It was an early morning meeting in a small building, hidden in a quiet corner of a quiet suburb. He was a friend of a onetime friend; we had never worked together, but he had called me the previous afternoon asking to meet and discuss a possible project. I'd agreed, and so met him in the small parking lot as he walked in — leading me through a strange and colorful labyrinth, a Virgil guiding me to some hidden circle.
We came to a wooden door, featureless but for a small sign he'd hung from the front. The nail holding it aloft was thin, and rusty.
Virgil unlocked the door, and led me inside.
Someone was waiting. Sitting on a familiar grey-black swivel chair, in front of a familiar grey desk and a state-of-the-art computer set-up I at once recognized and knew intimately.
"Hey," he said. It was the first words he'd spoken to me, in the first time he'd seen me, in eight months.
Eight months, since I sat opposite him and his partner. Two men I'd joined in a new business, going unpaid for months, working for nothing other than the promise - the potential - of building something that might work for all of us. Two men I'd known for years before then, whom I always considered friends as much as anything else. Two men with whom I spent 18 months in a 15x15 room, sweating and swearing and cranking away, trying to make a go of it. Two men with whom I spent five years of my life trusting as much as I'd ever trusted anyone.
Eight months, since I discovered the reward of that trust.
He did not stand up. He did not offer his hand. In friendship; in anything.
I took a deep breath. This was... unexpected. He and Virgil were old friends, from decades back, but I never expected to walk in and find him waiting here.
"Hey," I said back. I kept my tone neutral.
He began to talk to me, about what had happened to the business. I had heard, of course, from other sources. Other perspectives. How what had happened to me ultimately turned out to be a matter of deck chairs on the Titanic; how within months they were looking desperately for a buyer. How the two men had argued, and fought, and nearly come to blows. Threats of lawsuits. Angry words. Bitterness. Recrimination. And finally, when a sale was on the verge of completion, one that would not leave them rich, but that would swallow their debt and allow them to walk away free... this man - the man sitting before me - launched a torpedo.
And the ship sank. Some were rescued, after a fashion, by the onetime buyer... brought on under unfavorable terms and the omnipresent threat of a global economy in the throes of a painful death. Others simply vanished beneath the waves, pulled down by the spiraling, plunging carcass of our once-mighty enterprise to the cold embrace of salt and memory.
He was a victim, he explained to me. His words flowed awkwardly, as they always have (this is what we call: irony), but in broad and irregular strokes he painted an image of his onetime partner - my onetime CEO - as the villain of the piece: a Mephistopheles in Carhartt, stroking his beard and plundering the common gold, robbing from rich and poor alike as the sails went up in flames and two kings fell to war, the house divided and all hope (the hope of us all) was lost.
I nodded and mumbled, unsure as to what he expected from me. He had once invited me to his wedding; he now could not be bothered to stand and shake my hand, or look me in the eye. I quickly forgot any illusions of regret on his part, any expression of sorrow for what had transpired and understanding of what it had cost me. After ten or fifteen minutes of listening to his rambling, I began to wonder if there would even be an acknowledgment of what had taken place, beyond how it had affected him.
Virgil looked on; an impartial witness.
It had been eight months since I'd been cast from a heaven largely of my own making. Eight months since I'd been asked to leave the last job I ever wanted, the best people I'd ever worked with, the centerpoint of my life beyond home and family. Eight months since I'd had to say to another friend, before I walked out the door for the last time, my voice unsteady and surprised, "I never thought I'd leave like this. Never."
He continued to define his victimhood. How there were so many things I wouldn't even believe. Stories that would curl my hair, drive me mad, defy my imagination. The depth of his anguish was unknowable, unfathomable, unprecedented.
Every minute or so I'd make a noise - a "Really?" or a "Wow" - and that would be enough to keep him rambling, rambling on, until eventually the steam dissipated and he was left silenced, mid-incoherent thought, unsure of where to go.
I stood there, ten feet and eight months and a thousand miles away, looking down on him. Sitting in the chair he'd taken from the office we'd once shared. Next to a desk I'd helped him assemble, and a computer I'd hopped onto and worked on during the many long days he'd been "out of the office" navigating his horrific divorce, his kids, his new wife.
The moment lingered. Then I turned to Virgil, and said, "So. This project?"
And he guided me to a small couch, and we sat and talked for twenty minutes. Discovered that my schedule would not work with his requirements. Stood, shook hands, agreed to stay in touch.
As I started to leave the room - not much larger than the room I'd once shared with two men for eighteen long months, banking on nothing but our own talent and will - my onetime president half-turned toward me. "I'll be in touch, too," he said. "Big things ahead."
I gave him a half-nod, a flat "Sounds good." Then, to the room: "See you all later."
And I walked away.