The Prom King on Instagram, 10 Years After the Party

by Jess Kimball Leslie

in the jungle

When I was a junior in high school, I decided that I wanted to become popular. Fortuitously, my scientist parents were about to make the one wanton decision that they would ever make in their lives: leaving me home alone for a weekend, along with my little brother.

Normally ones to frown upon any vacation not spent in a tent, my parents made this special exception for Maine, a place where they could remain on their rigorous work schedule. They’d planned a quintessential rise-at-dawn, sleep-by-dusk experience: stilted breakfast conversations with strangers at inns, jaunts to folksy outlet stores, and long walks along punishing rocky coasts. Lost in their excitement, neither my mother or father seemed to realize that leaving an ungrateful teenager home alone with a car, a finished basement, and over $3,000.00 in personal savings was a formula for total disaster.

I was a barista at my town’s only coffee shop, hence my fortune. Every weekend from 7am to 1pm I served drinks and snacks alongside Leila Rodriguez, the most popular girl in our entire high school. To my complete surprise, Leila and I had become some version of friends: we had been bonded together by our new manager, Mean Carl, who one Saturday had made it abundantly clear that he did not understand Leila’s teenage-royalty status by sternly admonishing her for not saving the leftover cooked bacon.

“We can resell that meat tomorrow,” he said. I responded to the incident by stealthily carving my initials into every crispy strip of pig that I could find, which I told Leila was research for my phone call to the Department of Health. Leila decided that I was hilarious and invited me over for brunch. I toured her bedroom and hung out with her stepmother, who wore a track suit and drank glamorous pink wine to mark the passing of the morning. “It’s five o’clock somewhere!” Mrs. Rodriguez said to me, and I laughed wildly, like someone who’d just seen a monkey in a business suit fall down an entire flight of stairs.

Once the vacation weekend arrived and my parents were safely puttering toward L.L. Bean country, I headed to the coffee shop and told Leila about my exciting, supervision-free living situation. It took her approximately not even one minute to suggest that the two of us host a party on Saturday night. “We can make Jungle Juice!” she squealed, clapping. She immediately began calling a stream of high school seniors on her cell phone, a feat was absolutely amazing in 1999, when there were members of the CIA who did not have cell phones. Dimly I began to understand that popular kids had elaborate underground systems for procuring huge amounts of the beer and liquor that they considered to be human gasoline.

After the phone call Leila concluded that we would need $350 in order to buy the proper amount of ingredients for our Jungle Juice. “Justin said he’ll get everything for us, Justin is sooooo nice,” she told me. Justin was the collegiate older brother of our Prom King. As a thousand-aire, $350 was a trivial amount of money for me, so I ran down the street to the nearest ATM. Jungle Juice. By name it sounded like a collection of truly exotic ingredients, probably fruit juices indigenous to Hawaii, rare sweet alcohols, maybe little umbrellas floating in each glass. I was proud that I could provide my classmates with such tropical extravagance.

The next afternoon I picked my little brother up after school in my Mazda Miata, the car that James Dean did not drive in Rebel Without A Cause, and at long last revealed to him my evening plans. “Some of the most popular people in the world are coming over to our house tonight,” I said, managing to sound both breezy and foreboding, “So I’ll need you to sit upstairs by yourself all night long, and guard the phone in case Mom and Dad call.”

Once home I raced to my room, turned up some of my favorite Bette Midler music and began the work of selecting an outfit for the best night of my life. I put on my newest pair of sheer black pantyhose from the drugstore, a black miniskirt and some clunky black platform shoes. I finished the look off with a green tee shirt because Leila had sternly reminded me it was St. Patrick’s Day: an occasion as religious to the well-muscled, white-hatted social leaders of our teenage community as the “Saint” in its name implied.

I looked in the mirror and realized that my outfit was exactly what I would have worn for a chorus concert. Determined to rebel, I rolled up the skirt as far as it would go and ran downstairs, where Leila and her army were hauling gallon after gallon of Everclear, grain alcohol, and Stop ‘n Shop store-branded Hi-C concentrate into our basement, which was also my father’s office: a woodworker’s creative respite now-turned liquid laboratory, utilized for combining 60 gallons of off-label Kool Aid, ice and alcohol.

Before the mixture could chill, kids started making their way up the front lawn, a horde of Abercrombie locusts. The back porch became the smoking depot, my brother’s bedroom a quiet space for couples to form or break up, and anywhere a great location to leave a mostly empty beverage container. Two hundred of my newfound popular friends were carrying on, revelrous into the night; they were drinking to escape the hell of a good education, fresh air, and supportive parents who cheered through soccer games, and it was all because of me.

The only problem with my party, I realized, was its lack of ability to meet even my smallest of expectations: no crushes revealed themselves, no exchanges worthy of John Hughes were had, no one even really said hello, let alone thank you. Kids used my parents’ shit without asking, muddy footprints tracked in all directions, our pool table was an amateur stripper’s practice stage. Eventually I pushed my way into the corner “bar area,” hoping to sample some of the gluey, Jungle-themed beverage that two months of my part time employment had funded. At the front of the line I discovered Justin and several of his blockhead compatriots charging money for each cup. “Five bucks each!” Justin shouted to the crowd in front of him, shaking a jointed red plastic tube.

Justin was the type of kid who wore layers of sweatshirts: one foundational sweatshirt, and then another bigger sweatshirt on top of it, this one with the sleeves cut off. When he noticed me approaching he began to wildly wave his hands. “Yo! Yo! Yo!” he called out, clearly searching for a substitute for my name. Pointing at my face he eventually managed, “You get a drink for free!”

Disappointed, I took my cup upstairs to look for Leila. Instead I walked right into the Prom King, who was standing outside my parents’ bedroom. The moment felt as contextually logical as a Dali painting. “What up,” he said to me. I smiled back, hopeful. His face was stern. “Your little brother says he has to sit by the phone all night and can’t come downstairs? That’s messed up, man. He’s your brother.” I walked into my parents’ bedroom to see that the Prom King had passed a considerable amount of time with Robbie, playing numerous rounds of Tic Tac Toe.

It was just past ten o’clock when the police showed up. Due to the social nature of my after school job, I knew both uniformed officers by name and coffee preference. Defeated, I took a moment to roll down my miniskirt before the confrontation began in earnest. Then I started to cry.

My sentence was two hundred hours of community service, to be completed over the course of a year. The judge had lobbed me a softie punishment because I was an honor roll student and a first-time offender; my parents, bearing fresh farmer’s tans and granite facial expressions, probably seemed fully capable of punishing me enough themselves. To fulfill my civic duty every Tuesday and Thursday I played piano at the local Drama Club, where middle schoolers sang about love affairs they didn’t understand and started fights with each other about who was more talented. Leila eventually started dating Justin in an official capacity, quitting her job to in order to spend more time with him.

It was almost a month before Officer Antonio came into the coffee shop for his usual bagel and skim single latte. Sheepishly I muttered some form of apology to him, dreading every flicker of eye contact, but Officer Antonio did not seem to be too upset with me. “You’re a good kid!” he said, assuming me innocent, not knowing of the moral compromises I’d made in order to host my soiree, or the fact that I still didn’t entirely regret hosting it. “In a few months you’re never see any of those lousy drunks again!”

Officer Antonio was exactly right, until ten years later when he was exactly wrong. In 2010, every single one of my former classmates joined the new service known as Instagram.

After a decade of relative silence (we were too old to post anything of substance beyond the occasional belch of wedding photos on Facebook), Instagram was a communal rebirth. All of us together again, grown up and uncool, struggling with hashtags and filters and attempts to capture the glory of our sunsets in a single digital frame. The flawless blonde from the sacred lunch table drove a minivan; the kid who once stole a license-making machine from the DMV was now a Christian youth counselor.

Soon we were all using the application constantly, documenting our kids, pets, and home improvements. On the weekends we drank legally procured beer on our decks and admired the springtime blossoms of flowers. We zealously participated in newly-formed holidays such as “Throwback Thursday.” We took extreme close ups of onions and tomatoes stacked neatly on cutting boards, providing a very liminal sense of how we in particular “make chili,” despite the ritual remaining relatively unchanged since the dawn of the spice route.

One thing I know for certain is that we are all laughing as the world of Instagram reveals us. It is funny on the simplest level to see the Prom King take a picture of a salad. It’s funny that Justin still layers his sweats and hangs out with his same refrigerator-shaped friends, who’ve come to closely resemble the tuna that they so love to fish for on weekends. Leila lives close enough by that their families sometimes hang out — kids and spouses, all together. Though first we all went wild with the wisecracks, now it’s just life. We tap twice to “like,” to say “Hey, I thought of you: for a second I acknowledge that you exist.” The platitudes we were all incapable of exchanging in high school have been usurped by hearts for a costumed pet.

I was almost a child of the previous generation: those whose formative high school experiences warped into night watch memories full of plaid and nostalgia, held forever and deeply in the consciousness. Nowadays we’re able to realize how silly it was to deify certain members of our social scene. Everyone’s too busy taking pictures of hamburgers for previous exchanges to hold any power. We said nothing meaningful to each other during high school, and we judged each other to be different. Now we say nothing meaningful to each other again, on the internet, and we realize that we are all the same.

Previously: Memories of a Bette Midler Message Board Childhood

Jess Kimball Leslie is a trend spotter in New York. She is working on a collection of essays about the Internet called “Great Textpectations.” You can read her rants about media and technology here.

Photo via Kevin/Flickr