My junior year of high school I was determined to have a date to the winter cotillion. It was a dance held every December that anyone freshmen through seniors were allowed to attend, unlike the proms. Freshmen year they had run out of tickets while I was waiting on line to buy one. Sophomore year I had gone with a group of friends because the guy I liked was stuck home with mono, so I spent part of my night calling him from a payphone (yes a payphone!) to cheer him up about being home sick.

But junior year was going to be different, I had decided. The problem was that I didn’t have a boyfriend and I didn’t have a crush on anyone. Every teen movie I had ever watched made it seem like the big school dance was only good if you got to go as half of a couple. Best if you could go or at least end up with the guy for whom you’d fallen madly. But the other half COULD also be a friend like Duckie for Andie in Pretty in Pink. Basically like most red-blooded teenagers, I irrationally wanted life to feel a little bit like a movie.

Hanging out after school one day with some friends I whined about how I really wanted to go and how pathetic I felt knowing that no one would probably ask me. One of my friends, we’ll call him John, spoke up. “I kind of want to go too, we can go together if you want.”

“As a friend thing?” I asked, not wanting to give the wrong impression. He shrugged.
“Yeah, I’ll pay for my ticket and you pay for yours and we’ll go.”

“OK!” I excitedly agreed.

The night of the cotillion arrived and John picked me up, as well as two other friends, and we all walked into our normally gross, sweaty gym decorated with snowflakes and streamers. We congregated at a table where other friends had tossed their jackets and bags, and then we made a beeline for the dance floor.

John took my hand and immediately pulled me very close to him and started dancing so that there was barely a centimeter of space between us. I pulled back trying to reclaim some of my personal space and spent four songs straight being uncomfortably paraded around the dance floor, until I finally lied and said I needed to get something to drink.

Back at the table, I chugged a glass of water and tried to figure out how to politely say that I wanted to dance with all my friends, not just with him and to loosen his grip. At a loss of how to do that, I instead slipped back to the dance floor while he went to the bathroom and joined in with a bunch of my girlfriends dancing in a big circle. But a few minutes later, an arm encircled my waist and I was yanked back far too closely to him as he pulled me in again to dance with only him. I pushed away to extricate myself and said, “Hey let’s dance with everybody, OK?” He looked miffed, stood by for a second and then stomped away.

“What’s his problem?” My friend asked. “It’s not like you’re here as boyfriend-girlfriend.” I shook my head, unable to answer, but realizing this whole having a date to the dance thing was not living up to my fantasy. I went back to the table after the song was over to try and smooth things over only to hear that my date had angrily grabbed his jacket and left.

OK, in the movies? This is when some other guy swoops in and tells you that he’s glad your date is gone and he’s been waiting all night to ask you to dance. In real life? You figure out a few things about yourself, mainly that you don’t need anyone else to do any swooping, because you’re your own heroine.

The shock of him leaving made me feel ashamed and embarrassed for a fleeting instant, but then I realized how silly it all had been to think going to a dance with a date automatically meant you would have an amazing time. It also occurred to me that going as friends in my mind meant I had every right to split my time dancing with him and dancing with the girls. He felt that he was entitled to all of my attention, and he was wrong to think that, just as I was wrong to try to equate real life with a movie sequence.

I’m glad it happened because it taught me that I didn’t need a guy’s presence beside me in order to have a good time at a school function or anywhere else, I simply needed to decide I was GOING to have a good time no matter what, that’s all. I was always in control of that outcome, no one else, but it took getting ditched by my date to fully see it.

And in the end? Most of the time, the best “date” you can ever have, no matter where you might be, is hanging with friends who have mutually decided that they want to have a great night, too.

(Image via Universal Pictures)