In (Feminist) Retrospect: A Prom Story

friendship corsages

When I was in high school, I had (and still have) a friend who is very dear to me. We’ll call her T, the first initial of my affectionate nickname for her. T and I attended the same middle school, where we excelled in physics as an undefeated dynamic duo. In high school we grew closer among other friends, but for now they are not the focus of the story. Because T was perceived as rather cynical and short-tempered, she was often the subject of baffled speculation, and her weight was the object of a few jokes. These characteristics only drew me closer to her side. T, who struggled to live under the shadow of her successful older sister, had diagnosed herself with depression, and to this day I believe she might have come very close. To balance T’s unrelenting pessimism, I exaggerated my inclination to outward idealism to the brink of fatigue. T found this greatly amusing, and she referred to us as quite a foil. I was rather unsettled with the popular misconception of my insufferable demonstration of happiness–I felt obligated to be this way so that, since I was frequently accompanied by her, T’s storm clouds didn’t drown the room, but while my emotional range was clipped in public, I knew our peers didn’t know T either.

They didn’t see the softer side of her, the lovely woman who was more than the cynic, who cared for the birds caught in her chimney and fought for all things that live, who tried to cheer me up when she caught glimpses of private moments of my distress. (Incidentally, while the widely held belief was that T was cynical and depressed, no one saw that I, a ray of unstoppable sunshine, was the one slowly sinking into indifference.) Neither T nor I were much for school spirit, and we never cared for parties or events unless they fit the agenda of our academic ambitions.

And then we were seniors, and there was prom. Anxious to see T enjoying herself outside of her quiet books and video games, I encouraged her to attend. And to emphasize that we would be unstoppable partners in crime, I made a proposition: that we would attend the senior prom together, and we would both attend in tuxedos. Even as I tailored the idea to our revolutionary sprits, I believed T would resist, but to my surprise, she agreed at once, with the same quiet happiness that lit her when she looked at birds or lent me books on Buddhism. She was rather fond of the idea, in her light sort of way, and for the first time I witnessed her looking forward to a social event. And, well, you can probably guess what happened next.

I was asked to the prom.

Admittedly, I should have seen this coming, but somehow then, I hadn’t. To this day I cringe at the decision I made. I told T that I’d been asked, mistakenly believing (again!) that she wouldn’t care and might have even been relieved. T didn’t say anything to me except that she understood, but I recall being shocked at the slight shadow of disappointment in her expression. Without me, T airily resigned to not attending the prom. I wore a burgundy dress. T said nothing else of the matter in the coming weeks, possibly out of a consideration for me that I evidently hadn’t had for her, until two days after the event, when she responded rather bitterly to what was, frankly, my abandonment of her. (It was in this moment that I realized how much this had really meant to her.) Still, it was the kindness in her character to bring it up only once, and for the past–how long ago was high school? five years?–she’s never mentioned it again, and our friendship resumed as usual.

I’m certain that she’d forgiven me, and quickly–but to this day when I remember this incident, it eats my heart alive.

When, five years later, I recounted this story to my coworker, she said, compassionately, “Well, no one can really blame you. I mean if you’d done it now it would be different. But you were young then. You were 18 and you’d just been asked out by a guy you had feelings for–,”

“Oh no,” I corrected her, “I didn’t have romantic feelings for him then. In fact, I’d made it clear to him we were going as friends.”

My coworker furrowed her eyebrows. “Wait, your date was just a friend?”

“Yes.”

“So… if he was just a friend, why didn’t the three of you just go together?”

When she said this, it was as though something had collapsed in me and released an infinite (and obvious) flood of wisdom. Of course. Of course! Why hadn’t the three of us just gone together? I had, even at the age of 18, been a self-declared feminist–but I had been so instilled with the heterosexist archetype of two people of the opposite sex attending the prom together as the ideal vision that I’d crumbled at its calling. At the opportunity to present the archetype, I’d neglected about every other possibility, especially the one signifying a meaningful friendship. I’d been stripped of my identity and forgotten who I was. And because everyone referred to the man who’d asked me as my date even though it was widely known we were just friends, when they wouldn’t have referred to T as my date, my frame of reference was further dictated by the language to which I responded: I didn’t make the connection that this man wasn’t my “date” in a definitive sense of the word any more than T had been. With that schema, it hadn’t occurred to me that the three of us could have gone together.

If I could do this over, though, we wouldn’t have attended together. I would have turned down the “date.” There would be plenty of time for that. Instead I would have just gone with T, one of my best friends. Because I’d told her so. And that was the most important thing.

Be good to your friends, and keep them close. Because sometimes, it is more feminist than we even realize.

4 thoughts on “In (Feminist) Retrospect: A Prom Story

  1. Narjis

    I met Nanu when we were about 14. We hit it off right away. We were a couple of weird girls who were into the same things, and most people didn’t think we belonged anywhere. She was of mixed race, tall and beautiful and never took shit from anyone. Her parents were professors and she knew about so many things. I admired her so much. She would say the things I was too afraid to, and didn’t mind pissing people off. We both were interested in having boyfriends, but we loved making fun of guys, too. We got in trouble for laughing in math class. She was just the best.

    Nanu was definitely special. She could sometimes annoy the heck out of me. She was so brilliant and creative, but also had issues with attention and focus. She would get really into something for a short time, then as soon as I wanted to join her and really take something to completion, she would be into something else. Once we took some of my brother’s Ritalin pills and got really high, and rode our bikes all over town late at night. She and I were together for our first experience with weed, first with alcohol, first with acid. Once we took a Greyhound bus to New Orleans for Spring Break. We got so hungry and tired on the bus, we had a fistfight. Then we were cool again.

    We had 2 real fights during the 9 years of best friendship. The first time was over the phone, when she was going on and on about astrology (she really believed in it) and I lost patience and said I felt it was bullshit. We didn’t talk for several months over hurt pride. Then we ran into each other at a rave in Baltimore. I was on ecstasy. I saw her and it was like the scene in a movie when the main character meets the Manic Pixie Dream Girl for the first time. I swear there was glitter around her aura. We hugged and made up. It was a few more years of awesomeness between us.

    Back when we were in high school we were both boy-crazy. She would get tired of guys, though. I was the one who would try to keep a stupid relationship going just because I didn’t like things to end. She used to say I was appealing to guys, because of my big boobs and kindness and tendency to say things that made them feel good about themselves. She envied this, and I felt ridiculous about it. I admired that she wasn’t like that but was so damn cool. If men were not in love with her, there must be something wrong with them.

    I always felt ugly since I was little, being ginger and awkward and other things. In college I realized I could be attractive if I wanted to. I started dressing sexy and getting boyfriends. They were men who didn’t deserve my dedication, but they had it anyway. Nanu never really liked my boyfriends and they never really liked her. I tried my best to balance this. I had one boyfriend who I ended up moving in with when I was in junior year. I had feelings for him or whatever. They severely disliked each other. One day she came over and was really excited to play me a Bollywood song on tape. She played it really loud and danced around and sang along. My worthless boyfriend, who would get really drunk and hungover regularly, was annoyed by this. He confronted her and told her she was being “disruptive” and asked her to leave. I was not strong-willed like I should have been. I wanted to please him because of my flaws. I tried to be on both sides and keep the peace, but Nanu saw through me and resented the fact that I was taking his side. In a way I was, because I had low self-esteem and thought I had to keep this boyfriend for whatever stupid reason. We stopped talking. A few months after this, my boyfriend broke up with me because his mother felt we weren’t compatible. I was heartbroken. For some reason, I guess it was pride, I still didn’t try to get Nanu back. She moved to California, where she had always wanted to be.

    A few years later, I finally began to realize what I had lost, and all the stupid mistakes I had made. I had begun to drink a lot those years. I was lost. I had no sense of self or direction. I began to miss Nanu a lot. I reached out to call her, but got her voicemail. A week later, she called me and got my voicemail. A week after that I called her again. Her mom answered. I asked for her, and her mom said she was dead. I asked if this was some kind of joke. Of course it wasn’t. She was driving on the highway in Pasadena with her boyfriend when a driver on the other side fell asleep at the wheel and hit her head-on. She died instantly. Her boyfriend was in the hospital on life support. He eventually survived, not that it matters. My best friend was gone forever.

    That was about 12 years ago. Losing Nanu is one of my greatest regrets in life. Perhaps the greatest. I chose a man who didn’t love me over the best woman in the world, who deserved better than me. I hope she knew in those last few weeks of her life that I loved her, and how very sorry I was. I wonder what she would think about my life now. I have been married almost 10 years. I still prefer the rational to the metaphysical. No more drugs or drinking. Very stuck in my ways, keeping up with habits, not being particularly creative. I am still too passive, too man-pleasing, too left-brained. But I will always love Nanu, I will always miss her, and I will always remember the mistakes I made that caused me to lose her. Rest in peace, Nanu Paloma Quintana Guerrero. May Allah forgive me for how I treated her and may we be reunited in Jannah. Ameen.

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