The Takeover by Cara Tanamachi (Excerpt)

The Takeover by Cara Tanamachi

ONE Nami Employee birthdays shall be celebrated with cupcakes and 50 Cent. #UNOFFICIAL-TOGGLE-EMPLOYEE-HANDBOOK CHANNEL TOGGLE INTERNAL CHAT I hate birthdays like most people hate toilet paper hoarders. It’s probably because when I was six, I scarfed down four pieces of cake, downed a dangerous mixture of extra-large fountain drinks, and then went into a sugar-blasted frenzy at Lotza Cheese Pizzeria, which ended with me hurling in the ball pit in front of a dozen horrified kids and their parents. Apparently, even at age six, I suffered an existential crisis about aging. My feelings about birthdays haven’t improved with time. I hate them more than ever. And I really, really hate milestone birthdays. Like today. I’m turning thirty, and the very thought makes me a bit queasy as I slide through the revolving doors of my Chicago high-rise building on the Magnificent Mile. The blissfully cool air-conditioning washes over me as I swim out of the swampy late-July heat and into the white marble lobby. My sleeveless linen olive-green jumpsuit clings to my sweaty lower back and I’m a tad worried the thin camel-leather soles of my strappy sandals might have begun to melt during the five-block walk from the L across the blistering concrete. I mentally cross my fingers my mascara isn’t running down my face as I lift up my long dark hair, letting the AC hit my hot neck. Is this what happens when you’re old? You can’t tolerate heat anymore? Ugh. I want to be twenty-nine again. I don’t remember sweating this much when I was twenty-nine. Then I remember I don’t have time to worry about aging or what milestone birthdays might mean. I’m busy trying to keep my tech company, Toggle, afloat. My phone pings as I walk amidst the swarm of people heading up to their offices or to the coffee kiosk nearby. Forecast for Series D: cloudy with a good chance of never happening. That’s Imani. My partner who’s part finance magician and part trailblazer. She put the boss in girl boss. When people told her she couldn’t get funding for a company run by women of color, she said Watch me. Then she proceeded to nab three rounds of funding in the many millions. She’s meeting with our venture capitalists today, hoping to get an idea about how plausible Series D funding could be for Toggle, our app that connects people who want to share or swap cars, vacation homes, or parking spaces. Things really that bad? I text. Worse, Imani says, and I feel a pit forming in my stomach. This time, they’re not going to just throw a Dell at us and call it a day. After our last round of funding, one of the venture capitalists, Dell, came on as our third partner and member of the board. His hobbies are money flexes and casual misogyny. Imani and I didn’t like it, but it was the price we paid for the investment cash. What are our options? I ask her. Sixty employees are counting on us. Not sure yet. That’s not like Imani. Usually, she has about forty different angles she’s working. This worries me. We just need a little more time, I type. Not long ago, we were set to go public, grace the cover of Business Tech as trailblazers, but then the pandemic changed everything. Everyone stopped traveling. Nobody wanted to share a car with possible plague germs clinging to the steering wheel. We just need another round of funding to float us until we can get back on our feet again. Preaching to the choir, sister. I’m headed to the elevator bank when I realize a new set of ads have gone up near the coffee kiosk in the lobby. I’m focused on the biggest poster: a couple laughing together in matching pajamas, little foam hearts in their cappuccinos. Even worse, the model looks like my ex, Mitch. Brown hair, the build of a former athlete, the smirk of a man who believes the world owes him everything. No. Not today, Satan. I hurry away from the giant poster of Doppelgänger Mitch, trying not to think about my empty apartment with the moldy takeout in the fridge waiting for me at the end of the day. I duck into an elevator, fighting back bitterness. All my well-laid plans—publicly traded company by twenty-eight, married by twenty-nine, have a baby by thirty, or at least be baby-adjacent by thirty—have been waylaid by forces beyond my control. In my twenties, I used to think nothing was out of my control. If I studied more, worked harder, and hit the gym like a Peloton instructor, every goal was within reach. And now I think we’re all pinballs pinging around at random, hoping that when we collide with something, it’s good. Soon, I’m at my floor, darting away from the elevator and out into the happy buzz of our bustling tech firm. The Toggle office might be in Chicago, but it’s got the Silicon Valley vibe: bright colors, open floor plan, Ping-Pong and foosball tables in the break room. Free cans of soda in the clear-door fridge, and a fully stocked juice and espresso bar. Ridiculously smart twentysomethings in Vans and faded concert tees roam the halls. At least four of them toss a Frisbee back and forth down the main corridor, riffing on new app functions, while others lob a Nerf football. Another pair have their heads together trying to solve a glitch, or arguing about who was the better Star Trek captain: Kirk, Picard, Sisko, or Janeway, and an “official” vote of the matter is currently open on the break room whiteboard. These developers and programmers are loud, boisterous, and hilarious, and I love them. I breathe a little sigh of relief, the tightness in my chest loosening. “Nam-eeee!” Priya Patel, a senior software engineer, shouts, her bright blue hair impossible to miss as she stops, mid-Frisbee throw. A few others swivel around in their chairs and join my senior engineer in the chant. “Nam, Nam, Nam, Nam-eeee!” They chant like I’m a gold-medal Olympian and not their boss. These are my people. They love me and I love them back. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort building a community, not just a regular old workplace, making sure that Toggle is the kind of place people feel good about working for. In fact, our tagline on a bunch of employee shirts last year read: TOGGLE: FUN. NOT EVIL. REALLY. WE MEAN IT. Arie Berger, my chief technical officer and Priya’s boss, slowly rises from his desk. He’s got his TV Dad vibe on hyperdrive today with his short, curly, sandy-blond hair; a brown plaid shirt; khaki shorts; leather hiking sandals; and his company ID around his neck in a Toggle-logoed lanyard. He’s the only employee on the floor to wear his ID, and some of the other programmers joke it’s because—at age forty-five and the oldest employee at Toggle—he’s getting too old to remember his name. He’s got a wife and two kids in the suburbs, proudly drives a silver minivan, and listens exclusively to old-school hip-hop from the early 2000s. He nods sagely at Priya, who hits the volume button on the portable cube speaker on her desk. The first bars of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” boom out. The engineers slip on sunglasses and turn their baseball caps backward, some wearing bling in the form of paper clip and Post-it Note necklaces and immediately start a poorly planned group dance. They might be able to create the most complicated code from scratch, but coordinated they’re not. I slap my hand over my mouth to suppress a giggle. The engineers unfurl a banner that says “It is your birthday.” It’s decorated with two limp brown balloons—ode to The Office. Arie hands me a small box wrapped in Toggle flyers. “Go on! Open it!” Priya cheers. I open it, slowly, and pull out a ceramic mug. It reads World’s Best Boss on one side, and on the other We Mean This Un-Ironically. This mug instantly becomes my most favorite thing in the world. Everyone applauds and cheers. My face hurts from smiling and my heart feels like it might burst. I couldn’t ask for a more perfect present. “Aw, thanks, everyone!” They almost—almost—make me like birthdays. But it’s right now, as I’m glancing at the words World’s Best Boss, that I start to wonder if I am. Am I the world’s best boss if I can’t keep Toggle afloat? “And we have … cupcakes!” Arie grabs the big pink box from beneath his desk, distracting me from the panic threatening to take over my brain. He’s barely got the box open when Priya dives in, grabbing two, and reaching for a third. “Hey, watch that sugar intake,” warns Jamal, head of Quality Assurance, as he rolls his wheelchair toward the cupcakes. He’s wearing a black polo, per his usual uniform, and comes to a stop, adjusting his black Clubmaster glasses on his nose. “You’re not the boss of me,” she says and sticks out her pierced tongue. “No, but we basically share a desk, and if you’re hyper all afternoon, you’ll be shaking it with your bouncing knees and your sugar nerves,” he says. Jamal and Priya are polar opposites: Jamal being reserved, serious, and quiet, and Priya being flamboyant, dramatic, and loud. “You know you love it when the desk vibrates,” she coos, winking at him as she flips a bright blue piece of hair from her forehead. Jamal just sighs and rolls his eyes. “Arie? Help, please?” Jamal asks. “That’s enough, children,” Arie says in his best TV Dad voice. “Be nice. And Priya—one cupcake! Nami hasn’t even gotten hers yet.” “Sorry,” Priya says, sheepishly handing me one. “No worries.” I take it and grin. It’s all so freakin’ sweet. “What did I do to deserve all of you?” “Signing bonuses?” a programmer shouts from the back of the crowd. “Breakfast Mondays!” another adds. I laugh. “Thanks so much, everyone. There would be no Toggle without you. And I mean that. I’m so grateful for all of you, your brilliance, and your hard work. Thank you for all you do to make Toggle good.” “Fun, not evil!” another shouts. I raise my mug in a toast to them as I glance around their goofy, oddball, perfect faces, shining back at me. My heart expands in my chest. Who needs a Mitch when you’ve got an army of eccentric tech nerds who love you? “We’re not just a company. We’re a family.” Everyone claps their approval. “And thank you for the 50 Cent,” I add. “I really needed that today.” “You can repay us by giving us your official vote. For best Star Trek captain … Captain,” Arie says, crossing his arms across his ID tag and nodding back toward the whiteboard, visible through the glass wall of the break room. “My vote is Janeway,” I declare. “She explores a new dangerous quadrant with a ship full of enemies, and still gets the job done.” The Picard, Kirk, and Sisko fans groan and boo, good-naturedly, and the Janeway fans, including Priya, cheer. “I knew it. Hear that? I told you!” Priya gloats, looking at Jamal. “She doesn’t have a catchphrase!” complains Jamal, throwing up his hands in disgust. “Every good captain has to have a catchphrase.” “She does,” I counter. “It’s…” Priya and the other Janeway fans join me. “Do it!” we shout together. “That’s a marketing slogan, not a catchphrase,” grumbles Jamal as he balances a cupcake on his knee, and then rolls back to his desk, shaking his head in disapproval. Arie, by my side, laughs. “Okay, redshirts, back to work.” “Really? Redshirts? We’re expendable now?” Priya asks. “Always,” jokes Arie as he runs a hand through his short, curly hair. “You all are beaming down to the hostile planet first.” Arie glances at me. “You sure you don’t want to quit being the boss and come back to code with us? Look at all you’re missing.” He says it with some sarcasm, but I actually think it is a tempting offer. Some of my happiest days were early programming time when I got to throw my own Frisbees. Back when I was both programmer and corporate lawyer, melding my two favorite things together: complicated code and even more complicated contracts. The programmers resume their games of Frisbee and football and working out age-old pop culture debates as I walk to my glass office, setting the birthday cupcake down. Arie lingers, trailing me to my office. “By the way, got a second?” Arie asks as I dig my laptop out of my bag and plug it into the port on my desk. “Not if you’re going to talk to me about block chains and crypto again,” I tease. Arie is so into NFTs that he gifted both his kids their own when they were born. Arie rolls his eyes. “You asked.” “I asked ‘what is it’? I didn’t expect a four-day-long PowerPoint presentation.” “This is not about NFTs,” he assures me, fidgeting a little with his ID tag. “Though you are absolutely missing out on those. I want to talk about benefits.” “Isn’t that technically Paula’s domain?” I glance at our office manager and HR’s office. Copyright © 2024 by Cara Tanamachi

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