A couple of days ago I listened to a story on This American Life about prom. It got me thinking about mine because the people interviewed kept remarking just how important prom was. One person even went so far as to say it was second in importance to a wedding. Seriously? I don’t know that I agree with that. Prom is certainly a ubiquitous high school event, but it wasn’t anything at all life-changing for me, and it wasn’t because I was an anarchist or anything. I just didn’t really care. I thought it was a dumb dance. I was not one of those people who spent all of high school looking forward to attending. I did finally obtain a boyfriend by senior year so I actually had a prom date. If I hadn’t gotten the boyfriend, I probably would not have gone. I was much more concerned with acquiring a boyfriend than attending prom, and much more surprised and shocked that this happened than I ever would have been at getting a prom date.
For me, the story of how I got my first boyfriend was practically out of a high school movie. Every February, our school hosted a Valentine’s Day school dance. For some reason, one of the most attractive, most popular boys in school asked me to dance. A lot. We danced together all evening. This was a surprise to me. He was Mr. High School All-American boy. Extremely popular, he had attended the schools in my town his entire life. This meant something in our little town; it meant you knew everyone and everyone knew you. This could be a bad thing, but for a lot of people, it accorded them with additional status. Eric had this status in spades, plus he was captain of the football team and President of the Senior class. Seriously. He also had blonde hair and blue eyes, lovely chiseled features, and an athletic build.
I, on the other hand, was not Miss High School All-American girl. I had the blonde hair and blue eyes, but my hair was short, and for the dance in question, I had tried beforehand to trim my bangs. After cutting, I realized they were crooked, so I cut them again and made them crooked the other direction. By the time I was done, they were about two inches long and still crooked. I was also skinny as a rail, with no breasts to speak of. Certainly not curvy. I imagine I was prettyish, but definitely not a beauty and never one of the girls the boys talked about or wanted. I spent most of my time buried in books, riding my horse, or acting weird because my friends thought it was funny and I liked making them laugh. My parents lived like they never had money, no matter how much they had, so my clothes were not name brands, which I cared about in those days. (One nice thing about growing up was giving up that ridiculous delusion.)
In spite of my average appearance and lack of social standing, here we were at this Valentine’s Day dance and Eric was dancing with me. My friends couldn’t believe it. “He must like you!” said Marie. “He keeps dancing with you!” I didn’t quite believe he liked me. Deanna kept giggling every time he came near. “Stop it,” I would hiss to her in a whisper before heading to the dance floor. Kari just smiled her poker-face smile.
Over the weekend after the dance, my friends and I spent many hours on the phone deconstructing the dance and its portent. Did Eric like me, or was he just being nice? I could not believe that he did. They could not believe that he did not. On Monday, I was embarrassed and terrified at the prospect of seeing Eric. We had a class together the last period of the day. I spent most of that day a nervous wreck, wondering what would happen in that class. I was terrified.
Later that afternoon, we were all in Mr. Fisk’s class listening to him drone on about who-knows-what. Mr. Fisk’s stories were fascinating as sophomores and stupid by the time we were seniors. I don’t remember now how it transpired, but somewhere along the line in the class a note was transferred to Eric. I think it was supposed to be from me to Marie or Marie to me, or something like that, but it was about how much I liked him. He sent me a note and we agreed to both ask to go to the bathroom at the same time. A few minutes later, Eric got up, asked to use the bathroom, and left. Heart pounding, 30 seconds later, I asked to go to the bathroom as well. Mr. Fisk was none the wiser and let me follow Eric. He probably didn’t even notice we were out at the same time. We were the good kids, the ones who always turned in our homework and would never leave to go fraternize and cause trouble, so bathroom passes were easy to come by.
Eric was waiting by the bathroom. He was wearing his Levi’s 501 jeans, a pink polo shirt, and white sneakers. I thought he looked amazing. He said hi and then kissed me. Exhilarating.
We were going out after that. We never had a conversation where he asked me to be his girlfriend or anything, I just was. I adored him. Completely smitten, I would do anything he wanted to do or go anywhere he wanted to, just to be with him. Compared to stories of teenage activities I hear about these days, our actions were so tame. I would never have considered having sex with him, not in a million years. Honestly, we never made it past second base, but to both of us, this was a lot.
How is it that I managed to get the most popular boy in school for my boyfriend senior year? I mean really? I think about this time and I have to wonder. I know part of it is that this most popular boy in school was unique in some respects. So often the popular kids are so idealized that we have a vision of how they must be, but to become truly popular and liked by everyone (which Eric certainly was), that person must possess some characteristic of some sort that makes people like them. Eric was truly likeable. Plus he’d been in the same town schools since kindergarten. Plus he was handsome. Really. Blonde. Blue-eyed. Captain of the football team. President of the class. I mean, come on, was this for real?
It was. That is what is so remarkable to me. I look back now and for the first time truly marvel at it. I mean, come on! Do you think he could have been more of a cliché? And it’s even more amazing that I, with my background and thought processes, could have had him as my first real boyfriend. That alone is a feat in and of itself.
One night, we were making out in the backseat of his housemate’s ginormous 70′s automobile. The thing was a boat on wheels. I was supposed to be spending the night at Marie’s house, and a group of us had all gone and done something that evening. Eric and I parked the boat outside her house and started kissing in the backseat. It was cold out and the windows fogged up. At some point, I realized there was a round light moving along the back window. We both sat up quickly and pulled on our shirts (each other’s, as it turned out). Then we heard a tap on the window.
Humiliated, Eric opened the car door and got out. The officer took him aside and scolded him. He then stuck his head in the car and asked me my name and where I was supposed to be. Terrified and humiliated as well, I told him. He said I should go into my friend’s house and go to bed. It was probably only 11:30, but I was scared and obeyed without question.
I spent the next week completely terrified that the stop would show up in the local paper. A weekly, the local paper did not have much to report on, and therefore contained a section listing every petty grievance to which the police force responded. I was certain our names would be listed with our transgression for all–especially and including my parents–to see. Thankfully, this never transpired.
Because I now had a boyfriend, prom seemed like it might actually be fun. My friends were all going and I looked forward to hanging out with them. My mom is an excellent seamstress, and after looking and finding no dresses that I liked, she offered to make a prom dress for me. I picked out a pink satin and some pink tulle. She made a long dress with a fitted bodice, with a pink ribbon around the center and tulle around the collar, which sat off the shoulder on my collar bones. I liked it fine. Looking at it now, I think it’s kind of boring, but I enjoyed getting dressed up. Eric looked amazing in his tuxedo, and he arrived in the boat to pick me up, a pink corsage in hand to match the boutonniere on his lapel.
The best memory I have of prom is that my best friend Marie won as prom queen. She had a huge crush on a good friend of Eric’s named Gary. Gary had a girlfriend, but for prom king and queen, there would be a dance. When it was announced that Marie was queen and Gary was king, I was thrilled to death for her. She was able to dance with the boy she liked for an entire slow song. I could tell watching her dance, her head against his shoulder, that she was in heaven.
After prom, we went to a party at some friends of Eric’s and sat in a hot tub before he took me home. Most of them were drinking alcohol and this scared me. I didn’t find that part of the night much fun. I can’t remember when I got home, but I don’t think it was very late.
One other huge aspect of my relationship with Eric was that shortly prior to our starting to date, he had become “born again.” Over the course of our courtship, he became more and more heavily involved in the church. In an effort to please him, I went along. I had been friends for some time with another girl who was extremely involved in her church. I started going with her, mainly because I had a crush on David W. and David W. was in youth group. David W. would flirt with me at youth group and I enjoyed this. Also, my friend’s parents would take us for pie after church. Having grown up in a family that went out to eat maybe once every two years, this was an immense treat.
Interestingly, while I was attending church and trying to be a good Christian, I was discovering a lot of hypocrisies that bothered me immensely. One morning, the pastor described faithful Muslims praying to Mecca. He spent a good deal of time describing the scene, to the point I could practically feel the warmth of the sun on my back and the rug under my knees. Then he dropped a bomb saying, “Isn’t it a shame that all these millions of faithful Muslims are going to hell? I could not tolerate or believe this. This sermon was a turning point for me. I had serious doubts about Christianity and organized religion in general anyway, and that statement made me start looking for inconsistencies, which were not difficult to come by.
However, I kept my doubts to myself. Eric would drag me to youth group on Wednesday and church twice a day on Sunday and I would go with him because usually after we would make out in the back of his truck and I liked doing that. I went along with the church thing, even so far as memorizing the entire book of Romans because he did so as well, and I believed that he wanted me to. I would pray with him, and discuss the Bible with him. Mainly I just wanted to be with him and this offered me the greatest opportunity.
Our small town, like many, had started offering an all-night graduation party to the entire senior class. The point was to keep teens from drinking and getting hurt or killed as a result. I was not a drinker and looked forward to graduation and the graduation party. My grandparents had flown in from Kansas for the event and I was excited by the prospect of all of it.
The day before graduation, Eric took me out in the afternoon to eat at a nice restaurant. When we arrived back at my house, at the top of my parent’s driveway, he got out and gave me a hug. Then he said, “It’s been really fun hanging out with you, but we are going to have to stop. I’m going to college in the fall, and I am afraid our relationship is interfering with my relationship with Jesus.” There were more words, but I don’t remember them.
I was incredulous. I had not seen this coming, not even close. Heartbroken and numb, I stumbled into the house and into my bedroom. I spent the rest of the afternoon lying on my bed in a pool of misery. We were to attend a Baccalaureate dinner that night. I dressed in the new outfit my mom had bought for me, a knit yellow sweater and white cotton skirt. I don’t remember much of the Baccalaureate dinner except there were some speeches. Eric was there, but he ignored me. I stared at my plate all evening. My parents and grandparents could tell something was wrong, but didn’t say anything.
Later, after we arrived home, I went again to my bedroom and lay on my bed, trying not to cry. My family wanted me to come in the living room and visit, but I just couldn’t do it. Finally, my grandma came in to talk. I confessed what had happened. “Oh, honey,” she said, rubbing my back. “It seems so hard now, but you’re so young. It is for the best.”
I still remember her voice and the way she stroked my hair and back. I also remember that graduation and the party were a drag. My friends kept trying to get me to liven up, but I just couldn’t do it. Forever after, when I think of graduation, the memory is colored by the fact that the day before the ceremony my first love dumped me for Jesus.
It was the best decision of course. Eric became a successful missionary in Africa. He is still there, working on a Bible translation of some sort, I think. I saw him at our reunion and it wasn’t weird at all. Time heals all wounds and we had grown up. I was such a baby at 17. I am immensely grateful Eric didn’t do something stupid like ask me to marry him. I would have said yes in a heartbeat and it would have been the wrong decision. We would have been divorced by the time we were 20. I’m so different from that person, I can barely remember how I thought or acted. Most of what I remember about myself at that time makes me cringe in embarrassment. I certainly could never have been a Christian. The seeds of doubt in organized religion had been planted, probably before I knew the ground was tilled.
In any case, this was my prom and the story around it. Nothing spectacular, just an old memory. It’s funny, as I’ve been writing this, how much I actually do remember. Life is interesting and so much is forgotten. I’m glad I remember this.