by Erica McBeth
She liked looking at herself in the mirror. The contours of her face, the curvature of her body, it was all very pleasing to her. But today as Alona stared at her image in the mirror backstage at the Miss Louisiana State Beauty Pageant, all she could see was a cracked egg.
She looked around the changing area with all the women in various degrees of dress. They were too preoccupied to notice but if they had they would have assumed she was sizing them up. She had long moved past trying to befriend them. Many of them had grown up with her on the pageant circuit. She knew their names and weaknesses, but she didn’t know her competitors any better than they knew her. They were all colorful marionettes who were only taken out for the big show. Many of her counterparts had enhanced their appearance with spray tans, obsessive dieting and breast augmentations. They hated her because she was so effortless. Even the hours of practicing how to walk and stand had come easily to her. She had a natural poise that couldn’t easily be fabricated and for those gifts, the pageant girls had generously given her the constant view of their backs. And their snarky comments.
She felt her mother hovering over her before the older woman’s face appeared beside Alona’s in the mirror. “What are you doing, Alona? We’ve been preparing your whole life for this.” Her mother’s eyes were ablaze with enough passion that Alona could feel it tingling in her extremities. She just didn’t feel it in her heart. She had learned early on that pageant crowns were heavy and full of sacrifice.
She’d never known a father and to compensate, her mother had often worked double shifts down at the factory during the week to pay for the frilly Easter egg colored dresses Alona needed for an endless amount of pageant competitions on the weekends. At first that meant spending lots of time with her grandparents but by the time they had passed away, there was already a continuous stream of boyfriends who would watch Alona after school. Some of them were scary. Some of them were mean. Some of them left dark holes in Alona’s childhood that she refused to revisit.
One Mother’s Day she was standing on a wooden chair next to the stove making her mother breakfast when her mother came into the kitchen in an old fuchsia-colored bathrobe. She sat down at the table and asked what Alona thought of her current boyfriend, the one who was still asleep in the next room.
“He’s okay,” Alona said never taking her eyes off the simmering frying pan. She cracked an egg on its side but when it opened, there was no yolk. Alona never forgot that.
And there were always the pageants. Smile. Turn on your toe. Look over your shoulder with a twinkle in your eye. It didn’t matter what you were feeling that day. Whether you wanted to laugh or wanted to cry. It was always about making the judges believe you were the most beautiful woman in the room and Alona was good at doing that. She had an entire room full of crowns and sashes at her mother’s house to prove it.
She lined up with the rest of the girls just behind the curtain where they could see the stage but not the audience. In her head, she concentrated on the words to “Amazing Grace” just like she always did in the moments before a big show.
When Alona was fifteen, the man her mother was seeing took them all to church. Her mother was left uninspired but as the minister called his congregation into action, Alona found herself longing for the power of the Holy Spirit to enter her. The pageants gave her the illusion of divinity but the Holy Spirit would make it so. She believed that. And she began to pray. She prayed so hard, in fact, that it caught the attention of the handsome youth pastor, Luke Ciphor who crowned her with his full attention. They spent long hours together alone in the youth room in the basement of the church. She idolized him, hung on his every word. He made her feel beautiful. The touch of Luke’s hand thrilled her. The touch of his lips drove her to new passionate heights and the things they did alone together she never considered to be depraved. They were acts of physical love. It didn’t matter to her that he was thirty-one and she was fifteen. Wasn’t love blind in the eyes of God? The minister didn’t think so.
They were both banished from the church and Alona found herself having to endure sitting in the room as Luke begged the minister for forgiveness.
“She’s the muse of the devil,” he cried pointing at her. “She seduced me!”
Alona just huddled so low into herself she hoped she might disappear. The minister then asked her mother what to do and, of course, her mother saw no point in ruining anyone’s reputation. Alona had shiny crowns to uphold. So the entire ordeal was kept very quiet and no one mentioned it directly to Alona again. She only ever heard it mentioned behind the scene in low whispers.
One by one the girls began to parade out onto the stage and Alona thought about the last time she’d actually seen that particular church. It was through an angry haze of yellow yolk on a deserted night with an empty plastic egg carton in her hand. The anger of that moment flushed Alona’s cheeks and as the hot spotlight fell on her, she smiled and walked to her place in front of the judges.
Since then she’d been with a continuous line of boyfriends of her own. The most recent one would lie next to her, their naked bodies sticky in his repugnant sheets. He kept the shades of his apartment closed so that, even in full daylight, it was so dim that if she looked over at him she could only see the dark holes where his eyes should have been and the hot ash of his lit cigarette.
Alona smiled, despite the blinding hot spotlight that left beads of sweat on her upper lip and when they called her name, she walked to her mark with the showmanship of a circus performer. Somewhere over the light, in a place where she could not see, there was applause and the calling of her name. She ignored the revelry and concentrated on the judges before her as the man with the neatly trimmed beard carefully read a random question on an index card into the microphone. “In recent years, the use of prescription drugs among teenagers has skyrocketed. How would you, as Miss Louisiana, educate our minors on the dangers of these drugs?”
That was easy. The answer was automatic. Alona didn’t even need to think before she began speaking into the microphone. She’d practiced the answer to this question hundreds of times. It was a subject she knew about intimately even though her brain refused to link the question to the Vicodin in her medicine cabinet that she used when prancing around on heels became too painful for her once shattered ankle. She didn’t believe it pertained to the Percocet her doctor prescribed for her migraine headaches or to the OxyContin hidden in her underwear drawer that was strictly for “just fun”. She liked the way they made her feel numb to the world because in the numbness there were no disappointments, no painful realities.
She could feel her competitors nervous shifting as the judges’ scores were tallied. Collectively, their breaths quickened as the apprehension built. The crown would mean something to any one of them, but Alona felt anesthetized as they waited in their high heels and their false smiles. The man with the beard walked the results over to the MC who took a sneak peek and grinned slyly. There was a drum roll that should have shaken her to reality and a preamble which should have made her heart pump with anticipation and desire. Her name was called. The girls surrounding her shook her, hugged her and still there was nothing as she walked to the middle of the polished stage where the MC and former Miss Louisiana waited with her prize. She accepted the roses they laid across her arms graciously and stood still as they pinned a crown high upon her head. It slipped, falling right into Alona’s arms. She laughed at the small mishap in a way that put everyone else at ease because that’s what she was good at: the pretending everything was normal. Even when it wasn’t.
Because today the numbness she felt had nothing to do with a magically sedating pill and everything to do with a pregnancy test, with the sign of the cross, buried deep within a trashcan in a hotel room upstairs. She’d forgotten that there were also eggs inside of her. Eggs she could nurture the way she’d always dreamed she could be nurtured. It was an inspiring thought that appealed to her. Of course, no one would believe it was a good idea. Not her boyfriend. Or her mother. Or the pageant officials. The pressure to strip away that part of herself would be immense but she had not allowed her mind to wander down those dark corridors just yet. For now, it was simply all about her and as she walked carefully out to the edge of the stage, she couldn’t help thinking her mother had been right. Her mother had always said that at this moment, at the pinnacle of Alona’s career, that she would be fulfilled, and as Alona stood smiling and waving back at the crowd, she was.