We had a prom at our school. We didn’t have a lot of kids, so it was a small thing, more like a party. When I was in college I heard stories about big elaborate balls held in fancy places, like museums and amusement parks, everyone dressing up in shiny, fancy dressed and showing up in limousines. Ours was just held in the big gym, although the lower classes did a nice job decorating the place every year. Most of the kids drove up in pickup trucks, nothing fancy. Some people ate at the steakhouse, some people ate at home, that didn’t matter so much either.
It was always too early, early in May, and it always ended up being too cold, being colder than they thought. People would say, Why don’t we do this in June, when school is getting out, when it might actually be sunny and warm? But nothing about the prom ever made much sense.
Laura hated those dances. We always had to go to them. You couldn’t really stay home, at least we didn’t think we could. We’d been together for so long, since before high school. So we had to go. The part she hated the most was dressing up. She hated wearing dresses. She looked great in them — she looked great in anything — but it wasn’t her style. She said, “I’m just a farm girl.” But we both knew it wasn’t mostly that.
One afternoon we were parked out by the lake, in that little grove of trees near the point, near where Cross has his trailer parked. The truck was up on the top of a little hill and we had a view of most of the lake. We were talking about all the things we had to do before school ended and we graduated — exams, papers, things to send off to our respective universities for the next year. Graduation. Then summer, saving money for next year. And then goodbye. I was getting a little blue, thinking about it. It was a cold afternoon, pretty gray, and the cold seeped into the truck pretty quickly, even though we had heavy barn coats on and she was wearing a blue knit cap. Every ten or fifteen minutes I started up the truck and warmed us up again. I was really getting miserable, thinking about saying goodbye in August. I didn’t care then about the basketball scholarship, going to the university in the big city. Not excited about any of it. So I revved the engine extra hard.
Laura looked up at me and I thought she was going to ask me what the hell I was doing, gunning the engine like we were getting ready for a drag race. But she said, “We forgot.”
That was all. I said, “We forgot?” She had a disgusted look on her face, like she had just changed a diaper or something.
“The prom,” she said.
It was a sore subject for me that it was such a sore subject for her. I had probably forgotten it on purpose.
I tried to distract her from her disgust. “I wonder what the theme will be this year.” She screwed up her face. So I said, “I hope it’s OK that we’re going.” It didn’t look OK, so then I said, “I hope you’ll go with me.”
She nodded. She looked resigned. This all just made me feel worse.
I said, “We’re about to graduate, and then be gone, and I guess I wish that this once it meant something to you to go.”
When I said stuff like that, how I felt, she always got very matter-of-fact with me. “Finn,” she said. “There are a lot better ways we could enjoy our last few months than going to a stupid prom.”
We just sat there awhile. I turned the engine back off. It was quiet. A skein of geese flew over the lake.
She looked up at me and smiled. I started to ease up a little. She said, “Are you going to wear a tux?”
Most of us wore suits, and not particularly good ones. You had to go all the way to Grand Forks to get something formal.
I said, “Do you want me to wear a tux? I guess I could wear a tux.”
She said, “I do.” And then she caught her breath, just quickly, and said, “I’d like to wear a tux, too.”
My head rocketed off three or four directions at one time. Wear a tux? My parents would kill me. Would they even let us in? And then part of me thought: hell yes, why not wear a tux? I hope it bothers somebody.
“They might not let you in,” I said. I corrected myself. “Let us in.” I stroked her long straight hair.
She thought about it. “No,” she said. “They might not.”
I said, “I wonder if there’s a rule.”
She said, “There’s probably not a rule.” Then she said, “Who would do a thing like that, anyway?”
I said, “You.”
She said, “Would it be more fun if there was a rule?”
I said it probably would.
She said, “I’m sure if I just mentioned to the wrong person that we were going somewhere to rent tuxes, I’m sure there would be a rule.”
My fingers were running down her neck, down under her sweater to feel her shoulders. She said, “Turn on the engine. I can’t do this in the cold.” We stayed there until after the sun went down. I caught hell when I got home and I didn’t even care, because I knew whatever anger they thought they felt was not even a fraction of what they would feel when we showed up together for pictures.
And so she talked it with Alyssa Smith, and sure enough a couple of weeks before the prom they made an announcement to remind us of the ‘rule’ that boys must be in formal wear and girls must be in dresses. We drove down to Grand Forks and got ourselves measured. We both ordered black tails. The guy working at the shop, I think he was probably still a teenager, almost didn’t want to rent one to Laura. We had to talk him into it. We couldn’t figure out where we could get ready. Laura thought if she got dressed at her own house her mother wouldn’t let her downstairs. In the end, after we showered and everything, I picked her up and we drove to the shop. Mr. Vanek was still at work, and he let us dress in his office. We came out and had to avoid stepping in grease spots. Mr. Vanek could be a little old-fashioned at times and I wasn’t sure what he’d have thought. Then he said, “I once had to wear a German army uniform, a Nazi uniform, to save my life. I don’t worry what people wear, so much.” Laura looked amazing in the tales, better, now I think of it, than she ever did in a dress. She was curvy, with strong hips, and they curved out from under the waist-cut of her outfit.
My mother shrieked when she saw us, although she recovered kind of quickly. My father pulled me into another room and yelled. He grabbed my collar and shook me and I thought he was going to rip it, but it didn’t. I didn’t mind the yelling, this time, because I’d planned it. I said, “We have to go. Are you going to take a picture or not?” He yelled that he wasn’t about to keep a memory of this, so I had to have my mom take it. I had her use up the whole roll of film and then I took it with me because I really think my dad would have destroyed it. He was already threatening to take the truck keys away if we went to the steakhouse, which he couldn’t really do because it was my truck. We were supposed to stop at Laura’s so they could see us also. So there’s this chaos of my mother making crying sounds while my sister tried to calm her down, my father yelling at me, and Laura is meanwhile trying to tell her father that we’re running late and she’d see them later — I don’t think her mother wanted to see us anyway, since she thought proms were extravagant or sinful or something — and meanwhile her dad is saying “No problem,” but wondering why there’s so much angry noise in the background. I thought, By the time we get to the steakhouse, this whole commotion will have gotten out and they won’t even let us in.
When we got there, I think the woman who seated us was kinda horrified — she went to that same church Laura’s parents did — but she didn’t say anything. In fact, they tried to pretend that nothing was out of the ordinary. I think people were staring at us, but they did a good enough job pretending not to notice us. Chris and the girl he went with, Anne Sims, met us there. They thought it was hilarious, how we were overdressed. We almost forgot all about it.
But we didn’t last long at the dance. In fact, we never got inside. Mr. Lee got called out into the hallway as soon as they saw us. They had been waiting for us, obviously. He wouldn’t talk to Laura about how she was dressed. He was telling me, “Mr. Tillary, you know the rules.” I said, “The only rule I ever heard at these dances was not to be inappropriate. And she’s sure not inappropriate. You can’t even see her neck or her legs.” He didn’t think that was funny. Some other kids were in line to get in and they came over. One of the girls who was wearing a lot of makeup, I forgot her name, she was looking at Laura with total disgust, like she was wearing some kind of slime. But the others said they should let us in. Pretty soon there were probably twelve kids there, arguing with him, which is a lot of the class. Finally he threatened that we might get suspended and miss graduation if we didn’t leave. So we left. A bunch of kids followed us out and cheered after us, until Mr. Lee came out and threatened them, too.
We drove back out by the lake. I backed it down the hill a little way, so it wouldn’t be so easy for the police to see us. We put down the tailgate. I had some beer hidden in the back and I opened one for each of us and we sat there. There was a moon out and she looked stunning in that black outfit. I clinked cans with her, and I said, “So, I spared you the prom.”
And she leaned up against me and said, “And you got to say you went.”
I said, “But we didn’t get to dance.”
She got down from the tailgate and went back to the cab and switched on the radio. She fiddled with the dial for awhile — there aren’t many stations so it took a little while — but she finally found one and came back. I don’t remember which song it was but she said, “I’ll bet the band plays this sometime tonight.” She held her arms out for me.
The moon was up now, shining down on the lake, a long white beam shimmering across to the other side. It was even a little bit warm. And we danced.