I am in the car with my girlfriend, sporting an ill-fitting tuxedo, fighting heart palpitations, and questioning my overall sanity as we drive to meet my date for prom. I am a man in his mid-20s who pays his own rent, purchases his own toothbrushes, accumulates his own debt. My date is a 17-year-old high-school senior who could easily pass for 12, a young woman for whom the recent past means middle school.
"What the hell am I doing?" I ask my real girlfriend as we pull into the driveway of my fake one's home.
"You're not going to slow-dance to Britney Spears, are you?" she asks.
"Oh my God!"
"Kidding," she says with a malicious grin. "Now, take the price tag off the corsage."
There is a viable explanation for all this. I'm in the middle of a legitimate journalistic endeavor here. Everything from Mean Girls to MTV's Prom Date to Michael Bamberger's just-published Wonderland, a wistful nonfiction account of a year in the life of an American high school, points to the quaint idea that The Prom still matters to American youth culture—or, at the very least, adults cling to the notion that The Prom still matters to their children. But why? And how? Last I heard, we're living in a sexed-up age of careless cynicism, of too much information too soon, an Age of No More Innocence. (Exhibit A: The New York Times Magazine'srecent cover, soberly asking, "Whatever Happened to Teenage Romance?" Exhibit B: my 16-year-old cousin who, with parental consent, dates a goateed man in his 30s.) So where does a tradition as earnestly schmaltzy and anachronistic as the prom fit into this crude new world?
Well, there was only one way to find out.
My date-to-be is Sarah: a cherubic, blond-haired, blue-eyed young woman with enough of an ironic streak to say yes when asked to prom by someone who shouldn't be asking anyone to prom. She goes to an overpopulated public school in Rockville, Md., the same strip-mall-infested D.C. suburb (population: 47,388; median household income: $68,074) where I, too, attended an overpopulated public school almost a decade ago and which is as good a gauge of Middle Class Everywhere as any American town. How do I know her? Well, I don't. We first met in late April when my mother, a colleague of her mother's, threw a little party. Sarah and I found ourselves reaching for the same sprig of raw cauliflower. The fireworks were immediate.
Me: So, like you're in high school or whatever?
Me: College next year?
Me: Going to prom and all that?
Her: My boyfriend thinks they're lame.
Me: That sucks.
Me: Do you want to go? I'm a journalist, by the way.
Her: I guess so.
Me: With me?
Her: You're not serious, are you?
A fair question. I'll confess there's something else I'm interested in here, a somewhat less innocent form of participatory journalism: I want to know how I, a grown man, will feel going out on a date with Sarah, an underaged girl. Resist your judgments, please. How can I not be curious? I open up Vanity Fair, and the only desirable women inside are two dewy 17-year-old actresses (Lindsay Lohan and Emmy Rossum) buttressed against a nude spread of Brad Pitt, our nation's middle-aged sex god. I live in a country where we adults ironically salivate over the Olsen twins to mask the fact that we very seriously salivate over the Olsen twins. Frankly, I now find it nearly impossible to believe that when I was in high school (1993-1997), every guy's sexual fantasy involved Cindy Crawford, then a 30-year-old woman and a bona fide senior citizen by today's barely legal standards.
Something is happening. It's funny. It's a little strange. Personally, I don't think it's disturbingly prurient so much as endearingly pathetic, an absurd side effect of these superfast times where everyone over 20 feels over the hill. Our collective nostalgia has run amok. We're all a bit hung up on high school, pining for our own rosy recollections of our own youth, and, in doing so, we've inadvertently become soft-core fetishists.Laugh if you must. Report me to the police. You can't deny that, in this light, going to prom with a 17-year-old should, theoretically, be every grown man's dream.
"You look very nice," I tell Sarah, as professionally as possible, when I walk in the front door of her house. She is wearing a strapless black dress with pink satin accents—a dress I've already seen, actually, in a JPG file she'd instant-messaged me a few weeks before. "It has pink accents," she'd written. "Are you man enough to wear anything pink?"
I am sporting an all-black tux rented from a man I saw standing on Fifth Avenue, sweating inside a sandwich board and shouting, "Designer suit! Big brand, low price! Tux rental, too!" When I turned into the store, he followed me inside, slipped out of the sandwich board, took my measurements, and charged me $125 without saying a word. Now, I proudly lift up the pant cuff of said tux to reveal pink socks that, on any other night, I'd never be caught dead in.
"Awesome!" Sarah hiccups, and I decide this is a fine moment to present the corsage. I remove it from its plastic grocery store box (price: $21.50) and tie it around her wrist.
Her mother is standing by her side, beaming brightly. This is a woman very into prom. "Totally obsessed," to quote another instant message from Sarah, one in which I also learned that her mother has been carefully monitoring Sarah's eating habits of late: small portions for the month leading up to the dance, an edict described to me as "kinda ridiculous but whatever." Oh, and speaking of mothers, my own is also present. She'd somehow gotten it into her head that she was to be part of my little experiment. ("It's journalism," I'd yelled at her a few weeks prior. "I don't care," she replied. "Mo-om," I huffed in that quintessentially teenage way.) She'd missed both my proms, had decided this was the ideal moment to make up for lost time, and is at present using her newfangled digital camera to snap photos of Sarah and me. A goofy, whimsical grin spreads across her face. It is awkward, embarrassing, and, I have to confess, kind of sweet—that is, until the moment arrives when Sarah and I are walking out the door, and my mother calls out to check on a few final details.
"Do you have an umbrella?"
"Directions to the restaurant?"
I stare at her. Then at Sarah's mother. Then at my girlfriend. Then at my feet. It hits me, in some vague way, once the all-consuming sensation of total embarrassment begins to subside, that there's actually something touching about this inappropriate remark. My mother is taking comfort in clichés. She sees the kids on their big night, and she can't help but be a little jealous. She wants a contact high, and, in looking for it, she has begun to act a little strangely. It hits me that I may not be so different myself.
"Sorry about that," I say to Sarah once we're alone in the car.
"Don't worry," she says. "All parents are freaks."
And with that we merge onto the Capital Beltway, en route to a snazzy restaurant where I hope the waiters don't give me any funny looks.