Monday, July 26, 2010

Miss Connecticut

She must have gotten on in Springfield while I slept. I awoke to find her sitting there next to me, wearing a zippered down coat and looking, as far as I could see, much too pretty to have landed there beside me on a stinking Peter Pan bus bound for Danbury from Brattleboro. I must have been twenty-two, twenty-three, something like that. 1980, or thereabouts.

As dusk settled on the tobacco fields and barns and crowded in on the tired bus, fusing together shapes in the dim cabin, we got to talking. I explained that I was returning from a visit with some of my high school chums in Vermont, all artists of one sort or another, all waiting tables or washing dishes. She with a hint of reluctance confessed to having been crowned Miss Connecticut a few weeks before, and being on her way to New York City, where she would spend three all-expenses-paid days at the Grand Hyatt hotel before boarding a plane for Miami to take part in the Miss America pageant there. Though in the darkness I couldn't see it, I heard the smirk in her voice, along with a note of sad disbelief, as if she considered the whole affair ludicrous.

I myself had always thought beauty pageants silly, so why was I self-conscious sitting next to Miss Connecticut, as if she were a goddess or the Pope? In the darkness I imagined her in white taffeta with sash and crown, smiling for the cameras, her sparkling teeth throwing back the glare of flashbulbs. I cracked a bad joke about Bert Park’s dentures, to which she said, “Who?” betraying both our ages. We spoke of nothing for three or four miles before she turned to her book, and I to the dark window.

I wondered about physical beauty as applied to people. Is it really skin deep? Are physically attractive people not somehow superior to plain or ugly ones? I'd been reading Middlemarch, by George Elliot, and remembered her disastrous affair with the Darwinist Herbert Spencer, of his own conclusion that the end was a preordained by Elliot's famous ugliness by her "heavy jaw, large mouth and thick nose"—qualities no intellectual attraction could redeem. "The lack of physical attraction," Spencer admitted—bragged?—later, "was fatal. . . Strongly as my judgment prompted, my instincts would not respond." I wondered how many potential lovers I'd never given the time of day to for similar reasons? Do believers read divine judgment in the distribution of beauty? What makes less sense than a contest where the participants exercise no skill, where the winner is determined by the performance not of the contestants, but of the judges?

The bus rolled on. And though it remained too dark for me to see her, and though I did my best not to be moved by the received wisdom of a silly contest, the more it rolled, the more beautiful my fellow passenger grew there next to me. Or maybe I'd been dreaming. Maybe she wasn't so beautiful. Maybe she'd pulled my leg and had the face of a gorilla, or a lizard. But no, she was Miss Connecticut, and gave off the sweet, silent, secret, intoxicating essence of beauty.

By the time we pulled into Hartford she'd fallen asleep with her head on my shoulder. For the rest of the trip I didn't budge. I was very uncomfortable, but felt like the luckiest man alive.

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