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.