“If you eat this, I’ll take you to the prom.”
I looked from the desperate and adorable face of Brad—junior, drummer, all around cool guy—to the cafeteria tray in front of me, where a piece of dry chocolate cake lay trapped underneath a pile of iceberg lettuce and thick, gloppy Italian dressing. Saladcake. It looked as disgusting as it sounds.
My friends—15-year-old freshman girls like me, who'd already scored dates to the sophomore/junior prom and had spent the past twenty minutes goading Brad into taking me—looked on, hushed. I contemplated the saladcake, and I contemplated Brad’s raised eyebrows, framing his beautiful eyes, and I raised my fork and dug right into that saladcake and took a gigantic bite.
It tasted as disgusting as it looked.
Also, Brad had underestimated my desire to attend the prom.
After I finished the second forkful and tentatively reached for a third, Brad grabbed the tray, stood up, looked off into the distance, and said with a sigh, “I guess we’re going to the prom.”
After I got over my initial elation—dress shopping! sparkly shoes! staying out late with a boy!—it hit me that I hadn’t exactly gotten the “prom proposal” (which is apparently a thing now?) of every 15-year-old gal’s dreams. Brad and I were sort of friends, but of course my hopeless crush on him was unrequited. He was 17 and he smoked cigarettes and drove a big SUV and listened to the White Album. He was funny and had a great singing voice, which was kryptonite to a performing arts gal. Brad and I were in the choir together, and he occasionally gave me rides home from play practice during which no funny business occurred, despite my hopes, which remained continually high.
Brad was clearly out of my league, and I knew in my gut that he did not want to take me to the prom. (Although: that could have been the saladcake talking.) That afternoon, after giving the subject a rigorous objective analysis (writing notes back and forth with my friends) I decided I needed to know for certain. I would give Brad an out.
When we got to choir practice, I approached a glum-looking Brad in the back of the tenor section, grateful that I was wearing a stylish ensemble that my mom had purchased for me at The Limited. (At the time, I believed that the epitome of sexy teenage fashion was a form fitting business casual outfit.)
Decked out in a muted grey V-neck and black flare legged pants, I bravely said to Brad, "You know, you don't have to take me to the prom"—and here I paused and dropped the tiny bomb I knew he was too nice to detonate—"if you don't want to."
Brad looked at me, hope in his liquid brown eyes. A meaner boy would have said, "Good, I don't want to go to the prom with you." So would have a nicer boy.
What Brad said was, "I just think prom is dumb, you know. I'd rather like, just go to the movies or something."
I balked. That clever redhead had turned the tables. He was giving me an out. He knew how despicable it would have been to put the saladcake deal on the table and then rescind it once I had swallowed my part. He was offering me a real date, for which, under any other circumstances, I would have ripped out my own vocal chords and tied them neatly into a bow to present to him as a thank you. And I sang a very lovely alto.
But, I knew that a date was a fleeting and un-special occasion. A mere date, when compared to the prospects of a prom date, didn't rate much higher than sitting home alone listening to Lisa Loeb CDs on repeat.
"Oh yeah, I love the movies too," I said. "Totally."
"Well so do I," said Brad. So close to escape, almost scoring that out!
"I just... really want to go to the prom."
Slam. I knew he could hear the reverberations of the door that had just shut in his face. But he steeled himself and said gallantly, "Yeah. Okay. I guess this means we're going to prom."
"Well," I said, smiling, clutching my sheet music and backing away to the alto section, "only if you want to."
For teenage girls, the point of prom is the preparation. As soon as I had secured my date, I swept all signs of Brad’s doubt under the rug and proceeded to plan out the important parts of the event, like whether to use crystals or butterfly clips in my hair.
I talked my parents into purchasing me a hot two-piece number of a dress. The skirt was a heavy periwinkle faux-satin beauty that tied at the waist and flared out like a ball gown. The top was an itchy, stretchy poly blend of the same color, sleeveless and with a high neck, completely covering my midsection (and thus defeating the purpose of a two-piece dress), with a generous helping of sparkles. I found silver strappy heels and a blue Esprit purse that matched the ensemble.
Prom itself was a typical ‘90s American suburban dance, in that there was a lot of hype over a boring several hours hanging around in our school’s gym, bookended by an awkward dinner beforehand and an overhyped party afterward. Except in my case, “afterparty” meant “meeting my friends at the 24-hour family restaurant Perkins to drink coffee and eat pancakes,” because that’s what the cool kids did. Just kidding! I had no idea what the cool kids did, and even if I had, my parents would have never let me do it.
As Brad and I pulled up to the diner, I chattered away nervously, wondering if he would try to kiss me while knowing that he wouldn’t. He had been perfectly polite the whole night, but true to form, he'd made no attempt to get in between the two pieces of my evening gown attire.
When I realized that there probably wasn’t going to be a steamy make-out session in the parking lot of Perkins, I figured that I could be as witty and charming as humanly possible over a late night breakfast platter and then maybe I’d see some action when he drove me home later.
“Ready to go in?” I asked, just in case the answer was “No way, let’s get it on in the back seat!”
“Um,” said Brad, running his gangly fingers through his hair with one hand and gripping the steering wheel with the other. He had not turned off the car. “Actually, I have kind of a headache. I think I’m going to just head home, if that’s okay.”
At that moment, any sensible girl would have known what was happening to her. She would have gotten pissed, or unbearably ashamed, or burst into tears and played the pathetic sympathy card, or at least played dumb.
I, however, didn’t need to play dumb. Because I was dumb: I believed him, thanks to a hefty dose of naivete and innate self-preservation. I went inside to eat pancakes date-less, and had a fun time anyway with my friends, and didn’t realize I had been ditched on prom night until weeks later when pictures of an after-prom party were being passed around the choir bus and I saw Brad sitting by a campfire with his arm around the girl he eventually started dating that semester. The one he had been dancing with in between the obligatory slow dances to Kelly Clarkson ballads with me. The one he really wanted to ask to prom but was too scared to.
Brad and I actually stayed friends—mostly because I was too embarrassed to acknowledge what had happened, but also because I’m much more likable when not freaking out over whether a particular boy likes me or not. One time the next year, after escaping a spaghetti dinner fundraiser for the choir to listen to music in his car together, I was playing with the stuffed monkey (not a euphemism) he kept on his dashboard, and I mustered up the courage to call him out on his shitty maneuvers, and to apologize to him for the whole prom charade. He apologized too–we both knew it had been a farce. That was the only time we ever acknowledged the Saladcake Prom Date Incident, and when he graduated that year, I wished him well and forgot about him to the same degree that I’m sure he forgot about me.
Until my own senior year of high school. My fellow planning committee members and I recruited Brad’s band, semi-famous in our town among girls age 13-18, to play at our senior sleepover in the park. That night, as I frolicked around the frigid park two nights before Thanksgiving, ostensibly protecting the massive bonfire pile from sabotage by our football team rivals, I saw him. I knew I would, but it was nonetheless a gut punch moment. He was still so cute, and now he was In College—so much cooler than I could even imagine.
But in those two years, I had gotten a little cooler too, and a little hotter, if the boys were to be believed, and, more importantly, a little more confident. When I ran up to Brad to say hi before the band started their set, I recognized the look he gave me: it was the one I’d been trying to get out of him for two years of my high school life.
We bantered and small talked, I’m sure, but I don’t remember much. I just remember how he earnestly suggested that I come visit him at school, spend the night at the house the bandmates shared, see college life. I smiled, and said sure, and knew that my parents would never let me go, but also realized that I didn’t want to go as much as I thought I would have. I stayed and sang along to the band with my friends, making a mental note to tell them later what Brad had said to me, and then we scampered off to stay warm by playing Frisbee and I forgot all about it, until now.
Megan Bungeroth is a journalist in NYC. She’s writing a memoir about a life plagued by procrastination and the perils (and triumphs) of never being ready on time. Follow her on Twitter: @MeganBungeroth.