On The George Washington Birch Project: Leanne
In which The Gay Recluse becomes increasingly obsessed with birch trees.
I first met Leanne in the fall of tenth grade in the Kingswood dining hall. This was my first year of boarding school and — residual fear from public school — I was still petrified at the thought of eating alone; I don’t remember if I circled the cavernous room looking for someone I knew (preferably from the boys’ dorm or the hockey team) or whether I went directly to the emptiest table on the edge, where she and her best friend Mary already sat, clearly not interested in the throngs who populated the middle of the space.
Leanne — who I think had skipped a grade or two by this point — was dressed waifishly in khaki pants and a man’s flannel shirt, and still possessed the androgynous charm of a precocious child; only her shoulder-length hair, wavy with bangs and indifferently styled, pushed her more toward the girl’s side of the equation. Mary, dressed similarly — and with short, shiny swimmer’s hair and broad shoulders — seemed even more ambivalent about adorning herself with the trappings of the more traditional — and popular — segments of the school, who chattered away en masse only a few feet from our table. As it turned out, they were extremely conscious their separation from the “mainstream” of the student body, but — revelation to me — framed this in terms of class, not gender; though they were both “day students,” Leanne and Mary were not from the posh suburbs surrounding the school — Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham — but from further afield, although the exact names of these towns now escapes me. In this respect, they were more like the boarding students — who tended to come from more middle-class environs — but because the girls who boarded were a smaller and more insular group, it made sense that — at least at this juncture — Leanne and Mary were outsiders from almost every vantage point.
Although I — as a hockey player, book-smart, and with conventionally masculine good looks (which I say with no pride, and perhaps some shade of embarrassment) — was the opposite of an outsider, a fact that may have begged the question of exactly what I was doing each day eating lunch with self-professed “losers” like Leanne and Mary, they obviously appealed to the nascent dissatisfaction I felt for so many facets of my own life at fifteen. I think my presence egged them on, as if I had entered a private theater, a sort of performance of two in which I was the only audience member. Leanne was the ringleader and the wit; her down-turned eyes, along with a small bump on her nose and a strong chin, seemed to possess an inherent melancholy that made her observations — usually either an extreme form of self-mockery or just mockery, particularly when it came to money and what it bought for those around us — all the more outrageous; Mary would quietly gasp in agreement and laughter as Leanne threw her head back in hilarity and sometimes waved her thin arms around — almost daring the world to notice — as I watched paralyzed with awe at the urbane quality of what I had implausibly found in the suburbs of Detroit.
It would be fair to say that I fell in love with Leanne in every way except the one that mattered, or at least required some definition; it would probably also be fair to say that my feelings were reciprocated, but only for a little while, until it became apparent that I would remain cruelly aloof, no matter how inwardly charmed I was by the long letters she sent me over Thanksgiving break describing the horrors of a car trip to visit her grandparents in Florida.
We remained friends — and possibly even good friends — throughout high school, and I think she generally regarded me with a sense of stupefied affection, as she — and no doubt others — wondered what my problem was, when the answer was so obvious as to appear completely unlikely. For my part, I watched from of a distance as she gained popularity among an alternative crowd of “faculty brats” and assorted “boho” types with whom I was also loosely associated; more than anyone I met at Cranbrook, I had the sense that she was simply biding her time before being released to the world at large, which she would undoubtedly conquer.
As luck (or bad luck) would have it, we both went to Cornell; she was the first person I saw when I arrived on West Campus in a cloud of hopeless dread, knowing that I had made a huge mistake, compounded by my agreeing to live with a childhood friend in the freshman-football dorm (an arrangement made to please both sets of parents, predictably enough). But Leanne was nearby, and for one night — this during orientation — it was like we were in tenth grade again, and we walked through the teeming crowds, wondering openly how everyone could be so stupid, and yet at the same time so oblivious to their stupidity.
After this, we quickly lost contact. My academic career was marked by a program of laziness, subversion and ambivalence — i.e., I majored in “Government” — and for friends I sought out those whose aura appeased my own vague need for self-differentiation, but without ever forcing me to elucidate the underlying reasons for this; in short, I gradually attached myself to some of the fine-arts majors. Leanne by contrast quickly established herself as a “star” in the creative-writing program, and became popular in a way that seemed a thousand miles away from the person she had been in high school; when we saw each other, our conversations were brief and superficial, as if neither wanted to remember where we had come from while distrusting the other for knowing the truth.
After I moved to New York, I occasionally saw Leanne at parties in Brooklyn. By this point we were “adults,” and reflected somewhat more candidly about who we had been, although as someone who remained closeted, there were severely enforced limits on how far I would allow myself to go in this regard. Nevertheless, because she retained her brilliance I felt a little sad when she married a writer and seemed to give up her own aspirations, as if they were my own. After this, our friendship — if it could even be called that — became increasingly attenuated (not out of any malice) and at some point I learned she had gone to architecture school.
The last time I saw her, I was finally “out”; I remember feeling nervous, as if I should apologize for how dishonest I had been, yet at the same time searching in her eyes for some sign of the person who still lived in my memories, which was no doubt an unfair burden to place on both of us; for who could possibly live up to the naive, unformed expectations of a fifteen-year old? Though I would have liked to dwell on the past and exactly how it had contrived to push us to this point in the present, we were at a crowded art opening, and so talked aggressively for a few minutes about her job as an architect and my obsession for old bricks. (Only later did I realize this obsession was both literal and metaphorical.) Though understandably distant, she still seemed impossibly erudite — and even good-natured — as she pointed me in the direction of obscure artists and design theorists whose work might reinforce my own tendencies. We traded e-mail addresses, but neither followed up.
Although I knew she remained in the city, and it would be quite feasible to track her down, I preferred to think of her as elusive; and here my inclinations seemed to be reinforced when, the last I heard — via a friend — she was quitting her architecture job and going to Africa.
She recently appeared to me in a dream, and it took only a few seconds to locate her on a professional networking site on the internet. I made no effort to contact her, though; it wasn’t that I lacked the desire to see her again — the tug of nostalgia almost reduced me to tears as I remembered her laugh — but a sense of stinging remorse that I felt certain would descend upon me in the minutes after such a prospective meeting; but even as this occurred to me I realized that this, too, was an exaggeration, and in fact, I was more than prepared for either scenario (i.e., to meet or not to meet her). Then I felt redeemed by a greater certainty that what had appeared to me was a symbol of my own youth, and one to which I was more than ready to say goodbye.
Filed under: Architecture, Brooklyn, Dream, Gay, Longing, Memory, Ruins, Search | 2 Comments
Tags: Art Openings, Bloomfield Hills, Boarding School, Cornell, Cranbrook Kingswood, Detroit, Flannel Shirts, Swimmer's Hair