College was a machine, too, an engine to be taken apart and understood. But that was more of a disappointment than a challenge, once it dawned on Matt how it worked.
There was so much work to do, and for a year he tried to do it all, on top of a part time job so he didn’t have to rely on money from home. He was young and fit and smart, but fuck! He had to sleep, too.
He met Ned in his sophomore year, on one of the increasing number of days he fell asleep in class. Ned gently nudged him when class was over – Matt was so tired he didn’t even hear the other students getting up and chattering as they left.
“Wake up, Sleeping Beauty,” Ned said.
Matt looked up and saw the guy next to him. He had a preppy look to him – blond, thin, artfully floppy hair hanging over his brow. He reminded Matt of his first boyfriend back in high school, Wash (short for Washburn, his mother’s maiden name). Wash had looked innocent, too, but then they went to bed and…wow. What a dirty bird. Matt had discovered that this was his type, these deceptively mild-looking guys.
“Thanks,” Matt said with a sleepy grin, his sexual interest waking up with the rest of him, as Ned could plainly see.
Ned laughed. He’d been watching Matt in class for a while, listening to his perceptive questions and answers, and getting really, really turned on. Matt was a big hunk of beef with a brain, just his type. And that smile, that slow sleepy smile…damn!
“You need a strategy,” Ned said.
“You’ve clearly read every assignment for this class. Which is your mistake, right there. You have to pick one, and speak to it really well, and then shut up and let everyone else do the same thing with the one thing they read, too.”
“Is that what you do?”
“Listen. I’m carrying a full load at Harvard. I’m on the debate team. I have a job. I have..well, had until yesterday, a boyfriend. Hell yeah it’s what I do.”
“Had a boyfriend, huh?” Matt nearly growled.
They dated for two years. Ned was a mentor to Matt, and not just in how to “do school.” It was Ned who introduced Matt to the real art of topping another man. Ned did it by being the best bottom, always clearly expressing what he did and didn’t like, and oh god expressing what he liked with no shame. Matt learned how to tame his own over-exuberant body, how to restrain his impulse to go fucking wild on that ass, how to tease and torment and prolong, what kind of pain was pleasure when inflicted the right way at the right time in the right place.
Sometimes that felt like more of an education than school. He found out which classes he didn’t have to sit (or sleep) through because the online handout was the perfect set of lecture notes. He found out which philosophy teacher didn’t really care what you wrote in your paper as long as it was organized with Argument One, Point A, Point B, etc.
“That’s because he doesn’t speak English very well,” Ned’s friend Guy told him. “So he can’t really grade you on your writing.”
“That’s why I got a B- on my narrative essay,” Matt realized glumly.
Matt was amazed to discover that more than half the graduating class at Harvard each year graduated “with honors.”
“They had to officially cap it at 60%,” Ned explained, “after 90% of the class of 2002 graduated with honors.”
“You’re kidding,” Matt said.
“91%,” Guy corrected. Guy was “the computer guy” and therefore rigorous about his numbers.
“But if everyone graduates with honors, where’s the honor in that? It’s like…kindergarten or something, where everyone gets a ‘gold star’ or a ‘good effort’ trophy or something.”
“Shhh,” Ned said, putting a finger to Matt’s lips. “The world must never know. You put ‘graduated with honors from Harvard’ on your resume and shoom shazam, alacazam, all doors are open to you.”
At times he felt like he wasn’t really learning much other than how to “do school.” When he said that to Ned one night after an exhaustive bout of lovemaking, Ned agreed.
“You’re being institutionalized. You’re being taught to get along in government, or a large corporation, or a big university. How to become a cog in the machine.”
That stunned Matt. He’d thought he would learn how things worked, from outside, from above the engine – he’d never thought he’d find himself just another squeaky wheel inside one.
But, it was Harvard. There were genius professors, if you could only find them, if you could only find a way to get into their always-full classes, which was another part of learning how to work the machine that was college. It was Comparative Literature that saved Matt’s student career, saved him from dropping out. Doctor Shaw had a very wide view of what “literature” meant, and Matt made a discovery: books, movies, all works of art were engines, too. You could pick them apart and see how the same parts were used in different machines, to the same or different effect.
In high school you’d been handed a book, and its meaning, at the same time; this book is “A Separate Peace,” Phineas is a Christ Figure, we’re done here. Here he was expected to find something in a book that nobody else had found – or at least, make a connection between one work and another that nobody else had made.
“You’re going to major in what?” Matt’s Mom said, dropping her knife and fork dramatically at the Christmas dinner table.
“That’s not a bad idea,” Dad said thoughtfully. “Business schools are looking for more liberal arts majors, these days. Nobody can write anymore, not even a decent email. And of course law school, Comp Lit would be a great precursor for that.”
That shut Mom up, and Matt let it. There was no way in hell he was going to business school, or law school. But the family was a machine, too, wasn’t it, and why throw a spanner in the works now by telling them, when for once it was running smoothly?
He graduated. With honors. Then he moved back to New York City, and drifted, still sort of dating Ned but the fire gone out now, not sure what he would do next. He took a barista job and pretended it was because of the economy, but really he wasn’t even looking for “serious” work.
So when his Dad came up with a job for him, in a friend’s consulting firm, everyone said Oh what a great opportunity for you! You have to take it! In this economy, to have an offer like that! So he did.
He thought maybe it would lead to something…realer than what it was, which was about sitting in a cubicle, reading reports and writing up synopses. Maybe one day I’ll be able to take this experience and get into a company that makes things, he thought. Maybe I’ll have an office over a factory floor where I can see stuff being done, being made…
He got good at his job – too good. He’d finish his work by 3 pm, easily. Then what? He had to sit there. Surf the Internet, let Reddit occupy his restless mind with funny cat pictures and conspiracy theories and every now and then something really fascinating on Ask Historians that would keep his intellect engaged.
He couldn’t leave early – hell, if he knew what was good for him he wouldn’t leave on time, either. Everyone was “burning the midnight oil,” they were “really putting in the hours.” And that was the marker of competence, excellence even – how very long it took you to do your job. He could take on more work, sure, that would fill the hours if they really wanted him to stay that late, but then what would the other employees do if he took that work away from them? The company could get rid of at least one or two pieces of deadwood, but then his manager wouldn’t be as important without so many direct reports, and he wasn’t going to let that happen just so Matt wouldn’t be bored. And if he left early, it would make the others look bad – worse, it would make them feel bad, and what would that do to morale?
It killed him, doing nothing. He gained weight, sitting there – just a few pounds, but he could tell in the mirror in the morning that he was getting soft. He and the others would go out on Friday night, a big blowout, cheap booze and fried food and everyone saying TGIF. They chatted about TV, “The Office,” or “Mad Men.” Matt had seen both shows once, so that he’d know who these characters were that they were always talking about. But only once – the last thing he wanted to do was work in an office all day, then tear off the hated tie, go home, kick off his shoes, flop out on the couch, turn on the TV, and watch people working in an office.
One night a co-worker’s brother met them for drinks. Terry was an auto mechanic, and when he told them what he did, Matt watched the others, watched their faces rearrange, eyebrows up, mouths wide, as if they were talking to a child. “Oh! Uh huh!” they said, nodding encouragingly, that’s great! How nice for you, too bad you can’t work in an office like us grownups!
Terry met Matt’s eyes, probably because Matt was the only one not grinning like a loon. Matt saw something there that he envied. Matt had felt the years of dirt and grime embedded in Terry’s rough, strong hand when he shook it, had seen the wrinkles and bags under the eyes that spoke of physical fatigue, but his eyes were clear, bright, satisfied. He was a lion, still, serene, at ease, where the others at the table were like prairie dogs, their eyes darting around after a joke about the boss, just to make sure he wasn’t here haha wouldn’t that be funny. Terry looked good tired, like he’d worked hard but gotten shit done, not bad tired like Matt felt, more fatigued from the stress of how very long it took to do nothing than from anything he’d accomplished.
“Matt’s our resident mechanic,” Elaine chirped brightly. “He fixes the copier, the fax machine, even the chairs!”
“Really,” Terry said.
“Yeah, I like fixing things.”
“Better than you like working in an office.” It was a statement.
“Yeah.” Matt’s eyes were pleading. Help me.
“You should come by my shop sometime. Here’s my card.”
“Thanks. I’ll do that.”
He called in sick the next day. Terry didn’t seem surprised to see him. “You know anything about cars?”
“No. But I can learn.”
“Yeah.” Another statement. “Okay. Here’s your coveralls. You can start by cleaning the bathroom. Because you’re the fucking new guy,” he smiled.
Matt smiled in return, slipped into his coveralls, out of his old life, and never looked back.