The bar is as crowded as always, the walls as sticky and tacky as the people filling it. I'm absentmindedly wiping down glasses, putting them away and tacking on my bartender smile, the one that simultaneously draws people in and makes them forget you.
A stranger walks in. They're tall and have broad shoulders, and their muscles show through their shirt. I'm vaguely aware that I'm still drying an already-dry glass. He looks across the place, a ghost of a smile on his mouth, becoming on his strong jaw and cheekbones. His full head of long, blond hair contrasts splendidly with his light-blue shirt, the sleeves of which are rolled up to his elbows.
His eyes fall on me. His face softens impossibly. I put down the bone-dry glass I was manhandling a second before as he sits down in front of me.
"Hello," I manage, my throat uncharacteristically dry.
There is a long moment of silence after, where he, although taller than I, looks up at me, head slightly tilted, eyes searching.
His eyes. Those eyes. They were so deep. I have the itching feeling I know those eyes, have known those eyes in so many lifetimes, and yet I'm sure I've never seen this man in my life.
"Wow." He says, simply, finally. "It's really you. Joanne said you'd be here, but I didn't think a bar would be where I'd actually find you."
"Joanne? As in ... My mom? I'm sorry, do I know you?"
"No. At least, not like this. But you did. A long time ago."
I'm quiet, intensely curious, but surprisingly unperturbed. "Who are you?"
He takes my hand, his skin a whisper against mine, the soft rasp of our flesh deafening over the din of the bar. He turns my hand over and kisses the inside of my wrist.
The world stops. I'm thankful I put the glass down, because if not I would have dropped it, shattered it into a billion little pieces like my heart had when the man in front of me left our town, my life, forever.
At least, until now.
That was my name for him. It was the shortened form of his birth name, but so fitting because he used to be so thin. Thin but strong. And of course, his hair was the colour of hay.
We lived on the same street, eight houses apart, and became friends in the summer of our first year of high school, when he moved into town and we sat next to each other in class.
I remember I'd always doodle in his books, and he'd always pretend to be annoyed, but never, ever erase or write over my doodles. Always, his neat little writing would shimmy around my smiling cats, the thunder clouds and their speech bubbles, the unicorns and their long mane.
His parents loved having me around for sleepovers, his mother braiding our hair, one then the other, the three of us watching TV until Hay's dad had made dinner for all of us.
We'd put on face masks as well, his dad laughing at the three of us, and then it would just be Hay and I laughing, quietly, under the covers, well into the night.
It was always just Hay and I. He was lonely when we first met, and even lonelier as time went on. He really only had me and two other friends, and then, our final year of high school, when they moved away, it was just us.
That was the year we were sitting in the shade of the largest tree in the park, the side where nobody else seemed to want to go. The afternoon was dappled and warm, the heat pleasant but the shade a relief.
He was lying on my lap as I was supine in the grass.
We were making shapes out of the clouds, a cow there, a dragon here, his mother dusting the table over on the left.
He went silent. He leaned over and suddenly his face loomed over mine, the soft blonde fuzz on it illuminated by the sunlight, angelic and ethereal.
I felt a buzzing then. A strange, unfamiliar buzzing behind my ears that bloomed in the center of my back as well.
Hay took my hand in his, and more gently than I had thought possible, turned it over and kissed the inside of my wrist. He looked at me like he had never looked at me before, and then he leaned down slowly to kiss me. Warmth grew in my chest, and as I kissed him back, in between my legs.
I thought of that day often, as we held hands in class and I doodled hearts in his books. I thought of how warm and soft his lips were when he wrote me poetry on scraps of paper. I thought of the feeling in between my legs when I slept over at his house, still, after all these years, and we had finished face-masking together with his mother, as he slid his fingers into where the feeling was.
I thought of that day when he broke my heart forever, beyond repair when he said he had to leave this place, to become who he was meant to be, and that he couldn't bear to bring me with him, me, his best friend, the twin of his heart, his soul's home, because I reminded him of the town that broke him in two.
I never had understood why he left. But looking at him now, in this bar at the end of the lane just three streets away from where we both used to live, I get it.
I finally get it. Why he had to leave, why the town broke him, and why I couldn't join him on his ever so painful and ever so necessary metamorphosis.
It is because the man sitting in front of me did not always look like a tall, handsome, muscular man. There was a time, a long time ago, where he looked like a broad-shouldered, square-jawed, flat-chested girl called Hayley, who never felt right in her body and whose mother was glad her 'daughter' had me.
His thumb is caressing my wrist. I can't stop looking at him, my face radiating pure joy, happiness and pride. "Oh, Hay."
I come out from behind the bar and throw my arms around him.
"I go by Hayden now. I don't ... I never stopped missing you, hearing you call me Hay. I couldn't live with the name I was born with, but I couldn't bear the thought of never hearing you call me that again. I came back. I'm here."
"All these years." I'm crying. I realize I'm crying and I can't stop, tears streaming down my face as I touch the face of the only man I'd ever loved. "My God, you're beautiful."
He laughs, the same, tinkling laugh I remember from all those years ago, but that sounds so much deeper and richer now.
"Stay this time. Please." I'm sobbing now, properly.
"Why here? Anywhere. I'll go anywhere. But I'll never leave you again."
And his mouth is on mine, the lips I remember from a warm day in the park so long ago, where a tingling spread through my body, and my heart was given forever, in exchange for my best friend's.