Note: This is a personal essay I wrote for a friend’s compilation about women’s experiences in 1989. It happens, oh so conveniently, to be the year I graduated high school.
Sixty-two miles per hour over the New London bridge, when you told me. You’re in a tuxedo that’s actually yours, your seventeen-year-old yours. I’m in a black dress full of flapper’s fringe, my face flushed from sunburn and elation. An expensive red lipstick rests in the tiny spangled purse sitting by my side. The kind you need to ask someone to retrieve from behind a glass counter, and if you’re lucky, the saleswoman implies that you’re co-conspirators in the promulgation of glamour. I’m at the wheel despite telling my parents that we would share a limo with other couples. My feet tap the pedals in black satin flats. I haven’t mastered walking in heels, let alone dancing in them. Your bowtie is loose. Maybe it’s off. My eyes are on the road. It’s probably my Style Council tape in the deck.
You struggle with the words. I listen.
It’s torture. You’re by far the most eloquent boy I’ve ever met, but what is rippling through your mind and heart turns into a complete tangle by the time it reaches your tongue. Something about who you are? What our fate is as a couple? The fact that we live in different towns? We’re headed to colleges time zones apart? I can’t make out the line of thought, only that it’s just as confusing for you to string the words together as it is to decipher. Your manner is somewhere between anguished and anxious, and this isn’t where I want this night to end up.
“We just went to the prom. We’re not getting married.” Your brows unknit when you hear me say this, and you exhale. I’m relieved that you’re relieved, even while I’m not certain exactly what you’re relieved from.
The rest of the drive to Tina’s afterparty is a smooth drive, as if I’m accustomed to afterparties and we weren’t invited in a breathless suggestion at the end of the evening. There’s a hot tub. We didn’t bring a change of clothes; we’re not dressed for it. We’re leaning on the deck’s railing. “Close your pores!” you admonish those lounging in the tub. You’re very insistent on this. If there’s alcohol on offer, we’re oblivious to it. Exhaustion from a day at the beach and a night of dancing and talking ushers us back to my car and away to my house. My parents have unfolded the sleepsofa in the living room. “Warning,” intones one of my dad’s infamous signs. “Occupance of this bed by more than one person is ill-advised, illegal, and makes fathers ill.” It’s sometime past midnight. In the morning I will drive you to the train station and you’ll head back to Providence.
We met a month earlier at the pavillion of an amusement park that no longer exists. Convened by a since-disgraced governor, at an assembly of high school seniors from across Rhode Island. It’s a small enough state that we fit in a lineup of folding chairs. We’re seated by academic subject. I’m in the English group. We’re a cross-section of overachievers, the kids who take competitive tests for fun. You’re a couple of seats away from my summer camp friend, Sharon, in the French section. You happily enter our conversation about college decisions. It turns out we were interested in each other’s schools, but chose very different institutions. Sharon was headed to one of the seven sisters.
Certificates in hand, we’re still standing and enjoying the zip of each other’s words. It’s the kind of excited chatter that wells up when you meet one of your kind: nearly breathless, finding that you’re in the same context, no exposition needed so words keep speeding past your tongue. Your dad saunters up. “Tones, it’s time to go,” he informs you. You nod.
“You can tell me I’m being vulgar, you can tell me to go to hell, but can I have your phone number?” I’m slightly stunned by the amount of power you’re handing me. Rhode Island is heavily Catholic, my hometown even more so. I’m not, but I’ve seen the faces of my classmates twisted in turmoil over some priest’s comments during CCD class too often. I don’t take damnation lightly. You step away as soon as I give you the number. I didn’t get yours.
Sharon calls me the next day. “That friend of yours….”. No, I didn’t know him. You had slipped so easily into our conversation that we both assumed you were already known to other of us.
My phone line is mine, private, paid for with my weekend and summer job at a boutique on the beach. A few days after Rocky Point Pavillion the answering machine tape begins to collect your calls. You leave lilting messages, and never leave a number. I’m exhilarated and irked and tantalized. It’s nearly two weeks before I’m actually home when the phone rings.
The pace of our words hasn’t slowed. Music, books, references than bounce between pop and arcane. None of our sequiturs feel off-course. Finally I blurt, what are you doing two weeks from Saturday? You pause to check a calendar hanging in your dad’s kitchen. “Nothing.” Want to go to my prom? Sure. What kind of flowers do you like?
The Amtrak station is nestled in a slightly grimy part of downtown, as most train stops are. I find you on the platform, your arms and your grin wide. We hang your garmet bag on the backseat hook and click the seatbelts in my powder blue Pontiac and I take you to the beach. We watch the vintage carousel horses fly in their circle, search for horseshoe crabs at the yacht club’s pier, devour strawberry-rhubarb pie. We walk past the private cabanas, between the mansions, let the afternoon sun scorch our skin. Our voices haven’t rested. We go to my house to prepare for the prom.
I had a prom date before I asked you. He never asked me about flowers. His voice was flat when I told him I wasn’t taking him.
We enter my house. You charm my parents. You startle my ever-vigilant daschund. We go to separate rooms to dress and preen.
The dress had been so evidently the right one when Mom and I found it. Black fringe cascading down the body, spaghetti straps, a single band of fringe falling off the shoulders, a neckline that would become more provocative a few years later. Fringe that obscured how short the body of the dress actually was. Fringe that swung with delight as I shook in the dressing room. It didn’t resemble any of the poly-satin poof-sleeved gowns hanging on the racks. There was no need to try on anything else.
My hair was already in a bob. An asymmetrical bob, with bangs, dyed the shade of dried red roses. A move towards ladylike sleekness after years of emulating the do’s of Britpop heroes. I gathered the other things a night of dressing up mandated: satin flats. Black hose. Glistening earrings. A small spangled purse, yellow, just to add a small amount of color. A single tube of Shiseido’s very perfect, unapologetically red P6 lipstick. I hadn’t planned on an afternoon in the sun to redden my usually pale complexion, and I don’t own an arsenal of makeup to hide the burn.
You emerge in your tuxedo, white bowtie, hair gloriously swooping over your forehead. We pause for the requisite parental cooing and snapping of photos before climbing back into my car.
We’re headed to New London, a few towns away, to the banquet room of an undistinguished hotel. For all the beach tourism in my town, there is no hotel with a function space. Not even a standard one like this. Round tables, balloons, swags of pastel fabric. Wooden marquis dancefloor. I’ve ordered two vegetarian dinners in hopes that I don’t get handed salad and then another salad as I had as the sole herbivore at last year’s Junior prom. I’m relieved when we get handed food that’s been cooked.
The dance floor stays busy with couples hopping on and off. The DJ probably came with the venue. We’re hearing pretty much whatever Top 40 radio and MTV have been playing. Power ballads and English synthpop with its quirkiness transformed to high-sheen production. I learn that my classmates have an additional chant for Billy Idol’s Mony Mony. Hey, hey what? Get laid, get fucked.
There are a lot of moving bodies but I’m not really paying attention to anyone else on the floor. It’s a blur of shiny materials, rouched bodices, rented tuxes, and curled hair with frozen upright bangs. I’m being spun, turned and dipped. It’s the first time I feel danced with instead of swayed next to. My shoulders are tapped by girls who ask to borrow you. I smile and decline.
We’ve danced for a while and take a seat. Or we do, until we hear the opening synth notes of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love. We lock eyes and run back to the dance floor. At some point we stand for the official photo. My face is still red, we’re beaming and preening. You smile as if posing before a photographer is customary for you.
I’m not focused on who else is there. I have a week or two left of high school, and I will see everybody else there for each one of those days. I’ve already seen them daily for years. In a few months I will be leaving for a college out of state that nobody I know will attend. It’s a small college but bigger than this school. The few months of summer will be spent at my job at a gallery on the beach, surrounded by artwork and the seasonal residents soon arriving from New York to air out their vacation homes. Tonight, there’s rumors, sure, of hotel rooms booked and parties to come. I don’t feel left out of these gatherings. In the ladies’ room, Tina invites us to her house. I field a few questions about who you are and how I know you. I’m talking almost exclusively to you. You’re new to me, this is the second time we’ve been together, I’m so ready for everything new.
A commotion at a table near us. Another student’s date, too old for high school, far too drunk for the night. He’s biding time until his girl agrees to leave. He staggers up, points at you and yells. That man’s a faggot!
The tables around us hush. We get looks of awkward apology but no words from those near us. We were planning to leave in a few minutes anyway. You’re uneasy, your face curls like you’ve just bitten into something and found it foul and writhing in your stomach. You don’t wish to talk. Your words shut down. I can’t explain what just happened. I’m mortified for this small town I live in. For its enforcement of only one type of brute masculinity, for its suspicions of anyone outside, for its belief that the world ceases past its borders. I want out. I have felt out of place most of my life in this town where I have no cousins, no generations back, no shared Catholic catechism classes. For the first time, I feel unsafe, not able to provide you with safety. I want to get you out of here. We leave slowly, as if to say the timeline was chosen by us and we weren’t shoved out by those words.
I had expected perhaps a minor skirmish of ugliness. I hadn’t told you about it; I swallowed it. Murmurs of my abandoned prom date, a short-term ex-boyfriend, the rebound after a painful mistake, suddenly deciding he felt scorned and wanting to make my night miserable. It made no sense to give it credence; he wouldn’t be present and he barely had the energy to direct a plot into my path. It was worth maybe a nervous glance around the room. I didn’t forsee that anything would be aimed at you. And in fact, this wasn’t related. It was a drunk boy who didn’t know me. Only that we did not belong there.
Are we deflated when we reach my car? Let’s say the wind is out of our sails, but perhaps we danced ourselves tired. There’s a stillness in the vehicle, our conversation pausing for the first time. A few twists of the road and we’re back on Route One. Headed to Tina’s, back to that town, at sixty-two miles per hour.