Luisa Kay Reyes: Opportunities (Memoir)

My Southern Legitimacy Statement:
I was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The home of the mighty Crimson Tide of football lore. My mother made sure I was born in the South and growing up my grandmother would call me her little “Alabama Belle”.

Opportunities

It was a beautiful sunshiny day.  And as I gazed out of the my window in the backseat of the car, all I could think about was how nice it would be to spend the day playing outside and enjoying the lovely day.  Maybe we could go to the park or go for a walk in the woods, but surely there was some way to take in this beautiful weather.  It just looked so inviting to me.  And it was a Saturday, so we didn’t have any school.  Also, summer hadn’t arrived yet, so the day was still cool and pleasant.  The perfect day for childhood play.  And, oh!  How I wished I could be outside to enjoy it.

Instead, we pulled up to a very dingy looking building that resembled a very remote Veterans of Foreign Wars post.   With the bulk of the haphazard structure comprised of the same ridged thin metal material as the house trailers that frequently blew away when tornadoes struck our college city.  I felt quite shocked at first when I saw this flimsy looking shack.  With the thought crossing my mind that if this was a VFW post, it was one they had surely abandoned long before.  Taking another longing look at the beautiful sunshine outside of my window, I felt my heart plummet down to the depths of the ocean floor.  For I knew that my lovely Saturday morning and afternoon was going to be spent inside of this seedy structure, doing what I least enjoyed in the whole wide world . . . pageants.

We had moved back to the USA from Mexico City and one of the first Southern customs I was introduced to after learning how to politely say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir” was the world of beauty pageants.  From the moment little infants were old enough to be held in their mother’s arms, they were deemed of age to be on stage in these beauty walks.  So even though I was in the relatively young age bracket of the ten to twelve year old girls, many of my colleagues were already long time veterans of the pageant industry.

Curiously enough, one of the main ways of discerning the novices like me from the veterans of pageantry, was simply by how they referred to the events, themselves.  If they actually said “beauty” pageants or “beauty” walks, they were definite newbies.  With little to no chance of placing, much less actually winning.  For there was a love/hate relationship in pageantry with respect to the beauty element.  What mattered was poise, personality, and presentation.  The ideal being represented as sophistication with scholarships being thrown into the mix in the upper levels.  But beauty was carefully avoided . . . until the winners were announced.  Then the most frequent comment one overheard was “Isn’t she beautiful?”

I sighed as we parked the car and pulled out my dresses to carry them inside of this creepy looking dwelling.  It was still a little dark when we actually walked in the door as the lights and the pizazz of the stage were not fully in place, yet.  One lady even apologized to us for them being so far behind in setting up for the pageant.  And we headed to the dressing rooms, where there was more light shining in from the windows and everybody was hanging up their sequined and flouncy gowns with the utmost care.  They were, after all, not cheap.  With even the used ball gowns that were sold by the mothers of the older girls costing more than a shiny pretty penny.

My own dress for the evening gown portion was one of the resold dresses.  It was the desire of everyone to buy one of the dresses from the girls who were multiple titleholders.  And mine was the former dress of the dark-haired karate chopping girl, who was one of the mighty two who continually won every pageant we were in.  While all of the mothers were counting down the days until these two aged out into the next level, to the rest of us girls they seemed to possess an almost superhuman quality.  They were only a year or two older than the rest of us, but it was enough to make them taller and seem all the more invincible.

A few of us noticed the invincible two tended to follow a pattern.  The dark-haired girl who did karate for her talent would win the less important pageants.  While the lighter-haired girl would reserve her extra special inner poise and glamour for winning the more prominent contests.  Today, looked like it was going to be the dark-haired girl’s day.  With the first round of the pageant being the closed one-on-one backstage interview with the judges.

I promptly put on my interview attire and took my place in line. It definitely appeared the light-haired girl was in her interview and pulling off some of her magic.  Since the judges were keeping her in there for a very long time.  Finally, one girl who was helping out backstage glanced down at her watch to figure out how long she’d been in there and everybody around grew solemn.  For it was a known fact backstage that the longer one’s interview took; the greater one’s chances of winning.

After a few more minutes, my turn to be interviewed came.  With the judges asking me one of the typical questions we were usually asked in these interviews; that of “What would you do if you won a million dollars?”  I smiled as I laughed inwardly.  For in my early days I had innocently replied with “Give it to my mama.”  Now I knew the pageant approved answer was something along the lines of “Use it to start a fund to provide clean water and warm meals for the poor malnourished kids in Africa.”  It was a noble enough sentiment, but sometimes I felt more like saying I wanted to help the impoverished kids I had seen when we lived in Mexico.  I had, after all, actually seen their plight first-hand.  But Africa was in vogue for pageants at this time, so I repeated what more than likely the judges had heard several times already.

Returning to the dressing room after my interview, I prepared to get ready for the casual attire round on stage.  Whenever we were asked by the judges during our on stage interview question why we did pageants, the standard response was that it was a nice way to meet new people and be a positive role model for others.  Truthfully, those of us actually participating in the pageants rarely even spoke to each other throughout the entire process.

By far and large, most of the contestants came from either really rural communities in our home state of Alabama or from families of either little to no education.  One would never guess it the way they could exude such perfect glamour on stage, especially during the evening gown portion.  But it puzzled me enough during my childhood that I asked my mother about it.  “Opportunity” she told me.  “They are seeking the opportunities pageants have to offer.”  My mother loved these pageants dearly, but I flat out did not.  So I found it very hard to fathom any opportunities coming from being cooped up inside of this dusty building on a sunshiny Saturday.  But it certainly did seem like something was motivating all of these people to be so very dedicated to these weekend competitions all year long.

The rest of the pageant that day proceeded with no upsets. The invincible duo took home the winning trophy and sparkling tiara, coupled with the first-runner up one.  Leaving the rest of us to hurry backstage and change out of our ballgowns back into our mind bogglingly common everyday attire of T-shirts and jeans.

One time, as the weekend approached, I even pretended I was sick and losing my voice.  Hoping my hoarseness would excuse me from the upcoming pageant.  Today, however, I settled for shedding a few tears backstage in the dressing room.  With one of the mothers of the winning duo complaining loudly and vociferously about how difficult her almost teenage daughter was. The day was mostly over, so the sun was no longer as enticing when we stepped back outside.  But it still felt so good to be free from the confines of that glorified shanty, that when we went outside my tears quickly dried up.

Another weekend would soon come and bring with it another pageant.  But adolescence finally put a welcome end to my pageant days.  Although, not in the way I would have preferred.  Since I went through a very terrible awkward stage during which I gained a massive amount of weight.

Then, over a decade later, after graduating from college and losing some of my adolescent weight gain I was shopping in the mall when the dark-haired karate chopping girl spotted me and recognized me.  She was selling makeup in the Clinique counter of the department store.  And to her credit, she was quite friendly.  But, inwardly, I found it hard to hide my astonishment.  “The opportunities” I thought to myself.  “What happened to the legendary opportunities everybody was seeking so desperately back then?”  Further compounding my bewilderment, the dark-haired girl informed us that the light-haired girl who comprised the other half of the invincible pageant duo was now painting nails at Walmart.  It was respectable that they were both employed. But, as I recalled that long ago day being stuck inside of that dreary dwelling, I realized it was time for me to go outside and catch up on some much longed for beautiful sunshine.