I never thought I would go to prom, but I went twice, both times with my “dream date.”
When I was sixteen, I met Frank, a magnetic boy from New York City. He had the looks of Iggy Pop and the voice of Biggie Smalls. Frank didn’t have a cell phone because he “didn’t like to be tracked down at any given time.” But he had a beeper, and ten years ago they weren’t obsolete. He’d recently moved to Santa Barbara and we’d met at a show.
Sometimes I’d drive the two hours to visit Frank with James, my ex-boyfriend, with whom I was still good friends. They got along great, both being the same age (17) and into the DIY music scene. Frank knew the ins and outs of downtown Santa Barbara. He walked us into hotels with buffets where we could easily steal food, snuck us into the back entrance of a movie theatre to see Requiem For a Dream, and took us to a photo booth he’d figured out how to use for free. He was a wonderful host, despite never taking us to his house. He persuaded us to jump off a pier together into the ocean.
Once at In-N-Out, the subject of prom had come up. James was talking about going with his new girlfriend (and my best friend) Anna, and Frank turned to me, enthused, and said, “Let’s go together.” I was so excited.
Later that night, a bunch of us crashed at one of Frank’s well-off friend’s empty vacation house. About five of us slept in the California King size waterbed. In the middle of the night, Frank pulled me down to the edge of the bed, down past everyone’s feet, petted my hair, and kissed me.
It was funny how I’d been so fond of his lip ring until it started bruising my face. “Love hurts,” I reminded myself, and tried to ignore the pain. In the morning, we borrowed fur coats we found in the closet and wore them over our pajamas, walking down State Street, holding hands, on the lookout for my perfect prom dress.
The year before, James had called me while driving in his car to ask me to the dance. We were both the only kids in high school with cell phones. He was also the only boy at school who didn’t look like Matthew McConaughey (a good thing). “You should go to prom with me,” he said, or rather ordered, in high school Alpha boy tone. We’d been friends since I went to his Y2K New Year’s Eve party, when the world was supposed to end and it didn’t. Prom was still a month away and in that time he went from the handsome boy in my Algebra II class to my boyfriend.
On one of our early dates, we went night swimming at a natural springs spot in the boonies of Paso Robles. You paid this old man $2, and you could swim all night in his warm, sulfuric pond. Rotting eggs-smelly as it was, it was still very romantic. Under the moonlight, he kissed me for the first time, while an older, meth-faced couple floated by in an innertube.
We went with one other couple to that prom and we borrowed a light green new VW bug, the one that had just come out. It was so much cooler than a limo. If there was a lull in conversation, someone would sing “Da, da, da,” and we felt like a car commercial.
The theme for prom that year was Swingers. In PE class we even had mandatory swing dancing classes to prepare. Most of the guys wore zoot suits. I had a long nude dress with a black mesh overlay with black bra straps, and I put some flowers from the garden in my hair. All the other girls wore Easter egg colors, with sweeping up-dos. The hairstyle dujour was to make small twisties across the crown of the head, held back with sparkly butterfly clips, with curling tendrils in the back. It took place at the hall of an army base. I was a sophomore, and since it was the junior/senior prom I didn’t really know anyone.
James and I spent most of the night sitting at a table. Despite the swing dancing lessons, the DJ played only Top 40. We sipped our glasses of Surge and snacked on little cups of Chex Mix and tore our napkins into shredded piles. We didn’t have anything to talk about. There was something about having to get dressed up and have fun in this area that spoiled all the enjoyment we might otherwise have. Especially in a sad, streamer-filled army base. When the DJ played Lit’s “Miserable” we smiled at each other — it was the one pop song that year we both admitted to really liking. We took our professional couple photos, with stiff, forced hand positions, which we’d get in wallet size to trade with our friends.
After the dance, we drove around briefly through the bunkers, maybe looking for a cozy spot to be romantic in, but the whole night was kind of a mood-killer. Maybe we were both waiting for each other to make it better. I went home thinking, that was a let down.
Sometime after prom, James started getting into drugs and drinking. He’d been this Eagle scout, water polo-playing, good-hearted kid. I knew it wasn’t my fault, but I wasn’t sure why he was becoming distant. I went away for the summer, and he wrote me letters with some duplicate photos from the photo lab he worked at (cops at bloody police crime scenes making Charlie’s Angels poses, home-shot “erotica” from trailer parks) with jokes written on the back. But when I returned, we decided we weren’t going anywhere and broke-up.
Next year at prom, we rolled up in James’ mom’s minivan and I avoided the bong being passed around in the backseat. This year it was at an auditorium by a lake, where they used to hold our dances in junior high. There was a smoke machine. We danced this year. Frank would do this thing where he’d pick me up and spin me around and throw me across the room. I remember Anna’s dress, an old vintage thing, fell apart on the dance floor.
My parents weren’t around, so I had the after party at my house and invited pretty much everyone from our town’s one high school. I loved watching the cowboy surfers, football ‘wiggas’ and lesbian cholas all mix company. Two friends that dressed up as fancy vampires lost their virginities on top of my laundry machine.
But Frank had been bothering me all night. In the hot tub he kept splashing Anna, and he started making references to his art school girlfriend in New York. I pulled him into a room and asked him what was up, what the kiss had been about, and why he was flirting with everyone except me. We were dripping wet in our bathing suits and towels, ruining the leather on the couches. He said it was fun being with me but we were friends and that was it. I’d thought things were going to go somewhere with him, like they had with James. I went to my room, locked myself in and cried. James said from beyond the door, “Are you actually crying over him. Listen, he’s someone you can’t take seriously.”
I was moving away to a new state for my senior year and had one last going away party. That’s when James got wasted and told me he and Frank had slept together on prom night. “He had the hugest cock I’ve ever seen,” he said, and threw up on himself a little bit, passing out on my lawn.
I was too tired to get sad or angry, but I did feel bad for Anna, who never found out. Why did these two boys, who each presented romantic intentions for me at prom, go for each other? Why had I thought budding feelings of love were actually just the budding definition of being a beard? This was too adult for me, and was the last thing I needed as a teenage girl. I had my own problems. I didn’t go to prom senior year.
I haven’t seen James since high school, but I know he became more open about his attraction to guys while still dating girls. Now he’s married to a woman and living in San Francisco.
In college, Frank had gotten some modeling jobs. I saw his Calvin Klein ad in Spin and showed it to my friends at dinner. “You guys want to see my prom date?” I said, holding up the spread, not caring about their cold New England disbelief.
I ran into Frank on Avenue B in the East Village my first summer in New York. He’s now living with his boyfriend in Chinatown. On Facebook, he invited me to his birthday party, and he kept introducing me to everyone as his prom date. It was pretty funny. He pulled out a framed group shot from out prom. I was impressed he still kept it; I certainly didn’t bring mine across the country. “Enchanted Dreams” it said in Jester font with a clip art castle and starry night images printed around the mirror frame. There we were — James and Anna, he and I, and the vampires. It was the end of the night and we all were sweaty, giving blood-shot eyed smiles. “I had some of the most fun nights of my life hanging with you guys, he said, “you were great friends to me.”
10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That could not have prepared me worse for the friends I had at prom.