Prom and Other Fairy Tales
I never went to my own prom, but I do have a prom story. It’s from nearly 50 years ago, the latter half of the 1960s, in San Francisco.
My older sister, Roxanne, had accepted two dates to senior prom. She only confessed her dilemma to our mother in the final hours before both unsuspecting boys were due to show up at our door. By then, it was too late to do much about it. Her escorts would have already purchased flowers and tickets, rented tuxedos, gotten hair cuts and borrowed cars for the big night.
Once informed, our mother devised a solution with typical no-nonsense alacrity and just as swiftly set her plan in motion. Roxanne would go with the second boy who’d asked her, the one my sister preferred because he was “cooler.” I would accompany the boy whose anxious invitation Roxanne had accepted over a month earlier, when she’d been afraid no one else would ask and thought that going with him was better than not going at all.
“It will all be fine,” Mother said. “They’ll fall in line when they get here. People usually do what they’re told.”
Mother’s solution to the mess my sister had gotten herself into both terrified and thrilled me. The night could be magical in some unforeseen way, or another opportunity for abject humiliation. I was fourteen. My conversations with boys were of the imaginary variety, or in response to some unwelcome observation about my height, hair or complexion. I did not consider myself the sort of girl an older boy, any boy for that matter, would ask on a date, let alone to his one and only senior prom.
I still remember some aspects of that long-ago night in detail. Others are a blur.
For a brief hour or two, I was the unaccustomed target of Mother’s attention as she worked against the clock to make me presentable before the boys knocked at our door. Judging by her rumpled eyebrows and grim mouth, the challenge was formidable.
In the small dressing room that joined our bedroom with the one bathroom, Mom riffled through my sister’s clothes for a suitable dress for me.
“Raise your arms,” she said.
I’d already been ordered to strip to my underwear. I was a department store mannequin as Mom slipped first one frock then another over my head. She tugged them into place and stepped back to consider the effect in the full-length mirrors affixed to the closet doors. She decided on one of the shorter dresses, made of a stiff, unforgiving fabric and with a wild pattern of oversized red, orange and yellow flowers.
“But all the other girls will be wearing floor-length gowns. I’ll look silly,” I said.
“It’s not your prom,” she said.
Head cocked, Mother evaluated my reflection in the mirror. “Might as well show off those chorus girl legs,” she said.
Mom had a matter-of-fact way of cataloging our physical assets and shortcomings. She would remark it was unfortunate that I hadn’t inherited her bosom, but that at least I had shapely calves. She would suggest my sister wear pants, rather than dresses, to camouflage her thick ankles. When we were out of earshot, my sister would mutter, “Bitch.”
Mom plumped up my bra with enough tissue that I filled out the poufy front of the tropical-print dress. She tugged at my matt of frizzy hair. With handfuls of bobby pins and a shellac finish of hair spray, she molded my hair into some semblance of an up-do. She applied makeup, clip-on rhinestone earrings and perfume, stepping back to squint at me as if she were an artist and I her canvas. It was both disconcerting and exhilarating to disappear in the process of being transformed.
I fantasized that when she was done working her fairy godmother magic, a different girl would stare back at me in the mirror, one who was self-assured and sophisticated, a modern-day princess. Even knowing what the parts of the costume were—the gaudy dress, a pair of hokey pumps, old-lady jewelry—part of me wanted to believe that this boy, whom I’d never met and who my sister regretted agreeing to go out with at all, would realize, at first sight, that he preferred to be with me.
When I looked in the mirror, I was the same awkward girl as before, only with clownish makeup and a matronly helmet of hair.
“I can’t do it,” I said.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mom said. “Stand up straight and push out your chest. He doesn’t need to know it’s only Kleenex. Bat your lashes. He’ll be fine.”
Mother was a flirt. She did things with her eyes, which were keen and insinuating, and with her mouth, which was full and sensuous. She’d had many admirers when she was our age, or so she told us. I always imagined she compared me to herself and was disappointed. Our friends’ fathers seemed to like her—evidence of which both fascinated and disgusted my sister and me.
Considering myself in the mirror, I doubted Mom’s practiced feminine wiles would work for me.
My date to Roxanne’s prom turned out to be pasty-faced and pudgy. I recall him looking something like the Las Vegas nightclub singer Wayne Newton, who was a regular on television variety shows at the time. My “Wayne” wore a gray, sharkskin suit that clung to his chunky thighs. Mom informed him first thing that he would be taking me instead of my sister. She stated it as simple fact. He made a sour face and seemed to consider mounting a protest.
“What other choice do you have?” Mother said. Her blue eyes flashed. Her lips plumped. “Go with her or don’t go. You’re both dressed for it. Don’t you think you might as well?”
I was sure he would leave. But he didn’t. Mother had been right. He would do what he was told.
“Go on, pin your corsage on her,” Mom said.
Wayne opened the plastic box with the corsage he’d brought for my sister. I held my breath as he poked the needle through the bodice of my flowery dress and felt even more conspicuous with clashing pink blossoms sprouting from my puffed-up chest.
I could see why my sister preferred the other boy. In contrast to Wayne’s rented suit and slicked-back hair, Gordon had longer, floppy hair. He was casual and slouchy, dressed in a regular jacket, slacks and shoes. This was one year after the Summer of Love—when hippies from all over the world had converged on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. I could imagine Gordon and my sister mingling with that crowd, going to concerts at the Fillmore or Golden Gate Park. Wayne was a holdover from the fifties, a drive-in movie, soda fountain kind of boy.
I don’t recall how we got there, but somehow we arrived at the Tonga Room, a restaurant in the Fairmont Hotel, for dinner. The dining room was jungle-themed, with tiki torches, carved wood masks on the walls and bursts of mist to create the illusion of tropical humidity. We sat at a long rectangular table with half a dozen other couples, girls in teased bouffant hair, fancy gowns with empire waists and big bows, boys in pastel tuxedos. The others ordered steak and lobster and mock cocktails crowned with toothpick umbrellas jabbed into chunks of fruit.
Wayne groused about the Tonga Room prices, about all the money he’d already shelled out on my sister, and about buying me dinner at all. Sunk low in the seat, he glared at Gordon, on the other side of the table.
“I can’t believe she chose a Chink over me,” he said. “He didn’t even get her flowers or rent a tux. Guess Chinks are cheap, like Jews.”
“Our Dad’s half Chinese,” I said, indignant.
Slumped low in his chair, Wayne squinted at me, then at my sister, seated beside Gordon. “Figures,” he said.
As we left the Tonga Room, I teetered on unaccustomed heels, with that uneasy sensation of pantyhose creeping down at the crotch and no discreet way to yank them back up.
A photographer was set up just outside the ballroom. Gordon and my sister joined the line of couples waiting to pose in front of a blown-up photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge, its lights twinkling against a midnight blue sky. I hesitated beside them.
“No way,” Wayne said.
Inside the cavernous ballroom, Wayne and I stood an arm’s length apart. I swayed to the music and tried to disassociate myself from my date by fixating on a tall boy with dark, wavy hair. When the lights dimmed, I lost sight of him.
Wayne tugged me out into the lobby. His hand on my arm seemed a grudging admission. Whether or not either of us liked it, we were together that night. He found a secluded alcove, where all that remained of prom was the music, pulsing through the wall.
“I worked extra hours to pay for this night. It was going to be so great.” Wayne braced himself, his back to the garish wallpaper. “Then she goes and dumps me for a Ching Chong Chinaman.”
He smoked and spewed a diatribe about how much life sucked—San Francisco, high school, girls—everything liberally peppered with racial slurs.
I was a cipher, a captive audience. His venom, hurt and anger were meant for my sister. I understood that, yet my cheeks, lungs and fingertips were molten with resentment. I wanted to defend her, my family, Dad’s heritage. Yet words froze in my throat. Fear kept me mute, fear that I would become a target myself. That he’d want to hurt me. That he’d dump me in a Chinatown alley and I’d have no way to get home. There was a more prosaic, yet no less visceral, side to my fear. I was afraid of making a scene, of pulling the flimsy screen from the charade that I was a prom date, that we were a couple like any other. I would be revealed for what I was: an outsider, an awkward girl, tarted up to pass for something I would never be, Cinderella at the ball.
So I took it like a hapless pincushion, absorbing each poke deep in my gut. Resentment hardened to hatred.
It was Wayne who brought me home at evening’s end. I picture it being just the two of us, out on the sidewalk beneath our darkened row house two blocks from the zoo. My sister and Gordon might still have been at the Fairmont, or they may have been right there with me and Wayne and I just don’t remember.
Beneath the white glow of a streetlamp, he leaned towards me, close enough that I felt his warm breath. Wayne grumbled that, for all the money he’d blown on my sister, he should at least get something out of the night. He stood so close. I thought he was going to kiss me, to thrust his fat tongue into my mouth, or worse. He didn’t. It was just a look before he stepped away, a disgusted leer that gave me a sense of male menace, of what he was capable of doing.
I stumbled up the stairs.
From the relative safety of the landing, I turned to look down on him one last time. Mother had said to show him a good time and he’d be fine. If there were an implied challenge in her words, I’d failed. And although I hated Wayne for all the awful things he’d said, I was ashamed, too. I was disappointed that he hadn’t at least wanted to dance with me and to kiss me goodnight. I was equally ashamed that I’d just stood there on the sidewalk, as if waiting for it, and not pushed him away.
That feeling, of not being what the guy wanted, would become a familiar one, as would my jumble of contradictory emotions, including the belief that it was somehow my fault and that I had no right to feel maligned. I didn’t want Wayne. He was abhorrent to me in every way. Yet I wanted him to want me and I wanted, desperately, to be like other girls my age, the popular girls who kissed their boyfriends, pressed up against their junior high school lockers between classes.
The four years that separated my sister and me had seemed huge when we were teenagers. It’s inconsequential now. We are mothers and grandmothers, and better friends than we ever were when we shared bedrooms and bathrooms.
Not long ago, we met for a walk near my house, along the levee that flanks the Sacramento River. I asked her what she remembered about that night. She hadn’t thought about it for years. She couldn’t recall “my” date’s real name either, but agreed that Wayne suited him.
“I met him one morning before school, at the streetcar stop,” she said. “I think we had a class together that semester. I didn’t like him, not to go out with. But he was nice enough. When he asked me to prom, I didn’t know what else to say, so I said yes.”
Roxanne paused on the trail. Our eyes met. She kicked a pebble off the path.
“I think he really liked me,” she said. “The stupid part was that Gordon was just a friend, part of the group I hung out with. It really wasn’t a big deal that he asked me. I was just more comfortable with him. You know?”
I did. She was seventeen.
I’d always recalled that night from the perspective of my younger self. The ugly things Wayne said. His lumpy unattractiveness. How uncomfortable and conspicuous I’d felt.
Up on the levee with my sister, I got it. It was more their prom story than mine. While I had been uncomfortable, Wayne was rejected, then humiliated in front of his classmates. As for my sister, Wayne told anyone who would listen what she’d done. She was pointed at and whispered about in the halls. Senior year wound down on that bitter note, for both of them.
“I should have just gone with him,” Roxanne said, “What was Mom thinking?”
“I know. I was barely fourteen,” I said.
Old habits persist. I’m older and in some regards wiser, yet the universe still tends to revolve around me. I’d long considered Mom’s decision to dress me up and send me to the prom with Wayne a personal affront and by far the most egregious thing that happened that night.
Growing up in a predominantly Irish-Catholic neighborhood, we were used to people looking at Dad funny and sometimes stretching their eyelids to make exaggerated slant-eyes. I understood our family was different, yet on our own, at school or the playground, me and my sister were white. Her prom was perhaps the first time I’d been so close to it, felt the blind bigotry that came so easily to Wayne. As for the fear of what he would or wouldn’t do to me outside my childhood home, that wasn’t entirely new territory. Growing up girl in the sixties, perhaps in any decade, and with a mother who considered most any male attention desirable, the line between what I wanted and what I thought I should want, or should at least go along with and not make a fuss about, was always a queasy one. I would never have told Mom anything about how I felt that night. If I’d expressed fear that Wayne might have pushed himself on me to get back at Roxanne, I can imagine her saying, “Don’t flatter yourself, child.” As for confiding in my sister, Roxanne would have shrugged; she’d been placed in worse situations.
“Classic Mom, right?” my sister said, pausing to watch the river flow.
I laughed. It was a phrase we often repeat when we get to reminiscing about our San Francisco childhood, about Mom.
“What would you have done if it was one of your daughters?” I asked.
Neither of us had an answer.
“Do you know what happened to either of them?”
“Gordon went to college,” my sister said. “We lost touch. I’m sure he did well. Wayne, I don’t know. I never heard. We were never in the same circles.”
“Maybe he went to Vietnam,” I said.
“Yeah, maybe,” she said.
I never pictured Wayne going to college, but rather working in some old-timey store in the same neighborhood where we grew up—auto parts, or hardware. But I have no idea, maybe he’s a surgeon. I can’t even remember his name.
I asked my sister if she still had the photo from that night, the one with the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop.
“I don’t think so,” she said, with a shrug. “It wasn’t exactly a night to remember.”
I’ve been on a spring-cleaning kick the past few days, sorting through decades of children’s report cards, artwork and photographs. There are multiple sets of prom photos in stiff packets. Untouched sheets of wallet-sized ones. Big glossy prints we never bothered to frame. Sons posed with girls I scarcely remember, one wearing an off-the-shoulder maroon gown and matching floral flip-flops. I smile at the whimsy of the sandals, but I have no recollection of this pretty blonde. Perhaps, like Gordon and Wayne, she was just someone to go with.
Sprawled on the carpet in my office, I rearrange the images of forgotten partners in a deep box. The grown children will stumble upon them one day and be reminded of their younger selves. I wouldn’t have thought so at the time, but it would be nice to have some tangible remnant of Wayne and to be able to at least afford him a name. Even more, I wish I had a photograph of my first boyfriend, a tall boy with dark, curly hair that fell in ringlets on his forehead. We met less than six months after that ill-fated prom, across a wide table in art class our first semester of high school.
I grab onto a chair to pull myself to standing, knees stiff and creaky, fingers grimy with old dirt, nose ticklish with dust. I ease the last box of photographs back onto a shelf and turn out the light.
Dorothy Rice, a San Francisco native, now lives in Sacramento. At 60, following a career in environmental protection, Dorothy earned an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside, Palm Desert. Her first book, The Reluctant Artist: Joe Rice (1918 – 2011), a memoir/art book about her father, was published by Shanti Arts. Her essays are in publications including Brain, Child Magazine, Brain Teen 2016, Literary Mama, the Rumpus, Proximity, the Tin House blog and the Brevity blog. You can find her at www.dorothyriceauthor.com and on Twitter at @dorothyrowena.