The theme for senior prom is “This Magic Moment.” Walter produces our tickets and we pose for a picture. The Legion Hall is dark and the flash is bright. This picture, when I get it back at the student council office three weeks later, is very good of me but not so good of Walter, who does not smile for pictures, whose carnation is crooked, and whose lapel puffs up, too far open—he is broad-chested and refuses to do all the buttons.
Everyone is here. I take Walter to say hello to Jill, Lizzie, and Bridget. Jill’s mouth drops open dramatically when she sees me. “Look at Evie!” she says. Her date, the middle Dunkirk, Brian, nods his approval.
Jill reaches right over and plucks the sheer fabric of my dress between her fingers. “This was in the catalog,” she says. “I remember it.” She is saying with her eyes, It was very expensive.
“Very pretty,” says Dunkirk.
“Thank you,” I say, though I have a terrible urge to slap her wrist away like my grandmother does my grandfather when she’s pouring batter for a coconut cake. I expect Walter to chime in, to say the same praise in more emphatic words, but he says nothing. “Everyone looks beautiful,” I say, being my most gracious self.
Because they are not looking beautiful. They are looking done up. Jill’s dress looks rich but it is matronly, too dark-green; her bun is pinned too tight and too high, and her lip color is poorly matched. She looks like a diplomat’s wife. Lizzie’s dress is six inches too short, showing her bony ankles and day-old shave; her shoes have been danced in and not polished; they are scuffed. Bridget’s appearance is not her fault; she has four older sisters and, due to her endowments, has been forced to wear the dress belonging to the bulkiest one. Her mother works register at the Sears and has not had time to take the dress in to suit Bridget’s figure. Instead, Bridget has tied a sash around the waist, which makes her look like a curtain pulled back. It is a shame because I have always thought Bridget has good looks lying under it all. With the right efforts, she could surprise everyone.
Bridget will not say much of anything for the evening. The rest of us will be responsible for conversation as we fill our dinner plates from the banquet table. There are roast beefs for carving and platters with medallions of baked ham. There are broccoli and Waldorf salads. There are long loaves of bread dotted with sesame seeds; the parent volunteers, in assembly line style, are slicing off and buttering generous hunks. Somebody on the student council or one of their parents has also gone to trouble to buy fancy-looking finger snacks: butterfly-shaped crackers, tiny tomatoes, cubes of soft white cheese flagged with toothpicks. I choose the driest ham I can find and snatch a hunk of bread before it is buttered: easy to eat and incapable to stain. The other girls all have white gloves on and can barely figure out how to eat. Gloves, I’ve decided, are going out of fashion, are rarely suited to the slender arms of women our age, and are inappropriate considering the intimacy of the occasion. Who wants to slow dance with a swatch of cloth? And so I haven’t worn any.
I have tried, in all my planning for tonight, to make the choices that will present me particularly, to my best effect, rather than hewing to the middle way. I understand why the others would fall on old standards. It is difficult not to let ourselves be carried away by the significance the moment. Many of us will fall in love here, and make others fall in love with us; prom dates will become steadies, and steadies will become husbands where college or military service doesn’t intervene. Many of us will look the prettiest we ever have or ever will, even on our wedding days, seeing as how brides are getting older these days. Today I am young and will flaunt what advantage it gives me. But I can summon a more womanly beauty as well. It just takes a little thought, which the others seem unwilling to give.
Jill and Lizzie twitter about the other girls as they enter the hall, and I chime in for politeness’s sake.
“Look!” cries Jill. “Bob and Christine. You know she didn’t finish her dress until this morning? My mother saw hers in the notions section; she was picking out that piping.”
“Gilly’s with her,” says Lizzie. “I guess she came with Bob’s brother.”
“How sad to get your date through a sibling.”
“Better than coming with a sibling. See Charlotte over there?”
“Twin brother, if you can believe it.”
In a low voice, Bridget: “That has to be some kind of incest, doesn’t it?”
Jill and Lizzie laugh, but less at the attempted joke than from being put off. And really, who does say something like that? Bridget resumes shutting up, moves her fingerling potatoes around her plate.
“Still,” I say, sitting myself down in the chair Walter didn’t consider pulling out for me, “I don’t like thinking about the girls who had to stay at home. Imagine missing prom.”
“Yes,” says Jill vigorously, taking her date by the arm just as he’s about to cut a bite of roast beef. “I’m certainly glad I have Brian.” Brian’s dinner knife points across the table like an accusation as he bends his lips to her cheek and plants the kiss her eyes requested.
Which I think is a little showy. I look over at Walter to see how he’ll retort. He is hunched like a prisoner with his knife and fork click-clacking; he concentrates intensely on the contents of his plate. All the buttons on his jacket are undone now. The lapels part ways from his chest until he is mostly square shoulders and white shirt.
It’s Lizzie who pulls everyone's attention to me instead. She says, “Evie, isn’t that Leon?”
The whole table turns.
He is in a black tuxedo like all the other boys in the room, he is shadowed by the light from the lobby, but there in the back of the ballroom, just as she says, stands Leon. He is leaning back against the wall; his hands are in his trousers pockets. He cuts a surprisingly smart figure. In the hallways, day to day, his clothes are usually overlarge, bland; not unclean but definitely unneat. His hair is usually frizzy and over-long. I remember it as he poked his head out from behind his locker door to ask me to prom three months ago, and how sloppy I thought it looked when he had to pluck it up with his fingers, comb it back into place with his hand. How it fell astride his nose again after I gave him my “no.”
He stands alone. But he doesn’t look lonely. He looks easy, instead. He looks adult.
“Who did he come with?” asks Jill, inevitably.
Everyone is looking at me as if I have the answer. As if, since it was me who rejected him, I ought to be his keeper.
“Well,” I say, stacking Walter’s empty plate atop mine, “does he have a sister?” Everyone laughs.
But out of the corner of my eye I can still see Leon lingering. He is in no hurry to join the party. He is scanning the crowd.
“I’ll clean up,” I say, gesturing toward the banquet area with the plates. I rise and, before I go, lay a kiss on the top of Walter’s head. Walter fusses at his hair, but the rest of the table says, “Aww.”
The noise draws Leon’s gaze to our table. And then, as our eyes meet, to me.
I make my escape. I don’t send so much as another glance in Leon’s direction. But I feel his eyes on me as I cross the room. It makes me jittery, dry-mouthed, and I swallow, tasting Walter’s hair sweat, his pomade.