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Unforgettable

Photographs by Anne Fishbeintext by Sara Catania

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."

 

 

THE LADIES' BATHROOM IS CROWDED with girls doing last-minute makeup checks. One girl, in a form-fitting blue gown, glances over her shoulder and sighs as she tries to do away with a stubborn panty line. Another girl photographs her friends emerging from the stalls. "Did you guys get a room?" one girl asks, her eyes bugging. "Did you get a room for real?" Her friend just smiles.

DINNER IS SERVED BUFFET STYLE, AND A cafeteria smell settles over the ballroom. A white-jacketed bartender, who calls the boys "Sir" and the girls "Miss," dispenses Coke and Sprite in highball glasses. "Let's stay together," Al Green implores.

"Why are they playing the oldies for?" Breeann says with a pout. "This is making me think of my old boyfriend."

Two skinny girls in short, dark dresses and stiletto heels stroll down the hallway arm in arm. "You don't even know it," one says breezily. "I love you though."

THE DANCING BEGINS WITH "ZOOT SUIT Riot," a swing number. "Who's your daddy? Yes I am." It draws a decent crowd, bobbing and looping and approximating swinging -- but halfway through, the room is suddenly flooded with light, and the dancers scream, scattering like cockroaches. It takes about 30 seconds to get the lights off again, and no one seems eager to return to the floor. The DJ switches to a slow groove, and then goes full-throttle with a throbbing number whose lyrics seem to revolve around "pick, stick, lick, dick, suck, rock, roll, sugar."

A CROWD HAS FORMED OUTSIDE THE portrait room. Inside, two photographers are snapping away in identical setups. They were a little late -- their equipment trailer was totaled in a pileup on the 105 on the way from Anaheim, and they had to pry it open with a crowbar. The couples stand in front of cloudlike pastel backdrops next to miniature pillars topped with vases of yellow roses. At one station a stylist helps a girl move the clasp on her necklace to the back, then places the girl's black-satin-gloved hand gently on top of her boyfriend's wrist. At the other, a very pregnant girl in a yellow empire-waist gown smiles warmly at her date.

The pounding bass line of the current track, "Hocus Pocus," can be heard in the hallway, and several couples leave their places in line to rush in and dance. The floor is packed, but soon everyone is standing still, entranced by a girl in a black, fur-trimmed gown who is writhing and stomping maniacally, a strobe-lit dervish. Two boys strut around her waving fluorescent glowing wands.

A boy in a silver satin shirt and diamond-stud earrings begs a girl in a red dress to dance. He bends his knees, tilts his head to one side and puts on what must be his most charming cute-boy expression. She smiles, flashing a mouth full of braces, checks her makeup in a compact mirror, then shakes her head no and walks away.

 

IN THE LADIES' BATHROOM, TWO PAIRS of platform sandals face the toilet in a single stall, each pair connected to the distinct sound of violent retching. A concerned-looking chaperone holds a glass of water over the stall door. "Drink water, girls," she says. "Lots of water." Moments later the girls stagger out. One stands over a basin, splashing her face with water. The other sinks onto a padded seat in front of a mirror. Her head drops onto an outstretched arm, crushing the rose petals of her wrist corsage. Her eyes roll shut.

 

"WHERE ARE ALL MY SENIORS AT? WHERE are all my seniors at?" The DJ wants to know. The music turns to Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca," and the dancing crowd screams, a hundred hands rising into the air. Across the room, a barefoot girl in a gold-sequined gown lets out a piercing shriek and collapses to the ground. Her left foot starts to bleed -- she's stepped on the broken stem of a wine glass. Her boyfriend helps her to her feet, and she limps feebly. He picks her up in his arms and carries her a few steps, then puts her down. She hobbles the rest of the way to the bathroom, leaving streaks of blood on the carpet. In the ã bathroom, school chaperones descend, cleaning the wound and plastering it with bandages.

"Come on, swingin' seniors!" The DJ has changed course again, now pumping up the crowd with an ancient-oldies medley of "Rock Around the Clock," "Wake Up Little Susie," "You Ain't Nothing but a Hound Dog," "Shake, Rattle and Roll," "Jailhouse Rock" and "Tutti Frutti."

 

A few students wander toward a baby-grand piano in a corner of the long hallway outside the ballroom. A boy and girl start playing "Heart and Soul" and draw a crowd. Four students pile onto the piano bench, all banging away.

 

SHORTLY AFTER 11, THE PRINCIPAL TAKES the mike. It's time to announce the Royal Prom Court for 1999. There are five girl and three boy runners-up, all elected by their peers. They are all beautiful, and an integrationist's dream: African-American, Asian, white and Latino. Finally it's time for the big winners. The title of Prom King 1999 goes to Gerald Tejada, defensive tackle on the varsity football team. He gets a white sash. Prom Queen is the girl in the slinky silver dress, Sarah Parel. She gets a tiara and a rose bouquet. As the crowd cheers, a fellow student says, "Sarah is not a cheerleader. She's just a normal student. But she was voted most attractive."

There is time for a few more dances before midnight. Couples retreat to dark corner tables. Embraces get longer, slower, deeper. Many students head for the door. On the way out, they pick up their prom-night memento: a sturdy, small blue box. A boy opens his and finds nothing inside. "It's an empty box!" he says in disbelief. His date whacks him on the arm. "No, it isn't," she says, opening hers and tucking her prom-night program inside. "It's to put memories in."

 

These photographs are part of Anne Fishbein's ongoing study of teenage life.


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