By Linda M.C. Nguyen
My dad was a stern believer that I shouldn’t date until I was done with school and had what he called a stable job. By job, he secretly hoped I would become a medical doctor. So imagine my dilemma when a handsome boy suddenly asked me to prom. I told my parents I was going with a group of friends instead.
Then, to make matters worse, Dad offered to drive me to prom.
“Limos are too expensive,” he said when I insisted on riding in one with my friends. The expression on his face said that was the end of discussion. Every time I saw his eyes hardening into black slits, that was my cue to back off. That expression told me I could never get what I want. Ever.
Prom night arrived. I was on the highway with my dad for about half an hour when a sign for Château Veudreuil came into view. Located just outside Montréal, Château Veudreuil was a five-star hotel with classical French flair that looked out onto a river. Dad drove through the gate, passing hedges and green gardens guarded by immaculate white statues in robes, posing or hunching over with their arms broken off.
“Strange taste in art for a fancy hotel,” Dad muttered.
Whatever, I thought, and clung to the notion that this was my day. I’d picked out a dress just for this occasion. This was my high school prom and no one was going to ruin it, but I had to admit: as the daughter of Vietnamese parents, I wasn’t sure I could appreciate these statues either. My parents were boat people, with only the shirts on their backs when they left their home country. They believed in building their future with both their hands, and those statues had none.
Dad parked his car in a half-empty gravel lot as a group of girls strode by in their glitzy gowns straight out of Teen Vogue. Body glitter covered their skin and their curls were pinned up only by ways of sitting in a salon chair for hours. My mind went into comparison mode and I wondered if I had done enough for myself. Pulling down the visor mirror one last time, I checked my complexion and the gloss on my lips. If there was one day I had to look perfect, this was the one.
I stepped out, being careful as I wasn’t accustomed to wearing heels. I usually wore flats or sneakers. An extra three inches in height gave me grandeur while my long pink dress gave me a certain sense of elegance, though it was cheap elegance. Mom had bargained for it at a local dress shop and won, settling for a price of a hundred and thirty dollars.
Now that Mom had readjusted the dress with her expert hands so that the lower hem didn’t drag across the floor, I felt beautiful, or at least I did until I saw what others were wearing. My dress was simple and generic with spaghetti straps, fanning from the waist down, but since it was pink, I thought it held an eerie resemblance to Cinderella’s first dress made by her Disney birds and mice, custom-made before it got ripped apart by her stepsisters. It could be worse. I could have missed prom completely, but if I didn’t tell anyone about my dress, and if I didn’t tell my parents about my date, would anyone know? My promise was made right then and there, in the same second it took me to smile my worries away.
Dad took pictures of me next to our van, my pumpkin carriage. My shoulders were angled however he wanted them to be angled, and my chin moved to his every command to capture the best of my practiced smiles. With every picture he snapped, he had to take another one, just in case I blinked.
“Don’t roll your eyes at me, young lady,” he warned. “Ten years from now, you’ll be glad I took these photos for you.”
Another smile splayed across my lips. Another click. Another snap of the shutter.
“Okay, now look over here,” he said, pointing over his shoulder so I wouldn’t be looking directly at the camera. He pointed right at the hotel’s entrance where other classmates dressed for the red carpet hopped out of their limo. No parents were in sight. It was just them, with their friends or with their date. My elegance and sophistication were dialed down by several notches because I showed up with my Dad as my chauffeur. It felt as though I had broken the unwritten rule about prom.
He walked me to the hotel’s courtyard where the outdoor reception was held, and it was the closest thing to paradise on earth. A modern water fountain, a colourful garden that went on forever, a gazebo in the distance, white tents with equally white Parisian café tables and bistro chairs, a row of white statues with their backs to the river, the gentle breeze blowing in, large protective trees and their shadows dancing across the paved floor beneath my heels…
All the glitz and the glam were too much. Put me in a library where I can read or scribble away and I’d be happy for hours, but put me at the French Rivirera—or a place that looks like it—and I’d stick out as the tourist with a photographer, as the girl who didn’t belong. I chatted with a few classmates and teachers while my nervous hands kept themselves busy by playing with my pink bead bracelets. Dad snapped some more pictures: one photo and a retake for every person I encountered. Then I heard the loud roar of rock music blasting in from car speakers. A white limo-Hummer opened its doors, and out came eight male athletes from our soccer team. Two Greeks, three Italians, one Portuguese, one American exchange student, and the Frenchman.
The Frenchman was otherwise known as the dark haired and blue-eyed Marc François-Déjardins. Since the first day of high school, he had caught my eye, and I’d doodled his name in my diary. I could never say no when he asked me to copy my homework. How could I say no, then, when he asked me to the prom, two days before? He asked me to prom by email, saying that I was both smart and pretty. When I asked about his girlfriend Aubree, he said they had broken up, but he promised his dying grandmother he would show her pictures of himself and his date at prom, whoever his date at prom would be. I couldn’t believe his story, but I said yes, under the condition that my parents couldn’t know about him being my date. I then locked myself in the bathroom and performed a happy dance.
Marc was the last to step out of the limo-Hummer, holding a plastic box containing a pink corsage, and when he slammed the car door shut, the rock music became muffled. Their entrance was stylish, excessive, ridiculous, and yet I envied them. Prom was just the event they needed to justify not having to give a damn about the rest of the world. It was all about outward appearances, and if you looked rich and classy for that one night, you were set for life. Luck, fame and fortune were determined at seventeen. People nearby cheered for them, and they attracted all the attention away from the run-down blue sedan that drove up next, dropping off one Sri Lankan and two Indian girls.
Marc hadn’t seen me yet, and I stepped out of view, giving my dad the excuse that I wanted to see the river. Butterflies swirled in my belly at the absurd notion that somehow, Marc was indeed my date. The night was young and Dad would have to leave the hotel eventually. Parents weren’t allowed to stay for prom past the outdoor reception. Once dad was gone, I could head straight for Marc. There was a full course dinner and the dance to look forward to.
As my dad and I walked deeper into the courtyard, my grade ten history teacher Mr. Mubarak greeted us.
“You look gorgeous, Amy!”
“Thank you,” I said massaging my stomach to calm the butterflies. I positioned myself so Mr. Mubarak would shield me from Marc while I monitored my date’s movement. If Marc couldn’t see me, then he couldn’t find me, and if he couldn’t find me, then he wouldn’t try to join up with me, at least not when my father was still around. By all means necessary, I couldn’t have my dad find out that I was meeting someone for prom.
“Mr. Tran!” My teacher shook my dad’s hand, his Egyptian grin hidden beneath his moustache. “Here to document your daughter’s grand soirée?”
“Good evening,” Dad said, one hand stuck in a vigorous handshake, the other on his Canon camera around his neck. Mr. Mubarak sang praise about me while Dad smiled and nodded.
“Prom is only for students and the teachers,” said Mr. Mubarak, “but since you’re already here, would you like to join us teachers for dinner? It’s ninety dollars for the full course.”
“Hmm, well I sure am hungry,” he said.
No! He can’t stay! If he stayed for the rest of prom, I wouldn’t be able to spend any time with Marc. I would have to hide from Dad for the whole night.
Hiding somewhere in a hotel with Marc… Now there was an idea.
Dad gave a polite smile to Mr. Mubarak and said “I should save my stomach for when I get home. My wife is waiting, and so is my dinner.”
“Of course,” said my history teacher.
I was relieved. If I couldn’t spend prom with my French knight, I wouldn’t let my dad drive me anywhere again. I also wouldn’t want to be seen with him ever again. The evening’s embarrassment was mounting, but it always pays off in the end, doesn’t it?
Dad took more pictures of me and of some friends nearby who I was able to grab. When I ran out of people from my small circle of friends to grab, Dad told me to grab those with whom our conversations had never gone beyond the “hello” or “can I copy your homework” stage. A lot of people copied my homework, and I guess it was only right for me to collect debts at prom: by making them pose for the camera next to the homework girl.
Another photo session ended and I locked eyes with Marc for a bit. Heat rose in my cheeks. He had been standing there, watching me as my dad took one embarrassing photo after another. Dad turned his back to talk to another parent. Marc walked over when I made an “X” with my index fingers to halt his steps. He looked confused. I contorted my face into an exaggerated look of worry as I pointed to my dad, talking to a parent. I’d already told Marc on the phone that my parents couldn’t know of us, even if it was just for one night.
Now Marc nodded in understanding and showed one of his sly dimples. He shook the pink corsage in the air with a look in his eyes that read “I’ll be waiting.” He winked at me from across the terrace. My knees almost gave out. If I had my dad’s camera in my hands, I would have captured his suave manners and turned it into a looping gif for him to wink at me forever, but all I had to capture it was my own memory. The moment was both gone and everlasting. Marc swam back into the crowd.
That was it. To create more moments with Marc, my dad would have to go. Right now.
The courtyard filled up. The ballroom opened and students made their way in, including two dozen or so teachers.
“I’m going home,” Dad said.
“Okay, bye, Dad.”
“I’m picking you up at eleven.”
“So… it’s still a ‘no’ on the post-prom?” I asked, in case there was even the slightest chance I could spend more time with Marc.
“You know my answer to that,” he said. “After-parties are unthinkable. You don’t need them. Just like in the movies, something bad always happens.”
“It is eleven o’ clock pick up or no prom at all.”
“You’ll still have a good time,” he said, and kissed me on the forehead.
Students walked in one direction to enter the ballroom, while Dad walked the other way. I watched him until he was out of sight.
Free at last, I hurried inside and found Marc in the hall, talking to Aubree, who was wearing a short silver size-two dress. What was my dress size again? It wasn’t a number close to what she was wearing. She glared at me and with good reason: Aubree was his ex-girlfriend. She left in a huff.
Marc turned to me and straightened himself.
“T’es belle,” he said. You’re beautiful. But it sounded flat. I imagined it as his automated response whenever a girl stopped in front of him just to steal a few seconds of staring into his eyes . . . or whenever a girl interrupted a conversation with his ex.
“Thanks,” I said. “So . . . you’re still with Aubree? She wants you back? What’s the deal?”
“Oh no, nothing like that. I just told her that I came to prom with you, you know, to piss her off. Did you see the look on her face?”
And just like that, he prescribed me with a dose of relief. “I sure did.”
We laughed. There were so many girls who would give anything to spend prom with Marc, and yet he chose me, me of all people. Marc reached up to scratch behind his neck.
“I should have asked you first if I was allowed to brag about bringing you as my date.”
“Oh, not at all! No permission needed.”
We laughed again. He could tell the whole world if he wanted to, so long as the news didn’t reach my parents.
“I also don’t have a pink tie to match your dress,” he said. “I don’t do pink.”
He wasn’t wearing a tie. Instead, under his dark suit, the top button of his steel blue shirt was left undone.
“You know, having to hide from your dad is just plain weird.” He cocked his head to the side and gave a crooked smile. One of his dimples showed.
“Tell me about it.” I rolled my eyes. “My parents are really traditional. They can’t stand the idea of me seeing someone, and—”
“You don’t have to explain.”
I took a deep breath, got lost in his eyes and reveled in his attention.
“Was I babbling?”
“If you were, it’s cute.”
Heat rose up my cheeks again.
“Anyway,” he said, “this is for you.”
He unboxed the corsage and slid it up my wrist. His fingers on my skin made me giddy. What a strange feeling to have been waiting for this moment throughout all of high school. Finally, it was here. Marc was standing in front of me. Marc was talking to me. Marc was touching me, and best of all, Marc had chosen me.
“Just beautiful,” I said, admiring the floral arrangement.
“You sure are.”
I blushed and caught him looking through me, where every secret about me was there for him to read. The story behind my cheap dress, my feelings for him since the first day of high school, how I wish I could tell everyone about him…
“Here’s your table number,” Mr. Mubarak interrupted, coming up to us.
He gave me my name tag with a table number written underneath it. Table 28.
“Thanks,” I said, flustered.
Mr. Mubarak gave Marc his name tag too, then left to give the remaining tags to other students.
“Which table did you get?” Marc asked.
“Oh . . . that’s not cool. I got 13. Ask if you can get switched to 13.”
“But my friends are sitting at 28 . . . ”
“Please?” He held my shoulders in his firm hands. “I want you to sit next to me.”
I didn’t think I’d see this side of him so soon, but he unleashed his legendary smolder. For the first time, I had a front-row seat and felt the full impact of my insides crumbling.
“You know, if you keep doing that, I won’t be able to say no to anything.”
“If I keep doing what?”
“You know, the pleading thing you do with your eyes.”
“What thing? I just want you next to me so we can take pictures. You know, for my grandmother.”
“Oh.” I had forgotten about Gran.
A part of me, the skeptical side, felt that the grandmother story was made up, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to spend a whole evening with him. Now that he mentioned Gran again and remembered to take pictures for her, either the story was real or he had great skill in keeping a fake story together. I hoped it wasn’t the latter. Why did Gran want to see his prom photos so badly anyway? Maybe both our families were messed up, just in different ways.
“Earth to Amy?” Marc said.
“Yes! I’m here.”
“Where’d you go off to?”
“I don’t know. Somewhere. My mind wanders sometimes.”
He gave a crooked smile beneath playful eyes that read “try me.”
Sam, the Portuguese dude on their soccer team in a tailored kaki-colored suit with his collar popped up, walked up to Marc and tapped his arm.
“Yo Marc, Steve couldn’t make it. He’s in the hospital.”
“You’re serious?” Marc said. “What happened?”
“Skateboarding accident. Broken leg.”
“That’s too bad,” said Marc.
“I know. He was supposed to sit with us too. Now we have an empty seat.”
Marc grinned and looked at me.
“You’re sitting at our table?” asked Jack, the American exchange student.
“I guess so,” I said, scanning the ballroom to see where my friend Jo might be.
“Yes! We get a smart one!” said Jack. “Amy, was it?”
“That’s me,” I said, a tad surprised that people knew of me beyond my small circle of friends. Marc went around the table and gave “bro handshakes” to his pals.
“Let me guess,” Jack said. “You’re going into Health Science once these high school shenanigans are over?”
“That’s what I’m registered for,” I said, shrugging off the accuracy of his assumption.
“Awesome! We get the soon-to-be doctor at our table!”
Yeah, doctor, I thought, but I didn’t think it was one of those stereotypes I could fulfill. Whoever came up with the idea that all Asians were high achievers or that they should all be good at math was greatly mistaken. “Maybe, maybe not—”
“Who’s your date?” asked Jack.
I looked at Marc who was coming around the table. I was surprised that he only bragged about me to Aubree, but not to his friends. He cocked his head to the side in my direction to confirm my answer to Jack.
“No way! Marc, are you for real?” Jack said, astounded by who knows what, but his enthusiasm was over the top. That somehow terrified me. And I hadn’t even been grilled with questions yet.
Marc smiled. He pulled out a chair for me. I sat, gathered my dress, he pushed the chair back in, and I enjoyed every gallant detail of it.
“What happened to . . . you know . . .” Jack trailed off when Sam, the Portuguese, nudged him in the rib. “Ouch! What, I can’t ask?”
“It wasn’t working,” Marc said.
Jack’s mouth dropped in a sudden moment of realization.
“I know! You picked Amy so she could heal your heart! Smart man, smart man.”
They laughed, and just like that, I was integrated. Everyone around the table took out their cellphones to take pictures, including Marc.
“A selfie for my grandmother?” he asked.
I leaned into him and got a whiff of his musky fougère cologne, a woodsy scent that complemented his natural charm. I looked at his Samsung Galaxy Note, smiled, and the flash burned my retinae, a small drawback to having a digital file that would let not just his Gran but the world know that I went to prom with Marc.
“Thanks,” he said.
“No need to thank me.” What a strange thing to thank your date for. “Take some more pictures. Your grandmother will want to see many of them.”
Marc slid his phone back inside his suit pocket.
“Just that one photo will do. Grandmother gets her photo, and we get to enjoy the rest of the night.”
I played around with the corsage on my wrist and noticed a few petals came loose.
Jack stood up with his iPhone in hand.
“Okay, squish in! Got to take a photo of my Canadian friends!”
We gathered and leaned in. Half the table stood behind those who were already seated, including Marc and me, but I sat on the edge.
Another blinding flash.
“Nice!” said Jack. “Now to post it on Facebook!”
I turned to Marc who was halfway through his entrée.
“Are you going to post our photo on Facebook?”
With a mouthful, he shook his head. My shoulders rolled in and my heart sank to the floor, ready to be trampled on by other students, teachers, and waiters alike.
“Trust me, you don’t want to be on my Facebook wall.”
“Why is that?”
“You should see all the hate messages I got from Aubree’s friends from the past two days.”
The conversations around me continued.
So it had been two days. Two days ago was exactly when Marc asked me to prom. If that was so, Aubree and her friends already knew that Marc and I would be going to prom together. All this time, Marc didn’t tell me these hate messages were going on. When was he going to tell me?
I listened and answered questions when they were directed to me, and laughed at the right moments, but I wasn’t having fun.
I looked at Marc from time to time, but he never returned my gaze. My nervousness at being close to him sank into a black hole, to the point where I didn’t know why I was sitting at this particular table anymore.
After the entrée, we had three courses and a dessert. All of them were on huge plates for presentation, but there was little of it to eat over three hours. It wasn’t the prom experience I’d expected. Not only was I still hungry, but my friends were sitting at a table across the room, and I caught Aubree shooting me the evil eye.
Upbeat music started playing and people made their way to the dance floor. Girls unstrapped their high heels and danced barefoot, moving their bodies as though in a tribal trance to hip hop and house tunes. Guys unbuttoned their jackets and loosened their ties, abandoning all chivalric manners to the rhythm, yet still with the intent to seduce. Marc stood with his friends at the bar, roaring with laughter at something Jack said. My feet lost all will to dance, so they took me to the bathroom, away from the confusion I felt with Marc and away from the bad vibes from Aubree.
I had accepted Marc’s invitation to prom without knowing I’d be stuck between two people and become nothing but a shadow in a room full of noise, sweat and drama. At least the bathroom was quieter.
On my way out, I bumped into my friend Jo. She wore green and I could tell that her dress was too tight around her midsection, as if she wasn’t counting on eating tonight.
“Amy!” She swung her arms around me. She had her black clutch in her right hand and I felt the cold leather of it on my back. She pulled away. “You look great! Where did you get your dress?”
“At this store on St-Hubert Street,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t ask how cheap it was.
“Great place to shop! Having a good time?”
“Of course!” I lied.
“So, I saw you at Table 13 with Marc. What’s going on between you two? Why wasn’t I in on this?”
“It’s just for prom. Nothing serious,” I reassured her.
“Good, because with all the health sciency stuff you’ll be getting into, you won’t have time for Marc.”
That stung. She’d made the same comment my Dad would have, only, she said so in her own kind of way.
A friend of hers tugged at her arm. It was Niki. She wore a curve-complementing aquamarine dress. Her dark Greek hair was pinned up with tiny daisies into a loose bun. A few of her shiny curls were beginning to rebel, and she was getting the sparkles from her skin all over her dress. I then noticed that some of the sparkles clung to Jo’s arms. They glowed and radiated, and I can see they were having fun, and that’s how prom should be: fun, but the fun wasn’t contagious enough to spread to me.
“Hi, Amy!” Niki said. “I heard about you and Marc, and I don’t know…” It seemed everyone already knew about Marc and me when I was trying so hard to keep it a secret from my dad just a few hours ago.
“It’s just for prom,” I said. “Jo will tell you.”
“Oh, I will,” Jo said.
A new upbeat song came through the speakers, a tune that CHOM 97.7 had been playing on repeat nonstop for several weeks. Niki turned to Jo.
“The next song is starting! Come dance with me!” She started walking away and pulled Jo’s wrist behind her.
“I’ll see you at Dawson!” Jo said.
“Okay!” But in my head, my response was flat. It wasn’t because we would be going to the same school; I was looking forward to that. What did put me ill-at-ease was that she knew I’d be going into Health Science, just like Jack immediately assumed I’d become a doctor. I was glad Jo asked anyway, just in case my answer would be different, or maybe she was setting me up for a stereotype that was just waiting to be confirmed. I gave her the satisfaction that she was right.
I went into the bathroom and when I came out, I saw Marc without his suit jacket. He was outside the doors of the ballroom with Aubree. I heard the music on the dance floor change to a slow number.
They were kissing.
So that was it. He hadn’t gotten over her yet, or she hadn’t gotten over him. Why did he ask me to prom then? Or maybe the question should be: why did I agree to go with him?
I didn’t know what to do with myself. I needed to get away, to be anywhere but here. My watch read ten thirty-eight. It was too early to meet my dad, but I made my way outside anyway, passing the kissing couple. I heard Aubree gasp, so I knew she’d caught me leaving, but I was already through the automatic doors.
The corsage was off my wrist and in a nearby waste bin. I stared at the almost empty parking lot. I contemplated whether I should go back and whoop Marc’s ass with a roundhouse kick and a knuckle breaker to the chin. I’m Asian. Kung fu was in my blood. Then again, my knuckles were fine where they were: aligned and intact on my hand. I was only his date for tonight. And anyway, my night was ending.
Marc found me standing outside, waiting. He rushed up to me.
“I’m so sorry. It just happened. She came up to me and she grabbed me. I was just going out for some air. I didn’t mean to—”
“Shut up,” I said, interrupting his babble. “I don’t care what you have to say.”
“Please? Won’t you hear me out? Can’t I make it up to you?”
In the span of two long seconds, I recalled how he acted tonight, how he treated me, how prom was ruined and how I deserved better, and “better” didn’t involve him, no matter how swoon-worthy his appearances were.
“I saw what I saw,” I said, closing my eyes and taking a deep breath, “and maybe you should go back to Aubree.”
“Say what?” he said. “I’m through with her. Really, I swear.”
“But she isn’t. You should talk to her. You should have seen the way she looked at me. Like I stole you or something.”
“That’s not how it is at all.”
“But that’s how she sees it. Just talk to her. If you still want to make it up to me, then talk to her.”
He held me by the shoulders, and this time I didn’t fall for his smoldering gaze. When I looked at Marc, I didn’t just see him; I saw him with Aubree. I saw him stuck in the past and unwilling to walk away from it. Right now, I needed to walk away.
“It’s okay,” I said. “We’re just prom dates. Besides, I’m going home.
“Really? That’s it?”
“That’s it. I have nothing else to say to you.”
The secrecy and forbidden dating had been exciting for a few hours, but as the night had progressed, I knew it wasn’t anything I wanted.
“Look, you’re an amazing person,” he said, and he sounded sincere, but how would I know for sure? Besides, I was tired of guessing.
I looked him in the eye. “Then I deserve ‘amazing’ too.”
I heard the familiar rumble of a minivan engine. I shrugged Marc’s hands off my shoulders. Dad wouldn’t be thrilled seeing me with a boy.
“It’s my lift,” I said.
“Look, I’m really sorry.”
“So am I.” Again, I tried to smile.
“Will I see you again?”
“You’ll see me at the graduation in two weeks.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Dad’s car stopped right in front of me. I hopped in. I looked over to Marc, just standing there, an expression of awe and remorse on his face. Then I closed the door.
Dad drove away, past the hedges, past the statues in robes with broken arms.
“Was that your boyfriend?” Dad asked, suggesting the start of an interrogation.
“Nah, just a classmate. He was just saying goodbye.”
Dad drove us home. It was a quiet ride until I said, “I’m glad you picked me up early.”
“I was right, wasn’t I? After-parties are unthinkable.”
Once home, I went straight to my room. In the dark, my alarm clock read 11:12. My Cinderella story didn’t end at midnight. I had already taken off my dress.
Linda M.C. Nguyen writes screenplays, short stories, and she’s working on her first novel. She’s known to frequently burn the midnight oil, often until 3:00 AM, but she’s told she can’t keep this habit forever. She lives in Montréal, Canada, where daily use of the French language is the norm, but English will always be her forte.