It wasn’t like this boy to throw a tantrum in the cereal aisle of the supermarket, and it wasn’t like his mother to give in to one, but here they were, for some reason, both making an exception.
“Okay,” she said, and threw the box deep into the far corner of the main part of the shopping cart. “Okay. Don’t let your father see it.”
The family never bought sugar cereals and never bought name-brand cereals, so this split-second sight of his mother’s wrist flicking an official name-brand sugar cereal into the cart was something he had to keep replaying in his head for the next several minutes until he was literally dizzy on the image of the impossible. The sensation of seeing and reseeing that wrist snap was something he couldn’t make sense of, something that would be best described by words he didn’t know yet: surreal, pornographic.
The boy kept an even pace with the white-dirt-frosted black wheels so he could stare uninterrupted at the creature that he and his mother had captured. Yes: There in the cart, after all these years, was Tony the Tiger, caged at last. And Tony the Tiger promised even more fun ahead: In a bright blast of words spilling from his sportive expression, Tony the Tiger explained that the box on which he was emblazoned contained not just name-brand sugar cereal—as if that weren’t enough—but also a miniature treasure chest, and—as if that weren’t enough—inside the treasure chest was a secret code, and—as if that weren’t enough!—the code could possibly lead to a cash prize of one hundred thousand dollars.
(When the boy looked closer, as the box rode across the checkout belt toward the outside world, on the way to the arguably more humane captivity of a kitchen cabinet, he noticed that Tony and the text were technically separate, with no speech bubble connecting them: Tony the Tiger wasn’t saying that; he was just next to those words. Somehow, this felt like it gave the promise a touch less credibility, even though, when the boy thought about it years later, it would occur to him that this should probably have given it more. It didn’t matter, though: Everything, even this late-breaking potential scandal, rang with the drama of a new name-brand world he knew he never wanted to leave.)
Usually, when the boy got home from grocery shopping, he helped his mother unpack the bags in the kitchen, mainly by reveling in how rich their family seemed to be for this one moment each week and wondering which item he would honor by opening it first. But this time, the boy ran right to his room with the cereal box so that he could keep his word to hide it from his father, who found both the boy and the box only minutes later, drawn by the sobs to his bedroom, where the boy was discovered crying over a torn-apart box of Frosted Flakes.
“I thought we didn’t buy this kind of cereal,” said the boy’s father, crouching down to look directly at Tony the Tiger, eyeing him as one would an enemy and an equal.
“If you have the right secret code in the box in the treasure chest,” explained the boy, swallowing mucus, “you win a hundred thousand dollars. We’d be rich.”
“I’ll make you a deal,” said the boy’s father.
The boy’s father stood up and pulled a hardcover dictionary from the shelf above the boy’s bed, the frayed sweater he always wore on non-teaching days riding up as he reached.
“If you can guess the word I’m thinking of on this page, I will give you a hundred thousand dollars.”
The boy stopped crying and guessed.
He guessed wrong.
This time the boy was too confused by this whole whatever-it-was to cry.
“What would you have done if I got it right?”
“I have no idea,” said his father, with a smile-like expression the boy had never seen before. “But you didn’t.”
The boy didn’t quite understand how this lesson had worked—he didn’t have the words for this yet, either. There was something odd and cool about his father’s introduction of this consolation contest, something that he would later be able to describe as something like wryness; some offbeat calm about this presentation of a paradoxical idea, the promise of a possibility that couldn’t possibly be kept. For now, while the boy didn’t yet have the words to explain the feeling, he could feel it, and he liked it, and he wanted to be a part of it. So he accepted this as the conclusion of the story of the cereal-box contest.
On the first box of Corn Flakes, he lost. On the second box of Corn Flakes, he won the $100,000 prize.
But not for long.
The next day the boy ran to the supermarket with all the money he had the second the school bell rang; bought five boxes of Frosted Flakes and another three of Corn Flakes with the same prize offer on the box; and ran back to school in time to catch his bus.He felt especially adult to be riding the bus with grocery bags and desperately hoped that someone would ask him why.
“Why are you carrying grocery bags?” one girl finally asked. “None of your business.”
The boy got home and started ripping up the boxes, starting with Corn Flakes, so that the Frosted Flakes, which he actually liked, would stay fresher a few seconds longer.
On the first box of Corn Flakes, he lost. On the second box of Corn Flakes, he won the $100,000 prize.
The boy checked the other boxes just in case he won anything else. He didn’t. That was fine. One $100,000 prize was still a good day’s work.
The boy called a family meeting, his first.
“First, I have a confession to make,” said the boy. “I know we don’t buy sugar cereals or brand-name cereals. But I went to the grocery store by myself today, and I bought more boxes of Corn Flakes and Frosted Flakes so I could enter that contest again. So I broke two rules. I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” said the boy’s mother.
“We understand,” said the boy’s father, with something calm and ironic in his tone again. What was that? Wryness, again? “Thank you for your honesty.”
“Okay, good,” said the boy. “Now the good news: I won the contest. We’re rich!” This story is about to take a more personal turn, and I am starting to feel less comfortable that I am telling it the way that I am. So let me come clean on a couple of things: I am the boy in the story, and this is the story of how I found out my father was not my father.
“Let me see the box,” he said quietly. I handed it to him. He looked at it. “Now let me see another box,” he said. “A losing box.” “Which losing box?” “Any of them.” “There are seven—” “Any fucking box,” he said quietly. “Any box. All of them, just one—any of them.” I walked over with all the boxes. He looked at two and then put the rest back down. “Go to your room for a few minutes. Your mother and I are going to discuss this.”
“There are values,” my father said an hour later to begin the unprecedented second family meeting of the day, “that some people have—that many people have—that most people have. That we understand—that we respect, definitely—that are the prevailing values of the day, even, and we respect that, too, on its own terms, but. But. Respecting a value doesn’t necessarily mean sharing that value—often, but not always—only sometimes, anyway. For your mother and I… We in this household… That’s what we believe.”
I had no interest in college; I planned to be a professional wrestler. But at this point I just needed to find out if this free-falling disappointment even had a floor.
I had no idea what he was talking about. My mother looked like she knew what he was supposed to be talking about, but didn’t like the way he was saying it.
“We are not going to claim the prize,” said my mother.
Now I understood why my father had answered in such a nonsensical way: What he was trying to say made no sense.
“Because it’s based on actions that we don’t allow in this household,” my mother said. “It’s the result of broken rules.”
“But I already broke the rule, and you forgave me,” I said. “It doesn’t work like that,” said my mother. “Why don’t you punish me for that,” I said, “something fair, like grounding me, and then I’ll keep the hundred thousand dollars. You wouldn’t fine me a hundred thousand dollars just for going to the store when I wasn’t allowed to, right? You’d ground me, right? So just ground me. Okay?”
“But everything that would follow would be based on breaking that rule,” said my father. “So any change in our lives—and there would be a great many—would be following from a corrupt core, from a foundation of values we didn’t believe in. Do you understand?”
“This is a test, in a way,” said my mother. “A test of fate.”
“Yes, except there’s no such thing as fate, there are only consequences of previous actions, and coincidences, which are the consequences of factors and decisions which are too many and too minute to be aware of—”
“Okay,” said my mother. “Okay, stop. In any case, it’s a test of our values.”
“How about this,” I offered. “You put all the money in a college fund for me. I’m not even allowed to touch it until I get to college. And then, it’s only to pay for college.”
I stared at them, daring them to turn down a prospect as joyless as this one. If I won a hundred thousand dollars and it all went into a college fund, would it still be the greatest single letdown of my life? Yes. I had no interest in college; I planned to be a professional wrestler. But at this point I just needed to find out if this free-falling disappointment even had a floor.
“No,” said my mother.
“That would still be basing everything on something that isn’t our value system,” said my father. “In terms of college, if you work hard, there are still plenty of ways to earn scholarships or find alternative paths toward a good education without a lot of money.”
“I thought you said all of higher education was corrupt and based only on money,” I said.
My mother looked at my father.
“I said that in a heated moment, in the midst of a stressful tenure… No, there… there are definitely ways…”
I no longer understood my parents.
“Can I at least keep the sugar cereals?” I asked.
They looked at each other.
“Yes,” said my mother.
“All of them?”
They smiled, relieved to have this conversation end on the word “yes.”
“Yes,” they said.
“Okay,” I said.
It wasn’t okay at all, and looking back, I think that question represented the birth—forced under high pressure at the age when a moment like this is bound to be born anyway—of my first pulse of truly sophisticated manipulation.
In that instant, it had suddenly come to me—the way I would imagine a melody suddenly comes to musicians—that if I were to ask that adorably missing-the-point question, I would appear to them like the fifth grader who would leave it at that, who would trust that his parents were always right, instead of the fifth grader who now knew, with certainty and for the first time, that his parents were wrong and that it was his destiny to use all the powers he had, including a calculated flash of the belovedly unpredictable kid logic of their only child, to set things right.
Tom Salzberg was a fifth grader who was old for our grade and acted it. We weren’t exactly friends, but I considered us respectful acquaintances, and I had a sense he would know what to do with this information. I found him at his locker in the three minutes between homeroom and library and quickly told him everything.
“Mm-hmm,” he said. As if this happening were one of many things like this he had to balance today. As if it had happened before. “Mm-hmm. Do you know where the ticket is?”
I told him as we walked into library that I was pretty sure I knew where it was in the house and that in any event I could find it. To show him how much I meant business I rushed through a recap of how I had hidden my motives behind the “can I keep the sugar cereal” story, which I thought would at least amuse him, but even this abridged version he seemed to find uninteresting, and by now he was sitting at the one library computer terminal that had internet, which I knew meant I was about to lose his attention for good.
“If you can get it by Thursday,” he said, eyes fixed on the computer monitor, “we have a half day then for teacher meetings. We’ll be out at eleven-thirty. Battle Creek, Michigan, is an hour and a half away. That’s where Kellogg’s headquarters is.” He tilted the screen toward me and revealed a picture of an immense, futuristic, fortress of a building—the last wholesome fantasy of a middle-school boy. “Tell your parents you have a soccer game after school and my parents are giving you a ride home after dinner. Tell them that we’re having pizza.” I didn’t play soccer or eat pizza, but I accepted this story unedited, and so did my mother when I got home from school that afternoon.
There was then, in our house, an unused staircase behind the kitchen that my mother had long ago decided was too steep to be safe. Instead, it had been repurposed as a mostly empty diagonal closet where my parents kept things like tax returns and unwrapped presents. It was closed off by an unlocked door on both sides, and while I had glanced quickly inside a handful of times over the years whenever one of the doors had somehow slightly opened, I had never actually personally opened the door, for fear of accidentally ruining my own birthday or the still-ambiguous-by-mutual-agreement myth of Santa Claus.
Separately, I had, two years earlier, toward the beginning of third grade, realized in an epiphany over an inspiringly decadent breakfast-for-dinner that midnight was not actually the middle of the night: If the night was something that started at 8:00 p.m. and ended at 7:00 a.m., as I knew it to be, then the middle of the night was actually 1:30 a.m. My parents happily confirmed this for me. Although my bedtimes had shifted in the years since, I still believed with stubborn auto-loyalty that 1:30 remained the official unofficial middle of the night.
That night, I stared at my clock until it said 1:29. Then I took a full minute to step out of bed, wearing both socks and slippers, determined to take no chances, and shuffled out of my room on the heels of my feet, rather than tiptoe, which I had noted long ago was actually more squeaky than “tip-heel,” my own invention as far as I knew. I stepped out and opened the door that I had walked by thousands of times, and then for the first time I took one step after another down the staircase, until I was alone amid the clutter and mystery, unarmed except for a small emergency flashlight that cast a small square light into the cold diagonal corridor, where everything was more or less the color of manila.
On top of a video game I had asked for a long time ago was a dust-free white envelope. I picked it up. It wasn’t even licked shut. Inside was the winning strip of cardboard from the Corn Flakes box. I put it in my pajama-pants pocket and returned the envelope to where it was. I slipped back up the stairs, closed the staircase door, put the cardboard code under my pillow, and waited for 7:30, never closing my eyes except to blink, constantly checking to make sure that the code hadn’t evaporated.
The dictionary that had been used for the now-even-more-irrelevant contest rematch was still on my dresser. Out of an instinct I didn’t have the word to describe yet—irony? panache?—I put the winning code in the middle of that dictionary, put the dictionary in my backpack, and took it to school.
At lunch, I found Tom Salzberg in the cafeteria and showed him the scrap of cardboard.
Tom stared at the numerical code and the YOU ARE A WINNER message right below it for a long time. He had been convinced the whole thing was real when he had only my word to go on; now, staring at the actual evidence, he seemed somehow less sure about it all.
“50-50,” he finally said.
“No,” I said. I hadn’t expected to pay him anything. “80-20,” I said.
He squinted in consideration for one second, then made a face identical to the Robert De Niro face that had failed to win him placement in the class talent show and shook my hand.
“I’ll buy the bus tickets with my mom’s credit card, and then I’m going to call us a taxi to take us to the Greyhound station.” I had never been in a taxi before but didn’t feel like letting him know that.
“Shotgun,” I said.
The Battle Creek, Michigan, headquarters of Kellogg’s looks like a spaceship built to look like a pyramid that was then hastily converted into a public library during a period of intergalactic peace. It looks exactly as you would hope it would look. As fun as it is to try to describe, I still recommend you look it up. It’s really something, and it will help you imagine how it felt to be a pair of eleven-year-old boys walking up to it, secretly carrying a secret code worth $100,000 in a backpack.
We walked through the glass doors as if we had a business meeting ourselves, as businessmen and businesswomen streamed in and out of the building around us, none of them questioning our right to be there. When we finally reached the all-glass reception desk inside, I realized I didn’t know what to say.
“Prize Department, please,” said Tom.
“I’m sorry, how can I help you two?” said the reassuringly plain-looking woman at the desk, a woman with brown hair and plastic glasses who looked like she could have been one of our teachers.
“Prize Department—Sweepstakes Prize Subdivision,” said Tom with even more authority. “Also check under Giveaways—Secret Code Redemption.”
“Do you have a name, or a person you’re looking for?” she said. I took the winning code out of my backpack and—holding it tight with two hands, not trusting even this palpably kind woman, our one ally so far—held it for her to see, but not touch.
“Oh my. Congratulations! How exciting. Are you two brothers?”
“No way,” said Tom. “Prize Department, please.”
“It’s my ticket,” I said. “He’s just my friend.”
“What’s your name?” the woman asked. I gave her a copy of my school ID. She paused as she read the name and looked at me again.
“Let me just copy this, and you wait here.”
We sat on the stiff leather couch for five minutes until an extremely tall, extremely confident, very handsome, and athletic-looking man in a notably soft-looking suit walked up to us and smiled. “Congratulations. Which of you is the winner?” he asked, but he was staring at me the whole time.
“I am,” I said.
“Congratulations,” he said again, extending a hand. I stood up so I could shake his hand appropriately, and he shook it so hard it hurt. “Come to my office and let’s discuss this.”
Tom stood up, too.
“Just the contest winner,” said the man.
Tom kept standing. “It’s a trap,” he blurted, his voice breaking, exactly as our books on puberty had warned us might happen but had never happened so far. “It’s a trap!”
“It’s not a trap,” said the man.
“What department are you in?” asked Tom. “Can we see some ID?”
“I’m Executive Vice-Chairman of the Kellogg’s corporation,” said the man in the suit, “and I don’t need to show ID here.”
Tom sat down.
The man gestured toward the long hallway ahead of us—after you, the gesture said—and even though I didn’t know where we were going, he let me lead the way, until we got to the elevator and he pressed the top button, and he took it from there.
The office was huge, and quiet. Windows looked out over all of Michigan, to Grand Rapids and beyond; there were many windows, or more accurately so much window, that the room was very bright even with none of the lights on. Little toys were neatly lined up across his long windowsill—a tiny basketball, a tiny pistol, a tiny lemon—each of them sitting on top of a bronze label on a plaque. Also on the walls were about a half dozen framed, colorful drawings, each signed by many children, thanking him for their “super” and “great” and “super great” and “wonderful” experiences on field trips.
“You have an unusual last name,” the man said, and then said all five syllables of it correctly.
I said yes, I had never met anyone else with it, and it seemed that no one could ever spell or pronounce it. I was impressed he had gotten it right.
He asked more easy and straightforward questions: who my parents were and what they did; what town I was from; whether I had brothers or sisters. It was a great relief, in the midst of such an intimidating situation and environment, to be asked questions I could answer without even trying to think. I kept talking, letting each answer of mine go longer than the last, which led him to even more questions. How’s school? Public, private? Easy, hard? Sports? Baseball, soccer? Tigers, Red Wings? Video games? Friends, best friends, bullies, girls? What do you want to be when you grow up? How do you get along with your parents? Do they often buy Kellogg’s products?
Before long everything tumbled out: how my parents had strict policies against both sugar cereals and name-brand cereals, even the healthy ones; how I had felt drawn to the box in the store anyway; how I had, to my embarrassment now, cried when I lost, which I knew I was too old to do; that very weird follow-up contest that my father had set up for me with the dictionary and the expression he made that I didn’t know how to describe; how I had gone back to the store by myself after school; the bizarre and nonsensical things my parents had said about why it was somehow against our values to redeem the prize; how strange it had felt to be sure for the first time that my parents were wrong, and how frustrated and confused and angry it had made me; the staircase, Tom, 80-20, how the taxi driver didn’t want to let me sit in the front seat for some reason.
After I said everything, he stared at me for a second and paused.
“I can’t give you the prize.”
My mind first went to Tom, warning me that this was a trap.
“Regulations prohibit families of Kellogg’s employees from participating in this contest or claiming a prize,” he said. Then he smiled, and there was—the only time I’ve ever seen this in real life, and a phrase I had never been able to quite understand until now—a glint in this person’s eyes.
“And I’m your father.”
“I’m going to tell you a story. And then you tell me what you want to do.
Twelve years ago, I was a visiting lecturer at the Steven M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I was twenty-nine years old at the time. I was the youngest senior vice president in the history of Kellogg’s. I had called up the school myself and offered up my services as a visiting lecturer for one semester. I explained how it was important to give something back to the community, be a role model, to whom much is given much is expected, all that. But that wasn’t it at all. By the way, if I never see you again, and end up teaching nothing else to you—that’s the one thing I want you to have learned from me. People—even good, impressive people—always want something simple and unimpressive. Everything good and impressive that they do in their lives is a result of the impressive path they take to get what they want—not a result of wanting an impressive thing. It’s what brought me here. It’s what brought you here.
“I was really giving myself one semester—that’s only three months—to find a wife. Someone genuine and beautiful and interesting, and someone outside the circles in which I lived. This wasn’t much time, but I was an overachiever, and confident, and I was used to accomplishing things in very set periods of time.
We continued to talk about this for the rest of the afternoon, over dinner that night, and the next morning over a balanced breakfast.
“On the first day of the first class, I saw her. Pale, freckles, hair in a messy, frizzy light poof. T-shirt. Beautiful. The reason I was there—I knew that right away. Last seat of the last row. She looked like she didn’t want to be there, and she didn’t: It turned out she was a French literature major, and this class was the economics requirement that she had delayed until her final semester because she hated anything that had to do with money. So I wasn’t in the best position to impress her. Which I liked, too.
“There were twenty students in the class, so I was able to institute fifteen-minute meetings with each student individually each week. I scheduled hers last, on Friday afternoons. I was even more taken upon second sight than I was at first. She was brilliant and sarcastic; inner fire, light touch, certain of her values, which I had a sense were better than mine and which I wanted to learn from. I was sold.
“Now, there were two pretty considerable obstacles in my path. The woman was about to become engaged to the only man she had ever dated, her boyfriend of five years, a man she told me she loved definitively. And in addition to that, she went out of her way to make it clear that, separately, she had absolutely no attraction to or interest in me as person. She emphasized these things a little gratuitously, in fact.” He laughed.
“I continued to meet each of the students once a week for the twelve weeks of the class, just to justify seeing this woman. Every week when the two of us sat down, I started with the same question: ‘How’s your boyfriend?’ ‘Couldn’t be better’ was her answer every time, and then we would run out the rest of the fifteen minutes in a conversation about basic economics that neither of us had any interest in. This was nine weeks. The tenth week, I didn’t ask my opening question, and we just talked about economics the whole time. The eleventh week, she brought up her boyfriend right away and walked me through her doubts about the relationship for the entirety of the session, which this time ran almost an hour.
“On the final week of the semester, she told me that she was questioning everything in her life, that her relationship had in fact been over for some time, and that she didn’t know what to do. We continued to talk about this for the rest of the afternoon, over dinner that night, and the next morning over a balanced breakfast.
“She stopped returning my phone calls immediately and moved out of her dormitory. After several weeks, I tracked down her parents’ residence through a student directory to which I was not supposed to have access, and she picked up the phone in another room and delivered all the following news in the space of about a minute: She was pregnant, she was getting married within the month, and it had taken her brief time with me to make her realize that her boyfriend was and would always be the love of her life. I was never to contact her again. They were in love, she said.
“I was in love, too. I suggested that I might confront her fiancé and tell him everything, including my theories as to the timing of the pregnancy. She said she had already told him everything, that they were determined to raise the child as theirs, and that I was not welcome in their lives in any way. She raised the prospect of a restraining order against me and, more chillingly, whatever reputation-ruining accusations would be necessary for her to obtain one.
“But it was actually her passion that gave me pause, more than her threats. Because while I knew I was in love, I could see that my love wasn’t as big as their love, and I decided that was reason enough for me to retreat. That’s the part that I’ve questioned since, and I’ll tell you why in a moment.
“Now, as you can see”—he leaned back and gestured around the office and to the immense window behind him—“I have an excellent career and, all in all, an excellent life. But I was right to try to act fast in that three-month semester: In the dozen years since, I have not come close to finding a person I’ve wanted to share that life with. Not anywhere close. So I share my life with no one. I am happy, make no mistake. The life I live alone is a great one. But I do wish I had a family. It’s the rare goal that has eluded me so far.
“Your parents love each other very much. From the information I know, I wouldn’t try to argue that they are anything less than one of the great love stories of our age. That they would sacrifice everything—from money, to truth, to enjoyment of the universally acknowledged finest breakfast cereals in America— just to stay loyal to each other, and to the family they were determined to have together? It’s something. It really is.
“But I ask you—and I can tell you’re smart enough to grapple with a real question: Is love such a strong force that it needs to be obeyed by the people who lie outside it?
“Think about this, specifically. The love of your mother for the man you know as your father is the ultimate force known to those experiencing it. Fair. Fine. But to anyone else? To me? To you? Is it selfish to impose the consequences of your love—infinite only to you—on the lives of others? If it means denying someone something as big as the life he was meant to have?”
He pointed to me with the same hand that had gestured out the window. “What sneakers do you wear? What musical instruments can you play? What languages do you speak? Have you ever been to the Olympics? Read a book in a café in Barcelona? Pretended to read a book in a café in Barcelona? What colleges does it not even occur to you to wonder about?”
I asked him if he thought, like my mother did, that this was a test of fate.
“It certainly feels like fate in this moment, doesn’t it?” he said, smiling. “But if you really think about it, it’s actually more magical, more special—more faithful, even, in the bigger way, and to say nothing of more true—to not believe in fate.
“Fate, to me, simply means that all the billions of microscopic actions we can’t calculate lead to consequences that feel right because they are right. They fit, they follow. We can’t see and understand all the causes behind everything, but I think it’s more magical to accept that they’re there than it is to believe that they’re not, and that something called ‘fate’ is filling all that space instead.
“Whatever you call it, fate, not-fate—and I usually do just call this fate, by the way, just because it’s simpler, it sounds more optimistic, more true to the spirit of what I mean—it’s better branding—but whatever it was, something in your nature drew you to that cereal box in the store. The promise of bigger things, brighter colors, better tastes. Curiosity. Chance. Fun. The promise of money. Hope. The feeling of being a part of the national experience—populism, you could call it; patriotism, you could call it. Then you were told that this cereal wasn’t something you could have—and you broke a rule. You broke several rules, and you never break rules—that’s how loud this called to you. I don’t believe it was fate that did this, to speak honestly, no. I believe it was bigger than that. Grander than that. Because these are drives that are in your blood—just the way that they’re in mine. If you were someone else’s son, these drives wouldn’t be in you, and you wouldn’t have been drawn to that box the way you were. These drives are not, with all due respect, in the blood of a philosophy professor who would say that he doesn’t believe in sugar cereals on principle. And I actually mean that phrase—‘with all due respect’—because I do respect it. It’s just not me. And it’s sure as hell not you. Because when you won the prize and then were told the prize wasn’t something you could have, that didn’t work for you. The exact same way it wouldn’t have worked for me. Something in your nature was telling you that the rules of your childhood home weren’t the rules of your life anymore. You broke those rules and then kept breaking them, because you wouldn’t let anything stand in between you and what you knew you were destined to have. You followed an impulse. A chain of impulses. Impulses that were there for a reason. And now, here you are.
“Your parents lied, too. They wouldn’t allow popular cereals into the house not because of the price or because they aren’t healthy—I could give you a stack of nutritional information comparing our cereals with the homemade pancakes you told me you eat several times a week—but because of the personal associations for them. And they wouldn’t let you claim your prize because they knew it would lead you to learn the truth. They knew that all sweepstakes of this kind are never applicable for family members of company employees and that even the most perfunctory background check by the company, especially with a last name as distinct as yours—even Beverly, at the desk, whom I’ve known for twenty years, noticed it—would lead someone in some department to take notice and allow us—force us, by federal law—to not only deny you the prize, but also blow up this family mythology they already sacrificed so much in order to invent and protect. Look, I can’t blame them. You’re an extraordinary young person.
“So, as I’ve said, I can’t offer you the prize. But I can offer you something else.”
A part of me wondered if he was going to pull a dictionary down from the wall.
“You can be my son.”
He handed me a business card.
“Think it over. Think about who you are and how you see yourself going forward. And if it makes sense to you, give me a call. Don’t let your mother see this, of course.”
He shook my hand again, just as hard.
Tom leapt up off the couch when he saw me cross back into the lobby.
“What happened? How did it go?”
“It’s called the Promotions Department, idiot,” I said. “Not the Prize Department.”
On the bus ride back to Grand Rapids, I stared out the window for the hour and a half.
I imagined what Michigan would look like—or what it would feel like to look out at Michigan—if I were the kid of the executive, and then if I were just the kid of my family. The two feelings felt very different.
I liked them both.
I liked the feeling of being able to switch back and forth in my mind, too.
I wished the bus ride were longer.
“How was Tom’s? How was pizza?”
I forgot all about the lie I had told my mother, that I was having pizza at Tom’s. It seemed quaint, and cozy, and sad.
“It was good.”
“What kind did you get?”
“Yum! You have room for dessert?”
“Yes,” I said. “Why?”
“What do you mean, ‘why’?” My mother laughed. “In case you want to have dessert with us!” I looked over into the kitchen and saw my dad in his sweater, making a pot of mint tea the way he always did after dinner.
I loved my parents so much.
“Go upstairs and put your things away,” said my mother. “It’ll be ready in about five. Ice cream sundaes.”
I went up to my room and took the business card out of my pocket. I noticed that it was now completely crumpled from how tightly I must have held it on the bus ride back.
I put the business card in the dictionary and came down for dessert.
My father set out three teacups and three ice cream bowls.
“Would you like some tea?”
“Yes, please,” I said. “Thank you.”
“It’ll go well with the ice cream,” said my mother. “Hot and cold.”
I noticed a tub of frozen yogurt on the table.
“Is there ice cream?”
“This is the ice cream,” said my father about the yogurt. “You put whipped cream and sauce on this, and all buried in a sundae, you don’t know the difference.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Except there’s no whipped cream,” said my mother.
“Then why did you say it?” I asked.
“Hypothetically,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “Can you pass the chocolate sauce?”
He handed me a fragile-looking glass bottle.
“We don’t have chocolate sauce. This is agave syrup.”
“I met my real father today,” I said.
It wasn’t that I didn’t love my parents after that. I did, and I still do. We’re still in touch.
But while I loved my family, I also knew that it wasn’t who I was anymore. I was a name-brand kid, and I was meant to have a name-brand life.
Sometimes I wish I had learned everything earlier and that my real life could have started sooner. Other times, I’m glad that the first part of my life lasted as long as it did. It doesn’t really matter, though. None of it could have been any different.
As for fate—or not-fate—I’m still not sure about it, but it’s not something that keeps me up at night. I’ve lived it, and the people who think about that kind of thing can call it whatever they want.
Benjamin (B.J.) Novak is a writer and actor best known for his work on the Emmy Award-winning American television series The Office, on which he contributed as an actor, writer, director, and executive producer. He is also known for his appearances in films, such as Inglourious Basterds and Saving Mr. Banks, and for his standup comedy performances.
This story is excerpted from One More Thing by B.J. Novak. Copyright © 2014 by B.J. Novak. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.