MacDougall’s Cafe was a different crowd than Open Mic Night at Sneakers! I was glad Kelly had turned me on to this gig. I’d rather be here on a Friday night than at Sneakers! getting drunk. In fact, since I’d gotten so plastered that one time, I’d sworn off hard liquor altogether. Beer was plenty enough, no matter how much Jennie kept pestering me to do jello shots…whatever the hell those are.

Instead, I spend four hours sitting in a corner of a nearby coffee shop, playing music to the baristas behind the counter and a dozen or so folks sipping lattes or cappuccino. It’s one of those funky little places that’s big on supporting the arts, kind of dark inside with lots of overstuffed couches instead of tables and chairs. Kelly had suggested me to the owner, Wen, who showed up at Open Mic Night not long after they’d talked. I was hired on the spot for thirty bucks a week and whatever tips I can pick up. 

With Kelly spreading the word to the lesbian and gay community, I’ve started to develop a following. I have groupies! Granted, only three of them and they’re sweet old ladies, but I’m not going to quibble. Better than none at all, right? Besides, they bring me homemade baked goods every time they see me — seem to think I need fattening up. Good thing they don’t know that Franklin is the one gaining all the weight. He really looks forward to coming in to the garage on Saturday mornings.

Did I mention I get paid to sit on a stool and play my guitar? Paid!

Despite feeling blessed at my great fortune, tonight wasn’t a good night. Oh, the crowd was fine. Nice people one and all who listened and clapped and tossed the occasional dollar or pocket change into my guitar case. No, I’d received something unexpected today at the garage and didn’t know what to do about it. My mood picked up when I saw Kelly come in. She smiled my way before ordering something at the counter. We saw each other nearly every week at the bar, but she always made a point to drop by here once or twice a month. 

I had a small table tucked behind me where I kept my things. She came to it when she got her order. I grinned, nodding welcome as she set two coffees down on the table and sat in the other chair there. I played two more songs before calling a break. There was polite applause and a little boy came forward with a bashful smile to drop a handful of pennies into my guitar case. I thanked him, smiled at his two moms and turned toward Kelly with a sigh. 

She seemed to have picked up on my temper — small wonder considering the particular tunes I’d been playing. “What happened?”

“Hello to you, too. And thanks.” I took a soothing drink of coffee. 

Kelly smirked. “Hello. You’re welcome. Quit evading.”

I scowled at her, both of us knowing I couldn’t stay mad at her for longer than ten seconds. It was funny, but everyone thought our friendship was odd except us. At first, all Kelly’s friends thought she’d had a mid-life crisis, falling for a baby dyke like me. Then they thought I was a gold-digger, glomming onto a sugar mama. Some nights I got so much crap at the bar. It took months of us carrying on with other women and me not benefiting from her better financial circumstances before folks stopped thinking that way. There are still some hold outs, but for the most part people have begun to accept that we’re friends. Kelly was damned lucky I didn’t have anyone in my life to give her the same treatment. Franklin only knew I spent more and more time in the city, and Misty Sue and the other women in town had begun to get over the novelty of me so I was spending less time there. If Mama was still speaking to me, Kelly would have been in for a wild trip.

Kelly’s eyebrows begged the question, and I realized I hadn’t answered her. I leaned back to pull a crumpled envelope out of my back pocket and tossed it onto the table. She studied it a moment, then me. When I didn’t say anything, she picked it up and unfolded it. “From Elle?”

“Yep.” Elle Shipley had written a letter and sent it to the garage. The paper crackled as Kelly pulled it out to read. I turned away, leaning my back against the wall, and sucked down a swallow of coffee, wishing it were beer. 

It didn’t take long before Kelly refolded it. “She sounds sincere.” She inserted it back into the envelope. 

“Sure does.” 

She slid the envelope across the tiny table to my elbow. “What are you going to do?”

“What do you think?” 

“I think you’re angry and hurt, and you’re planning to ignore it.”

I finally looked at her, finding her clear gaze directed at me, an expression of disagreement making the fine wrinkles around the corners of her eyes move in an unpleasant way.  A fine line was developing between her eyebrows; it always became evident when she was annoyed. Elle had one of those, too. How come I always get close to women who have that? “You think I should go?” 

She cocked her head, tucking brown hair back behind one ear. “Yes, I do.”

Leave it to Kelly to see things in a different light than me. I saw Elle’s invitation to visit her at college as a step backward. She’d left me almost two years ago; there was no reason to go back. Kelly thought of this as a new opportunity. She was always thinking positive like that and, after six months, I had grown to rely on her opinion. I’m usually optimistic, too. People always tell me I should be angry or upset at things, but life’s too short for the heartache. When it came to Elle, though…Kelly’s Pollyanna ways tended to put a crimp in my plans to hold grudges and the like where Elle was concerned. “It isn’t going to change anything, Kel. You know that. Why go up there to torture myself?”

The line between her eyebrows disappeared, and her face softened. “Because you’re already torturing yourself?”

I scoffed, looking away. I knew she’d say that, knew she’d be all for me taking a little road trip to the next state over. Maybe that’s why you told her. Scowling, I called myself a traitor and told me to shut up. 

“Look, Slow, I’m not defending Elle’s choices in life.” Kelly laid a hand on my upper arm, drawing me back to the conversation. “She hurt you, badly. We all make mistakes, and she’s made some doozies. I do know that at her age it’s difficult to go back home and not regress into the teenager you were when you were there. You might cut her some slack.”

Ugh. She pulled the “at your age” card. I hated it when Kelly did that. It didn’t help that she was usually right, too. Sometimes having a BFF that was fourteen years older was a pain.

Kelly continued. “You stayed in town, dealt with the flack, grew up there. She didn’t have that experience.”

“Yeah, because she ran away.” I didn’t like the bratty sound in my voice.

Evidently Kelly didn’t either since she pulled away, sitting back in her chair to put a little space between us. Sometimes I wondered if she wanted to smack me upside the back of the head at moments like these. Giving her a quick glance, I noted that little line back above the bridge of her nose. Wouldn’t blame her if she did.

“Whatever her reason, you’ve matured in those circumstances and she hasn’t. Maybe this is a way for her to connect with you as an adult, not a child.”

I grumbled beneath my breath, not saying any words, just needing to vent the emotion. 

“It’s been, what? Two years?”

“Almost,” I allowed. Two years ago this month Elle had skipped school and followed me to the river that fateful May. Three more months would see the anniversary of our public outing and break up.

Kelly nodded. “You still love her or you wouldn’t still be mad and hurt. You should go just to have it out with her on a level playing field.” She gestured to the envelope staring up at us from the table. “You both need closure, or she wouldn’t have written. Whatever her reasons, she’s hurting, too.”

A gleeful satisfaction filled me at the thought of Elle hurting over me. It also cut me to the bone. The last thing I ever want to do is hurt her. I love her. I blinked. Loved! Past tense! My mental lapse disgruntled me farther as I stared at Elle’s loopy handwriting. She still dotted her i’s with circles. I didn’t know whether to be infuriated or enamored of that.

“Go see her, Slow. Then you can put it to rest and move on.”

I sighed, looking up at my best friend. Kelly had been my career advisor from the beginning, taking over where Elle had so abruptly left off. She’d never steered me wrong, and I trusted her. But about this? 

Kelly dropped her voice to its lowest register, making it audible only to me. “Unless you’re scared. This is a tough thing to do. I’d be frightened, too.”

That got my gumption up. I might take after my daddy in mental gymnastics and looks, but my mama had taught me sheer cussedness. I never let anyone push me around — not in high school and not since I’d moved into Franklin’s garage and dealt with my new station as town dyke. “I’m not scared,” I said, knowing I was lying as the words spilled past my lips. 

She knew it for the lie it was, too, but she didn’t call me on it. Instead she held up a hand in surrender. “Sorry.”

Scowling, I stared at my fingers as they drummed on the table surface.

Maybe Kelly was right. If I went to Elle’s college, talked to her on her territory, I could explain better why we shouldn’t be together. The idea that she might feel more mature away from our hometown also made sense — I know I felt a lot different being in the city than when I was at home. Maybe we wouldn’t fall into a heap of tears; maybe we’d be able to calmly discuss things and Elle would understand. Why should she? You don’t.

I took a long swallow of hot coffee to shut myself up. Distracted by the pain in my throat and chest as I scalded my innards, I glanced at my watch. Several members of the audience had left to be replaced by newcomers. It was high time I started my next set. I took the letter and stuffed it into my pocket. “I’ll think about it.” Kelly’s expression held vague distrust. “I promise. I will.” I took her hand in mine, giving it a squeeze as I smiled. “Honest.”

That relaxed her some. She nodded and smiled. “On a related note, we need to talk during your next break.”

“What about?” I busied myself with scooting my chair away from the table to give me room for my guitar. 

“I might have another regular gig lined up for you. Three days a week and better pay.”

I smiled. Who needs an agent when you have a successful businesswoman as your best friend? With a lighter heart, I picked up my guitar and strummed it a bit to regain the crowd’s attention.