In my youth I remember my parents fawning over me. “Oh, such a pretty little girl,” they said. “Skin white as snow, hair black as jet, lips red as berries.” They even named me ‘Snowe’. That ‘e’ on the end was, I suppose, their creative twist. They always considered themselves somewhat avant-garde although in reality, before the pageants, we lived in the squalor of a trailer park, supported solely by government food stamps and my father’s seemingly permanent unemployment checks.
I was eight years old when my parents first decided it would be a good idea for me to enter the Little Princess Glamour Pageant. At age eight, I was perhaps a late bloomer, but that was the year my parents became avid fans of children’s beauty pageants, after having persuaded my Uncle Billy Jack to hook up a pirate cable station in our trailer. After a while, even Uncle Billy Jack thought their obsession with children’s pageants was quite bizarre and unhealthy. Billy Jack attempted to unhook the cable, but once it was up and running, he could not seem to undo it no matter how hard he tried. My mother just smiled, hands on her hips as she watched. “Who’s the fairest, who’s the fairest?” she’d scream to the TV, often playing a game with herself to predict the winner. The TV reception was fuzzy but still, it gave my parents plenty of ideas.
Finally, they bought a thrift store dress, some cheap rhinestone jewelry and entered me in the pageant. I had no say in this matter.
As it turned out, I won first place. My parents drooled over me and drooled even more over the $10,000 prize money I pulled in. This began a long journey of what I call my ‘Pageant Years’.
I became known for my trademark look; pale as a corpse, coal black hair, blood red lips. I was almost a child vampire and I suppose my exotica impressed the judges. I was never allowed to go out in the sun, for my mother feared any bronzing of my skin or lightening of my hair would alter my appearance and end my winnings.
As I got older, my mother fussed and worried about keeping me ivory white. She took to bleaching my skin with sponges soaked in Clorox. They burned like a wasp’s sting and made me smell like a chlorine pool. My mother also darkened my hair with shoe polish.
At the age of twelve I was taken to a disreputable doctor who injected my lips with Botox and some type of stain to keep them permanently red. He charged an exorbitant amount of money for this procedure. The red lip dye affected my taste buds. All food became cardboard to me. This may have been just as well, as my parents then put me on a diet of wheat germ and vega-thaw to keep my weight down. “The swimsuit competition is IMPORTANT, Snowe,” my mother said. “We can’t have you getting chubby now, of all things!”
At age fourteen I was taken to a plastic surgeon for breast enhancements and liposuction. By then my mother was worried that my skin had lost its little girl elasticity, and my father thought my breasts were not developing fast enough. The surgery rid my thighs of every ounce of cellulite. My new breasts ballooned like enormous silicone melons. My parents then hired a personal trainer. He was a Nazi taskmaster who did all but crack a whip at my back to keep me ‘fit’ and ‘nubile’. I performed a four hour daily workout routine which included weight training, calisthenics and long distance running.
As a result of my low caloric intake and this constant exercise, my body hardened to a mass of muscle. I never menstruated. My mother thought this was a good thing. The monthly blood flow, she said, would only make me a ‘hag on the rag’.
All this hard work and body alterations apparently paid off, for in my competitions I had no rival. My exotic looks made the judges’ heads spin around. I won title after title. Miss County Cuteness. Miss Bodacious Beauty. Miss Gorgeous Girl. Miss Pretty as a Picture. And the silly lists went on. With all my winnings we abandoned our trailer and my parents bought a mansion on the ritzy side of town.
By the time I was sixteen I was quite tired of this ridiculous routine. I was no more than a trained dolphin, entering competition after competition. How I longed to get away from it all! And so, when Cadbury’s Colossal Carnival came to town, performing for one night only, I saw it as a perfect chance for my escape.
Because my parents kept such a careful watch on me, I normally would not have been allowed out at night, but Uncle Billy Jack helped me. He thought up an ingenious scheme of mixing sleeping tablets in my parents’ cocktails on the night the carnival arrived. It worked wonderfully. By 7 pm both of my parents were in the land of nod. Sprawled on their fluffy couches they snored loudly as their vast home entertainment system flashed image after image. (Mostly beauty pageants.) Billy Jack gave me a ride to the carnival in his pick-up truck. I really wanted him to have a better car, but my parents, as my legal trustees, kept all my winnings to themselves. I had not seen a penny of it. I did not even know how much I had earned.
The carnival itself was magnificent! Ferris wheels and tilt o whirls, spinning reels of neon lights as the zipper and Pharaoh’s Fury rocked back and forth.
There were concession stands of funnel cakes, hot dogs and pretzels. I bought a pink cloud of cotton candy but then cursed my stained lips as the bland wisps of sugar melted in my mouth, tasteless as water. How I longed to be normal! I sadly realized I could no longer remember what ‘normal’ was.
Nonetheless I would not let this ruin my escape plan! I silently admitted, with some sheepishness, that I actually did not have a plan. But I knew I could not go back home.
Lights flashed and harpsichord music blasted. Barkers beckoned, “Step right up!” and arcade rifles blasted. Girls walked with armfuls of teddy bears. Gypsy women in dazzling clothes told fortunes as the merry-go-rounds spun and the bumper cars bumped. In the center of all this chaos was the big top, an enormous tent where the real entertainment was about to begin.
First up were the elephants, next the clowns and then the tigers with their trainer. I watched as they jumped through hoops of fire. I pitied these animals; for they were no better than myself, trained performers, put on a treadmill to entertain the crowd.
Next came the freak show. A bearded lady proudly displayed her two faces, one with a thick growth of hair, the other smooth, feminine, elfin. Two sides of a same but much different coin. There was the Frog Man, his body literally covered with warts. Then a petite contortionist shut her body up like an umbrella, folding limbs like bent spokes until she actually fit into a tiny glass jar. I had never seen anything like it.
Last of all came the troupe of dwarfs. They tumbled onto the stage, dancing, cartwheeling, even swinging on a trapeze.
Directing them was one who I knew must be the leader. His name, I would find out later, was Gilgamesh .
Despite his small stature, Gilgamesh was magnificent. His tumbling and dance skills were matched by no other. Even from where I sat I could see the sinew of his arms, the curve of his calves. My stomach fluttered as I watched him. His complexion was ruddy, with a mane of red hair and a thick neck protruding from his square shoulders. He had short firm thighs and small but wide feet that reminded me of a Hobbit.
I had not met many men before, save for those hideous pageant hosts. Oh, they were annoying, those hosts! Fake smiles, moussed hair and cheesy jokes. But now. Here before me, THIS was a man of the earth!
A tree trunk of flesh, gnarled elbows, deep hard eyes that spotted me from across the ring. This was a real man, and never mind his dwarfism! To say it was love at first sight sounds trite, but Gilgamesh captured me.
At the show’s end I decided I must meet him. I pushed my way backstage, shy as I was, forcing myself every step. I did not know what I’d even say to him. Yet when we met he was oddly gracious. He thought I wanted an autograph and was genuinely surprised to find I wanted no such thing. Somehow I knew, I sensed it would be him who could bring my freedom.
The carnival was leaving town that night and I begged Gilgamesh to take me with him. He cocked his head, looked at me as if I were a sad puppy. I explained every detail of my life at my parent’s house, the terror of the pageants, the alterations that had been forced upon my body. Finally he said he could not refuse me. As the roustabouts packed gear, Gilgamesh and I sat under the stars, speaking of all our hopes and dreams and fears. I felt as if I had known him forever.
It was during this conversation I found myself growing increasingly hungry. The cotton candy had been nothing, a spider web of sugar within me. Gilgamesh, upon hearing the roar of my stomach, promised he had the perfect thing for me. From his pocket he produced an apple. It was large, red and ripe, so big it was a basketball in his small hands.
It had been years since I had eaten an apple. My mother had always been so worried about my sugar intake, even fruit was not allowed. Gilgamesh held the apple to my lips and I eagerly bit in.
It was then the dye that had been implanted in my lips seemed to dissolve. I could taste the apple! For the first time in so many years I could taste the sweet tartness, the faint flavor of earth. It was delicious. Ravenously I gnawed until there was nothing left but the core. I then continued to eat, swallowing every bit, seeds included. I could not stop myself. I then felt my cheeks go hot.
The train was leaving. Gilgamesh said I could ride with him in his bunk. As captain of his troupe he had the largest room. “No luxury,” he said, “But I believe you will be comfortable.” I laughed and informed him I had been raised in a trailer park.
Once we’d boarded the train he directed me to the bathroom. It was there I came upon a small mirror on the wall. Glancing into it, I could not believe my eyes.
Who was the woman I now saw in the glass? To be clear, she was a woman, not a child. My skin was flushed and bronzed, not at all like someone who has been kept from the sun all her life. My lips? They were normal. Normal size. No longer blown out of proportion with Botox. No longer blood red, but a natural color of peach pink. Was I now normal? My hair, although still dark, was a creamy shade of brown, free of the shoe polish dye. I smelled my own arms. No bleach or chlorine. I smelled only my skin and sweat and the green soap I had pumped from the bathroom spout. I smelled like a woman.
I joined Gilgamesh in his bunk. Tenderly, skillfully, he kissed my lips. His fingers found their way to my breasts, no longer silicone but now soft mounds of flesh and nipple, small enough to be cupped in his tiny hands.
In time Gilgamesh and I would be wed. My menstrual cycle would begin and move naturally with the phases of the moon. I would become the mother of his children. In time Uncle Billy Jack would find a skilled lawyer who would help me regain my pageant winnings from my parents. Gilgamesh and I would then leave the carnival, purchase our own farm, and take some of the show animals with us, freeing them as well from this life of bondage.
But for now it was enough that he held me, cradled me in his knotted arms. I shed tears and buried my face in his chest. The train rumbled on through the summer night. I never entered a pageant again.
This post is in response to the daily prompt Youth