Read Come to the Edge: A Memoir Online

Authors: Christina Haag

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Come to the Edge: A Memoir (8 page)

BOOK: Come to the Edge: A Memoir
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Since Lynne and I had both lived in the Brown co-ops, we suggested a similar but more simplified routine. Two people would shop once a week from a list we all contributed to, and everyone would pick a night to cook. Food tastes ran from vegetarian to total carnivore, with Chris and me on either ends of the spectrum and everyone else falling somewhere in between. Kissy’s specialty was crispy Persian rice with dill and yogurt. I took my cues from the
Moosewood Cookbook
. Chris liked burgers but tried his hand at pasta. Lynne’s boyfriend, Billy Straus, who ate most nights with us, excelled at all manner of trout. And Lynne taught John how to prepare tofu and even to like it. John showed the most improvement. He branched out, experimenting with a tattered copy of
Cooking with Annemarie
(Annemarie Huste had been his family’s chef when he was seven), but everything he made had some variation of what he called “sauwse”—a mixture of tamari and whatever else the spirit moved him to throw in. Pretty much everyone in the house had a significant other, and we usually had a full table for dinner.

One Saturday, the phone rang early. I was half asleep when I answered, but was soon made alert. The man on the other end said he knew where I lived. He said he hated the Kennedys and he threatened to kill John. Before the man hung up, Lynne’s boyfriend, Billy, picked up the extension upstairs to make a call, and afterward, he met me on the landing. I cried as I told him what the man had said. Should we tell John? We didn’t want to upset him. We climbed the stairs to his room, but he had spent the night elsewhere.

Throughout the day, each of the roommates was let in on what had happened, until finally we stood huddled in the living room, trying to decide what to do. Go directly to the campus police? The Providence police? Wait until we could speak to John? Call Senator Kennedy’s office, someone suggested. We were all worried and we argued. Then I heard the back door slam, and John bounded in, dropping his bags by the chair on the landing. He caught sight of our faces. “What’s up?” he said. No one spoke, but when Chris finally did, John said not to worry. He brushed it off so easily, that, for a moment, I felt foolish for being alarmed in the first place, for not intuiting, as he had, the difference between a prank and a real threat. It was only a moment, though, and after that day, I felt more protective of him than I ever had, and, in a strange way, more in awe of his fearlessness.

That year I went to see him in plays, and he came to see me. One exception was an arty production of
The Maids
, in which I was briefly, but starkly, nude.
In character
, I said. I was applying to graduate acting programs that winter and had just finished a summer intensive at ACT, the American Conservatory Theater, in San Francisco. There was mild campus shock over my display of skin, but John seemed truly scandalized and refused to see the play.

He was awkward in the princely parts but shone in the grittier role of Big Al in David Rabe’s
In the Boom Boom Room
. I remember watching him in the dark of the small black box theater. With a buzz cut and lumbering gait, he was transformed, channeling passion and anger into a riveting performance. It was the side I’d seen in high school that faced down gangs and took on the paparazzi.

Theater had become a kind of bond between us. James O. Barnhill, now theater professor emeritus, was my acting teacher and my friend—a southern gentleman who spoke in koans. He knew I was friends with John, and in the winter of John’s freshman year, he asked me to invite him to join us for lunch at the Faculty Club. As he did with all those who were under his wing, Jim often took me out for meals (usually at Thayer Street’s International House of Pancakes), and when we sat down, he would wave his hand with a sudden dramatic twist and announce, “Order anything you like! Anything at all.” The real nourishment of these meetings was not the waffles, but the tales of his life and his interest in mine. He often spoke of India, where he had traveled extensively and had many friends. Once, he pulled out a Vedic astrology chart, yellowed and creased, to show me what had come to pass. He prodded me to nurture more than just my mind. And the Faculty Club was reserved for occasions when he had something significant to discuss.

In the paneled dining room bright with white linen, Jim spoke to us about the theater. In his roundabout way, he tried to encourage John. When lunch was over, John took off on his bike, and I stood with Jim on the corner of Benevolent. He asked that I encourage John as well and he said that whatever he did with his life, theater would strengthen his leadership skills and give him confidence. “He’s our prince, you know,” he said, with a weary smile and the signature flip of his wrist. He seemed to be aware that John would not become an actor, that despite his talent, it was not something he could choose.

I didn’t argue with my mentor, but I was sure of something else. From where I sat, I believed my friend was free to choose whatever he set his heart on.

Spring fever is a real thing. At the end of the fall term, when one is equally sleep deprived and exam addled, passions are quelled by the shorter days and, perhaps, the genetic knowledge that it will only get worse and it’s best just to burrow in. But in spring, with its rampant downpours and mud and bouts of warm air, anticipation is everywhere. It sparks and snaps off the pavement when you least expect it.

On a day when the forsythia raged and daffodils cluttered the spaces between stones and the white slats of fences, I had my first fight with John and it was about food. I was graduating in less than a month, and like everyone else in the class of 1982, I was in a state of acute scramble before commencement. There were exams, papers due, parties I didn’t want to miss, goodbyes that had to be said and said well. My mind was in a quandary over whether to go to ACT or Juilliard the next year. I had gotten into both, and the deadline loomed. I was also in rehearsals for
Twelfth Night
as Viola, a role I adored: besotted, cross-dressing, and protective of her brave and tender heart.

My friend Tom, Feste to my Viola, was coming for dinner that night. I was making ratatouille and cheese calzones, and he was going to be my chopper. We had an enjoyment of each other that shadowed the roles we played. We walked through the backyard, running lines, and dropped our bags in the dining room. Chris and John had done the shopping earlier, but no one was home yet. Tom settled himself on the windowsill and opened his script. As I took out the cutting boards and knives, he began to quiz me on the ring speech. “ ‘For such as we are made of, such we be,’ ” I said, opening the refrigerator. No eggplant. No tomatoes. No zucchini. No mozzarella. Only a case of beer, a drab head of lettuce, and steaks, bloody on a white plate.

I began to pace, and Tom watched as I fumed. The unfairness of it all. The countless times they’d done this. In an instant, I’d come undone because of a bare cupboard.

“I’m so mad I could break something.”

“Do it.” Tom’s eyes twinkled.

“No!”

“Why not? Break a plate. Throw it against the wall. Who cares?” He spoke like a Zen master.

From the corner of my eye, I saw turquoise plates glaring from the drying rack. I picked one up; it quivered in my hand. Then I closed my eyes and let it drop. The look on my face sent Tom into peals of laughter.

“Oh my God, that was so much fun,” I said. And because it was, I broke another. There is a reason why people break plates, I told Tom. Whether it was the sound of shattering, or the pleasure of doing something completely out of character, or the fact that the plates were just plain ugly, breaking them had made me feel better. My anger was gone, and my sense of freedom went further. I’d been bold enough to break things, and now I didn’t want to cook either. I hadn’t eaten red meat since I was fifteen, and I’d be damned if I was going to sizzle it in a pan for someone else! Tom proposed that the two of us go have a nice meal and a bottle of wine at the French restaurant on Hope Street. Why not, I said, as I scribbled a haughty note. Let them fend for themselves. I was becoming a whole new person, and I felt high with it.

Before we left, I reached for the broom, but thought better of it. As I stepped over the pile of shards, Tom held the screen door open, and we let it slam behind us.

When I returned, the house was dark and the broken plates were gone. So was my euphoria. I snuck into the dining room. A five-foot ebony mask of John’s stared at me from a corner. Empty pizza boxes were scattered about, and I could hear my roommates upstairs talking, the sound muffled through closed doors. John’s bike was gone, but by the phone he’d left a two-page letter filled with exclamation points. The next morning, I apologized to everyone, and after a few days things around the house got back to normal.

But John wasn’t having any of it. He spent most nights at his girlfriend Sally’s. When he was home, he refused to speak to me and left the room when I entered. As one week rolled into the next, nothing changed.

It was late and I was in bed. I loved reading in that room on Benefit Street—soft gray walls, tall windows over the garden, and furniture I’d inherited from my friend Nancy, who had moved to Berkeley the year before: an art deco armoire and, covered in clothes, a small veneered desk I never used. The shades on the windows were rolled as high as they could go, their silk tassels dangling. I could see a few lights on in the houses up Court Street. I lay under the comforter, curled into my book.

There was fumbling at the back door. A pack thrown down. Then,
“Shit.”
The back buzzer had never been fixed, and John’s entrance through my window had been a common occurrence throughout the year. But that night he continued up the fire escape to the floor above. As he passed, he made sure not to look in my room. He rapped on Chris’s window, called his name, rapped again. I heard him jiggle the lock, then stop. There was a long silence before he lowered himself back down the metal rungs to the landing outside my window. It was cold that night, and he was wearing a wool cap pulled low over his forehead and a black sweater with leather patches. His face was close against the glass, and his breath made widening circles with its heat.

I got out of bed, slid a cardigan over my nightgown, and walked barefoot to the window. I unlatched the lock and held the bottom sash up as he stepped through. The cold air rushed in and we stood there eyeing each other like animals.

Then I began to laugh, so hard it hurt. I knew I was making things worse, but I couldn’t stop. John frowned—he didn’t take to being laughed at.

“You look like … a burglar,” I said when I could get the words out, then kept on laughing.

“That’s not very nice, you know.”

“A nineteenth-century burglar. A Dickensian one.”

He gave me a withering look. “That’s a very silly thing to say.”

“Look.” I pointed to his reflection in the window. “Look!”

He turned, and when he saw himself in all his woolen ruffian glory, he pulled the cap off and ran his fingers several times through his hair. With his eyes fixed on the floorboards, he shook his head. He was trying valiantly to keep the corners of his mouth down, but soon he was laughing, too.

“Shh … they’re all asleep.”

“Okay,” he whispered. “I don’t want to be mad. I don’t want us to be mad. But you
were
a jerk!”

“It’s true, I was,” I said, smiling.

“You were totally wrong!”

“I know. Shh.”

“And childish.”

“Can we be done?”

He said nothing.

“Can you just … please … forgive me?”

He nodded, his face suddenly tender, and reached out to hug me. I stood on my toes. His arms were around me, his face in the crook of my neck, buried. The smell of wool and rain.

We stepped apart.

“Okay?”

“Okay then.”

At the door, he stopped and looked back. I was sitting on the bed, cross-legged, covers around my waist. “You were
still
a jerk,” he said after a moment, but this time there was a trace of a smile at his lips. I let him have the last word—he liked that—and he closed the door quietly.

After he was gone, I tried to read but couldn’t. I put the book down and shut off the light. Outside, rain had begun. Seven years I’d known him, and I felt closer to him that night than I ever had. There was a kind of intimacy in our silly fight. And risk. He cared enough to show me how he really felt, how I’d disappointed him, how he wanted me to be better than I was. In the dark, I smiled to myself. I’d never imagined that anyone could out-sulk me, but he had. He had won.

 

I
decided on Juilliard not with a coin toss, but with a shuffle of colored cards. My friend had a Rider-Waite tarot deck she kept wrapped in a silk scarf in the bottom drawer of her bureau. On one of those harried nights before graduation, when I was careening between ACT in San Francisco and Juilliard in New York, she made us tea and told me to keep a question in mind as I held the cards. I thought of Juilliard, the tomblike building where I’d gone to ballet school, and of the old Russian dancers who’d flicked our shins into alignment with their long tapered sticks. Then I imagined ACT and the sunlit classrooms where I’d been so happy the summer before. The cards told a different story. Those for ACT were ominous: the Tower, the Devil, crossed Swords. For Juilliard: Pentacles, the Magus, and a Wheel of Fortune well-placed. Only the last one, the Two of Cups reversed, was inauspicious.
Lovers will part
.

A year later, after I had finished my first year at Juilliard and was living in New York, the cards proved true and my relationship with the French Canadian ended.

The Juilliard School, a conservatory for the performing arts, lies on the northern end of the sixteen-acre tract of concert halls, fountains, and stages that Lincoln Center comprises. Unlike a university, the school’s Dance, Music, and Drama Divisions are separate. Musicians take up most of the building, but in the early eighties, the third floor was the province of the actors on one end, the modern dancers in the middle, and, in its own enclave far to the front, the School of American Ballet, training ground for New York City Ballet. Late afternoons, small girls with book bags in hand and pink tights under street clothes filed by just as I had done years before, their hair already twisted and pinned in place and a dream in their eyes of someday becoming a sylph or a swan or, the real prize, Clara in
The Nutcracker
. One night in their young lives, they had sat transfixed in the darkness and watched as the velvet curtain opened on a world of inarguable beauty, and in that instant, they were smitten. Undone. It was a look I knew.

The Drama Division, inaugurated in 1968, was the newest addition to the school. Conceived by John Houseman and Michel Saint-Denis, the training had a European bent, with an emphasis on classical plays, the idea being that if you could tackle the Greeks and Shakespeare, you could do anything. The walls outside the drama theater attested to this. They were lined with photographs of alumni—Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, Val Kilmer—in Restoration garb and long flowing robes.

When I arrived in the fall of 1982, Juilliard was still the tomblike building I remembered. With massive columns and stark stone steps, it was an airless place, lacking whimsy or adornment. None of the windows opened. Even the floor-length wool rehearsal skirts issued the first day with name tags sewn tight at the waist were of a dour, lifeless shade.
MS. HAAG
, mine said, and we were referred to with the same formality on the rehearsal call sheets posted on the main bulletin board.

The severe design was meant to impress, not inspire, and as excited as I was to begin, I also wondered whether I would survive. In the first days, members of the class ahead whispered what I’d already guessed—that acceptance to the school was no assurance that you remained. Our class, Group XV, began with twenty-six members but would dwindle to half that by the time we graduated. In the second year, there were warnings and cuts, and at any time the possibility of not being “asked back.” Even the first play we did, referred to officially by the faculty as the discovery play, was secretly known as the test. The first two years focused on training, and the last two were geared toward performance. I already had an agent, and my covert plan was to stay two years and leave.

As imposing as it all was, there were pockets of warmth. Beyond the double glass doors and down a wide corridor was Nora, an ancient Irish sweetheart who manned the desk and always saved you a smile and a piece of fruit or candy. At the Greek coffee shop across Broadway, now a Barnes & Noble, Chris wrapped up a bagel in tinfoil and ladled out thick navy bean soup, and if his boss wasn’t looking, he’d push your money back and wave you out. And the teachers—Michael Kahn, Eve Shapiro, Liz Smith, Marian Seldes, and Tim Monich among them—were not overly interested in your opinions or ideas. What they were passionate about was passing on what they knew. They insisted on your attention, and proposed to give you the means and the freedom to rise up to the words and the story. This alchemy would occur, they promised, through repetition and discipline. Like the violinists and pianists we rubbed shoulders with in the elevators—those who numbed their instruments with endless scales and drills—so we began to play our bodies and push our voices.

I wasn’t sure on most days whether I was exhilarated, exhausted, or infuriated, whether I was prisoner, combatant, or acolyte, but one thing was certain: I was being changed. And it was happening from the inside out.
Submit
, the walls seemed to say,
submit and be changed. Lengthening and widening
, the Alexander teacher hummed, her weightless hands guiding stubborn bodies into ease.
Down to go up
, we were persuaded in movement class.
Find neutral
, a voice teacher demanded, her meaning a mystery. Once a week in Room 304, we met with John Stix for sense memory, an exercise codified by Lee Strasberg to elicit emotional responses. With eyes closed, we slouched in metal folding chairs and conjured to life cups of coffee, lost objects, past hurts, childhood joys.
Concentration and relaxation
, Stix intoned, as he navigated the room.

Some days, I chose a bath—heat rising up, steam grazing my lips. Other days, the coffee. But most of the time, I picked the necklace I’d lost near water long ago. The braided chain was from a watch my father’s father had received for fifty years of service on the Pennsylvania Railroad. The religious medallion had come from county Cork, worn around my great-great-grandmother’s neck on a sailing ship as she crossed the Atlantic. “Tell no one,” my grandmother had murmured, snapping the clasp around my seven-year-old neck. “You’re my favorite grandchild.” Careful not to wear it around my cousins, I loved the heavy feel. The metal was soft, and there were marks on the saint’s halo made by a baby’s teeth as her mother held her.

I can still see it. Bright gold in blue water.

Classes began at nine in the morning, and rehearsals were usually from six to ten at night, but one particular autumn evening, I was free. John was meeting me at an Italian restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue—a crowded place I knew, with a narrow aisle and tables pushed close, each done up in a shiny checkered cloth. It was cheap with great lighting: an actor’s hangout, where ten bucks got you a salad, the house red, and a huge plate of pasta. Candles in Chianti bottles covered with layers of red and green wax lit the room.

John had graduated from Brown in the spring. He’d spent the summer diving in the waters off Cape Cod in search of a pirate ship that had wrecked on the shoals near Wellfleet. He would soon head off to India to study at the University of Delhi and travel the country on a research stint in rural development. It was an invaluable opportunity, he said, to have distance from home, friends, family, and country, and he was excited to live in a place where everything from government to food to sex was considered in a completely different manner. At his going-away bash the week before, while we were dancing, he’d stowed the long strand of diamond-cut garnets my mother had given me in his pocket so it wouldn’t break, and I’d left without it. We had arranged to meet so that he could give it back, but also to say goodbye.

I spotted him from the street. He was sitting at one of the tables near the window, lost in thought, and when I walked in, he stood up and gave me a bear hug. The scent of his jacket was familiar and exotic.

“Lest we forget,” he said as we opened our menus. He dug deep, fished out the garnet necklace, and deposited it in my hand. The stones flashed in the light, a curl of blood red, and I looped the strand twice around my neck. I was no longer a vegetarian, and when I ordered the Bolognese, he raised an eyebrow and muttered something under his breath about a woman’s prerogative.

“What’s up with that?” he said.

“What do you mean?

“Uh … meat. Last I recall, you—”

“Oh, that. I’ve changed,” I said lightly. “I’m allowed.”

“So, no broken crockery?” he teased.

“Not tonight—if you’re lucky.”

“Touché, Miss Haag. Touché.”

We drank wine and laughed and spoke of his plans and mine. He fiddled with the candle, chipping at the wax until it fell in red flakes on the map-of-Italy place mat. He wanted to go to Sri Lanka and Nepal. And he planned to meet up with Professor Barnhill, who was on a sabbatical year in India. His mother might visit, he said, and Sally would come for part of the trip. Along with his studies, he’d climb mountains, hit the beaches, and go to theater festivals.

“What about the temples? Will you see the temples?”

His eyes narrowed, as if to say, It’s
India
—there are temples everywhere.

I began to describe the erotic carvings at Konark and Khajuraho I’d seen in books. I was fascinated that sexuality could be emblazoned on a place of worship. I thought of those stone women, robust and fecund. They were nothing like the slender, salmon-robed Madonna of my childhood who stood watch outside the Sacred Heart chapel. Her motto was patience, not pleasure, and the stars above her head were a coat of arms.

“Yeah, I’m sure I’ll go there.” He’d moved up the candle, his thumb pressing the soft part near the flame. He began to talk of tiger parks—he wanted to see the tigers. From his pocket, he pulled out two white pills and downed them with wine. “With these babies, I’ll be able to drink well water!” He handed me one. Acidophilus, he said. When taken in advance, they would forestall any intestinal misery.

He was intrigued by Juilliard. “What do you
do
there all day?” He’d pulled his chair closer, his knees knocking mine under the table. He was especially curious about acting class. “How is it different from Brown?” he asked. I told him about finding neutral and metal chairs and sense memory.

“Let me get this straight—a roomful of people and everyone’s moaning?”

“Well, not everyone.” I tugged at the garnets around my throat and knotted them through my fingers. “Some are crying. Some are laughing. Some are just sitting there and nothing’s going on.”

“Hmm, emperor’s new clothes. And you, Christina, what do you think about?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Come on.”

“It wouldn’t be a secret then, would it?”

“So?”

“It only works when it’s a secret.”

He started to speak, then thought better of it.

“What?”

“I don’t know. You just seem … happy.”

“I
am
happy. Tonight, I’m out of my cloister.”

“You’re hardly a nun.” He frowned slightly and leaned back on the heels of the chair. “Maybe a devadasi.”

He had seen
Lovesick
recently, with Elizabeth McGovern and Dudley Moore, and said I would have been better in the part. He appeared to have given it a great deal of thought, taking it as a personal affront that my agents hadn’t gotten me a meeting with the director. “It’s just timing,” he said. “For you, it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time.” I believed that, too, and we lifted our glasses and toasted each other with the cheap red wine.

Like the prince and the pauper, we might have switched clothes then and there. A part of him could have pushed the glass doors open each morning, dashing past Nora. She’d call him darlin’ and toss him an orange as he raced to the elevators and the third floor, late for speech with Tim or fight class with BH. A part of me was dying to take off, pack on my back and feet dusty with the world, seeing all that he would see. But we were half-grown then, and it was time to choose what defined us. It was enough that night to trade tales, and as we spoke, it occurred to me that I had never sat alone with him in candlelight before.

Outside, a warm wind chased my skirt back, then flung it forward. I wasn’t wearing stockings, and it felt almost balmy.

“Can I give you a lift?”

I was surprised he had his Honda and said so. For a New Yorker, getting around the city by car was uncommon; we had subways and cabs for that. Cars were for tourists and for leaving town on the weekends.

“Yup, my steed’s parked around the corner. I had some repairs done at a garage on West End.” (Years later, he would confess to the lie, saying that he’d brought the car just so he could drive me home, so he could woo me.)

We were both going to the East Side, to the streets we’d roamed as kids, he to his mother’s at 1040, and I to the high-rise on Third Avenue where I lived for two years in the spare room of my father’s office. I’d leave it each morning as though I didn’t exist—corners tucked, surfaces wiped, and any trace of me jammed into a tiny closet with a rickety accordion door.

We went south on Columbus. He didn’t take the transverse at Sixty-fifth Street, the straight but potholed cut through Central Park; he took the long way. There was some plan to ride the lights up Madison, but at Fifty-ninth Street, when we saw that the blue barricades that so often blocked the lower entrance to the park were open, he asked, “Shall we take the Drive?” It was a question to which there was only one answer. The Drive is six miles of meandering road that runs the length of the park, and ever since I was a child, I’ve loved going through at night. The pavement seems smoother, the darkness darker, and there is rarely any traffic in this cool scented heart of the city.

I smiled at him, perhaps because it was all so unexpected, and when the light changed, we pulled in front of a horse carriage and followed a yellow cab onto the curving road. It was October but warm, and we rolled all the windows down and turned the radio up. My legs were bare, too close to his hand on the stick shift. He drove fast, and I leaned back in the seat, letting my fingers trail the air outside. It would rain later; you could feel it. We took the loop around the park three times that night—up to 110th Street and back down near the Plaza where we’d started—before he turned east on Seventy-second Street to take me home. Each time he asked, “Once more?” Each time I said, “Yes, again.” The wine had worn off, but the air and speed were intoxicants, and I was drunk somehow.

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