Return to Pine Bluff

Return to Pine Bluff

High school reunions are a peculiar ritual. You expect to be nervous, to feel the weight of your age, to forget names -- but also to gloat a bit at those who got fatter, balder, grayer. Reunions offer a chance to travel back to the emotional state of adolescence: intense self-doubt punctuated by periods of grandiosity. But for many gay people, especially those born before the Reagan administration, reunions offer another problem: You have to say openly what you only hinted at back then.

As the 20th anniversary of my graduation from Pine Bluff High School approached, I was prepared for these nuisances -- prepared to go back to rural Arkansas, to endure the awkwardness of bad 80s music, to reestablish friendships that had suffered from neglect, to try to confront my boyhood demons -- all that. But I wasnt prepared to see Mark.

We had been sorta boyfriends, Mark and me. Starting around age 12, we spent nearly every Friday night together. At 13, I took my first drink from his parents liquor cabinet (we filled two glasses with a short shot of alcohol from each bottle so that they wouldnt notice). We had danced around his room in our underwear to Quiet Riots Cum on Feel the Noize. And Mark and I had found each other late at night in his twin bed, our bodies pressed together and fumbling in that awkward, exhilarating way. We told no one -- in fact, we never spoke about these nights even to each other.

One morning -- we would have been 14 -- Mark was sleeping at my place. His left arm was flung above his head. When I woke up and looked over, I saw that a small patch of hair had grown from his armpit. Enchanted, I reached over and felt it -- coarser than I expected (I had only a few wispy hairs at the time). As I touched him, Mark rolled over. With his back to me, he said humorlessly, That tickles. He barely ever spoke to me again.

And now here I am, reunion weekend. Im 38 and back in Pine Bluff after all these years.

And there he is.

Hes become enormous -- his head shiny and nearly free of hair; his once-mischievous eyes squinting above fat cheeks; some bad suit pants fixed tight by a belt just below his corpulence. Next to him stands a woman, obviously the wife -- red-haired, nondescript, and on her way toward joining him in obesity.

And yethe seems sweet, those cheeks still boyishly rouged. Terrified, I avoid him at first, but later, when I turn from the bar with a gin and tonic, he appears before me, smiling broadly. He puts his hand out, introduces the wife. My head buzzes: When we were kids in bed, had he just been experimenting? Did he remember anything? Did he feel anything right now? As my brain works to steady itself, I can gather only that Mark works in a mid-level executive position for some kind of utility. We make small talk, and then, like a dog that finally discovers his tail, I know what to ask.

So, do yall have kids?

No, Mark answers, looking at me squarely. Cats. His phone appears. Let me show you.

I hadnt been to Pine Bluff in 20 years mainly because most of my family had moved away. Also, Pine Bluff -- a city on the southeastern Arkansas flatlands slouching toward the Mississippi River -- had foundered.

When I was growing up there in the 80s, Pine Bluff had formed a bulwark against the extreme delta poverty to the east. A combination of poor leadership and brain drain dragged the city downward in the 90s. Doctors, engineers, and schoolteachers left the city. Whole blocks fell into blight. In 2000, when I first interviewed Republican Mike Huckabee, who was then governor of Arkansas (and obese -- he hadnt yet lost the 112 pounds he would famously shed), we reminisced a bit about the city where he had been a Baptist minister at the same time I was a high school student. Its a shame what happened to that place, he told me with a dejected look. (I was too polite to ask why, as governor, he couldnt do something about it.)

Mainly, I hadnt gone back because Pine Bluff, even in its better days, had terrorized me. I had known I was gay since around the time my family moved to the city, when I was 11. The depth of my longing for other boys was confusing and a little creepy to me. Pine Bluff offered no answers, no role models -- not a single gay bar or even a visible gay couple. I felt isolated and wanted to escape its roughness, its casual brutality. One day when I was 13, I was at a little golf course in town that passed for a country club. We were on the back nine, and it was hot and swampy -- delta weather. A kid my age named Brian, a doctors son who was evidently bored, took a 5-iron, hoisted it over his head, and plunged it down into the shell of a little turtle in a creek. I couldnt look as Brian, pubescent and wild-eyed, took another strike to make sure the animal was dead. As someone who had his own toughened shell, I wanted to vomit.

The city wasnt unfriendly, exactly, but it was a hard, divided place. Although mostly African-American, whites held much of the political power well into the 1980s. Buried resentments simmered everywhere, their noxious fumes mixing with the foul chemical smells that constantly wafted from the International Paper mill outside town.

A wide, flat, bosky city, Pine Bluff has few landmarks aside from a locally famous billboard for Sunbeam bread that stands at the corner of Harding and Main. Sunbeams logo features a little white girl who -- on the Pine Bluff billboard -- rides a motorized swing dangling from a fake tree. Back and forth Little Miss Sunbeam goes, constantly, never really going anywhere -- or at least thats how it felt to a boy who desperately wanted to get away.

When I was 14, I called the anonymous help line at the low-slung Hazel Street Church of Christ -- which I attended three times a week (twice on Sundays and once on Wednesday evenings). When you called the help line, you didnt have to talk to a real person. Instead, you could dial a code to hear recorded advice about any number of sins -- adultery, drugs, lust. I pressed the numbers to hear the advice about homosexuality. My preacher, Joe Goodspeed -- a sweet man who wasnt afraid to challenge the churchs strict moral code by mowing his lawn in shorts -- was the one reading the message. I dont remember his exact words, but I do remember the gist was that homosexuality was a grave sin that people had to fight.

And fight I did. Also, I schemed to leave. I studied like a hermit. I volunteered to tutor the illiterate. I edited the yearbook. I played on the golf team. And I self-medicated with what we called half-and-halves. Recipe: Go to 7-Eleven. Purchase a Big Gulp. Fill with Coke and plenty of ice. Once outside, dump half the Coke. Replace that half with Jim Beam. Enjoy. Repeat ad libitum.

We drank half-and-halves in the little open space at the end of a dirt road out toward the paper mill. Someone would invariably set up speakers in the back of a pickup, and we would blast the Steve Miller Band until we had to drive home. Miraculously, only one boy I knew in high school died in a drunk driving accident. My rule was never to drive above 20 miles an hour, and even then, I once veered into a ditch. The next day, my dad asked why I had dirt and grass caked under the front of my car. I dont remember what lie I told him.

Lies came easily, of course. Back in eighth grade, I had dated a girl in our class, Jessica Welch, who three years later became Miss Arkansas Teen USA. Jessica didnt win Miss Teen USA, but she was beautiful, and she filled out a swimsuit so nicely that I grew curious to feel her breasts. When I finally did, in the back of her sisters car as the radio played some 80s power ballad, I explored her breasts the way a scientist would probe the outer dermis of a rare animal.

Jessica didnt arouse me, but I did like kissing her, since her lips were fuller than Marks. Tellingly, Jessica and I both loved George Michael. Careless Whisper was our song. When the video came on MTV, we would call each other and say stupid, wistful things. We imagined ourselves on that balcony where, at the end of the video, Michael -- dressed all in white, as though about to play tennis -- gazes into a sunset.

I saw Jessica for the first time since graduation on the first night of reunion weekend. The class of 89 met at Eden Park, an old, modest swim club where many of us had spent long afternoons as kids, drinking Coke from Styrofoam and lunching on overcooked hamburgers and undercooked fries.

Jessica Welch is now Jessica Eriksmoen. When I had arrived in Pine Bluff, she and my old friends John Smyth and Scott McCarty had picked me up from the Ramada. Jessica and Scott were drinking red wine they had opened earlier. I thought I needed a drink, but it was shocking how quickly the four of us rewound the 20 years. Old stories spilled from us like gleaming marbles from a felt bag. John Smyth recalled how my dad had refused to allow me to stay at Johns house during a freak Arkansas snowstorm, and I instantly felt again my adolescent loathing for my father and the strength of the bond with my friends.

I was not surprised to find that Jessica, the teen beauty queen, was still beautiful, but I was surprised to see that she had acquired an earth-mother look. Her dark hair fell across her shoulders in glossy tendrils. She wore a complicated array of black lace and flower-print garments, one of which crisscrossed those ample breasts at an odd but flattering angle. A professional singer who has performed the lead in the tribute play Always...Patsy Cline for 14 years, Jessica has also developed an abiding interest in parrots (she helps nurse sick ones back to health) and alternative medicine (she is training to be an Ayurvedic therapist). Somewhere along the way, Jessica had become a little less Christie Brinkley and a little more Stevie Nicks.

We drank copious amounts of wine that first night, so I was still hungover when I met my old friends at the Holiday Inn Express pool the next day. There, it became clear that I wasnt the only person who had come out since high school. Back then, my friend Jay was a sweet, rather quiet guy in the international club. Now he is a blond-tipped queen with a scathing wit and a taste for Winstons. He tossed his used butts into the bushes next to the pool.

There was also a lesbian -- a woman I only dimly recall from high school -- who arrived at the reunion with a mysterious leg injury and who, as the day wore on, blessedly offered us some of her Vicodin and Klonopin. Also at the pool was a close friend, a guy I had suspected of being gay for years, who was now finally admitting privately he is bisexual and dating a man in Memphis. And then there was me: divorced from my boyfriend of eight years, trying to hold onto my tiny nubs of Manhattan and journalism even as they constantly threaten to crumble under my feet. As our revelations, regrets, and triumphs tumbled out of us, I recognized a feeling I had never experienced as a kid in Pine Bluff: lightness, ease, comfort in my own (now rather sunburned) skin.

The fact that Mark doesnt have kids didnt necessarily mean anything, but as the reunion drew to a close -- bad music, line dancing, gin and tonics, mosquitoes -- I wondered whether I should have stayed in Pine Bluff. I had wanted to escape its coarseness, but had I been braver, less selfish, maybe I could have helped soften the place, change it. Lesbians and gays who grow up in rural places flee when they can, ensuring that the towns they leave behind will be just as inhospitable to the next generation of girls and boys who must learn to anesthetize their feelings with half-and-halves.

Yes, of course, this is changing on its own. The Williams Institute at UCLA says the fastest-growing gay populations are not in Chelsea or West Hollywood but in midsize, middle-American cities like Louisville, Ky., and San Antonio. But Pine Bluff and smaller towns like it are at least a generation away from this kind of change, in part because people like me left.

After the reunion, some of us went to Sonic for some much-needed fast food. Alexander, who in high school had been my faggoty nemesis, had turned into a tall, handsome guy with a dry wit and an interesting job. I cant tell you what that job is, or where he lives, or what his real name is because -- half-drunk and sated after Sonic -- Alexander and I engaged in one high school ritual I badly miss: making out by the car before you have to go home. And unfortunately, Alexander has a boyfriend back in the big city where he now lives.

The next morning, Sunday, I faced down my last Pine Bluff demon: I went back to church for the first time in two decades. More than any other place, Hazel Street Church of Christ is where I had come to loathe myself as a gay boy. In my memory, it stood as an imposing building, formidable, inaccessible.

My friend, the largely closeted bisexual with the Memphis boyfriend (Ill call him Stephen), met me at church. Nominally, it had also been Stephens church as a kid, although he rarely attended. As we walked in, I saw that virtually every detail was unchanged. There was the same faux-wood paneling in the vestibule, the same Southern men with brush cuts and powerful handshakes, the same placement of the drinking fountain and visitor sign-in book.

None of this looked imposing now. In fact, it looked a little pathetic. I walked over to the information board and saw a posting with the churchs budget: only $159,200 for the entire year.

This was the place that had terrorized me? I felt silly. I had been such a dramatic little boy. If I had taken myself less seriously, maybe I could have taken this church less seriously.

Stephen and I sat down for the service. Churches of Christ adhere to a quixotic fundamentalism. For instance, because of a strict reading of certain Scripture, there is only a cappella singing, no musical instruments, and the entire congregation is supposed to sing. The minister is usually called the preacher, and he dresses in regular clothes without clerical adornments.

The service began with some songs, and then the youngish preacher, Mike Hogan, took the podium. He asked for prayers for Bertie Johnson, who was very ill (a 91-year-old mother of three, she died the next day). Before the sermon, Hogan asked everyone to stand and greet those sitting nearby. Stephen and I talked with the two older ladies sitting in front of us for a while, and then several other people came to welcome us. Since so many people have left Pine Bluff, Stephen and I were among the youngest people there, even though we are both 38. But everyone was very friendly to these two strange men passing through town together and not wearing wedding rings.

Hogans sermon didnt contain much fire or brimstone. Instead, he discussed the seventh chapter of Luke, which tells the story of Jesuss kindness toward a woman of the city, who was a sinner (many people assume she was a prostitute).

Stephen and I sneaked out early; I had a plane to catch. We hugged in the parking lot, and I started my journey back to Little Rock and, eventually, Kennedy Airport and Chelsea. After I got home, handsome Alexander sent me a Facebook message: The reunion, he said, was a cathartic experience for me. Its amazing that one weekend could lift the anxiety and negative feelings Ive had about high school and many of our classmates for the last 20 years. I had prepared myself to be hounded by questions about marriage, kids, etc. I guess primarily thanks to Facebook, that just didnt happen. The only questions I got in that area were about why I didnt bring my partner.

I agreed with every word and wished, in a few moments of adolescent yearning, that Alexander had no partner.

John Cloud is a senior writer for Time and

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