New York City

September 13, 2013


People talk a lot about home.

Home is where the heart is, they say. There’s no place like home. Too long away and you get homesick.

Homesick—Henry knows that one is supposed to mean sick for home, not from it, but it still feels right. He loves his family, he does. He just doesn’t always like them. Doesn’t like who he is around them.

And yet, here he is, driving ninety minutes north, the city sinking behind him as a rented car hums under his hands. Henry knows he could take the train, it’s certainly cheaper, but the truth is, he likes driving. Or rather, he likes the white noise that comes with driving, the steady concreteness of going from here to there, the directions, the control. Most of all, he likes the inability to do anything else but drive, hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, music blaring through the speakers.

He offered to give Muriel a ride, was secretly relieved when she said she was taking the train already, that David had gotten in that morning and would pick her up from the station, which means Henry will be the last one there.

Henry is always somehow the last one there.

The closer he gets to Newburgh, the more the weather changes in his head, a warning rumble on the horizon, a storm rolling in. He takes a deep breath, bracing himself for a Strauss family dinner.

He can picture it, the five of them sitting around the linen-covered table like an awkward Ashkenazi imitation of a Rockwell painting, a stiff tableau, his mother on one end, his father on the other, his siblings seated side by side across the table.

David, the pillar, with his stern eyes and stiff posture.

Muriel, the tornado, with her wild dark curls and constant energy.

And Henry, the ghost (even his name doesn’t fit—not Jewish at all, but a nod to one of his father’s oldest friends).

At least they look the part of a family—a quick survey of the table, and one can easily pick out the echo of a cheek, a jaw, a brow. David wears his glasses just like Dad, perched at the end of his nose so the top line of the frames cuts across his gaze. Muriel smiles like Mom, open and easy, laughs like her, too, head thrown back, the sound bright and full.

Henry has his father’s loose black curls, his mother’s gray-green eyes, but something has been lost in the arrangement. He lacks one’s steadiness, and the other’s joy. The set of his shoulders, the line of his mouth—these subtle things that always make him seem more like a guest in someone else’s house.

This is how the dinner will pass: his father and brother talking medicine, his mother and sister talking art, and Henry dreading the moment when the questions turn toward him. When his mother worries aloud about everything, and his father finds an excuse to use the word unmoored, and David reminds him he’s almost thirty, and Muriel advises him to commit, really commit—as if their parents aren’t still paying her cell phone bills.

Henry turns off the freeway and feels the wind pick up in his ears.

Passes through the center of town, and hears thunder in his skull.

The static energy of tension.

He knows he’s late.

He is always late.

It has been the start of many quarrels, and there was a time when he thought it was carelessness on his part, before he realized it was some strange attempt at self-preservation, an intentional, albeit subconscious dawdling, a delay of the inevitable, uncomfortable necessity of showing up. Being seated at that table, boxed in by his siblings, positioned across from his parents like a criminal before a firing squad.

So Henry is late, and when his father answers the door, he braces for the mention of timing, the chastising frown, the cutting remark on how his brother and sister always manage to arrive five minutes early—

But his father only smiles.

“There you are!” he says, eyes bright and warm.

And threaded with fog.

Maybe this won’t be like any other Strauss family dinner.

“Look who’s here!” calls his father, leading Henry into the study.

“Long time no see,” says David, shaking his hand, because even though they live in the same city—hell, on the same subway line—the last time Henry saw his brother was here, on the first night of Hanukkah.

“Henry!” A blur of dark curls, and then Muriel has thrown her arms around his neck. She kisses his cheek, leaving a smudge of coral lipstick he will later scrub off in the hall mirror.

And nowhere between the study and the dining room does anyone comment on the length of his hair, which is always somehow too long, or the state of the sweater he’s wearing, which is frayed, but also the most comfortable thing he owns.

Not once does anyone tell him that he’s too thin, or that he needs more sun, or that he looks tired, even though all of those usually precede the pointed remarks of how it can’t be that hard to run a bookshop in Brooklyn.

His mother comes out of the kitchen, tugging off a pair of oven mitts. She cups his face, and smiles, and tells him she’s so happy he’s there.

Henry believes her.

“To the family,” toasts his father when they sit down to eat. “Together again.”

He feels like he’s stepped into another version of his life—not ahead, or behind, but sideways. One where his sister looks up to him and his brother doesn’t look down, where his parents are proud, and all the judgment has been sucked out of the air like smoke vented from a fire. He didn’t realize how much connective tissue was made up of guilt. Without the weight of it, he feels dizzy and light.


There is no mention of Tabitha, or the failed proposal, though of course the knowledge of their breakup has circulated, the outcome made obvious by the empty chair no one even tries to play off as a household tradition.

Last month on the phone, when Henry told David about the ring, his brother wondered, almost absently, if he thought she would actually agree. Muriel never liked her, but Muriel never liked any of Henry’s partners. Not because they were all too good for him, though she would have said that too—but simply because she found them boring, an extension of the way she felt about Henry himself.

Cable TV, that’s what she sometimes called them. Better than watching paint dry, sure, but little more than reruns. The only one she even vaguely approved of was Robbie, and even then, Henry was sure it was mostly for the scandal it would cause if he ever brought him home. Only Muriel knows about Robbie, that he was ever more than a friend. It’s the one secret that she’s managed to keep.

The whole dinner is so unnerving.

David is warm, curious.

Muriel is attentive and kind.

His father listens to everything he says, and seems genuinely interested.

His mother tells him she’s proud.

“Of what?” he asks, genuinely confused, and she laughs as if it’s a ridiculous question.

“Of you.”

The absence of judgment is jarring, a kind of existential vertigo.

He tells them about running into Dean Melrose, waits for David to point out the obvious, that he’s not qualified, waits for his father to ask him about the catch. His mother will go silent while his sister will go loud, exclaiming that he changed directions for a reason, and demanding to know the point of it all if he just crawls back.

But none of that happens.