BECAUSE YESTERDAY WAS the fourteenth anniversary of Ginger Spice’s departure from the band, I’m remembering how big The Spice Girls hit when I was a teenager, an era when I was so susceptible to girl-power music—Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, Alanis Morissette—I swallowed all of its messages on blind faith: Life shouldn’t be taken seriously (Indigo Girls), life was a B movie (Ani), life was ironic, but not the kind of ironic we learned about in AP English (Alanis). And of course, life should be spiced up (The Spice Girls). I was similarly susceptible to popular culture’s portrayals of adolescence. Despite knowing better than television what being a teenager was like, I believed in Saved By The Bell. I believed in Beverly Hills 90210. I believed that high school was about being beautiful, dating the captain of the football team, and having a locker, even though, in my experience, it was really about writing stacks of poems in which I compared death to the sea, to a puddle, and to the time I drank whiskey and barfed on my hair.
Because I subscribed to the version of senior year I knew from television, I approached prom in earnest. My girl friends did, too. Prom would be a proper celebration of our waning adolescence. A night we’d never forget. Except reality was uncooperative. So were the boys. A bunch of them had a lacrosse game the day after, and mostly, they cared about that. One of my male friends dumped his girlfriend right before prom and then told me, “Now I guess I can go with you.” When my best friend invited another male friend, he kicked her in the shin. “But he said yes,” she reported.
What I’m saying is, romance was in the air.
So I bought a blue gown with rhinestone straps and silver high heels. “Do not get me the kind of corsage that pins,” I told my date. “Seriously. Get me a wrist corsage. I’m not sticking a pin through my dress.”
He didn’t know what a corsage was.
“A flower,” I said.
“I’m supposed to bring you a flower?”
The day of prom, I got a French manicure because I’m high society. I had my hair styled into a special, glamorous ponytail that was nothing like my regular ponytail. That evening, my date arrived at my house with a pin corsage. Then a bunch of us piled into a limo. One of the guys rolled a joint, but even as I smoked it, I knew this was all wrong. Prom wasn’t for pot-smoking. On television, pot was for the troubled kids, who shunned prom in favor of hanging out in an alley. Prom was for drinking from a monogrammed flask. Prom was for pulling up one’s prom dress and losing one’s virginity. Not that I was going to lose my virginity to my date, who had dreadlocks and subsequently hadn’t washed his hair in three years.
But upon arriving at prom, I found it satisfyingly prom-like. We were in a dimly lit ballroom with a DJ. Gowns and tuxedos abounded. There would be a catered dinner. The gossip that night surrounded the guy whose date was a 55-year-old man and the girl who was a slut. She’d been a slut for four years, but her impropriety remained riveting. As soon as we all sat down, our dates commenced ignoring us, playing a game that involved flipping quarters into one another’s water glasses. Dinner bore a mysterious resemblance to cafeteria lunch. This was depressing. Even more depressing was that our after-prom party was going to be held at our high school. We heard they’d rented a bounce house.
Things looked grim until The Spice Girls played.
“Wannabe” (“If you wannabe my lover, you gotta get with my friends”) was new that year, and it wasn’t yet annoying, the way everything by Hootie and the Blowfish was. In fact, it was an inspiring song about female friendship. If we danced to “Wannabe”, we were friends the way Kelly and Donna were friends on Beverly Hills 90210. Not that those two were ideal role models—at the West Beverly prom, Donna got so nervous about having sex for the first time, she drank herself into a stupor. Worse, Kelly went to prom with Dylan, whom she’d stolen from her previous best friend, Brenda, who, traumatized by the betrayal, had moved to Europe. Once she was gone, even though the show continued another six seasons, no one, including her twin brother, ever mentioned Brenda again.
But anyway. The DJ played “Wannabe” and everyone rushed the dance floor, even the boys. Or perhaps the boys were dragged. Regardless, some of us formed a circle because back in the ‘90s, our custom was to dance in a circle surrounding one dancer who knew how to bust a move. I did not know how to bust a move, but I got so excited dancing to “Wannabe”, whose lyrics include such wisdom nuggets as “I wanna really, really, really wanna zig-a-zig ah,” I appointed myself dance soloist. Someone would take a picture, I imagined, and during the show’s finale, I would open my old photo album from high school and find this snapshot of my youth alongside a pressed corsage.
By now, I’d ditched my silver shoes. I danced in stocking feet, surrounded by my classmates, and probably did some combination of the Macarena and the Electric Slide, which I parlayed into the Running Man. All I know is that my arms were high in the air when my rhinestone straps broke and the front of my dress fell down. And then, for all of the class of 1997 to behold, out popped my breasts. Sans bra.
In retrospect, my seventeen-year-old breasts must have been awesome, and I should have just left them out, spread my arms wide, posed for a picture, and enjoyed their brief tenure of gravity-defying excellence. But instead, one of my friends cried, “Your boobs!” and someone else yelled, “Oh no!” and probably a few more people protested, as well, so I crossed my arms over my chest and ran to the bathroom, where another friend appeared with a needle and thread and sewed my dress back together.
Were such a Women’s Magazine Moment to occur in a television show, those breasts would meet consequences. Perhaps, upon her return to the ballroom, the music would screech to a stop and everyone would laugh at the girl, exacerbating her humiliation. Or perhaps her name would be scrawled in the boys’ bathroom: For a good time, call…. Or perhaps, the boy she’d never noticed throughout high school would seek her out, take her hand, and tell her it was all going to be just fine–that her breasts were magical and no one had really noticed anyway. Then they would fall in love and go to college together. Or perhaps the episode would deal with breast cancer.
But when I returned to the ballroom, alarmed, no one seemed to remember my boobs. It was as if my boobs had never happened, their presence in everyone’s lives as fleeting and banal as high school.
After that, prom persisted in its mediocrity. When it ended, we went to our high school and wore leis around our necks and jumped in the bounce house. Then my friend Lauren had a small party, where some people drank terrible beer in a perfunctory way, and a couple of my girl friends and I talked in Lauren’s bedroom (“That’s what you get for buying a $40 prom dress,” one said of my wardrobe malfunction). Soon, my best friend and I were asleep on the floor. Early. Way before we had a chance to lose our virginity. Or make lasting memories. Or have meaningful conversations about our plans for the future. No one had plans for the future anyway—except to stop going to high school in a few weeks and switch to college, where we would try to live college life the way the movies told us to.