What a difference a year makes. 

Patrick walked across the parking lot from his SUV to the venue, feeling like a stranger in a strange land. His leather jacket and pants creaked with each step, and his right hand formed an apprehensive fist in its tight, shiny glove. The Muir cap in his left hand had become a relic of a bygone era, and despite being clad head to toe in custom leather gear, Patrick was reluctant to don the cap. 

“Hang in there, Sir,” Patrick’s boyfriend Vince said as he jogged to keep up with Patrick’s purposeful gait. “It’ll be over soon.” 

Patrick grasped Vince on the shoulder, briefly and tenderly massaging the bare skin between the straps of Vince’s leather harness. Vince bowed in grateful submission at the attention his Sir saw fit to pay him. 

“I hate this,” Patrick said as the pair reached the row of strip mall storefronts. “I hate everything about this.” 

The Hideaway, the leather bar he once called his second home, where he had lost and rediscovered himself a thousand times over, had moved out of Evergreen’s declining city center and into the remote suburbs ten months ago, not long after he had won the title of Mr. Leather Evergreen. Angry and resentful at the owners having sold out, he vowed never to patronize the new establishment. And he hadn’t—until today. 

“Don’t forget your sash, Sir.” 

The early evening had taken the edge off the summer humidity, but the air was thick with anticipation as Patrick adjusted the sash into place and slipped the cap onto his perspiring bald head. Tonight, he would perform his final official duty as Mr. Leather Evergreen—crowning his successor—and then he’d never have to return to this god forsaken corner of exurban hell. 

The Hideaway had undergone a rebrand in addition to its relocation and was now called the All-Star Tavern. To Patrick, it was a perfectly anodyne name befitting a dull gay bar in an unremarkable suburb. Initially, he was just one of many to boycott the new establishment, but as the year progressed, more and more of the Hideaway’s old regulars abandoned their principles and began patronizing the All-Star. 

A trickle of sweat ran between Patrick’s shoulder blades. He flexed his muscles, his gym fit body straining against his tight leather uniform. “All right, boy,” he said. “Let’s get this over with.” 

Vince clasped his hands behind his back and bowed his head. “Yes, Sir.” 

As Patrick pulled open the heavy, tinted door, a wave of confusion washed over him. He had hoped against hope that he would find the Hideaway’s same sense of community and connection alive and well at the All-Star Tavern, but the new place looked nothing like the establishment he knew. Gone were the Hideaway’s dim, seductive lights, replaced by bright, energy-efficient bulbs that cast a clinical glow over the entire space. The air, no longer thick with the heady scent of leather and musk, now carried the unmistakable aroma of barbecued meats and a faint hint of… freshly cut grass? 

At the Hideaway, the walls had been adorned with avant-garde art, irreverent bumper stickers, permanent marker graffiti, and vintage leather gear. The All-Star Tavern’s walls, by contrast, were covered in sports memorabilia and an assortment of photos featuring smiling middle-aged faces at theme parks and backyard barbecues. The bar itself, far from the Hideaway’s sleek, industrial polished wood and steel counter, was more like an elongated kitchen island, complete with bar stools that looked like they were lifted straight out of a model home’s breakfast nook. 

Patrick scanned the room, searching for any familiar face, but all he found were groups of middle-aged men, clad not in leather, but in polo shirts tucked into khaki shorts. Every man wore immaculate tennis shoes with white athletic socks pulled up to mid calf. The patrons huddled around large-screen TVs, cheering on their favorite sports teams, or engaged in animated conversations about lawn care and the best techniques for grilling steaks. Every few seconds, a group would erupt into braying, knee-slapping laughter, as if they’d just heard the funniest joke ever told. 

“Are you sure we’re at the right place, Sir?” Vince whispered, suddenly self conscious in his harness. 

Patrick made eye contact with the bartender and was momentarily comforted by a flicker of recognition. Finally, a familiar face. “We have to be.” 

Feeling like an alien in his own skin, Patrick led Vince to the bar. The bartender, a burly man named Andreas who always wore a snug leather vest and a knowing smirk, now sported a “World’s Best Bartender” t-shirt, a pair of sensible glasses, and a vacant grin. The nametag pinned to his t-shirt read “ANDY.” 

“Long time, no see, friendo!” Andy said with a friendly nod as he laid down a couple menus. “Here for the contest?” 

“Yeah, just to pass the title onto the next guy” Patrick said. The printed menu contained an extensive list of craft beers and artisanal burgers, a far cry from the Hideaway’s no-frills chalkboard menu of strong spirits and no food. 

“You sure you don’t want to enter?” Andy asked, plucking a pencil from behind his ear and flipping the pages of a small, spiral-bound notebook. “We’ve never had a back-to-back winner. You could make history tonight, bud!” 

Patrick politely declined the invitation, and after he and Vince each ordered a beer, the leather-clad couple turned their attention to the conversations nearby. To their left, two men, both with slight paunches and receding hairlines, passionately discussed the merits of different brands of weed whackers. To their right, a small group was planning a neighborhood block party, complete with a tug of war and a chili cookoff. 

Feeling utterly out of place, Patrick took a gulp of his beer. The Hideaway, the city’s sanctuary for leather men and others who lived on the fringes of society, had somehow been replaced by this bastion of suburban mediocrity. His mind reeling, he gulped his beer again. The bitter taste mirrored his disappointment. 

To be continued…

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