Friday, May 14, 2010

Flames on Crushed Velvet

Her name was Leslie Papin and she came from a little town on the Massachusetts coast where they sold lobster dinners for $12 and all of the guys were clean cut preppie types who worked at their family's accounting firms. Leslie had smoky hazel eyes, white skin dappled with freckles and chestnut hair she wrapped in a long ponytail like some Earth mother hippie goddess you’d find walking around Fresno in a hazy ganja-fueled bliss.
Leslie and I went to the same college 20 years ago. She was into the trippy shit like Blind Melon, Nirvana and Soundgarden and any flannel-wearing longhaired band that swung its way from Seattle. She smoked like a chimney and fucked every man on the eastern seaboard, oozing in an out of dingy basement nightclubs like they were some sort of temple heralding the sleaze and superficiality of western civilization. You know the kind of clubs: those subterranean dungeons with the stained brick walls and the dimly-lit back rooms offering $2 Rolling Rocks and rancid chicken fingers, a place where live bands croon amplified nonsense and freaks embrace each other in dark corners.
Leslie was in her element. She was the queen of Jagermeister, an alcohol-fueled seductress more violent than a British football hooligan and more lethal and venomous than a black mamba.
I loved her, even though she treated my affection as though it was invisible. No matter what I did to please her or curry favor, she passed me over for some muscle-bound asshole with the maturity level of a hyperactive third grader.
Despite this obvious snub of my desire for her, Leslie still hung out with me on weekends. We’d haunt the cafes and coffeeshops in Soho and attend off-Broadway shows in crappy theaters where a group of untalented actors and actresses got naked on stage and pretended to die for the sake of art. We’d grab a bottle of chardonnay and head back to my apartment where we’d get drunk while listening to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” on my old turntable. Through the brilliant arrangement of one of rock music’s most successful albums ever, we talked of life, of our hopes and our fears. We shared our insecurities in a way I’ve never done with another person before. The doubts we had about our futures, about love and each other just naturally spilled out, with no embarrassment or awkwardness. Just shy of graduation by a few months, we aptly purged our inner demons.
She lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, as wisps of smoke curled around her lips. She then looked at me with those incredible eyes that pierced my very soul and I was like a kitten in the headlights of an oncoming juggernaut freight train.
“Can I ask you something?” she said, as she restated her head on my shoulder as we reclined on the couch.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“How come you never made a move on me?”
“It’s just...It’s just that you, like, didn’t come onto me like other guys do,” she said.
“It’s not like I haven’t tried.”
She laughed at that, and extinguished her cigarette on a nearby plate. Leslie continued resting her head on my shoulder as the record ended.
“What do you think we’ll be doing in 20 years?” she asked. “I’ll probably be married with ten kids and live in the suburbs somewhere.”
“I’ll be a writer if I don’t drink myself to death,” I said, and drained my chardonnay.
“A writer? Really?” she said. “Like, a novelist or something?”
“Something like that. I hope. Maybe I’ll just work at K-Mart shilling cheaply-made products to fat American housefraus like you.”
“Fuck you,” she teased and looked up at me with those amazing eyes.
We drifted close to each other, and tenderly kissed for a few seconds. It wasn’t as smoldering or as scintillating as in the movies, but it was ours.
The writer’s curse is to self-edit. It’s a never-ending quest for perfection; to find the right words and put them in correct order.
That kiss, while not passionate or intense, was arranged perfectly. It’s the one kiss Leslie and I ever shared, in my college dorm those many years ago. I never forgot that. Not because she was a stunning beauty or some unobtainable woman all men desired.
Leslie Papin was unique. She represented all that was chaotic and wonderful about youth, a blazing comet streaking through a black night sky. Flames on crushed velvet. Smoldering youth with copious cigarettes, grunge music and an upraised middle finger.
And I loved that about her. I loved Leslie Papin for her volatile soul, for her wild and carefree morals and penchant to never compromise who she was.
We eventually parted like everyone does after college. We tried keeping in touch but in the age before e-mail accounts, handwritten letters were the only way. We wrote for about a year after college, then just stopped. I busied myself with writing, with trying and failing at getting the right people to read what I bragged was the next greatest American novel but with no success. I was at a real low point, and in my druthers, I phoned Leslie.
The random phone call, after many empty years sans contact, is bizarre. Drunk at 1 a.m. reeling around my apartment on some tree-lined boulevard, I called her.
I didn’t reach her, but got her answering machine, so I left a message. I don’t remember if my words were intelligible. All I remember was hearing that damn beeping noise and saying what came to mind.
When Leslie didn’t return my call, I wasn’t surprised.
What the hell did I say to her? Did I let all my emotion pour out in one slurred stream of consciousness, one embarrassing tirade? I remember faintly uttering the word “love” at some point, but that might have been the booze talking.
Whatever it was must’ve frightened her.
I’ll never know what Leslie Papin thought of the message or even if she received it. I found out a few years ago that she had died back in 1998 out in California, killed in an accident along the San Tomas Expressway. She was 27 years old, the same age as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendricks and Jim Morrison were when they died. There’s something about that age – 27 – that’s both cursed and blessed.
When I learned she died over a decade ago, I felt numb and incomplete. I felt guilty that I was allowed to live all these years while she wasn’t. The first week after hearing the news, I drove deep into the woods of a nearby wildlife refuge, drank half a bottle of Jack Daniel's and fired my rifle at the moon. I wanted to bring down that sickening silver orb in the sky, wanted my bullet to crack the Sea of Tranquility and shatter the lunar surface into a billion pieces.
I returned to my apartment and groggily began to write about Leslie.
I just had to find the right words.

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