Today’s teenage girls, despite popular belief, aren’t that different from those of decades past. Sure there’s a lapse in manners and a higher pregnancy rate. The shorts are shorter, the piercings plentiful, and the sense of entitlement has reached awe inspiring heights. But the basics are still there: insecurity, vapidity, earnestness, the never ending battle to fit it, to be popular. At football games it’s still the old game of “see and be seen”. Whispering behind hands, passing notes, making out in secluded corners with boys best avoided – not much has changed at all. Even the most antiquated ritual remains largely intact: The Prom.
As a Junior I was excited about going to prom. I’d gone to several military balls with JROTC guys in previous years and the concept was exactly the same. Just exchange the uniform for a tux and there you go. But you couldn’t have told me that then. Because surely, with prom, it would be different. The decorations would be more beautiful, the music more wonderful, the punch sweeter – everything would be perfect. I would get all dressed up and make one of the best memories of my life.
I went dress shopping with my mom and godmother – a pastime that usually required a lot of tongue biting and eye rolling. But even though they irritated me a bit, I loved trying on the formal gowns in the huge dressing room with the curving stand of mirrors and raised, carpeted platform. The walls were papered in gold and there were mahogany side tables next to plush chairs and couches. I would usually take longer than necessary just to stay in the dressing area, but that year it went quickly.
It was the second dress I tried on. Black, made like an old timey dressing gown with three diamond buttons at the waist. It split above and below the buttons to reveal horizontal striped white cloth, the stripes alternately solid and sheer. The bodice was tight with thin straps and the black overcoat of sorts stood up in points on either side. It flared out at the waist, like a smaller scale version of something out of Gone with the Wind. I never wanted to take it off.
With two godmothers, one a hairdresser and one a makeup artist, I had an easier time of it than most. I was pampered for free and quite grateful about it. My love of makeup was in the beginning stages and sitting in the studio having glittery powder dusted over my face was probably my favorite part. I’ve never been very photogenic, but when I posed for pictures that afternoon with my date and my friends, I felt beautiful and confident. And it showed.
My date and I drove to a downtown Japanese restaurant where they do the cooking in front of you. I’d always enjoyed watching their comical routine, but when the man was flipping his shrimp and teriyaki chicken into open mouths around the table, I shrank back. He turned to me, gesturing with his spatula, a piece of chicken balanced on the end. “No, no. I don’t want...” But it was too late, he let the saucy chicken fly and it missed my unready mouth, landing in my lap on the white striped part of my dress. I was horrified, then teary, then angry. No amount of cursing or scrubbing in the bathroom could get the small stain out of my dress.
When we left the restaurant my date passed me a conciliatory joint. We smoked it, got a bit giggly, and I felt better. But upon arrival I noticed that the decorations were crap. Why I’d expected anything else from a small country high school, I don’t know, but my fantasies of twirling around under a bunch of beautiful twinkling lights were brought to an abrupt halt. The walls of the facility were made of ugly brown panels and the floor was a smooth grey concrete. There were a few balloons here and there and one large banner telling us that we were indeed at the 2002 Junior/Senior Prom.
As it turned out my date was not a dancer, but rather a chain smoker who preferred the company of the tobacco chewers gathered on the outside steps. After a few fast dances with my friends and one coerced slow dance with him, I ruined his plans of a prom night conquest and demanded he take me to my friend’s house where I was to stay the night.
The 15 minute ride was mostly silent. I got out, grabbed my bag, and stalked past his outstretched arms to join the all female party that was already in full swing. I sat in my friend’s room, drinking wine coolers, and listening to the group gossip. And I fell asleep in my perfect dress with my perfectly done up curls and makeup well before the stroke of midnight, clutching a half empty Bacardi bottle in my hand.
I was so disappointed by my junior prom that I swore my senior year would be completely different, and it was. I picked out a dress I didn’t care a thing about, styled my recently cropped hair as best I could, and decided to go without a date. The one thing I didn’t skimp on was the makeup. I went back to the studio and let my godmom do the honors.
I went to dinner with a group of friends and made a 20 minute appearance at the dance before relocating to the nearest party. I remember standing alone at one point, watching my cousin and her seemingly perfect boyfriend pose for pictures under the balloon archway, and wondering what she’d remember most about that night, if being popular really made it that much better. I’ve never been able to go to dinner or a movie by myself, so looking back I’m a little bit in awe of the teenage girl that stuck her nose in the air and walked alone into that building full of judgmental kids.
The first party spanned several blocks. There were so many people crowded on lawns, passing weed and booze, dancing to the latest rap music. Prom dresses and tuxes blended with bathing suits and shorts. I’ve never seen a party to rival its scale. It was inevitable that the cops would show up, so before long we went back to my friend’s house and started up a smaller version.
The sinks and bathtubs were filled with PJ, a fruity mixed liquor drink that tastes lovely and mild, but sneaks up on you later. I drank and I danced and, as later evidenced by pictures and word of mouth, played a rousing game of Twister. At that time I just happened to be conveniently living with the friend whose house we were partying in and just as conveniently staying in her older brother’s room. Home for a rare visit, he decided that we could share his bed, no problem.
And indeed it wasn’t, because he was quite sexy and after an hour or so of talking, we spent the rest of the morning and well into the day going at it like rabbits. Unfortunately, my friend’s father came home a bit earlier than expected and opened the door to find his teenage houseguest sitting astride his adult son’s lap, doing her best to make her senior prom’s theme, “A Moment Like This”, live up to the hype.
Last weekend, as I worked the counter at my godmom’s makeup store and watched the parade of prom girls, I quietly reminisced and wondered what their night would be like. Would it end in disappointment, an irremovable stain on their dress and a date with better pot than manners? I hoped not. Because I saw the same thing in them that I saw in myself before my first prom: excitement.
The shy, smiling girl whose plain face and quiet nature seemed at odds with her anxious parents, hovering with a camera to capture her every move. The loud and obnoxious brat whose complaints elicited surprisingly strong words from the mild makeup artist, while her mother looked on in disinterest. The beautiful political fanatic, whose opinions and clothing sat on her like an often rehearsed, unbelievable speech lying atop a podium.
They were all different. Yet I could see the excitement in the tilt of their heads, the drumming of their fingers, and the looks in their eyes when they gazed at themselves in the mirror.
This coming weekend I’ll help my sister go through the same motions. We’ll go to the studio and I’ll put makeup on her face and help curl her hair. In the absence of our vacationing mother, I’ll take pictures and stay up late waiting on her to come home. She’ll be just another prom girl hoping for a memorable evening...and even though I think her boyfriend is a douche bag and manipulator of the first order, I’ll do my part to make it just that.
And as her big sister, I’ll do a bit more for her than I did for those other girls. I’ll give her a few words of wisdom:
Enjoy the preparation – it’s often as fun (or more fun) than the actual event.
Don’t eat teriyaki chicken or any other saucy food at dinner.
Always remember to lock doors.
And if the night turns out to be less than you thought, don’t worry about it. You’ve got one year left to get rid of that douche bag boyfriend and get it right. The after parties are always better when you’re a senior.
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