There are various ways to ask someone to prom. A popular method, when I was at school, was to write on a girl’s car with shoe polish: ‘Prom? There were notes on locker doors, ‘Prom?’ Surprise home attacks — complete with parental involvement—where an upperclassman would leap out from a cupboard/wardrobe/box with balloons and yell, ‘Prom?’ at a terrified perspective date. Then there were the announcements made in morning chapel when a senior boy, after prayers, strode to the lectern and spoke ‘Prom?’ into the microphone. At this point, a pretty senior girl would, inevitably, nod from her pew as her friends pulled her into one-armed hugs: ‘Told you so’ they mouthed as the room erupted into cheers. Applause wasn’t normally allowed in chapel, but then the rules are different for prom.
I went to high school in Texas. And prom was a big deal. A rite of passage. A coming of age. A milestone. As such, after Christmas the department stores filled with rails of bedazzled satin dresses. Full–length, knee-length, one-shoulder, strapless, blue, green, yellow, red, white, purple, brown, black: the garments hung in silk rows like headless women. Shifting lightly in the air-conditioning, the dresses performed a ghostly line dance. Prom magazines were an overwhelming presence on newsstands and local hairdressers offered deals on Prom Night Hair. The make-up counters in the mall advertised Perfect Prom Faces with eager assistants who offered tutorials with lipstick, blush and foundation. The local nail salon sold group packages for Prom Night Nails with a guarantee that, ‘Even after the party, your nails will still shine!’ Then, on May weekends when the various high school proms took place, limos rolled slowly through town with seniors hanging out the windows.
Before we go any further, you should know that I lacked the straight, white teeth that so many of my classmates were blessed with through their Texan genes. And years of orthodontia. I also lacked the blonde hair that many of my classmates were blessed with through their Texan genes. And years of dye. We had moved from England to Texas my sophomore year—two years before prom. The girls I went to high-school with had an ease about them: the kind of southern charm that lingered like jet stream in their wake. Pristine and polite, these girls crisscrossed my horizon. With their monogrammed L.L Bean backpacks worn low, at first I knew them only as their initials: ACC, ECD and JEV. Knee socks, Saddle Oxfords and hair ribbons: their glossy manes hung around perpetually tanned shoulders—ponytails hanging loose and fine and free.
And there were school-wide donuts distributed on Friday mornings before big football games. And boys had the option of wearing cowboy boots as part of their uniform. There were pep rallies and BBQs. Homecoming Kings. Homecoming Queens. Letter jackets and yearbooks—pickup trucks in the parking lot. Varsity Teams. Junior Varsity Teams. ‘How ya’ll doin today?’ During my first football game, I stood in the bleachers and listened to the smack of hot plastic on plastic. The ringing cowbells, the steady beat of the drum and the screaming crowd punctuated, every-so-often, by the buzzer. And the scoreboard lit up. ‘I don’t understand the rules,’ I said to the girl beside me. She couldn’t hear over the crowd and handed me a pompom. So I learned the Pledge of Allegiance and put my hand over heart when the national anthem played: all the time wondering if these words meant anything to the people around me.
It always looked so easy for everyone else. For my peers, walking in groups and talking with relaxed shoulders appeared effortless. The kids in my grade knew what to with their hands—on their books, around their backpack straps, on their hips. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. Or my shoulders. Or my knees. My friends could tell stories during passing periods without breaking a sweat. But my conversation was nervous if it strayed beyond the contents of the binders and notebooks we carried. I decided, early-on, that if I couldn’t look like these girls, then I would try to make myself smart. To this end, I’ve lost track of how many birthday parties I missed in order to revise. There were slumber parties I ducked out of because of history projects. And day trips were sacrificed in order to finish extra credit assignments. And eventually, people learned not to ask. But by missing those parties, phone calls and slumbers, I missed a step. I missed the moment when everyone else developed a vocabulary for the world. Now, I knew plenty of words. But I couldn’t ask Joan about her newest boyfriend without blushing. Or talk to Greg about his sick father without stuttering. In exchanges that strayed beyond homework, I didn’t sound smart, but fumbled my words as I reached for what I wanted to say. ‘I’m sorry’ came out as, ‘Have you done the reading for Irwin’s class on Monday?’ And ‘Forgive me,’ was translated into, ‘I think my spell-check may be on a mission to sabotage my essay.’ And so I stayed in the library with its silent sections and designated speaking areas.
Before we go any further, you should know that I was the only girl in my high school class not invited to prom. In truth, I held out little hope for a note on my locker, and never suspected a boy to jump out of my wardrobe. As such, I didn’t think much of my datelessness. But the week before the dance, my English teacher, thinking that everyone in our grade had been asked, casually mentioned, at the end of a class, that she, ‘Always worried about girls who didn’t get asked to prom.’ There was an embarrassed murmur among my friends and I busied myself with the contents of my backpack: English books, pencils, economics homework, pens, a corrected history test and a rulebook for safe driving that my father had given me the week before when I passed my test.
Up until this point, I had been adamant about not going to prom. I refused to shop for a dress. I didn’t want to buy new makeup. I listened to ‘Phantom of the Opera’ on repeat—identifying with Michael Crawford like I had never connected with anyone before. But, the morning of prom, I laid out my best skirt and told my mother I needed to go to the mall to find a shirt. Around the fiftieth playback of ‘Music of the Night,’ I figured that my absence would be more conspicuous than my presence: seventeen years of logic told me that it would be worse to be the only girl who didn’t go to prom, rather than the only girl who didn’t have a date. This is how I found myself in a skirt, and on the outskirts of prom. And, because of this position, I was a witness to the disappearance of 99 children.
There are rules concerning all high school pre-dance photography, and these regulations enforced with military precision at prom. Parents stand in a semi-circle around a group of teenagers and brandish cameras, camcorders and tissues. There are group pictures. Pictures of all the girls. Pictures of all the boys. Pictures with parents. Pictures with your date’s parents. And then date pictures. These photo-ops are carefully timed (‘We should aim for sunset!’) and orchestrated so the results are fit to display on kitchen fridges and in college dorm-rooms for years to come. Look here! Look there! Turn this way! Everyone laugh! Okay, now a silly one. A serious one! Mitchell! Mitchell stop looking off to the side. Meeting places before prom are chosen for the most pleasing aesthetic: the house with the best staircase or back yard—the most beautiful tress or largest fireplace. In the photos from prom night, I’m on the bottom step of a large sweeping staircase. And I’m blushing. The whole time. Through a whole roll of film—my face remains cranberry. In every shot, my hands change position. Couples to my left. Couples to the right. Couples behind. Boys who I had only ever seen give high-fives in the hallways, gingerly placed their hands around the waists of their dates, or locked shoulders with their friends. Like this? They called to the gaggle of parents, unsure of the protocol for touching a girl’s ball gown. The girls, meanwhile, elevated their chins and tossed ringlets over their shoulders: aware of how the camera would catch their faces in the light. Prom photos are the self-conscious crescendo of high school.
The theme for our Senior Prom was James Bond 007: Mission Impossible. Tuxes for boys. Bond Girl dresses for the ladies. As the limos pulled up, the revellers stepped into the warm spring air. It was the kind of night that was almost there—just on the cusp of summer. Those less-certain girls wobbled on their high shoes. And boys put their hands to their hair only to lower their fingers with eyes squinting in concentration—recalling their mother’s instructions not to ‘mess up’ the careful parting done by the comb of the barber this morning. But they were all beautiful—on their thin ankles and polished, pointed black shoes. Standing against the pink clouds and clutching arms, it was a fine second of possibility. Nothing more was expected of these 17 and 18 year-olds in that moment than to be at dance. ‘We’ve arrived!’ A friend squealed, clutching my arm and looking around the ballroom when we got inside: ‘This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’
Sipping mocktails, the assembled crowd buzzed like a swarm of bees. It was all: ‘Look at your dress’ and ‘Oh my gosh’ and ‘I love your hair’ and ‘How were y’alls pictures?’ The day before prom had been a regular Friday. Our grade had sat together in morning assembly. Taken pop quizzes in classrooms. Eaten pizza in the cafeteria. But now, suddenly, voices were higher. The flick of a wrist—the flash of a diamond bracelet borrowed for the evening. Pocket squares were adjusted—‘Is it still straight?’ And clean-shaven chins were elevated in deep laughter that rumbled outward as the boys shook hands and slapped backs. ‘Good to see you! Good to see you!’ It was as if everyone had been apart for years, and were now greeting each other in joyful reunion. ‘How are you doin?’ The girl who sat beside me in Chemistry said, pulling me into a hug—‘I haven’t seen you in forever!’ I had heard this type of language before: when my parents threw dinner parties or we attended a function for my father’s work at Head Office. It was polite, it was gracious, it was professional, it was formal—it was mimicry of what we all knew we should be saying. Gone were the questions of homework or boys or the game result or the gossip about the freshman. For weeks, my datelessness had been the topic of conversation both to, and around me. But now it was unacknowledged with a fierceness that bordered on manic: ‘Don’t you look lovely!’ Girls who I had barely spoken to before said, clasping my hand. ‘You look great!’: a boy who, the previous day, had forgotten my name gushed. ‘You look great too,’ I replied and then, thinking that complimenting his hair might be a step too far: ‘How’s the family?’ Raising its head for the first time, charm circled the room, breathing sweet, perfumed fire as we parroted adulthood.
High school cafeterias are loud. Elbows on the table, slumped over a book—sandwich in one hand, pen in the other: our grade in particular had been given lectures about leaving too much trash behind when the bell rang to signal the end of the lunch period. However, the three course meal at prom was conducted in almost near silence. ‘Would you please pass the salt?’ Barry Fanmore said, raising his hand to his hair before lowering it. ‘This is really swell chicken!’ Lucy Banning said, cutting small slices and reaching for the water jug—‘Top up, anyone? ’ Every time somebody said ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ or ‘lovely’ or inquired after the ‘health’ of somebody’s family, the group paused—as if waiting for applause from an unseen audience.
After the ‘Beautiful!’ lemon sorbet concluded the meal, I spent the night shifting locations: ballroom, side room, bathroom, patio. Untied from a date, I wandered and watched. ‘Hey! I love your dress,’ I heard myself repeating like a fiend when I collided with a friend: ‘Where’d you get your shoes?’ The side room had casino tables where the prizes ranged from dinners for two at Olive Garden to iPods. I stood at the roulette table with my cheese on a stick and watched other kids cast their bets. ‘I don’t know the rules.’ I said to the dealer (in actuality, our history teacher.) ‘I can’t hear you,’ he said over the music and handed me a napkin.
At the mocktail bar, guests could choose between a Licence to Chill (orange juice and grenadine) or a Secret Agent (pineapple juice and sparkling water). Groups of girls leaned toward the bartender (in reality: the vice principal) and ordered their drinks ‘on the rocks with ice.’ At the chocolate fountain, a boy tried to stick his mouth under the gushing steam: holding down his white collar as he got closer to the coco-tide. On the dance floor, girls tried to hold up their dresses, but they stumbled. And, every few minutes, the sound of ripping cut through the music. Boys in tuxes attempted to dance to Sisqo’s ‘Thong Song’ and, during the inevitable Mariah Carey ballad, couples dipped and swayed and mouthed the words while stepping on each other’s feet. Rip. Rip. Rip.
Taking refuge against a wall, I examined the gowns on parade. Upon close inspection, they were all slightly too big— displaying pale backs that were laddered with bones. As the night wore on, bowties fell off (clip-ons) and came undone (father-tied) and suit jackets were discarded. Top buttons were undone. The boys, from the waist up, started to look the same as they did on at the end of a school day, swaggering out the school gates. And yet, their pointed shoes still shone and their cufflinks caught the light and twinkled. Midway through the night, some of the girls gave up and took off their shoes. The slap of bare feet on the floor recalled the locker-room after PE. And yet, their dresses slinked and spun without any noise at all. It was a room full of half-creatures: centaurs and Fauns. Sirens and Mermaids.
As the polite conversation faded in and out like a damaged ribbon on a cassette-tape, I realised that nobody knew how to stand in a long dress, or exactly what to say over a three-course meal. Nobody knew how to dance in heels, or how to keep the thin laces on their leather shoes tied. But, we were all pretending like we did. In rhinestones and under multiple coatings of hair- spray and aftershave and cologne and buttons and zippers and freshly plucked brows and smooth chins: we were pretending like we knew the rules of adulthood. And even though graduation was still a month away, in pretending, mimicking, parroting, faking it, in trying to hold things together with fashion tape and hair gel: we had left school.
As the last song played, the couples clung to one another and swayed as parents and teachers looked on. The dance floor looked unstable—blue then pink then purple and there were corsage petals falling from tired wrists as an escaped cummerbund was kicked across the dance floor: writhing like a snake underfoot. My English teacher sidled up to me and asked if I had had ‘A good night?’ Looking away from the dance floor, I began to remove my corsage: ‘I don’t know the new rules.’ The song finished. And I saw them all as older—sending their children to prom: standing around with cameras and camcorders—bobby pins and ribbons.
Every night hence has felt like prom night. Wandering through halls and rooms and offices and libraries and stores, we look for people to cling to—searching for a vocal register that is somewhere between professional and personal. We try to compliment without sounding blithe, try to enquire after people’s families without sounding flippant. On prom night, as the band winds down, high school begins to fall away. But over time, many institutions you place trust in will fall away—jobs change, administrations turn over, elections are held, promotions are given, mergers occur, marriages end. Eventually, you let go of the people in that crepe decorated ballroom: surrendering them to different universities. Over time, you will surrender lovers, colleges, friends, acquaintances to distances and disasters: differences in lifestyle and divergent opinions. And the song you think is so important on prom night, will never seem so pertinent again. Other songs will take its place. And more songs after that. There are always new rules. Every night is prom night.
When the main lights were switched on, the tablecloths were mocktail-stained: patches of neon yellow and pink. Some of the banners had become detached, a few balloons—centerpieces to the banquet table—had floated to the ceiling. Unable to rise any higher, they bobbed there: resigned to their fate to never leave this town. Despite all their potential. The makeup—so expertly applied only a few hours before—was smudged or smeared. The up-dos had fallen. The strap on my best friend’s dress had broken. Standing out on the cold May evening, people huddled and waited for their limos to return. And like white beasts with yellow flashing eyes. The limos returned and swallowed the children—never to be seen again.