Return to Pine Bluff


By John Cloud

The city wasn't 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. Sunbeam's 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 that's 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 didn't 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 wasn't afraid to challenge the church's strict moral code by mowing his lawn in shorts -- was the one reading the message. I don't 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 don't 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 didn't 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 sister's 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 didn't arouse me, but I did like kissing her, since her lips were fuller than Mark's. 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 John's 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 wasn't 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.