My best friend Lisa and I felt it was appropriate that we should accompany each other to the Senior Prom. I waited as long as I could before I asked her, wondering if she would get an invitation from someone else. She didn’t have a boyfriend, and I, also having no one significant, agreed we would go as long-time friends. We would celebrate the evening and enjoy ourselves as two people who had known each other since fifth grade.
The day soon arrived and my preparations for the special evening began early in the afternoon. The second floor of our suburban townhouse was my domain, and my rented tuxedo was pressed and laid out on the bed. I paid obsessive attention to every last detail of my appearance, even selecting the right music to play in the background: Wham!, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet. With the radio turned up in the bathroom, I dried my hair and carefully shaved my smooth, youthful face, trimming my moustache. At that time, we young men had a moustache if we could grow one, as a symbol of burgeoning maturity. I danced and sang in front of the mirror, brush in one hand, hairdryer in the other, interpretive movement intertwined with a spritz here, a zhoosh there. I felt fully present in that moment.
An hour to get ready was a good day. But this was a big day, and after all this time knowing Lisa, I was finally thinking about kissing her that night. There was a comfort I had with her, and it felt like kissing her was what I should be doing, what I should want to do. I didn’t think about going further than a kiss. A kiss was progress and that’s all I was hoping for.
There wasn’t any real sexual attraction, but I felt open with Lisa. My optimism balanced her cynicism. She didn’t have serious boyfriends, which allowed us to spend more time together. Perhaps it was all a fantasy of having my high school friend become my girlfriend, and then later, my wife, just as my mother had been for my father. Words like girlfriend and wife didn’t create any kind of stir in my heart. I only had two or three girlfriends myself, and all those relationships were short-lived. While they were all nice girls, there was an absence of the electricity I felt when I was around my friend Jeremy. I sensed that gap, that difference, but I tried really hard to make myself believe a romantic relationship with Lisa was what was right for me, for us.
That evening my parents circled the living room like proud birds waiting for their young to leave the nest in a stretch limousine.
“Are you almost ready?” my mother shouted from downstairs, her earlier entreaties being drowned out by the lilting tones of British pop singers.
“I need help with my tie,” I yelled back.
Both Mom and Dad came upstairs, and while Mom adjusted my tie, my father, with military precision, took one last swipe of the lint brush to my jacket. I now had a squadron of dressers and personal valets fluttering about, and all that was required of me was to simply stand still. I thought about my first ride in a limousine, our dinner plans, kissing Lisa for the first time.
Mom’s assessment of the finished look- “Perfection!” -brought me out of my daydream. Dad draped the jacket onto my slender form and the look was complete. I brushed past them to go into the bathroom so I, too, could check my reflection. Hair styled. Face smooth. Nails clipped. Tie straight; me, perhaps not, but that would be determined later. For now, I was pleased to live in this look, a fantasy of luxury—if only for one night.
I returned to my now empty bedroom, my parents having gone downstairs. I waited anxiously for the limousine’s arrival. Glancing out my window, I looked down to the street. Spandau Ballet provided my soundtrack. Only when you leave, I need to love you, and when the action has all gone, I’m just another fool enough to need you, fool enough to love. I had not felt love in that sense, but I sang these lyrics with the fervor of one whose affections were unrequited. So give a little passion to a stranger and take this soul away. Give a little passion. The night I shared with Jeremy was the closest thing I had felt to passion, what I knew of it at that time in my life. I tried not to think about the night he slept over at my house, when the conversation about our dreams, the future, led to him asking me, “Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be with a guy?” The truth was, I had, and with not just any guy, but him. I tried to keep this interest secret, fearing I would get caught admiring his tall lanky form, toned torso, and blonde hair that hung just in his blue eyes. The question moved us to share my bed, and when it was done, as we got dressed, I asked him what he thought about what had happened. “It was alright,” he said. For him, this was just an experiment. For me, the experience only bolstered my hunger for the kind of affection Jeremy and I had shared.
The long, black car pulled up in front of our house and I ran downstairs. By the time we got outside, crowds of neighbors had come out of their homes to wish me well. I walked out the front door to see the chauffeur, a man in his thirties with blonde hair and firm stature, standing near the passenger door to the beautiful, shiny limousine.
“I’m Jeff. I’ll be your driver this evening.” We shook hands. He had beautiful blue eyes.
“Give me just a moment to take a few photos and then we’ll be on our way.”
My parents began snapping pictures, and then a few neighbors joined in with their own cameras. I stood by the car, smiling, posing, “Look this way!” one would say. “Now over here, Brian!” Cement and suburbia were my red carpet.
We had two stops before making the half-hour trip to Cannery Row for dinner. Jeff opened the door and I gracefully climbed in as I had seen celebrities do many times on “Style with Elsa Klensch,”and “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” One last wave to my parents and I was off.
We pulled up in front of Lisa’s house, and I patted my forehead with a handkerchief I pulled from my jacket pocket. Although I didn’t usually perspire, there was something about this role I was doing my best to play that heightened my anxiety. I wanted to do the right thing. I grabbed the plastic container holding a wrist corsage fashioned with two large gardenia blooms and small green leaves, its fragrance filling the car and conjuring visions of the islands. Lisa and I, along with Jeremy and my friends Kevin, CJ and June, would be going on our senior trip to Hawaii after graduation. Perhaps tonight would be the beginning of something more between Lisa and me. Maybe the moonlight over Monterey Bay, or just this milestone moment would mesmerize us. I played these mind games to convince myself I was not who I was becoming.
I got out of the car, pulled a cassette of party music out of my pocket and handed it to Jeff. I picked up the corsage off the back seat, straightened my jacket, and walked up to Lisa’s front door.
Lisa was shorter than me, and petite in frame. Her brown hair came to her shoulders, and her bangs were curled and sprayed up high. She veered from convention, as I would have expected, by not wearing a full-length gown. Instead she wore a black cocktail-length dress with nothing covering her shoulders. Her high-heeled shoes brought her up to my chest. I sighed in relief when I walked into her family’s home as she stood there looking more radiant than I had ever seen her before. We’ve come a long way since fifth grade, I thought.
“You look amazing!” I exclaimed.
“Thanks,” she said. “You know I’d rather be in jeans and a t-shirt.” We stood and stared at each other for a bit, like two children emerging from a dress-up box, familiar faces in unfamiliar costumes.
After a photo session with Lisa’s mom and dad, we were on our way to pick up Kevin and Susan at Susan’s house. Kevin was outside, watching for us to arrive, while Susan finished her last-minute preparations. “Look at you two!” he exclaimed as we got out of the car. “Let me go in and get Susan.”
Lisa and I stood chatting, the sun beginning to set, a slight chill in the air. The front door reopened and Susan walked towards us with the grace of a princess in a dress equal to such a royal rank. I had never seen so much chiffon and tulle in varying shades of lavender. Though the bodice fit nicely to Susan’s shape, the gown from the waist down appeared to expand as she approached.
“Wow, that’s a lot of dress,” Lisa whispered under her breath. I agreed.
“Lisa, Kevin and I should get in first,” I suggested. “We don’t want to wrinkle your gown, Susan.” We all chuckled.
And then the process began. We all packed in, then Susan carefully eased back to sit on the seat nearest the door. After she was sure she was on firm foundation, she pulled her legs in and, with Jeff’s assistance, the remainder of her dress. A mountain of lavender piled high in the center of the car and all of us were buried in a cloud-like layer of fabric.
“Thanks for keeping us warm, Susan,” Lisa laughed. “It was starting to get chilly.”
“Oh, very funny, Lisa.” Susan wasn’t amused. This was why I asked Lisa to the prom. She was understated. She was never one for being the center of attention. She didn’t take herself seriously.
We settled in for the short ride to the coast. The mix-tape played in the background.
The scent of the fragrant gardenia from Lisa’s corsage hung in the air; the layers of Susan’s dress making it almost too warm in the passenger cabin. We sipped sparkling apple cider and took a collective deep breath, savoring this moment for which we had spent months planning.
The car’s interior temperature rose and Susan’s complaints reached a fevered pitch. I cracked the window, releasing a gale of wind inside the car. Almost immediately, layers of chiffon began flapping and waving, Kevin and Susan’s faces a blurred mirage through the fabric. We all attempted to grab hold of Susan’s dress and subdue it. I rolled up the window quickly and we all grew quiet, preoccupied, a teenage tableau.
I watched the dunes of Seaside and Marina whisk by, thought about who Jeremy was bringing to the prom and wondered if he was thinking about being with me in a limousine, on our own prom date. That was unheard of in 1988–two young men attending prom together as a couple–but I had that thought, then tried to push it away, tried to focus and be in the moment, tried to tune back and not appear distant.
We arrived at Neal DeVaughn’s restaurant and, after Jeff dutifully opened the car door, I got out and offered my hand to help Lisa. There was something about the grace with which she exited the car that made me think we were both growing up. She had become a woman, and I, a man. Even if I was nervous and terribly unsure, I at least wanted to show nothing but signs of confidence.
We ate well and laughed much in that beautiful restaurant with its brass fixtures and its expansive view of Monterey Bay. Such a lovely moment, but my thoughts were not of the friends and food in front of me, but rather of the anticipated pinnacle of the evening–the kiss I planned to share with Lisa. Did I have the courage to go through with it? Would she respond well to my advances? Was it an act of obligation, or was there genuine desire?
By the time we reached the prom, the porte cochere of the Sheraton was full of activity, a mélange of big hairstyles and full ball gowns in greens, blues and reds. Many of the boys appeared uncomfortable in their tuxedoes, “Can’t stand this straight jacket,” one would say. “Can’t wait to get out of this thing!” another exclaimed. I was quite comfortable, thinking perhaps in a past life I was a man of position who wore clothing like this more often. At that moment I felt fancy, and being dressed up lifted my spirits.
We entered a ballroom draped in silver and blue fabrics, balloon arches, and crepe paper. Susan and Kevin went off to meet other friends while Lisa and I joined our friends Jeremy and CJ and their dates. They were all my good friends, Jeremy the best of them.
He came up to me and leaned over to speak in my ear over the music, “Can you believe this? It’s our Senior Prom. This is it, man.”
“It is hard to believe, isn’t it?”
“You and Lisa look great.”
“You clean up well yourself,” I said, trying not to make my crush on him too evident, even to myself. But there was no disputing I wished I was his date instead of the girl he was with, a girl now faceless in my memory.
Familiar synthesizer sounds tempered the pace of the evening. A slow dance was beginning to form under the spell of Exposé’s song, “Seasons Change.” Some dreams are in the nighttime, and some seem like yesterday. But leaves turn brown and fade, ships sail away. You long to say a thousand words but seasons change.
Lisa appeared reluctant as we approached the dance floor. We found our spot, and as I went to put my arms around her waist, she took my left hand and held it out, making us look more like we were prepared to waltz than to slow dance at a high school prom. We were more Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers from a classic Hollywood musical than we were one of the couples of the day: Brigitte Nielsen and Mark Gastineau, Don Johnson and Barbra Streisand, Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson.
No, our dance felt incredibly formal. Seasons change. People change. I didn’t think I had come on strong, though I may have attempted to flirt with her, trying to enjoy the evening, taking in a moment when I felt like I belonged, even if that sense of belonging was built upon false pretenses. I’ll sacrifice tomorrow just to have you here today.
The song ended, and the DJ faded into “Open Your Heart” by Madonna. Lisa and I stepped back from each other, and our friends joined in to create a circle. We danced, and laughed, and I tried hard to forget about what had just happened—the slow dance that wasn’t. Why was she so distant from me? What did she see that I didn’t? Open your heart to me, baby, I hold the lock and you hold the key. Open your heart to me, darlin’, I’ll give you love if you, you turn the key.
It wasn’t much later when Lisa walked up and whispered in my ear. “I’m getting a little tired. You think we could head out soon?”
“Sure,” I said, noting it was only a little after 11 and I had the car until 2 a.m.
Driving up the hill to Lisa’s street, my heart began to beat faster, my palms moistened. This would be my opportunity to kiss her. Despite her distance at the dance, despite my own awkwardness and trepidation, I would not let this moment pass without at least that. As horrible as it sounds, I did not want to let myself down and reinforce the truth lurking just under the surface, waiting for me to accept it.
“Thank you for everything,” Lisa said.
“Did you have fun?” I asked, seeking affirmation. “I really tried to make this evening special.”
“And you did!”
“Sorry I wore you out – it’s still so early.”
She took a deep breath. “It’s just been a long day with a lot of activity.”
A long day with a lot of activity? Are we eighty?
We approached her front door and stood there facing each other, two long-time friends who seemed to be standing on the side of a mountain, preparing to jump.
I stepped closer to her and when she came toward me for a friendly embrace, I moved my face to hers, closed my eyes, and the image of Jeremy in his tuxedo came to mind, his smile, his blue eyes in the DJ’s strobe lights. I moved closer to Lisa, thought I smelled Jeremy’s cologne—Paco Rabanne? I took a deep breath. As my lips neared hers, another thought of Jeremy—how his kiss tasted that night he slept over—and when I returned to the present moment, I realized Lisa had turned away, without subtlety or discretion, presenting to me only the side of her cheek to gently peck.
“Good night, Brian.”
A glimmer of golden light crept onto the porch as she opened her front door, the night-gowned silhouette of her mother visible behind her. The door shut.
I stood there for a moment. I didn’t want to walk shamefully back to the car and face the humiliation I just endured in front of the sexy blonde chauffeur. I didn’t want to accept the night was over. I didn’t want to accept that I stood there on that milestone evening rejected without even a kiss to claim.
I took a deep breath and wiped tears off my cheeks. This was not how it was supposed to be. I walked back to the limousine, Jeff standing there prepared to open the passenger door. I straightened my posture, and held my head up, looking him in the eye. He flashed a sympathetic smile.
Once in the car, I rolled down the window that separated driver from passenger.
“What time is it, Jeff?”
“Just after midnight.”
“I don’t want to go home right away. Will you drive me around?”
“Do you want me to play your mixed tape?”
“Radio is fine.” I stared out the window. Lisa’s house faded behind us, merging with other suburban homes, all flipping past like drawings in an animated cartoon book. It was kind of a joke. Who was I trying to fool? Had she done me a favor? Had I made her feel like an experiment? I knew what being someone’s experiment felt like.
I came back to that moment, lights and downtown businesses passing by, and the radio. That damn radio. Where do broken hearts go? Can they find their way home? Whitney Houston at the most inopportune moment.
“Why do they do that?” I asked Jeff.
“Make you think they like you and then won’t even kiss you.”
“Is that what happened up there on the porch?”
“Yes. Total rejection. I mean, I wasn’t expecting anything beyond a kiss, but for as long as we’ve been friends, and for the evening we shared, she could have given me at least that.”
“It’s tough when you like someone who doesn’t like you in that same way.”
“Have you ever had that happen to you?”
“Of course. It happens to all of us. But sometimes things play out for a reason–we just don’t know what that reason is at the time.”
I felt a comfort as we talked. Fragments of the Hawaiian fantasy I imagined for Lisa and me began to break away. The evening changed how I thought about our upcoming senior trip to the islands. I didn’t even want to go.
“Something even better is waiting for you out there, Brian. Be patient.” He was an optimist, and I was trying to be one, too.
“Jeff, would you turn the radio off?” Then, silence.
“It’s almost time to finish the night,” he reminded me.
“Please take me home.”
I took off my tuxedo jacket and lay it on the seat next to me. Leaning back, I looked up at the streetlights that sparkled as we passed them. Watching the nighttime out the window hypnotized me. The feeling of disconnecting my mind from the moment comforted me as well.
It would take another year, but I eventually accepted my truth and came out. And I would come to understand that Lisa had known before I did that I was gay, that underneath my empty flirtation my attraction was to other boys and not to her. I eventually forgave her for rejecting my prom night kiss, and in my heart, I even thanked her.