Families and Other Nonreturnable Giftsby Claire LaZebnik
At least she can count on one person in her life, her devoted boyfriend Tom.
Despite her name, Keats Sedlak is the sanest person in her large, nutty family of brilliant eccentrics. Her parents, both brainy academics, are barely capable of looking after themselves, let alone anyone else, and her two uber-intelligent siblings live on their own planets.
At least she can count on one person in her life, her devoted boyfriend Tom. Down-to-earth and loving, he's the one thing that's kept Keats grounded for the last decade. But when Keats's mother makes a surprise announcement, the entire family is sent into a tailspin. For the first time, Keats can't pick up the pieces by herself. Now she must reevaluate everything she's ever assumed about herself and her family--and make the biggest decision of her life.
'Just a great book to read. You can't put it down, because you want to see things work out for Keats and her oddball family."GenerationGbooks
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Families and Other Nonreturnable Gifts
By LaZebnik, Claire
5 SpotCopyright © 2011 LaZebnik, Claire
All right reserved.
My father always says, “It’s a fine line between madness and genius,” but really, how thin can the line be, given that the guy’s built his home right on top of it with a lovely view of crazy on one side, sane on the other?
Wall-to-wall brilliance, though.
My mother has a different catchphrase: “Common sense is more important than genius.” She should know the value of the former, having survived thirty-three years of marriage to someone who didn’t have an ounce of it in his entire body. He’d leave plates of half-eaten food on the floor and then wonder why ants were invading his office. He couldn’t remember where his kids went to school or when our birthdays were. The one time my mother sent him to pick up some groceries (a tale she often repeats), he returned with nothing from the list she had given him, just a box of Twinkies, a bag of apples, and a bottle of wine. He had lost the list, he told her, and was “forced to improvise.” Since she needed diapers and formula for my older sister Hopkins, who was an infant at the time, Mom was forced to return to the grocery store herself—strapping the baby into the car to take with her, because a man who didn’t have the common sense to call home and ask what was on the list definitely didn’t have the common sense necessary to watch a baby by himself.
Mom’s no slouch in the brains department herself: she graduated from Harvard, too, and went on to get an MA there, which would have been a PhD if the professor she’d met at a faculty tea who whisked her right off to New York for a romantic weekend hadn’t soon after asked her to marry him. Which she did, dazzled by his reputation, his distinguished-looking gray hair, his gallantly archaic way of speaking and holding doors for her, and of course, his blinding intellect. I doubt she was even thinking about (and certainly wasn’t using) common sense when she let him sweep her off her feet, or about how a twenty-year age gap might play out over time. But once the babies started coming, common sense’s stock probably rose quite a bit.
Mom’s brilliant in her own way and crazy enough in her own way, too. Not in Dad’s way, of course—no, Mom sees things clearly. Pessimism and cynicism run so deep in her that she often uses fiction for a few minutes’ respite from a reality that can get too dark. Most of my childhood was spent standing around waiting for her to look up from a book. “Just let me finish this chapter” was the refrain on the soundtrack of my childhood.
But she can’t ignore the real world completely, and a couple of times a year she succumbs to a deep, dark depression that snatches her up in the middle of whatever she’s doing and drops her down into her unmade bed in her darkened room for several days, where she hides and ignores anyone who dares to enter. It used to terrify me when I was little, but eventually I learned that while those days themselves were miserable—as we were left to the mercy of our very distant father or, in our early years, to the overwhelmingly stifling hugs of our maternal grandmother, who couldn’t remember our names but embraced us all with indiscriminate enthusiasm—they passed with no permanent damage to any of us. My mother would eventually emerge from her bed and her room, be a little vague and uncertain for a day or two, then gradually return to herself: short-tempered, dictatorial, mercurial, and—admittedly—a little slovenly.
Recent pharmaceutical advances have helped. Her depressions are less frequent and much shorter now than when we were little.
Anyway, it’s no surprise that my older sister’s a world-renowned neurologist, no surprise that my brother’s an agoraphobe—genius and madness are as much a part of my family’s genetic pool as the straight brown hair and hazel eyes that my parents and siblings all share.
Me? My hair is curly and red, and my eyes are blue. Go ask Gregor Mendel how that happened.
I was fourteen when Mom decided enough was enough and told my father their marriage was over, a conversation that she reported to me and my siblings with no acknowledgment that we might not find the news as delightful as she did.
I waited anxiously for my father to pack up and leave.
No one except me seemed to notice that he didn’t.
Admittedly, Dad kept a low profile after that, roaming the hallways late at night and making cups of tea at two in the morning but otherwise keeping to the top floor of the house when he wasn’t at work. He created a bunker up there with his books and computer and stacks of papers, sleeping on the old daybed that was supposed to convert the attic into a guest room when needed, but really just made it easier for him to hide from his wife.
And the truth was that after making her big announcement, Mom did seem to go about her daily life for years without taking much notice of him. They lived separate lives in the same house. She dealt with Milton, my younger brother, who still lives at home and doesn’t require too much in the way of daily upkeep—just the occasional snack and a reminder to shower now and then—and continued to do the least amount of work necessary to keep the big old house from falling down.
Maybe Mom needed all those years to get used to the idea of being on her own. When she told my father their marriage was over, she had made something clear to herself—that this man was not the man she would grow old with—and I guess she felt like that knowledge was enough for the moment and action could wait until later.
And now it’s later.
Your father found an apartment,” Eloise Sedlak—my mom—tells me on the phone. “Or rather, Jacob and I found one for him.”
Jacob Corwin is my father’s assistant. He was a boyish undergraduate when he first took the position seven years ago and is now a significantly less boyish perpetual graduate student with little hope of ever getting his degree since his every waking moment is taken up with running my father’s life. Supposedly my father is mentoring him, advising him on his PhD thesis, but all that mentoring is going to lead Jacob right to the unemployment line if Dad ever loses his budget for an assistant or dies.
“It’s in Harvard Square,” Mom says. “He can walk to work. I know what you’re thinking, Keats, but trust me, it’ll make his life easier.”
“I wasn’t thinking anything,” I say. “I’m just listening.”
“He’s moved in with a couple of suitcases, but there’s tons more stuff to go through. Jacob and I are going to pack it all up this weekend, and I need your help.”
“Milton’s home. He can help.”
“Milton’s always home and he never helps. As you well know. Saturday at ten would be perfect.”
“We already have plans for Saturday. Tom and I are going to—”
“You can bring Tom if you want. I need someone to carry boxes.”
“See you at ten on Saturday.” She hangs up.
I say out loud, “Resistance is futile.”
“Huh?” Tom looks up from the sofa, pausing what he was watching on TV. “Who was that?”
“What does she want?”
“My father just moved out, and she wants us to come help pack up his stuff.”
“Wait,” he says and turns the TV completely off. “Your father moved out? Out of the house?”
“Apparently.” I come over and sit down next to him on the oatmeal-colored sectional we picked out together at Pottery Barn three years ago. I curl up against him, and his arm goes around my shoulder and pulls me snugly against his chest.
“I thought they’d always be together,” Tom says, resting his cheek on the top of my head. “I mean, I know they lived in separate parts of the house, but they still seemed as much of a couple as my parents or anyone else.” Tom’s parents had a thirty-fifth wedding anniversary a few months ago. His mother wore pearls and his father called her “my salvation, my inspiration, my love.” My parents are not a couple like his parents are a couple, but I know what he means: it felt like somehow they’d stick it out together. Until today.
He peers down at me. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” I tilt my head back to look at Tom, who’s steady and calm and reliable and loving and everything my father isn’t, and then I look around the living room of our Waltham apartment, which is clean and neat and bright and new and everything the house I grew up in wasn’t.
When Tom and I first picked this place out—it was his purchase, but we both knew I’d basically be living here, too—the two-bedroom apartment in the just-built high-rise felt almost too antiseptic. But now the house I grew up in, twenty minutes from here, in Newton, feels old and grungy by comparison, and when we leave there and drive the short distance between the two places and pull into our space in the enormous garage below our fifteen-story building, that’s when I feel like I’ve come home.
“They can do what they want,” I say. “I don’t care. I’m an adult now. My life is separate from theirs.”
“I thought we were going to go to the beach on Saturday.”
“We could go on Sunday.”
“I said I’d watch the game with Lou.” Tom’s friends all have names like Lou and Bill and Jim. I love that about him. His last name is Wells. Tom Wells. How great is that? Of course, when you grow up saddled with a name like Keats Sedlak, you admire any name you don’t have to explain or spell. “But if you want, I could cancel.”
“No, don’t.” I feel his chest move with a small breath of relief. “We can still try to make it to the beach on Saturday after we stop by the house.”
“It’s okay with me if it doesn’t happen,” he says.
I know it’s okay with him. Going to the beach was my idea in the first place. I like walking on it when it’s not yet summer and it’s still deserted. And Tom prefers to be lazy on the weekends. He says it’s his only chance to relax, which I understand—he works long hours as vice president of his dad’s hospital linens laundering business—but sometimes I just want to get out and go somewhere. We don’t travel much in general—not at all, really—unless you count our annual trip to Florida with his family, which is always at the same resort, with the same scheduled activities (golf for the men, lounging by the pool for the women), and meals at the same hotel restaurant. The first year it was great. The second year it was fun. The third year it was nice. Now it’s just all right. Amazing how something special becomes less special with repetition.
“Yeah, no worries either way” is all I say now.
We sit there in silence for a little while, and then he picks up the remote with a questioning glance at me. I smile my reassurance—he’s not being rude to me, it’s fine—and he turns the TV back on. We adjust our position a bit—he raises his head, I shift my legs—but we’re still comfortably curled up together. I always sit to his left.
In a month we’ll be celebrating our tenth anniversary together.
We’re going to combine it with my twenty-fifth birthday celebration. I turned fifteen the week before we started seeing each other.
There’s a smell when you first walk in through the door of our family house, a musty fetid-sweet odor that I’ve never been able to trace to any specific source. Tom walks in beside me but doesn’t seem to notice it. He calls out a cheerful “Anyone home?”
It’s a stupid question since Milton is always home. But Milton is usually in his room, which is upstairs and at the far end of the house, so he never hears when people knock or enter. I have to call him on my cell from outside if I forget my key and need him to come down and open the door.
When there’s no response, Tom tries an uncertain “Hello?”
This time we hear a man’s voice faintly greeting us from upstairs, and a moment later Jacob comes rushing down the stairs. He’s wearing a button-down shirt and khakis that look slightly rumpled, and he’s got a smudge of dirt on his right cheek.
The whole shape of his face has changed since I first met him seven years ago. He was round faced then, with lots of light brown curly hair, but as he’s gotten older and his hairline’s receded, his face has grown longer and narrower, and the lids have started to droop wearily over his light gray eyes. Not so much of a cherub anymore.
I can’t imagine my father is easy to work for. He’s persnickety and grumpy and demanding. He’s my dad so I’m stuck with him, but Jacob doesn’t have that excuse.
I guess he’s used to harsh treatment. He told me once he had a rough time as a teenager. He was a sensitive intellectual at a big Texas high school, which basically meant he was ostracized and bullied on a regular basis. He figured his only hope for a better future was to escape to a good college as far away as possible, so he spent his days and nights studying. He’s a bright guy, Jacob: he got into Harvard, and once he went there it was like the whole world opened up. He fit in. It no longer counted against him that he was small and scrawny and would rather read than play football.
He needed to support himself, though, so he applied for a job as an assistant to a government professor. Not just any government professor: the most highly regarded government professor at Harvard and possibly the world, aka Lawrence Sedlak, aka my dad.
Jacob had already taken my dad’s best-known course, a survey class, the popularity of which was so great it was taught not in a classroom but in a theater, and even so required a lottery to keep the number down each year to 250 students. The required reading included not one, not two, but three books by the professor himself, including the one used in universities throughout the world and widely considered by poli-sci geeks to be The Book on political systems, titled, with more accuracy than inspiration, A History and Overview of Modern Political Systems.
Jacob’s interview for the assistant position was rigorous: Dad fired about a million questions at him, then made him do some research right there and then, first online—in front of him—and then in the deep recesses of one of the university libraries, “to prove you know how to read a book and won’t just Google everything,” the professor said. Jacob was given a time limit for finding the necessary info and had to race back to Dad’s office, which is over half a mile from the library in Harvard Yard.
By the time the two-hour interview was over, Jacob was covered in sweat and his hands were shaking. Dad called him up a week later to say he had the job. Jacob says it made him prouder than getting accepted to Harvard. Since then, he’s worked for Dad as a research and office assistant and, over time, more and more as a personal assistant.
He spends a lot of time with my family, showing up for most major holidays, helping out with house-related tasks, shuttling Dad back and forth from campus, and then staying for dinner more often than not. Of course, this was all before the move, which I assume will change Jacob’s amount of contact with our family as much as it will Dad’s.
Now Jacob greets us enthusiastically, giving me a brief hug before shaking hands with Tom, who says, “I hear the old man finally moved out.”
“He did. His stuff didn’t. You wouldn’t believe how much there is to sort through. Fortunately, it’s all fascinating. To me, at least. I’m trying to convince him to let me donate some of his old drafts and letters to Houghton Library.”
“Are you crazy?” I say.
He takes a surprised step back. “Why not? People write dissertations on his books all the time. These materials are valuable.”
“It’s too weird,” I say. “Strangers reading our personal stuff.”
“It’s your father we’re talking about,” Jacob says. “None of it’s all that personal.”
He has a point—the few times in my life I’ve gotten a letter from my father, it’s been of the “Hope you’re enjoying your stay there. I just gave a talk at Brandeis that was roughly forty minutes long and was followed by a question-and-answer period. I think it went quite well” variety. Hardly the sort of thing to make anyone blush.
Even so…I just don’t like the idea. Expose our family to the light and who knows what hideous things might crawl out?
Tom says, “Seems like it should be your father’s call, Keats.”
I shrug, unreasonably annoyed at both of them. “Where’s my mom?”
“Up there. She sent me down to fetch you.”
We follow Jacob up the stairs to the second floor and down the hallway to the narrower stairs that continue on up to the attic. “Hey, Milton!” I yell in the direction of his bedroom door, which is closed. No response. “I’ll go say hi later,” I say to no one in particular, and we mount the worn and uneven wooden steps up to the third floor where my father’s office, bed, and life have been for the last decade or so.
The attic apartment runs the length of the house. It’s long, so you’d think it would feel big, but the angled roof and narrow, small windows make it cramped and dark. Tom—who at six foot two is at least six inches taller than anyone else in the room—ducks his head instinctively, even though he doesn’t actually have to. He can stand upright in the middle of the attic and walk a few feet in each direction without stooping, but the roof is always close enough that he keeps his head warily inclined.
My mother is kneeling over a box next to the daybed, but she rises to her feet in one impressively graceful motion as we emerge from the stairway. “Good,” she says. “You came.”
“Did we have a choice?” I ask jovially as I come forward to kiss her on the cheek.
She ignores that and waves her hand at my boyfriend. “Tom,” she says, and it’s clear from the wave and the way she turns back to me immediately that she is not in any way inviting him to hug her.
My mother doesn’t like Tom. It frustrates me because any other mother would love him. He’s reliable and devoted and good-hearted. Handsome, too: tall and broad shouldered and muscular with a head of thick dark hair. Right now he’s wearing jeans and an old blue T-shirt that matches his eyes. He came ready to help out. She should be flinging her arms around him in gratitude, but instead she just gives him that cold wave.
I understand why it bothered her when we first started going out because I was so much younger than he was—so young in general. But it’s been ten years, and we’ve been living together happily for the past four, and I’m twenty-five now, no longer a kid. The age difference—a little over five years—has stopped being meaningful. If I had just met him, no one would think twice about it. So she can’t possibly think he wants to take advantage of me, not anymore.
Maybe disliking him has just become a habit for her.
She says to me, “There’s so much work to do here, you can’t believe it. I feel like we’ll never get through it.” She’s always overwhelmed by any amount of cleaning or organizing work. Her MO is to check out what needs to be done, feel hopeless about it, and abandon the project, which is why every closet and drawer in our house is bulging with stuff that should have been cleaned up and thrown out years ago.
“Is Dad coming back to help?” I survey the stacks of books and papers and boxes covering the room’s furniture and floor.
Mom snorts. “It took me a decade to get him out of this house. I’m in no rush to invite him back in. I asked him to clean up before he left—apparently this is his idea of clean.” She jerks her chin toward the small, slight man standing near her. “But at least he sent me Jacob, who’s given me more help in the last half hour than your father has during our entire marriage, which, by the way, we’re officially dissolving. I’ve seen a lawyer and started the divorce process.”
I stare at her. “This is how you tell me?”
“The engraved announcement is in the mail,” she says drily. She fidgets for a moment, her fingers tapping on the edge of Dad’s enormous oak desk. Even though it’s cleanup day, she’s wearing some kind of multicolored, floaty bohemian skirt topped by an old pink shirt that has big round buttons down the front.
Mom always wears skirts because they flatter her figure. She’s thin from the side, a board really—no breasts, no butt, nothing sticking out. But if you look at her straight on, her hips are surprisingly wide. The skirts hide that unexpected ultrafeminine width. She looks ungainly in pants, but in a skirt she’s close to gorgeous with her long dark hair—threaded with gray now but not as much as you’d expect for a fifty-five-year-old woman—and her large hazel eyes, long, straight nose, and wide mouth. I got her nose, but that’s it. Otherwise, I don’t look much like her or much like Dad, either. “You don’t even look like the mailman,” my big sister Hopkins used to tease. “Poor little red-haired freak.”
“Let’s go downstairs,” Mom says to me abruptly. “I need a cup of tea.”
So much for getting down to work. But I’m not all that eager to start cleaning, either, so I’m happy to flee with her.
As we head down the steps, Tom starts to follow us. Mom halts. “Help Jacob pack up in here, will you, Tom?”
“Sure thing,” says Tom and retreats back up the stairs.
I watch my mother as she whirls around the kitchen, plucking tea bags out of a canister on the counter, grabbing a couple of mugs out of the cabinet, filling them with water, and sticking them both in the microwave, which she closes with such a violent push that a stack of papers on top falls over and scatters on the floor.
“This kitchen!” she says, bending over and angrily snatching them all up. “It’s a mess. I can’t stand it.”
I look around. She’s right: it is a mess. Not only is every surface covered with old mail and dust, but the room itself hasn’t been updated or repainted for decades. I’m sitting on the breakfast booth bench, which is covered with a teal and pink vinyl that was probably considered stylishly modern in 1980 but which is just plain ugly now. The faded off-white cabinets that line the wall are fussy and ornate and not like anything my mother would have picked out herself, so they must have predated my parents’ purchase of the house. The floor is brown linoleum, the counters beige laminate.
The funny thing is that the house itself—a 1920s Tudor—is incredibly valuable, especially because Newton is such a desirable suburb, much more coveted than Waltham, where Tom and I live. The school system is good and the Mass Turnpike is close enough to be convenient but far enough away that you can’t hear or see it.
And just as I’m thinking, Wonder what this house is worth now? my mother says, “I’m putting the whole thing on the market.”
“Ha,” I say, pleased to be ahead of her for once. “I saw that coming.”
“Really?” She seems surprised. Then she shrugs. “Good. I’m glad. I was worried you’d get upset.”
“It’s too big for you and Milton, anyway. Now that Dad’s moved out.”
The microwave dings. Mom instantly wheels around, pulls the door open, and grabs at the mugs. Tea slops over the edge as she strides over to the booth and plops them down. She cooked the water with the tea bags already inside so both cups are a dark brown color now.
“Milk? Sugar?” she asks.
“Whatever you’re having.” I’m not a tea drinker normally. Coffee’s my drug. I keep hoping it will make me feel alert, aware, brilliant, on top of my game…but it just makes me irritable and always needing to pee.
Mom is at the fridge in seconds. A whirl of skirts, and the milk is glugging into the mugs. Another whirl and sugar is pouring from a teaspoon. A whirl, a knock, a shove, a beat, and she’s sitting across from me, her spoon clicking rhythmically against the sides of her mug, open milk carton and spilled sugar still out on the counter behind her.
No one moves faster than my mother. My main memory from childhood is of trying to keep up, pumping my little legs like crazy while I raced after her in a supermarket or department store, desperate to grab hold of a corner of the elusive skirt that was always billowing just out of my reach.
You’d think with all that energy, she would be efficient, but there’s a frenzy to her restlessness. She moves a lot, just not in any particular direction. Even at the supermarket, we’d be cutting back through the store multiple times to get things she’d forgotten or missed on the first pass.
I take a sip. The tea is tepid and harsh, barely drinkable. She may have figured out how to make it quickly, but she hasn’t figured out how to make it taste good. I put my mug down. “Do you know where you’ll move to?”
“Definitely an apartment. Probably downtown, but maybe Cambridge or Somerville.”
“What about Milton?” My brother hasn’t left the house in two years, not since he graduated from high school. “Does he know you’re moving?”
Mom carefully places her own mug down on the table. There’s a dark red shield on the side facing me that says Ve-ri-tas. Truth. “I haven’t figured out what to do about him yet.”
When I picture my brother, he’s hunched over his computer—because he usually is—his face pale, his eyes large and expressive when they’re staring at the screen, elusive and blank when they meet another person’s gaze, which they rarely and reluctantly do. Even when he was little, he was a homebody, the kind of kid who never went on playdates and who would insist he was sick and had to stay home from school as often as he could get away with it—which was often, since he managed to get straight A’s no matter how much school he missed. When he was sixteen, he told my mother seriously that he had thought about dropping out since he could do it legally now, but that he’d decided it made more sense to finish up.
Given that conversation, Mom should have been worried he might not make it to college, but I guess any fears she had were allayed when Milton applied to and got accepted by six Ivy League schools. We all waited to see which one he’d pick.
None, it turned out.
“I’ve decided I just want to live at home,” he said in April of his senior year of high school. “I can go to college online.”
“Why did you bother applying to real schools then?” I asked him crossly, annoyed that he had gotten into two schools—Harvard and Princeton—that had rejected me, and then wasn’t even interested in going to either one.
“The guidance counselors would have bugged me if I hadn’t,” he said. “It was easier just to do it. Oh, and tell Mom I’m not going to give the valedictorian speech, will you? They wanted me to but I said no, and if I tell her, she’ll get that tone in her voice.”
My brother, folks.
He’s basically been hanging out in his bedroom since then with occasional forays down to the kitchen—he doesn’t even take the trash out as far as I know. When I ask my mother why she isn’t doing more to get him out of the house, she throws her hands up in the air and says she’s done everything she can think of, by which I guess she means that every once in a while she tells him he really should get out of the house and he ignores her.
I once suggested to her that maybe there was a real problem there, that maybe something was wrong with Milton, something that he needed professional help with. She just shook her head and said, “Milton is one of the smartest people I know. He’ll be fine.”
Like intelligence is all that matters.
I even e-mailed Hopkins to try to get her to back me up, but she wrote back, If Mom decides she wants to kick him out at any point, she will and he’ll be fine. He’s a little spectrumy, but perfectly competent. But so long as she’s happy having him at home, let them have each other. Without any support from the actual neurologist in the family, I gave up.
The first few months after high school, Milton did at least go to movies and restaurants with us, but he’s stopped doing even that. He pulled back gradually, pretending he was in the middle of doing something important and couldn’t leave the house at first, but now he just shakes his head dismissively if you invite him somewhere, like you’re the one who’s nuts for thinking it’s even a possibility.
He’s more withdrawn, more reclusive, every time I see him. It scares me and I want to do something about it, but other than berating my mother and fretting to Tom, I don’t know what. I’m not there that often—a couple of times a month at the most—and I’m not his mother, as Milton has reminded me often enough.
“You’ll have to take him with you to the new apartment,” I say now. It’s weird to think of Milton anywhere but here. Maybe a change will be good for him.
“I know. I will.” Mom puts down her mug a little too heavily and a few drops of tea fly out. “But I anticipate some awkwardness. Inviting a man back to my place when my adult son still lives there—”
“Whoa,” I say. “Whoa. Someone’s moving fast.” I mop up the tea drops with a napkin.
She regards me for a moment, then says, “Keats, I’m fifty-five years old. I have been married to a man twenty years my senior for the last thirty-three years. Please tell me you’re not going to be prudish about this. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to go on a date now and then, do you?”
I shake my head as I crumple up the napkin. “No. I’m sorry. It’s just an idea that takes some getting used to. But maybe it’s another argument for getting Milton to live on his own.”
“Maybe. So far it hasn’t been a problem.”
It takes a moment for that to register. “Wait,” I say. “So far? You mean—”
She plays with the tag on her tea bag, her face flushing. “I’ve gone on a few dates.”
“A few dates?” I repeat. “You mean a few dates with one guy or a few dates with a few different guys?”
“Are you seeing anyone special?”
“There are three men who interest me at the moment. One’s an old friend, another one I met online, and the third is in my creative writing class.”
“What creative writing class? You’re taking a creative writing class?” I slump down and say accusingly, “You don’t tell me anything.”
Mom tilts her head to study me. “Is this upsetting you?” she asks—not apologetically, just curiously.
“Not really. I’m glad you’re dating. It’s just weird.”
“Tell me about it,” she says.
After our conversation, Mom heads up the stairs to the third floor, and I’m about to follow her when I change my mind and knock on Milton’s closed door instead.
“No. It’s me. Keats.”
“Hold on. I’m not decent.” There’s the sound of rustling, and then he opens the door. “Hi,” he says and pats my shoulder, which is his customary way of greeting me. “I didn’t know you were here.”
I hug him. His body goes rigid under my touch because he doesn’t like to be hugged, and he crosses his arms protectively over his concave chest and round stomach. I’m not trying to make him uncomfortable, but when he was a baby, I carefully carried him around the house for hours, so I figure I’m entitled to a hug every now and then.
He’s wearing a loose pair of sweats and a faded T-shirt. He’s gained weight since I last saw him. He’s been doing that a lot lately. He was a skinny teenager, but these days he’s got a real belly on him.
I release him and step back, looking around. The room is a mess. There’s old clothing everywhere and some dirty dishes and lots of books. You can see through the connecting bathroom into my old room, which Milton annexed for himself after I left for college. No one asked me if that was okay. It wasn’t, but by the time I came home for Thanksgiving break, he had already moved a bookcase and an iPod dock in there. And a lot of empty protein bar wrappers. Fortunately, I already preferred sleeping over at Tom’s by that point.
A Mac desktop with a huge monitor fills up the desk in front of us, but there are two more computers within reach: a PC on top of the dresser and a MacBook lying open on the bed.
“What are you working on?” I ask.
“This and that. I’ve been getting into game development.”
“Oh.” That means nothing to me. “How’s school?” He’s supposedly taking college courses online, working toward his degree, but I’m not sure anyone ever checks up on him. On the other hand, I’ve never known Milton to lie.
“It’s okay. Stupidly easy.”
“Maybe you should go to a real college. It would be more challenging.” He just shrugs, and I say abruptly, “You want to go get a sandwich or something?”
“No, thanks,” he says politely. “Hey, guess what? Dad’s book is required reading in my gov class.”
“Are you going to read it?”
“I already have,” he says. “Haven’t you?”
“I tried once. Not my kind of thing.”
“Really? It’s pretty good.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“The guy who grades us asked me if Lawrence Sedlak was my father.”
“What’d you say?”
“Nothing.” Milton’s skin is so pale it’s practically translucent except under the eyes where half-moon shapes turn the skin dark and coarse. “It was just in an e-mail, so I didn’t answer. Did Tom come with you?”
“He’s upstairs. So’s Jacob. What about a walk? Want to go for a walk with me? It’s really beautiful out.”
“Maybe later,” he says. “Jacob’s here to help pack up Dad’s stuff, right?”
He tugs on a strand of hair. It’s too long, his hair—it falls in his eyes and curls along his neck like a girl’s. “It’s weird not hearing him moving around upstairs,” he says. “Especially in the middle of the night. It’s so quiet now with just me and Mom here.”
“Are you sleeping okay?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “Define okay.”
“Eight hours a night?”
“I don’t usually sleep in one big chunk.” There’s a ding from his computer. “I just have to check that,” he says and darts away.
From the way he settles on his seat and peers intently at the screen, I don’t get the feeling he’s going to come back to the conversation any time soon, so I wander out of his room, through the bathroom—ye gods, it’s filthy in there, hardened toothpaste in the sink, dirt crusted into the grout, rust stains all over the shower/bath combo—and into my old room.
There’s not much of mine left in there. I know some of my old clothes are still hanging in the closet and folded in the drawers because I just left behind whatever I didn’t take with me to college or Tom’s. But most of the visible signs that the room once belonged to me are gone. When he claimed the space for himself, Milton took down my posters and shoved my softball trophies to the back of the dresser top where they’re hidden by the flat-screen monitor he’s set up there. The bed once held a pink-and-purple quilt (the height of glamour to my ten-year-old self), but now the bare mattress has a sleeping bag and a pillow on it, like someone camps out there occasionally.
But my old digital alarm clock is still on the small white night table next to the bed. I pick up the clock and turn it around in my hands. I bought it with my allowance money when I was eleven, because I was tired of being late for school. I hated the stares I got when I walked in after class had already started, but Mom was a night owl and often overslept. So I’d slouch in after everyone else, embarrassed and frustrated.
It hit me one day that my mistake was letting Mom be in charge of our mornings. So I bought this clock with my own money. From then on, the alarm would ring in my room, I’d wake up my mother and Milton (Hopkins had gone off to college at the age of sixteen, so she was already out of the picture), and by yelling, scolding, begging, cajoling, I somehow managed to get the three of us all out the door in time.
I put the alarm clock back down on the night table and leave the room.
I cross the hallway and stand for a moment outside Hopkins’s room. She’s not there, of course, but then she never really was there much, not even when she lived at home: she was always running around, taking classes outside of school or heading off to work in various labs. Even when she was home, I had orders (from her and Mom) to leave her alone and be quiet so she could concentrate on the huge amount of homework and research she was always dealing with.
It’s amazing that someone I rarely see, and never really had all that much contact with, looms so large over my entire life. How do you describe the sister whose very existence makes you feel like the world’s biggest loser? And proud, at the same time, because you’re related to her?
Like I said, Hopkins and I didn’t interact all that much, even when we lived together. I was five years younger and eons less intellectually sophisticated. Still am. We passed each other in the hallway, and Mom talked about her all the time, but meals were scattered in our house, people eating by themselves at different times, solitary figures usually hunched over a book—and without that basic contact, our relationship was limited mostly to her knocking on the bathroom door and telling me to hurry up or asking me to turn my music down because she needed to concentrate.
I can remember watching her at the kitchen table working on some project or another, her long hair falling around her face as she frowned down at the book she was reading or the paper she was writing. She barely noticed me. She barely noticed anyone. She needed my mother to drive her places and to provide a little sustenance now and then, but otherwise Hopkins was too busy thinking her own thoughts and pursuing her own interests to sit around chatting with her family. I admired her, revered her, listened to my mother talk about her achievements ad nauseam, and got used to teachers telling me they had never had a student like her before or since. But I didn’t know her.
At eight, Hopkins skipped a grade. She skipped another one when she was twelve. She still got straight A’s effortlessly and probably could have skipped more, but she was already so much younger and smaller than the other kids in her class that the administration felt she might suffer socially if she did. My parents argued that she wasn’t being challenged enough. The school compromised by letting her take classes above her grade level for the first couple of years of high school and then at Boston College for the last two.
She was barely sixteen when she went off to college. Harvard, of course. Dad might not have been an involved parent, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t an influential one.
Since she already had a year’s worth of college credits under her belt and was taking five courses a semester, she finished in three years, making her a college grad at nineteen. She didn’t exactly take a break then, either: four years later, at the age of twenty-three, she had two degrees under her belt, a combined PhD and MD in neurology.
Note: none of this is normal. People don’t do this. Only my sister.
She stayed on in Boston for a few more years, her hospital and university connections providing her with plenty of job opportunities, which she was still working her way through when she was offered her current job running a brain injury clinic in New York, where they not only see patients but also do apparently groundbreaking research. She gets asked to speak at conferences all over the world and is always being flown in to various exotic locales to consult on cases that local doctors twice her age can’t handle. She doesn’t have a landline in her apartment, just a cell phone number, because she’s as likely to be in Stockholm or Tokyo as New York on any given day.
Not that I ever call her: we communicate by e-mail when we communicate at all, which isn’t very often.
About a year ago, I went to see her give a lecture on neural plasticity and recovery after injury—of which I understood maybe forty percent—and afterward she introduced me to a woman waiting to talk to her who gripped my arm as she said, “Thank God for your sister. They said my father would probably be a vegetable, but she didn’t give up on him. The work she does is nothing short of miraculous. Do you know how wonderful she is?”
Hopkins and I were supposed to go out for a late dinner after the talk, but there was a guy there from a big lab who was desperate to consult her about something, so she had to cancel our dinner. It was her only night in Boston.
Tom was glad: I got home in time to go to a movie with him that night.
I am, to put it succinctly, no Hopkins.
I went to school in the usual way, one grade following the other in exactly the order you’d expect: got pats on my head from my teachers for my steady, decent work, graduated at eighteen like all my friends, and went on to Smith College, where I majored in English literature and wrote papers about Jane Austen for four years.
I spent every weekend riding the bus back and forth to Boston so I could be with Tom. I lived with him during the summers, too, working as an assistant at his father’s company.
I had no desire to go to graduate school, but my English degree wasn’t exactly a fast track to a specific career, so after I graduated, I decided to just look for a halfway decent job not too far from where Tom and I were already living together. He offered to find me something permanent at his dad’s company, but even though I was willing to settle, I wasn’t willing to settle that hard, at least not yet.
Instead, I found a comfortable home in the English department of Waltham Community College, where I make sure there’s always fresh coffee and snacks for everyone and keep things running smoothly.
I have been told the coffee I make is extraordinarily good, and when I digitalized all of our files, my boss told me I had saved her life. But she was being metaphorical, and the people who say that about Hopkins are speaking literally, so it’s not exactly the same thing, is it?
By the time I make it back up to my father’s office, no one’s left up there except Tom, who’s stolidly packing books into old printer paper boxes. He looks up when I emerge from the stairway and says, “There you are! I thought you’d abandoned me like everyone else did.”
I cross the room toward him and fluff his hair a little. It’s so thick I can make it stand straight up.
He leans his head against my hip and says, “It’s funny being up here. I was so scared of your father I think I only came up here once in all these years. He wanted me to help him put in the Wi-Fi, remember? I was terrified.”
“Just as terrified,” he admits with a grin.
“Poor baby,” I say and bend down to kiss him lightly on the lips.
He turns the kiss into a real one. I pull back because of where we are, and he rubs his face against my stomach. “Mmm,” he says. He burrows his nose in deeper. I slide my fingers down to the back of his neck and then fold completely over him, torn: do I want to keep going or not? His arms slip around my waist. “We could do it,” he whispers. “Right here in your father’s office. That would be a first.”
“There isn’t a real door. Someone could walk in.”
“All the more exciting.”
“I never knew you were an exhibitionist.”
“Me neither.” His fingers slide under the waist of my jeans. It’s been a while since he’s been like this, all eager and coaxing, and I’m more aroused than I’ve felt in ages.
Ten years is a long time to be together, and sex is more comfortable than exciting these days. Same old bed, same old bodies, same time of day. That kind of thing. More and more, I find myself fantasizing during sex: a stranger has grabbed me from behind, someone who’s broken into the apartment, I can’t see him, I don’t know who he is, but he’s wild with lust, and that’s turning me on even though I’m terrified.
That kind of thing.
I’d worry about it, except I read in a magazine that it’s totally normal and even healthy for people in long-term relationships to fantasize like that.
Anyway, the idea of making out in my dad’s old room is kind of weird and interesting, and I’m tempted to let Tom keep going but also scared of being caught, so I just hang over him, trying to decide what I want to do, feeling my body respond even while I’m weighing the options.
The body’s close to winning out when there’s a clatter on the steps. We spring apart so violently that Jacob, who emerges into the office, can’t miss the fact he’s interrupting something.
“Sorry,” he says and turns red. He retreats down a step.
“No worries,” Tom says genially. He’s up on his feet and has recovered more quickly than I have. He points to the box of books in front of him. “Almost finished with this one. Should I carry it down when I’m done?”
“That would be great.” Jacob comes all the way up into the room but avoids making eye contact with either of us. “Hold on,” he says, peering into the box. “Are these supposed to be the ones we’re giving away or the ones we’re keeping?”
“I packed the ones that were on the floor.”
“But they were sorted out,” Jacob says. “There were two piles.”
“Oh, sorry,” Tom says. “Didn’t realize we were supposed to keep those separate. I just figured we should get them boxed up and out of here as fast as possible.”
I feel my heart sink. It’s not a big deal—Jacob can just sort them out again—and Tom meant well, but I feel bad anyway, like it was my fault Tom messed up.
“Can I help?” I ask Jacob, who has sunk down to his knees in front of the box and is pulling books out.
“Grab another box, will you? I’ll hand you the books we don’t want to keep, and you can pack them as we go. I’ll keep the ones we want in here.”
I look around, see the tower of boxes—Mom must have gotten this batch from the supermarket because they all have food names on them like vlasic pickles and velveeta—and bring one back, passing by Tom who’s shoved his hands in his pockets and is leaning against the angled wall as he watches Jacob fix his mistake.
“What do you want me to do?” he asks as I go by.
I glance at my watch. It’s past eleven. “Why don’t you run out and pick us up some lunch?”
“What should I get?”
I’m squatting on the floor, taking the books that Jacob hands me and packing them in the box, trying to figure out how they’ll fit in there best. “Whatever you think.”
“What about you, Jacob?”
“Don’t worry about me. I can grab something later.”
I say, “God knows what Mom has in the kitchen or how long she’ll keep us working here. Tom might as well get lunch for everyone.”
“Yeah, okay, thanks.” Jacob goes back to sorting books.
“You still haven’t told me what to get,” Tom says to me.
“Something Milton will eat. Maybe bagels?”
“How many should I get?” Tom asks.
“Whatever you think.”
“How much cream cheese? One of those bigger containers?”
He lingers one more moment uncertainly and then says, “Should I go now?”
I nod, and he disappears down the stairway.
For a little while, it’s quiet in Dad’s office. Hot, too. There’s an AC unit in one of the windows, but no one’s turned it on today and we’re having one of those weird April heat waves. It would have been the perfect day to go to the beach.
“Look at this,” Jacob says and leans over to show me a book: it’s a simple cover, but the title is in a language I can’t identify.
“What is it?”
“It’s a translation of Political Systems.” He moves his hand to reveal Dad’s name at the bottom, the only part that’s in English.
“Is that Russian?”
“Bulgarian, I think.” Jacob carefully inserts the book between two others in the box in front of him. “This must be his only copy—I’ve never seen it before.”
“I wonder how it sold in Bulgaria.”
“As well as any American book about philosophies of government sells in Bulgaria, I would think.” He’s done sorting through the books on the floor; he stands up and starts going through the bookshelf, pushing some books to the side, pulling others out. “So,” he says after a moment. “How’s life treating you these days?”
“Same old, same old.”
He laughs and squints at a book spine. “You sound like an old lady sometimes, Keats. You’re turning twenty-five next week, right?”
“I can’t believe you know that.”
“Your dad likes me to keep track for him. April twenty-second?”
“You’re better than those online birthday alarms.”
“That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
We work for a moment, and then I say, “How’s Dad dealing with the move?”
“He’s okay.” There’s a pause. Then he says, “Only okay, though. He’s never been a big fan of change. And now that he’s seventy-five, it’s even harder for him. Sometimes he gets confused about where he is.”
That last sentence feels like a punch in the stomach. I have a vision of Dad wandering around Harvard Square, lost and alone. “You don’t think it’s Alzheimer’s, do you?”
“To be honest, I was worried about that, but I asked Hopkins and she said it’s just a combination of age and depression.”
“It’s useful having a neurologist in the family.”
“Mom should have just let him stay here,” I say. “It’s his house, too. I hate to think of him all alone. I bet that’s why he’s so depressed and out of it.”
“It’s not like she kicked him out because she wanted more space for herself—she wants to sell it and move. Understandably—it’s way too big.” His fingers fly along the book spines, tapping here and there. “I think she’s actually looking out for your dad, making sure he’s safely settled somewhere before all the craziness of showing the house and packing it up begins. He would have hated all that.”
I think about that. Maybe he’s right. Maybe Mom let Dad stay as long as it was comfortable for him here and then made sure he had a decent new home before their lives got disrupted.
“She’s dating,” I say and wait for his reaction. I want to see what someone else thinks of that bit of news.
But all he says is a calm “I know.”
“You know? How do you know? I only just found out.”
“Your mom happened to mention it to me the other day.”
“She told you before she told me? What else has she told you that she hasn’t told me?” I’m sort of joking, but not entirely.
He turns so he can look down at me. “Nothing, Keats. Don’t make a big deal out of this. I was moving some of your dad’s stuff out, and I heard a guy leaving a message on her machine, and she told me she was starting to date.”
“You should have called me immediately.”
“It was none of my business.”
“Oh, right,” I say. “It’s none of your business when it’s a question of letting Keats in on the whole thing. But it’s completely your business to start asking questions the second you hear a strange man’s voice on my mom’s voice mail.”
“Is there anything else you’re not telling me?”
“Oh, for god’s sake.” He goes back to studying the book titles.
I jump to my feet. “That means there is. Tell me.”
“No, that means you’re being annoying.”
I walk over to the other box and snatch up the Bulgarian translation of my father’s book. I hold it by the spine, letting the pages dangle. “Tell me or the book gets it.”
“Give me a break.” He makes a grab for the book, but I skip back out of his reach. “There’s nothing to tell. Put the book down, Keats.”
“I’m serious.” I cross over to the window and stick the book halfway through the narrow opening. “Tell me or the book plunges to its death.”
“That’s not funny.”
I cock my head at him. “I’m terrifying you by threatening to harm a book. It’s a little bit funny.”
“Give it to me.”
“Wow, it’s really slippery,” I say. “Oops—almost dropped it!”
He runs over, but then he hesitates, too self-conscious to actually wrestle with me for the book. I think girls make him nervous: he’s never brought a girlfriend over to our house, and he comes to a lot of holiday meals with us. So either he hasn’t had a serious relationship since he started working for Dad, or he’s good at keeping them secret. Given how available he always seems to be, I’m guessing the former.
He reaches toward the window, but I knock his hand away. “Don’t try anything funny.”
“Fine.” He holds his hands up in surrender. “Put the book safely down, and I promise to tell you whatever you want, you lunatic.”
“Tell me and I’ll put it down,” I say, just to torment him.
“At least hold the book inside, will you?”
I pull the book back to the safe side of the window. “So—what else have my parents told you that they haven’t told me? What family secrets am I being kept out of?”
He shakes his head wearily. “Nothing that I know of.”
I make a darting motion with the book, but he’s anticipating that and grabs it out of my hand. I don’t fight him for it. Game’s over. “Is Dad dating, too?”
He inspects the book carefully, then looks up. “Do you really need me to answer that?”
“Is Mom serious about any of these guys?”
“Not that she’s told me.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“Because you’ve known me for a very long time and I’ve never lied to you.”
“Never lied to me that I know of. Anyway, there’s lying by omission.”
“I’m not doing that, either.” He slips the book back in the box. “What are you worried about, Keats? That your mother will marry someone else one day and leave your father alone forever? He’s already living by himself.”
“She might miss him now that he’s gone.”
He regards me for a moment, his light gray eyes lingering thoughtfully on my face. “I know they’re your parents, Keats,” he says gently, “but their marriage ended a long time ago.”
We all eat bagels together in the kitchen. Mom’s about to bring one up to Milton, when I tell her that she’s only making things worse by waiting on him, that at the very least, she should make him come down a flight of stairs to eat. So she yells up to him, and he does come down, but only long enough to put some cream cheese on a bagel and eat it in three bites.
As we finish loading the dishwasher, Mom asks Tom if he’d mind changing the sink’s water filter for her, which is the kind of thing he’s great at and doesn’t mind doing. She doesn’t have a new filter in the house, though, so he volunteers to run to the hardware store to get one.
After he leaves, Mom and I go upstairs to look through our old picture books and see if there are any I might want to take before she gives them all away to the local hospital. The bookcase is in the hallway, which is poorly lit, so we have to take the books out one at a time and tilt them toward the light to see their titles.
I’m putting aside the books I think I might want to read to my own kids one day (a couple of Dr. Seuss’s, all of Maurice Sendak—whom I always secretly felt related to because our last names were so similar—and a bunch of random books I liked for one reason or another when I was little, most of which are so worn their spines are loose and their pages in danger of falling out), and after a while, Mom says, “You’re awfully quiet.”
“I know I’ve thrown a lot at you today: the move, selling the house, the divorce.…You’re so capable, I forget sometimes how young you are.”
“I’m not that young anymore, Mom. I’ll be twenty-five next week.”
“That’s still incredibly young.”
“It’s really not. And I’m fine with your selling the house. It hasn’t been my home for a while. I have my own home.”
Her face darkens, and she shakes her head unhappily. “I wish…”
“You know how I feel about this. You should be living on your own at your age or with a roommate. Or even at home with me. But not with Tom. I know I’ve said it before, Keats, but you need to grow up before you settle down.”
Excerpted from Families and Other Nonreturnable Gifts by LaZebnik, Claire Copyright © 2011 by LaZebnik, Claire. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Claire LaZebnik lives in Los Angeles with her TV writer husband and four children. She is the author of the novels Knitting Under the Influence (5 Spot, 2006) and Same as It Never Was and co-author of Overcoming Autism: Finding the Answers, Strategies, and Hope That Can Transform a Child's Life and Growing Up on the Spectrum: A Guide to Life, Love, and Learning for Teens and Young Adults with Autism and Asperger's.
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