Crumbs on the Floor

Short Story published by The Midnight Oil (2019)

If I had known Molly was dragging me down to the wine cellar for emotional support, I would’ve taken my martini with me. Molly always held her Labor Day party at The Bomb, where she had commercialized her hobby of collecting people. Our shadows tattooed the walls of the basement, and when Molly turned to me, she looked like the heroine from a black-and-white film, her curves the ideal of another era. 


“Our landlord sent The Bomb a notice of default. We’re three months behind on rent,” she said. So that’s what this was about. “Will you talk to him? He’s coming tonight.” She added, as an inducement, “He may bring his son, who’s gorgeous.” 


I didn’t tell her that the only men I was looking for were investors for Quantro.


“Maybe you shouldn’t be sinking all your cash into inventory,” I said, glancing at the crates of fine wine. “Forget about this space. You can’t afford it.” 


Molly pulled a bottle of Dom out of its case, and collapsed on the floor. “I’ll never find these high ceilings and ocean views.” 


I sat next to her and dusted off her white pants. 


“There’s always another space, another deal...” I’d been selling myself this story for months, but I was down to my last investor, who had promised me an answer that day, and it was already night. 


“The Bomb belongs here. I could never move it,” she said.


“Of course, you could. Who controls your mind? Who’s in charge up there?”


Tears pooled in her eyes. Molly didn’t avoid drama like I did, but her positive disposition could usually distill it like a liqueur into its sweetest essence. She lifted her knees to her chest and buried her face in her arms. I stroked her long red hair, wishing I could take control of her emotions. Sometimes I wondered how she made it through the day.


“We just won Best of Boston,” she said, cringing as a pot clanked in the kitchen. 


“Your fabulous creations can’t exist if you have no money to keep this thing going.”


“Numbers…,” she mumbled, pulling a tissue from her pocket. 


“Success is measured in numbers. Are you profitable?” I asked.


“Not yet, but we’re packed every night.” She held her head in her hands—hopefully not an approaching migraine. “My numbers guy says we’ll be profitable in six months.”


I’d seen her financials. Her numbers guy didn’t know squat. This was my fault for doing her Accounting homework for her at Sloan. 


“You can’t be good at everything. What you need is funding. I’d invest myself, but business and friendship don’t mix.”


Anyway, if I had cash, I’d have put it into Quantro. Our growing burn rate meant a speedier collapse if sales fell. Molly regained her composure and pulled out her blush to clean herself up, then leaned toward my face as a waft of garlic from the kitchen set my stomach grumbling. 


“I miss you. At least at Sloan I could drag you out to a concert once in a while.” The fibers of her makeup brush tickled my cheek. 


“I’d love to see Neil Young when he’s in town,” I said. “Get my hippie fix.”


Just then my phone buzzed with a call from our tech who’d found another glitch on the demo machine for the upcoming trade show. 


When I hung up, she said, “I’ve been trying to get you out for weeks.”


“Fun time reduces work time—it’s a zero-sum game. After I sell Quantro, I’ll have a life. And by life, I mean Stefano.” 


When he made me choose between moving to Italy or pursuing my life’s dream, I had to go with Quantro. I had to produce something—tangible evidence of my existence—before I could sit back and taste life’s flavors. But a day didn’t go by that I didn’t question that decision.


“I realize it’s very efficient to turn someone on and off at will, but you should aspire to more,” Molly said, in the kindergarten-teacher-tone she used when we were in her area of expertise. 


“Like what?” I asked. The thing Molly didn’t get was that I wasn’t like her, falling in and out of love like it was a dip in the pool.


“A real relationship flows in two directions; it’s a living, breathing connection.” 


“Why are you always passing judgment on him? You don’t get it. Our magic is unique. It transcends all the mundane details of our lives. You’ve never understood that,” I said.


My purpose had been simple when I waltzed into a bar in the middle of the night as a sixteen-year-old with a bottle of prosecco, arm in arm with a couple of Italian guys I hardly knew. My attraction to Stefano, fueled by his piano lessons, had exploded into a full-on obsession, so I asked him to join us at a beach party. By morning, sand stuck in our hair, he and I were a thing. Since college, I took our moments of connection as they came, once or twice a year in Boston or Rome, ramping up all my emotions before the moments of magic which led to weeks of hangover. We never talked much about our future, but for me it hinged only on my financial freedom to keep up with his lifestyle.


She looked down and bit her lip. “Isabella, I’m sorry, but I need to tell you something. I spoke with Stefano. He doesn’t know how to say it, so he’s been evading the issue, but you need to know.”


Molly looked serious. Something had happened, but she had a way of blowing things out of proportion. She’d always been the one to tell me about Stefano’s latest drama, but the volume of his women had never bothered me; it was that flow, that continuous replacement of incumbents, that had always assured me of my position—however ill-defined—of permanence. Somehow the danger and mystery he carried around like a backpack were enough for me to stay hooked all these years—hanging overhead, above the rest. 


“He’s engaged,” she said.


“What?” There was that woman from Spain, but I’d always discounted her, like all the others. “When?”


“Next fall.”


“All these years I thought he was waiting for me,” I murmured. So, in fact, he was as he’d always appeared to the world: a flight risk. No commitment whatsoever.


“He deserves a life. You’re here, he’s there. You’ll find someone else.” Molly squeezed my hand, but her pity wasn’t helpful. “Maybe you should move on. Let him go.”


“I’m okay.” At least I had Quantro, hanging on by a thread. I brushed off my legs and forced a smile. “Anyway, here we are. Let’s get your situation straightened out.”


“So, you’ll help me charm the landlord?” she asked. In Molly’s mind, all hearts were generous and forgiving, all conflicts washed away by her sunny smile. 


“I can try to buy you some time,” I said, “but that only has value if you use it to solve your underlying problems. You have to cut costs.”


Bass thumped through the ceiling, beckoning us upstairs. I’d resisted leaving work, but now that I’d torn myself away I felt free, like metal pried away from a magnet. 


Molly couldn’t resist a party. Upstairs, the scent of shallots and saffron wafted in the air while colors of the spectrum lit up the walls: magenta, aqua, and hues without names. This was where she shined—where she led and I followed. The Bomb was in a converted bank from the turn of the century, so the ceilings were high, and the acoustics were terrible.


Molly pointed to the woman singing Dylan with a live band. “Remember this? All I Really Want to Do. We could sing our own rendition later.” 


“What’s up with that bass? It’s overshadowing her voice,” I muttered.


“You can take off your glasses. You don’t want people thinking you’re a librarian,” she said with a kind smile.


Molly waved to a mob of men—the Celtics—as we passed a group of socialites who were constricting the path for servers carrying sushi and sake. The guests were of that optimum age: old enough to afford life’s indulgences, but still young enough to enjoy them. 


The noise level swelled as Molly greeted her guests and introduced me to people I’d never remember. Then she reached behind the bar and handed me a silk halter. 


“Here—I ordered the wrong size. You’re the only one I know who could fit into this. Put it on; you look like you just came from work.” 


The ladies’ room was too far, so I slipped it on behind the bar, under the now-purple light. I wiggled off my bra, noting how boyish I was without padding. What did it matter; the only man I ever dressed for was a world away. 


“There he is,” Molly said. 


It would’ve been just like Stefano to pop in from Italy for the party of the year, although that was before all this engagement business. Anyway, Molly was waving to a middle-aged man in jeans and a black t-shirt. 


“It’s him. The landlord.”


I shuddered from the air blasting through the door, struck by the halter’s scant surface area. I covered my goose bumps with my sweater, but the wool’s friction irritated my skin. He closed the door and swaggered in, tan as a beach bum.


“Yummy.” I squinted to see without my glasses. “I bet he was hot when he was young.”

 

Molly nudged me, then approached to shake his hand. 


“This is my best friend, Isabella,” she said. 


“John Baker.” 


His grip compressed my fingers like a stress ball, so I squeezed with my business handshake, which seemed to amuse him; he shook out his hand as if it hurt. A real joker, this guy. 


“We’ve met before,” I said, just to throw him off his game, but he didn’t respond. He reached toward a passing tray to nab a fried grasshopper, pink under the lights. 


“Let’s sit outside where it’s not so loud,” Molly said. 


She led us to a table on the deck overlooking the harbor, chatting with us as if we were her only guests. I tried to button my sweater, but she swatted my hands.


”Let us see the halter. It matches your green eyes.” When a server put down a tray in front of us, Molly poured syrup from a pitcher onto some octopus. “It’s a balsamic vinegar reduction. Wait for it to seep in.”


“That looks too viscous to be absorbed,” I said.


“Actually, that’s surface tension,” John replied, flagging a server for a tequila. 


“John used to be a professor at MIT,” Molly declared.


“I was fired,” John added with obvious delight. Anyone that cavalier about losing their job was likely working for pleasure as opposed to necessity.


“They were threatened by his ideas,” Molly said, wiping bread crumbs off the table. 


I rolled my eyes at this “visionary.” He probably gave TED talks. 


“I just never fit into that world.” John flung back his straight blond hair as it fell onto his face. “I’m an engineer. I like to build things. Real things—not papers and theories.”


Another server arrived with a big square plate. 


“Try my creation.” Molly said, pushing the plate toward John.


“Looks delicate, like I’m going to go home hungry,” John said as he took a bite, which earned him a giggle from Molly. She pushed the tray my way, insisting it was vegan, but I was saving my appetite for later, and I never trusted her not to lace everything with butter. 


A server leaned over to whisper to Molly, who excused herself. Alone with John, I stared at him, unblinking. He looked straight back at me, but I didn’t turn away. I’d used my face to intimidate bigger men than him. 


“So,” I said, “The Bomb is in a cash bind, but it won’t be long before it’s profitable.” It wasn’t necessarily a lie; anything could happen. “It’s in your own interest to work something out.”


“I don’t know what you mean by ‘work something out,’ but if that’s code for another three months of freeloading, then I’ll pass. She needs to pay up or move out.”


I took his reasonable point as a challenge to my negotiating skills, and buttoned my sweater against the chill of a breeze. 


“Look at the tiny cost relative to the huge benefit. You’re a landlord for one of the top destination spots in Boston,” I said.


“Yeah, but it’s my cost and her benefit. And you know who suffers? The other tenants, because now I have to raise their rents.” 


“Do you really want to be the guy who evicts a tenant?”


“More than I want to be the guy who loses his shirt because he was too weak to stand up for himself.” 


“She’ll pay you back. She just needs time,” I said. 


“Time for what? Nothing’s changing. What’s going to change?”


“She’ll cut corners and find new suppliers.” I made a mental note to tell her to do this.


“Well then, let’s just say that I’m working on finding my inner chump. But just in case that all falls through, let’s have a Plan B—one where I get a new, paying tenant into this beautiful space within a couple months. That woman can find another fool to suck dry.”


“How kind.” 


“Is it kind, what she’s doing to me?” he asked.


I took a sip of my drink, cringed, and stood up. John finished his tequila as he followed me inside. He was tall and bow-legged, like a cowboy. Rugged. I made my way behind the bar, familiar territory since my college days bartending. I shook some vodka with a splash of Campari and Cointreau, and reached for the Gaeta olives that Molly kept for me, behind the small aluminum canary. It had been her idea as a teenager to make a sculpture, and my idea to cast two birds at the foundry where I worked. 


When I was done mixing the drink, I grabbed a bottle of tequila and handed it to John before trying to get around him.


“Wow, you know how to get what you want,” he said with a grin. 


“I don’t expect anyone to give it to me.”


“I like a strong woman,” he said.


“That’s what everyone says, until they see it up close.” I checked my phone for a note from the investor, but there was no signal. “Excuse me,” I said, moving away. The signal got stronger toward the men’s room. I opened the door, peeked into the empty space, and entered. Still no message. 


As I walked out, bass from the band pounded my chest. Given my failure on the rent issue—the man was intractable—the least I could do was fix Molly’s sound problem. I snuck behind the band to fiddle with the dials on the equalizer, but it didn’t help. Having cut loose from John, I was considering if I had to return. Then I realized I’d left my phone, with all my credit cards stuck in back, in the men’s room. I rushed back in a panic, but John intercepted me, holding my phone, and suggested we sit at a suede banquette. 


When I was seated, he said, “You never answered my question. About Molly. Do you think it’s kind for her not to pay me? How did she become the victim?”


“She should pay you back, and she will. Have some faith.”


“You mean, stick my head in the sand? If you have so much faith, why don’t you cover her?” he asked. 


“One week of this rent and I’d default on my college loans,” I said. 


“So, her best friend won’t support her, but I should?”


“This is your best chance to get it back, practically speaking. Give her three months. Come on, let’s sign on it.” 


I reached into my bag for one of my fancy lacquer pens, and signed a paper napkin. He studied me, as if seeing me for the first time. 


“Molly told me you have a startup,” he said, ignoring the napkin.


“Quantro. We make analytical instruments that detect insecticides and other nasty chemicals to verify whether or not produce is organic. We’re riding the wave of interest in healthy eating.”


“What are your sales?” he asked.


“We did $50 million last year.” That was our accounting story, although strictly speaking we should’ve waited to record the revenue until all the new beta machines were up and running. 


“You made it to corporate adolescence,” he said, nodding. “Pimples, glasses, gangly arms…your star players in startup are now overwhelmed, you have no systems in place, you’re not small, not big, trying to figure out which way to go…”


He was spot-on, but this wasn’t the time to expose my anxieties; he wasn’t my therapist. 


“We’re about to crush the leader with a new machine at the Instruments Show. It’s better, faster and cheaper at detecting toxins than anything else in the market.” I felt my voice shift down as I relayed the pitch that I’d memorized over so many fruitless meetings: the clean reframing of our messy reality. 


“How about this?” he said, handing me back the napkin. “If you give me your word on it, then I’ll loan you the money, and you can use it to pay the rent.”


“Why are you bringing me into this?” I asked.


“It’s called accountability. You have credibility, but Molly doesn’t,” he said.


“I won’t be able to pay you back next month. I refuse to sign when I know I can’t deliver.”


“Too bad your friend doesn’t share your philosophy.”


“Unbelievable,” I said, crinkling up the napkin and throwing it on the floor. He picked it up, smoothed it out, and lay his drink on it. “You’d put an award-winning chef out on the street?” I asked.


“She’ll find another space.”


“She wants this space,” I said.


Even though my martini glass still looked mostly full, I knew it was an optical illusion with a reverted cone, and that in fact it was half-empty, which meant I was done here. Molly was wasting her time trying to negotiate with this guy; I didn’t need to waste mine, too. I glimpsed the oversized numbers on John’s plastic watch. I didn’t expect Molly to entertain me, and I knew she had things to take care of, but with her sense of time, who knew when she’d return. I got up to shake John’s hand. 


“What are you doing?” I asked as he put on his jacket.


“If you’re leaving, I’m leaving.”


I lowered my voice, as if I were speaking to a work subordinate. “Molly wants you here. At least stay and hear her out.”


He lowered his voice to mock me. “How about you? She wants you here too.”


“I have to get back to the office,” I said, frustrated that I hadn’t intimidated him.


“I’m sure you’ll be very productive after that 16-ounce martini.”


I turned toward the door, wondering how much Molly would mind if I didn’t say good night, but she rushed over with the champagne from the basement.


“Give me five minutes? Please?” She thrust the bottle toward me, and smiled at John. “Your son may be coming by, right? I want Isabella to meet him.”


John shrugged. 


“Will you make sure she doesn’t leave?” she asked John with pleading eyes. What she really wanted was for me to make sure that John didn’t leave. 


“How would you suggest I do that?” he asked.


“Get her to play piano when the singer takes a break,” she said. 


“Only if you sing,” I said to her. 


“Of course,” she said. “Let’s do that Dylan song. Oh—and try my gazpacho martini. I made a special batch with tomatoes from my roof deck.”


Molly kissed my cheek and rushed away. John was sitting in his jeans, almost reclining, legs spread apart like a boy in detention. I fell into my chair and clanked the bottle on the table. If I had known I’d have to stay, I would’ve paced my martini, but I’d never get my work done later if I drank more. I gazed at the liquid, tainted by the residue of my olive. 


“I came to see Molly, and there she goes…” 


I would’ve understood if I thought Molly was managing a fire in the kitchen, but I knew from experience that she was deep-diving into the intimacies and intricacies of every person she saw, while I was stuck in this losing interaction.


“I can’t wait to hear you play piano,” John said. “Maybe a solo before Molly comes back?”


“Not for these high-brows. I only solo for people who can’t tell when I make a mistake.”


John stirred his drink, revealing a scar across his knuckles, then chewed on the straw as I popped a piece of bubble gum into my mouth. The basketball players were shooting tied-up cloth napkins into a big clay vase, while others placed bets and hooted.

 

“Do you know all these people?” John asked.


“Molly’s always trying to suck me into her social vortex, but if I make any new friends, I’ll have to give up the few I have.” Slogging through small-talk was my gift to Molly, my apology for failing on her rent negotiation. “Where do you work?” I asked, as if I cared. 


“I run a technology business called Calibra,” he said in a low tone—like he didn’t know how impressive that was; like it hadn’t occurred to him that he was a frigging tech icon.


“You’re that John Baker? Your stock price has skyrocketed since your IPO.”


His hazel eyes twinkled as if I’d caught him playing a trick on the school bully. 


“I didn’t recognize you,” I said. “I’ve never seen your face. You don’t do interviews.”


“I don’t really see the point. I’d rather stick to the job at hand.”


I asked questions about his business, hoping for a nugget of insight to keep the evening from being a complete waste. He’d accomplished all the things I’d dreamed of: started and sold businesses, acquired and divested them, taken them public, and turned them around. 


“So why did you raise all that money?” I asked.


“We’re investing in all sorts of new technologies, to keep an eye on what’s happening, and keep our toe in the water for potential acquisitions.”


“Oh wow.” 


This was perfect. I put on my glasses and noticed the wrinkles around his eyes, like he laughed a lot. I was there for Molly, not to further my business goals, but what were the odds of meeting someone like this in person?


“The champagne is getting warm. We can’t waste it,” John said, picking up the bottle.


Arousing his interest over a glass of champagne would be more productive than hours in the office, emailing potential investors. He dumped my drink into the vase on our table and poured the bubbly, then clinked my martini glass with his shot glass. 


“Your work sounds very glamorous,” I said. 


“It’s not as fun as skiing. What do you do for fun?” 


“If you knew my chairman, you’d realize what a nonsensical question that is,” I said. 


“If I knew your chairman, I’d tell him to get a life.” 


His self-confidence was unnerving. Lots of people argued the merits of work-life balance, but never people with actual success. 


“How many employees do you have?” he asked.


“About 150—mostly kids, willing to take options instead of cash.” I was about to tell him my mantra, that capability and fire trump experience, but then I thought of his achievements, and I felt silly for thinking I’d know something that wasn’t obvious to him. 


“That’s great,” he said. “Seriously, that’s a big deal.” 


I tried to read his face to gauge his sincerity. He had done it. He knew what it meant. 


“As soon as we launch, we throw a new product into development, but this latest product is the biggie. The one. I’ve given up all extra activity in my life for it. I hope it’s worth it.” It was as close as I could get to admitting that Quantro’s very existence depended on the launch of The Key. Without a success, we’d go from being belle of the acquisition ball to bankruptcy.


“How did you get into this business?” John asked.


“My father suffered from the sprays they used on his farm growing up in Italy. It killed him in the end. Companies say testing is too expensive or inaccurate, but we’re changing that. No more excuses. One day I’ll buy his farm back and show it can be done safely. We’ll have a demo machine at the Instruments Show next week. You guys have a booth there, don’t you?”


“Yeah, but I’m going biking up in New Hampshire. Those shows are deadly,” he said.


“They’re fun if you’re one of a handful of women. I get great intel.”


“You need to get out more if you think that’s fun,” he said. “Crowds, noise, and way too many lawyers, bankers, and accountants—people who don’t buy product.”


“Come on, there won’t be two dozen service providers there.”


“Let’s bet on it. If I win, you come biking with me,” he said. “There’s a stretch of the Kancamangus Highway that’s the most beautiful ride in the whole country.”


“No—something smaller. Do you run?”


“Sure, how about a jog around the Charles,” he said.


“And if I win, which I will, then you give Molly another three months to pay her rent.”


We shook on it, grips firm as if we were transacting important business. 


The DJ started calling people out to the dance floor, turning the event into the kind of party you regret in the morning. Professional hipsters in shorts grooved on the bar. I glanced around for Molly who flitted like a dancer, the orange hues of her hair streaming down her back as she transitioned from foodie in the kitchen to host out front.


John refilled my glass with champagne. 


“Molly can’t help herself from connecting with everyone,” I said, “so we may never see her again. Even when this place is open to the public, she knows every person by name.” 


“Well, I don’t know anyone here, so you’re stuck with me till she gets back,” he said, watching me remove my sweater and fold it over the chair between us. After I took it off, I remembered that I wasn’t wearing a bra, but there was no going back now.


“Looks like your son is a no-show,” I said, pointing to the empty chair. 


“Just as well. You’d intimidate him.” 


The lights morphed from cranberry to eggplant, which warmed the faces in the room. The basketball players lit up cigars, filling the air with the sweet smell of smoke—illegal, but Molly was probably tight with whatever governing body enforced such things. Entranced by the club version of Santana’s Oye Como Va, lightheaded from the champagne, and thrilled to have helped Molly, I moved my hips in my seat and mouthed the words. All I needed was to land a savior for Quantro—like, for example, the man sitting so close to me I could see the freckles on his nose. But I wasn’t sure how to transition the conversation back to Quantro; finesse was never my strong suit. When John caught me studying his face, I bit my lip and removed my glasses. 


“So,” I said, “what kind of investments are you looking for?”


He tilted his head. “Why do you ask?”


“We’re raising a round at Quantro.”


“Would you ever consider selling?” he asked. “We only invest if we think there’s a potential for a future acquisition.”


I must’ve looked perplexed, because I wanted him to invest, but there was no chance I’d sell my baby, so there was no sense to string along a conversation.


He added, “I’d be happy to talk strategy if you need advice on raising your round.”


Advice? Did he think I was a child? I felt foolish for thinking he would’ve been interested, plus my mind was spinning from all the champagne.


“Oh.” I hovered over my glass. “No. I don’t need advice. I get too much of it as it is.”


“I’m serious.”


So much for him. He was just dodging. I checked my phone to see if the investor had emailed. Yes! Finally. I turned away to read it: “Thank you for your time,” it started, which was always the kiss of death. “We couldn’t get comfortable with your ability to compete against such a dominant leader in the market, but we wish you the best at the upcoming show…” 


I tossed my phone into my bag. I’d given up everything—including Stefano—in order to create a valuable business, but that dramatic gesture had provided no end-product. 


I turned away and fiddled with my hair, which fell out of its bun. Then something clinked on the table—the bottom half of my earring which had broken off. 


“Damn,” I said. They were my only fancy earrings, a birthday gift from Molly.


John picked up the pieces, and studied the gems which were hanging on delicate chains. I went to take them from him, but he wouldn’t give them up. He grinned. 


“Don’t be such a control freak,” he said. 


The amplitude of the music had created a surreal quality, like we were in a movie. He pulled out nail clippers from his jacket pocket and used them to reconnect some of the pieces. His leather bracelet—a strap with frayed edges—momentarily dissolved his age and occupation. He squinted as he leaned toward me, and brushed the nape of my neck to lift my curls out of his way. 


“Hold this.” 


He leaned in, his breath warming my cheek. He smelled like tequila and lime, tangy and sour. His fingers felt soft against my earlobe, making me shiver. The last time I’d been touched with such delicacy was a year ago, by Stefano’s long piano fingers. There was no point in limiting my life to work now; not after that last rejection. Without new cash, I’d be jobless in weeks. If my startup was a sham, and Stefano was lost to me, then I might as well cook up a real life and taste that. And here was this man, in arm’s reach. Molly was always telling me to live a little, and stop worrying so much about the future. When I opened my eyes, John was smiling, his lips full. His touch made me feel connected to him, like he had entered my life for some larger purpose, maybe to teach me something. 


A classmate from business school tossed her sandals across the dance floor before some men lifted her in the air, where she swung her diamond necklace around like a lasso. After Sloan, she’d abandoned Google to marry for money. She sang on their shoulders and threw back shots as they were passed up to her. When the song was over, she tripped toward our table bare foot.


“Hey, Isabella.” She leaned over the arm of my chair to keep from falling over. 


“Nice ring,” I said with a fake smile, glancing at the ruby chunk swimming in diamonds. 


She looked at it. “Hellish week. Our nanny bailed. I just needed a little pick-me-up.” 


She leaned over and nearly fell into my lap. 


“You might want to slow down on the shots,” I said.


“At least when I get sick later, I’ll purge all these calories.” 


“That’s lovely,” I said, turning to catch John’s grin. 


She moved her face in closer, so the aroma of her perfume was overtaken by her whiskey breath. Eyeing John, she raised an eyebrow like she and I were in on some big secret. When she slurred in my ear, it was barely more than a whisper, but I still heard it above the music. 


“What is it,” she said, “that makes other women’s men so delicious?”


I stood up so fast I nearly spilled my drink, but she hobbled away before I could explain that she’d completely misread the situation. He wasn’t Molly’s “man.” He was her nemesis. But then, of course, that was even worse. An attraction to the man who was crushing her dreams would be a complete betrayal in Molly’s eyes. 


And what about Stefano? We’d always talked about being together one day. His engagement made no sense. But then, as I circled around the information, it all became clear. This was just a test—forcing my move, a game of chicken. He was playing me, like only he knew how to do—a fabulous trick. This was time to rise. I wasn’t going to give up on our future. I needed to get to him before he made the biggest mistake of our lives. Raising an investment wasn’t enough, though. For true independence—time as well as money—my only choice was to unload the whole thing. 


I sat down and looked at John. “So, to answer your question about selling Quantro, I may have spoken too fast. Perhaps we should consider it.” 


“You sure?”


“It’s the only escape from 100-hour work-weeks. Time to take my chips off the table.” 


“Translation: cash,” John said, like it was a dirty word. Dirty word if you don’t need it.


“Plus, growing the business hints at success, but selling it would be proof. I’d like to lock in a victory. Who knows what could happen.” 


Molly was crossing the room toward us, a business card popping from her cleavage. She had a martini in each manicured hand, but they didn’t slow her down any more than her tall, strappy sandals. She stopped and flicked her foot to brush some crumbs off to the side. 


“I got this,” I said to John. I took my earring out of his hand and finished fixing it. “Don’t forget our bet. Three more months for Molly if I win.” 


After I fastened the link, I released my hair to cover my cheek, where my misplaced “beauty” mark lay in a splat, as if from a magic marker, as my primary genetic error. I shook my head to be sure the link was secure. He reached toward my ear, but I pulled away. Instead of asking if we should meet to discuss Quantro—too much eagerness never works—I said, “Don’t forget” again, because Molly never forgot anything: not my birthday, not my Gaeta olives, and not the dress I wore to Quantro’s opening party, when she brought a mariachi band, oysters and a case of champagne.


Molly put down our drinks, and handed me the business card from her cleavage. “This guy can get us tickets to Neil Young. Will you email him? Find a date that works for you and I’ll be there.”


“Done.” I squeezed her so tightly, she lost her breath. “So,” I added, “I’d love to sit and yimmer yammer with you people, but somebody’s got to earn a living around here.” 


And then, faster on my feet than a fully-vested entrepreneur after acquisition, I fled. 


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