Opened an old book the other day, and my prom picture fell out: two couples, the boys in dinner jackets, the girls in non-strapless dresses. Ours being a Catholic school, strapless dresses were forbidden, because they constituted an occasion of sin.
The other girl in the photo is wearing a corsage--a washed-out-looking orchid enhanced with stiff bits of tulle and ribbon, the kind that your date brought you in a plastic box, still cold from the fridge . Me, I am not wearing a corsage. Instead, I am holding a nosegay in my white-gloved hand.
I am not wearing a corsage because my date, who is standing behind me with his fingertips barely touching my waist, believed that corsages spoiled the look of a dress. Hence the nosegay, which he had designed after extensive consultations with the florist. It consisted of tiny dark violets and a larger flower of some kind, all carefully chosen to match the ice-blue of my dress. He had been talking about this nosegay for weeks before the dance, and was as excited about it as I.
Not only was I the only girl at the prom with a nosegay--I was probably the only one whose date liked to spend entire afternoons chatting with her mother. This boy adored my mother. He loved to examine her collection of Indian pottery and her 18th century polichromed sculptures. He could never get enough of her stories about our years in Ecuador, and she would happily oblige him while I sat in the background wishing he'd pay me some attention.
I loved his company. He made fun of everything and everybody, was crazy about French Impressionism, read books that were not actually required for class. Unlike many of my male classmates, he found my foreignness interesting rather than unfortunate. He was thrilled about taking me to the prom, and the opportunity to dress up, and to design the perfect nosegay. Amazingly, my conservative parents didn't mind my spending time with him.
Are you getting the gist of this?
At the time, I didn't. But then, I was a painfully naive specimen even by the standards of those pre-Woodstock years. It wasn't until we were having our picture taken at the dance and the photographer had to tell my date twice to put his hand around my waist that I began to feel that things seemed a little odd.
For a couple of days every year, our Religion class would be separated by gender, and we would be instructed in something called "Catholic Love And Marriage." I don't remember much about these classes, except that marriage was intended for the procreation of children and the allaying of concupiscence; that kissing was o.k. as long as it did not lead to arousal. And I remember this electrifying statement made by the Irish priest who instructed us: "Girls are like irons, which heat up slowly. But boys are like light bulbs." Issues of gender identity and sexual preference were never mentioned by teacher or students.
I can't imagine what it was like for that boy,
in a Catholic school, in an ultra-conservative Southern city, to figure out who he was. I lost touch with him after graduation. But later, in the corsage-crushing embrace of some college date, I would sometimes think about the boy who gave me the only nosegay at the prom.