From the stage, Marissa Olive sees only coconuts: some rounder or hairier than others while the stage lights extinguish each coconut’s flesh and eyes, but those eyes still see. They bear witness to little girls parading around like live dolls.
Somewhere in that horizon line of heads, Marissa’s mother takes note of the girl’s walk and smile. Her Ma grew up in Jamaica where pageant queens become Miss Universe and then marry rich men like Bob Marley.
Marissa doesn’t want to become the pretend-queen of the galaxy or marry a cultural icon.
The pageant stage announcer spits, “Marissa Olive from Fort Worth, Texas, is an A-student who aspires to become an engineer and dancer.” Marissa bites down and spreads her lips into a facial expression that should mean she’s joyful despite the lie this smooth-speaking narrator offers to the audience. Marissa can only give the smile a sense of authenticity when she thinks about playing soccer in a baggy t-shirt and shorts. She imagines chopping off her hair as she widens her smile and pivots downstage. The round of applause from the coconut heads sounds about the same as every other girl’s, and the announcer moves on to telling the crowd about Deborah Stevens from Dallas, Texas.
Marissa walks down the steps, and thanks the stage assistant for reminding her to start changing for the talent portion.
“Someone taught you manners,” the short-haired assistant says.
“I like your hair,” Marissa tells her.
The assistant runs her hand through the brown spikes on her head and smiles.
Marissa won’t feel good winning a crown, but if she doesn’t win, her Ma’ll unzip the puffy organza dress, pull down the crinoline, and before she can even remove the cubic-zirconia earrings, her Ma’ll pull her down on the bed by the ears and use some kind of leather strap over every part of her back. Marissa will be forced to wear a turtleneck—even though it’s September in Texas—for a few days. If she doesn’t place at all, her Ma’ll take the buckle on the end of the leather strap to Marissa’s shoulder blades and tailbone. If she does win, they might go to Jack in the Box to indulge in those 99-cent tacos like when she won Miss Sunburst a few months back. After that pageant, her Ma didn’t take a belt or a shoe or an instrument of any kind to her body for an entire week. Marissa’s mouth widens, revealing more baby teeth.
As Marissa walks into the ballroom designated as the girls’ changing area, she wonders if any other mothers skipped paying the electric bill for the costumes and entry fees needed to participate in this charade.
Marissa couldn’t be happier there’s a rule that moms aren’t allowed backstage once the pageant begins. She’s the youngest in this group of nine-to-twelve-year olds, and almost all the girls are taller, their legs longer. Marissa sees the one girl who’s shorter struggling with her zipper. The announcer identified the girl as Heather from Keller, Texas, and there was muffled laughter from the other girls when Heather waved at the end of the stage. Marissa thinks Heather might have Turner’s Syndrome like her mother. Big head, little body, butterfly wing-sized ears. Her short stature makes it look like she should be with the five-to eight-year-olds.
Marissa walks over to Heather. “I’ll help you with yours if you help me with mine.”
Heather pulls up her curls. She has almost no neck, just a big head and shoulders. “I’m adopted. My mom makes me do this.” Marissa unzips Heather’s velvet dress; it’s perfect for Christmas Eve Mass.
“You’re a lot prettier than your mom,” Heather says.
Marissa turns around and Heather unzips Marissa’s pink organza dress. She wants to rip the itchy gown off, stomp on it, then give it to her wolf-dog and let him rip it shreds. But she doesn’t have a wolf-dog and she can’t tear it to shreds herself.
Heather picks up her hunter green dress and holds it over her chest, the same way Marissa did as soon as hers hit the ground. They stand in the dim ballroom face to face, their fronts covered and backs bare. No one can see the small patches of purple on Marissa’s back.
“I was watching Miss America on TV and told my dad I wanna be like those girls. So he bought me a dress
and here I am. But my mom says they give girls the wrong idea of beauty.”
“It’s a carnival of painted girls. It’s worse than standing behind glass in the display at the mall. My mom’s
made me do that, too.”
“People stare at me all the time anyway. They say You’re so cute. I know they’re thinking You’re a mutant.”
Heather drops her dress so she can put her curls into a ponytail, and Marissa stares at her bare chest. “At least here, the whole point is to get stared at. I don’t want to be cute, I want to be beautiful.”
“You don’t have to stand on a stage to be beautiful. You and my Ma both got that mixed up.”
“I saw her burn your forehead with that curling iron.”
Marissa tugs at her bangs.
“Don’t worry, you can’t see it. Your hair’s thick.”
“My mom tries to make it curl. It won’t.”
“Everyone else’s hair is curled up. But yours is straight like a Japanese princess.”
“I’m not Japanese.”
Heather shrugs, and the stage assistant makes a whispered announcement that the first girl has five minutes before the talent portion begins. She winks at Marissa, who winks back.
Marissa’s second-to-last. She sees Heather button up a collared shirt with cacti and cowboy boots all over it.
“Are you roping calves?”
“I’m Patsy Cline.”
“You don’t look much like her.”
“I’m singing Crazy.”
“Singing country is my dream. My mom’s best friend says I have a good voice. “
“Why don’t you just do it as your talent?”
“Dunno. Ma won’t let me. She wants me to dance.” Marissa pulls a unitard out of her duffle bag.
“Maybe she thinks you’re a better dancer.”
“I’m not. But she wants me to be.”
“Your mom wants them to see you in a leotard.”
“Close,” Marissa hold her outfit for the talent show up to Heather. “A unitard.”
“Doesn’t she know unitards are for the ‘80s? And so’s that color.” Heather tugs at the purple spandex. “But you can pull it off. And we’re just barely in the ‘90s. What’re you dancing to?”
“Flashdance. ‘What a Feeling’.” Marissa puts the white sequined headband around her head. It stings the burn but covers it. The unitard will cover her bruises.
“I love that movie. You can do that?”
“Kind of. Less flashy.”
“It’s all about the flash here. You could sing it. Bet you’ve danced to it enough to know all the words.”
Heather turns to finish dressing. Marissa slips on the unitard with her back to the wall, cinches the elastic belt around her waist, and waits for Heather to put on her pointed boots and cowboy hat. They walk to the backstage curtain. Marissa doesn’t like other people touching her but she stands shoulder to shoulder beside Heather and doesn’t flinch. Marissa wishes her new friend luck as she walks up the stairs to the stage.
Heather holds her free hand to her heart as she croons but her voice breaks in the final chorus. The girl standing behind Marissa, who happens to have the whitest teeth, laughs.
“You have lipstick on your teeth,” Marissa whispers.
The girl uses her index finger like a toothbrush and inadvertently wipes the fuchsia paint from her lips.
Heather is already changing back into her velvet dress for the finale when they call Marissa’s name. She asks the stage assistant for a mic and sticks it in the stretchy belt around her unitard. “Turn the music down when the words start.”
Blackness envelops the audience and stage, and Marissa drops the mic downstage in front the judges’ table. She finds the X on center stage, kneels, and the spotlight blazes onto her. The sheer purple unitard sparkles, and as the electrical harpsichord begins in B-flat, she unfolds vertebrae by vertebrae, looking out into a collection of coconuts. Rows and rows of coconuts. Marissa spreads her fingers wide and extends her arms like she’s gathering the sun—just as her mother copychoreographed from the movie. Marissa tondues her right leg out into a split, twirls on her butt, and then contracts into a backbend. She rolls with her body fully extended on the ground and rises up to complete a pirouette. The judges are the only coconuts with faces, so she looks the one female judge in the eye. Marissa points her toes as she walks slowly toward the mic and picks it up.
As she begins singing Irene Cara’s words, a single scream erupts from a coconut in the audience. She skips around the stage, wailing from her belly into the mic while the sea of coconuts bob to Marissa’s words. Every coconut, except that one that screamed, the one that knows her, moves to the rhythm of the music.
After she wins the pageant, she’ll give the crown to Heather backstage as they pack up, and they’ll never see one another again. Marissa’s Ma won’t forgive her capricious choices, but Marissa’ll summon the same sense of mania she felt onstage. She’ll kneel and expose her back and surround herself with the bobbing affection of that blackened crowd of coconuts.