“Boyfriend cheats on me with a guy but says he’s not gay” I type into the browser, which yields some mildly homophobic advice on Reddit that amounts to the fact that my boyfriend is probably at least a little gay. It is spring break 2009, and I constantly refresh my search history.
“But we had PHONE SEX,” I yell into my flip phone when he breaks the news. I think about how I had woken up that morning with a sense of dread. I think it’s because I am bad at phone sex, or because my grandmother heard me using her landline to tell my boyfriend I wanted to ‘touch his big dick,’ a sentence that inspires me to Google “what to say during phone sex.” (It doesn’t help that my real-life experience thus far is giving him exactly one handjob to completion while watching Jesus Christ Superstar on DVD.
Instead, the first person I love is telling me he has hickeys all over his neck from making out with some Old Navy employee and doesn’t want to be with me anymore.
I put on my flip-flops and pace the asphalt in front of my grandmother’s desert condominium. I can’t have this conversation inside even though it is 118 degrees. Hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk, as they say. My brother and I tried it once, but our dad scolded us for wasting food. He is tired of reminding us that we are in a recession.
“I’m not gay,” Sean says. “But I can’t be with you anymore.” Sean, who is so beautiful. A portrait of him goes viral on Tumblr and someone in Berlin paints it on a concrete wall.
“But prom is next week.” I eye the prom issue of Seventeen sticking out of my Jansport.
I go to a Catholic school, but the only thing I think will be my salvation is prom, my long-promised deliverance into a normal high school experience. I have faith prom will make me feel like I’m finally where I am supposed to be with the same fervor as my belief that going to a Catholic school with rich kids will somehow make my life like theirs, less like my own. My step-mom marks her periods with giant red circles on the calendar so we know when to avoid her vicious mood swings, dad’s on his third marriage and mom has had twice as many live-in boyfriends. My favorite one is in jail. I deserve prom.
“Did you really just bring up prom?” he says.
“Of course,” I say.
“You don’t care what a big deal this is for me?” he says.
“I love you! And you cheated on me!”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t know if I love you anymore.” We hang up. We’ve been together for four months, which feels like four years because we are 16 years old. I twirl the friendship bracelet he shoplifted from Urban Outfitters for me; hot tears smear my mascara.
Everything has already been rented: the limo, the tux, even my dress, from a new website where I can rent BCBG dresses to wear, like all the other girls at our private school who aren’t on scholarship. I mourn all the fake plans I’d concocted in my head, plans that don’t have anything to do with our relationship, but are things I Think I Want: to lose my virginity on prom night, to wake up next to him in the morning, to feel like I am finally where I’m supposed to be.
My mom takes me to her friend who does hair, who says mine is the color of dirty dishwater before clumsily copying an updo from a page I rip out of Cosmo. I smudge my liquid liner; I show cleavage with no appreciation for subtle glamor.
I go to prom as the seventh wheel of three couples; that night, Emily breaks up with Thomas; Colleen goes to the hospital for alcohol poisoning; Grace ends up working coat check; Ben cheats on Tyler with Will in the bathroom; Amanda and Matt have sex while playing Mario Kart, Phil contracts herpes, and I throw up after drinking four Mike’s Hard lemonades I shoplift from the grocery store where my mom works.
I name the Facebook album “Proma,” as in “prom drama.” In the photos, I look like a girl who desperately wants to seem like she’s having fun. I flash a big, rented smile, my curls over-sprayed and hardened with grease.
Now I know that everything is rented. Our high school is leasing the land; the priests are rented from the Vatican. The venue, the glamour, the meaning, the nostalgia – all rented, a Trojan horse with nothing in it except Dollar Tree streamers and funeral flowers. We rent the feeling of what we think it will be like to be adults; we rent what we think is freedom but is really set pieces to manufacture intimacy, to say I was there in a time marked by impermanence. The only thing prom delivers me from is my own delusions.
I don’t know yet that a year later, Sean and I will find our own feeling of forever. Not at prom, but under the Kool Aid-colored lights of an underage gay club, where every week, we pocket free condoms and watch drag shows at 2 in the morning, where we chug alcohol and Gatorade the color of melted snow and hotbox my Toyota pickup truck, where he makes out with boys in cars and in corners, where we don’t care that our parents don’t ask where we are; where, finally, we wake up next to each other. Here, we find our secret gray space, where plot lines are rendered in invisible ink, a place that is sometimes obfuscated by fog, or the lies we tell, or by our vision as we drive home stoned. But it is ours, which makes it technicolor.