Prom Night, 1980s Style
Somehow my business partner and I were chatting about dating as teenagers, and he mentioned going to his Prom with his girlfriend as a "couple of losers". He asked me if I went to mine.
I took a deep breath, and he knew this wasn't going to be a "yes" or "no" answer, so he strapped in and ordered a proverbial drink for himself.
I had always wanted to go to Prom, "Pretty in Pink" style. I had gone to all the other dances, like Tolo and Homecoming, but senior prom night was the Mt Everest of dances, and I had already started work on my dress months before the event. There was this vintage shop on Roosevelt Ave near my high school, and they had stunning dresses from the early 20th Century. There was one there that was from 1919 in black silk, high waisted and tiered with jet beading. I saved my money for months for that thing, which was nothing to sniff at considering my addiction to records, vintage clothing, and speed (yes, yes, that's another story... Kyle ordered another drink for that one later). Once I had saved up the money and bought the dress, the girl who worked at the shop helped me redesign and sew the dress so it was a sleeveless and a little bit more form fitting, and she showed me how to stabilize the beading. It was a blessed project for the winter months, and I'd sit up at night maniacally sewing away, imagining how wonderful prom was going to be in this dress, how awesome it was going to photograph. The only thing I was missing was a date.
As spring approached, the date problem was starting to become a worry. While my best friend offered to take me, I was kinda holding out for a real date, not a mercy one, plus my best friend Keri was a vampire and she scared people (she didn't go to school, had her own apartment, slept during the day and was best known for floating down Broadway at wee hours of the night). My prospects were limited at my high school, although my English study partner sheepishly asked me to go with him. I respectfully turned him down: I actually was concerned he'd be made fun of for going with me, since he and I were polar opposites and his friends were pretty conservative, and I was a weirdo. Plus, truly, I had the dress to think of. My date had to match the dress.
Like magic, I was romantically stalked by a local musician-turned-drug-dealer and huzzah, I had the date thing nailed! He worked well with the dress, too, since he styled himself LA goth and wore more makeup than me and already owned a tux jacket with skeleton hand lapels, and wore a top hat. My only problem was, well, he was a lot older than me and unlike me, did not fantasize about the perfect Prom photo. I had my work cut out for me, and only a month to turn him.
While I was working on wearing him down by being the perfect girlfriend, I had acquired the perfect Fluevog shoes (pointy black leather ankle boots), got myself a black rose head piece and my father gifted me with the most beautiful black velvet capelet. I took to dressing up in my prom outfit on many speedy nights, working out photo poses and the perfect beehive (takes 1.5 cans of Aquanet, for the record). Once the date was announced, I got my tickets and called my boyfriend to work out the details.
"No fucking way," he said flatly. "That's retarded. Not going."
"We can just go in and get the picture done, we don't even need to dance or anything," my little heart was breaking!
"Date is no good," he was eating something so I heard a lot of mush noise between syllables, "Shelly's birthday is that night and she made me promise to go. Everyone wants MDA, so I gotta go. Get Keri to take you. Gotta go take a shit babe, see ya later." click, beeeeeeepppp. I just stared at my phone and one big fat tear rolled down my cheek. What was the point of this boyfriend thing? Don't guys understand why they were invented? What about my fucking dress???
I took the bus to Broadway and met Keri at Charlie's, our favorite restaurant to sit for hours. As we took turns dumping Charlie's Famous Colored Sugar Crystals into our bottomless coffee mugs, I relayed my dilemma. She looked concerned but nonplussed, then finally annoyed.
"Guys are dicks, you know that," she took a deep drag off her cigarette, cradled between her skeletal fingers. I just sighed. I wouldn't get very far complaining to Keri, seeing as she was a lesbian and she and I had been a couple for a long while, until my prom dream burned that avenue down like a bad fever. She only tolerated Sean (the boyfriend) because he ran the best designer drugs in Seattle at the time, and she got them through me. ("I'll have another drink," says Kyle)
At about this moment, an acquaintance of mine was cutting through the restaurant towards the back bar. In seeing me, he veered over to say hello. His name was David and he was a local weed dealer, a New Wave hippie guy, really goofy and friendly, like you'd imagine a weed dealer to be. He was probably in his early 20s and he was truly nice, and his big friendly smile dropped when he saw how crestfallen I was. He sat with us and listened to me whine about Sean refusing to take me to the dance, and gave me a big hug. "I'll take you, sweetie, and I'll even dance if you want. We'll have fun, fuck Sean, okay? C'mon, smile! Hey, I never went to my prom, this will be fun. I'll wear whatever you want," he gave me the chuck-on-the-chin and after writing his phone number on my hand, he gave me a big hug and trotted out to the bar. Keri rolled her eyes and lit another cigarette. I just stared at the digits on my hand, a slow smile creeping onto my face. My date with the dress was back on.
David and I chatted a few times on the phone over the next couple weeks, mostly working out the details of where to meet up and what he was going to wear. He seemed genuinely into it, and whether he had any other motive beyond just taking a goth chick to her prom, I wouldn't know. I nonchalantly mentioned to Sean that he needn't worry about taking me after all, and he just shrugged. "Dave's a nice guy," was all he said. Trust me, I Seinfelded the crap out of that comment for days, but finally figured it didn't matter, Senior Prom was only days away!
Friday before school, I laid out my dress near my bed and stared at it lovingly. You and me and Coconut trees and Cut-out stars, we'll make such a pretty picture. I happily trotted off to school, bumping into my English study partner in the hallway. He told me that another girl was going with him, and I was happy to hear it, and he said maybe we could get our pics taken, both couples, and I thought that was a grand idea. I passed by my friend Eowyn and asked her what her plans were that Saturday, as she was boycotting the dance. She wasn't sure, but since she also knew David, suggested maybe we all could meet later on? Again, I thought that was a grand idea, since she lived near Broadway and as her parents were often never home, her place was a great crash pad.
After school I raced home so I could admire at my dress again. While fixing myself a snack, the phone rang. It was David.
"Bad news, sweetie," his voice sounded weird, and wherever he was calling from, there was a lot of background noise. Uh oh.
"I'm in jail."
I asked him to repeat himself. He cleared his throat.
"I'm in jail, sweetie, I sold weed to a cop. This is my one phone call and I feel so terrible, I don't know when I will be released. I wanted you to know right away. I'm so sorry!! I had flowers for you, and--"
I hung up. I dropped my plate into the sink, walked passed my befuddled dad, wordlessly up the stairs, and slammed my door. My dress faced me like a scorned lover, and I snatched it up, tossed it into the closet, flopped onto my bed and sobbed, then fell asleep.
This could have been the end of my story, but no. I was plucky, and after a good long slumber I awoke with fresh determination. My dad had already left for a show -- my dad was a rock musician and played gigs on weekends -- so I helped myself to the dinner he left me and called Eowyn. "Plans changed," I said. "Meet me on Broadway tomorrow night. I'm going to make Sean take me, you'll have to help me."
I didn't tell my dad that my date was in jail; I didn't think that would go over real well. I did tell him that I was meeting my date for dinner on Capitol Hill before the dance, which made no sense since I lived in the University district and my high school was just up the street, but my dad learned early on it was pointless to question me on my idiosyncrasies, and just nodded. He had another gig that night so we agreed I could spend the night at Eowyn's and he gave me $20 for dinner, then gave me a big hug. "Just try to be ready before I leave, I want to see how you look," he said.
There's nothing quite like dressing up for an actual occasion. Its sort of ritualistic, from the laying out of the clothing, to the bathing, plucking, blow drying, powdering, lacing, teasing, combing, spraying. I took my time getting myself put together, dialing Sean's number every half hour. It would just ring and ring, and I figured he was either sleeping or doing whatever drug dealers do when their girlfriends aren't around. No matter, I knew that he would be up on Broadway later on, sitting on a staircase next to the 7-Eleven.
I did a final check in the mirror at the house and satisfied, I waltzed down the stairs so my dad could see me before leaving. He got all misty eyed and grabbed the camera, only to realize he forgot to put film in it. He cursed a couple times, then laughed. "They take pictures at these things, right?" he asked. Yeah, Dad, don't worry, I said. "This David better treat you well, okay? Don't drink anything weird, okay? Have fun, and oh, bring an umbrella, it might rain," my dad said before giving me a kiss and heading out the door.
I grabbed my capelet and looked out the window; the weather seemed clear, so I decided the umbrella was unnecessary. I walked up the street to the bus stops on 45th and 1st ("the Ave" to the locals) to catch a #7 bus to Broadway. I didn't anticipate that a fancy dressed goth teen with an impossibly huge black beehive 'do would get unwanted attention, but of course that's exactly what I was greeted with as soon as I reached the intersection. I knew most of the kids around there, the punk rock kids and metal heads that lolled about near the bus stops, record stores and the post office, and for the most part the ribbing was intended to relieve boredom on their part, and they all thought I was a snob (which is partly true; I was originally an "Ave Rat" but found Broadway to be more interesting to hang out at, Broadway had dancing and prettier boys and girls). I put on my headphones and sunglasses and patiently waited for the bus, wrapped in a protective scowl, Love and Rockets blasting in my ears.
I made it to Broadway by mid evening, hopping off on the north end near the Deluxe. Eowyn lived around the corner, and I met her at her house and did a quick primp before we both started off to the main drag. I explained to her that I knew Sean would be there, and maybe once he saw how fabulous the dress looked, he might be inclined to come back to the dance with me. If that didn't take, I had a $20. He could be bribed.
The usual suspects were standing around the corner of Broadway and East Harrison; it was a pit stop for drug dealing, and Sean was usually smack dab in the middle of it all. That evening it seemed particularly crowded and as we approached, I started to feel a little bit sick. I felt every muscle in my neck tense as I strolled up to Sean and tapped his arm, and he spun around and looked surprised, then irritated. "Why are you up here?" he asked. He didn't seem to take any notice of the dress.
I told him David was in jail and prom was in an hour. "Well, that really sucks," he said. "For you, I mean. I got Shelly's birthday party to go to, the cab is on its way."
I told him it would mean so much if he'd just consider going first, with me. "I worked so hard on this dress, you're my boyfriend, couldn't you just do this for me, just once?"
He started to laugh and shook his head. "I'm not changing my plans over a fucking dress, Julie."
I burst into tears. "What am I supposed to do, then?"
By this time, a little circle formed around us, and the cab pulled up, the back door opened and sitting inside was this Shelly and her friend. I heard Shelly's friend mumble "Oh my God, really?" as she beckoned my boyfriend inside with haste. He looked around at the amused, gathering crowd and me crying, and exploded.
"I told you no, and no and no, fuck, I said no, stop being such a bitch about it, I don't care, I'm going, get the fuck out of my way, go home, I don't care, Jesus!" And with that he stepped into the cab. Shelly and her friend were cackling at the scene before them. I followed Sean to the curb.
"Can I at least come with you?" I squeaked out.
"Not invited," he slammed the cab door in my face.
One would think this episode would incur empathy from witnesses, but alas, you do not understand the hearts and minds of intoxicated, bored teenagers. As Sean's cab sped off and I was left there in a puddle of mascara, I immediately heard a wave of "stop being a bitch" bounce around me like a bad street version of the movie Carrie. Eowyn gently grabbed my elbow to lead me off and away from the jackasses taunting me, assuring me things would be okay. As we started across the street, two local street kids pushed passed the others. One of them, this older punk guy named Derek, backhanded several of the taunters in my honor. Most of the younger kids were afraid of Derek, who was a well known neighborhood junkie and although skinny, was incredibly tall and impervious to pain, making him imposing. He was madly in love with Eowyn and did everything he could to impress her, including making the attempt to salvage my street integrity.
The other kid was a shorter skinny punk kid named Ben. Put that name on the back burner for a moment.
Derek rushed up to us and grabbed my other arm, which was a little bit startling and I jumped. He asked if I was okay, and before I could say anything, started laying in on what assholes those people were, glancing over to Eowyn from time to time to assess her response.
"Get lost, Derek," Eowyn said flatly. He was unflappable.
"I can buy you two booze," he said. He was 24.
Eowyn sighed. I sniffled.
"Okay," she stopped us and gestured for my little clutch I was carrying. I pulled out the $20 and she shoved it into Derek's hand. "If you get us something, that would be great. But you need to leave us alone, okay?" He practically jumped up and down, grabbed Ben's arm and ran back to the 7-Eleven. "You know he'll short change you," she said to me. I shrugged.
Derek came back a few minutes later with a bag containing two bottles of grape Mad Dog 20/20. I noticed Ben was holding another bag, and pretty much figured out I just bought them both their evening spirits. Derek handed me a wad of bills and told me I looked pretty. I feebly smiled back, and Eowyn snatched the bag and directed me onward like a rag doll.
We sat at Eowyn's for a while, guzzling the Mad Dog while I intermittently sobbed, gulped and hiccuped. She wasn't a big talker and I didn't really want to talk, so we listened to music for a little while. After about a half hour I started to get really tipsy and also really angry. I don't remember much after that except that I think I needed some fresh air, and stepped outside. I found myself wandering, Mad Dog in hand, down the street aimlessly. After a few minutes, it started to drizzle, not enough to be rain but just enough to cause my beehive to transform into a wasp nest. Fuck, great, I thought.
Then I tripped over the pointy tip of my Fluevogs. I didn't fall down, but it was just enough to scrape the topside of the leather and damage the tip. Fuck, great, I thought.
I continued my stumble, heading southwards. I passed the market, with its huge glass windows, and glanced over to see my reflection stare back, a girl with a lopsided, melted updo, black lines of mascara streaked down her cheeks, smeared red lipstick, capelet askew off one shoulder, bottle of shitty booze in one hand and a broken shoe on her foot. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand, smearing my lipstick worse. Fuck, great, I thought. Well, the dress still looked okay. I looked away and kept walking.
I wandered down Harvard Ave for a few blocks, and as I passed by Harrison, I heard someone call out something, and I looked up. Down the block, on the north side of the 7-Eleven there was a concrete slab that served as a bench. Sitting on it was that punk kid Ben, and he was apparently yelling something at me. I couldn't understand him, so I slowly turned east and walked up to him. He patiently waited.
"I was saying, you look sad," he repeated himself. "And also, can you share? I'm all out." I looked at the Mad Dog in my hand, shrugged and gave it to him. He snatched it up, mumbled a thanks and quickly looked around before swigging. I noticed he had a cane in his other hand and I pointed to it, I think I drunkenly inquired about it.
"Oh yeah, this is Big Ben's," he was referring to another local punk who resembled Lou Ferrigno. "I'm holding it for him." He tapped the ground with it, then pointed at me with it. "You," he said, "are unhappy. You need to tell me all about what's wrong. Come sit over here and tell me your troubles."
I sat on the bench next to him and immediately started some kind of girlish babble. He signaled for me to shut up, looked around again, smiled then patted his knee. "I'll hear you better," he said. He was clearly flirting but I took it with a grain of salt; Ben was known to be a flirt and had pretty much dated or hooked up with every high school girl I knew, except me. He was very charming though, and even surly Keri had a soft spot for him. He didn't think much of Sean and had made that clear to me on multiple occasions in the past. And at that point, on that evening, I wasn't thinking much of Sean either. I promptly sat on Ben's knee.
"Guys are dicks," I said. "They sure are," he agreed. "I hate guys," I said. "As you should," said Ben. I laughed. "I have always hated you," I booped his nose. He grabbed my booping hand and said, "Well, okay, that can change, right? Its loud out here, let's go to my house and you can tell me all about that."
Ben picked me up and I wrapped my arm around him so I wouldn't fall down and we started down the street, when suddenly I heard "YOU GET OFF HER RIGHT NOW!". I turn my head to see my friend Eowyn marching down the street toward us. She grabbed my arm and started yelling at Ben, something about being a dirty dog. "Julie wants to come with me, right?" he asked me, a big grin on his face. "Yep," I said, then hiccuped.
"She's drunk, she doesn't know what she's doing, you damn asshole," Eowyn hissed at Ben and yanked at my arm. Ben yanked back on my other arm and I was now a pinata. Back and forth they argued, and back and forth I went, both of them pulling with greater and greater force until I think I said "I'm going to throw up", and Ben let go. He put his hands up in mock defeat and backed away, still grinning, cane still in hand. "You win," he said to Eowyn. "You know where to find me," he said to me and winked, then turned to join a small group of his friends that had gathered to watch this spectacle. Eowyn grabbed me around the waist and steered me down the street, grumbling. I was pretty much out of steam and let her lead me home.
I don't remember anything else except Eowyn had carefully removed and hung up my dress before putting me to bed. When I woke up it was miraculously unscathed. In borrowed clothes I went home, carrying my dress carefully with me. Once home, I hung it at the back of my closet, blew it a kiss, then gobbled up a handful of aspirin.
The following Monday, I bumped into my English study partner at school.
"Where were you?" he asked me. "I had hoped we'd get a picture or something, or maybe dance? What happened?"
I gave him a long, quiet look, then shook my head.
"I should have said yes," I said to him. "I'm sorry I didn't. I hope you had fun."
A few weeks later, I sat down next to my study partner in class, and he tapped my arm. He handed me a picture of him and his date at the prom.
"I thought you might want this," he said. I looked at it for a long time, at the vase of roses on a pedestal next to him and his date, the black and white checkerboard floor. He sported a sharp looking tux and red tie and his date wore a crepe pink dress. "Thanks, Jovy," I said.
"It would have been fun with you, you know," he gave my arm a quick squeeze. He knew how much work I put into my dress, I had been talking about it to him all year and he had patiently listened to me describe the beading process and how to make bodice alterations, and I realized right then and there that it wasn't that guys are dicks. I was the dick.
Hey, Kyle, hey, wake up!
I need to add here, I thanked my friend Eowyn a few years later for tearing me off of Ben that night. I was drunk and stupid, and I would have regretted going home with him, not because I had a boyfriend I was mad at, but because a year later I bumped into Ben at The Underground, a dance club in Seattle. Had I gone home with Ben on Prom Night, I would have been too embarrassed to say hello that evening, and we would not have repeated that entire scenario a second time around, and this time there was no Eowyn to save me from my foolish decisions. However, this time around, I took him home with me and 30 years later, he's still here.
Julie Baroh is a US artist, entrepreneur, and chronic chatterbox.