don't unmute the group chat

Submitted into Contest #89 in response to: Start your story with an ending and work backward toward the beginning.... view prompt

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Sad Friendship Drama

“You know, Ells, I don’t think I’m coming next time,” I said, adjusting my duffel bag on my shoulder. “If there is a next time.” If I’m invited.


Ellis moved his mouth, but no words came out, and I wondered briefly if I’d been dropped into a silent film. He tugged on the hem of his faded t-shirt. I remembered standing in line with him, our shoulders bumping, when he bought it at a concert. “Yeah, I know,” he finally said.


“It’s just, they aren’t—”


“I get it.” He ran a hand through his hair, as if that would tame his unbrushed, sleep-tangled curls. I liked his hair. Maybe I'll cut mine short to match.


“But you’re still going to?”


Ellis shrugged, and the shrug turned into a yawn, arms stretched high above his head. “They’re my friends."


I wanted to scream So are you, but I just gripped the duffel tighter and said, “Right. Of course. I’d better get going.”


“Drive safe.” His mouth curved into a lopsided, half-hearted smile that didn't reach his eyes. He’s just hungover, I thought, but we weren’t nineteen anymore. That wasn’t an excuse.


I gave him a weak, one-armed hug, and my feet crunched on the gravel driveway as I walked to my car. I took one last look at the cabin, which I’d seen for the first time two days ago and would never see again, as if it had some nostalgic value. Then I opened the car door, tossed my bag in the back seat, and climbed in. I put on the loudest song I could find—an anthem from my teen years—and began to drive.


The whole weekend had been a mess, as I’d expected, but that morning had been the clincher. I had followed everyone’s infuriatingly specific orders from the group text exactly, brought all the ingredients from the grocery store, and woke up early to set everything out for Jimmy and Lee, who had promised to cook breakfast.


Then I sat on the couch and read a book for two hours while I waited for the others to get up. My stomach protested loudly, but I kept telling myself they’d be up soon. They weren’t, and by the time they were, it was after 10, and they decided to go out for breakfast. I stayed behind to clean up and wonder what the hell I was supposed to do with three loaves of bread and two dozen eggs. They didn’t realize I hadn’t come until they returned two hours later and found me playing Scrabble alone.


I’d gone back and forth on whether to come at all. I had told myself our trip the year before was the last one, but I let my fear of missing out get the better of me (again). A weekend at a cabin in the mountains—how bad could it be? I even let myself get excited about it, which was my worst mistake.


On Saturday night, we had gathered in the cabin’s living room, surrounded by more varieties of alcohol than any of us could handle. I hadn’t been drunk in ages, and it was always easier to talk to them when I was, so let them ply me with ciders and mixers and tiny bottles of Fireball.


Some people, you meet while drunk, and your relationship never really recovers from it.


So I drank, and they drank, and Dahlia passed her phone around, telling us to add songs to the queue. I picked a few I thought they’d like, even though I knew they would talk over the best parts. I began to relax and wonder why I’d been mad at all of them earlier in the day, when we got lost on a hike and someone disturbed a yellowjackets’ nest. (The yellowjackets only stung me.) It hadn’t been their fault, and this was fun. Of course it was fun. Until the power went out, somewhere around midnight, and Patrick suggested playing truth or dare, and I felt sick to my stomach because oh, we were too old for this, mortifyingly old to ask invasive questions and dare each other to do stupid shit. And I still hadn’t done anything especially interesting, no scandals, no wild indiscretions. I don’t know what everyone else did and said, because then it was my turn, and Paloma turned to me with a too wide smile, and I chose truth, and she asked me what happened that one semester with Rafael, as if I remembered, as if any of us still cared about Rafael. I told her what she wanted to hear, and it was a lie. My bright, bubbly tipsiness morphed into withdrawn sadness, and I drew a blanket over my knees, vaguely registering their increasingly loud gossip about the people who had been excluded from the group years before, for minor infractions and social faux pas and poor social media presences.


The year before, during homecoming weekend, I had convinced myself that I was the problem, not them. I’d always been so stuck up, so unwilling to let loose, so judgmental of anyone who had more fun than I was comfortable with. I tried to climb out of my skin and into theirs. I dredged up old gossip and added twists to stories long finished. I drank so much that I compulsively spoke in a British accent and fell asleep with all of them in a ten-person tent that only comfortably fit five. In the morning, I thought everything would have changed, but it hadn’t, and I perched on the corner of a picnic table during breakfast, trying and failing to get a word in edgewise.


Before that, there was the summer we all visited Ellis, when he was finishing up his thesis and still living on campus. When it was just Ellis and me, everything was good. Ellis had a way of making me feel seen, of making me feel real, and I might have been in love with him, if only he’d been in love with me instead of himself. We sat on the porch of his off-campus house, eating pretzels and lightly expired hummus, talking about his research (complicated) and my first few months as a college graduate (confusing and expensive). He scribbled the names of poets on my hand, and I drew a smiling sun on his. The others arrived: Paloma, Patrick, Dahlia, and Jimmy all together, Lee on their own but with a million stories about their trip to make up for it. Ellis saw them arrive and didn’t finish his sentence before dashing off to greet them. I finished the pretzels and wondered what he might have said. Then I dusted the pretzel crumbs from my lap and plastered on a smile just in time for everyone to reach the porch.


I got my nose pierced with Dahlia and Coly, back when we were students, before Coly was silently edged out of the group. We drove around our college town for hours looking for a piercer until we finally found a woman who ran an operation out of her basement. Dahlia’s nose bled, and Coly nearly fainted. I eventually switched the stud to a ring, and I still wear it.


Paloma, Jimmy, and I took a class together junior year and logged late nights in the library, constantly finding new ways to procrastinate and distract each other. We laughed late into the night watching old music videos and swapped cold coffees and schemed to get the best study rooms.


As I drove, tears welled in my eyes, and I sang the lyrics louder, because I had shed far too many tears over them already, and I was tired of it. Tired of crying about people who talked over me and gave me superficial hugs and didn’t offer to keep me company on my drive to reunions, even though Dahlia, Patrick, and I lived in the same state.


But I cried anyway, because knowing it was dumb didn’t change the fact that I so badly wished they would include me. I knew they were a clique, hardly better than teenagers, I knew they were mean to anyone who did or said anything that didn’t match their niche brand of weird. I still wanted them to like me. My jokes were good. They knew my jokes were good—why else would they repeat them louder and take the credit? I could craft a petty complaint and reduce a famous work of literature to a meme just as easily as they could. I could be just like them. I wanted to be. I thought I did, anyway. From the inside, none of it felt cruel. I only noticed the cruelty when I found myself on the other side.


One day, years ago, we had all met as first years in a sticky dorm basement, and we had escaped the mixer to run across campus, to an open field, and we flung ourselves to the ground, staring up at the stars. We laid there for hours, discussing everything and nothing, and I told myself that it was bliss, that true friends were the people who told you their secrets in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, in the space between dreams and reality.


If I’d known, then, that one day I would cry about those same people as I drove alone on unfamiliar roads, singing along to my favorite song from ninth grade, maybe I would have picked myself up, brushed the grass from my bare legs, and gone back to the dorm, back to my bunk, and found myself a better group of friends.


But if you were eighteen, laying in a field with the most interesting people you’d ever met, tipsy for the first time, with the entire solar system at your fingertips, would you imagine how they’d hurt you seven years later? Or would you trace constellations with your fingertips and laugh at the absurdity of the universe and hold hands with a stranger, simply because you could?


Well. I held Ellis’ hand, simply because I could, and I thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world.

April 17, 2021 01:19

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16 comments

01:20 Apr 17, 2021

this was a weird one for me...I sort of know what I was going for, but I have no idea if I managed it. curious to see if it resonates with anyone.

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A.Dot Ram
19:04 Apr 23, 2021

This was a really relatable story. I think many of us (me) have been this person in groups before. I like her relationship with Ellis and think this line sums it up so nicely: "Ellis had a way of making me feel seen, of making me feel real, and I might have been in love with him, if only he’d been in love with me instead of himself." That says so much about them for me. I love those sentences that contain whole worlds.

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19:15 Apr 23, 2021

Thank you! It makes me feel a lot better to see that this is such a common experience. And that was my favorite line too, so I'm glad you picked up on it.

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Kristin Neubauer
20:41 Apr 19, 2021

You captured the awkawardness of an SO’s group of friends so well. So well in fact that I almost couldn’t keep reading the bits about the cabin weekend. It brought back so many nightmare cabin weekends with my SO’s friends. Except it was the other way around - I didn’t like them and was bored out of mind. This felt so authentic. You created characters in the narrator and Ellis that I feel invested in and am curious about how/if their relationship will survive. Great job!

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21:31 Apr 19, 2021

Thank you! It's interesting that you interpreted it that way, because I actually didn't intend for the narrator and Ellis to be a couple, but that could work too! I imagined them more as friends who never really quite figured out their relationship because of the group dynamics (I've been in a few of those situations and it's always weird). What it is about cabin weekends, though? Are they ever as much fun as they're made out to be?

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Kristin Neubauer
21:44 Apr 19, 2021

Wow - I totally thought they were a couple, but maybe that is because I jumped so quickly to my experience. Cabin weekends are great fun with the right group - I did one with a bunch of older women artist friends and it was a blast. Don’t give up! You did a great job on making this story feel SO real!

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22:34 Apr 19, 2021

I think it's a good sign if it reminded you so strongly of your own experience, so thank you! Maybe I interpreted them my way because of my own experiences... At this point, not having seen any of my friends in basically a year, I'd be thrilled to go to a cabin with anyone, I think. The artists one does sound like it would be super fun!

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Shea West
03:00 Apr 17, 2021

I love the idea of this prompt, because we get the end before we get the beginning and it's something we all long for when we read a book. (Or at least I do!) For fun, I read each paragraph from the bottom up, and it worked backwards as it did forwards. Maybe I'm a bit slow, but what inspired the title of this piece?

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13:02 Apr 17, 2021

Thank you! I actually didn't read it from the end to the beginning, so I'm glad to know it works both ways. I struggled to choose a title, so I went with a reminder to myself to not unmute a specific group chat I'm still in (the participants of which inspired the story as a whole).

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Shea West
13:26 Apr 17, 2021

Oh ok☺

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Radhika Diksha
06:18 Apr 23, 2021

It's weird in a good way. I think the story was wonderful. It had reality, the FOMO syndrome, the anxiety everything, that most of the people suffer but don't have the courage to point it out. I could relate to your character very well, people snatching your jokes and memes and making them their own. You painted a very good picture with your words. I adore this story, nowadays there very few stores with great vocabulary and feeling. You managed everything with ease.

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Scout Tahoe
03:35 Apr 17, 2021

I am both delighted and horrified in the most beautiful way. Delighted you posted. Horrified that this title was in lowercase--nobody should have to go through this. But life is life and in this case it was moving backwards. It resonates with me. I had this happen but the group split up and I never talk about it anymore. I see them sometimes and wonder if they ever think about me or how we fit like pieces from different puzzles. So yeah, I get it. You get it. Beginning of the story.

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13:08 Apr 17, 2021

You know, Scout, I almost didn't finish this, but then I read your story 'Monsters', and it made me want to post this one. I'm about to pop over and leave a comment on that one. Parts of this are true, other parts are slightly exaggerated or altered. I might go back and edit a bit, so if you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them. One of the last things I did before the pandemic started was go on a trip not unlike this one, and I've been wanting to write about it ever since. It's difficult to write about friendships that were so good a...

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Scout Tahoe
18:01 Apr 17, 2021

I couldn’t agree more. Life has ups and downs and you have the gift to capture them. As for critique, in the beginning, maybe you could describe Ellis a little more? It’s the one time we exchange dialogue with him and I feel like I’d like to know a little more. This, of course, is just a suggestion.

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20:21 Apr 17, 2021

Ooh, good call. I added a few things to make him feel less like a disembodied voice. Hopefully that helps.

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Scout Tahoe
20:22 Apr 17, 2021

Very nice. It helps.

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