“You should have told me alcohol here was so cheap.” Jamie exaggeratedly slurs his words and I roll my eyes “It looks like you’ve already figured that out for yourself.” I snap back. “You remember we have to be up early, right? We’ve got to be at my parents at 7.” He dismisses me with a wave of his hand.
“I’ll be there. But I bet once you start talking, you’ll be fine.” He leans up against the brick wall of the club, just a few feet away from the door. “You’re oversimplifying things again..” I avert my eyes and watch the people that come and go. I’m not an anxious person, not anymore at least, but I’m desperate to blend in. I know these people- not all of them, and not personally, but we are from the same town. We attended the same schools, the same churches. I can’t melt away into the crowd with them like I could in any other city, with the security that I would never see any of them again. If I screw up, I’ll know the witnesses, and they’ll know me. Anonymity is not an option for either of us. Returning home after the years I spent avoiding it has my nerves set on edge.
Jamie sighs “I know it won’t be easy. But your parents deserve more credit. They’ve been pretty accepting of you coming out, all told.” He fishes out a cigarette and lighter from his pocket. “Look at how my family reacted when I came out. Yours are practically saints.” He lights the cigarette and offers it to me. I shake my head and push his hand away in annoyance- he knows that I quit years ago. “It’s not just them that I’m worried about, Jamie.” I hiss. I can already feel my guilt clawing at my back.
This is not Jamie’s fault- not entirely, anyways. It isn’t his fault that I waited until five years after I moved to come out to my parents. However, it is his fault that I’m standing outside of a loud and obnoxiously ‘modern’ club right now. It interrupted my plans for the night, which consisted entirely of sipping from miniature white wine bottles that I had bought from the gas station. It’s way cheaper than whatever they have in the minibar, and all in the comfort of my hotel room with it’s glorious view of a Denny’s parking lot. Remembering my abandoned plans, I decide to let myself simmer in annoyance for a bit longer before letting it go. He didn’t have to come on this trip with me at all in the first place.
I slip my phone out of my skirt pocket and check to see if our cab is nearby, only to shove it away in disappointment. “I just.. Need the support.” I say. Jamie doesn’t respond, because he doesn’t have to. He understands, and he won’t argue with that.
We wait together quietly, but it seems like none of the club goers value the same peace and quiet that I do. Their voices blend together into one wave of sound, each just a separate part of a disjointed symphony. Nothing sticks out to me, nothing of note, until I hear one voice in particular.
“..It’s not like she cares, and she’ll get home one way or another.” I hear a woman say, but it’s not just any woman. Her voice is familiar. I turn to look at her. She’s tall, about as tall as I am, and her hair is long and dark. I look away quickly in shock, but strain my ears to hear what her and her party are discussing. It's nothing of interest- plans to meet up the next day, or whatever. She splits from the group and walks towards me- shit, did she see me? When she gets close, she doesn’t acknowledge me. She just leans herself against the same brick wall as Jamie and I.
“You got a light?” She turns her head to me. I look up and silently shake my head. “Uh.. He does.” I nod my head over to Jamie, but he isn’t listening anymore. He’s walked down near the corner so I can’t hear him properly, but from what I can see, he is having a heated discussion over the phone. I’m concerned, but I don’t think it’s my place to interfere. “Maybe not.” I say.
My attention turns back to the woman besides me. “Your date?” She says, but it takes me a moment to realize what she’s implying. “God no. I’m just baby sitting.” She giggles in response, causing a wave of nostalgia to crash against me.
I had imagined how this reunion would play out when I was younger and more optimistic, as any other self respecting hopeless romantic would. I can still remember that first plane ride away from here- away from home, and away from who I had thought was the love of my life, my best friend. I fell into deep sleep, and from the confines of my seat, I dreamed of the day I came back home. I would have fully come into my own, and I would be successful and happy, beautiful and confident. I saw myself embracing her in her arms, finally, without any sense of reservation, and I would murmur her name against her shoulder like it was poetry. ‘Lyla, Lyla..’. I was shocked back to reality when a flight attendant came around offering drinks. My Diet Coke tasted like artificial sweetener and bitter sorrow that night.
Where I am now is a far cry from what I had dreamed of. We are side by side once again, but there is no swelling romantic music, no technicolor, gentle bokeh lights. The light is dim and buzzing, and the only music I can hear is the same pulsing music I was hearing in the club, muted by distance and layers of bricks. This is not a dream, and I have no words of passion. No grand gestures.
“How are you?” I needed to say something, if not out of passion, then at least out of courtesy. “Me?” Lyla ask, seeming a bit confused. I clear my throat “Yeah.. Sorry, I’m not quite sure what to say.” I laugh nervously. “You look good.” Lyla laughs- not in scorn, but in amusement (I think? I hope). “That’s one way to get someone's attention.” I can feel the blood rising in my cheeks. I’m terrified that I’ve made a misstep, until Lyla says “Thank you. So do you.”
My heart thrums in satisfied joy- she’s happy to see me. Not only that, but she approves of me! I don’t need her approval, but knowing I can breathe easy now is a big relief. In a way, being accepted by her like this is a childhood dream realized- an old one that I abandoned years ago, but a dream nonetheless.
“So, uh, what are you doing around here? I wouldn’t have pegged this as your kind of scene.” I say. The Lyla I knew as a teenager had been so sheltered. Seeing her outside of a club, unlit cigarette in hand, is like seeing your priest at a casino. “What do you think is my scene?” She ask. I hum in thought. “Somewhere prettier and calmer. It suits you more.” I notice the blush on the apples of her cheeks.
“I could say the same about you. This doesn’t seem like your scene.” Lyla replies flirtatiously. While I was never as sheltered or religious as she was, I was introverted and shy. This wasn’t my scene either. I shrug. “You’re right. But there’s a certain appeal to it..” I try to think of a positive to avoid somehow offending someone. “The cheap drinks?” Lyla chimes in. “So I’ve heard. But I don’t drink.” I laugh. “Why would you come to a bar if you’re sober?” I think on Lyla's question for a second. “Maybe it’s the loud music. Easier to drown out my mind.. Maybe I was hoping to find someone.” Lyla turns to look at me. I’ve been direct once more, but this time with more confidence.
She leans in some, straightening out my jacket collar. “Well, I hope you find whatever you’re looking for.” Lyla’s face is only a few inches from mine- the closest we’ve been in years. We kissed back then. Experimentally, just to see what would happen, but this is entirely different.. The way that she’s looking at me is entirely different. “I think I have.” I smile playfully, and pray to God that my bravado is enough to overshadow my anxiety.
There’s a tug at my shoulder. “Amelia.” I jump on my heels slightly. It’s Jamie. “Our ride is here.” He doesn’t take any joy in snapping me back to my senses, he just seems tired. I nod and look back at Lyla. “I need to go.”
Now that Jamie has brought me back to reality, I can’t find my words. They’re caught in my throat as I’m faced with something I couldn’t have possibly prepared for. Lyla is here, right in front of me, and she has seemingly accepted me as the woman I am. I had moved on from her after I left home, dashing any hopeful dreams I’d had as a child. This is unexpected, and it’s sending me into a minor panic. I didn’t think she or anyone else would ever have this kind of influence over me again, the ability to take my orderly and methodical way of processing what happens around me to a jumbled and confusing mess.
I swallow my nerves.. “.. Can we meet sometime? I’ll be in town for two weeks. I’d love to talk.” Lyla smiles at me. “Sounds good to me.” As much as I want to relish in this, to revel in my triumphant return, I can hear Jamie calling me over from the taxi. Lyla gives me her phone number and I plug it into my contacts.
“I’ll be looking forward to your call. Be sure to get home safe.”
“I’ll be sure to.” I reply. And as I’m gathering myself together and climbing into the back seat of the car, I hear her call out.
“It was nice to meet you!”
My heart drops.
I wave back and force a smile, and the taxi drives off.
She doesn’t recognize me anymore.
Of course she doesn’t recognize me, I look nothing like I used to! I'm not the person she knew!
This.. I can’t dwell on this. I need to wait, at least until I’m in the safe privacy of my own hotel room. A problem like this needs to be divided up into small, digestible pieces to avoid disaster. Despite all that, I can't ignore these feelings. I look over to Jamie, who finally got off his phone. He notices me staring and replies “Battery died.” I nod.
“Are you okay?” I ask, but he only shrugs.. I guess he doesn’t want to talk about it, but I push, just a bit. “Is it Alex?” This gets a reply. “He still isn’t talking to me. It was Dylan.” From his tone, I can tell it wasn’t a normal conversation. I open my mouth to push further, but he interrupts me. “Who was that?” He deflects. “.. I’m not sure how to answer that.” I trail off.
Jamie tilts his head back against the car seat. “You seemed like you knew who she was earlier.” I don’t respond to him, because I don’t know how to respond. I stare out the car window. The sun hasn’t started to rise yet, I think. The city lights make it a little harder to tell. They keep the sky bright all night, leaving me with no darkness to plunge my into. There’s no stars here.
Jamie takes this as his cue to not push me any further, but he rest his head on my shoulder. Even as heavy as he is, I don’t shoo him away. Our hands find each other in the dark and I close my eyes. Just for now, I’ll allow myself the sweet luxury of spacing out in the backseat. Let someone else navigate things, for once.
I’m don’t know why I was surprised that Lyla didn’t recognize me. Frankly, I don’t know what I thought was going to happen even if she did. But I really can't be mad at her. It’s not just my face or my clothing has changed, it’s my entire demeanor. Even in my most anxious moments living as a woman, I haven't been a third as anxious as I was living as a closeted trans girl.
The driver turns on the car radio, keeping it low so that it is barely audible.
Maybe it isn’t a bad thing that she didn’t recognize me. God only knows how she might have reacted.
It could be that it’s better for me to just leave it and remember things as they were. I shouldn’t brush the dust off of our relic of a friendship, or bring it off the back shelves of my memory to inspect it up close. It could break, or I could see that it’s gears have become rusted and unusable. It might not have even been as beautiful as I recall it being. Things like these live on high shelves for a reason. It’s good that this happened, I tell myself.
The music gets louder, but I don’t mind it. From what I can hear, it’s bitter but gentle. Romantic, but lonely.
I want to get back to our hotel. It's not truly home, but I need to melt away into a bed- I’m not picky which bed it is- and pretend that nothing else exist.
The music gets louder.
But why can’t I leave it alone in my mind? I’ve spent my whole life thinking about what can go wrong, but now, at the worst time possible, I’m imagining what could go right. What if she could accept me? Not romantically, but even just as a person? As someone who once had significance in her life? My face is getting hot. There is something welling behind my eyes, and I can’t rationalize it.
If I tell her who I am, that I was the boy that used to walk home from school with her everyday, that I was the boy who she used to stick up to bullies for.. If I tell her that boy was never a boy at all. It could all go wrong. I take my phone out. I type out a short but direct text, but my finger hovers over the send button. If I press this, Lyla will have my number, and a conversation will begin.
The music gets louder. It's becoming increasingly more distant.
Even if something did go wrong, the life and relationships I’ve built for myself, it can all stand on it’s own. I’m not the child I was when I fell in love with her, and I’m not the man she knew me as. My world won’t come crashing down on me if she disappeared again.
The music gets louder. I can feel it's vibrations thrumming in my chest.
I can’t keep it in anymore. Every emotion I’ve been trying to suppress is coming out. There’s a tear falling down my face. Why am I so afraid of losing something that isn't even found?
The music gets louder. I’m pressing my hands against the sides of my head.
“Will you turn that down, please!?”
The driver looks back at me.. Was that me? He looks confused, and so do I. The music that had been so deafening seconds ago is back down to it’s near silent volume, without him ever adjusting it.
“I’m.. So sorry.” I have never felt more embarrassed in my life, and I assume it shows, considering the driver only huffs in response. I look back down to my phone in hopes of hiding my shame, it’s screen illuminating my face with repulsively bright blue light.
I double check the phone number, Lyla’s phone number, and I reread my message twice. 'Hey, we actually know each other. We were friends in school.' I check my spelling, even though I know it’s flawless, before hitting send, and I take a shaky breath in.
I can’t predict what will happen or what she will think, and I can’t protect myself or my memories from getting hurt. Some part of me yearns to reconnect with my roots, and the people I once knew, and I can’t keep pushing people away out of fear- pain will come no matter how I try to prepare, or how I try to fight it. And Lyla.. I don’t know if she will want to follow up on our date plans once she knows who I am, or who I was. But whatever happens, I know I’ll be okay. What we shared- our childhood memories, our friendship- wasn't created to be a fragile knickknack or memento, destined to live on a high shelf. Whether it’s rusted by time or it’s lost it’s sheen, what we had is a machine, and it deserves the chance to run.