NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and alcohol references.
The official story I tell my kids is that I never went to the senior prom. Allegedly I couldn’t, because I had either the ACT exam the next day, or the State Road Championships. (My story varies.) “I knew I had a better shot at the [exam] [race] than the prom,” I explain dryly.
This year, on a lark, I decided to share the real story with my older daughter, shortly before her first prom. In doing so I realized it’s not a bad tale, so I’ll share it with you too, recreated from memory with maximum verisimilitude.
My senior prom – spring 1987
To start off, I hadn’t planned on attending at all. The whole idea seemed completely outlandish to me. My high school was an “open campus,” meaning I was almost never there and barely knew anybody. Meanwhile, I was not exactly a ladies’ man. I wasn’t good looking or confident. I wasn’t up on popular music or sports. I had no concept of fashion except Levi’s 501s and bike race t-shirts. I was only slightly less socially retarded than my brothers, who were so shy they were actually mistaken for foreign exchange students.
There was one girl, Michelle, whom I could have asked to prom, but the problem was, I kind of liked her so it wasn’t worth the risk of rejection. But there was this other girl, in my French class, whom I didn’t like at all. Actually, to be clear, I liked her as a pal, but didn’t want to go out with her whatsoever. The sad truth is, she was as homely as I was, or as I felt, anyway (which was either more or less homely than I actually was, because what teenager ever had an accurate self-image?). This girl was fun to talk to, particularly in class, but that was about it. If you’re wondering whether or not I’m going to tell you her name, I’m not—for the simple reason that I cannot remember it. This just shows you how small I am, or at least how small I was. If she had been pretty, of course I’d remember her name.
I can’t remember exactly why I asked this girl to prom. It was for one of two reasons, maybe both. One, she was really bummed out because her horse had died. Yes, you read that right: in Colorado it was actually possible to own a horse. Hers had been killed in a highway accident (trailer rollover). I never knew if the horse died instantly or had to be put down (I wasn’t about to ask). So I may have actually invited her out of pity. The other possible reason is that I happened to know the obscure fact that “prom” is short for “promenade dance,” and I really wanted to showcase this knowledge by asking, “Would you care to accompany me to the promenade dance?” This is exactly how I asked, and the girl immediately said yes, with a big smile. Inwardly, this shocked and dismayed me, which made me feel like the complete dick that I knew I was.
Well, for the next week she chattered all through French class about her quest for the perfect prom dress. This made me feel worse than ever. It was obviously far too late to cancel the whole thing—every moment she spent savoring her anticipation dug us both in deeper. I knew I should try to match her enthusiasm but I just couldn’t. For one thing, I couldn’t dance—I was far too inhibited. Second, I didn’t own a suit and wasn’t about to throw good money after a bad idea by renting a tux. Finally, I had no car and didn’t want to ask my parents to borrow theirs, because that would mean admitting I was going to prom, which for some reason I was just not prepared to do. I feared—or perhaps hoped—this lack of wheels would be a show-stopper.
When I came clean about the car, my date (gasp!) didn’t even care. She’d just gotten her first car, and was a modern girl. This was gonna be great, etc. Daaaaamn! This obstacle having vanished, I decided I better bite the bullet and rent a tux. I went down to the strip mall with my friend John. He was attending the prom non-ironically and wanted to look sharp. I wish I remembered the name of that cheesy tux place. Their entire clientele seemed to be high school kids. It was obvious that these tuxes were pure shit—and yet, every dude who put one on managed to look really good. I couldn’t understand it. (I do now … it’s called youth.)
Well, there was actually one kid who didn’t look good in the rental tux: me. Part of it was my fault; I was about six-foot-one, 140 pounds. Great physique for bike racing, in the purely utilitarian way that webbed fingers and toes would be good for competitive swimming. The other problem was that I was a cheap bastard and was looking for that one-in-a-thousand suit that fit me right off the rack and wouldn’t require alterations, which were $10 extra. I found that one suit, but it was—I kid you not—pink. Not some marginally acceptable salmon or coral (which might have gone over okay, this being the era of “Miami Vice.”) It was pure, awful pink. Pepto-Bismol pink. Crayola carnation pink.
Because of its color, this tux was actually a cheaper rental than the black ones. Admitting I was a nerd to begin with, and vainly attempting the apotheosis from nerd to smartass, I decided to do it. For my boutonniere I chose, of course, a pink carnation. I thought it very clever to point out that, against my tux, it was “boutonniere camo,” and I tried this line on pretty much everybody I encountered the entire night, without eliciting so much as a smirk. But I see I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before the promenade dance proper, of course, there was the requisite fancy dinner. I agonized over where to eat, which might suggest that I was developing some kind of gusto for the whole affair, but the dinner was merely the only aspect of prom I could manage to develop an opinion about. Among prospective restaurants the front-runner was JJ McCabe’s, which was known for being lax about liquor laws. (This was valuable only in that it leant a mystique; I was too risk-averse, and too cheap, to actually contemplate buying booze.) But I’d eaten at JJ McCabe’s once with my parents, and the service was unbelievably slow … we sat for almost an hour waiting for our food. My dad surmised that every member of the staff was drunk off his loins. I couldn’t take that risk on prom night.
Pelican Pete’s was also kind of flashy, because seafood was still a rare thing in Boulder in 1987. But their food kind of sucked. Tico’s had great food and unlimited chips, but I didn’t want to actually insult my date. The Good Earth was trendy but a little too granola for me. So I finally settled on Sebastians, which had a salad bar that was so fancy you could get caviar. Not that I liked caviar—it was like eating salted ball bearings—but it just screamed “deluxe.” On top of that, the salad bar format was perfect from the budgeting standpoint. After all, nobody orders an appetizer before a salad bar, and nobody gets dessert afterward. I could confidently bring exactly the right amount of money. Sebastians was a no-brainer.
The night started off badly, and not because of my pink suit as you might have speculated. In fact, my date was wearing an orange dress. Not a subtle, marginally acceptable peach or pumpkin color, but a purely awful tint of orange, the color of a Creamsicle. I’m tempted to say it was even worse than my pink tux, since she’d actually selected it in pursuit of aesthetic élan rather than in defiance of it, but then nothing could have looked worse than that pink tux. Anyway, it wasn’t like she forgave my suit because her dress was awful; she forgave my suit because she was a totally laid-back, cool chick—at least, when it came to me.
With herself, she was much less forgiving (which I suppose isn’t rare). She was upset because, when doing a last-minute check of her beloved new (to her) Toyota Corolla, making sure it was still lookin’ real good, she discovered that the kickass narrow-stripe whitewall tires on the driver’s side were not matched by kickass narrow-stripe whitewall tires on the passenger side. The starboard tires were simply black. Her sweet ride was asymmetrical!
Poor thing. She hadn’t looked this miserable since her horse died. The only sympathetic sentiment I could come up with was “Honestly, your car looks terrible regardless,” but of course I couldn’t say that. She was so agitated and stressed out she was sweating profusely. Actually, the sweating probably had something to do with the fur coat she was wearing, which she’d borrowed from her aunt. May was a bit late in the season for a fur, and it was an unseasonably warm evening.
At Sebastians, things continued going downhill. Turns out the legendary salad bar wasn’t every night. Maybe it wasn’t on weekends, or maybe they decided to screw the prom crowd. Ordering off the menu meant I wouldn’t have enough money. At least, not for two. So I lied and told my date I’d already eaten. For the first time that evening, she seemed miffed. But the waiter was solicitous and the place was swanky, and her spirits improved. As we waited for our—well, her—food to come out, she said, in a conspiratorial whisper, “Look: I come prepared. I’ve been to the Liquor Mart.” She held out her purse. It was stocked with airline-sized bottles of Goldschlager cinnamon schnapps. I raised an eyebrow. “I’ll drink one if I wanna have fun,” she said, “a second if I wanna get crazy, and a third if things get good.”
I was shocked. This girl was cool, I realized. Far, far too cool for me. I was in way over my head. I didn’t have the nerve to drink alcohol. I was just a stupid, ignorant, shy, untutored nerd, and here I was, out with a girl who possessed shades of Woman. That she assumed I was game was both flattering and terrifying. I tried to shrug, to show how cool and unflustered I was, but it came out more like a muscle spasm.
She excused herself to freshen up, and I sat at the table feeling utterly unmoored. What if this girl knew how to dance, too? What if her sang-froid made her popular at the prom? What if she were actually far less of a pariah at the high school than I was? What would I do, in this terrible pink suit? Fortunately, not long after she returned the bread arrived, so I had something to do with my hands. And my mouth. I stuffed my face nervously, and actually my dark mood lifted a bit via the thrill of eating real butter, almost for the first time in my life.
Halfway through my date’s entrée, things were looking up. She kind of chewed with her mouth open, which helped put me at ease. I made a lot of wisecracks about the people around us (mostly old grey-hairs, I realized with a pang), and she giggled a lot. However sophisticated and daring she might be, I reflected, she did seem to dig me. So I’d almost recovered my composure when, casting about for another old person to bag on, I spied my own father dining across the restaurant from us, seated with a woman who was obviously not my mom.
I say “obviously” because my parents had been divorced for almost three years. I still wasn’t used to the idea, and it stung to see my dad out with another woman. He’d never taken my mom out on a date, not during my lifetime. Her birthday, Mother’s Day, their anniversary … nothing would justify, for him, a splurge like this. The other problem was that the woman he was dining with was Horseface, whom I couldn’t stand.
I should probably explain here that this really wasn’t Horseface’s fault. She wasn’t a mean person or anything. In fact, she wasn’t even ugly. Her face wasn’t so much horsey as, well, equine. Yes, kind of a long face, but not painful to look at or anything. The real reason for the nickname is that my dad was dating, concurrently, another woman with the same name and we had to keep them straight. My dad seemed to be dating half the women in Boulder. (The less attractive half, it must be said.) My dislike for Horseface was grounded plainly in the fact of her—in the fact of my dad dating.
So yeah, I was a bit pissed off. Perhaps the whole heady atmosphere of the evening was affecting me, because I brashly strode over to my dad’s table. I didn’t have a plan or anything; I just wanted to make him uncomfortable.
This failed utterly, which I should have seen coming. For me to also be dining at this posh restaurant only helped my dad show off—like, look at my son, he’s only 17 but he’s already living the good life! My dad beamed and said, “Hello Dana.” I greeted Horseface politely, and she beamed too, like we were all just great friends. I suddenly felt like I might be sick to my stomach. It dawned on me that my blood sugar was low, and I noticed that my dad not only had some giant entrée, but a side of fettuccine Alfredo. I was overcome with bitterness.
Whenever we went out to eat—which was mighty rare, by the way—my dad would say at the beginning, “Boys, you may have anything on the menu under $3.50.” This usually limited our choices to the cheapest and second-cheapest items. And here he was living large with a side of pasta! Impulsively, perhaps thinking that this might somehow impress my date, I said casually, “I’ll be taking this,” and with a nod to Horseface, I walked off, bringing the plate of pasta with me to my table.
My date looked shocked. Two things dawned on me. For one, since I’d rudely neglected to introduce her to my dad and his date, she had no idea who these people were. Second, after bizarrely not ordering any food, I’d now stolen some. Suddenly this pasta was even more embarrassing than wearing a pink suit. My response to this horrifying epiphany was to start eating the pasta as fast as possible, just to make it go away. I doubled down on this activity when I saw my dad, a terrifying tall man with hawk-like features and a big red beard, storming over to our table. He didn’t even ask who my date was (which was actually a relief) and tried to take his pasta back. We got in a little tug-of-war over it while I hissed at him about putting on the dog with this other woman when he’d never given his own family a nice night on the town, etc.
Amazingly, things proceeded to get even worse. My dad’s date strutted her shameless way over to us and cried out, “What on Earth!?” I glared at her and said, “You stay out of this, Horseface!” Only after her moniker slipped past my lips did I realize what I’d just said. Of course she was unaware of this unfortunate nickname, or had been until now. She gasped, started to cry, and stormed off. I felt terrible. So, evidently, did my date, who abruptly snatched up her purse and stood. My dad took off after Horseface—on a trajectory that, alas, matched my date’s sudden restroom-bound vector. The two collided, and whether it was the impact or just coincidence, my date erupted in a big, throaty, cinnamon-schnapps-scented belch. The dinner was officially a total disaster.
The waiter, professional to the core, discreetly flitted by to deposit our check, which I paid in cash, rounding up so we could bail immediately. We got out to the parking lot where my date, fuming, fumbled endlessly with her car keys. Remembering what I’d had rammed down my throat repeatedly in Health class, I asked, “Um … how much have you had to drink?” She held up three fingers, took the hint, and tossed me her car keys. As I fetched them from the asphalt she made her way around to the non-whitewall-tired side of her car.
Now, you’ll think me terribly petty for saying so, but here was an unexpected silver lining: I got to drive! It’s not just that my masculine dignity was assuaged (though that was, I’ll admit, part of it). The thing was, I loved to drive and almost never got to. I started up the Corolla and looked over at my date. “Just take me home,” she said. She was on the verge of tears. “Right,” I replied.
I drove, she directed, and as we neared her house she said, “Wait. Just stop the car for a minute. I have to think.” A probable truth dawned on me: she was embarrassed to get home early and have to tell her parents that her big night had crashed and burned. “We could just drive around,” I offered. To my surprise, she agreed. As we drove, I attempted some damage control.
“Look,” I said, “in case you’re feeling bad about burping in my dad’s face, don’t. Your burp … it was just awesome. The best. I’ve been practicing my belching skills for years and I’ve never managed anything that rich and full. Your belch had authority. You clearly don’t fuck around when it comes to oral eructation. And another thing: my dad totally had that coming. In fact that was long overdue. I only regret that I didn’t get to do it myself.”
My date was laughing now. She seemed relieved by my utter lack of reproach, and clearly appreciated the levity. It certainly didn’t hurt that she was drunk. Emboldened by how my opening salvo went over, and by the simple act of driving a car, I talked some more, describing my parents’ divorce, trying to hit the right balance of humility, swagger, flippancy, and vulnerability. Eventually—boosted by perhaps her fourth fun-sized schnapps of the evening—my date agreed to return to plan, and we headed to the prom.
The prom was at a hotel we always thought was pretty swank; only now do I realize its cheesiness. But even then I thought the decorations were pretty twee. The planning committee had somehow settled on a barn-raising, pioneer-spirit, good-old-fashioned hoe-down theme, totally at odds with the music (Madonna, the Fixx, the Bangles, U2, Berlin, Cindi Lauper, Van Halen, etc.). As soon as we got there, my date hit the dance floor hard, trying to drag me along. Terrified, feeling like a mouse who finds himself in the middle of the floor, I bobbed up and down, trying to move my chin with the music. My date, lost in the music, seemed to forget about me, so I gradually made my way to the edge of the room.
Encountering various classmates who looked vaguely familiar, I tried my line about the camo boutonniere a number of times and got nowhere. Eventually I found my friend Sean, with whom I engaged in bagging on lame people. I didn’t really know Sean very well—just from a few classes—but he seemed oddly non-nerdy for a guy willing to hang out with me. I pondered, not for the first time, that this might be exactly how he felt about me.
The yearbook staffers were relentless, so my date and I caved and headed to the photo station where we were supposed to pose on a couple of hay bales. My date, off-balance and staggering, leaned on me for support. My rented tux shoes—made entirely of smooth plastic, it seemed, even the soles—slipped, and I leaned back on her, and her feet—shod in ridiculous high heels—slid right out from under her and I ended up sitting on her lap. The yearbook photo captured us in this ridiculous configuration, and to make matters worse I appear, in the photo, to be looking down the front of her dress. Actually, I totally was. I couldn’t help it. The dress gaped open and it was just a reflex. Fortunately, in those days you didn’t see the photo right away, so my date wasn’t (yet) livid. In fact, she asked me to slow-dance.
The slow-dance was very easy. Nobody was really paying attention to anybody but their date. They just shuffled around, leaning on each other, probably most of the girls preoccupied with worry that their date would do something untoward, and certainly most of the boys hoping to cop a feel (or “grab handfuls of ass,” in the parlance of that time). I behaved myself. In fact, it was all I could do to keep my date on her feet. I tried to recall how many airline bottles of schnapps had been in that purse … surely she’d drunk all of them. She reeked of cinnamon—it must have been coming out her pores. Still, when she relaxed and leaned her head on my shoulder, that was kind of nice. At least, it was nice for a while, until suddenly—“Oh, shit!” my date cried. She recoiled from me as if from an electric shock. What had I done?
Turns out it wasn’t what I’d done … it was what she’d done, which was to have a nosebleed all over my tux. “I am so sorry!” she said over and over, lugubriously. I didn’t know what to say. Of course I was livid about the tux—imagine forking over good money to replace a pink tux!—but she looked so miserable I couldn’t worry too much about myself. The poor girl. First her horse dies, then her car has only two narrow-stripe whitewall tires, then her date is a cad in a pink suit, which she bleeds on. She just can’t get a break! I decided to act like a good guy. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Do you need help? Has this happened before?” She flapped her hands around. “It’s just when I’m stressed out,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
My mind raced. “No need to apologize,” I said. “I’m just glad it’s nothing serious. I saw this movie where a guy gets nosebleeds and it’s from a brain aneurysm!” Now she looked a bit freaked out. “It’s okay, I’m sure you’re not having an aneurysm,” I said, realizing how absurd it was to say such a thing, and yet how unconvincing I sounded. “I’ll get you a damp towel,” I continued.
I set off toward the restroom like a man on a mission. Unfortunately, the shortest route was straight across the dance floor, which—by this point—was back to normal (non-slow) dancing. I weaved and bobbed and suddenly my sunglasses flew off. (Yes, it’s stupid to wear shades indoors, especially at a dance, but I was desperately trying to look cool.) They were stupid sunglasses, fake Ray-Ban Wayfarers that were way too dark, but still I was hell-bent on finding them. Pacing around bent over, I got kneed in the face (either accidently or on purpose, I never learned) and now, unbelievably, I too had a nosebleed.
I got to the restroom where a formally attired valet was handing out warm cotton towels. No, of course that’s not true—I grabbed a couple fistfuls of paper towels, wetted them at the sink, and made my way back to my date (the long way around, this time, trying to disappear). I held the towels to the back of my neck in accordance with the old wives’ tale that it would stop the nosebleed, which it didn’t. The towels began to shred and form little pills, like toe-jam footballs, on the collar of my tux. My date was not impressed. What’s more, everybody began loudly mocking us. “Look, it’s the nosebleed twins!” someone taunted. We beat it out of there, dripping blood as we went.
“Oh my god, drive slower,” my date pleaded. “Everything is spinning. Oh god oh god oh god.” Halfway to her house, she puked all over her aunt’s fur and the upholstery of her car. The stench was a horrible congress of bile and cinnamon. I cranked my window down and hung my head out, like a dog. When we got to her house and I swung the car into the driveway, I didn’t see the empty garbage can there—an old-school steel one—and rammed it, causing a massive racket. My date’s dad burst out of the house, taking the porch steps two at a time. He was already furious, as though he’d just known the night would be a disaster. “What in the hell?!” he fumed. I handed my date her keys, spun on my heel, and without a word strode off, beginning the long journey home on foot. The night had been an unmitigated disaster. I didn’t even find my sunglasses.
In French class the next week, my (ex-)date and I didn’t say a word to each other. Fortunately, the end of the school year was not far off. We managed to literally never speak again, and then we graduated, moved off to college, and were thus spared any future awkwardness. And did I learn my lesson? Definitely. I never attended another school dance.
What you have just read is a work of pure fiction. The official story—that I never went to prom—is the true one. When I wrote that I decided “to share the real story” with my daughter, I was equivocating: it’s a real story in the sense that it’s really a story—i.e., really a work of fiction. When I promised maximum verisimilitude, I meant to the story I’d told my daughter … not to any real events. And although I can’t claim that none of the characters bear any resemblance to any actual human, living or dead, I assure you the self-portrait is a caricature.
This tale was born on the night of my daughter’s prom, when my wife and I were chatting. “No, you did go to prom,” my wife said. “How could you forget? You rented that awful pink tux!” Thus began a dialogue of improv. “Oh, yeah!” I replied. “And my date’s dress was orange!” Etc.
The version of this story I told my daughter ended with a character inexplicably grabbing my leg and pulling on it—“just the way, in fact, that I’m pulling on yours,” I quipped. My daughter, crestfallen, said, “Oh, Dad, I so wanted that all to be true!”
My younger daughter overheard me reading this to my wife, and though she ran from the room, and called out to me to speak more quietly because she couldn’t handle hearing it, she ended up listening to the whole thing. She was hugely relieved to discover it was fiction. Are you?
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