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games frat boys play
By TODD GREGORY
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Todd Gregory
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNo one looking at my parents would ever guess they're worth over seven hundred million dollars, give or take.
"You're absolutely sure about this?" my father asked, helping himself to some more breadsticks from the basket in the middle of the table. He squinted at me through his horn-rimmed glasses. "I mean, it's not too late to change your mind. I could make a few calls—"
My mother smacked his hand, giving me a warm smile. "Terry, we've been over this a thousand times." She rolled her eyes at me. "He wants to have a normal college experience before he goes to Harvard." She emphasized normal, making me smile a little to myself. She'd been against my decision much more vehemently than Dad in the beginning, but once she came around she was firmly on my side.
We were sitting in a booth in the Olive Garden on Shaw Avenue, about five blocks from the campus of California State University–Polk. The place was largely deserted, which was probably the norm for three in the afternoon. Our waitress, a pretty young girl whose name tag read COLLEEN, refilled our iced tea glasses. She had no idea she was about to get the biggest tip of her serving career—Dad always tipped several hundred dollars, no matter where he ate. He'd worked his way through MIT as a waiter and never forgot what it was like to bust your ass for a few bucks. I smiled at her, and she smiled back.
Dad certainly didn't look like he was capable of tipping that much. He was wearing a red CSU-Polk T-shirt over a pair of worn-looking jeans. He was balding, and he had pale pink skin that turned tomato red with any exposure to the sun. They'd just spent a week in the Bahamas and were about to head off for Tanzania to check on a health clinic they were funding. Dad was chubby and always had a kind of distracted air, like he wasn't really paying attention to what was going on around him because he was lost in thought.
He certainly didn't look like someone who could buy the place with a single phone call.
Likewise, Mom didn't go in for expensive clothes or jewelry. She didn't wear a lot of makeup and was letting her dark brown hair go gray. She wore it really short, and she was dressed just like Dad. Her face was freckled from walking on the beach, and the only jewelry she wore was her wedding ring—a plain gold band. They looked like a nice middle-class couple—an accountant and his wife, maybe, who loved nothing more than spending an evening reading a good book with the television on for background noise.
No one would ever guess that they were so rich they couldn't spend all their money if they tried. And they did try. They gave a lot of it away—but no matter how much they gave away, more came rolling in. They'd both grown up dirt poor and never forgot where they came from. They always tried to give back as a thanks to the universe for their great good fortune.
"Normal," my dad mused, absently munching on a breadstick. "Normal is highly overrated." He waved his breadstick before taking another bite. "If we were normal—"
"I want to have a normal college experience before I go to Harvard in a few years," I said. It was pointless rehashing the argument. I'd won the debate and was enrolled at California State University–Polk—and he wasn't going to talk me out of it. "You've always said, Dad, how growing up normal really prepared you for life, and you both want me to be normal."
"But that's just it, Jordy. You aren't normal, son." Dad finished the breadstick and reached for another one. Mom smacked his hand and he goggled at her ruefully. She raised a warning eyebrow and he meekly put his hands back in his lap, giving the bread basket a longing look. "You have a genius IQ, you speak four languages fluently, and you've never been in school with"—he paused for a moment, trying to find the right word—"regular people your own age." He shrugged. "It can be rough. I just don't want you to be hurt, son."
"I know, Dad." I grabbed the breadstick he'd been trying to get. "But I want to know what it's like." I took a bite and sighed. The Olive Garden's breadsticks were awesome. "I mean, I want to experience it. Besides, I think it will make for an interesting anthropological study—the difference between a place like St. Bernard and a campus like Polk State—the relationships between students, students and the faculties, and so forth. It will make for a very interesting paper."
He sighed. "But for the paper to be authentic scholastically, you have to be removed emotionally from the people you come into contact with. You can't be friends with them, son. You have to remain objective." He frowned. "I just worry, son." He looked at Mom, who just patted his hand.
"I'll be fine," I insisted.
Dad made his money before I was born, so even though I'd heard the stories about what life had been like for them when they were poor, it was something I'd never experienced. I'd had tutors until I was ten, when I was old enough to go to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a private boarding school in the Swiss Alps.
I'd both loved and hated St. Bernard.
I loved that St. Bernard was an excellent place to learn, and the teachers pushed us to work hard. I have an excellent memory, and if I read something I never forget it. I rarely had to study for exams, and usually spent the time my schoolmates spent cramming and memorizing doing extra reading. I loved reading and learning. While my classmates were off skiing or skating or whatever outdoor activity caught their fancy, I was in my room reading.
I hated that my classmates, without exception, were the children of nobility or royalty. There was always a title somewhere in their family. And they were all snobs. Even though my parents probably had enough money to buy and sell theirs, the fact my parents couldn't trace their descent back to Charlemagne or Saladin or some Roman emperor made me beneath their notice, but not beneath their contempt. I had a single room almost the entire eight years I was there, because no one would room with me. I wasn't sure, but maybe they thought rooming with me would somehow make my common-ness rub off on them or something. They mocked me to my face, and who knows what horrible things they said about me behind my back. It hurt, and I hated them and hated being there. Every day was a struggle not to cry in front of them, but every night after lights out in the solitude of my room, I would cry until I fell asleep. There were times when I wished I would die so the cruelty would stop. And I counted the days until the Christmas break, when I could tell my parents face to face I wanted to go somewhere else.
I met them in Cairo that year, determined I wasn't ever going back to St. Bernard. They met me at the airport, and when the time finally came when we were in our suite and I was going to tell them, my father preempted me. "We're so proud of you," my father said, his voice breaking. "The dean called me to tell me what an excellent student you are."
"One of the best things about having all this money," my mother said as she opened the blinds, exposing an amazing view of the pyramids in the distance, "is being able to make sure you get the best education in the world."
"I know some of the other kids probably aren't very friendly," Dad went on. "Some of them are class snobs, right?" I nodded. "That makes absolutely no sense. As if being born into a certain family means you're better than someone else born into a different one. It's who you are, how smart you are, and what you can accomplish that really matters, am I right?"
"So just ignore them." He patted me on the leg. "Just focus on your education, and making the most of this opportunity."
So, I never told them the hell that St. Bernard was for me. I didn't have a single friend in the eight years I was there. It was incredibly lonely, but I lost myself in the world of books—and the Internet. The Internet was a godsend. I could talk to kids back in the United States to alleviate my loneliness, and I kept as low a profile as I could around the school. But it wasn't the real world—it wasn't even remotely close. I envied the kids I talked to online—the ones who went to public schools and lived real lives. I wanted to have real friends. I wanted to go over to someone's home after school and study with them. I wanted to go bowling and ride a bicycle.
I wanted a normal life.
And even though I was accepted into Harvard when I was fourteen—Dad was right about that St. Bernard pedigree—I decided I wanted to go to a state school for two years first. Maybe Harvard wouldn't be as snobbish as St. Bernard, but I wanted to experience something more normal first. And the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. How could it possibly hurt me to go to another university, not as famous or expensive, for the first two years? How could it hurt for me to go to school with kids who didn't spend their summers in palaces or on yachts or on islands in Greece?
It wouldn't, I finally decided, and made up my mind once and for all.
And it would make a good paper.
I'd started doing research my junior year, and went through many Web sites and catalogues before I settled finally on CSU-Polk. The university wasn't even one of the better universities in California—Stanford, Berkeley, USC, and UCLA—but it was adequate. It didn't draw a lot of rich kids—its student base was primarily middle-class kids who often had to work at least part time. It seemed perfect, and was centrally located—almost equally distant from San Francisco as it was from Los Angeles. And Polk itself was a charming little city of a couple hundred thousand people in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley. A little on the conservative side, it is best known for raisins and grape production. It came down to CSUP, Kansas State, and the University of Tennessee—but I finally decided Kansas and Tennessee were probably a little bit too conservative. My decision made, I filled out the application and waited to hear back. I was pretty certain I'd be accepted—I'd already been accepted into Harvard, after all—and sure enough, after about a month the enrollment package arrived.
And the struggle with my parents had begun. Mom was against it in the beginning, and Dad was on my side. Ironically, after Mom was convinced, Dad began to have misgivings, and the two of us had to work on him.
But it had all worked out as I'd known it would, and here we were, sitting in an Olive Garden in Polk, a week before school started.
"Besides—" I finished eating the breadstick, then smothered a grin as Dad watched me mournfully. He really loved Olive Garden's breadsticks. "You agreed it's a good learning experience for me. And we agreed—two years here and I'll make up my mind on my major, and then Harvard." That was what Dad was most worried about—my indecision regarding my major. And while the money didn't really matter, he was impressed that I didn't want to waste money at Harvard trying to figure out my major. He thought it showed a responsibility toward money he really liked.
I didn't really know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew I wanted to work in a field I found rewarding. Even after Dad sold his software company, he and Mom kept busy operating a charity foundation, traveling all over the world building health centers and schools. Some of my schoolmates at St. Bernard were aimless—despite the excellent education they were getting, they were really just counting the days until they were old enough to access their trust funds. Dad and Mom were always afraid I would turn out that way.
"Well, if you change your mind ..." Dad's voice trailed off as Colleen brought the bill. He slid a credit card into the tray and she took it away. He glanced at his watch. "Look at the time! We've got to get to the airport, Mandy." Colleen brought the tray back, Dad signed the receipt, and slid five hundred-dollar bills into the little leather folder. As we walked out the front door, I heard a rather loud "OH!" from behind me. I looked back over my shoulder at Colleen, whose face had gone white. Her mouth was making a perfect "O" as she stared at the five hundred-dollar bills in her hand. I laughed to myself.
If I ever ate there without my parents, Colleen was going to be incredibly disappointed in her tip.
I hugged and kissed them in the parking lot and then waved as they drove their rental car out into the traffic on Shaw Avenue.
I got into my own car and started it, waiting for the air conditioning to cool it down before heading to my apartment.
I was nervous. I had been alternating between excitement and full-out terror ever since I'd arrived in Polk the day before. I would never let them know, of course—they'd just worry, and I figured they were already plenty worried on their own without any assistance from me. What if I couldn't hack it in this environment? What if I couldn't make any friends? What if the kids at St. Bernard were right and I was some kind of freak? I wasn't worried about the academic side of things—I'd already preordered my textbooks, and none of them looked challenging.
I reassured myself from time to time that it couldn't be that hard to acclimate. If I didn't fit in and make any friends to begin with, I would treat it like a scientific experiment. I would observe behavior, see what worked with kids who had lots of friends and what didn't, and then adapt accordingly. It couldn't be that hard. I was very smart—but I had to be careful not to seem too smart. I had started doing research online—leading social workers' and therapists' studies on group dynamics, power structures, and so forth, in my peer group. Some of the behaviors they deconstructed seemed a bit far-fetched to me. There was one in particular that I thought was kind of a stretch. A clinical psychologist named Dr. Mark Drake had done a study of a group of male college students who had, at the instigation of a "group leader," behaved in some pretty horrible ways—drinking, date and gang rapes, and so on. Dr. Drake had concluded that the need for the group leader's approval had convinced the weaker members of the group to do things they ordinarily, under normal circumstances, would never have done.
It seemed incredibly stupid to me, and weak was not a strong enough word to describe the followers who had allowed one person to have so much power over them—and could be so easily influenced into doing things they knew were wrong. I found it incredibly hard to believe, and I finally decided that Dr. Drake's conclusions had to have been faulty.
Psychology, after all, was hardly an exact science.
And even if Dr. Drake's conclusions were accurate, this activity had occurred at a small, elite college in the Northeast where all the students came from privilege; it surely wasn't much of a reach to conclude that this conduct had been the result of ennui.
Surely the students at CSUP wouldn't be like that. From all the research I'd done on the school, the majority of the student body came from the middle class. And I found it hard to believe that kids from a middle-class background would act as poorly as spoiled kids whose parents gave them everything on a silver platter. Some of the students at St. Bernard had fallen into that same category—and I'd avoided them at all costs.
But I was also incredibly excited. I had my own apartment—my own place—for the first time in my life, and I was starting a new adventure, a whole new beginning. I was going to be me for the first time. At St. Bernard, everyone knew who my dad was—we all knew who we all were—but I didn't want to be known as Terry Valentine's son. I wanted to be just Jordy Valentine, another student among the seventeen thousand or so at CSU-Polk. I wanted people to like me for me.
And there was another reason I hadn't shared with my parents.
It wasn't like they'd care one way or the other that I was gay. Of course they would be supportive—they always were. But while I knew at some point I would have to have a conversation with them about it, the whole thought of talking to my parents about my sex life made me squirm. I was a virgin, and I wanted to get that out of the way before I went to Harvard. I'd watched a lot of pornography I'd found on the Internet, and I couldn't wait to give it a try. Maybe, if I was really lucky, I'd fall in love.
Excerpted from games frat boys play by TODD GREGORY Copyright © 2011 by Todd Gregory. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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