But then Melrose leans forward, and says, in a measured tone, “I don’t either.” He sits back. “Mr. Strauss, we are an academic institution, not a church. Dissent is at the heart of dissemination.”

But that’s the problem. No one will dissent. Henry looks at Dean Melrose, and imagines seeing that same blind acceptance on the face of every faculty member, every teacher, every student, and feels ill. They’ll look at him, and see exactly what they want. Who they want. And even if he comes across someone who wants to argue, who relishes conflict or debate, it won’t be real.

None of it will ever be real again.

Across the table, the dean’s eyes are a milky gray. “You can have anything you want, Mr. Strauss. Be anyone you want. And we’d like to have you here.” He stands, holds out his hand. “Think about it.”

Henry says, “I will.”

And he does.

He thinks about it on the way across campus, and on the subway, every station carrying him farther away from that life. The one that was, and the one that wasn’t. Thinks about it as he unlocks the store, shrugs out of the ill-fitting coat and flings it onto the nearest shelf, undoes the tie at his throat. Thinks about it as he feeds the cat, and unpacks the latest box of books, gripping them until his fingers ache, but at least they’re solid, they’re real, and he can feel the storm clouds forming in his head, so he goes into the back room, finds the bottle of Meredith’s whisky, a few fingers’ worth leftover from the day after his deal, and carries it back to the front of the store.

It’s not even noon, but Henry doesn’t care.

He pulls out the cork and fills a coffee cup as the customers filter in, waiting for someone to shoot him a dirty look, to shake their head in disapproval, or mutter something, or even leave. But they all just keep shopping, keep smiling, keep looking at Henry as if he can’t do anything wrong.

Finally, an off-duty cop comes in, and Henry doesn’t even try to hide the bottle by the till. Instead, he looks straight at the man and takes a long drink from his cup, certain that he’s breaking some law, either because of the open container, or the public intoxication.

But the cop only smiles, and raises an imaginary glass.

“Cheers,” he says, eyes frosting over as he speaks.

Take a drink every time you hear a lie.

You’re a great cook.

(They say as you burn toast.)

You’re so funny.

(You’ve never told a joke.)

You’re so …

… handsome.

… ambitious.

… successful.

… strong.

(Are you drinking yet?)

You’re so …

… charming.

… clever.

… sexy.


So confident.

So shy.

So mysterious.

So open.

You are impossible, a paradox, a collection at odds.

You are everything to everyone.

The son they never had.

The friend they always wanted.

A generous stranger.

A successful son.

A perfect gentleman.

A perfect partner.

A perfect …

Perfect …


They love your body.

Your abs.

Your laugh.

The way you smell.

The sound of your voice.

They want you.

(Not you.)

They need you.

(Not you.)

They love you.

(Not you.)

You are whoever they want you to be.

You are more than enough, because you are not real.

You are perfect, because you don’t exist.

(Not you.)

(Never you.)

They look at you and see whatever they want …

Because they don’t see you at all.

New York City

December 31, 2013


The clock is ticking down, the last minutes of the year dropping away. Everyone says to live in the now, to savor the moment, but it’s hard when the moment involves a hundred people crammed into a rent-controlled apartment in Bed-Stuy that Robbie is sharing with two other actors. Henry is trapped in a hall corner, where the coatrack meets a closet. He has a beer hanging from one hand and the other tangled in the shirt of the guy kissing him, a guy who’s definitely out of Henry’s league, or who would be, if Henry still had one.

He thinks the guy’s name is Mark, but it was hard to hear over all the noise. It could be Max, or Malcolm. Henry doesn’t know. And he wants to say this is the first person he’s kissed tonight, even the first guy, but the truth is, he isn’t sure about that either. Isn’t sure how many drinks he’s had, or if the taste melting on his tongue right now is sugar, or something else.

Henry has been drinking too much, too fast, trying to wash away, and there are too many people in the Castle.

The Castle, that’s what they call Robbie’s place, though Henry can’t remember exactly when they christened it that, or why. He searches for Bea, hasn’t seen her since he waded through the crowd into the kitchen an hour before, saw her perched on the counter, playing bartender and holding court for a group of women and—

Suddenly the guy is fumbling with Henry’s belt.

“Wait,” he says, but the music is loud enough he has to shout, has to pull Mark/Max/Malcolm’s ear against his mouth, which Mark/Max/Malcolm takes as a sign to keep kissing him.

“Wait,” he shouts, pushing back. “Do you even want this?”

Which is a stupid question. Or at least, the wrong one.

The pale smoke swirls in the stranger’s eyes. “Why wouldn’t I?” he asks, sinking to his knees. But Henry catches his elbow.

“Stop. Just stop.” He pulls him up. “What do you see in me?”

A question he has come to ask of everyone, hoping to hear something like the truth. But the guy looks at him, eyes clouded with frost, and rattles off the words, “You’re gorgeous. Sexy. Smart.”

“How do you know?” Henry shouts over the music.

“What?” the other guy shouts back.

“How do you know I’m smart? We barely spoke.”

But Mark/Max/Malcolm only smiles a sloppy, heavy-lidded grin, his mouth red from kissing, and says, “I just know,” and it’s not enough anymore, it’s not okay, and Henry’s in the process of untangling himself when Robbie rounds the corner, and sees Mark/Max/Malcolm practically mounting Henry in the hall. Robbie looks at him as if he’s flung a beer in his face.

He turns, and leaves, and Henry groans, and the guy grinding against him seems to think the sound is for him, and it’s too hot in here for Henry to think, to breathe.

The room is starting to spin, and Henry murmurs something about having to pee, but walks straight past the toilet and into Robbie’s room, shutting the door behind him. He goes to the window, shoves up the glass, and is hit full in the face with a blast of icy cold. It bites at his skin as he climbs out onto the fire escape.

He sucks in a breath of cold air, lets it burn his lungs, has to lean on the window to get it shut again, but the moment the glass comes down, the world hushes.

It’s not quiet—New York is never quiet—and New Year’s has sent a current rippling through the city, but at least he can breathe, can think, can wash away the night—the year—in relative peace.