The first time I fell in love, I was 16. I think. I didn’t know it at the time, and I especially never would have acknowledged it, but once it all went sour, and I was crushed, and drove by his house every morning before school, because it was kind of on my way, and then I grew up for another 9 years, it occurred to me one sunny day at the beach. I was head-over-heels in love with J.A. Without a doubt, he was singularly responsible for laying the foundation for what I would forever find attractive, even if he did end up becoming a thuggish, pot-head, racist jock. He didn’t start out that way.
He came from the wilderness of Alaska with an attitude problem and a shitty home life. It was such a cliché as to be nearly unbelievable, but he was the most exotic thing Rogers, Arkansas had possibly ever seen. At least to my feeble 16-year-old imagination, nothing was more glamorous. He had shaggy hair that he dyed purple, and listened to punk rock music, but he was sensitive and played acoustic guitar. Kurt Cobain was his personal god (this was 1993, after all) while I was still listening to pop music and Nirvana was too “crazy” for my choir-boy ears. I have no idea, being who I was at the time, why he appealed to me so strongly. Maybe it was the novelty, and the fact that he happened to be gorgeous and smart and well-read didn’t hurt. As my friend E.S. once so eloquently put it, “half the school wants to be him, and the other half wants to fuck him.” And sometimes, the two shall meet.
As it turned out, his aunt was the piano player for my choir at church, and he was coming down to the mainland to spend some time with her after getting into a fistfight with his stepfather and getting thrown out of his parent’s house in Alaska. We hadn’t yet started school for the fall, which would be our junior year, and his aunt asked me if I wouldn’t mind taking him out some night to show him around, maybe introduce him to some people. I’d always gotten along wonderfully with adults and could charm the pants off anyone over 30 (too bad the majority of my peers I found repellent and unworthy of breathing). So I happily agreed.
I have no idea what we did together that first night, but I liked him. I remember him being relaxed and personable and very open about who he was and why he was there. Maybe he’d seen the movies too, and was playing it up, but I think it was genuine. I can’t imagine him not being terrified, and lonely and eager to fit in.
I listened to his stories with the ears of someone on a first date wanting to make a great impression, and I shared my own stories. That spring my brother had been in a horrible car wreck and barely survived an 8-week coma that left him unable to walk, talk, read, or even feed himself once he awoke. I had spent the summer in a rehab hospital in Dallas with my family, and returned just before school started, after missing the entirety of the first summer I and all my friends could actually drive and stay out late. I felt like I had missed a lot, and I was resentful, but cautious and riddled with guilt for resenting it, after what my brother and parents were going through. All of my friends were supportive and caring, but I felt like my feelings and emotions were too complex for them to comprehend, and for me to even articulate in a meaningful way, so mostly I kept silent. But I was angry, and hurting, and jealous, and felt like shit about it. But J.A. seemed to understand. He really seemed to get it, and understood the separateness I perceived us both to be experiencing, and after about a week of hanging out with him, I felt like we’d grown up together.
Once school started, the fire only grew. Being the most exotic dish anyone in my high school had seen, everyone wanted to know J.A. He immediately amassed a large group of friends, mostly of the artsy, misfit type, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I had something that everybody wanted: for while he quickly made friends, I considered myself to be his best friend. So even though this was clearly not the case, or maybe was, but was purely circumstantial, it played to my favor. I had never been popular in my life, in fact, I was the definition of not popular, and the one person everybody wanted to know, J.A., spent every weekend at my house. We hung out with my friends, played pool in my garage, went swimming in my backyard, watched Singles and at least every Friday, and often Saturday too, he spent the night at my house. For the first time, I felt like I was “fitting in,” and I started making new friends, and gained a confidence in myself that people normally associate with falling madly in love with someone who wants you back just as badly.
In early October, we all went to the annual Benton County Fair. This was a tradition, and the first year that my friends and I could go by ourselves, or not have to be at the gates waiting for our parents at 10:00. We gorged ourselves on hot dogs and cotton candy and rode every ride three times. The night was over too quickly, but on our way out, Jared spotted one of those recording booths, basically a glorified karaoke, where you could record yourself singing a song onto a cassette tape. He stood in the booth, and a video camera and PA set up outside boomed out not only his image, but the sound of his rough voice singing “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” by Creedence Clearwater Revival to anyone passing by. Personally, I’d never cared for CCR, and only associated them with the racist jocks at my school, affectionately dubbed the Dixie Boys by the whole town, because of their penchant for stringing up Rebel flags on the backs of their mud-encrusted pickup trucks and sewing patches of the flags onto their ratty baseball caps, and wearing t-shirts with slogans like, “American by birth, Southern by the grace of God.”
They’d called me a faggot every day of my life starting the first day of Life Science class in 7th grade, and on more than one occasion, I had narrowly escaped a serious beating, along with threats to my very existence. All I had done that day to warrant this attention was show up, but they didn’t like the way I walked, and one person picked up on it, and set the tone for the rest of my public school career. They had “rumbles” in Northwest Park with the growing influx of poor Hispanic kids, complete with chains and sawed-off shotguns. No one ever died, or to my knowledge, was even seriously injured, by even so much as a wayward glance in the cafeteria on Tuesday could bring out a hundred or more kids to fight on Friday, after the park lights had been turned off. These activities were more often than not busted by the cops, but they were legendary and somehow only increased the status of the gringos in most people’s eyes. They were the lone Davy Crocketts of Northwest Arkansas, struggling to keep the white-only status of this small Ozark Mountain town a reality, but with Wal-Mart and Tyson and Hudson Foods, and a phenomenally low cost, but high standard, of living, it was a natural haven for immigrants. Thousands of them started pouring in, many of whom didn’t speak English. It was a culture shock, and an unwelcome one at that, by most everybody, as far as I can remember, particularly the large Baptist churches that dominated the cultural landscape. (Years later, after I had left, the sheriff of Benton County, along with same said Baptist churches, would form an Immigration Coalition, to monitor the influx and keep it in check, which really meant, put as much of a halt to it as possible, along with a plan to wipe out the homosexuals, because “where you have homosexuality, you have pedophilia.” The queers had recently become a problem, apparently, because of their cruising at the Lake Atalanta Park, though I have no idea who figured this out, or how. But I can proudly say that my great-grandfather built and also named the Lake Atalanta Park when he was Mayor, and I can think of no other place I would rather gay men have illicit sex in the dark.)
But standing there that night at the fair, among the hay and cow shit and rednecks and their dirty children, nothing else existed but Jared and that song. To this day, I can’t hear it without conjuring up images of that night, and being transfixed by how much he sounded like John Fogerty himself, and how he even held the headphones to his ear like I’d seen rock stars do in movies and on MTV. That his Voice could come out of his skinny Body astounded me and I smiled. His eyes were closed, and all modesty was gone, or never existed, and he was a true performer, and to me, the original Bad Boy. He even drew a small crowd that applauded him when he stepped from the booth, and he smiled sheepishly when he saw them, as if he really didn’t know people would be watching him. On the way back to my house that night in my car, he made me play the tape 3 times in a row, with the windows down and the stars bright, and the temperature dropping. The leaves of the trees splashed yellow, gold, red, and orange in my headlights, and before long the first snow would fall and the brilliant canvas of Fall would be replaced by a premature crystalline white, covering every surface, even before Halloween.
As I said before, this was the era of the “grunge explosion,” and everywhere I looked, people I knew were forming bands that wanted to sound like Nirvana, or the Pixies, Soundgarden, Hole, and Green Day. My friends started forming bands with names like Egg, Alfred, the Soda Pop Gods, the Total Knock-Outs, and a million other incestuous incarnations that lasted a week or 2 and never had names, but from which forth actual songs sprang and philosophies were formed. Almost overnight I lost interest in going to church and preferred to start spending my time with people that read William S. Burroughs and Communist Manifestoes; people that dyed their hair purple and pink and blue and pierced their lips. A revolution was taking place and it was outrageous and exciting and appealed to my growing sense of disillusionment and anger and confusion over my budding sexuality. I was aware, even then, that this had all already happened 20 years prior, all over the world, but it had never happened in Rogers, Arkansas, and it had never happened to me.
But the Grandaddy of all these bands, and the only one that would last years past high school, was the one fronted by none other than J.A. himself. They called themselves Slur, and had lots of songs (none of which I remember), but the one that everybody loved was a cover of “Killing in the Name of,” by Rage Against the Machine. At the end, went Jared went crazy and belted out, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” over and over, you never saw such hysteria in a group of spoiled, white, bored, suburban punk rock wannabes. The pinnacle of their coolness was reached when, on the next to last day of school, junior year, they played an afternoon school function held on the track field, and had the plug pulled on them during that song. J.A. had gained quite a reputation by that point as being a “rebel” and “dangerous,” and he and I had long since stopped speaking. When his vocals alarmingly went silent he screamed and cussed from the stage, but nothing was done to him. I sat in the stands, rolling my eyes, and wishing he would disappear through a hole in the field. He had so much to fucking prove, and to this day, I have no idea which one of his personalities was the “real” one: the one that I had befriended, or the one that he eventually became. Maybe both, or maybe neither. I ran into him years later, actually, at a Reverend Horton Heat show, when I was up visiting from Dallas. He was really drunk, or really stoned, or really both, and seemed elated to see me, and then asked if he could have some money to buy another beer because he was all out.
Slur soon became It, the benchmark by which all other local bands would compare themselves, and in true rock star fashion, the girls and the drugs and the attitudes followed. They even started getting booked at the “jock” parties. The aggressive “moshable” music appealed to their angsty, white-boy anger, and J.A. soon became one of the first people I’d ever known to successfully straddle the fence between the jocks and the artsy weirdos and have true allies in both camps.
My friend J.T. was another one of these specimens. She had moved to Rogers in junior high, from West Palm Beach, Florida, with tales so sordid, we naturally ate them up and believed every word. I doubt, now, having known her, that any of them were true, but at the time we didn’t question them for a second. Supposedly, she had had a steady girlfriend who had gotten her addicted to heroin, and one night when they were out joyriding in a stolen car while strung out on smack, they had crashed into a cop car and been arrested, and her parents had had enough. They lived in a Brady Bunch-style, 70’s era, split-level home, with Beaver Lake lapping at their backyard. J.T. had the whole downstairs of the house to herself, with her own sliding-glass doors leading out to the rocky shores, which made her house a favorite hangout of ours. To this day, she will be remembered most fondly by all of us, by her cross-dressing party that went down in Rogers party history. Everyone that attended, regardless of gender, was required to wear clothing of the opposite gender before they would be allowed entrance. Only someone as sexy as J.T. was then would have been able to not only pull off such a stunt in such a stilted town, but make it a smashing success. We talked about it for years afterward, and half the school was there.
I had always had a bit of a crush on J.T., frankly. She had a disarming laugh, and an inherent ability to make you feel like you were the most important person in her life. She wrote poetry and listened to Bikini Kill and smoked cigarettes in her backyard, and defiantly made out with other girls in the high school cafeteria, for the sole purpose of pissing off all the jocks that routinely called her a dyke and wanted to fuck her. At my friend M.S.’s (no, that doesn’t stand for multiple sclerosis) birthday party, in January of our junior year, I got to make out with J.T. under a blanket in M.S’s darkened bedroom, while people told ghost stories. This marked the first, I believe, of only about 2 times, that I’ve been truly turned on by a girl with whom I was messing around, and desperately wanted to go further than we did. I remember my erection trying to burst out of my pants, and J.T. fleetingly letting her fingers graze over it, until I thought I was gonna go crazy. I took this as a good sign, as I was desperately trying to internally fight off my growing attraction to men and my longing to not only have sex with them, but to just touch them and hold them, and constantly wonder what it would feel like to kiss them and just lie with our arms around each other. Lying here on the floor with J.T., our legs and tongues entwined, and everyone at the party (including J.A.) knowing what was happening under there, was a real boost to my self-image and completely non-existent feelings of masculinity.
M.S. had been my closest friend since kindergarten, and to this day, we are still close. She is like a sister to me, and no matter what directions our lives have taken, or how far apart on the globe we’ve been in the past, we’ve never gone more than a few weeks without speaking or seeing each other for our entire lives. She grew up on a sprawling farm more than 30 minutes outside of Rogers, and as we got older and could drive and stay out later, the main source of entertainment at M.S’s house became trying to scare ourselves into hysteria. Every birthday party included a freezing (January in the Ozark Mountains) hay ride to the more than a century old graveyard on her property. We would always just go out there and stand around and look at the stones, and try to read the death dates, and imagine that the mud into which they were all sinking was some kind of portal to hell or something. Nothing ever happened, and her dad would always try to scare us, and some girl would “swear” she felt something brush her ankle, or someone would trip and scream, and everybody would freak out and huddle together. We knew we were being ridiculous, but it was fun, and always led up to the inevitable telling of ghost stories in M.S.’s second-floor, haunted, candle-lit bedroom, in her turn-of-the-century farmhouse where “people had died.”
This particular year, M.S.’s dad decided to take the hay ride on a joy ride around the curvy, deserted and pitch-black roads around her farm. As his speed increased and the cold, wet wind picked up, we were all screaming (with delight, of course, and fake terror) and clutching one another for support and warmth, but what should appear out of the darkness, but the one lone headlight of J.A’s newly acquired motorcycle. Ladies and Gentlemen, James Fucking Dean has arrived. Call fucking CNN. It was by far the studliest and most dramatic entrance any one of us could have imagined. We all went nuts as he pulled up alongside the trailer, his black leather jacket and silver and black helmet glowing in the moonlight like some kind of legendary, mysterious dark knight.
We eventually made it back to M.S.’s house, and the ghost stories, then the confessions, began. I don’t know if it was just because we were all dying to be understood, or to feel like we weren’t the only freaks around, but one of our favorite past-times for my friends and me was to play Truth or Dare, which always degenerated into a tear-filled, heartfelt outpouring of secrets and desires. That night, for the first time in my life, I verbalized my growing attraction to men in front of a group of people. I thought I was in a safe environment, and our secrets would never be used against us, but as I later figured out, my confession to a lusty, unattainable fantasy of boning one of the most popular jocks at my school, sowed the seed of J.A.’s growing discomfort of the closeness of our relationship.
I’m sure there were many layers to this decision of his, or to his intuitive understanding of my growing attraction to him, but honest to god, it never even occurred to me to fall in love with him, or to actively pursue him sexually. I just simply wasn’t that in touch with myself at that point, and I guess sometimes we’re the last ones to notice our own subconscious behavior. But I was in love with him, and I thought we were soul mates of sorts, and I thought I was his best friend, and that fateful night at J.T.’s cross-dressing party I was to be set straight in one of the most humiliating ways possible. It’s nothing now, thinking back, but at the time my whole world stopped and I believed myself to be the laughingstock of my entire high school. Probably no one even knew about it, or cared, or maybe they even thought J.A. was the dick for doing what he did, but my perception was one of being totally ridiculed.
It must have been nearing midnight, when my curfew was, because I went to find J.A., who had barely spoken to me all night. He was sitting with his bandmates, his perfect new friends, and though they intimidated me, I broached their circle. The only girl I can ever recall J.A. ever dating while in high school was my own friend Marissa, who dumped him only a couple of months after, and he was heartbroken. One night, while we were still in church choir, he inadvertently cut his finger, or ripped off a hangnail, or something, but his finger was bleeding profusely. His response was to grab a white sheet of paper, and actually scroll out a forlorn letter to Marissa in his own blood. At the time I thought it was silly and a bit creepy, but didn’t recognize it for the melodramatic plea for weirdness that it must have been. (Of course now, as an adult, if a lover of mine wrote out a letter to me in their own blood it would charm my pants off; maybe he was just a decade ahead of me.)
Anyway, I remember a few of the guys having girlfriends, including A.H., the drummer, who had been a friend of mine in elementary school until he came after me on my bike with a butcher knife the size of a sword and he got sent away to juvenile hall – in second grade! It had all been a dumb prank, since the day before my older brother and one of his friends had dared me to fight him, and for no other reason than I was dared, I did it. I held him on the ground with my knees, but didn’t really know what to do with him after that, so after threatening to hit him a couple of times I just let him up, no more satisfied with myself than if I had just won a round of Monopoly with him. But I think he was embarrassed, and as I rode by his house on my bike the next day, he bounded out the front door with said knife, claiming “I’m ready to fight Ryan now,” and making half-hearted jabs at me.
But J.T., of all people, was his girlfriend, and when she wasn’t (supposedly) making out with girls behind his back, she only talked about how big his dick was, which may or may not have been true, since, like me, he was a whisper of a man at that time, only about 105 pounds soaking wet. Since J.T. was one of my best friends, and J.A. was one of my best friends, I felt comfortable exerting my own brand of control over the situation, and casually mentioning that I needed to head home.
“I’m going to stay here,” J.A. replied, all eyes of the circle on me. I knew what was happening, and my heart started pounding, but I really thought we were very close, and my relationship with him was his most cherished. We had spent days and days and nights and nights together, running around naked in the cemetery after curfew, dying each other’s hair, taking long drives and telling secrets and emptying our hearts. To this day, it was one of the best romances I’ve ever had, and the fact that it was never consummated doesn’t hide the fact that he was my first true love. Its innocence was what made it so effortless.
I had no idea how to respond to this rebuttal, and even J.T. was looking up at me with anticipation in her eyes, waiting to see what I would do. Maybe she felt bad and didn’t know how to respond, but I saw this as a betrayal and secretly held it against her for months. The panic was rising.
“But I have to be home in 10 minutes,” I said. “I’m already going to be late.” I can’t imagine how ridiculous I must have looked, standing there in one of M.S.’s miniskirts, and a tank top, nearly pleading to be paid attention to. The fact that everyone else was wearing something similar, or even more outlandish, like a billowy sundress, hardly mattered. I was the fool with the spotlight being shined on him, in front of a bunch boys I wanted more than anything to impress.
“I’m not going,” J.A. said. “I’m gonna stay out later.”
The anger was rising. A couple of the guys had smirks on their faces, and I wanted to pound them into mushy, bleeding stumps, but I could not, could not, lose my cool. My entire future hinged on how I handled this situation, this denial, this crude exertion of his power over me, and how I behaved in the presence of him and his friends, whose parents saw fit not to even give them curfews, those ungrateful motherfuckers.
My fight-or-flight response kicked in, and as has been the case in countless other situations in my life ever since then, I played it cool on the outside so as to avoid confrontation, and left J.T.’s house, seething and desperate on the inside.
I was hurt, and angry. This marks the first time I can really remember in my life what has since become a pattern: responding to my pain with rage, fury and violence instead of just feeling the hurt and being sad. Even still today, it’s incredibly difficult for me to just be sad. I react to my slights, real or imagined, or any situation in which I feel I’ve lost control, generally with ridicule and a mean-spirited ethos of revenge. That night after leaving J.T.’s house, I sped down the dark and curvy roads of her house in the hills back into town too quickly, with probably Nine Inch Nails or Ministry blaring at deafening levels out of my car stereo. My tires squealed on the turns, and more than once, my heart raced as I felt myself slightly lose control of the vehicle. I told myself to calm down, it wasn’t that big of a deal, but thinking about their faces, their smirks, and the way J.T. didn’t jump out of her boyfriend’s lap and dump him on the spot for not sticking up for me made my blood absolutely boil.
As I reached the maybe quarter-mile, flat, straight stretch of the Beaver Lake bridge, crossing the still, black, moon-splattered water, I laid on the gas. My car zoomed up to at least sixty, and with the windows down and guitars screeching from my stereo, I wouldn’t even have noticed a fire truck coming up behind me.
The sudden force of the speed felt good, and I began to calm down, more paranoid about getting caught by a cop out patrolling the pitch-black roads zig-zagging throughout the hills searching for teenagers smoking pot, than about getting into an accident and dying, This danger should have occurred to me more than it did, my brother having been reduced to a near-vegetable only months before in a car accident, going way too fast, but I was sixteen and invincible, like all sixteen-year-olds, and I was fucking pissed.
The next night I called J.A. at his house and confronted him. I was humble about it, but made it clear that I wanted some answers.
He paused for a moment before sputtering out, “I think I’m going to start spending more time with my other friends.”
The words were few, but the meaning was clear: I was being dumped. I had no idea how to respond. I was speechless and my heart was breaking, but I got it. At least I thought I got it. What I was hearing was that I was no longer (or maybe never had been) cool enough to be friends with J.A. I would learn months later, from a reliable source, that he had taken this action because he was totally freaked out about the amount of attention I was paying him, and suspected (both correctly and incorrectly), that my affection was crossing over into more puerile territory. In retrospect, I don’t blame him much for this, but at the time he was the Spawn of Satan.
When I hung up the phone, my brain was reeling. What had I done? Not done? Did I not listen to the right music? Did I still pay too much lip service to church? Was I too trendy? No, fuck him, I was not going to let him get away with this bullshit.
I dialed his number again, and before he even had a chance to speak, I launched into a tirade about what an egotistical, superficial, dumb jerk he was, concluding with the lines, “And just because your life in Alaska was so bad and fucked up, does not give you the right to come here and fuck up all of our lives!” Yeah, hit him where it hurts. Throughout my speech I noticed his breath quickening, but before he could even get in a word, I slammed down the phone, lest he defend himself, or say something that made sense.
I’m sure that if I had just remained calm, and asked him what he was feeling like any rational person would have done, all of the ugliness could have been avoided, and we probably still would have been friends. But that night set off a feud between the Slur groupies, and my camp, (and all the poor souls in the middle who were friends with everyone and didn’t give a shit either way) essentially, that lasted well past graduation, and went so far as house-egging, car-trashing, and all the most vile and vicious shit-talking and gossip you could imagine. It stopped short of physical violence, but not without a fair amount of threats. Less stable teenagers probably would have been shooting at each other in the school parking lot, and far be it from me to say that it didn’t almost come to that. It was that ugly.
I would say how stupid all of this was, and chalk it up to teenage boredom if this kind of behavior wasn’t still my main modus operandi well into my twenties.