It was the ultimate loner summer of insomnia, deja vu, anxiety, two boyfriends, a PEI vacation, the lady in black and a beauty pageant. The summer following my high school graduation I lived alone in my parents house while they summered with the Coughlan clan at the camp. I had been staying alone most summers for a few years then, but that summer they REALLY stayed away. The lawn needed haying in its neglect. The house looked abandoned, curtains drawn, no sign of life. In the early dawn I would often see a fox, coyote, moose or deer on the front lawn as if the lawn were part of the woods. Rabbits ran wild about the place. Back then we didn’t have any close neighbours, so if I was being quiet there was a big quiet zone and the critters roamed freely.
I didn’t have any girlfriends that summer. No steady girl group to hang with. I guess because we were all transitioning into new lives, university and beyond. But I’ve always gone into periods of being the loner anyway, and this was one of those.
Ronnie and I broke up before graduation. We went to prom and grad things together because it had been planned and because my mother disapproved of my new boyfriend, the school disapproved of my new boyfriend (I doubt he would’ve been permitted on the property for prom, when he showed up that night to see me in my dress the principal gave me 10 minutes to convince him to leave peacefully before he called the cops) . . . everyone disapproved of my new boyfriend . . . so, if I wanted to go to any of my grad activities I either had to go alone or go with Ronnie. I chose Ronnie, and my new boyfriend was okay with that. He was actually a pretty great guy, though I was the only one who realised that then, and even I didn’t realise the full extent of how great he truly could be.
At the end of summer I was moving to Toronto to study journalism at Ryerson. A helluva long way from Barnettville for this country bumpkin. Stressful times indeed as the anxiety mounted about the move. I had the recurring nightmare about the Lady in Black. Insomnia where I couldn’t sleep for weeks. Deja vu episodes that would last so long I worried it would never end, that I’d be one step ahead of everybody for the rest of my life.
Following a weekend getaway to PEI that I was forbidden by my parents to take, where I was suspended over the ocean, held out over the side of the ferry somewhere during the middle of the ride, by four drunken and stupidly high idiots, where I discovered I had nothing in common with any of the girls in my new boyfriend’s circle, where I earned the wrath of these girls just by my desire to stay up past midnight . . . I started seeing Ronnie again, without telling my new boyfriend.
I was allowed to see Ronnie. He was allowed to stay with me in my big lonely house. Being with Ronnie was easy and natural and had been the norm for many years. I really liked the other guy, but it was a difficult transition to his life, his friends, my mother’s refusal to acknowledge his existence and with Toronto looming at the end of summer where I would have to leave him anyway. Being with Ronnie was comfortable. He was my old pair of slippers. He was the one moving me to Toronto in the fall, moving me into his aunt’s house. And he pursued me that summer like he never had before.
It was shitty business really. My boyfriend would drop me off at the edge of my driveway, abiding by my parents’ rule to not enter the dooryard even when they weren’t there (everyone hated him, but he was a man of character), and Ronnie’s car would be parked on the back lawn just out of sight (he loved me, but I sorely lacked his character). Ronnie’d be asleep on the couch or in my bed, waiting for me to come home. I think he got off a little on the excitement of sneaking around, having an affair of sorts. Of course, I wasn’t having sex with the new boyfriend, I suspect he might’ve been more territorial if the new relationship had evolved that far, but at this point I was still his virgin princess. I actually never had sex with the new boyfriend, ever. He’s since said he regretted that. I don’t really do regrets, but if I did that would rank with me too. In my next life I’m sleeping with everyone . . . and marrying them! I’m going to take those things way less seriously . . . in my next life.
Anyway, the point of all this is to hopefully show what kind of a wreck I was that last summer, practically orphaned except for scorn and crazy ultimatums, sleep deprived, stressed, carrying on a secret affair, getting ready for the biggest life change to befall me, barely 18 years old . . . and into the midst of all this chaos, Rita calls. My high school English teacher. The one who entered me into the district finals for public speaking without having heard my speech that she’d already awarded the highest grade in the class. The same teacher who gave me perfect marks for essays and stories despite glaring grammar and spelling mistakes . . . I might’ve been failing Math, Calculus and Computer Science miserably but there was no way I wouldn’t get into whatever English-related program I wanted, (provided I managed the miracle of graduation) not on Rita’s watch. Of course it was rather shocking to learn I didn’t walk on water once I got there, but still, I might not have gotten anywhere without a little help and belief on Rita’s part that I could and would survive once I got in. Certainly nobody else believed in me so consistently and blindly.
So, when Rita called I was inclined to listen. She was on the organising committee of the local beauty pageant. They needed young girls. She thought I’d be perfect. OH THE HORROR!! I managed somehow to escape high school without once getting sucked into the beauty pageant that got so many others, never letting my name stand in the nominating process. I thought I had escaped forever. Is there anything worse than parading around in a pageant? I thought not. I said no. I said no quite firmly. And then I said no again. But she kept calling back. They didn’t have enough girls. The event was in jeopardy. It wouldn’t take that much time. I still said no. But she wore me down, chipped away and chipped away until I couldn’t argue anymore and I said I’d do it.
By the time I agreed, rehearsals had been going on for awhile. It became rather apparent when I showed up at the next one that I did not belong. I strolled in 15 minutes late after struggling to get a ride hitch-hiking that morning, reeking of cigarettes, still half-asleep, hung-over, wearing my tattered old jeans, a faded tee and dirty sneakers. The other girls had all been in pageants before. They had their high heels with them to practice walking. Some of them had mothers with them to coach them on smiling and posture. So there I am, yawning, craving a cigarette, a cup of tea, learning to pivot in sneakers by watching how the other girls do it. They saved practising the talent part for last. I tried to sneak out but one of the organiser’s saw me, generously offered that I could go first if I was in such a hurry, needed to be someplace else. I’m doing a speech, I said. Fine, she said, you can practice in front of the other girls. I didn’t bring it with me, I said. Oh, she sighed, well you really need to practice here on the stage with the rest of the girls. I shrugged. Then Rita jumped in, said it would be fine, I’d be fine, and they let me leave.
I called Rita later that day and tried to quit again. She guilted me, she’d vouched for me afterall. I didn’t want to let her down, but I missed the next practice. She couldn’t possibly expect me to go into a pageant having not practiced I figured. Oh, but she did. There was to be a final practice on the morning of the show. 9 am sharp and I was to attend, ready to practice my speech. She enlisted my mother to make sure I got there. Rita would pick me up and bring me home, my mother was to make sure I was ready to go. What a friggin’ nightmare! You see, the thing of it was I didn’t actually have a speech. I had a vague sort of idea about what I wanted to do . . . if it came to that . . . but lord I never imagined it would come to that! I thought for sure I could get myself kicked out of the thing somehow.
The pageant was on a Saturday night at the Catholic Hall. Friday night I went to Blackville alone, hung out with some people, had drinks, some pills. It was daylight Saturday morning when I was walking home, coming through the field at the Brook Hill. I’m not sure where the new boyfriend was, where Ronnie was, why I was alone . . . I don’t remember, but I was alone until the field. I noticed a couple of three-wheelers at the other end of the field by the woods, but couldn’t see anyone around. I wasn’t alarmed, knew who owned the machines, was caught up in my head, thinking about the f-ing pageant and the hellish day ahead of me, wondering at the time, whether I’d get any sleep at all or not. Plodding across the path through the field, my thoughts far away, when all of a sudden a hand grabbed my ankle and pulled my legs out from underneath me …
Whoomph! In a second I’m on my back in the tall grass and someone’s laughing at me. I recognise the voice and turn to see a guy I know laying beside me. He’s howling like this is the funniest thing ever.
Fuck! You scared the shit outta me, I say. Saw you coming and hid, he giggles, everyone else is sleeping. I look around and see a couple more guys I know sleeping in the grass. Where you coming from, he asks. Blackville, I say. What was going on there, he wants to know. Nothing much, slow night, I shrug. And then he rolls over on top of me and starts kissing me. Whoa there! I say, Hold on, what’s this all about?
I’m truly shocked. This is a very unexpected and rapid development. But I’m not afraid even though I’m pinned to the ground by this absolutely huge man, he’s a friend, I know this guy . . . until he hisses something about me being fucked and then I see the look in his eyes and realise he’s on acid. FUCK ME! He’s kissing my neck and unbuttoning my blouse, pulling my breast out of my bra and all I can think is that I’ll probably have f-ing hickeys for the pageant as I flail my arms around and grab another guys leg, beating at him to wake up and get this guy off me. The guy I’m waking is an even better friend, a guy who has defended me before. A guy I’m certain will help me out of this so I can go home. He wakes. Throws buddy off me and they get into it, which wakes the third guy. But as I pull myself together, it becomes apparent they are all on acid and drunk on wine and they’re rapidly getting from the point of fighting over who gets to have me to sharing me evenly . . . FUCK ME! I’ve gone from one asshole to three in two minutes flat.
While they fight and stagger around ironing the details out I run from the field and I run all the way home. I’m going past Joyce and Gene’s when I hear the three-wheelers start up. Still a quarter mile to my house. When I think of how fast I must’ve been going . . . wow, the shape I must’ve been in! With the three-wheelers coming down the road after me I run even faster. Getting into the house, getting the doors locked, just seconds before the three-wheelers scream into the dooryard. I sit on the floor in the hall in the centre of the house in a tiny space that can’t be seen through a window, the only place in the whole house where I might hide from prying eyes, with my heart pounding in my chest, listening to them circle the house, looking in all the windows, taunting me to come out, looking for an easy way in without breaking glass . . . they may be high, may be drunk, may be ready to do unspeakable things to me, but still they don’t want to harm Blaine’s house and risk him shooting them . . . plus, they don’t know for sure whether I’m here or not.
This lasts I don’t know how long. They hoist each other up to look into the higher windows. Quite thorough. In the end, I think they leave only because they think I’m not in here. If they knew for sure I don’t doubt they would break a window or bust a door. That’s the kind of tripping they’re doing. But eventually they leave. I don’t move from my spot in the hall for several minutes after I hear the three-wheelers leave, afraid it is a trick, that one stayed behind. Then I creep from room to room checking out the windows to make sure I am alone. I go to my parent’s room and climb into their bed, still fully clothed. I close my eyes and the door in the kitchen opens. My eyes spring wide and I hear steps coming toward the bedroom. I don’t move, can’t breathe. My mom peeks in, Why are you in my bed? Why aren’t you up and ready? Rita will be here in a few minutes to pick you up.
I’m ready, I say and throw off the covers revealing a fully dressed though wrinkled and grass stained beauty queen contestant. Oh God! You can’t wear that! Did you wear that out last night? Go change! So I do and while I am changing Rita arrives to pick me up for practice . . .
And I went and pivoted for all to see, but when it came time to practice talent I refused again, and again Rita reassured everyone that there would be a speech and it would be fine. But I could tell they were unconvinced. If Rita hadn’t been so persistent about the whole thing I’m sure they would’ve tossed my ass out of that pageant that morning. But damn that woman and her unshakable belief that I could pull a god-damned speech out of my ass at any moment of my choosing! I went home after practice and finished the speech, granted it was one I had started earlier in the school year and never got to where I wanted it so I had a good idea of where I was going, practiced until I had it enough to perform, cleaned up for the beauty portion, got together dresses and things and for the first time realised I was going to be in a frigging pageant . . . on no sleep, no food, hung over, recently traumatized . . . that’s the way to be competitive.
Pivoting in high heels for the first time did not go smoothly. I was not a graceful swan gliding across the stage. I didn’t remember to smile. I couldn’t get a proper hoop for my formalwear, so the Scarlett dress didn’t fill out like it was supposed to but fell a little flat. All my hose ran. I flubbed my Q&A. I was upset that neither my new boyfriend nor Ronnie or any of my friends showed up to lend moral support. I always went to everyone else’s stupid pageants! God, I even let one friend borrow a speech of mine . . . what a disaster that was! Shrinking into my seat, wishing to disappear, hoping nobody would notice me, as she screwed up and people all around me hissed, “That’s not her speech! That’s a Kellie Underhill speech!”
In their defence I don’t think I actually asked anyone to come, right up until the end I truly believed I would get out of it. But my parents came, both of them, it was the only time my Dad ever saw me give a speech, which was the cause of much conversation in the years since. And there was at least one Grammie in the audience, and aunts and sisters and cousins and even the rare uncle . . . and in an odd twist, Marty (with his wife), who later never missed the opportunity to remark that was the night he fell in love with me when he saw me wearing my green dress . . . to which I always said I didn’t think I wore a green dress that night, but whatever.
Darren MacDonald emceed. Darren, who I would later work with at CFAN, a young deejay then, earning his stripes, just starting out. The only part of the night that went well was the speech, the speech nobody had heard in practice, nobody had ever heard before. The thing about my speeches was that they were never really speeches, but more like monologues. They were entertaining for sure, funny sometimes, downright shocking usually, extremely theatrical . . . but not really a speech in the competitive oratorical sense. I don’t think Toastmasters would stand for it, but Second City might’ve taken a passing look at me.
I don’t remember much about this one. It was about the fear of public speaking I believe. I know I shook the podium, nearly knocking it over and mixing my cue cards in the process, meaning I had to go on shear memory. I know I pointed into the audience and accused my grandmother of something or other . . . and everyone within a 10 foot square radius of her believed I had accused them . . . and couldn’t believe I dared to do that. I know I got a lot of laughs and had to wait several times for it to die down before continuing. I know it was the best I’d felt in days, months even, and I had that audience eating out of the palm of my hand. I know it was the last so-called “speech” I ever gave.
I nearly collapsed backstage after it was finished, didn’t know how I’d get through the rest of the night. I used all my adrenaline and had nothing left. I don’t remember another thing until the end, the part where they crown the winners. I was not expecting to win anything. Overall, I was the worst beauty contestant ever, clumsy, inarticulate on the Q&A, hostile posture, and so on. There was no way the judges could give me a crown, the uproar would be insane, no matter how entertaining my talent had been. None of the other girls liked me much, or didn’t know me at all because I refused to go to the practices, so I knew I wouldn’t get the Congeniality thing. I was just happy to have the whole thing over and looking forward to going home and getting some sleep after pulling the hellish all-niter.
And then Darren began announcing the winners. The first for the girl who had everyone in stitches, the girl he’d certainly never forget, the girl they’d all be telling their co-workers about in the morning, the most talented in the bunch of which there could be no doubt . . . he went a little over the top as I recall, I was very embarrassed as he called my name. At the last minute the judges created a new award for the talent portion of the program, so they could give me something. What else could they do? Some of the other girls were not too pleased about this, because of course I got a prize, a gift certificate for something or other that I never used . . . but that prize would’ve been part of one of the other girl’s awards originally, so it was like I took something from them. This bothered some people I heard later . . . but what did I care? I had Toronto and two boyfriends and insomnia and deja vu and the Lady in Black and crazy boys on three-wheelers to think about . . . no time for beauty pageant politics.
Drinking: It’s Banrock time!
Listening To: Theory of a Deadman, Say I’m Sorry
Hair: neither laundered nor cut