I shouldn’t even have gone to prom with Bryan. Just a couple of weeks prior he had made out with another girl and told me the purple marks on his neck came from soccer. Like the lovefool that I was, I believed him — until his best friend tattled on him over Instant Messenger. Oh, the acute heartbreak of a first love: I scribbled Ben Harper lyrics — “please bleed so I know that you are real, so I know that you can feel the damage you have done” — on my bedroom wall and devoted pages and pages to this fresh wound in my journal.
Still, I wanted to go on as if none of this had happened. I had just delivered a bouquet of roses to his class on Valentine’s Day. I had just lost my virginity on his bedroom floor while listening to Dave Matthews Band. I had just tanked my grades in Algebra II ditching class with him. What’s more, his mother actually baked casseroles for dinner and grounded him when he flunked AP calculus tests! That is to say they were so blissfully, utterly normal. Given the drinking, prescription drug use and daily acts of familial terrorism at my house, I clung to my first real, serious boyfriend like a life raft.
My sister and I drove to a mall in Westchester County and bought a blue-hued polyester number that in retrospect resembles a Van Gogh after a tab of acid. I sprung for silver high heels — suburban prom footwear — and no one talked me out of the sparkly blue nail polish. Together, with Bryan’s white tuxedo and silver shirt, we were a Prom Style Don’t.
In the prom photos taken on someone’s front lawn, we both look stiff. This may be the naturally occurring pose of the American teenager when snapped by Mom and Dad on prom night, but I felt uncomfortable because going to a school dance was probably the most “normal” thing I had done all year. Prom was not the sort of place I thought someone like me — the girl who’d pierced her tongue at 16, the girl who wrote her college essay about her brother going to prison — belonged. Say whatever you will about Bryan, his insecurities, his egotism, and his disrespect for me, but with him, I felt ever so slightly more able to “pass” among my peers as someone who fit in.
The dance itself was as unremarkable as any other prom. Bumping. Grinding. White kids dancing to Top 40 rap music. My dress strap snapped. There were after-parties, but Bryan didn’t want to go. I think he sensed, as I did, that word had spread amongst his classmates that he had cheated on me and people were looking at him like he was a jerk. Or maybe that was just my paranoia about being the girl with the tongue ring and the blue nails. Either way, we left prom together, alone.
We drove back to his mom and dad’s house where I had told my own parents that I would be spending the night. We retired to the den, the room where all our sexual urges were satisfied under the guise of “watching movies.” I suspect some alcohol had been swiped from the liquor cabinet, although I don’t recall exactly. I just know we ended up on the TV room couch, we had sex when I didn’t want to, and I started crying.
I don’t know why I didn’t want to sleep with him. Maybe I didn’t want to because he had cheated on me, his sweet girlfriend who adored him, and broken my heart. Maybe it was late and I was tired. But instead of just cuddling me until we fell asleep, like, you know, a boyfriend should do, Bryan snapped at me — I haven’t forgotten his exact quote — “If we’re not going to have sex, then I am going to sleep.”
But the relenting that occurred that night was less clear because there was so much pressure in that little den at his parents’ house. I can remember wanting to go to a prom after-party. I can remember feeling put-upon that he didn’t want to go. I can remember thinking, This isn’t what prom night is supposed to be like — and I didn’t just mean coming straight home afterward, or my dress snapping, or Bryan breaking my heart by cheating on me with some skank right before prom. I knew I was going through the happy-high-school-couple-at-prom motions with Bryan when the co-dependent dynamic between us was one for the psychology books. Once again I felt like I was faking at being normal and failing. I didn’t want to be having sex with him and pretending everything was OK when it so obviously wasn’t. So I started to cry while Bryan was inside me.
He must have asked me why I was crying, because I haven’t forgotten what I said, either: “It’s so beautiful.” It just came out of my mouth randomly. I was having sex with someone when I didn’t want to be having sex and it made me so upset that I started to cry and I told him, “It’s so beautiful.” After the sex, he fell asleep. I remember spending the long night fully awake. It’s been nine years since that night on the TV room couch in suburban Connecticut and thinking about it still makes me sad.
Bryan and I would break up, of course. I should have done it much sooner, but, honestly, until I moved away to college I needed someone else’s house to go home to instead of my own crazy one. I finally broke up with him after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, realizing that I didn’t want to die while being badly loved by someone. But we would still stay entwined with each other the way only two co-dependent people do best. We would sleep together over fall break and I would have a pregnancy scare. One night we would fight on the telephone, he would hand his mobile phone off to a friend who called me a “bitch,” and that night I would be so angry that I would go slice my leg with a pair of scissors. I would find out he was sleeping with another girl — other girls, plural? — at his college in Ohio. He would pledge a fraternity. Eventually we would break up; my entire family and my friends — all who hated Bryan — would breathe a sigh of relief.
It wouldn’t occur to me that what happened on prom night was bad or wrong until later on during freshman year when I had a new boyfriend. Jeff was tall, with blond hair and twinkly blue eyes, a waiter at an acoustic music club and a writer, like me. He treated me better than Bryan had and that fact wasn’t lost on me. One night early on in our relationship, I lay on the top bunk in my dorm room, talking to Jeff about our sex-life-to-come. With prom night and Bryan in the back of my head, I heard the words spill out of my mouth that I thought I had messed-up ideas about sex and we needed to wait before taking that step. As soon as I said it, I surprised myself. Had this really been bothering me so long? How could I not have known? But Jeff respected my wishes without question. We had a sweet, loving relationship while not sleeping with each other for a very long time.
I don’t know what to call what happened on prom night. I just know it shouldn’t have happened. “Date rape” doesn’t sound right, especially not compared to what my friends who have been raped have gone through. Bryan didn’t force me to have sex against my will; it was more about coercion and my (today uncharacteristic) inability to stand up for myself. But it wasn’t OK, what happened. I knew that then and I know that now even more. I have come a long way from that night and that relationship and the poor way I took care of myself — which is the only good thing to come out of a prom night I would otherwise like to forget.