We all may know that the term “prom” comes from the French word “promenade,” a walk taken for pleasure or show, and more formally, the march of guests into a ballroom to mark the beginning of an elaborate event. But years ago, for many girls I knew, the word summoned more complicated associations.
“Prom” meant pressure. It meant anxious dieting that ended up backfiring in bouts of desperate bingeing. It meant leaving the dressing room at Filene’s in tears, with one’s mother barking, “Don’t you give me that look,” and “I don’t care what Alexandria’s mother lets her wear.” It meant waiting, waiting, waiting…waiting to be affirmed as worthy enough to be presented in public as a trophy on a once-in-a-lifetime evening, and to be pressed against a boy’s chest during all of the slow songs. It meant knowing that the relationship probably wouldn’t progress any further. Although the dream of romance would be immortalized in a photograph, the burn of rejection would sizzle up in one’s heart over and over again, as hot as it was the first night he didn’t call once the prom had come and gone. For these girls, the prom was a short walk through a fleeting, self-contained ball of time.
My most memorable prom experience was a little different. I didn’t expect it to take me on a path that I have now been traversing for twenty years.
In ninth grade, I took the risk of splitting from my very secure group of hometown girlfriends who looked and talked like me to plunge into a foreign land of free-spirited, Doc-Martens-wearing, anti-pop-culturists. Commonwealth School had no use for a football team or a prom. While I knew that this place would change my academic life, I wasn’t so sure about its social expertise. For almost three years, I mourned the loss of my participation in a ritual that had never even existed at the school. I sat with my childhood friends on their beds and smiled wanly as they circled puffy-sleeved gowns in Seventeen Magazine. My destiny was determined. I would never go to a prom.
So my friends schemed an intervention. They would target Andy, a friend of ours, to invite me to theirs. He was a safe choice. A respectful and bright boy, a boy who impressed our parents with his poise and integrity, Andy was the marrying kind. But as sixteen-year-old girls who would have given up our brothers and maybe even all of our jewelry to garner the attention of alluring, square-jawed jerks, we weren’t ready for him, as he was more well-read and responsible than any of us. I agreed, shyly, to let my friends apply gentle pressure to him. My drive to join in their ritual as an honorary Melrose High Schooler, and to wear a satin polyester dress and matching pumps and get my typically fine, limp hair transformed into voluptuous curls at a salon—to feel lovely and desirable—was more powerful than any inclination to be picky about the guy who could grant me all of those things.
My friends gave me updates on their progress. He’s definitely going to ask you, they said. I brought a friend, who happened to be male, from another school to the Melrose High School production of Peter Pan that my friends were performing in. I purposely fell into step beside Andy in the hallway during intermission as we were all walking toward the concessions table. “HI, ANDY,” I said, and he looked up at me, startled. Immediately, my ears pulsed with shame. Too obvious? Later, I replayed the scenario behind closed eyes while an ache beneath my ribs kept me awake, a sure sign of my metastasizing insecurity. It took me years to figure out that the presence of another guy, whether I had any romantic interest in him or not, was probably the reason for Andy’s restraint.
My mother told me that we should start looking for a dress, as, knowing me so well, the process of finding the right one could take a while. She brought me to a bridal salon in Medford, where I tried on mermaid-shaped gowns ribbed with ruching, and even a strapless one or two. But I was attracted to a T-length, ivory dress with a high lace collar, lace sleeves, and a medallion of iridescent sequins on the bust. I know now that it must have been formalwear for a grandmother or great aunt, but in 1992, this gown represented the pinnacle of sophistication. And it was just aberrant enough, just regal enough, to set me apart. We put the dress on hold.
As I suffered clueless and dateless through those late winter months, sensing the slow crumble of my chance to see the inside of a hotel ballroom decorated in gold balloons and crepe paper, little did I understand that I was getting to know Andy very well. The night of his invitation was black and snowy, an ordinary weekday eve in New England, but I was curled up cozily in my family den with the phone to my ear, wrapped in the warmth of a chenille throw and the deep voice of the boy next door. The sense that everything had finally settled into what it should be infused our conversation with familiarity. Yes, he had taken his time in reaching out to me, and in secret I had strained painfully against having no control and against accepting the possibility that I would be no one’s prom date for as long as I lived. But he was showing me the seriousness of his investment. He was taking my hand to lead me into a hotel ballroom, sure, but he had in mind a much more extensive route for our partnership.
And this is who my husband Andrew is: thoughtful, careful, tender, sincere. His main concern is doing things “right.” Unlike me, who thrives on impulsive action and instant gratification—e.g., two Madonna comeback concert tour tickets at $495 each—he refuses to rush or to make decisions in moments of frustration. He always sees the bigger picture. He considers the consequences of his words and his gestures in the ways he treats his loved ones before saying or doing anything at all. He lets go of his anger so that he can move to forgiveness and sustain peace. He is always the one to force openings into the frigid air of my silent treatments, to communicate in order to achieve solution. Every task he approaches—from hanging holiday lights though Christmas gives him palpitations, to instructing our children how to hold a golf club or a tennis racket, to cooking me omelets on Saturday mornings—he fulfills with patience and tenacity. Not once have I ever doubted his commitment to upholding our marriage in the face of any trial. (All right—so in July of 2008 when we were vacationing on the Cape, he did give me a twenty dollar bill for “ice cream” and left me with Maddie, two years old, and Drew, five months, on Mayflower Beach to go buy towels, and didn’t return for an entire hour. I was convinced that he had decided to flee the family life. But that was the first and only time my conviction lapsed, and I am sure that a small bout of post-partum depression was to blame.) When Andrew and I were in high school, and were constantly balancing the line between friendship and more than friendship, he would say to me that he was tired of being the “nice” boy, the boy whom all the girls appreciated as only a confidante and a companion. “Nice guys finish last,” he would quote. For years, now, I have been telling him, “Yes, nice guys finish last, because they’re the guys that the girls end up marrying.” He still rolls his eyes at me when I say this, but I know the truth: I have found a treasure in him, in his devotion to me and to our children, in his compassion and his love, that I could not have found in any other man.
To this day, when Andrew walks through the door, home from work, I get the same feeling that coursed through me on our prom night back in April of 1992. I am genuinely, electrifyingly excited to see him. The knowledge that I am suddenly in the presence of someone who will take care of me and shield me from hurt and worry, whether my fears have to do with money, parenting, how chunky I look, how infrequently I bake cookies and do laundry, embraces me like that chenille throw in the family den of my childhood. He is clean-shaven, handsome in a dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves and an aura of musk trailing after him. He is the everpresent chivalrous gentleman who offers me his arm whether we are dining at The Capital Grille or lounging on the couch in our sweatpants watching reality t.v. shows and leaving potato chip shards between the cushions. And I am the girl he wins over, again and again and again.
If you look at our prom photo, which Andrew still keeps in his wallet, you’ll notice, perhaps, two things above all others. One is that the ivory dress I am wearing from that formalwear shop in Medford fortuitously conjures the spirit of a wedding gown, and the nosegay that Andrew chose for me resembles a bride’s bouquet. The other is that while I present my face in near-profile, my eyes shifted shyly toward the photographer and betraying my uncertainty about dates, boys, and life in general, Andrew is fully facing the camera with beaming conviction. It’s as if he knows that our fate, our eternal promenade together, is in the midst of creation at that very instant.