This is the second of two parts. Click here to read Part 1.
It was the morning of the pageant, June 26, and the seven contestants for the title of Mrs. Maryland and I, the sole entry for Mrs. Washington, D.C., were opening our gifts to each other. At least I was opening their gifts to me, since my spam filter ate the e-mail from the pageant director, Laurett, about the gift-giving.
The Mrs. Maryland contestants ranged in age from 20s (Amber, with her destined-to-be-a-beauty-queen name, was there with her infant son, whom she took breaks to nurse), to, like me, 40s (Diane, a former Army supply specialist who was about to become a grandmother). Everyone looked great in their bright, summery outfits, their hair and nails professionally done, exuding confidence in their good looks. I exuded neglect. I had blown dry my hair, put on a pair of baggy jeans, and was without a manicure. I felt like one of those cuckoo's eggs that gets dumped by its mother to be hatched in a bluebird's nest.
Laurett then handed out her goodie bag. It included a pair of rhinestone earrings, with different designs for each contestant. Nikki, who had dark hair and eyes, alabaster skin, and perfect features and figure, locked on my prettier earrings.
"Would you like to trade?" she asked, smiling. I wouldn't, but I realized this was my one pathetic shot at the Mrs. Congeniality title. I made the exchange.
Everyone was on her best behavior, trying to be subtle as we assessed each other's assets. Laurett got up to speak. She began by dropping her bomb. "Emily is going to be crowned Mrs. D.C." I felt all the bluebirds turn to me as they realized there was someone in the nest who definitely didn't belong. "She's the only one who stepped up, so she deserves it."
After brunch we all headed off, garment bags slung over our shoulders, to the community recreation center where the pageant was to take place. It was being held in a simple, fluorescent-lit meeting room, with no stage, two tables for judges, and about 60 folding chairs for guests. Heather, the current Mrs. Maryland, led us through the opening dance number to some Latin-sounding song coming out of a boombox.
It was very much like the moves in any aerobics class, but having to remember which leg is my right and which is my left is why I stopped taking aerobics. The other contestants seemed oblivious to the surroundings, projecting dazzle as if they were on a stage in front of a million viewers.
Then Heather had us practice our evening-gown walk. I didn't know if the others were taking pity on me or just didn't want me to mess up the show, but they had plenty of good advice. "Turn to face the judges and keep looking at them even when you're walking by," said Diane. "You've got to sell yourself." Sybil, a real estate agent and 37-year-old mother of four, said that I held my body completely wrong when I posed. "You've got your rear forward and your shoulders back. Reverse that." All the women except Amber were pageant veterans, several having started on the Miss America circuit. One told me she had gotten into the Miss America pageant because of the scholarship money. There are no continuing-education prizes in the Mrs. pageant. But as they chatted about the future pageants they were considering entering, it was clear this was no passing girlhood fantasy of being chosen the most beautiful. It was a perpetual chance to be celebrated for the hard work they put into perfecting themselves.
For the bathing suit walk, we were to come out with a wrap tied over our hips, then drop it and turn to give everyone a good view of our backsides. (Sybil loaned me a scarf to use as my wrap, which earned her my vote for Mrs. Congeniality.)