July 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

The Time of My Life: Writers on the Heartbreak, Hormones, and Debauchery of Prom edited by Rob Spillman

Prom never held any allure for me. The John Hughes movies that dominated my teen fantasy life were Some Kind of Wonderful (in which Eric Stoltz’s tomboy/drummer best friend, who is more beautiful than the girl he has a crush on, offers him the chance to practice kissing with her) and The Breakfast Club (in which rich girl virgin Molly Ringwald makes the first move on bad-boy burnout Judd Nelson after hours of titillating psychological foreplay). I skipped prom, didn’t think twice about it, and don’t regret missing it. But painfully embarrassing stories of the teenage shame of others appeal to me deeply, and I dipped into Rob Spillman’s anthology The Time of My Life: Writers on the Heartbreak, Hormones and Debauchery of the Prom with mean-spirited enthusiasm. Prom is such an iconic moment in the lives of teen Americans that it surely haunts many adults.  

“Over the last hundred years,” writes Spillman in his introduction, “the prom has become one of America’s great cultural touchstones … While the prom wasn’t always a multibillion dollar industry, it is safe to say that the psychiatry field has gotten fat on the psychic fallout of prom night.”

The Time of My Life doesn’t skimp on awful moments of teen angst. It has a contribution by the incomparable Cintra Wilson, after all, whose book A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations was the slender thread that kept me from turning into a homicidal maniac or drooling psychopath through my mid-twenties. This woman knows from angst. I don’t even want to give away the punch line of her most memorable prom moment. Let’s just say it was pure perfection, and then it… wasn’t.

The surprise of this book is that it’s not all lovesickness, hormones and debauchery. It’s hilarious and deliciously embarrassing, but it’s often truly profound, too. The coming-of-age aspect of these prom stories is fully realized, and most of the writers describe the ways that they grew up, the lessons they learned, and the ways their lives transformed and change. It’s a book about what it means to become an adult. Best of all, it’s full of unusually fine writing.

Pam Houston’s Bethlehem, Pennsylvania prom story lays bare the need of bright, alive kids to escape the stifling confines of a small town, and is among the most beautiful things she’s ever written. Steve Almond offers up a series of great stories, but the funniest and most awful is of a girl -- “like some shiksa goddess descended from the minty-fresh folds of Boy Heaven” -- who he comforts one night, gallantly and without copping a feel, when she’s weeping on the couch. He learns weeks later that she was crying because of her terrible, unrequited crush on him. He saw her as so out of his league that it never even occurred to him that she might be interested in him -- but, more alarming to the reader, he still never goes for her, and the idea of his “league” is so fixed that writing about it years later, he doesn’t even explain why not. Rachel Resnick tells her central Alabaman prom date the truth about herself (“the Judaism, the foster families, the suicided mother, the rejecting father”), and his reaction makes the scales fall from her eyes, and she never quite recovers. Gary Dauphin tells of his “first thoroughly dysfunctional and unhappy-making relationship that I would loiter in way longer than I should have, eager to and unable to get out at once.”

Samantha Dunn writes that she might have been less disappointed in her Evening in Paris-themed prom (in Las Vegas, New Mexico, circa 1982), had she known that she would grow up to actually live in France, and in Hollywood, and write for magazines, and get thin, and find the love of her life. “Of course, if I had known all of that then, I would also have known about the innumerable failures that went along with France and Hollywood, the divorce and romantic disasters that came in the years before I truly fell in love, the pains and illnesses, bankruptcy, betrayals, and deaths of people I loved that would also come along. The prospect likely would have cowed me so much that I would have abandoned my Scruples blueprint and stayed in the relative safety of lot #78. Which means, of course, I would have missed my entire life.”

The parts of our lives that we miss, versus the parts of our lives that we truly live, is the real subject of this book. A couple of the best prom stories come from people who skipped out on the event. The prom itself -- even after all of those wonderful underdog-makes-good-at-the-prom movies, even after the bloodbath of Carrie -- is less pivotal, even symbolically, than that heady moment when our lives suddenly stretch out in front of us, and if we blink we might miss something, and certain things change so radically we could never have even imagined the smell or look or feel of our future worlds. And other things stay the same forever.

The Time of My Life: Writers on the Heartbreak, Hormones, and Debauchery of Prom edited by Rob Spillman
Flying Dolphin Press
ISBN: 0385521170
240 Pages