Femme Fatale

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Don [who was working the door] understood why this was so important to me. I'd long-since dropped most of the accouterments of punkdom (except the earrings, which could only be removed with boltcutters), and wanted to show off to these dirty, crusty, smelly children what I'd become. I consciously wore nothing that would/could be construed as punk. I played the role of "Ice Princess," looking as sleek and stylish as I could. I donned a short, tight vintage dress and put my hair in a chignon.

I had to show them all how I'd changed. I was strong, felt my power as a woman and a person and was doing what I needed to do with my life. And I'd done all this without "selling out." I'd done it without even raising a fist.

That fall, a composition course gave Brenda the opportunity to frame a project around her saucy, misunderstood role model, Jean Harlow. She called it "Golden Goddess: Reflections of a Dream Denied." At a time when she was struggling to fit in a new mold, Brenda found a compelling dichotomy in the actress's personal and professional lives. She noted the similarities she shared with the "original platinum blonde," particularly the rough time they both had with men. Harlow's first marriage ended in divorce after two years; her second husband killed himself (though many believe the suicide story was to cover up a Mob murder); she divorced her third husband after eight months; and she died while engaged to the man that would have been her fourth.

Brenda might have been married only once, but her relationships since had turned violent. In October 1999 she obtained a permanent restraining order to get away from the abusive boyfriend she lived with. "I had hoped never to see or speak with him again, having been terrorized by him for nearly eight months (including being treated for bruised ribs after one of his rages)," she wrote to police that December, after he violated the order.

In 2000, Brenda decided to move back to Texas for a while -- to recover from an assault, she later wrote -- and shared an apartment with her youngest sister, Rachel. Before going back home, Brenda told friends, she didn't truly know her mom or realize how much she needed her, but now their friendship was the greatest gift the universe could have given her: She recognized how much danger I was in, and rescued me (not for the first time).

While Brenda was in Texas, Rachel, who suffers from a kidney disease, became ill and was hospitalized. Brenda took care of her nephew and kept everything in order until Rachel was back on her feet. Realizing how serious her sister's disease could be, Brenda offered her a kidney any time she needed it. "She was serious about that," says her mother. "That was one of the more selfless things that any of us had heard her offer in her life." Brenda left Texas in 2001, but she remained close with her sister and mother, talking to them frequently on the phone.

Back in Denver, Brenda refocused her energy on school. She had put down roots here and felt a sense of security because so many people knew and cared about her. After I had number six of my nine [knee] surgeries, the guys at the pharmacy would bring me my medicine and a Pepsi, and refuse to take tips. My apartment manager at the time found me once, pale and sweaty, unable to make it to the third floor, and carried me.

Brenda wasn't looking for an intimate relationship; she needed to work on herself before she got involved with someone again: like quit attracting sociopaths, she wrote. She valued her friendships, expecting her friends to be loyal, honest, and as gentle with me as I am with them. Her friend Mark Payson was a man of high integrity, a person whom she loved deeply, she said. He helped me get off of pain pills, chased my ex-boyfriend-stalker off, and will be at my house in five minutes if I need him.

Mark and Brenda had hit it off instantly. "She was the smartest woman I ever met in my life," he says. They would drink together -- a lot. Mark, an artist, has a piece he calls "Blackout Juice" that was inspired by the nights he and Brenda would drink a gallon of wine together. It shows a woman hiding her face behind a purple jug. "Every time, we'd both black out," he says. A charcoal sketch, titled "Brenda's Mirage," shows a wild-eyed woman's face with a wide, mischievous grin outlined in crisp, intense lines that shoot out like rays. Brenda helped Mark talk through some of his own problems, too; she loved to pick people's brains apart. "She was kind of like a psychiatrist in some ways," Mark says. But a year before Brenda's death, she stopped talking to Mark. "I just pissed her off one day, and that was it. She was like that."

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Jessica Centers