"I don't know anyone who's a virgin," Sarah says as we share an appetizer of cilantro-infused tuna tartare, a bite of which I have just accidentally spit onto the plate.
"Excuse me," I mutter, clearing my throat. "I just felt very old and uncomfortable for a moment. You were saying?"
Here we are: seated in a red-velvet booth in a sleekly designed restaurant, surrounded by people in their 30s, 40s, 50s. They are looking at me, squinting skeptically. Believe me, I'm not being paranoid. I try to tell myself that this is simply envy getting the best of them, but this doesn't quite bring comfort, especially because it may actually be true.
"Everyone's a nympho," Sarah says. "I know a lot of girls who do it up the butt now, which is really gross."
"Do you mind if I order a drink?" I ask.
While I wait for my glass of wine to arrive, let's take a moment and rewind back to the few weeks before tonight, the build-up to prom, the logistical concerns, because everyone knows that's what it's really all about.
And because it was all supposed to be so different.
The original arrangement had been to go in a limousine with Sarah's two closest friends, Yael and Vera, to pass around a flask while touring the town and reminiscing about old times. Yael, 18, is a future Barnard freshman with an acid wit, a David Sedaris groupie, a young woman who hates high school so passionately that I swear she burns calories by doing so. Vera is a tall, striking 18-year-old who intimidates the elfin, acne-riddled boys in her school (they don't speak to her) and aspires to be a plastic surgeon, or maybe a cancer specialist—it's still up in the air. Yael, the rebel, was thrilled to go stag; Vera's date was to be Jeff, a sporty friend of Sarah's who goes to another high school and speaks in monosyllabic grunts. "They're on the brink of being an item," Sarah had instant-messaged me, "but neither are looking for anything serious. They're just each other's ornaments."
Two weeks ago, I drove down from New York to meet Vera and Yael. To introduce myself, break the ice, and covertly gauge what exactly I was getting myself into. I found myself at a Starbucks, of course, trying to come up with things to say in between sips of a gargantuan concoction composed almost entirely of crushed ice and whipped cream.
"Hey," I asked them at one point, "I'm not going to look like an old man in there, right?"
A long silence followed.
"Just don't gel your hair like that," Vera eventually advised.
"Excuse me?" I said. "I don't gel my hair!"
"Please. You look like one of the guys in The O.C."
"It's just ... wax or something. Only takes me like a minute. Why am I even telling you this?"
I liked them immediately. They were smart girls with big hearts masked by snarky exteriors, and thus reminded me of just about everyone I know. I was invited back to Yael's house, where I met her mother ("So you're the writer?" she asked skeptically) before flopping onto the couch and flipping through their yearbook. This was a peculiar session, during which each member of their class was brusquely defined: "She's a slut." "His dad used to be a divorce lawyer and is now a woman." "She was a lesbian for three weeks." "He did acid and now only knows five words." "He got a 1520 on his SATs and was rejected by Princeton." "She takes it up the ass."
"Can we stop looking at this now?" I asked.
And so we ate ice cream, watched Sex and the City, bitched about boys, talked about how totally annoying parents are. Two hours later I felt more like a gay man than an undercover journalist, which I suppose was fine. The good news was that prom was going to be magical, I could tell.
Then came the drama.
In case you don't spend a lot of time going out on pseudodates with teenagers, allow me to inform you: Kids today no longer talk on the phone; they IM instead. It's a dangerous medium. You can have multiple conversations at once, which makes it possible to pull off a certain devilish trick: talking behind people's backs without having to wait until their backs are turned. It's all very meta. Think Charlie Kaufman meets Sweet Valley High. As the four of us were in the middle of one of many online chats, I received a private, overtly caustic message from Yael that managed to tap into all of my insecurities about the situation:
Her: Why are you writing about this anyway? Is this really for an article, or is it partially personal—like you're not over high school or something? Is that a rude question to ask?
Me: I'm very much over high school, thank you very much.
Yael: You never know. There are plenty of people who are stuck on it, a teacher in our school actually. It's an unpleasant thing to be around.
Meanwhile, as this debate intensified (and had me re-evaluating my psychological health), the four of us were still having a very polite and lively chat about the prom. There would be chocolate fountains! Free smoothies! A raffle! We had reservations at a restaurant where the bathrooms revolved! (Yael: "Oh, that sounds sanitary." Vera: "Your pee would accelerate towards the center, so you would be safe.") The only point of contention was the limo. Sarah wanted one; I wanted one; Vera wanted one; Yael refused. Limos were for Neanderthals, kids for whom being cool meant sticking your head out of a sunroof and screaming: "Class of '04! Bite me!" If it was irony we were going for, there were cheaper ways. I thought this was a somewhat frail argument: After all, Yael—or, more accurately, her parents—had spent hundreds of dollars on her dress, not to mention her monthly cell phone bills and her profoundly useless graduation cap and gown, which her school requires you to purchase. What was another $85? I made the mistake of voicing these thoughts to Yael in our private chat, which started to bleed into the public chat. Things became confusing. Everyone started to hate each other. We discussed renting a more economical Lincoln Navigator (Vera: "We'll be like rappers!"), but, by that point, it was already too late.
Because asit turned out, the three of them were all having private chats as well, which were going even worse than my chat with Yael. Awful, humiliating, irreparable things were said. No one would tell me the details; all I learned was that Vera and Yael had stopped speaking to Sarah and that Vera had called Jeff and dumped him (because he was friends with Sarah). Our friends had become our foes in, like, 18 seconds. Sarah and I would go alone, end of story, which brings us back to the present moment, here in the restaurant, minutes away from prom. Are people still giving us looks? I no longer care. I'm on my second glass of zinfandel and finally starting to relax.
"So," I ask, "Are you sad about Yael and Vera? You guys seemed like really close friends."
"Not really," Sarah says. "It was a long time coming. We were much closer junior year anyway."
"I hear that," I reply, having no idea what I'm saying. "So do we get to give them mean looks across the dance floor?"
"Probably," Sarah says. "Let's pay the check."
I throw my credit card down on the table and gulp the remainder of my wine. When we get up to leave, a couple at a neighboring table stops us.
"We just had to tell you how cute you two look," says the woman, who looks to be exactly my age.
"Are you being serious?" I ask.
"Thank you," Sarah says graciously.
"Yeah," I add. "That's what I meant."