“I have this girlfriend who didn’t go to her prom, and every once in a while, she gets this really terrible feeling – - you know, like something is missing. She checks her purse, and then she checks her keys. She counts her kids, she goes crazy, and then she realizes that nothing is missing. She decided it was side effects from skipping the prom.”-Iona from “Pretty In Pink”
I always wanted to go to prom. I didn’t go my junior year, but it wasn’t some sort of statement about how uncool I thought prom was; I just didn’t have a date. A few of my friends tried to convince me to go, but even now, I don’t understand their logic. They all had dates! Who was I supposed to hang out with? The photographer? The DJ? The punch bowl?
I had dates to about half of my school dances. These dates were always careful to qualify their invitation with the tag “just friends.” “Do you want to go Homecoming together?” they’d ask, before the next few words spilled, jumbled, out of their mouths. “I mean, just as friends.” I’d nod eagerly, because of course! It wasn’t even necessary to add that part. I’d already assumed it.
There’s just something about prom that’s different. It’s more romantic than other dances, and certainly more important. These are the pictures your parents will hang on the wall, the memories you’ll share later when people are commiserating over their terrible prom experiences. While I knew it was very, very likely no one would ask me to the senior prom, I still wanted to go. My favorite movie is Pretty in Pink, my internal soundtrack is the Psychedelic Furs, and I bleed pink-and-white polka dot tulle. What can I say, I’m a high school romantic.
A few weeks before prom, my friend James asked me. James and I had developed a strangely close friendship of necessity over the last few months of our senior year. I was spending a lot of time by myself because all of my friends had boyfriends. He was still an open wound after very publicly pursuing a girl with a boyfriend and being just as publicly rebuffed (said girl did nothing wrong, by the way, and is now one of my friends!). So James and I started spending almost every day together like the misfit cast offs we were. We drove around in his lime green pickup truck and talked about our views on Very Adult Things like religion, alcohol, and women’s rights. We went to Taco Bell a lot. We drove around parking lots, where he’d jerk to a stop every few feet because he knew it annoyed me. He’d cruise through yellow lights, gleefully announcing, “I squeezed the lemon on that one!” We went to movies all the time, and James would talk loudly at the screen and ask me questions like, “Wait, why did he do that?” at normal volume. All of those things would have driven me crazy under different circumstances, but they didn’t this time, because I had been so lonely and there are only so many times you can reread the works of J.D. Salinger.
So when he asked me, “Do you want to go to prom?” one day as we stood in the hallway outside the band room waiting to leave school for the day, I said okay.
Then we high-fived.
After school, I went to a friend’s house. She seemed nonplussed that I had a date to prom, and I had to stop myself from shouting, “Um, hello? Under Bite McGee over here has a date to the prom!”
The day of prom,James’s mom and sister came over to my parents’ house and we took awkward pictures. Then we led a caravan of our friends to this restaurant called Mama’s Touch of Italy, which probably sounds funny to you, but you know what? Not a lot of options in the middle of Ohio. Most of my friends were there with their respective boyfriends or gay best friends, and I still have a very visceral memory of us all sitting around that table and wearing those funny spaghetti bibs they gave us.
I felt bad that James insisted on paying for my food, because it wasn’t like we were dating, so I ordered the Tortellini because it was the cheapest thing on the menu. Immediately after the waitress took our orders, he shouted “DID YOU JUST ORDER THE CHEAPEST THING ON THE MENU?” at me.
My school was small-town and poor, so we didn’t have any of those big banquet-hall or hotel proms like I always saw in the movies. Instead, ours was in our redecorated gym. I was so drunk on the romanticism of prom (but not alcohol. At this point in my life, I literally had only had one sip of alcohol ever) that I truly though the streamers hanging from the ceiling were beautiful. I thought the punch fountain was classy. I was happy to hear the song “Yeah” by Usher.
Before the dance really started, everyone was milling around in the cafeteria, letting their parents and friends take their pictures. As I posed for yet another shot, my friend Josh came running out of the gym and yelled at me, with all the panic of someone announcing a fire, “Kerry you need to come with me they’re playing Toxic.” They played Britney’s Toxic twice that night, and you know what? Nothing has ever sounded more beautiful to me than her nasal whine.
Spending that night with my high school friends was, I can say honestly, one of the best times of my life. I hated high school. Hate, hate, hated it. I was depressed and weird. I felt out of place all the time. There was never anything to do. Some girl on the bus would literally point and laugh at me and I never knew why (seriously, Girl Who Is Now Married With Children, what was your deal?). I had braces multiple times. I had bad skin, a weird voice, and a facial deformity, for God’s sake, that I had to have surgically corrected! It wasn’t a super-fun time in my life. But the one thing that I did have that made all those shitty years worth it was great friends. We were so close that we named our group, had our own holidays, and hung up posters around the school. I’m still very close with most of those friends today, and I’m so grateful for them. Somehow, all of these smart, driven, creative, funny people got deposited in the middle of nowhere, and we all found each other. The fact that we were all together at prom, the last high school experience we had until graduation, made it kind of magical.
Our prom was on May 15th, and my birthday is May 16th. I actually turned 18 at our bowling-alley after-prom, where James got the bowling alley to announce it over the PA system. After the party, we went to my friend Amy’s parents’ cabin and we all spent the night there. If you can believe it, there was no booze, no cigarettes, and (I’m pretty sure) no one even had sex, even though we’ve all seen Valley Girl here (please say we’ve all seen Valley Girl) and we know that’s what’s supposed to happen on prom night. We literally drank grape juice. Someone had a guitar. I fell asleep on the floor next to James and woke up feeling great because when you’re 18 you can barely get any sleep on a hard surface and it doesn’t even faze you.
After that, James and I stopped hanging out so much because he finally got together with that girl he was after. We were still friends; he still called to talk to me when my head was swollen to twice its normal size after my jaw surgery. But it was really just one of those friendships that means a lot for a little while.
I’m so glad I went to prom with a friend, because now when I look back at those pictures, I have nothing but good memories. All of my friends in those pictures broke up with their significant others soon (or not so soon!) afterwards, but I didn’t have to worry about that. A couple years afterwards, I went to a party at James’s parents house and saw that our prom picture was still on their fridge. It was one perfect memory that I’m so happy to preserve, even if it is a high school cliche. It wasn’t Pretty in Pink, but it was kind of better.