The Feeling You Will Never Have Again

A photo grabs only a second—eclipsing the before, naïve to the after

I was looking for something else when I found the prom picture above. May 1980, a month before my high school graduation, a glossy 5x7 color print taken by my father on the flagstone walkway in front of the house (porch posts, azaleas, midcentury modern décor) where I'd lived since I was 2, the house my parents continued to occupy as I bounced from New Haven to Boston to D.C. to Portland and back, the house where my mother has lived for the past three years, alone.

Photographs always invite dramatic irony: We know things that the people in the picture—even if those people are ourselves—can't guess.

"What's that jacket thing you're wearing?" my daughter, 17, asked when I passed the photo around at dinner. That jacket-thing was a garment I'd sewn myself: white, tunnel-quilted, like a tea cozy with sleeves. It buttoned boxily over my Laura Ashley dress, the one we bought at Strawbridge's three days before prom because the one I'd made turned out to look too much like a nightgown.

In the picture, it's impossible to see my shoes, and I honestly don't remember them—whether I wobbled in too-high heels, whether they scrunched my toes. What I do recall is a long, fruitless effort to tame my hair and a not-quite-as-long interlude with turquoise eye shadow, a cake of blush and the bathroom's judgy light.

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"And what's that on his shirt?" my daughter asked, squinting. "That" was a swath of crenellated cotton, the portion of Adam's ruffled shirt visible between the lapels of his navy tux, under the loops of his knotted bowtie and above the cummerbund that trussed his skinny frame.

What we didn't know that night (well, sort of knew, in a "don't ask; don't tell" kind of conspiracy) was that Adam was gay. We didn't know that between prom and when I left for college, we would share one uninspired kiss and uncountable late-night phone calls. We didn't know that we would kiss one more time, with similar lack of fireworks, when I visited him two years later at the University of Chicago.

And we could not have inferred—not even in a "don't ask; don't tell" hush—that, three years further on, Adam would take me to my first gay bar, on New Year's Eve, in a sketchy part of Washington, D.C. That I would dance unselfconsciously, exuberantly, with Adam and with strangers, until 5 a.m. That I would shout repeatedly, over the covers of Tina Turner and Madonna, "Why am I so happy here?"

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Photographs compress time like a zip file; they pop open at a click—ah, now we can see, with hindsight of perfect acuity. But at the moment my father snapped the shutter, we could not glimpse what would happen immediately afterward: How, on the way to the University City Hilton, Walter Douglas would clip his dad's Peugeot on a concrete post in the parking garage. How, after the dance, six couples would repair to my house (porch posts, azaleas, midcentury modern décor) and slump over the sleek black couches until it was time for breakfast.

We did not imagine that sometime between the dented car and the pre-dawn pancakes, Adam and I would have a fight that ended in tears (mine) and silence (his) because he was acting so twitchy and withdrawn.

When I look at that photo now, even without squinting, I can see everything that roils beneath the surface, masked by our costumes (tea-cozy jacket, rented suit) and our pressed-lip smiles. I see a girl who hadn't yet learned to love her frizzled hair or embrace her unruly self. I see a boy twisted with the effort to act straight. I see two teenagers trying hard to keep themselves contained.

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When my daughter was 5, we spent three weeks in Zihuatanejo. On one of our last nights, as we three walked down a hill after sipping iced margaritas and the Mexican version of a Shirley Temple, she composed an extemporaneous poem that included the line "Blue is the feeling you will never have again." Twelve years later, her prom dress is that color, the hue of a star-stippled August sky, a shade of blue that always uncaps, in me, a yearning for the thing you cannot grasp.

A few weeks earlier, she announced at dinner that a boy in her grade had come out that day. "I was so glad! Then he prom-posed his boyfriend! In front of everyone! It was so cute. Want to see the video?" This, at the most diverse high school in the country, where students trace their roots to Albania and Pakistan, Ghana and India, Italy and South Philadelphia. Where two queer teachers, who are a couple, each had a baby and took turns with maternity leave.

My daughter has always been preternaturally self-aware: sturdy, fierce, a baby who rolled over at two weeks and trudged upstairs to the toddler room at daycare without a tearful glance behind. A girl who, at 5, paired Mardi Gras beads with a Colorado Rockies uniform. A young woman who is surrounded by a plethora of ways to be: her lesbian moms, her feminist aunts, her still-working grandmother, the gorgeous, imperfect polyglot swirl of her high school and her city.

I believe 90 percent of my daughter's self-knowledge and contentment is grounded deep in her DNA. But maybe we—not just my partner and I, but our peers and the ones who painfully paved our way—have managed to move the needle, generationally speaking, toward wholeness, clarity and joy.

In my daughter's prom pictures, she and her date do not appear to be containing anything. Her shoulders are bare, his shirtfront untroubled. She sparkles at the neck (her grandmother's rhinestones) and feet (blingy, strappy heels in just her size). We took photos outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art (colonnade, azaleas, cross-century décor)—stagy shots of her pretending to pin his boutonniere, cake-topper stills of the two smiling in the direction of our iPhones.

My favorite picture captures them in motion. Their bodies angle slightly, her palm on his chest, his hand on her hip. I see ease, I see intimacy, I see volition, I see delight. The photo grabs only a second (the feeling you will never have again)—eclipsing the before, naïve to the after. I stare and stare, trying to figure out whether my daughter and her date are playfully nudging each other apart or drawing close, whether they are breaching the camera's frame or simply leaning out, toward whatever is coming next.