Late February in North Carolina: hormonal, daffodil-spewing days alternate with days of cold, slobbering rain. All winter long, the white girls have made regular visits to the tanning bed. The backless dresses hang in closets, waiting. At our rural county high school, this time of year brings out the worst in everyone—not so much because of the weather, but because it’s beauty pageant season.
“It’s not a beauty pageant,” the Treasurer tells me for the umpteenth time. “It’s a scholarship competition.”
We are having a student officer meeting in “Condo #2,” one of the trailer classrooms behind the real school building. The Treasurer has just agreed to direct this spring’s pageant, which means that the rest of us, thank god, are mostly off the hook. She actually won when she competed last year, so she’ll be able to anticipate everything before it even happens.
I think back to the Treasurer’s winning performance. Between the typical pop-song renditions and flashy dance numbers, she had emerged onstage wearing a peasant blouse and a long skirt, a white kerchief tied around her head. Her voice, normally small and nasal, seemed to have grown overnight, carrying Sojourner Truth’s famous convention speech to the back of the auditorium. “I have as much muscle as any man,” she proclaimed, pulling back her sleeve and flexing her bicep in an exaggerated, jokey way. The audience laughed. “You need not be afraid to give us our rights,” the Treasurer insisted, “for fear we will take too much.” Every so often, she threw her hand on her hip, punctuating her speech with a refrain: “And ain’t I a woman?” she asked the crowd, her voice trumpeting through the dark.
As I watched her perform, I wasn’t thinking so much about women as I was about how Treasurer was a black girl, and how Sojourner Truth was born a slave. How our classmate, Brandon, had recently been sent home for wearing a confederate flag belt-buckle to school. How Hailey—a white girl on the cheerleading squad with the Treasurer—had recently told me that her father was, of course, completely fine with her having a black best friend, but that he’d bury her alive in the yard if she ever got engaged to a black boy. These things made me ashamed, and I made a resolution then to try and go as far away as possible for college, as if bigotry didn’t exist outside our corner of the country.
At the end of that pageant, the Treasurer stood, posed in her backless silver dress, not fully cognizant that the judges had announced her name. Despite her relative popularity at school, you could tell by the odd, unpracticed motions of her face that she wasn’t expecting to win. But the crowd was cheering crazily. She hesitated as she started her victory walk down the runway. No one said it out loud, but it was probably the first year in school history that the pageant winner wasn’t a white girl. At the runway’s end, she stopped and smiled demurely, looking down at all the hands raised around her.
Now, in my junior year, I’m the student Vice-President, the officer with the vaguest responsibilities. I oversee the changing of marquees, and mostly just find myself bored at the meetings, ask-ing myself the deep questions—does it really make a difference, I wonder, to make Christmas bags that none of the old people at Clapp’s Nursing Home even want? Or what theme we choose for Spirit Week? I’m a spineless sort of leader, though not brave enough to pretend I don’t care at all. It is in this spirit, perhaps, that I am involved with this year’s pageant: as a distant sort of “ceremonial leader,” which, as we learned in U.S. History class, is what you call your executive when he needs to show up for nameless moral or social reasons, but not to actually do anything useful.
When I arrive at the dress rehearsal, the plywood runway still looks pretty rickety. Some boys are working to reinforce it. My friend Maya is with them, an actual hammer hanging from the carpenter’s loop of her overalls, her spiky brown head bobbing up and down as she surveys her progress. She’s not even in Student Government.
“Who enlisted Maya?” I ask Treasurer. My verb choice suggests someone must have talked Maya into helping.
The Treasurer, who is working on last-minute choreography with the girls, looks at me suspiciously. “Maya said you were stressed out about all this,” she replies. We both know my stance on the pageant, and also that I’ve done very little to help. “She says she is here to help you out.”
I shrug. I might’ve complained to Maya about the pageant earlier that morning. We have guitar class together: our elective, which used to only serve metal-heads and the occasional uptight boy who wanted to learn how to play his Christian rock power ballads. Now, though, girls are slowly finding their way into the class. Outside of school, Maya has taken it upon herself to introduce me to important music from decades past—Fleetwood Mac, Prince, Queen, The Police—which we blare from the Discman-plugged-into-cigarette-lighter setup in her Ford Aspire. If Maya is driving and stops to drops me off at home, I often find myself lingering in the front seat until the song finishes.
From across the auditorium, I see Maya pick up the staple gun, working to attach some fabric and a long garland to the edge of the plywood. The runway looks like a gaudy sheet cake and stretches over the stage pit and the first few rows of the auditorium, sacrificing a few center seats. I sidestep towards her through one of the auditorium rows.
“Hey,” I say. “I didn’t know you were helping with all of this.”
“Oh.” Maya smiles sheepishly, swaggers a little. “It’s cool.” She runs her hand through the back of her hair, which is about an inch long. Since last year, I’ve watched her go through a slow evolution, ditching the paperback Bible she used to carry at all times, replacing her contact lens with black-rimmed glasses, and her ponytail with shorter and shorter cuts. I loved the haircut before this one—a funky-artsy bob, all sass—but this current haircut makes me sort of nervous in a way I can’t explain.
“How are you holding up?” she asks me, as if I’ve recently experienced the death of a loved one.
I motion towards the stage, where the girls keep getting confused about the choreography, intercepting one another like frightened gazelles. “There are still some things to work out,” I say unnecessarily.
“SMILE!” The Treasurer shouts at the girls from the auditorium. “YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE HAVING FUN.” The cheerleader quality has disappeared from her voice. Now she just sounds mean.
The pageant always has a theme. This year, it’s Egyptian. I don’t know whose idea this was. The contestants are wearing their group dance costumes for the first time: shiny gold leotards, black sarongs, bangle bracelets. The leotards are flimsy and unforgiving, a loud disaster for anyone who wears larger than a B-cup bra, or for anyone who isn’t thin. Luckily, most of the dance moves are stiff poses. Beneath the sarongs, they wear nude-colored panty-hose (to simulate bare-leggedness? If your skin is a light beige?), which look alien on almost everyone. White canvas sneakers detract from the overall Egyptian look, but the stage floor is full of splinters, and barefoot dancing hasn’t really found a home in southeast Guilford County. This costume can best be described as middle-aged pool-partier meets a child’s tap recital. The low budget may be partially to blame.
When the music starts again—a mid-tempo, electronic beat—they lean from side to side, punctuating their sways with “Walk Like an Egyptian” poses, with one arm forward, one arm behind. The girls start to move laterally in flock-like formations, as if trying to give the impression of two-dimensional hieroglyphs. I know I may be young, Britney Spears begins to narrate. But I have feelings too. And I need to do what I feel like doing. Occasionally, they hug their own bodies and face the phantom audience dead-on, confronting the empty auditorium with images of being trapped. Their dance song is “I’m a Slave 4 U.” This was the Treasurer’s choice.
It is hard to imagine how this can fly. These are the years before college, before cultural appropriation, orientalism, or anti-Semitic enter my vocabulary. Still, I know enough to know all the ways this might be wrong.
Maya watches them, trying not to laugh. I study the side of her face. There is a faint makeup line near her jawbone, a small cluster of blemishes just below the surface. “You know,” she says over the music, “you should have entered this year. You might have even won. They give you money, right?” She turns to me. “You could have danced, yeah? Or played guitar? That would have been a first for them.”
I feel my eyebrows go up. Despite our distance from the stage, this scene feels too close for comfort: campy pose after pose, bodies shifting inside those identical leotards. But they are all up there: the cheerleaders, the debate champion, the girl-power athletes, and a few girls who are usually quite reserved. There is even the one Goth kid, shocking us all.
We stand like this for a few minutes. I am flushed, too, as if I am also under the stage lights. The song fades out; Britney’s slinky voice evaporates into the dark. In the quiet, I am holding back something that I can’t name. Maya is just behind me. She’s standing so close that her shirt sleeve, a soft cotton, occasionally brushes the back of my arm.
Thankfully, it would probably be against the law for us to include a swimsuit competition. It’s 2002, and this is high school, not Miss America, or Jane Fonda’s Complete Workout. Still, in preparation for the dance numbers and low-backed evening gowns, all the paler girls have their tans perfected. How anyone gets used to the process, I’ll never know. I recall my one try at the tanning salon, a few years back, with my older sisters. I couldn’t stay inside the bed; I felt like a freckled vampire frying in a fluorescent coffin.
This pageant night is the rainy, not-fully-spring-yet variety. In the art classroom, the girls are busy transforming themselves into Cleopatras with blue eyeshadow and liquid eyeliner. The tables normally used for drawing are littered with lipstick tubes, tubs of glitter, good-luck notes, and flowers—some grocery-bought carnations, and a few extravagant rose bouquets from parents or the boyfriend who got the right message. Dress hangers are wedged between the low school ceiling tiles, the evening gowns hanging like gaudy Christmas decorations. The terrible leotards are on; the pantyhose runs are thwarted by clear nail polish.
For my ceremonial duties, I’m dressed in a wide gray turtleneck sweater, black skirt, black hose, modestly high heels: a slightly-more-edgy-than-a-missionary-ensemble.
“You look nice,” Maya says to me. She’s in overalls again.
Next to her, I feel like I’m in costume, maybe even in drag. “I’ll be in the back,” she tells me, motioning to the rear of the theater.
The auditorium is filling with coughs and wet umbrellas. I sit down near the judges’ table with a pen and strips of small paper, thinking up a few more last-minute questions for the final round. “Ask them about the War on Terror!” my loudmouth his-tory teacher says, almost sadistically, when she comes up to say hello. She is from upstate New York and doesn’t fit in well at our school. I consider what she says. I admit there’s some mean part of me wanting a final question with substance, one that might expose the mere parrots in the group, tripping them up. I write down the question and toss it in the fishbowl.
When the lights finally dim, I stand huddled on the wooden step below the stage with the President and the Secretary, waiting to be introduced. The Treasurer walks on wearing last year’s evening gown and tiara, the crowd whooping and calling her name. There’s nothing uncalculated about her this year: she speaks firmly, sticks to her script. She thanks our sponsors, the girls, and the student government. We climb up onto the lip of the stage and give our obligatory wave to the community: ceremonial leader. I stare out into the charged space between me and the EXIT signs, getting a brief sense of what it might be like to perform in these Girl Olympics. I feel exposed.
I have to admit that I’ve never seen the auditorium this packed: not for our guitar concerts, not for any play I’ve seen, not for the warning speech we’d gotten about the SAT, for which our school’s scores, as well as our whole state’s, were shamefully low. Tonight is a scholarship competition, I tell myself, trying to get with the program. Almost every seat is filled, jackets and bags spilling out into the aisles. At the back, I recognize Maya’s figure shadowing the space near the door.
The girls take their places for the opening number, Britney’s beats filling the auditorium. The sexy pulse has the audience hooting before anything has even happened. The dancing starts, gold flashes everywhere. All you people look at me like I’m a little girl. Well did you ever think it’d be okay for me to step into this world? The crowd works itself into a roar. I turn to our glittery Treasurer, who looks mildly pleased. “Go Megan!” someone yells from the back. And then, someone else, for the whole team: “You go, girls!”
Every contestant gets to perform in the talent portion, a democratizing force. But the range of activities is narrow. There are canned songs with dramatic hand-gesture accompaniment, plus a few dance numbers: watered-down ballet or tap mixed with MTV- inspired moves. Some have religious themes. This year, to mix it up, there is one Shakespeare recitation from the Goth girl, complete in a period costume. The night’s most painful moment is listening to a shrill rendition of “Summertime,” the girl’s hand shaking under the microphone creating unintended vibrato. She’s more or less on key, but her timbre is too angular to be pleasing, and too timid to be like, say, Janis Joplin. But as someone whose hands usually shake before any guitar performance, I feel for this girl, watching as she struggles for air in front of the crowd.
As music nerds, Maya and I are mostly rooting for Jamie, a lanky, freckled blonde who is playing a trombone prelude. There has never been a brass player, we guess, in the history of the pageant. We watch her face inflate, her bare arm flex as she grips the trombone slide. Somehow, she manages to make this look graceful, standing up there in her silver evening gown until the interlude from her piano accompanist, when we catch her emptying the spit out of her trombone valve, letting it leak onto the floor behind the piano. “That was awesome,” Maya whispers.
Ultimately, Jamie is chosen for the final round. Goth girl has also advanced, unexpectedly. The last couple of girls are called.
There is a terrible moment just before the curtain goes down for intermission, where you can see the losing girls fully receded into the background, their smiles starting to slip.
At intermission, I duck backstage to grab a few bottles of water for the judges. Everything smells muggy, a mix of flowers and hairspray and sweat. I’m startled by Allison—my closest friend when I was in kindergarten—with mascara running muddily down her face, a pageant cliché. She has just lost. I barely recognize her at first. She is strangely compelling in her song-and-dance, Judy Garland-cross-dressing getup: a fedora, men’s shirt, and tie, an outfit in which she wouldn’t be caught dead in normal life. Only her long ponytail coming out of the back of the hat gives her away.
Even more surprising is her mom standing beside her like an indignant ice skating coach. “I can’t believe this,” I hear her saying in protest to the pageant results. I’m embarrassed for both of them. There are no other parents backstage. It’s true that Allison’s rendition of “The Man That Got Away” was just as good, probably even better, than the other songs. But she’s a jock, spends most of her time playing soccer and running track, and you wouldn’t think she would care about something as stupid as a pageant. Finally, the obvious occurs to me, which is that no one enters a pageant without hoping—believing, even—that she will win.
I’m starting to sweat, my legs sticking to my pantyhose. The rain has stopped by the time Maya and I step outside to the lit area on the cafeteria loading dock. Some of the younger-looking parents are nearby, gossiping about their daughters, looking like high schoolers themselves. This is also where everyone has come to smoke, even though it’s technically banned on campus. This is ironic, seeing how our school is built on the edge of what used to be a very large tobacco field.
Maya leans against the brick exterior. “It’s going fine,” she reassures me.
“I can’t wait until this is over,” I say.
“But you’ve got to admit, it is sort of fun,” she says, “seeing everyone do their thing. “Right?” She pauses. “I should have sucked it up and entered,” she says.
I snort. “Are you serious?”
“It’s just one night,” she points out. “I could really use that scholarship money.”
I try to picture Maya in a rhinestoned evening gown, but it is the Maya I remember from last year: long hair, eyeshadow, carrying the Bible in her purse. For a second, I feel a twinge of jealousy for her willingness to change every year, to not care what others think. I tug at the pantyhose wrinkle at my knee and stare out into the parking lot, which is almost eclipsed by the fog. “There’s always next year,” I say.
She changes the subject. “I think Jamie’s going to win,” she says. “Everyone likes her.”
“She played trombone,” I pointed out.
“True,” she says. “She also looks really good in that dress, though.”
I shift uncomfortably in my high heels. One of the smoking women has turned to us, and is studying Maya, perplexed. With her short hair and dark-rimmed glasses, Maya looks decidedly older, stranger than our class’s usual just-turned seventeen.
I pretend not to notice the way this stranger is staring. Maya has been getting a whole lot of looks lately. Once, a few weeks back, when we stopped for pizza with some music people on the way home from a concert, the waitress had referred to Maya as “sir.” The mistake had offended me, but Maya just grinned. “Did you just hear that?” Maya had asked me. Yeah, I’d said, pretending to look for something in my purse.
When the curtain re-opens, the glass fishbowl appears: a messy, paper-filled oracle, filled with final questions for the contestants. Maya and I don’t take seats, but instead stand in the back, noncommittal. The Treasurer pulls out the early questions: the standard ones about problems facing American youth, or grand proposals for the future of our world. At last, she looks at one of the slips of paper and hesitates. She frowns a little.
“What do you feel is our responsibility,” she asks the contestant, “when it comes to the United States in Iraq?” My heart jumps at the sound of my own words being read aloud.
The crowd mutters. It’s been less than a week since the United States officially invaded, with 9/11 just a few months behind us. Every house between here and town is decorated with an American flag. But it’s unusual for anyone in high school to ask a political question, expect anyone to be aware of political events. I realize, all the sudden, that I know very little myself, have only listened to radio snippets driving back and forth to school, in my car. My stomach flips.
Rebecca, a pale, pre-pubescent freshman, steps forward. My oldest sister used to babysit her, and she doesn’t look much older now than she did then. She’s drawn the lowest number, and so is the first to respond to this. “Can you repeat the question?” she asks, her voice wavering and small. But she changes her mind right away, and starts to speak.
“I believe that…” Rebecca begins, but stops. Her body sharp-ens. It’s terrible to watch: this girl trying to transform the panic flickering inside her brain into something we can recognize. “The responsibility would be that….” She stops again and glances over her shoulder for a second, as if looking for someone to lead her. Then she puts her hand up next to her face, obscuring her mouth.
“I’m sorry,” she says finally. Murmurs from the audience. Rebecca passes the microphone back to the Treasurer, and politely exits from the stage.
I don’t smirk the way I’d imagined I would in this moment. I just feel awful. What was I trying to prove to myself, putting this question in? “This is my fault,” I say to Maya. “Totally my fault.”
“What do you mean?” Maya asks. I don’t respond.
Even the Treasurer looks bewildered, her eyes trying to avoid the space where Rebecca just was. After a moment, the Treasurer composes herself, asks the same question to Tiffany, a blond sophomore in white halter dress. “What do you feel is our responsibility,” she begins again, “when it comes to the United States in Iraq?”
It’s a terrible question, I think. Vague. Like something made up on a standardized test in order to trick someone into choosing the wrong answer. Lucky for all of us, I guess, Tiffany doesn’t flinch, acts as if she’s been waiting her whole life to speak out on the subject.
“Nothing’s more important that protecting our country,” she answers triumphantly, gesturing the audience for community emphasis. “I’m proud. I’m proud of our military.
The most important thing to remember is…” she trails off for a microsecond, almost unnoticed. “United, we stand!” Tiffany smirks a little, the year’s most popular meme ringing through the auditorium. The crowd explodes, cheers moving through the rows like the ripples in a giant American flag.
There is some waving from the judges’ section. They flag down the Treasurer for a quick conference. Finally, they say that Rebecca’s attempt at the question will be thrown out, and not counted against her. I smooth the back of my skirt, absently, feel-ing my face go hot. Rebecca is brought back out on stage, visibly shaken, but the crowd claps lightly for encouragement. She is asked a question about cloning—a question I didn’t write, thank god—which she firmly believes is wrong. She vaguely mentions the Bible’s teachings. An easy sell.
The Goth girl, whose real name is Meredith, also responds to this one. “Every person has a soul,” she says, deliberately. “And of course you can clone a body. But you can’t clone a person’s soul.”
Her voice haunts me in the dark auditorium. I remember a poem of hers, once, in English class: verses about wandering through our local Winn-Dixie, her lines filled with images of cracked linoleum, garish toy machines. In her poem, what I most remember is the descriptions of everyone’s shoes. (“Sometimes I think mine are the ugliest,” she had written, describing her own dirty leather sneakers.) Though she’s made it this far, we know she’ll likely be eliminated after this round. She is just too strange, wearing elbow-length black gloves with her black-and-red lacy gown, and is noticeably heavier than the girls around her. Despite her colorless, stringy hair and pasty skin, she has a kind of beauty: almost like something from another century. Like someone you’d see in a painting, I say inside my head, but then want to correct myself. This, too, feels like the wrong thing to think for some reason, or at least an unoriginal thought.
I wonder if her boyfriend is in the audience. I don’t know his name, but he is recognizable: even in the hot months, he usually wears a cape to school. If only I had this courage.
Realizing that she’s won, Tiffany—whose talent performance was a mediocre rendition of Mariah Carey’s “And Then a Hero
Comes Along,”—opens her mouth in an exaggerated, elastic fashion: Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. I clap numbly, realizing that any small hopes for an oddball winner were unfounded. The Treasurer mechanically removes the tiara from her head, signaling her return to normal life. Her hair is sticking up a little from where she pulled the crown off. The Treasurer has to stretch a little to put the crown on this new, much-taller Miss Southeast, who has just shimmied into her satin sash.
Tiffany holds the rose bouquet across her body like a rifle. She’s a natural. She makes her way down the runway, growing larger and more white-blinding as she walks above the crowd. This makes the Treasurer seem miles from where we stand, a silver star receding into the background. Her shoulders sag a little. I squint, trying to decipher her expression, but she now seems too far away. It’s hard to imagine that everyone will show up on Monday as the regular versions of themselves: jeans and overdone eyeliner, talking too much or moodily silent, counting down the days until spring break.
Now the applause has gone on for so long that it sounds like static. Maya, despite being pretty upbeat about the whole pageant, now looks incredulous. I have seen her wear this confused expression before: that time, for example, that she didn’t realize—because of her dyslexia, she claimed—that she had managed to play the first two lines of a guitar piece with her music score upside down. She turns towards me, as if she’s going to ask me a question. But she doesn’t say anything.
I am supposed to stick around for the night’s clean-up. But my body automatically follows her when she starts to leave, eager to beat the crowd out of the space. I turn away from the stage and the audience, through the double doors and the hallway filled with lockers and trophy cases, and then another set of doors—a very long runway into the outside world. Past the trailers. I step into the fog: what, for weeks, seems to have hidden everything, except for what is right in front of us.
I lift up the bottom hem of my sweater, for air. In comparison to the school building, night somehow feels more like the real world, feels good against my skin. There are too many cars because of the pageant, so Maya hasn’t parked in the main lot.
“My car is parked in Egypt,” she says jokingly, her tribute to the theme of the evening.
I ditch my shoes a few minutes into the walk, choosing the numbing, soggy ground over the feeling of the high heels stabbing into my feet. When we get to the gravel edge of the lot, I stop.
“Do you want me to carry you?” Maya asks, half-serious.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I say, putting my shoes half-on, teetering across the sinking gravel. The scene around us is like a giant X-ray: there isn’t much light, but I can make out, in a few places, the gray edges of the rain clouds, and the outlines of the trees, skeleton-like. The leaves are coming in, but we can’t see them at all. It still looks like winter. We cross the ditch gurgling with rainwater, and then the road.
In her car, sweat pools behind my knees. I fan myself with the pageant program I am still holding. I can see myself reflected in her windshield. The night’s humidity has caused my curls to swell up to about three times their normal size. I could be a beauty queen from the 1980s with this much volume.
She sighs. “Well, that sucked. I really thought Jamie had this thing.”
“What did you expect?” I ask.
“Things are changing around here,” she says, hopeful. “A Goth was in the pageant.”
“Maybe she just wanted to put it on her college applications,” I say cynically, though I don’t mean it.
“I’m guessing you wouldn’t put it on yours,” she said. “Too redneck for you, yeah?” She grins at me.
She is kidding, on one level, but she also has my number here. I’m spending this year of high school building a road out of this county. I didn’t come tonight to support the contestants. And Maya, she was here to help me.
I suddenly feel guilty. “I don’t know,” I say, finally.
Maya looks at the window. We’ve sat idly in the car like this many times, usually because we are waiting for a good song to finish playing. But this time, there is no music, and we are totally alone, far away from the girls hauling their makeup boxes and grocery-store bouquets into the parking lot. Across the road, I can barely make out the baseball diamond’s scoreboard, a blur of white on leggy stilts. Maya doesn’t turn the ignition, or even reach for her key.
I look at her, hard, in profile: the easy curve of her forehead, the sure, undelicate nose, the small flare of her upper lip. She turns to me. As if sliding into some lateral world, I lean over the console, my mouth aiming for hers. My move is so sudden that I can hear her breath catch. She turns her head again, at the last second.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Oh.” Maya laughs nervously. She pauses. “It’s okay. You just surprised me.”
I surprised myself, I want to say. I hesitate, searching for the right way to respond. I feel like Rebecca the freshman, asking, Can you please repeat the question? My brain has been emptied of its words. My whole body feels like it is composed of rhinestones, skittish sparks. I am filled with both terror and longing. The feeling is loud. I want to lean in again, but I’ve lost my nerve tonight.
After a long silence, she reaches over, her hand resting on top of my knee. We wait. I put my left hand on top of hers, tentatively. My fingers are not soft, I know, and I imagine she must be feeling, now, the places the guitar has made callous. And we sit like this for another minute, not moving. Then I reach for the back of her head, the place where the hair is shortest. It’s thicker than I expected, bristling against my hand. This texture spreads through my limbs, another sort of strangeness. I’m surprised how good it feels. I’ve never found short hair attractive on any woman until just now.
I trace the back of her neck, then the hard line of her jawbone. My hand crosses over, intuitively, to the small patch just below her ear, where blemishes from some time ago have left a mark. It’s strange, this skin: a bit uneven, weathered. I think of the runway in the now-empty auditorium, being stripped of its fabric and garlands. The Treasurer, wondering where I am, or maybe not caring at all, is zipping her beaded dress back into its vinyl bag. I imagine her turning off the auditorium lights. Maya tilts, letting her face rest in my palm, and then turns towards me, just when I think she is going to pull away.