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Winner Takes All

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“Thanks for bringing my dick back into the spotlight, you asshole,” Ben says over the phone, laughing.

“Did your dick ever leave the spotlight?” Matt says, picking up a cucumber and eyeballing it for size. He’s grocery shopping and probably wouldn’t have even answered his cell if the Batman theme song hadn’t come trumpeting out of his back pocket. He can’t remember if he’d done that, or if Ben had swiped his phone and done it for him. He still thinks it’s pretty funny. “I’m pretty sure I was reading the Wall Street Journal last night, and there your dick was, front page, being quoted about stock prices.”

“I can’t help it that I have a very intellectual dick,” Ben says, and then, before Matt can respond: “But I’m going to have to ask you to stop talking about him in public. It’s really detracting from my artistic integrity, you know?”

“You have artistic integrity? I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. When’d you pick that up, before or after He’s Just Not That Into You?”

Ben laughs again, a loud and barking laugh, so that Matt has to hold the phone away from his ear a little. He realizes that he’s still holding the cucumber and drops it into his basket, where it sits, innocuously, next to the large tub of lotion his wife had asked him to grab. Great.

“Don’t start with me, Happy Feet,” Ben says. “I know you cried in that movie. I know you saw it twice.”

“Had to do something in between staring at the freeze-frame of your danglin’ wang in Gone Girl for hours. Look, I gotta go, I’m on dinner duty tonight.”

“Yeah, okay. Call me later. If you can ever tear your eyes away from my wagglin’ dong.”

“Danglin’ wang,” Matt corrects him, and then he hangs up the phone, because they’d stopped saying requisite goodbyes years ago, before cell phones were even a thing.

At the checkout counter, there’s a tabloid with a rough picture of Ben on the cover, all scruffy and unshowered, and the words MARRIAGE IN CRISIS! stamped over his chest. Below that: Is best friend Matt Damon to blame?

Matt groans and shoves a copy of Good Housekeeping in front of it. Eva Longoria’s leaning against a table, talking about Thanksgiving recipes and how her family keeps her going.

Now there, Matt thinks, is a magazine with artistic integrity.

Matt makes cheeseburgers the way Ben likes them, well done (what kind of man doesn’t like his meat a little rare, that’s what Matt wants to know) and smothered in cheddar cheese, even though Matt’s been cutting back on dairy products since being hounded by activists. It’s really nothing out of the ordinary, firing up the grill for guests, except that their wives and kids are out of town and Ben keeps smirking at him from his chaise lounge.

“Step one, a romantic dinner,” Ben says in this irritating singsong voice he’s taken to using lately. Thinks he’s real funny, flaunting to the press, blowing steam out of Matt’s ass. “After all, through a man’s stomach is the fastest way to his heart —”

“Shut your trap,” Matt says, and considers letting his burger burn.

“Or is it his cock? I’ve never actually been sure.”

The thing is, Matt is forty-four years old and he feels it, most of the time. He’s a dad and he’s a husband and his girls seek his advice and he tells them to do the exact opposite of what he would’ve done when he was their age, and sometimes when he’s worked up, his father’s words come flying out of his mouth, all “money doesn’t grow on trees” and “go ask your mother” without ever thinking about it first. He’s somehow turned into the man he swore he’d never be, and he likes it, likes being older and wiser and a little less stupid.

But being around Ben — sometimes he’s twenty again, and he likes that too.

“If it was his cock you would’ve put out long before now,” Matt tells him, unearthing two beers from the icebox across the deck. He opens them both and passes one to Ben, takes a long drink and wipes his mouth. “I’ve been feeding your cheap ass for longer than I can even remember.”

“Yeah, well, you’re my elder. That’s your job.”

Ben sits up suddenly and sets his bottle aside. “Almost forgot!” he adds, and reaches for a plastic bag beneath his seat that Matt hadn’t even noticed. “Picked this up for you, thought it’d work well with the aesthetic we’ve got going lately.”

He pulls some sort of cloth material out and, without permission, loops the strings of it around Matt’s neck, and then he’s revolving around him, pulling it tight and tying it off behind Matt’s back.

Matt looks down in dismay. It’s an apron. With Ben’s face on it.

Ben Affleck Kissed This Cook, it says, in bright bold letters.

Ben looks stupidly proud of himself. Matt stares at him and releases a long breath through his nose. “You are going to be the fucking death of me,” he says, but he can’t help but say it fondly.

on air with ryan seacrest transcript excerpt: november 22nd, 2014.

RYAN SEACREST: Welcome back! Seacrest live and on air in Hollywood, sitting here with Matt Damon. Glad you’re with us, buddy.

MATT DAMON: Yeah, me too! Me too. I love radio interviews. I love any interview where I don’t have to wear pants.

RS: I can confirm that Matt actually isn’t wearing pants right now. Which, speaking of—

MD: (Laughs) Oh God.

RS: I have to ask, you know, because it’s been in the news again lately and I think people have questions about your good pal Ben Affleck.

MD: I knew you were going to go there. Okay, yes. Let’s talk about my good pal Ben.

RS: There was an article in People recently, apparently, Ben came out and said that you were, uh, stepping up the friendship game a little more lately—

MD: Complete bull-(censored)! Oh, sorry, I can’t say that— totally not true, not at all. Ben’s always like that, you know, he tries something and he gets rejected so he blames it on the other person, I mean, we all remember what happened after Gigli, right? No, I’m joking, I’m joking, Ben and Jennifer are still good friends. But here’s the truth about this, okay? Ben Affleck calls me during thunderstorms.

RS: He calls you—

MD: During thunderstorms. He gets scared, and he’s too much of a wimp to wake his wife up, so he crawls into the bathroom and calls me, and I have to calm him down. I have to sing him lullabies.

RS: And you do it?

MD: I do it, of course I do it, I’m a good friend. When I was in Africa a few months back, when he couldn’t call me so easily, you know, I had to make a recording and send it to him, I’m pretty sure he listens to it every night before bed. Ben loves the sound of my voice. He can’t get enough of it. So he’s, you know, he’s the needy one in this relationship and he feels emasculated. That’s why he made up the date thing. He craves it. He craves me.

RS: And there you have it, listeners. Ben Affleck craves the sound—

MD: The dulcet tones.

RS: —the dulcet tones of Matt Damon’s voice.

There was a time, in his mid-twenties, when Matt thought for a minute that maybe he was gay.

He'd decided later that it was the culmination of a lot of late nights and little sleep and zero time to talk to girls, and maybe some media influence, too, because those rumors were high and flying then — but one evening he’d looked at Ben, across the laminate table of some greasy diner, dim lights and high on writing something that felt important, and he’d thought, oh, okay, maybe.

He didn’t know what to do with those sudden feelings except wait them out and see if they stuck; he wasn’t afraid of being gay, or anything, just wasn’t sure if he actually was, and it was a bitch trying to figure it out while at the same time wondering if maybe Ben was a little gay for him too. They hugged a lot, but Ben hugged all of his friends a lot. They spent all of their time together, but Good Will Hunting wasn’t exactly an overnight affair. Sometimes Ben would grab the inside of his knee when they were sitting next to each other on the couch, but —

He didn’t have a but for that one.

One night they got plastered together in a sketchy bar in Toronto, and Matt decided he’d try to kiss Ben, because he was drunk enough that it seemed rational, and besides, he didn’t know what else to do. Ben was sitting there on his barstool talking about this book he’d read ten years ago, and Matt wasn’t listening but he nodded along anyway, and he thought, not now. Not right up against the bar where anyone could see.

And then they played darts in the back room, and they were the only ones in there because it was a Wednesday and cold even for April, and Matt won four times in a row but then let Ben win once, just to be nice, and he was pleased when he’d done it, and it could’ve been the right moment, but he thought, not now. Not when it would seem like it was some sort of weird congratulatory thing.

And then they paid their tab and called for a taxi, and Ben guided Matt into the backseat with both hands and leaned forward to talk to the driver, and then he’d slumped back into his seat and looked at Matt with a crooked grin, and Matt thought, not now. Not when there was no chance of escape.

And then they got back to their hotel, and they cracked open more beers in Ben’s room, and Ben talked about the auditions they’d gone on together when they were kids, and Matt wasn’t listening but he nodded along anyway, and he thought, not now, and then Ben kissed him.

It was hard and sloppy, Ben yanking him forward by the collar of his shirt, mouths crashing together, once, at first, and then twice, noses bumping, and then just when the surprise had faded it was over as suddenly as it’d started.

“Okay, there,” Ben said, when he’d pulled away, sounding exasperated. “You got it out of your fuckin’ system yet?”

“I — what?”

“All week now you’ve been staring at me with this moony fucking look on your face, like you’ve seen me in some new light, and you’ve been thinking about kissing me all night long, I could tell, so there, you got it. You feeling something?”

Maybe it was because of the alcohol, but Matt actually took the time to consider. Did he want to kiss Ben again? It was alright, he conceded, but nothing that set his nerves on fire. Did he really want to cuddle up next to him in bed and play footsie at dinner and stick a hand down his pants in dark corners?

“Nah,” Matt said, honestly. “Think I’m good.”

“Thank Christ. I would’ve been really pissed if you started getting all shy and giggly around me. Now knock it the fuck off, you hear?” Ben released his grip on Matt’s collar and settled back into the couch, brought his beer up to his lips. “You know who’s hot? Minnie. You should totally go for Minnie.”

Matt and Ben are having a business lunch.

It’s fucking hilarious, because it really is a business lunch. They’ve got plans laid out on paper all over the table. Matt’s briefcase is propped up against his chair. Ben’s wearing a tie.

When they were teenagers they’d sit at the lunch table and talk, very seriously, about the things that were important to them at the time: acting, writing, and girls, occasionally, and mostly from Ben. They’d get annoyed if someone interrupted them. They’d jot down their ideas on legal pads they’d stolen from Matt’s father. They’d get french fries and wipe their hands on the back of their jeans to avoid getting grease stains on their notes. They were, in essence, little boys dressing up in business suits and trying to sound mature.

And now they’re here.

“You think we should’ve invited other people to this thing?” Ben asks, circling something with blue ink and then poppping a french fry into his mouth. Even that hadn’t changed — Matt, though, he’s got a pathetic plate of lettuce masquerading itself as a salad because he’s got the next Bourne movie to think about, but he steals a fry or two when he thinks Ben’s not looking.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean — you made fucking reservations for this place, and we could’ve just as easily done this in my garage at home, if it’s just going to be you and me.” Ben pauses and then, apparently, reconsiders, because he scratches out the circle he’d just drawn. “A little fancy for just the two of us, is what I’m saying. You have some sort of ulterior motive?”

He draws his eyebrows up at Matt, making the sort of face that he’s grown all too accustomed to lately.

“Yeah,” Matt says tonelessly, “I wrote up all of this shit just to catch you in a trap. Damn, you’ve caught me red-handed.”

“I knew it.” Ben sticks the tip of his pen into his mouth, absentminded, and chews on the lid. Matt hates when he does that. More than half the writing utensils he owns are forever engraved with Ben’s dental records. “So what’s the real reason?” Ben asks around the pen.

“There is no real reason, I don’t know. I just thought — we’re doing real stuff, you know? Important stuff. I wanted to treat this as importantly as I think it is.”

Ben takes a minute to think that over, but then he nods, slow and measured. “I think it’s important too,” he says, “which is why, ah, I feel like an ass right now.”

Matt pauses. “What did you do?”

“Nothing, really, just —” Ben looks like he’s waging an internal battle, chewing more intensely on the pen, eyes darting around the room and out towards the parking lot. He’d insisted they sit by the tall glass windows, which was unusual, considering, but Matt had gone along with it.

“Affleck, what did you —”

“I’m sorry, I have to, I planned this,” Ben says, slightly pained, and he drops the pen, lurches across the table, and grabs Matt’s hand. Matt thinks he’s placing something in it until he flips his wrist and twines his fingers through Matt’s, so they’re perfectly laced, and Ben tilts his head at him and says, “Smile, darling,” and then, there they are, a swarm of them, flashing cameras and pale hands pressed against the window panes. Paparazzi.

“I’m so sorry!” their waiter says in a frantic voice, rushing over towards them, clearly as startled by the sudden arrival of vultures as Matt feels. “My manager’s taking care of this, someone must’ve tipped them off—”

“Someone must’ve,” Matt agrees through gritted teeth. He tries to tug his hand out of Ben’s grasp but he’s got him in a vicelock, a saccharine smile still plastered to his face, and Matt knows he’s going to get texts about this before they’ve even paid the bill. He shakes his head at Ben. “What’d you do, send an email blast to all the local news sites?”

“No, Grandpa, I tweeted about it. Come on, we deserved a romantic lunch date.” He brings their intertwined hands up and smacks an unnecessarily loud kiss right against Matt’s knuckles, considering they can’t even hear him through the windows.

“I’m never taking you anywhere nice again,” Matt says, as a team of waiters painstakingly wrench the curtains shut. He’s pretty sure he means it.

They didn’t not fight.

They didn’t fight often, especially as they got older, but disagreements happened sometimes. Sometimes Matt found it easier to be mad at Ben than at his own relatives, but then, he’d stopped using bloodlines as the indicator of family a long time ago.

They’d decided, when they were young and considered themselves philosophers, that they’d never use the phrase “how are things?” with each other. “How are things?” was for running into old teachers at grocery stores. “How are things?” meant you didn’t know the person well enough to know what things you should even be asking about.

Two days after the stunt at the restaurant, Matt gets a text from Ben:

How r things?

And then another:

Its not the same as ‘how are things’ because I shorthanded it. Its called internet slang and it makes u really cool.

Matt thinks about not answering, but then he does.

False. The grammatically-correct shall inherit the ear

Earth! Earth!!!! I hate technology.

Instead of texting back, Ben calls. Matt is powerless still to the Batman theme. “I’m sorry I tipped the paps off about our business lunch,” Ben says, first thing. They’ve skipped the requisite hellos, too. “Honestly, I thought you were setting up the same sort of thing.”

“I asked you to come talk about a philanthropic organization that’s near and dear to my heart,” Matt says back. “What kind of fuckin’ sicko do you think I am?”

“The same kind of fuckin’ sicko as me, obviously.”

He has a point.

“Look, I said I was sorry,” Ben adds. “I am. But tell me your wife didn’t piss her pants laughing when those pictures came out. Jen’s still laughing about it. Here, listen—”

He must’ve actually chased his wife down because a second later Jennifer’s laughing into the receiver. “Your face, Matt,” she says between breaths. “You look both furious and deeply in love, it’s fantastic.”

“Thanks, Jen,” Matt says sarcastically, and crosses her name off his mental Christmas list, right below Ben’s, who’s been exed out since August for a reason he can’t even remember.

Ben fumbles back onto the line. “C’mon, you’ve already one-upped me. Telling the whole world you’ve got my dick pics saved to your iCloud and all.”

“I wouldn’t have if you’d stop sending them to me.”

“Yeah, well, then quit asking for them.”

Jen finally stops cackling in the background, but there’s no telling whether or not she’s listening in. He figures it doesn’t matter either way; both of their ladies knew what they were getting into when they agreed to marry them, and Matt realizes on a regular basis that they’re the luckiest bastards in the world that they actually put up with it.

“We good?” Ben asks, even though he doesn’t have to.

“Yeah, you prick, we’re good.”

“Are we calling it quits, then?”

They could. They could call it quits, and they probably should. They’re forty fucking years old, not college freshmen with a little too much time on their hands. The whole world’s probably sick of their antics.

But calling it quits would be conceding. Like hell Matt’s going to let Ben win.

“You wish,” he says, and goes to hang up the phone, but not before Ben gets the last word in:

“That’s what I thought. Make sure you watch Fallon tonight!”

Ben has the annual holiday party at his house this year, because Matt had been banned after renting a projector solely so that he could play the terrible Christmas movie Ben’d made with James Gandolfini on loop against the siding of the garage. The whole family goes, and the other families in the neighborhood, whoever’s around, and there are tall glimmering trees in each room and mountains of cookies and Bing Crosby playing through the speaker system. Ben’s wearing the ugliest goddamn sweater Matt has ever set eyes on, and lopsided reindeer antlers around his head.

“Bienvenido,” Ben says grandly, handing over a mug brimming with spiked eggnog. “Feliz navidad. Joyeux, er… Christmas. Mele kalikimaka. And so on and so forth.”

“That’s very inclusive of you, thanks,” Matt says, straightening out his antlers for him. “Am I late? Did I miss the carols ‘round the piano?”

“There is no piano this year. Sold it and rented Moby for the night. He’s doing techno Christmas covers, hope you’re okay with that.”

“Yeah, of course, what’s Christmas Eve without a few beatboxing wisemen?” Matt takes a sip of the eggnog and makes a face. It’s mostly just rum. “And the paparazzi?”

“Nowhere on the premises,” Ben says, and holds up his pinky like he’s making a promise. “I sent them to Kimmel’s house instead.”

Matt spends most of the evening drinking and socializing, and checking on the kids, and making his wife laugh, and reminiscing on Christmases past — like ‘92, when he was broke as shit, and he and Ben had both scraped together enough pennies to buy each other the same terrible fucking present, the newest Kool G Rap CD and a fifth. And ‘93, same story, except that year it was Salt-n-Pepa.

When he’s four eggnogs in and feeling good, Matt corners Ben in the foyer, where they’re alone and a little loud and he can’t believe they’ve celebrated this many Christmases together, that they’re still standing there, together, and he’s going to voice this, actually bring a little sentimentality to the conversation, but Ben laughs and shushes him, says, “You’re drunk, Matthew, don’t get all weepy on me now.”

Something catches Matt’s eye and he lifts his eyebrows at it, dangling over the entryway, and then he shoves Ben back a step and follows close after. Ben has to grab Matt’s jacket to keep his balance, but then he does, and he looks up too.

There’s a sprig of mistletoe right above them.

“Merry Christmas, ya bastard,” Matt says, and he cups Ben’s neck in both hands and plants a big kiss square on Ben’s mouth, as payback for the awful photoshop job, maybe, or for the time he’d spent an entire night strategizing how to lay one on his best friend only for Ben to beat him to the punch. He’s about to pull away when he hears a click and then a shutter.

Ben’s got his stupid cell phone angled down towards them, camera open, a shit-eating grin on his face. He steps out of arm’s reach and taps on his Twitter app, starts typing away.

“What,” Matt says, “you gonna tweet that picture now? Put an end to this god-forsaken game?”

Ben shoots him a sly little wink. “Nah,” he says. “Just sending out a generic Christmas greeting. That picture’s just for me.”