My daughter stood before me, as pretty in pink as a teenage girl could be. I added a little spit on an errant curl, then stood back to admire my creation.
"You're so beautiful, Cindy. You take my breath away."
Cindy waved a disdainful hand to my praise then turned to survey herself in the full-length mirror.
"So......," she said, almost off-handedly. "When are you going to tell me about your prom night?"
I'd been picking up discarded clothes from around Cindy's room when I heard her words. They caused me to stop still. At first, I wondered just to whom she was speaking.
"I didn't go to my senior prom, Cindy. I've told you this many times," I replied, realizing there was no one else about and my daughter had to be addressing me.
"Mom," she said, turning from the mirror and throwing her lovely arms in the air in exasperation. "I don't know why you tell me and Kelly that you didn't go to your senior prom. I don't know why you lie about this. We've both known for over ten years that you DID go to your prom. We found a picture of you and your date over at Grandmom's house. On the back, Grandmom had written, 'Shelly's Prom Picture-1968'. And you looked wonderful, Mom. Now tell me why you keep denying this."
Cindy plopped down on the bed directly in front of my shocked self, crossed her arms in defiance and gazed directly into my lying eyes in search of the truth.
Only I couldn't tell her the truth. In over thirty years I still can barely tell myself the truth. How does a mother ever tell such a terrible thing? How could I ever tell my daughters, even though they probably knew, that I was elected prom queen, but for the worst of motives? My classmates elected me queen of the prom so I could take a bullet directly in my head.
My crime? I was too fat.
I've always been fat. My birth weight exceeded ten pounds and it went uphill from there. By the time I was a teenager, I carried almost 200 pounds around on my smallish frame. And though life as a fat child had never been a pleasant one, it wasn't until my senior prom that I realized just how much my school chums, indeed everyone in my world, really hated me for being so fat.
Cindy regarded me calmly as these thoughts raced through my head. In 15 minutes, her boyfriend Calvin would come to claim her. And he would be getting a treat, indeed.
Her honey-brown hair was upswept in an elegant chignon. It was caught in the back by a simple gold clasp. The bangs flirted with her eyebrows in a soft manner that was both fetchingly childish and sexually alluring. It required only a modicum of makeup to enhance her wide-set emerald eyes and high cheekbones.
The pink gown that I'd originally thought to be a bit garish landed on her curves perfectly. I considered that I'd eschewed pink the day Cindy tried on the gown because my life was spent in the endless search for a slimming black. On Cindy, the bright pink shone soft but with a statement against her creamy, lightly tanned skin. Those emerald eyes glowed even brighter above the pink satin frame.
"I was elected queen of my prom," I said, slowly, with no happy emotion that such a statement would suggest. Cindy's emerald eyes didn't change as she continued her steady gaze. She knew my statement also not to be a happy one.
"I guess you know this wasn't a good thing?" I asked rhetorically, sitting on the dressing chair to better muse.
"Because whoever got elected prom queen was going to be executed," I said with no emotion shown that these words would indicate. To Cindy's credit, she didn't flinch. She'd been expecting this, I pondered. Someone's told her something. Now I'd tell her straight because, since she was so beautiful, I knew she had nothing to fear.
"I'm fat, Cindy," I said in a firm voice, then jumped from my seated position for emphasis. At this, Cindy's emerald eyes did react and it was kind of sad. For the merest fraction of a second, she cast her eyes to the floor in that manner of people hearing a truth that made them uncomfortable. Though she quickly regained her bearing, I saw the movement. It didn't make me angry. Hell, a surreptitious casting down of the eyes at my obesity was the least of crimes committed upon me. It did sting a bit coming from my own daughter.
"And I've always been fat. I'm smart, mind you, and was always able to earn a good living. But no amount of money could make me be thin."
"I can't believe that's important, Mom. I don't even think of you as heavy. Neither does Kelly. We love....."
"Yeah. I know you love me. Everybody loves me. Except those kids in my high school class who voted for me to be murdered."
"Aunt Lil told us something....."
"I'm sure she did, Cindy. I'm sure she did. But I don't think she told you everything."
Cindy remained silent. Calvin would be arriving in a few minutes. She wanted to hear everything.
"I graduated high school back in the sixties," I began. "The Vietnam War was in full swing. Young people all over the country were protesting this war, and demanding civil rights and women's liberation. It was a tumultuous time, Cindy. Even a fat girl like me got caught up in the spirit."
And this was true. In this late-1990s year of Cindy's senior prom, the media exploded with the onslaught of anorexic models and ultra-thin actresses. There was also an epidemic of eating disorders in this era that either hadn't been so prevalent in my teenage years, or nobody talked about it. My own daughters were naturally thin and at the sight of my beautiful prom girl I knew I'd made the right decision.
During the sixties, it was cool to dress in fringed vests, long granny dresses, and smoke dope until no one cared. The "in thing" was to be involved in any radical group, whether environment, anti-war, or feminist. For myself, I belonged to an informal group of students that actively sought to end that ridiculous Vietnam War.
"We bombarded the newspapers with letters against the war, marched in front of the draft board, held sit-ins on the White House lawn," I continued for Cindy, who'd heard all this before but was nonetheless polite.
"It was a wonderful time. There was nothing more important than making our country better. Everyone loved everyone else. We had pot parties and discussed communism. We all crammed into a volkswagen to head down to the nearest nuclear power plant. We made love and not war. Ours was a society that cared only for the greater good. At least that's what I thought."
I glanced at Cindy's bedside clock and considered the wisdom of continuing. Though Cindy noticed my action, she made no effort to move.
"I really didn't want to go to my senior prom. In those years, silly things like proms and school dances were almost politically incorrect. We were a generation out to change the way the world sees things. We thought gowns and tuxedos were for the vapid. Only Chuck Wilkerson asked me if I wanted to go to the prom with him and I immediately agreed."
I knew Cindy didn't know Chuck Wilkerson. No reason she should. He was only one of the guys in our crowd, a tall long-haired freak who considered the prom thing a joke. This is the lack of seriousness on which his request to be my date was premised, so it isn't as if Chuck Wilkerson were anyone important in my life.
"I even went out and bought a halfway decent-looking dress. Black, of course, but pretty."
"You looked really nice in it, Mom."
"Actually, my whole crowd decided to go to the prom. It was a hoot kind of thing. So we all formed boy-girl teams and decided to shock the school and turn up as if we were perfectly normal students wanting to enjoy the festivities. Only we had some interesting plans for our senior prom, though it turned out more horrible than our original intent."
"Aunt Lil said you all planned to burn the flag."
My sister would tell Cindy this. In fact, we made no plans to burn the flag at our prom. Our only plan was to change into bell-bottoms and fringe vests in the middle of the prom and ruin everyone's nice pictures by insinuating our hippie selves into all the photographs. It was supposed to be our method of crapping on their stupid party while young men died in that dirty little war. I clarified this misunderstanding for Cindy.
"Word got all around school about our intended plans. The thing ballooned into something no one activist faction controlled, so the things that happened the night of my prom did apparently just sort of happen with no preconceived plan. It was brutal, though."
I blew a breath wind up my face and rested my voice. My mind wandered back to my prom night. Chuck Wilkerson showed up at my house on time and even bought a corsage. I'd spent hours fixing my hair and makeup and adjusting my size 22 prom dress. Lil fussed over me and my mother was excited. I was miserable the whole day. The prom meant nothing to me and having to try to make myself look pretty while I was also fat seemed a futile task. Long granny dresses, torn bell-bottoms, and large men's shirts were my outfits of choice and I realized on my prom day just why. Besides making a political statement, my hippie clothes kept me from any attempt to be pretty. The generation and my self-image blended homogeneously.
"It was almost a normal prom, too. Everyone showed up, properly dressed. The principal was popping his buttons that his students looked so all-American, even the hippies and radicals in his school. About two hours into the prom and at some unknown signal, things began to change. For me and Chuck, we just slipped out to his old Mustang and changed into our hippie clothes. Our whole gang wanted to wipe that smug smile off of the principal's face."
"When did the police get called?"
I sighed. Aunt Lil again. No police were ever called. What happened next was confusing and chaotic. But there were no police called. At least not that night.
"When Chuck and I got back to the hall, only half the students remained prom-clothed. The rest were dressed in any variety of t-shirts, bell-bottoms, and colorful headbands. Chuck and I hardly got through the door when Sam Epstein jumped onto the stage and grabbed the microphone. Now Sam Epstein didn't go to our school but most of us knew him. He was head of the local college's SDA--Students for Democratic Action--and was always into some mischief. In fact, Chuck and I laughed that somehow this guy got into this rather innocuous high school prom, but then there'd been so many rumors going on. What he did next was shocking."
Again I glanced at the clock on Cindy's night stand. Again she ignored my action. I heard no knock at the door so Calvin hadn't arrived. To imitate Sam Epstein, I stood up in front of Cindy and assumed an oratorical posture. "'Don't nobody panic,'" I said as if I were Sam Epstein to my daughter's audience of one. "'This is a takeover. And all of you are hostages,'" then relaxing from Sam Epstein to just Mom I added some background for Cindy.
"At first everyone was laughing. It looked as if it were a big joke. Even Chuck Wilkerson asked me if I was behind any of this. I laughed too and told him I wished I was. This was great. But then Sam Epstein took out a machine gun and everyone stopped laughing."
Then back to a Sam Epstein persona, I continued. "'Don't anyone leave the room. Don't anyone move. On behalf of the SDA, I am holding you all hostage. Just as soon as everyone settles down, we're going to call the police ourselves. And if they don't release Tom Combs from jail immediately, your prom queen's going to take a bullet in the head.' "
"Jesus," Cindy said quietly.
"'Okay, who's your prom queen?' Sam Epstein asked. By this time we all were scared out of our minds. This looked to be real. Sam's gun looked to be real. The whole room--teachers, kids, hippies, everyone--didn't utter a word. No one knew what to say and besides, we didn't yet have a prom queen. At our school, there was a special ceremony in the middle of the prom. Everyone got handed a special ballot and voted that same night for the queen of the prom."
Cindy nodded at this. Indeed, her own classmates would be voting for the king and queen of their own prom in the same manner. I thought Cindy would be a shoo-in for the title and knew that she hoped so, too.
"Finally Sam starts screaming and waving that gun around. 'I SAID.....WHO is your fucking prom queen?' he yelled. Excuse my language, but that's what he said. Finally Mr. Barrister, our formerly smug principal, said that the prom queen had not yet been elected. Then Sam waved that gun some more and asked him just how we could elect a prom queen. Mr. Barrister mumbled something about ballots and how it worked and to everyone's surprise, Sam's gang went around the room and handed out the ballots. 'Well, vote for your fucking prom queen now,' Sam yelled and we all took the papers handed to us and didn't move."
At this point, I assumed Cindy knew who got elected prom queen. If it weren't for Sam Epstein, it was widely believed that Sharon Hofstetter would get the nod. Sharon was the prettiest and most popular girl in our senior class. And on this prom night, she was especially stunning in a long ice-blue gown with criss-crossed, diamond-crusted straps.
"So Sam starts to scream and tell us he would put a bullet right through Mr. Barrister's head and then proceed to shoot us all, one-by-one, until we turned in our ballots. Then he waved the machine gun around as if seeking a suitable first victim and with this action we all took our pencil stubs and got serious about voting."
I paused in the narration and looked to the air to form my next thought.
"It was weird. Everyone in the room was holding onto a pencil tightly, poised a half inch above the ballot. It's as if a collective thought formed in the atmosphere which, given these unusual circumstances, begged for protocol as to the appropriate way to pick such a queen."
Cindy's eyes shone with a sparkling layer of tears. She knew I won the vote and surely she knew the horrible burden I've carried these many years. This is precisely why I'd never gone into this brutal story of my senior prom, though my sister apparently had not been reluctant. I sat down sensibly in front of my beautiful daughter. Our dog Lucky went into a paroxysm of barks just then, followed by several tentative knocks on our front door. Calvin was arriving.
We both listened as Mason shushed Lucky and opened the door. I took Cindy's hands in mine.
"Don't be upset," I smiled and told her. "I didn't win the election outright. Marsha Miller and I tied, actually. Sam made a real dramatic show of counting the ballots and I've got to tell you, it was as if I were physically slapped each and every time he called out my name. "'Shelly Langston,' he would call, laying the ballots with my name on them in their own pile. Sometimes he would call out my name ten times in a row and if it'd been only my name on the ballots it might have been better. But at least every third ballot had Marsha Miller's name on it, and after five minutes of Sam's ostentatious counting of prom queen ballots, it became obvious to everyone in the room what was going on. Then Sharon Hofstetter got five votes. One of them was mine, and probably the other was Marsha Miller's. Three other kids probably thought like I did: go with the original vote. What else? But the logic of the pressured votes became all too clear. And funny, as Sam called Marsha's name then my name, everyone in the room looked to the floor. In fact, all thoughts of Sam's machine gun were forgotten as Sam mercilessly read either Marsha's or my name."
Again Cindy and I listened to the murmurs of Calvin's and Mason's voices down the stairs. There seemed no urgency in their voices.
"Dad was in your class," Cindy said solemnly.
Yes, her father was in my senior class. Mason Howard was, in fact, the valedictorian of my class; an extremely handsome youth now matured into a distinguished man. And I did love Mason though I will never be sure of his love for me.
"This all came later," I waved off the distraction. "For then, Sam continued to read the names and it ended up that Marsha and I tied. So Sam decides he's going to take a tie-breaker vote and let me tell you there was no way I was going through that again. I ran right onto the stage and told Sam that I would be the prom queen, to go ahead and call the police."
I stopped and looked at my daughter pointedly, wondering if she could handle my next revelation.
"Frankly, I was ready to die. Sam could have put a bullet through me right then and I'd have died happy. "
Cindy didn't flinch.
"Right after I volunteered, some guy ran through the room, completely naked and screaming that the cops were coming. Sam Epstein started laughing and ran out behind the streaker. Turns out the whole thing was a joke."
"Well, I didn't think it was funny," Cindy, my loyal daughter, said. "I hope they put him in jail."
I smiled. "Oh, they arrested him all right. Waving around a machine gun, even as a joke, isn't funny. I think he had to pay a fine or something. But Sam Epstein's situation wasn't important to me those days after the prom. What was important to me was knowing that my classmates--my comrades in protest, these people I thought liked and respected me--these same people chose me to take a bullet in the head."
I slapped my hands on my knees to indicate finality to the story. Of course there was much more to it and Cindy wouldn't let me go that easily.
"But you married Dad," she barked before I could turn and head back down the stairs.
I turned once again to face her. Before speaking, I admired her emerald eyes, perfect figure, creamy skin. Yes, I did marry Mason Howard, though he was one of dozens I could have had. For those days after the prom, I found myself suddenly quite popular. So many guys asked me for dates or flirted with me, I didn't know what to think. Given time and a three-digit IQ, I soon figured it out. These were the guys who voted for me to be prom queen! They felt guilty!
I did the only logical thing. I considered all my newfound beaus and made my choice. Mason Howard was not only intelligent, he was of sturdy but lithe build, and had the clearest emerald eyes that sparkled with beauty and wit. It was no matter my political passions, intelligence, wisdom, sparkling personality. None of these would get me a guy like Mason Howard but for the guilt. I made the most intelligent choice that my daughters would not suffer as I had. It proved to be a wise one, given that both of my daughters are beautiful and as I planned. Cindy wanted to know why I married one Mason Howard, a man who most likely, though he claims to have voted for Sharon Hofstetter to this day, voted for me to take a bullet through the head. But I could think of no way to explain this to the daughter I loved and whose life I planned even before her birth. That I married her father for his perfect genes?
"I fell in love with your father, Cindy," was all I said.
We both, mother and daughter, looked into each other's eyes, the unspoken acknowledged on the television of the pupil. Mason called up to Cindy that Calvin had arrived. Still we did not drop our steady gazes.
"They had to put somebody's name down, Mom," Cindy said after the eye thought but maintaining the stare. "There's no telling what the criteria was." She then dropped her eyes at this statement in the manner of the untruthful.
I called down to Mason that Cindy would be down shortly. I pulled
my daughter close to me and held her tight. Over her shoulder and loud
enough for her to hear, I said, "Cindy, Marsha Miller was also fat."
Patricia Fish was born in 1950, and she claims that while her body has aged, she has never really moved beyond the 1960s. Pat now grows flowers in her gardens instead of wearing them in her hair. She loves to write, especially about the gardens, birds, and critters in her surround. Pat lives in a bit of paradise on a pie-shaped lot wedged into a small cove off of the Chesapeake Bay.
Regular Contributor To-- A Pocketful of Musings