Cory Pinto is at the crowded Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, crying as he shuffles through the never-ending lines. Once through security, an announcement about his flight causes him to rush to his gate. He moves nimbly through the crowds, as he has not brought any luggage. When Cory left his apartment in the middle of the night, his roommates were confused and disoriented, and though they asked him what was going on, Cory was vague. When his roommates asked if someone had died, he nodded his head yes. When they asked if it was his “grandma or something,” he shook his head no.
There has been a death in Cory’s family, and he is unbelievably distraught as he navigates the foreign and slightly surreal environment of the crowded airport in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Cory is all alone on the other side of the world and clearly in the throes of grief. He is returning home empty handed, desperate only to get on the plane.
As Cory rushes to the gate, he recalls the phone call he received just a few hours ago. When he saw his parents’ number on his screen, he was irritated that they’d forgotten the time difference or ignored it. However, when he answered the call, his father was crying and saying, in Portuguese, “your mother killed your brother.” Cory thought that his father had to be translating something wrong, but Cory’s father explained that Cory’s mother, backing out of the driveway, had run over Alby and crushed his spine. A bone broke off and entered a major artery, and now Alby was dead.
The depth of the awful tragedy which has struck Cory’s family is revealed in this passage. It is such an unthinkable and horrific thing that has taken place, that Cory is initially reluctant to believe the truth of what his father tells him. Now, Cory’s little brother, his pride and joy, is dead, and Cory’s life is about to change forever.
After receiving the call from his father, Cory began calling Greer, over and over, disheartened by his inability to get her to pick up the phone. He did not want to leave the news of Alby’s death on a voicemail, so he simply left messages begging her to call him back because “something really bad happened.” When he remembered, suddenly, that Greer had told him she’d be at Faith Frank’s house for the weekend, Cory became upset that Greer was busy with her “superhero” in his hour of need.
Cory has been supportive of Greer’s career at Loci and mentorship with Faith, but now he is jealous of Greer and slightly angry that she would prioritize a retreat with Faith over making herself available to him. Greer couldn’t have foreseen these circumstances, of course, but Cory is nonetheless feeling isolated and dejected.
Cory dressed and called a cab, and as he rode toward the airport, he reflected on what his life in Manila has looked like over the past several months. He had been treated like a veritable celebrity—he was given a first-class flight to Manila, an apartment in a fancy building, a cleaning lady, and a large salary that allowed him to enjoy and explore all that Manila had to offer. As Cory’s cab sped toward the airport, Cory told his driver that he should feel free to crash the car because he didn’t care if he died.
Cory is so miserable that he literally doesn’t know how to move forward—he would rather die than face Alby’s death. Cory is being ripped away from his cushy new life by an unthinkable tragedy, and the news is such a blow that Cory does not want to be alive to deal with the fallout.
By the time Cory arrives in Macopee, Greer is already there waiting for him, along with several friends and family members. Greer embraces Cory immediately, and he asks her what he can do to make Alby’s death “not true.” In his younger years, Cory was annoyed by Alby. However, as his little brother grew, Cory came to marvel at Alby’s wit and intelligence, and now his grief over Alby’s death is beyond measure. Greer assures Cory she will help him, though she doesn’t yet know what to do or how to do it. Cory asks Greer if she has taken off work to come be with him, and then he remembers that this week is the long-awaited first Loci summit, “Women and Power.” Cory feels badly for taking Greer away from the summit, but Greer reassures him that it’s fine and urges him to go upstairs and see his mother.
Although Cory was initially worried (and even angry) that Greer was not answering his calls, Greer meets him at home and is there for him both physically and emotionally in his hour of need. As Cory reflects on how deeply he took Alby for granted, he doesn’t think that he’ll be able to forgive himself. By the same token, he feels guilty for keeping Greer from the first major moment in her career. Cory is willingly shouldering a massive amount of unnecessary guilt, foreshadowing the ways in which he will come to deal with the tragedy of his brother’s death.
When Cory goes upstairs, his mother, Benedita, is in bed with all the shades closed. She can barely even lift her head. Cory immediately lashes out at her, asking why she couldn’t have seen Alby in the driveway. She insists that he wasn’t in her rearview mirror, and that she doesn’t know what happened. Cory is ashamed to have so cruelly attacked his mother and leaves the room.
Rather than being empathetic with his mother and careful with the words he uses around her, Cory cruelly indicts her for murdering his brother and demands to know how she could have made such a grave mistake. He is immediately ashamed, but has already spoken, and now must carry this new guilt as well.
At Alby’s funeral, Benedita faints at the grave, and Duarte begrudgingly helps her to her feet. The two of them are not speaking. Two days after the service, Cory’s father announces that he is going back to Lisbon. Cory tries to stop him, but his father insists he needs to get away. Cory’s mother asks for her husband again and again, and everyone tells her that he has just gone on a short trip home. After several days, Cory calls his father and asks if he is ever coming back. Duarte tells Cory that he is staying in Portugal “for the foreseeable future.”
Cory and his mother must now deal with the departure of Cory’s father, who is unable to bear his grief or his anger at his wife. Cory is left alone to deal with his mother and now must shoulder yet one more burden. Cory is so busy now picking up the pieces of his broken family that he does not have time to grieve his brother’s loss himself.
Greer comforts Cory and tells him that he can stay with her as long as he wants—she will stay in Macopee, too, for as long as he needs her to. Cory is worried that Greer’s job will be in trouble, but she insists that it’ll “keep.” Cory watches several clips from the summit, and when he sees Faith Frank’s keynote speech, he understands why Greer is so “into” her.
Greer is empathetic and emotionally supportive of Cory, assuring him that her job comes second where he is concerned. As Cory investigates Greer’s mentor he comes to see why Greer is so deeply affected by this magnetic woman.
One morning, Benedita comes downstairs covered in scratch marks. She tells Cory that Alby’s spirit wants for her to “shed [her] skin.” Cory’s aunts and uncles decide that Benedita needs constant supervision, but none of them can stay in Macopee much longer, and even Greer needs to return to New York soon. Cory, then, decides to stick around his hometown and care for his mother. Though Greer tells Cory that the burden should not be falling on him, he insists on staying.
Cory is faced with an impossible decision—abandon his mother and pursue his own life and career or cast aside everything he has worked so hard for and stay home with her. Cory chooses the latter, though Greer encourages him to reconsider—neither, however, can yet see the ways in which this decision will come to shape both of their lives in the years to come.
Cory has not been in Alby’s room since his brother’s death, but now that Cory has “officially” decided to move back home, he decides to explore it. He has recently called to quit his job, shocking his employers. Alone in Alby’s room, Cory examines his brother’s toys, drawings, and school notebooks, constructing a “fantasy” in which Alby is still alive. In one notebook, he finds “cryptic stats,” which describe “observations” of an object which Cory can’t discern. When he reads one log that refers to the object waving its arm, Cory realizes that Alby’s notes all refer to Slowy, his pet turtle.
Cory, unable to accept that his brother is really gone, attempts to immerse himself in his brother’s world in order to stave off the grief. What he finds are tender records of his brother’s time on earth and evidence of Alby’s deep fascination with his beloved turtle, Slowy. Alby’s copious notes about Slowy highlight that Alby was intelligent, bright, and inquisitive.
Slowy is not in his box in the corner of the room, and Cory realizes with a sickening flash what Alby had been doing in the driveway on the morning of his death and why he had been so close to the ground. Cory runs outside to the driveway and finds Slowy in the grass. When he picks up the shell, it feels dry and cold, and Cory believes that the turtle has died. But slowly, the turtle wakes up and begins moving.
As Cory realizes the truth of how his brother died—attempting to learn more about his pet turtle—he realizes that his mother is not truly at fault. Slowy will become a symbol for the progression of Cory’s grief, and as Cory finds Slowy in the yard, both the turtle and Cory’s own inner pain begin to wake up.
Cory calls his father to let him know that Alby’s death had not been Benedita’s fault—Alby had been lying on the ground studying Slowy. This news does not change Duarte’s demeanor at all, though, and over the next several weeks, Duarte calls infrequently to check in on Benedita and Cory. Meanwhile, Cory begins taking care of Slowy and spends his nights sleeping in Alby’s room. He makes sure his mother takes her medications and eats her meals, and occasionally, when she’s up to it, he plays card games with her.
Cory attempts to bring his fractured family back together, but none of his efforts have any impact at all. As Cory nurses the turtle—a stand-in for his own grief—he also bonds with his bereaved mother and begins to acknowledge that his father’s departure is permanent. Cory and Benedita grapple directly with their grief, while Duarte runs away from it by fleeing to Portugal.
One day, a woman calls the house asking for Benedita. The woman, one of Benedita’s clients, is a professor who has been out of town for a year on a sabbatical and wants her house cleaned. Cory goes in his mother’s place to clean the house—the two of them need the money, and Cory is surprised that the work actually makes him feel good and useful. Every Thursday morning, he returns to the professor’s house to clean, and as he does, he often thinks of his own cleaning lady back in the Philippines and how much unnecessary work he and his careless roommates created for her.
Cory is shocked when his mother’s work—which he had always perceived as undesirable drudgery—actually helps him to feel as if he is doing something useful and productive. Cleaning houses helps Cory to understand his own impact on the world around him and to empathize with others. While at Princeton, Cory felt self-conscious of his parents’ jobs, but now Cory realizes that there is worth in being a housekeeper.
One day, Cory takes his mother to visit her sister and Cory’s cousin, Sab. Cory has always avoided Sab, who is a bad influence, but now, Cory goes upstairs to his cousin’s room and knocks, hoping to reconnect. Cory’s cousin almost immediately offers him heroin, and Cory accepts. After Cory snorts the drugs, he throws up onto the carpet. Despite getting sick, Cory soon begins to enjoy a pleasant high in which he forgets, for the first time in a long time, all about Alby’s death.
Cory experiments with dangerous drugs as a way to cope with his immense grief and is surprised to find that succumbing to his bad influence of a cousin is actually a balm against his own pain. Cory’s reaching out to Sab also reflects Cory’s desire to be connected to his family despite the deep fractures within his own parents’ marriage.
In the morning, after sleeping for over thirteen hours, Cory is awoken by a phone call from Greer. Greer still speaks softly and carefully to Cory, skirting around his grief in a way that makes him feel pitied. Greer soon switches the subject to her own work, however, and tells Cory that she has some exciting news: Loci is planning a big multimedia event, and they need to hire a consultant. She offers to recommend Cory for the job, but he refuses.
Greer reaches out to give Cory a chance to rejoin the “real” world, and to even do what he wants to be doing, but Cory still feels that his place is at home, and he refuses Greer’s offer of employment. Part of him, most likely, does not want to be pitied, and this contributes further to his own isolation.
Greer tells Cory that he’s been home for months now and needs to start thinking about picking his life back up again. Cory insists that the path he’s on now is his life, and that caring for his mother and grieving Alby’s death have much more meaning than a job at a consulting firm. Greer is upset. She knows that Cory is isolating himself and points out that they were meant to figure out the world together, side by side. The call ends on an unpleasant note, and Cory returns to his household duties, caring for his mother and feeding Slowy.
The ambitious Greer cannot understand why Cory feels so responsible for picking up the pieces of his fractured family. More than that, Greer is lonely and upset that her boyfriend, when given the chance to finally be in the same city as her for the first time in over four years, does not want to be, and instead only wants to tend to his own grief.
Months after his brother’s death, Cory is still overwhelmed by grief. He cannot believe that his brother is truly gone and laments how Alby has simply “evaporated” from the world. Cory begins using Alby’s old notebooks to record his own observations on his grief-processing, but even this does not help. Instead of working through his emotions, Cory decides to lose himself in Alby’s many video games, which he plays all day and night.
Cory is desperate to find a way to pretend that Alby is not truly gone from the world. Cory has attempted to lose himself in work (cleaning houses), drugs, and now, immersive video games, wishing he could outrun the pain that consumes him.
Greer arrives in Macopee for a visit. Her trips are infrequent, and Cory has noticed that when Greer is around, his mother seems even more agitated and isolated than usual. Greer has tried to convince Cory to come to New York for a visit, but Cory refuses to leave Benedita in anyone else’s care. As Greer sits with Cory in his living room, she asks what’s going on with him—she is on the verge of tears. Cory realizes how much he and Greer have grown apart. He feels that relationships are a luxury “for people whose lives [are] not in crisis.”
Greer and Cory have grown apart in the months since Alby’s death—Cory has purposefully been isolating himself, and Greer’s inability to fully empathize with Cory’s long grieving process has prevented her from connecting with him. Now, Cory does not know how to face or relate to Greer and seems to consider her one of the many burdens that have fallen on his shoulders.
Greer asks Cory what she’s doing wrong—whether her calls and texts aren’t enough and if he wants her to move back to Macopee to be with him. Cory does not want to burden Greer but insists that he needs to stay where he is. Greer laments how Cory has become “completely uninterested in the outside world,” and urges him to see that she has begun setting up the life they always dreamed of together—the only thing missing is Cory. She begs him to come to New York, even for just a weekend, but Cory continues deflecting, insisting only that he is needed at home. Greer, agitated, suggests they get out the house for a little bit, so they head out to a local pizza place.
Greer still wants to connect with Cory—she knows that what she’s been doing hasn’t been sufficient and wants to find a way to please and comfort him. Still, she can’t help but scold him, and this agitates Cory further as he realizes that Greer can only see her own vision for what their future was supposed to hold. Once again, this paints Greer as selfish, as she is more concerned with her future with Cory than his broken life and heavy grief.
At the restaurant, Cory and Greer are served by one of their former classmates, Kristin Vells. Kristin asks Cory if he’s living at home now, as if to insinuate that for all his smarts he has turned out no better than her. As Cory and Greer eat, Cory apologizes for hurting Greer and distancing himself from her. He tells her about snorting heroin with his cousin, attempting to explain that he is in an emotional state unlike any state he has ever been in, and that he wants Greer to understand “where he is” right now. Cory urges Greer not to get caught up in pity or worry for him and instead live her life to the fullest.
The many power dynamics at play in this scene underscore the fraught situation which Greer and Cory have found themselves in. Greer has always seen herself as better than everyone else—more hardworking, more deserving—and she saw Cory this way, too. To some degree, Cory knew he was special by virtue of his smarts. Now, as Cory finds himself living at home with his mother, he has come to accept that he is no better than anyone else from his working-class hometown. However, Greer still cannot accept this fact and clings to her prior conceptions of Cory.
Greer, exhausted and unhappy, tells Cory that she can’t continue their conversation any longer. She offers to drop him off at home before she drives up to Boston for a Loci event. Cory realizes that in Boston, Greer will find comfort, friendship, and relief in Faith Frank, and that Faith can provide Greer with the things that Cory no longer can. The two of them wrap up their meal, leave Kristin an enormous tip, and head out into the rain.
Greer and Cory seem resigned to the fact that their relationship is over. They have hardly any common ground anymore, and Greer doesn’t really need Cory—she has found another source of comfort, validation, and community.