My Mama's Prom

I arrange myself and Lainie on my mother's sofa and find a diaper in her pack, to dab her mouth with. My mother, sitting opposite me in the wooden rocker she'd bought when Lainie was born, picks up the remote and clicks off her favorite quiz show with a measure of regret and attempts not to frown as I unbutton my blouse.

Lainie has two bottom teeth breaking through at the same time and has been fussy, teething biscuits or no. I've driven over looking forward to her feeding and nap, and wondering what we'd argue about today. It was lonely at home.

"I used to give you zweiback toast," mother remembers again. "Sometimes I'd make my own, pain grillée. Zweiback means 'twice-baked' in German. Ah, you made a terrible mess of it."

"I give her St. Amour's," I counter. "They're French, too. No preservatives, low cholesterol, low salt, low dairy, low yeast. And Certified Kosher. They don't fall apart as readily."

"He was Jewish?" my mother asks, concerning Alan, my husband of nearly a year. An apparent balloon delivery boy had served him with divorce papers the previous week, a month after he moved back into his mother's house.

"Oh, no, of course not," I say, laughing. He wasn't anything. "But there are advantages to kosher foods. I love Hebrew National hot dogs. And Nathan's."

"Nathan's," she repeats, a dreamy happiness creeping into her faded blue eyes as she pauses her rocking, leans back, staring through me and remembering. "Oh, your father loved them. And those egg creams and Italian ices for sale through tiny windows on the grand avenues of Manhattan."

I take advantage of her nostalgia. "Tell me about meeting Daddy. Tell me again."

"Oh, Grace." She puts down the cheap cotton dish towel she's been stitching a rose pattern into, in red and green. Delighted and relieved, I sprawl in comfort, patting Lainie's back.

"I went to high school in Canarsie," she says. "I took the bus from 56th Street and Avenue V. I knew lots of boys, but they were friends, you know. There was such a thing as being a nice girl then. Oh, I went out sometimes, to a basketball game or a movie, but--anyway, I was a junior, and I liked a boy named Vince Anello. He was Italian and he always brought me to his parents' house for dinner on Sundays. The food was so good! And so much of it, and a dozen people around the table, jabbering in Italian. I just ate and ate. The old man made wine in the basement. Barrels of it--"

I hold my breath, but she doesn't say that her father was at home as always on Sundays, drunk, and that her siblings had all left the house. Lainie is still hungry, so I switch breasts and nuzzle her, whispering, "Piggy."

I prompt my mother. "And Daddy . . ."

"Yes, Daddy. Well, we were having our junior-senior prom, and it was a big deal, let me tell you. We didn't have fancy hotels and limousines in those days, Grace, and a girl wore a gown, not some little nothing like you wore, hardly a place to pin a flower."

I'd worn a gorgeous black and fuschia mini-gown with criss-crossed spaghetti straps in back, low-cut in front. I'd always yearned for cleavage, but I was so skinny. I looked down and bounced Lainie a little. Pregnancy had been wonderfully busty. Alan had been worth something after all.

"So they put up signs, asking everyone to come help decorate the gymnasium. Which was not an easy job, because we hadn't decided on a theme. Of course, only girls showed up, and we started hanging big shiny stars and those paper bells that open like accordions. And this boy walks in."

"This handsome boy," I say, smiling, dabbing Lainie's face and standing to hand mother the diaper. She puts down her sewing, drapes her shoulder with the diaper, and opens her arms wide to take my daughter. As always, I hesitate before surrendering her to her grandmother.

She pats my baby's back and begins rocking. "Handsome? Oh, a little maybe, un peu. Well, we don't even see him, a girl named . . ."

She frowns. "Karen," I hint.

"Karen, I remember her like I'm looking at her. Her family has money, you know, richesse, and she has bought a lovely gown, midnight blue if you can believe, a Basque waist for such a slender girl, and even long gloves! We are . . . are . . . oh, etonnée--what is shock?"

"Surprised?" I try. "Amazed?"

"We are amazed. And this boy's voice, from nowhere, says, 'So what do I do?'"

I laugh, I always do. "And so much for Karen," I say gleefully.

Mother laughs too, and is so young! She giggles. "Yes, so much. She looks at Frank; we all do, just staring. For what is he here, this boy, to decorate for the prom? Can you imagine? Finally, my friend Lucille, Lucy she is called, says, 'We need a boy to blow up the balloons. Can you do that?'"

"And he can!"

She nods. I gaze as her hair grows longer, darker, glossy again; she is skinny as a colt, as me, in her worn schoolgirl skirt, a simple white blouse with roses stitched into the collar, red and green, and I imagine I can make out a faint trace of pink lipstick that she'd never admit to. But it is her eyes that hold me; they are dark, they are big as Bambi's.

"First," she says to me, and I am Frank, "first hold the ladder while we hang these . . . these étoiles, these . . ."

"Stars and bells," Frank says, as Lainie burps. "I'd be happy to. And what might your name be?"

"Stars! I mean, Gabrielle. Yes, thank you."

"Okay, last star. Got the ladder, Gaby."

"Thank you." She blushes, and averts those incredible eyes.

She climbs the ladder and I remember Daddy and want to shout, "Mom! He's just looking up your skirt!" But I don't; I know he takes her to the dance and Mrs. Anello makes her a dress, a lovely violet ballroom gown with a tiny top and a long full skirt that cuts her body in half and she is gorgeous. I remember the slow, seductive tempo of the last dance; I am holding her breath. And she has kissed Vince, but that doesn't count; Frank is the first boy and last man to truly kiss her, and oh I miss him; how much must she?

She calls out to him, grinning up at her at the base of the ladder, "We need a theme for this bal, this prom. Do you have an idea?"

"Hold it at a country club in the Hamptons," I say with delight.

She is hopelessly etonnée.

"And call it The Golf Ball!" I shout, and fall, with her, into helpless laughter. Choking, I rise and retrieve my child and lie her in the little portable plastic baby bed.

When I turn, my mother, a graying widow, is wiping away her tears and reaching for the remote.

About the author:

Bob Arter lives and writes amongst the cacti and bougainvillea of Southern California. His work has appeared in Zoetrope All-Story Extra, The Absinthe Literary Review, Lit Pot & Ink Pot, Gator Springs Gazette, The God Particle, Painted Moon Review, and Opium. A piece in Night Train is yet to come.