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Families and other nonre.., p.1
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       Families and Other Nonreturnable Gifts, p.1

           Claire Lazebnik
Families and Other Nonreturnable Gifts

  Begin Reading

  Reading Group Guide

  Table of Contents

  Copyright Page

  Dedicated to the stalwart men and steadfast women of the IJC,

  with a reverential obeisance to all Golden Juicer winners,

  a brusque nod to the Intern,

  and love forever to the President.


  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?”

  “My mother.”

  “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 m
e 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 o
f 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.

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