“If I don’t see the exit in the next half an hour we’re heading back home,” my mother said.
My sister Sophie and I both turned to each other, reading the quiet shock in each other’s faces in the darkness of the car. I didn’t know how long we had been sitting in the back seat, but knew that it was longer than my mother had intended.
As long as I can remember my mother had aspirations. As a teenager, she had emigrated with her family from Armenia to New York and married my father shortly after. She never spoke of the fact that she had never graduated high school, but instead spent years fluttering from one keen interest to the next.
There is a baby grand piano in our living room with the bench neatly pushed in. Years ago, when my mother took piano lessons she would never put her lesson books away. Instead, she kept them propped open for when it struck her fancy to practice. When guests would come and there was nowhere to sit they would pull out the bench and perch themselves on it. But that doesn’t happen anymore; all the lesson books are crammed under the small cubby space the bench provides when you lift it open, and you have to perform a balancing act in order to sit on it evenly.
When her interest started to wane her piano teacher suggested she find a vocal coach, because after all, her true strength was her soprano voice. I could never find my parents’ wedding album anywhere, but among the shelves filled with old videotapes and reels of film is a large photo album, and in it are pictures of my mother in Armenia dated from before she was a teenager. She holds the same pose in all of them: her arms to her sides, eyes closed, and her mouth open singing with complete abandon. It is hard to count numbers, but in all of those snapshots the audience is alarmingly huge.
Eventually my father reminded her what a waste of money it all was – she was already thirty years old with two daughters to raise.
Her modeling career was the last of all these attempts. When she was distracted by housework Sophie and I would go into my parents’ bedroom, lift up the bed ruffles and slither underneath the collected dust to unearth what we considered to be a masterpiece. No matter how many times we browsed through her portfolio we never failed to savor the glossy, colorful 8 X 10 photographs that some hack had coerced her into spending too much money on. All the same, we found her smile mesmerizing, entranced by how the stern and reasoning face looked back at us warmly, playfully.
Now, sitting in the backseat of my father’s blue 1985 Cadillac, we sat quietly, absorbing her quiet frustration. With every turn she made and each exit sign she slowly passed Sophie and I could sense how trapped our mother felt.
“I hate New Jersey,” she muttered, and then suddenly she swerved the car off the main road and released a sigh as she drove off the exit. “I found it,” she said, and I felt my fists unclench. Sophie looked at me, beaming with delight.
It was the first year that the Miss Pre-Teen tri-state area pageant was being sponsored. We never asked our mother how she had found out about it; she announced it to us one morning while driving us to school.
“I registered you for a beauty pageant,” she said.
I was wearing knee socks and my school uniform. I looked down at the fine dark hair on my upper legs, and held out my hands to inspect my partially bitten fingernails.
“Who?” Sophie asked, distracting me from my self-appraisal.
“Both of you,” she said. “There’s a competition for pre-teens and one for young juniors. Araxi, the cut off age is twelve, so you just made it.” My birthday was coming up in four months.
“When is it?” I asked, trying to form the words; my tongue felt thick. I looked at Sophie, her long ringlets of brown hair and her dark brown eyes – my mother’s.
“In April,” she said. “Only two months away.”
“I can wear a fancy dress?” Sophie was delighted.
“Yes,” my mother said, and looked at her through the rearview mirror. “You get to wear three fancy dresses. I already went to a photography studio and picked out albums for the both of you.”
“But why?” I asked.
“Because when you win they’ll take pictures of you being crowned and I want to put them in the album.”
“How do you know we’re going to win?” I asked.
“Of course you’re going to win!” she said. She stopped at a red light and turned to look at me. “Just because it was too late for me doesn’t mean it’s too late for you,” she said.
“Is there a talent show also?” I asked, wondering if I could recite Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
“No, no talent show,” she said. “You just have to walk on stage with three different outfits – one for casual wear, one for formal wear and one in a costume of your choice.”
It hadn’t occurred to me to refuse participating. Sophie’s excitement was uncontainable. My mother’s confidence blind and absolute.
We pulled into the parking lot of a Marriot hotel, and seconds later we were trailing behind my mother. Although she was strapped down with a suitcase and an armful of dresses she had picked up from the dry cleaners that morning, she still managed to walk ahead of us. The lights inside the hotel lobby were so bright that at first we were all disoriented. Noticing the three of us, the concierge pointed to a large sign written in gilded lettering “Welcome to the first pre-teen and young juniors tri-state pageant!” with an arrow pointing left. We hurried after my mother, and she arrived at a long table where three ladies were sitting.
The woman who we approached was wearing a nametag “Susan” on her lapel.
“Are we late?” my mother asked after giving our names.
“Susan” was too distracted to reply, and leafed through a pile of papers attached to her clipboard. She pursed her lips. “Why don’t you check in?” she said. “Your names are here and you did miss orientation, so just make sure the girls get a good night’s rest and we’ll see you in the dining hall at 8:30 sharp tomorrow morning.” She had barely looked at us.
Before falling asleep that night I went into the bathroom and found myself staring into the mirror. My eyes were slightly puffy, as usual, and my hair was the same brown it always had been. And to my horror, the faint patch of hair on my upper lip was extremely noticeable.
“Do we have any scotch tape?” I asked my mother casually.
“What for?” she asked, already tucked in bed with the remote control in her hand.
“I wanted to do some homework since I’m still awake,” I said. “And there’s a project I need to tape into my notebook.”
“There may be some in the suitcase,” she said.
I found it and marched into the bathroom. I extracted a short piece of tape from the roll and applied it to my upper lip. I had watched my mother’s hairdresser do this many times when we went with her to the beauty parlor. Of course, what her hairdresser used was a thicker wax that she heated up in a metal pan, but I felt optimistic. I pressed down the tape as firmly as possibly and in one swift motion tore it off. I inspected the piece intensely; nothing had come off. I tried the other side. Nothing. After a few attempts I heard my mother calling me.
“Are you getting your period?” she asked when I reappeared.
“No!” I said, gingerly touching my upper lip that was now red and slightly swollen.
“Oh,” she said. “Well, what have you been doing in there? You know you can come to me when that happens,” she said. I hadn’t started getting my period yet, but she had talked to me about it months ago.
“Nothing,” I said and slid next to Sophie who was pretending to fall asleep, and turning on her side back and forth restlessly.
The next morning we entered the dining room for breakfast. The entire hall was filled with rows of tables and excited girls sitting with their mothers. There was a podium and an adjoining small stage. The smell of pancake syrup made my stomach grumble, although I felt too nervous to eat.
Suddenly we heard the crackling of the microphone and everyone looked up. A middle-aged blonde woman in a dark green suit was standing at the podium adjusting the volume.
“Good morning ladies!” she said. “My name is Shari.” From where I was sitting Shari’s blood red manicure seemed to glisten under the bright lights.
“Good morning!” everyone cheered back. Sophie sat next to me swinging her legs back and forth rhythmically.
“Welcome to the first pre-teen and young juniors beauty pageant!”
All I could focus on were the girls my age sitting around me, a hybrid breed of pre-teens, tall and blonde and skinny, and they all seemed to be saying, “I’m pretty and I know it!” I looked down at my lap until my mother nudged me and whispered, “Keep your head up, Araxi. You’re going to win this, don’t worry.”
We were to return to the dining hall at noon. The first round of the competition would be the casual wear segment of the pageant.
“Are you ready?” my mother asked. The smell of hairspray and perfume made me nauseous as we rode in the elevator with other contestants. The mothers were equipped with large makeup bags, and were persistently fussing over their daughters. Some girls stood patiently as they were re-applied with lip-gloss or mascara while others were scolded for fidgeting from either nerves or boredom. “Aren’t you glad you don’t need any of that?” my mother whispered in my ear.
The few hours after breakfast were a blur; Sophie’s hair needed more curling and our mother had decided at the last minute to re-iron our clothes. I was wearing a pair of Benetton jeans and a blue cardigan with a white collared shirt underneath.
Half-heartedly, I nodded at her question and then suddenly felt the elevator doors open swiftly.
“Okay moms!” a lady called out once we filed out of the elevator. “Get your daughters into the dining hall and take them backstage.” As we walked down the corridor I heard another elevator door open and the lady say, “Okay moms! Get your daughters into the dining hall…….”
“Now girls,” Shari said as she lined us up behind the curtain, “I’m going to group you according to state. That way you can win the Miss Pre-teen title for your own state. There will be no runners-up, and three crowns will be given at the end of the day – one for New Jersey, one for Connecticut and one for New York.” She scurried away to the other side of the stage where my sister Sophie and the rest of the young juniors had been grouped. She was standing with the rest of the seven-year-olds, wearing a pair of new overalls and a button-down shirt similar to mine.
The curtain finally opened. I wished I could peek through to find our mother in the audience, but I had been placed towards the end of the procession.
“Hello everyone!” I heard Shari’s voice through the microphone. “Welcome to the first pre-teen and young juniors tri-state beauty pageant!” There was frantic applause. “I know you are all as excited as we are, and I want to thank you all for being here. This is an exciting time for you and your daughters and I hope this is a memorable occasion that will inspire our young ones to become leaders and role models in our community.” It was as if I’d heard the introduction before, although I knew I never had.
“I could write this crap,” I thought to myself, immediately feeling guilty for admitting how sour and misplaced I felt.
“So please welcome the young New Jersey contestants of our pageant!” she said, and began applauding.
I watched each girl sashay onto the stage, waving mechanically, their smiles fixed and frozen with nerves.
“And now I would like to introduce the young Connecticut contestants of our pageant!” she boomed, and again there was the procession.
I tried to swallow as I watched the last of the girls from Connecticut exit the stage. My mouth felt glued shut. It hadn’t dawned on me to see how many other contestants were from New York until then, but before I had a chance I heard, “And last, but not least, let us welcome our New York contestant!”
I walked out and waved, unable to see the crowd let alone find my mother, and I was sure the sweat under my arms had formed dark patches that had seeped through my cardigan. At first, the applause was vigorous until the sounds of my footsteps were only those of my own, and for a brief second I looked behind me to realize that I was the only one on stage. As I exited I finally caught a glimpse of my mother, who was sitting in one of the middle rows. Although she was clapping, she looked worn and disappointed.
I walked to the side of the curtain and watched the young juniors being introduced as my group had been, and waited for the New York contestants to walk the stage. Sophie couldn’t stand still and was rocking back and forth on her heels, and once she heard her cue she walked onto the stage briskly. She was alone, as I had been. Oblivious that there were no other competitors from New York, she smiled brightly, her eyes shining with the same delight as that afternoon my mother had told us about the pageant. The audience’s clapping for her was thunderous compared to my entrance. Whether it was her charm or their acute sympathy that inspired such a response, I couldn’t tell.
The curtains closed and Shari hustled back stage ushering us into our dressing rooms. I stayed behind.
“Excuse me,” I said. There were three mothers hovering around Shari, bombarding her with questions. Her back was turned until I repeated loudly, “Excuse me!”
“Yes?” she said. I was distracted by her makeup, how the skin tone of her face did not match the paleness of her neck. It was as if she was wearing a darker colored mask.
“If me and my sister are the only people from New York then how can there really be a competition?” I asked.
“Don’t worry!” she said brightly. “It’s great that you are here. This is a great experience!” she said, and started to turn away.
“But then there’s no really winner, is there?” I continued.
She paused for a moment. “Honey, where’s your mother? I’m sure she has her hands full with getting the two of you ready.”
“Do we even get a crown?” I asked. I was thinking of my mother and the photo album that was waiting to be filled with our pageant pictures.
“Of course you get a crown!” she said.
When I walked through the dressing room I saw my mother milling around. “There you are!” she said as I came towards her.
“So can we leave?” I asked.
“Leave? Why would we leave?” She tried to smile.
“Because,” I said, losing control over my voice, “we’re the only people from New York! This is a joke!”
“Araxi!” she hissed and then bent down to her knees. She only did that with Sophie when she wasn’t listening to reason. “We didn’t come all the way here so we could turn back around. It doesn’t matter if you and Sophie are the only ones. It matters that you get up there and do your best.”
I thought of the portfolio of pictures under her bed. I wondered if that’s where I would put mine.
I got dressed for the next round. I watched Sophie march onstage smiling brightly with her new outfit; it was a dark pink chiffon dress she had worn to our aunt’s wedding two months ago. The audience clapped for her as they had the first time. I envied her. I hadn’t cared about the pageant in the first place, and now I felt nothing at all. When it was my turn I spotted my mother immediately because she had moved to the second row. I walked and gave a curt wave as if I were one of the stagehands of a play, being acknowledged at the end of a production. I glanced at my mother, and this time she was pressing her lips together not clapping at all.
“You’re Miss New York, aren’t you?” I heard. I turned around. One of the prototypes of the New Jersey pageant was standing with a group of girls behind stage. There was a faint conspiratorial air to her.
“Yeah,” I said.
She swirled around on her heels, giving me her back, and said to the girls, “I told you guys. It’s just her from New York.”
“So, like, you just won it, huh?” one of the others asked.
“I guess,” I said, feeling the heat in my face.
The costume segment was finally over. Sophie’s Little Mermaid dress had the crowd swooning. My Joan of Arc sash – not so much.
Sophie’s pageant winners had been announced. She had stood patiently under the spotlight as Shari placed a rhinestone tiara on top of her head. Still wearing her Little Mermaid dress, she jumped up and down in complete merriment as they titled her the first young junior of New York. From her reaction one would think it had been a tough competition and she had beat the odds.
“Please welcome the first pre-teen winner of New Jersey – Miss Katherine Miller!”
The rest of the contestants of each state had been grouped together onstage. Shari had asked me stand by the curtains.
“Please welcome the first pre-teen winner of Connecticut – Miss Rebecca Erickson!”
I thought about my mother. I couldn’t understand why she had brought us there. I thought about her photo album at home and how she had smiled in all the pictures. Real smiles. She had known it would all come to nothing, knew my father disapproved and that she had us, who needed so much of her, and she had done it anyway.
“Please welcome the first pre-teen winner of New York – Miss Araxi Yessayan!”
This time I threw my shoulders back, straightened out the white fabric draped over me and walked to the spotlight. I smiled and waved and looked at my mother, who stood up hooting and clapping, despite the other mothers who looked at one another with puzzled expressions. “Yay!” she yelled. “Araxi!” I stood still as Shari placed the crown on top of my head and handed me a bouquet of flowers. I waved. I bowed.
In the end my mother never filled up the photo album with our pageant pictures. Instead, she took us to a store and let Sophie and I each pick out a picture frame. She told us to choose one picture from that afternoon that we liked the most. Sophie couldn’t decide between the pink chiffon dress or her crowning moment, but finally she picked the dress. As for me, I picked the one when I first stepped on stage right before they crown me. In my opinion, it’s my best moment. When I wake up in the morning and get ready for school I look at it sometimes right before I leave. It’s sitting on my bureau next to my jewelry box where it won’t collect dust.