Authors: Christina Haag
Tags: #Social Science, #Popular Culture, #Motion Picture Actors and Actresses, #Entertainment & Performing Arts, #General, #United States, #Personal Memoirs, #Biography, #Television actors and actresses, #Biography & Autobiography, #Rich & Famous
Outside, the street was deserted except for the press. They scrambled from their cars as soon as the doors to Le Club opened. I left with the first wave to find cabs. We crossed the street and began to walk to First Avenue. Then a shock of light and shouting. I turned back to see an older friend of John’s I didn’t know take a swing at a photographer. A fight broke out. John tried to stop it, to hold his friend back, but soon he had joined the scuffle and fell out of sight behind a car.
Where’s John? Is he all right? Can you see him?
Some of the Collegiate boys ran to get help. I hid behind a parked van. There was no rescue this time, no Secret Service to step from the shadows, his detail having ended two years before.
Then someone came bounding from the darkness with news. “Hey, it’s all cool. John and Jenny caught a cab with Wilson on Second. They’re on their way to 1040. Everyone’s fine.”
Like a movie, it ended as it should have—with a getaway and the enemy vanquished. There were high fives and smiles of relief as we said our goodbyes and split cabs north, west, and south.
The next day when I woke up, my father asked about the party. “Did you have fun? It’s in all the papers.” He smiled and tossed the
in front of me. John in dark glasses. The silk scarf, the drunken buddy, the comely girlfriend.
I was confused. It appeared sordid in black and white. I had been standing across the street when the picture was taken. I had seen his arms outstretched, the light flashing off his aviators, but I didn’t recognize this. I stared at the photograph for a moment, curious, before pushing the paper aside.
“That’s not how it was,” I told my father. “That’s not everything.”
hat October there was a spike of heat in the Northeast, a brilliant backlash of summer. Providence, a city that would soon be bundled and galoshed—held captive by snow and rain for the next five months—was drinking in whatever warmth it could get. At Brown, on one of the highest of the seven hills that overlook the city, coats and sweaters were abandoned, classes were cut, and stereo speakers, perched high in open windows, blared the Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead, the drum solos drifting down through the air like a wild pagan call. Banners—sheets spray-painted
NO NUKES/END APARTHEID NOW
in black and red—were draped over dorm walls of brick and limestone.
On the Green, the patch of calm surrounded by the oldest buildings on campus, dogs chased after tennis balls and Frisbees or lounged in the still-bright grass. On the Faunce House steps, theater majors bummed cigarettes, and aspiring novelists and semioticians sparred over Derrida. Rich foreign students congregated in the middle of the terrace: the men, with Lacostes tucked tight into jeans and collars flipped high, the women, impossibly sleek, their tousled heads thrown back in charmed laughter.
Brown, one of the nation’s first nonsectarian universities, was founded by Baptists in 1764. Its charter ensures religious diversity and “full, free, absolute, and uninterrupted liberty of conscience.” This emphasis on intellectual freedom was shored up in 1969 by student-led curriculum reforms. The New Curriculum, as it is still called, did away with distribution requirements and rigid grading, and encouraged choice and exploration. Education was placed squarely in the hands of the undergraduate. You could major in ethnomusicology or Egyptology, Portuguese or population studies, or take up gamelan or welding. And if the standard offerings didn’t suit you, you could design a course that did. It was also possible to get by with doing very little, but that was rare. Most students were busy, galvanized by opportunity and sparking off one another’s curiosity.
I was a junior in the fall of 1980. I had just gotten back from a trip to Ireland, but for most of the summer I’d stayed in Providence to act in three plays. In New York, I’d done commercials, but this was the first time in my life I’d cashed a paycheck for a play. And Oscar Wilde, no less. I was incredibly proud.
Sophomore year, I’d moved out of the dorms to a rambling house on Waterman Street, five blocks east of campus, one of three student-run co-ops. There was a couch on the porch, a caricature of Nixon in one of the windows, and a king-size water bed with a sign-up sheet in the living room. My parents refused to set foot inside, proclaiming it “filthy,” but I loved it. It had a measure of expressiveness and rebellion that I craved. In the basement, a mute computer science major slept, worked, and tended to large vats of sprouts, his sole source of nutrition. For the rest of us, jobs rotated and dinners were a festive event. That night, I was in charge of cooking a vegetarian casserole for twenty.
As I crossed the Green, a knapsack slung over one shoulder, my mind was racing. The coffee from the Blue Room hadn’t helped. A paper due. Lines to learn. Cooking at the co-op that night. And the dark-haired French Canadian hockey player I’d met, who took art classes at RISD and spoke of training as if it were poetry. He slipped notes under my door that read like haiku. I, who had previously had zero interest in collegiate sports, now shivered in the stands of Meehan Auditorium and watched as he, outfitted like a gladiator, knocked equally well-padded men into the walls of the rink. Terrified and thrilled, I looked up at the bright banners and the fans cheering and the clean white ice below and thought,
is performance. On a cool night, when the embers were dying in his fireplace and there was no more wood to burn, he broke a table apart—wrenched the legs off, then the top, plank by plank—to please me, to keep the flames going. But the beginnings of love were distracting, and I kept forgetting things.
I couldn’t find my bike for days, then realized I’d left it outside the Rock, the main library on campus. Hoping it would still be there, I walked quickly down the corridor between two of the buildings that bordered the Green. Light and noise began to fade. I kicked the heels of my new cowboy boots along the walkway, and the wine-colored gauze skirt I wore fluttered over the cement. When the path dipped down to the more shaded Quiet Green, I saw the Carrie Tower. Redbrick and granite, it reached high into the bright sky. I loved the tower, loved walking by it, and always went out of my way to do so. The four green-faced clocks on each of the sides were worn by weather. They no longer kept time, and the bell had been removed, but the tower had a story. At its chipped base, above an iron door, the words
LOVE IS STRONG AS DEATH
were carved into the stone, a memorial to a woman from her Italian husband after her untimely passing almost a century before. I stopped for a moment and looked up. I wanted to be loved like that.
When I passed through the main gates onto Prospect Street, I spotted my bike, an old Peugeot that took me everywhere. Relieved, I bent over the wheel and tugged at the lock. Then I heard my name. A voice I knew. I looked up, squinted.
“Hey, stranger.” Someone wearing white was smiling at me.
I raised the back of my hand to shade my eyes. The sun glinted off a railing.
“I was wondering when I’d run into you,” he said.
John was sitting on the bottom set of steps outside the Rockefeller Library talking with a large, preppy blond guy. “Catch you later,” the blond guy said when he saw me, and took off in the direction of George Street.
I sat down on the step next to him, tucking the filmy skirt under my knees. I was happy to see him. He was now in his sophomore year, one behind me. He leaned in to hug me. His shoulders were broader. Around his neck, a shark’s tooth on a string.
“It’s been a while,” I said, and we began to try and place when we’d last seen each other—a Little Feat concert where he’d teased me mercilessly about the Harvard guy I was with, a party in New York, his performance in
the previous spring.
What had I done over the summer, he wanted to know. I didn’t mention the French Canadian. I told him about Ireland, the double rainbow in Donegal, the pubs in Dublin, and a castle I stumbled upon near Galway Bay that turned out to have belonged to my clan hundreds of years back. Before that, six weeks of summer theater at Brown. His face lit up, and he wanted to know more. “That’s cool. You seem into it,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t be doing any plays for a while. Something cryptic about needing to stay focused, as if the words of Shakespeare and Shaw were a sweet drug that he needed to pace himself around. He’d been in Ireland, too. Also Africa, and helping out on his uncle Teddy’s presidential campaign. And Martha’s Vineyard. “My mother’s building a house there. You should come up sometime.”
As we spoke, I searched his face. Something about him was different. In a summer, he had changed. Taller, more handsome; I couldn’t put a finger on it. Maybe he was in love. Maybe it was the white garb. But he seemed at ease with himself in a way he hadn’t before.
“I can’t bear to be inside on a day like this.” He exhaled deeply and cocked his head to the library, a rectangle of cement and glass whose revolving doors whirred behind us. He leaned back, propping his elbows against a step, and stretched his legs. His linen pants were rumpled. I saw that he was wearing sandals, the woven kind, and that his feet were still brown.
“Where are you living?” I asked.
“Phi Psi. I pledged.”
“Oh.” I tried not to wrinkle my nose.
The first bell rang, and I moved toward my bike. The lock came off easily.
“I’ll walk you,” he said, following. “I’ve got time.”
I crouched down and slipped the U-shaped metal bar neatly in its holder on the bottom bar of the bike. His feet.
I’ve never seen them before
, I thought, and threw my knapsack in the front basket. They were elegant, and that surprised me.
I steadied the bike, and we began to walk up the uneven street, past the Van Wickle Gates, past the Carrie Tower, to the rise at the top of Prospect and Waterman.
The second bell rang, and people began darting around us.
“Well, stranger, this is where I get off. Thanks for the chivalry.”
“My pleasure,” he said, and with that, he slid his foot between mine, tapping lightly against the inside edge of my boot. “Nice.”
As I ran up the steps of the Am Civ building late for class, I felt a lightness and a bitter/sad tug deep in my chest. I may have chalked it up to the splendor of the day. If I’d been wiser, I would have guessed that I was a little in love with him even then. But I was twenty, and whatever I knew on that autumn-summer day was a secret to myself. And when a friend who had also known him in high school and noticed his metamorphosis from cute to Adonis later whispered, “God, he’s gorgeous,” I agreed. “Yes,” I said, “but I wouldn’t want to be his girlfriend.” I had seen the way some women looked at him, sharp sideways glances my way simply because he was talking to me. I’d heard about the campus groupies. Besides, I was with the French Canadian, and I thought it would be forever.
We didn’t see each other much that fall. By winter, I’d moved out of the co-op. I’d outgrown its dusty charms. A space had opened up in a five-bedroom house on Benefit Street, where Poe and Lovecraft had lived. I moved into a cream-colored row house with maroon trim, molded bay windows, and a stone sundial in the backyard.
A few months after I began living there, a tall curly-haired fellow named Chris Oberbeck appeared at the front door one morning. I’d met him at hockey games through my boyfriend, and he’d been to a party at the house the night before. Impressed, he’d come to inquire about it. He was looking for a place to live for senior year, with John, who was his fraternity brother, and Christiane Amanpour, a friend of theirs who was studying journalism and politics at the University of Rhode Island. Was the house available? As it turned out, my roommates were all graduating in the spring, and Lynne Weinstein, a classmate whom I’d known from New York, would be moving in. We joined forces and the next fall John, Lynne, Chris, and Christiane moved into the house as well.
Benefit Street, with its gas lamps and cobblestones, runs north–south partway up College Hill on Providence’s East Side. It’s a full mile of Federal and Victorian houses, some with plain faces open to the street and wooden fans etched above doorways, others turreted and overdone, with porticoes and pilasters. As you drive down the street, there are flashes of colored clapboard and street names like Power, Planet, Benevolent, and Angell.
By the mid-twentieth century, after major industry had left Rhode Island, the area fell into disrepair and was slated for the wrecking ball. Funds were raised, and preservation efforts began in earnest in the seventies. In 1981, Benefit Street was not quite the swank address it is today, but it was well on its way. Tenements and boarded-up buildings remained, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with grand homes. To me, a college student, that only added to the allure.
Our house had a maple tree out front. It was on a corner lot, built into a steep side of the Hill, and afternoons there were drenched in light. At the entrance was a lantern and tall, brass-knockered doors in glossy black. On the first floor, there was a separate apartment and an alcove. From there, the staircase spiraled up to where we lived. There was a tiny kitchen in the back that had recently been renovated and smelled of pine; a dining room, with a bust of a naked woman on the fireplace mantel, an enormous table, and our bikes resting along the walls; the landing where the phone was; and the main room, with its high parlor-floor ceilings and double bay windows. From there, you could see past the alleys and the streets to downtown—the art deco skyscraper everyone called the Superman Building, the marble dome of the State House, and just over the rooftops, parts of the red wire letters of the Biltmore sign. Upstairs, there were two large bedrooms and a bathroom. The top floor had low ceilings, a storage closet, and three smaller bedrooms.
Before we left for the summer, we chose our rooms, and because I’d lived there before, I was given first dibs. I picked a room in the back of the house, the second-largest one with a view of the garden. It had a curved wall that was stenciled at the top and a marble fireplace that didn’t work. Kissy, as Christiane was called, got the master bedroom with the huge walk-in closet. John ended up in the smallest room, which had just enough space for a desk and a bed, with the proviso that he and Kissy would switch the next year after the rest of us had graduated.
It was an interesting mix. Chris, a staunch Republican, was clearly headed for the financial sector, but he had a rich baritone and took voice lessons. Christiane, a few years older, was passionate and informed. Raised in Tehran and London, she and her family had experienced the Iranian Revolution firsthand, and she was more worldly-wise than the rest of us. She also dressed with great style. No slave to fashion, she knew what suited her and stuck with it. Lynne was the calming element in the house. A photographer and a dancer, she knew best how to arrange the couches in the living room, and of all of us, she was the most accomplished cook.
We each brought something to the house. Chris had a talent for smoothing things over with Mrs. Mulligan, the hawkeyed mother of our absentee landlord. Kissy made sure the chores were done. I arrived with a box of glasses and a set of turquoise dishes that my mother didn’t want anymore. Lynne contributed pans and skillets, and John’s African textiles and posters brightened the living room. His stereo was in there, too, along with all our records jumbled together in big white bins.
Early on, a friend had dubbed the house “Can of Worms,” predicting disaster because of the egos involved. But he was wrong. Except for some overheated political arguments and the occasions when John and Chris went food shopping and came home with hamburger meat and nothing else, all ran smoothly.