I said that maybe when the judges saw me in my suit, they would decide not to crown a Mrs. D.C. this year, the way the Nobel Peace Prize usually doesn't get awarded during world wars.
That sent Nikki over the edge. "You've got to stop that," she said, putting her flawless face right in mine. "You are going to the nationals. You have won. But you are not out there alone. You are competing against us. You want those judges to look at you and say, 'She blows all those other girls away.' " It was part pep talk, part dressing down.
Chastened, I went to the dressing room, where we hung our clothes on racks and laid out our cosmetics. Amber wondered why we weren't allowed to wear two-piece bathing suits. One contestant explained, "This is a Mrs. contest. Most of us have tread marks."
We began to dress, and almost everyone pulled out a bag of falsies. No one looked surgically enhanced, and as we padded ourselves it seemed almost sweet, like stuffing your bra with tissues before the junior high dance. Amber looked at her falsies and said to the room, "Do I sew these in?"
Everyone told her no. One contestant took out a spray can and explained that she kept hers in place with sports glue. She also used the glue to keep the back of her swimsuit from riding up. Tight ends in football use the same stuff to help them hold on to the ball. Although I lacked a tight end, I was reluctant to glue my bathing suit to it, particularly after one Mrs. told of the time in a previous pageant that a contestant came backstage, ripped off her glued-on bathing suit, and took part of her rear end along with it.
It was time to meet the judges who were waiting in another of the recreation center's Spartan meeting rooms. There were four of them, two men and two women—the women both former beauty queens. Like a speed-dating session, each of us got five minutes with each judge. Their questions were eclectic: Who is a hero of yours? What is success? What message would you like to deliver as Mrs. D.C.? How did you like being pregnant? I was usually pretty good on first dates (it was the follow-up that killed things), so it was almost fun to come up with snappy, sincere, not-too-sappy answers.
Then it was time to run and get into our cocktail dresses and do our opening number. I achieved my goal of not bumping into another contestant while we twirled. Next we were each asked questions in front of the crowd by one of our two emcees. I was interviewed by Michelle, who herself is a current Mrs. District of Columbia United States, but not the Mrs. District of Columbia America, the title I was competing for. (What's the difference? Don't ask.) As I listened to the questions, I tried to connect with the crowd, but they appeared to me as a shimmering, undifferentiated mass. I didn't know if this was the result of nerves or the circulatory effects of my Round the Clock Girdle-at-the-Top pantyhose.
In response to Michelle's questions, I babbled incoherently about working for Slate (I had said on my application that I was a writer), the afghan I took two years to knit, and how I met my husband. At one point I started gesticulating and almost knocked over the microphone. I went backstage, put on my bathing suit, then awaited my turn. It was too late for liposuction. I had to go on.
As I did my circuit for the judges, forcing myself not to run, my smile as joyful as rigor mortis, I had a dissociative experience. "You're home in your sweat pants, you're home in your sweat pants," I keep saying to myself, while hoping none of my falsies popped out the monumental dome of my bathing suit top. After the pageant, I asked my husband just how bad the whole bathing suit thing had been.
"I can't tell you," he replied.
"That bad?" I said.