THE WESTIN HOTEL NEAR LAX, BALLROOMS A, B, C and D. Tonight the partitions are thrown back, creating one massive space. As couples wait to register -- they have to show their student IDs, get their names checked off a list and have their hands stamped -- a cell phone rings and goes unanswered. A uniformed security guard, broad arms crossed, stands next to the door.
Hoai Nguyen's pastel-pink gown has three tiers and a train. "If I was gonna go big, I was gonna go real big," she says. Another girl screeches, "Pretty, pretty, pretty," her voice rising higher with each syllable. "You look sooo pretty." "Oh, don't look at me," responds the object of her admiration, Sarah Parel, not meaning it. Her gown is silver and slithery, the back scooped out to there.
A surprising number of the boys have ventured beyond the standard black tux. One sports a top hat, cane, and sunglasses, which he never removes. Another wears a morning coat, black cowboy hat and boots, and another a powder-blue suit with matching bowler and ruffled shirt.
"My date bailed on me," says Kindra Dove, in a red Chinese-style dress, "so I'm here with a friend." She nods at a bored-looking boy standing nearby. "Mine too," says Breeann Perez. Rather than let her $110 prepaid fee go to waste, she brought her friend Diane. "He canceled on Thursday," Breeann says. "I didn't want to rent a hotel room afterward." Kindra nods. "I had the same problem. My date is coming with someone else. Someone I thought was my friend."
The shades stayed on all night IN THE LOBBY, CLUSTERS OF STUDENTS lounge on sofas and linger about, waiting for friends and watching the limos arrive. A black stretch pulls into the driveway, and a hotel doorman rushes to its side. From the darkness within, two Mary-Janed feet emerge, followed by sticklike legs, then a pair of knobby knees, all of it quickly obscured by a fluffy yellow gown. Another limo approaches from behind, and then another.
A girl in a lavender satin Hepburn-style gown with matching elbow-length gloves sits alone, sideways, in a chair with its back to the entrance. Her slumped shoulders and tight frown say she knows that everyone but her is in a couple or a group. For everyone else, the fun has begun. In her lap is a boutonniere, still wrapped in clear plastic.
As a group of limo kids pour into the lobby from the front, a group of students emerges from the parking garage at the rear. There's a split-second pause, an almost startled quiet, as they eye one another, assessing outfits, dates, modes of transport. Then, without a word, they return their focus to their friends.
The girl in the Hepburn gown glances around, somberly tapping a gold bracelet watch looped over one gloved wrist. "Who are you waiting for?" asks a girl in pale-green chiffon, in Spanish. The Hepburn girl looks down and mumbles an unintelligible word or two. Her friend pats her on the arm and walks away.
A tour bus disgorges dozens of middle-aged sightseers in rumpled shorts and Birkenstocks. They wander into the lobby, looking frumpy and disheveled amidst the teen glamour.
The tour group clears out, revealing a young man, in black suit and bow tie, kneeling, head bowed, before the Hepburn girl. His head is shorn clean save a neatly combed center strip of longish hair running from forehead to nape. He embraces her and she begins to sob quietly. He leans over her, whispers in her ear. She pulls away, sniffles, plays with his lapels. He looks up, red-eyed. She takes off her gloves and unwraps his boutonniere, a single yellow rose, and hands it to him. He motions for her to put it on. He then slips her corsage -- a large yellow rose wrapped with a purple ribbon to match her gown -- over her wrist. She covers her face with her hands, rubs hard, stands up. Her head on his shoulder, they walk toward the ballroom.
WHEN THE DOORS OPEN AT 7, THE couples race in, staking out prime tables. Kindra and Breeann choose a spot right next to the dance floor. The music is already blasting, but it's the ambient, mushy kind -- "One look in your eyes . . . Holding you close through the night," etc. No one is even thinking about dancing until the officially scheduled dancing part of the evening begins, at 8:30 or so, after dinner.
Breeann says the song the students voted for overwhelmingly -- Prince's "1999" -- was shot down by the administration. "It's too much about parties, drinking, drugs," she says with a shrug. Instead, tonight's ã theme song is the Nat and Natalie Cole duet version of "Unforgettable."