It’s prom season and every year around this time, as my Facebook feed fills up with pictures of friends’ kids headed out for their big night, it reminds me of a single, inexplicable act of kindness 24 years ago on my own prom night.
In 1995, in a decision to outkick my coverage earnestly and without an ounce of self-awareness, I asked a hot dude I sort of knew to my senior prom. He and I had gone to grade school together years earlier, but I hadn’t seen him in a long time and I was desperate to find a date and who knows, I guess I had his number written down in an old Lisa Frank address book so I shot my shot and called him.
Pause. I need to provide some context. Look, 1995 me was not any 1995 dude’s idea of a hot prom date. I was a ghost-pale, frizzy haired redhead with a healthy interest in Fitzgerald, watching Saturday Night Live, and being cuttingly witty and that was not rocketing me to the top of any high school male’s list at the time. I made my way through those four years of high school kind of ambling among various groups of stoners and athletes and band geeks and theater kids and honors students and occasionally finding myself proximate to the popular kids yet not ever really one of them and it was actually all fine. But I went on no dates in high school. Zero.
I had a vision for what I wanted prom to be though, and it involved a date. This was before girls would just go in a group if that was the better option. You had a date or you didn’t go. I was on the prom committee, for crying out loud. I had a bespoke gown that I’d asked my mother to make for me because she’s a genius behind a Singer. And she nailed the exact look I showed her out of a Vogue magazine spread: ballet pink, fitted top, voluminous tulle skirt. Very of the moment in that year when Hollywood starlets had finally cleaned up their acts and started dressing like they meant it for the Oscars and it was top of mind as I planned my prom look.
But the event was a few weeks out and I still had no date. So I was stressed when I called up the hot dude from our old grade school and put him in an admittedly crappy spot and he said yes. Until, two days before prom, he unsaid yes.
Something mumbled about forgetting he had a family thing and quickly squirming off the call and I held the phone not really focusing because the words were beside the point: none of it was The Way Things Worked and it was weird and I should have known it was never actually going to happen.
That’s when I called my friend and fellow senior Kelly, near tears as I told her what had happened. And Kelly, who was very cool, was hanging out that night with a guy named Keith. Keith had graduated the year before us and was one of the genuinely coolest dudes to walk the halls of our otherwise profoundly nerdy Catholic school.
We didn’t know each other well. In his senior year and my junior year, we sat next to each other in one class. I guess it was physics because at some point we had to drop eggs out of a window to prove gravity was real. We occasionally crossed paths at parties. That was about it. Keith played the bass in a band and went to shows at the 9:30 Club – the old one – and smoked and basically lived the mid-90s alternative/grunge existence that Ethan Hawke was going for when Reality Bites came along and monetized the aesthetic.
So that night on the other end of the phone, Kelly relayed to Keith what was happening and that I was bummed out and suggested he should take me, and then the time-space continuum ripped because I heard him say cheerfully enough, “Yeah, sure, I’ll take her.”
And damned if two days later he didn’t show up in a tuxedo of sorts he’d pulled together, capped off with a top hat and Chuck Taylors. He took me to prom, from the pre-prom photos at my parents’ house to the entire event at a downtown Baltimore hotel, and then the afterparty all night at this guy Steve’s incredible house where our class played pool and drank terrible beer and Boone’s Farm and watched the sun come up.
Keith was fun and funny, the perfect date, a gentleman, and he had zero obligation or incentive to do it. None. He wasn’t interested in me remotely but it was a nice thing to do and so he did it.
I’m sure he’s long since forgotten the entire thing. But I think about it each May when I see the pretty girls in their gowns and their dates in bow-ties and the limos idling in the background. It makes me profoundly grateful for split-second acts of kindness.