Red Tie Formal

“Tails.” I spoke the word out loud with my indoors voice. I ordered white tails to wear at my high school prom.

For many American high school students, senior year means at least two things: Graduation and Senior Prom Night (and the morning after). With no research, I can tell you that “prom” is short for “promenade,” which is long for “prom.” For naive bookworm me, the prom, far more than graduation or even thecontinuousthinkingofthoughtsabouttheentirerestofmylife, was the source of many anxieties.

(There is an ancient cliché about how native peoples who live in the Arctic have 1000 words for snow because they know snow so intimately that they have 1000 words to describe 1000 unique realities. Replace the word “snow” with “anxiety,” and you have me. A thousand different anxieties.)

I had not yet asked a member of the female population for a date, or a kiss, or anything. Of course, several of my closest high school friends were female, so I had many examples of real-life interactions between me and female women that I could draw from. I did not draw conclusions from these real-life examples of human beings in my midst, however. It did not occur to me until just now, at age 47-and-a-half, that there were probably fellow boys in my high school class who looked at me and envied what they saw: a boy who talked easily with girls.

This is not to say that the idea of requesting a date from one of my female friends did not occur to me; it occurred to me often and to the exclusion of any other thoughts. I did not want it to be obvious, so I did not ever speak the words, “Would you like to go out with me?” in the presence of any other human being.

The soap opera that is the life of almost every 17-year-old child-adult resulted in me having a date to the prom, somehow, thankfully. But I was a bystander, an onlooker to the entire thing. The soap opera: J—– was one of my best friends in high school and she had her sights on a someone who had asked a third, different, someone to the prom instead. The someone whom she had her sights on was a boy whom I remembered from elementary school but who had dropped off my radar so completely that I did not know he was a student in our high school, much less graduating with us. (And we were students in a small district; my graduating class was only 120 students or so. I thought I knew every single classmate, as I edited the student newspaper. Like many a newspaper editor, the population of my peers kept me in the dark about a few things, like everything fun.) He rode a motorcycle and he illustrated comic books and he did not attend class and my personal jealousy when she told me about this was total.

“You-you like him?” (I liked her, but I had never wanted to be so obvious as to express it.)

“That’s not why I’m here,” she replied.

So, J asked me to our senior prom. She was wise enough to know that she needed to handle my young ego as gently as any world diplomat tasked with organizing place settings at an international conference, yet as firmly as a school principal given a turn at supervising after-school detention. We were going to attend together, but stag, as two friends. It would be as if I was attending with one of our male friends.

Of course, all I heard after she asked me out was nothing. Nothing at all. I was going to the prom. I was going to the prom, and with a woman, one whom I desired.

(She and the motorcycle-riding comic book artist met up at the prom and they left together. I ended the night at home, alone, and in bed at a reasonable hour, if by bed you mean the back of my parents’ station wagon, and by “at a reasonable hour” you mean the following night, and if by “alone” you mean alone. I was alone. I was still a year away from consuming my first drink, but I was ready to embrace the “lifestyle.”)

For many American high school students, the prom means renting, buying, or inheriting from a recently deceased family member some elegant formal wear. (The less expensive the formal wear, the greater the chances the word will be spelled “elegante,” be italicized, and be serifed out of legibility.) As with all things to do with fashion, men have a uniform with little variation (some sort of a business suit) and women have more choices.

I like wearing suits for two reasons: 1. I am an anxious person and a suit feels like it is something that is tightly holding me together and preventing me from exploding, which is always a danger; and 2. compliments. Suits earn unearned compliments. But I should never be placed in charge of ordering the suit. For one thing, I am a thin individual and for decades I attempted to mask this not-very-hideable fact with over-sized clothes. The result is that I usually looked like a person who had been partially consumed by his suit, which was patiently waiting for the right moment to swallow that last morsel, my head.

Formal wear means a tuxedo. And there were two types of tuxedo I had yet seen: Fred Astaire in a top hat and tails, and everyone else. The “everyone else” sort of tuxedo looked to my eyes like a simple business suit. Thus, I explained to my father that I did not think that “anyone there” was going to look like “everyone else.” I wanted to look like everyone else not looking like “everyone else.”

No one ever tells me that my theories are idiotic. I somehow always convey an authority that I do not possess and do not feel like I possess.

White tails. I ordered white damn tails. And a red bowtie (clip art example seen at the top). My non-date date, a young woman who had much of the male population of the school wanting to be me, well, she was wearing a tasteful and elegant—definitely not elegante—cocktail dress when I retrieved her. To her eternal credit, she did not snicker at the sight in front of her. But I looked like I had been hired to drive her there and then wait with my horse and carriage to drive her back home when her magical evening was done. I looked like I was going to pull a dove from my sleeve at any moment. Any photo of us from that night looks like two photos that have been inexpertly spliced together. Of course, we had two very different nights anyway, so this is appropriate in an existential way.

What I remember from that long-ago May 1986 weekend (30 years!) is just a few things: the idiotic tuxedo I had trapped myself into (I was wearing the only pair of tails at the dance), and the fun and funny conversation my date and I had the day after—when we went back to being the friends part of “just friends.”

* * * *
This last appeared in July 2015.

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