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Contemporary Friendship Drama

That’s the thing about this city, I thought, as I examined the business card between my thumb and forefinger. Just when you think it’s time to pack up and leave, it sends you someone offering to change your life.

Cady returned from the bar, balancing a quizzical expression and two drinks – mojito for me, something bright orange for her. She carefully set the mojito on a coaster and slid it towards me. “Who was that?” she asked, inclining her head toward the man I’d just spoken to, now leaning against the far wall. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “Was he hitting on you?”

I shook my head. “No,” I said, passing her the card. “He wants me to contact his recording studio. Thinks I could really make it, or something like that.”

Cady sipped her drink as she read the card, turning it over as if to check for clandestine notes. “This is amazing, Ben.”

I plucked the card from her fingers and tucked it my pocket. “I’m not going to do it, of course. I’m moving, remember? Getting out of here for good.”

Rolling her eyes, Cady said, “You’ve been saying that forever.”

She wasn’t wrong. One of the first things I’d said to her when we first met, almost two years ago, at this exact bar, was that I planned to move. Things kept getting in the way. Work, mostly. Money. Articles about horrible things happening in all the places I might have moved. The strange pull of responsibility I felt toward this bar.

“Besides,” Cady continued, “Moving is just about wanting something different. A record deal would be something different. And you’re good, Ben.”

“Maybe,” I said. The card felt heavy in my pocket.

The night I met Cady was the first time I performed at an open mic. I showed up with my grandpa’s guitar—a finicky old acoustic—and a handful of cover songs. The bar was mostly empty, and the guy performing had this fancy electric guitar and a keyboard that lit up and made its own percussive beats. And I would have walked out, right then and there, if Cady hadn’t spotted me and waved me over. I looked over both shoulders, then pointed to myself questioningly. She waved again, so I walked over.

She twisted on her stool, away from an empty glass and a napkin doodling on the bar in front of her. “Hey, you’ve got a guitar," she said. No hello. "You any good? No, you know what, I don’t even care. I can’t listen to this anymore.”

“Oh, I’m just—” I started.

But she either wasn’t listening or didn’t care, because she picked up a wireless mic and said, with mock enthusiasm, “Give it up for Matt!” as the guitar/keyboard guy played his last chord and wailed one last note. He leveled a dark look at Cady. “Up next, we have—”

She jabbed me in the shoulder. “Uh, Ben. I’m Ben,” I said.

“Ben!” she finished. A smattering of bored applause. The room was suddenly quiet without Matt’s music. I slowly approached the performance space, a small square of amps and mics and cables near the back of the bar. Matt muttered something to me as he packed up his instruments. I wanted to tell him that this wasn’t my idea, that some girl I didn’t even know had decided I should perform.

And then, too soon, Matt was gone, and it was just me, my grandpa’s guitar, and a prayer that the damn thing would stay in tune long enough for me to do one song. One song. I figured I’d do one song, grab a drink, and leave quietly. Let Matt have his spotlight back. That’s what I would have done, if Cady hadn’t cheered like a maniac and demanded another song after the first. And the second. And the third. By the fifth, I was sweating and out of songs. I said thank you while the last chord still rang, and I packed up my guitar before Cady could call for another encore.

She caught me at the bar and handed me a drink. She told me her name, and bought me a drink after my set every Thursday for the next two years. Always the same mojito for me, the same mojito I stirred absentmindedly after the guy gave me his card.

“Come on, Ben, why not try it?” Cady said. “This could be your big break.”

“Or it could be a really expensive waste of time. He didn’t offer me a record deal. He’s just trying to make a sale. I barely have any original songs. Even if I did, the world doesn’t need any more original songs by guys with guitars.”

Cady took a long sip of her drink. It was easy for her to suggest this stuff. She lived above her parents’ house in an attic efficiency apartment, didn’t pay rent, had time to sew clothes and make candles and sell them on Etsy. Her girlfriend was finishing up law school, and then they’d move in together somewhere. Cady had it easy. All she had to do was wait and pass the time making soy wax candles and hosting poorly attended open mics.

I would never actually say that to her, of course. Cady and I were place-based friends, and we never said anything that mattered. I never even saw her outside of the bar. If she hadn’t told me otherwise, I might have thought she lived there, caught in suspended animation until I returned each Thursday night. Like a video game non-playable, waiting for me to pop in so she could say her next line of dialogue. She probably thought the same thing about me. She didn’t really care all that much if I decided to pursue a music career. I was simply better than Matt and the others like him; I made her job more interesting for an hour each week.

Music was something I did for fun, nothing more. If I’d been serious, I would have gone to more than one open mic, or at least to a good one with lots of performers, not to one in a struggling bar with a clientele that couldn’t have cared less about me and my songs. I would have followed up with the occasional other performers who said we should collaborate.

But maybe, I thought, it really could be my big break, the change I’d been waiting for. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine myself in a recording studio. I pictured sitting on a black leather movie theater chair, enveloped in a cloud of sweet smelling vape smoke while a tatted guy with an eyebrow piercing fiddled around on some big mixing board. Pictured me in a soundproof glass room with a microphone and my grandpa’s shitty guitar. Talking through my own lyrics I barely understood, explaining them to someone else, baring my soul just so they could pick a drum fill for vague words I wrote about my first boyfriend.

I opened my eyes. No. I didn’t want to do all that. I didn’t want to stay in this city, with its constant sirens and steadily increasing murders and gentrified neighborhoods packed with juice bars and yoga studios. I didn’t want to stay in my studio apartment, with its ant problem and sluggish plumbing and unresponsive landlord.

If things had been different, maybe I would have done it. If it weren’t for the ants, maybe. Or if Cady didn’t have her candlemaking and her law-school girlfriend. If the guy with the business card had actually been hitting on me, like Cady thought. If we’d let Matt finish his set that first night I showed up. If—just once—Cady had brought me a gin and tonic instead of a mojito. If she’d ever asked me why I wanted to move, why I came to the city, why I came to the bar. But she hadn’t, and things weren’t different. Things were the same week after week. I sang my songs and I felt good when people clapped, but I had no stage presence. I didn’t care what they thought of me. I didn’t want to work the crowd, and I certainly didn’t want a bigger crowd.

What Cady couldn’t understand is that there are musicians like Matt, who play to be heard, and there are musicians like me, who play to hear themselves. When I play and sing, whether it’s a cover or an original, I can hear myself. It’s the only time I can drown everything else out. And if I recorded one of those songs? If I let someone else mess with it and add electronic shit and tie it up with a neat little bow? I wouldn’t be able to hear myself. Cady didn’t get that. Cady just heard a song.

“I still think you should try it once,” Cady said. “See what happens.”

“I’ll think about it,” I replied. We both knew it was a lie.

Cady gave me a close-lipped smile and pushed her drink towards me. “You finish this,” she said. “Try something different.” With that, she stood and walked to the door, towards a girl cradling a ukulele case and peering around the nearly empty room, probably deciding if she should stay. A woman who looked like her mother hovered behind her. Cady welcomed them with a wide smile, and although I couldn’t hear her, I knew she was extending an invitation to perform.

I curled my fingers around Cady’s glass and took a sip. Was it good? I don’t know. It was bitter. It was different. That was enough, for the moment. I watched the girl follow Cady to the mic while her mom settled down at the bar. I wondered how old the girl was. How young did 21-year-olds look? I couldn’t remember. I hoped she wasn’t too nervous. I hoped she sang her heart out and heard herself. I hoped the guy with the business cards handed one to her.

Mostly, I hoped she would be good, so that I could finally be free.

March 19, 2021 22:03

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25 comments

Zilla Babbitt
18:56 Mar 28, 2021

I wish I had read this earlier! I love the descriptions of the drinks and the last sentence. It's really vivid and full of real life. Somehow enjoyable and uncomfortable at the same time -- uncomfortable because it's telling me things about myself and my hopes I don't want to hear. Yet I love it. And congrats on a shortlist!

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23:09 Apr 08, 2021

Thank you, Zilla! I felt the same way while writing it. There's a bar I used to do open mics at, and this is based on how I felt many of the times that I performed. It can be really difficult when something you do for fun turns into something more - being an excellent writer yourself, I'm sure you're very familiar with that feeling!

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Michael Boquet
15:08 Mar 26, 2021

We all have times when we doubt ourselves and/or ask what if. You capture and describe those feelings beautifully in this piece. A very interesting direction to take from the prompt. Congrats on getting shortlisted.

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13:52 Mar 28, 2021

Thank you, Michael, I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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Brody Thomkin
03:19 Mar 23, 2021

This was so heartfelt. I read some other the comments and I absolutely agree there is some of your soul in this story. I’m not a musician but I think we all have something in our lives that makes us feel like your MC. I think that’s why this story moved me. It was quiet but powerful. It was melancholy but with just a hint of hope. It was about all those people who aren’t really friends but who still change our lives. It was just a really good story, really well written. I loved it.

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13:54 Mar 28, 2021

Thank you, Thom, this means a lot! I'm missing some of those casual friendships and moments that seem insignificant but matter a lot, so I wanted to write something that captured them in some way.

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Amarah Friedman
21:06 Apr 01, 2021

Nice story! I particularly like the part about Cady being in suspended animation at the bar-- sort of like how teachers live at school when we're kids.

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23:01 Apr 08, 2021

Thank you! I was actually thinking of that exact thing when I wrote that line.

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12:01 Mar 31, 2021

Congrats ona well deserved shortlist! The setting and characters came alive, and together with the slow, ruminating style of writing made for a very interesting read.

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Scout Tahoe
14:02 Mar 22, 2021

...wow. This was really powerful to me, especially as your first story in a while. I've read a few of yours but haven't commented and I really love the way you use and twist friendship. (This story, Legacies.) More on that, I liked and was also fascinated by Cady and Ben's relationship. I still don't know what to make of Cady in my mind--I appreciate her and don't at the same time. Your story made me think. Adding on, I'm not a musician myself but in this story you made musicians seem exactly like writers in my head--not in the literal but i...

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17:53 Mar 22, 2021

Thank you so much! I'm really hoping to get back into writing/posting more frequently. As both a writer and a musician I can confirm that there's a lot of overlap in the emotions, joy and frustration and everything in between. I imagine it's the same for all kinds of artists. I'm glad you thought Cady was an interesting character - I don't really know what to make of her either. I think a lot of people have those kinds of casual friends who think they have your best interest in mind, but don't know you well enough to give good advice. I do l...

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Scout Tahoe
18:22 Mar 22, 2021

You’re welcome—I definitely will check out some of your other friendship stories. I always wanted to be a musician (or rather to play an instrument—if that’s the same thing?). I tried learning to play the guitar when I was young but never really liked it as much as writing. I’m interested to see if you’ll dive deeper in the overlap of emotions in a story someday. I think your story made me recognize some of those Cady friendships in my life. I’m amazed and sad at the same time.

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18:36 Mar 22, 2021

I think it's the same thing! I'm primarily a singer but have picked up a few instruments to accompany myself. Guitar is tough - my first non-band instrument was ukulele and I found it much much easier. The very first story I posted here is at the intersection of friendship, writing, and music. Those three things are very intertwined for me and make frequent appearances in my writing. As for Cady, I've hardly seen any of my friends in over a year, so at this point I'd be thrilled to have a casual friend who gave me well-meaning advice. They...

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Scout Tahoe
14:53 Mar 26, 2021

Congratulations, Natalie! This shortlist was very deserved.

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13:54 Mar 28, 2021

Thank you, Scout! I wasn't expecting it, so it was a nice surprise!

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Scout Tahoe
18:54 Mar 22, 2021

Ukulele is something I’d like to learn. And I feel like writing, friendship, and music go together hand in hand. I can’t wait to read more of yours when I get a chance. I’ve talked to my friends over Zoom or whatnot. Never in person. They’re not bad, I agree, I just feel like I have to be more careful. Also, it’s both Cady and Ben adding to the complicatedness of their relationship.

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Kristin Neubauer
17:15 Mar 20, 2021

A new story! It's been awhile .... but I get it. I haven't managed to finish a story in weeks, though I've started one every week. Are you a musician? You write like you understand musicians and dark quiet bars and open mic nights. I enjoyed this exploration into Ben's mind and can imagine similar thoughts floating around other musicians' heads. I loved this line: "Cady and I were place-based friends, and we never said anything that mattered." I understand that place-based friends thing! Hope to see another from you when you can!

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19:53 Mar 20, 2021

Yes, it has been a while! I spent two months writing grad school applications and that whole process gave me terrible writer's block - I've also started stories every week and haven't finished them, until now. I'm rooting for you and look forward to hopefully reading one of your stories soon! I am a musician, and before the pandemic I went to an open mic almost every Wednesday night, so this story is very much based on that. I've also been to a recording studio a couple of times, but I didn't love that, and never did finish a song. (Oops). ...

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Kristin Neubauer
19:56 Mar 21, 2021

It was a great story - keep the musician stories coming! That's cool that you do/did open mic - it sounds terrifying to me. I'd love to see more of that world in your writing. Hope you got your applications out. I'm sorry that you had writer's block - but kind of relieved too. Ever since I started grad school in Jan, they've been hitting us with papers each week - I think there's been no room left in my head for the creative writing to emerge. Looking forward to your next whenever that comes!

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Kristin Neubauer
21:05 Mar 27, 2021

Congrats on the shortlist! Well-deserved - it was a great story!

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13:55 Mar 28, 2021

Thank you, Kristin!

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Ryan Lm Colli
16:38 Apr 08, 2021

Pls like mine and follow me pls. Good job on yours I see all the dialog and catolog! Keep up the hard work. The story was very intense to!!!

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Gerald Daniels
20:55 Mar 28, 2021

Great story, love the characterisation and threadline, good free-flowing prose. Super.

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Courtney C
01:46 Mar 27, 2021

Congratulations on the shortlist! Ben's character felt realistic and three-dimensional, a real musician with imposter syndrome (yet without that much stage fright - good for him). You created a really textured setting and situation, and it was a nice escape after not having been able to go to a bar for who only knows how long. Really enjoyed the story!

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13:56 Mar 28, 2021

Thank you Courtney! I don't even care for bars that much but I miss doing things like open mic, and I wanted to revisit it again. The setting here is based upon the place I used to do open mics most weeks.

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