Return to Pine Bluff
By John Cloud
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 wasn�t 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 wouldn�t notice). We had danced around his room in our underwear to Quiet Riot�s �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. I�m 38 and back in Pine Bluff after all these years.
And there he is.
He�s 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 yet�he 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 y�all have kids?�
�No,� Mark answers, looking at me squarely. �Cats.� His phone appears. �Let me show you.�
I hadn�t 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 hadn�t 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. �It�s a shame what happened to that place,� he told me with a dejected look. (I was too polite to ask why, as governor, he couldn�t do something about it.)
Mainly, I hadn�t 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 doctor�s 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 couldn�t 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.
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