Read Come to the Edge: A Memoir Online

Authors: Christina Haag

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Come to the Edge: A Memoir (4 page)

BOOK: Come to the Edge: A Memoir
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There were two things that made the uniform bearable. At the end of each year, Miss Mellion picked six girls to clean up the lower and middle school costume closet, a windowless box of a room in the Burden mansion. And each year, I was one of her chosen. A limited amount of folding took place. Mostly, it was an entire day without classes, spent thigh-deep in feathers, chiffon, dust, and torn velvet.

The other thing was the ribbons, wide, grosgrain sashes in pink and red that Reverend Mother would slip over your left shoulder and fasten with a pin at your waist. They were awarded sparingly for overall excellence. I got only two in nine years. But it didn’t matter—they stood out in the sea of gray, a feast for the eye.

Every Monday morning in lower school, we had assembly, which the nuns called prîmes. We’d file down the stone steps from the fourth to the second floor, always by height, always silent, always to the left. We were girls in straight lines with wild hidden hearts—like Madeline. If the nun’s back was turned, one of us would make a break for the stone banister which was perfect for sliding and swept into a curling flourish at the bottom.

The assembly hall had been Otto Kahn’s music room, and there was a huge chandelier in the center and a shallow, curtained stage at the back. The teachers sat on upholstered chairs in front of the tall French windows overlooking the courtyard. They faced us and we faced each other. There were four rows of folding chairs on each side of the wide aisle, with the first grade in the front and the fourth grade at the back. Giggling and bored, we filed in and peeled off—half the class to one side of the aisle and half to the other. Reverend Mother came last. She was tiny, not even five feet, and we all stood when she entered the room.

As the teachers began to arrive, a shoe box was passed filled with balled pairs of white gloves, each with name tags sewn on by our mothers. Most of the gloves were thick brushed cotton, like mine, but some were trimmed with gold—a chain or a bow—and others were almost transparent, silky like a skating skirt or how it felt inside the top drawer of my mother’s bureau. The gloves were always tight, as though the shoe box were magic and the stiff cotton shrank from week to week. Even when I used my teeth to nudge them up, they barely made it to my wrist.

At the end of assembly, we filed up two by two to be received by Reverend Mother. The procession was elaborate and choreographed, and the nuns rehearsed us endlessly—the spacing, when to turn, how deep to curtsy. Ball heel, ball heel. Like water ballet or a bride’s walk. And when we finally got close enough, her eyes, magnified by the thick glasses she wore, were a filmy cornflower blue, and you could see the down on her cheek. She always smiled, but if she said something, you would answer,
Yes, Reverend Mother. Thank you, Reverend Mother
.

Prizes were given: medals, calligraphed cards, the pink and red sashes, and smaller ribbons in green and blue that we fixed to our jackets with tiny gold safety pins. I got ribbons for social studies, music, and drama, but what I wanted was the one for religion. For two months, I wanted it more than anything. I went to great lengths to furrow my brow in chapel and refrained from sliding down the banister, but the ribbon remained elusive. It always went to the same two girls—one with Coke-bottle glasses who told everyone she wanted to be a nun and the other who had the face of a Botticelli angel.

By the end of the year, I’d lost interest. I started reading books about Anne Boleyn, Sarah Bernhardt, and Lola Montez. I wanted to be an adventuress, an actress, or an archaeologist. But when
Masterpiece Theatre
began on PBS, I knew. I was transfixed by Dorothy Tutin in
The Six Wives of Henry VIII
and Glenda Jackson in
Elizabeth R
, and each morning during summer vacation, I would practice the two things that seemed essential to my future: how to raise one eyebrow and how to cry on cue.

There were games we played then. Hopscotch with colored chalk on the sidewalk and jacks on the slippery floor of my building’s lobby. In second grade, there was
Dark Shadows
and
Lost in Space
, and we’d fight over who was Angelique and Mrs. Robinson. Elizabeth Cascella and I had queen costumes from FAO Schwarz. With the phonograph blaring, we would dance around the floral couches in her mother’s living room and act out all of
The Sound of Music
. We adored Captain von Trapp—his profile and his uniform; we loved Liesl and her dress; but we wanted to be Maria in the opening credits, and we spun ourselves dizzy until the white ceiling of the room became an alpine sky.

And there were board games: Who Will I Be?, Trouble, and Mystery Date.

When I was ten, we had a new game, Paper Fortune. You rolled the dice, and that was your number. Then you made a list: five boys, five cars, five numbers, five cities, five resorts, five careers, and another five careers. On a piece of paper, you wrote each list on a separate line. Then, using your number, you began to count the words, crossing off the one you landed on. In the end, there was just one word in each row. You circled them with Magic Marker, and there it was: Your life. Who you married, what you drove, how many kids, where you lived, where you vacationed, what you did, and what he did.

The problem was boys. We didn’t know any, or at least I didn’t. For vacations, you could put down Monte Carlo or Colorado or the North Pole, places you’d never been. But the names of the boys had to be real, and though we didn’t have to know them, they had to be our age, not Davy Jones or David Cassidy or any of the Beatles. Invariably, I’d put down Billy, who lived next door in the summer. (We’d kissed in the barn, and when we were little we’d played dress up at my house, until his mother called my mother and said that he couldn’t.) A boy named Dwight I’d loved in nursery school. My friend Janie’s cousins, who visited every summer from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and taught me how to bunt in softball and cheat at cards. And someone’s older brother. Sometimes, though, I’d put down the boy from the barbershop.

From the time I could walk until I was eight, I got my hair cut at Paul Molé, an old-fashioned barbershop on Seventy-fourth Street and Lexington. It’s still there, on the second floor, but in a larger space a few doors down from the original. The photographs are still on the wall (some different from the ones I remember), and there’s the same wooden Indian on the landing, and skinny black combs in blue water.

As I followed my mother’s legs up the narrow wooden stairs, I would always stop by the pictures. They were black-framed and autographed, of newscasters and actors, and one down low of a boy my age with his hair cut long like my brothers’. Like every boy’s in New York.

In the photograph, the boy is skinny, all energy. Something has his attention and he is caught mid-turn, eyes away from the camera, with somewhere to go. He may have just finished smiling or he is just about to. But there is something in him I recognize and I want to reach up and touch the picture.

He’s the boy whose sister goes to my school, the boy whose mother is beautiful, and whose father was president before I can remember. But it’s not that.

I stand and wait, wait for him to turn back. I wait—until my mother calls me. And each time we climb the steps, he’s there.

Soon I’ll forget about the game, forget about the folded paper and the Magic Markers. And the boy with the hair in his eyes whom one day I will find again. But years later, on a balmy night in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, when John and I are at a party in the Hollywood Hills, a girl I’d gone to Sacred Heart with walked in. We hadn’t seen each other since we were fourteen. She was a model now, glamorous and high-strung, with an undiscovered David Duchovny like a jewel on her bare arm. He and John had been in the same class at Collegiate, and there, in a city so different from the one we’d grown up in, under a sky wider than the one we’d known, we caught up. When they leave to get the drinks, she takes my arm and pulls me close. Did I remember the nuns? she asks. How in first grade we pushed Sister Caroline down the staircase and in eighth grade we stole the wine from the sacristy? And what about the game? She leans in, her breath warm, and with something akin to shared triumph, whispers, “The game—you got what you wanted!”

I went to Sacred Heart for nine years. When I was old enough, I got a colored pass and took the city bus each day up Madison and down Fifth. It was a seed-kernel of a world, at once tight and about to burst. One of ritual and hegemony. We imagined ourselves different from one another, that each of our stories was special, but with rare exception, most of us lived in the small patch of privilege between East Sixty-fourth and Ninety-sixth streets. The West Side by Lincoln Center, where I had ballet class twice a week, was another country, and Downtown another planet.

It wasn’t until I was fourteen and about to leave Sacred Heart that I fully questioned any of it. It was spring, close to our last day, and I was walking with the one Jewish girl in the school, who also happened to be in my class. Rachel was excused from chapel each week, which made us all jealous, and her mother was glamorous—a jazz pianist with a wicked sense of humor and a trust fund, who let us play with her wigs, her muumuus, and her fake nails. Their apartment was bigger than ours, and it was always dark. When I slept over, I’d wait for the sound of Rachel’s breathing in the next bed. Then I’d sneak down the long corridor to find her mother in the den. It would be dark save for the blue glow of the television and the red tip of her cigarette. I’d curl up on the couch beside her, and we’d watch
The Late Late Show
and I’d listen to her stories of old boyfriends. If I was lucky, she’d pull out her Ouija board and tell my future.

It came without warning on that spring day—a gauntlet. We were close to Park Avenue, by the Brick Presbyterian Church, when Rachel turned to me with what looked to be a smile and said, “Do you
really
believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?”

My mouth fell open. I felt like I’d been slapped. I’d known her for eight years, and she’d never said anything like that. We were close to the corner, and I could hear the cabs whizzing by. It wasn’t just the theological issue—in fifth grade, we had studied Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam, and in seventh grade, for the whole year, I had been obsessed with Chaim Potok—it was that her words exploded the foundation of everything I knew: a world solid and immutable, with all the rules in place. Whether I conformed or rebelled was another matter; it was there, safe, to push against.

No one had ever asked me this question, and when she did, doubt slipped easily beside me. In that instant, everything began to fade: the mansion, the Arts Days, the felt banners, the Virgin with her lily and her book, the quiet on the stairs and the darkened stone, the shoe box full of gloves.

We stood at the light, awkward and silent. I believe she was happy, as if a war inside her had been won, but I was unmoored. I had no answer; I wouldn’t for years. As we crossed the street, I wondered how long she had been waiting to say those words. What I didn’t know then was how long I’d been waiting to hear them.

 

“D
on’t be afraid!” my father yells. He’s waist-deep in water, far out on the second sandbar. I’m on the first—hands on my hips, foam at my ankles, and heels deep in wet sand. It’s August. That’s when they come, the sandbars and the jellyfish and the warm, shallow moats behind me near the shore. The waves are longer now, thicker—with storms roiling to the south. It’s the best time to ride our navy canvas rafts, hurling and bouncing all the way, until we hit sand and fall off, scratched and breathless from the race. It’s when we stand on our father’s shoulders and dive off into the shimmering wall of waves. “Careful,” he’ll say when I scrabble up his back. “I’m not as young as I used to be.”

My father is happiest in the ocean. It’s something I have with him.

I can’t see, but I know he’s wearing the old suit, the blue-and-white-checked one. He has a new one with anchors he got for his birthday (same kind, different pattern), but he never wears it. Janie’s father is younger. His suit has big Hawaiian flowers—pink and orange—and it hangs to his knees. He grew his hair long for the summer. But my father never changes. He’ll wear the old suit until it fades to white or my mother throws it out, whichever comes first.

“Come on!”
He’s using his happy/angry voice, the one you pay attention to, the one that might hurt. So I dive in through the heavy surf, the water a cool, bright knife. “See,” he says when I shoot up beside him like an otter. We’re past the break and I stand on my toes. “Now how hard was that.” It’s not a question and he’s laughing. He’s always laughing then. It’s the summer he turns fifty. He’s happy with my mother. They have parties with wooden dance floors built just for one night, a bartender in each corner, and a band. He’s still Fun Daddy and takes us for rides on his motorbike in the fields around our summerhouse.

My mother drives us to the station in the white wood-paneled Ford wagon. We wait for my father’s train and place pennies on the tracks. My brother Bobby and I climb off the platform ledge. Below, it smells like oily gravel. We line our coins up carefully, dull copper against the silver rail. My mother gives us extra ones for Andrew. He’s only three, too small to come with us, and he watches from above.

My father always takes the
Cannonball
. Before it stops, steam hissing like Hades underneath, I spot him between the cars, and when he sees me, he makes a Daddy face. That’s another game we have. He jumps down—suit jacket still on (although it’s hot), a briefcase in one hand and a newspaper in the other. After the whistle and the “All aboard Montauk,” he helps us find the pennies in the tar, their faces ruined now and pink. On special days, we use nickels, but never quarters. Because that’s illegal, he says. And we need to know the meaning of a dollar.

He tells us stories then. Depression stories, war stories, slipping-out-the-window-at-night-when-he-is-a-boy stories, sliding down the drainpipe to gamble with marbles in his Pennsylvania river town. Stories of when he is a pilot, a Democrat, a union organizer, a businessman, a rascal, a Romeo. The son of a railroad worker, who, by daring and chutzpah, made good and married a beauty. He tells us the stories, he says, to teach us about life.

My father is not a vain man. A handsome man, yes, with the profile of a young Brando. People stop him on the street, mistaking him for Ted Kennedy, to which my grandmother replies, “Much more handsome.” He knows the effect, but he’s interested in other things. And only more so as he gets older: the rumpled raincoat, the frayed cuff, and shoes worn and resoled when he can well afford new ones. “You’ll understand when you have children,” he grumbles.

It wasn’t always so, a friend of my parents tells me later, when I am sixteen. I’m friends with her daughter, and we’re sitting in their Beekman Place kitchen as her mother rhapsodizes. “Your father … Now, your father was a
catch
.” I lean in and can smell the Scotch on her breath. Custom suits, white silk scarves, designer apartments, and parties. I’ve seen the pictures, and I remember the colored linen sport coats he used to wear. But it’s as if she’s talking about another person.

When I come home that night, he’s up late working, a single light on in the apartment. He looks up over his reading glasses, asks how my night was, and then goes back to his papers. I stand there in the hallway watching him, trying to reconcile the whimsy of white silk with the man bent over yellow legal pads by a standing brass lamp.

“Put your fingers together. Keep your head down. And kick.” We’re bodysurfing, and his big thing is timing. I hold my hands as if I’m praying, but flat out, with thumbs crossed and elbows straight, and I hear him. “It’s coming! Not this one!” We watch TV together late at night and guess the endings—that’s another thing we have, we’re both night owls. And now, in the water, we guess the waves.

There’s a home movie: I am small, and he flings me in the surf by an arm and a leg. It appears almost painful, but each time I run back for more, my face shining. With Bobby, this doesn’t work so well. He cries, imagining sharks. Aligned with my mother already, he sticks to the pool. “Respect its power,” my father says. “Never turn your back.” And I know, because he’s told me, that when the big rollers come, I need to dive long and low so I don’t get tangled in the break. If this happens, he says to hold my breath, make myself into a tight ball, and trust that the ocean will spit me back up. “It’ll be over soon,” he promises. “And I’ll be there.”

This is before a lot of things. Before he votes for Nixon, before the battles in high school, before he’s angry most always, and before the stroke that years from now will leave him childlike, without interest in all that drove him.

It’s when he takes me on night drives and tells me about love—the hometown girl; the wartime sweethearts in Paris, and the stockings and soap he gave them; the actresses and models at the Beverly Hills Hotel; the wild times on Fire Island. The ones who still, he knows, hold a torch for him. He keeps a shoe box, filled with snapshots of old flames, hidden in the attic. A secret I keep for him. One of the secrets I keep.

This is the summer I am eleven. I look up the sexy parts in Mary Renault books. I finish
In Cold Blood
when my parents aren’t looking and hide my journal under the footed bathtub in the guest room. I wear a rope bracelet and cotton bikinis with ties on the sides. Before, I would wander the beach without my top and think nothing of it, but no longer. It’s the summer I can still dive from my father’s shoulders, the summer I still believe in his stories, the summer I am still his.

We’ve started diving now. He steadies me on his back with both hands and lowers down into the water. I’m taller than last year. It’s tricky, but we get it. I wobble on the first dive, and he yells to keep my legs together. I swim back and we wait.

Remember this time. Soon it will start going fast
. He says it like it’s a bad thing. We’re between waves now, and he won’t look at me, his eyes as far away as Portugal. I scrunch my face and pray he’s right. I want the days to rumble on, spin out, race ahead. I want to close my eyes and be there. It’s all so endless: the summers, the school year in the city, the car rides, piano lessons, the nuns, the times tables, hot Sundays in church—endless, endless hours. I want to be twelve, to be sixteen. To kiss a boy, smoke a cigarette, have the curve when I lie on my side. I want to begin, to become who I will be.

But he tells me to remember, and I do. My arches curled on the slip of his shoulders, his back lowering like a whale, the clasp of our fingers wet and braided. The sun’s in my eyes and there’s a slight shift of knees before the wave comes and I go.

BOOK: Come to the Edge: A Memoir
13.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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