“Do you know that guy?” Parker asked me, as Eddie and his trick of the moment swept past us. “Because he looked at you like he wanted to kill you.”
“It’s a long story,” I said.
“I’m a good listener.”
He was. Parker was a social worker who counseled at-risk teenagers about HIV. A good guy, who’d had a rough time coming out in a family of evangelical Christians in Massachusetts. He had found salvation in a youth group, and been so impressed with what the counselors did that he majored in social work and wanted to devote his life to making other people happy.
Weirdly, that was one of the things about him that bothered me the most. He was so selfless, so saintly, that I could never get a rise out of him. He acceded to anything I wanted to do, and that evening, he’d willingly come to meet me on Lincoln Road when he sensed my agitation after my dinner with Eddie.
We moved slowly down Lincoln Road, past hunky guys on roller skates zigzagging around older gay couples with tiny dogs on bright red leashes that flashed in the evening darkness, sweating tourists talking animatedly in Russian peppered with occasional mentions of Miami Bitch and Sawgrass Mills, and a man in a Speedo, his whole body painted silver, who performed robotic dances to the songs of one-hit wonders from the 1980s.
“He’s the guy I had dinner with,” I said. “My ex-boyfriend from college.”
“The one who ditched you when you went to Japan?”
“We ditched each other.” I still felt prickly about the way things had ended between us. I should have told him about the study-abroad scholarships I was applying for, and he should have told me about the jobs he interviewed for in New York. We both should have been a lot more honest with each other.
That was a pattern I wasn’t going to repeat with Parker. As we walked, I told him everything.
Well, not exactly everything. Not how good the sex was with Eddie, or how complete I felt when I was with him. I stuck to the basics—dated, broke up, both started businesses, brought together by Phil Sweet.
“What a small world it is,” Parker said.
“I guess. I mean, I’m the one who got him into tea in the first place. But it is weird that both of us would turn to entrepreneurship, and in the tea world.”
“You must have had a great effect on him,” Parker said. “I can see that. You’re a very persuasive, powerful individual.”
Sometimes I wanted to shake him. I’d confessed to having dinner with my ex-boyfriend, and Parker didn’t seem to have an iota of jealousy.
Was that a good thing, or a bad one? Maybe he was such a good person that he assumed the best of everyone. Or maybe he didn’t care enough for me to be jealous.
His hand began to feel clammy, and I pulled mine free, pretending I needed to adjust my hair. Parker didn’t seem to mind. Nor was he upset when I told him that I was tired after the long day. “Can we skip you coming back to my place? I need to chill and think through these business problems.”
“Whatever you need. Sometimes the most important thing we can do for ourselves is spend time on our own.”
Yeah, thanks for the social-worker insight into my behavior. I kissed him good-bye and turned back toward the garage where I’d parked before the meeting with Phil Sweet. Darkness had fallen, and the street was lit by neon chopsticks from the Brazilian-Japanese sushi bar, the overly bright window displays at the store catering to tourists who’d forgotten to bring sunglasses for the tropical sun, the spangled snowflakes hanging from light poles as a way to bring winter to the land of endless sunshine.
I realized with a pang that I missed my hometown in Ohio. The nip in the air in late October as we decorated our house with skeletons and pumpkins and sheaves of parti-colored Indian corn. The first dusting of white that made our ordinary backyard look like Narnia after the kids went through the wardrobe, as if there might be a faun in a knitted scarf hiding behind a tree. Lying on my back in a drift of fresh snow, waving my arms to make a snow angel.
In college, the change of the seasons meant adding and removing layers, pairing a jewel-toned polo shirt with a pale blue oxford-cloth button-down and a nubby crew-necked wool sweater. I had a collection of scarves in colors and patterns—ghosts and goblins for Halloween, buckle-hatted Pilgrims and plump turkeys for Thanksgiving, Santa’s sleigh filled with presents, Valentine hearts and cupids.
I missed wearing those scarves. The closest I got to winter in South Florida was entering an overly air-conditioned movie theater or restaurant. Most of the time, like that evening as I reached the bus stop, I was sweating even in the lightest-weight shirt.
At least the bus was air-conditioned, and I rode up Collins Avenue to the apartment I was renting mid-Beach, in a working-class neighborhood of Hispanic families. My neighbors were surprised that I lived by myself—didn’t I have family to take care of? All of them seemed to be sharing with grandparents and cousins and in-laws along with lots of little kids.
I walked to my building, a three-story low-rise built in the 1950s, with no architectural distinction whatsoever. As I approached I heard, as usual, Latin music playing somewhere, which reminded me of what Eddie had introduced me to in college. The five-stroke pattern of the rhumba and the conga, the fast-paced habanera, the percussive beat of Afro-Cuban jazz. I remembered Eddie dancing the mambo in my apartment one night during senior year, the way his hips moved as if his body was made of liquid, not bone. He’d tried to teach me those dances, but I was an Ohio boy without the rhythm that had been born into him.
When I got into my apartment, the music still reverberated through the paper-thin walls of my apartment, and I’d grown accustomed to working with headphones on. I plugged in and turned to a collection of Jake Shimabukuro’s ukulele recordings whose melodies, seemingly simple but ultimately quite complex, reminded me of the koto music I’d come to love in Japan.
With the ukulele soaring and falling in my ears, I looked at my latest spreadsheet. I was making money, barely, because I hadn’t reached a sales volume yet that would let me take advantage of economies of scale. I’d hoped the influx of capital from Phil Sweet would help with that, as well as funding my living expenses while I devoted myself completely to the business.
What was I going to do without that money? I’d solicited a dozen venture capitalists from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, and Sweet was the only one who’d expressed any interest at all. I’d met him at an incubator event in Portland, and we’d clicked. He loved to drink tea and recognized that my products reached a niche that hadn’t been served yet.
We had corresponded for several months, and at one point he’d mentioned that it was a shame I was on the other side of the country. If I was closer to him, we might be able to meet occasionally.
By that time I’d broken up with a Japanese-American guy I was dating in Portland, my lease was coming up, and I realized I had no ties keeping me from moving to Florida.
So I did.
Sweet had been as good as his word. Once a month I’d met with him, and he’d helped me develop the spreadsheets I was staring at. To understand investment terms, to translate my passion for tea into something that could be a real business. And in one rash moment, I’d wiped out a year of work.
There was no way my business was sustainable at this level. I’d already used up most of the cash I’d put aside from my jobs. I had some small income from a regular column I wrote for my old employer’s newsletter, but that barely covered my rent. The problem with my business model, Sweet had pointed out, was that I introduced restaurants to tea pairings and taught their staff for free, depending on revenue from selling them my custom blends to make a profit. There wasn’t enough volume coming from my existing clients, so I was constantly on the prowl for new business.
Most of my time was spent on non-revenue-generating activities, like researching and pitching restaurants. I needed to break into the consumer market to develop a steadier stream of income. But I couldn’t do that without an infusion of capital.
I kept coming back to my meeting that afternoon with Phil and Eddie. If I hadn’t been blindsided, I might have been more thoughtful in considering the deal. Could I work with Eddie? Could we both overcome the sexual tension between us to focus on making money together?
Did I have any other choice?
I remembered that Eddie’s business was called Cockteals, and I looked up his website. It was pretty professional looking—better than mine, which I’d had a teenaged coder in Portland build for me on the cheap. I clicked on the contact us
link and took a deep breath.
We should talk
, I typed. I added my cell number, my e-mail, and my website address. Before I could second-guess myself, I clicked Send.