Twelve years ago I was the prom queen at my junior high school prom. I wore a short black velour dress that I borrowed from my friend, and black and white plastic beads that I borrowed from my mother. I gussied up my feet with a pair of black patent leather high heel Mary Janes that I bought for $10 at Payless in the Burlington University Mall, and wore with a pair of black nylons that I either borrowed from my mother or got on sale at the time of purchasing my shoes. While I didn’t care so much about the dress, the beads, or the nylons, I despised the shoes. I called them “pig shoes” because the toes were neither very pointy nor very round but somewhere in the middle like the hoofs of cartoon pigs. I’d looked in the store windows of fancy shoe stores, looked longingly at shoes that were $80, $90, $150. They were beautiful shoes and ones that would have lasted for years. If I walked into prom with those beautiful shoes on, perhaps I’d feel better about the rest of me. But I had only $10 to spend on prom clothes that year and thus, I had to stick to my budget and get what I could. In fact, when I was trying on the Pig Shoes in Payless, I looked up just in time to see a beautiful girl about my age and her stunning boyfriend strut past the store front. The girl had blonde hair and it was long, lying lustrous on her shoulders in the way mine never would, no matter how long I would grow it. Her name was probably Tiffany. As we caught eyes, and as I fastened the patent leather strap around my ankle, I saw her look at me and giggle, heard her whisper to her boyfriend, whose name was very likely Todd, “Oh God, what awful shoes.” I think she even gagged. I lowered my head to look at my shoes again, embarrassed, and feeling for them a sudden distaste, a sudden resentment. The Pig Shoes were the symbol of my knowing I wasn’t the picture of beauty and wouldn’t be anything close to glamorous at the prom, because Tiffany had gagged when she saw them. My $10 pig shoes and borrowed clothes were a far cry from the couture I’d be seeing my own school’s Tiffanys wearing at the prom, and I became ashamed of how my feet showed how I myself was a far cry from being a Tiffany. In high school, there is nothing so awful as not fitting in, and it was as clear as my pig shoes were shiny that I was not fitting in. But it was my junior prom and I had a cute boyfriend whom I adored, and we were going with my closest friends and I knew I’d be in good company with them.
I write about this today because tonight I am going to the prom. Twelve years after my first prom, I am attending a second. The junior class is hosting the dance and from what I’ve heard it’s a fancy thing. So with twelve more years of living behind me, a slightly more forgiving budget, and tremendously more forgiving sense of self, I am off to pamper my hair and nails, don a red dress and strappy gold heels, and will dance the night away, on one of my final weekends of my two year Brazilian adventure.
As time passes, we change. I look back at the junior year Gina and I see her bend down with shame to remove the ugly black shoe. I see her reluctantly bring the box to the cashier and place it on the counter with her ten dollar bill. I see her put that same box in her closet and not open it again until the night of the prom where she spends most of her time crossing and uncrossing her feet to cover up her shoes that she knows are hideous. And when she has to stand with the rest of the prom court—-the Tiffanys, the Todds, the others so beautiful and refined—-to have the King and Queen announced, I see her stand nervously in front of the group of students and I know she is thinking of her feet. When her name is called as the Queen, I see her face light up with surprise. The tiara is placed upon her head and it is clearly much too fancy for her outfit, the little diamond gemstones shimmering much too gaudily against the darkness of the rest of her outfit, clashing with the plastic beads around her neck. But in the moments when she dances with her good friend, the King and Queen together in their official royal dance, she is so happy and forgets, if just for an instant, about the ten dollars and the pig shoes, so happy she is that she spins around the dance floor posing for pictures, smiling so hard it hurts. Her boyfriend who she adores stands off among the crowd smiling easily at the spectacle and she adores him even more for that generosity. Later, she goes home and puts the tiara on the living room hutch where it stays for years, the tangible memory of that night.
I’m not prom queen material, I know most people think of me: I’m not refined, I’m not proper, I’m not a girly-girl. And so they are surprised when I let them in on the fact I was once a prom queen. And while it’s true that we change over time, some things remain the same: This year’s prom dress, like the other one, was a steal—-a Nicole Miller dress I found at Marshall’s for thirty-five bucks three years ago—-and I’ve had the gold strappy sandals for years. I’m wearing gold earrings, simple dangly ones with a tiny red bead at the ends, and no necklace at all. Not much has changed in that respect. I’m still very plain.
But when I tell the story of the year I was prom queen, I say it with a blush. It may seem like I’m admitting an embarrassing secret. But that’s not the case at all. People raise their eyebrows and look at me like, “You?” But when I tell them the story of the pig shoes and the plastic beads, the Tiffanys and the diamond tiara, I think they sense the thrill I felt at having triumphed over my idea of myself. For once I felt alright, even amidst the others in their dresses and fancy shoes, their hair just so. I’d like to go back to that time and tell myself that being so concerned with others and looking like the others was not a big deal. That being the prom queen meant nothing. But that’s just not the case. It was an important moment for me because it meant I was alright just the way I was. That I was a likable girl. And that I shouldn’t let a Tiffany in fancy high heels tell me otherwise.
Tonight I’m off to the prom. I’m getting dressed up because I want to, not because I need to, not to put myself on display, but to celebrate. I’m celebrating not just my two years here but a twelve year journey of self-discovery, one that gets more purposeful and fascinating as time goes on. I’d like to go back in time and tell junior year Gina that everything’s going to be alright. But I know she’ll figure it out for herself. All in due time.