Free Write Friday: Night Out

You invite an old friend, a friend from high school, one who you’ve recently reconnected with because of the kinds of things that bring people together in middle age, when life is not as polished, but laughs are more appreciated, tears are more warranted. The venue is near your old college alma mater. Neither of you partied much at the time, and now, twenty years later, you’re even more out of touch with where you should go to enjoy a drink together before a concert.

So you meet up at an old haunt, a place college boyfriends frequented to play shuffleboard, drink beer, eat bad food late at night. You laugh together, but there’s also a weightiness to the night out, the kind that middle age mothers can’t escape. You both have children at home, professional jobs to keep, mortgages to pay, the worries of a changing world order, of elderly parents, of home maintenance and friends in distress. So it’s hard to let go, even in this place of millennials, of libations, of inebriation and escape. 

You drive to the venue up the street, a remodeled theater. You think the last time you were here it was a movie theater. You were a teenager and your boyfriend took you to see Titanic. You had a poster of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in your room at the time. Or maybe it was Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. You were so young. The crowd here today is old, unpolished. You feel comfortable. The singer is thin and taller than you expected. She sings in melancholy tones of melancholy topics: love and loss and loneliness. You stand, sway to the beat. You like the darkness and the warmth of being so close to so many people who aren’t really aware of you; the mutual anonymity and perplexing intimacy of a crowd. The singer strums her guitar, your feet ache in a satisfying way. 

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Free Write Friday: Band

We played musical chairs in the high school band, every few weeks had the opportunity to challenge the seat in front for a better position in the concert band hierarchy. The director limited the frequency of a challenge so it wasn’t an incessant churn. It was a matter of pride, a source of anxiety. On the designated day we’d draw slips of paper to tell us who would perform first. The challenged and the challenger would retreat to the hallway behind the band room for the sake of fairness, ensuring anonymity, playing the chosen piece, notes echoing across the linoleum floor. 

I played the clarinet because my older brother played the clarinet and I suspect my parents didn’t want to buy another instrument. So I was convinced that the clarinet was the only instrument I wanted to play. A practical choice, a safe choice, a non-choice. Easy to lug home as a fifth grader, enough compatriots to sink into a sea of black woodwinds. Disappearing was the thing you wanted as a preteen anyway. Some brave souls chose the French horn or the tuba, the cello or the oboe. The coolest kids played the drums or saxophone.

I did practice, was decent enough. No real musical talent but I could play with feeling. It got me far enough to be one of the first few chairs. I was challenged or challenging all the time. Sweaty palms, I’d retreat behind the heavy classroom door with my opponent, often a friend. Fingers slipping off the silver rings, compressing and popping in cadence. I liked to go first because I got it over with. I liked to go second because I could tailor my performance to the weaknesses of my opposition. I liked to win first chair; felt full of myself, a boost to my fragile teen self esteem. I liked to be second chair so I didn’t suffer the angst of playing solos in the heavily attended concerts. 

Now, decades later, I have nightmares that I’m supposed to play in a band concert and haven’t practiced at all, can’t read the music, don’t remember how to play a single note. I’m embarrassed, mortified I arrived so unprepared. I try to disappear into the sea of instruments, remain undetected. Instead I realize that not contributing to the wave of melody is just as problematic as inserting an errant note. 

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Free Write Friday: Cafe

The glass door swings open awkwardly; it easily gets stuck. It’s slow today, rainy outside and indoors is a refuge. Roasted coffee grounds suffuse the air, I breathe deep for the caffeinated aroma to wake me. Glass display case houses delectables. I like the cinnamon roll scones, butter and spice infused pastry crumbles at the touch. 

They know me here. “The usual?” One barista dark haired, glasses, someone I might be friends with if we were contemporaries in college. She usually has her hair pulled back, a ready smile. She inquires about my kids, about my weekend. The other is more quiet, still friendly but I find a kinship in her introversion. They trade off working the espresso machine, making the savory crepes and manning the register. They work well together.

Music is varied, dependent on the day. Today it is soft, vibratory melodies, barely perceptible. The other day it was David Gray, flashbacks to the 90’s and early 2000’s. I liked the melancholy music; it triggered memories of a transitioning millennium, a time of before and after, when we were all ushered into a dark and divided new norm. 

They remodeled the coffee shop recently, adding wood panels, copper lighting. The concrete floor rings cold and is polished roughly. Anywhere else it would chill me, this floor, but here the soft bare light bulbs overhead, the steam rising from the espresso machine, the friendly conversation between neighbors, the head down seclusion of the newspaper reader: it warms me.

I like the quiet, the bursts of gentle laughter, the sound of sipping coffee, of cups resting on square tables, of tip-tap typing, of a clanking of dirty dishes as we each take a morning pause, collective and caffeinating into the new day.

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