You Went To Prom, And Heaven Knows You’re Miserable Now
A dissertation on the pain that is prom.
Teenage Diaries is a monthly column on navigating the oddities, culture, and experiences of high school in the modern era.
Impending sense of doom; ringing in the ears; paranoia when talking to members of the opposite sex; lingering cough. Covid? Incel? No. I’ve just survived the spray-tanned, undocumented tenth circle of Hell: prom.
Maybe prom stands for “promenade,” but prom, to me, has always been short for promise. Like a promise that the desire to hide in the library or the shame of existing as a thirteen year old would eventually leave me, a promise of reinvention and of Princess Diaries style plot upheavals. But I’m seventeen now, and I’ve found myself a participant in the complicated social web that results from attending a small high school in New Jersey where everyone and their mother knows what color underwear you were wearing last Tuesday.
I had always assumed that we would uphold this unspoken code of laws together. I thought the rules were relatively simple. Just stay in your lane. We abide by the social geography of finished, carpeted basements, showing face where welcome and wiping spilled liquids off pong tables. We duck into the recesses of crowded dance floors, mourning lost cufflinks and wilting corsages, uncomfortably close to the boys whose dress shoes will pound our feet into flour and whose backs are damp to the touch.
And yet, the student body is a self-sabotaging organism, an undulating mass seated upon Alexander McQueen platform sneakers and soccer cleats, conscious only of its drive to get ahead. We, who have been raised under a motto of excellence and honor, are the children of adults who want and expect so, so much. We’ll be the land mines that go off in corner offices and the neckties that choke the fat necks of aging lawyers.
Prom is no different. How could it not be a competition? At the afterparty, maybe you’ll click on a blank circle and watch it flood orange on the notes app file titled “boys” at the beginning of a thirty minute Uber ride of shame, licking chapstick off your lips. Maybe you’ll list off all of the famous people you’ve seen at golf courses as you mimic a smooth swing down the fairway, shoulders contorting as your friends follow suit. You might even find yourself to be one of four girls crying into the worn knees of their sweatpants, bruised feet curled back to their hips, bruised egos against the walls, holy water dropping from their lashes, cleansing the grounds of our suburban basilica. Call it the Lamentation, frescoed in the watery stain of High Noon.
I find myself laid out against damp grass with a friend while the stale smoke of the boys’ Marlboros hangs just over our noses. She tells me that the boy who asked her to prom has snuck off into the woods with the prettiest girl to bless our halls in the 162 years since our school was founded. I know the despair well, having left my winter formal with my heels hung from my fingers in a daze of anxiety and light-headed ecstasy. At 12:33 a.m., I called my date from my bedroom but gave up after two rings to voicemail. The next Monday, I found out that he had gone off with another girl as soon as I left. During French, I could picture it as he read a textbook next to me: his phone in the pocket of a navy blazer draped around the shoulders of another girl, ringing into a void of faces I’d known for twelve years.
We’re disappointed in the boys, disappointed in ourselves, and there’s nothing to be done. The Monday after prom is sore and hollow. We debate: Well, it’s only wrong if he really liked her, or if she really liked him, but how can we tell? Well, he drove to her house, thirty minutes away, carried her over broken glass, etc.
Everyone will contend that breaking the social agreement barely has any consequences, except for occasionally hearing your name spoken by a hushed, unfamiliar voice, and maybe even a day or two of self-inflicted exile. And though it “all blows over” after a few days, no one forgets the exact moment in a basement when their belief in the greater good faltered.
It happens to everyone at least once, we say. After all, there are only 75 of us girls. One day, it’ll happen to you. Maybe it has already, and maybe more than once. Or perhaps you’ve done it to someone else. But it’s not wrong if we all do it, and it’s not wrong if we never admit that we hate it. The geography of the common areas in the hall adjust themselves accordingly to the night’s events, and no one says a word. Suddenly, you can’t stand that girl’s voice from across the classroom, which turns into not being able to stand it from across the quad, across the bar, in the office, can’t stand her calling out the name of her future children as she loses them in the supermarket, which you’re happy about.
So we all make our little posts on Instagram, PRing ourselves, our boys, our bodies in our dresses. You didn’t see it happen. Pretend: forgot, couldn’t remember, busy in a coat closet with someone that you never even liked that much to begin with. Comment something like sooooo prom or actual angel on everything. And when it happens to you again, and again, and again, take the tie he gave you and burn it in the woods. Gather all of the ties and burn them in the woods. Cry on the highway while your parents text you “Why over 90 mph” (they checked your Life360). Cut off a little bit of hair, where no one will know but you, and just acknowledge that it’s gone. Post a screenshot of “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now." Start a quasi war. Seek advice from his friends. “I don’t know…it’s a dog eat dog world out there," they'll say. Call your mom, disturb her peace.
I’m watching my bruised foot as it heals. Next to it, other physical marks of a similar nature heal while I pretend that I don’t care. Who would want to be involved with a girl who cared too much? A rouge scar from my Carels, which I purchased while I texted one of them about the skyline in the rain, a tan line from my Reeboks which spent a summer chasing another from art museum to gallery, through subway lines and tea parlors. I am a girl who cared too much. We all cared. And we will all be at prom again in a year, ready to repeat disaster, to cry, and to wake up alone in beach houses far, far away from home.