The Last Dance

The little flower shops wound extra rolls of floral tape, and the photographers wound fresh film, and the Bosnian seamstresses stitched poufs of netting to strapless bodices. DuBourg High was planning its prom.


Late March. Angie finds her dress, a white halter style with thin straps that crisscross in back and "that annoying poufy material from the waist down." Now, she just needs a date. "There's this guy at school I want to go with," she confides, "and it's nerve-racking. He's kind of one of my good friends, and he's the only one out of all my friends who doesn't have a date, and so am I. All my friends are saying, 'Ask Angie,' but he's being really stupid about it. He says he's either going to go stag or just ask somebody the week before. But if he doesn't ask me three weeks before, I'm just going to have to say something. My little brother told me to forget about Justin, because he doesn't want me to be his fallback date. I guess I could ask this other guy who goes to St. Louis U. High, but...."

But she really wants to go with Justin, and all the second-guessing, differing agendas and courtship games are driving her crazy. She's worried about the limos, too: They only seat six, and a group of 22 friends is going together, plus some of the guys are threatening to invite friends from all-girl Nerinx Hall wherever they go afterward -- which is rude. "They think we will never decide what to do," explains Angie. "We tried to tell them that asking a bunch of girls from Nerinx isn't exactly making plans for us!

Chrissie brings not the problematic ex-boyfriend but Tommy Chlebowski, a fresh-faced young man who keeps his hand chivalrously at her waist.
Jennifer Silverberg
Chrissie brings not the problematic ex-boyfriend but Tommy Chlebowski, a fresh-faced young man who keeps his hand chivalrously at her waist.
Chrissie brings not the problematic ex-boyfriend but Tommy Chlebowski, a fresh-faced young man who keeps his hand chivalrously at her waist.
Jennifer Silverberg
Chrissie brings not the problematic ex-boyfriend but Tommy Chlebowski, a fresh-faced young man who keeps his hand chivalrously at her waist.

"I just hope it works out without a lot of hassle," she finishes fervently. "I won't have a good time unless all my friends are happy. We're trying to avoid anything expensive, like renting a cabin for afterward, because some people are real low on cash. And I hope everybody's hair goes well."

Val is dateless too, just less worried about it. Chrissie has decided to go with "my boyfriend -- well, my ex-boyfriend. We were together for a year, and then we broke up, a little while ago." Her parents, she says, don't approve of him. They're still friends, though? "I suppose you could call it that." She sighs. "He's always been very difficult."


Early April, and prom's only a month away. Val has made sure the prom T-shirts and invitations are on order, but she's a little distracted, because her mom has to have a hysterectomy. Just five months ago, the mother of Val's good friend had a hysterectomy but died on the operating table when an aneurysm burst. Still, the freakiness of her friend's loss is also obliquely reassuring: "If it happened to someone so close, it won't happen to my mom," Val tells her friends. "Lightning doesn't strike twice."

Mrs. Ricketts goes through the surgery just fine. But the next morning, a blood clot migrates into her lungs. Val, the youngest in a close-knit family of four girls, gets the phone call at school: Her mother is dead.

In seven days, she's supposed to sing her heart out as Maria, the lead in the school production of The Sound of Music. The school cancels the Wednesday-night performance for her, but Thursday she goes onstage.

The show's a hit. Afterward, Val crashes. Lauren and Kelly take her out, but they don't really talk about her mom. They figure she's doing enough of that with her family. Besides, they don't know what to say.

When Val returns to school a few weeks later, an underclassman has stolen her parking space and she's almost late and she gets a ticket parking on the street and "people want to be nice, so they're all mushy and hugging me and asking, 'How are you?'" she blurts. "You don't want to say, 'Great!' but you can't say, 'Horrible,' and make them feel bad, so you just brush it off, which makes them think you're mad...."

There's the grief itself, the hole torn in her safe and happy family, the aching loneliness for her mom. Then there's the strain of trying to protect everybody else from that grief, because it terrifies them.

Reading what people write on the sympathy cards for Val, Chrissie decides, "It's amazing to see how fake people are. 'I'm here for you' from people who never even hang out with her -- don't tell her that and then not be there." Chrissie likes Val a great deal, but something more than the general hypocrisy is eating at her: "I hate to say this, but you already pretty much know she's going to get it [prom court], because her mom died. We had a girl who got homecoming court last year, after her brother died in a car accident. I'm just sick of people winning stuff through pity and guilt and events beyond their control.

"My dress is a $30 dress," she says a few minutes later. "It's this dark magenta-maroon color, and it's a halter, and it comes up real high on the neck. My boyfriend said that was going to get on his nerves, and I said, 'That's too damn bad. I picked it out, and I look cute.'" She hesitates, again that actressy mix of spikiness and vulnerability. "It's pointless spending a fortune for a dress you're only going to wear one night, especially if you are not on prom court -- although if I was part of the more cliquey, popular crowd, I probably would."

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