Leigh Zurmuhlen: In Memory, Part V

10/16/2012 § Leave a comment

(This post is part of a series. Read Part IPart IIPart III, Part IV.)

Matt, 1994. You can’t tell from this picture, but he has really amazing blue eyes.

Valentine’s Day was approaching.

I convinced the shy boy, Ryan, who sat next to me in Speech Communications to “be my Valentine.” It was just something to say; just a way to feel wanted on the day of lonely hearts that I didn’t even think would assuage those feelings. I didn’t think Ryan thought it was anything but a joke or even a nuisance, since I pestered him about it every day for a week. But on February 14, when we got back to the dorms after class, he told me to wait for him because he had a gift for me.

Red tulips in a pot. My fake valentine surprised me with red tulips in a pot.

I was blown away. It was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for me. He handed me potted flowers outside Lasalle Hall and said “I just thought you deserved something nice.”

I put them on the windowsill in my room and felt good about myself for a few hours. Later that day, Matt came to my room. He had a couple of kiddy Valentines for me and Leigh, and he handed me three small pieces of paper on which he’d crayoned purple and orange flowers. “Not to be outdone,” he said, or something like that. I taped the flowers to the wall over my bed and thought about things.

The odd thing about writing about how Matt and I got together is that Matt is reading this. We’re friends on Facebook. He even reminded me, after reading the post about The Night, that he’d given Leigh a letter earlier that day, confessing his feelings for her. She acknowledged the letter, gave him a sweet “it’s not going to happen” kiss, “And then,” he wrote, “the night just got weird…There was something in the air that night. We talked about it some that night, everything felt slightly shifted. I call it Twilight Zone time, these days. The whole campus was just weird. I remember sitting in the band shell at one point as we discussed it. That night was a turning point.”

I don’t remember if Matt and I got together that night or the next night, which you’d think I’d remember. I am almost positive that it was the next night, February 15. That seems important, because we broke up one year later, nearly to the day. I am sitting here thinking about it, considering messaging him to ask, but I prefer to let him tell me after, to reshape my ideas about those days, to fill in what I can’t remember by myself. I know it was night and Leigh must’ve been out somewhere, though I think we had all spent the day together. Matt, Leigh, and I had a great time together. We went exploring all around campus, or we did Mad Libs. The two of them had endless patience and ingenuity for parts of speech, as did I. It was a magic that I’ve never been able to recreate over Mad Libs with anyone else, and believe me, I’ve tried.

Leigh was out somewhere and Matt and I were lying on her bed, which was still underneath mine. Later, both of our beds would be elevated. The overhead light was off but there was a reading lamp on near our heads. Leigh’s sheets were peach-colored.

He told me the history of his ex-girlfriends back to the eighth grade. I don’t remember what I talked about. I was nervous and comfortable at the same time. Right then, if you’d have told me I once had significant concerns about his shoes, I would have said you were crazy.

Finally I said, “So were you going to kiss me, or what?”

***

What can you say about your first really serious boyfriend? Matt, no matter what else was going on at the time, and no matter what happened later, that semester with you was awesome.

***

There are so many memories that aren’t rooted in time. I tend to be an extremely linear person, so the fact that all of this has jumbled in my mind over the years, when there was a time that everything stood out in such excruciating detail that I thought I’d never be able to take in anything else, is surprising as well as affirming: therapy worked. But I do believe this story needs to be told, and that I need to tell it. I’m haunted by it, even when I’m not thinking about it. I think it’s the reason I’ve never completed a novel—Leigh creeps into too many of my characters. As I wrote to Matt when he said these posts were all bringing him back to a place he thought he’d left: “The gates never really closed for me.”

***

Matt had a lot of friends, several of whom became my core group of friends for the remainder of my time at CSF. At the time, most of them were also friends with Lestat. Lestat always had pot, which made hanging out with him somewhat tolerable, although everyone else seemed to like him far more than I did. I didn’t understand how they didn’t see that he was ridiculous. Case in point: he believed he was a vampire. According to him, he had died years ago. It was why his hair and his fingernails didn’t grow, or something. (Confidential to everyone who knows my present-day aversion to vampires: pretty sure I just discovered some heretofore unconsidered trauma in this area.) Lestat was predatory when it came to dating. He was always talking about seducing people or worse, feasting on them. He actually said that once. He told me that he’d “ met a young boy, made love, and feasted on him.” I don’t care to re-examine that statement; I did that enough at the time. He told me this later in the semester, during spring break—another pivotal moment in time—when he took me to the Sizzler that no longer exists on St. Michael’s Drive. He’d been in California for a few days, which is where he met the boy, and the reason his skin was so red was not because he was sunburned but because it turned red after a fresh kill. Of course, at an earlier time, he’d told me that his skin was kind of red because he was part Native American. (Pretty sure it was sunburn every time.)

Leigh and I had thought about going to California for spring break, but we didn’t have any money. At the last moment, however, her mom or someone got her a ticket to go to Los Angeles. I don’t know what was in Los Angeles. I remember that she was taking YB’s band’s demo tape with her, in the hopes of getting someone to listen to it.

When was it that the bird flew in the window? Was it before or after spring break? It matters. Spring break was the true dividing line: before and after everyone started doing coke.

Leigh had taken the screens off the window in order to sit out on the ledge below, and she’d forgotten to put them back on before we went to sleep. Our beds were elevated on either side of the window, parallel to one another. The windows were open wide because the weather had turned warm. A bird flew in at the early dawn and I woke up from the sound of wings flapping and found myself nose-to-beak with a raven. Ravens roost in the tops of pine trees at CSF. They are huge and loud. I screamed and thrashed. I screamed and screamed. The raven flew out the window just as Leigh woke up, also screaming and thrashing. She thrashed so much that she, her mattress, and her metal mattress frame went crashing to the floor.

We kept our door unlocked. Suddenly it swung open and YB was standing there. It was 8 a.m. on a Saturday. “What’s going on?” he asked, laughing.

“Get the fuck out of here!” Leigh screamed. I had scrambled out of bed to make sure she was okay, but when I leaned over her she hit me away. “Don’t touch me!”

YB wasn’t keen on that much drama, so he left. I retreated a few feet, unsure of what to do. I was scared, still hearing the sounds of flapping and screaming.

“Why did you scream?” she demanded.

“There was a bird,” I stammered. “A bird flew in the window. It was pecking me.”

She started to weep. “You were screaming,” she gasped, “and I couldn’t find you.”

GoDaddy and his roommate came bursting into the room, asking what was going on and if we were okay. Leigh pulled herself together. “Just a really bad dream,” she said. They helped her put her bed back where it belonged. I had a crazy feeling in my body.

***

Our room smelled bad.

Leigh binged and purged multiple times a day in our room, in the garbage can, which she would shove under her desk. I walked in on her once, when she first moved in. She was on her knees on her chair, leaning over the trash can, holding her hair back with one hand.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Ugh,” she said, standing up, “just got sick to my stomach from those ‘eggrolls’ they served in the cafeteria.” I chose to believe this. The eggrolls had been revolting.

But our room smelled. Leigh would puke in the trash can—my trash can—however many times a day, for however many days, and then take the trash can down the hall and shower with it. She also threw up in clear plastic cups stolen from the cafeteria, which she then left in the corner near her closet for a few hours or a day. She hoarded food, fruit and cookies, and she stole. Kleptomania is associated with bulimia, and Leigh stole all the time. She stole from other people in the dorm, mostly food but sometimes jewelry, and she stole loads of stuff at K-Mart in the strip mall next to campus.

For exactly one week, I worked at a video store next to K-Mart. I got the job on the first Saturday of spring break and quit the following. Each night of spring break, I worked until 8 p.m. Matt had gone home to Denver for the week but Leigh wasn’t leaving for L.A. until Wednesday, and I was already regretting spending all my time at work. On Tuesday night, as I walked across the Quad to the dorms, appreciating the warm air in March, I could see that Leigh was home because the window was hanging open and strand of green chile lights trailed to the ledge. She must have been out there at some point, listening to music; as I got closer, I could hear the Bangles playing loudly from our room.

Leigh had lost her key to the room, so if the door was locked, it meant one of us was in there. We almost never locked it, because even people with keys rarely locked their doors those days in Lasalle. It was how Leigh was able to steal so much. She even stole from me, finally, when my dad and step-mom sent me a care package to see me through the week with no on-campus dining services. She binged on a jar of peanut-butter, several packages of crackers, Pop-Tarts, and an entire salami, even though she was a vegetarian.

When I turned the knob that night the door was locked. I knocked, but no one answered. I knocked again, thinking Leigh couldn’t hear me over the music. I knocked and knocked. There weren’t very many people on the floor during spring break, but Denise was home. I called my room from her room, but Leigh didn’t pick up. We called and we knocked. We yelled her name. Fifteen minutes passed. More people were gathering, more time passed, and I started to think she was dead. That she’d taken pills. Even if she had been in there with a guy, she would have shouted for me to go away. She had to be dead, I thought. I was struck through with icy fear and I wasn’t the only one. All the girls on the floor knew Leigh had an eating disorder. No one else showered with their garbage can, and no one else had a sour smell leaking out from under their door. Denise suggested we call security so I could get into the room.

Just as we were making that call, Leigh opened the door. The music was still blaring. She was red-eyed and wild-haired, obviously confused.

“What’s going on? Why is everyone yelling?”

“What the hell?” I said. “We’ve been trying to get into the room for half an hour!”

“I just heard you knocking.” She scowled at everyone else and I went into the room.

“What the hell happened?” I said when we were alone. “You scared the fuck out me.”

“I passed out. My head was in my closet.”

She didn’t want to go to the hospital. She told me this happened sometimes—she purged so much and so often her body rebelled. “Remember that week when I didn’t go to class? I started doing it like four or five times a day when I’d only been doing it once or not even once a day, and I literally hurt myself. I couldn’t get out of bed because my stomach hurt so bad, but I binged and purged even after that. Even when it hurt so bad I couldn’t move.” She just needed to get away for a few days, she said, get away to a lower elevation and get her head on straight.

***

That Friday, I worked my last shift at the video store. I walked in and quit at eight o’clock the next morning, but that night I was excited because Matt was coming back from Denver. He was to arrive by bus just 30 minutes after my shift ended, and the Greyhound station just happened to be across a couple of parking lots from the video store.

Because I was from Chicago, I didn’t think Santa Fe had any crime. I was so tuff, so street-wise. I thought I was living in a peaceful, pokey little desert town. It was dark out and I sat behind the closed bus station, on the ground, in the alcove of a doorway, smoking a cigarette. There was a grocery store lit in the distance. A guy rode by on a bike and gave me a “Hey.” I gave him one back.

I smoked another cigarette. Matt’s bus was 10 minutes late, and then 15. The guy on the bike rode past in the other direction and then swung back around, stopped in front of me.

“Do you know what time it is?” he asked. He was short, dark-skinned, with shaggy black hair down his neck, and a thin mustache, more a result of not shaving than purposeful growth.

“It’s 6:48,” I said. As I looked up from my watch, I realized that his penis was out. Because he was sitting on a bicycle and I was sitting on the ground, it was at eye-level. I’m sure my jaw dropped. I had no voice. I stood up. He was laughing, unmoving.

“Oh, no,” I said. “Oh, my god.” I ran in one direction and he took off in the other, although I kept looking behind me to make sure.

I ran around the side of the bus station. Across St. Michael’s Drive was a karate school, and class was in session. Through the plate-glass window I could see twenty people in gi braced in fighting stance. I ran for them, dodging traffic and panicking. I might have been screaming. In my memory, I am looking down at myself from the streetlight.

The people at the karate school at first wanted to chase the flasher, but realized quickly that it was useless to chase a guy on a bike who had a solid three-minute head-start. They asked if I wanted to use the phone. The only person I knew with a car was Lestat, who’d come home from feasting on boys in LA the day before. I called his room and told him, breathlessly, what happened.

“Oh, can you wait an hour? I’m in the middle of something,” he said.

“Fuck you, I’ll walk,” I said.

Campus was about a quarter mile down the street, past a hundred strip malls and car dealership lots. I walked as fast as I could, my heart racing. I knew the flasher wasn’t coming back, and I felt like a fool. Why had I been sitting back there, alone in the dark? I would make fun of someone for doing that in Chicago. But this wasn’t Chicago! Part of the reason I’d come to Santa Fe was to be safe. I was angry. He’d said “Hey” and he was friendly. He’d asked for the time. I became more and more furious. I flat-out ran for the last stretch, across the field behind Wild Oats to the dorms.

That night, I hung out with all the girls on my floor in Katie and Lisa’s room. They fed me pizza and were nice to me. Matt finally came walking down the hall around midnight, looking worn and haggard. The bus had broken down. It had been a nightmare trip through the mountains.

“I was flashed,” I said.

The next day, I called the Greyhound station and told them what happened. I wanted to know why the whole place was shut-down at 6:30 on a weeknight. They had no satisfactory answer, so I called the police. They sent someone down to take a report. The guys on Matt’s floor were alarmed by this, upset with me for making such a big deal out of a little flashing, when they could be caught with all their drugs if the cop came up to my room.

The cop didn’t come to my room; he stayed in the lobby with me and Matt. He took my report, told me that he didn’t blame me for being scared, but that most flashers only wanted to scare women, not rape them. “You gave him what he wanted by screaming,” he said. Then he showed me a sketch.

“Yeah, that looks like him,” I said.

“And he was on a bike?”

I agreed that he was.

The cop was thrilled. “This guy has been flashing women at the St. John’s College track for years. We never knew how he was getting away. He’s too quick to be on foot, but there’s no way he could have fast access to a car where he hides. But he’s on a bicycle!”

***

There were dangers lurking at the edges of our lives, and dangers inside of ourselves, but we didn’t know it, or we didn’t know what they were yet. I am not a good sleeper, but I slept all night in Matt’s room for the first time that night.

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