I try to count how many limousines are double-parked outside the swank D.C. hotel where, typically, you can find diplomats sipping cognac and debating geopolitics, but, tonight, nothing but raucous groups of sequined kids pushing through (and getting stuck in) the revolving doors. When I reach 23 I decide to stop counting. It's no use. They just keep coming. Three of the limos are Hummers approximately six times the size of my New York apartment, and I can't help but feel a little inadequate. Sarah and I are in my mother's car, which is 10 years old, and has a broken stereo.
"Are you sad we didn't get a limo?" I ask.
"Chill," she says. "It's not even the kids who really want them. It's their parents. They're more obsessed than anyone."
Inside a soaring six-story atrium, we encounter a dense sea of jiggling, swaying, bumping, grinding, spangled adolescents. Obviously, I knew the whole "prom part" was going to be a component of going to prom. Still, I am overwhelmed. In their formalwear the girls look much older than they are; they remind me, I can't help but note, of the maniacally tweezed women who populate the type of bars I stridently avoid. The guys, meanwhile, look even younger and goofier than usual in their tuxes: gawky, a little helpless even, as if they'd raided the closet of some extinct species of older man who roamed the earth in 1987, before mysteriously vanishing. Sarah and I make the rounds. She tells me she knows everyone but isn't really close to anyone. I tell her I know the feeling. A lithe girlfriend of hers informs us, apropos of nothing, about a recent romantic weekend with a boy who is "almost, almost" her boyfriend: "We did it eight times in 72 hours!" I sigh, congratulate her, and quickly make my way toward the chocolate fountains, spearing a fresh strawberry and holding it under an avalanche of lukewarm white chocolate. Two girls approach from the dance floor, their make-up streaming down their shiny faces in rivulets, as if they'd just been driven through a car wash in the back of a pickup.
"I keep getting molested out there!" one yelps.
"Let's go back!"
Are there words to describe the dance floor, this heaving, unrelenting mass of nascent hormones? I really don't think so. It's hysterical. It's petrifying. I know it wouldn't be fair to ask Sarah to the prom and refuse to dance, which is what I would like to do more than anything, so I take her hand and we weave our way onto the floor. OutKast is being pumped through speakers the size of soda machines. The kids are pulling off a deft little maneuver: The molesters and molestees (aka the cool kids) are hidden from chaperones by an outer ring composed of their shyer, geekier peers. I can't tell if this is a prearranged agreement or mere Darwinian natural selection. It's strikingly effective, that much becomes clear, as Sarah and I push our way into the inner circle. There are many writhing bodies, pressed so closely together that I find I'm dancing with seven girls and nine boys without even moving. I catch a few kids sipping from flasks. Most, however, are dancing in a style you could call Rap Video Imitation Gone Wrong: the girls back into the boys, who proceed to lift up the girls' dresses in a way they apparently think is subtle, but in reality is anything but. Then they try, and fail, to move to the beat.
"Holy shit," Sarah says.
"Yeah," I say, "this is pretty intense."
"No, I'm talking about that guy," she says. "I hate him."
She gestures toward a kid with spiky brown hair and braces who has his date's dress hiked up so far that I have the privilege of learning she has a bellybutton ring, a heart-shaped charm swaying from a silver hoop. His tongue is dangling from his mouth, flapping against his chin like a retriever's.
"What's his deal?" I ask.
"He drives an Audi TT convertible and is always making out with her in the halls."
"Sarah," I say, "I don't think I can stay on this dance floor."
We decide to chat with some of her teachers. That'll be fun. Actually, it won't: They are all my age. As I shake their hands I make sure to avoid eye contact, the way I did when I was 17 and slightly scared of all adults. This doesn't work. They all know.
"I don't know whether I'm supposed to be busting the kids or just busting out on the dance floor," one teacher confesses to me. She is 28 and teaches writing, a woman with dark bobbed hair and a face covered in freckles.
"So you guys are like cops?" I ask. "You're supposed to bust the kids?"
"Not really," she says. Then she leans in close, sniffs my wine-scented breath, and adds, "If we were, I'd be busting you."
"Hey," I protest, "I'm legal."
"That's exactly what I'm talking about."
Is she joking? I'm not eager to find out. Sarah and I head to the other end of the room, where she points out various classmates to me, summing them up in ways that range from amusing to disturbing: "That guy's obsessed with writing poetry and has post-nasal drip." "He looks like Sideshow Bob and only sleeps with virgins." "She's not wearing heels because she has athlete's foot." "She dumped her last boyfriend because he wasn't circumcised."
The time goes fast. Suddenly, it's midnight and prom is officially winding down. The entire dance floor has inexplicably transformed into an earnest mob of teary kids holding hands and singing "Stand By Me." Which, I have to say, puts things into perspective: Just when you want to think there is something dangerously out of hand about it all, that kids today have gone cataclysmically crazy, you realize that, no, it's all quite tame. Whether these kids are acting so innocent because they actually are, or because they want to feel that way because they're anything but, is hard to tell and probably doesn't matter. Whatever the case, I suppose this explains the prom's enduring appeal: You can be innocent while mocking your own innocence, the perfect combo for a savvy, post-postmodern generation. This thought is interrupted when I feel someone tapping me on the shoulder. It's Vera, whom we've managed to avoid all night. She is wearing a long, elegant red dress and has Yael in tow, who looks pixieish in a dark green retro number. Everyone smiles. I wonder if I'm about to witness a bittersweet reunion. Maybe we'll all hang out for the rest of the night and be friends again, best friends forever, and eat ice cream and laugh about that time we all fought about nothing before senior prom. Or maybe not.
"Hey," Vera says.
"Hey," Sarah says.
"Hey," I say.
"Hey," Yael says.
"Hey," Sarah says.
"Hey," I say.
"We're leaving," Yael says.
"Cool," Sarah says.
"Bye," Vera says.
"See ya," Sarah says.
"Later," I say.
We watch them walk off toward the dance floor, consumed by the crowd within seconds. I consider telling Sarah not to take it too hard, that a good portion of life is losing friends under murky, trivial circumstances, but I realize two things: that I'd sound like an ass, and, more important, that Sarah is 17, wiser than any adult would give her credit for, and probably already knows as much.
"Well, that was awkward," she says. "Do you want to go?"
Contrary to clichés, what follows is not a series of parties in parentless homes where kids gulp beer from funnels, snort cocaine off hoods of cars, and videotape themselves having sex with people they barely know. We ask around. We look for such affairs. Everyone, it turns out, is doing the same thing: heading over to the official "post prom party," a painfully wholesome, vaguely Mardi Gras-themed affair (spot the chintzy beaded necklaces) held at the high school. The point of this is to deter the consumption of drugs and alcohol, though it seems like quite a few kids merely got that out of the way on the trip over. Inside, there are such romantic attractions as an obstacle course/moon bounce and a wrestling arena where you can slip into a damp sumo wrestler costume that makes you 50 pounds heavier and nearly immobile and then attempt to pin your date to a tumbling mat while the school principal acts as referee. The cafeteria has been converted to a casino where you can gamble with poker chips that are completely worthless. This is odd, Sarah explains, because the "quote unquote scandal of the year" was the busting of a 48-member student gambling ring, a group who stole their parents' money and bet it away playing craps in the bathroom. Now these same kids are playing craps with members of the PTA.
At one point we are approached by a friend of Sarah's, a sprightly Asian girl who, like every other female in the room, has changed into a pair of tight sweatpants and a tank-top the size of a washcloth, and now looks, to my eyes, about 11-years-old.
"I'm in a good mood," she remarks casually. "I just got laid in the parking lot!"
"She's such a freak," Sarah tells me as the girl saunters back to her boyfriend, who is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, flip-flops, a retainer, and is quite possibly the dorkiest human being on the premises. "She's obsessed with telling me every detail of her sex life. He'll probably never get laid again."
It's official: I'm ready to go back to New York, a place where you're constantly surrounded by adults who merely act like too-savvy teenagers, as opposed to the real thing. I like Sarah and tell her that I'm having a great time, which I am, in an awkward sort of way, but I do not want to go out with a 17-year-old ever again. How did I ever even think I did? This is what I'm asking myself as Sarah and I decide to give the sumo wresting a go and head over to the makeshift arena. It also strikes me that tonight has provided me with a cursory sense of how strange it must be to be a parent of an adolescent, a species that seems like an adult one second, an amoeba the next. This is the paradox, I think, that's largely responsible for why we as a culture are so prone to fetishize them. Because the sad fact is this: You get older, you grow jaded, and it becomes difficult to be genuinely shocked by something that doesn't involve, say, global strife on a mind-bogglingly massive scale. You start to crave a petty thrill. You miss it. And so you want to be able to cringe at the notion that kids are out there getting laid in parking lots, while continuing to demand details, because that way you can revel in your own manufactured shock while tricking yourself into believing you once lived in more innocent times. It's something to do. It's kind of silly. It's also, as Sarah would say, kind of gross.
Or something like that.
I don't have much time to process these thoughts—a moment later I'm clad in full sumo regalia, being knocked flat on my face, listening to a high-school principal yelling to anyone who is interested that I am down for the count.
David Amsden is a contributing writer at New York magazine and the author of the novel Important Things That Don't Matter. He is currently writing a personal and reportorial account of middle-class kids in their teens and early 20s.