Prom Memories Are Forever, If Inaccurate



I would like to say that I kept my mouth shut because, after all, the three teen-age girls trying on prom dresses at the mall were total strangers to me. But after 20 minutes of watching them debate the merits of the green silk vs. the deep red taffeta, I became so involved I could stand it no longer:

"Buy the white silk crepe with the spaghetti straps and get a pair of high-heeled, white satin sandals!" I blurted out to one of the startled girls. "Wear long, crystal earrings and pile your hair up on top of your head like Brigitte Bardot," I advised another.

I'm not sure they had the faintest idea who Brigitte Bardot is and they certainly didn't know who I was, but for some inexplicable reason the three high school seniors seemed not to resent my brief intrusion into their world. In fact, they even allowed me to hang around their dressing room to talk prom dresses, hairstyles and the pros and cons of false eyelashes.

I loved every minute of this brief regression; it was like being back in high school with my best girlfriends. In fact, I liked it so much that driving home from the mall, I decided that the strapless red taffeta was the perfect prom dress for me. Perfect except for one thing: My mom would never let me get away with that low, V-shaped neckline. I would have to do some pretty fast talking to get it by her.

It was at this point that I realized I was being sucked into the Black Hole of Senior Prom Memories.

Prom Night Redux: I'm 17 years old and by three in the afternoon I've already laid out everything I'm going to wear to the prom -- from the strapless, white silk dress to the Merry Widow longline bra that cost almost as much as the dress.

Mom, who would have preferred I wear a high-necked, long-sleeved dress made of sackcloth or some other non-clinging fabric, had fought me tooth and nail over both the dress -- "too tight, too sophisticated, too much" -- and the Merry Widow bra -- "too tight, too sophisticated, not enough" -- but finally, out of sheer exhaustion, gave in.

But to tell the truth, I secretly agreed with her. The outfit wasn't me. It was too daring; a distinct departure from my usual sportier approach to fashion, one that was patterned -- quite unsuccessfully, I might add -- after the models I saw in The New Yorker ads for a store called The Bermuda Shop.

I had discussed some of my fears about this new look with my three best girlfriends one day after lunch period. The four of us were sitting outside, smoking extra-long Pall Mall cigarettes in a clear space under a huge, overgrown bush. It was an offense -- smoking on campus -- that was punishable by suspension, and usually we didn't take such chances. But the closer we got to graduation, the more reckless we felt.

Maybe, unconsciously, we even wanted to be suspended; wanted something to happen that would stop the forward march away from our childhood and toward the uncertain future facing us. And maybe this leave-taking of the past that had nurtured us -- or, in some cases, not nurtured us -- also accounted for the ease with which we all wept that spring before graduation.

It was a time of high emotion. For example, I remember so well sobbing aloud a few weeks before graduation when my English teacher read Keats aloud: "A thing of beauty is a joy forever: Its loveliness increases. It will never pass into nothingness." Looking around the room -- this was an all-girls' school -- there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Of course, passing into nothingness wasn't our only fear. There was also the horrible possibility that your date for the prom would show up smelling like Juicy Fruit gum and wearing a powder blue tuxedo with white patent shoes.

But he didn't. He showed up looking like a movie star -- a strangely exotic figure in evening clothes who bore no resemblance to the 18-year-old boy who hung out on your back porch all summer long.

The night was a blur of dancing and laughter and romantic songs played by a fancy local band. At one point, my girlfriends and I gathered in the hotel's elegant "powder room" to exchange gossip. And there among the silk chairs and softly lit mirrors, we wept and vowed to keep in touch for the rest of our lives.

And we have. Why, just two weeks ago, I ran into Rachael from my high school class. Of course, we haven't seen one another for decades but I distinctly remembered her prom dress. "It was white tulle and the prettiest one of all," I told her.

Rachael broke the news to me gently:

"It was blue. And it was satin."

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