“Prom Night 1944” is the first in a series of exclusive, original essays by Marilyn Sachs, the author of more than forty books for children and young adults. Credited with helping launch the trend of realistic fiction for young readers with her first book, 1964's Amy Moves In, Marilyn is considered a literary treasure. Born in New York City in 1927, she grew up in an apartment on Jennings Street in the east Bronx, and her own childhood provides the framework for many of her stories. When she came to Red Room to let us know she was working on her memoirs, we jumped at the chance to work with her and publish them here first. These essays recall a time and place far removed from our own; however, the emotions Marilyn evokes are timeless.
Marilyn says, "I look forward to sharing some memories with my fellow writers and readers. Please let me hear from you even if you want to disagree. And thank you to the staff at Red Room for their encouragement, help and advice."
I went to my senior prom in 1944 at Morris High School in the Bronx, New York City. Since it was during the war, the prom was supposed to be low key. The gymnasium was decorated with crepe paper streamers, balloons, and candles. Most of us were seventeen or younger, and not used to more glamorous places; to us it looked magnificent.
The chaperones - several good-natured teachers - manned the record player, and exchanged pleasantries with the attendees, all of whom would no longer be their responsibilities after graduation in a few weeks.
My date was a boy I had known since second grade. He was one of my dearest friends. We skated all over the Bronx - not with roller blades, but with four wheel skates that you secured to your shoes with a key that generally hung around your neck.
Nobody was expected to wear gowns or tuxes. For the girls - pretty dresses. For the boys, jackets, pants and a tie, hopefully in synchronizing colors if possible.
I thought the prom was a smash! My date picked me up, and presented me with a corsage of flowers which I wore on one side of my dress, but aside from that, neither of us had to pay anything. The gymnasium was free. The dancing was free, and the few refreshments, which as I remember, consisted of punch, chips and pretzels, were also free.
Most of us knew each other, and laughed, and talked and danced-mostly the Lindy Hop. A few girls came with soldiers. It was impressive to come with a soldier but not as much fun since the soldier didn't know any of the high school kids, and generally had a patient, kindly look on his face.
After the prom ended, my date and I, along with another couple, went to the movies, probably the Loew's Paradise on the Grand Concourse where artificial stars twinkled in a dark, artificial sky on the ceiling. When the movie ended, we went downtown for strawberry shortcake at Toffenetti's restaurant.
Finally, it was time to go home, so my date-we'll call him Jerry-and I boarded the I.R.T. up to the Bronx. We spent the whole time laughing, and gossiping about all the people we'd seen at the prom.
When the train emerged from the underground into the outside, it was light, and we gasped out loud. The grownups on the train probably returning from night jobs, laughed.
Jerry walked me home, and before saying goodnight, he nervously took a handkerchief out of his pocket and said, "I hope I get to use this tonight."
I stared at him, astonished. Jerry was my friend, maybe even my best friend. And now, suddenly, he was asking to kiss me.
"Jerry," I said. "We're not ..."
"I know, I know," he said, putting away his handkerchief, "But I just thought this was such a special night."
"Yes," I agreed, "this was a special night, but we're friends, not ..."
"Look," he said, "forget it. Maybe I've been seeing too many movies."
I took his hand. "Jerry, I said, "I hope we'll always be friends."
"Yes," he agreed, and started talking about getting together during the week, and maybe going back to Morris High School to say good-bye to our favorite teachers.
The story of Jerry doesn't end with the prom. We continued seeing each other even after I moved to Brooklyn. To me, he was always a special friend but his feelings for me had changed. I knew it, but we always had so much fun together, I couldn't let him go. Finally, when I told him I was planning to marry some guy I had never told him about, he said, "But I thought ... we're so young ... I thought you and I would get married when we were older. You're breaking my heart."
I felt so guilty, so selfish, there was only one thing could do, and I did it.
By that time, I was going to Hunter College in New York City, and Jerry was at City College. A very pretty girl sat next to me in my Economics class. We'll call her Joanne. She was dark haired, dark eyed, and had beautiful cheekbones - I was always a great admirer of cheekbones. As we talked, and got to know one another, I realized she might be perfect for Jerry. She had no boyfriend, and her values were like his - family, friends and a husband who was kind and honest.
We double-dated - my intended, myself, Jerry and Joanne.
"He's great," she told me next time we met in Economics.
They were married, had three children, Jerry became a principal of an elementary school, and gradually, our friendship petered out.
But guilt remains, probably for all of us. In my case, Jerry is one of those I still feel guilty about. In the movie When Harry Met Sally..., Harry (Billy Crystal) says that it's impossible for a man and a woman to ever be just friends. I guess he's right.