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.

April 20, the last meeting before prom. Becky has found "a Snow White dress" with a lace-up black-velvet bodice and full white skirt -- and a date to boot. Val arrives with a burst of energy, pale but trying hard. She throws herself into a chair, reaches into a paper bag and crunches on granola: "So what are we doing?"

They run through the last-minute arrangements, Val heading off digressions with an impatient "Keep going, keep going." Toward the end, Hediger gets soppy, telling them all how much they've helped him all four years and how, if he could pick the court, it would be all of them. Val smiles back, but her eyes are distant.

At a secret signal, chairs scrape and all the young women stand at once, funnel into the hallway and converge on the ladies' room.
Jennifer Silverberg
At a secret signal, chairs scrape and all the young women stand at once, funnel into the hallway and converge on the ladies' room.
Jennifer Silverberg

Later she recalls, "The last dance I went to at DuBourg, my date ditched me! I thought that was the worst day of my life. It was actually my mom who told me, 'If that's the worst, you've got a pretty good life coming at you!'" She sighs. "What a naïve person I was then. And that was only three months ago.

"This past year has been a blur," she continues. "My mother's death jolted everything into perspective. I used to be scared out of my mind to graduate high school, but now it's such a big nothing. I've got life to worry about, not high school. And prom's -- just another thing." She pauses, and her eyes get that distant look again. "I don't think it's going to be as magical as it would have been."

Friday, May 4. Prom night. The seniors have the day off -- the girls traipsing from hair to nail to makeup appointments, the boys sleeping till 5 p.m. and then showering. Some show up in wingtips and white dinner jackets, some in swallowtail or three-quarter-length coats. Kevin chickens out: no white sequins.

As for the prophesied modesty, there's strapless and skintight and a backless, sideless black dress held on by straps as thin as leather shoelaces. "She doesn't go here," whispers math teacher Kathy Flood, watching eagle-eyed as the young woman walks, tall and tan and defiant, across the dance floor.

Later, Flood brightens: According to The Cedars staff, DuBourg's girls are quite modest compared with the students at Ursuline Academy and Nerinx Hall, who held their proms here last week. Everyone does look lovely, with their hair swept up on top of their heads and their dresses shimmering. One young man follows his date through the crowd, trying to figure out how to hold on to her -- waist? hand? shoulder? -- and how to slow-dance without stepping on her train. Girls tug nervously at the tops of their strapless gowns and give each other careful hugs, exclaiming with newfound social enthusiasm, "You look fabulous!"

Angie shows up with neither of the prior contenders but a third young man named Jason. Stubborn Justin comes stag. Chrissie brings not the problematic ex-boyfriend but Tommy Chlebowski, a fresh-faced young man who keeps his hand chivalrously at her waist. Val's with Charlie, a good friend since sophomore year, and she slips her shoes off in the photo line, relaxed in a way that's only possible when you're not with your dream date.

The Cedars' owner, Francis R. Slay (the mayor's papa), stands outside, joking that he may just come to prom, too. The kids smile and keep walking. By 7:05 p.m., everyone's seated at numbered tables, resigned to the eight-chair seating plan that first struck them as a cruel and arbitrary destroyer of friendships. The doors have officially closed (a reverse 7 p.m. curfew imposed to encourage promptness and safety). But at 7:10, a middle-aged man comes up behind Hediger's chair and leans down to impart the bad news: "There are tardies."

Hediger frowns and rises. But by the time the salads are served, he's back, his brow clear. "They tried to call," he says, relieved that he could do, with a clean conscience, what he was going to do anyway, and let them in. The girls eat the mostaccioli and fried chicken just the way Kelly, at one of the early meetings, mimed: tiny careful bites, shoulders rounded in self-doubt and fear of spillage. Then, at a secret signal, chairs scrape and all the young women stand at once, funnel into the hallway and converge on the ladies' room.

Flood follows, smiles at the overheard exchanges ("Really, it's not you -- he's just awkward") and returns to the table. "One pack of cigarettes," she murmurs to Hediger as she sits, "and stale smoke."

When the ballroom's full again, the lights dim and triumphant music heralds the double coronation. Prince Chad Templin and Princess Lisa Kuntz walk up first, consciously slowing each step, as a teacher reads their bios into the microphone. A girl whispers loudly to her date, "He's going to be a priest!" just as the teacher intones, "Prince Chad was recently accepted to Cardinal Glennon Seminary College by Archbishop Justin Rigali." Applause bursts. Then the second couple start their stately processional: Prince Tim Damazyn and Princess Val Ricketts. More applause, heartfelt.

As the royal couples begin to dance to the theme song, the teacher beckons, and everyone floods onto the dance floor to join them. Soon all of DuBourg's seniors are swaying to "I Hope You Dance," and, for a moment -- no matter what they wore or whose arms they're in -- everything is perfect.

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