Leigh Zurmuhlen: In Memory, Part VII

10/21/2012 § 4 Comments

(This post is part of a series. Read Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart V, Part VI. There will be eight parts to the series.)

When I left, I took the garbage can. It must’ve been recently cleaned for me to seize that opportunity, but the fact that it was mine to begin with, that Leigh had appropriated something of mine in this way, became some kind of symbol to me, and I couldn’t just leave it there.

I had tried so hard. I had stayed with her after meals like she’d asked, but if she wanted to go purge, she just made any excuse to get away, even if it meant picking a fight with me. Have I mentioned that she was only 17? She graduated from high school a year early, only to have her college education put on hold for a semester while she spent a few months in the hospital, getting treatment that didn’t make a damn bit of difference. Because I was 19, and a sophomore, hadn’t it been my responsibility to look after her? I was sure it was my responsibility.

I am not a good sleeper. In the end, this would break up me and Matt, although to this day, he doesn’t know that. I sleep lightly, rarely dropping into any deep sleep cycle. I wake up sometimes dozens of times a night, from any little sound, smell, or minute change of temperature. If you are the one making the sounds, I will hate you, even if I don’t want to. I cannot be touched in my sleep. I have nightmares and anxiety dreams every night. But although he made small noises in his sleep, for the most part I felt safe sleeping next to Matt. I felt protected, which is something I needed, because for those last two or three weeks of the semester, I was a mess. I was terrified that Leigh was going to die any day, and I was angry at her for making such stupid choices. And angry at myself for not knowing how to make it any different.

One early morning, which is when I usually get my best semblance of sleep and therefore have the worst dreams, I dreamed that Leigh and I were at a slumber party in a crafts store, like Michael’s or Hobby Lobby. A bunch of girls were on cots with sleeping bags. Leigh and some other girls were snubbing me. Even though they were far across the room, I could hear them whispering. Leigh was telling them what a bitch I was, telling them that if for some reason I should mention to them that she had an eating disorder, they needed to know that I was lying. In fact, I was the one with the eating disorder. Within the dream, I kept falling asleep and waking up, feeling drugged and disoriented. At some point, I was woken up because Leigh was flicking lit cigarette butts at me, and when they hit my skin they sparked and burned. The slumber party was being chaperoned by the ladies who worked in the store, who seemed like elementary school teachers. I went up to the desk that looked like a teacher’s desk, to complain that Leigh was picking on me, and to beg them to get her help, because she was going to die. I was hissing all this at them as quickly and quietly as I could when Leigh came up behind me and started to cackle like a monster.

“No, you’re going to die. You’re bulimic,” she cried quite happily.

I became enraged by her denial, by her lies, and began hitting my fist on the desk, shouting “Bulimic! Bulimic! Bulimic!”

I woke myself up next to Matt, sobbing.

It was a Sunday. As I moved through the motions of the morning—getting dressed, going to brunch in the cafeteria—I was crushed, traumatized, on the verge of tears or flat-out crying. I sometimes have what I’ve heard referred to as a “dream hangover,” where the emotions of the dream last well into waking, and the brain and body interpret them as real. This was probably among the worst dream hangovers I’ve ever had. Writing about it now, I can still feel it.

That afternoon, Matt and I had tickets to the matinee of Animal Crackers, the spring musical in the Greer Garson Theatre on campus. Several of our friends were in it. I didn’t want to go, but it wound up being a lifesaver. It was, apparently, exactly the kind of silly comedy I needed to break through the fog. I think I actually got happy. I remember being viscerally grateful to the actors, to the Marx Brothers, and to the school for putting that play in my life that day.


The weather grew warmer. During the course of the semester, Matt had started going to class again, or at least to the ones his professors agreed not to drop him from. He turned on the old computer on his desk and, while I studied on the bed, he programmed fractals for our entertainment. My Poetry of Witness professor, Greg Glazner, had taken an interest in me, which made me take a greater interest in the class. About halfway through the semester, he’d asked to see me in his office. I didn’t know what he wanted, and that day I had a memorably terrible migraine, but I went to meet him at 2:30 p.m. anyway. He wanted to know what I thought of surrealist poetry. He’d surmised from my class participation that I’d learned about surrealist painting during my time at the Art Institute of Chicago, and he wanted to have a conversation comparing and contrasting the two. We talked for over an hour. Never in my life had I thought a professor would take an interest in my mind in this way, and it turned me around about academics at the College of Santa Fe. (And, no, he was not trying to sleep with me.) I realized that you had to be very careful about choosing your courses and professors, and you had to engage the reading even if it didn’t seem all that rigorous. The rigor came in class discussion. You got out of CSF what you put into it, not the other way around.


A girl who lived on my floor, Debbie, was kidnapped.

She was a singer who performed downtown at the Old Santa Fe Trail Bookstore and Coffeehouse, and one afternoon after a performance, as she was getting into her car in the parking lot behind the building, a man put a gun to her head. He made her drive her own car up the mountain for a while, and then had her pull over at some point so he could switch them to his car. Spring in Santa Fe is known for its mud, and this guy slipped in it. Somehow, as he was getting out of one car and trying to get Debbie to the other one, he slipped in the mud and fell—and she gunned it the hell out of there, right to the nearest police station.

Emergency floor meetings were called. I think the whole dorm was called to a meeting in Lasalle, but if memory serves, a lot of what was said was directed at the girls, because of course girls are always simultaneously in danger of being crime victims as well as responsible for preventing such crimes against their persons. November, in what would be her only redeeming act as an RA, got her hands on the police sketch of the kidnapper and posted it all over campus. (I didn’t know she was the one who did this until later. I assumed, as did everyone, that this was a coordinated effort on the part of the Housing Department.) In my memory, I now get that sketch mixed up with the police sketch of my flasher. At the time, however, I knew the difference. And he was familiar. All the girls thought so. Someone we saw often, but we weren’t sure where. He was a 30-something Hispanic male with dark hair and a mustache. Did he work on campus? The more we looked at the sketch, the more we were convinced we knew him.

And then we started to see him. He was spotted walking down the hall on a girl’s floor in King, smoking a cigarette in the lounge on another floor. I saw him late one night, on the payphone outside of the bookstore, with a case of beer by his feet.

Every time someone spotted him, they called the security hotline or the Housing office. Security didn’t respond, and the Director of Housing deemed us all paranoid. That we were not seeing one man but several different men, because sometimes random people wandered onto campus. This was not the man who’d kidnapped Debbie. He was probably somebody’s boyfriend. We were accused of being racist.

Debbie walked the halls like a ghost. The girls on my floor—my official floor—seemed to get more close-knit. When I went upstairs to shower or use the restroom, I would often be gone for an hour or more, caught up in conversation, until Matt came looking for me. Leigh was a ghost, too, spending nights in Lestat’s room and walking from floor to floor clutching a bed pillow. People told me the smell coming from my old room was unholy. Katie, the floor beautician, told me that she’d trimmed Leigh’s hair for her, and it was dry and brittle, coming out in little puffs, which she knew was a sign of bulimia.

Matt’s floor had become pretty strictly divided. Those who did coke hung in Lestat’s room and those who didn’t came to our room. We started playing improv games with our theater friends—or more accurately I would come up with scenarios for them to improvise, and they would entertain us for hours. (Remember? “Please tell me again how having sex with you is all part of the therapy?”) One night, on a night that was probably someone else’s The Night, based on the level of chaos going on all across campus, there were people in our room I barely knew. They’d knocked in twos and threes, saying “We heard this is where you go if you don’t want to hang out with coke heads.” Garbage cans were set on fire that night; hallways were flooded. That might have been the night Matt and Ricky went down to Lestat’s and blatantly stole a whole bunch of weed. I remember them reporting back to us that everyone in there was fighting over what music to play, and no one would listen to a song all the way though.

The calls to security and Housing continued. The girls on my floor wanted me to write a letter to the student newspaper on their behalf, about the school’s lack of response to the fact that Debbie’s kidnapper was regularly spotted on campus. I don’t know how or why I was the one elected, but I was called to the lounge and asked by the group. It wasn’t the first time, nor the last time, that I would be drafted into this kind of action, so I guess I took it in stride, but it was too close to the end of the school year and there wasn’t going to be another issue of the paper, so we decided to write an open letter to campus. I don’t remember what it said, not one word. I remember that I got Paul, my admissions counselor, to make me a few hundred copies. I don’t remember who came with me to slip it under every dorm door I could, but I know I wasn’t alone. I remember that as we walked through the post office in the midst of this task, a girl from my floor who worked in the Humanities Office handed me a letter she was about to have delivered to me: an invitation to the annual awards ceremony in the Geer Garson Theatre.

“You should go,” she said. “They only bother to invite you if you won something.”

On the day of the awards ceremony, I was summoned to the Dean of Students office. Yvonne, the Dean, was there with Georgie, the Director of Housing. They had a copy of the letter. Somehow they knew I’d written it. I tried to deny it, but they said I wasn’t in trouble. They just wanted to talk. Did I know that slipping a letter under every door on campus could be seen as alarmist? That girls who hadn’t previously been aware of the crime were now calling Housing to say that they’d seen this man? Did I know that November had been the one to distribute the sketch of the alleged kidnapper, against the advice of her superiors? Had I considered setting a meeting with Housing to discuss my concerns before taking this measure?

“If every girl on campus was alerted to the crime in floor meetings right after it happened, then there are no girls who weren’t aware of the crime,” I said. “And I have discussed my concerns with you. I spent thirty minutes on the phone with Georgie last week after I saw him by the payphone.”

“I was just trying to talk you down because you seemed scared, and you were the fifth call I’d gotten about him after midnight,” said Georgie.

The conversation went on from there. They never raised their voices, and I never felt in trouble, but it was a frustrating meeting, to put it mildly. They made me promise that in the future I would talk to them before alarming every girl on campus. Then they asked me if I would be interested in serving on Associated Student Government. I politely declined.

Later, Matt and I went to the theater for the assembly. Ever since Matt sprained his ankle, he’d been walking around in bedroom slippers, the kind that look like moccasins. I’d picked up the habit as well, wearing my plaid slippers to class and to the cafeteria, unless I was wearing this pair of brown Mary-Janes that I thought went with everything. The other staple of my wardrobe was a pair of Oshkosh B’Gosh railroad overalls that once belonged to a guy who was much taller than me and who had worn through the knees before he ever handed them off to me. In pictures, the only way you can tell I changed my clothes at all those last weeks is that the T-shirt or tank-top underneath changes.

I was named “Outstanding Freshman in the Humanities Department.” Of course, I was a sophomore, but I think when they checked on that, not enough of my credits had properly transferred yet. Apparently, I had impressed my professors by participating eagerly in class, asking questions, and utilizing information gleaned from one class in another class, which was, apparently, some hallmark of critical thinking abilities. As I walked up the long aisle to the stage, I got nervous I was going to trip over my own feet or over my dragging pant-legs. I climbed the steps with trepidation. The chair of the department, Lillian Taylor, spoke into the microphone.

“You can do it,” she said. “Just keep walking.” The audience tittered. “She’s wearing bedroom slippers,” Lillian added. There was a certificate, and I think I won money. This must have been before the college realized it was completely broke.


A-Wing, both the girls and the boys, pooled their floor event money to have a BBQ in a nearby park. (It’s the park down Siringo from where I currently live.) It was the last Saturday before finals, and everyone was happy to forego the cafeteria for burgers outside. Beardo knocked on Lestat’s door, but he didn’t answer. The girls upstairs tried to roust Leigh, but she didn’t answer the door, either.

I’d heard around that she was dating a guy named Ralph. He’d been courting her since before all the coke began, but she hadn’t been interested. In fact, Anemone was the one who liked him. I wondered what had changed her mind.


GoDaddy’s roommate knocked on Matt’s door. “We’ve got a problem,” he said. “That friend of yours is throwing puke out the window, and it’s landing in the bushes outside our room. It’s eighty-five degrees outside, so it fucking reeks. And she’s burning so much incense up there—it’s puke and sandalwood. GoDaddy saw her. She’s puking in a little kid’s sand pail. The kind you take to the beach? And then she’s climbing out on the ledge and dumping it. You have to do something.”

“I can’t do anything,” I said. “There’s nothing I can do.” But I knew that if I hadn’t taken away the garbage can, she wouldn’t have to puke in the pail. It was my fault.


I got locked out of Matt’s room after a final exam of some sort that I’d finished early. Matt was still in his exam for another hour or more, and I must have really needed to get in the room, because I went down the hall to ask Beardo to let me in.

“I know you think you’re not supposed to let me in, but if you call Georgie, she’ll tell you it’s okay. I moved out of my room a few weeks ago,” I said. My insides were all twisted up having to talk about it. I felt like I was betraying Leigh whenever I even approached the truth.

He walked me down the hall and unlocked Matt’s door. I thanked him and then we stood there for a moment in the threshold. “I thought she was cute at the beginning of the semester, but then she started carrying the baby bottle around. That’s too weird for me,” he said.

“Yeah, the baby bottle wasn’t really the problem,” I said.

“You mean, a little nose problem and a little stomach problem?” He touched his nose and patted his stomach.

I gaped at him. “So, you know?”

“Lestat came into my room a month or so ago and dropped a bag of coke on my desk and asked me if I wanted to do lines. I told him to get the fuck out and keep that shit out of sight or I’d bust him.”

“Why didn’t you bust him anyway?” I demanded. “Do you know how many people are, like, hooked now? I think practically all of B Wing.” I’d been noticing more than one girl with burst blood vessels along her sinuses. Whenever I found out someone had started doing coke with Lestat, I simply stopped acknowledging their existence. I just walked past them. It was the only defense I had, the only defiance I could think of. Some people said I was too judgmental,  that people were going to do what they were going to do.

“If I bust him for coke, I have to bust everyone else for pot,” said Beardo. “They’re both illegal.”

“But only one smells. Yeah, I got it. It’s just a bunch of excuses.”

I closed the door, feeling as though I had been kicked in the gut. A little stomach problem and a little nose problem? Those words would rattle around in my brain for years.


I remember that Leigh came to Matt’s room one last time and asked to speak to him in the hall. She gave him a picture of the three of us, from one night when we dressed up like ‘80s New Wavers. She told him she never had any problem with him, leaving it open to interpretation just how she felt about me. I wish I had that picture. I wonder if Matt does.

The last time I saw Leigh, she was sitting on Ralph’s car in the Benildus Hall parking lot, waiting for a ride to the airport. It was about halfway through finals week and I was on my way from the cafeteria to the dorms. I knew already that she didn’t plan to come back the next semester, although I don’t know how. Maybe she told Matt. Or maybe I just knew. That day, though it was hovering around 90 degrees, she wore a black velvet suit and cap that had been hanging in her closet, unworn, all semester. She was going home. We locked eyes and kept our gaze until I was all the way past.


During my last 36 hours on campus, three friends told me that when they were little they’d been molested. One by a family friend, one by her stepfather, and one by her uncle. The abuse had gone on for years. I don’t know why they chose to tell me.

Matt left for home the day before I did. I don’t remember saying goodbye to him, and I don’t want to try.

I spent the last night in Florinda’s room. I didn’t sleep. I watched her sleep. In the morning, Andrew drove us to the airport. I went home to Chicago, where I was going to stay with my brother for summer, in his loft in Pilsen. My mother and her wife picked me up at O’Hare. They stopped off at the bathroom after finding me at the gate, and I waited for them in the rushing crowd. It was so many people. Too many people. More people all at once than I’d seen in four whole months in Santa Fe. I tried to explain this to my mother and her wife when they came out, but they didn’t appreciate the significance. My heart was racing and inside my mind and my stomach and my heart were shutting down, but I couldn’t make them understand.

In the car, I was digging through my bag for something and I came up with one bedroom slipper. I started to cry.

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