The high school prom is a mythic event, and in that respect, the South is no different than the rest of the nation. As teenagers reach the end of high school, narratives emerge about the importance of the prom as a seminal event in one’s life. In this essay, Van Newell tells us a complicated story about a prom and a date, about high school personalities and ideals, and about how life can carry us in directions that our teenage beliefs and narratives did not include.
The Yearbook Let Her Have The Last Word
by Van Newell
A little while back, on a pilgrimage to Mr. Burch Formal Ware to rent a groomsmen tuxedo for my brother’s wedding, I was stepping around the store, trying not to put my foot through one of the many boxes lying around, when I remembered the last time I rang up a bill there. It was my prom, twenty-three years ago. My platonic, punk rock prom with Amy Sunstone.
For a suburban high school, Homewood was small, our graduating class was just over two hundred. There were few fights, suspensions, or even events of interest—save for the time Mandi Jordan brought a pickled pig’s foot wrapped in a napkin to class and proceeded to gnaw on it for breakfast. At Homewood High School, prom was designated only for seniors with the waiver that one member of a couple could be a junior, sophomore, or a freshman. A junior named Amy Sunstone was my prom date though we had not gone out beforehand. She was part of the punk rock crowd at my school, her hair dyed a red brighter than Jolly Rancher candy.
That year, an unusual number of underclass students attended prom. Word got back to me that Amy was mad that her friends who were juniors were getting to go to prom and she wanted to go too. I knew I had a good shot her saying yes so there was little fear of rejection. Amy was cute, yes, but her personality was more attractive. She was fun to be around—one never knew what she would say. Amy once convinced a sheltered friend of ours that she could get pregnant from oral sex. One time, I asked her if she liked the Christian pop-punk band MxPx, she said, “Yeah, except for the lyrics.”
I waited until after school let out that day to ask Amy to prom, not wanting to rush my query. She was walking down the hallway towards the main exit doors, when I caught up to her and I asked her if I could talk to her for a second. It was awkward, I felt like I was performing some kind of teenage ceremonial ritual. Television was my only frame of reference regarding proper prom invitation etiquette. Amy looked away for a split second, smiled, and then faced me again and said, Sure. I could see that she was happy from her small grin.
But then she added that it would be just for fun. She had a thing for Curt Papanno, a tall and pale junior who played tuba and spoke in a monotone voice. Curt’s claim to high school fame was driving an old two-door 1980s Buick that he repainted a garish soft purple with furry faux cow interior and fuzzy dice to boot (I cannot not throw stones. I drove a 1976 Plymouth Volare, the color of a dull penny, to school). A platonic night out was fine, she was fun to be around, and I was not really looking to start a high school relationship with only a few months of high school left. Taking Amy to prom seemed mysterious and cool, like the bars and nightclubs that we weren’t old enough to enter.
It quickly got out that Amy and I were attending prom together. The lazy-eyed dude that sat next to me in art class began to tease me, advising me to procure some ginseng, then pointing his forefinger erect, he added “boink, boink, boink” for additional clarity.
Oddly, prom was on a Wednesday, perhaps because school administrators believed that students would be less likely to binge drink and destroy hotel rooms if prom was held in the middle of the week. That afternoon, I went to the Mr. Burch at an indoor mall just down the street from our high school to pick up my purple tuxedo with gold lacing on the vest. It was the only one available that was not a bland and faded black. It seemed vaguely, if not plausibly, punk rock.
When I got home later, my dad said that since it was prom I ought to drive Amy around in a nicer car so I was allowed to take my mom’s vehicle: an early 1990s tan and black Eddie Bauer edition Ford Aerostar with thick, orange and tan cloth seats. with It had what I coined“manual” air conditioning, which is to say, fanning yourself with your hand. Since the Aerostar was a vehicle designed to have air conditioning, it could become so hot so easily inside, what with the miniaturized middle windows that barely slid open. As an added bonus, the minivan’s transmission made a dull mechanical whine noise but this was a Ford signature. I can hear the echoes of that sound to this day, and when 1990s-era Fords were more common on the road, I could hear them before I saw them making their way around town.
It was less than a mile to drive to the Sunstone’s small brick house with screened-in porch on a corner lot. Amy’s dad opened the door. With his unkempt white hair and starched, white short-sleeve oxford collar shirt, he appeared considerably older than my dad. He let me in with just a word or two, then took a top-to-bottom-and-back up-again evaluation of both my appearance once I entered their living room. After saying that he liked my suit and that it matched Amy’s dress, he shuffled off into another room. Weeks before, Amy laughed when I told her the color of my attire, but she came out to the living room wearing a lavender dress that did indeed match my outfit. She had also dyed her hair to a more natural dark brown.
Our prom night was going to be a mostly group event. A few years back, someone scanned an old blurry picture of our prom group tagged me on Facebook, and I had forgotten that there were ten of us. I remembered going together to a Chinese restaurant near downtown Birmingham. It was a place where people could still smoke. Except for me, everyone in our party smoked and thus I sat with everyone on black vinyl seats, puffing away after eating their nine-dollar entrees because smoking was not allowed at prom. We stayed there talking, saying how weird it was for all of us to be dressed up. The evening quickly progressed as we sat around gossiping. We were too young and clueless to pick up on the body language of the servers standing around waiting for us to leave, their lower backs pushed up against the tops of the seats across from us. Then we realized it was after ten, the restaurant was now very closed, and so we left to go to the actual prom.
Prom was at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, a beautiful place to stage an event—before ten at night. There was little lighting, so you we could not walk the grounds. Prom turned out to be just a large room shaped like a rectangle: no tables, no drinks, just a DJ with a preapproved playlist, white lights, and music loud enough to be more noise than much else. It was reminiscent of middle school parties that were put on at the Homewood Recreation Center’s indoor basketball court after football games. Something artificial, something pumped up. At least weddings and graduations had elements of ceremony but I suppose there is no standard prom.
We stood in a long line down a carpeted hallway and we paid something along the lines of fifty bucks for eight wallet photos. Up until a few years ago, my mom had kept one in her photo drawer. Even with heels, the top of Amy’s head only reached to my ears. In the picture, I look like I am at best plausibly related to the person I am today, what with the glasses, wrinkles in the forehead, and dad bod bonus of sixty pounds.
Inside the prom room itself was just the teenage equivalent of a wedding reception. “Brick House,” “YMCA,” those songs that you are thinking of . . . yeah, they played them. (It could be worse, a student once told me they were forced to slow dance to “Amazing Grace” at her prom in Henager, Alabama). No one left in a limo or in a helicopter, there was no social media to record and post it. I did feel quite pleased with the reception that my silly faux-discoteca dance moves, involving elbows and knees going this way and that, received, but even I found them wearisome after about three sweaty songs. I was just happy and content that I had made Amy, and a few others nearby, laugh.
To close the prom night out formally, we were all asked to go back outside to the hallway and then we were announced by the DJ, like I had seen done to members of a wedding party. One guy brought two dates, another guy came by himself and was still announced. And really that was it, loud music, and people joyfully screaming over said loud music to be heard. There was nothing really else to do.
Our friend Tim was having a party in his mom’s basement so we left. When we pulled up to Tim’s house, I put the Aerostar in park, turned off the engine, and she kissed my cheek for a millisecond. “Thanks for taking me” or “Thanks for the good night” or “Thanks for being so sweet” —she said one of those things to me, I can’t quite remember, and then got out of my mom’s minivan.
Amy’s primary motivation for being there was that Curt Papanno was there. I barely talked to her for the rest of the night, and she told me that Curt would take her home. This sounds sadder than it actually it was. I was tired, and I could just drive home and go to sleep instead of having to go the extra mile to drop her off. Soon after Curt and Amy started dating, I graduated from high school, and I did not see her the whole summer.
In late August, I moved about forty-five minutes south to Montevallo, the literal geographic center of Alabama, where I was going to attend the small liberal arts university. Jessica, Amy’s older sister, went there as well, and they could have passed for twins except that Jessica was a head taller and that they were opposites in everything. Jessica got good grades and exuded an eager-to-please personality, her hair was a natural color and length, and she wore the sorority uniform of short shorts and oversized Greek-themed t-shirts.
Just a couple of weeks into the semester, Amy came to visit her on a Friday night. But Amy quickly grew tired of her sister’s crowd of friends, escaped, and found her way through a heavy thunderstorm to my dorm. She was soaking wet, even with an oversized rain jacket she had liberated from her sister’s closet. I put the jacket on a hanger to dry in my closet, and then we walked down the hallway to an older friend’s dorm room, where about eight people were gathered, sitting on two twin beds and two grey futon sofas that had been squeezed into the dorm room. We sat down and met some new people who drank Natural Light and told funny stories about one another. Amy was offered a beer and she quickly took it and sat next to me with my drink of choice, Mountain Berry Blast Powerade, which was brighter than chlorinated pool water. I did not drink at the time, my parents never drank, and I was too afraid of making choices while inebriated and the consequences thereof. One of the nice things about irrational anxiety is it kept me from making more mistakes than I already had committed. Amy and I sat and just continued to listened to everyone else, we were the two youngest and were both too nervous to really contribute to the conversation, fearful that we might say something stupid. She downed another beer, and I nursed more Powerade.
Cell phones were not ubiquitous in 1996, so Amy had told Jessica that she would come back to her dorm room and sleep there for the night. The two of us said good night to the group gathered and we walked back to my room to retrieve the rain jacket. Amy was a lightweight, and she drank her beer fast like the high schooler she still was. After putting on the rain jacket, she stopped for a moment. “Do you have something I could write with?”
I gave her a pen and one of those yellow legal pads on my desk. She wrote on it, tore off a tiny piece, and silently put it into my palm.
The note read Fuck me now Van.
I looked at her, she was trying her best to not appear drunk and stood completely still with a blank look. I stammered out that it was time for us to go. Amy was more confused than insulted. My guess is that she was bored and inebriated. To a high school senior, sexual congress seemed as appropriate a thing to do in a college dorm on a Friday night. I was wary; getting a girl pregnant was the most terrifying thing in the world to me. With the rain still steadily going, we walked together on a brick sidewalk to her sister’s dorm. Neither of us said anything on the way there.
I told her good night when we arrived at the dorm.
She said, “’Night” much quieter.
Later that semester I heard from a friend that Amy was pregnant. I never saw her again. I got a job working at Toys ’R’ Us that took up most of my time when I was not studying or in class.
I am writing this now because Amy died five days ago. A friend texted me the news but he did not know the cause or any details. Whether it was drugs, suicide, or something else, a person dying under forty from natural causes seemed improbable (even during a pandemic). Her death would have been on the news if she were in a car accident or the victim of a crime of passion.
I went to see if she had a Facebook page. She did, and it revealed that her last name was now Murphy. There were pictures of younger kids, but nothing on her page had been updated in five months. Amy lived in the same large suburb of Hoover where I, and many of my Homewood High School classmates, found affordable housing after the gentrification of Homewood. Amy had barely aged. Like me, she now wore glasses but her hair was cut in a pixie fashion, causing her to resemble Julie Roberts when she played Tinkerbelle in the film Hook. It was only the picture where she is without her glasses that I saw small bags under her eyes.
There was no official obituary for Amy, a Google search offered just a very brief digital submission of her birth and death dates. I thought I needed to know why and how she died, so I drove across town to a vintage clothing store owned by the friend who had heard the news from a family member. As soon as I got out of my Camry, the idea of learning her cause of death soured something within me. What I was doing seemed salacious, coarse, even lewd. As if I was greedy to exploit her passing and carve out something akin to detailing Terri Schiavo’s autopsy. My conscience seemed to exhale from relief when I learned that my friend was not at work that day.
When I got back home, I found my high school yearbooks next to some coffee-table books on a low built-in shelf in the living room. I stacked them on the kitchen table and opened them up one at a time. A lot of people changed from year to year in my high school, and probably at yours as well, trying to latch on to an identity or subculture (preppie, jock, punk, hippie, Star Trek, Star Wars, there is a difference) that they think is cool or is “them.” Our pictures were always taken in September so that by the time we received our actual yearbooks in May, many a Homewood Patriot was unrecognizable.
In her freshman year, Amy was in Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) and her hair was longer, natural, and styled so that her bangs resembled a solid wave of hair about to crash onto her brows. Amy was in five pictures in her sophomore year: Beta Club (for good grades), Future Business Leaders of America, Dance, and Students for Environmental Awareness. There is a small, oddly-cropped picture of Amy drinking a beverage out of an aluminum can. She is wearing a black t-shirt in her main photo, and you can tell her hair is a different hue even though it is a black-and-white photograph. Amy’s brows were shaped and thinned but her smile is uncomfortable. She is simply baring her teeth, as if to say, “Okay, let’s get this over with. I’m only doing this because Mom told me I had to.” But the photo of her in her junior year is her best one because the smile is real even if her eyes appear sleepy with her hair cut boyishly long.
Maybe what I am writing is an obituary for her, and of course she deserves better than a glib tribute, but I think that she could appreciate the tone. These words will just have to make do. Most people I know and knew deserve more than an “online memorial” where people can post online. There are a few people I am “friends” with on Facebook who have passed. No one had written any form of a tribute or “ miss you 😦 ” after Amy’s passing. Her page was barebones, just a few selfies and two unretouched pictures of what appeared to be her children: a very young girl with strawberry blond hair kissing a very young strawberry blond haired boy. Her kids seemed to be non-identical twins. They appeared to be about seven. It is an atypical kind of comfort to know that your heart can still be broken despite all the bitterness you think your spirit incubates.
Too many people I knew in high school have passed away in the past two or three years. Another mom passed away seven months after our high school reunion at the age of thirty-eight, two people who I knew died from drugs: a portly loveable redneck (another cute kid on another Facebook page), and a friend from the high school punk rock scene whose online pictures were always of him in long sleeves, probably to hide the heroin marks. Last year, a married lover shot a high school classmate to death at her house in a gated community. According to the news, her preteen son found her body.
Perhaps I had been bearing some kind of pain in some unconscious part of my brain and my heart, and it spilled over. But this obituary, or whatever this is, is about Amy and her life and her passing. I discovered that she had signed my senior yearbook, and after reading it, I decided I would let her have the last word in the hope you would be able to know her a little better.
It’s great to have gotten the chance to know you without Fred. Nothing against him, I just used to look at you as one of his many sidekicks. I see that you wear the pants in that relationship. The prom was actually really fun. I had no idea you had such a love for dancing (and you’re so good at it! Even if it does look like you are having convulsions!) I hope you have fun at Montevallo next year. Sometime I’ll go spend a weekend on campus with my sister and hookup with you. Did you know that they have LLAMAS in Montevallo? They just run wild. I’m serious! I’ll show you sometime. Anyway, we have to get together and eat Chinese food while listening to the Queers (if I ever give you your CD back that is!) And if you ever need me, just go to Moneer’s, you know I’m ALAWAYS there!
I [heart] U!,
Van Newell received his MFA in Writing from Columbia University and currently teaches in the Department of English at The University of Alabama. He have been awarded the Hackney Award, the Alabama Writers Conclave Award, and have been short-listed for a Pushcart Prize and the Lascaux Prize.