Prom (A True Story)

He squeezed his forehead, thumb and index finger working his eyes in a vain attempt to chase away the memory of the last few hours. He blinked and his eyes swam with those floating amoebas. He had to race home, change into a jacket and tie, and head to the retirement home. Lillian needed a date. They were having some sort of prom for old people and she was alone.

Please, his mother-in-law had begged him, just do this for me and I will owe you. He had grimaced at his wife as he held the phone away from his ear. She’d shrugged and smiled.

Of course he would be her date. He started the engine of his ten-year-old truck and smelled an acrid waft of burning oil.

Deathbed, he muttered.

Thirty minutes later he pulled into the parking lot of Bright Futures Retirement Village. It looked like a third grader’s mouth, empty spaces gaping between the odd used Honda. He eased into a spot near the front door and got out, straightening his tie. A woman with frosted hair buzzed him in. He smiled at her as it seemed that this was least he could do for someone who’d sat there all day. He turned down a wallpapered hallway until he found the room with the memory box beside the front door. He paused before sticking his head inside the doorway.

The old woman sat in her room, alone, watching the biggest big screen television he’d seen in a long time. He could see a talk show through her hair featuring two tiny Asian girls dancing across a stage. The T.V. audience roared its approval.

Her wheelchair mostly obscured her but he could see that she wore a red formal dress with short sleeves. Underneath it was a white turtleneck. She shifted in her chair.

“Lillian?” he began. “It’s Jim. I’m, uh, eight minutes early for…prom. But we could talk in the meantime or something.”

She turned halfway around to look at him. He thought he saw the beginnings of a smile. Or maybe it was disgust. It was hard to tell. She fluttered one arm in the direction of the television.

“OK,” he ventured. “We can watch Ellen. There’s a corsage for you in the mini-fridge. I’ll get it.”

He turned and opened the fridge. It stood empty except for the gaudy wrist corsage his mother-in-law had placed there hours before. One scratch from it and Lillian would bleed. He bent and fastened the corsage to her paper-skinned wrist.

The requisite eight minutes passed and it was time for pictures. The two of them would pose and smile as if all of this were real. It would be like high school, except for the thousand years represented in this place. He cleared his throat.

“Lillian, I think it’s time for us to go find the others. Could you show me where to go? I don’t know my way around here.”

She nodded. He stood up and pushed her out into the hall with one hand, pulling the door closed with the other. He said something, he didn’t know what. She answered his questions, stammering over syllables. He did not help her with words. Something warned him not to.

At the end of the hall they reached a clog of elderly people decked out in their finest suits and floral dresses. They waited in a worn-out snake of a queue for the photographer to call out their number. He parked Lillian’s chair at the end of the line. A plump, middle-aged lady approached them, a piece of hard candy in her mouth.

“Honey, you need to take a number. Here,” she said, handing him a plastic card. “You’re number 27.”

“What number are they on now?” he asked.

“Thirteen.”

His eyes fell on the line of wrinkled women, their skin triple creased and soft. He could see gravity calling them back to the earth, one inch of flesh at a time. They stood swaying slightly, some with sticks. They were desiccated, water and seeds long since gone. They needed those sticks to die standing up.

“Number twenty-seven, please!” a shrill voice finally announced from the front of the line.

“That’s us, Lillian,” he said.

He wheeled her chair over the short pile carpet to where a rickety, white arch stood. One tap of the wheelchair and it might collapse on them. He arranged her chair under the bower and positioned himself behind her, squatting so that his head rested on her shoulder. He wondered for a second if she’d allow this. She was not a woman to be touched. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her smile. The photograph would be ridiculous, the kind that gets sent around the Internet. He didn’t care. The smile had made him feel sad all of a sudden. Sad and foolish.

Dinner began with salad, an iceberg lettuce wedge underneath three pastel tomatoes, all of it drowned in sweet vinaigrette. He looked over at his elderly date. She stabbed at a tomato with her good arm. The kitchen staff whisked the salads away in record time, replacing them with the main course, a piece of beef in colorless gravy. It was chewy but harmless enough. He watched Lillian nibble at her baked potato. From time to time she looked up at him with faded eyes. He tried to remember to smile at her without nodding, but he realized too late that he’d done it again. Nodded as if she’d asked him a question. In a way, she had.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to finish up dinner. It’s 5:30 and our live entertainment will be arriving soon in the foyer. We hope you’ve enjoyed your special meal with your loved ones,” the director intoned.

At a nearby table a lady with an imaginary lover smiled, her face radiant. Jim and Lillian moved to the main room where people were already gathering. A young man staggered into the foyer dragging two turntables, a silver laptop, and an oversized speaker. He wore baggy jeans and a backward baseball cap. As he passed by the growing audience he flashed a toothy smile. Jim felt disaster looming but, to his relief, when the deejay played the first song Frank Sinatra’s lovesick voice filled the room. The old people began to relax and drum their fingers on their armrests. Lillian mouthed the words to songs from a different life.

A few people swayed, eyes closed, transported to a time when legs were able and arms were willing. Lillian couldn’t get up, so he tried to sing along with her to let her know that he understood. A woman in the center of the room had positioned herself under an imaginary spotlight and moved back and forth, hands inches from her walker. She jerked from one pose to the next.  Without warning she moved away from her walker, her arms floating on their own. For a brief moment she was young. Then everyone’s fear; knees buckling, she sank to the floor, legs in cheerleading formation. Ladies in uniforms rushed to her, creating a human wall.

After a moment of confusion, they parted and Jim could see the fallen woman standing again, smiling feebly. No broken hip, but it was too late. The lighthearted mood in the room had passed. The crowd murmured and began to thin and Jim asked Lillian if she’d like to go back to her room. She nodded and he wondered what he’d say when they arrived at her door.

He didn’t have much time to think. The chair’s wheels protested as he scooted them over the carpet in her living room. He positioned her in the same spot he’d found her hours before and adjusted the volume on the television. He could see her face growing older, harder. Prom was over.  He bent and kissed her cheek. Her skin felt soft on his lips.

“I had a great time,” he said. He surprised himself by meaning it. “Is there anything I can get you before I go?”

Her eyes flicked to his for a moment and held them. He thought he could see her face as it had been.

“No. Nothing. I had a great time, too.”

It was ten minutes until 7:00 and he had to get home. He touched her shoulder lightly.

“Ok, then. Bye, Lillian.”

He walked out the room and closed the door behind him.

(names have been changed)

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