We looked around, standing by the door. It was a big room, with streamers and a buffet table and flocks of girls in pastel colored dresses, drifting in loose circles over the dance floor. We didn't know anyone there. We were an hour from home, by the Jersey shore. The invitation had said "all homeschoolers." It must have meant "All Christian homeschoolers." Obviously, I was the only Jew in the joint. And Emily had gotten over her Christian phase years ago.
There were only three boys. We felt immediately cheated. We exchanged a meaningful look-- this was gonna suck. Homeschool Prom was terrible. Maybe you're not surprised. But we'd actually had high hopes.
For my whole life, when grownups found out that I had never been to school, they also asked, "What about socialization?"
"What about it?" I'd say, "We're socializing right now!" I was a clever kid.
But other girls, who went to school, asked, "What about prom?"
"Prom?" I'd say, raising my eyebrows skeptically. "Prom? Isn't that, like, kinda lame?"
When we were 12 the school girls insisted, "No way! It's awesome!" When we were 15, they were less sure, but said, "Whatever, you still have to go. It's classic."
And all of them, at every age, felt sorry for me. Which pissed me off.
There was nothing to feel sorry for. I had sweet jeans with peace signs on them. I won a poetry competition. I could eat lunch whenever I wanted. I was popular.
That's right. Popular! In homeschooling group where I was thought to be exceedingly cool. All the guys were in love with me, even the enormous, gangly Mormon kid, Fred, with the high, squeaky voice, whose mother always had a wary eye on me.
"Come on Fred," I said at the ice skating rink, where our group hung out every Thursday afternoon in the winter. I was a much better skater than him. "Admit it. You have a crush on me."
"Well," said Fred, looking thoughtful and cautious, "I would like to have a crush on you. But I'm not allowed to. Not until I'm 16." The Mormons had lots of fascinating rules.
I knew Fred's birthday by heart -- January 17th. I was 14 at the time and he would turn 16 in a year. In the meantime, I'd date Jack, the gawky computer whiz who was always enthusiastically picking his nose. I'd change him. With my gentle guidance, he would learn to stop picking his nose. He'd be better, because there weren't that many other options.
The homeschooled girls thought I was great. "Your hair is so pretty!" My birthday parties were legendary. They always involved an elaborate cake my mom baked and decorated herself. We played Truth or Dare. We made out with our pillows, pretending they were the boys in homeschooling group. Even the nose picker. It was all very scandalous.
OK, fine, so we were pretty innocent. But we thought we had it all. Everything except for prom.
And then, when my BFF Emily and I were 16, and I'd long since forgot about Fred the Mormon even though he was now old enough to have a crush on me, we got invited to the homeschooled prom.
"We have to go," said Emily. "It'll be hilarious."
"I don't know," I said. "Sounds kinda lame."
"But it's prom!"
We were the only ones from our old homeschooling group who went. No one else cared. Or maybe they didn't know about it.
At the prom, we trudged over to the corner to have our picture taken. Emily still has it somewhere -- we are sullen in our bright red dresses and red lipstick. The lipstick that had seemed so promising and sexy when we left home. I'm wearing my favorite butterfly clips in my hair.
One of the three boys asked me to dance. He was the shortest even in cowboy boots. He had a grim, resigned expression on his face. We swayed back and forth briefly, his fingertips barely brushing my waist. It occurred to me that I had no idea how to dance, except for my amazing symbolic movements to Mystic's "The Life" which I choreographed alone in my bedroom.
The short cowboy asked Emily to dance next. She shook her head "no." She was laughing at me.
"It's prom! You're supposed to dance with a boy at prom!"
Actually we didn't really know what you were supposed to do at prom. It was supposed to be the night of your life. You were supposed to lose your virginity. You were supposed to get drunk. You were supposed to leave your childhood behind. Strip off your gorgeous dress and run naked down the beach. Instead, we went downstairs to the payphone and tried to call her mom to pick us up.
We didn't have enough change so we asked the pretty, powder blue and frothy pale pink clad girls on their way into the bathroom for a spare quarter. They looked at us with startled wide blue eyes and reached earnestly for their purses.
"So?" said my mom, the next day, "How was the prom?"
"I don't think it counted," I said. "It wasn't a real prom."
"That's probably OK" she said.
"What was yours like?" I asked.
"I didn't have one," she said.
"Yeah, we thought it'd be lame so my high-school class voted not to have one."
I stared at her blankly. I'd imagined my mom having the prom that all of the school girls were talking about when they told me how I'd miss out. She was once the leader of the popular girls at her high school -- just like in a TV show. My aunt told me, but I could tell from the pictures, too. Her head is cocked just so, she's got this smug little smile, and her hair is so shiny. She's always surrounded by adoring fans.
"I can't believe you didn't tell me."
"Well, you were so excited about this, honey."
"Not too surprising. I've heard it's not great at school either."
I guess I'll never know. But right then and there, I vowed that someday I'd go to a real dance. I'd wear a gown. There'd be music that sounded nothing like a Disney soundtrack. I might even get a little drunk after. I wouldn't miss out on the one thing the girls who went to school had that I didn't. What if they felt sorry for me forever? I wouldn't let that happen. I would spend a glorious night in the arms of a boy who wasn't wearing cowboy boots.
But around the time I turned 18, I got invited to a glamorous military ball. Set on the water, with twinkling lights strung up across the bow of a huge white ship -- it was perfect. I wore a midnight blue satin strapless mermaid gown, and I danced with my date, an older boy in dress whites and a sailor's cap. As far as I know, there was not a single other homeschooler there.
Afterward, I called Emily.
"Did you make out?" she said.
"Yeah," I answered.