Nonfiction by Laurel Dixon
What’s strange is how familiar it seems. Lukewarm appetizers huddle on a table someone has tried to make festive with a red tablecloth.
Everything smells like it’s been doused in fruit-flavored vodka, the cheap kind that tastes like perfume. The room is divided into two factions—the people gossiping at poorly-lit tables and the precious few braving the dance floor. Two girls giggle over the linoleum, tossing balloons at each other.
I’m twenty-five years old, and I am somehow at prom again. An adult prom at the local community center, where limp crepe paper snakes down the white walls, disguising the scuffs from old dodgeball games.
Amber and I sidle up to the bar, where we buy drinks with names like “Rainbow Burst” and “Pride Surprise.” We met at a church event when I was fifteen. Our parents encouraged us to be friends, claiming we had “similar interests.” They were right. Ten years later, we’re standing in the corner of a Gay Prom and scanning the room for cute girls.
We slouch away from one another a little so that people won’t assume we’re together. In the other corner, a DJ blasts a shrill Katy Perry remix, urging people to dance with a note of panic in his voice.
The first time I went to prom, I looked like a bride.
The theme had originally been “Rave,” but then concerned parents spoke out, worried that we would all show up high on ecstasy. The administrators sighed and changed the theme to “Flashing Lights,” and the student body resigned themselves to coming to prom drunk instead of on E. Who were we to break with tradition?
My family didn’t have a lot of money, so I collected coins from the couch cushions and grew creative in my effort to find a dress. With the last of my cash from working at a local farm all summer, I bought a forty-dollar Cinderella contraption with a floor-length train. It was made of rayon and lace, all cream-colored and strapless. I borrowed heels from a friend.
Between the glow sticks and strobe lights, one girl teased me when I got there, saying I looked like a bride in a Vegas wedding with my white lace skirt. I laughed with her, because I had no earthly idea how to defend myself. She had gone to Dillard’s with her mother to get her dress: a blood-red creation complete with a tiara.
Night is falling on Gay Prom, and everyone is getting drunk enough to gravitate to the dance floor.
A large gay man approaches Amber and me, vodka heavy on his breath.
“Which one of you is more flaaaaaming?”
“Both of us?” I venture, but he’s already flitted to the next group of people to pose the same question.
Amber adjusts her baby blue tie. “Well. Someone’s been hitting it too hard.”
I touch the lace edge of my blouse bitterly. “I bet he only asked that because I’m femme—he probably thinks I’m the straight friend or something.”
Amber tugs down her dress shirt. She looks flawlessly dressy and butch, with her hair slicked back and her cuff links in place. I spent close to an hour deciding what to wear before settling on a strange compromise. I was in a lace top, true, but I also had on a leather pencil skirt and combat boots. I tried on prom dresses at Goodwill a few days ago and learned a lot of new things about my adult body: namely, it wasn’t designed for teenage formal wear.
Amber shrugs. “You’re at a Gay Prom. I bet people know that you’re gay.”
I nod. She’s probably right. “Let’s go dance.”
I went to my first prom with a boy named Kyle. He was part of my church’s Youth Group, and his favorite things were knives and Monster energy drinks. He never said a single unkind word to me. To be fair, he didn’t talk much.
We stopped in the library parking lot after prom and made out. His hands slid chastely over the silky rayon front of my dress, stopping to cup the sharp curve of my jaw. Later, we spotted a beaten-up security camera recording us from one of the floodlights, and we peeled out of the parking lot, half sick with worry and flushed with our own daring.
Kyle and I took a complimentary Prom photo together that night. I didn’t believe it then, but when I look back, I can see that I was beautiful. Against a pink and tangerine background, his calloused hands gripped my waist gingerly. My hair unscrolled past my shoulders like spilled ink. My eyes were so dark they seemed to have no center, no endpoint—they looked bottomless. I had drawn clumsy pencil lines above my lashes. I was smiling. I think, in retrospect, that I looked a little afraid.
At Gay Prom, the bathroom signs are covered with balloons to make them gender neutral. I wander into one of them. I tug my skirt down a little, deciding that leather pencil skirts were terrible in anything but theory. It’s like wearing a sauna around my waist. I wipe my flushed forehead with a paper towel. In the mirror I can see that my liquid eyeliner is still perfect, thick, and sharp. I invested in some waterproof mascara recently—that’s the sort of thing you learn to do, when you get older.
It’s hard to believe that I came out to my parents only a week ago—harder still to stop reliving my father crying, my mother sitting dry-faced on the couch, shocked, suddenly imbued with more wrinkles.
“We still love you,” my mother said, like it had been a close call, while she wrung her hands. “This isn’t an easy conversation to have.”
I cried that night, my makeup immobile, tears dancing on the end of my stiff, waterproof lashes. I cried because my father was crying. I cried because I didn’t know if he was weeping out of love or disappointment.
At my first prom, my mother had taken adoring photos of me. There’s one in particular I love—I was sitting on our kitchen counter. My skirt plumed out from under me in a waterfall of lace. My smile was huge. It was the smile of a seven-year-old who is missing teeth and still believes she’s lovely.
Years later, my mother still shows that photo to people. “See,” she says. “That’s my daughter at prom. Look at her dress. Isn’t this the best picture?”
Is the picture a memory of a coveted time where I was simpler, quieter, someone who she recognized? Or does my mother just want to freeze time because all mothers do?
Amber and I end up outside, and a girl in an evening gown tells me that she likes my combat boots. I feel my cheeks go pink in the October air and I barely manage to stutter out a thank you.
When we’re a safe distance away, Amber laughs at me. The brick wall of the community center digs into my back through the lace of my shirt, and I scuff the black heel of my boot across the pavement.
Amber pats my shoulder. “You should have asked her name.”
“It looked like she was here with someone,” I mumble.
Amber shrugs. “You never know.”
When we go back inside, I notice a blonde girl with an undercut dancing to Lady Gaga out on the floor. She’s wearing a backless blue dress, her skin lovely and pale under the fluorescent red lights. A few of her friends are dancing near her, including a man in cut-off shorts who knows all of the moves to “Born This Way.”
It seems like she’s trying to catch my eye, so Amber and I dance closer to her group, but despite my glances—am I gay enough, do I make the cut?—she eventually sits down. My heart plummets.
A slow song comes on, and Amber and I give up trying to look like we’re available, revolving slowly on the empty floor. She moves our arms into a waltz position and leads flawlessly. Her hand cups the small of my back.
Next time, I think, as the red lights darken our eyes, the alcohol loosening our limbs and starched collars, I’m going to ask a girl to dance. I see it in my head, a scene that plays on repeat: I’ll take her hand, lead her out to the center of the floor, place my palm on the small of her back. My lips inches from hers, parted, waiting. Ready for her to say yes.
Laurel Dixon lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her tiny, ineffectual dog. She has been published in Pollen, The Legendary, and Apex Magazine. In her spare time she enjoys reading, gardening, and playing the ukulele.