We got to the high school at about ten thirty, and cruised around the parking lot looking for a space. Harry slowed to a crawl as we passed by an occupied car with steamed-up windows, which seemed to perplex Harry. He peered through his eyelashes and stroked his chin, smiling and frowning in quick succession, then glanced over at me.
“What?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said, shaking his head. “You look so beautiful.” He licked his finger and patted down a lock of my hair.
He pulled up in front of a crowd of kids that were hanging out in front of the gymnasium doors to catch some air. He peered out, again, muttering something about smoking, then smiled and said, “Madam, you’ve arrived.” I opened the door and gathered the folds of my dress around my legs, being careful where I stepped with the magical shoes. With everyone watching, I was glad I’d thought to wear deodorant. I turned to Harry, unsure of myself for a moment, and he gave me a cool look, sucked in his cheeks and purred, “Knock ‘em dead, kid.”
I walked carefully, finding my stride in the famous shoes, through an archway made of pink and yellow and white balloons. The gymnasium had been transformed by the prom committee, and I turned all around to stare and appreciate their vision. Round tables draped with gold lamé were scattered with balloons, curling ribbons, and candy. Golden stars moved across the high ceiling, the projected rays of light cutting through wisps of fog. Giant painted windows hung from the ceiling, hiding the concrete walls, showing painted scenes of some faraway land in the sunset, and gauzy curtains wafted around them, stirred by some secret breeze. Clusters of students gathered around clusters of giant potted palms, talking and laughing, sipping peach-tinted soda from sparkling plastic cups, their faces, and the faces of the dancers, sparkling pink and gold from disco balls hung at various levels around the room. A huge banner, not the printed vinyl kind, but hand-sewn decades ago on yards and yards of draped fabric, hung from wall to wall across the bandstand and proclaimed a profound wish for my generation in scrolling velvet letters: “Happily Ever After.”
I wandered through the room with my mouth open, drinking in all the detail and trying to reconcile the well-groomed boys in suits and stylized girls in slinky gowns with the kids I saw every day at school in their jeans and t-shirts. Everyone looked radiant, happy, and a little dazed, just like me, as if no one knew what would happen in the next few minutes. Who would they see? Would they feel a touch on their shoulder? Would their favorite song come on, and would the one they wanted be by their side when it did? So this was prom; I’d made it. I stood in the middle of the room under the star-sprinkled ceiling taking it all in, savoring the moment and feeling lit up by my success in a permanent way.
There was a subtle shift in the crowd around me as the lights changed and the music turned to quiet. Coach Pupkin was climbing the stairs onto the bandstand, followed by the court. The kids all loved “Coach P,” who led our squash team to the state championships year after year. He had wooed me to join the squash team in ninth grade. And tenth. And eleventh. He was not too tall, not too thin, and even now, in his suit jacket, he was wearing his signature orange cap and a whistle around his neck. He played that whistle like an instrument, sometimes blowing a sharp blast, sometimes a low gurgle, always following up the alert with a word of guidance that everyone—not just the athletes—respected as being given with keen observation and caring. He was a solid, predictable, and reliable pillar of our community. And yet, we would all find out soon, Coach P was not what he seemed. (One of the little lessons that fairy tales can teach us all about real life!)
Three guys held the elbows of two girls who teetered on the stairs—I recognized them as Debra and Donna, and suddenly remembered who I was. I thought I had been kidding when I said they looked like prom queens—suddenly it sunk in that all of that wasn’t just talk. Suddenly I could hear, again, everything Sylvia had been saying in the laundry room; I knew they’d been nominated but where were the other contestants? The two of them were wiggling like puppies, jumping up and down, holding each other’s hands (to the dismay of their escorts), as if this really were Miss America. If they had been anyone else, they would have been totally embarrassing themselves, but that’s who they were. I spotted Sylvia standing near the stage, making hand-motions for them to pat their hair, stick out their chests, suck in their stomachs, and smooth their dresses. Coach Pupkin glanced at her nervously as he took center stage. He tapped the microphone, which howled back at him at first, then cleared his throat and started to speak.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,” he said, and everyone laughed at his trademark Disneyland opener. “It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. It’s time to announce those hallowed icons of adolescence, the King and Queen of the Prom.” Suddenly I was aware of Harry in the doorway behind me. I gave him a little wave with my gloved hand (he’d brought a pair of black gloves); he must have found a parking place. He made a “chin-up-and-tuck-your-tummy” gesture and I smiled, jerking my head towards Sylvia. He smiled, rolled his eyes, and slapped himself on the hand.
“As you know,” spoke the coach, the microphone whining at him again, “it was very difficult to narrow the field of nominees to only three men and (ahem) three young ladies.” He shot a nervous glance at Sylvia and mopped his brow with a small rally towel he fished out of his pocket of his black blazer, flashing a bright orange lining. “In the, um, style of—” he cleared his throat again— “democracy, you all voted for your favorites, and I must say, the tally was overwhelming. Three hundred and twenty-seven out of three-hundred and twenty-eight votes were for your new prom King...” There was a drum roll. Two of the three guys shuffled their feet. The crowd was beginning to cheer. My heart was in my throat—I knew who I had voted for— “Je-e-eff Prince!”
Jeff stepped forward, gracefully, and I held my stomach laughing, and kind of crying at the same time, genuinely happy for him and so happy to be there to see him win. If anyone deserved the honor, it was Jeff. He was really cute, of course, with soft brown hair and a dimple when he even just barely smiled, but he was also mature, unassuming, funny, cool, smart, really good at everything he did, and friendly to everyone. My stomach hurt a little with longing for him, missing our friendship, wishing I could stand closer to him. I imagined every girl around me felt the same way. He had ascended to rock star status when he’d gotten hit by a truck last year in Village City when he jumped in front of it, waving his crimson jersey, after winning a football game; the driver swerved and narrowly missed the herd of escaped preschoolers chasing a black cat across the street. Jeff was on the Tri-State news, a hero. Signatures had filled his cast so completely that people had started putting stickers on it and the paper was like an inch deep.
As the coach handed Jeff the shiny gold crown that had been displayed in the front hallway’s trophy cases since 1929, I remembered the cardboard and glitter crowns we had made in kindergarten. Someone in the crowd shouted out, “Speech! Speech!” Jeff ducked his head and his dimple deepened. When the applause died down, he spoke quietly into the microphone.
“Well gosh, I couldn’t exactly vote for myself, could I?”