Miss Richmond’s Beauty Secret

Miss Richmond says, Jesus, please.  I’m working here.  This is my job, okay?

When I walked into the chorus room at Kennedy High School, Miss Richmond was spraying her bangs into place.  Miss Richmond doesn’t like anybody except for her hair.  The other Miss Virginia contestants were stepping into their swimsuits, swabbing Vaseline on their teeth.  They hung their pageant sashes on the music stands, over the sheet music to Whitney Houston’s, “The Greatest Love of All.”

Miss Richmond says I’ve humiliated her, I’ve hurt her feelings, I’ve stabbed her in the back.  Isn’t that enough? she asks.

I sit down on the risers while Miss Richmond adjusts the straps to her periwinkle two-piece.  It’s a strip of spandex that twists in the middle, like a crescent bun.

Miss Richmond says, But aren’t you something?  Look at you.  What’d you do to your hair?  Comb it with a pork chop?

We laugh at this, nervous.  Miss Richmond bares her pearly white teeth, her radiant smile.  Her pageboy, as usual, looks perfect.  Each blond, blow-dried hair a perfect, 90-degree angle.  Miss Richmond and her hair, story of my life.

My mom thinks you want this, Miss Richmond says, and hooks her crown with her finger.  It is a massive thing, four-cornered and pointy.  It catches the light, all those rhinestones.  She gets to keep it, even after a new Miss Richmond is chosen.  But first, she’s looking to upgrade.  The Miss Virginia crown is a monster.

Have you ever wanted anything like I want this? Miss Richmond asks me.

Miss Richmond says, Here’s a secret:  Miss Roanoke has a third nipple.  She doesn’t want the judges to know.  She thinks she might get disqualified.  No kidding.

She says, Hey, tell me.  Even if you hate me, do my thighs look fat?

Want to hear something funny?  Miss Richmond was my best friend once.

We grew up together in the suburbs.  HTC: Homegirls Together Chillin’.  We were going to be something fierce.  Something huge.

My new husband paints Dungeons & Dragons figurines for fun.  He lines them up on the banister above our waterbed, little dwarves carrying clubs, mini-magicians, that kind of thing.  And Miss Richmond became Miss Richmond.  I mean, what happened to us?

Miss Richmond says, But you were into betrayal even then, stealing from me.  You thought I didn’t know?  Boyfriends even.  And Brett, my first.  With the puka shell necklace?  That’s fine.  Bet you took that too.

I did.  I did take Brett’s puka shell necklace.  I still have it, it smells like him, of Polo cologne and rubber bands, although I don’t tell Miss Richmond this.

Miss Richmond says, But you were into betrayal even then, stealing from me.  You thought I didn’t know?  Boyfriends even.  And Brett, my first.  With the puka shell necklace?  That’s fine.  Bet you took that too.

I did.  I did take Brett’s puka shell necklace.  I still have it, it smells like him, of Polo cologne and rubber bands, although I don’t tell Miss Richmond this.

So cough ’em up, she says.  Give me back my keys.  You have no idea what a bitch it’s been, getting the landlord to buzz me in.  Really, what’s wrong with you? she asks, holding out her hand.

Here’s a secret: I’ve been going over there, trying on her tiara.  I hand over the apartment keys I pinched, her pink, plastic My Little Pony hanging from the ring.

And you know, every time I think of that newspaper article, I want to strangle something.  Really, Miss Richmond says.  I can’t believe you told that reporter I was ‘slutty.’    What does that have to do with the pageant?  With anything?

Listen, I say.  Wait, I say.  You took off your bridesmaid’s dress and did the hula on my head table.

Hey, I was drunk, Miss Richmond says.  And who are you?  Who made you so important, Queen of the May?

It was my wedding, I answer.  It was my one and only day.

Miss Richmond digs through her gym bag.  She grabs a bottle of cherry-flavored NyQuil and swigs from it.  For my nerves, she says.  Want some? she asks.

You’re so scared of me, she says.

Hey, check this out, Miss Richmond fishes a tube of Preparation H and a roll of plastic wrap out of her bag.  She slaps a handful of hemorrhoid cream on her thighs and wraps them tight.

She says, Miss Virginia Beach taught me this trick.  Neat, huh?

Go on now with your bad self, Miss Appomattox says to Miss Richmond, passing us for the full-length mirror.  Miss Appomattox sports a tiger-striped bikini.  They flash each other some kind of beauty pageant secret sign with their pinkie fingers.

Miss Richmond says, If I asked her to, Miss Appomattox would fuck you up.

Miss Richmond turns and checks her butt in the mirror, the backs of her bare, sandy heels.  She asks, So you think this is demeaning?  You think this is degrading?   You don’t like my swimsuit?

I’ve known Miss Richmond so long, it’s like a history or something.  It’s a pain, is what I’m saying.  Does it ever feel like your story is someone else’s story?  That your life is never really yours?

Give yourself a wedgie and spray it on your butt, Miss Virginia Beach instructs Miss Culpeper.  It’ll keep your suit from riding up when you walk across the stage, she says.  The contestants shake an aerosol can of something and spray it on their bikini seats.

Miss Richmond says, I’m going to win this thing today.  So, you know, get ready.  These girls, she whispers, they’re just hicks.  They don’t know.   Did you see that rooster thing Miss Norfolk’s doing with her bangs?  Please.  Don’t get me started, she says.

Loser’s Dance, that’s all I’m saying, Miss Richmond says.  I give her this look and she stops her little eyebrow trick with the concealer pencil.

Loser’s what? I ask.

You know, Miss Richmond says, Loser’s Dance.  When the finalists are chosen and they go backstage to change.  The losers who didn’t win, all the sorry, sad ones,  they have to dance the Loser’s Dance.  To keep the crowd entertained.  We’re all supposed to know the steps.  But not me, I didn’t even bother.  I’m the Queen Baby, get up on it.

Since my wedding, everything feels different.  If you asked me what I wanted, anything in the world, what did I want, I’d have to say, a nice dinner?  Cute shoes?  Honestly, I have no idea.

All these secrets to remember, your way into the world.  I thought this ring, this gold-plated band, on my finger would fix everything.  Loser’s Dance, who needs it?  The pageant director, all hair and Lee-Press-On-Nails, storms into the chorus room going, Five minutes, girls, and swats a program at Miss Appomatox, who’s lit up a cig.

So, Miss Richmond says while teasing her hair, How’s your geek, Mr. Live Long and Prosper?

Nice work if you can get it, I tell her, but the hours of long.  Still, my chest turns in on itself, like the twist in Miss Richmond’s periwinkle two-piece.

Miss Richmond adjusts the shoulder straps to her bikini, her cleavage a dark, kohl-shadowed line.  The Miss Virginia contestants pull their sashes over their heads and arrange them at their hips.  They break down their bag of tricks: the Saran Wrap, the Vaseline, the aerosol can of golf grip.  They hairspray their hair, put away their secret tape, their pins.

Miss Richmond says, Tell me.  Do you use a secret sauce to make your hair that greasy?  Or what?

Out the door Miss Richmond and the other girls file, all legs and bikini pieces.  The Miss Virginia contestants will turn and they will swivel.  They will smile at the crowd.  One girl, and one girl only, will win the crown.

When we were little, Miss Richmond wanted to be a veterinarian, save baby seals, work with Greenpeace maybe.  She could French braid hair and make authentic Spanish paella.  All my life, all I’ve ever wanted to be is her.  And here she is, not me.

Alone in the Chorus Room, I hook the Miss Richmond crown out of her gym bag with my pinkie finger and fix it to my head.  Outside, already, cabs form a line down the curb like something out of a wedding.  All the men and women dressed special, black ties and flashy, scalloped skirts.

The United Airlines representative gives me a funny look, from tiara to toe, when I hand over my credit card at the ticket counter.  I give her the wink.

Someplace sunny, I say.  Someplace, quick.

*Originally published in Jane Magazine.