Mary Grace Garis
Updated May 23, 2016 @ 7:58 am
Credit: Paramount Pictures

I was triggered again the last time I watched Pretty In Pink. The moment Andie comes out in that polka dot monstrosity, declaring she was going to prom in spite of Blane ditching her, it all came back. I could see my scrawny 17-year-old self on the floor of a banquet hall, all melted Nancy Spungen curls and a frothy Jovani dress with a black sequin bodice and white tulle, heartbroken because my teen love wasn’t coming. It was an image that broke my heart time and time again, yet this time I had to hold back a snicker… somehow, I had gotten over my Prom Complex, although it was a hell of a journey.

In spite of all my alt girl leanings, I spent my adolescence dreaming of prom night, and 17-year-old Mary Grace wasn’t going to let anything stop me from attending junior prom… even in the shadow of a break up. I probably should’ve expected disaster from the start, because to be perfectly fair, my ex-boyfriend made it very clear that he didn’t want to go. I took his initial agreement to attend and ran with it. After all, we were “broken up” in the adorable way where you keep hooking up with each other and spouting gooey sentiments for several, several years. Naturally, every time Teen Mary Grace heard him try to back out she would beg him to calm down, reasoning to herself that if he was saying he loved her, he would follow through. The delusion was as adorable as it is sad.

It finally came to head on the night of prom when he alerted me he was not going with me. Instead, my Canadian-born ex-beau decided that today was the day he was going to apply for US citizenship. Also, go to hell, Teen Mary Grace.

My first instinct was to, you know, low-key curl up in bed and die. But after lightly begging my friend Melissa (my ersatz Duckie who had zero designs on attending this thing) I decided I needed to show up and save face. So we went, and the night was predictably awful, from the rain that battered down on us to the mediocre chicken marsala to, I don’t know, the hoards of upper-middle class white kids grinding to “Get Low.” During the night I had Melissa take that infamous image of me on the floor, and while my face didn’t betray any sadness, the expression had me looking decidedly lost. I went home feeling dejected by the whole experience, and sometime around 2a.m. my ex called me, mildly repentant, asking how it all went. Uh, how do you think it went? Cue waterfall of tears here.

Mary Grace Garis
Mary Grace Garis

I wish I could say that the following year I went to senior prom with a dashing new boy, that there are several wholesome photos of us in that awkward arms-over-stomach pregnancy pose. Short summary: no. Instead senior year I hosted a faux prom at my friend Jamie’s house, in which I downed a bunch of Jello shots and “won” prom queen. It became the first of many melodramatic efforts to satiate my Prom Complex.

See, every year following the disastrous junior prom something would trigger that complex and break my heart all over again. I remember bursting into tears watching my brother’s senior prom photo shoot, feeling like a part of me was missing. Then came the day I consigned my Jovani dress at a Philadelphia vintage shop for a mere $30, a fraction of the ridiculous $310 price. I didn’t even care; I just needed it to stop mocking me from my closet, making me feel like a millennial Miss Havisham. And so it went on… May and June would roll around and I would feel like I was back on the floor again.

So how was it that in the midst of peak prom season again, as I watched Molly Ringwald put on a brave face and a regrettable frock as I did years before, I was finally snickering?

“Time heals all” would be a trite lesson to apply to all of this, as would “it’s normal to stay hung up on things until life gets good in your mid-20s.” Maybe in that moment, though, I was finally able to process the heavy weight pop culture and society places on prom, and realize that I was being nostalgic for a time in my life that didn’t even matter.


Yes, Virginia, it totally sucked having my prom date abandon me, it sucked not going to prom the following year, the entire rite of passage was soured for me. At the end of the day, though, what is prom if not a culmination, a celebration of high school, a place that I pretty much hated (see: alt girl leanings). By the time I watched Pretty In Pink that night, that memory was almost a decade old, and I had worn many more beautiful dresses, had my heart broken by plenty of other boys in a variety of grand ways. I was living in the city I loved, surrounded by people who adored me, and writing about the film for the most recent of many writing assignments. Seriously, I grew up to be someone who writes about John Hughes films for a living, nothing’s cooler than that.

And my high school boyfriend? He did eventually end up going to prom… years later with a new high school girlfriend. But I hope he’s well.

If I were to get on the floor with that 17-year-old today, I would pet her melted Nancy Spungen curls and tell not to get so hung up on the significance of one day. That even though she probably shouldn’t have been so persistent, it was strong of her to go to prom, but also don’t think for a second that this moment will hold a candle to all the adventures that lied ahead. I would tell her to dry her tears and cheer up, kid.

You’re going to let them know they didn’t break you.