Returns by Laurie Granieri

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The guy who resembles my dead brother turns up at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, two blocks from the office. The meaty, familiar look of him distracts me, fascinates me—stocky frame, lightly bearded face, strong nose: fullness, everywhere, my brother Michael, everywhere.

When I encounter Michael’s lookalike, for a few moments he feels a little less dead. Because sometimes, absence is loaded with presence, dripping with it.

The man in the Vietnamese restaurant can’t fathom who he represents, this 40ish guy lingering near the cash register, brother/not-brother, Michael/not-Michael, projection, symbol, shadow, stand-in. This stranger stirs my guts.

I can’t help it, I can’t convince my body of what’s true: My chest blooms with a primitive hope. Then, well, of course: The center catches, shrinks, drawing tight into a clean knot of disappointment, the one that secured itself on May 19, 2004, and never quite unraveled.

If only this man would allow me to memorize his face for later.


If I stare into this face, will it point me home? I imagine the stranger’s features, one by one, the eyes, the nose, the dark hair, each strand nudging me toward a place where 40-year-old brothers aren’t pushing a lawn mower on a Monday only to die so early on a Wednesday that it still feels for all the world like Tuesday night.

Each morning I wake up to a world I would never have chosen, one that forced my mother to close her dead son’s eyes twice, because the first time she tried, his eyes opened again; a world that nudged me to whisper to the ER nurses that morning: “People always say that the dead guy was nice, but my brother—he was really, really nice.”

What I meant, what I wanted to hiss: This man is more than a cadaver.

I’ve been holding my breath for so many years, crammed inside some narrow passageway, half-expecting to burst through to a place that adds up. In this place, wide open, well lit, the math is correct: I am no longer older than my oldest brother.

Imagine if a single face could behave as a map, a GPS, charting my path, laying out the most efficient route to Michael.

Imagine if the world opted to grant me this kindness: Here’s the past, daring to rush in at lunchtime on a weekday, shoving its bulk through the door, hanging out at the cash register, in a public place.

It’s the dream, the one that always ends badly, always leaves me with an emotional hangover, where Michael’s in the room, and I’m confused, because he’s dead, he’s dead, of course he’s dead, yet here we are, now and then, presence and absence, brother and not-brother, sister and not-sister. Michael dwells a moment among rice noodles, swiped credit cards, and hot tea.


When I glimpse the face of the guy who resembles my dead brother, this is what I do: absolutely nothing. I continue the conversation with my lunch date. I am animated. I am polite. I chew, I swallow; I flag down the waitress. Perhaps I make the universal “Check, please” gesture, mouthing the words, clutching an imaginary pen to scrawl my name, our name, in mid-air.

Because I’ll bet the man at the cash register is someone else’s brother. I get it: He’s no map, no grand and sudden liberator of knots.

And yet, for a few moments, this guy collapses time, he feels like the entire room. Later, I will cry as I try to explain the encounter to my lover, who is gentle and eager to listen but can’t understand, because at the moment he has a brother, a father, a mother; his people are all accounted for, 1, 2, 3.

Some story: I saw a guy who looked like my dead brother, and nothing happened.

But in the restaurant, this hunger claws at my belly. I’m not about to push away from the table, not until I can stuff myself with the entire moment, end-to-end.

Meet the Contributor

Laurie Granieri author photoLaurie Granieri’s writing has been broadcast on NPR and has appeared on the “On Being” blog, as part of River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” series, at Image Journal, Creative Nonfiction, and ELLE magazine, among others. She is the recipient of NELLE magazine’s 2023 Three Sisters Award for nonfiction. She quit piano, soccer, swim team, twirling, and high school dances, but she never quit writing.

Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Thomas Hawk

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