Old enough to be their mother / by Beth Nakamura

It looks a little like midnight, aside from the flashing lights randomly illuminating the sea of faces on the dance floor, which is crowded, and sweaty, though no one seems to notice or care. The music is so loud I can feel each beat thumping through my body all the way up to my ears, which are ringing. I take in the music, but it's like overhearing a conversation in a foreign language. I recognize a phrase here or there but, for the most part, the words are a cascade of incomprehensible syllables.

It's midway through prom night, and I'm here making pictures. I'm a 51-year-old woman, old enough, and then some, to be their mother. But here I stand, so close I can smell their sweat, feel their sparks, their hesitations; I witness their whispers, their kisses and yes, their grinding. Up close like this -- and I confess here with some hesitation -- I'm captivated. I photograph like it's my first time, or their first time, or something like that. I didn't have much of a vision for what things would look like for me at midlife, but I'll say this much: I wouldn't have figured this scene in the mix.

The names of these evenings all have a similar ring: "The Great Gatsby," "A Night in Paris," and "A Sweet Affair." The themes evoke epic visions of quasi-adult-like proportion and fantasy, and can all be similarly, loosely translated: Anywhere But Here.

Yet here they are, dipping their feet in a small pool containing the allure of something bigger awaiting. Metal Eiffel Towers the size of Christmas trees are covered in a tangle of miniature lights; champagne flutes half-filled with Hawaiian Punch litter the tables. And young women appear to float through the venue wearing long, diaphanous dresses in colors the range of a rainbow and beyond.

 Kept at bay for a few short hours are their GPAs, their college essays, their public stumbles and private worries. It's as though F. Scott Fitzgerald himself might swoop down at any moment and lift them away to some 1920s Parisian jazz club.

Except that he won't.

And I'm guessing by the looks of it they wouldn't go anyway. Because here, it turns out, is Where It's At.

All proms, I've learned, share a similar rhythm. Give them an hour or so, and things begin to heat up.

Once perfect rose buds nestled in wrist corsages become clumps of petals strewn on the dance floor, caught in the small spaces between their jostling bodies. A pair -- or 10 -- of glistening stilettos are tossed aside like yesterday's news, or a fistful of daisies. Or childhood.

Spend a handful of evenings like this and I can't help feeling something like affection for these young men and women, though our communication is largely unspoken. I silently pick my favorites, the ones I empathize with or recognize somehow in this sparkly, short-lived glimpse into their lives.

I'd never do this, but I sometimes get the urge to whisper to a small handful of them, "Don't sweat this. You're gonna leave it all in the dust and, with any luck, you won't even remember most of it. And you're going to be amazing."