The Prom Date that Wasn’t: an Awkward High School Story

Before I turned twenty-five, only one person had ever asked me out. This was sophomore year of high school – hardly a recent event. He was a junior named David, a short Vietnamese guy who had come to our badminton club one afternoon with a mutual friend and played a game of mixed doubles with me. I guess because I was friendly and liked to laugh, he thought I’d be a good prom date. Also he was not so good at badminton and I went easy on him. Looking back, I probably moved more gracefully (slowly) than usual to keep the rally going. My partner and I beat him anyway and I went up to the net at the end of the game to shake his hand. I smiled extra big to mean, “Hey, no hard feelings, good match.”

A week later he wrote me a poem in a handmade card and shyly gave it to me at the end of lunch in the AP Biology classroom, where all the nerdy Asians ate. I wasn’t good enough at math or bio to eat there, but I had a few friends who did. Anyway, I think he heard from someone that I would stop by the AP bio room on my way to Honors Chem (another class I was not good at) and waited around that day to give me the card. His friends all stood not-so-furtively aside, not even attempting to hide between their bags of chips and sodas. They stared as I read it.

The poem rhymed. In it, he matter-of-factly pointed out that even though I was “several inches taller” he’d still make sure to stand on a book or something for the photos. I think something rhymed with “taller” but I don’t remember what. I was impressed that it rhymed at all, and that he’d taken the time to do it. It’s the kind of thing you look back on and go, “Aww, that guy was so brave,” and then consider the last time someone did something similar at the age you’re at now and think, “Where the hell have all the brave men gone?” 

But in the moment, when you’re an awkward sixteen year-old girl with your own issues with femininity but also strong opinions about what a prom date should look like (several inches taller than me; not the other way around), you can only fold the card up quickly, stash it in your backpack and start brainstorming all the reasons why you can’t go to prom.

What didn’t help his case was that I don’t lie well under pressure. When I need to come up with a lie fast, the lie ends up being obviously a lie. He had stood off to the side while I read the card and was pretty much expecting an immediate answer. But I wasn’t one to play games or revel in attention I didn’t want, and told him in what I considered a nice manner that the timing just wouldn’t work out. I hadn’t planned to go to prom – what sophomore plans to go to prom?? – and now…my mind drew a blank – again, the pressure. Well, I said lamely, I hadn’t planned to go to prom.

“It’s two weeks away,” he said.

Exactly, I said, definitely not enough time to get a dress and make all the necessary arrangements.

I was afraid he would ask, “Like what?” because he would have, I’m certain, been a gentleman and arranged the limo, tickets and dinner reservations – he seemed to be that kind of guy – and all I’d have to do was find a dress – but he just asked, “Are you sure? I think you’d find a dress pretty easily.”

I shook my head, and couldn’t say anything else. We were only teenagers but old enough to be adult about it.

“Aww man,” he said, “Okay,” and left the room, head bent low.

His friends, watching from another table, shook their heads at me.

“Why you gotta be such a bitch, Betty?”

I shrugged, and tried to look apologetic. I didn’t think I was rude about it, but there is such a thing as Prom karma: Unbeknownst to me, a year later as a junior I would again be asked to prom, but as a backup date for my friend Tom, whose first choice dumped him for a guy she really wanted to go with. Tom, who spoke strictly in a low, monotone, would come up to me after lunch without nary a drugstore carnation never mind a poem.

“Hey Betty. Want to go to prom. I was gonna go with Kristy but she decided to go with someone else.” All one note.

I said yes!

Anyway, as a sophomore being asked out was new and so was being called a bitch. Well tough. I wasn’t interested. David was nice; I could like him as a friend. But for us there would be no dancing.

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