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The Best Prom I Never Had


Essayist Grace Gunderson is a soon-to-be senior majoring in creative writing at Beloit College.  Gunderson, who is from Minnesota, has been studying this semester at the University of East Anglia in the UK. 

"The kid’s an idiot!”

I hear my father bellow from the kitchen, his words swelling with emotion. I don’t doubt that he’s pacing around the table, his fists tight. He lowers his voice considerably, so I have to strain to hear his hiss.

“Doesn’t he know you’re supposed to break up with the girl the week after prom, not the week before?!”

I picture my mother across the room from him, knitting her hands together nervously. This isn’t a conversation I’m supposed to be able to hear.

I flop onto my other side and hug my pillow tightly to my chest, as if applying even more pressure to my heart is a good idea. I’m annoyed to find that I miss Ty. He’s not a particularly miss-able person, especially now that he’s decided – for both of us – that we need to see other people. Still, the urge to burn his picture or throw out every memento he’s ever given me just isn’t there. Although our relationship was thoroughly unremarkable, it was my first, and I didn’t want it to end like this.

A quick rap on my bedroom door startles me, and I turn around just in time to watch my dad poke his head inside. He never waits for my okay, and I fight the urge to roll my eyes. Today I got dumped in front of the whole world. Well, the whole lunch room anyway, and when you’re seventeen that’s close enough. I know he means well, and I know he’s here to try and make me feel better, but right now I just can’t deal with my dad’s insistence that my knight in shining armor turned out to be a loser in tin-foil.

He leans against the door jamb and I sit up against my headboard. We just stare at each other for a few awful seconds. I’m not a crier and neither is my dad, so I know enough not to anticipate any ‘Full House’ moments.

“I’m going to Iowa on Saturday. Come with?”

I catch my mom’s eye from the other room, and we exchange a smirk at what is sure to be another of my dad’s harebrained schemes. What will it be this time? World’s biggest ball of twine? Anthracite museum? The shuffleboard hall of fame? My dad is convinced that roadside attractions are the greatest entertainment known to man. He’s the first person today whose eyes haven’t been drowning in sympathy every time he looks at me, though, and I like that, so against my better judgment, I agree.

Iowa’s a haul from Minnesota and I’m not exactly turning cartwheels at the prospect of a day-long road trip with the old man. But at the same time, this little impromptu visit could provide me with the perfect excuse to be, well, not here this weekend. With a blink, I realize this is why he’s offered.

So, on the Saturday afternoon of junior prom while other girls primp in front of mirrors and duck in and out of hair salons, I find myself piling into a Mercury Villager with my father and a couple of peanut butter sandwiches. The ride south is an uneventful one, narrated with Bruce Springsteen CD’s and the occasional deer sighting. He doesn’t feel the need to tell me where exactly we’re headed, and I don’t feel the need to ask. Away from here is good enough for me.

We go two hundred miles on a single stretch of highway, and then turn left. There’s a lot of corn, and a baseball field. Although I’ve never been here before, I recognize the set of Field of Dreams immediately. I liked this movie a lot when I was a kid, but I’m not a kid anymore. I know it would be rude to point this out, so I don’t. We pull into the gravel parking lot, and sit for a long time without really speaking. It strikes me that neither of us particularly wants to be here, yet here we sit.

“Want to walk around?”

I shrug, he shrugs, and then we both get out of the car. There’s not much to see. It’s still early spring, before the days really start to get long, so darkness is falling and the park lights are coming on. Despite what I really think, I tell him it’s neat and thank him for something. He grunts, and asks me if I want a corndog.

Before long the mosquitoes are out and the big flood lights start humming and we’re looking at one another like it might be time to go. Before we leave, though, he puts his hands on my shoulders – braced, kind of, like he’s trying to keep me from stepping off the field, or walking away without him, or maybe just from growing up. His mouth opens and closes a few times, like he knows he ought to say something but doesn’t know the words. He doesn’t find them, I guess, because eventually he drops his arms and we walk back to the car. I know it’s one of those moments I’ll think about for a long time, always wondering what exactly happened but never feeling it was right to ask. Although we didn’t really say anything, part of me thinks it was the best conversation we’ve ever had.

It’s dark by the time we get back on the highway, and I stare out the window and watch headlights pass us by. The car is quiet, save for the ever-present crooning of Bruce Springsteen and the crinkling of cellophane as my dad unwraps a Twinkie. He clears his throat, and with horror, I realize I’m not off the hook yet.

"I never liked that kid, anyway. Always wore the same three shirts.”

I snort and it catches in my throat, because God, he did, but it comes out as more of a sob than a laugh and our eyes meet in the rearview mirror. He sets his hand on mine over the center console without taking his eyes off the road.

“Okay,” he pats my hand a few times. “Okay.”

We keep on like that for a long time, both caught, I think, in the sudden realization that this growing up thing is going to be a lot harder than we’d expected. There’s already been plenty of growing for one weekend, though, so we defer to a Kenny Rogers duet and for a few hours, at least, the world seems a lot less screwed up.

Oh, and prom? It was awesome. At least, that’s what I heard around school on Monday. I also heard that Ty had been there – with a date. Surprisingly, I found that I didn’t really care. I’m glad I spent my prom night on an Iowa interstate with the only boy who would never make me cry.