I was not the best person to go with my son to rent a tux for Prom. My husband would have been nonchalant and price conscious. For him it would have been another errand like buying new air conditioner filters or bread. For me it was complicated. But then, my husband went to both his Proms and I did not go to either.
At the back table in a menswear store, we paged through a glossy binder of dashing men in colorful tuxedos. The sales woman explained each photo in detail—the cut of the lapel, the fabric, the appropriateness of style and occasion. She spoke directly to my son. He has been watching James Bond movies since birth and knows his way around a tux. I was drifting, Journey ballads echoing in my head. As she turned the page from the $79.95 rentals to the $109.95 rentals, she glanced surreptitiously at me, her voice summarizing the vast difference with a lifting inflection that implied the question: What would I pay for my son to look as fabulous as 007? I perked up with purpose. “Choose the one you like.” I said to my son, “You will only go to two Proms in your life. We can get whatever you want.” I felt useful, perhaps my feeble financial contribution might influence the best time ever for my child. Wistful, I wanted everything to be perfect for him, but all I could really do was ante up for a suit and let him borrow the car. After the flurry of measuring tape, I was relieved to pay the deposit. Now he couldn’t back out, he had to go to the Prom.
This wasn’t the first time I had helped dress someone else’s date for this event. In high school I sat at a table in the library and marveled at a tiny scrap of delicate princess georgette sprinkled with lavender rose buds. I petted the velvet ribbon that would be the sash and envisioned the lacey sleeves as my girlfriend described them. She wanted to know what to choose for his boutonniere, a purple rose, a white one? Could they add lilacs? Wouldn’t that be so pretty? I was a chatty sport and she was considerate and did not elaborate too much. Later, in the same bathroom stall where a hundred girls had coped with not making the cheerleading squad, bad grades, and boy troubles, I cried a little. I assumed not getting asked to Prom was just another chapter in my teen angst novel until a few years later when I discovered a visual lament for what I had lost. I learned the truth from the ultimate Prom movie: John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink.
In one of many seminal scenes, the Molly Ringwald character asks her wacky boss and mother figure, the wonderful Annie Potts, if she had gone to her Prom. The Annie character says that of course she went, that it was the “worst” but that “you have to go.” Molly counters that “you don’t have to go.” Annie says, “I have a girlfriend who didn’t go and once in a while she gets this terrible feeling that something is missing. She checks her purse, her keys, counts the kids, goes crazy and then realizes that nothing is missing. She decided that this is a side effect from missing her Prom.” Molly complains that although part of her wants to go, part of her doesn’t want to go just because it is the traditional thing to do. Annie says, “Life itself is a stupid tradition, don’t analyze . . . just go.” I remember being a grown-up married lady sitting in the theater with a bunch of kids a generation behind me—I wanted to stand up and testify: “Do you hear this woman in the spiky hair and a vinyl dress? She speaks wisdom to you! Take it from me, if only I had known!”
I have related this story of divine enlightenment to many friends who look at me incredulously. They shake their heads as if trying to rid clinging memories of stiff clothes, dorky dates, and tedious rituals of peer induced boring or bad behavior. “Really, you missed nothing. You are blowing this out of proportion. It was just a dance.” The Prom was just a dance?
What dawned on me watching Pretty in Pink was not that I had missed a school dance. It was the knucklehead realization that some opportunities exist in a specific time and space and when circumstances shift, the door closes and they gone. Some people truly don’t care about Prom, for them it doesn’t matter. But to those for whom it holds some meaning, however superficial, it’s now or never. “Going to Prom” is to embrace those decisions in the moment that if not marked and attended, might become regret later on.
There is a VISA ad campaign right now that features a list: Things to do while you’re alive. It is an appreciative version of a list I keep called: Things to do before you’re dead. This kind of list is a good thing to jot down and think about once in while, especially when you are able to cross something off. Some things on my list I have done: Seen Peter, Paul and Mary perform, bought a house, visited Disney World, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge at night, found a pair of boots that fit my calves. Some I have not done: Finish a graduate degree, publish a book, visit Europe, grow vegetables, find a leather skirt to match my boots. This list is ongoing; I could conceivably be on my deathbed and roll over with a last gasp to sign a publishing contract. These are the experiences we orchestrate and chase; they are the hopes that retain potential over time, any time. We bounce on ready sneakers like relay runners, arms reaching for our turn with the dream batons.
What I am becoming more aware of are those things I can’t list. They appear on calendars with banal regularity and we run into them in everyday situations. Often we miss them because they are too ordinary, too obvious, seemingly too dependent on the responses of others to take into our own hands. Like a Doppler weather map we may see something coming, perhaps with anticipation, but we get distracted and the option to participate fades into the past. For me, missing Prom was indicative of a stage when I waited to be invited, I held back and the hesitation cost me figurative snapshots in my own high school yearbook, the deep and textured notches that give punctuated order to our living timeline.
My son told me about a girl at his school who is attending Prom without a date. She is an outstanding scholar, athlete, singer and leader. She loves her school and after being involved in every possible student activity would not be denied the Prom just because she is considered by most boys her age to be intimidating and “out of (our) league.” I think of her as Molly Ringwald, standing alone in the hallway of that palatial hotel at the end of Pretty in Pink. Molly designs and sews her own Prom dress, symbolic of attending the event on her own terms. She wavers there at the edge of the party, unsure, and is given the last bit of courage by her best friend who sets aside his own heartbreak to help her toward romance and a happy kissing ending.
After the pictures, the dinner, the dance, the post-Prom boat ride, the breakfast, the day at the beach, details of his own, not perfect, but just-right, night, I asked my son how the real life Molly did at the Prom by herself. He shrugged, didn’t notice, didn’t remember. This is just the beginning of what he will forget. All the specifics—dresses, tuxes, locations—will recede into the hazy, joking reminiscence that is everyone’s Prom. But they went, sharing that common connection; a line in the sand that they stepped over and then walked away.
Recently a scheduling miscommunication found me hundreds of miles away from a Junior High band concert featuring my younger son on the tuba. I was committed to agendas planned far in advance, but at the last minute I rearranged all of it and got on a plane, sliding into my folding chair only a few measures late. I could have lived with parental guilt, but I thought, this is a Prom, I miss it and it is gone. Twenty seven years later, they were finally playing my song.