Q: Why are you at the World Supermodel Pageant?
Q: What is your favorite imaginary creature and why?
Q: How far would you be willing to go to improve your body?
Q: Describe your pain threshold.
Q: What makes you sink, makes you squirm with anxiety, makes you pick at your scalp and bite your hands?
“Greetings, judges! I’m wearing a strapless charcoal mermaid gown by Night Moves. I picked it because of the fluted bottom. Also, the price on the sale tag. I think it’s flattering, but not too bright. You know, like, classy. My mother stuck pennies in a glass pig for a year so I could buy it. I wish she were here, but she had to stay home in the States. She manages a restaurant—That’s it? That’s all I get to say? Uh, okay. Thank you.”
She strolls out in a string bikini.
The lights hot fake suns.
Foundation battered over her freckles, pads in her cups. She tied the strings extra tight so her breasts pop.
Suck in. Elongate that posture. Flatten the middle, thrust the aboves and belows.
She has been doing crunches on carpets for months. Since she arrived in Fiji, she’s done AM sprints alongside an alien ocean. She felt it with her baby toe the night she arrived. Piss warm, plasma warm, but she couldn’t risk ruining her bikini for the Swimwear Segment with a swim.
She turns and sticks out her rear.
There is applause.
The judges notate and she walks offstage, into the darkness where the flashing eyelinered eyes of other bikinied girls blink like a galaxy of mean stars.
There is no talent section.
It’s how you glow under the halogens. How you walk in heels like you’re walking in bare feet, how you carry a glittering dress on your bones like a pair of jeans. It’s being fourteen and pretending such ease with your shape. It’s confidence that oozes and shouts. It’s your body the grenade. Your smile the gun. You will murder your competition with your strut, with the artillery of stilettos, the way you accept the practice crown, made of gold paper, and blink a single tear and feel it rollllllll as the twelve judges watch and make more notations.
Somewhere, mother is at home watching, yelling at the screen.
Q: What has been the biggest disappointment in your life?
She stood on stage, the judges still silhouettes, cameras steady. Her mind raced with flashcard-memories; her father on another coast with another daughter; the schools she left for etiquette lessons; the living room of her mother’s apartment, collaged endlessly with Vogue and Glamour cutouts; the fridge filled with veggie trays and Slim Fast shakes; pills in red boxes; hair bleach that burned; the boyfriend who called her “the orange skeleton” in seventh grade; the hunger, that melded with the desire to win, and all became one human hole.
“I don’t know,” she said to the judges. “World poverty?”
The judges shook their heads and one of them sighed, “Oh, Lord.”
She could hear the gaggle of her competitors backstage, whisper-giggling.
It was over for her.
She might as well have drowned.
Fiji was a long blue floor of ocean, skyline asterisked with palm trees, sand white as powdered teeth. The resort was filled with teenage queens with copper limbs and luxurious hairdos, tiger-thirsty. Some wore sharp-eyed mothers or whispering managers on their arms. She was the only one who had come alone.
On the last day, before she left for the airport, she abandoned her suitcase in the lobby and walked the beach. She wore her Second Runner-Up medal, a fake gold coin on her chest that she flipped the wrong way to hide the words.
There was the Winner, Miss Photogenic, Miss Congeniality, Best Swimwear, Best Evening Gown, Runner-Up, and then there was Second Runner-Up.
Gulls yapped, the ocean hissed and spit, her steps made valleys. She stopped at one point and stuck her finger in the sand and put it in her mouth, crunched the grit in her teeth hoping they might split and shatter.
She walked until the sun changed position and the resort looked shrunken as a doll’s house on a cove.
She climbed up on a rotting dock. A fishing boat was tied to the end of it, men onboard barking in another language.
She shuffled toward them, flipping her Second Runner-Up medal.
They were pulling something from the water. Something glistening, shark-sized, but flesh-colored, with a scaly bottom twitching.
It was a mermaid, her head impaled on a mighty hook.
Auburn tresses stuck to her shoulders, breasts swaying, arms hanging, a hook up her mouth and out the backside of her skull, brain leaking, blood rivering down her torso.
Though she was dead-pale, her eyes reached for the Second Runner-Up on the dock, flashing but saying nothing.
Her tail quivered and then slackened.
The men slid her off the hook and cheered as her body thumped the boat floor.
The Second Runner-Up turned around and walked back up the beach, watching the resort swell bigger from proportion, first a doll’s house, then a child’s playhouse, then a resort again.