The Short Life of Nova Jean
Nova Jean was born in the late spring of 2011. She died the same day. Nova Jean was conceived inside of a Walmart and she was born in the back seat of my 1997 Toyota 4runner. Her life quickly ended under a pile of cheap clothing and a wig that was heavier than it looked.
It started with a phone call from my friend, Brett, while I was shopping at Walmart with my dad. “You’re going to Relay for Life tonight, right?” he asked. Relay for Life was an annual event at my high school and at many other schools across the country that raised money for cancer research. This year, my final year in high school, was particularly important because one of the Spanish teachers had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. I told him that I was going, but I should have known better. I should have known some sort of request was coming. I was a senior in high school and had been friends with Brett for a couple of years. We covered for each other whenever we needed –“If anyone asks, tell them I was at your house last night.” “Don’t mention anything about that kiss on New Year’s Eve to anyone, okay?” – so I figured that another one was on its way.
“Great.” He went on: “I’m a representative for SGA tonight.” Uh huh. “Every group needs a volunteer.” Okay, I can help. “This year they’re putting on a drag show to raise money.” I take that back. “We need you to be our drag queen for the night.” Shit. I remember this silence that was long enough to envision my face plastered in foundation and my calves burning from walking in heels. I hesitated.
I suppose he asked me to help them out because I was in the school’s theater department at the time and I could do stage makeup, or maybe it was because I was one of the only openly gay guys at my high school. I suppose you don’t have to be gay to be a drag queen, but trust me, it helps. I also had an ounce of knowledge about drag queens from watching reality shows about men dressing as women and calling each other “hunty” and “sissying” this way and “sashaying” the other. These men would pluck and tweeze and shave every hair they could find peeking out of their skin, and thanks to my Norwegian-Czech-Hungarian concoction, this was not the easiest thing for me.
“You don’t have anyone else who could do it? Why can’t you do it?” I asked.
Brett told me that he was the only guy that volunteered with his group for the event, and since he was definitely not gay, he couldn’t be seen by the school in a dress and makeup. He eventually came out a year later. “C’mon you’re, like, the only guy I know who would do this. It’s for a good cause.”
Right. Good cause. “Okay,” I said on an exhale, “I’ll do it.” I asked what I needed to bring and wear and all the other technical stuff.
“Well, it’s a pageant.”
I was six or seven the first time I put on makeup.
My dad is outside while my mother is cooking something in the kitchen and I find myself in her closet, both surrounded and distracted by her collection of boots and pumps, all of which are either black or brown or grey and none of which have a red bottom. Her walk-in closet is my runway. I am able to find my balance on the balls of my feet and shuffle aimlessly around like I am learning to walk all over again. The dresses and blouses that hang on each side of me become my fashion critics, my Anna Wintours and Rachel Zoes. The vanity at the end of the closet becomes the group of photographers from the latest magazines, snapping away as I turn back to the front. Beats made with each step I took thump in my head.
My mom finds me sometime in between walks, but I cannot be bothered by her. I am being yelled at and called for by the stylists that need me to walk. “Where’s the next model!?” “Is the next model in the right shoes yet?!” “Hurry up people! We have a show to do!” “Ryan, what are you doing?”
I looked around for another pair of shoes when I heard it again. “Ryan, what are you doing?” My mother, towering over me, wears a smile of amusement and an apron splattered with sauce. Shoe boxes that were once stacked neatly against the sides are now opened and spread everywhere, along with the shoes that were once in them. She laughs, tells me to make sure I clean up whenever I’m done. She goes back to the kitchen. I try my hardest to put everything back the way it was before my daydreaming hurricane hit.
I am almost done cleaning when I notice the vanity at the end of the closet, the mirrors are open, the plastic drawers see-through and packed with makeup. I open the top drawer and see the eyeshadow palettes of pinks and plums, blues and metallics. The colors bounce off like constellations against their black case. There is mainly eye shadow in this drawer, but to me, there is blush and bronzer and even lipstick. I load it on my face, having no interest in blending the hues.
My mother finds me again sometime later, and even though she laughs, she tells me that this is the only time I can go in her makeup drawers. I guess the colored powder was getting on my clothes and into the carpet.
I hear the door to the porch shut and my dad walk in. He comes into the bedroom, getting ready to rinse off in the shower. He sees me and my mother, both in his closet. “You are never going to put on makeup again,” he tells me, gritting his teeth. “Did you let him do this?”
My mother tells him that it’s not a big deal, but he keeps insisting that boys don’t wear makeup. Besides, he never put on makeup as a kid and neither did my brother.
“Wash that off.”
Ten years later, when I was seventeen years old, my dad and I were shopping in the makeup aisle at Walmart for the cheapest makeup we could find.
“Some red lipstick would be good, right?”
“Why do you need the blue eye shadow?”
“Dad, I’m dressing in drag.”
I guess he still had a lot to learn. While we were at Walmart, we also stopped by the lingerie section where I picked up some tights, four pairs to be exact. With legs as hairy as mine and a skin tone as tan as fluorescent lighting, these tights would make me look as ladylike as I could.
Luckily, there was also a Goodwill nearby, where I was able to stock up on all of my outfits for tonight for each category: formal, swimwear, and talent. My formal look was a seven dollar dress with a fitted black top and a silver bottom that cascaded down on one side like a glass of water overflowing. Someone probably wore it to a beauty pageant in the 80s, or to a cheap fabric convention. My bathing suit was a blue and pink floral one-piece with a ruffle on the bottom that doubled as a mini skirt, and I made sure to get an even tackier floral sarong that I could rip off for a dramatic effect.
I went back and forth on what my talent should be. I considered dancing and lip syncing, but then I realized that everyone else would probably do that. I wanted to be different.
While still shopping at the thrift store, I remembered an old magic set I had that was tucked somewhere under my bed. I remembered its rigged card decks and its plastic thumb. To stand out, this is what I needed to do. For my co-star, I bought a skin-tight black velvet dress with a turtleneck and long sleeves. As soon as I got home with my new purchases, I got out that magic set along with an old Amy Winehouse wig I stole from the school drama department. The wig sat on the shelf in my closet pushed back against the corner.
The magic set and the wig had been tucked away and long forgotten. When I pulled them out of their dark resting places, I think I might have also been pulling out something else.
“So have you thought of a name yet?” Brett asked as I changed in my back seat from my regular clothes into the black and silver gown.
Brett told me that I needed a drag name for them to announce when I walk on stage. He took out his phone and searched for drag names from a quick search. “What about Paige Turner? You like to read, right? Or what about Anya Knees? Is that too much?” He read down a list of names that were simply puns and girl names thrown together. I thought of my own, sometime while Brett was reading them off.
“I got it. What about Nova Jean?” I asked. We laughed and agreed this would work.
Kevin does my mom’s nails all the time. After school, she picks me up and all I want to do is get out of this new uniform they make us wear for middle school now. White button-ups are the most uncomfortable things to force on a sixth grader.
“How long will this take?” I ask every time we arrive at the salon.
While my mom has her nails painted I wait on the couch, shifting and scooting almost automatically. I watch some news station going over the latest crime and when that’s over, a made-for-TV movie plays. I am not intrigued. I recognize the women behind the counter and in the back painting nails and rubbing feet.
“Mom, can I get a manicure, too?” I walk towards her.
“Please. I can do a boy color.”
A boy color is blue, right? Maybe dark green or something, too?
My mom keeps telling me no and Kevin grabs for the nearest black nail polish. He paints his pinky nail black and shows me.
“See,” he says, “nail polish doesn’t look good on boys.”
When it was time for the pageant, the rules were announced. Three rounds. A question. A vote. Voting was simple, each contestant had a jar at the base of the stage. At the end of the pageant, whomever had the most money donated in their jar won.
She was backstage five minutes before the show started, putting on foundation in a little compact mirror one of her friends loaned her. Nova Jean was assessing the competition from the corners of her eyes as she applied a black line to them. The quarterback was in the pageant, and she knew he was her biggest competition. His name was Trevor and he was a black, toned, dreamy guy who decided to go by “Miss Thickness” for the night. Nova Jean and Miss Thickness were friendly with each other. But something about her was intimidating to Nova, and thus made her more nervous. In front of her class, her teachers, and whoever else volunteered that night, she would be in a dress, a swimsuit, high heels, and layered with makeup and nausea. But she had to fake the confidence until it was normal.
The formalwear was an easy round. They announced “Nova Jean” and some kids laughed at the name, but not nearly as many as the ones who laughed a few seconds after, when they realized what it meant. She waved and walked, balancing the the beehive that rested on her scalp. The silver bottom of the dress made her torso stumpy and her legs extra short, but she owned it. People cheered more than she ever thought. They smiled, too.
The next round was the swimsuit portion. She felt like she had stomped on Miss Thickness and the other contestants. She ripped her sarong off in the center of the stage. The crowd cheered again. The big question happened immediately after the swimsuit round. Nova Jean stopped and answered, “What is your definition of world peace?”
She thought for a moment, searched the sky, and answered confidently. “Peace throughout the world. Thank you.”
She walked out for her magic show in the velvet dress. Her fake thumb was put in her right fist and a handkerchief waited in her clutch until she needed it. Nova Jean told the crowd she would make it disappear. She took out the yellow handkerchief and shoved it in her opposite fist. Some of them must’ve thought she was trying to be funny because the audible “oohs” confirmed that something she did was right. She put the fake thumb with the stuffed handkerchief on her left thumb and opened her hands. It was gone.
“Okay,” she told the audience in a pitch higher than her natural voice. “For this next trick, I need everyone involved.” She said that everyone needed to stand up and think of a number between one and ten. “If your number is somewhere between one and five, stand like this”— she put her hands together near her chest. “If your number is between six and ten, put your hands like this.” Her hands were up to her chest again, but this time they were apart about six inches. “Don’t forget to smile!”
While the audience waited, she turned around so her back was to the audience and opened the clutch. Nova took out a disposable camera and took a picture of the confused crowd. “Now I have proof that I got a standing ovation. Thank you, South Florida!” She didn’t come up with the idea herself. Some magician on a cruise did it when she was twelve, but she figured no one would know.
She left the stage to watch the other talents.
Miss Thickness dressed up as a cheerleader and did a routine with the help from his real life girlfriend, who was on the cheerleading squad. “Cover Girl” played as Miss Thickness threw his girlfriend into the air and caught her as easy as a feather. More music pumped from stage as he did a backflip that is usually only seen during the Olympics. This was Nova Jean’s biggest threat for the crown.
The other contestants, about five other guys who had no idea how to wear a dress or the difference between eyeshadow and blush, all danced to popular music. The audience laughed as they tried to move like the girls from the background of music videos, painfully dipping and arching their backs and moving back to a standing position. This went on for too long.
“Now we will take a little break for the audience to cast their vote. Remember to put money into the name of the jar that matches your favorite contestant.”
Nova Jean lined up with the other queens; Miss Thickness was directly to her left. They all held hands. Sweat against calluses. Nerves bounced inside of her like a drill, shaking her.
“We have the results,” a girl that was a part of the Relay for Life committee announced. She held an envelope, for what Nova Jean assumed was just dramatic effect.
They announced third place quickly and it was neither Nova Jean nor Miss Thickness. In Nova’s mind, this narrowed the final two quite easily. It was down to the classy magician who balanced a bowling ball-sized wig on her head for the night and the other one.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to crown your new Miss Relay.” She braced herself, sucking in so much air that her lungs screamed. Nova Jean clenched Miss Thickness’ hand.
“With forty-five dollars raised, the first runner up is…” Silence. A beat. A short and small wave of exhaustion and anticipation came over the contestants. “Nova Jean!” Everyone applauded and the hostess smiled. Nova Jean was unsure about what to do. Bow? Walk off and wave? Instead she curtseyed and walked off with her head held high. As she trickled down the stairs to the back of the stage, she heard Miss Thickness’ total money raised, fifty dollars.
I had always wondered why they announce who is the runner-up in pageants first instead of saying the winner right away; I know why now. It doesn’t make you feel as bad, sure, but it also puts a title on something rather than diminishing it. You’re the “first runner-up” and not an unnamed loser standing by the winner. You mean something.
I drove back to Brett’s house that night, so we could finally get some sleep. I tried to wipe off as much makeup as I could, leaving behind black slashes under my eyes from the eyeliner and mascara that was supposedly waterproof. Nova Jean was in my backseat, disheveled and sloppy. Her once vibrant colors looked dim under the night, but as the street lights passed, the fragments of silver and glitter shined.
Ryan Skaryd is currently in his final year as an undergraduate at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, FL. He is graduating in May of 2015 and he will continue there, pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. In his free time, while he is not writing or reading, Ryan enjoys yoga, running, and all things outdoors. Ryan wrote this piece for a workshop class years ago.