Michelle Bovalino thumbs through dresses in the Brass Plum department at Nordstrom. Slinky lime knits, stunning black silks, a flighty voile in pink flowers, a glittering white number. But to Bovalino's mind, nothing.
The senior prom is nearly upon her, and all around, girls are buying. Her friends at Fayetteville-Manlius High School outside Syracuse, N.Y., have already chosen their dresses, but they hang onto the receipts, waiting for that other essential element: dates.
At least Bovalino has her man -- had her choice of them, actually. That's more important than what you wear, she says. "You have to spend the whole night with the person."
Her mom laughs.
She knows that when the guy is long gone, the memory of that night, that passage, can be conjured in the touch of silk and taffeta, hanging 22 years now in the closet.
"I remember the senior prom like yesterday," Donna Bovalino says. When she left for college, she packed up all her high school stuff, her dolls and clothes -- and got rid of them.
Except for the dress. "I just couldn't part with it."
The creamy background of my own prom dress is burnt with age, but the blue and green rayon birds and flowers are as fresh as they were 23 years ago.
The fabric, selected by my sister, suited the line of the dress; it felt like silk but held its bounce. The bodice was open in the back; boning on each side kept it in place. The front was gathered by a matching drawstring that tied into a bow at the nape of the neck.
At maximum dance speed, the full skirt turned into a Hula-Hoop. Standing still, it could be stretched side to side into a 180-degree arch. Dancing, I picked up the dress hem in one hand, and it fluttered like a matador's cape.
Senior prom was the pinnacle of life in a high school run by a Benedictine nunnery. It was our chance to demonstrate our impending womanhood, our suavity, a coming-out for convent girls who handed down from class to class the secret refrain to Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance:
"I wanna get maar-reedd.
I don't wan-na be a nun. Boom. Boom."
Getting there was everything.
There were six of us who hung out together. We discussed what to wear, how to look and who to ask -- and we did it at bus stops, basketball games, the coffee counter at Dunkin' Donuts and on the Staten Island ferry. In the group were Eva, Jean, Angela and Rosemary, who we called Roe.
I remember waiting downstairs at Eva's house while she dialed a fellow named Eugene, of whom she was obsessively fond, from a phone in the hallway to ask him to the prom. I barely had time to settle into the divan when a horrific wail followed by loud sobbing and running feet filled the upstairs. Her bedroom door slammed. I dashed up to find her buried on the bed.
"He said no."
How could he! To Eva, the most generous among us! The girl who cheered the loudest at pep rallies? Gave the best parties? Volunteered her father to walk me down the aisle when the time came, because my own father had died? Who would never say no.
A pall settled over the group until we found a date for Eva, and she agreed to go.
Angela, sweet but chic, asked a nice but unhip guy who looked 50. I invited a handsome blond who I'd met the previous summer at a writing camp. His letters were poetic, but in person he was hard to follow. "What?" I asked every time he said something. My sisters named him Mumbles.
Everything had to be perfect, from the engraving on keepsake champagne flutes to the color of our skin -- healthy tan. We scheduled a day during senior week to lie on the beach. In sand chairs we played hearts, howled at each other's one-liners and tried to explain to a puzzled Roe why anyone would elect her Most Naive of the senior class.
It was cold -- a finicky May -- but we pulled the blankets taut, and moved our sand chairs and reflectors with the sun.
It would be in vain.
By prom night, our faces were in full peel.
This spectacle vied for attention with the scandal that greeted us as we drove up the circular drive to the Motherhouse for punch and cookies. A long tradition, the reception allowed the nuns to check out our dates and dresses and the juniors to spike the punch.
"Guess what?" one of the juniors shouted. "Mr. Zimmer is here with Chris Z. ...!"
Mr. Zimmer was the chemistry teacher.
Chris was a student, obviously wiser than the rest of us.
Oddly, the nuns took it in stride. Did he give warning? His notice? Did they ask him to ask her?
Long into the night we danced in a palace festooned in tiny white lights, tall columns and mirrors. "Evil Ways." Santana. The Who. Uriah Heep. The Skate.
Who could eat, after filling up on all that punch? In vain, it was; the nuns couldn't be distracted long enough for anyone to slip in the vodka.