Eighteen years old, she had never looked more beautiful; her Dad struggled to hold back tears while her Mom glowed with pride, an awkward, heavily-photographed living-room-parting-scene that resembled a thousand other living-room-parting-scenes taking place across the city that night, prom night. But in her house, it must have been more poignant, easy to imagine the parents seeing their little girl with dangling red curls bounding upstairs in her Nike sweats, then to reappear two hours later as a full-grown woman. Her hair in a classic bun revealing the loveliness of her face and the luminescence of her eyes, shoulders bare over a simple, perfect black gown, she was 18 going on 28, and she was positively radiant.
Her beau wore the obligatory tux with an off-the-rack fit, his thick brillo-esque hair organized in a manner that approached combing, and he was less than radiant—18 going on 19, he was suddenly aware that this classmate with whom he sat in Mrs. Evans’ composition class mocking the teacher’s struggle with the letter L (“oh, so cwose , Mrs. Evans”), this girl he chatted up at a keg party where each pretended to be too drunk to know to stop kissing, now sat across from him as a starlet, a gilded thing with previously unseen grace. He stared at her when she wasn’t looking and marveled at his good fortune, stared at the table when she looked his way. He ached to impress her.
So he was seriously second-guessing his decision to take her to The Macaroni Grill. Dressed to the nines, they were seated in a booth between a family with a toddler who found peek-a-boo endlessly enjoyable and a collection of t-shirted contractors vociferously debating the virtues of India Pale Ale. I sat in the booth across the aisle, and while this is mostly speculation on my part (their conversation was drowned out by the beer debate), I could tell by the body language—his fidgeting, her not-exactly-reassuring patting of his hand—that there was room for improvement that evening.
I can make these assessments with some certainty because I have sat at my share of linen-covered tables in an ill-fitting tuxedo, looking across at a lovely young woman, hoping for good things. Though in my case, almost every recollection of my prom events features some sort of ridiculousness that made them not “the greatest night of my life”, but uncomfortable disasters from which I could not extricate myself quickly enough.
It started ominously as a freshman, an age when children masquerade as adults to the delight of the over-priced formal wear industry. Tracy* brought me a boutonniere, pinned it high on my lapel (if I lowered my head to listen closely, I could feel it brush my jaw) and we were off to the dance. An hour into the faux gala, a friend asked, “What’s up with your face?” I had no idea what that phrase could mean, so I stepped into the cinderblock bathroom to see a nickel-sized red rash on the edge of my jawbone; 30 minutes later, my fortunes had multiplied—the spot was now the size of a quarter; half an hour after that, it was a half-dollar-sized blemish with several short, splotchy red tendrils exploring the underside of my jaw. I had never before, nor ever since, had an allergic reaction to anything, but by the time “Freebird” rolled around, I was so self-conscious about the rash that any scenarios of good night kisses were out of my head unless she had confessed to wearing Benadryl lipstick.
That sufficiently soured me on proms, but during my junior year, the best friend of my best friend’s girlfriend had no date (her thug-in-training boyfriend refused to don a “monkey suit”) so I was urged to ask Anne. Anne was hot, in that kind-you-don’t-take-home-to-mother way, and while I knew I had no hope of getting close enough to the hive to sample the honey, hope springs eternal in the loins of a 16 year old boy, so I threw caution to the wind and showed up at her door in my Strictly Formal rental. I arrived to find her drunk, a condition that was quite unbecoming on her. We went to dinner, where she bitched incessantly about anything and everything (she was so nasty that the waitress took to openly mocking her with a clever wit that, while mostly going over Anne’s head, made me ache to spend the rest of the night with the waitress, not my venomous date). At the prom, she provoked loud, pointless yelling matches with a variety of her friends, and within an hour stormed out, demanding to be taken home. (Gladly, thank you.) When we arrived at her house, she complained of hunger (she was too busy kvetching at dinner to actually eat), so I got into my ’74 Plymouth Fury and drove through McDonald’s in my tux, returning with a bag of burgers and fries to find Anne’s junior-hoodlum boyfriend in the driveway, sans monkey suit, while his cackling, Disney-esque red-neck sidekick whispered helpful advice like “Hit him, man.” Standing there on the blacktop in a formal suit with a bag of fast food in my hand, I think the boyfriend sensed that I no longer valued the prize for which he was prepared to fight. I handed him the bag, wished him well, and got back into the car. Anne was never beautiful to me again.
A year later, my senior prom, I planned a no-show because that night, my then-girlfriend from another town was attending her own formal with a lifelong friend. Home that evening, I got a call from my friend Craig: “Kristen doesn’t have a date tonight, but she really wants to go to the prom. Want to go?” I had had a crush on Kristen since 8th grade, had adored her from a distance though never mustered the courage to ask her out. Craig worked for a singing telegram company, a firm that had tuxedos in the closet, so I raced down to their office to meet the folks in my party. While being fitted with a tux—all-white with a satin pearl bowtie and matching cummerbund, I looked like a televangelist for a no-budget cable network—I learned the facts that led to my invitation: Kristen’s boyfriend was in reform school; her second choice was forbidden to attend by his parents because of his recent arrest; the third, the fourth, I can’t recall, I only know that I was the fifth, and the dynamic was unmistakable: she had no intention of missing her senior prom, and didn’t give a damn who escorted her in as long as she made an appearance. Craig, realizing that he had invited me into a rather dicey venture, offered me a steady diet of the beer and weed, and self-conscious about dressed like a stunt double for Frankie Avalon, I accepted every offer. When we arrived at the dance, my friends were quite surprised to see me, and even more surprised to find me arriving in what one called “the most phosphorescent suit I have ever seen.” While at the dance, Kristen’s suspected disinterest was confirmed when she spent the entire dance with her back turned toward me, openly flirting with the band’s keyboard player.**
Had that night ended when the band did, it would have merely been an awkward, enjoyable story, but Craig’s girlfriend thought it would be great to drive to the coast (90 minutes away) and watch the sunrise. It had seemed like an impromptu idea, but in fact, everyone else in the party had previously known that they were going to the coast and had packed a change of clothes. Thus, there we were, three couples in the car: Craig was up front with his date and Kristen, the back seat occupied by a very amorous couple who punctuated sentences with loud smooches and me, the only one still in formal wear. I had barely spoken to Kristen up to that point, and would speak to her even less as the night went on, in part because I was hitting the weed like an asthmatic uses an inhaler during pollen season, and in part because Kristen didn’t care one bit that I was there. She cussed her boyfriend for his stint in the big house, and silently, I cussed right along with her. We finally arrived home at about 7 a.m. and my folks said cheerfully, “that must have been some night.”
“You’d think so, huh? But no. Goodnight.”
Oh, and bonus points: I found out later that the aforementioned girlfriend who had attended her own formal that night had consummated the evening in traditional prom-night fashion with her “friend” that night. Even the proms that I didn’t attend managed to cause me misery.
Such was my impression of proms. I would have vowed never to go again if I had suspected such a vow were necessary, which explains why it was with great trepidation that I would later accept a post-graduation invitation to accompany my younger girlfriend Kassie to her senior prom. But Kassie was fabulous—she concocted an elaborate ruse for our dinner that turned out to be Kentucky Fried Chicken on her parent’s boat (the best prom meal I had ever eaten), she was absolutely radiant in a fabulous black 20’s-style flapper dress (the most beautiful woman I had ever accompanied to a prom), she danced divinely, made me feel like the luckiest guy in the room, and provided a night full of wonderful memories.
In fact, I barely recall it as a prom at all.
* all last names have been removed to protect the innocent, though there are few innocents in this essay.
** The band was Patty and the Executives, whose lead singer went on to be semi-famous folk musician Patty Griffin. If I ever get to meet her, I’m going to kill any shot of a conversation by starting with, “Damn, you do a mean Quarterflash!”