By Alicia Catt
The night before my ten-year high school reunion, I join an online dating website and peruse the singles living in the town where I grew up. It’s late and I’m lonely and nursing a large bottle of plum wine. Most of my potential matches are farm-grown cowboys and college girls going through self-described “experimental” phases. I find just one promising profile; he’s barefoot in his pictures and mentions a love of bacon and grassroots democracy. I send him a message. I tell him to meet me at the reunion bar at eight p.m. the next evening, because I’ll surely need a break from my classmates by then. He doesn’t write back. Later I realize I’ve given him the wrong bar name—the reunion is at Junior’s, but I told him Johnnie’s. Or maybe Jimmy’s. There are more bars than churches in River Falls, Wisconsin, and most of them seem to be owned by men whose names begin with the letter J.
Though I now live only sixty miles away, I haven’t been back to River Falls in almost a decade. I spent most of my childhood there, but I don’t claim the town as my home. I don’t follow its sports teams or wear the colors of my high school alma mater. Containing ten thousand townies, six thousand bushy-tailed undergraduates, and a single homeless man named Artie, River Falls is every average, small-minded college town that people love to hate. Nestled on the banks of the Kinnikinnic River, River Falls is an hour’s drive from the urban center of Minneapolis. People from River Falls think they live in a suburb. Most Minneapolitans don’t even know River Falls exists.
The next day, as I drive east into town, I realize I remember more than I expected to. I pass Ryan’s house, where I once gave a terribly inept blowjob in exchange for Chinese food and being told that I was pretty. I pass Perkins, where I’d taken my girlfriend Rebecca on late-night dates and tried, usually unsuccessfully, to feel her up under the table. I pass Billy’s house, where I blacked out drunk for the first time on watery Rolling Rock and passed out topless in the driveway. And I pass the high school, now renovated to house the junior high. Here I have to stop the car for a minute and cry.
I graduated from high school before the days of anti-bullying campaigns, before teachers posted rainbow stickers on their doors to signify LGBT alliance, before celebrities made YouTube videos assuring students that it gets better. Rebecca and I would navigate the gauntlet of the west wing hallway to a rotating chorus of homophobic epithets. It was the first time in my school career that I hadn’t been entirely invisible to my classmates—so sometimes I almost liked the attention, the being-different-ness of it. Sometimes I would grab Rebecca’s hands, press her up against a locker and kiss her, our Chapstick-slick mouths slurping at each other. I would count the slurs as they were hurled our way and, even though it hurt, I’d smile a tiny bit to myself.
Coming out was no big production for me internally. I knew I liked girls in third grade when I mashed my Barbies into compromising positions in the cardboard box I termed the “Sexmobile.” In fourth grade I filled spiral ring notebooks with odes of girlish admiration to Mrs. Ferris, my teacher. And in seventh grade, instead of posters of contemporary male heartthrobs, I plastered my walls with magazine cut-outs featuring beautiful, exotic women with long hair—mostly vodka ads and fashion shoots.
But I knew I liked boys, too, because I spent most of eighth grade in a hopeless haze over dreamboat Levi and bad boy Zach, leaving anonymous love notes and fake roses from a craft store in their lockers. Most boys in my class weren’t aware I existed, but I let the ones that noticed me touch my hips awkwardly during slow songs at school dances. I liked it all. I wanted it all. I would take just about anything anyone was willing to give me.
So I came out to my band-geek friend Mike first, in tenth grade, as we were boarding the school bus to go home. You’re so gay, he said (as in the pejorative gay, referencing some teenage shenanigan I’d pulled, no doubt). And because I didn’t think there was anything unusual about that, I corrected him. Half-gay, I said. He grinned, and I grinned, and I figured that would be that.
I came out to my mother a few weeks later, in her car at a stop light. I’m bisexual, I told her. She retracted her head from its usual self-absorbed cloud long enough to glance at me. Oh? she said. That’s nice.
The trouble began when I met Rebecca. She was a grade below me, six inches taller, and perpetually clad in combat boots, black ruffled skirts, and Metallica T-shirts. On a field trip she confided to me that she liked girls. By the end of that week we were passing heart-shaped notes in the hallway.
Rebecca never wanted to go public with our relationship; in retrospect, considering our environment, she was a far more sensible girl than me. But I dragged us out of the closet anyway—grabbed for her hand and held it in the lunch line, snuck up on her at her locker and smacked her ass. By the time I realized the gay-bashing monster I’d awoken, it was too late.
On the two-year anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death—National Coming Out Day—I plastered the outside of my locker with a picture of Shepard and rainbow decals. Before noon, the picture had been torn down and crumpled on the floor, and my locker was smeared with big black letters inked in permanent marker: DYKE.
When a dye job gone bad left my hair a dirty dishwater green, I simply shaved it off. The next day, my scrawniest, most acne-ridden bully, Scott, threw a ball of wet clay at my back hard enough to bruise. Did you join the fucking army, lesbo? I held up my middle finger. I gave everyone the finger back then. Most of the time it was easier than trying to articulate a response to their ignorant comments.
Rebecca and I were walking targets for teenage cruelty. Once, someone smashed gum into her waist-length hair. Someone spit in my ear in the hallway and wedged spitballs into the vents of my locker. Someone threw a firecracker out a car window at Rebecca as she was walking home from school. And even after we broke up, after she stopped talking to me, after I swore to only date boys until I graduated and moved away, after I gave enough drunken, bored blowjobs to grant me the unofficial title of “school bicycle” because everyone had had a ride—even after all of that, the harassment continued.
At my senior banquet, I was voted the female “most likely to be on Jerry Springer,” an award that was consistently given to the black sheep of the graduating class. My male counterpart for the award was Dan, a boy who’d been held back twice and who’d been to rehab before he’d even turned eighteen. Oddly enough, Dan had always been accepting of my sexuality. Fuck ’em if you got ’em, he’d say to me, and we’d smoke cigarettes together in the school parking lot, crouching behind cars to block the wind and stares.
Ten years later, everything in River Falls looks slightly different and a little goofy, like someone twisted the kaleidoscope of my hellish adolescence and replaced a few nightmares with fun-house mirrors instead. The town has grown by perhaps three thousand people. They’re calling it a “city” now on the roadside signs that welcome visitors, but I know better. The downtown area hasn’t changed much—it’s still just one arterial booze-lined street—but the city limits now boast crops of identical modular homes that stretch to the horizon in eighteen shades of beige.
I find a strange comfort about River Falls, though, like I could shut my eyes and my body could do the steering from muscle memory alone. After my crying jag subsides into giggles, and then just occasional sighs, I light a cigarette and head for the river bluffs and waterfall on the west side of town. It’s breathtaking, desolate. I wander in the valley for a while, where the river is nothing more than a trickle through rocks. I hop between boulders and pebbles to keep my feet dry. I wonder how I lived here for eighteen years and never noticed the beauty of the place. Nobody is out here, and I wonder how everyone else could miss it, too.
I meet three old friends for a pre-reunion drink—a shot of something red and fruity for courage. They are, in truth, the only three people I really care to see. Ten years ago, Michelle was very pregnant and dating a boy who pressured her to drop out of school four months before graduation and forbade her to speak to her friends. Today, she’s a professional body piercer with a GED and two hyperactive, healthy daughters. Brian, formerly a chubby, lisping drama geek, dropped eighty pounds and now cooks five-star meals at a downtown Minneapolis restaurant. Krissy’s breasts have gotten suspiciously larger, but the change suits her, a formerly timid church mouse whose religious parents made her wear denim skirts and collared blouses to school.
We were all harassed in our own ways, by many of the same people, but my peers agree that Rebecca and I bore the brunt of it. I shrug and say that it doesn’t really matter anymore—I’m good, I’m happy. Maybe I’m lying. True, in the ten years since graduation, I’ve rarely thought of school bullies, rarely recalled teachers who stood by and let me be terrorized. But perhaps it’s not just because life has gotten so much better—it has, but it’s mostly just gotten more real, as life tends to do, and there are things to worry about that far eclipse name-calling and spitballs. Maybe that’s just the nature of adulthood.
The four of us finish our drinks and walk down the block to the reunion bar. It’s dumpy and far too dark. I’m bad with faces to begin with, and I find myself wishing for name tags. But it’s clear that this gathering was staged with minimal planning. There are no name tags—and no formalities, no surveys to fill in, no “Most Accomplished” or “Most Improved” awards to dole out. There’s only a cash bar and a pool table littered with old yearbooks and photographs. I sip another drink, sticking near my friends, until two ultra-tan blondes come crashing into me from behind.
“Alicia?” the shorter one squeals. “Oh my God!” She hugs me. I am not positive who she is, but when she pulls away, I recognize her as Megan, a girl I’d spoken to no more than five times our entire school career.
Megan gestures at her companion. “This is my girlfriend.” Blonde #2 shakes my hand and smiles limply. I am still looking at Megan. I tell her I had no idea she was gay, and good for her, and when did she know?
“Oh, ten years ago at least,” she says, averting her eyes to her feet.
I stare her down, my eyes on fire with disbelief. “Why didn’t you come out?” I ask. But what I really mean to ask her is why she never stood up for Rebecca and me, why she never said anything to discourage our bullies. Because Megan played volleyball, ran track, took photographs for the school newspaper. Megan partied like a teenage rockstar. Megan bought her clothes at the mall and never got government-subsidized free lunch. In other words, Megan was a girl with clout. One chastisement from her and my tormentors might have shut their mouths for good.
“I was scared, you know?” She speaks into her beer. “Everyone was so judgmental then. And my parents would have totally disowned me.”
I nod. Not because it’s okay, but because I understand. Or I’m starting to.
Scott, my former scrawny, acne-faced bully, swaggers dizzily in my direction. He is falling-over-himself wasted. “What’s up…Jessica?” he slurs at me, tipping his Coors Light to meet my glass.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “What’s your name?” No use, I realize, in giving him the satisfaction of knowing I remember him. After regaling me with tales of his life in River Falls as a forklift operator, he stumbles off to have another drink.
I came to the reunion for some kind of closure, but as I drive away from the small town of my youth, a strange sadness comes over me. I wonder if closure is too much to ask for. I’ll never know how things could have been different if Megan had spoken up, or if I’d kept myself sequestered in the closet until college. I’ll never know if Scott felt remorse, if any of my bullies did, if the waves of karmic retribution ever crashed over them. I suppose that’s not the important thing. Maybe I ought to simply be grateful for surviving, for getting out, for thriving. Maybe life really does get better. Maybe that’s more than enough.
ALICIA CATT lives and teaches writing in the center of the polar vortex—also known as southern Minnesota. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Yemassee, The Pinch, Word Riot, and others. She is the editor of Pentimento. She’s an extraordinarily cheap date.