Miss Teen USA

Olivia Lowenberg

I was hungry for everything that summer. Peaches, pears, and even plums – which I had hated as a child. Green tea, root beer, spicy peppers, and honey mustard. Salt-and-vinegar potato chips that I licked and put back in the bag. The food of wanting.

Pools of sweat collected around my ankles, dripped through my socks. What do you do when you’re waiting? I added and subtracted the letters in our names. I counted the dots on the ceiling in multiples of five. I said the alphabet backwards. I drew pictures on my hands: flower, star, anchor, cross. And then, abruptly, Gabe clicked off the fan and said he would take me out for ice cream.

The orbit of my body had changed so much after I got pregnant. I was heavier, tilted forward, struggled to stand. Gabe muttered, hoisted me into his arms, and I became weightless. Together, we glided out to the car. Gabe drove with one hand on the steering wheel and the other draped out the window, tracing shapes in the wind. I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw my face. We didn’t have any reflective surfaces in our apartment. I was startled by what I looked like: I had a pattern of acne on my neck and long, ratty hair. Gabe caught me looking and turned the mirror away.

“It’s a sin,” he said, “to want. To search for things that aren’t there.”

At the ice cream shop, Gabe parked and got out first. He came around the car and opened the side door for me. He unclicked the seatbelt and slid it back over the moon of my belly. I knew, then, why he was so willing to travel. Here, eight months pregnant, it was impossible for me to walk fast, let alone run. I had never considered escaping before. Gabe had told me what would happen if I tried.

“Get up, Ellie,” Gabe said, and took my hand. “What do you want? Rocky Road? That’s what I’m getting.”

I told him I didn’t feel hungry. Gabe bought the Rocky Road for himself. We clasped hands and said grace. Chunks of chocolate and vanilla bruised and melted down the sides of the bowl in thick trails. My stomach churned. Gabe waved his spoon in the air. I concentrated on the little driblets flying off the end of it.

“Rachel?” a voice asked. “Rachel, is that you?”

I looked up. A woman stood next to our table. Her face was in shadow from the sun; I squinted to make out her eyes, and then I recognized her. It was Holly, from before. We had done pageants together.

Gabe stood up. “No, this is Ellie.”

Holly shook her head and looked at me again. “I could have sworn it was you.” The bell above the shop door dinged as she left.

“I’m going to get you something to eat,” Gabe said. “Maybe a milkshake. Would you like that?”

“Yes, please. Strawberry.”

Gabe told me that I needed to drink it in the car. It was important, he said, that I get as much rest as possible. I had heard that speech before. I stayed where I was in my seat while he paid, and then he returned to help me back to the car. Then he handed me the pills. I was supposed to take them every two hours. He said they would be good for the baby – Folic acid –

but they always made my head swim.

After a moment’s effort, I was able to put my feet up on the dashboard. My toes were bare, lacking something. I tried to think of the word – nail polish? That brought back a memory: muffled laughter and cheers at my first pageant, when I was five years old. Gabe was there, too, staring at the sparkles on my dress and holding onto his mother’s hand. When I got older I started traveling to pageants by myself, or with Holly, and Gabe followed me.

We stopped in front of his building. This was only the second time I had seen what it looked like from the outside, and I carefully catalogued every detail, as if I were reading a face. I scanned up the floors, trying to piece where our – his – apartment was. Gabe slid the seatbelt back over my belly again and lifted me out of the car. He carried me through the front door, to the elevators. He opened the door to the apartment, laid me on the couch, and turned the fan back on.

“Wait,” I said. “Can you hand me the things I… the things you let me take with me when we left?”

A shadow crossed Gabe’s face, and then was gone. I wiped the sweat from my eyes.

“You’re so free here,” he reminded me. “You don’t need to remember the past.”

He kept the box on the bookshelf next to the couch. When we came here, it was one of the first things he had placed in the apartment. Before I got pregnant, I was small enough to stand next to him at the sink, and we would start our mornings that way: me with a black eye, him with his coffee.

  “Please give it to me,” I said, gently but firmly. The baby kicked as if it could hear me.

He sighed and handed it to me. It was a small box. All I had had time to pack was a few photographs, my diary, and a tube of lipstick. As if I’d been fleeing a house fire. I unscrewed the cap of the lipstick: it had turned waxy and soft but still smelled like roses. If I closed my eyes I could see it all again. How excited he was that I’d finally agreed to live with him. The smile on his face that matched the smile on mine. The long drive to his apartment. Shapes skittering across the road that looked like animals. I remembered the song that was playing on the radio, how the lyrics seemed to describe this, and only this, moment in time, this feeling.

I was looking for myself. And then I found her in a photograph, standing next to Holly Marsh. My face, but with shorter hair and smaller acne scars: Rachel Harbinger, Miss Mermaid in the Desert, 2016. I remembered cheering voices; a hand lightly touching my shoulder; the way the crown felt when they slid it over my hair. How it was heavier than I thought it would be. We went to states after that, and then nationals. We shared furtive kisses in the dressing room before I was called onstage, her candy-colored dress rubbing against my skin. My cheeks heated at the memory: the only reason my parents had approved of pageants was because I was good at it and earned money. They never knew about Holly.

“Do you want to go back outside?” Gabe asked.

I turned over the picture, folded it, and reached down as if I was going to put it back in the box. I tucked it inside my left sock instead. I had found Rachel. I would find Holly again too.

“I thought you didn’t want people to see me,” I said.

“I changed my mind,” he said. He smiled and kissed my forehead. “Just don’t talk to strangers.” He handed me two more pills.

It was, if possible, even hotter outside than it was in the tiny apartment. The sun was a tight, beaded eye, and I found myself staring up into it. When I closed my eyes, I saw shapes – men and women – dancing across my lids.

“The roller rink might be fun,” he said, unusually cheery. “It’s cooler there. And I can buy you another milkshake.”

At the roller rink we skated in circles, his hands cradling my stomach. When he spun me, I looked for Holly, but didn’t see her. There was a group of church ladies sitting in the corner by the food court, dressed conservatively in black despite the heat, enjoying a day away from the church center that dominated downtown Agave. One of the women stood up and came over to us.

“Are you all right?” she asked me. “You look pale, honey.”

Gabe spoke for me. “She’s fine, ma’am.” He was charming her the way he used to charm me, a smile coating his lips, convincing her that there was nothing to worry about here.

And then I saw Holly. I saw her at the far end of the rink, dunking French fries in ketchup and talking to someone, a face I couldn’t see in the shadows. Holly threw back her head and laughed. I tried to skate towards her, but Gabe held me back. Holly heard the click of my skates and looked up. Then she drifted back to the food court to join her friend, a woman with long, blue hair.

“We should go home,” Gabe said quickly. “That church woman was right, you’re looking pale. What did I tell you about talking to strangers?” He meant it as a joke, but I could see the warning in his eyes. Gabe walked me back to the car with his hand loosely curled around mine, our fingers sweaty and slipping over each other. He handed me another pill to take in the car. I pretended to swallow it. I was tired of how useless the pills made my body feel.

We came home again. He laid me on the couch, went into his room, and closed the door. There were three rooms in his apartment: the main room, which had a fan; the bathroom, which had a barred window; and Gabe’s room, which had a lock from the inside. I had only seen Gabe’s room once. That was eight months ago. If I strained my ears, I could hear voices coming from the apartment above me, snatches of the movies they watched on TV or the music they liked to play. I could imagine what their lives were like. I could remember mine.

Gabe burst out of his room. “Do you know what this is?” he yelled, waving his phone in my face. “They’re hosting that pageant thing at the arena downtown. Did you plan this?”

“No,” I told him. I awkwardly turned my body to face away from him. “I don’t have the energy to plan anything, you know that.”

He wasn’t listening to me anymore. “There are going to be reporters there. All of them are going to wonder where Miss Teen USA went.”

“My mom knows where I am,” I reminded him.

“No, she doesn’t,” Gabe said. His voice turned nasty, arrogant. “I never told her, or any of them, where my apartment is, and I changed the license plates on my car.”

My stomach flipped. The one last shred of security I had held onto for the past eight months, that somewhere, somebody knew where I was, was gone.

“I’m going to go,” Gabe said. He wasn’t looking at me anymore. “Maybe one of the girls will come back and join you.”

The night of the pageant, he turned off the fan, clicked off the lights, and locked the door. I lay as still as possible until I knew he was gone. I heaved myself to my feet and turned the fan back on. My head was already starting to clear. I went to my box and applied my lipstick. It had such a creamy texture; I had forgotten that. I stared at the spot on the bathroom wall where the mirror should have been and told myself I was beautiful.  Then I walked to Gabe’s room and tested the door. He had left it unlocked. I pushed it open. The people above me laughed and watched TV.

His room looked exactly like I remembered it; only the sheets were new. The room had a nightstand, a set of shelves, and a closet. A large window, looking out on the street below, dominated one wall. I heard a car alarm go off and, farther away, police sirens echoing in the valley.

“All right,” I told myself. “Time to get out.”

I heaved open the window. I jumped and fell, hard, on the pavement below. Ambulance lights swirled around me as I lost consciousness. When I woke up, it was almost dawn, and I had that tilting feeling you get when you haven’t had anything to drink or eat for a long time.