Her name was Laurielle.

She was nineteen to my fifteen, an art student living on her own to my compulsory psychiatric residential treatment, in possession of her own money to buy her own books to my sneaking the meager offerings of my Alabama public library home behind my father’s back.  She was blonde to my black, tall and leggy to my short and squat, eloquent to my painfully shy and awkward.  She was witty, astoundingly well-read, clever, and what’s more, she thought I was interesting. She sympathized. She encouraged me to read, to hang in there, to escape and get my own life one day.  She told me stories of sneaking around, stories about wild sex with older men on condo terraces, stories about drinks I’d never heard of, stories about sex toys I could barely imagine, stories of doing clean, sharp lines of coke from the glass of a dislodged Nagel print.  She sent me photos of her, photos of her lovers (all tall and leggy like her), notes written on stationery filched from hotels all over the world.

I envied her.  She had a little money, could buy her own books.  She was defiant (like I wanted to be), deviant (like I already knew I was, with medical and legal records to show for it), articulate (like I dreamed of being), well-read (like I was determined to be).  Most importantly, she was free.  She wasn’t locked up, she didn’t have two psychiatrists and four psychologists and a night shift of nurses cataloging her every gesture. She didn’t have anyone inspecting her backpack, taking her door off the hinges, reading her mail, telling her she was crazy, pounding her in the face and throwing her through the thin walls of a trailer in the godforsaken backwoods of Alabama.  She gave me a glimpse of a life that could be mine if I played by the rules long enough to get out of the hospital and graduate or get a GED.  She gave me a glimpse of what it might be like to be calling my own shots, making my own life, making my own reading list, writing in my own name, reading books and not hiding them anymore.

I wanted her.  I wanted to be her.  I didn’t know what I wanted.  But I knew she had it, knew about it, lived it.

I finally figured out how to play by the rules long enough to get out of residential treatment, and then daily outpatient treatment, and then back into my high school, where my math skills were only slightly worse for the wear after a year of doing schoolwork “at my own pace” in the hospital.  She encouraged me, in her own way, mostly just by being. She sent me mixed tapes.  I broadened my musical horizons from the Sex Pistols to the Swans, from the Dead Kennedys to Diamanda Galas, from David Bowie to Brian Ferry, from Tom Waits to Marianne Faithfull.

She sent me letters, but just as importantly, she sent me books.  Coffee table books full of art, paperbacks, small arms manuals for Russian weapons.  I first read Bataille at 16, because she sent me “The Story of the Eye.”  I read de Sade, The Story of O, a history of Western Civilization, something on the Dada movement, Turkish phrase books, avant garde poetry, Details magazine when it was still large format without a glossy cover.  I read the diaries of Andy Warhol, The Basketball Diaries and the poetry of Jim Carroll, Umberto Eco.  I watched Liquid Sky, Eraserhead, Fellini, because she told me about them.  She told me, through the books, through being, through posters and ticket stubs she sent, that there was a life outside this preposterously circumscribed one I had been living.

She sent me sex toys, t-shirts with complicated diagrams of aircraft and weapons on them, silk stockings, coasters from Berlin, blank books to write in, stationery bearing the insignia of a Captain in the Rhodesian army, witty volumes on city life and art, erudite volumes on the Hapsburgs and literary criticism.

At 17 I knew of Lacan, poststructuralism, Bauhaus architecture, MDMA, RPMs for an AK-47, Noam Chomsky, an imaginary gameshow called “Wheel of Foucault,” 17 ways to tie somebody up effectively using less than 8 feet of thin nylon rope, Herman Hesse and Carl Jung and the best place to get a martini in NYC even though I’d never been there.  I knew people lived lives and that I stood a chance of having one.  I learned that in some places, being smart and being sexy were not mutually exclusive.

She wrote to me about Freud. She explained something to me that made a difference, had been making a difference — “civilized man” accepts a certain amount of repression of his instincts in exchange for being civilized, in exchange for living within society, in exchange for the protections and luxuries of said civilized society.  Civilization and discontent went hand in hand, but if you wanted the girls, the drugs, the books, and the education, you’d best learn to toe the line, at least during the week, at least enough.  Steppenwolf on the weekends, library and classroom during the week, no panties ever, and along the way, there appeared an avenue toward being wicked, clever, yet a fully functioning member of society.  I learned to dress my anger up with ballet flats, velvet skirts, and stockings.  I learned to quote Swinburne at a professor after a night class in such a a way as to make him lick his lips.  I learned a more sophisticated way of handling, and manipulating, the pleasure principle.

In a very real way, Laurielle probably saved my life, even though I didn’t meet her in the flesh until 1992.

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