The drawing room of Fairchild Hall is packed. The couches have been moved against the walls. A makeshift stage is in the front of the room near the piano. Young women are sitting on the floor, guys are hanging by the three sets of French doors that open into the expansive room.
It’s a Thursday night in October and it is the annual Miss Fairchild contest, a talent pageant held every year in this oldest dormitory of a very old university.
I have been at college for six weeks, awed by the freedom, the conversations about issues like Vietnam, politics, feminism, and all the places people come from. My self-protective armor is softening. I’m no longer the high school oddball.
I’m sitting in the back of the room, watching these confident, beautiful women sign up to be in the contest. Oh, to be them.
The next thing I remember is telling Martha, “I’m in. I’ll do it.”
“Yay,” she says. “It’s so good to have a freshman be part of this.”
Unlike the confident women, I have not prepared. This is another one of my impulsive acts. They never end well.
The only thing I can remember at this moment is the Kitty Duval monologue from William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life” that I did in Mr. Roberts’ senior honors English class.
I am standing in front of these strangers being Kitty, the despairing prostitute. The others had played instruments and sang songs.
I can’t sing. Except when I wail with Kitty.
“I dream of home. Christ, I always dream of home. I have no home. I’ve no place,” rages Kitty about loss after loss. I channel her anger, her shame, her disappearing dream of a home with family.
Then it’s over.
Kitty and I have nothing left to give.
The room is quiet.
The applause starts slowly and then gets louder. Embarrassed, I duck out of one set of French doors and go back in the last set, taking my place in the back of the room.
The judges — the Fairchild Hall seniors and housemistress — confer for several minutes and announce the three finalists.
“Oh my God, Lois. That’s you. You’re a finalist,” screams my new friend Maura.
Oh no. What will I have to do or say? Please God, no.
The judges ask the finalists, “Why do you think you deserve to be Miss Fairchild?”
I don’t remember what the two contestants before me say. I am panicky. Skinny me with the coke-bottle glasses and homemade clothes. My heart is racing, racing, racing. They are waiting for me to say something. Anything.
“You can do it,” a cute guy shouts, which intimidates me more.
I start pretending that I’m a crazy-ass beauty contestant, like all those Miss America and Miss USA contestants I’ve watched while babysitting. I’ve got the Southern accent, the hand gestures, the demurring eyes. I’m even smoothing down my glamorous make-believe gown to hug my imaginary hour-glass body.
There’s a demon gone wild in me. Who is this person? I’m unstoppable. The more people laugh and cheer, the more outrageous my beauty contestant self becomes.
One of the judges cuts me off at some point and says, “Let’s have a round of applause for Lois Kelly.”
I’m finished. My armpits are wet. My lungs are asthma-wheezy. Finally, I get to a new school to start over and this is what I’ve done.
Have I mocked the pageant too much? Are Martha and the other upper-class girls going to think I was making fun of them?
This was supposed to be all in good fun, right? Or is this one of those funny but not sarcastic funny kinds of rituals?
Are they going to think I’m an asshole? A know-it-all city girl? Or maybe they’re just pitying me.
Oh, dear God. Being a big mouth has always wrecked things for me. I was going to stay quiet here.
Saying too much about how teenagers can get birth control on the Boston talk radio show. (“Where does your daughter learn these kinds of things? I guess it’s nice to know that she has a curious mind.”)
Getting shunned off the freshman cheerleading squad for starting cheers. (“That’s the co-captains’ role, you know. You’re supposed to follow.”)
Demanding that students have a seat on the city’s School Committee. (“She’s one of those hot-headed Irish girls. Father is a truck driver.”)
Breaking up with the captain of the football team the month before the prom and telling him he was just too boring. (“What did he ever see in her anyway? He deserves better.”)
Calling the Red Sox third-baseman a racist during the big-deal time he came to our house for dinner and embarrassing my parents. (“That’s not how you treat company.” “But he was a racist, Mom!”)
Martha is tapping on the microphone to get everyone’s attention. “We are so pleased to announce our first place winner …” She pauses for dramatic effect, like in the Miss America pageant. Everyone is quiet and waiting.
“Please join me in welcoming Miss Fairchild 1973…Lois Kelly.”
They put the tinfoil crown on my head and drape the sash across my flat chest.
I am so happy to have let me out to run wild.
To be unscripted and crazy.
To feel accepted for being daring and unprepared.
To be here.
I run wild at school.
I run wild in New York City where I work on Madison Ave.
Then I go to business school. Conform.
Set my goals on money and titles. Conform.
Buy houses and take on mortgages. Conform.
Start a business and learn what it takes to win the big deals. Conform.
Can a 65-year-old become Miss Fairchild again?
In the play notes about Kitty William Saroyan wrote: “Kitty Duval is a somebody. There is an angry purity, a fierce pride in her. In her stance, and way of walking, there is a grace and an arrogance.”
I’m just going to go with that.