Prom bomb, un-edited because I’m not sure I can survive re-reading it

Recently, after complaining on Facebook about how a prom-related copywriting project evoked cringe-inducing memories, a friend from across the globe presented something of a dare. He said that if I agreed to write about my prom horror story, he’d share his as well. Kind of like “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” but more revealing. Because actual nudity doesn’t compare to this sort of naked emotional ridiculousness. Of course I accepted the dare, then regretted it, much like 90% of my middle and high school experiences.

The 10% I don’t regret include hilarity with two of my best friends/fellow comics from that time: Alison and Tony. We were obsessed with “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective” and when I say we watched it 300 times, that’s a conservative estimate. I still know the whole film by heart and quote it often, if only in my head. I usually can’t find my keys or phone, for example. And in the midst of one gut-wrenching search for my stupid-ass phone, the phone I’d held in my hands earlier that same morning, intolerable frustration almost swallowed me whole. But Ace was there to rescue me. And so instead of punching myself in the face, I posted my mental dialogue on Facebook:

“Couldn’t find my phone and found myself quoting Ace Ventura. ‘SO FAR… no signs of aquatic life… but I’m going to find it. If I have to tear this universe another black hole, I’m going to find it. Because I’ve… GOT TO, MISTER!’ Sadly dorky, ay? Still love that movie.”

People (including Alison) replied with other quotes and all I could do was hit the “Like” button but I’d have hugged them if I could.

The other component I don’t regret is my basketball career. I also played softball for about a million years, mainly because my mom played softball so it felt like I was carrying the torch. For unknown reasons, I ran cross country, after quitting soccer despite a call from the varsity soccer coach asking me to reconsider, a gesture I blew off so arrogantly that I still wince when I think about it. Despite being a pitcher, albeit who lacked speed and subsisted mainly on a super slow change-up that blew batters’ minds in that no pitch could possibly be that slow and lame, and tying for first place in my inaugural cross country race against snobby Wellesley thanks to a potent mixture of anxiety and adrenaline, I didn’t give a shit about either sport. And in many ways it absolutely showed. Presumably by default, I was captain of three sports and I still feel guilty about that. Because I only had eyes for basketball. The rest of my athletic career amounted to half-assing, filling time, and fulfilling perceived obligations and so-called potential. BORING!

Come to think of it, my entire high school experience amounted to half-assing it. All of it. Sure, I earned straight A’s my freshman year, but by senior year, I had some C’s and a big fat D in the mix. Most of the homework and 99% of the reading I skipped completely. And trust me, this all relates to prom. I’m getting there!

I was unsettled.

It’s the best word I can find to describe myself at the time. Never in the moment. Never truly engaged–except when watching or quoting Ace Ventura because that shit was HILARIOUS. Okay and there were other times with those two aforementioned friends when I was fully alive and engaged. Other times I was an asshole, and less often friends and acquaintances were assholes to me, but some of that unkindness is par for the high school course and part of growing the hell up, yeah? What’s not standard or expected is the debilitating fear and anxiety I carried around with me. The level of aversion I had for any remotely meaningful or potentially real interaction. I was a turtle who recoiled into her GAP-swaddled shell at the threat of any positive or negative emotional engagement. It was all terrifying to me. But I could hit three-pointers, so at least that was something. Basketball kept me going and better yet, it was something I could practice obsessively on my own, without dealing with any pesky people or feelings. Without my jump shot, and those laugh-out-loud good times with Alison and Tony, I may not have made it through. In short, I was a mess.

When I was writing that prom copy I mentioned, I googled around for prom content online to get into the zone. I found some clips for teen movies about prom romance. What always boggled my mind about such films, even back when I was their target, was the ability for the kids to handle their emotions, whether sadness and embarrassment, or happiness and connection. I thought, “Like, how do they just sit there feeling sad? How are they so calm?” Or, “WHAT?! They actually pursued and then kissed the person they actually LIKED? Whoa. WAAAAAAY too intense for me to fathom! Maybe the Celtics are on. Ah, that’s better.”

So my prom experiences were lame in just about every conceivable way. I attended both my junior and senior proms and in essence, I had a date for neither. I may have superficially lamented this fact, but not having a real date was nice and safe and therefore “totally cool” (did we actually used to say stuff like that non-ironically?).

You know what? I’m just going to combine both proms into one. They were fundamentally similar. I didn’t mature at all from one year to the next. In fact, I am still probably six years behind, maturity-wise, so for simplicity’s sake, let’s just say it was one giant prom fail. Then again, when you consider that I was only 11 and 12 years old mentally and emotionally, it’s not as bad. I got my period at the same age as girls in the 1800’s, around the age when a typical modern-day girl gets her driver’s license. I was playing with the neighborhood boys (whom I babysat and would constantly come to our home’s back door and ask my mom, in unison, “Can the girls come out?”) until age 15 or so, long after my younger sisters had abandoned games like war and laser tag. Okay, that doesn’t help at all. Next!

Let’s start this stroll down prom memory lane with a note about the preparations: Tanning, dress shopping, and then, finally, the day-of hairstyling. All were fucking disasters. My skin doesn’t belong anywhere south of Scotland, so it sure as hell didn’t take kindly to fake baking on an accelerated, procrastination-fueled timeline. It’s sad because part of me really believed I could become perfectly bronzed in a single week. But, I persevered and managed to achieve a lush shade of pink in time for the big night.

Dress shopping was a joke. I didn’t have breasts then, and barely do now, so it was like a ten-year-old playing dress-up in a pageant queen’s closet. I carefully chose dresses with wiring to support ample bosoms, and so basically wound up walking around with two empty boob tents on my chest. I simply was not capable of choosing a dress that actually fit me, because that would mean I accepted myself as I was. Hoo boy! I fooled no one. By now I’ve accepted my body. I truly have. But, and this is actually sad and not so hilarious, I absolutely hated it then. I could never stand in a natural, unselfconscious pose, for fear my flatness would be too obvious. This worsened my unsettled nature, my inability to connect authentically with people. It’s hard to really tune in to someone when half of your brain is devoted to devising the perfect positioning in order to conceal your entire upper torso. I absolutely loathed my lack of cleavage, the way I now loathe the idea of healthy women cutting up their bodies to fit loathsome ideals. If a movie was made of my high school experience, it would be “Loathing in Las Natick.” Or possibly, “Dazed, Confused, and Flat-Chested.” This particular insecurity was crippling and resulted in architecturally inappropriate prom dress choices.

The hair. Oh, the hair. The tale of my prom ‘do is wrought with suffering. I had major issues about my hair. At the time, it probably seemed pathological. But the hair-related agony makes sense to my current self, enlightened by time, therapy, old fashioned soul searching, my husband, childbirth, and motherhood. In that order. Hair was something I could control. In my unsettled mind, I’d lost the body lottery. It was crap. I lost big-time there, clearly. So, where could I win? Where did I have some control? My stick straight blond hair! I put an insane amount of pressure on my hair (and to a lesser degree my clothes, which I also obsessed over unhealthily–and pointlessly, as witnessed by many days of wearing all denim and my mom’s too-small shoes), which resulted in a problematic phenomenon of “trying too hard” and therefore “looking like an ass.” I’m going to gloss over the years involving volumes of aerosol hair spray that would make the EPA gasp and curling iron burns on my face. The years when I appeared to have run into a wall at high speed. I’m going to try to focus on my prom hair, but please note that this is just one example of many frightening anecdotes.

I didn’t do a trial run. I showed up a couple hours before the prom started, at what I considered to be a very fancy salon called Paradiso. The exotic name and soft, flattering lighting evoked Hollywood glamor. It was downright chic compared to the place I’d been going throughout childhood, for hair cuts preceded only by a wetting-down with an old spray bottle: Beautyrama. No, I’m not making that up. That was the actual name, and it was nestled within a tiny, ever-unpopular and depressing mall with horrible, un-Paradiso-like lighting, that also contained a Burlington Coat Factory and some looming storefront that I never could identify but based on appearances was an abandoned and looted Sears.

Anyway, I showed up to Paradiso with complete confidence that they would transform me into a better, more beautiful, curly-haired version of myself. A new “me” that could star in a predictable but irresistible teen movie as the awkward, overlooked and/or ridiculed girl whose last-minute makeover transforms her into every guy’s desire just in time for the dance. I left Paradiso with the mental stability of current-day Charlie Sheen.

I didn’t have any direction for the stylist. No opinion or vision. After some unsuccessful attempts to engage me, the woman went to town. And from the moment she picked up her comb, it was an out-of-body experience. Part of me–the part that clung to a sliver of hope that I was not in fact hideous and disfigured, if only my hair could be styled properly–died that late afternoon. With each twist of the curling iron, and each layer (and there were many) of Aqua Net, my fragile but previously marginally optimistic prom spirit crumbled. I walked out of there with what amounts to a large helmet-like crust of hair, an up-do that was sprayed securely into place after sagging and puffing out away from my head, with a single lonely curl on each side of my face–curls that were in no way different from the long side curls, or peyos, seen on male Chasidic Jews as dictated by the Torah. There were no loose, curly wisps common to Hollywood starlets. There were two tight-ass ringlets dangling from my hair spray helmet, framing my (by the time I reached my car) furious, beet-red face. Oh, but my bangs were straight and practically untouched, adding an odd nod to my everyday look (so as not to disorient people with my breathtaking Paradiso hair makeover?) while enhancing opportunities for prom-night ridicule. It was pure magic.

To my credit, I paid in silence, and didn’t unleash my rage until I was in my car. Not until I had driven half a block away did I scream at the top of my lungs while tearing the helmet apart ruthlessly. Like a caged animal. For several minutes I roared, leaving me hoarse. Some portions of the helmet remained intact. Others were left looking like vertical eruptions of frizz, the hair spray not allowing my hair to behave under the normal laws of physics.

Long story short, after a frantic phone call and deep breaths at home, I headed over to Beautyrama to eat crow and endure the spray bottle. I walked out with a style that was eerily similar, but less encrusted. It was awful, but less so, and I only messed with it for an hour before deeming it acceptable. My hopes crushed, I proceeded to don my boob tent dress and Payless shoes.

My date. In both cases, there was someone I should’ve gone with. Okay, I’ll seperate the two years of prom for a moment. The first year, I really liked and wanted to ask a sophomore kid who’d taken me waterskiing. But I actually liked and was very much attracted to him, and he’d told a friend that he’d say “yes” if I asked him, so that meant he was out of the question. I asked and attended prom with another sophomore guy, one that I pretty much regarded as a douchebag. Someone I didn’t even know. Someone who’d casually insulted my hair not long before. He was perfect! I spent very little time with him at the event, which is exactly what my unsettled self wanted. BUT I had a moment of prom-movie inspired weakness. Toward the end of the night, during the one slow dance we indulged in, I put my head on his shoulder. Because why not? It was prom! I didn’t want anything more than that moment with this douchebag. While my head rested there on that rented shoulderpad, I saw him look over to his recent ex-girlfriend, who was dancing with her older date as well, and shrug. They were both clearly horrified. I found out later that evening that they’d gotten back together right before prom. My humiliation in that moment was intense, but private. I don’t think I ever told anyone about it. After all, what did I expect? That kind of emotional distance and awkwardness is exactly what I sought out and secured for myself. Phew!

The following year, Tony asked me to go to the prom and I was an enormous bitch and flat-out turned down his earnest prom proposal. Even though I wanted to say, “Yes! That would be fun!” You see, we were close! In a “We’re such good friends and could very easily be more” kind of way. So, again, he was out of the question. Honestly, in addition to my many other regrets, I’m so sorry for how I treated Tony. I was a scared jerk, and he was very funny and impressively resilient. Functionally, in how the night played out, we were prom dates, anyway. Along with Alison and co., we hung out and laughed and danced together at some point. I actually had fun that year. Boob tents, unsettled mind, and all.

I don’t remember any post-prom activities except one, and I’m not sure whether it took place after my junior or senior prom: Shooting baskets at the gym alone. It’s the only place I felt really comfortable at that time. It sounds sad, but to my 12-year-old (mentally) self at the time, it was where I belonged.

So, there you go, Aadhaar. I’ve risen to your challenge! I did it in one shot. Yes, I lied about having started it earlier, just to reassure you because I felt bad. I’m sorry. But what you see here is the truth. Or at least the highlights of a fuller more boring truth. And if I survive this level of sharing, I will be an emotional rock. So thanks for that.

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About amberhj

Mom, writer, worrier. And a stubborn idealist nonetheless.
This entry was posted in Commentary and whatnot and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Prom bomb, un-edited because I’m not sure I can survive re-reading it

  1. Meg-O says:

    Thanks so much for this, Amber. I love starting my day with a million laughs…(those are laughs *with* you, of course) I just did a quick look for your junior year prom picture, but uncovered a bunch of my senior year prom pain. Perhaps I’ll write about it!
    I also owe you a huge apology – I’m so sorry I didn’t give a fuck about basketball. I did try to play good defense and I always boxed out.

  2. kathleen says:

    I love this, Amber! Especially the parts about the boob tents. I can SO relate!!!!! Anyway, this is wonderful and honest and hilarious, and I love it. You’re making me remember my own prom experiences with horror and amusement as well! I am so glad I’m not in high school anymore!

  3. gailcornwall says:

    In the hope that high school you will be uplifted by the comparative hipness of modern day you, I still say stuff like “totally cool” non-ironically, which of course means my two year-old does too. You might want to quarantine Stella.

  4. daria says:

    Amber, your prom story and hs life are quite similar to mine. Scary! I ended up going to jr prom with a friend who I asked by saying : ” I don’t like you, but will you go to the prom.” And the only reason I even bothered was because I WON free tickets in some, cruel, random drawing. Sr year I went with I guy who I really liked, only after he was rejected by his love interest/former girlfriend. He pined after her all night, even at the “after prom party” which was at her house (umm, don’t even ask me why I went). *sigh* glad that’s over.

    • amberhj says:

      Daria, I meant to reply to you, sorry for the delay. I laughed at your calling the drawing cruel and I totally get it–like, all those crappy situations that I knew would be terrible but I went anyway. And yes. Listening to the guy I was with (for whatever dumb reason) complaining or pining for some girl? GREAT NIGHT …. your prom night sounds like a bummer. Cheers to that nightmare being a distant memory. At least we can laugh about it now (in between cringes.). Love your blog, by the way.

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