Talk of the Town
At seven on a recent Thursday evening, white stretch limos began arriving at a pier at Twenty-third Street and the F.D.R. Drive, where a rented yacht called Mystique was docked and waiting for the senior class of Landmark High School. It was prom night. The young men wore tuxedos in various pastel hues, and a few had on bowler hats. The young women, lithe as tulip stalks, were in long shiny dresses, backless and sideless save for a thin string running underneath their shoulder blades where a bra strap might be. The principal of the high school, Sylvia Rabiner, had come to see them off. “They’re so cute, and so half naked,” Rabiner said.
Landmark is a small, progressive public high school on West Fifty-eighth Street, with a graduating class of sixty, almost all of whom are going on to college. For the first time in the school’s seven-year history, the seniors were to be allowed to choose a prom king and queen. The tradition defies Landmark’s egalitarian philosophy, but a small group of girls had campaigned until the teachers relented—on one condition. The winner’s names would be pulled from a hat. Even with this compromise, Vivian Orlen, the school’s assistant principal, was nervous. “There’s one particular girl, Elizabeth. If she doesn’t get it, I swear she’ll jump off the boat,” she said.
Melissa, a round-faced, very pregnant senior in an ornate black-and-gray dress, sidled up to Orlen, who is very pregnant herself. Their bellies bumped as they kissed hello.
As Melissa walked away, Orlen shook her head. “It depresses me,” she said. “Because she’s brilliant. Why do they need to make their lives more complicated?”
A gaggle of girls were lined up on the pier, their hair piled high. One girl had meticulously pressed into her hairdo hundreds of tiny rhinestones of the sort usually glued onto fingernails. When she moved, it was like watching a human disco ball.
Elizabeth—the girl who was desperate to be prom queen—stood in the center of the lineup. Her dress—black, strapless, with a sheer mesh midriff—was not her first choice. She had worked all year at Balducci’s, saving her money for a five-hundred dollar custom-made dress, but it hadn’t turned out to her liking. In math class, the day before, Elizabeth had drawn a diagram of the failed dress on the blackboard.
As the Mystique pulled away from the dock, “mocktail hour” began, and a d.j. spun a Jennifer Lopez tune under a tent on the upper deck. The girls kicked off their heels and put on terry-cloth bedroom slippers that they had brought so they could dance more comfortably.
“Oh, my God, I want to be prom queen so bad,” Elizabeth said. Her face was sweet and stony at the same time. “I’ve worked so hard, spent so much money on my appearance—and now it’s a raffle.” Did she still care, then? “Oh,” she said. “Even more. Because now if I win it means I’m lucky.”
At eleven o’clock, after a buffet of pasta and salad, the seniors gathered on the upper deck for the coronation of the prom king and queen.
“And the king is—Greg!” a math teacher announced.
A cheer went up as an athletic young man in a pale-green satin dinner jacket loped to the front of the group and sheepishly accepted a plastic crown. Now the girls huddled together, hands on their hearts. Elizabeth stood at the back. Her eyes were fixed on the queen’s tiara, which a physics teacher was holding aloft.
“And the queen is—Melissa!”
Elizabeth blinked hard. Melissa looked stunned as she made her way through the crowd. The tiara was placed on her head, and a satin sash was draped over her pregnant belly. In blue glitter, it read “Prom Queen 2000.”
The king didn’t want to keep his crown on, and he certainly didn’t want to slow-dance with Melissa to “I Wanna Love You Forever.” But he had no choice. The d.j. cajoled the couple onto the dance floor. Greg’s girlfriend stood off to the side, looking peeved.
Elizabeth, in tears, had run down the steep stairs to the cabin below. Her classmates were philosophical about her defeat. “Nobody told her to act like that,” one girl said. “A lot of people show their true colors on prom night.”
Up on deck, the d.j. played the last song of the evening. He urged the students to link arms as Vitamin C sang “And as our lives change, come whatever, we will still be friends forever.” The Landmark Class of 2000 hugged and laughed and cried. Elizabeth stayed below, hiding out in the ladies’ room.