"Pageant. P-A-G-E-A-N-T. Pageant."

You are on screen. Coughing. You are trying to spell the seven-letter word but you cough and cough until the word gets stuck in your throat, each letter a frozen square of poison. Cut to you as an X-ray: what a mess. The letters are melting from your involuntary body heat; they are dripping slowly down into your stomach and intestines (large and small), swirling through the crinkly tube of your colon. Survival looks bad. It’s a great screen moment, full of exquisite possibility: you, triumphantly shitting poison, beating the odds, a miraculous winner, your town’s Feminine Woman of Conscience.

Or this: no more stomach, no more intestines, no more crinkly colon -- no more you -- nothing but a skull-sized mushroom cloud.

On this day of fickle weather, like so many others in quiet security-patrolled neighborhoods just like mine all over the country, I am in training. Down in the family nook with my mother and the blow-up dummy, I am learning to make out. While I endure the fat shrieks of Maria Callas overreacting in La Sonnambula instead of my new Mystic Fangs Release, my mother is teaching me how to use my tongue. The opera swoops to the family nook carpet like dying birds. But my mother’s lips glow like ripe plums, her fresh manicure sparkles. When a palm checks my facial position, I want to fasten it there.

Inevitably, my failures and her agitation bring on the lecture: lick first along the upper and then the lower lip to a count of twenty, touch just the point of the tongue to the point of the dummy's, with flickers like the scarlet ribbon that darts out of the mouth of a snake. We go over and over the flicking part. I mash my mouth down on the dummy's surprised-looking lips, but my tongue is getting tired. My mother’s hot, soft hand grabs me by the chin and I get the warning: a girl's tongue can never tire, it is her second most important muscle.

"Edie, how many times do I have to tell you to kiss with your head tilted?" she sighs. "Do you think all the other mothers have to go over and over something this basic?"

"Hell if I know," I mutter, although secretly I am afraid. I don’t like to make her mad and I never mean to do it.

She smooths her hair with nervous fingers. "Edie," she says darkly.

"Yeah, yeah." It’s during these sessions that I count the days until I am old enough to escape to Submarine School in the Naval Academy, my eye tight against the cool metal of a periscope, my voice ringing with the command to Fire! again and again as torpedoes burst out and thrill through the deep blue sea. My mother's plummy lips open close enough to blast me with a whiff of the egg salad she had for lunch. Maria Callas trills out a final alarm.

I edge away from her correcting touch, no hope of sweetness left today. Outside, the sun sinks below the rise of tired autumn grass as we move on to chest work. My mother nags me to tickle the dummy’s stomach at the shore of his scratchy polyacrylic pubic hair, to squeeze his flat pale nipples, to put some oomph into my strokes.

"Not everyone knows that men like to have some nipple play, too, " she says, making her eyes wide with truth. "Lucky for you your father once had a libido way back when."

Any mother can teach her daughter how to get a penis to stand straight enough to hang a hat, but it is hints like this one, my mother assures me, that will earn me big points during the Electric Polyrubber Man event and help me beat the forty-nine other contestants to win that multi-million-dollar headdress when, in just seven-and-a-half months, I am crowned Queen.

Of course, we don't know if I will be able to compete next spring, because while the average ten-year-old is already bikini waxing and having her C cups checked for breast cancer, I’m pushing fifteen and still haven't menstruated; but my mother is determined that I will bleed this year, cheerily shit-sure that I will compete at the age of fourteen just as she did in the Miss Deansville Pageant, thirty difficult and remorse-filled years ago.

When I was younger and openly longed to compete, I told her that if I ever got my period I was gonna lead my own parade right down the middle of our street, crazy with those huge jet-fueled balloons of Mr. Broccoli Face and grasshoppers that need about twenty muscled robots each to hold their strings and keep them from flying off, and a stream of pepped-up hatchet twirlers in mink bathing suits, smiling like hell and marching so hard their knees would practically crash into heaven. My mother sighed. "I wish you wouldn't say hell," she said. "It's grounds for instant disqualification if the judges hear you swear."

The different events in Pageant are posted in the family nook on a length of butcher paper the size of a hippo, next to the computerized blackboard my mother uses to diagram strategies for manipulating Electric Polyrubber Man's sexual organs. No one knows what he will look like. The robot is being made in a factory in Belgium and will be shipped over in a triple-locked crate; two guards will bring him by armored truck to Pageant's secret vault a week before. There was talk about using a real man instead of a machine, but the Rules Committee fought it on moral grounds -- Rule #12, the Sexual Conduct Rule: Contestants may not have familiar relations with anybody except their blow-up dummies.

The secrecy surrounding Electric Polyrubber Man's body is critical, according to the Committee; they want to see how smoothly we girls can handle variants. Note the devastation during Preliminaries: Molly Finnigan, disqualified because she'd profaned her blow-up dummy's lacking testicle; Abigail Nesmith, unable to relax her throat enough during essential maneuvers, now spending her disqualified time in the Institute for Anti-Depressant Intolerants.

Besides Electric Polyrubber Man, the events in Pageant are: Freestyle Walking (flats allowed since a bad accident during Preliminaries in Elko, Nevada), Large Number Estimation, Needlework Odyssey (it's rumored that pompom trim will score highest), Poise and Cookery, Better Person Skills, Reflections on Hygiene, Mystery Powders (recently expanded to include liquids and a controversial category because one Sally Monticello went temporarily blind during Preliminaries in Howardsville, Arkansas: she took off her safety goggles for a mascara check and got sodium fluoracetate in her eyes), Drug-Addict Prevention Bee (a new event after overdosing hit summer camps), Juggling, Hair Construction, Double Dutch Jump Rope, Self-Expression through Memorization, Safety, Music and Dance, and Sacrificial Rabbit Raising.

Next to the blackboard on a special pedestal is the royal purple Feminine Woman of Conscience Pageant Handbook; its gold-embossed daisies greet me most every day at three o'clock during the week after school and ten o'clock in the morning on weekends. The first thing my mother likes to do is read aloud from the rules. Besides Rule #2, the Rule of Menstruation, Rules #5 and #6, the Height and Weight Rules, are making her crazy. I'm not five feet tall yet, and I still haven't reached 100 pounds, and while her finger traces along the type and her lips linger on each syllable, making her own exclamation marks where there's only a period, she glances up every other line, noting each swallow of my regulation eight-ounce protein milkshake with its three sawdusty tablespoons of Jimmy Dubois's body-building powder, two raw eggs, and Just Like Heavy Cream instead of milk. We fight over the flavor because she says the chocolate will give me pimples, but I've been winning this one since I puked up the Just Like Strawberry syrup all over the new Just Like Sheepskin carpet.

After she reads a few hundred rules aloud to get us pumped, she starts in with the training guidelines. Today she wore out the section on exercise; I've lost a pound since yesterday and she's convinced that I am not doing my part to build muscle.

"Muscle weighs more than fat, as I have said umpteen times to deaf ears," she complains, and then reads aloud from the Handbook. "The ancient Egyptian water-carrier was able to balance more than one hundred pounds on her head and still keep her back straight and her chin tilted with elegant poise. It was daily practice and proper usage of the neck and spine that enabled her to go forth in her task without failure or humiliation. It is the daily practice of calisthenics that will bring health and energy to the blood circulating throughout your own developing body. Without a regular body-building routine, your form will cease to attract positive attention, will in fact become an object of ridicule and revulsion in the eyes of the opposite sex." My mother closes the book. "Twenty-five pushups."

"Right now? I'm not done with my milkshake."


She's been ordering pamphlets from the government, subscribing to newsgroups on the Web. Several file cabinets in the family nook are filled with motivational literature: manuals of nutrient analysis, hints from retired Olympic athletes, top-secret army drills. I might be impressed by her drive if it wasn’t kind of insulting. Has she forgotten how high I scored in Preliminaries? I ranked in the top ten percent of the whole country (and would have been even higher, were it not for that stupid blow-up dummy). Yet, ever since training began, it seems I can’t do anything quite right. Once I was her adorable string bean. Now, my brown hair is too limp, and I have a cowlick and an uneven hairline; she will never be able to make a decent construction without the use of hairpieces.

My mother's hair is thick as the blackstrap molasses she forces me to swallow to ward off anemia, and eighty-six times as shiny. With her zesty, overripe looks, she is unbeatably female. Her arms and her legs curve in ways that make everyone around her look as if they've been put together by mistake. She walks in a planned, switching way, throwing in a dolphin-smooth undulation every fifteen steps. I tried imitating it a few weeks ago, watching myself in the full-length mirror in her bedroom when she was out, knowing that soon we will start training for Freestyle Walking and I'd better get the rhythm down. I started at the far wall and moved my reflection along her carpet. I held a bottle of her favorite cologne but I didn't open it, not even to smell it. I just wanted to be holding it. My body looked as if the top half was fighting everything below the waist, all stiff knobby hips and needle arms lost in space. It seemed like a good time to crawl under her bed and masturbate, and that's what I did until my hand got a cramp.

Of course I had to get corrective eye surgery, even though I want to wear glasses; she thinks they make me look like an insect. She'd like to get my nose fixed too, because it's blobby, but cosmetic surgery is against Pageant rules for some of us; after the malpractice suit of Girl Scout Troup 76 -- may they rest in peace -- the limit is three procedures, girls over fifteen only. Unofficially, Feminine Woman of Conscience has to be a knock-out. My mother coaxes me to accept her ministerings of Really Red Karma Gel and honey-flavored Rebirth lipstick, and I try not to feel the futility of it all when I see my face in the mirror.

All over the nation, troubled girls are making it into the news: rich girls Buffy Ann Munson and Tanya Jones, the two wackos who tried to assassinate the president; that mystery girl, Lily Gates, who disguises herself as a nun and sets fire to Just Like Meat Planet restaurants; the white-faced comatose drug-overdose victim Penelope Samuels, whose parents want her to die with dignity. Here in our house, all heartbeats depend on whether I use liquid or solid Sin Concealer to hide the dark rings under my eyes. This is the story without an end; everyone else's problems go away as soon as my mother folds up the newspaper and puts it in the trash. I could take some comfort in the fact that all the other girls entered in Deansville's Pageant are squirming under six cubic tons of pressure, too, but I don't. I'm all smiles for the rest of the day when I see some mother slapping her normal-sized daughter's face in the cookie aisle at Grocery Town and shouting, "How did I ever give birth to such a fatso?" But it doesn't make me happy when my mother smirks at the ones who are worse than no competition: the pock-marked, pigeon-toed, frizzy-haired ones. I won’t give her the satisfaction; and I’m as quiet as death about the fact that I'd like to spin seven china plates on sticks and identify the chemical elements that make up a smoking phosphorescent compound and watch the other contestants' faces fall down to their ankle socks. And sure, I'd like to estimate the square root of nineteen billion and five and see the judges' eyebrows rise toward the roof of Deansville's brand new Franklin Echo Dome. I can memorize my ass off, too: give me the Hammurabi Code at noon and by dinner I’ll know it upside down and backwards with my eyes shut and my feet in a vat of boiling potassium dichromate. I want to win. More than she knows, and I have my own reasons. It's Electric Polyrubber Man that's giving me dry heaves. I keep slapping my forehead, cursing my rotten luck: why does this event have to be worth the motherlode 100 points? Why is it that I’d rather crawl inside the mouth of Tyrannosaurus rex than touch my tongue to the blow-up dummy’s upper lip? Why can’t I make out?

I raise myself up off my knees and rub my sore pecs in time to see a flash of caramel-colored limbs through one of the family nook’s high windows. I allow myself a tiny sigh of self-pity. If only those backflipping knees had never appeared in our neighborhood, never graced my school, my mall, my town, the house across the street.

They belong to Lana Grimaldi, Italian gymnastics queen and professional floogie-smoker from the Bronx, the most beautiful girl I have ever met. Lana Grimaldi: girl of long reedy hands that trail covetously across the hood of her father's prized Triumph TR3, that sweep the bangs off her forehead, pluck dandelions (the very ones that brighten and dishonor the perfect green of our front yards) for her Just Like Coke bottle bouquets. Those hands of hers rub summer rain on her bare tan arms, crumble sticky buds of mooch into a rolling paper, zip up her jeans after a secret pee in the topiary; the bones and fingernails of those hands are a wonder. One day those hands will rest against my face, my neck. They will slip down inside my shirt, glide effortlessly through skin and buzzing nerves, wiggle their way between my ribs and grab my heart.

I live off the scraps of her: Lana, slamming the screen door, roller-pole-vaulting at high speed down our street and out of sight; Lana, twirling cartwheels in the fields behind the convent and hollering obscenities at the top of her voice; Lana, face pale, smoking Bull's Eye cigars up at the reservoir telling me what a sonofabitch her father is, underneath his restaurant smile. Best of all, Lana, alone on that Friday night, lying face up on the roof of the Sweeneys’ tool shed next door, staring at the black-leafed box elders and smiling when she saw me looking. That was the night she grabbed my hand to help me up, my heart knocking like hell in my chest. Later, after she'd actually taken me into the warm web of her confidences, she lit up another floogie and held my face to receive the smoke she blew straight into my rosy lungs. Her lips granted me the sweet, dirty air, and I took all of it.

Her hands were what made me finally see it. Those hands can corner the world, while I just stand by open-mouthed and dizzy. Those ten restless fingers waved at me one day and seemed to switch on an infinite number of stars inside my body, lighting me up like the dawn of the world, firing a torpedo message straight to my brain that said no way will you be one iota convincing as you try to raise Electric Polyrubber Man's penis, even though he is only a robot with cold, computerized responses, even though you are not required or even allowed to go all the way and pop your cherry, no way can you survive his synthetic beard burn on your cheeks as you perform your snaky tongue moves in his polystroob mouth. It's Lana Grimaldi's smart-alec tongue you want to suck like your life depends on it, and bet your ass there's no multi-million-dollar headdress in the world you're going to win for wanting that.

by Lisa Lerner
Farrar, Straus & Giroux