I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
Lord Byron, "Darkness"
This night, a silvery, swollen moon floated in a heaven of diamond stars. Beneath the graceful silhouettes of tall palms, water bubbled slowly into a Moorish reflecting pool of rough stone, rocking a bed of fragrant lilies.
A steady beat resonated from the adobe arches and crumbling walls that surrounded a wide square of tables and dripping sprays of red bougainvillea. This court formed the heart of an ancient mission where Father Jun"pero Serra, driven unstoppably onward by a vision only he understood, had elevated the host and established the future County of Orange. Tomorrow the bells would toll over the chapel as they had for centuries. But here lay no space for yesterday or the morning. Here only the moment unfolded.
This night, my date turned to gaze lovingly into my eyes. Her long blond hair blew in the soft, warm air, danced above her sparkling white gown. I in my tuxedo put an arm around her shoulder as we advanced slowly along the flagstone pathways.
A hundred people stood scattered across the grass, talking and laughing in couples or groups, resplendent in their evening wear. As we passed through them, my date put her hand on mine.
"Nice!" I said, smiling tenderly. "I love it. Nice touch."
"See?" she said. "We're such a happy couple."
We shared another vulnerable grin.
"Jeremy!" Alexis Newton wore a tight pink Dior dress with her hair pulled back into two pigtails. She sipped Diet Coke from a plastic cup through a straw and waved. Her friend Padma hovered nearby, giggling.
"Hey, see, I told you I'd introduce you guys," I said. "This is my girlfriend Heather."
"Hi," said Heather. They shook hands and exchanged warm smiles.
"You've got a good man standing next to you," said Alexis.
"Your boyfriend's really nice," said Padma. Her long black hair was elaborately done up, the silver flower ring in her nose glinted.
"Thanks," said Heather.
"Are you guys going over?" I asked them.
"Yeah, soon," said Alexis. "Our dates have gone missing." She pulled her brows down. "Grrr. I'm about to like hop the fence and go smoke a cigarette."
"Where are our loser dates?" said Padma and started to laugh.
Heather and I continued on. A few dozen paces later, smiling broadly, I said through my teeth, "You've gotta talk to them more. We've gotta get them to like you so we can get invited to the afterparty."
"Oh, my God," said Heather. "Those girls are so catty. I don't even know what to say to these people."
"Well, we've got to come up with something," I said. "That's one of our goals for tonight."
She bit her lip thoughtfully. "I guess I could ask them for a cigarette."
"Smile," I said.
We beamed at each other, exchanged loving gazes.
Other couples passed us, leaving the dancing for the seclusion of the empty archways at the far end of the central courtyard.
Derrick Littlefield stood by a mostly abandoned table. His golden tan and curly blond hair glowed like Renaissance art over a white tuxedo and pink shirt.
He sneezed. Then he sneezed again. "Oh," he moaned. "I'm so sick."
"Dude, I think you're like allergic to prom," I said.
Derrick laughed, displaying brilliant teeth. "No doubt. See, I knew they wouldn't have the dogs and Breathalyzers. They can't afford to bring an officer down."
"I don't think anyone's drinking, though," I said.
He scratched his head. "Yeah, like everybody was saying they wouldn't have a good time if they were sober, but they are anyway."
"This is my girlfriend Heather," I said.
"All the way from Hermosa Beach, huh?" They shook hands. His date Olivia sat alone at the table, adjusting a strap on her tulle dress.
"Are you going to dance?" I asked him.
"I'm coming in a few," said Derrick. "I have to go over for the Prom Court thing."
"Nice to meet you," said Heather.
Amid the flowering boughs and gentle laughter, my eyes met hers in the rapture of young love. "I told him he reminds me of our friend Nick from home," I said. "So remember that if it comes up."
"Nick from home," she repeated to herself. "Nick from home. Do we like Nick?"
"Yeah," I said. "He's one of our best friends. We've known him since junior high."
"Nick is great," said Heather. Then we both laughed, part real, part fake, and part from nerves.
A small stage with speakers rose on the grass. The entire special ed group crowded nearby around their chaperone, a middle-aged woman with a corsage and a worn look on her face. One guy hummed along into a karaoke microphone, holding his wheeled oxygen tank with the other hand. I recognized a senior named Aram who came to the circle sometimes. He danced to the karaoke song, kicking up his legs, whirling around, executing high-energy punches.
Brian Olvera and some baseball players laughed at him as they waited for their turn at the mike. The team had largely gone for striped zoot suits and broad-shouldered pimp outfits, complete with wide-brim hats.
Heather and I clasped hands again, and I looked up at the stars.
"We need pictures of everything," I murmured. "You should take pictures of these people."
Heather pulled the disposable camera from her purse and swung it lightly in her fingertips. Passersby saw her in her shining silver gown snapping away among the weeping trails of flowers. I smiled weakly and looked around when other couples crossed our path, doing my best to seem a little bored, indulgent but embarrassed.
We set off again, nearing the freestanding portico that towered at the far end of the stone courtyard. Its coarse brick and mortar abruptly broke off where the primeval wall had collapsed. A silver and gold banner hung from the arch: MIRADOR HIGH SCHOOL JUNIOR-SENIOR PROM. Lights flashed behind the gateway.
Chubby Evelyn Strout worked at a laptop set up on a slender metal table beside the path. She wore a bright red dress and red plastic glasses. She had creatively styled her frizzy red hair by sticking in a pair of what looked like chopsticks.
Travis Newton, short and slick, passed her with a smirk and a junior date. He was probably one of five underclass males who had been invited to prom.
"So the sophomores are graduating this year, huh?" he said to Evelyn. "Did you know you put the wrong date on all our class pages?"
Evelyn's head snapped up. Her red face flushed darker. "We spent all year on that. Sorry we spent so long on a yearbook and you're just tearing it apart. All we hear are negative things. That's really rude, I'm serious."
Travis shook his head and saluted me as we passed. I tossed back the lazy gesture.
"Oh, it makes me so mad," said Evelyn, and stabbed the table with a pencil. "Hello, Jeremy. Hello, Jeremy's girlfriend."
"Heather," she said.
We passed the row of steaming buffet trays, strolling the flagstones toward the growing music and lights.
All the spidering pathways converged into one as they prepared to feed through the archway. Here the whitewashed walls of the San Juan Capistrano Chapel itself erupted up from the side of the courtyard to glow in the moonlight. This luminescent ghost was the oldest building in California, one of the string of missions that Father Serra and his disciple had called forth from the wilderness unimaginable ages ago, christening them Santa Barbara, San Diego, San Francisco . . .
Someone grabbed my shoulders, landed with a thud next to me. It was Vic Reyes, wearing a Split T-shirt under his tuxedo jacket, Element wristbands, and a headband around his spiky hair.
"Oh, shit, you scared me, fool," I said.
Vic laughed. We did a handclasp.
"Hey, we don't have dogs sniffing our crotches, bro," he said. "Popper's so full of shit."
Vic's date, sophomore Sara Dunbar, narrowed her lids behind too much eye shadow. "Pooper's a liar," she said.
"Hey, is this your girlfriend?" Vic asked.
"Yeah," I said. "Vic, Heather, Heather, Vic."
"Hi," said Heather, smiling sweetly.
Vic punched me in the arm. "She's too nice for you, bro. Hah, hah, just kidding, fool. No, but seriously, watch out for this guy. Just kidding."
He looked up at the prom banner hanging from the archway. "We're fucking seniors, fool. I can't fucking believe this shit."
His date smiled wickedly. "I'd be freaking out," she said. "I have my Peter Pan complex. It means your childhood is over. I'd go catatonic."
"What about college?" I asked.
"College is good, because it's like a buffer," she said. She shuddered and put her arm through Vic's. "Aaah, I dont want to be a junior. I'm not even ready for being a sophomore."
As Heather and I approached the primordial arch, she held me closer. Her sea blue eyes gleamed as she whispered delicate words.
"I should be going somewhere else for college," she said. "USC's boring."
"No, it's too late," I said. "I already said you were."
"The different colleges thing is going to put like a strain on our relationship," she pointed out.
"Yeah, well, the whole moving thing already has," I said. "I already thought you might be cheating on me like a month ago, but we worked it out, and honestly, I didn't even really want to know. But it's had so many ups and downs, and college is going to make it really tough. I think we're gonna break up next fall if I'm still talking to people then."
Heather clung to my arm as we passed through the whispering palms. The strobes before us electrified the sky like lightning. She smiled. "It's your friend."
"Huh?" I asked.
She tilted her head. I followed the angle to see the principal instructor of Mirador Senior High School, Dr. Irma Chao, trotting through the courtyard in a powder blue dress. Behind oval glasses, her eyes flicked across every face. They may have hesitated on us for a split second.
"Avoid, avoid!" I said grimly, turning my face as far as possible the other way, staring up at the mission wall. We quickened the pace.
"I really hope she didn't see us," I muttered under the gathering thunder of music. "I bet she thinks you're someone from Mirador, and you don't know who I really am, and obviously she can't like say anything about it. Oh, God, she must think I'm such a skank."
"I don't think she saw us," Heather said.
"I really hope not. I'm going to have to e-mail her tomorrow and try and explain."
Behind the archway, we've arrived, and we behold the towering sandstone ruins of the Great Stone Church. There a thousand people dance to hip-hop on flooring laid across the dusty ground, their forms dwarfed beside the massive crumbling vaults. The shell is roofless, stars bright above the walls. Lights swirl over the dancers, their movements rebroadcast around them on huge video screens.
"They all dance so well," Heather breathes.
They do. They're incredible. It"s effortless, natural, spontaneous for them. I've never seen anything like it. They are sober, they are undrugged. They are just dancing.
"This would never happen at my school," Heather says. "People are so self-conscious. It would be nice if we were like this maybe just once a year, like prom."
A rush of pride swells in me for Mirador, for my school.
We make our way out onto the floor, past couples and groups and circles cheering on people dancing freaky in the middle.
I see some faces I know and we move next to them, staying with the beat. I'm treating Heather like a Fabergé egg made of gossamer, standing inches apart, and I realize our distance would make us a rare sight indeed in a sea of couples holding hips, pressed against each other, sinking down and rising up, running hands along each other's sides.
"Uh," I ask, "is it okay if we like grind? That's what everybody else is doing."
She shoots me an exasperated look. "I am eighteen," she says.
"I know," I say. "But I'm twenty-four."
Someone calls out; she sees a shooting star pass by overhead, out there above the broken walls.
This night, we're dancing too, and I glance at my watch and I realize it's going to be over soon. They're going to announce the prom king and queen, and then the night will end. And that will be the end of prom, and you don't get any more of them in this lifetime. And I've worked so, so, so hard to put everything together, summon up all the smoke and mirrors and make everything seem perfect and for a moment I can almost believe it's real, could almost wish it real, but when they call last dance it's going to be over for good, and reality will return and I will go back to my apartment alone and I will graduate in a few weeks, and at the rising of the sun these chapel bells that have chimed through the fall of empires will ring in the collapse of yet another illusion.
Cody Reisling dances next to us, brow furrowed, sweat and intensity gripping his face. He nods at me. "What's up, Hughes." We punch fists.
Heather is not my girlfriend, and Hughes is not my name.
It says Hughes on my ID, but that's fake. It nestles next to a photo of Heather in my wallet, but I never met her before. I'm from three thousand miles away. My senior year of high school came and went the previous decade.
Copyright © 2006 by Jeremy Iversen