Bliss stared at the speech question for the Miss Blue Bonnet pageant one more time, though after all these weeks, it was practically tattooed on her brain. "Who is the person you admire most?" How could a less than one-minute speech be giving her this much trouble? Well, besides the fact that she didn't want to be giving it in the first place. And that anything besides the requisite answer—God, Jesus or another (Christian) religious figure; a family member; or a famous historical personage (bonus points for a Revolutionary or Civil War white man)—was a guaranteed loser. She considered Lilith or Barbara Jordan briefly and pictured her mother dying and rolling over in her grave. The only way she'd gotten away with Amelia Earhart was the fact that Amelia was a tragic dead white woman and the total clusterfuck with accidentally dying her hair blue permanently. She smirked a little remembering the shock on everyone's faces, including Corby's.
Ah, her eternal nemesis. How they had ever gotten along as children Bliss didn't know. Oh wait, she did—then she was too young to know she didn't have to be under Corby's thumb her whole life. "So what, are you like alternative now?" she parroted Corby's response in her white-valley-girl voice. As if Bliss couldn't be alternative if she wanted to. Hello, Betty Davis, Tina Turner, Me'Shell Ndege'Ocello, Skin, Janelle Monae, Santogold, and . . .well, there were black alternagirls even though Corby wouldn't know one if they walked up and slapped her.
Getting the blue permanent dye out of her hair had been impossible, and between leaving it and suffering the neighbors' pearl-clutching, behind-the-back whispering, head-shaking and gossip and cutting it all off, her mom chose the latter to her endlessly vocalized disapproval. All those years of growing it out and the perms eightysixed in a minute and now she was down to a short 'fro, which she kind of loved and her mother categorically hated. Her father had just said she looked like that Roshumba Williams and ran a hand over her head while she giggled and batted at him. Her mother's friends at the salon and church joined her in mourning the loss of her "good hair" though. Bliss pictured her mom and her mom's friends praying at Sunday silent prayer that she could get a high end wig or that her hair would through some miracle grow long enough for a weave or a wave nouveau or something before the Blue Bonnet pageant. Bliss doubted Jesus responded to hair-related emergencies.
Even before the blue dye incident, her hair had been an endless problem according to everyone else and that had made it her problem—the jabs about her hotcombed hair crinkling in the Texas humidity, girls at the pageant ostentatiously complaining about grease at the beauty station she just left, remarks about her curlers and 'do rag, not being able to hang out in the rain before perms made it slightly less of an expensive disaster (and god forbid she go swimming at the local pool or watering hole with Pash without it being a big deal), and then after the perm, endlessly explaining how it actually straightened her hair rather than made it curly. And the touching! God, the touching. Getting it all whacked off, Bliss had suddenly felt naked and free.
Beyond the hair, the whole Miss Blue Bonnet thing made her tired. Her mother and her friends got so much joy out of cooing over how much like a lady she looked in her fitted pink dress and how seeing her in the pageant made them all so proud. She felt bad about not wanting that, about not wanting the debutante ball or Jack and Jill, about not fitting in. She knew her mom had wanted to be Miss Blue Bonnet but hadn't been able to enter the segregated pageant in her day (though she'd been Miss Black Texas in the run up to the Miss Black America contest) but why did that mean that Bliss had to live the dream?
Hypothetically, the dream didn't include trying to camouflage what her dad called teasingly her and her mom's "African booty," which he was happy to slap as her mom passed him by at the dinner table but which the girls at the pageant tried to tell her "wasn't too big, really" with unconvincing smiles. Unless of course, they were Corby and her gang who sneered and quoted Sir Mix-a-Lot in loud voices whenever she walked by. Bliss was never gonna be stick thin Corby. Her mom had paid for a custom-tailored dress so it actually fit her through the bust and butt while still being a petite size and still had come all the comments about her size and being able to afford a decent pageant dress same as with Amber, whose family could only afford off-the-rack taken in. Sighing, she turned her attention back to her speech.
Maybe she could list her dad as her hero. That would go over well and honestly, it was true. He went on doing his thing in the face of so much bullshit. She knew he'd swallowed a lot of crap to get where he was in his company and kept on as honorably as he could. He provided a good living for their family, wasn't too macho to let his household of women live their lives and work things out for themselves unlike a lot of the overbearing or absent dads she saw in her friends' families, and was always there for her. She knew she'd always be his little girl, his Blister, and most of her friends couldn't say the same about their dads. He might not say much to her mom and Bliss in their ongoing battle but he was stand up and accepted her as she was. But everybody was going to say their dad, no matter how true it was.
If she flipped out and decided to say what was really on her mind, there were the Hurl Scouts. They were her heroines and had taught her to stand up on her own eight wheels and be her own person. Bliss hadn't felt like that was really possible until the day those girls rolled into the thrift store in Austin. The world had opened up. Suddenly out there beyond Bodean, there'd been a world larger than school, church, the Oink Joint, pageants, and home. Roller derby set her free. Skating felt like flying—not bound to the earth or anyone's expectations except to play as well as she could. On the track, she was Babe Ruthless—flying free, hitting hard and winning. Sure, there would always be comments from people who questioned her right to be there and insinuated that she was the league's poster girl because she was black. But there would also be women like Iron Maven to test her on her own merits, not on who she was supposed to be. And when it wasn't, she could hit back for once, on the track or off it. She smirked, thinking of Corby's face when she'd hipchecked off the rail for mouthing off. It was kind of worth the suspension and getting branded as one of those "rough" girls. Oh, the handwringing that had gone on over that one. Bliss had always been so nice, so quiet. This was so unlike her. She didn't want to get off on the wrong path, did she? This could go on her permanent record and ruin her chances for college. Was she in trouble? Had she joined a gang? Was this some sort of initiation thing? Bliss had barely refrained from rolling her eyes.
She spent most of that meeting thinking about Rosa. Rosa Sparks was one of those girls her mother had always cautioned her against being—loud, bold and in control—and Bliss had been kind of scared of her at first and fascinated at the same time. Rosa—blazing trails in new forms of transportation like her namesake and Darlene Anderson—didn't care if people thought she was trashy. As she said, "Our bad attitudes are an asset here"—tattoos, blond hair, loudness, trash talking, and all. She and Rosa were two of the few black girls in the league and sometimes, when they tossed up middle fingers when some racist hick in the crowd crowd yelled things or one of them blocked a hit they suspected had come for other reasons than the game, they felt like a team inside the team. She thought about that when her mother said,
"What do you think that the world thinks of those girls with all their tattoos? Do you think they have an easy time of it finding a job? Or getting a loan application? Or going to a decent college? Or finding a husband? You limit your choices. . .I didn't have a mother to navigate all my opportunities. . .In two or three years this will all be over. . .You will understand when you have to support yourself."
There was the endless round about how those white girls could laser off their tattoos, put on a Talbot's suit, clean up their act and slide into regular society where Bliss would always have to fight harder, be better, show people that she could do things. Bliss wanted to get beyond her mom's "psychotic idea of 50s womanhood" but there was always the nagging thought that her mom was right. Someone would always be judging her, no matter how fair it was. And if she didn't have the right appearance and the right manners and the right polite tone, she'd be done. But seeing Rosa Sparks do derby and her office job. . .now that was something. If Rosa could do it, then so could she. And in derby she'd learned that playing it safe didn't mean she'd win; playing it their way just meant you were playing someone else's game. You had to run your own plays and take the consequences. For that, as much as anything, she wasn't giving up that space she'd found or the camaraderie.
Strapping on skates was the hardest and best thing Bliss had ever done. In Bodean, who knew girls who did roller derby, much less black girls who did roller derby? Roller derby was learning how to take and give out hits and keep rolling. Roller derby was wanting to beat those cocky bitches. Roller derby was never having enough eyeliner or lash blast. Roller derby was being part of something, one of the cool girls finally. Roller derby was ditching useless boys like Oliver and taking out the hurt in hits. She'd been so thrilled when he had talked to her, wanted to go out with her. White boys never looked at her, especially not cool rock boys like him. She remembered that feeling when he had stopped, talked to her, looked at her. Beyond liking him, it had been finally being wanted, being noticed. And look how that had turned out—some blond girl in her Stryper T-shirt. She wasn't going to be That Girl. Roller derby was knowing how good you were without having some boy tell you and having your girls back you up. As her mom said, you can do bad by yourself. And you could always do better with your girls.
On that note, also on the hero(ine) list: Pash. She was glad Pash was cool with her now and regretted ever losing sight of her for Oliver and derby. She didn't know what she'd do without her. Pash was the one who had always been there--from elementary school where they were the only two "ethnic" girls in class to senior year and the Oink Joint (with Birdman, where they could make fun of his nerdiness and Pash could pretend that she didn't like him). Even if she couldn't ever tell Pash how much she meant, more than any skinny rock boys or nerdy Birdman, Pash was her always. Even with derby and college coming up and the confusing desire sometimes to lean over and see how soft her lips were, Pash was her constant. But the pageant committee certainly wouldn't want to hear about that. So. . .who did Bliss admire?
Bliss thought about everything that had happened lately, everything that everyone had said—Maggie, Pash, the girls, her dad, Razor, her mom. She was Ruthless but where did that come from? The last few months, her whole life really, had been about figuring out who she was beyond what everyone else expected, about growing into it and owning it and doing it unapologetically and the best she could, mistakes and all. Derby had given her an outlet to choose, for her to make up who she wanted to be, but really that fight had been going on for a long time. Bliss thought back to that day in the kitchen talking with her mom after finding out about Oliver's cheating. For one of the first times in her adult life it felt like her mom had seen her, Bliss, as she was, flaws and all, and not as she wanted her to be. For a moment, the push-pull had come to a stop and Bliss could see this beautiful woman who smoked and had gone to Stryper concerts and done a million things Bliss didn't know about, who had loved and hurt and laughed and made her way through things Bliss probably couldn't even begin to understand. Her mom wanted her to know what she was facing, to have the best and be the best, to make the most of what was out there for herself, not just because she or anyone else said so. And even if their ideas on the best differed, it was her mom who had taught Bliss to make the most of what she had, to be the best she could be, and to never give up and keep going and put her best foot forward even when she got knocked down. It was her mom who loved her like no one else. Bliss picked up her pen again and wrote.
"The person I admire most is my mother because she's a fighter who never gives up on what she believes in and she never gives up on me. Obviously I would be delighted to win the Blue Bonnet pageant but knowing my mother is proud of me means more than any crown."
Bliss slipped the card into the envelope and went to get ready.