My friend Richard is going to the Prom. It's that time of year, when boys and girls across the country dress in formalwear, rent limos, smile coyly, and drink till they puke.
Richard is a freshman at George Mason University. He was asked to prom by Corey, a junior at Turner Ashby High School near Harrisonburg. As far as anyone knows, this is the first time a gay couple will have attended a prom at that high school. It surely will not be the last.
I helped prepare Richard for his date. (I am far too fatherly sometimes.) I helped him dress, purchased flowers, tied his tie for him, and sent him on his way after nagging him for ours that he was going to be late. (For the record, he was over an hour late in picking up his date. Teenagers!) His mother called me to make sure everything was going to be all right; all I could do was reassure her, since by that point it was out of my hands.
As all this was going on, I began to think back to my own Prom, at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee. I remembered having written a short story based on my Prom-night experience, which was published in the school's literary magazine, Panache. I had kept my copy of that dog-eared magazine in a secure place for years, so I decided to go back to reread it. To my disappointment, I could not find it.
Instead, I found the journal I kept in those years. In it was the first draft of the short story. I was amazed to find out that my prom was held on the same day and date as the one Richard and Corey are attending tonight: Saturday, May 7, 1977, like today, the eve of Mother's Day.
Times have changed a lot since 1977. You'll see allusions in the short story, reprinted below (in its draft form; I don't remember whether I made any significant changes for publication), to same-sex dating. But in the late '70s, no one thought seriously about gay couples going to the prom. It wasn't something repulsive or incorrect -- it was simply inconceivable. So the backdoor references to same-sex dating in my story should not be read in the literal sense we would understand them today. This was years before Aaron Fricke took his male date to prom in Rhode Island, as chronicled in his book, Reflections of a Rock Lobster.
Readers in 2005 might also be surprised by the casual attitude toward alcohol. In Wisconsin in 1977, nobody gave a second thought to teenagers drinking "beer, wine, [or] champagne punch" at a pre-prom party. In fact, I've often thought that Fox TV's "That 70s Show" is least authentic when it addresses drinking issues; that series, set in Wisconsin in (of course) the 1970s, definitely comes at drinking from a late '90s, early-21st century point of view. (I could add that my high school, in those days, had a student smoking lounge, but no one would believe me, would they?) Topher Grace's character, Eric Forman, is almost precisely my age (at least in the early episodes) -- something that has always tickled my fancy.
Something else that may require explanation is the comment that "Prom is immoral." My senior prom was preceded by a serious and robust debate among students at MUHS that the expense of going to prom (by today's standards, not much, but it could be as much as $100-$200) could not be justified in a world in which some people went hungry. How could we wear tuxedoes and ball gowns when elsewhere in Milwaukee, children lacked proper clothes to go to school?
As a result, the requirement that male Prom-goers wear black-tie was dropped; suits and ties, or even just jackets and ties, were perfectly acceptable. People who saved money in this way implicitly pledged to give extra money to charity. Calls for a "Poor Prom," in which all funds collected would go to charity, were not heeded -- at least not that year. Perhaps, if a more recent MUHS student or alumnus reads this article, he could let us know if a similar event was held subsequent to 1977.
Looking back, it is remarkable how open I was as a latent homosexual high-school student (ok, maybe "latent" is too strong a word; let's settle for "closeted"). Whether my allusions were comprehensible to my readers, I don't know. I do know this -- the story became a "must read" not just at Marquette High, but at the local girls' high schools (Divine Savior-Holy Angels, for instance). People pored over the text to decipher the names (which had been only thinly disguised: "Tom" became "Tim," "Rick" became "Rob," "Ginny" became "Ginger," etc.)
I received nothing but compliments over the story, with one exception. My prom date never spoke to me again.
If I have time, someday I may annotate this story. (I'll try my best with hyperlinks in this version.)
Please keep in mind, this is the work of a Catholic high-school senior who had turned 18 years old only one month previous to writing it. No pretense of quality is implied or meant to be inferred. There is a reason I do not write fiction.
It’s a Sham:
A Moral Tale of Disillusionment
by Rick Sincere
(Draft dated May 8, 1977; published in MUHS "Panache," May 1977)
Occasionally he wondered why he did not date very often. So when the opportunity to go to Prom came around, he started making plans for himself.
“Everyone is going,” he thought. “I know I’ll regret it if I don’t go. It’s traditional; it’s a symbol of social status. Of course, I’ll have to get a date.”
He called his best friend Tim for advice on who he should ask. A rather large selection of girls was available, if you bargained your time properly, asking far in advance of the occasion. In addition, the Prom being a prestigious event, it was almost entirely a buyer’s market for girls – it was an honor to be asked. Hopefully, the guy might be asked to the Prom at a girls’ school, as a trade-off.
Tim was thoughtful. “I don’t know, Rob. Mary is Grade-A, top-brand – but Geri packages herself better and is more attractive. But, there’s no accounting for taste. Who do you prefer?”
“I’ve already asked Linda, and, well, she said that she couldn’t go with me because we had not gone out together previously. ‘It wouldn’t be as special,’ she said.”
“Well, you know, there is another alternative.”
“What’s that, Tim?”
“We could go together.”
“We could go together – as a couple. We could tell everyone that we were coming together – no one would believe us – and then actually do it. It’d be hilarious. It’s so damn iconoclastic that we’d probably be kicked out!”
Rob was on the floor by now, laughing riotously. “I know, but who would wear the dress?”
“That’s easy!” said Tom. “I’d wear it to Prom and you could wear it to Post-Prom.”
As it turned out, they made different plans and did not go through with it. He arranged a date with Ellen, a member of one of hte city’s older families from an older neighborhood. Tom arranged one with Terry – someone who was unfamiliar to their circle of friends.
Daily, before Prom, they would meet in the school lounge during their morning free period and discuss their plans. Sex was the common topic. For example, plans were laid to play a practical joke on Glen and his date Candy – “Cover the seats of his Pinto with Hefty bags and pour some Tame Creme Rinse around.” Rob giggled that once, visiting a large Eastern University, a friend had used the filling from a chocolate eclair for the same purpose. Sex became the common topic. Sex became the only topic. Sex became the boring topic.
Prom came closer, and Rob began to have regrets, apprehensions. “Ellen and I don’t know each other that well. Will we get along well? Now, if I went with Candy, that would be a different story. She’s gracious, loving, thoroughly likable. Why, she’s been like a sister to me!”
Rob really prepared for Prom, he rented a tux, bought flowers, even carefully wrapped up a bottle of champagne in a towel and laid it in the back seat with two glasses.
Prom night came and Rob had a party. The drinks flowed like ... they flowed like beer, wine, and champagne punch. The compliments flowed like so much chocolate syrup. Everyone marveled over their dress. When Carl and Ginger walked in, Rob said, “You look great! Uh – and so do you, Ginger!”
When they finally got to the dance, Rob was very impressed by the decorations.
Time flew by and the Prom Court was introduced. The various couples separated into two lines to form a path for the courtiers. Rob thought, “My God, how banal! It’s just like the high school proms in documentary films – and, worse, like the ones in Annette Funicello movies!”
He danced. He danced to rock music that he did not appreciate in an atmosphere that was totally alien and fake. These same students that he saw yesterday in jeans, he realized, were dressed here in tuxedos and formal dresses. Some were unrecognizable.
He and Ellen traveled to Post-Prom (held at Blintz’s “Show ‘Em All Your Teeth” Supper Club) in a long, sleek, black limousine. He, who only drove Pintos and Chevy Malibus, living in the façade of luxury.
One of the students, Arnie Grange, was asked by the waitress: “What school are you from? We didn’t expect you.”
The band for Post-Prom called itself, romantically, “Autumn Fizz” – a very good jazz group. As they were playing their last set, Rob asked Ellen if she’d like to dance. “No, it’s too tiring. Besides, I have a headache.” Quickly, Rob pulled out a Tylenol and solved that problem – but still no dance.
Breakfast at Ho-Ho’s was uneventful. Rob and Ellen had run out of conversation hours before so he talked to Carl and E.G. about the roots of English capitalism and why France is always one war behind.
Rob drove Ellen home at sunrise. They drove along the lake shore and he marveled at the amount of empty cars parked there – until he saw a head bob up. Then, he intently peered into the cars he passed, looking for a familiar face. He sighed inwardly. “Here I am with a beautiful girl at five a.m. and I’m not going to try anything. I’m just gonna take her home and say good night and that’s it.”
Pulling up to her house, he jumped out, opened the passenger side, and walked her to her door. “It was a good time. Thanks.”
“I had a wonderful time, Rob. Thank you for asking me.”
She opened the huge, oaken door. “Good night.”
Tenderly, gently, he backed away. “Good night. I’ll see you – sometime in the future.” The door closed and he breathed, “You, like Disraeli’s free enterprise system, were an expedient, not a principle.”
He refused to travel along the lake again and depress himself. He got home and left his car. Breathing deeply, he thought, “The air smells like Washington in the morning.” He bent over and picked up the bottle of champagne – unopened. No celebration in that back seat.
The end of this story takes place in the Falcon Pub. Here, patrons are watched over by the all-seeing Virgin of Commerce and Agriculture – their ears are treated to jazz. The night after Prom, Tim and Rob met there. They laughed and cried about the evening’s activities.
“I have to admit, I didn’t get anything off her. God knows I didn’t try.”
“It was an interesting experience, to say the least. Maybe Don was right – Prom is immoral. No, but it was worthwhile in some ways. Like in a couple of weeks news will filter in from the girls’ schools that I’m dull and boring. Like –“
”Like it’ll make a great short story?”
“Ha, ha, well, that too. But, five years from now, we can look back on this and laugh.”
“In five years, it’ll be forgotten.”
“Years from now, when you talk about this - and you will speak about this ...”
“Oh, come on. Don’t spout Tea and Sympathy at me. Ouch! Don’t spit ice cubes at me, either.”
“We should have gone together.”
“We should have gone together.”
[All characters in this story are intended to be real. No insult or harm is intended. It is the general thrust which is important, not specific character attacks. If I hurt anyone, please accept my apologies. – the author.]