Today, you are beautiful.
Your parents tell you that you’re beautiful on every other day, too, but no one else ever does. The only time you matter to the world is at your shows. When you’re not beautiful, you’re nothing.
Today, though, you are shining. At least, you think you are, but you’re not feeling great. Your stomach hurts, just like it does before every pageant. Your dress is brand new, and you haven’t gotten used to the way it itches yet. You’re sure your wig is gorgeous, even though the hairspray smells bad.
Your teeth, though, are hurting the most. You know your flipper is a good one, but it doesn’t fit anymore.
The other girls are all beautiful too, crammed here in this sticky space just offstage. You don’t recognize all of them, but you’ve seen a couple of them at your previous shows. The ones waiting right at the edge of the stage are the tail end of the six- and seven-year-old group; you’re a bit older than them. Behind you are the ten-to-twelve-year-olds. They’re wearing ball gowns that touch the floor, and they’re much more majestic than your puffy, frilly skirt. They’re all laughing and talking, some of them about the show, some about their lives. Their real lives, that is.
Someone taps your shoulder. “Are you okay?” asks the impossibly thin child next to you. “You’re making a weird face.”
“My flipper hurts,” you tell her.
You put on your widest, sweetest grin. She inspects your dentures closely. “Looks fine,” she tells you. “Is it too small?”
She pats your shoulder. “Well, good luck.”
You thank her and wish her luck too. Then, you turn away and practice beaming at the wall. It hurts more when you smile than when you leave your face the way it is.
You tried to tell Mom that the flipper doesn’t fit. She didn’t listen. She said there was nothing she could do until your next win, because she spent the last of your money on the new dress. “A good dress is more important than a good flipper,” Mom told you.
One by one, the other contestants filter out onto the stage. The announcer says all their names in the same voice. She tells the audience a little bit about them – what their hobbies are, who their hero is, and it’s all the same. They melt together in your mind, twisting and merging into one entity: your competition. It’s odd to see them go from the sweet individuals they were backstage to these identical glowing competitors.
Suddenly, you find yourself hovering at the very edge of the curtain. The announcer is calling your name, and before you realize what you’re doing, you’re striding out into the spotlight. You prance around for a bit, and strike a few poses, and most importantly, you always smile. Oh god, does it ever hurt. Your teeth feel like they’re going to pop out of your skull and rain down on the audience.
Out in the crowd, you can see Mom. She’s waving and making a few gestures to instruct you. She keeps pointing at her mouth. You try to push your lips back more, but it’s too painful.
“Brooke’s hobbies include dancing, singing, and gymnastics,” says the announcer. “When she grows up, she wants to be a doctor, and her heroes are her mom and dad!”
And just like that, you’re done. You’re off the stage just as suddenly as you were on it. The spotlight is gone; the crowd’s attention is no longer on you. You’re relieved.
You go to sit down beside Mom, but she doesn’t look happy. She reaches over and adjusts the capped sleeve of your dress, but she never looks right at you. You’re worried. Did you do something wrong? Is she mad at you?
The announcer keeps talking. It seems every girl is a dancer or a singer or a gymnast, just like you. Every girl’s heroes are her parents and Oprah. They all have the same perfect curls and bright smiles that you wear – only their dresses are different colours. You try to listen, but Mom is scaring you. Your stomach hurts a lot more than it did before the pageant.
When the show is finally over, she takes you out into the hall. It’s time for you to go and change for the award ceremony. You start for your hotel room, but she grabs your arm.
“You lost a lot of points for your teeth,” she hisses in your face. Her breath smells like coffee and cigarettes. “What did I tell you about smiling?”
“But Mom, I did smile,” you try and convince her. “I did. I told you, my flipper’s too small.”
“You can suck it up for one show, Brooke. What were you thinking? Do you want to lose? Do you want me to be disappointed in you?”
You’re not smiling anymore, but your fake teeth are still pushing your lips back. Tears well up in your eyes. “I‘m sorry, Mom. I tried,” you hiccup.
“You didn’t. You did not try.”
Saltwater splashes down the front of your dress, staining the lemon satin with green streaks. “I’m sorry,” you say again.
She stands up and turns away. Her shoes click as they carry her away from you. You try to chase after her. She never slows down.
You weren’t beautiful enough. You failed her.