Read an Excerpt
Imagine, if you can, that you are sixteen again. That first kisses are still a possibility, that the giddy anticipation of life’s open roads is still fiery in your belly, that a perfect satin dress and a rose corsage can still make you feel more beautiful than you ever could have hoped for. Sit back and imagine all of these things: taste them, revel in them, and then understand that this—even at thirty-two, even happily married and desperate for a baby—this is why I love prom. I get why you might not, why you might think I’m some sort of stunted adolescent, why you might think that I’m one of those girls you’d have loved to hate in high school. But that’s not it: I love prom for everything that it represents—hope, innocence, possibility. So before you judge me, before you hear my story, know that. Know that I get it, it’s not as if I don’t get it, don’t get why I should have long since moved on from prom. But I can’t help myself. I love the heady expectancy, the spiraling dance floor, the rush of adrenaline before the king and queen are crowned.
And now, once again, it’s July, one school year behind us, another on the horizon, the wave pulling out the grads, the tide washing in new ones, and just as I have done for the past five years, I am planning prom. And yes, I freaking love it. I freaking own it. Welcome to my life.
Today, behind my desk in my office, I tap the eraser against my yellow notepad. This one will be the best in memory! I think. City of Lights: Westlake Does Paris! Last year we did Under the Sea, which felt a little tired, and the year prior, the prom committee nearly came unhinged when deciding between the Roaring Twenties and the Seventies, so before blood was drawn between the school president and the junior class social chair, they settled on the Fifties, which didn’t work on any level. Half the kids ditched the theme entirely, while the other half showed up in poodle skirts and skinny suits that they borrowed from their parents and spent the duration of the evening looking decidedly uncomfortable, uncelebratory in every way.
But I’m giddy at the thought of erecting a faux Eiffel Tower in the gym, delighted at the proposed beret party favors. That none of us has been to Paris is beside the point. Or maybe that’s the point entirely. I lean back in my chair, the wheels squeaking below me. Yes, come December, the City of Lights will be perfect. Parfait!
Westlake High School holds its annual prom in December, an aberration, but the tradition started nearly two decades ago when the teachers union was threatening to strike all spring, and the students rallied the principal to push the prom to the dead of winter, lest they were deprived of the culmination, the exclamation mark for the years they’d logged. The principal acquiesced and the students got their prom and no one bothered to change it back the next year. Or the years after that.
And though it is just July and though prom feels so very far away—with the heat wave that’s pushed in from Montana that has us shedding all but the most necessary of clothes, and with the sun that doesn’t sink below the skyline until nearly nine o’clock, and with at least a third of the student body begrudgingly enrolled in summer school—my to-do list for prom is long and getting longer. And yes, I have more pressing items on my desk—approving detention for Alex Wilkinson, who, on the third day of summer classes, has already been booted from algebra for trying to feel up Martha Connolly, and calling the parents of Randy Rodgers, whose GPA has torpedoed below the athletic requirement for the fall football season—but I’m brushing it all aside for prom.
I glance over my notes. Crème puffs on trays? Baguette and cheese buffet! Tyler, my husband, tells me to give it up, to stop pouring so much of myself into these kids, into this life inside the halls of Westlake High, and I suppose that he’s partly right: maybe I’m a little too close, too tied up in my alma mater, but what the hell. If there’s anything to get too tied up in at this place, it’s prom. Because I’ve long thought that prom matters, has some sort of intangible, relevant effect on these students, their last gasp of childhood before we send them out into the adult world, where many of them, so, so many of them in Westlake—with unsteady jobs, with iffy paychecks, with perhaps shadowy prospects for the future—will be burdened with the complications that the post–high school world brings. So why not revel in it just a little bit? I’ll say this to Ty when he mocks me. Why not make it as perfect as perfect can be? I’ll answer to Susanna, my friend since forever who doesn’t quite share my shiny optimism.
I scribble down, “Check budget for cost of renting Arc de Triomphe,” and spot a tiny spider wobbling along my keyboard. Lately, because the only thing hotter than the outside air is the air inside my office—with the school’s faulty air conditioner—I’ve taken to leaving my windows open, and a family of spiders has taken up residence just below the sill. This one—no bigger than the tip of my pinkie finger—is slipping on the keys, flailing by the letter Y. I jimmy my to-do list under its weensy legs, and it panics, turning the opposite direction and attempting to flee right off the page. I rush to the window, just before he makes a suicide plunge off the paper, and drop him outside, back with his family, wherever they may be.
“Are we really doing this?” A voice calls out behind me, and I pull myself back inside. Susanna has thrown herself onto my lavender love seat, her cheeks too flushed, her skin a little too glistening, her tank top flat against her moist skin. “Jesus, is it nine thousand degrees in here, or what? I feel like my insides are boiling.”
I reach for the Polaroid camera on my desk. “Say cheese!”
“God, not right now, Tilly!” she says, sweeping her brown hair into a bun off of her neck, trying to sound angry but mostly too hot to care.
But the camera has already whirred to life, spitting out a shiny white square that, in less than two minutes, will have captured the moment forever. It’s a policy of mine, as guidance counselor: sit on my couch, risk getting snapped. On the wall behind Susanna, I’ve created a giant mural of all the faces who’ve sunk into my worn love seat, looking for answers.
“So really, are we honestly doing this?” she says again. “This musical? You’re serious about it?”
Okay, another confession: I have a wee bit of difficulty saying no, refusing requests when I have reason, every right to refuse them in the first place. I am the person who other people know will invariably say yes, so I’m asked for a lot of things, which means that I also say yes to all of said things. So, two strikes against me, as Tyler would say, mostly because he likes to use baseball analogies whenever possible, but also because he’s right, my will is not my greatest asset.
“Sue me,” I say to him.
“Never,” he answers. “It would be too easy.”
So when Principal Anderson called me three nights ago at home, apoplectic that due to budget cuts, or as he put it in a tight voice that reminded me of someone who had pulled a groin muscle, “If that stupid Department of Education actually cared about educating any of these children rather than their goddamned bottom line!” he had to fire Jancee Cartwright, the music department head, and now he had no one to coordinate the fall musical, and did I know anyone who might be able to pitch in? “Well, sure I do,” I replied, and then promptly volunteered myself, as well as Susanna, who teaches ninth- and tenth-grade English.
“You starred in Grease our senior year, Susie,” I say now, watching her cheeks turn from a shade vaguely resembling fuchsia to one nearly perfectly cherry red, a shift I decide to attribute to the heat. “You’ll do great. It’ll be super fun! Just like old times!”
“Old times were fifteen years ago, Tilly!”
“Thirteen,” I say, correcting her. “And who cares?”
She sighs, her equivalent of a white flag.
“I’m just a girl who can’t say no,” I say, already giggling at my joke, ignoring the truthfulness of it, but she just looks at me blankly. I can see her eyelids sweating. “From Oklahoma! Get it?”
“Oh,” she says, then closes her eyes. “I think I might have heatstroke.”