Little Rock is different now than it used to be. That’s what you’re supposed to say when you get older, and things change, and you talk about how hard it was before, but of course I found myself saying it a week after my 34th birthday (in other words - not that old yet), back in Little Rock for ten days of summer.
When I was a teenager in Little Rock, there was nowhere to go. There was one coffee shop, but it was in Hillcrest, and you would probably have to parallel park. There was a snowcone stand, a bagel shop, one mall. Sometimes we’d hike Pinnacle mountain or illegally climb on top of office buildings after dark or wander outside the public library, slipping our bare legs into the fountain. Mostly we went to church.
Now, if you need a third place to hang out, there’s a Starbucks every few miles, a gourmet snow cone store, a bourgeoning local food scene, Two Rivers park, triple the number of shops and movie theaters and local restaurants there used to be. So much has changed.
Somewhere in between that Little Rock of the nineties and the city now is the Little Rock of 2004, the home I returned to after ten months in an underdeveloped province in Southeast Asia. I'd spent nearly a year teaching English in a city where I had been one of four non-Asians. So at first everything about Little Rock was surreal: the wide, shady streets, the cereal aisle that went on and one, the tall, short, fat, thin, black, brown, tan and pale bodies, the clean sidewalks and lush parks.
I was somewhere in between, too -somewhere in between my melancholy, high-achieving teenage self and my future melancholy, soft and mushy mother self. I was intoxicated, that June, by what it seemed God had done the previous year, and by the green, and the homemade ice cream, and the sight of one of my best friends, Anna, who had just finished her first year of med school. I was intoxicated by a chance to leave my serious, missionary existence aside for a while and go hear live music.
I turned 23 on my second day back in the States, and I left all my long skirts and linen pants and sensible mary janes in the suitcase, and put on a fluttery shirt and lipstick and went to Juanita’s.
The bar was back and to the right, if I am remembering it correctly, and the stage was to the left, and in between there were two tiers of seating at small iron tables. Yo La Tengo was getting ready to go on, and I was pretty sure my friend Jack would think it was cool that I was hearing them, when I emailed him later to tell him.
Some guy intercepted me and Anna on our way to the bar and brought us complimentary frozen drinks. He was the band’s manager. Did we flirt? We probably did. We didn’t know any better; we were doing what southern girls do. We took our drinks and stood and swayed and danced a little to the music. My other favorite med student showed up and stood close to me, teased me. A week or two later I’d contemplate kissing him, because I’d only ever kissed one person, and it had always been serious. I was a girl who needed to be kissed lightly and frivolously, who needed to be a body as well as a soul. I wanted an uncomplicated kiss, but I wasn’t sure his would be. And what I really wanted was Jack, whose emails were sweet with understated humor, who seemed both too good and too cool for me to ever end up with.
So I just swayed, young and free, beautiful and grateful, and thought about the email I'd send him later.
Juanita’s has moved. That’s the first thing I realized last month when my librarian friend Laura and I headed downtown after our bowls of Vietnamese noodles. It hasn’t moved far, but the whole feeling is different, or maybe I’m just different. We buy tickets at the door, and the bouncers tell us to “Smile!” and I half-joke back, trying to be polite, while Laura puts on her “don’t tell me to smile” face. Later I wish I had done the same instead of slipping back into southern girl mode.
We sit at a cafe table on the floor below the stage, sipping icy drinks and people-watching, but the crowd is thin, only 30 or 40 in all. The light sunburn of every afternoon spent at the neighborhood pool has left my skin taught and pink. A skeleton mariachi band painted on the wall leers over us. Laura teaches me about geocaching and we talk about how different Little Rock is now than it was when we were in high school. Denison Witmer comes on stage quietly, and starts playing songs from his self-titled album, and I’m listening, and I’m happy, but I’m mostly thinking of Jack.
We saw Denison together in 2006, in some horrible adolescent punk venue Northeast of LA. When it was over, we told him that we were planning to use an instrumental version of his song “Are You a Dreamer” in our wedding. He’d been cute and overwhelmed, almost frantic, and started handing us free copies of all the cds at the table.
Jack is not with us at Juanita’s -- he’s working on a PhD in Pennsylvania, and it's been weeks since I've seen him, but Juanita's makes me think of him. When Denison plays, I can't help but think about dating in California, and walking into our wedding ceremony, and the way we used to sing "Catholic Girl" to Rosie when she was a baby, and how Jack always lets me take more than I need.
Juanita’s has changed. Little Rock has changed. I’m not the person I used to be.
Still, here I am, sitting at Juanita’s, thinking about what Jack will say when I email him later.