Beauty Queens

13,056
05.03.2019

“Oh.” Adina hadn’t had a close friend since Roxie Black in fourth grade, who let Adina borrow her headband. Adina and Roxie both got lice and Roxie’s mom didn’t let her come over much anymore. “Well, thanks.”

“No problem. Still hoping for Miss Congeniality when we get back. Oh, there’s another one!”

Adina made a stab, but the golden fish was too swift. “You’ll never evolve!” she shouted as it swished away. “Just like Ray Marshall.”

Mary Lou laughed. “Okay. No love for Ray Marshall. Ex-boyfriend or something?”

“What? God, no. He’s this idiot in my Adolescent Issues class who spends the whole time putting things in his nose. I don’t have a boyfriend. I don’t need a man to be complete.”

“Oh. Sure.”

“Plus, there is the small problem of none of the guys in my high school being interested. My teachers say that when I get to college I’ll meet guys who aren’t intimidated by a smart, confident girl.” With a grunt, Adina stabbed again and again at the water, coming up empty. “What about you? Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No. I used to. Sort of,” Mary Lou said, playing with her purity ring. Her fingers were thinner, and it fit loosely now.

“A sort-of boyfriend? Is it like a time-share and you get him for a couple of weeks in May and November?”

Mary Lou fashioned a chain from grasses, carefully knotting them together, end to end. “We were dating. And then we weren’t.”

“Okaaaay,” Adina said. “That’s not cryptic. What happened?”

In her mind, Mary Lou saw Billy’s horrified face, heard him say, “What’s wrong with you?”

“He didn’t really like me,” Mary Lou said softly.

“What? What the hell was the matter with him?”

Mary Lou allowed a small smile. “I think we might have more luck over there.”

The girls waded through the shallows into deeper water. It was a beautiful blue, and they could see tiny neon-bright fish darting about. What they needed was a big one, and they waited.

“Have you ever been in love?” Mary Lou asked after a period of quiet.

“Me? No. Not really. The closest I got was when I dated Matt Jacobs for one summer. He was smart enough. And nice. Too nice. He stared at me all moony-eyed a lot.”

“Sounds romantic to me,” Mary Lou said.

“It was irritating. Too much devotion feels like an obligation. Anyway, I think Matt and I were doomed from the start because of our musical disconnect. I mean, he burned me a CD with Feast for the Fishermen23 on it. Feast for the Fishermen! Such a sex killer.”

Mary Lou thought back to that night in the back of Billy’s station wagon. How close they’d come. Her heart beating so quickly, every sense sharpened. She had wanted to throw away all the rules and eat up the world. Even her skin had been full of want. And that want had been her undoing. Billy’s eyes wide with alarm. What’s wrong with you? Mary Lou had run off into the night, hiding in the sheltering stalks of the cornfields until it was safe to face the world again. Her mother had taken one look at her when she came through the door at dawn and she had known. They had the ring made the next day.

“Are you okay?” Adina was looking at her strangely.

“Yeah!” Mary Lou said quickly.

“You don’t have to do this if it makes you queasy.”

“No. I’m okay. Oh, hey, bulrush.” Mary Lou pointed to the tall stalks bordering the pond.

“What’s a bulrush?” Adina asked.

“This funny little plant. They grow wild on my uncle’s farm. You can eat the roots and this white part of the stem. It’s pretty tasty. And the tougher stems are really strong — we used them to make sit-upons in Girl Scouts. These’ll be good for tonight.” Mary Lou yanked one up by the roots. “So do you think you’ll ever meet The One and get married and have kids?”

“‘The One?’” Adina snorted. “My mom has had five husbands, and every single time, it was ‘The One,’ and every single time, it was like I lost her. Like she shape-shifted into whatever form the guy wanted till I couldn’t recognize her anymore. I’m never letting some guy come in and change me.”

“But don’t you think …” Mary Lou stopped to regroup her thoughts. “Love has to change you some, right?”

Adina shrugged. “I guess. But all those romances they feed us are wrong. They make us think it’s just supposed to be hearts and wind machines and boys who slay dragons for you.”