panic stricken animal—wide and shining.

            “I don’t think I can do this,” he said.

            It occurred to me later that he wasn’t referring to the swimming pool escape. He turned his head and wiped his face with an old tee shirt that lay crumpled on his bed. A silence dragged out between us, a widening chasm across which no words could travel. I’ll always wish I had been different in that moment, had touched his shoulder, had said the embarrassing thing: I love you. Instead, I was sullen and quiet, angry that Luke could take no pleasure in being extraordinary.

            The sun screamed off the surface of the pool, a noonday brightness that attacked the eyes. Our friends, all boys, drooped over lawn furniture and talked about girls with a world-weary knowingness that none of them had earned. Luke, who had never mastered the dramatic entrance, stood at the head of the pool in a faded orange bathing suit, waiting for everyone to quiet down. When they did, he gave me a nod.

            “Ladies and gentleman,” I announced to a heckling crowd, “prepare yourselves for the premier of the great swimming pool escape, where failure means a drowning death! Hold your breath along with him and see how long you last.” I, on the other hand, had a real flair for drama, something that would serve me later in life. After a deep bow, I went to retrieve the chains from Luke’s red box.

            There were a few hitches in the beginning. Nervousness got the best of me and I performed my role a bit too quickly, snatching back the chain and locks before anyone really had time to inspect them. My fingers were swollen from the heat and had lost all their dexterity. I wrapped the binding too loosely and Luke, usually obsessively precise, did not tell me to do it again. I chalked it up to nerves and went to join my friends. “Nice work,” one said sarcastically.

            Luke stood a moment at the head of the pool, a lanky silhouette against the glare. I desperately wanted to be him in that moment, to stand before an adoring audience, backlit by sunlight, courageously trapped in shining chains. The drama of it was intoxicating. For a single, cutting instant, I hoped he would trip, fumble, do something that would make him ridiculous. If only for a moment, I wouldn’t have to feel the ache of my own comparative ineptitude. Then he dropped into the water with an anticlimactic plunk.

We gathered near the edge. The chains were much too loose and the boys started to complain, simultaneously forgetting that they’d been instructed to hold their breath. This was such bullshit! He could just wriggle free! But he didn’t wriggle free. He didn’t wriggle at all, just sank to the bottom and stayed there. Light patterned across his body, distorted by turbulence, giving the illusion that he was swelling and shrinking before our eyes. I tried to make out his expression, as if that would help explain his stillness. There had always been something powerful, almost wolfish, about his face. The dark skin, the long nose, the expressive mouth all spoke of a brutish, dynamic brilliance, a kind of primal knowing that seemed at once enlightening and dangerous. Now, his wide, thin, mouth was grinning in a way that could mean joy or pain or concentration. I felt a chill prickle the hairs on my neck. It seemed a long, long time that he lay there like that—a stretch of waiting that certainly hadn’t been necessary during rehearsal.

            Then he began to struggle, moving his shoulders back and forth as I’d seen him do many times before. I realized that I had been holding my breath and took a long gasp of air. But then he hesitated. His head drifted as if listening for something, and he was still again. It’s strange, the things you’re capable of when overtaken by terror’s adrenaline. I leapt into the water before I’d ever decided to. A jolt of cold shocked through me and there was the splash of someone, Martin, following suit. We each grabbed an arm and kicked our legs furiously, exasperatingly slowly. As Luke struggled away from us, the chains dropped easily off his body. We broke the surface and he gasped, then jerked away, climbing out of the pool himself.

            The boys scattered after that, escaping from something dark and frightening, something too terrible to look at squarely in the face, especially on a Saturday. We lay panting a while on the impossibly hot pavement. The beat of my heart was so furious, I could hear each surge of blood pumped out of my pulmonary artery—boom, boom, boom. Or so I imagined. Unnamable emotions hemorrhaged out of me, gushing out of invisible wounds. Something that had been coiled tightly in my chest, some heavy knot of fear, had come unraveled. Trembling, moaning, crying, I was so overcome that the bright sky, the blistering pavement, the cold, cold water, all seemed a fevered outward expression of my own agony. There was the sound of movement and then the feeling of Luke’s wet arms around me, squeezing me as if to save me from something.

            His mouth was so close that his whisper vibrated painfully against my eardrum. “Don’t cry. I’m so sorry. Je t’en supplis, George. Don’t cry. I love you. I love you. I love you.” That was the last time Luke ever planned or performed an escape act. I think giving it up was the only way he really knew how to apologize.

            Long before Luke began to suffer for no reason, our parents took us to New Orleans on spring break. We went on one of those ghost tours that, at the time, frightened and thrilled me. The guide told us that, in Louisiana, it was commonly believed that people had the capacity to leave an emotional imprint on a place. We stood in a wet park at night and it was true. It was as though some ghost’s suffering had forced a new frequency on the landscape. Perhaps it was the power of suggestion but we all shuddered with an alien sadness, one that passed through us but did not come from us. I think something similar happened at the pool that day. Except instead of sadness, the pavement we lay on was branded with love. Whenever I go home to visit my parents, who still rattle around that vaulted, haunted house, I always go and sit by the pool. If the weather’s okay, I’ll stir my foot in the water, and let it melt away the hardness that’s inside me.

            Yes, I know why Hardeen attempted to replace his brother. The only way to bear losing someone you love is to become them. That is why, years after I found Luke in the garage, after I had gained some distance from the dark and reeling sickness, from the nightmares and the feeling of hard shelled insects scuttling inside my skull, I could think of no way to endurably live a single moment that wasn’t spent in homage to my brother. If Luke was a wild fire, I was the small flame he collaterally ignited. I ever burned for him because I owed him my light.

            I have performed the swimming pool escape in New York, Las Vegas, Paris, and, when unavoidable, Boston. Whenever I jump off the diving board into the clear, glass tank of water—lit up in blue, red, purple lights—there is always a moment, once I’ve sunk to the bottom, that I decide I won’t come up. My fans have come to believe that this is a part of the act, equivalent to Houdini waiting behind the curtain. I lay still until the pressures of suffocation squeeze against my temples. And then, every time, I think of my brother squeezing his arms around me on the burning hot pavement and I begin to struggle free.