Leigh Zurmuhlen: In Memory, Part I
10/09/2012 § 18 Comments
It’s coming up on that time of year. The time of year Leigh died.
I have written about this before.
I had a My Space blog for a while, and I know there’s a post about it there. Leigh and I went to college together, and then I wound up working at that college for a number of years. There was a time when I did a presentation to Freshmen Seminar groups about my experience living with someone who had an eating disorder. I have also written about it to a few journalists, real ones from major papers and magazines, who expressed great interest but then stopped contacting me after they started investigating, because investigating or writing about the circumstances of Leigh’s death tend to attract the attention of lawyers, who have ways of shutting that whole thing down.
Now here I am again. It’s October again, 17 years after Leigh died. You could say I’m fixated, that I should get over the fact that a girl I knew for four months in college died of a heroin overdose at the Mayflower Hotel in New York City when she was just 19.
This is how I first found out. It was senior year, 1995, almost Thanksgiving, and I called my ex-boyfriend, who lived near Denver, to tell him I had a layover there on my way to Chicago the following week. We hadn’t seen each other since we broke up the winter before. We’d just started exchanging a few letters, and this was a momentous thing I was doing, calling to see if he would see me. I chattered on at him about my flight times and then he told me that the girl he’d dated before me had also called him that day.
“Big day for you, huh Matt?” is what I said. Then he said something unintelligible. “What?” I said.
“She called to tell me that Leigh died.”
“What?” I said again.
He repeated himself and I repeated myself and this went on for a little while until I asked “How? When?”
It was a drug overdose, a couple of weeks earlier. He didn’t have any further information. His ex-girlfriend, who’d also been a friend of Leigh’s, had been contacted by the newsmagazine show Hard Copy, as had an ex-boyfriend of Leigh’s. They did not grant interviews.
Leigh wanted to be famous. For her photography, or maybe she’d become an actress, or maybe people would just be interested in her glamorous, dramatic life. After all, she reasoned, she wore stylish sunglasses, and anyone with sunglasses was automatically famous. And her life was inarguably dramatic. It was my job, she decided, to write it all down. I would write the story of her life, and then it would be made into a movie, and she would star in it.
When I was 19, I decided to transfer from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to the College of Santa Fe for a variety of reasons, top among them that I wanted to study creative writing, not visual art, and the College of Santa Fe was very far away from everything I knew. As an adult, I have never liked to travel or go very far from home. It makes me sick, literally. Moving to Santa Fe was, I think, my one huge change of geographical location. I was terrified, but I never considered backing out.
I transferred in for the spring semester. My mother dropped me off on a deserted campus under a brilliant turquoise January sky. I spent the first afternoon bouncing from faculty office to faculty office, getting registration forms signed, but I didn’t see any students anywhere. I would soon find out that there were a dozen of us transfer students, and they’d had us arrive a full week before classes began for an orientation, but it wasn’t well organized. The resident advisors hadn’t even returned from Christmas vacation yet, and no one knew when anyone else was arriving. I met one guy in the lounge who didn’t say a word for a full thirty minutes after we introduced ourselves. We just watched CNN until I got up and left. No one had told me where to go to get an ID, and I was sure you needed one to eat in the cafeteria, so when I got hungry, I walked through a dry field pocked with prairie-dog holes to the strip mall next door, because I’d seen a Hardee’s there when we passed it earlier. Then I went back to my dorm room, read a few stories from Margaret Atwood’s Dancing Girls, and fell asleep.
I woke up and the first thing I thought about was the fact that I was alone in New Mexico and I didn’t know anyone. I started to cry.
I knew I was being ridiculous, that as soon as I came into contact with another human, I would be fine. So I left my room and went to the lounge at the end of the hall, where I could hear a TV. A Hispanic woman was sitting on the couch. A wide broom was propped next to her.
“Eee, you caught me taking my break,” she said.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t care.” As soon as I opened my mouth, I’d started to cry.
“Eee, mija, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I’m just—there’s no one here. I haven’t seen anyone all day. I might miss my mom.” I was weeping.
“Mija, let me tell you a few things. First, you’re lucky you get to be here when there’s no one around. Usually, I can barely get my broom down the hall with all the girls running back and forth. There will be people here in no time, and you won’t even remember what’s it’s like to have quiet.”
“Okay,” I said. I wasn’t crying anymore. I liked that this woman was talking to me. She was probably my mother’s age, a little younger, with short black hair, blue jeans, and a gray sweatshirt.
“My daughter is the first one in our family to go to college, and I’m so proud of her, but why she had to go and go all the way to Puerto Rico? She said ‘Ma, if I’m going, I’m going. I’ll be back, but I have to go now.”
“Puerto Rico? Is that where you’re from?”
“Eee, no. We’re from Santa Fe. I don’t know why she has such a romance with Puerto Rico.” She rolled her R’s emphatically.
There were footsteps on the stairs next to the lounge. A girl with blond hair and a yellow and black houndstooth flannel shirt leaned against the doorframe. “Hi,” she said. “Do you know if there are any payphones around here?”
“I do!” I’d called my father from them earlier, in tears.
The woman on the couch lifted her chin in the direction of the door. “Go,” she said. “Have fun.”
I walked down the stairs with the girl and showed her the row of payphones in the lobby. “I just have to call my dad and tell him I got here okay. Wait for me?” Her voice was attractively raspy.
I nodded. She had a pierced lip and wore Doc Martens. She looked like my friends from high school. After she hung up, we decided to try to find the cafeteria. “I don’t have an ID yet,” I said. “They might not let me eat.”
She glanced at me with curiosity. “Oh, I don’t think they’ll let us starve. Where are you from? New York?”
“I’m from New York,” she said, and we both laughed.
My roommate turned out to be a girl named Alison. She was from Chicago as well, and she was also a creative writing major. We got along immediately, but she didn’t really want to be at the College of Santa Fe. She missed her boyfriend. Further problems arose when her boyfriend showed up on campus on the first day of classes, with no return plane ticket. He moved into our room, and from that point forward, all they did all day was sleep. Alison went to class, and they were awake in the evening, but otherwise, they slept, often fully clothed in jeans and bajas. Our room smelled like dank hippie sweat. Leigh lived down the hall. She didn’t like her roommate.
A couple of weeks after we met, Leigh told me she was bulimic.
“It’s why I deferred until the spring semester. I was supposed to come in the fall, but I was in a hospital.”
“But you’re still…bulimic?” I asked.
“Well, now I only do it like once a day or once every other day. Before the hospital, I did it like four or six times a day. Actually, I didn’t do it all, since I got here, for twelve days, but then, yesterday.”
“So that stuff me and GoDaddy saw in your garbage can, that was…vomit?”
The night before, when GoDaddy smelled something sour in Leigh’s room and went looking for the source, he found something swishing around in the bottom of her garbage can. He asked if it was vomit, but she said it was just some old cookies and apple juice that had spilled in her backpack. GoDaddy was a guy I liked who lived directly beneath my room. Or I had liked him, until I hooked up with him a few days earlier, which wasn’t very fun. That night, the night of the mysterious swishing in the garbage can, he’d come upstairs to tell me he didn’t want me to fall in love with him. I sat on my bed and he sat on Alison’s bed—she and boyfriend were off climbing Mt. Atalaya, if memory serves—and he said “I don’t want you to fall in love with me.”
“Okay,” I said. “I promise.”
He squirmed uncomfortably in his old-man sweater and brogans. He fiddled with his ponytail. “But you know, if you and Leigh ever want to have, like, a threesome, I would be open to that.”
I stared at him. “We should probably let Leigh know.”
He followed me down the hall to Leigh’s room, but she wasn’t there. She was down in the lounge with some of the other girls. I stood behind where she sat on the couch. “Leigh, GoDaddy is worried that I’ll fall in love with him, but he’s into the idea of having group sex with me and you,” I said.
“Hey!” he cried. “That’s private!”
“Oh, shit,” Leigh said, turning around. “No way. He offered to have group sex with us?” Her voice was as arch as possible.
“Can we talk about this privately?” GoDaddy asked.
“They’re not serious,” said one of our hall-mates.
Leigh got off the couch and grabbed GoDaddy’s arm. “Oh, we’re serious. We’re going to fuck him right now.” She pulled us down the hall and into her room, and slammed the door. GoDaddy took off his sweater.
“The fact that you think for a second that we’re serious is so…troubling,” said Leigh. “Put your shirt on, weirdo. So, did you actually tell Jennifer ‘Don’t fall in love with me’? Did you actually say that?”
“That’s exactly what he said.” I couldn’t stop grinning.
“Okay, okay, big joke on me.” GoDaddy put his sweater back on. “Why does it smell like puke in here?”
There were things I could do to help her not purge, even if she binged, she told me. I could stay with her after meals. I could take away the ice cream or the chips or the peanut butter when I thought she’d had enough.
“I don’t want to be bulimic,” she said. “The fucked-up thing is that I know more about my disease than any counselor I’ve ever met. I keep a diary, just like all bulimics. And if you read it you’ll see that every night I write how I will never do it again. And every day, I write that it will be the last time. Everyone writes that, and we mean it, every time.”
I didn’t know anything about eating disorders, and I had been raised to believe that such things—depression, sadness, assorted emotional problems—weren’t real. All you had to do was think of something to distract yourself, and you’d be better. All you had to do was tell yourself to be better, and you would be better.
I believed that.