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I'll Follow My Secret Heart

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The third day after Christmas is Quentin’s number one favorite day of the year.

The day after Christmas he usually spends schlepping home through snow and ice from a relative’s house in New Jersey or Connecticut, emotionally drained. Or nursing a hangover. Or, in all honesty, both.

Christmas itself he typically spends doing the drinking that will account for that hangover, in between fending off nosy questions about his personal life and pretending to be interested in advice that is as vague as it is unsolicited.

Plenty of decent gals right here in Colt’s Neck, if that’s your taste, or plenty of fellas who earn a good living, for that matter, seeing as . . . you don’t mind, or . . . as I understand it . . . well. I don’t know how you go about choosing, speaking for myself, but you live your life. LGBTQ, and all that. Very good.

Not a lot of money in teaching, I don’t think. Your cousin Evan works in the finance and he can introduce you, you know, if you ever called him up. You’ve got to reach out to people, Quentin.

I know your father would have wanted to see you happy. I told him you’d sort yourself out eventually, but you know he worried for you so much right up until the end.

Oof.

The second day after Christmas is still kind of a buffer of a day—a day for readjusting, cleaning, doing laundry, putting away the holiday decorations and botanical garlands and all the fucking mistletoe his housemate Julia insists on blanketing the place with even knowing, every year, she’ll be off on some vacation with their other housemates, Kady and Penny, when actual Christmas hits. Quentin is always grateful to be invited on these trips, but always infinitely more grateful to be allowed to beg off, no questions asked. Julia knows how much he likes his quiet time.

And so: the third day after Christmas—tomorrow—is the Goldilocks perfect day he looks forward to all season. The stressful family-oriented and awkwardly churchy holidays will be well behind him. There’ll still be plenty of time before the nonsense of New Years, and he’ll still have a full week of vacation left before his classroom full of eight-year-old miscreants reconvenes.

He’s not even working his EMT side gig this week. He might even have told them he was out of town completely for the full duration, so as not to get called in for last-minute coverage on New Year’s Eve. He shudders. It’s just nonstop drunk accidents and alcohol poisoning. Why don’t people just stay in on New Year’s? Honestly.

The third day after Christmas is a day all his own, time to do whatever he feels like doing.

What he feels like doing this year is turning off the Wi-Fi, baking, snacking, reading, listening to records, and maybe lighting some scented candles and soaking in a hot bath until his toes turn to prunes. A part of him has always wondered what it would be like I live in another era, and he can . . . what’s an adult version of playing pretend? Reenact history? That only counts when there’s an audience, or some fellow re-enactors, he thinks. But—no matter. No one’s here to judge him. That’s the beauty of the third day after Christmas.

He figures he’ll get a head start tonight, first prepping a couple of sourdough loaves that will rise overnight, then baking buttery rosemary shortbread cookies he’ll enjoy with his coffee in the morning. That, he tells himself, will be the perfect way to wake up on the perfect day. As perfect as he can wish for, being an eternally single person, that is.

Which is how Quentin comes to find himself, on the eve of his favorite day of the year, teetering on a footstool in the butler’s pantry, arms full of three types of flour, at the moment the power goes out, the moment the entire building—the entire neighborhood—plunges into near-complete darkness.

#

The night midway between Christmas and New Year’s is Eliot’s least favorite night of the year. He hates it so, so much.

This week is always stupidly unbalanced, socially speaking, with all the interesting parties bookended as close to each holiday as possible, leaving a vacuum in between. A vacuum he doesn’t appreciate. This year, even Margo—his ride-or-die—is AWOL, off at some type of spa retreat in the Arizona desert. It sucks.

Eliot loves almost everything about the holidays themselves—the way the city is transformed by lights and music, the cheer that buoys strangers on the subway. The aforementioned parties, everyone participating convincingly in the temporary fiction of good will toward men or, failing that, halfway decent blow jobs enthusiastically given. The excuses to shower his acquaintances with gifts and affection and—why not?—reciprocal blow jobs. Seasonal cocktails—a select few are quite drinkable, in fact.

He’ll never reveal this to a soul, but he even loves the crowds of out-of-towners. Or at least he feels a tender twinge for the starry-eyed farm boys among them who need the dream of New York like they need air to breathe, the gangly teenagers who he can tell at a glance spent an hour in the hotel bathroom getting their hair to look just so, then thirty seconds mussing themselves so their families wouldn’t get wise.

Eliot loves the whimsical, extravagantly high-concept holiday window displays at Bergdorf’s. He really ought to love them, because he’s in charge of creating them now. The Bergdorf holiday windows are Eliot’s Oscars, or his World Cup, or whatever would be his World Cup if it happened every year, he doesn’t follow sports, okay?

Maybe neither of those analogies holds up, because it’s never his name or face in the spotlight, it’s always his collaborator, Fen—which is just as he wants it. The point is it’s a big meaty project he can sink his teeth into. He can stay busy, get Margo off his back, qualify for health insurance, and create some fun spectacles, all without really risking anything.

Put another way, the Bergdorf windows gig is the only thing he has going for him at the moment. But why would a person ever put something so grimly, having a choice? Yes, it’s true that he spends the rest of his year creatively blocked and aimless, picking up the most random of odd jobs and side hustles, hoping against hope to stumble across something that interests or even inspires him. But the Bergdorf window displays, at least, are exhilarating, immersive, exhausting. He disappears into the work, blissfully, for months upon months. And when the figurative curtain descends at the end of each season and he stops being busy, he has certain strategies at the ready to avoid sinking into despair.

Like any good hedonist, he knows the value of a proper restorative pause. At one point in his life, he was only going through the motions, nodding along when people at cocktail parties talked about cleansing breaths and how amazing meditation is. But then something clicked, and he started actually doing that stuff more than talking about it, and now he’s in the habit of spending his dreaded in-between days in late December doing woo-woo things like setting an intention for the year, meditating on openness to new experiences, and recalibrating his energy. Definitely not wallowing in self-pity.

Earlier this month he saw a flyer pinned to the corkboard at yoga, the ubiquitous shoe-area corkboard every yoga studio has, advertising a meditative year-end vow-of-silence Walkabout in nature somewhere in Australia. Australia is bit far to go, honestly, and also selling a Walkabout to privileged New Yorkers is the definition of cultural appropriation, he’s pretty sure, but he likes the idea of a vow of silence. So much better than just plain no one to talk to. And there are quiet places in New York, contrary to popular opinion.

Which is how Eliot comes to find himself alone in the middle of Central Park on his least favorite night of the year, attempting to admire the city’s lights from a secret spot he doesn’t hate atop a granite outcropping, when a blackout cascades across the city in a wave.

He tips his chin up, listening to the creak of snow-heavy branches around him, feeling a rush of cool air sneak past his scarf. When his eyes adjust he sees something that should be impossible to see in New York City: a twinkling, glittering canopy of stars. He stares for a while. He soaks it all in—the peace, the cosmic majesty. The infinity or whatever.

He can see the storm clouds edging their way in. But before they cover the heavens completely, he sees something move up there. A shooting star, or a satellite. Does it matter? He lets it point the way.

It points, conveniently, to a nearby building that appears to be equipped with a generator: the Upper West Side Gourmet Market.

#

The fridge in the butler’s pantry powers down with a thunk, and in the dark, eerie silence Quentin thinks: crap. And then he thinks: well, actually . . . His stash of cheeses will keep for a day, assuming the blackout lasts that long, if he minimizes opening the fridge door. The oven is already preheating, and it’s a gas range, so he’ll be able to bake and cook. He can boil water on the stove for French press coffee in the morning, and to warm up his bath. He’s gotten pretty good at building fireplace fires since Julia invited him to move into this insane place, and there’s plenty of wood. He’s pretty sure Penny’s camping gear, stashed in one of the fourth floor closets, includes a polar sleeping bag.

He’ll be fine. It’ll be an adventure. He’ll live a little! No better approximation of another era than a total lack of forced air heat and electricity.

He should use up his eggs, though. And as much of the butter as he can. Maybe he’ll add a batch of cookies to tonight’s to-do-list. And a pie. Why does he have quite so much butter, he wonders?

He walks through the house closing doors and turning on taps to a trickle so the pipes don’t freeze, then builds a fire in the great room next to the kitchen.

He measures out flour and salt for the pie crust by candlelight, mentally ticking through the ingredients he has on hand for the rest. He shreds the cold butter into small pieces with flour-coated fingers, evaluating the texture by feel, thinking: I should do this in the dark all the time.

Then he cleans his hands and finds his phone, which is almost fully charged. He calls the Upper West Side Gourmet Market instead of using the app, relieved to reach a human person who confirms they’re open and still doing deliveries during the blackout. He squeezes in an order before that changes. Fresh rosemary for his shortbread, two pounds of stone fruit for the pie, a bag of chocolate chips and some brown sugar for the cookies.

#

Eliot knows the guy who manages this market. Josh. They met when Josh supplied a metric shit ton of oversize meringues for a sugar plum fairy-themed Bergdorf window a few years ago. Later, on a whim, Eliot stepped in as a cater-waiter for Josh once during an emergency, and found he liked the energy of the crew so much that he asked Josh to put him on the list of temps.

Josh has built himself a reputation for supplying chefs around the city with tomatoes that are freakishly ripe and flavorful no matter the time of year, to the tune of $50 per peak tomato. Only in New York.

Funny how you can build a life around one thing you’re brilliant at, Eliot muses. It doesn’t matter how narrow the expertise, as long as you’re the best. Once Josh was established as the Tomato King of New York, everything else began falling into place for him. He’s hinted that a TV show might be in the works, with some sort of gourmand out-on-the-town theme.

As Eliot trudges through the accumulating snow toward the doors of the market, he wonders: Is it happiness, being king of something? Or is it a trap? Once the world gets an idea of who you are, people start thinking they can predict what you’ll do next. You might even start to take their word for it. The idea makes his chest contract, his breath tight.

Inside the steamy warmth of the market, he can feel how cold his face is. He presses his palms to his cheeks. He’ll need to rethink his scarf placement before he ventures out again. He catches sight of Josh bustling about behind a counter, arranging packages and bags.

Josh sets down a phone he’s been holding to his ear and nods in Eliot’s direction. “E-Money! Hey, buddy. What can I get for you?”

“Hey, Josh.” He checks his watch. His vow of silence has lasted approximately 40 hours. “I . . . don’t know.” He’s suddenly very aware of his aimlessness.

“You came out in a combination blizzard and blackout to browse? Don’t you live in the Village?”

“It’s a long story. I’m kind of . . . going where the wind blows. Saw your lights on.”

Josh gives him a pensive look, cocking his head to the side. “You sober right now?”

“Painfully so.” The truth is he hasn’t felt like indulging alone, though this isn’t something he needs to disclose to Josh.

“I only ask because—what if the wind blows you to the doorstep of a notoriously off-limits Gilded Age gem? You geek out on that stuff, right? Be one of the privileged few to get a peek inside. I got a good customer needs a few items and I’m a little pressed for delivery guys in this blizzard.”

Eliot leans forward to read the address Josh is showing him, scrawled on a slip of paper stapled to a plastic bag. His eyes widen. He won’t need Google Maps to find this place. “Whitespire Mansion. Someone actually lives there?”

“Decent guy. He orders all the time.”

Honestly—why not? Sure, Eliot thinks. “Except,” he says, “’I’m on foot.”

“Can you ride a bike? Bikes, I have plenty. You can ride it home after, avoid the subway debacle.”

He hadn’t thought of that. The subway won’t be moving during a blackout. He’s no expert cyclist, but it beats bothering his car service, wrestling for a cab, or walking four or five miles home through the snow. He slides his arms through the backpack Josh proffers, then heads to the loading dock to find a bike, a chain, and a helmet.

“Text me the contact info,” he says.

#

Quentin sets his finished pie crust next to the cool window to wait for filling. This should keep the butter in the crust from getting too soft ahead of the bake. With the fireplace going and the oven on, the place is starting to heat up. Say what you will about Gilded Age industrialists, but they didn’t skimp on building materials. The walls are solid and thick.

The air outside the window is dense with falling snow, lit only by Quentin’s candles and the faint light of a crescent moon.

He strips off his sweatshirt and reties his apron on top of his plain grey t-shirt. He turns his attention to his sourdough ingredients, to the levain that’s been fermenting all day, his battery operated kitchen scale and thermometer. Once he mixes in the remaining flour, the next stage is proving, which takes a couple of hours. Then he can shape the loaves and set them up for the final rise overnight. His mind wanders as he shoves his hands into the sticky mixture.

The thing his aunt Rita said to him at Christmas about his dad is what needles him, because he feels the truth of it deep in his core. He worried for you so much, right up until the end.

His dad had worried. And not about any of the stupid stuff—not Quentin’s job, not money. Only his singlehood. And it was never a Just gotta get out there, son worry. It was more a profound sadness he’d seen in his dad’s eyes. A stunned, melancholy worry like: Gosh, Q. Gonna be a tough match. His dad, who knew him better than most people in some ways, who’d witnessed all of Quentin’s weird anxious tics well before he’d learned to cover them, who understood the escapism impulse at the root of his obsession with children’s fantasy novels, who’d watched his short-lived relationship with Alice fall apart. His dad had seen . . . something. Something that concerned him. Was he right, whatever it was he saw?

He watches the snow come down while he lets the doughy mixture rest.

He tries to nudge his mind toward something more soothing, like a daydream. He’s good at thinking up scenarios.

For example: What if Zelda, the librarian at his local branch, gets sick and—no, that’s terrible. Poor Zelda. What if Zelda comes into an inheritance and decides to take off for a four-month round-the-world vacation-of-a-lifetime and is replaced by a hot temp? Someone brainy with glasses, probably, a Clark Kent type, a novelist doing Zelda a favor before he leaves on book tour, and he happens to be working when Quentin brings his well-behaved class in for a field trip . . . okay, that’s not plausible. Make it a regular librarian, not a children’s librarian, and Quentin can impress him with his questions about literature. Oh, do you have the final book of the . . . what’s a grown-up book series . . . Karl Ove Knausgård autobiography? It’s so brilliant. I was halfway through and I . . . dropped it in the tub. Okay, maybe not that. He can’t admit he reads in the bath, he’ll scandalize the hot temp librarian.

Fuck it. Why is the hot temp librarian about to leave on book tour, anyhow, when Quentin is driving this fantasy? Why can’t Quentin be the one taking a vacation of a lifetime, for that matter?

He’s not big on resolutions, but he thinks of one now: he’ll try to be more adventurous this year. He can at least try. More adventurous and more optimistic. He tries not to predict how long he’ll stick to it, since that wouldn’t be optimistic, would it?

Quentin’s phone buzzes with a text. Most likely a spammy offer of an instant low-interest loan, he thinks, since most of his friends are out of the country, his students’ parents know not to text him after nine, and it’s almost ten now. He carries on folding more flour into his starter, evaluating the texture.

A minute later the phone buzzes again, a third time, a fourth, and his heart leaps into his throat when he realizes the power outage means the doorbell isn’t working, duh, and the delivery person must be about to give up. Fuck. He needs that fresh rosemary.

He throws open the window, feeling the rush of cool air against his neck, and leans out. “Shit! Sorry! I, uh. The buzzer must be—I’ll come down.”

He sees the top of a head down below, obscured by flurries of snow, all helmet and scarf.

“Yep.” A man’s voice, resonant in the strangely quiet street.

#

While he waits at the service entrance for Josh’s customer to come down and let him in, Eliot pulls the plastic bag out of his backpack and peeks inside. Huh. Peaches, rosemary, brown sugar, and chocolate chips. Not exactly a blackout survival kit.

He peers up at the stately building. He’s read about this particular real estate specimen. Okay, he’s watched some Fuzzbeat videos about it. Not because he cares about architecture so much, more because he cares about things that are strange or rare or challenging to access. Whitespire Mansion used to be a historical house museum, but has been closed to the public for decades. It has working dumbwaiters connecting a subterranean wine cellar to a service kitchen on the ground floor, then onward to a dining room on a higher floor and purportedly a ballroom above that. At least one of its bedrooms is outfitted with a freestanding bathtub and wood-burning fireplace. There are rumors of secret passageways, an underground swimming pool, and a botanical garden on one of the upper floors, full of ferns and tropical birds.   

It’s probably a myth. A myth invented by space-starved New Yorkers. But still. He’d like to see.

He tries to picture the person who lives here—someone encrusted with wealth, out of touch, unused to eye contact, unused to doing simple things for themselves like going to the market. Quentin Coldwater is the name on the ticket. He wonders what it will take to charm Scrooge McDuck into letting him see the place. He wonders if it’ll be worth it.

He sees movement in the vestibule, and here’s a surprise: the customer is adorable, ruddy and frazzled, covered in flour and something wet and clumpy. He looks straight at Eliot and smiles as if smiling is just a natural thing a person might do, cheeks dimpling, eyes sparking. Eliot is taken aback, honestly, at the effrontery of eye contact.

The door swings open. A yeasty, buttery aroma wafts out, with notes of wood smoke, and Eliot practically floats into the vestibule, thinking, inexplicably: home.