Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Prom: Peak experience or traumatic event?

Elizabeth Zelvin

What is the prom? Nominally what Cinderella would have called a ball, it’s less a dance than an adolescent rite of passage involving mate selection, dressing to kill, and a variety of ritual objects, such as the corsage and the stretch limo. I suspect that nowadays, for many kids, it’s an excuse for heavy drinking and, for some, an occasion to break out the mood-altering substances. There’s also probably a significant amount of sex in the back seat of the kids’ own cars. In some communities, an awful lot of money is spent to make the evening memorable, or at least ostentatious.

I’ve never actually met anyone whose prom was the best night of his or her life. I know one man who remembers, fifty years later, a good night kiss at his date's door with his dad watching from the car at the curb. Back in the Fifties in the outer boroughs of New York, we did not expect to have cars before we graduated from high school, and in ninth grade (graduation year in junior high) we were years away from sex and drinking. I don’t remember what I wore, but I doubt my mother let me get a “formal,” and I can’t remember if the boys went so far as to rent tuxedos. The dance itself was well chaperoned, and our parents drove us there and back. I remember the corsage—a single orchid with a pink or lavender ribbon. You put it in the refrigerator when you got home, and there it stayed until it turned brown and your mother threw it out.

My prom revenge story, “Dress to Die,” will appear in the e-zine Beat to A Pulp in August. I thought of saving this blog for then, but no, June is prom month, and it’s time to tell the story of my bad luck with proms. Don’t worry, it bears no resemblance to the story in “Dress to Die.” But what’s the point of being a crime fiction writer if you can’t get even once in a while? My true story involves two proms, junior high and high school, and three boys who all had the same name—it wasn’t Bob, so let’s call them Bob.

For readers who weren’t born back when girls couldn’t ask boys for a date, there was a lot of agonizing suspense in my junior high class as to which boy would invite which girl to the prom and when the actual asking would take place. Remember we were barely 13—a young and sheltered 13—whose only sexual experience was playing Spin the Bottle at parties. Some boys were a little more mature than others. Some were considered “cute,” others were not.

As it happened, all the inviting took place at my birthday party a couple of months before the prom. As the evening went on, all the cute boys asked other girls until I was left--the cheese stands alone—one thoroughly humiliated birthday girl. Enter Bob No. 1, a rather sullen boy who until then hadn’t been up to hanging out with the girls. I accepted his gruff invitation with a mixture of relief and disappointment. All was well till the next day, when he marched up to me in class and rescinded the invitation. In fairness to Bob, he saw it in a different light. He recently apologized handsomely, yep, more than fifty years later, confessing that he “chickened out.” Luckily, I had already written the revenge story when he got back in touch.

Did I get to the prom after all? Reader, I did. Bob No. 2, who had not intended to take a date or perhaps to go at all, took pity on me, and I accepted gratefully. There was no chemistry between us, but today he’s alive and well and living in the Castro, so it probably didn’t have anything to do with me.

Bob No. 3 was my high school boyfriend. He was already at college, so it was acceptable for me to take the lead and invite him to my senior prom. I was working up to ask when he broke the news that he had another girlfriend, also at college. It was time to choose between us, and he chose her. It was a good call: fifty years later, they’re still married. So I never did get to my high school prom. But I danced at their wedding.


Sandra Parshall said...

Oh, how times have changed. Now the biggest worry is whether kids will get through prom night alive. Being the parent of a teenager these days must be one of the most stressful experiences anyone can have, and being a teenager is no picnic either.

Anonymous said...

I had four great proms. Best night of my life -- not even close. But I remember them as a lot of fun...and I looked fabulous. Of course in those days, in my hometown, you didnt stay out all night. I think my curfew was 1 a.m. then
Oline Cogdill

Julia Buckley said...

What a fun story, Liz! I actually did have a college boyfriend named Bob, but I didn't go to prom with him.

I went to two high school proms with a boy with whom I was hugely infatuated. We dated for two years, which is about twenty years in high school parlance. The proms were fun, but stressful, as I recall. I so wanted them to be perfect. Like Christmas, prom is a set-up for disappointment.

I just chaperoned a prom; the girls looked beautiful, and the kids really did dance the entire time. We had no problem with drinking, but it was a very tiny junior prom.

I do know that some schools breathalize every student at the check-in table, and nowadays, that's just a good idea.