EDIT OOPS Left out the transition!
Okey dokey! Here’s the first part of Matt’s backstory…
Peter left work early, which he never did, even when everyone else was long gone to the Hamptons or Fire Island or wherever they went on the weekend with their boyfriends and their money.
Katie had ambled over to his desk around 3 and sat down on the corner, then looked around at the empty office before saying anything. “You’re still here?”
“Yeah, I don’t know why, when everyone’s gone for the weekend.”
She rolled her eyes. “I mean, still here as in still in this job.”
Peter laughed. “Right? Well,” then he too looked around to make sure nobody was around to hear, “the therapist your dad sent me to said don’t make sudden life changes.”
She snorted. “Dude. You could buy this agency if you wanted to stay here. Which of course you don’t, right? You’re going to be a big Broadway producer now.”
Peter’s eyes flew open. He had forgotten, had set aside…no, get real, he’d buried that dream. He’d come out of community college with a two year degree and the opportunity to work for a real producer in New York. Which he had taken. A job that had lasted three days.
“Where the hell have you been!” Ronald Prater had yelled at him after sending Peter out to get his laundry.
“And where’s my Frappucino!”
“I shouldn’t have to! Didn’t you get me one yesterday? What’s wrong with you!” The short bald man with the bulging eyes snapped his fingers, inches from Peter’s face. “Wake up! Pay attention!”
“I’ll go and…”
“That’s right, you will.”
The first day, Peter had written Prater’s temper off as a bad day. The second day, he’d blamed himself for not being fast enough on the draw. This day, the third day, he walked out of the office to get Prater’s coffee, shocked and depressed. Was this how his Broadway fantasy was going to end? As he stood in Starbucks and watched a scrawny woman in helmet hair stabbing her bejeweled hand at the barista, barking her order as if sure he’d get it wrong, he realized, this is what I ran away from with Cody. This is abuse.
He picked up the Frappuccino, walked outside, saw a homeless man and handed him the drink. “Enjoy it. Courtesy of Ronald Prater.” He never went back to the office, and signed up with a temp agency the next day, which had led him to this job.
But now he didn’t have to do it that way, didn’t have to “eat shit from crazy” just to get a foot in the door. Instead he could invest in a show and learn the ropes, sure, he had to learn the ropes, but from the top, not the bottom…
He was tired, and bored, and he remembered, he could leave early without worrying about the two hours’ pay…he didn’t need the money. How could that not start changing everything right away?
“Okay!” he said brightly. “I’m out of here. For today.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Seriously. I’ll see you Monday.”
She laughed and patted his hand. “Of course, dear.”
Joining the Friday early rush, he’d walked down the streets looking at stuff in a new light. He could give away most of the money, but still have enough to live on for, well, forever. He could get a new smartphone, for instance – he’d had this one for three years now on a pay-as-you-go plan, no free upgrades to the hardware. It was practically a dumbphone now, compared to what was out there today. Or some really cool running shoes, to replace his beat-down old Asics. Or one of the ten million dollar penthouse apartments in the back of the New York Times Magazine. I can afford that, he thought. Whatever it is, I can afford it.
Well, not until he cashed the ticket. Which he would now, he knew. And most of the money was going to go to charity – who the hell needed that much? How many lifetimes would it take you to spend it all? But all the same, keeping even a couple million, they wouldn’t begrudge him that, right?
“Who’s ‘they?’” Jessica Zane had asked him. “Who’s the ‘they’ who would want to stop you from keeping some of it? Or any of it, all of it for that matter?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. People.”
“Do you think people will think you don’t deserve the money?”
“Who does? Who deserves that kind of money? I mean, who gets it, in real life, without… trampling everyone?”
“But you didn’t trample everyone to get it. You got lucky.”
And I’m going to share my luck, he thought, his mood lightening. I’m not going to hoard it. Whatever I do is going to be the right thing to do. He thought of Matt, how he knew, just knew, Matt would approve, and he got all warm inside. It was all going to be all right.
Peter walked into the same little bistro where he and Matt had dinner last time. Matt stood up from the table, his radiant smile lighting up the room, and pulled Peter’s chair out, which made him blush.
“Now there’s a gentleman,” Lydia the owner said, handing them their menus. “And I think a nice bottle of wine on the house for my favorite customer,” she said, pinching Matt’s cheek, making it his turn to blush.
Peter sighed. “So. How was your week?”
“Good. Got a couple interesting projects. It’s always good when I get old cars.”
“New ones are just…” Matt thought about it. “They’re not built to tinker with. They’ve got computers and they’ve got all this shit that’s…well, that’s there to stop you from taking care of stuff yourself. Like the Mercedes that doesn’t come with a dipstick – you can’t even check your own oil. When the oil gets low the light just comes on and says ‘Service Required.’” He shook his head. “But it’s what people want, all those layers between them and their tech. Like Apple – you can’t even open an iPhone to change a battery, you have to take it to the shop. People just want to delegate stuff like that to someone else.”
“Yeah,” Peter nodded.
“Are you okay?”
“You seem a little distracted.”
Peter laughed. “I am. I actually…oh good,” he laughed nervously, “here’s the wine.”
They clinked glasses and took a drink, Peter drinking more deeply than Matt.
“So,” Matt said, his smile gone, replaced with a look of patient concern. “What’s up?”
“Well. I don’t know where to start. It’s about money.”
“Do you need a loan?”
Peter laughed, harder than he should have. Matt looked at him, and wondered, for just a second, if he was on drugs. No, was his diagnosis. But something was stressing him out, for sure.
“No. Not even close. It’s just that something very big has happened and…” He looked around, leaned across the table, and Matt did too, coming in close to hear the secret.
Peter even cupped his hand so nobody could read his lips. “I won the lottery.”
Matt blinked. “The…you mean the…” He made the connection immediately. “The ticket was sold down the street from the shop. The day you…”
“Congratulations, man!” Matt said, high-fiving Peter, who responded awkwardly, half-missing Matt’s hand. “That’s great!”
“Thanks. It doesn’t feel great. It feels…weird. Scary.”
“Ahh. Yeah, I get it.”’
Matt nodded. “It’s like…too much. Too overwhelming. How much everything’s going to change.”
“Yeah…and you know, it’s going to be batshit crazy when I cash the ticket. I can’t be anonymous. So,” he said as quickly as he could, “if you want to check out before my life becomes a circus well I totally understand and…”
Matt reached across the table and took Peter’s nervously fluttering hand. “Dude. Do you not recall last Friday night?”
“Yeah! Duh!” Peter laughed, remembering Matt’s hands on his body, Matt inside him, really truly inside him, in every way…
“Right. Duh.” Matt’s emerald eyes were like green laser beams boring into Peter’s soul. “It’s you and me, buddy. You and me against the world.”
Peter started crying. “I’m so lucky. I never could have…trusted anyone else. But I trust you. I know you don’t give a shit about the money.” He dabbed his eyes with his napkin. “I don’t know how I know, but I do. But I have to admit, I do care, I do care about the money. I’m gonna keep some, but I’m going to give most of it away, but I was poor growing up, not ‘romantic college student’ poor, but fucking shitty miserable poor. You know what I mean?”
It was Matt’s turn to laugh. “No. I don’t.”
“Good afternoon, Matt,” Jones said, holding the car door for him.
“Hey, Jones,” Matt said, flinging his fourteen year old body into the Town Car. The driver shut the door, which nearly caught on the school tie hanging out of Matt’s back pocket. Matt had torn it off his neck the moment he’d left his last class, ignoring the admonitions of the hall proctor about How Gentlemen Are Dressed Here. There was something about closing that top button, tightening that knot…maybe in his last life he’d been hanged by the neck until dead, because he felt like that was happening every time he put on a tie.
Matt stared out the window, watched the kids walking home. He was jealous, angry. Why did he have to ride in a stupid car for eight blocks?
“Your father is a very wealthy and powerful man,” his mother had said. “You could be kidnapped!” She paused. “Or worse!”
“So could every other rich kid at Worthington,” Matt replied. “They all walk home, or take the subway.”
“That’s because they have bad parents who don’t care like I do.”
Matt gave Jorge the doorman the secret handshake, turned his key in the lock to the private elevator to the penthouse, and made chitchat about the Giants with Anton the concierge while he waited. Upstairs, he took his shoes off in the marble-floored foyer before padding across the snow white carpet, the elevator closing silently behind him.
The apartment was spotless, as always. The magazine he’d left on the coffee table last night was gone, the pillows he’d arranged on the couch for a comfortable slouch were back in their precise diamond-pattern alignment. The remotes were tucked away in the TV cabinet. They’d learned about entropy in school that day, how ever since the Big Bang, the universe tended to run down, things fell apart. This was like reverse entropy, Matt thought. You’re always fighting against order to get some comfortable decay, but it never lasts – order always wins around here.
He stopped when he got to his room. It had been cleaned – no, tidied. Things he’d left where he wanted them, where he could get to them, where they were handy, weren’t there anymore. The books were all put back on shelves, the CDs stuck in the rack, and…
“What the hell?” he asked the air. His desk was immaculate. Swept clean. He pulled out his phone and dialed his mom.
“You’re home, good, I need you to…”
“Mom, what happened to my Furby?”
“You mean the mess you made when you destroyed it? I had to have Juanita throw it away.”
“It wasn’t broken…”
“Well, it certainly was! It was in pieces everywhere!”
“I took it apart. I was trying to see…”
“I don’t understand you, Matt. We buy you these nice things, why do you have to break them?”
“What’s wrong with you! There are poor kids who would love to have had that toy.”
“I was going to put it back together.”
“Right, like your DVD player, that you tore apart like some…meth head!”
He sighed. It was true, he’d been a little too ambitious there. He’d been curious about the way the five-disc DVD drawer worked, how did it do whatever it did when it did all that whirring and clicking? He hadn’t thought about how hard it might be to put it back together.
“I just wanted to know how it works.”
She laughed. “What, are you planning on being a repairman when you grow up? You’d better spend that energy on your schoolwork, mister. Now I’m going into a very important meeting. Go see if Flora put the roast in.” She hung up.
Matt snorted disdainfully. Very important meeting, right, you and the other Ladies Who Lunch –oh, excuse me, “community leaders” – are gonna have a cocktail or three while you talk about what you’ll wear to the next charity ball.
He looked at his desk and it…hurt. He’d been careful this time, had made notes, drawings, of what went where. This time he could have done it, could have put it back together! The notes were still here, he discovered – nobody had made the connection between the parts and the drawings, just assumed the paperwork was “schoolwork.” They didn’t trust me do it, he thought, not realizing that it would have never occurred to his mother that it could be done.
Repairman! Mom had invested all her dripping sarcasm and scorn into that word. Matt thought about the men who came in to fix stuff, or, more often, to perform the never-ending upgrades to the mood lighting, the home theater, the smart kitchen. They were usually nice to Matt; they let him watch and even answered his questions about plumbing and cabling and wiring, but he knew when he looked in their eyes that they were thinking one of two things – either humor the rich kid, or, more kindly he supposed, what’s the point in learning about this, kid, you’re going to work in an office and pay someone to do this shit for you anyway.
Yeah, he thought, maybe I am. Everyone told him it was too late for childish dreams about being a fireman or a plumber or any of the other happy, efficient animals in the Richard Scarry books that were “for babies.” He’d been fascinated with Scarry’s book “What Do People Do All Day,” he’d worn the print off the pages with his eyes. The characters in that book did stuff, they fixed things and ran power plants and delivered packages – they didn’t sit still and make phone calls all day like his dad. Or boss servants around and talk about “how exhausting it is to manage a household” like his mom did.
Matt checked the roast. Of course it was in the oven; Juanita and Flora never forgot to do anything, but if Mom wasn’t always “checking on them,” what else did she have to do? He went back to his room and shut the door. He took out his guitar, his picks, his copy of “Pumping Nylon,” setting everything up, preparing himself.
Music was the only class at school that was hands-on. The school’s whole focus was “college prep,” and they weren’t even in high school yet. He wished there was a class where he could touch stuff, but everything about college prep seemed to be about preparing you for a life where you never touched anything but a keyboard.
There were some science classes and Matt had been enthusiastic about taking chemistry, hoping he’d get to make shit blow up or at least watch it fizz. But he’d forgotten how thoroughly the helicopter parents at Worthington had bubble-wrapped their kids against danger, and so chemistry, too, was about looking at pictures of molecules and not having anything in the classroom that Might Aggravate Seymour’s Asthma.
Matt struggled with higher-level math, tried to chase that X around the Y, but it always got away. He knew that if he really truly wanted to know how stuff worked, he should become an engineer, but he just didn’t have a head for the abstractions of calculus and beyond.
Somehow or another, though, music had accessed the mathematical part of his brain. Bach spoke to him in a way that linear algebra never would. But music existed; a guitar was a machine you used to make music, and music was real in a way that math…wasn’t. Not to him, anyway. Sure, music was mathematical, but it made sense, he could follow it, it wasn’t just…stuff on paper.
He’d been in love with classical guitar since he’d first walked into a café with some other kids one night and a man was playing Bach on an acoustic guitar. Matt was hypnotized by the cascade of perfect notes, the blazingly apparent difficulty of the piece, and the way the dude made it look easy. He’d talked to the guy, well, grilled him, during his break and gotten all the info he needed to get started. He had a credit card “for emergencies” and used it the next day to buy his first instrument.
That had started a war with Mom – not because he’d spent unauthorized money, but because he’d made a decision that could Impact His Career without consulting her.
“I hear the new admissions officer at Harvard just loves the cello,” Mom said to Lydia, the admissions counselor at Worthington, as the two of them planned Matt’s future as if he wasn’t even there, didn’t have a say. The whole idea of a junior high school with a college admissions counselor was so crazy to Matt that he didn’t know what he’d say anyway. “So this whole guitar thing, you know…” She flailed her hands as if Matt had chosen a life of juvenile delinquency.
“Well,” Lydia said hesitantly, “that’s true, she does love the cello. But, you know, there has to be one thing on his resume that stands out…”
“What do you mean ‘stands out’?” Mom said, her ire rising. “Matt IS outstanding!”
“Of course,” Lydia said quickly, knowing all too well how outstandingly outstanding every little genius was at Worthington, even kids like Matt who clearly didn’t have their hearts in the fast track. “I just mean there should be something on his application that…you know. Makes him stand out from the crowd.”
Matt looked up from his Gameboy, made eye contact with Lydia. I’m trying, she pled with her eyes.
I know, Matt’s eyes replied.
“Just something that…shows his individuality. That he’s not just…checking off boxes, doing what’s expected.”
Matt knew what she meant. All the kids around him were eagerly reshaping themselves, no desire to break the mold when it was fitting into it that would get them into a good school, the golden ticket to the meritocracy. And so every day all of these racially, ethnically, sexually diverse kids were shedding their real diversity, their internal diversity, to become nothing more than the same cookies from the same cookie cutter, only with a different colored frosting on top. They all spoke three languages and invented a great website and saved sixty homeless people last week and they all play the cello or the violin or the fucking lute. And most of them would get in to the school of their choice.
“Oh, individuality! He’s got that!” Mom said scornfully. “This guitar thing could have got him into Mayer Academy, but no, he had to express his individuality!”
Matt knew it was true. He’d met with the elite private high school’s admissions guy, who’d looked up with delight after seeing that Matt played, or at least was learning to play.
“Who’s your favorite performer? I love Segovia,” the little man sighed.
“He’s good,” Matt said. “My favorite is Paul Galbraith.”
The man’s smile faded. “Really,” he said coldly. “Why do you think he’s better than Segovia?”
“I didn’t say better. I said he’s my favorite. Segovia’s really emotional, but Galbraith is more…” he shrugged. Fuck, he was fourteen! He didn’t know why Galbraith was better! He just was! Years later he’d put his finger on the appeal – Galbraith was more…yeah, ironically, more mathematical, intellectual, less romantic and yet still more emotional because of it. In Matt’s opinion, anyway.
“I just like him better.”
“Hmm,” the little man said, frowning, making a little mark on a piece of paper, the thing Matt had been raised to believe was the worst thing anyone could do to him ever.
Worst of all, when Mom had been thoroughly baffled by the rejection letter, he’d told her the story. He’d wanted to make it better, to tell her it hadn’t been his fault – but of course, in her eyes, it had been. That had shocked him more than anything – that she thought he should have lied.
Lydia tried not to sigh. She did this for the kids. Or tried to. It seemed more each day that doing it for the kids meant doing it against the adults, and around here, the adults always won.
“Look,” she said, which she probably wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been late in the day and if she hadn’t been tired and hadn’t liked Matt and most of all if Mrs. Kensington didn’t get on her nerves so. “Admissions people have to let in all the kids who do exactly what they’re supposed to do, to the letter. But that means that every now and then, they need to let in a kid who didn’t, a kid who’s not the same as all the other kids. Who actually is special.”
Mom blinked. “We have a lot of money. Matt is going to Harvard if I have to buy them a new fucking building.”
“Take a number,” Lydia snapped. “Harvard doesn’t have enough real estate for all the buildings they’ve been promised now. Believe it or not, Mrs. Kensington, and yes I know your husband is the world’s biggest real estate developer, there are people far richer and more powerful than you who also have kids they want to put into Harvard, and who will elbow you aside if you play the game the same way they do.”
What really surprised Matt was that at this outburst, Mom was silent. She nodded. This was the kind of cold, harsh realism she could work with. He’d forgotten that about her. How she’d grown up hard in Texas, been a waitress, met Dad when he was just a middle manager, always on the road.
“Harvard’s your ticket, son,” his dad would say on the rare occasions when they all had dinner together. “Gotta get a good education.” Matt was always startled when he saw his dad, because a sighting was such a rare thing that he forgot exactly what he looked like, the way you might remember a substitute teacher’s face when he showed up the next time, but not during the absences.
“You went to a state college, though, and you’re successful.”
His dad smiled. “But I have a head for business.”
“Your father’s right. You need that degree, Matt.”
“To do what?”
They looked at him. “Why, you need it to do anything!” his dad said, genuinely shocked. “You can’t do anything without a college degree!”
Matt sighed. Who was he to argue? He was just a kid.
A few years later, nobody had been more surprised than Matt when he got into Harvard. He’d written the Right Essay with the “help” of a $500 an hour “applications consultant.” And then, surreptitiously, he’d replaced it with his own essay, his own words, before sending in the application.
I didn’t learn the cello so I could get into Harvard. I wanted to play classical guitar instead, so that’s what I’m learning to do. I don’t even know that I want to go to Harvard; my parents want me to go. In fact, I think maybe there’s a world out there I can conquer without a college degree. And if I do go to college, I’ll be damned if I know what I’m going to major in. I’m not the most mathematically inclined guy, so I don’t see myself being an engineer or a scientist. All I know is that I want to learn, somewhere, how things work. How to take stuff apart and put it back together and make it work better. I know that’s a simplistic sentence that doesn’t show off my verbal pyrotechnics to great effect, but let’s be honest – does the world need more people who can verbalize eloquently, or more people who can make stuff work?
For once, the stars were in alignment in the Kensington house after the fat envelope came. Mom had triumphed in her career as relentless promoter of Matt’s future, Dad could casually let it drop at the club that his son had gotten into Harvard. And Matt, absolutely stunned that his honesty had paid off, thought that now, maybe, he would learn how things worked, from the finest minds in the country. That he’d be expected to take things apart and put them back together, better, stronger, faster – sure, ideas and not objects, but still, but still, at last he was free of the need to impress someone somewhere, at last he could just learn...