“I know you,” her eyes say. “I know exactly what you are.”
He glowers at the podium.
Raises his eyebrows.
Purses his lips.
* * *
“Who cares what anyone thinks?” Amy opened her locker and pulled out the registration form. “I’m telling you, it will look good on a college application.”
“It will look ridiculous. It’s for bimbos. A total waste of time.”
We were feeling fresh from a trip to Albany to defend a piece of mock legislation we’d drafted ourselves, something that would make it illegal to put children with physical or mental impairments in nursing homes without providing therapeutic support, an issue we were preternaturally passionate about at sixteen – and it passed. Five years later it would become part of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but who knows, maybe we thought of it first, we were feeling that full of ourselves. Maybe too full. Good schools didn’t care about public school girls from dinky little Snowbelt towns. We had to work harder. We had to get out.
So I took the registration form. Filled it out, folded it up. “This is ridiculous,” I grumbled. Licked the stamp. Sent it off.
Fifty girls made the first cut. Fanned across a November stage, smiling and answering questions. Then twenty. Once a month, we were made to sing songs and give speeches, to pull slush-coated boots over summer stockings and write and act in commercials…there was even a press event at the city’s six-gate airport, a charity car wash, on and on like that until May. We smiled and answered questions about things that had nothing to do with college. Then ten. “If you had a magic wand, what would you wish for?” Five.
Joni’s father was the owner of a fancy Buick dealership, a real big shot, and Joni’s lips were always coated in bubblegum lip-gloss, with skin like meringue. And Casey, a physics star with a barrel laugh and short, dark hair. (“It’s a deficit,” Joni noted. “The short-haired girls never win.”) Then Peggy, who winced whenever they called her name, and Kristina, the only Latina, brilliant and silent as silk, with dark, thick lashes. And me. Breathless me.
I used babysitting money to buy a rainbow dress for the finale. Sleeveless and strapless. Lavender eye shadow and my mother’s pearls. Backstage, someone handed out five lilac bouquets with satin ribbons, five lilac sashes, and five rhinestone crowns. I watched us in the mirror. Strapless bras and pink panties, smelling like hairspray and muskysweetgirldamp. We smiled and hugged and wished each other luck.
We had platforms like Respect Your Elders and Say No to Drugs and More Money for Education. Shelter for Indigent Horses. Scoliosis. One of the girls sang something from Annie and another did magic tricks. I want to say there was a hula-hoop, but that wouldn’t be fair. Maybe I played Mendelssohn. I know it wasn’t Bach, because when I hit the last note and pushed back the bench and bowed, I saw the judges’ faces and I knew I was winning. I exited stage left, watching the other girls watch me, and I knew that I wanted to WIN that shitty thing. I’d show them I could belong wherever I wanted, because only I knew I was drinking whiskey in the school parking lot before homeroom wishing my boyfriend had boobs, so I already knew I could become whoever I needed to.
When it came down to the final question, I walked to the microphone, knowing I’d already nailed it.
A $2,000 prize.
The M.C. stood at the podium. “So for your final question…drum roll, please?” He turned and winked and the audience, and they all laughed. I smiled from the stage and laughed along.
So for your final question…
had to choose…
between a trip to Paris !
and a cruise to Alaska !
where would you go?!!
I blinked at the M.C. Opened my mouth.
I knew what to do with a million dollars and I had some ideas about where I hoped to be in 10 years, I even had a few things to say about what I might bring to the role of Lilac Teen, but I hadn’t prepared for this. Paris was farther and bigger than anything I could imagine. It was FAR. It wasn’t a place for girls like me.
I clenched my fists and looked out at the audience. Heart rattling. Face burning. Sweaty pits stuck to polyester rainbow. I searched the sea of faces until I found him in the middle row – the first man I ever needed to please because it meant survival, my mother sitting next to him, looking anxious but pleasing, and I picked Alaska.
“Alaska,” I swallowed into the microphone. “I would go to Alaska.”
The judges let out their breaths. Raised their pens over their judging sheets and leaned forward.
I moistened my lips and began again. “I would choose the cruise to Alaska because my father is a biology teacher.” I glanced at my father, who brightened and nodded at the couple sitting next to him. “During the summer, sometimes we take care of his snakes. He has a boa constrictor and a python named Monty. So I would go to Alaska because there are so many, you know, there are so many different kinds of animals … like polar bears … and penguins…”
“…1,800, by the way, where they expanded and we didn’t, 1,800 nuclear warheads. And she’s playing chicken. Look, Putin…
WALLACE: Wait, but…
TRUMP: … from everything I see, has no respect for this person.
CLINTON: Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.
TRUMP: No puppet. No puppet.
CLINTON: And it’s pretty clear…
TRUMP: You’re the puppet!
CLINTON: It’s pretty clear you won’t admit…
TRUMP: No, you’re the puppet.
I trailed off and looked at my hands. Cuticles chewed to bloody bits, painted dark sparkly purple to cover the mess. To cover the girl. The one who read at three. Who pretended math was hard. The girl who rode dirt bikes and beat up neighborhood bullies and swam a hundred yards in three seconds under a minute, who flew skateboards over ramps of fire. Ragged. Ragged already, from so much girlhood. Whose geometry teacher said in front of the whole class:”Why don’t you raise your skirt a little higher and I’ll see what I can do about raising your grade?”
Who couldn’t say NO because no meant you were sassy and disrespectful, no meant you were talking back, no meant you were stubborn and mouthy and too big for your britches, which is why I finally said YES to the girl who would do anything if it meant she was pleasing, YES just to squeeze an ounce of love from rock salt and pith, yes just to keep the love coming.
WALLACE: Mr. Trump…
TRUMP: Nobody has more respect for women than I do. Nobody.
Nobody has more respect…
WALLACE: Please, everybody.
I raised my head and swallowed.
Leigh Hopkins is a writer, educator, and seminar leader. In 2010, she left a career in public education reform to move to Brazil, where she founded the online education center Viva Institute by rigging a satellite dish to a boulder in a banana field. Today, Leigh lives and writes in Philadelphia. Find her at www.leighopkins.com. Twitter@LeighHereNow.