My High School Proms Weren’t John Hughes-Worthy
My prom date, Will, was only 16 but had the good sense to notice the tree at the end of the small parking lot. He skillfully steered his car into the next slot. Instinctively, he realized how awkward it would be for me in my blue gown to avoid getting tangled up in the branches.
His decision-making was silent, but I’d registered what he’d done for me. I got out of the car and met him at the trunk as we watched my best friend’s date park in the last slot. Next to the tree.
My best friend, Anna, hit prom gown gold. She had borrowed her older sister’s dress. It was a one-shouldered floor-length dress with a few flattering wide ruffles.
It wasn’t the neon pink we associate with the 80s, but a bold, sophisticated fuschia. The fabric had a bit of sheen but wasn’t tacky satin. It was a lovely gown then and it’s still beautiful today.
Unfortunately, her prom luck ended with her fashion choice.
Her date was a long time friend of ours. He’d always been a bit quirky but that night he crossed into schmuck territory.
By pulling into that last parking spot, he left Anna to navigate the branches of the tree while exiting the sedan in a floor-length dress with ruffles at the shoulder plus a shirred bodice with fabric prone to snagging — horrors!
Anna was as graceful as one can be in such a situation. She flattened herself against the car inching towards us while blocking the branches with both arms raised.
It’s been almost 30 years and I have never forgotten that image. To this day, my emotions are conflicted: my annoyance at Anna’s lousy date for putting her in that situation; my gratitude that my date had the foresight to park in the next spot over; and my amusement at the visual.
I mean, it was funny. Ridiculous and avoidable but funny.
Will was a strawberry blonde sophomore. Smart, completely lacking in pretension, hilarious, and comfortable in his own skin. I’d asked him after Chemistry class. If I’d not asked him, I doubt I would have had a date. I was accustomed to asking guys to dances, though, since I so rarely got invited myself.
I like to think he was flattered to be invited by a junior. In any case, he agreed. We went as friends. There’d be no romance, but my high school life was never an 80s Hollywood movie. I was content to have someone who seemed like he’d be fun and easy-going.
After dinner, we drove in the guys’ respective cars to the prom venue. I don’t remember much of prom itself, but by some miracle, there is an adorable photo of me and Will dancing. We’re facing each other and I’m laughing heartily with my head thrown back.
As everyone filtered out of the ballroom, last-minute plans were being hatched. Anna’s date, the Schmuck, made it clear he was heading to get wasted at a hotel with a large group. Neither Anna nor I drank, so I wanted her out of that situation.
I chatted with her as she sat in the backseat of the Schmuck’s car. Will and I convinced her to join us. She slid out of the seat and jumped in the backseat of Will’s car. We dashed off before the Schmuck could even respond.
The candy aisle at a local grocery store called our names! We must have looked sweet and silly: Will in his tux and Anna and me in our gowns. We grabbed Brach's candies and other treats, then headed over to one of my favorite secret spots.
There was a private, off-the-grid park north of town. You could park right next to a lovely pond. Sure enough, we were the only ones there.
We gorged on sweets and laughed into the wee hours of the night.
We were just a trio of 16- and 17-year old promgoers living in the moment. We left the deserted park and Will drove us home. Sleep beckoned.
A year later I found myself in familiar territory: asking a guy to be my prom date. My choice for my senior prom was a cute, lanky, awkward-in-an-endearing-way friend.
After a few mutual friends found out who I had asked, they shared their concerns.
Friends: “Um, Bonnie, you know Darren parties, right?”
Of course, I did, so I realized I’d better circle back around to establish the boundaries.
To this day, I cannot believe I had the gumption to walk up and spell things out to him.
Me: “Hey, Darren, you know I don’t drink. And I know you might have different expectations for prom. So here are my ground rules: you can’t drink at all when you are around me. Also, if we go to dinner or do anything with your [partying] friends, they can’t drink either. If you aren’t cool with that, just let me know and you can bail. No hard feelings if you don’t want to go with me anymore, but I won’t change my mind on any of this.”
(Seriously. WHO does that?!? Me. At 18. That’s who.)
I can’t remember his exact response. I do know he was calm and didn’t get defensive. He probably asked to get back to me the next day.
In the end, he didn’t bail on me, picking me up a couple of Saturdays later in his rough-around-the-edges silver convertible.
I wore a bold red off the shoulder tea-length dress. I’d slept in curlers so my super straight hair would have a little body.
There’s an adorable photo of us giggling in my front yard before we hop into his convertible. My hand is near my face as I demurely laugh while Darren shyly smiles. I can’t even recall why we were laughing but I’m glad someone caught that moment.
If he did drink or smoke, he never did it in front of me. On top of everything else, the group we joined for dinner were some of the biggest partiers of the entire grade. Not one of them drank in front of me. I assume they found creative ways to drink, but they honored my strict rules. Which is pretty shocking and amazing.
Darren claimed he had a curfew. (I’m not sure if he did, but I didn’t care. He had been a good date and I didn’t cut my own night short.)
Anna had gone to prom with a different group. Her date was also just a friend. Unbeknownst to either of us, her date had recently had his heart broken. He was grumpy plus his family was super strict. He really did have an early curfew.
Anna and I quickly reconvened after we ditched our dates. In the aftermath of the night’s events, we found one other lost soul, a longtime pal, Robert. His date was rude and surly, so he was relieved when she peeled away from him.
The three of us took off into the night!
None of us had curfews and Anna’s parents were out of town, so eventually, we ended up at her house. After laughing for a while, it became obvious that Anna and Robert had a lot of chemistry. I excused myself and headed home as the sun alighted the world.
Two proms. 1989 and 1990.
A spindly tree. Pretty dresses. Candy. Friends. The Schmuck (okay, I think John Hughes might have been able to work that character into the script)! Laughter. Anna.
No drinking. No virginity lost. No debauchery. No run-ins with the cops. Not even a kiss goodnight. Heck, no one even asked me to the prom. I had to make that happen on my own.
This is not an exciting, titillating story. John Hughes was never going to turn my prom experiences into a hit!
But here’s the kicker: prom isn’t really one night.
It’s a rite of passage. It’s shared by generations.
It’s a memory. That I hold three decades later.
Sadly, the park around the pond where we ate candy is fully developed now so you can’t really access it anymore.
I still chuckle when I think about that tree, though. Whenever I go back home to Tallahassee, I drive past that small shopping area. The restaurant has closed, but that tree?
Yeah, it’s still there.
Author’s note: (1) all names have been changed and (2) this story was inspired by the upcoming graduating high school seniors, the Class of 2020. These are complicated times that require measures that are impacting these kids in a unique way. I feel this loss for them (and even their parents). I appreciate that there is much to be concerned about right now and missing prom could seem insignificant to some. Nonetheless, I feel sorrow for the events that these students will miss.