Justin knew I’d had a crush on his wife. That’s how I’d introduced her. ‘Oh, hey, Justin, this is Cleo. I had the biggest crush on her when we were twelve.’
Cue blushing (mostly from me) and giggling (mostly from her), and the sound of ice breaking all around us.
My fiancé’s eyes had lit up a bit at that, of course, so she’d taken it upon herself to engage and neutralize the threat with the full force of diplomacy. Bared teeth, easy laughter, a hand placed on Cleo’s upper arm at just the perfect moment, scrunching in the corners of her eyes as she sipped her champagne. It was a real master class in disarmament, and what had begun as a one-sided bludgeoning was developing into something almost genuine long before the wedding’s first speech.
There’s a military strategist somewhere who probably wrote a stuffy book about making allies out of enemy states and winning wars without fighting battles.
Not really my style, but I know how to appreciate fine handiwork when I see it.
Justin and I worked together at the time, along with the groom, Mike, whose wedding we were all at, investing in tech companies out in Silicon Valley – or trying to, anyway – the minutia of the job was sort of getting in the way of the investing part at the time.
Convincing people much older and richer than us to give three young-ish kids a bit of their money on the basis of smoke and promises took more than a little smooth talking.
Politics, people stuff, was never my strong suit.
Justin, however, was a little magician with all that crap, so I left it to him and everyone involved – me, him, the rich guys, and Mike – was much happier.
“How’s the fundraise coming?” I asked him anyway, pointlessly.
“You know, surprisingly well. I think we’ll be able to close in another few months or so.” He elbowed me gently and grinned, eyes fixed ahead to where my fiancé was busy annexing a slender blonde. “But you don’t care about that. Tell me about this friend of yours. Cleo, right?”
I introduced Justin properly, extracting Cleo from my fiancé with a smile that said ‘I promise’, and we made pleasant small talk for a while.
“Come on, Justin,” my fiancé interrupted, “let’s give lover boy a chance to catch up with his old fling.” She was just teasing, pulling both my leg and Justin’s arm at the same time. Multi-talented, that one.
Funny thing about strangers is, sometimes, they’re easier to talk to than people you used to know. Childhood friends are the worst. Oh, I’d seen Cleo a few times since, here and there (she was close to the bride after all); I even looked forward to seeing her again, that tight little eagerness in my chest.
You never really get over your first crush.
There’s a biologist somewhere who probably explained why nature’s cocktail of hormones hits you hardest the first time.
But people change. They grow up, leaving you with a busted memory you can’t get over, like looking at a snow-capped mountain through stained glass. It’s still pretty, maybe prettier even. Warmer, for sure. But it’s not real.
“Justin’s, um, a pretty good guy.” I said.
Most people use promises to express their intention to try their very best to make something happen. But that’s not what a real promise is. A real promise is a commitment. A guarantee. A collar and a leash you’re going to make the whole world wear until that promise is fulfilled.
When Justin promised those rich guys we’d turn one dollar into three, three back into one, then one into a thousand, well.
He meant it in the colloquial way, I’m sure.
And the great thing about rich people, the really rich ones, is that they understand that distinction. They don’t hold you to the full weight of your promise, because no one can guarantee the future, that’s just silly, but they recognize the vision for what it is, what it could be, and where it all might come crashing down.
Justin’s art was convincing them that what might be was worth the minimal (read: expected) risk of our little adventure all ending in zeroes.
My failure was that I didn’t really believe in the whole thing to begin with. Or rather, I wanted to do it, I thought we’d make a good team together, the three of us, that we could be successful, but come on.
Two young kids, only a few years out of college, and one marginally older mentor-figure? And you want to give them how many millions?
Besides. What the fuck did I know about investing?
There was a contradiction there in my thinking, like a wisdom tooth growing into a jaw that’s already full, to the point you can’t chew a bite without a flaring reminder of your flawed genetic heritage. The contradiction said we made a great team, it said we could do anything we put our minds to, said we’d knock it out of the park.
It said you don’t believe that.
And there was absolutely no rational reason for it to say that last part.
But it did.
Which meant Justin had to be the one selling promises, because you can’t sell something you haven’t at least tricked yourself into believing.
“This is it, Mike, I’m telling you, this is the fucking ticket.”
“We’ve been over this one, man. The company is good. They’re gonna do just fine, but it’s not gonna be a home run. We’re down to the damn wire here, we can’t afford not to hit it big.”
I was having difficulty with the words. “You haven’t –“
“Yes.” He shook his head. “I have considered it, and so has Justin.”
Justin did not look up from his laptop, confirming his agreement with Mike while avoiding any direct endorsement, so as not to set things up as two-against-one and turn this from a business disagreement into a personal one. No hard feelings, just business. Ever the diplomat.
Mike huffed a sigh.
“Come on, man. We don’t have time to waste going over deals we’ve already passed on. If we don’t find a guaranteed winner this fund is dead and we’re all back on the job market with a lot of fucking explaining to do. I don’t know about you but I’m not ready to update my resume just yet, not if this is all we’ve got to show for it.”
When I’m searching for clarity on something, trying to understand a new company, whatever, my tinker mind kicks in with all its tools and measuring instruments and then the three of us have a productive, constructive conversation.
To date, that was the only version of me Justin and Mike had interacted with, so you can’t really fault them for not knowing what to do with this bumbling new version.
But here, with this company in particular, something was different. I knew what Mike meant, I could see all the different ways the team and the product was failing, all the dodgy organizational practices they had, all the janky user experience flows Justin didn’t like, all the ways it was just a re-hashing of things that had come before.
I could see all that and more.
None of it mattered.
I could see how it was going to play out, how the one tiny segment of the market loved their shit, ate it up, how it was going to grow from there and eat the whole pie, even though the pie didn’t exist yet. It would become the pie and then eat itself. Tortured metaphor. You see how hard it is to articulate this stuff?
It didn’t matter that they weren’t even the first. They were going to be last, and at the pace they were moving nobody was going to catch them for years.
Our fucking ticket.
How do you convey a vision that complete? Where do you begin? How do you transfer that vision from your mind to theirs, over the kicking and screaming of their objections and their fear and their reticence to spend the last dollar bill in their wallet?
I didn’t know.
Take for granted that I didn’t know. Maybe I’d learn, later, but right then and there, in that stuffy grey office, I didn’t know.
Take for certain that I believed in this ticket. It was this sort of meta-belief moment, in which my lack of belief in the whole endeavor over the last twelve months, the whole Justin-Mike-and-I-start-a-fund-together thing, was blown away. This company, this ticket, was the reason and the proof and the justification and…
And they were going to let it drive on by, because they couldn’t look past some paint chips and squeaky brakes.
“We don’t even need brakes.” I said, soft and hoarse, almost like a man watching as his wife smiles her deep, private smile, all eyes and warmth, at another man standing on his doorstep. Watching as she slips away…
It was all in my head. Just a stupid metaphor. That was the problem, though. Everything was all in my head and I couldn’t get it out in the open, couldn’t get Mike and Justin to see.
“Right, that’s what I’m saying. We can’t afford breaks right now.” Mike forced a grim smile, trying to mend the bridge between us.
So I dropped it.
For the team – for Mike and Justin – for their own visions of what our last investment might look like. For the sake of our relationships together and our fund and our careers. And for my own failure to articulate what I could see, let’s not forget that.
Ultimately it just comes back to me, right?
I dropped it.
And in my mind’s eye – you can’t ever blind those eyes – my wife’s eyes twinkled, brighter than they ever did for me, and she dropped her shoulder in that coy manner of hers, and another man steps across-
“Explain.” Justin said, not even ice in his voice, because at least ice was liquid water once, was allowed a memory of warmth, the possibility of one day melting.
Mike said nothing, arms folded in restraint, perched on the edge of the one shared desk. His lips vanished, pressed like pulp into the color of bloodless grapes.
Belief is a remarkable thing. Really, it is, it’s life changing. It’ll change your life and touch the lives of everyone around you. You should try it once, just to see how it feels, and then carefully put it away again before you cut yourself or someone you care about.
Obviously I didn’t put mine away in time.
“It’s all right,” I said, “there’re no irregularities. I was incredibly careful.”
“How did you transfer the money?” Justin asked, hoping careful did not mean final.
“The correct way, right after our chat last week. We all know how to do it, we’ve done it enough. Too much, even.”
I sat down in the chair they’d left in front of the desk and stretched my legs.
“I left ten-k in the account, so it won’t be closed,” I continued, “the accountant and the banker and the lawyers have all been paid. But you know all that. Look, why don’t you both sit down properly, you look rather tense, I get it- “
Mike couldn’t hold it in.
“You spent our last million bucks! You’ve got some nerve- “
“Mike, please.” Justin waved his hand a bit and took the chair opposite me.
I smiled at him.
“You do realize this is going to have serious repercussions. I’m not talking about this partnership, you’ve fucked that up clear enough. But Mike and I aren’t happy. Not at all. You’re being unreasonable if you expect us to-”
“Listen,” I said, before he could go into all the ways he and Mike expected to extract their blood money, “I’m sorry if this scared you or you thought the money was stolen- “
“It was.” Mike shot back at me. A valid perspective, perhaps, though not one I shared.
“-but we needed to make an investment and this one is going to make all our other ones look like child’s play. Which, let’s be honest, they were. Honestly, this one will work out like you won’t believe.” Literally, like they refused to believe. Maybe that was safer. “I promise.”
A real promise, that one. Which was dangerous, because ultimately how could I make it happen? All the freak accidents that could destroy the promise and thus me. The only collar and leash I possibly had in this scenario was the one I’d just tied around Justin and Mike’s collective neck.
I shouldn’t have made that promise.
But I could fucking see it, like you can see an apple dangle precariously from a tree and promise it’s going to fall to the earth below.
“I’m sorry,” Justin said, standing up, “I’m sorry, but it’s not going to play out like that. We’re going to have to sue you. You do realize that.”
I smiled a pained smile and shook my head, just slightly, with neither condescension nor acknowledgement.
“Sure,” I said. “You go ahead.”
Cue eyes widening (mostly Justin) and the sharp intake of breath (all Mike), and the sound of trust breaking all around us. What was left of it, anyway.
We stayed like that, three grown ass men holding our breath until the first one ran out of oxygen.
Justin sat down again.
Eventually, he broke the silence and, eventually, I exhaled.
“The other investments we’ve made to date,” he said, exhaustion in his voice, ice in pieces on the floor with the trust, “should return us enough money in the next year, if we’re lucky, to make our own investors…” He chewed his lip. “Whole.”
“I believe I can raise us another fund, maybe a bit larger, on the back of the last third of our investments being the strongest. I’ll make it a track record of improvement story.”
“Improvement, huh.” Mike wasn’t in the mood to be constructive. I didn’t hold it against him.
“But,” Justin continued, ignoring him, “if one of us drops out, if we start suing you, we’re completely finished. Now and in the future. No more investing, not now, not ever. Even I can’t sweet talk myself out of that hole.”
Justin met my eyes properly for the first time, letting the silence hang, letting it grow until we held it between us, cradling it there in the space between our bodies.
“The thing is,” I said thoughtfully, though we were moving into the part of the discussion I’d rehearsed, “I get the feeling you and Mike quite like this job. You know, the lifestyle, the work, the excitement, the independence.”
“You noticed that, did you?” Said Mike.
I ignored him.
“And, well, this recent episode aside, it’s not really been my cup of tea.”
“So you’re just going to quit?” Justin said, the first acid taste of anger in his mouth. “Kill our fund, kill our friendship, and then kill our futures too and send Mike and I back to the grinder?”
“Of course not – and by the way, that’s not at all what I’ve done, trust me, when this all works out you’re going to look back on this moment and understand. But I get it, we’re not there yet and I’ve gone behind your back and done something terrible, I get it – I wouldn’t ever do that to either of you. In fact I spent a lot of time thinking about how to handle this since last week- “
“Yeah, time we spent trying to find a company to invest in with money you’d already stolen.”
Yes, thank you, Mike.
“And what I’m thinking is this – and I’m open to hearing something else by the way – but if we hit the road together, all three of us, presenting a united front, you know, we can raise a nice new fund. I won’t touch a cent of it, in fact I can just respond to our investors and the press and all that other dreadful work if you want. Or you don’t have to see me at all – although I think we should at least have the appearance of being a team, to start with anyway. Then we can hire two or three junior folks right away, I know you’ve both had your eye on a couple people, and with the new fund we’ll be able to afford it, no questions asked. Once things have calmed down, I can announce my retirement, you know, stresses of the job and wanting to start a family with my wife, the usual lies.”
Maybe it was shock at my calmness, maybe it was all the anger still – probably that second one – but they both sat there in stunned silence, just staring at me.
Like I said, you can cut yourself on belief.
“Look, if you want, I’ll reach out to our investors and assure them you guys are killing it – and you will be, by the way, one-hundred-percent – and bam, that’s all it takes. I’m out of your hair, you’re both set up with your new careers, and we can go back to being friends again.”
Mike was the first to break the spell.
“You spent all week thinking up that little speech?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“You really think,” Justin said, slow and measured like a drunk man counting sevens, “we can go back to being friends again? After you pulled this on us?”
“Well I had to give you something to disagree with, didn’t I?” I smiled at them and they just kept on looking at me.
Cuts deeper than flesh.
Six long months later, waiting for me one night in my inbox:
Sent: Fri 7/11/2010 10:38 PM
To: $$$$$$ $$$$$$$$ [that’s me]
It’s been six months and Justin said your wife doesn’t even know what you did to them. How do you even sleep at night? I know Justin didn’t for a week when he found out what you’d done.
Well fuck you. I know what you did to Justin and Mike. YOUR friend Justin, I might add. I’m just his fiancé. But just because you got there before me, doesn’t make you the better friend.
I’m not going to tell her because, unlike you, I know how to keep my word, and I promised Justin I wouldn’t tell a soul. That means a lot to him, you know? Loyalty? You should look it up sometime, if you’re not too busy doing…nothing.
But I wanted you to know that I KNOW and that when the four of us go out for dinner and drinks together, and I’m just smiling and laughing like we all are SUCH good friends, I’m not laughing with you. I’m laughing at you.
And I’m not there because I want to be, but because Justin asked me to pretend and, despite her terrible choice of husband, I like and respect your wife. Much more than you do clearly
I just want to know one thing
Did you ever actually think of Justin as your friend? Even just for one moment?
And later still, in my outbox:
Re: I know
$$$$$$ $$$$$$$$ [that’s me]
Sent: Thurs 7/17/2010 12:30 PM
To: Cleo Summers
Justin is the second best friend I’ve ever had, the best man at my wedding, and the best man I’ve been lucky enough to meet. Under his gruff exterior, Mike is the most warm-hearted, intelligent, hard-working man I’ve been lucky enough to learn from. The dinners you, Justin, my wife, and I have are the highlight of my week these days, and I’m sorry you don’t enjoy them. I’ll stop setting them up with Justin.
And finally, not much later:
Sent: Fri 7/17/2010 9:13 PM
To: $$$$$$ $$$$$$$$ [that’s me]
Justin might have been the best man at your wedding, but don’t think you’re showing up at ours. Good luck telling your wife why you can’t make it.
Of course, it wasn’t going to end like that.
I’d made a promise.
The company – you know which one – closed its Series A financing round another six months after Justin’s wedding – which I begged off with an imaginary emergency work meeting, sending my wife with my sincerest apologies to anyone who’d hear them – valuing it at $20 Million, capital M because why not, the only serious winner from our first series of investments. That return alone – although unrealized – was potentially enough to catapult our first mini-fund into greatness, at least on a percentage basis.
It was paper money, of course, but at $20 million, our fund’s stake was worth about $7 million. Something like eighty percent of that would have to go to the rich guys who’d given us money in the first place, but that still left half a Million, capital M, each, for Justin, myself, and Mike.
I wasn’t in the office when the company CEO sent us the email, of course. Hadn’t been for weeks. I was out at a local coffee shop, browsing the internet, looking for the next company that I could believe in.
As far as the new guys were concerned, I was just a ‘Founding’ Partner anyway, and hadn’t really helped with any of the real investment work. I just managed our external communications.
Say that phrase slowly, ‘external communications’, and watch the eyes of eager, would-be investors just glaze over, glass eyeballs.
My wife called me first, before I’d even closed my laptop.
“Holy shit. Babe.” Were her first words. “Is this news I’m hearing true? Am I crazy? Isn’t this the company you wouldn’t shut up about?”
“Uh huuuuuh.” I couldn’t help the massive grin.
“Are we rich?”
“How much are we talking?”
“Well it’s just paper money right now, you know that. It’s not real until-“
“Only half a milli-“
“Ahhhhhhhhh! You’re the best, babe.”
She had no idea.
How could I have told her?
Oh, I’d played the conversation over in my head a thousand times. I thought I knew every way it might go.
Why didn’t I?
It sounds dumb. It was dumb. It wasn’t about her or us or anything like that. I just didn’t want to see that look on her face – the one Justin and Mike had had when they shot me down. I didn’t want to see her not believing in me. I could take that from the guys, but not from her. Not her.
I wasn’t that strong, and I hope I never will be.
Eventually, we made fancy dinner plans – just the two of us, you know how it is with work, sorry, I don’t think Justin and Cleo can make it much anymore, I know, I’m sorry – and hung up.
That’s the funny thing about belief. When it gets confirmed, you don’t really feel anything different. Like yes, I was right, yes, I told you so, what about it?
So no, I didn’t feel elated or vindicated or any of that crap, because I’d gone through all those feelings at once in one giant whirlwind a year before, back when Justin and Mike hadn’t believed in me.
I can’t say it didn’t feel good.
I thought they’d call though.
Honestly, I thought it would be Mike.
Or at least send an email or.
The company got bought a year later for stupid money. Two years, start to finish.
It was my first time in the office for a year. I only recognized one face.
“Where’s Mike?” I asked
“He didn’t want to be here.” Justin said, and I saw the glint of satisfaction in the corner of his eye as I couldn’t hide my flinch.
I struggled with the confusion, trying to fit the puzzle back together, “I’d really thought that this would make things okay.”
“It’s not about the money, it never was. It’s not even about being right.”
I played that one over in my mind, brought out my tools and instruments and still couldn’t get it to fit.
I really didn’t want to ask, didn’t want to seem like I was gloating or trying to win at something other than fixing things between us.
“I get it, in the moment, I get it. At the time, I get it. But now, now that you guys can see what I was seeing, now it’s all played out…I don’t…understand.” Like a child holding his first dead goldfish over the tank, wondering why it just sinks when he drops it back in.
Justin just smiled sadly and shook his head.
“That’s not how Mike operates. You crossed the line that you never cross with him and you can’t buy redemption from that.”
“Well I hope I’ve at least bought him a giant fucking house, then.” I couldn’t stop the bitterness from creeping in there for a moment, not after two years of waiting to get my friends back. It was childish and degenerate and, for a moment, I didn’t care.
“He doesn’t deserve that.”
“I know.” And I did, sort of.
Justin paused and handed me the check for $25 Million. He didn’t let go.
“We didn’t deserve it.”
“I know.” I said, but I wasn't sure I really meant that one.
“But.” I looked up at him. “I’m not Mike. We didn’t deserve what you did to us. But.”
Big sigh. Pause.
“You were fucking right, man. You scored the biggest goal of, I don’t know, the decade? And maybe you deserved a shot, from us, at scoring that goal. It’s not like either of us had something we believed in as much as you believed in this company. Maybe I should’ve trusted you more to begin with, instead of just trusting that you’d go along with whatever Mike and I decided. Not everything can be solved by committee.”
He let go of the check with a smile. A real one.
“You mean that, Justin?”
“Yeah man, fuck it, I’m over it. I’ve been over it since they raised that first financing round, but Cleo wouldn’t let me let you off the hook that easy. She doesn’t forgive, that one. But that’s what friends do, right?”
He grabbed my arm, hard.
“And I swear to god if you ever fuck me like this, ever again, I swear to god.”
I chuckled, and then I saw his face and chuckled even harder.
“I’m not kidding.”
“I know that’s what makes it funny. You don’t do threatening very well.” I had to rub the soreness out of my cheeks. “I missed you guys, man.”
It might have been a fluke, you know.
I could’ve had this piercing insight into a single company, and had that turn out to be the only good idea I ever had my whole life.
That would’ve been enough, to be honest.
Mike came round. Eventually.
He didn’t forgive me. And he didn’t ever pass up an opportunity to talk smack. “Sure, we can all go for dinner, but he has to come. We can’t leave him all alone in the office.”
Thank you, Mike.
Can’t leave me in the office. I might make you another twenty mil.
Because it wasn’t a fluke.
Another year passed.
Another company caught my eye.
It was a done deal, but Justin and Mike couldn’t see it. It was way too risky, they said. Not guaranteed, but maybe we could re-consider it in a year – if they hadn’t gone bankrupt by then…
“Wait, wait, wait.” Justin stopped typing. “Just. Wait.”
Mike looked at him like, Why are you making a scene? We’re just talking business, nobody is upset.
And then Mike looked at me.
“Oh.” He said. “Is this another one of those fucking times? Are you going to be an idiot about this company too?”
I was still juggling the vision in my mind, trying to find the right sentence, the right data point to explain why this thing was going to be a huge hit.
I let the pieces fall instead and took a calming breath.
“No.” I said, “I’m not going to be an idiot again. I know that wasn’t the right way to do things. And I’ve done it once, and once was enough to prove it to myself.”
Mike grunted at me the way a cat grunts at a rat.
“You can do what you want, I don’t get to call the shots guys. I’m not going to go behind your backs on this one. But I think I’ve earned – not trust, I’m not saying trust – but at least some confidence. This is another winner, I can see the whole thing-”
“Alright.” Said Justin.
“I’m serious, I can see how it’s going to unfold on the…on the macro level,” God, that sounded dumb, even to me, “and it’s just going to be out of this world-“
“I said alright.” Said Justin again, and I actually heard him this time. “Cleo’s going to rib me for this.”
“Buy her another necklace from me then.” I said, and made the bitterness taste like a joke. All smiles.
I went home that day and told my wife.
“We’re going to have another big win, babe.” I couldn’t contain myself this time. Justin and Mike hadn’t even bothered to let me try and explain my vision. Where else was I going to get the practice?
“Not right now,” I said, “maybe not for a year, or two years, or maybe three or four but sometime, not too far away, we’re in for a,” I pulled her hips into mine, “big surprise.”
“Oh yeah?” She pushed back into me a little. “What’d you do this time?”
“Nothing!” I laughed at the thought. “What do you mean, ‘this time’, huh?”
“Oh, I just know how you get with the guys when you’re into a company.”
“Uh huh. Well. I didn’t ‘get’ like anything. Justin and Mike are onboard. After how things turned out with the last company I was this certain about, well, you know. They’re on board. You know, I think we should get dinner with Justin and Cleo again sometime. Like old times.”
She brightened up at that.
“That’d be nice. I hope they still like me. I feel like it’s been so long since the four of us had a good time together.”
“Yeah, don’t worry, we’re going to have some good times ahead.”
And I picked her up and stumbled towards the bedroom as she giggled and laughed and pounded on my back.
It wasn’t a fluke.
Of course it wasn’t.
I knew what belief felt like, and when I could see the whole picture how could I be anything but certain.
The second company I was dead certain about made Justin, Mike, and myself forty million each.
The third company I was dead certain about only made us twenty each.
The fourth was better-
Ahhh, the fifth.
“How long will you be gone for, babe?” My wife, calling to me from downstairs while I packed. Two shirts, two pairs of underwear, four socks.
“Just two days. I’ll be back on Thursday, it’s just to meet the management team, same as usual.”
She slid round the door, hugging the door like it was me, like she could make it stay.
“It’s only New York.” I said with a smile. “I’ll be back before you even notice I’m gone.”
“Who even starts companies in New York anymore?” She whined. “Don’t they know you’re out here?”
She knew why. It was just silly small talk.
“I’m not their customer, babe, I just give them money, so they can make more of it. You know that. Come on, come here, give me a kiss.”
I didn’t like New York. Too much grit, too much sweat, too many people, and too many suits. Fly in, meet the team, do the deal – or don’t – back to the hotel, and then fly out.
Which is why, when I walked into the lobby and found Cleo sat on the couch there, one eye on the door, I walked right past her.
She just didn’t register. I wasn’t expecting her, and she wasn’t business, so it took seventeen steps for some little neuron screaming away inside my head, hey, this thing matches a pattern I’ve seen before, hey! to make me stop.
If I’d picked a different hotel, a smaller hotel, one with a ten-step walk from front door to elevators, I’d have been in the clear.
Twelve steps would have been a done-deal. Thirty percent clearance.
On the margin, in Plato’s world of ideals, sixteen perfectly formed steps would have been enough.
But we didn’t pick that hotel, because Mike, who did most of our traveling, had a certain brand of credit card and racked up points for a certain chain of hotels and so…
There I was.
In the gold lobby, with red plush furniture and white marble interior and great stone columns and a girl I knew sitting twenty-five steps from the shining, gold elevator.
Looking at my middle school crush, looking at her confused smile, watching the whole vision, the whole machine, come together in my mind, piece by bolt by nail, the cleanest drawing you could see of things that had come before and things that would come after.
Sweeter and sharper than that first company I’d gone and spent the last of our money on, and you know what they say about your first time.
“Hey.” She said, with her gorgeous, quirky little half smile. A wave of her golden hair had caught on her eyebrow, just hung there enjoying the moment, praying it would last forever. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
And there it was, the apple falling from the tree.
Seven words and I had to believe it, couldn’t resist, never had been able to resist the sharp edge of my own belief.
I didn’t expect to see you here.
There are different levels of wealth in the world. There’s dirt poor, and a bit poor, and uncomfortable but making do, and middle class – which is really just one big slider on that comfort scale – and then rich. And then, somewhere up there, is really, really, rich. Stupid rich.
And the great thing about rich people, the stupid rich ones, the ones like myself, and Justin, and Mike, and our families, is that they can just do what they like, when they like, at a drop of a hat.
Your husband has to travel for work?
Why not take your own first class flight and beat him there?
Pretty good surprise, that one. Pretty cute.
“Yeah.” I said. “Didn’t think I’d find you here either.”
“Sorry.” She giggled. “I was trying to be sweet for Justin. Did you two take the same flight?” And she looked behind me, bless her heart. She fucking looked.
I wanted to just leave her there, leave her hanging in that moment like that wisp of hair.
“Justin’s not coming, Cleo.”
I could see it wasn’t registering, not yet. Seventeen fucking steps, man.
“I don’t understand.” She said.
Me neither. I wanted to say.
But I did understand. Clear as the brightest night, stars like sand in the sky. Clear as twenty Million dollars. Capital M.
Looking down at her face I couldn’t find the words.
I found seven of my own.
“I need to call my wife now.”
And out came the phone. Ring. Ring. Ring.
“Hey babe, what’s up? Everything okay?”
When someone breaks a promise, whose fault is it? Is it yours for believing any human could ever be so audacious, so omnipotent, as to guarantee something? Is it yours, for not understanding the reality of a promise?
Or is it their fault? Does the blame rest entirely on the crafter of the promise, for daring to express such hubris?
My mind tells me the latter.
That contradictory little voice inside, though?
You believed, it said. Caveat emptor.
And the secrets. Oh, the secrets.
We’ve barely scratched the surface on the secrets.
Say that I was played, say that I was blind, glass eyeballs, say that I deserved it.
But don’t say promises are easier to keep than secrets.
“Things are okay. Been better.”
“What’s up?” She asked.
Cleo just frowned and mouthed What’s wrong?
“I was just walking into the hotel and I had a thought, you know?”
“Do you remember, back when I was nervous about my first investment?”
“Yeah. You wouldn’t stop talking about it for weeks. Why, what’s up?”
“Do you remember when they raised money and, at least on paper, we became rich overnight?”
“Yeah of course, babe – are you sure everything’s okay, you’re worrying me a bit.”
“Back then, on that day, the CEO of the company emailed us that they’d raised money and were strapping onto a rocket ship and thanks for being there to support him. And you called me right away and then we went out to dinner. You remember?”
“How did you know, babe?”
There was a pause then. The first pause of the conversation. Sometimes, when things go quiet on the line, you wonder if they even heard you.
But you don’t repeat yourself…
“I don't really remember, it was so long ago-“
“How did you know, babe?”
“I’m telling you I don’t remember! Jesus. I must have seen it on the news or-“
“It didn’t get announced until the day after our dinner.”
The second pause. Longer. Thoughtful.
“I think.” She said. “One of the guys must have forwarded it to me.”
“Why would they do that, babe?”
“Jesus Christ, I don’t know, because they were happy for us? What the hell has gotten into you-“
It was a rational answer and it made sense and it could have been true. It really could have.
I didn’t believe it, though. No more belief.
“Do you remember, when I made my second call, and I came home to tell you about it, and you asked me: ‘what did you do this time?’ What did you mean, ‘this time’?”
“I’m going to hang up, babe. This is really weird and I think you’re unhappy about something okay, so I’m going to come out to you, okay? I’ll catch a flight this evening and we can sort whatever is bothering you out, okay?”
“Sure,” I said. “You go ahead.”
It surprised me how dead my voice sounded, how easy it was to keep it flat and dry. I felt like something had broken. I didn't feel like myself and yet I did. This was me, now, and onward.
I felt a flush of empathy for Mike, all those years ago, when I’d stolen the last of our money.
“Okay, great. Jesus. I’ll see you in the morning, okay?”
“But before you do, two things.”
“Yes?” Exasperation all over my ear.
“First, you should know who I’m here with. Cleo, say hi.”
I held the phone out to her mouth. Bit of an asshole thing to do, that.
“What? Don’t include me in your-“
I put the phone back to my ear and listened to the static.
Maybe I could’ve stopped there. I think things were probably still salvageable from that. I’ve always been good at fixing things and I reckon I could’ve recovered even from that.
This isn’t a sixteen-step hotel, I told you, we had stupid money. Big hotels. Big bank accounts. Big steps. Big secrets.
“And second,” I said, soft and hoarse as a man who watched his wife smile all her deep, private smiles, all eyes and warmth, at another man who stood on his doorstep, who stood beside him at the altar.
“Second, put Justin on the line.”
“Put him on the line, babe.”
“I don’t know wha-“
“I’m not going to get mad or shout or whatever. Just put Justin on the line.”
There was a pause. And a whisper of a whisper. And a rustle.
It didn’t matter. What did it matter which way the apple fell, if there’d been a worm inside the whole time?
The rustle stopped and there was silence on the line.
Justin knew I’d had a crush on his wife. That’s how I’d introduced her. ‘Oh, hey, Justin, this is Cleo. I had the biggest crush on her when we were twelve.’
My eyes had been all on Cleo.
Gorgeous, delicate, golden Cleo. Irresistible. Undeniable. All-consuming. To look was enough, just to get close to the sunlight.
Who wouldn’t have been looking at her?
You can steal money from friends, and if you give enough of it back, they’ll forgive you and you can go back to how things used to be.
Or close enough that you can all trick yourselves into believing, anyway.
But you can’t do a damn thing to make someone else keep a promise.
Better, I’ve learned, to stick with secrets.
Salt tracks were carving their way down Cleo’s cheeks as she tried to convince herself. Tried not to believe. It was tragic how pretty she still looked. I reached up to brush a thick tear away from her cheek and she just slapped my hand away.
With secrets, ultimately, it’s all on you. If your secrets get out, it’s because you didn’t lock them up tight enough. It’s your fault. And I thought of my wife, thought of the little slip ups she made, like breadcrumbs in the forest, and I hated her for it, for failing.
You can own that failure. You can fix it. You can keep a secret.
Be careful with promises.