It’s a warm June night. Cathy and Patty are beautiful and sexy in their prom dresses, while Mike and I feel like awkward boys in our rented tuxedos. I park my father’s Ford Fairlane, cutting off the engine and the lights. “Are you ready?” I ask Mike in the back seat. “Yup, you bet. Let’s go.” The girls have no idea what’s going to happen next.
We told them weeks ago we had a surprise planned for prom night, but so far things have gone as expected — just a conventional, run-of-the-mill prom. First there was the dinner, then the dance, and finally the leisurely drive to the reservoir dam, noted for its fine view of the water below and the night sky above — and also as the favorite spot for teens to park, get drunk, and have sex. Cathy and Patty have lost interest in our surprise. It’s midnight on prom night and we’re parking at the reservoir: big deal, some surprise.
Mike and I get out of the car now and open the trunk. Everything is carefully packed. First comes the carpet, spread out on a concrete platform offering a splendid view of the moonlit water. Then folding chairs and a table, a tablecloth, candles, flowers, a vase. Four full settings of china, silver, wine glasses, cloth napkins. And finally the food: fresh French bread, chilled wine in a bucket, gourmet cheeses, special olives and caviar, artichoke hearts, smoked Irish salmon — all served on beautiful platters with fine silver serving spoons and knives.
Cathy and Patty are thrilled. By the time we pour the wine and serve the food, Mike and I are no longer boys. This success is our first real taste of manhood, and we smile, all of us, toasting each other on a perfect summer night.
The year is 1966.
The week before the junior-senior prom, my father asked me what I was going to wear. I said that I didn’t have a date and didn’t want to go anyway, but he replied, “If you had a really beautiful dress, I think you would feel like going.” Our family had no money for a prom dress; most of my school clothes were hand-me-downs from the neighbors, and Mother still wore blouses dating back to when she and Dad were first married.
My father said, “I want you to sit right down and draw me a picture of the most beautiful dress you can imagine.” He sounded serious. I drew a Grecian-style dress with a cummerbund at the waist and a piece of soft fabric draped freely from one shoulder across the neckline — too sophisticated and flirty for me, but still the most beautiful dress in the world.
I showed my father the sketch, a little ashamed of my daring. “Fine!” he said, carefully folding the piece of paper and putting it in his pocket. “Get your jacket; we’re going into town.”
As my father parked the pickup in front of the expensive women’s clothing store, I calmed myself, thinking there was no way we would find that dress. “We’d like to see your best party dresses,” he announced to the clerk. I tried on all the dresses in my size, stepping out of the fitting room each time to get Dad’s opinion. The dresses all looked terrible, but I enjoyed having his attention.
Then the clerk approached us, holding up a sleeveless, light blue chiffon dress. “This one is from the wedding collection,” she said. I almost fainted — it looked exactly like the picture I had drawn. “Let’s try that one on,” my father said with new enthusiasm.
My hands were shaking as I undid the zipper. I looked at the price tag: eighty dollars — enough to buy Christmas presents for the whole family. I didn’t know whether I wanted the dress to fit or not. But when I took a deep breath and looked in the mirror, I saw that it was perfect.
When we arrived home, I modeled the dress for the family. My little sisters cheered and danced around me, but my mother seemed about to cry, and I began to feel I had made a terrible mistake. Finally she said that the dress was lovely, but something about it made me look fat.
The next day I sweated in silence as Mother pinched together the loose fabric at my waist and consulted with the dressmaker: “You see, her hips stick out quite a bit, and it accentuates her swayback. Do you think there’s some way to take in the waistline without drawing attention to the hips?” By the time the thing was ready, I was so embarrassed that I swore I’d never wear it.
But my father put his foot down: I had to go to the prom. “Once you get there, you’ll have a good time,” he said.
“In such a beautiful dress, you’ll have all the boys asking you to dance.” When I told him that none of the boys would be caught dead asking me to dance, my father declared that he’d be my date, and he would dance with me. I said that if he went I would just die.
On prom night my father bought me an orchid corsage and drove me to the prom, but he didn’t come in. I wore the blue chiffon dress. Dad told me I looked beautiful and that he loved me very much. I felt lumpy and unattractive. All evening I sat next to a chubby girlfriend who, like most of the girls, was wearing a dress her mother had made. Neither of us was asked to dance even once, and she was too busy trying to look fascinating even to talk to me.
At 10:30 my father drove up to the gym and I hurried out, relieved to be getting out of there at last. “Did you have a good time?” Dad asked. Suddenly I felt more humiliated than ever, and I refused to answer. He couldn’t understand why — after all, he had bought me the most beautiful dress in the world.
At eighteen, my continued virginity felt like a sign of social awkwardness. My buddies were having sex with their girlfriends, while I was having difficulty even calling up a girl on the telephone. I wanted a bona fide girlfriend — someone with whom I could share lunch, romance, feelings, and fun times, and then sex. And I wanted this all to happen before I left high school.
Then I met Andrea. She struck up a conversation with me at a citywide high-school dance, and we talked all evening. I even got her phone number. She was beautiful, flirtatious — and fifteen.
I called to ask her for a date, and she said yes. On the way to her house, I thought of my high-school prom, a month away: I’d ask her to go, and that would guarantee our dating for at least a month. She agreed, and I thought to myself, If only she weren’t a freshman; at least she looks like a senior.
On our first date, I parked my father’s car and we necked. It was new to me, but as she wrapped her legs tightly around my waist, I could tell it was not new to her. She asked, “Have you ever gone all the way?”
After some hesitation I stammered, “No, have you?”
“What would you say if I asked you to go all the way with me?” I said.
After a few more smooches she replied, “I’d probably say no.” I felt a strange relief.
Her parents allowed her to go out with me once a week. Most of our conversations revolved around the prom, and we always wound up necking in the car. Every time I would think, Tonight’s the night, but every time my conscience would reply, She’s only fifteen. You would be taking unfair advantage of her. I’d counter, How can I take unfair advantage of her when she’s obviously much more experienced? But my conscience would always win.
The prom was our last date. By then it was obvious to both of us that our only shared interest was in each other’s bodies. And since every parking session ended the same way, it all seemed pointless.
Looking back, I wonder if I might have lost my virginity to Andrea if I had been more aggressive. But I realize now that having a conscience mattered more than whether or not I was a virgin at my high-school graduation.
I was in love with only one boy from seventh grade to my junior year in college. Though I dated others, none could compare to him. P. was brilliant, handsome, athletic, funny, fun loving, and popular. And he adored me — like a sister.
For three years in high school, my dream was that he would invite me to the prom. He was the best dancer in the whole school. I wanted to be his date, his true love. But we had never even kissed.
In tenth grade, the prom came around and he didn’t ask. Neither of us went. It was the same story in eleventh grade. In twelfth grade there was a minor dance three months before the prom — a formal to which the girls asked the boys. I asked him, he accepted, and that evening we were the star couple. The school photographer snapped a great close-up of the two of us, beaming. It was blown up and displayed in the glass case in the school lobby for weeks.
As prom time approached, I waited. Finally, at the eleventh hour, I realized P. wasn’t going to come through. I sat on a bench in the school lobby, bitterly rubbing the toe of my tennis shoe against the linoleum, and poured out my sob story to a wiry underclassman named C. “He’s not going to invite me, and now I don’t have anybody to go with,” I said. That evening I got a call from C. I accepted his invitation.
No sooner had I hung up the phone than P. called. “You’d like to go to the senior prom with me, wouldn’t you?” he said, as if it were obvious that I would. In my most detached voice, I said, “Well, it’s a little late to ask. Besides, I already have a date.”
There was a long silence. He was disappointed, but only because he would miss out on a great chance to socialize. Finally he asked me if I knew another girl he might call. I said, “Everybody’s got a date by now, but let me just think.” I was able to set him up with a girlfriend of mine whose fiancé was away in the navy.
Once we got to college, P. and I did have a brief affair. Eventually he introduced me to his boyfriend.
I am happy now about the way it turned out. But when I was sixteen, the ache I felt for P. was nearly unbearable. At least I had my girlfriends to talk to about my longings. P. couldn’t tell a soul about his — not even me, his best friend.
Lisa Howell Neal
Pittsboro, North Carolina
I was sixteen when I fell in love with Joanne; she was fourteen. We exchanged rings and talked of marriage.
Then one day while we were leaving school, I accidentally shut the door on an underclassman. He challenged me to a fight in front of her, and I backed down. “Why didn’t you fight him?” she said. “I’m so embarrassed!” I can still feel the humiliation.
A few months later, Joanne and I broke up. I began hanging out with the guys again, and she began dating someone else.
A year went by and suddenly people were talking about getting dates for the prom. The guys and I mocked the idea of going. In truth, we doubted that anyone would go with us.
We spent prom night cruising downtown, drinking beer and pretending to have a good time. We stopped at the local drive-in, and who should pull in next to us but Joanne with her prom date and another couple. “Dan, look at the jerk with Joanne,” one of the guys said. “Are you going to let him take your first love to the prom?” I went over to pick a fight with him. We walked to the deserted lot next to the drive-in. This time Joanne was pleading with us not to fight. But I pounded his head and face, straddling him on the ground while Joanne pulled my hair and screamed. Finally, covered with blood and mud, he gave up. I was glad I had ruined their evening. Someone bought me a cigar, and that night I was king.
Since middle school I’d smoked pot during lunch, laughed at the cheerleaders, and boycotted the football games. By the time I reached my junior year in high school, I was known for my anti-school spirit, for being calloused and tough. But although I made fun of school socials, I wanted to make an exception for the prom. My change of heart occurred when I imagined myself in my uncertain future: I’d be getting together with some women friends to watch our children or wash our Harleys. We’d be talking about high school, and each of them would have a tear in her eye remembering her glorious prom. But I’d just quietly rinse the suds off my bike or wipe the drool off my kid’s chin, not having any prom memories of my own.
So I talked my too-old-for-me boyfriend into going. I put on a short, black dress with a plunging neckline and black-lace trim, black pantyhose, black shoes, and three earrings in each ear. But my boyfriend never showed up. Determined to go to the prom anyway, I hitchhiked to the high school. I was met at the door by the gym teacher and the principal, who were there to turn away anyone smelling of alcohol, improperly attired, or without a date. I fit all three descriptions. It was the first time I’d ever tried to participate in a school activity, and here I was being turned away.
Angry, I hitchhiked to town and started to drink. By the time I got home the next morning, one of my earrings was gone, my shoes were muddy, my pantyhose were missing, and I had an extra fifty dollars in my pocket.
My high school wouldn’t let me go to the prom. I’d been kicked out because my hair was too long, even though I was about to receive a scholarship. I was kind of confused that week.
There was a girl I fantasized about from South Carolina. Two days before the prom I asked her if she wanted to go: I thought we’d just crash it. She said, “I’ve been waiting for a month for you to ask, but it’s too late now. I don’t have time to get ready.” I said, “What’s to get ready for?” She never talked to me again.
I don’t like proms. There should be some alternative. We aren’t all prom queens (or kings) and too many of us get stuck trying to make it happen for the rest of our lives, or feeling bad about having been left out, or else — if we were really popular — seeing it as our most alive moment.
The prom is like heaven: something false to aspire to that makes us act like somebody else’s idea of an adult.
I’ve dated a prom queen or two, but I only loved one. One night after a long, sweet drive from the mountains, she told me, “Well, I know one thing. Whoever I marry will not know me as well as you do. I couldn’t stand that.”
Is that an indictment or what?
Silk Hope, North Carolina
I saw an old boyfriend at the market today. Thirty-three years ago, he was my date for the prom.
I remember being breathless the first time we talked and my knees turning to sponge whenever he was near. I remember feeling his hand on the back of my neck as we walked from the movies to his car. I remember my sixteenth birthday and the song on the radio of his ’56 Chevy — “You’re sixteen, you’re beautiful, and you’re mine” — the night pressing in on the car windows and the low glow of the dash, us cozy inside and him reaching over and covering my hand with his. “This song reminds me of you,” he said.
The prom was on a gray, damp, cold November day. My dress was emerald green satin with a sweetheart neckline, cap sleeves, and a full skirt held out by five net petticoats. I had satin shoes dyed green to match the dress, silk stockings, and a garter belt. The material swishing against my skin made me feel womanly.
Dinner was at an upscale place. We knew it was upscale because the oversized, heavyweight, cream-colored menus had no prices on them. There were linen napkins and sparkling water glasses and regal-looking waiters in crisp, black-and-white uniforms. But our upscale restaurant was also dimly lighted and cold, and it smelled of stale smoke and spilled drinks.
Outside, the misting rain turned my hair spray into saltlike crystals that made my curls droop. Dark rain spots covered my dress, and my five petticoats hung limply beneath it. My feet were stained green by the shoe dye.
We didn’t make it to the prom that night. We broke up in the parking lot of our upscale cafe.
This afternoon when I saw him, I couldn’t recall why we had broken up or why we hadn’t talked since 1961. So I said, “Well, hello. How are you?”
Sedro Woolley, Washington
Everyone knew I wouldn’t make an appearance at the prom. It just wasn’t my style. I wanted to go, but I couldn’t dance and didn’t have the nerve to ask anyone. Whom would I have asked, anyway? I was just a bookworm who had never dated.
The night of the prom came, and there I was at home, feeling guilty that I wasn’t a part of it. I wanted to see what it was like, so I walked to the school gymnasium. From outside the music wasn’t that loud, and no one was around. Suddenly I thought, What if someone sees me? The idea made me uncomfortable, so I returned home.
Back in my room, I became engrossed in a television show and later fell asleep reading science fiction.
The next morning I woke up early and, still curious, walked back to the gymnasium. The back doors were standing open. Inside I could see plastic palm trees, the stage where the band had played, tables draped with streamers, and scattered paper plates and cups. Pizza boxes had been stacked next to the doors where I stood. I opened one and found half a pizza inside. Its pepperonis stared blankly back at me.
Even though I wasn’t particularly hungry, I picked up a slice and began to munch. So this is what the prom must have tasted like, I thought. Sitting there on the steps in the morning sun, eating cold pizza, I felt like the loneliest, weirdest guy that ever was.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
My junior year of high school was the year my father died, and the year for my class to put on the prom. I was placed in charge of refreshments, and I enlisted my best friend Jenny to help me order blue punch, specially embossed napkins, and the best cookies in town. I wasn’t dating anyone at the time, but I thought the prom would be different. As it turned out, neither of us was invited.
On the day of the prom, Jenny and I, dressed in jeans and old shirts, lugged all the refreshments up three flights at the town courthouse. After organizing the tables, punch bowls, and cookies, we slipped downstairs just in time to meet the first couples — boys in tuxedos and girls in cotton formals — holding hands as they climbed the stairs. We hurried to Jenny’s car. Once inside it, I burst into tears. I cried the whole way back to my house, where our mothers were sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee, ready to console us.
We did go to the after-prom party, which was open to everyone whether they had a date or not. My mom was chaperoning from midnight until 2:00 A.M. I left the party to go for a walk and bumped into her on the commons alone. She leaned against the wall and started to cry. All the other chaperones were couples, she said.
At sixteen, I had a small taste of what my mother would face for the rest of her life.
She can drive herself, but she’s asked me to go with her to pick out a dress. I trail my daughter as she carries a billowy bouquet of satins, silks, sequins, and velvets to the dressing room. I wait outside the door. While other mothers pace, hover, advise, I stand still, practicing a yoga position: the tree. One leg off the ground, I try to balance. I watch the gowns slip over my daughter’s head, hear the crisp zip, and see her feet turning this way and that, examining. A balloon of purple silk, a cloud of green velvet, a canopy of red satin — the fabrics rustle and sigh as they cascade over her.
Then the door opens and out steps a provocative woman in a chanteuse’s black dress, a dress that whispers of secrets, of midnights and throaty laughter. She smooths the cloth over her hips, this child whose heart once beat with mine, and, gazing intently at me — her mother, her mirror — she says, “Well, how do I look?”