Missing the prom

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.         

14 responses to “Missing the prom”

  1. AW says:

    You are amazing. Thanks for this beautiful piece.

  2. Dave says:

    I went through high school not quite getting the significance of all those traditions — partly since I didn’t see most of the crucial John Hughes movies until college or after. I went to my junior prom, which was kinda fun but really not so much. Senior prom I skipped, and I haven’t really regretted it. I was an odd kid in high school, so skipping prom was just one misstep among many.

  3. Ruben Mancillas says:

    Thinking about how many “Proms” we do make sure that we attend over the course of our lives helps make up for those moments we fear that we have missed.

    That last paragraph is the best. Your Mom cred is through the roof too, the concert is one thing but an unlimited tux budget? Now that’s cool.

    Whatever you do though, don’t start watching MTV’s Super Sweet 16 with your kids.

    Being a Mr. Hand has put me in the sweet but awkward position of attending a prom ever year. I’ll be on my twentieth “Night of Memories” or “Voyage to Forever” in no time.

    My Pretty in Pink issues are many (see my bio) but here are some quick thoughts:

    Andie totally screwed Ducky over at the end. I wanted to stand up in the theatre and scream “cheat!” at the top of my lungs when he guts himself so that she can end up with Blaine. It ruins the whole movie-which is difficult for me to figure out since it is my favorite Hughes film by far.

    The original ending was that she and Ducky triumpantly dance the night away to Bowie’s Heroes ,which would have been perfect but it didn’t test well and so Hughes sold out every teen boy in America and gave us the Cinderella finish we have now…with OMD no less.

  4. Jeremy says:

    I didn’t go to prom, and I don’t regret it. But I went to three different high schools, so I never really felt an attachment to my last high school or the people that went there. Sometimes I lament the fact that I didn’t have more of an attachment, that I also have no reason to go to any of my high school reunions either… (btw, speaking of coming-of-age rituals, I didn’t go to either of my college graduations and now, ironically, I’m stuck going to my students’ graduations in perpetuity…).

    (But I have no regrets because I’m seizing the day!)

    A wonderful post, PB.

  5. Marleyfan says:

    Great piece. I have to agree with Mancillas- Ducky got screwed…

  6. cynthia says:

    Great piece, I agree with Jeremy on no regrets. I didn’t go either.

  7. Lane says:

    My first drunk was at my junior prom, a milestone indeed.

    and uhmmm … based on Ruben’s intricate knowledge of Pretty in Pink . . . he is not the West Coast me.

  8. The original ending was that she and Ducky triumpantly dance the night away to Bowie’s Heroes ,which would have been perfect but it didn’t test well and so Hughes sold out every teen boy in America and gave us the Cinderella finish we have now…with OMD no less.

    This depressed the hell out of me. I wish that movie had had the other ending. I mean, after all, that dude’s name was *Blaine*.

  9. Logan says:

    My sister and I watched Pretty in Pink long before the thought of going to prom ever crossed our minds. I instantly identified with being a misift, as did she, and we both had our mother make our prom dresses. My sister wore a shocking blue satin number that two other girls had their mother’s make, and I wore a black satin off the shoulder with velvet trim disaster. I lived in Iowa, my mother lived in Florida, she made it over the phone. The sleeves were so tight that I couldn’t lift my arms up to my date’s shoulders. I was like a tiny cake topper t-rex unable to lift my arms to do anything useful. I’m glad I went, but I am still left with miserable disappointment. I asked my date, but someone else wanted to ask me and I didn’t know until too late. I hated my dress, I look stupid in all of my pictures, and I wish I had done something besides merely brush my hair. In high school I never deemed myself worthy enough to give myself the much needed attention I yearned for. Perhaps if I had known what I know now, I wouldn’t have gone, and it wouldn’t have mattered. Annie Potts was partially right. That woman who she describes as always feeling she is missing something, perhaps she isn’t missing the prom so much as she is missing a life she didn’t feel like she deserved. But I know you’re right when you say that some things in life are time sensitive. I too am learning the importance of being in a place or doing a thing when the time is right, if only to say you have done it. Oh and one last thing, as controversial as this may sound, I too wanted Ducky to be her prince. I mean please, Blaine? That’s not a name, its a major appliance! I love you PB, this post gave me such pleasure and melancholy.

  10. PB says:

    “steffswhitesuit” — now I get it!!! Ruben, that was so worth it.
    And I totally agree with the Ducky champions–I saw the actor who played Blaine in several movies afterward . . . BORING. He did not rise above his cuteness in “Pretty” or ever. Yet Jon Cryer has reinvented himself on TV–does this count as some justice?
    Hey Logan, welcome and xoxo.
    It is so facinating to me the people who go and are disappointed, don’t go and are so fine with it–does anyone go and love it? Wait, maybe those are the Blaines of the world who are off running Enron and not reading Greatwhatsit? Hmmmmmmm.

  11. MF says:

    I sort of went to senior prom.

    I was a straight A, bookish high school student. Not pretty and not ugly, I used to fantasize about the Cinderella love story I could only imagine. I watched as other girls got asked out on dates and listened to the stories of what it feels like to get kissed for the first time. I suppose I was a little dreamy about how love and romance and being an adult were going to be.

    My high school boyfriend (the only boy I ever kissed in high school!) was getting a little cold on me toward the end of the school year. Fully expecting that we would go to the prom, however, I picked out a dress and made all of the usual plans. Finally, two weeks before the event, he sent over a bag of flour . I had to search through all of the flour for the invitation hidden inside. (Oh… those clever high school kids!?!) I was going. It was all set.

    I was the last girl to get picked up, and we three girls didn’t know where we were going. As we drove into town and up the hill to the (very small!!) airport, our dates revealed that they had hired private planes to take us to Laughlin, Nevada.

    Laughlin, Nevada is a small gambling town on the border of Nevada. It is situated on a river and takes about an hour from my hometown to fly to. My date and I sat in the back seat of a four seater Cesna (the others were in another six seater) watching the red cliffs, winding river, and desert below. We were both awestruck by the scenery and by the fairy tale-ness of it all. Prom night. Flying in planes over the Colorado river.

    (I later found out that the boys’ youth group leader was taking flying lessons and had offered to take us all for free. In this way, it was just as unimaginable for the boys as it was for the girls)

    My date didn’t touch me or even really look at me the whole time. We arrived in Laughlin, went to a casino for dinner (which was just as average as anyone’s prom night dinner, but no one noticed because we were all too excited about the night and the flight and high school soon being over, etc), then we got back into the planes.

    Everything had taken a bit longer than planned so that by the time we got back to St. George, the prom was over. We didn’t even bother going over to see if anyone was still there. We headed straight to one of the boys’ condo complexes where there was a big pool and a hot tub. We got into our swim suits and sat in the hot water in the dark to make out and do all of the stuff teenagers do on Prom night.

    But, my date wasn’t interested. So I pestered him with questions about why. What was wrong? Did he hate my dress? Was my hair too curly? Over coifed? No… none of that. He just didn’t like me anymore.

    So, that was that. We broke up. He took me home. I cried all night. And by the morning, everything was fine.

    I had known that we were going to inevitably break up by the end of the school year. I was heading off to the east coast for school. He was staying in town to get a job and maybe take a few classes. What had been a welcome and mutually beneficial relationship for both of us had run its course. We no longer needed each other. It was time to move on.

    Sometimes, when I think about this story, I remember it fondly: picking out a dress, deciding how to wear my hair, putting on makeup with my sister. And the planes, and the casino and the desert at night.

    Other times, I can’t believe that my boyfriend broke up with me on Prom Night, that what was supposed to be the pinacle of my high school years ended in a flat “I guess we should just break up”.

    Whether I call it the best night of my high school years or my worst (it was some of both!), I’m glad I went. For a girl who stood outside of the typical teenage drama, I felt like I was for the first time really participating. I had finally figured out enough about people and me and belonging to be part of it, for better or for worse.

  12. Marleyfan says:

    What a story MF. Guy’s can be jerks, can they? I hope things only went up-hill from there….

  13. Blaine? That’s not a name, its a major appliance!

    Thanks, Logan, for reminding me of that line. I need to netflix that movie.

  14. WW says:

    I’m just now catching up on this — awesome — post. And MF, what a story! And Ruben, why do they call you “Mr. Hand”?