“You can’t be 20 on Sugar Mountain, though you’re thinking you’re leaving there too soon, you’re leaving there too soon…”
The moment after I found out Leigh was dead, Neil Young’s voice came through the speakers upstairs, traveled like a ghost and hit me in the spot where my head and neck join. For the last 15-minutes I’d paced and tried to hope. Now I knew. I couldn’t get the sobs out fast enough to keep up with the song.
“It’s so noisy at the fair but all your friends are there…”
Earlier, not long after the clock tripped over midnight, I was in Donny’s living room wearing the one tie I owned and a collared shirt I borrowed. Sirens blared down Beaver Ave., just outside the windows, and turned the room and all of our faces red.
“I guess someone’s dead,” I said.
Everyone laughed. We were drunk and stoned and goofed on plenty of concoctions. Rather than a normal Saturday night party, Donny decided to call it a wine and cheese gathering, told people to dress up and bring food along with a bottle or two. Guys traded in nappy sweaters for button downs and the girls swapped out quilted skirts for old dresses. Toss a theme on a party and watch people get wasted twice as fast as normal; tell them to bring food and do your best to separate the pot brownies from the ones that were just double chocolate.
Who knew why a theme did this to people? It just did. Fifty or so people crowded around a drinkable feast. When we weren’t filling up on chemicals we moved in packs out to the balcony for air. Once outside, where clouded minds received a sudden oxygen boost, stupid things fell out of people’s mouths, like the guy at the keg who wanted someone to drive to Puxatony with him.
“Why?” I asked.
“Groundhog’s Day, dude.”
Puxatony was a two-hour shot from State College. Up until a few years ago, even in Pennsylvania the only people who cared about the strange druid celebration were school kids. Then the Bill Murray movie came out, the one where he’s a reporter and keeps reliving the day over and over. Now the cornball irony was too much for Gen-Xers to ignore, especially those standing around a keg at a themed party.
“I’m OK,” I said.
There’s a girl just down the aisle, oh to turn and see her smile
There were parties all over town tonight. Jen, who came to Donny’s with me in a prom dress, had two or three other places she wanted to go. Earlier I said I’d go with her but now I was content to stay here until the alcohol was gone. She came outside and asked if I wanted to walk down Beaver Ave. There was a party at so and so’s place on the seventh floor in one of the taller, cookie-cutter complexes.
“You’ve been there before,” she said.
“You should come.”
“Who’ll be there?”
“Everyone who’s not here.”
She named names, mentioned Leigh in a cluster and went on talking. I started picturing her here, wondered what she’d be wearing, drinking, laughing at. She’d look stunning because she had that way of looking stunning even when tucked under a ball cap and buried in a guy’s XL sweatshirt. It was beyond looks, though she was beautiful – tall and blond with great dimples, an ample smile, freckles on the tip of what you’d call a perfect nose. She seemed to radiate at a certain frequency that stopped you when you saw her, a sunshine quality that, even when you were just meeting her, you knew you’d known her for a long time.
Though I’d known her forever I was just getting to know her here on earth. I knew her roommates better, had been hooking up with one of them off and on for a couple of months. Toward the end of fall semester, after a hook up, I woke on the bottom bunk in the room she and Leigh shared. We’d draped a sheet down from the top the night before, and when I heard Leigh come in from the shower I peeked out and watched her massage lotion into her legs while her bathrobe fell off her shoulders. I had the feeling she knew I was watching, or in the very least thought I might be watching. I was about to close our shade when she turned and looked at me. I couldn’t do anything but wave and wish her good morning. She smiled and continued with her lotion.
“Ain’t it funny how you feel when you’re finding out it’s real…”
I told Jen I was going to stay at Donny’s. The other party would be too crowded already, bodies occupying every available space and the only hope being to squeeze against a wall by the door, ask someone to fetch you a beer, then leave when your cup was dry.
Jen didn’t care. I walked her half a block down Beaver then turned back. If I’d gone further I would have noticed that traffic had stalled, might have caught a glimpse of the sirens glowing outside the building where she was headed.
After about an hour my roommate Jay and I left Donny’s. We were set to try to find the party Jen had gone to but I couldn’t remember the apartment number. We walked to our place to lose the ties and head out to the bars before last call.
There was a message on my machine when we got in. It was Jen.
“CALL me AS SOON as you GET THIS.”
I called and asked what was up.
“Something terrible has happened.”
This is where the mind does tricks, conjures more possibilities than time allows and somehow believes each one. Someone had OD’d. Someone had been busted. Someone had decided to drive to Puxatony and didn’t get halfway before they flew through the windshield.
“It’s Leigh,” she said.
“Leigh?” Drunk or not, it made no sense. She was too bright and clean, too grounded despite the way she shined. I didn’t think about her rubbing lotion into her legs, forgot about her perfect nose. I saw her in the ball cap sitting on our couch, as she’d done last weekend when we had a party here, smiling, beaming, talking to everyone who walked by. That was her style, the way the sun just sits still and lets you say hello at your leisure. Terrible things didn’t happen to people like that.
“She fell out of a window.”
I didn’t say anything. I envisioned the building, remembered the party was on the seventh floor, could picture the apartment because they were all the same. If you didn’t want to get swallowed by the crowd you stayed by the door. Or you stood on the windowsill to get up and above, opened the window for air, popped your head and neck and shoulders and torso out and played drunken peek-a-boo with the girl in the next window over, which is what Leigh had been doing right before she fell.
“Oh to live on….”
Jen said I should pray. All I could think of was the goddamn groundhog because God didn’t listen to drunks who prayed for a friend they’d known forever but were just getting to know. Somewhere, someone was praying for a healthy birth, a second chance, a cure. I tried to pray for Leigh but all I could do was pace. I let my mind pretend things would somehow be OK. Jay sat and didn’t say anything. He knew Leigh from the two times she was at our place. He noticed the same thing about her as everyone did – sunshine, or whatever you call the quality of always having known someone you’ve just met.
I know I’m eulogizing her, that I’m trapped in a good die young mindset. I can’t help it. I don’t know what sort of woman Leigh would have become. Neither do the 300 people who were at her funeral a few days later. We were left with glimmers and recollections, the pictures and sneak peeks we were able to capture and keep. The girl in the other window would eventually share that the last thing she heard Leigh say was, “I’m so happy.” As far as we knew she always felt that way.
When I called Jen 15-minutes later, she couldn’t do much more than cry and drop the phone. Someone else picked up and said Leigh was dead.
I walked to the bottom of the stairs. Soon the sun would rise in a cold gray way, the groundhog would look for its shadow and I’d fall asleep hoping to wake up yesterday, just like the movie.
I didn’t hear the CD changer working its gears, didn’t know what song the god in that machine was about to pick. For years I would assume Jay had chosen Decade, disc one, track six. When I finally asked he said he hadn’t. All he did was hit “power”.
The rest was random.
Oh to live on…