Sparkles. Feathers. Tiaras.
Twenty-year-old Maximo Oliveros loved it. He loved the sequins and the big hair and the beautiful, flowing gowns. As a child he and his friends would drape themselves in scarves and spare bits of silk and pretend they were contestants in exactly this kind of pageant, and now he was here. Actually here.
Not as a contestant, but. . . well, he wasn't a child anymore. And he was perfectly happy just being part of the behind-the-scenes frenzy.
"Maxi! Maxi, over here!"
A perfectly manicured hand, nails thick and heavy with silver glitter, waved in the air from some small distance away. Maxi ran toward the beckoning fingers, even as he couldn't help looking around at all the sights in awe. All the men were so beautiful; even more so than the women he knew. And they looked like they were having so much fun, laughing as they painted their faces and stepped into their outfits.
"Maxi, where have you been? I almost thought you weren't coming!"
Maxi looked up at the person in front of him. She did seem rather frantic, one hand spraying a can of hairspray and the other holding a curling iron up to her long, bleached-blond hair. She was already dressed in a large ballgown of crystal blue and gossamer white, looking like spun cotton candy.
"Of course I'd come, Selena," Maxi said. "I'm your personal make-up artist for the week, aren't I? It's just that the last client at the salon took longer than I expected."
"Yes, well, I'm putting you to work right away. Help me go to the restroom; I'm not sure I'll be able to find my penis underneath all this crinoline."
As Selena strode forward Maxi instantly followed, sweeping up the trailing layers of her dress like some servant at a queen's court. He followed Selena into the restroom and then into a small, run-down stall. It was a little hard to maneuver, and a little harder to keep the broken stall door closed even while lifting up all of Selena's skirts, but then Selena was doing her business as Maxi stared at the poster on the wall.
Miss Gay Philippines. Then, in small script, Saturday's date. And beneath that, an array of beauties in dresses of all different shapes and colors. It was still a little bit unreal to Maxi that he was here as anything but an audience member. He hadn't thought anything of it when Selena, the owner of the beauty salon he worked at, had been crowned runner-up to Miss Gay Manilla, as exciting as it had made things in the salon. But then the first Miss Gay Manilla dropped out of competition, Selena was asked to take her place, and Maxi was asked to do her make-up for pageant events. It was just a little bit crazy.
"Make sure my dress doesn't touch the floor," Selena said, finishing up.
They made their way back to Selena's area, really just a cheap table, chair, and mirror, just like they had given everyone else. Selena sunk down into the canvas seat and sighed. She seemed a lot more relaxed now that her hair was done, her needs were attended to, and Maxi was there to do her make-up. She really looked at him for the first time and flashed a mega-watt smile. Probably practicing for later, Maxi thought.
"Maxi, darling," she said. "Thank you so much for all your help."
She placed her hands on his shoulders, leaned forward, and kissed the air at the side of each of his cheeks. Maybe she was going to try for Miss Congeniality this pageant.
Maxi smiled. "It's what you're paying me for."
He turned and opened his large make-up case, which he had placed on the table earlier. The top of it slid open to reveal trays of pure color. Little squares of jewel-toned eyeshadows. Lipstick splashes of creamy reds, pinks, and purples. Maxi smiled as he looked over the tools of his trade. Every time he opened his kit it was like he was a kid walking into a candy store.
"Really put it on thick," Selena said. "We're shooting the group promo shot, so I need to stand out."
Maxi nodded and pulled out the foundation he had picked out for Selena a few days earlier. He didn't mind her demands and the blunt way she issued them. She was his boss, after all, and not even a bad one. She was just a bit. . . self-absorbed, he guessed. At any rate, he was just happy to do his job.
"What was I thinking, doing this pageant?" Selena asked, eyes closed as Maxi dusted powder over her face. "I'm too old."
"That's ridiculous," Maxi replied. "You're still young."
"I'm not pretty enough," Selena whined, not sounding genuine at all.
"You're the prettiest one here."
It was a common shtick, not just with Selena but with a lot of clients. Maxi had practiced it often enough as a make-up artist at Selena's beauty salon. A lot of the regular patrons came for talk and comfort; being a good listener and offering platitudes, Maxi had learned, was part and parcel of the service. He kept offering compliments as Selena kept fishing for them, even as he continued doing her make-up. When he eventually finished, he gave a bright smile as he looked over his work. Without make-up, Selena was decently pretty. But now she was really beautiful.
"Finished!" Maxi said, beaming. He rocked onto his tiptoes and squeezed his hands behind his back as he waited for her response.
Selena turned to the mirror and smiled. "Darling, you're a genius. I'm surprised you don't make yourself up."
Maxi's smile faltered just a tiny bit as his shoulders slumped. "Oh, no. I don't wear make-up"
"It's too bad," Selena said, leaning forward to inspect her face even more closely in the mirror. "You'd be pretty."
Maxi decided to just ignore that comment. He knew that Selena wouldn't press a point if it wasn't about her. Sure enough, she changed the subject immediately.
"I don't need you for the rest of tonight," Selena said. "But you need to get to my hotel room early tomorrow. We're going shoe shopping, and you need to carry all my things for me. Then you'll have to do my make-up for the luncheon, then again later that evening for some PR event they're staging."
Maxi nodded. "I'll be there."
He shut his cosmetics case and watched as Selena strode off, skirts rustling all around her. As she opened the door to the future staging area of the show, Maxi caught a glimpse of the photoshoot everyone was trying to get together. It was so busy. Production assistants running around in a frenzy. Flashing lights as photographers got test shots and journalists tried to document the event. Gowns like confectioneries, twirling to and fro. But then the door was closing again, leaving him in that large, mostly empty room of cheap tables and mirrors.
Maxi stood there for a moment, staring at the closed door, before he realized that he should leave. The part of Manilla he lived in was quite a distance away from the touristy area they were in now. It would take two bus transfers and a decent walk for him to get home, and while hotel rooms had been provided for the contestants, his role was obviously a bit less necessary.
It was dark by the time that Maxi made it back to his neighborhood, which was a lot different from the area he had been in before. Trash was piled up along the sidewalk like it was a natural part of the landscape. Laundry hung in lines over dirty alleyways. Large roaches would often appear from between cracks in the sidewalk or house walls before scurrying off again. As Maxi had gotten older he had realized that it wasn't the best neighborhood to grow up in, but that didn't change the fact that it had always been home to him, and a generally happy one at that.
Maxi swayed his hips just slightly as he walked. A habit that he had tried to eradicate over the years to poor result, although it wasn't the exaggerated runway walk he had sometimes adopted as a youth. At any rate, he swayed his hips as he walked down the street, saying hello to the man who sold stolen cell phones and assorted counterfeit goods, to the women who charged neighborhood children some small fee to watch Hollywood DVDs in her home like in was a movie theater, to the kids who should probably be at home this time of night instead of loitering on the corner. Eventually he got to the building he called home and walked up a narrow flight of stairs to a small though cozy space. It used to be four of them in this one room apartment: him, his brothers, and his father. Now their family had grown even more, even if it had also split in half.
Maxi smiled and held his arms open as a young girl bounced into them.
"Uncle Maxi, will you braid my hair? You're so much better at it than Mommy is."
"I can hear you, you know," chimed in Maxi's sister-in-law Marisol. She held a hand on her extended belly as she stirred something over the stove, the stereotypical picture of a good wife.
"I didn't mean it," the young girl said. Then, she turned to Maxi to whisper, "Yes, I did."
"Do you need any help?" Maxi asked Marisol, even as he picked up the girl and held her at his waist.
"I'm almost finished," Marisol replied. "So just relax."
Maxi nodded. The meal did seem almost done if aroma was any indication; the room smelled strongly of fish and curry. Maxi sat his niece down on the floor next to her two brothers, who were too caught up playing video games to give a proper greeting, and sat down behind her. His hands moved effortlessly through soft hair as he watched large, overly-muscled men beat each other on the television screen.
"Bogs isn't home yet?" Maxi asked.
"He has to work late at the factory," Marisol replied.
The same factory, Maxi thought, where their father had worked and that their father had hated. The factory that had paid him a pittance for back-breaking work. The factory that hadn't paid him enough to afford proper medical care for his ill wife.
"Not too late, I hope," Maxi said. It was already late enough.
"Well, we're going to visit Boy later this week, so working overtime to make up for the missed work later isn't so bad."
"We're going to pick mangos!" Maxi's niece exclaimed.
"It's good that you're taking a vacation," Maxi said. He wasn't sure if they had ever done so before; both of them worked so hard to provide for their three (soon to be four) children.
"God knows I need it," Marisol said.
Maybe he should go out to visit Boy sometime, Maxi thought. Maxi hadn't seen Boy since he had moved to the countryside last year, off to make a living at his father-in-law's farm. They spoke on the phone often enough, sure, but that hardly seemed enough when it came to a person who had been by his side, watching over him, his whole life.
"Will you be okay here by yourself?" Marisol asked, her tone of voice indicating that she wasn't so sure. His older brothers' sense of protectiveness had seemed to rub off on their wives as well.
"I'll be fine," Maxi insisted. "I'm twenty, not twelve."
Marisol sighed. "If you say so."
After that they ate dinner together, then Maxi painted his niece's nails, at which point it was time to go to sleep. They all lay on cots in the main room, window open to provide some reprieve from the heat, as they drifted off.
The next morning, Maxi woke up early to find Bogs sitting at the kitchen table and drinking a cup of coffee. It seemed like he was about to head for work soon, though he had obviously come home after the rest of them had fallen asleep last night. Maxi got up and walked over before getting out a frying pan.
"Eggs?" he asked, still feeling a bit muddled with sleep.
"That would be great, Maxi," Bogs replied.
By the time Maxi had breakfast on the table, he was feeling brighter and more alert, well-equipped to make small talk with his older brother over eggs and milk.
"Working hard?" Maxi asked.
"Aren't we all?" Bogs asked back. "What about you? It can't be easy to deal with that drama queen boss of yours."
"She's not that bad," Maxi said, smiling even as he used a lightly scolding tone. "We're going shoe shopping today."
"Which means you'll have to follow her around holding her bags and telling her that her feet don't look fat in her shoes, hmm?"
Maxi shrugged. It didn't sound as bad as working at the factory, but he wasn't going to say that out loud. "I like shoes. It'll be fun."
"You like them, but you never buy any," Bogs pointed out, giving Maxi a short little glare.
Maxi just smiled as he picked up his now empty plate. "Who needs to buy them when you can look?"
Maxi ruffled his brother's hair and pressed a kiss on top of his head as he walked toward the bathroom. "Have a good day at work, Bogs."
"You too, Maxi."
By the time Maxi was finished in the bathroom and ready to leave, Bogs was gone and the rest of the family was up. He said goodbye to everyone before leaving to go to start his own day. A little over two hours later he was standing in an aisle at Lala's Closet, Lala being a statuesque man with Little Mermaid-red hair and a penchant for purple eyeshadow.
"Maxi, do these sandals make my feet look fat?"
Maxi looked up from where his finger had been tracing the exaggerated arc of a purple crocodile number. "They look pretty, Selena."
"Sweetie," Lala said, from her imperious perch on the wig counter, "there's not an ounce of fat on any part of you, let alone your feet. Those shoes look nothing short of fabulous on you."
Selena smiled and stared down at the mirror in front of her, pointing her toes here and there as she modeled her feet in different positions. "I guess they do look nice."
"Are you kidding?" Lala asked. "They look amazing. You should buy one in every color."
Another two hours after that, Maxi was balancing bags and boxes over his arm as he also attempted open the door to get outside. Selena was still gossiping with Lala post-purchase. He, on the other hand, could use some fresh air. He leaned against the wall as he waited for Selena to finish. That small moment of peace, however, was interrupted by someone calling out his name.
Maxi was smiling as he turned to face whoever had greeted him, but that smile dropped as he saw who it was. Standing in front of him was Victor, looking just as handsome as he ever did, dressed in a crisp police officer's uniform.
"Maxi," Victor asked, looking slightly unsure of himself, "is that you?"
"No. . . " Maxi felt like a deer caught in the headlights. He stammered something about a case of mistaken identity, but his explanation seemed to leave Victor, who only raised an eyebrow, unconvinced.
"Phillip, what are you doing? We're late."
Maxi turned at Selena's voice. She was staring at Victor with both curiosity and suspicion, but Maxi was just grateful that she had shown up in time to support his rather obvious lie.
"Come on, Phillip," she said to Maxi. "Let's go."
She grabbed his arm and pulled him away. It wasn't until they were a few blocks away when she stopped, spun around, and fixed him with big, beaming eyes.
"Exactly who was that?" Selena asked. "And why were you pretending that you didn't know him? If a guy that good-looking was trying to talk to me, I definitely wouldn't pretend to be someone else."
Still a little bit shell-shocked, Maxi said the first thing that came into his head. "He's the policeman who killed my father."
Selena stared at him for a long time, then stared to the side for even longer, before eventually putting a tentative hand on his arm.
"Come on," she said, "I'll buy you lunch before we go back to the hotel."
Maxi wasn't sure whether he was relieved or not that Selena didn't ask him any follow-up questions. She might have felt too awkward to do so. Or maybe she might have felt that he didn't want to talk about. For his part, Maxi wasn't sure if he wanted to talk about it or not. They both remained pretty silent as she bought him some batchoy, he did her make-up, and she left for her own luncheon. Maxi then found himself alone in Selena's hotel room, nothing to do but let all his thoughts catch up to him.
He hadn't been completely accurate when he had said Victor had killed his father. Victor hadn't pulled the trigger. . . but he had helped set up the situation and hadn't done anything to stop it from happening. Maxi knew that his father wasn't what society would call a good man, that he had turned to a life of crime after becoming disillusioned with by how little an honest living gave him, but he had always been good to his family and neighbors, and every choice he had made in his life was made in order to take care of his family.
Maxi's heart clenched as he remembered. He had been there, after all. He had heard the shot ring out, so clear and so loud. He had seen his father falling to the concrete sidewalk. And he had seen Victor looking up, obviously surprised to see him there. At the moment it hadn't mattered that his father was a criminal. It hadn't mattered that Victor was a police officer. All that mattered was that a moment ago he had a father, and then he didn't.
Maxi brought a hand up to wipe at his eyes. He hadn't even realized he had started to cry. He looked at himself in the mirror above Selena's dresser. . . his eyes were red and watery. He looked a mess. He reached over to grab some tissues and dabbed his eyes, blew his nose, and pretended that he didn't feel the absence of his father just as sharply now as he did as a twelve-year-old boy.
The incident had made him realize how much of a silly child he had been. Playing dress-up in pretend pageants and crushing after police officers too old for him, when his father and brothers were trying so hard just to keep them fed. Maybe if he had been less self-absorbed, maybe if he had been able to support his family more, then maybe they wouldn't have had to go to the lengths that they did in order to earn a living.
But there was nothing he could do about it now. Maxi threw the used tissues away as he thought about the chances that he would run into Victor now. Shortly after the incident Victor had been transferred to a different part of Manilla-a nicer, more touristy part of Manilla-and Maxi thought that would be the end of things. He didn't blame Victor, not really. But he couldn't respect him either, and he couldn't look at him without wanting to cry.
"Get yourself together, Maximo Oliveros," Maxi said to his reflection. He puffed out his chest and scowled. "This is nothing to cry over."
It was like turning off a switch. . . or maybe he was just all cried out. Either way, he stopped crying and was able to get through the rest of his day.
The rest of the week kept Maxi pretty busy. There were a lot of events for the contestants to attend, from choreography sessons to public relations events to official social gatherings. Maxi would watch the events whenever he could, watch all the beautiful contestants in their gorgeous gowns. His favorite was when they practiced their introductions for the pageant. They stood in two staggered rows as upbeat music reminiscent of merry-go-rounds played in the background, each one stepping up to give her introduction in turn.
"Hello, everyone!" Teeth so white that they almost glowed underneath the lights. "My name is Carmen Carmina and I'm proud to represent the Queen City of the South, the always beautiful Cebu City!"
Caramel-colored highlights framed by a sky-blue parasol. "From the land of white sand beaches, representing Puerto Princesa, my name is Artermis Marquez and I'm as excited as can be to be here!"
And on and on, a parade of huge smiles and easy greetings. Maxi couldn't wait until the day of the actual pageant, when they would all be in their full costume. It was easy for him to push thoughts about Victor and his father to the back of his mind when there was so much beauty and excitement around him all the time.
Before Maxi knew it, it was the day of the pageant. Bogs and and his family had left to the countryside the night before. They had left him some kind of going-away present on the kitchen table and, with no time to open it at home, he tossed it into his large bag to open when he had a free moment later on. From that point on it was a hectic mess. First he had to go to the hotel to pick up Selena's costumes, gratuitous outfits, and accessories. Then they both headed to the pageant site together, where they found the backstage area already buzzing with activity, despite the fact that the pageant wasn't supposed to start for hours. It was chaos back there, but Maxi loved every minute of it.
As Selena did her own hair, Maxi kept other people from stepping on her first costume as he steamed the wrinkles out of it. It was a gorgeous thing, though not without humor. A tight slip of fabric that might be called a dress, if you were feeling generous, covered in gold sequins like so much sparkle. Layers and layers of matching organza flowing from the back of it like some deranged peacock bride. And, the pièce de résistance, the topper on the wedding cake, a headpiece designed to look like a durian, bedazzled and beautified.
"I need to get more water for the steamer," Maxi said, putting down the layer of organza he had been working on. He made his way to the bathroom, filled up a jug, and made his way back.
Only to freeze at the scene that waited for him. Victor was there. Victor, of all people, was there and talking to Selena, both of them smiling as they chatted. Selena turned then, smile growing bigger as she caught sight of Maxi.
"Maxi," she said, waving, "look who's working security for today!"
Maxi turned and ran. He ran back to the bathroom, where he holed himself up in the stall and kicked his feet against it to prevent anyone coming in. He had never been mad at Selena, no matter what silly things she did, but right now he was furious. She came in a few moments later, knocking on his stall door and trying to get it open.
"Maxi," she said. "I'm so sorry. But, you know, we were talking and he seemed like such a nice guy, and he's a police officer. Whatever happened with your father must have been a misunderstanding. He really wanted to talk to you, so I thought, what was the harm? Maybe you both could patch up whatever problems you had in the past. Maybe, if you sorted it out, you wouldn't be so unhappy."
"I'm happy," Maxi said, voice blank.
There was a bit of silence before Selena spoke up again. "Are you? I may not notice a lot, Maxi, but I notice how you look at the girls who come into the salon, how you look at us when we're up there on the stage. Like you want to be there too. You smile a lot but I've never seen you look really, truly happy."
"I'm happy," Maxi said again, as though repetition was the same as truth.
After that, he didn't say anything else. He just sat there as Selena went on, hoping she would get tired of it soon enough. He didn't want to talk to her right now. After forever a voice came over the loudspeaker, audible even from the bathroom, alerting the contestants that they had to go to the stage to practice their opening dance routine one last time.
"Maxi. . . Maxi, I really am sorry."
High heels click clacked over the tile floor as Selena left. Maxi sat there for awhile longer before standing up. He walked to the door, peeked out, and saw a mostly empty backstage area. The contestants and production people were gone. There were some assistants left, brushing out wigs and sewing last-minute adjustments onto outfits, but they were being fairly quiet. Most importantly, Victor was gone.
Maxi left the bathroom and made his way to Selena's station, where he promptly collapsed in her chair. He was happy, wasn't he? Looking in the mirror he didn't seem very happy, but that was to be expected from the events of the day. But he had a job that he enjoyed and a family who loved him. What more could he really ask for?
At that moment, Maxi caught a glimpse of his bag out of the corner of his eye. Or more accurately, he caught a glimpse of a crisp, light blue note protruding from the corner of his bag. The note that was attached to his unexpected present. Feeling like he needed something to elevate his spirits, he reached down and picked up both the note and the gift. He unfolded it to find Marisol's curvy, flowing script.
Dear Maxi, A little something to occupy you from missing us too much. All our love, Bogs and Marisol.
Maxi pulled the delicate paper away from the box. Underneath the lovely floral print was an average shoebox. Maxi lifted the lid, spread apart the blue-tinted tissue paper inside, and found a pair of absolutely perfect, glossy white pumps.
Why. . . why would Bogs give this to him? Why would he waste his money? Maxi wanted to cry all over again. Bogs knew that he didn't do this anymore. He didn't wear make-up, didn't wrap himself up in colorful scarves, didn't wear heels. He ran his fingers over the pristine surface of the shoes, leaving light fingerprint trails in their wake.
"Those are beautiful."
Maxi looked up to see Selena standing there, looking so sheepish and pathetic that he couldn't help but forgive her right away. Besides, he wasn't aware that he had been wallowing for long enough for the contestants to finish their last practice, and there was no point in staying mad at Selena when they had to work together from now on.
"If you like them," Maxi said, "you can have them."
"No, they're yours," Selena said. Then her voice adopted a more lighthearted tone when she realized he wasn't mad at her anymore. "Besides, they're too small for me. I'm jealous of how small your feet are; I bet these heels are an actual woman's size."
"I don't want them."
"You should wear them. Your precious brother gave them to you, didn't he?" Selena stood back, crossed her arms in front of her chest and then leaned forward again. She spun Maxi's chair to face her and pulled a tube of pale pink lipstick from his open case.
"Selena," Maxi said, "don't."
Too tired to really protest, Maxi decided to just let her do what she wanted.
"You used to do this, didn't you?" Selena asked. "Put on make-up. Your brother told me once that before, you never left the house without some lip gloss on. Why'd you stop?"
Maxi shook his head. He didn't really know why he had stopped. It just kind of seemed at the time that he should. "It just seemed like such a frivolous thing to do. Putting on make-up and dressing up, pining over little crushes. The world's a more serious place than that."
"It doesn't have to be all serious all the time," Selena insisted. Then, finished, she spun him around to face the mirror again. "It's fine to have fun sometimes, too."
Maxi looked at his reflection. He definitely wasn't the most feminine person there. His hair was short and boy-ish and his make-up was light, without the contouring and special effects the others used. But with that frosty shade of pink on his lips and a sheen of sparkly lavender over his eyelids, he couldn't help but feel pretty.
"I have a dress that would look good on you," Selena said.
"I can't," Maxi protested, his voice coming out a little shaky.
Selena tilted her head to the side as she thought it over. "Well, the clothes are on the rack if you want to use them. But, you know, Maxi, just because something sad happened to your dad doesn't mean you're not allowed to be happy."
"Now. . . let's do my make-up shall we?"
Maxi smiled and nodded again. "Yeah. Okay."
Before they knew it, it was time for the show to start. He helped Selena squeeze into her opening costume and watched as she raced off. The contestants had to line up behind the stage and wait for the show to start, so the room Maxi was in grew increasingly empty.
Maxi had a little time before he had to get in his seat, and he couldn't help but want to look at himself a little more in the mirror. It had been so long since he had worn even the smallest trace of make-up, since he had decorated his hair with barrettes and headbands. But now, looking at himself in the mirror, it felt so right.
Just because something sad had happened to his father, Maxi thought, didn't mean he couldn't be happy. And wouldn't his father want him to be happy? His father had always loved him no matter what, had always accepted him, even though being a bakla wasn't the easiest path in life.
Wouldn't his father want him to be true to himself?
Maxi could feel himself getting teary as he thought about his father, so he tried to think about something else. His eyes landed on the rack filled with Selena's clothes. With shaky fingers, Maxi traced over the soft fabric of a white polka-dotted dress. As a child his tastes had run toward floral capris and cute camisoles, but for some reason the dress called out to him. He slipped out of his pants, slipped out of his button-down shirt, and slid the dress on. As the crinoline and fabric fell and settled around him, it just felt right. And then the final touch: Maxi sat down and picked up the shoes his brother had given him, then slowly slid them, one by one, onto his feet.
He stood up and looked in the mirror. And smiled. The dress was modest and full-skirted, and he looked the picture of a 1950s American housewife. He swished the skirt back and forth a little bit, then couldn't resist the urge to spin. He tried to watch as, in the mirror, those full skirts lifted and twirled around him. He spun and spun until he was dizzy, then he collapsed into a fit of giggles on the floor.
But then Maxi heard the announcer's voice starting the show, and he got up and ran toward his seat. He sat there in rapt attention through the opening number, parade of costumes, and introductions, but then he had to run backstage to help Selena with her costume and make-up change. The rest of the show was like that, running backstage at seemingly every commercial break in order to help, dodging all the other contestants and their entourage as everyone rushed around the space. It wasn't until the end when the contestants were all in their evening wear that Maxi was able to relax again.
At that point they had narrowed the field down to the top ten, and Maxi was on the edge of his seat because Selena was still in the running. His fingers twisted in the fabric of his skirt as he watched the contestants answer final questions, parade down the catwalk one last time, and then lined up for the reveal. His palms sweat as Selena was announced as one of the top three. Then he nearly had a heart attack as they announced the runner-up and it wasn't Selena.
And then they announced the winner, and Maxi nearly shot out of his seat as he heard Selena's name. Selena looked no less happy, already in tears with mascara running down her face as she accepted her flowers and crown. She said her thank yous, the hosts said their goodbyes, and the show was over.
Backstage, Maxi had a hard time getting through the throngs of people who were trying to wish Selena congratulations. Eventually he made his way through and was swept into a hug.
"Maybe next year," Selena said, "you'll be the one with the tiara."
Maxi shook his head in modesty, but inside he thought that he might just give it a shot. That was all the time he was able to spend with Selena that night, though, because then she was pulled in all directions by other contestants and pageant heads. It was time for Maxi to head home.
As he left the venue and started to walk toward the bus, Maxi was so caught up in happiness for his friend that he had forgotten one important thing. But that one thing's voice rang out, calling his name from just a few yards away.
Maxi stopped, frozen. But then he turned and watched as Victor ran up to him. When Victor stopped, just a few feet away, they spent several long moments just looking at each other.
"Maxi," Victor said, his voice unsure, "you look pretty tonight."
Maxi nodded. He wasn't sure what to say and didn't entirely trust his voice to speak.
"Maxi. . . I just. . . I never did apologize, all those years before. I wanted to say sorry to you."
"Isn't it just because you feel guilty?" Maxi asked, a little disillusioned with his Victor after everything that had happened between them. "Don't you just want me to forgive you so that you can ease your conscience a little?"
"Of course I feel guilty!" Victor said, his voice loud even over the noisy passersby in the streets. He looked around, a little embarrassed, before looking back at Maxi. "Every day I think about what I should have done, what I did. I don't regret that I was trying to make this city safer. I do regret that it affected you the way it did. You deserve a better life than that, Maxi. When I saw you again, I just thought. . . I just thought that it would be nice to see if you were okay. I just want to know that you're happy."
Maxi nodded. "I'm happy, Victor."
Victor blinked a few times, then nodded himself. "Good. You deserve that much."
"I hope you're happy too, Victor," Maxi said.
Victor nodded again. Neither of them knew what to say after that, so Maxi turned and resumed his walk, and Victor knew better than to try to follow him.
As he caught sight of himself in the glass window of the approaching bus, Maxi couldn't help but smile. His words to Victor hadn't been a lie. In his dress and his glossy white heels, Maxi felt happier than he had in a long time, and he could feel his father by his side, smiling right along with him.