Originator – Part 3

The two of them take their seats across from one another on the open-air patio of an up-scale restaurant in the suburbs. Santi had insisted on the treat. Paolo had wanted to refuse, once again feeling like a charity case.

Then again, after his conversation with Jake, Paolo was unsure when he didn’t feel that way.

Paolo takes a look around at the other guests, noticing their well-tailored appearance. A table of businessmen in suits is seated not too far away. Even with their jackets off, ties undone slightly, and sleeves rolled up the the elbow they still seem far more classy.

Grabbing his delicately folded and placed napkin from the salad plate in front of him, Paolo tries to hide his faded trousers from view and blend in.

“So,” Santi starts, his voice cracking with eagerness. He clears his throat before continuing on in his more measured baritone. “How is the greenhouse going?”

Right to business, as usual.

Paolo’s cheeks turn pink, out of frustration or embarrassment he can’t tell. “Fine. We’re on track.”

A waiter comes by and interrupts any further conversation they could have. While he details the options of the day, Paolo sneaks a glance at Santi.

He’s pulling that polite-yet-strained smile that he uses when he’s obviously stressed or feeling interrupted. And he’s wearing that forest green polo Paolo loves. It falls on his shoulders just right and isn’t too tight in the sleeve, a perfect cut across his broad chest.

Santi thanks the waiter, ordering two of the soups of the day with the paired white. Paolo looks back down at his lap and tries to not blush.

Just as Santi turns back towards him, the table full of businessmen erupts in laughter. “And then I told him ‘just put it on the card, we can always write it off later.’ He looked at me like I was telling him to commit fraud! It was only a few drinks with dinner, a client dinner at that!”

It’s benign enough, Paolo knows it’s common practice to write-off dinner expenses, but something about the setting turns his blush into disgust. For a brief moment he wonders, is this dinner being expensed? Is this just another write-off for Greenspace?

No one around them even bats an eye. Someone a table over coughs loudly and that seems to calm down the rowdy businessmen. Otherwise, everyone goes on with their dinner as if nothing had happened.

It’s only Paolo who feels twisted up inside. He knows what it feels like to be taken aback by the business practices of upper classes. To feel out of your depth, over your head, and like everyone is just taking pity on you.

He balls his hands into fists. Breathes. Closes his eyes for a moment trying to figure out what to say next.

On his next exhale, it all comes tumbling out. “Have I always just been a charity case to you or do you really care about me?”

The question catches Santi off-guard. Paolo lifts his gaze long enough to catch his mouth open slightly before he plasters the strained smile back on his face. At first, Paolo thinks Santi is about to lay into him, until the sommelier appears at the side of the table.

He breathes a sigh of relief, letting the monotony of the wait staff doing their jobs ease his tension. In the sommelier’s wake the waiter leaves them with a basket of rolls and their soups. It looks creamy, maybe some kind of chowder, but wholly unappetizing at the moment.

Paolo grabs at the glass of white as the waiter leaves. He doesn’t know or care what kind of white it is, though it tastes crisp and almost sparkling to his tongue. All he wants is for his nerves to calm down.

Just like the first time they’d had dinner together.

Santi waits for him to put his glass down before he answers. “I feel hurt, Paolo. I want the project to work out.”

“But why?”

“Because I do care about you.”

Paolo frowns and looks down at the soup in front of him. He grabs a roll from the nearby bread basket and begins tearing it into pieces, dropping each on top of the thick soup. “I don’t understand.”

Santi leans back in his chair, taking his glass of wine with him. “This project clearly means everything to you. It wasn’t lost on me how important it is to you. At this point, it’s become an extension of you as much as it is an extension of the community.”

“Well, yeah, I’ve been working at the plan for years, just like I told you. No matter how long it took, I was always going to make this project happen.”

Now it’s Santi’s turn to flush. The pink in his cheek creeps across the tip of his nose and he tries to hide it with a sip of his wine. Even though Paolo suspects it’s from embarrassment, he still can’t help but find it cute.

He wishes he didn’t. Maybe everything would’ve been easier if he wasn’t so stupidly attracted to every little thing Santi does.

Santi clears his throat as he finishes his sip. “Do you know how cute and infectious your ambition is?”

“I…no…” Now it’s Paolo’s turn to be caught off-guard, finally looking into Santi’s eyes for the first time of the evening.

“I was stupid, absolutely stupid, from the second we talked backstage at the conference. That stupidity only got worse the more we worked together. About a month into the project I finally figured out just how stupid I was being and I thought about breaking up with you.”

“Why didn’t you?”

Santi sighs, taking another sip from his glass before continuing on. “I don’t know. Just more stupidity and bad math.”

“Bad math?”

“Think about it like this,” he puts his glass down on the table, getting a bit more animated. “I was already invested in you, as a person. Forget the project. You, however, were already so heavily invested in giving this project your everything that there really was no way to tease the two apart. If I was going to be with you, I was going to be with the project. So, I guess I just figured that to show you I cared about you, I would invest myself in the project. Literally.”

Paolo looks down at the sinking bread bits in his soup. He doesn’t like that the reasoning feels flattering. He doesn’t like that he’d be willing to give Santi the benefit of the doubt for not knowing better.

He grabs at his wine and takes a large sip, nearly finishing the glass before putting it back down. This isn’t a good reason for why he never told him about his family owning their major financier. It’s just an excuse.

“Then why didn’t you tell me about your family? Why didn’t you tell me…I don’t know…about any of it?”

Santi shakes his head and leans back again. “Over the last year, the one thing I know about you with any certainty, is that you don’t ask for help when you need it. Your ambitions are so much bigger than you but you want to do it all yourself. It’s what brings us all to you. We want to help but you never want to ask us, so we’re left wondering how we can help.”

His conversation with Jake rings in his head. Garbage at asking for help. The Ag Club project and Charlie’s impatient meddling during high school projects.

Finally, he picks up his spoon and stirs his soup around. All the bread pieces, now thoroughly saturated with broth, sink to the bottom of the bowl.

As he stirs, his thoughts swirl with it. Clockwise, anticlockwise. Building together, building alone.

“What happens when everyone leaves?” Paolo rests the spoon against the side of the bowl, watching the swirling contents slowly come to a stand still.

“Is that what this is about?”

Paolo shrugs. “I guess, yeah. I don’t know.”

“Are you…are you afraid that if you ask for help people will just abandon you?”

He shuts his eyes against the suggestion, but its already wormed its way into his mind.

He’s ten and his dad is telling him to get his mom to help with his school project. Mom tells him she’s too busy this time, he’s a big kid, he can figure it out on his own. He spends the next week working on it, obsessing over it, afraid he’ll mess it up if he doesn’t. He gets an A on it but no one says they’re proud.

Each school project, each paper, each test becomes an obsession after that. There’s talk in the house about how tight money is. One day, before his thirteenth birthday, his dad leaves to go work a job on the other side of the country. Everyone promises that he’ll be back soon.

This becomes routine. Dad is barely home before he has to leave again. The money is good, but they’re still in debt according to his mom. He knows far too much about their finances now and he stops asking for anything new.

Before he can graduate, he knows he isn’t going to college and he can’t ask mom for help. Their money is going to other family members in worse situations. Paolo can’t blame her for helping them; they have young kids with more financial demands, and he’s an adult now. He instead uses what he can earn at the cannabis farm to rent an apartment.

He can do it himself. He has to do it himself. No one has enough to help.

“There just isn’t enough.” Paolo shuts his eyes, shoulders slumping forward as the weight of the realization settles on them. “There’s never enough for me. It’s better if no one helps, I don’t want to be a burden.”

“Oh, ‘lo,” Santi says softly. Tears start to form behind Paolo’s eyes when he uses his nickname. “You’re not a burden. I know that doesn’t magically make it true to you, but you’re not a burden for asking for help. We can’t plan to accomplish anything if we don’t help one another.”

A waiter comes by to ask if they’re ready to order. Paolo barely registers their presence as he tries his best to hold back the tears in his eyes. Santi waves him away, asking for a few more moments.

Despite his efforts, a few tears fall onto the napkin in his lap.

It dawns on Paolo that maybe Santi is right. The greenhouse wasn’t just an idea he had by himself. It had been borne out of a shared goal between him and Jake.

Then suddenly everyone had gathered together to help, for their own reasons, but that didn’t matter. What had mattered was their shared goal. How he had missed that is beyond him when everyday he had been surrounded by people who had wanted to help.

People who didn’t see the project as a burden. People and friends who saw it for what it was: a way to help everyone.

“I…I don’t want your family’s help.” Paolo’s voice cracks as he tries to rein himself back in.

The expression on Santi’s face is hard for Paolo to read but the hurt in his voice is clear. “Are we…breaking up?”

Paolo shakes his head as he wipes at the tear tracks. “No.”

“Then…what? Why?”

“We need more.” Santi’s eyebrows draw in towards one another, clearly confused. Paolo sighs and wipes the last of the tears from his eyes. “You’re right, we have to help one another. We have to do more, for other communities, not just ours. We need more.”

“I’m…” Santi hesitates, leaning back in his chair again before a slow smile spreads across his face. “I could ask around. Get us in contact with some of the organizations my mom’s have used in the past…”

Paolo shakes his head again, meeting Santi’s gaze directly. “Not without me. No more coordinating behind my back.”

Santi raises his hands, clearly conceding to Paolo’s demands. “Of course. I’m sorry that I ever went behind your back in the first place.”

“Good. I don’t want there to be any more secrets between us.”

The two let the conversation lapse into silence, each absorbed in their own thoughts.

The waiter comes and goes again, taking their order from Santi. Paolo hardly cares. Food is the last thing on his mind as evidenced by the untouched soup in front of him.

Once the waiter leaves again, Santi asks, “What’s changed for you? I would’ve expected you to be more stubborn about this.”

“I…spoke with Jake recently. Without getting into it, I guess it just made me realize how much he and I were both trying to avoid.” Paolo grabs at his wine, finishing off the contents of the glass.

Santi nods, following Paolo’s lead and also finishing his glass of wine. “I suppose I should thank him for getting you to come around.”

“He’s very eager to get to working on the next project.”

“Next project?”

Now it’s Paolo’s turn to let a slow smile come to his face. “We’ve been requested to do another community-led revitalization just outside the city. They want us to build another greenhouse, essentially.”

“Have I told you lately how much I love how ambitious you are?” Santi’s face turns pink, possibly from the wine or from the admission. The difference doesn’t matter much to Paolo.

“I love you too.”

The simple phrase turns both their faces bright pink. They stare at each other for a moment, Paolo silently appreciating the way Santi’s eyes crinkle at the corners when he genuinely smiles. Underneath the table he can feel Santi move his leg closer to touch his, ankle to ankle.

“Don’t get me too off topic, now. We have a new project to plan.”

The sommelier returns to refill their glasses as Paolo launches into what he knows of the new space and his plans for Jake.


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