Originator – Part 1

Note-cards in hand, Paolo paces back and forth between the curtains dividing him from the other participants. The conference had provided presenters with a separate space to wait until their presentation but most had decided to use their time to make connections instead. A bead of sweat runs down his temples and he quickly wipes it away, trying to focus on his notes and not the nerves beginning to churn in his empty stomach.

He had worked for months on the concept. Every day that he passed the abandoned strip mall, with its broken signs and boarded up windows, he told himself that one day it wouldn’t be such an eyesore. That he was going to see it transformed into something useful again.

That had been over a year ago and the lot still sat empty and unkempt.

Paolo’s ideas, however, had soared in that time. Instead of just imagining taking over one store, his ambitious had run wild and come up with a plan to turn the decaying strip mall into a thriving community space. A member owned and maintained place that would not only offset local food needs, but also serve as a conservatory, native plant nursery, and educational space. All it needed was funding.

Which had brought him here in the first place.

Thunderous applause suddenly fills the space. Another presenter finished. Only one more to go until his turn.

He shuffles through his cards, making sure they’re still in the order he had put them in this morning. With twenty minutes for each presenter to fill, followed by a short Q&A, and Paolo had worried he wouldn’t have enough to talk about. His practice runs had all ended with five minutes to spare and slowing down was proving difficult, even with the pauses he had added to his cards.

“Our next presenter has been a multi-time green tech entrepreneur, very familiar with this stage. She’s not only founded one of the largest seed banks on the continent, but she launched the first floating city off the coast of San Francisco. Please welcome April Lungarten to the stage!” The announcer’s voice echos against the back wall.

Before Paolo even has a second to begin doubting if he’s worthy to be in the same group as someone so influential, the partition curtains open. Time pauses for a moment as a tall, slim-built, handsome man steps into the space. Paolo’s eyes meet the stranger’s and both stand staring at one another for a moment.

“Thank you, thank you.” April’s voice can just be heard over the applause. It brings Paolo back to reality, his cheeks turning a bright pink as he quickly tries to bury his face behind his note-cards.

The stranger, however, makes a beeline straight for him. Even more embarrassed now, Paolo turns away, hoping the very attractive strange man hasn’t noticed the blush spreading across his face.

“Excuse me,” the stranger’s voice is soft as he taps Paolo’s shoulder. “Sorry, I just need to make sure you’re supposed to be back here.”

“Sorry, what?” Paolo asks as he turns back around, nerves and embarrassment causing his voice to crack.

“I’m with event staff.” The stranger flashes his badge, the name Santi printed in large bold font across the front. “Just doing the rounds to make sure no attendees are sneaking about.”

“Right, of course.” Paolo flips his badge around to show off the presenter sticker attached to it.

“Perfect, thanks.” Santi goes to leave, then stops himself before asking, “This your first conference?”

Taken aback by the question, Paolo stammers out, “Y-yes. Why do you ask?”

“Hadn’t seen you around before. I’ve been helping with these for a couple years now and it’s usually the same faces.”

“Oh, didn’t realize it was an old friend’s club.”

Santi chuckles and the sound of it sends pleasant shivers down Paolo’s body. “Hadn’t thought of it that way, but I suppose you’re right. The ideas have become a bit stale because of it, between you and me.”

“How do you mean?”

“It’s just the same five ‘green tech’ ideas.” Santi rolls his eyes at the thought. “All ‘reduce emissions’ here and ‘innovative green living’ there. It never seems to get to the root of the problem.”

“What do you think that is?”

“Sustainability. These ideas are great and all, don’t get me wrong, they have their place. But the end consumer isn’t learning anything, isn’t contributing, is still completely removed from the problem. They go home to their ‘green’ homes but don’t know how their food is grown, or where their energy comes from, or even how to effectively use these products.”

Paolo can’t help but smile as Santi continues on in his complaint. “So you’re saying everyone presents products rather than solutions.”

“Yes!” An excited smile fills his face, clearly happy to find a like-mind. “I shouldn’t go on though. They’re all great people who want to change things. I just wonder if this is really changing anything or not.”

“Maybe it can.” Paolo looks down at the cards in his hands, resisting the urge to shuffle them about and change things last minute.

“Hey, don’t let me shake your confidence. Whatever your idea is, I’m sure it’s going to get picked up.” Santi tries to reassure him.

“I hope you’re right.”

The sound of static from the radio at Santi’s hip interrupts him before he can even reply. “I’d better get going. Good luck!”

“Thanks!” Paolo calls after him, the sudden need to keep talking overtaking him. “Hope I get to talk to you later?”

Santi looks back at Paolo, a soft smile spreading out across his handsome features. The air catches in Paolo’s chest. “I’ll be back before the end of this presentation session.”

With that, Santi slips through the partition curtain, leaving Paolo alone with his thoughts. A deep flush breaks out across Paolo’s face, turning his tan cheeks a dusty rose color. He melts into the nearest chair as a delayed reaction floods his body.

“Please, Gay Jesus,” he mutters a half-hearted prayer to himself, “let him be into me.”

There were fewer questions than Paolo had anticipated. Both of the presenters before him had Q&A sessions that had threatened to spill over into the next presenter’s time. In contrast, only a handful of people had bothered to ask anything, even if the questions themselves had been explained in the presentation already.

People barely even waited for him to leave the stage before heading out to their evening plans. All that hard work, just conveniently ignored right at the end of the day. It was demoralizing, to say the least, and Paolo had left the stage with shaky legs, a suddenly huge appetite, and a boulder of doubt on his mind.

Making his way back to the backstage area, he grabs his bag from the prep area, and hastily shoves his note-cards. into an outer pocket. Maybe Santi had been right. Maybe the conference was all just a pretense for the same five people to get funding.

Thinking of Santi, he takes a look at his watch and frowns. Five more minutes and someone would be by to kick him out for the night.

Not wanting to wait around feeling sorry for himself, Paolo heads towards the exit leading back to the convention space. The heavy door swings open a bit more easily than expected.

Just short of colliding, Paolo jumps back to avoid an incoming Santi. “Whoa!”

Santi looks up and stops mid-step, eyes wide with surprise. “Oh shit, sorry!”

Both of them take a second before they laugh it off. Once again a deep flush comes over Paolo’s face as Santi’s rich laugh melts away any lingering disappointment. A similar coloring seems to creep across the bridge of Santi’s nose.

“Glad I found you.” Santi finally says, rubbing the back of his neck. “Do you have any dinner plans?”

Paolo shakes his head while he tries not to freak out at the idea of being invited to dinner with someone so handsome. “Uh, no, not outside of coffee maker ramen.”

“Coffee maker ramen?” Santi looks at him, puzzled.

“Ya know, run the water through the coffee maker so it’s hot enough for instant noodles.”

“Oh, right, yeah.” Santi laughs nervously again, still rubbing the back of his neck.

“I didn’t exactly budget for meals out.” Paolo admits, looking down at the ground.

“Don’t worry about it. There’s a spot nearby and I really wanted to talk to you about your presentation.”

“You watched?”

“Yeah! I mean, before I got called off to handle something. Oh, right, that totally reminds me.” He fishes around in his pocket for his wallet and extracts a business card from it. “Here, my card.”

There isn’t much to it: a simple white card with black text. Santiago Rodriguez, it says in a large curling font with a more plain font listing his email and social network addresses.

“Santiago…” Paolo repeats as if committing it to memory.

“Just call me Santi. What was your name again?”

The flush returns as Paolo offers out his hand. “Paolo Lopes. I, uh, don’t have a card.”

Santi’s hand is warm and firm, lingering for a moment longer than any typical handshake should. “Pleasure, Paolo. Let’s get out of here before they yell at us.”

Without hesitation, Paolo follows after Santi as he heads down the hallway towards the main exit.

“What about the rest of the stores? Is the owner being stubborn about selling the rest of the property?” Santi asks, spearing a piece of chicken with this fork.

“No, it isn’t that. The city took the property over a few years ago since no one wanted to buy it.”

“So then why not convert the rest of the stores?”

Paolo sighs and nudges at the pasta on his plate. “Money. I can’t even get investors on board, it feels impossible to even think about taking over the whole place.”

“Have you tried pitching that?”

“I…uh…well, no. I figured I should start small to get people on board.”

“Well, that’s probably why it feels impossible then.” Santi gives him a wry smile.

“I don’t know…”

Santi puts his fork down, suddenly turning serious. “Paolo, I’ve been working for these groups for years now. Did you listen to any of the ideas presented today?”

“Yeah, a little.”

“And what did you think?”

Feeling put on the spot, Paolo shifts in his seat, crossing his legs under the table. “They all seemed really ambitious but definitely feasible.”

“They’re not.”

“Excuse me?”

“They’re not feasible.” Santi clarifies. “Half of these projects get through stage one before they encounter significant roadblocks to completion. Some pivot and raise more money to keep going, most dissolve within a year or two.”

“That isn’t exactly giving me confidence…”

“It should! These projects don’t have half of what yours does.”

“What’s the difference then?”


The word hangs between them for a moment as Paolo considers his point. It hadn’t ever really been something that he had considered before.

Each of the projects he heard today had focused on a niche idea. A ‘solution’ for a ‘market problem’ they had all said, in one manner or another, but he hadn’t really considered what that meant. He just assumed that they must know something more than he does.

“So these ‘market problems’…” Paolo muses out loud.

“Don’t actually exist.” Santi interrupts, a wide grin beginning to spread across his face. “They make shit up all the time and slap some intelligent sounding words onto it. Your idea, however, actually addresses a real need. What do we do with our empty spaces?”

A warmth begins to spread deep from within Paolo’s chest, spreading upwards until it reaches his throat where it seems to catch. He flushes again and looks down at his plate, trying to hide the confusing and comforting feeling of finally being understood.

“You really think this project is worthwhile?” He timidly asks.


Paolo lifts his gaze to look at Santi. The other man’s brown eyes seem to look right into him with earnestness. Now the feeling in his chest travels downward and Paolo shifts again, creating room for his reacting body. Why did the one person interested in his idea have to be so attractive?

Paolo clears his throat, looking away again. “Still, I haven’t been able to get any interest…” his phone screen suddenly lights up, alerting him to a new email. “Sorry, let me check this.”

He taps the notification and it promptly opens the email. Greenspace Initiative Fund reads the sender line. Paolo frowns a little, trying to figure out if this was another one of the many organizations he had reached out to for funding. If this is just going to be another in a long list of rejections.

To his surprise, it isn’t.

His eyes scan the email again and again. At first, his brow furrows. Clearly this must be a joke. When no obvious punchline stands out to him, Paolo stops and stares at the opening paragraph, his mouth slowly falling open.

“Everything alright?” Santi asks as he notices Paolo’s expression shift.

“I…” Paolo stares at the email again. “I…what? ‘We would like to propose the following agreement to fund this project to a total of one million dollars. Please see the attached agreement and feel free to respond at your earliest convenience.’”

He reads it again, still in disbelief, as Santi asks, “Who is it from? That’s amazing!”

“G-Greenspace Initiative Fund. I don’t remember applying to them…”

“They must’ve heard your proposal!”

“This is…this is…”

“Amazing! You’re going to accept it, right?”

Paolo looks back up at Santi, eyes wide. “I mean…yes! Of course!”

“Good!” Santi’s eyes gleam with excitement and he moves himself to sit next to Paolo. “You said you’re going to need a lot of funds, so let’s pitch them back then.”

“What, why? Wont they just…I don’t know, revoke the offer?”

Santi tries not to laugh. “You’ve never negotiated before. This is just a first offer, we need to pitch them your entire idea and see what they’ll bite on. The worst that happens is they say no and hold firm on this line.”

“I don’t have a proposal ready though. At least, not for the whole mall.”

“Then I guess this just became a work meeting instead of the date I was hoping for.”

It was so subtle and he said it with such confidence that Paolo was sure Santi misspoke. “A date?”

“Yeah,” Santi sheepishly looks at the table before making eye contact. “I mean, I didn’t mean to be forward I just thought I picked up on a vibe…”

“A vibe?”

He sighs and leans back a bit. “You know. If you’re not interested that’s fine, we can just pretend…”

“No, no! I’m interested!” Paolo blurts out, causing the wait staff to turn towards their table. He takes a deep breath as a blush spreads out across his face. “I just thought you were more into this project than me.”

“Why not both?” Santi asks, moving closer again. “I think I like both, at least right now.”

Paolo can’t help but find himself lost in Santi’s deep brown eyes yet again. “Yeah, both. Both is good.”

The two smile innocently at one another for a moment, letting the unspoken uncertainty of attraction dissipate between them.


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