Essay by J. W. Young
My nemesis wears crystal high-heels and fake eyelashes, smears Vaseline on
her teeth to hold that smile. She lives next door to me and her pageant gowns
hang all over her house. Just back from the dry-cleaner, they look like frilly
Easter eggs behind cellophane. Trophies line the mantel. Blue ribbons hang
from the vanity, the dresser, the curtains. She’s four feet tall and nine years old.
I’m in my front yard tilling the flower beds and Pageant Queen is walking the
length of her driveway in pink ankle socks and purple heels. Her Sponge Bob
T-shirt is a striking contrast to her bouffant blonde hair. I wave and she smiles
and waves back—elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist, wrist.
“Don’t wave now,” her father’s gruff voice echoes from their garage.
Pageant Queen says something and he peeks around. “Oh,” he says, “hi. We’re
just practicing for this weekend’s competition.” He makes it sound like a
I try to ignore the commands he’s giving her as she strides back and forth,
tiny hand on her right hip, the other up in the air—ready to waltz. “A little
higher with the hand. Hold form. Remember count to ten when you make the
turn, good. Good, good. Okay back again, this time try the gold shoes.” She
changes into strappy heels and the process begins again. This time, though, she
does something wrong and her dad yells, “You’re not getting any new dresses
until you nail this routine! This is regionals, dammit, not some schoolhouse
When I was nine Grandma tried to get me to act like a lady. She gave me
walking lessons insisting, “You’ve got to walk like the waves in the ocean.”
When I thought of the ocean I thought about slapping salt-water, and grit in my
bathing suit. How this was supposed to help me walk like a lady I had no idea.
And what did I care about the ocean? I was growing up in the Southern
California desert, fifty miles from the nearest creek. The ocean was a place we
visited once or twice a year, and surely the people who lived there weren’t
concerned about how I walked. Walking like a tumbleweed, that might have
made sense to me since those were everywhere. My cousin, Heather, on the
other hand, grasped the concept of walking like water quite well. By the time she
was ten, she could out-sashay Grandma up and down the block. Her hips
flounced and jabbed like Jean Harlowe’s.
Jealousy was not the word. More like misunderstanding. I didn’t
understand the scene I came across in the bathroom one weekend afternoon
when Heather came to visit. She stood before the mirror holding her hands at her
sternum like an Opera diva, pulsing them in rhythm to Grandma’s sage wisdom:
“We must, we must, we must develop a bust. For fear, for fear, it’ll wind up in
our rear.” She tried to get me to do it too, but I laughed. Who gave a flip about
boobs? Only junior high girls with babies had boobs. And I didn’t want a baby.
As a teenager, I rarely washed my face before bed. I hardly wore makeup.
I didn’t dye my hair until I saw the first signs of gray when I was twenty.
Heather, though, frosted her hair at eight, wore makeup that put Tammy Faye to
shame, and practiced poses that would accentuate her developing breasts. I read
books, she read Vogue. I knew how to use a computer, she knew how to hang
Now that I’m approaching thirty, I’ve started a beauty regime. I’ve bought a
night cream and mineral makeup. I floss. I practice good posture when I can
remember to do it. But these things didn’t prepare me for being in the presence
of the Pageant Queen next door.
The first time we met her, my husband and I were still unpacking boxes. She
threw open our front door with a flourish and said, “I want to play with your cats.”
She wore pink shorts and an orange halter, fake eyelashes, and more bobby pins
in her hair than I’d seen since high school prom. Her entrance had frightened our
pets out of the windows and they went scurrying under the furniture.
“We don’t let the cats outside,” I said, hurrying to close the door behind her.
She bounced on our couch, ran through the living room when she saw our
kitten ZuZu, and chased her into our bedroom.
“Who’s that?” Adam said.
“Next door kid, I think,” I said. I peered out the windows to the neighbor’s
lawn and caught a glimpse of Pageant Queen’s mother coming toward our house.
I went out onto the porch and the first thing she said was, “I told her y’all were
busy. Is she in there?”
I nodded and she introduced herself. “We’ve just come back from a show.
She’s in pageants. This one was just a rinky-dink local. She’s got state in the
“Oh, okay,” I said, not knowing exactly how to reply. This woman made no
movement toward the door, didn’t ask if she could come in. I thought to myself,
I could have severed heads in my freezer.
“You got kids?” she asked.
She looked me over as if to say You better hurry. You look old enough
to have them. “Well,” she said, “just send her over when you’re done.”
I went back into the house in time to see Pageant Queen trying to climb
onto our counter tops. Adam was standing in the middle of the kitchen saying,
“Maybe you should get down.”
“Your mom wants you,” I said.
“You got kids?” Pageant Queen asked, skipping toward me and peeking
into the other bedrooms.
“No,” I said, pushing her out the door by her shellacked hair.
“Are you sure?” She narrowed her eyes.
I closed the door and said to Adam, “We move to the damn suburbs and
have to keep our front door locked even when we’re home.”
That night I couldn’t sleep. I sat up thinking about Pageant Queen. She
hadn’t believed me about kids. What did she know about it? And why did a
life-like Barbie intimidate me? When I was a kid I flushed Barbies down the
When I was in college Mom thought I was a lesbian. The rumor in the
family got so bad that one day my sister, Deidre, called and said, “So are you gay
or what?” Never mind that I’d stolen her boyfriend in twelfth grade or that I
currently had a boyfriend. Since I wasn’t married, like she already was, or
pregnant, like she’d already been, I was suspect.
“I’m not gay,” I said, the word sounding strange in my mouth. I’d been to
sensitivity workshops in my dorm and we were encouraged to use the word
homosexual, not gay, but I knew if I used the latter Deidre would instantly
assume she was right.
“What’s your problem then? Why haven’t you gotten married?”
My voice rose. “I’m in college. I’m not even going to graduate on time. I
couldn’t handle marriage.”
Because I was the first person in my family to pursue higher education, to
get more than twenty miles away from where I was raised, no one understood
what I was doing on campus, exactly. Being an English major just complicated
things because to my family that meant I was going to run a kindergarten.
Grandma would often call and leave messages on my machine that said, “If
you’re just going to be a teacher, why haven’t you found a man? Then you could
move back home.”
When I finally did find a man—a man I thought I wanted, thought I
needed—I went after him with my entire arsenal. I scrubbed his bathtub, did his
laundry, and cooked all the meals. I wore makeup, bought clothes that matched,
dyed my hair blonde-blonde. I walked like the waves in the ocean and did
breast push-ups in my sleep. And he cheated anyway. More than once I heard
from someone in my family, “What did you do?” Their belief that I was a
lesbian became even stronger.
I had to deal with the same label when I moved to Mississippi to attend
graduate school. Because the only other girl in my writing program and I
shopped, ate, and studied together everyone thought we were a couple. Of
course, it didn’t help that we were both from out West, and we’d both cut our
hair so short we nearly looked like men. At a faculty party I had three
professors and two writers ask me about my “girlfriend.” When I finally blurted
out, “I’m not a lesbian!” the wives grabbed their husbands’ arms. If I wasn’t
homosexual, I was a threat.
It was then I noticed what Grandma would have called lady-like behavior
among the locals. The undergraduate girls wore make-up so thick you could see
the cracks if they weren’t smiling. They drove dowry-worthy SUVs. I tried to
be like them—blowing out my hair, attempting eyeliner, even buying a deodorant
guaranteed to keep me “pageant dry”—but in the end, like the Wicked Witch of
the West, I melted in the Southern humidity.
When I garden I wear men’s size 46 overalls. They’re big and baggy and
don’t stick to me in the humid weather. I tie my curly hair up with a bandana and
put on a baseball cap. Pageant Queen’s mother gardens in shorts and a tank top.
Pageant Queen is usually outside with her in the same get-up. I catch them
staring at me in my billowing costume and I scurry into the garage, embarrassed.
When I was a child I used to wear caps all the time. I’d pull my long hair up
under them and then pretend I was a boy. I rode my BMX down to the
neighbor’s house and jumped ramps like the guys. Once, I popped my front tire
and thought I’d impress my father, who was always saying I should’ve been born
a boy. Instead of being impressed, though, he grounded me and made me work
off the price of a new tire by washing his car. He bought me most of my caps
and any time we went somewhere—Kmart, gas station, public pool—he’d say,
“Where’s your cap?” We wouldn’t leave until I put it on.
Grandma used to throw my baseball hats away. One weekend she made a
surprise visit to our house and I ran to my room and hid my hats under the bed. I
brushed out my hair, hair that had been stuffed under a hat for several days, and
hoped she wouldn’t notice. The first thing my father said was, “Where’d your
hat go?” and Grandma narrowed her eyes at me. Later, when I moved in with
her, she found the hats stuffed into my suitcase. She spanked me and tossed them
into the garbage. “You want to be a boy?” she said. “Is that what you want? I’d
kill you first.”
Pageant Queen has a birthday just after we move in. There are fourteen little
blonde girls running and squealing in the front yard, all in bright bathing suits. I
was never popular enough to have a party as a kid. My birthday was in the
summer when most families were on vacation. The one time Grandma decided I
should have one, to celebrate my eleventh birthday, she forced me to make a list
of people to invite. “These are all boys,” she said.
“They’re my friends. Michelle’s on there.”
“That gal’s so tall she’s almost a boy. Where are all your girl friends?”
I shrugged. I didn’t have any. I didn’t understand the world of training bras
and squatting over toilets. I practiced peeing standing up. When girls at school
squealed at boys and held their hands over their mouths while they giggled, I
scoffed. My closest friends were the boys playing basketball and tetherball. I
could spit and cuss with the best of them. Consequently I didn’t have many
boyfriends. I never could figure out why the boys always talked to me about the
other girls, girls they like-liked. The one time I had a date in junior high I was so
nervous about putting on eyeliner for the first time I didn’t have time to dry my
hair. When my friend finally arrived with his dad to pick me up, he put his hand
on my shoulder and pulled it back, repulsed. “You’re a wetback,” he laughed.
I punched him in the stomach.
On Pageant Queen’s birthday she knocks on our door with her group of
friends and asks, “Can you come play in the Slip ’n’ Slide?” She’s wearing a
gold plastic tiara and a yellow bathing suit with flapper-like fringe. Her eyelids
are big blue arches of shadow. I’m startled by this look until I notice that all of
the little girls are dolled up in some way—too much mascara here, big red circles
of blush there.
“Not today,” I say. “Sorry.”
“Well, then. Can we play with your cats?”
“We’re getting ready to leave,” I lie.
“Where you goin’?”
“Oh, can I come?”
“Isn’t this your party?”
“Yeah, but I can leave.”
The other little girls roll their eyes as if to tell me Hello, it’s the Pageant
Queen’s party she can do what she wants. Her mother makes her way over to
our lawn and tells them all, “Cake’s on the table, girls!” She looks at me. “Sorry
they’re bothering you.”
“It’s no bother.”
“You wanna have some cake?”
“No thanks,” I say, “I’m allergic to sugar, and spice, and everything nice.”
She laughs nervously and walks back to her own yard. There are no boys
at the party.
I’ll never win any beauty contests. I’m too old, too fat. I can’t walk in heels
and I haven’t worn a bathing suit in over a year. My talent is in a pen, not on a
stage. I come to know these things not as I should, by sharing a cozy cup of
coffee with a therapist, nor because of age and adulthood. I know them from
watching Pageant Queen. I mentally tick off the things I won’t do as I watch her
do them—perfect the use of lip-liner, know the difference between sandal-foot
and reinforced-toe pantyhose, swallow that pride on stage when coming in
second runner up at state regionals.
One afternoon her mother calls me over to their garage, saying, “She’s got
the routine down cold, now we need to practice Talent. Would you mind
watching and telling us what you think?”
I stand in their drive while Pageant Queen sings into a karaoke microphone.
She misses every other word, it seems, as her mother mouths them all. I’ve never
heard the song before and by the time she’s done I still don’t know it. Her
mother says, “Give me your honest opinion. Is this good enough?”
Good enough for what I don’t know. I shrug. “It seems like it.”
“No, I don’t think she can do it. I’ve been thinking of a routine where she
comes out with a cradle and baby doll and rocks it to sleep by singing Jesus
Loves the Little Children.”
“Oh, okay,” I say.
Pageant Queen says, “That’s so old, Mom.”
“Well if you can’t learn the song, you’ll just have to do what you already
know, won’t you?”
I suddenly feel like I’ve fallen into the middle of a family feud. Pageant
Queen strokes the karaoke microphone and pouts while her mother shows me
her casual wear outfit—a sequined skirt and jacket she’s made herself. I nod,
smile widely, the whole time knowing she couldn’t tell a fake grin from a real
one. Pageant Queen sings again and gets it wrong.
“You teach singing?” her mother asks.
“Oh, yeah. Well in that case, I’ve been working on her intro—you know
they have to introduce themselves and say where they’re from and talk about
their family and what they like to do and all that. When I’m done, you think you
could look at it?”
I go home soon afterward, but she never brings the introduction by.
I remember knowing, not hearing exactly, but knowing for sure that only a
man could make your life whole. Perhaps I knew this because Grandma had
been married so many times, and at sixty was still trying to find the right man.
Perhaps I knew this because my aunt, Heather’s mom, had been married almost
as many times as Grandma and was still feathering her bangs and wearing tight
jeans and practicing her posture. Perhaps I knew it because just before I
delivered my Valedictorian speech at graduation I heard a boy I liked very much
make the joke, “What degree do girls get in college? Their MRS.”
Even though I’m now a college professor, and every once in a while I find
the self-confidence I seemed to have never developed in the years I was
supposed to act like a lady, I still play around with outfits before heading to my
office. I’ve proposed to the Dean of Students that professors be required to wear
our black robes just so I can come to class in my gardening overalls. I own three
skirts and I’ll get dolled up only to look in the mirror and say, “This isn’t me.”
Then I change into jeans and sneakers and spend the rest of my day envious of
my frilly co-workers. It seems so easy for them to parade in heels and dresses,
their tanned calves shimmering. It’s so difficult for me to find that girl in myself.
Still, if I’m pouting at my husband when I don’t get my way, it’s more effective
in a low-cut blouse than it is in sweats. So I have a few of those on stand-by.
Otherwise, the neighbors are apt to see me sitting on my porch in men’s pajamas
or clam-diggers, and an old moth-eaten T-shirt. I’ve never figured out what it
means to walk like the waves in the ocean but I’m pretty sure that the steel-toe
Doc Marten boots I wear would drown me immediately.
Sometimes I think about what all of the chanting and bust exercises have
gotten my cousin, Heather, so far—living at home with her mother at the age of
thirty, unemployed, pursuing online romances. At twenty she got breast implants
and to test the family lesbian gossip, she took me into her room and flashed me.
I’m not sure if she wanted me to grope her or was just goading me because
everyone in the family wanted to confirm their suspicions that lesbians were not
only man-haters, but incestuous as well. Whatever the case may be, she kept
repeating, “They even feel real. Go ahead, touch them.” And again, jealousy
wasn’t the word. It was pity. So much time spent on frosted hair and matching
bags with no man, that crown jewel, to show for it. Her time in college, when
she finally went, spent on sororities and socials instead of beefing her resume.
I catch myself pitying Pageant Queen, especially while her father beats out
a stage-prancing rhythm with his fist, saying, “You think those judges aren’t
watching you close? They’ll know if you take the wrong step. Now do it again
and get it right. Turn. Turn!” Her mother puts her hands on her own hips and
prances right along. I’m tempted to unlock our front door and wait for Pageant
Queen to enter. This time, though, I’ll force a book into her hand. How
judgmental of me, I think, how foolish. She’s probably one of the best students
at her school, top of the class. I’ve seen her come home from soccer matches
covered in grime, seen her play catch with her father in their back yard. How
stupid I am for thinking that Pageant Queen isn’t a normal child. I spy again,
just in time to see her mother take the microphone away and say, “You’ve got
to say just what’s here on the paper. Say it this way or you’re going to get
points taken off. Is that what you want? You want to lose points?” Pageant
Queen takes the microphone again and recites what her mother has written for
J. W. Young is a California high desert native and graduate of The University
of Mississippi’s MFA program, where she edited The Yalobusha Review for
two years. Currently she lives with her husband in Bonaire, Georgia, and is an
Assistant Professor at Middle Georgia College. She has published fiction and
memoir in several journals, and has appeared recently in Random House’s
anthology Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers. She has
currently finished a collection of memoir essays titled My Father’s Daughter.
On “Pageant Queen”:
I actually live next door to these, as I’ve named them, Pageant People.
They make me look forward to the winter when—thank God—it’s too
cold to practice for these pageants in the outdoors. There’s a sequel to
this essay forthcoming about how my neighbor wrangled me into my first
and only experience as a judge—where I actually had to decide which
twelve-year-old had “Best Hair” and which of the infants was “Most
Beautiful Baby.” Although this world of pageants is foreign to me, and
a bit frightening because of the emphasis on looks, I do admire the
diligence of these little girls.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary
Volume 2, Number 1
Copyright © 2007
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to material
published in the Apple
Valley Review are retained
by the individual authors