A “big-hearted, lively, and expansive portrait of a family” that follows a neurodivergent father, his nonbinary teenager, and the sudden, catastrophic reappearance of the woman who abandoned them (Claire Lombardo, New York Times bestselling author).
Morgan Flowers just wants to hide. Raised by their neurodivergent father, Morgan has grown up haunted by the absence of their mysterious mother Zoe, especially now, as they navigate their gender identity and the turmoil of first love. Their father Julian has raised Morgan with care, but he can’t quite fill the gap left by the dazzling and destructive Zoe, who fled to Europe on Morgan’s first birthday. And when Zoe is dumped by her girlfriend Brigid, she suddenly comes crashing back into Morgan and Julian’s lives, poised to disrupt the fragile peace they have so carefully cultivated.
Through it all, Julian and Brigid have become unlikely pen-pals and friends, united by the knowledge of what it’s like to love and lose Zoe; they both know that she hasn’t changed. Despite the red flags, Morgan is swiftly drawn into Zoe’s glittering orbit and into a series of harmful missteps, and Brigid may be the only link that can pull them back from the edge. A story of betrayal and trauma alongside queer love and resilience, ALL THE THINGS WE DON’T TALK ABOUT is a celebration of and a reckoning with the power and unintentional pain of a thoroughly modern family.
Release date: May 24, 2022
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 352
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All the Things We Don't Talk About
It started with a gun that didn’t go off. It never went off, because it was spotted in a backpack and confiscated. Later, Morgan would think they’d heard a scream, but they hadn’t. All of the students in the high school were evacuated and stood in single-file lines on the quad, but soon the single file disbanded. They thought about looking for Tiana and Aiden, but then remembered the three of them weren’t really friends anymore. Not the kind of friends that would be able to acknowledge this, or try to mask it with chatter, anyway. Morgan looked at the ground. Dampness from the grass soaked through the hole in their shoe.
At first a blanketed hush fell over the groups, but it didn’t last. Sadie ended up next to Morgan in the crowd, where they could hear occasional laughs, some even spirited. People had located the thing inside them that allowed them to move forward, except Morgan hadn’t, and they kept their hands inside their puffy khaki pockets. Policemen went inside and checked for bombs. It looked so cinematic, Morgan thought, with their dark uniforms and solemn faces. If it were a movie, Morgan would’ve seen their stern, glassy eyes in a close-up before they burst through the front doors. Sadie said they looked like a drawing of electrons bouncing from one atom to another. This was the first thing that Sadie said to Morgan that wasn’t directly related to homework.
“It’s okay that you’re freaking out,” she said.
Sadie’s voice was so beautiful, deep but honeyed, that it took Morgan aback whenever she spoke.
“I’m not,” Morgan protested, but their own voice was weak. It was the herbal tea of voices.
“I actually think it’s really fucked up that no one else is,” Sadie said.
Morgan didn’t know her super well, so they tried to observe her acutely then. They were the two financial aid kids; Sadie’s family lived in an apartment complex near Morgan’s favorite deli, the one where you could still buy an individually wrapped Swedish fish. They’d recognized each other at orientation on the first day of high school. Sadie had unfashionable shoes. Sadie had a body that Morgan tried very hard to never think about. It was hard to look at her directly.
“You don’t seem spooked,” Morgan said. Their word choice was painfully geeky.
“Boo,” Sadie said. She poked them. Morgan felt the contact between their bodies travel all the way down. “I am. But I have three brothers, so I know how to pretend. You can’t get by without a little armor.”
Morgan tried to respond but ended up gagging. “Sorry but I’m probably going to throw up,” they said, the flutter and pull familiar. Sadie led them around the perimeter of the parking lot. Morgan vomited in front of a tree that had been planted in memory of a teacher who’d died slowly of cancer. It was the same kind of cancer that had killed Morgan’s grandma. Morgan tried to tell Sadie to leave, but she seemed completely unfazed. She looked out into the parking lot like a captain—evaluating the weather, steering a ship into the harbor.
“You didn’t have to stay,” Morgan said.
“I only do things I want to do,” Sadie said. She gave them a stick of cinnamon gum.
“What’s that like?” Morgan asked.
“Kind of spicy,” Sadie said.
It took them a second to realize she meant the gum. Morgan smiled. They backed away from the clumpy vomit on the grass slowly, pretending to be very absorbed in the movement of clouds.
“It would be kind of ironic, right? If we died at this school after working so hard to be somewhere without a metal detector.”
Morgan nodded, but didn’t know what else to say. Sadie led and Morgan followed down the pebbly path that eventually fed into the soccer field. “How do you like it here?” Sadie asked.
“I don’t especially like it here,” Morgan said, and Sadie laughed. It wasn’t exactly true, but they thought it would sound good. They couldn’t realistically imagine a high school that was better, but they could certainly imagine one that was worse. Morgan had started here in sixth grade, minnowing and retreating from different social circles along with fellow latecomers Tiana and Aiden. Now, on the high school food chain, Morgan was just liked enough to be rendered completely invisible in a crowd. They lent people pens but spent lunch in the library.
But then they felt guilty, lying to Sadie. Maybe she could tell they were lying, trying to impress her with wit. She was probably tired of people trying to impress her. “I was homeschooled until sixth grade,” Morgan said. “People weren’t as mean about it as I expected, but it’s…kind of cliquey. Hard to break in.”
Sadie nodded. “Yeah,” she agreed, and the pause that followed felt significant.
“What about you?” Morgan asked.
Sadie paused. “Do you want a real answer or a cotton candy answer?”
“A real one,” Morgan said.
“Every time I walk in there,” Sadie said, “I feel like I’m one test score away from losing my financial aid and it makes me itch. It feels like everybody else has been here since kindergarten, or at least since middle school. At my last school, we didn’t have textbooks for everybody. We had to rotate.” She shook her head. “But then, on top of that, everybody I talk to thinks I’m trying to steal their boyfriend. Like I would even have time to steal somebody’s boyfriend.” She tilted her head toward the sky. “I don’t want to die here surrounded by people who think I’m some lascivious bitch.”
“I know what you mean,” Morgan said. “Not— I mean, nobody thinks I’m a lascivious bitch.”
“How can you be so sure?” Sadie asked.
“I’m not,” Morgan said, and they both laughed. “The first part, though. Walking on the tightrope, trying to keep your grades up—it’s a lot of pressure. It makes you tired.”
“It does,” she said. “It makes you fucking tired.”
Sadie’s eyes glinted bluer in the light, like the color of Neptune in science textbooks. “You know what I worry about sometimes? That I’m going to be thinking about something really stupid when I die. Or, like, I’ll have a horrible song stuck in my head, and the last thing I’ll think is…it’s the remix to ignition, hot and fresh off the kitchen.”
“If I’m there when you die, I’ll make sure you have good music,” Morgan said. “But only if you don’t tell anyone that I threw up before.”
“Worried about your reputation as Mr. Tough?” Sadie said. “You seem like you could really hold your own in a fight.”
Morgan forced a laugh. “Yeah. That’s it.”
“I mean— Sorry, I know you’re not a mister,” Sadie said.
Morgan had always wondered how fast news of their nonbinary-ness traveled. Most people seemed to approach Morgan with a new, so you’re specialer than I thought energy for a few weeks after Morgan strategically told a motormouthed lab partner they used they/them, actually, and then had been asked to write a personal essay about it for the school literary magazine. But their moment passed, and then they had a new lab partner, and a new issue of the magazine came out, and the only debris of the conversation happened in grammatical acrobatics.
“Maybe we should get back,” Morgan said.
“I didn’t mean—”
“Oh, I know. I don’t want to miss World Civ.” They tugged on the strap of their backpack and felt the weight of the textbooks inside shift. “Thanks for the gum.”
Sadie busied her fingers into her hair. “Okay, yeah. No worries.”
“I’ll see you,” Morgan said, an emptiness mushrooming over their anxiety. The walk back toward the front door felt interminable, knowing Sadie was watching. It was their fault, obviously, for taking a joke too personally. This was how many friendships started to unravel or, more often, stopped from beginning to ravel at all. In class, their teacher gesticulated wildly across a smudgy whiteboard. The only thing Morgan could think of was Sadie with a gun pressed to the front of her pretty forehead, R. Kelly blasting through the loudspeakers overhead. Say cheese, they pictured the school shooter whispering before Sadie crumpled to the floor.
There were offers of therapy in the guidance counselor’s office, but Morgan didn’t see anyone else going, so they didn’t go, either. Ethan, the would-be gunman, was expelled. After World Civ came gym. They swatted tennis balls into the air and plunged through the world with rackets outstretched. Around Morgan, everyone seemed hesitant, maybe a little nicer to each other than they would’ve been, but generally unaffected. Part of them wanted to bolt. Dad’s office, on the Upper West Side, wasn’t so far away: $2.75 and forty-five minutes. Probably if everyone’s lives had been threatened, Morgan wouldn’t be reprimanded for missing gym. (But their scholarship, they thought; a constant refrain.)
But: Dad. He worked in a strange office, over a basement location of a sports club that smelled like chlorine even though there was no pool. The office itself was in a converted theater with tall windows. Morgan’s dad was the IT director, which sounded fancy, but Morgan didn’t know what he did all day besides stare anxiously at screens. They hired him without a college degree and kept him despite the fact that the company seemed to be perpetually on the verge of collapse. Instead of a holiday party, everyone got a white chocolate snowman. Every year, Morgan tried to train themself to like white chocolate, but it just tasted like sweet wax. Every year, Morgan felt guiltier about this job that their dad visibly hated, but they needed insurance, a new roof, the medical bills from Grandma Cheryl dying were still arriving in thin menacing envelopes, and even with aid, Morgan’s tuition was nine thousand dollars a year. The place where Morgan’s dad worked offered an incentive to buy out your vacation time with 1.5x the pay, and he took it.
Morgan knew the expression that would be on Dad’s face if they showed up unannounced, the kind of grimace that might accompany a mild electrical shock. He hated being surprised. It was Grandma Cheryl who’d explained to Morgan words like autistic and burnout to describe what was happening to Dad, or at risk of happening. By now these weren’t terms that needed names; the ingredients that made Dad different from other parents Morgan knew. He was sensitive to bright light; there were certain foods too wet to consume, like slinky red peppers from the jar. He was more interested than the other parents Morgan knew, too—wanting details about the route Morgan took between classes, the exact time it took from point A to B. Together, there were things that they did: watched old VHS tapes, constructed puzzles with thousands of tiny pieces on the dining room table, drove to the lookouts by the Palisades and stared at the ripples of water. But they didn’t broach feelings.
What would they have said? Morgan could easily imagine Dad, nodding slowly, ticking the boxes that Morgan was upset (shaky voice, posture like a wilting tulip) and reacting the way his therapist, Dr. Gold, had taught him. But Morgan knew what Dad would think, even if he said otherwise: But nothing happened, did it? All around Morgan, sprightly green balls hurled against rackets. White sneakers squeaked in a chorus. Morgan could picture it all: the swoosh of the 1 train as it reached up into the brightness at 125th Street and plummeted back underground. Dad’s office. The smell of the clementines the receptionist, Crystal, ate at the front desk. Morgan? he’d say, a tremble in his lip. He’d think: Why did you spend $2.75 to come here when nothing happened to you?
Morgan was notoriously bad at tennis but just once, just once, their racket smashed into the ball at the perfect velocity and time, and the ball skyrocketed to Jimmy Lee, and Jimmy Lee was so befuddled by Morgan’s success that he stood, motionless, and Morgan got their first point. “It’s a modern-day miracle,” Jimmy Lee said, but the gym teacher gave Jimmy Lee a look and said it was time to go in and change. In the locker room, surrounded by bodies more confident than Morgan’s, they kept their eyes to the ground. Jimmy Lee apologized as the two of them returned to the gym. On the other side of the room, Morgan had felt Aiden and Tiana watching them with a combination of worry and pity, and Morgan glanced back at them with a nervy half-smile, trying to gauge whether to say something. The moment passed. That was always the way.
Aiden and Tiana had also been new in sixth grade, and the three of them clung together like undercooked noodles at the bottom of a saucepan. Initially they’d been friends by default—nobody wanted to sit at lunch alone—but it turned out the two of them were easy to talk to. They all liked watching YouTube videos of mundane, wholesome things: unboxing Amazon electronics like extension cords, babies sucking wedges of lemon, parrots getting misted by a spray bottle. Somewhere in the middle of eighth grade, Tiana’s rainbow-elastic braces came off, and Aiden grew into his gangliness and made the soccer team, and their social status climbed without any warning to Morgan. When Tiana and Aiden ended up dating, Morgan wondered how they could’ve missed it: the ease with which Aiden stretched his arm over Tiana’s shoulders, how she used to complain about being cold so she could borrow Aiden’s gray, worn-in hoodie. Morgan felt stupid, and young. At school, people called them Tiaiden and they were voted cutest couple at the end of middle school. They were both still nice to Morgan, and maybe the two of them were the reason nobody paid any negative attention to Morgan either way, but weekends were suddenly vacant besides numbly scrolling through pictures of everyone else’s candescent friendships.
Grandma Cheryl loved those weekends. “Extra time with my favorite grasshopper,” she’d say brightly, stretching out on the sofa with her glass of ginger ale and shuffling her deck of cards for a mega-game of Gin Rummy or Crazy Eights. It was like the homeschooling days, the two of them deciding whether to head to the zoo or the park, or ride their bikes along the pretty part of the parkway, maybe picking up a McFlurry to share on the way home. She never made them feel pathetic for being friendless at the crest of high school. What do you want to be when you grow up? Grandma Cheryl would ask, making the cards go riffle-riffle-riffle. The sounds tingled down the back of Morgan’s neck. Sometimes they’d say the most absurd answer they could: A trapeze artist! A firefighter! A drill sergeant! They never told her that they wanted to be a filmmaker, plotting every frame as meticulously as threading a needle. She wanted Morgan to have a practical job, something that meant they would never need to worry about their next paycheck, or how her slow scourge of cancer was going to bankrupt their family. She’d tried to steer Morgan into math and science, even as a little kid—the physics of puddle jumping!—but nothing stuck. They could only imagine a giant lens, zooming in to capture those droplets of water in midair. But the last thing they wanted to do was disappoint her, or worse, make her worry about the future that she wouldn’t get to see.
Plenty of time, Grandma Cheryl would say in the silence of Morgan’s omission. Patting Morgan’s hand with her scaly fingertips, she’d say: You’ll find your way, Grasshopper, just like I did, and your dad. We always land on our feet.
She told Morgan stories about growing up in Iowa, how the tornado alarm would ring out by the elementary school and she’d scuttle down to the basement to wait to see whether they’d have a home after the storm hit. Morgan helped weed the garden at her instruction—by then she was too weak from the chemo to bend down without ushering in a burst of nausea. Grandma Cheryl was always cold, clutching her favorite red cardigan to her even though it didn’t fit her frame anymore. They tried to learn Spanish together using a series of Rosetta Stone VHS tapes, and inevitably, Grandma Cheryl would fall asleep in the middle of the lesson, leaning back to “rest her eyes.” Sometimes Morgan worried she would die right there, in their living room, and her last words would be Do you want to join me at the discotheque? But she died the regular way, choking on her own liquidy lungs in a hospital room. When they got home, Dad put the red sweater on Grandma Cheryl’s chair in the kitchen in its new permanent spot.
Grandma Cheryl would’ve known what to say about the almost-shooting; she would’ve known how to make Morgan feel better and how to tell Dad so he could process it, too. Morgan didn’t know how to start. By the end of the day, they didn’t even want to get on the bus, just run home until their ribs cracked open. But Morgan followed the steps of every other day. Latch, key, backpack on the floor, shoes off, lights on. They got into bed before Dad got home, and stayed there.
On his phone, Julian had an app that tracked crimes within a certain radius, where golden spots of activity would dance around Morgan’s school. This time the school itself shimmered. Julian was sitting in a meeting surrounded by his colleagues when his phone buzzed. Underneath the table, Julian scrolled through updates, his breathing catching on the word shooter and releasing on the words no shots fired. Data soothed the panic that thrummed at the base of his throat. It was a fancy school that, even with financial aid, cost more than Julian had ever spent on anything. It was a fancy school that was supposed to shelter Julian’s only child from this kind of threat. Julian allowed himself one true indulgence in life, taking the Metro-North train rather than the subway to work, which, even with his sunglasses and noise-canceling headphones, was sharp with noise and unpredictable smells and movements that made his insides twist. Otherwise he devotedly saved every possible penny, rather than wade into the innumerable tangles and stressors surrounding using Zoe’s family trust fund, to get Morgan into this private school up on a sloped hill.
Julian, too, had gone to the private school on the hill. He’d also been homeschooled through sixth grade, then transformed into a financial aid kid, with a bulky backpack and ill-fitting chinos. His mom never stopped working to afford the tuition; she did taxes for their neighbors and made beaded earrings out of fishing wire that she sold at flea markets. Her fingers were often bleeding, just a tiny bit. Julian had needed special attention, and their local school district had some of the worst test scores and student-teacher ratios in the state. Morgan had followed the same trajectory because of future opportunities, Mom explained. She’d been the one to decide. She’d done it for Julian; now she and Julian could provide for Morgan. They didn’t need Zoe’s money. The thought of it, Mom said, repulsed her. Dumping money into a checking account like it made her a parent.
Attending the school wasn’t only about statistics and getting Morgan primed for a full college scholarship. Morgan—gentle Morgan, who as a child didn’t like to pull dandelions from the earth because it looked like it hurt them—had every marker of a bully’s target. Morgan radiated self-consciousness; their willowy frame now bent in an effort to shrink their new, towering-above height; chin-length hair and wide-set eyes that were striking, but also unmistakably feminine. Which was maybe the point. Morgan had written an essay about being nonbinary in the school literary magazine and left it on the kitchen table for Julian to find. Julian understood the essay as he read it, but neither one had ever referenced Morgan’s identity afterward. Julian wondered if Morgan would get negative attention for it, but they remained vague. Vagueness was its own shelter, Julian knew. That was all Julian wanted—for Morgan to be safe.
Please be safe, Julian thought, frantically scratching up his arms with his fingernails.
He felt the familiar ping of oversaturation with light, with sound, with the rough texture of his chair cushion. Thick bars of fluorescent light burned his eyes. On average, these meetings lasted for thirty-six minutes. Julian pictured Morgan and in his mind’s eye they are still five or six, crouched underneath a desk, huddled with their chin wedged between their knees. They’d been so small, once.
Every day, parenthood broke Julian a little more—with love, with stress, with challenges that he didn’t understand. He expected there to be a plateau once Morgan hit the teenage years, but now there were new sadnesses: lasts. The last time Morgan crawled into Julian’s lap or wandered into the bathroom to say “I love you” while Julian shaved the beginnings of a beard into the sink basin.
It was normal, developmentally, to be embarrassed of parents. The Internet assured Julian of this. It had been a while since Morgan settled in to watch The Princess Bride or Ghostbusters with Julian without a halo of shame. Julian didn’t want them to be ashamed of their rituals, which he’d . . .
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