I was in fourth grade the year my older sister went to her junior prom. At ten years old, I had reached “double digits” and become, overnight, a “big kid.” I was as old as I’d ever be.
Christina was 17, and I watched her prepare for prom with the feverish tenacity of a much younger sister. She didn’t mind. I sat on the bathroom counter, arms clutching my knees to my chest, as Christina leaned into the bathroom mirror and applied – gasp! – mascara. And then blush, and even some lipstick, a creamy pink. Her hair in a loose up-do, hundreds of bobby pins hidden under the pretense of a casual bun, loose tendrils accenting her almond eyes.
And her dress! A Tinkerbell green and yellow with sparkles, in two pieces, a poofy floor-length skirt and a tight bodice with lacing up the back. I stood, transfixed in the doorway of her bedroom, as Mom helped her get into it. I noted the smoothness of her shaved legs as she slid her pedicured toes into heeled sandals. And there she was, queen of a kingdom to which I did not have citizenship.
We have a picture from that evening, taken on our front lawn. She in her gown, aglow in all her pre-prom glory, proud mother and father, a couple of rapscallion brothers for whom I had no use at this point in my life, and me – in my own fancy dress and a painfully tight ponytail high on my head, standing with my arms around my sister as if I had played some pivotal role in making her beautiful. She was beautiful.
I wouldn’t see her until the next morning, when she’d come home in jeans and a t-shirt, hair ruffled, and a sleepy, maybe sheepish, look on her face. She’d nap for a few hours then wake up and we’d ask her how it went and then life would resume again as if prom had never happened.
* * *
I am now a graduating senior at Dartmouth College, a small liberal arts school nestled between green hills in Hanover, NH. I’ve spent the last four years blissfully not-thinking about my high school prom. My own senior prom and all its “prama” sat, settled into a comfortable past, four years behind me. And yet somehow, about a month before commencement, on a May night that followed a day so brilliant it seemed the sun would never set, I found myself walking with the twilight across the campus green and into a high school gymnasium parking lot, flanked on all sides by high schoolers.
Prom loomed once more.
About a week before prom I’d arranged to talk to some Hanover High students. We met in the main entrance of their school. A prep school posing as a public school, Hanover High is the crown jewel of New Hampshire’s school system. As high school students in a neighboring New Hampshire town, my friends and I knew Hanover High as the school to churn out Ivy Leaguers. We resented that. And we hated them, too, because they were frustratingly good at every sport. They were the overachieving sibling; we were the bitter youngster.
Even though I lived minutes from Hanover High as a college student, I hadn’t been there since my last high school basketball game. So on that rainy Tuesday, I convinced myself that the nerves I felt as I parted the doors of the main entrance were the result of years of pre-game jitters. Back then, stepping off the bus at Hanover High before a game was like descending into the Coliseum before a gladiator fight. My body was conditioned to feel nervous at the mention of Hanover High.
Or maybe these weren’t just the nerves of memory association. Could I possibly be anxious to walk into a high school and talk to seventeen- and eighteen-year-old students? I didn’t let myself wander too far down that path. Instead I pushed aside my fears and gave myself a pep talk. “You’re here to talk to high schoolers about prom.” It wasn’t much of a pep talk.
Brendan, the boy with whom I had set up the meeting, greeted me at the main entrance with a massive smile. He giggled as he introduced himself. I think he may have giggled the entire time we spoke. My first impression was an awareness of the size of my own body in comparison to his tiny frame. He looked like a small, small child. I had to keep reminding myself that he was, in fact, just four years younger than me.
But boy, was he a sweetheart. His small size, tight curls, and sweet disposition made him downright cherubic. He’d brought a few friends to talk to me. As we slid into the cafeteria table situated in a corner by the main staircase, I could tell by the friends’ reactions to him that he was The Guy; the big man. I’d had friends like him in high school. I suddenly missed them.
He told me he was coming to Dartmouth in the fall, that he’d be a freshman on the soccer team. Something like sadness crept into my voice as I told him how awesome that was, how much fun he’d have. A vision of myself in my approaching graduation gown, and Brendan in his, surfaced in my mind.
I began to ask them questions about prom. It was that Saturday. What were they most excited about?
“I’m not really looking forward to it. I’m just going because it’s my senior prom and I feel like I should go.”
“Less freedom, less people, less substance. More food. So.”
Who were they taking?
People take a date “just so they have that, like, couple feeling. So they have someone to dance with.”
“I mean, it’s second semester senior year. I don’t really want a ‘thing.’”
Why wasn’t it at an off-site location?
“When it’s off campus, there are lots more problems with substances and stuff.”
“That’s exactly why we want it off campus.”
What happened before and when do they actually go to prom?
“I would say I’m most looking forward to the pictures before.”
“Do people show up late? Do we show up late? I don’t want to show up on time.”
“We should show up a half hour late.”
Brendan’s friends, Fifi, Ben, and Chi, played off each other’s conversation with the ease of four kids who had been in classrooms and on teams and in clubs together for years.
At one point, Ben explained in great detail a class-wide game that occurs in the final weeks of school, and boasted to me that the winning team gets $1,000.
“He’s Jewish.” Brendan said.
Ben, who is Jewish, laughed.
“You know that was out of love, man,” said Brendan.
By the end of the conversation, I’d joined their team of four to make five, and soon I controlled the court. Unintentionally. It just so happened that their prom weekend was also that of our big college spring party weekend, Green Key. When I asked where their after party was, they practically shivered in their seats as they leaned in closer.
“I mean…” said Fifi, “it’s Green Key.”
An image came into my mind of little cartoon characters with big beer mugs in place of eyes.
“Do high school students really party on campus?” I asked. I knew they did. I just wanted to see what they’d say.
“Ninety percent of seniors have been to a fraternity party at least once,” one of the boys answered.
An epiphany popped into Brendan’s mind and bubbled to the surface, along with a giggle: “Maybe we’ll see you out at the frats. That’d be so ironic.” So ironic, in fact, that he said it again. “That’d be so ironic.”
Fifi asked, “So what is the security this year? Is it just, like, regular fratting?”
“Fratting.” Security at fraternity parties. These were new concepts to me.
I began to feel like I held some coveted information. I became the interviewee in front of a panel of interviewers. They understood they had leverage. They knew I wanted in to their party, needed it for my story.
Then Chi popped the question. Or not a question exactly, more of an idea. “You could be my date,” he said.
“Don’t you already have one?”
“Yeah,” he said, shrugging. “But she’s expendable.”
I said yes. I was going to prom.
* * *
I was a twenty-two-year-old Dartmouth College student, and I was attending Hanover High School Prom with my new friend, Chi Zhang. I occupied some strange in-between age-space. I was four years and four “grades” older than Chi and his friends. I was not old enough to be the creepy older person stalking around school, but I wasn’t young enough to be considered an equal.
“Oh, you’re a college student?” one of Chi’s friends asked me, as if I had just touched down from my Martian homeland.
What this all boiled down to was a constant, gnawing, insecurity. At the start of prom, this would translate into extra time spent in the bathroom, a lingering drink at the water fountain.
Was I cool, or sketchy? I couldn’t get a read. That shook me.
Chi was a Boston University-bound (“Class of 2017/Swag” he boasted to me in a text message) eighteen-year-old with black hair and a sharp, staccato voice. He was handsome in a mischievous way. His sly smile slid out the side of his mouth as he spoke.
He liked to talk about partying. When I met him to walk over to prom together, he flashed me his fake Dartmouth ID, a flimsy, over-saturated piece of computer paper.
“How’s this look?” he said. “Will it get me in?”
This was no joke. He was a serious partyer. At least, he wanted me to think he was.
We walked from a restaurant in town to the high school, Chi, his friend Sandy and his date, and another girl – Chi’s original date. She wore a plain dress and her hair had a tough dye job. A botched attempt at going blond left a distinct line between brown and yellow halfway down her head.
We exchanged a few territorial glances.
Chi looked sharp, sharp enough to cut up the dance floor, which he would. He wore a crisp black tux, a sky blue and blood orange striped tie, and mirrored aviators.
I sized up the two girls as I walked behind them. Each had a hint of that lanky self-consciousness – arms held across the chest, frequent hair adjustments, lots of giggling. These were the tender trappings of an awkward time in my life I remembered all too well. It made me cringe a little.
Earlier in the evening, I had imagined these girls getting ready as I prepared alone in my off-campus college house, a run-down eighteenth-century colonial that has tried desperately to keep up with the constant ebb-and-flow of a college town. I showered and wrapped my hair in a towel. I stood in front of the mirror and looked deep into my own face. Prom. I let a breath out. Visions of my own senior prom flashed back at me from the mirror. My mom taking me to my hair appointment, offering lipstick color advice (“This pink will look good with your skin tone, honey”), tying up the navy ribbon on my floral dress, my dad whistling flattery as I walked down the stairs; my date, one of my best friends, and his shaky hands as he handed me my corsage. My younger face, brighter eyes. All anticipation.
I had wanted to experience that again with these girls, but Fifi sent me a last minute text message un-inviting me from the get-ready party: “I talked to the hosts and they didnt rlly want to have other ppl here sorry!”
I slipped on my little pink-and-purple flowered sundress and blow-dried my hair, leaving it down straight. I flew through my makeup bag: blush, light eyeliner, no eye shadow, a few wand-waves of mascara. I pulled flat neon orange sandals over my heels. I wanted to fit in, but I didn’t want it to look like I was trying too hard.
As I was about to leave, my housemates stopped me. One had a camera. “Ready for your pre-prom pictures?” she asked.
In our backyard, amid strewn plastic cups and old couches passed down through the generations, I stood for my picture as one of my friends stood behind me as my date. Her hands placed awkwardly on my hips, both of us stood sideways to the camera.
We couldn’t stop giggling.
* * *
Nerves shivered in my fingertips as Chi and I made our approach. It was 8:30 pm; the dance had started.
In the parking lot, Chi nodded hello to teachers and administrators. “How handsome you look!” they crowed. Chi told me he thought it was funny that the teachers get all dressed up for prom. Middle age women in fancy pant suits, one in a chic tight black dress. Older men in jackets and ties. Didn’t they know this event wasn’t for them?
I’d been briefed on the walk over about how “stupid” the set-up would look. How the dean of students and the teachers insisted the event be in the gym to keep kids from showing up drunk, which was easier to do at an off-site location. The teachers and planners thought they’d make up for it by transforming the gym into a prom paradise. This resulted in the installation of a giant tent inside the gymnasium, and had the added benefit of a $50 per person prom ticket cost. My fellow prom-goers were neither impressed nor amused.
Once inside, we walked a brief stretch of hallway before coming to the gym. White sheets clung to the walls, concealing lockers and doorways. Inside the gymnasium, twinkly lights came from and went to everywhere without beginning or end. Some combination of high tables for chatting and low tables for sitting were scattered in the corners. Through a gazebo adorned with freshly purchased fake flowers appeared two tables of buffet: meatballs simmering in red sauce, teriyaki chicken wings, pasta.
A mock bar (from which Chi ordered a Shirley Temple) stood in the corner. A teacher manned the bar and asked me with condescension so saccharine I could already taste the grenadine syrup, “And what can I get you to drink, ma’am?” I ordered a Diet Coke.
And then we plunged in.
Or, rather, Chi did. He wanted to talk to everyone. And he wanted to introduce me to everyone, too. He had a specific formula for making his way around the room. We couldn’t linger in one place too long, and if we ever did stop and it was just the two of us, he’d point something out and give me a little lesson about it.
“So our DJ’s actually pretty sick. He’s in the grade below but he’s so good he gets to come to senior prom. He’s even done some events at the college.”
Chi was becoming the ideal reporter’s sidekick. Especially in light of our dance floor performance.
Indeed, soon we found ourselves at the edge of the dance floor. Like hesitant swimmers dipping toes into cold water, we kept a safe distance at first. One of the other girls we were standing near leaned towards us, put her hands to her ears, and said “Ick, this music’s worse than Abercrombie!”
I wasn’t sure what she meant exactly, but the loud music and my hesitancy to come off as too old for Abercrombie jokes led me to leave her comment unquestioned.
Chi looked on, and commented, “Man, check out that grind scene. If we go in there, we won’t come out.”
Ah, yes, grinding. How to describe the phenomenon of all high school phenomena. Hormonal bodies pressed up against one another, hips shifting back in forth to the beat of the music, hands God knows where. And each couple right up against the next to form one, gyrating, protective pack, safe from all external forces.
Chi and I would not partake.
Instead, we picked a spot just outside the grind cluster and started shimmy-shaking with a few other non-grinders to the beat of the music. Hands flying, hips going, all at a safe distance. At this point, I was unsurprised when, five minutes in, Chi started unfastening his tie and unbuttoning his shirt part way down. It wasn’t hot, but we were having fun and dancing up a storm and he wanted the place to know it.
And we were having fun. A tiny girl in an overwhelming pink and white, ribboned, embroidered, floor length dress shouted at us from her grind-stance, “Wow, you guys look like you’re having more fun than anyone else here! I wish I was dancing with you!”
Chi and I looked at each other. He had one end of his tie in each hand and whipped it back and forth behind his head.
“I represent prom!” he shouted.
“Yeah, Chi!” I yelled, “You are prom’s essence!”
And he was.
* * *
We danced until we were sweating, then danced some more. A couple of hours went by. It was Chi’s night. He found more friends and danced with them. His expendable date inched closer, and Chi let her. I knew my place. I grabbed Chi’s shoulder and told him that, unfortunately I had to go.
He offered me his arm, I took it, and he walked me to the parking lot. I gave him a hug, thanked him for being such a good date, and told him to let me know if his friends made it out to the college later than evening. I said I hoped to see them, and I meant it.
I crossed the Green back onto campus. At the darkest spot in the middle, where the paths cross, I looked up to see the Big Dipper spilling out over frat row, my destination. I had the feeling I get when, part way through the night, I wish it could all start over again right then and there, to keep it from ending; a tingling nostalgia for the present.
Here I was, leaving high school prom with the same feeling, but my night, the night of a college student, was technically just starting.
A few hours later, Chi called to say he couldn’t get into any campus parties. He’d retreated home, defeated. There wasn’t much I could do about it—his fake ID didn’t pass the test—but I felt like I had somehow let him down. I hung up the phone and picked up my drink, another cup of liquid gold. And another college party, another night. One of my last, I realized, looking around. Pausing in the middle of my crowd, I stood still as the room swirled on around me. The stars outside, the room and me, one blurring around another like the forgotten words of a drunken night.
Chi’s post-prom aspirations suddenly seemed at once heroic and tragic. I had a sense of panic as I saw my own post-graduation aspirations, too, standing small but mighty, a tiny David against a hulking Goliath of the real world. I felt like Chi with his flimsy, rejected ID: young.
The night charged on. Hours slid down our throats and settled in our bellies. When we could tell morning approached, sensed day nipping at night’s heels, we gave in and went home. A practiced retreat.
The next morning, one fuzzy yet conducive to lucid thoughts, I texted Chi to say thank you again for the night. A few text exchanges later led us to the topic of our plans for next year. I told him I was moving to Boston. Chi was delighted. “BU parties,” he texted back. “you’re invited. i’ll see you in bean town.”
40 Towns is supported by the Dartmouth College English Department Class of '54 Fund.