when you’re 17 in indiana, prom is a very big deal.
when you’re 17 in indiana, just coming to terms with your sexuality, and have nothing but testosterone and clearasil flowing through your bloodstream, a night like prom is something you both cherish—and dread.
by the time senior prom rolled around, i’d already dealt with all of the drama of self-discovery, a wee bit of experimentation, i’d managed to come out to 2 close friends, and i’d even confronted my closeted lesbian principal [who was of no help whatsoever, but that's another story, to be sure].
5 couples rented a stretch limousine:
- myself & kristi-lee [adorable, friendly lass, voted best dimples]
- salem [my #1 best friend and fag-hag, best laugh] & victor [also gay, also closeted, best actor]
- nick [my best friend 5-8th grade, voted best smile] & liz [voted friendliest]
- matt [my best friend 1st-4th grade, most gullible] & natale [neighbor, also most gullible]
- jen [my one and only ex-girlfriend, who had recently forgiven me for breaking up with her the previous year, after i finally told her the real reason why, best actress] & tom
not relevant to the story, but in case you were wondering, i was voted most likely to succeed, and teacher’s pet. they were right on one count, at least.
none of us had met tom before prom night [much less heard of him]. apparently jen had met him at some sort of swim class a few towns over, where tom was lifeguarding. we were all a little bit curious about this new addition to our clique, but were mostly just anxious about having the best night
the limo picks up each couple, and at each stop we all pile out for photos [shut up mom, we gotta go!]. the last couple we pick up is jen [my ex-girlfriend] and tom [her date, the lifeguard]. we all pile out, compliment jen on her amazing dress & hair, exchange pleasantries with tom, and start posing for photos with jen‘s folks [whom had finally forgiven me for breaking up with her daughter].
throughout the 5-minute long photo shoot [ok, now just the girls! ok, now eric & jen!], i notice tom glancing my way several times. my first instinct is he’s sizing me up as jen’s ex-boyfriend, trying to figure out if i’m a threat—or not—to his [presumed] interest in jen [jen assured me that not even her parents knew of my "secret"].
the 10 [!!!] of us pile into the limo, and drive the 4 miles to the not-so-fancy-but-it-will-have-to-do-considering-we’re-in-smalltown-indiana banquet hall where our “night to remember” prom is being held. along the way, i observe tom observing the 9 of us interact [most of us have been childhood friends for 8 years].
i observe that he has an all-american winning smile. i observe he has floppy blond hair, in a teen heartthrob kinda way. i observe he has rosy cheeks which create an air of permanent bashfulness. even through his rental tux, i can observe that he’s most definitely a lifeguard, with broad shoulders and a taut frame.
we spend a few hours at prom, dancing poorly to hip-hop, dancing well to country music, posing for entirely too many photos, and having as much fun as you can without drinking. unlike in the movies, nobody spikes the punch or sneaks in a flask in 1995 smalltown indiana.
we collectively decide it’s time to start phase two of our prom night—a limo ride to downtown chicago, to hang out at ed debevic’s diner. on the way to the limo, i confer with victor [the other gay in the village, whom i'm sort of friends with at this point but it's complicated so i'll mostly refer to him as an 'ally'] about this new tom lad.
as cocky and articulate as i am now, at the time neither of us could ascertain or verbalize as to whether or not tom could be p.l.u. [people like us] or not. we were both excited, though, and as we piled into the limo we somehow ended up bookending tom in the cramped backseat of the limo, much to jen [his date]‘s chagrin.
it was about a 90-minute ride to chicago, filled with jokes and stories and singing and loud music and shouting out the sunroof at passing cars and reminiscing about 4th grade.
for me, it was an incredibly slow, deliberate, calculated, heart-in-my-throat, lump-in-my-pants, so-enthralling-i-might-just-faint game of pinky touching combined with knee rubbing with tom—the whole time we’re carrying on conversations with the rest of the limo, all of whom are no more than 4 feet away from us.
when you’re a closeted 17yo in indiana, i think this qualifies as 1st base.
our pinkies entwine as he presses his leg really hard into mine, our knees in a wrestling match that neither of us want to win. he glances over, smiles, and looks away as his rosy cheeks get rosier.
piling out of the limo at ed’s diner around midnight, we luckily get a table for 10. as i casually ["oh, i guess i'll just sit here"] sit next to tom [at the opposite end of the table from my date] jen shoots me an all-knowing look that makes my heart skip a beat.
the wounds of our failed 6-month relationship are still very fresh for the both of us, and the last thing she needs from me is to steal her prom date [foreshadowing, anyone?], so i do my best to ignore tom. perhaps to make me jealous, perhaps because he’s confused, perhaps because he’s straight, tom is all over jen—playing with her hair, whispering in her ear, feeding her french fries.
my best friend and fag-hag salem asks if i would like to go to the front of the diner, where they have a little photo booth and gift shop and pinball machine. what the hell are you doing? she asks me as i look at merchandise in the display case. i’m going to buy a pickle pen!, i tell her, pointing at the phallic-shaped writing utensil. she grabs my arm, purses her lips and tells me, eric, don’t you dare try to steal her date! she will never speak to you again! i shrug [that's eric!] and we play some pinball and get photos taken before returning to the table.
as salem and i sit back down, tom turns to me and says we missed you! with a smirk. as i show off my purchase, he grabs it, my, that’s quite a pen you have there!. i turn to him, pretending to be angry, give. me. my. pickle pen. back! and try to snatch it. turns out this lifeguard has a very firm grip, and my attempts to retrieve said pickle pen fail.
retreating to my chili cheese fries, i see him write something on a napkin using my pen. my heart races as he scribbles sentence after sentence. he finshes his napkin note, folds in half, and hands it to… jen. she opens it, reads it, giggles and they kiss.
retreating, again, to my chili cheese fries, i catch up on gossip [in a very high-school way] with my [neglected] friends at the other end of the table [did you see what tina was wearing? who was that skanky date that scott brought?] i feel a familiar nudge against my leg, and instinctively reach under the table to grab the note that tom’s passing to me.
i turn away from the table and slyly open up the napkin:
meet me in the bathroom in 5 minutes.
p.s. will you be my prom date?