The two-story house in the Palmdale subdivision looks like so many others. Green lawn out front, pool out back. Solid, comfortable, secure.
Inside, a teenager does her homework by candlelight whenever the power gets cut off. If the water goes too, she fills empty bottles at school to wash her hair.
Brie Fainblit just turned 19. She is used to not having what others have. Mostly she just accepts it.
But not for prom.
She wants to be Highland High’s prom queen. She wants to turn heads.
Brie lives with her mother, who is disabled, and her aunt, who works two part-time jobs to support them.
Often there is not enough money for food. There is never enough for new clothes. Usually Brie finds what she can at the local Goodwill, but the prom dresses there are too big and too froufrou.
So back in September, with the dance a distant dot on a calendar, she decided to make one of her own — out of soda-can tabs, for free.
Prom is Friday. The dress is not finished. The tabs, meanwhile, have taken their toll: Brie and her mother both have Band-Aid fingers.
At the house Brie’s mother, B.G. Watson, inherited from her mother, tin foil covers the windows to keep the hot sun out. Inside, the living-room ceiling soars, swallowing up the sparse furnishings.
The staircase leads to bedrooms barely used. To conserve energy, the three women sleep in the den. They don’t use the central air or heat. They turn off lights. They light candles. They watch movies — there is no cable — on the small TV that sits in front of the big broken one.
They can’t swim in the pool. The pump is broken too.
When the food runs out, mother and aunt collect bottles and cans. They try to go late at night so as not to humiliate Brie.
But collecting soda tabs is different. It’s become a community project.
For months, Brie’s aunt, Sylvia Davalos, has asked everyone at her jobs to help. She has put out jars at the 10th Street Wal-Mart, where she floats between departments, and at a local elementary school, where she works a few hours a day as a playground supervisor and instructional assistant.
Brie, her boyfriend and assorted friends and family have turned the dining-room table into an assembly line — threading together neon tabs from energy drinks and beers to make what they call “note to self” bracelets. They are thank-yous for donations, but also reminders to keep the tabs coming until the prom project’s done.
Who knew that tabs came in so many colors, shapes and sizes? That some had holes and some didn’t? That a lot had sharp edges that would need to be smoothed out with pliers? That they would all have to be soaked, swished around in sudsy water and then carefully dried to keep them from corroding or oxidizing?
Who knew that it would take many months to get enough perfectly shaped, identical silver tabs for one petite prom dress?
B.G. and Sylvia haven’t been able to buy Brie much. But they have tried to make up for that by emphasizing creativity over cash.
They always have board games to play, hand-me-down puzzles to piece together, ideas for artistic projects to do. At Christmas, though they can’t buy gifts, they make ornaments and miniature trees, fashioned out of silver tinsel and hangers. In the house, Christmas decorations stay up all year to keep things festive — even when they’re not.
Neighborhood kids come by day after day to be a part of their world.
“If we have rice and beans and that’s all, you better believe if a kid comes here hungry, he’s going to eat,” B.G. says. “We can’t tell the kids, ‘Oh, let’s go to the movies.’ … We can’t even afford gas for the car. So it’s always been crafts. It’s always been making, not buying.”
That’s how Brie learned to crochet. For her dress, using thick black thread, she meticulously stitches tab to tab in row after perfect row.
Brie’s mother says she is proud of this young woman and the choices she has made — in a way she often has not been proud of herself.
When it comes to men, B.G. knows she has never had good judgment. She left Brie’s father more than a dozen years ago, saying she was scared for her child’s safety.
Since then, the family has struggled.
B.G. has fibromyalgia and sciatica and no health insurance. Sometimes she can’t walk, it hurts so much. She can’t work.
“I just feel bad that I can’t give her the basic stuff,” B.G. says, and then starts to weep.
Brie’s mother and aunt say their one great choice was to put this resilient, beautiful girl first.
They are so thrilled to see Brie want to step into the spotlight. In the past, she has sometimes tried to hide.
Brie and James Lawrence — her first real boyfriend — met in drama class at school. He’s got a singing part in this year’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Brie’s the stage manager, makeup crew chief and PR officer.
James slipped right into the family craft circle when he and Brie started dating a year and a half ago. He has helped Brie with the dress every step of the way, with tab washing, drying, smoothing and sorting. Brie has made accessories: a soda-tab clutch and choker. They made a belt for James and are starting on his vest. If there’s time and they can find the perfect tabs, they’ll make him a soda-tab bow tie.
Money is tight in James’ family too. Like Brie, he doesn’t let it stop him. For months now, James has tutored a student in math, earning $10 an hour to pay for the prom tickets, which were $110 each. He paid the $20 fee for Brie to run for prom queen, though he decided not to run for prom king.
In October, when he and Brie could not afford tickets to homecoming, they got dressed up and posed for cellphone photos on Brie’s front lawn, and then held their own dinner-dance in the living room.
On Valentine’s Day, James went to each of Brie’s classes and serenaded her on his guitar. He wrote her a song about Swedish fish because she loves them.
On the wall of her bedroom is a card he made for her, “To The Love of My Life.”
Next year, they plan to go to Antelope Valley College together. But for now, they gaze together at the nearly finished dress hanging on a door — an armored slip, sleek, strong and stylish.
Other girls in Brie’s class will have gone to the mall to pick their dresses. Some will ride in limos from their homes to the school, where a bus will take them all to the prom.
Brie will have no special chariot, no pocket money to burn.
But she’ll be a proud Cinderella in soda tabs, with her soda-tab prince by her side.