I slip my phone into my pocket, vowing not to check it again until I get home. The bus is late, and I fiddle with a loose thread hanging from my shirt. I will not look at my phone. The thread snaps off. I take the hair tie from my wrist and twist it into various shapes. I will not look at my phone.
After weeks of deliberation, I have sent a text to my former best friend. That makes it sound as though something awful happened. Something to make me hate her, or vice versa. Former. Prior. Ex. As if she stole my husband, or revealed my darkest secret, or abandoned me outside of a bar in the winter when I was drunk and wearing broken high heels.
What actually happened was not nearly that interesting.
I met her in fifth grade. My elementary school friends all went to summer camp without me and came home in August with t-shirt tans and friendship bracelets on their wrists and ankles. I sat with them at lunch on the first day of school, feeling invisible as I ate my sandwich while they traded inside jokes. On the second day of school, I trudged into my elective, a music class. She sat at a corner desk with a violin case at her feet and was the only other student listening to the teacher. I had not made a new friend in three years, but I was feeling brave, so I approached her after class and asked about her violin. She smiled at me with crooked teeth, a smile that reached her eyes hidden behind round wire glasses, and politely told me that it was a viola. We sat together at lunch that day, and every day for the rest of middle school.
As a final assignment for that class, we were told to write a song. I didn’t ask her to be partners, and she didn’t ask me. We simply were. I wrote and sang the lyrics; she wrote and played the music. We decided to write another, and another. Our first few songs were unbelievably embarrassing, with titles like Oranges are Bad and No Thanks, Monday!, but we thought they were masterpieces. Any time we could get away with it, we partnered together and wrote songs for class. We performed together only once, in eighth grade, when our teacher made us present our project. Our classmates, who until then barely acknowledged us, gave us glowing reviews, and then we crawled back into our private world as if it had never occurred. We were shy, unpopular girls, and we did not try to change that.
We continued to write together when we got to high school. Inspiration often struck at inopportune times, so we passed notes under the table while pretending to be very studious with our heads bent to the page and our pencils scrawling. Our friendship was composed by music, and we silently agreed to keep it that way. I never met her parents. I never told her when mine got divorced. We acted as though nothing existed except our songs and our bands. It worked in middle school. But real life has a way of seeping in, and by sophomore year it was getting harder to keep out. My lyrics, once simple sentiments of a child, turned into the tormented grumbles of a teenager. She gave up the violin and focused on the bass, practicing every day until her fingers bled so she could get into state orchestra. I joined the choir and fell in love with a boy who could sort of sing and play guitar chords, and that year I sang with him in the talent show.
We spent less and less time together. I thought she was the one who betrayed me, all those long hours in the orchestra room, while I was in a basement learning how to kiss.
By junior year, we hardly had any classes together, but still we met at lunch to discuss the strings of words I dreamt up in French class and the melodies that came to her in biology. She stayed silent on the obvious fact that my lyrics were suddenly about me, when they had always been about fictional characters or abstract concepts. I chewed my food a few extra times and pretended to look at my phone while I waited for her to finish conversations with her orchestra friends who took up residence at our table. She changed the topic whenever I brought up my boyfriend. We pretended nothing had changed, and still our resentment appeared in the songs, like when I wrote my love for you is open ended and she made it sound tragic.
Eventually, we graduated, and I went off to college in another state with an undecided major and she moved to the city to study music. I started school, and I didn’t hear from her. I tried to write by myself, and I didn’t hear from her. I heard a new song by our favorite band, and I sent it to her. I didn’t hear from her.
I didn’t try again, not even when I came home for winter break. I focused on my classes, my clubs, and my new friends, and gradually I stopped writing songs.
So that’s what happened. One ignored text, I figured she didn’t like me anymore, and I slapped a ‘former’ label on her forehead like a discounted baked good at the grocery store.
Six years went by. I graduated, moved back home for a bit. Got tired of home, moved to the city, not too far from where she’d gone to school. I made a post about it on Facebook and everything. She didn’t comment. She didn’t even like it. I thought, it’s fine, she never was into social media.
And then, three weeks ago, her band dropped an album. Not a single, or an EP. A whole goddamn album. She made a post teeming with the words of an Instagram influencer, complete with a string of hashtags. She tagged people I’d never met. I listened to it immediately. The songs were more sophisticated, the work of trained musicians, but I could still hear her in the gentle verses broken by stirring choruses. Two vocalists alternated, a man and a woman with voices like butter. Underneath them, the unmistakable sound of a bassist whose fingers no longer bled.
I listened to it while I cooked dinner and on the bus to work. I memorized the words and scrutinized the album art like we used to do with our favorite bands. I suppose I was searching for something obscure, a reference only I would get, but there was nothing. I know I don’t deserve it, but I thought she would throw in something for me. She had to know I would listen. Didn’t she?
The text I sent while waiting for the bus was to congratulate her, tell her how good the album is, tell her how proud I am. I tried to keep it short. I tried to keep it chipper. It took me three weeks to send because every time I tried, I saw the text I sent her six years ago, the one she never answered. The thought that she might see it too immobilized me. Would she feel bad that she never replied? Or would she think I was pathetic, for not getting the hint all those years ago?
The bus arrives and I board. I sit alone, and still I leave my phone in my pocket. I take a book out of my backpack instead, but I can’t focus on the words. I would listen to music, but I am not checking my phone. Briefly, I long for the days when my phone was separate from my iPod. How many buses did she and I sit on together, sharing headphones to listen to our favorites? I must think of something else. I press my head against the window and hope that the cold glass will clear my mind. The rattling of the bus only gives me a headache.
By the time we reach my stop, it is dark. I step off the bus carefully, as I always do, and grip my keychain tighter. It is only a short walk, but I am still not accustomed to living in the city, and I flinch at every shadow. I arrive at my apartment and let myself in, stopping on the first floor to check my mailbox. I can count the number of times I’ve received pleasant mail on one hand, but I still approach the mail with anticipation. No bills today, which is the best I can hope for these days. The stairs are steep, and I am out of breath by the time I reach my floor. Inside, I take off my shoes and set my bag by the door, then cross to the refrigerator. While my soup heats in the microwave, I finally sit and take out my phone.
There is no reply.
It takes me a long time to fall asleep, and when I finally do it is a restless night, punctuated with strange dreams featuring people I haven’t thought about in years. I am exhausted and bleary eyed when I wake up in the morning, and I leave my phone on my nightstand while I dress and eat breakfast. After I have done the dishes and written a grocery list to take with me, I retrieve the phone, not expecting anything. I nearly keel over when I see that she replied overnight, at 2 AM.
“Hey! Thank you so much! I was hoping you would listen to it.”
It is brief, but that one word, hoping, is all I need. She wanted me to listen. She does not hate me.
I wait to reply until later in the evening. Composing the text takes a while, again, but I settle on, “Of course I listened! It’s really impressive. It still sounds like you, but even better than before.”
The response is faster this time. “Ah you’re too sweet. Are you still writing?”
I put my phone down and go to my bedroom, where I open the closet and take out my old keyboard. It is small, with flimsy plastic keys, and I have not touched it since I moved here. I bring it to the kitchen and root around in a cluttered drawer for batteries until I find some that will fit. I insert them and turn the keyboard on, pressing a few keys to make sure it works. Satisfied, I go back to the closet and take out a large binder. I tuck it under my arm.
I return to the kitchen and text back, “Actually working on a rewrite of an old song of ours right now. Want to hear it when I’m done?”
It is a lie. I have not played any of our songs in years. The truth is, as soon as she shared her album, I went home for the weekend and loaded my car up with boxes of all my old school stuff. I sat on my apartment floor with a bottle of wine, sorted through it, and now everything we ever wrote is safely in this binder. Just in case.
I turn to one of my favorites and try out the chords on my keyboard. I never learned how to play the piano beyond basic chords; I never needed to. Tentatively, I sing, and find that I have not forgotten the melody. I practice late into the night, forgetting to check and see if she has agreed to listen. Even the idea that she might motivates me. When I do look at my phone, I smile at her reply: “Of course! Send it whenever.”
I wait until the next night to record and send it. I fret over the quality for at least an hour before I decide to get it over with and apologize for the terrible recording.
She does not reply for several days, and I am anxious the entire time. I begin to wish I had never sent the song when she finally does: “Omg this sounds so good! Way better than when we first did it.”
“Thanks!” I type. “I was worried you wouldn’t like it.” And I still am. Maybe she’s just being polite. My embarrassment returns, and I’m contemplating throwing my phone out the window when she replies an hour later.
“Are you kidding? I’ve always thought you were the most amazing singer and writer. I wish my lyrics were as good as yours.”
“That means so much, you don’t even know.” It does. I screenshot the text.
I resolve to write a new song, one that has nothing to do with her. I try for days. I write lines about the bus, about people who annoy me at work, about the way the sky looks when the sun is setting, even about how hard it is to write. I sing melodies fast and slow, manic and sultry. None of it is any good. Another month has gone by, and I have nothing. I sit on the couch and listen to my favorite song on her album, but before the end of the first chorus I yank out my headphones and toss them aside. She is in a band, and I am not part of that. I cannot force her to help me, no matter how many times I listen to these songs. I am never going to find a reference buried in them, and even if could, what would that prove?
Filled with a strange determination, I pick up my keyboard from where I left it on the coffee table, and I start to sing. For once, the words come without effort. If I cannot write with her, and I cannot write without her, I will write about her. It is my only choice, since it seems I cannot leave her behind.
Later, people will call it a love song, and I will not correct them.