It's a Friday night in April and I stand on a crowded corner with $875 in my front pocket waiting for a party bus. Hoboken, the small city where I live, transforms into a wild party town on weekends, but that doesn't change the oddness of this, of me, winter jacket pulled over my pajamas, small dog tugging at her leash, on the lookout for a dance club on wheels.
It's the night of Ethan's junior prom and, weeks earlier, he'd volunteered me to sign the paperwork for the after-hours joyride he and ten of his friends have arranged for. Other than one battle over the fact that I insisted on hearing from the other kids' parents giving their permission—Really, Mom? That's so embarrassing!—he made the job easy. He and his buddies searched online and found the company with the best reviews and prices. Ethan then collected the money and kept track of who owed what. It proved to be a testament to how resourceful and responsible my kid can be. The one glitch is that my ATM card, which I'd given him to avoid his having to carry this wad of cash to prom, didn’t work. So now I wait, pocket bulging, for the party to come to me.
And come it does. I hear it from up the block. Hypnotic house music pulses from inside the massive limousine that pulls up across the street. Through the tinted windows I see the kids in silhouette dancing frenetically. Ethan, tux jacket tossed off, white shirt sleeves rolled up, comes bounding out of the thing and dashes across the avenue with such disregard for oncoming traffic my heart leaps into my throat.
"Thanks, Ma," he says, taking the folded bills from my palm. In a moment he's gone, spirited back across the street and swallowed once again by the thrumming beast.
"Check out the party bus," I hear a guy in the crowd behind me say as I stand transfixed, wondering which bopping shadow is my boy as that remarkable caravan eases back into traffic. Too soon it's gone, leaving the vestige of a rhythmic beat in its wake like a vapor trail.
Prom Night. There was no such thing in my Queens high school the spring of 1980. Our prom had been cancelled because only two couples signed up. My friends and I actually took pride in this, citing it as proof of our school's hip brand of cynicism. Though I was arguably the most romantic among them—bookish, a reader and writer of poetry—even I felt prom was way too 1950s a concept for the likes of us.
Over the years, I can't say I ever gave my promlessness much thought. After all, it wasn't like I was home alone crying into a container of Breyers Neapolitan ice cream while the popular girls slow danced to Bread with beautiful boys in the school gymnasium. There was no such night, so no one missed out. Or, it occurs to me now as the remnants of a repetitive back beat play on in my mind, maybe we all did.
That's the price of cool, isn't it? That guise of jaded disinterest so many of us put on as soon as we brush up against the teen years. Ethan was probably 11 when I first saw him wear the boredom mask, when the phrase whatever made it into his vocabulary and all expression drained from his face and voice. It's the age, the hormones, I told myself, when I'd suggest one of our usual outings—a movie followed by dinner at our favorite funky New York restaurant, a stroll through Washington Square Park to watch the magicians and acrobats—and got back a sigh, an eye roll, a “No thanks, Ma.”
Then two summers ago, in a theater in London, I learned that the too-cool-for-you blahs are mostly an American phenomenon. I'd chosen the play, Lend Me a Tenor, because I'd seen a local production back home and remembered it as really funny. But when the curtain rose, I was quickly reminded of how much singing there was. Old-fashioned, quasi-classical, uncool singing. Without glancing over, I felt sure Ethan was slinking low in his seat, glaring at the stage with half-hooded eyes. He's hating this, I thought. But when I finally dared to look, I saw my boy leaning forward, laughing, totally engaged. What made the difference? I wondered, and got my answer when the houselights came up at intermission. The audience, largely in their teens and twenties, were all talking animatedly and singing snippets of the songs. Musical theater was cool here. Or, cool was simply a non-issue. Either way, Ethan felt it. He knew he had permission to be his wide-eyed interested self.
So why do we, especially in our youth, squelch our own enthusiasm? I think back on that girl who climbed aboard the blasé bandwagon that ran over my high school prom. If I'm honest, what I really felt when I learned the event had been cancelled was relief. I didn't have to worry about whether someone would ask me. I didn't have to try to find a dress capable of transforming scrawny into gorgeous. I—and this is big for girls with physical disabilities that are almost-but-not-quite hidden—didn't have to dance in public.
Rather than risk rejection, embarrassment, the possibility of having a bad time I, or rather we, opted to have no time at all.
Thankfully, whether it's because Ethan and his friends find prom cool or because cool is simply a non-issue here, they are all in on this wild milestone of a night. They've also made the event totally their own, from the after-hours party-on-wheels to the corsage Ethan's good-friend-turned-date drew on her wrist when she saw he neglected to buy her one. No shrinking violets on prom night tonight. No pretending they find their own lives dull.