I was home alone with our son when I found out, and my husband was away on
business. It was August. I hadn’t yet told anyone or recovered from the
initial shock when it happened again a few days later. The rest came rather
quickly. Tuesday was suddenly autumn. Winter turned to spring. It’s been
nearly a year.
My father played hopefully throughout my youth, and my sister does now, but I wasn’t much for betting. From an early age, I associated the lottery with all the things I wanted to escape. In the Gangs of New York-style Catholic town where I underwent adolescence, I must have come across as pretentious—even my father took to hiding his habit from me; my sister seldom mentions it, still—but a disdain for gambling, in my opinion, was a sign of maturity. Not, however, a maturity impervious to temptation.
The nearest strip mall sat a few hundred feet behind the auto repair shop—two unimaginative brick structures linked by a glimmering trail of car oil and antifreeze. The stationery, one of five storefronts, was sandwiched between the Chinese restaurant and the bagel shop. It was the summer before college, and my dad had asked me to pay the electricity bill—something that could be done at some stationery stores through an arrangement with utility companies that I’ve never fully understood. “But wait till three,” my dad always said, “till the banks close.”
On a thick plastic counter with a ballpoint pen chained to its surface, I forged my dad’s signature on a blank check that was likely to bounce in a few days. Beneath the irreparably scratched but still translucent surface was a stack of long, orange-and-white rectangular sheets—grids full of empty ovals.
“Big man, eh,” said Sam, the old white guy with veiny cheeks and puffy gray eyebrows who ran the small shop. He was resolutely unfriendly to the few nonwhite families in the neighborhood but begrudgingly civil to my siblings and me because my dad had saved his life a few years before—Sam was choking on an egg sandwich just as my dad happened to walk by with a bag of bagels.
I smoothed out a folded dollar and set it between Sam and me. He traded it for a printed ticket. “Good luck,” he said without looking up.
Immediately, a fraught hopefulness began percolating inside of me. In a few hours, anything and everything that was wrong in my life might be righted. That night, as my dad waited out the local news for the lottery drawing coda, I sat on a nearby couch, pretending to read. I’d memorized the numbers on my ticket so that I wouldn’t have to brandish it in front of him. After the unfamiliar numbers appeared on the screen, my dad sneaked a quick peak at the tickets in his palm and then closed his fist in routine disappointment. I, too, was disappointed.
It would be a few years and a few hundred miles before I played again. After my Saturday shifts at the campus bookstore, I’d make my way to a delicatessen on the edge of town: a place for locals and class-jumping students—we, who stayed on campus during the minor holidays; we, who relied on the library for our textbooks; most of us brown Latino or black Black. Our heads bowed, we engaged in surreptitious, off-campus reconnaissance: a bacchanal of canned meats, individually-wrapped slices of cheese, cheap cigarettes, cheaper cigars, and wrestling magazines. My indulgence was a medium-size bag of Doritos and, occasionally, canned onion dip. For a few months near the end of my senior year, I also bought scratch-off lottery games. The young Somali woman who worked at the deli on the weekends—her name tag read, Bilan; she wasn’t much older than me—didn’t approve. Whenever I reflexively, rhetorically asked her to wish me luck, she’d say, “No,” and then go back to reading her book or magazine. That semester, I won four dollars and spent around seventeen.
This—the stationery and the deli—constituted the whole of my gambling history, until two Septembers ago. More than twenty years after the strip mall. That’s when I—a husband, a father, and a professor of public health—became a proper lottery player.
I began buying Powerball tickets on Wednesdays and Saturdays—the drawing days—and as close to the 9PM cutoff time as possible because I didn’t want the all-day anticipation to consume me. After 11PM, I checked my phone for the results. Each time I played, I was eighteen and on the verge of something life changing. And when I lost, I’d have to remind myself that I hadn’t actually lost anything. As the prize grew—which meant no one had won it—my belief swelled. The first few times I played, I didn’t mention it to my husband.
Gus wasn’t upset—he’s not like that. He’s a mild-mannered white man with an upper-middle-class upbringing and the affect of a well-meaning high school math teacher. He was, however, quick to point out that I had a greater chance of being struck by lightning. “Out of 175 million possible combinations of numbers, only one is the winner. Lightning is one in a million.”
“But somebody’s going to win.”
“That’s exactly what they want you to think. Is this about the dream?”
I’d made the mistake of telling him about the vivid, unambiguous dream I’d had the week before. In it, I was naked, dripping sweat and tears, and clutching a winning ticket worth $600 million. “Hon…?” Gus pressed. His skepticism, while irritating and mostly contained to his brow and crow’s feet, was fair. I’ve always said that dreams are more like summaries of your day than crystal balls. “But maybe I’m wrong. My grandmother”—a magical realism archetype who always kept one foot planted in the paranormal world—“used to say they were omens.”
Gus’s head oscillated, like a standing fan at a low setting.
For weeks, there was no winner. The jackpot rose to $429 million, and the news reported wrap-around-the-block lines. When the prize jumped to $607 million, my grandmother’s legend grew in stature.
Our small, brownstone apartment was in its usual shambolic state. The trail of breakfast wound its way down from the kitchen table onto to the floor and into the living room. Aramceli, our son’s nanny—a middle-aged woman from Puebla, who we secretly called Maria Poppins because of her prim-yet-vintage style and crisp soprano—was ushering Ricardo out the door for his morning constitutional. Gus ambled around the living room with a toothbrush in his mouth, searching for his wallet. “Why are you holding on to all these tickets?” he asked, pointing to the pile of losers on the everything table by the front door. White foam subtly effervesced at the corners of his mouth.
“The ones that didn’t win the jackpot might have won smaller prizes,” I explained.
In years past, a pre-work vacuum on a Tuesday morning would have been filled with quick, yet satisfying, sex, but now it remained empty, except for the amusement and mild condescension in Gus’s eyes. I told him I’d scan the tickets later.
“Could you also pick up some beer and baby wipes?”
The tree-lined block between our home and the bodega has slabs of uprooted, cracked bluestone on one side of the street. On the other side is a large park, where baseball games, Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and crack were once common. Now, soccer and Frisbee take up the fields of worn grass; so do dogs and whites. A new real estate office occupies the corner. Next to it is a popular bodega—prime location, moderate price increases, organic oat milk—that draws in long-term and recently arrived residents alike. One of the few places that does that.
“Want to buy more?” asked the rangy, twenty-something Yemeni man with slightly darker skin than me, after discarding the worthless ones I’d handed him. “Tomorrow is the big day. The lines will be long,” he said with a knowing, uneven smile, never breaking his concentration from the video game on his phone.
“No, thanks,” I said, before tucking the packet of butt wipes under my arm and walking up the block to the non-halal bodega that sold beer.
The next day was a nothing-special Wednesday. I went to work, endured two under-facilitated faculty meetings, held office hours—one student showed up—and then assumed the late-afternoon child-rearing shift: playground visit, game of “sidestep the dog poop,” successfully deflected plea for ice cream. When Ricardo was finally asleep and Gus had changed into his matching flannel sweater and sweatpants, we pivoted the dinner table toward the screen. Gus reached for the remote control. The cursor toggled between The Year of Living Dangerously and The Killing Fields. I shrugged.
“It’s one of these two, something from the Fellini backlog, or start a new series,” he said.
Over the years we’d added several Fellini films to the queue but neither of us ever showed interest in watching one. For no particular reason, we settled on The Killing Fields. Gus held a pair of open tongs aloft while I made room on my plate for salad. “How many tickets did you buy?” he asked.
Gus stared a moment. “Is it too late?”
My phone read 9:23PM. Gus’s voice took on the accommodating tenor of a hostage negotiator: “Maybe no one will win it.”
The winner was an elderly Floridian with translucent white skin and a heavily pleated skirt. She appeared unfazed by the enormous cardboard check and the paparazzi encircling her. She spoke softly into the microphone: her church needed a new roof; she’d never been to the Vatican. Behind her stood a dowdy, thin-haired man—her son. Beside him was an equally rotund Cuban—his boyfriend. That the money might benefit another gay Latino consoled me in a way.
I spent the days after the big jackpot in a slump, convinced that I’d lost nearly 600 million dollars, disappointed that I’d forgotten to buy a ticket. But it wasn’t long before the ubiquitous orange-hued L.E.D. displays in the windows of bodegas, supermarkets, and pharmacies were producing an urge in me that only ever surfaced in the warm months, around men in cut-off anything. That winter, the cold walks to and fro were, in a way, sultry and full of opportunities for trouble. Instead of two per week, I was suddenly buying four tickets—sometimes six. And I couldn’t explain it. I was firmly entrenched in the middle class, one generation removed from the backbreaking work and insecurity that make gambling aspirational. But there I was, every Wednesday and Saturday, waiting in line.
In the new year, just before classes started back up, the full-time faculty received an email from the university’s administration. It began: “After good faith efforts, we have decided to protect the integrity of this institution from the unreasonable demands of a small group.” The next day, pink flyers appeared in our mail cubbies: “Because of the administration’s unwillingness to keep its promise and increase our wages, we, the adjunct professors, are striking. We ask that you, OUR ALLIES, join us in the fight against the commodification of education!” At the bottom was a pencil drawing of several stick figures standing side by side, holding hands. There was no clause in our union contracts requiring us to strike with the adjuncts, and most of us didn’t. At the time, I was under tenure review and didn’t want to jeopardize anything.
The semester proved difficult. Not only did I have to take convoluted paths onto campus in order to avoid crossing the picket line, the dean also asked the full-time faculty, administrative staff, and even some students, to take on the adjuncts’ coursework. Instead of three classes, I was suddenly saddled with six. And after the strike ended—two months into the semester, the university acquiesced to a salary increase of a fraction of one-percent—the cold war truly commenced. Seven of the ten faculty members in our department were adjuncts, and all of them directed their rancorous silences at me. Their displeasure also manifested in emptying the copy machine of paper and the coffee maker of filters whenever they saw me coming. Alex, the biostatistics instructor—the only other openly gay man in the department—left a note in my mailbox. I knew it was him because there were hearts drawn around some of the words—something he is wont to do. The note consisted of a few lines printed directly from Dictionary.com:
noun, plural solidarities.
1. union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests, as between members of a group or between classes, peoples, etc.: to promote solidarity among union members.
2. community of feelings, purposes, etc.
3. community of responsibilities and interests.
Origin of solidarity: French, 1840-18501840-50; < French solidarité, equivalent to solidaire solidary + -ité -ity
I retreated. I took to eating lunch with our department’s secretary. Soraya refused to be called an administrative assistant. She also never missed an opportunity to let me now when she’d been right about something: “Eduardo, didn’t I warn you they wouldn’t be happy?” The other two full-time professors, who I’m certain wouldn’t have joined the strike either, were spared the brunt of the adjuncts’ backlash because one was on sabbatical, and the other’s mother had died shortly before the strike began. After a few tense weeks with very little eye contact, I stopped going to the university whenever I could and did most of my work from one of the several new cafés near my home.
In late May, the dean cornered me at a wine and cheese for graduates and their families. I was certain he, an uncanny John Goodman lookalike, was about to give my tenure application a green light. Instead, his tannin-stained lips became a portal for slurred, disappointing news: “A blackog—A backclog—A BACK LOG of administrative peculiarities. Nothing to worry about. We’ll get you back on track in the fall.” That’s when it occurred to me: I might never get tenure. On the walk home, I stopped at the bodega and bought a Mega Millions. It was printed on the same smooth, pink-and-white paper, but it cost half the price of Powerball, and its jackpots were usually in the tens of millions. The drawing days were Tuesdays and Fridays. By that point, I’d been playing the lottery heavily and regularly for nearly seven months. I’d spent close to seven hundred dollars and won four.
The car was nearly out of gas. Gus and I were cranky and hadn’t bathed in three days. Ricardo had finally fallen asleep after sixty miles of whining.
“Your odds of winning are still 1 in 175 million,” Gus said as he turned off the engine. We’d stopped in central Massachusetts at a self-service, two-pump station on our way back from a camping trip in the Green Mountain region of Vermont. The day was warming up but still dewy.
“I wasn’t going to buy a ticket. I was only noticing aloud that they sold Powerball here.”
“Alright, sorry.” Gus made his way to the car’s fuel tank. “Can you get more snacks for Ricardo? He ate the last banana,” he called out as I walked across the empty lot toward the convenience store—a nearly dilapidated shell of rusted, corrugated steel.
“Bananas, two waters, peanuts, raisins, and the Doritos. That it?” the attendant with pink-infused blonde hair asked in a gravelly, pack-a-day baritone. I slid my credit card across the murky gray quartz. “And one Powerball Quick Pick!” I called out abruptly.
“Lottery is cash-only.” Her unflappability suggested my level of enthusiasm wasn’t unusual. I pulled two singles from my pocket.
Maybe it was the time off, or maybe it was the traveling we did that summer, which meant I was always with Gus and Ricardo, but I’d cut back on buying tickets. Here and there, but not regularly anymore. That Sunday morning in August, however, I couldn’t help myself.
The next day, I had a dentist appointment in Midtown. I took Ricardo to the local public pool in the afternoon. We ate pizza for dinner.
On Tuesday, I went to a hair salon for people with curly hair. It was my first time. The hipster stylist was thirty minutes late and then accidently snipped my right ear—also a first. She apologized profusely, but I found it difficult to relax afterward. For dinner, Gus made tofu—extra firm—over braised kale and soba noodles.
On Wednesday, I watched porn in the morning. Then I deposited some money in my dad’s bank account without telling him—he wouldn’t accept it otherwise. In the afternoon, I played tennis with a college friend whom I hadn’t seen in years. Afterward, we each drank two beers and shared samosas at the sidewalk café of a nearby South African restaurant.
On Thursday, I worked on a federal grant application at a communal café table full of laptops. On the walk home, I ducked into the bodega to use the ATM. As I was leaving, the owner—portly, bearded, mercurial—greeted me with a we’re-not-a-bank-what-are-you-going-to-buy head nod. I bumbled before settling on a Mega Millions as quid pro quo. I don’t remember what we ate for dinner.
Gus left for California early Friday morning. He had a company retreat designed for engineers to develop social skills. He’d be back on Tuesday. Since I hate flying, and I hate when people I care about fly, the trip to the children’s museum that day served to distract both a boy and his father—Aramceli refused to work on Fridays in the summer. By the time Ricardo went down for his afternoon nap, I’d received two text messages: “Landed,” and “Heading to car rental kiosk now.”
By nightfall, I’d earned myself a homemade Manhattan. I settled into the couch, put on the newest Xavier Dolan film, and snacked on plantain chips. I spent most of the movie wondering if any people of color lived in Montreal. I’d been there before, and I knew that they did, but I couldn’t figure out why none of them made it into Dolan’s films. Not even the extras.
A mosquito’s faint buzz woke me just before midnight. My mouth was nearly dry cement. A summer moisture filled the space between my thighs and the couch cushions. I wasn’t sure if I’d finished watching the movie. I poured myself a glass of water and turned on the dishwasher. While I brushed my teeth, I peeked in on Ricardo and plugged in my phone. I’d missed two calls and one text: “Guess you’re asleep. Love you. Talk tomorrow.” “You’re probably at dinner. Call me when you get up,” I texted back.
I was already in bed—my secondary pillow sandwiched between my knees, the tenacious guilt of not flossing slowly loosening its grip—when I remembered the Mega Millions ticket from the day before; the drawing had taken place while I’d dozed on the couch. I turned onto my stomach and willed myself not to care. But after a few minutes, I got up.
The ticket was pinned beneath a cascade of lose coins. Its numbers didn’t match those on the website. As I crumpled up the thin, glossy paper, I felt a sandy film on my fingers. The familiar, synthetic smell lit up the morsel of my brain associated with adolescence. I wasn’t holding a Mega Millions. It was the Powerball ticket coated in Doritos dust from the gas station in Massachusetts.
I found another set of numbers online. They teetered on their axes and waltzed across the screen in a cheap, lazy animation. They were the same as the ones on the crumpled ticket.
Whatever I was feeling wasn’t happiness—or maybe it was an extreme form of happiness that I’d never before come close to experiencing: sudden, surreal, knee-numbing. I sat on the ground, in the dark, except for my phone screen and the refracted light of a lamppost coming through the window. I felt somewhere between pot and acid high. A forceful yet involuntary laughter escaped from my body. After a few minutes, I used the floor and the wall to get to my feet. I feared that Ricardo might wake and that I was in no state to parent. The path to calm would have to be synthetic. I measured out two little pink circles (0.5 mg each) from the bottle of alprazolam that was tucked behind thermometers, travel-size toothpaste tubes, expired fungal cream, and heartburn tablets and cupped my hand beneath the running water. I took deep breaths and held each for five seconds.
“What would you do if you won the lottery?” I’d asked Gus a few months earlier.
“I haven’t given it much thought,” he’d responded.
It hadn’t been a particularly focused conversation: my sister was on her way over to babysit; he was changing a diaper; and I was searching for losing tickets in the living room because I didn’t want my sister to know I was playing.
“Have you never daydreamed the possibility?”
Gus turned his head from side to side: “Not really.”
What if was a game I’d been playing for as long as I could remember. He never had. He remained the grounded person I’d met nearly two decades earlier—a customer at the campus bookstore who kept coming back to buy mechanical pencils, who casually grabbed my hand after our third date, unconcerned with the frat boys in our midst. With Gus, things either happened or they didn’t. He rarely worried—about anything in fact. Not about a check clearing or college debt or rent. In our early years, the upstairs-downstairs divide between us seemed unbridgeable, but eventually it narrowed. Eventually, I paid off my loans. Eventually, we got married. Eventually, our bills were withdrawn automatically from a shared checking account. Some months, I didn’t even look at the bank statement. Plotted on a graph, the years with Gus would show a downward trend in worrying on my part. And yet, there were times when I found his practicality stifling. Sometimes, it left me speechless. He’d never envisioned winning the lottery? I thought everyone did that.
After taking the anti-anxiety pills, I left Gus a voicemail asking him to call me. Then I grabbed the bottle of whisky from the kitchen and walked to the couch to wait for the medicine to slow down my nervous system. I thought of calling my parents and siblings, but many of them, too, were prone to panic. In some cases, heart disease. In some cases, both. A ringing phone at this late hour alone would catalyze an irreversible chain reaction. In the morning, I thought. I sat instead and fantasized: I’d pay off everyone’s debts; I’d buy well-made shoes; I’d never travel coach again. And then it occurred to me that Gus would cut his work trip short after hearing the news. The odds of a plane crashing were certainly greater than the odds of winning the lottery. “Lightning Strikes…Twice! Man Kills Husband with Powerball!” the New York Post headline would read. Of course, this would happen to me. I shut off my phone. The initial vertigo that comes from mixing alcohol and a benzodiazepine began as concentric circles in my chest. I turned onto my side, set the whisky onto the ground, and everything faded to black.
Breakfast, the farmers’ market, Ricardo’s gym class, and his obsession with sprinklers were all worse bleary-eyed and anxiety-ridden. But by lunch, I was steadier. That’s when Gus texted: “Incredibly busy. Call you later. Sorry.” Later, he was in the shower. Then he was at dinner. Then, nothing. Something wasn’t right—if only to say he’s busy, Gus always answers the phone. I decided I wouldn’t tell him until we were face to face. And then I took another pill.
The first two days, it was surprisingly easy to keep a secret of this magnitude. I busied myself imagining how vastly different and better our lives would be. But I also feared being so irrationally wealthy and exposed. Single parenting, by comparison, was scary but manageable and all-consuming. I focused on Ricardo instead. I read him a total of thirty-four books. I found tutorials online for juggling and crafting paper airplanes. I baked cookies. But by Monday night, my serotonin levels were again in disarray. To make matters worse, Gus and I hadn’t talked in three days. Suddenly, the fear of dying and the ticket never being found had gone from vague thought to fully formed scene. In the dark, I sat on the edge of Ricardo’s bed. “Daddy won the lottery,” I whispered. He lay motionless, breathing through his mouth, but I felt a moment of relief. Afterward, I stuck the ticket under a “Jesus loves you, but everyone else thinks you’re an asshole” magnet on the refrigerator and went to bed.
Gus’s face dug into my neck. His love was urgent and chafing—he hadn’t shaved since he’d left. I slid my hand between his chest and mine: “Ricardo is about to wake up. Aramceli will be here soon. How was the flight?” Gus dabbed a corner of his mouth with his thumb: “Red-eyes are rough, but we landed early.” He froze: “Did you hear that? I think it was Ricardo.”
Gus was a good person to parent with and generally-speaking a good person. He would surely be a worthy co-multi-millionaire, I thought, as he disappeared toward our son.
No sooner had Aramceli and Ricardo gone, than Gus’s hands appeared around my waist, and my shorts were at my ankles. His beard grazed my thighs gently at first; then, less so. A little pain became pleasure seamlessly. We collapsed onto the jute rug, continued in the hallway, and finished in the bedroom. The sex was passionate beyond what I was expecting. When it was over, I made my way swiftly toward the kitchen, hoping to outrun the soporific aftermath that typically seizes Gus.
The Powerball ticket wasn’t under the refrigerator magnet. It wasn’t in the hallway closet either. Nor was it on the everything table. Instead, between a furniture catalog and an alumni magazine, I found the Mega Millions I’d been searching for on Friday night, but I didn’t care because the sensation of misplaced Powerball millions was already alight. And then I remembered the glass of water. Around 3AM, I’d awoken parched. Fearing the ticket was too exposed, I’d relocated it to the bookcase, into a García Márquez collection on the top shelf.
And there it was, tucked inside the tale of a newlywed who slowly bleeds to death on her honeymoon after her wedding ring pricks her finger. I re-loaded the lottery website. As the cluttered page assembled itself, my jaw tightened. Beneath my numbers was another banner: more unclaimed money, more dancing numbers.
I knew the wall was cold. I knew that my bare back was pressed against it. And I knew that it should have produced in me some sort of immediate, exaggerated reaction. But I felt nothing as I slid toward the ground. The late-morning sun gilded the room, turning the dark-red wood floor orange. There was lint in my belly button, which must have been there during sex. Beneath me, a scatterplot of cereal crumbs dug into my skin. I was completely nude and about to embark on a new world, like a baby, or the Terminator. My stomach grumbled. I pressed both tickets to my chest and ran past Gus’s light snore. Three pills under my tongue. I sat on the toilet.
At my feet, a landslide of unread magazines poured out from a wicker basket too small to meet its demands. Above me was a shelf stacked with multicolored, unevenly folded towels. In a corner, a faint cobweb. The sunlight and the bathroom’s stained-glass window gave everything a religious sheen. I was there for almost forty minutes, the stillicide of a leaky faucet my soundtrack. Over and over, I re-read the numbers—all of them. We weren’t only multi-millionaires; we were richer than everyone on our gentrified block, after taxes: the art dealer, the vascular surgeon, the ophthalmologist, the B-list movie actor, the sculptor, the painter, both stockbrokers, the jazz musician, the A-list television actress, the countless lawyers and software developers, and the handful of octogenarians who’d survived the real estate booms.
No one would believe this.
I rolled up the tickets and stuffed them into the Neti pot in the medicine cabinet. Then I stepped into the shower and let the hot water batter my neck for at least ten minutes.
“We need to talk,” Gus said before I could say the same. He was seated upright in our bed, half of him shrouded in a dark gray sheet; the rest, in fear. His pained expression told me something bad was coming, but I was too medicated to be afraid.
Gus hadn’t missed my call on Friday night; he’d ignored it. A platonic drink with a colleague had become something else, at the pace of an empty, hobbled shopping cart on the descent. Before long, the spacious sofa in his corporate apartment had swallowed them whole. Gus had details but no reasons. The pear-shaped project manager with hapless eyebrows and horn-rimmed glasses—I’d met him and his wife at the holiday party the year before—finished first. Gus reached for the box of tissues on the table behind them and zipped himself up. His co-worker asked if he’d be discreet. Gus nodded and then walked him to the door. Afterward, he went to the bathroom in search of the complimentary mouthwash. He cried while he gargled. He cried while he told me.
“Were you safe?”
“Why’d you do it?”
“I don’t know.”
“He was nice, I guess. Funny, too. I hadn’t had that kind of company in a while.”
We were two men. Two gay men. Two people in a long-term relationship. Two parents raising a small child. I wasn’t naïve. At the same time, I thought we’d earned the right to take each other for granted. I’d believed the emotional austerity between us—a recent drought of hugs, kisses, pleases, and thank-yous—was a consequence of parenthood. I’d told myself everything would return with time.
I gave him the silent treatment. It lasted weeks. And for most of the fall semester, I withheld sex. As for the lottery, I didn’t breathe a word. Telling him felt like rewarding bad behavior, and I didn’t want him to feel good about anything. I also feared masking whatever was wrong with us. Since college, I’d known two couples who’d become dot-com rich, and one who’d inherited a fortune. They retired, renovated, remodeled, and traveled. Their vicissitudes weren’t those of a normal life. All of them eventually divorced. All their kids were brats. All of their friends were new.
The tickets were a parachute I could open exactly once. I took them back to the bookshelf and tucked them inside Giovanni’s Room because Gus had read it within the last year and wasn’t likely to pick it up again any time soon. Then I went to the bank and deposited three times as much as usual into my dad’s account.
WE SOLD THE WINNING MEGA MILLIONS TICKET!!! The crisp, yellow banner with red lettering hung in the window of the bodega on the corner. I was going to buy some toilet paper when the owner yelled, “Hey, buddy, I know you’re the winner!” My heart stopped. I couldn’t believe he remembered mine from the hundreds of tickets he sells every day. The three beefy men waiting for their late-afternoon, breakfast sandwiches, with yellow hard hats under their arms, stared at me, like a working-class Greek chorus. “Why are you lying to everyone?” continued the owner, a pudgy Yemeni man. But before I could respond to the charges, his raspy, full-throated cackling had erupted. Turns out he’d been saying that to everyone—he’d say it to me at least three more times.
In the weeks after the drawings, the media also engaged in round-the-clock speculation. How could two national lottery jackpots go unclaimed in the same week? (“Missing Loot-tery” was the best the Post could muster.) There were theories and accusations of corruption. There was even a reported decline in lottery sales. But with an economy still reeling from the Great Recession, sales reached their pre-scandal levels within a few months. And the halal bodega, in spite of it not carrying any beer, became the most popular store in the neighborhood.
I seemed to be the only person in the country trying not to think about the unclaimed millions. In the months that followed, I took up yoga. I read more. I switched from coffee to tea. I finished two research articles and completed two grant applications. I made my father’s bank a weekly destination. I also started fucking a second-year law student—a thin, clean-shaven white guy in his late-twenties, who, as far as I could tell, stepped out of an outdoor clothing catalog each morning, an array of highlighting markers in his hand and a satchel of textbooks draped over his shoulder (constitutional law, torts, contracts). Even before Gus’s indiscretion, I’d noticed him in the café.
“Is Marbury v. Madison in that textbook?” I asked on a muggy early fall day, in the midst of my drought with Gus. It was the only case I could recall from an undergraduate class I’d taken many years before.
He took off his headphones and smiled: “First time the Supreme Court invalidated an act of Congress.” He was seated beside me, one blonde thigh resting on the other, each held snug by his Australian outback-style shorts.
After a little chitchat and extended eye contact, he asked if I’d watch his things while he went to the bathroom. I nodded, but followed him instead, leaving everything unattended. He must have known I was coming because the door was slightly ajar. Over a large, cracked sink, we had quick, supple, unprotected sex. Afterward, we sneaked out carefully, one at a time, no longer any eye contact. I took advantage of the rain to cry all the way home, but within a few days, we were in the bathroom again.
The sex continued, usually on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at his place. Kevin was sweet, passionate, liked to be bitten, and had distractingly small earlobes. His dream was to work for the ACLU. I liked him, but there was an immaturity to his conversation that facilitated my distance and made me want to warn the ACLU. Our affair, while making the moratorium with Gus bearable, ended almost as unexpectedly as it began. Around the holidays, Kevin sent a misguided, poorly punctuated text message replete with emojis but only eight words: “i miss u my hot latino santa daddy.” On various levels, I detested that text.
The act, or phenomenon, of cheating had once been as irredeemable as driving off a cliff. Suddenly, it was a medium-size pothole. I didn’t tell Gus about Kevin, but when it was all said and done—including a clean bill of health from the STI clinic—the state of our marriage returned to what it had been before. Only now, there was less sincerity between us.
“You don’t have to worry about anything. I promise—If you don’t want me to go, I can cancel,” Gus said before a business trip in February. I told him I wasn’t worried. But the truth was I didn’t care.
As for Kevin, I ceded him the café—the second year of law school is stressful enough without being displaced—and returned to working in my office at the university.
In the spring, at an event for prospective students, the dean introduced me as “one of our most valued professors. As an Hispanic, he knows intimately the public health needs of society’s most underserved communities.” Afterward, I asked him if I was ever going to be a valued professor with tenure. “Of course it’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time. Having a tenured Latino on staff will be great for our faculty demographic.”
Soraya didn’t buy it. That week’s loose, blonde curls shook with disapproval. “Eduardo, these people will string you along for years. I’ve seen it before. Trust me, dear,” she said in her South Carolina-by-way-of-the-Bronx way.
The lottery tickets were set to expire in August, one year after the drawings. In late June, the local papers ran a few articles about the unclaimed Mega Millions prize—someone was quoted as suggesting that there should be lottery ticket insurance. I found similar articles online about the Powerball prize. Theories abounded: the tickets had been cleaned to death in a washing machine; accidentally thrown away; or eaten by dogs. Near the bodega in Brooklyn and the gas station in Massachusetts, there were arrests: people who had entered the sewer systems in search of the tickets, some wearing wetsuits and oxygen tanks.
The tickets had been in my bookshelves the entire time. After James Baldwin, I’d placed them inside a Zadie Smith book Gus had read already. Then, a Pynchon he’d given up on years before. Followed by a Fanon book that neither of us had ever been able to get through. Galeano had been their most recent steward. But in early July, when I went to retrieve them, they were nowhere in The Open Veins of Latin America— anonymously left in my faculty mailbox in the last week of school. I turned the book upside down, shook it furiously, and flipped carefully through each of its 379 pages. Nothing but paper cuts. I’d been reading it sporadically, in the kitchen, on the toilet, in bed. I searched all of those places too. Nothing.
I remained surprisingly calm for having just lost so many millions of dollars. I wondered if I’d entered a new realm of panic, where one doesn’t even know he’s panicking. I walked back to the bookcase and examined the Scandinavian-designed behemoth at a distance—we hadn’t read half of those books. I crouched into a squat and tapped the tip of my thumb against by my two front teeth. After a minute, I eyed a corner of faded pink ink on white jutting out from the base of the bookcase. I slid them toward me. They were pressed onto each other, like young lovers do. Maybe while my relationship was in the doldrums, Powerball and Mega Millions had fallen in love. Maybe they were running away together, and I’d just interrupted them. Or maybe holding onto each other was an act of survival—safety in numbers. Immediately, I stuck them inside a Mailer that we used to prop up a loose shelf.
Because of the size of the prizes, and because I had waited more than 180 days to reclaim them, I would have to undergo “additional security verification as required by the Multi-State Lottery Association.” I also read it was wise to retain a lawyer and a good idea to move.
Even if Gus were upset, he’d never show it—we were back to normal, in a way, but he wasn’t yet over his guilt. My parents, on the other hand, wouldn’t understand. My mom maybe, but my dad would be hung up on the year of missed opportunities. And my sister, well, she’d be torn between feeling slighted and wanting to celebrate. The media, however, would have a field day: “Gay, Crazy Leprechaun and His Two Pots of Gold!”
It was hard to believe that I could trace all of this back to one dream.
In an effort to preempt a strike, the university took the unprecedented step of locking out the entire faculty just before the start of the fall semester. No access to campus or email. No one would be paid or receive any benefits until the contract dispute was settled.
Four hundred professors—part-time, full-time, associate, assistant, and adjunct—filled a church not far from campus. The room was frantic but inspirited. From the sparsely decorated pulpit, our union’s lawyer—a bald man with an industrialist’s mustache and a red bowtie—explained the dire situation. During the Q&A, a tenured chemistry professor approached the microphone almost in tears; she couldn’t afford her son’s medications without insurance. A post-doc in the English department had just re-located from California. This was his first semester. How was he supposed to pay his rent? A group of adjuncts who were already receiving public assistance held an impromptu survival-tips workshop near a replica of the Virgin Mary. The scant media coverage of the lockout, most of it from the perspective of the university’s administration, painted us as money-hungry and unconcerned with the students. I wondered how much it would cost to rent every billboard in New York City and fill them with facts about the history of unions and the labor laws in this country.
The following morning, I joined the sidewalk protest outside of the university—a collection of art deco buildings across two gated, square city blocks. Something about the long shadows on the street and the spectacle reminded me of an airline pilot protest I’d seen reported a few years before, during Occupy Wall Street. The dapper, uniformed group had formed a perfect grid and held placards in their hands. They’d been visually stunning and commanded attention, like a fashionable fascist youth camp. We teachers, on the other hand, looked like a ragtag assembly of misshapen discontents. Nevertheless, our turnout was large and varied: not just faculty; students and alumni too. After a few hours of chanting, marching, and giving interviews to local news outlets, I went home. Protests would resume the next day.
Before going up to our apartment, I settled myself onto the building’s stoop. Later, there would be a thunderstorm, but for now, the hot brownstone beneath my thighs was a cheap Russian-style bathhouse. Air conditioners above dripped with impunity, but the water barely hit the ground before evaporating. On me, sweat beaded and then streamed down my sides. It was too late in the season for such a hot day. In the park across the street, the men in cut-off everything were also losing the battle against climate change.
I pulled the phone from my pocket.
“Hi, hon. Do you have a minute?”
“Yeah. Just grabbing a late lunch in the cafeteria.”
“Can you find a quiet place?”
“Of course. Everything okay?”
“We need to talk.”