Leigh Zurmuhlen: In Memory, Part IV

10/14/2012 § 2 Comments

Me in 1993, when I came to Santa Fe to check out CSF, about 6 months before the events of this post.

(This post is part of a series. Read Part I, Part II, Part III.)

If I’m going to tell the truth, it must be said that at the College of Santa Fe in 1994, people smoked a lot of pot. Not everyone—because there are always people who don’t—but a lot of people did. There was also a lot of drinking and a lot of tripping on acid and mushrooms. Only the brave took peyote—since, it was rumored, you had to puke before the trip kicked in, and then you were in it for a couple of days—and ecstasy had yet to come into popularity in a major way, and anyway it was rumored you puked on that, too. Although I definitely saw a few pills swallowed, or sometimes crushed up and sniffed, I didn’t take part in anything I hadn’t done in high school. It’s possible that by growing up in a city and going to public school, I was exposed to enough at an early enough age that none of this was glamorous to me. Or maybe my hyper-critical thought process was actually able to discern the difference, in those junior-high-school Just Say No assemblies, between marijuana and cocaine. The way I figured, if you were over 16 or 17, and you knowingly began doing the kinds of drugs that would hook you and take over your life, you were kind of an idiot.

I know. I was very compassionate at 20.

Coke, crack, meth, heroin—these drugs were the drugs of jokes among my high school friends. I remember we thought it was funny to respond to “What do you want to do tonight?” with a sarcastic, high-pitched, “Smoke some cra-ack!” I honestly didn’t know that there were people my age (or younger: I was a sophomore while most of my new friends were freshmen) who were really interested in finding out what coke was like and someday, when they were bored and it was offered to them for free, they would snort a line without compunction. I stuck to what we called “the naturals.” We toweled the door as a gesture of goodwill toward November and Lestat’s RA, Beardo, who was a former drug-doing Deadhead that had changed his ways long ago. Anyway, even if I do not refer to it explicitly in these posts, you can assume that much of the time, we were doing more than underage drinking.

Soon into the semester, for reasons I can no longer remember, Matt and Johnny were no longer roommates. And because Mark, Matt’s best friend, had lost his roommate to attrition over Christmas break, the housing department moved Matt into Lasalle with him. (Johnny must have gone to a single in King. If any of you remember the logistics of this shuffle, please let me know.) I began spending a lot of time with Matt, who liked Leigh. He wasn’t a desperate piner or anything, but the feelings were there. We spent a lot our time talking about his ex-girlfriend, Anemone. It had been a pretty terrible relationship, although I don’t remember why. It might have been they just didn’t get along, one of those situations where Anemone had a stronger personality and was insistent on being his girlfriend despite his lack of interest. Matt was actually a romantic—he was still a little hung up a girl he’d gone out with for a few weeks before Anemone, someone who hadn’t come back after Christmas. A lot of Matt’s friends hadn’t come back, and it sounded to me like they’d flunked out of school because they slept through morning classes and drank and smoked through afternoon ones. So many people hadn’t come back that it sometimes felt as though ghosts were part of my friend group.

Matt was on academic probation for missing too many classes the previous semester, and he still wasn’t really going. This was baffling to me, because he was smart. As far as I was concerned, my parents were paying for college and it was incumbent upon me to actually attend school, and even to do well. When I went through a phase in fifth grade of not wanting to get up for school, my mom’s solution was to pour water on my head, and in high school, if I slept past 9:45 a.m. on the weekends, she’d fling open my door and sing—at the top of her lungs and very non-melodiously—“It’s time to get up, it’s time to get up, it’s time to get up in the morning!” I lived by myself in an apartment for my freshman year of college at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and I’d never been late to class, even though I had to travel almost an hour to get there. These kids who could stumble to class in their pajamas within ten minutes of waking, but didn’t bother to, made me wonder what kind of school I’d chosen. My classes were boring, except for Theories of Personality and Poetry of Witness. Even my fiction workshop seemed like a joke. No one in there could write, at all, nor were they adept at critique, and the professor didn’t seem to notice or care. Even though I’d done well academically at the Art Institute, at CSF I found myself falling into my old high-school habits of doing just enough to get by, and I was soon hopelessly behind in my reading for Theories of Personality, so I dropped the course. I still wish I hadn’t done that. The teacher was excellent, and the topic is something I wish I had more information about now.


Leigh was struggling with her eating disorder and a mounting anxiety level. The only class she could deal with was photography. Even her drawing class was stressing her out, so I took over that homework for her because I had already taken several semesters of drawing. But Leigh would spend hours in the darkroom or hours alone wandering campus, looking for things to take pictures of. My friendship with Matt became more intense. We waited for each other to go to lunch and always hung out in the afternoons. In general, I was starting to make more friends in Lasalle. Leigh still preferred the anonymity of King Hall, so sometimes she went there at night without me. One day, she told me she met a guy in the hallway, went back to his room, and had sex with him. She thought his name might be Mike.

I didn’t care how many people Leigh slept with, and I hated the very notion of the word “slut,” as it says more about the fears and jealousies of the person saying it than who it is said about. Leigh knew she could tell me anything, but even I thought it was kind of strange to sleep with a literal stranger. She seemed happy about it, if freaked out by her own forwardness, so I shrugged it off. I began hearing other rumors about her; about guys she was hooking up with or sleeping with. There was a one about her breaking into someone’s room and stealing a cow hand-puppet. I was with her when she did it; the door was unlocked. She’d told me the guy had said to hang out in his room at any time, even if he wasn’t there. We lied on his bed until we got bored, and then she took the puppet when we left. She also carried a baby-bottle full of water around with her, and people thought this was very weird. It didn’t faze me, because I knew the reason she had to drink water so much was from all the acid in her mouth from all the puking she did. Plus, this was before water-bottles were ubiquitous, and we were in the desert. I considered it an affectation and nothing more.

Looking back on the guys Leigh did kiss, fool around with, or sleep with, I have to wonder if the rumors swirled because each in turn was hurt that she didn’t have eyes—or vagina—just for him. It’s not like they wanted to date her in some real way. They didn’t even talk to her in the cafeteria. And she was vague about what she did with who, so I was never entirely clear on how much actual sex was going on. And I didn’t care. I was of a mind, however, that if you didn’t like the way you were being talked about, you should change the conversation. This had come up with friends during my first year of college when they got upset that sleeping with five guys in five weeks earned them unsavory reputations. “Either sleep with fewer guys or sleep with different guys, the kind who don’t talk shit,” I said. Either way, I didn’t really give a shit myself. Leigh didn’t care either. The rumors could  fly. It didn’t matter to her. She was having fun. We thought the whole idea of sexing up people in the dorms was kind of funny and had even jokingly offered to charge money for our services, to make it worth our while. Other girls did not find this amusing.

In general, girls did not find Leigh amusing. I had no idea why, since I had never laughed as much as I did with her. I thought she was obnoxious in the best possible way.

In Lasalle, if you flushed the toilet while someone was showering, you’d scald the person in the shower. So the rule was that if you were going to flush the toilet, you had to yell “flushing!” so the person in the shower had the chance to jump out of the way. One night after dinner, when most people were in their rooms studying, November, Katie, and Lisa were in the showers, singing at the top of their lungs, and it was going on for a while, for longer than a typical shower. People were coming out of their rooms and shooting dirty looks down the hall, muttering their annoyances at each other. Because one of the offenders was the RA, it didn’t seem like there was anything we could do. Leigh thought otherwise. She went to the bathroom and flushed all the toilets, over and over again, each time yelling “Flushing!”

The girls in the shower were not pleased. They ran into their hallway, in their towels, just in time to see Leigh and I going back into our room.

“It was the blue-haired bitch and her little friend,” Katie said.

On another occasion, Leigh found notes tapes to the inside of all the bathroom stall-doors stating that one of our floor-mates had some kind of sexually transmitted disease that was communicable via the toilet seat and we should watch out for symptoms, which mainly consisted of things oozing that you didn’t want to ooze. It was written in marker and seemed to be a joke, but Leigh didn’t find it funny. She wasn’t sure if it was meant to tease someone who actually had an STD or make fun of people with STDs in general, but neither was funny to her. She started yelling in the hall that everyone had to come out for a floor meeting.

As the girls came out of their rooms, she waved the sign over her head. “Is this real? What the fuck is this?”

It turned out that November and a couple of the other girls had been laughing about the idea of having an STD, and November had thought it would be funny to write the flyers and post them in the bathroom stalls.

“Oh, I get it now,” Leigh said.

Over the course of the next few days, Leigh, with my help, wrote and posted a series of similar flyers, only these were signed by her, begging for help with a series of increasingly gross and explicit symptoms. Leigh often included marker drawings of the symptoms. For some reason, no one but us thought this was funny. Eventually, November told her she had to stop because her parents were coming to visit and she didn’t want them to see something so gross.

“How did you know my parents weren’t coming to visit when you posted the original?” Leigh asked.

The only picture I have of Leigh. In our dorm room, winter 1994.

The boy Leigh liked the most was named YB. He was from New York, too, and he was in a band with Matt’s roommate, Mark, and another guy. Their influences were Pavement, Nirvana, and Daniel Johnston. They played on weekends in Oñate Hall. YB was the one who convinced Leigh that all you needed to be famous was a great pair of sunglasses. He came over sometimes to listen to Nirvana with her and analyze the lyrics. Leigh was also a fan of Hole and L7 and Social Distortion. She hated the Cranberries, who were popular at the time.

The problem with YB was that he was romancing at least three other girls simultaneously. He had Rounds, too.


In telling this story, it is difficult to know what to include and what to leave out. It is difficult to know how to reconstruct events that move and overlap in my memory. I sit back and think; I grasp onto what floats to the surface first.


Leigh and I spent a good deal of time with GoDaddy, even after he asked us for a threesome and we laughed in his face. I once tried to write a story about the dynamic we had, which was that GoDaddy would knock on our door several times a day. We’d let him in but he would invariably annoy the crap out of Leigh within minutes and she would kick him out. Because he’d simply show up again 40 minutes later, she started banishing him for specific periods of time. If she told him he couldn’t come back for exactly 30 hours, he would show up exactly 30 hours later, to the minute. She didn’t tell me not to hang out with him, and I cannot remember what he did that bothered her so much, but he definitely liked to push her buttons. She was extraordinarily sensitive to small comments from guys, and certain guys picked up on this, but in hindsight it might have been nice to side with her instead of shrugging it off just because GoDaddy was cute. I didn’t want to date him, but I still liked being around him.

I remember going to see What’s Eating Gilbert Grape at the DeVargas Mall with them. She wouldn’t let him sit next to us, so he sat behind us, but he put his feet up or burped in her ear or something, and she yelled at him to get the fuck to the other side of the theater. We’d gotten a ride to the mall, but after the movie we were stuck walking back to campus, which was several miles away. GoDaddy insisted he knew the way, but Leigh and I both felt at the mercy of his mood, which had become hurt and small after the movie. I don’t know if it had to do with the story, or if he was actually mad at Leigh, but he didn’t give her a break. He walked on her heels until she demanded he stay ten steps behind us. Finally, when we got to a street we recognized would get us all the way to school, Leigh told him not to talk to us at all, that he was by far the most annoying and hateful boy she’d ever met. He stayed behind us after that, silent, until we were almost all the way to campus, then he disappeared. I now know he just turned down a side-street that was kind of a short-cut, but Leigh thought it was the height of rudeness for him to leave two girls alone in the dark just because he was angry. I was kind of angry with her by that point, because I thought she was being unduly mean to GoDaddy, plus I was starving. We went to JB’s, which was in the strip-mall next to CSF. We ate burgers and treated ourselves to the Sundae bar. Leigh ate three helpings and then went to the bathroom to throw up. When we got back to campus, she went upstairs to go to sleep and I went to Matt’s room.


And then came the night everything turned inside out. At the time, I remember this night being very traumatic and transformative, but it’s been many years since I’ve told the story to myself or anyone else, and I don’t know if I remember all the details that made it what it was.

After considering the moral and ethical implications of writing this all down for public consumption, I can say without hesitation that Leigh would want the truth told. She would want her flaws displayed as well as her charm, and I have nothing but love for what I knew and remember about Leigh. What happened that night is just a part of everything else that happened, and over time what felt like trauma doesn’t feel so vital. But maybe that’s because it’s still abstract,  because instead of writing about it, I’m writing this paragraph. I spent 11 years working at CSF after I graduated, and I’ve had a lot of therapy because I’m no picnic, either. (Seriously, read the rest of my blog.) I’ve had plenty of time to work out my guilt and grief about Leigh, but being clear that Leigh dying wasn’t my fault and actually writing a narrative of the time I knew her is, well, different.

I think it all began in our room, and the plan was that we were getting drunk. I think Leigh must have really been having a hard time in her mind, because she’d asked her mother to send her Xanax, which she’d been dealing without since coming to Santa Fe. It had come in the mail that day. I didn’t know what Xanax was at the time, but she made a point of saying she was annoyed that they’d sent her the stronger kind, because it was hard not to fall asleep when she took it. She told me it was supposed to calm her down and make her feel less like bingeing and purging. She took one of the purple pills on our way back from dinner, before we went to the liquor store.

I wasn’t a big drinker, but I enjoyed tequila shots once in a while, and that was how Leigh and Alison, who was with us because she and her boyfriend had had a fight, convinced me to join in. The tequila might have been Cuervo, but it might have been Albertson’s house brand. GoDaddy was there, and Matt must have been there. In my memory, the room is crowded. All I know is that I was already buzzed when somehow GoDaddy dropped my bed on my forehead.

At that point my bed, which was a mattress and metal frame without the legs, was elevated next to the window, and Leigh’s bed, which was just a mattress on the floor, stuck out at a 90-degree angle underneath. I have no recollection of how the bed actually fell on me, but I must have been lying on Leigh’s bed when it happened. And it was definitely GoDaddy’s fault. The metal frame had missed my eye by less than an inch. I caught most of the blow with my eyebrow. I was stunned and bruised, but it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. The frame and mattress fell at an angle, and I did not bear all of its weight. I think I was mostly smothered by the mattress. Everyone started yelling and somehow I got out from under because the next part of this memory is in the bathroom down the hall. Leigh and I are laughing and she is hugging me.

“You know I kind of like girls, too, right?” she said.

My mouth went dry. “You’ve mentioned it.”

“Well, I know you’re probably not into girls, but you’re, like, exactly my type. And I just wanted you to know that if we’re ever like, bored in our room,” she rolled her eyes, “and you were up for it, I’d totally kiss you.”

I stumbled backward. I think I said “Thanks.”

“Let’s go back to the room,” she said. “I’ll hold GoDaddy down while you punch him in the face.”

After this is when things get hazy and out of order. I was in the boys hall, letting GoDaddy try wrestling moves on me. It seemed as if the whole dorm had decided to get wasted because there were people everywhere. GoDaddy was putting me in a Figure Four amid a carnival of drunken chaos. I remember Matt was there, shaking his head when I finally got up off the floor.

“Why do you let him do that to you?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I like it, I guess.”

Then either Matt told me that Leigh was causing shenanigans in St. Michael’s Hall, or someone came by and told me. During our Rounds, we’d made friends with a few guys in St. Mike’s. I knew Leigh had fooled around with a guy named Mimbo, so I thought that must be where she was. Things seemed almost as chaotic in St. Mike’s as they had in Lasalle. Leigh was sitting in the hallway, talking to someone I can’t recall, because I only just now, as I am writing these words, remembered this interlude. We sat with her and she was really drunk. Nothing about what was happening there was fun, and I wanted to leave. It’s possible Matt and I wanted to go smoke a bowl. That must have been what it was. We must have left her there for a while—no! She came back with us, because we wanted to make sure she was safe. She seemed much drunker than she should be, given the amount we’d drank. We went back to Lasalle and wound up getting involved with the people in the hall again, who were downright rowdy. I think the entire population of the other wing in Lasalle had come over to our side. It was a mass of bodies and it just wasn’t a very big school. I wonder what Lestat was doing that night, but I don’t recall him as part of this story.

At some point, we realized that Leigh had taken off. We went back to St. Mike’s but didn’t find her; we went to King but we didn’t know where to look for her; we went back to Lasalle. I think it must have been Morgan who came by and told me that I had to come to St. Mike’s and get my friend.

She was in Rob’s bed. Rob lived across from Mimbo and Morgan. We’d hung out in his room once, a few weeks before. He was boring. But she was in his bed. He wasn’t. He was off-campus at a party. His roommate was there, though, sick in bed with the flu. He wanted Leigh, and everyone else, gone.

“She said she wants to wait for him to come home,” said Mimbo. “But if he comes home and she’s in his bed, it will not be good. It will just not be good, okay?”

Leigh wasn’t passed out, but she wasn’t making any sense. She dreamily but insistently repeated that she was waiting for Rob to come back from the party. “I just want to wait for him here, okay?”

Earlier in the evening, she’d been wearing jeans and a white t-shirt with a gray flannel shirt that was missing most of its buttons. (It was actually my shirt.) Now, she had on jeans, the flannel shirt, and a red satin bra, but no white t-shirt. “Leigh, sweetie, where’s your shirt?”

“It’s okay. I have your shirt. That’s all I need,” she said.

I took her hand. “Why don’t you come back to Lasalle with us? These guys think Rob will be mad if he finds you here.”

“No, I need to wait for him here.”

We didn’t really have a lot of options. We left here there.

Matt and I went back to Lasalle, where the party was still raging, but we no longer wanted to be a part of it. We stayed in his room for a long time, and it was that night I realized that I didn’t really like spending time with people other than him. We both had headaches, so we decided to go to sleep. I went upstairs and found a lounge full of people. It was probably about 1 a.m. They convinced me to stay up with them since it was still early. They were just watching TV and it wasn’t too wild. At some point, Leigh came up the stairs. She was still missing her T-shirt.

“Pookie!” she cried when she saw me. “You will not believe the night I’m having. You know how I keep saying that the next time a guy asks me what it’s like to kiss with a lip ring, I’m just going to kiss him? I totally did that tonight!”

“When?” I asked.

“Here.”  She gestured at the couch she was sitting on. “Earlier.”

“Also, I invited Fletch to sleep over, if that’s okay. He lives off-campus and he doesn’t have a ride home.”

“Who’s Fletch?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Oh, that guy. Fletch!” she called. A cute redheaded guy wearing a white turtleneck sweater sat down next to her. “I like Fletch,” she said. “He’s cute.”

Fletch must have been really drunk. I remember that their faces were close and he was red-cheeked and grinning. I remember that her hand was draped right over his crotch and she was slurring her words. My head was killing me. I decided to go to bed.

I put on my plaid nightshirt and tried to fall asleep, but it was useless. The dorm was just too loud. Below me, in GoDaddy’s room, they were blasting music and shouting. After a while, I went down there. I was in my pajamas, because that’s the way we rolled in Lasalle Hall. GoDaddy wasn’t around—all the noise was coming from his roommate and his roommate’s friends, who were yelling, I think, just to be loud. I sat on the bed with another girl named Jennifer, who was GoDaddy’s roommate’s girlfriend. I didn’t know here very well, although I thought she was kind of cool. She told me she liked my nightshirt. I told her I had a headache.

“And you live just above this? Give me a few minutes, but I can sweet talk all these guys out of here. You want to hang out with me for a little bit? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without—” she waved her hand— “the other one. Leigh. I’m sorry, but I don’t really like her.”

“That’s okay,” I said.

“I like you,” she said.

“Thanks,” I said.

As promised, she got the guys to leave by saying she wanted to have sex with her boyfriend before GoDaddy came back and tried to watch. That prompted all the guys—who I would later become much better friends with—to ask me how I could have slept with him. I didn’t know they knew, so I was embarrassed.

“She’s new!” Jennifer told them. “Leave her alone. No shame in sleeping with him before she found out he’s kind of…well, he’s GoDaddy. Before you actually get to know him, he’s cute.” The guys didn’t argue with her, but instead told me stories of the first time they figured out how weird he was. They weren’t being mean. The stories were strange, although I don’t remember them. Poor GoDaddy. He was kind of a tragic figure himself.

I went to bed again just a little happier than I was the first time. I fell into what must have been the sleep of the dead, because I never heard Leigh come in.

In the first light of morning I woke to see, fuzzily, without my glasses on, in the reflection in the mirror on the back of the door, a guy putting a white sweater over his head. I fell back to sleep. It was noon when Leigh croaked out a good morning.

“Are you awake?” she asked.

I hung my head over the edge of my bed to look at her. I remembered the reflection of the guy. “Did Fletch sleep over?”

She rubbed her face with her hands. “I don’t know. I think so.” She sat up and looked confused. I got down from my bunk to sit next to her. “Can I ask you something?” she asked.


“Who’s Fletch?”


And that is the story of that night. The Night. It seemed momentous at the time, but I’m not the best judge of what is shocking and what’s not. I understand Leigh better now than I did then. I know how Xanax, tequila, and weed might affect a girl whose system is already messed up from bulimia and stress. I know that after that night, Matt and I spent even more time together.

A few days later, we decided to order a pizza. Leigh volunteered to go get it while Matt and I stayed in our room doing homework or flirting or something. It took her forever to come back to the room, and we were really hungry, but I remember not really wanting to worry about it because Matt and I were having fun. At some point, Darlene from across the hall came in, wanting to know if Leigh was okay.

“Jeremiah did something stupid,” she said. Jeremiah was her boyfriend. He was kind of intense, very serious all of the time. “He did something really stupid.”

Leigh came in. She was wet as if she’d taken her clothes off, got in the shower, and then put her clothes back on without drying off. Her hair was dripping. And her cheeks were on fire along her sinuses. Darlene immediately started apologizing for whatever her boyfriend had done. Matt and I sat on the floor and watched all this happen, completely confused. Leigh insisted that Darlene leave, and Darlene seemed very upset. I think Leigh made us leave, too. She wasn’t feeling well, she said. She was vague when we asked about the pizza. I don’t think she told us then what happened, but I could be wrong. Maybe she told us immediately, or maybe it took her a few days.

This is what happened.

Leigh was in the lobby, waiting for the pizza, when Jeremiah sat down next to her. She barely knew him. He started asking her a few questions about whether or not she liked it at CSF, whether or not she was happy. She didn’t know him, and he was making her uncomfortable.

“You know, there are rumors about you,” he said.

“Excuse me?” said Leigh.

“There are rumors about you having sex with a lot of guys. This is a small school. You don’t want to get a reputation. You’ve only been here a few weeks.”

“Are you really saying this to me?” she asked.

“I’m trying to warn you,” he said. “You should be more careful. People will be quick to call you a slut. I’m just saying.”

“Okay,” said Leigh. “Thank you for your feedback. Now can you please go away and not speak to me again?”

He left. The pizza came. Leigh took it into the downstairs lounge and ate all of it. Then she went upstairs and purged while taking a shower. She didn’t even have a towel with her. After that, she didn’t go to classes for a week. She got up for meals, which were all-you-can-eat with one swipe of your ID.

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