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Original Essays

Social Suicide

by Robin Palmer
  1. Cindy Ella
    $3.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Cindy Ella

    Robin Palmer
    "[A] fairy-tale-based romance [that] will be a favorite with girls, mostly because Cindy is such a wonderful character — thoughtful, intelligent, pretty, and kind." School Library Journal
As a (sometimes) wise and mature woman of 39, it's easy for me to wax poetically about how the prom has devolved from a meaningful rite of passage to a sad display of blatant consumerism. In fact, the heroine in my novel Cindy Ella commits social suicide by writing a scathing letter to the editor of her school paper about that very issue. But back when I was a senior in 1986 (and saw nothing wrong with blatant consumerism) there was no way I was going to miss mine, especially since I had spent my junior year unable to shirk my New Girl leper status after my parents moved us from Sudbury, MA, to a small town on the Jersey Shore called, of all things, Wall. The move was traumatic for many reasons, not least of all that it rendered me junior-prom date-less.

That summer we moved yet again, up the shore to a town called Ocean Township, and one afternoon shortly into my senior year, as I was walking down the hall between classes, a guy named Tom Collins — like the archaic cocktail — said to his friend, "Dude, who's that new girl? She's kind of cute."

My prom fate had just been sealed.

Tom was super tall, super fair-skinned, and super skinny. With a crewcut. Seeing that at that point I was more of a Judd Nelson/The Breakfast Club kind of girl, Tom wasn't really my type. However, he did have the ability to make me laugh, a trait that was almost as sexy as Judd's chocolate brown eyes.

Before long we were spending our Friday nights in Chris Tilton's basement with a bunch of other seniors and the occasional St. Elmo's Fire/Rob Lowe-ish type who wasn't yet ready to let go of his high school glory days and move on. As fall morphed into winter, I stopped being the New Girl — both in title and feeling — and for the first time in my high school career, felt like I fit in. And when Tom asked me to the prom a few months later, of course I said yes.

And immediately set out to find the perfect dress.

For this particular princess, a dress from the Juniors department at what was then-Bamberger's-soon-to-be-Macy's, just wasn't going to cut it, despite my employee discount. Instead I badgered my mom to take me across town to the upscale boutiques of Deal and Allenhurst where the real high-end stuff could be found.

My dress was waiting patiently for me in the third store we walked into; hanging on an expressionless, pimple-free mannequin in the corner. Attached to delicate spaghetti straps, the bodice was an intricate pattern of black sequins with a tea-length white lace skirt. Talk about mid-'80s exquisite.

But the best part was the tulle. Miles and miles and miles of tulle.

It was a dress fit for a princess.

My mom zipped me up and the instant I got a glimpse of myself in the mirror I fell truly, madly, deeply in love in a way that has only occurred with two men and one pair of Chanel motorcycle boots since then.

Of course it fit perfectly. It even had the ability to make my very large breasts look an entire cup size smaller, which alone was reason to buy it.

As I floated around the boutique, with my tulle-powered skirt taking up three-quarters of the room, the Obsession perfume-doused saleswoman said the words that sealed the deal:

"You know, it's a one-of-a-kind," she announced in her nasal Jersey accent.

My legs began to quiver with excitement. At least I think they did, although that might just have been from the 10 pounds of tulle bearing down on them.

"All the way from Paris," she added.

My Francophile heart started beating faster and I gave my mother my best pleasepleaseplease-you-don't-understand-I-have-to-have-this-or-else-I'll-die look. Maybe it was because she felt bad that I had spent most of my high school career as a wallflower, maybe it was the slight compulsive shopping habit she's got going on; but despite the steep price tag on this one-of-a-kind imported work of art, she bought it for me.

Not only was I going to the prom, but I was now assured that amongst the sea of Seventeen magazine-approved dresses, I would stand out. Which, of course, is what princesses do.

When the limo pulled up to my house on prom night, my top hat-covered, tuxedo and tails-attired, cane-holding date stood there with his mouth agape as I floated out the front door. It was definitely a Kodak moment, and my dad took two rolls of pictures to commemorate it.

As the limo pulled up to a pre-prom cocktail party, I patted my stiff-as-a-helmet brown-with-frosted-blonde-highlights huge hair (it was the mid-'80s), gathered up my tulle, and stepped out onto the gravel driveway in my patent leather Bandolino pumps. It's difficult to float when you're walking on gravel, especially after you've downed half a bottle of contraband champagne during the ride over, but with a princess-caliber smile on my frosted pink lips, I did my best.

But when we entered the back yard, my smile vanished.

Standing next to the picnic table reaching for a pig in a blanket, was a girl I didn't recognize wearing the exact same one-of-a-kind, straight-from-Paris dress as I was. Needless to say, this was definitely not a plot point of the fairy tale prom-night story I had spent every night of the last month crafting in my head before I drifted off to sleep.

Although I wanted to have a full-blown meltdown right then and there, I knew that would be very unprincess-like so instead I marched up to her and politely asked her where she got her one-of-a-kind dress.

At an overpriced boutique in Red Bank, a few towns over, she explained. I think she said the saleswoman told her it had been made in Italy.

It turned out she was a junior from a nearby private school and was the date of some guy from our class who I didn't know very well because he was on the Debate team and therefore wasn't a regular at Chris Tilton's Friday night soirees. She was very sweet, and I could tell that she was grateful to have someone to talk to because she didn't know a soul there other than her date, even if it was more of an interrogation than a conversation. And even if that someone was wearing the exact same one-of-a-kind dress she was.

Maybe it was the champagne; maybe it was because I was well aware of what it felt like to be an outsider, but suddenly the fact that my princess fantasy had been blown up into a million pieces wasn't such a big deal. So we were wearing the same dress. Big deal.

I think I even had someone take a picture of the two of us together, but since my high school photo album appears to have gone MIA during my recent cross-country move, I can't be sure. But I do remember one thing — while we may have had the same dress, my boobs filled out the bodice a lot more than hers did.

Sadly, the rest of the night was a blur. I remember numerous trips to the hotel ladies' room with my friend Terri to spray yet more Aqua Net on my hair. I remember hoping my hair wouldn't go up in flames every time my friend Karen and I snuck a cigarette. I remember fighting with Tom about the fact that I was sneaking cigarettes because he thought smoking was disgusting and said it was like kissing an ashtray. I remember the Chicken Kiev being disgusting. I remember going to someone's grandmother's house in Spring Lake afterwards and changing into shorts and a T-shirt and sitting outside with Tom and watching the sun come up.

A few years ago, I got an email from him. He's now divorced with two daughters and living back in Ocean Township. When I told him I was writing this essay, he sent me this:

Been thinking about the prom. It's sad to say, but I really don't remember that much. I do remember seeing you at your house and being blown away by how beautiful you looked. I also remember the hype and build-up being more exciting than the actual prom — waking up the next day and being like, "Well, that was fun, but no big deal."
He's right, but still, I'm glad I went.

If only for the tulle.

÷ ÷ ÷

Robin Palmer grew up in Massachusetts and New Jersey, and graduated from Boston University before she hit the road for Hollywood. Starting as an assistant in the television literary department of the William Morris Agency, she quickly moved up the ranks and spent the next decade as a literary agent, producer, and television network executive at Lifetime Television, where she developed over one hundred scripts and oversaw the production of over 30 of the cable network's original movies. In 2001, she remembered that she had originally intended to spend her life either as a writer or a toll booth collector (so she could indulge her penchant for spending her days alone reading), but as there are no toll roads in southern California, she decided to give the writing thing a try. Since then, she's written everything from screenplays to essays to a novel to a preschool guide. Although she's constantly threatening to move, she currently resides in New York City. spacer

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