Leigh Zurmuhlen: In Memory, Part III

10/13/2012 § 3 Comments

This is the third part in a series. Read Part I and Part II.

Johnny and me, outside the CSF Sub, fall 1995, about a year and a half after the events of this post, right around the time Leigh died.

Time moved slowly in Santa Fe and, during the month of January, the moon hung at the wrong angle. It wasn’t a sickle but a smile. I pointed at it from the Quad. I was with Alison, Leigh, and another new transfer student named Amber, who we’d met at one of the orientation activities arranged for us. We’d gone to Oñate Hall to meet a few presidents of student clubs, and to get a gentle lecture on safe sex and the warning signs of depression and mental illness from a former De La Salle Christian Brother. Amber was from New York and she was kind of punk. She wore short skirts, combat boots, and a blue hoodie with the hood up. Before coming to CSF, she’d been a squatter in New York for some reason—maybe she didn’t get along with her parents, or she’d been in a psychotic break. I remember that she was open with us about having been diagnosed with schizophrenia, which she treated with a combination of medication, vitamin supplements, and a regimentally balanced diet.

“That moon is wrong,” I said.

“Being in this place makes me feel violent,” said Amber. “I don’t mean, like, crazy, just that there are no people around and the people that are around are never around. It makes me want to mug someone or something.”

“I bet there isn’t even a gang problem in Santa Fe,” I said.

“There certainly isn’t a gang problem on this campus,” said Alison. She was miserable at CSF. She missed her boyfriend. She talked to him and her best friend from back home a lot on the phone. She didn’t seem like a permanent fixture in my existence, so I’d been gravitating toward Leigh, who was always up to laugh about something or meet a stranger. Amber lived in another dorm, so we didn’t see her as much.

“I’ll give this campus a gang problem,” Leigh said.

“You want to form a gang?” I asked. “Because I will definitely be in a gang with you guys.”

“What do we call ourselves? The Latin Kings? The Snakes? The Young Lords?” asked Alison. She seemed enthusiastic.

We didn’t settle into a name, but somehow this development prompted us to dye our hair blue. Well, all of us except for Alison. The Manic Panic didn’t do much for me and Amber, because it just made our brown hair look darker, but Leigh’s ash-blond hair became navy, streaked with green. She was flush with Manic Panic, which she’d brought with her from home. Her mother had insisted she get her hair colored her natural color prior to coming out to CSF, but generally speaking it was dyed something crazy. Later in the semester, it would be red and purple. Later still, it would be white as snow.

***

As our first week wore on, students began trickling back to campus. Our RA was named November. She was quite perky. The other girls on the floor were a mix of freshmen and sophomores, music, film, and theater majors. Most of them seemed pretty conventional, especially Katie and Lisa, sophomores who shared a room down the hall and had their beds pushed together even though they weren’t lesbians. They were both beautiful with long, dark hair, and a sense of purpose about their reason for being in college. Like, they had career aspirations. They’d hung scarves and boas all over the room and kept it smelling like a Victoria’s Secret store.

The floor downstairs was all-boys. Against our better judgment, we went down to Lestat’s room in the evenings. He had weed, and people seemed to stop by a lot, so we got to meet everyone without really trying. We also heard a lot about the people we would meet when they got back from Christmas break, and how awesome they were. One of the first people we met was Johnny Gomez, an extremely cute gay guy (who thought he was bi at the time) from the South Valley of Texas who was immediately flirtatious and handsy with everyone, or everyone who would let him, which meant all girls except for me. Even Alison couldn’t resist when he breathed on her neck. I thought he needed to be given boundaries. He told us that their group of friends was “the freshmen group that all the upper classmen hate because they want to know what’s going on with us and we don’t really care about them.” (It took me about five years to really get to love Johnnie, and we’ve had plenty of our own ups and downs, but he remains a friend, 16 years after college.)

Johnny was Matt’s roommate, who seemed to be everyone’s friend. No one ever shut up about Matt. Johnny and Matt lived across the Quad in the big dorm, King Hall, but Matt spent a lot of time in Lasalle, because his best friend, Mark, lived there. Leigh and I went to Johnny’s room once before Matt came back from Christmas break. All over the walls were slightly artful black and white photographs, torn from magazines, of gay men in various states of undress and bondage.

“So this is what you’re into?” Leigh asked. “It’s cool. I kind of dig watching guys make-out.”

“Matt put those up. He’s not gay. He dates Anemone. No gay guy would go out with Anemone, not even if he was in complete denial.”

“Too much boob?” I asked.

“It’s not that,” said Johnny.

Matt had put the pictures up for when his parents came to visit the previous semester. “I don’t think he wanted them to think he was gay, he was just trying to make them angry,” Johnny said.

“Did it work?” Leigh asked.

Johnny shrugged. “Who knows? His parents are uptight I guess. Then we just left them up.”

The night I met Matt, I already knew who his best friend was and that his girlfriend was a major pain and that he had a possibly troubled relationship with his parents. The night I met Matt, I was sitting on the floor of Lestat’s room. Leigh and Johnnie sat on one bed and Lestat sat on the other. There were other people there as well. The room was dim and there was a knock at the door. In my memory, it swings wide and the light in the hallway is bright enough that it’s hard to see who’s standing there, but then there is a lot of yelling of “Matt!” People are very happy to see him. I can’t see his face, but I see that he is tall and slim, wearing army pants and a cargo jacket, and when he steps over me to hug Johnny, I see that he is wearing black creepers, a kind of shoe I hate. I would never date him, I thought.

The next day, Saturday, Leigh accepted an invitation to check out the city of Albuquerque, about 65 miles south of Santa Fe. I didn’t go with; I think that must have been the day Alison, Amber, and I took the bus downtown to explore the Plaza. Every once in a while when I am down there now, I catch the scent of something—a season, piñon from some hotel’s fireplace, the heat of sun on adobe—that leads me to remember that day. Not what we did, or what stores we went into, or what we talked about, just that it happened. Just that there was a time when I first saw the Plaza in daylight with the new friends I’d met in college.

That night, I was in the cafeteria with Leigh, who’d returned from Albuquerque with a few vintage items from Buffalo Exchange and lots of gossip. Apparently, Matt was getting ready to break-up with Anemone. And Matt liked Leigh. She said it was kind of obvious that he was smitten, but Johnny pulled her aside at some point during the day and told her. She wasn’t interested. He was really nice, but not her type. As she was telling me all this, a girl came up to our table.

“Hi,” she said to Leigh. “Can we talk?” Her words were freighted with all kinds of meaning.

“Okay,” Leigh said slowly. “About what?”

“Look, it’s been a really weird day.” The girl put her hand on her hip. “I’m Matt’s girlfriend. Or I was, until he fell in love with you.”

“Whoa,” said Leigh. She couldn’t form many more words than that. After a moment, she agreed to go off and talk with Anemone, but the conversation didn’t last long. Leigh came back, told me she assured Anemone that Matt was going to break up with anyway, and that Leigh was just a girl who popped into town at the last minute. Nothing had happened between them and nothing would.

“You told her he was going to break up with her anyway?”

“Of course! Their problems aren’t mine. I’m not getting roped into their drama.”

***

After Alison’s boyfriend came to Santa Fe on the first day of classes, she didn’t hang out with us at night anymore, and Amber had made friends in her dorm and met a guy from the Institute of American Indian Arts (the school that shared our campus). Leigh and I got into a routine of Making the Rounds after dinner, which was what we called strolling the dorms, stopping at rooms and randomly introducing ourselves to people we didn’t know. We met a lot of guys. I had never been particularly good at talking to guys on purpose, but Leigh was very good at it. If I actually liked a guy, I tended to get very uncomfortable when we were alone if I wasn’t positive he liked me back, but being at a new school, where no one knew me, and under the tutelage of a pro like Leigh, I started making some attempts. She had no problem just leaning into an open dorm door on a boys floor and saying “What’s going on in here? Are you doing anything fun?”

After Alison’s boyfriend came, it was hard to sleep in my room because I’m not a good sleeper.  I have night terrors, nightmares, and I wake up half a dozen times or more during the night. I didn’t like the fact that there was this guy in there that I didn’t know. I didn’t know if I was hearing them have sex or if it was my imagination because when I woke up in the middle of the night I was sometimes blind. Leigh didn’t like her roommate, either, so she used this as an excuse to find us other places to sleep. We openly told guys that we wanted to sleep in their beds, “not for sex, but for closeness. We’ll be fully clothed. No hanky panky.” I spent one night in a room in a bed with a guy named Dave, while Leigh was in the next bed with another guy named Dave. My Dave wanted to mess around, and when he realized I really didn’t, he got mad. I wound up sleeping on the floor. Or he did. I just remember his socks. I don’t know why.

On the second weekend of school, Leigh and I spent an evening walking around campus with GoDaddy. It was snowing. GoDaddy was drinking. Bourbon. We went exploring through the barracks, which were light gray and covered in snow. The Art Department was housed in the barracks, which were there because before it was a college, the College of Santa Fe had been an army hospital during WWII. GoDaddy kissed me in the blizzard at the sculpture garden hidden between the buildings, a swarming sea of reaching white, plaster-of-Paris people. When we came back to the dorms, chilled and red-faced and euphoric, Leigh hugged me under the light by the stairs.

“Wanna shack up?” she asked.

“What?” I was laughing. I had no idea what she was talking.

“I hate my roommate, and Alison is in another world. Let’s see if she’ll get a single in King, and then I can move in with you.”

“That makes so much sense!” I cried. “How have we not thought of this before?”

I spent some of that night in GoDaddy’s room. It wasn’t very fun because he turned out to be weird and kind of angry. He was drunk and I wasn’t sober either and it was just awkward. I really liked a guy named Jim. He was a sophomore, theater major, RA over in King Hall. We’d added his room to our Rounds when I said I thought he was cute. It was pretty obvious he liked Leigh, but she wasn’t interested, and I really, really was. And she made it very clear by going nowhere near him or ever touching him that she wasn’t an option for him. Given her ability to meet a guy and start making out with him inside of 30 minutes, it was quite a contrast for me to behold. It was around this time I started wondering, to myself, about the differences between certain kinds of girls. What made guys just know that Leigh was willing and ready to fool around with them? Who’s to say I wasn’t? But no one ever treated me that way. I was jealous of this quality in her. I thought it might be related to pheromones, but I also thought it was possible that I was just really undesirable to most people.

After Alison’s boyfriend had been living in our room for about 10 days, I was complaining about it lunch in the cafeteria, and Jim explained that they were in violation of the co-habitation rule. “He’s only allowed to stay with you guys for like three nights. Ten days is out of hand. Hasn’t November done anything?”

I shook my head. Practically every girl on the floor had complained because Alison’s boyfriend insisted on using our showers instead of going downstairs to the guys’ bathroom, but November hadn’t done anything about it. Jim volunteered to have a talk with them. “Are they in there now?” he asked. They were. “Let’s go,” he said. I was impressed with the way he was just going to wield his authority on my behalf.

In my room, he scooted my desk chair up the head of Alison’s bed and sat down. Alison and her boyfriend opened their eyes groggily.

“Wake up,” said Jim. “I want to talk to you.”

He asked them if they were aware of the cohabitation rule. He asked the boyfriend to get up. He offered to help him find a hotel room in town. It all happened very quickly, even though Alison and her boyfriend were moving very slowly. Alison asked to speak to me in the hall. She wanted to know why I hadn’t talked to her about this directly, if her boyfriend living in our dorm room was such a problem for me. I was nervous in this confrontation, wishing I wasn’t upsetting her, but somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that she was in the wrong. I deserved to live in a dorm without my roommate’s boyfriend literally living with us, too. He wasn’t even a student. I told her as much.

“What if you get a single in King?” I asked.

“I don’t know if there are any rooms left,” she said.

“I bet all you have to do is ask,” I said.

“Is Leigh going to move in with you?” she asked.

I nodded. She nodded.

***

Leigh wasn’t shy about her past. I learned a lot about her very quickly.

She had a host of half-siblings. She was the youngest, by quite a bit, but had developed a close relationship with a sister who lived in Evanston, Illinois. Leigh’s parents had divorced when she was little. Leigh’s first memory was of her father standing at the top of the stairs and threatening her mother with a gun while shouting about his need for respect because he was a very important person.

I met both of them.

Her mother was kind of stylish, with brown hair and a manner of dress that brings silk scarves to my memory, but I actually think I’m conflating what she wore when she took us to an Italian restaurant for dinner, with the fact that after she left, she sent Leigh a picture she’d taken of Katie and Lisa’s room down the hall from us. This is what your room should like, her mother had written on the back of the photo. I can’t believe you didn’t even clean for me.

We had cleaned for her.

Before her visit, there were condoms and Blow-Pops hanging from the ceiling, from mint green dental floss. (Leigh’s idea, but I was all for it.) We had also elevated our beds by balancing them on the windowsills and our desks, and we’d created different areas for studying and socializing by hanging a tapestry from the ceiling with thumbtacks and Velcro. Lestat often came upstairs to pull down a condom and scamper back to whatever lover he was entertaining that night. We’d found out that though he’d dated a girl or two the semester before, he was now fully gay. CSF was a really small school, and at the time, there were like eight out gay guys on campus. There were a lot of jealousies among them. Johnnie’s heart had been broken by Ishmael, who was now one of Lestat’s conquests. Johnnie had never slept with Lestat, and he never would, though that didn’t stop Lestat from trying to seduce him.

When Leigh’s father visited, he was late coming to campus, or we’d missed him and he was driving around town. His three-hour disappearance is an unsolved mystery. There were no cell phones then and the truth has been lost to the ages. We decided that our best option was to wait for him outside of St. Michael’s Hall, because if he came down the main road into campus, we’d see him and he’d see us. We waited out there for so long, bored to death and cold, entertaining ourselves by repeatedly singing “You better work, work it girl. Do you thing on the runway.” and strutting up and down the sidewalk, coming up with ridiculous moves.

He finally arrived. He took us to a Chinese restaurant. Apparently he had a history with the Christian Brothers who founded the College of Santa Fe. He’d gone to Manhattan College, another Christian Brothers school, and that’s where he’d wanted Leigh to go, to become an engineer. He’d settled for CSF, but he had a lot to say on the subject of her choice.

He was crazy, like actually mentally ill in a way I didn’t recognize. He was not quite in touch with reality, but he didn’t know it. He flirted with the waitress, who barely spoke any English. He touched her and called her babe and honey, but he wasn’t just a slime; he was off his rocker. Even at the time, I had a hard time describing what he was like, what was wrong with him, to myself. He’s like a blur in my memory. I can feel his crazy, but I don’t remember exactly what it looked like or what it sounded like. Leigh was very anxious. She stole a small decorative dish from the table.  Just picked it up, cleaned it off, said “I want this,” and stuck it in the pocket of her black bomber jacket.

Leigh told me she learned what bulimia was by watching an afterschool special in junior high. She was miserable at home and with her friends at school. During spring break that year, she went to her favorite aunt’s house in Florida, where she had a wonderful time with no stress or screaming. Coming home was awful. New York was freezing and her mom was mean. That night, Leigh was sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream. The phone rang. It was a group of girls from Leigh’s school, calling her—as junior-high girls sometimes decide to do—to tell her all of her flaws. She was fat, they said, and she had a big nose. She was too loud around boys. She was weird.

“The same thing happened to me!” I told her. “The exact same thing happened to me!”

She listened to them, eating and eating that ice cream. She was in a trance. When they hung up, she was still in a trance, feeling bad about every possible thing in her life.

The phone rang again. Leigh answered. Someone told her that her half-sister, the one who lived in Evanston, Illinois, had been killed by a drunk driver in a car crash.

“That’s the first time I purged,” she told me. “I hated everything inside of me and I just wanted to get it out. It was really hard to do the first time. I gagged a lot. I scratched the back of my throat. Now when I do it, I don’t even have to stick my finger in my mouth. I can just kind of think about it, and it happens.”

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§ 3 Responses to Leigh Zurmuhlen: In Memory, Part III

  • depizan says:

    I can’t believe how much room-hopping there was that semester. There were several roommate changes in St. Mike’s after I got there, too – someone’s roommate left maybe a month in to the semester, and her (the remaining person’s) best friend – my new roommate – moved in with her, leaving me a double all to myself. And I think there was a change or two among the guys of the floor as well.

    The condoms on the ceiling remind me just how much condoms were a part of life at CSF. They seemed to be just everywhere. And it’s the only place I’ve ever been where people just randomly handed them to one another, having found one while looking in their purse or whatever.

    Also, damn, Leigh had a tough life.

  • Misfit says:

    I went to school with Leigh. My first memory of her was in sixth grade, she just moved to my town. We weren’t in the same class, but I saw her at our school dance. She was ahead of her time dancing wildly like she’d spent a lot of time watching MTV perfecting a few steamy moves. My then 11 year old eyes were shocked. That, I thought, is what junior high was going to be like. I was happy with my punk music and BMX at the time. Boys? sex? I had no clue. My friends and I were turned off by the maturity but the popular girls LOVED it! Leigh was an instant hit. In with the popular girls.

    I wasn’t friends with her. We weren’t in any classes together. I didn’t like her friends. They were the popular kids; mean, materialistic, exclusive, and focused on status which seemed like it was about who you were sleeping with. I’m not sure what happened but some of those girls suddenly went from preps to instant punks around the ninth grade and it seemed like it was all to get the guy; punk, skater, metal guys. Maybe they found out the football/ preppy guys didn’t really care as much as they would’ve hoped. Maybe the popular girls didn’t like her wild streak. Who knows.

    I found your blog and am amazed to learn so much more about a girl that was in the same world as me, but we were so far apart. I was saddened to hear of her death and just today she crossed my mind. I wanted to look it up on the internet hoping there was some justice. I have more reading ahead of me yet, but wanted to comment on the phone call she received from the high school girls. I wouldn’t be suprised if they were her “friends” or “ex-friends.” It’s so sad. I was an unpopular, outcast, freak but a happy one.

    Thank you for your writing.

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