As much as I hated everything in high school, I carried a tiny romantic torch for the prom. Not the prom itself, I guess, as much as the notion of the prom—the cinematic ideal where all of my problems would fix themselves under the spotlights and I’d waltz around like a queen for hours on end. I daydreamed about walking in and being unrecognizable in my dress, about suddenly knowing how to dance as soon as my heels hit the floor, and about the boy who broke my heart spotting me from across the room and realizing what a terrible, terrible mistake he’d made to let me go. Though I’d never admit it to anyone for fear that it would destroy my reputation as a cynical, eye-rolling, cold-hearted weirdo, I wanted to have a perfect night. What I got instead was a nasty case of mono, because high school always knows just when to kick you in the face.
I woke up about a month before the prom with a sore, swollen throat that was covered in disgusting yellow blisters. It was the most painful thing I’d ever experienced, and I could barely tell my mother what was wrong, as everything I tried to say came out as incomprehensible garbling. A blood test confirmed that I had mono, and the doctor informed me that my spleen was severely swollen as a result of the infection, which meant I couldn’t play softball for the entire season.
“You shouldn’t do anything strenuous with a spleen like that for the next few months,” he said. “The whole thing could rupture.”
I spent weeks in bed, visited by my best friend Matty, who was most likely the person who gave me mono in the first place—not one of the benefits of “friends with benefits”—though he never showed any symptoms. The prom was coming up quickly, and though we weren’t together-together, it was assumed that we’d show up together anyway.
“My mother keeps bugging me about the dumb prom,” he said.
“Mine too,” I said. “She wants to go dress shopping.”
“Mine says I’ll regret it if I don’t go.” Matty was not big on school functions of any kind. “Highly doubtful.”
“Mine said the same thing,” I assured him. We later found out that nearly everyone’s parents had used this line, which meant either that proms were way better 30 years ago or that there was some massive conspiracy to force us all to dress up so that our parents could temporarily blind us for pictures to show to our relatives.
“I guess we should go to the prom, then.” This was Matty’s way of asking me.
“Yeah, whatever,” I said. We were terribly romantic. “But I can’t dance.”
“I know you can’t dance.” It wasn’t a secret to anyone.
“No, I mean, I’m not allowed to dance, like at all, because my spleen might explode all over the dance floor.”
“At least that might make things exciting,” he said.
And so we went.
We spent the entire night sitting at our table, talking about how dumb the whole thing was, save for two or three verrrry slow dances. I don’t remember the songs, just that it was the kind of swaying where we were barely moving, not because we were trying to be romantic, but because we were worried about spleen rupture. The lingering effects of mono meant I could barely stay awake, and I spent a little too much time staring at my ex-boyfriend, who ignored me, which is not part of the romantic climax of any John Hughes movie.
“Well, this sucks,” Matty said before sneaking out to smoke, leaving me at my table in my powder-blue dress, staring hazily at the dance floor.
Nothing had turned out the way I wanted it to: it was just another dumb school thing, I was just me in an expensive dress and shoes I couldn’t move in, and my spleen threatened me if I even attempted to get up and have fun. The whole thing was a major letdown. I had built it up too much in my mind, and reality, as ever, had swung down to tell me to check myself.
A year later, the senior prom rolled around. My spleen was fine, my mind was still in depress-o mode, and Matty and I were still best friends. “I guess we should go again,” he said, even though the last time had been a disaster.
I laughed. “We might regret it if we don’t.”
“It can’t be worse than last time,” he countered.
So we showed up, he in a white tux and me in a pair of angel wings (it was 1999, Ever After had come out the summer before, and the romantic dorks among us loved wings and glittered faces. Whatever, give us a break, we were awesome). And though everything was stupid, we did what everyone does when they get a second shot at something: we smiled for the camera, spun around the dance floor, and tried to make a better memory. We still thought the prom was dumb, but we didn’t expect it to be anything else, which made it easier to have fun and bail when we got bored. And while I may not have John Hughes-level memories of the night, I still have an intact spleen, and I’ll take that over a tiara any day. ♦