The first prom I attended was with my high-school boyfriend, Frampton. He went to a different school, and it was his prom. The most memorable part of that evening was traveling there. He drove us in a Volkswagen Beetle that he'd converted to a Baja Bug. It was a fun car, but he and his buddies decided to take a short cut through a muddy field. In less than five minutes, we were stuck. The other guys got out of their cars to push us out, while Frampton, the only one dressed in a white tux, steered. It was all very romantic.
But when we went to my prom the next year, we took the high road, in a different car. Because I would know everyone there, rather than being surrounded by strangers, the bar was raised for picking out a dress. I couldn't wear anything too froufrou or Bo Peepish. It needed to be original. Sleek. Unforgettable.
True to every other shopping trip of my life, I tried on a minimum of 45 dresses. Finally, there it was. Dark purple, spaghetti straps, slinky material gathered down the entire length of the dress, front and back. It looked similar to Lily's shroud on The Munsters, 80s style.
“Nobody else will have a dress like mine,” I told Mom. I’m sure she was thinking exactly the same thing.
Of second importance to my dress was the color of my skin. It needed to be a darker shade of ivory. Something less translucent. Of course, being one who plans ahead, I realized this five days before the prom. Since seven hours a day were spent at school, I was short on sunshine time in the afternoons. I needed something quicker. Something magical.
I remembered that my friend Gypsy had a sun lamp; she came to my rescue, loaning it to me. I shudder to think what the wattage was for that bulb that emitted ultraviolet radiation. But it was 1981. The goal was to look like the Coppertone girl on the billboards. I used the lamp several times that week.
When prom day arrived, I looked absolutely sun kissed. I held my head high as we walked into the ballroom of the Astro Village Hotel in Houston. We ate, danced, mingled , took pictures, had an awards ceremony, and made memories – the stuff proms are made of. To end the evening, the Class of 1981 held pinkies as we sang our alma mater. It was bittersweet; I would miss friends who would be moving off to college.
Frampton and I drove to my house to get ready for the rest of the night. Since my friend Rosebud’s prom date was the King of Dullsville, we fixed her up with a post-prom blind date. The four of us drove to Galveston to watch the sun come up, then Rosebud and I went to a special breakfast at a friend’s house.
Back at school on Monday, the electricity of the weekend was still in the air. I couldn't wait to get my prom pictures back from the photographer and relive each moment. When the day finally came, I tore open the envelope. Disappointment was an understatement. The photographer had not adjusted his camera properly. The colors were off. Except my dress; it was still dark purple. And our flowers looked good. And Frampton looked okay. But something was wrong with my face.
"Mom, look at this." I handed her the photo. "This picture makes my face look red."
"Your face was red."
“No it wasn’t. It was tan.”
“It looked tan to you, but it was burned.”
“No it wasn’t. I would’ve known if I were burned. The photographer messed up the coloring. Maybe your eyes are just blood shot.”
I thought she was crazy. How dare she try to rain on my sun-drenched parade. But years later, after graduating from college, I ran across that portrait in a drawer.
“Oh my gosh. My face looks red. Bright pink, actually. Almost magenta.”
“Yes, I told you it was red, but you didn’t believe me,” the Know-It-All Mother replied.
“My face clashed with my dress. Why didn’t you tell me I was red before the prom?”
“I didn’t want to say anything. What could you have done about it? You would have worried about it the whole time.”
Of course, she was right. I was proud of not being too white that night; in my mind, I achieved bronze. My senior prom had been the biggest social event of my life. With the exception of my wedding, it retained that status for decades.
Until two weekends ago.
The weeks leading up to my son, Cowboy’s, prom were filled with excitement, nervousness, and daydreams. And he was looking forward to it, also. Although his skin was the right color for prom, he’d been having problems with blemishes. I made an appointment with a dermatologist.
“Prom is in five months,” I explained. “I’ve tried natural remedies, high-quality skincare, essential oils, changing his diet, and a concoction I brewed up in the backyard, complete with eye of newt. We need help.”
We used the prescription gel she gave us. It helped a little, but not enough. I googled. I polled other parents. I prayed. I changed Cowboy’s pillow cases, nightly. During the entire Teen Acne Fiasco, Cowboy was happy. A zit doesn’t faze him; he knows he’s handsome. But I was a mess. Projection is not a pretty thing; dumping all my anxiety into what I thought Cowboy might be feeling took me down memory lane, to the days when a pimple on my forehead rendered me a Cyclops. Finally, I found something that worked well; with my diligence and Cowboy’s indulgence, his skin got better. I was relieved. And Cowboy, I’m sure, was relieved when I shut up about his skin.
In early March, I panicked. Prom was two months away, and we hadn’t ordered the tux yet. I made an appointment, to avoid a long wait. Apparently, the week before Spring Break, kids are not stampeding to formal-wear stores; we had the place to ourselves.
“You can pick out whatever you want, Cowboy.”
He picked the first black coat he saw. Then a second. Then a third.
“Okay, you don’t need one for each day of the week, James Bond. Just one jacket and one pair of pants.”
He picked his favorite.
Next was the shirt. “Do you want a pleated shirt or a flat-front shirt?” I showed him the difference.
The pleats won.
“Do the young guys wear pleated shirts these days?” I asked the saleslady. I didn’t want Cowboy looking like he’d walked out of a time machine.
“Not as much. But pleated shirts are classic; I love them.”
Cowboy was confident in his decision. He’s confident in most of his decisions, until I butt in.
The best part was next. “You can pick any of these colors for your vest and bow tie, Cowboy. Red, orange, blue, purple, anything. You can pick a solid color or stripes.”
Solid royal blue, of course, was his choice. We were done.
“Okay, what do I owe you?” I asked the saleswoman.
“That comes to $222.”
I heard myself gasp. “Two hundred and twenty-two dollars?”
“Yes ma’am. But I used a $60 coupon; regular price is $280.”
“My gosh, they’ve gone up. I was expecting $95 to a $120.”
“When did you price them?”
She looked at me as if I’d been living under a rock, where no formal wear existed.
“Is this the going price at other places?” I asked.
“Yes ma’am. You can rent from outlet stores, but our prices are comparable for designer tuxes.”
“Yes, your son picked out a designer tux. But you don’t have to rent one of those. We have others tuxedos that are less expensive.” She pointed to the non-designer tuxes. To me, they looked the same as Cowboy’s selection. “The difference is, the designer ones come in slimmer cuts. The others do not.”
“So, the others would hang off of him, right?”
“Yes, they will look boxy, but they will still look nice.”
Nice. Nice is for church. Weddings. Funerals. The Academy Awards. This is The Prom.
“No, his tux needs to fit him. Designer it is.” Cowboy would be accompanied to the prom by Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors. I knew the three of them would have a blast, and look good doing it.
As the Event of the Millennium approached, my butterflies multiplied. It would be the biggest, most formal event of Cowboy’s life, without my being there. Months earlier, his teacher Diana Prince explained, “No parents can come to the prom.”
“Oh, okay,” I replied, surprised that not even parents of special needs kids could chaperone them.
“The school wants the kids to have their space. It’s their night.” I agreed. I would’ve been mortified to have my parents at my prom, although Dad could have out-danced any one of us.
The day before prom, Cowboy had his tux fitting. Several other moms were helping their sons, too. Eighteen-year-old boys still need their mamas. It was comforting. And surreal. The last time I’d put a bow tie on Cowboy was when he 18 months old; I’d taken him to a modeling audition in Houston. But this time he wasn’t melting down and squirming to escape my arms. I looked into his bright, happy eyes as I straightened his bow tie. My toddler had grown into a kind, helpful, joyful young man.
The morning of prom, Cowboy woke up excited. I woke up with the obligatory prom-zit on my chin. There's nothing like acne at age 54 to make you feel young again.
We chauffeured two handsome young men, Cowboy and his friend Casanova, and their beautiful friend Daphne, to the San Luis Convention Center in Galveston. Because secretly installing cameras in the building is probably against some kind of law, Flash and I would have to rely on the post-prom report from Ms. Prince, who met us on the front steps. Looking gorgeous in her teal gown, she looked like a fellow student. Thank God she brought her cell phone and would take pictures, or we might’ve been forced to hire paparazzi. We said our goodbyes, and I wished I were a well-dressed fly on the wall.
As Flash and I ate dinner with Casanova’s mom, Flower, my mind kept drifting to Cowboy. Is he having fun? Is he interacting with others? Is he included? The kids at his school have always been friendly, but I wasn’t there to help him “work the room.”
Suddenly, my phone chimed. I looked at the screen and saw a picture of Cowboy holding light sabers. “Dancing with glow sticks,” Ms. Prince texted.
An hour later, a photo popped up of Cowboy posing with a drop-dead gorgeous girl. “His dance partner” was the caption. My questions were answered, as if his teacher had read my mind - he was fine without me. We couldn’t have been prouder.
Soon, it was time to pick up Cowboy. As he made his way down the front steps, looking somewhat disheveled, Ms. Prince said, “Cowboy and Casanova were the first ones on the dance floor, and the last ones to leave. They danced more than any kids I’ve ever chaperoned at the prom.”
The evening had been a success. Not only had Cowboy had the time of his life, I had survived. It was a glimpse of the future - Cowboy’s more independent future. When his prom pictures came back this week, included in his pack were pictures of him with Casanova, Daphne, and Ms. Prince. But there was another portrait – a photo of handsome Cowboy flanked by two pretty girls I’ve never seen before. My ignorance is bliss; all is as it should be. The future looks bright and hopeful, indeed.