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Come to the Edge_ A Memoir Part 13

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It's our first weekend away together, a February long weekend. The day we leave, I buy a new coat on impulse-a camel-hair coat, long and belted at the waist. It's soft and it drapes. I get it on the last day of the Bergdorf 70 percent off sale, and though I'm a four and it's an eight, I must have it. The back has a deep vent, and it swishes when I walk. And in the store mirror, I don't see a flushed-faced girl in a too-big coat; I see Katharine Hepburn. I hand over my "for emergencies" credit card. The saleswoman cuts off the tags and packs my old coat in the lavender shopping bag. I slip the new one on and walk out onto Fifty-eighth Street near the Paris Theatre and the drained stone fountain by the Plaza.

On the way up to the Vineyard, we hit a winter storm. I spend most of the flight with my face buried against him, saying prayers I thought I'd forgotten. With every pitch and drop of the small commuter plane, I squeeze his hand. After circling for an hour, we're stranded on the mainland for the night. Everyone claps when the pilot lands in Hyannis, and we step off woozy into the dark night. John drops coins in the pay phone and wakes someone, the housekeeper at his grandmother's, to let them know we'll be spending the night. "We're set," he says. It's easy.

In the taxi on the way over, he admits he was frightened, too, but I never would have guessed it. His face showed nothing.

When we finally get to the Vineyard the next day, it's foggy. We stock up at Cronig's Market, then follow the lonely roads, ones I've never seen, past shuttered Victorians and shingled farmhouses. By Chilmark, the land turns bare and wild, and when State Road splits, we take the lower fork and turn onto an unmarked dirt road. Bert, the caretaker, has opened up the main house, and that's where we'll stay. But in the afternoon, John takes me to the Tower. It's been shut for months. He holds the door open, and I step into the new-wood smell. When I come back with him that summer, and those that follow, the Tower is where we stay.

The next morning, he takes me to the cliffs. The sun's out, and he wants to orient me. My sense of direction is usually good, but the island has me turned around. We drive up Moshup Trail. Gray heads of houses nestle in the scrub, and as we near the top, I can see the lighthouse-one I know from postcards-and its faint beam hoops over us. "Gay Head Light," he says. Outside the car, it's cold. The souvenir shops are boarded shut, but there's the smell of salt, and I can almost hear the phantom linger of wind chimes and seashell mobiles. I push my hands into the silky pockets of my coat as he strides ahead. He nods to one of the shacks and smiles. "Great chili fries."



We reach the promontory, the very western edge of the island. The sky is as bright as water. It was called Gay Head then, all of it-the land, the township, the cliffs below. But years later, when I returned after his death, it would be known by another name, an older one-Aquinnah-for the Wampanoag people who have lived here for thousands of years and who, in summer, run the shops and sell the chili fries. In legend, a giant named Moshup created the channels and islands by dragging his toe across the land. He lived in his den in the cliffs and caught whales with his bare hands. Until the white man came, he taught his people to fish and plant, and he watched over them. Some say that he still does-that when the fog drifts in, he's there.

I lean against the railing, with the windy sea below, and he tells me these stories. And in my new coat, I'm hoping I look something like the French Lieutenant's Woman. The wrong color, I know, and there's no hood, but that's the idea anyway.

"There's Cuttyhunk." He points, his arm on my shoulder; the other holds my waist. "Nashawena, then Pasque. Naushon's the long one." Except for Cuttyhunk, these are all private islands and mostly deserted. Then he turns in the opposite direction-south toward Squibnocket Pond and his mother's beach. I follow his gaze to an island on its own some miles off. "That's Nomans Land." Nomans Nomans, I repeat after him, and decide I like that one best.

When it's warmer, we will sail to Cuttyhunk. When the leaves are tipped with red, we will hike on Naushon. We'll camp for a night on Nomans, a moonless sky and the Milky Way arched above our small tent.

We get a late start. On our approach to Nomans at sunset, his mother's Seacraft threatens to run aground near some old pilings, and I swim ashore with our gear piled on my head. It takes three trips. Then I watch from the beach as he dives with a knife in his teeth and after many tries succeeds in anchoring the boat. Damaged, he says, but afloat. That night, we roast bluefish, corn, and potatoes and drink wine under the stars.

In the morning, I hear engines. I nudge him awake. Outside the tent, mongrel seagulls peck at the singed tinfoil around the campfire. I look up. A plane is buzzing low. Now, in daylight, a large sign with DANGER DANGER painted in black letters glares at me. He'd told me it was illegal to land here but neglected to say that while a third of the island is a bird sanctuary, the rest is a navy bombing practice site. As I scramble, cursing, for the boat, I can hear him: "Don't stress, this is the painted in black letters glares at me. He'd told me it was illegal to land here but neglected to say that while a third of the island is a bird sanctuary, the rest is a navy bombing practice site. As I scramble, cursing, for the boat, I can hear him: "Don't stress, this is the bird bird side!" Later, his mother will berate him, and not only for the injury to the boat. "But you were with Christina," she keeps saying, to remind him that I was there, in harm's way, alongside him. side!" Later, his mother will berate him, and not only for the injury to the boat. "But you were with Christina," she keeps saying, to remind him that I was there, in harm's way, alongside him.

And one August morning-it may be the last summer we're together-we will kayak to the back end of Nashawena, hide the boat in the brush from the caretaker, and climb to the headlands, where the sheep are. We'll sit in the scratchy grass flecked with blue chicory and look out over Vineyard Sound, and he'll tell me the names he likes. "Flynn Kennedy-it's got a good ring. What do you think of Flynn?"

I don't like Fleur, his girl's name. I prefer Francesca, Isabel, and Kate. But Flynn I like. Or it might be the sleepy look on his face as he says it.

But all that will happen later. Right now, it's windy and his arms are around me and I can see in all directions. Which way is east? I say, and he spins me a quarter turn from where I'm guessing. Away from the sea, away from the cliffs, in the direction of Gay Head Light.

In the afternoon, the wind dies down, and we take the jeep to the beach. As soon as we cross the uplift of dune, he jumps out, scales the car, and orders me into the driver's seat.

"Just do it," he yells when I say I can't drive.

I hear him laughing on the roof, and I spin the jeep in circles, as tight and as fast as I can.

"Now you!" he says.

"I can't." But somehow he gets me up there, camel-hair coat and all. My fingers dig into the sides of the roof as he pushes down the gas. After, I catch my breath from laughing and slide down the driver's side into his arms, and we walk to the water's edge. It's a winter beach, mottled oysters, mussels the size of my thumbnail, threads of papery black and white seaweed, and the dirty foam the surf has left. Billows of it. He kicks it as we walk.

"Don't you know the story?" I ask.

"What story?"

"Mermaids have no immortal soul-they live three hundred years and then become the foam on the sea."

"What are you talking about?" He's picking up small stones and skipping them, a singsong on flat water.

I go on to tell him the Hans Christian Andersen tale, of the red flowers in the garden of the Sea King's daughter, her desire for a soul, her love of the black-eyed prince she rescues from drowning, the potion that turns her tail into legs. But each step's a sharp knife, and the cost is her tongue.

"Then what happens?" he asks. His stone skips three times, and we whistle at his prowess.

"He marries someone else and she becomes a spirit of the air."

He hands me one he likes. It's freckled, and I save it from skipping.

"You know strange things."

"It's not strange," I reply, slipping the stone into my pocket. "It's a fairy tale."

"You're a funny girl," he says. He turns to me. He's thinking of something, and his eyes get smaller.

"Funny," I say back. I was hoping for something else. Beguiling, maybe. And I imagine myself a butterfly on velvet-pinned, prodded, examined. Denuded of mystery.

"You're different. Intriguing," he continues, his voice dispassionate in a way I've never heard before.

I look away from him down the beach. The wind dries my eyes, and I fix my gaze on the tender way these shallow waves hit the shore.

After some time, he pulls me toward him, his fingers looped in the belt of my new coat. "Hey," he says, softly. "I have no doubts about you or what's happening. I have everything I want here and now. I only think I'm crazy it didn't happen sooner."

"You do?"

"I've always had a sneaker for you. Always." His forehead presses mine, and the weight calms me. The longest courtship ever, that's what he calls it. "I wanted to pounce, but every time you had a boyfriend, and they were all Marlboro men."

It's not what I remember, but I like when he says it.

We keep walking. Past a small wooden sign at the top of the high-water mark. POSTED: NO TRESPASSING POSTED: NO TRESPASSING. Past Zack's Beach, its bluffs blown back like a wave with a brambled top. Crusts of purple sand crack under our sneakers as we go. And near the dunes, remnants of summer-tall orange buoys speared in the sand, a chapel/fort of driftwood, a child's shoe. The wind picks up, and I pull the coat around me. He leans into me as we walk, crossing my path. Then he bounds ahead, taking giant steps. I jump between them. Everything's a game. We switch and he follows my tracks, and wonders out loud why my feet are so small. They're not. They're average. Many things about me are. But he keeps saying they're small. You're so small You're so small. And that winter he has dreams he will break me.

He's showing me the place he loves. I know this. Every summer his beach is different. It erodes and changes. Every summer it's new. We're near the cliffs now, the chalky face seared by color. They wrap a mile around this end of the island and stretch 150 feet up. Iron ore, clay, gravel, sand, black lignite Iron ore, clay, gravel, sand, black lignite. He's reeling off the reasons for the brilliant hues.

At Philbin Beach, we're close. He asks if I want to keep going, and I say yes.

"Come here." He's standing on the rubble of rocks under the cliffs. "Give me your hand," he says, pushing his own against the face. I move in over whale-colored boulders and touch. It's wet, weeping almost-Spring's pulse hidden within. I look at him, and he can tell what I'm thinking. "It's alive," he says. He runs his finger along a flaky ridge and dabs my forehead yellow. Then his own. There There, I think.

It's cold, but the sun is strong, and he's talking about moraines and fossils, the Ice Age and clay. I smile and press my back against a dry patch of cliff and listen. What's a moraine, I ask, and he tells me. It's the end place, the farthest reach of ice, the finish of advance and retreat. He points to a round, banded rock rising from the water. It could be from Vermont-even Canada-dragged here as the ice scraped south thousands and thousands of years ago, carrying sediment and till. And in the cliffs-pieces of ancient whale and shark, a polished tooth, a rib, a jaw, a shard of wild horse, a wisp of camel. When he was younger, he used to come here with friends, and they'd strip down and paint their bodies with the clay. Warriors Warriors.

I look at him-his face is shining-and stretch my arm across the crumbling rock to find him. The words fall over me. I let them. The stories the bones tell. The life that was here.

I have a dream about John. It's one I've had for years. At first after he died, it came all at once, for days in a row, but now it's less frequent. It's always on a beach at dusk--the light low, the colored sky deepening. It could be Montauk, where I'm writing this book, or Zack's Beach on the Vineyard, or the great wide swath at Cumberland, or even California. But there are cliffs in the dream, red cliffs. Like in the tale he told when he first took me to Gay Head Lighthouse. Red from Moshup's whales. Black from the soot of his fires.

I look up. He's there-coming toward me, hands pushed in his pockets, grinning so wild it makes me laugh. "How are you here?" I keep saying. "How are you here?" He doesn't answer. He looks at me, proud to have come this far.

Better not waste time. I know from before that I don't have long. I think he can't touch me, but he does and he's warm. We sit together on the sand and watch the water. And next to him, in the dream, I feel I am most like myself. Then we walk fast and talk fast. All the things only that person can know. I point to a small boulder down the beach. "When we reach that rock, you will leave me," I say. As if it is too much, too selfish to have him this long, and I don't want any surprises. I tell him how my life has been, things he may not know, secrets. But he knows everything. "What my friends tell me," he says, and we leave it at that.

When we're close to the rock, I turn to ask him something. But he's gone, already in the water. I see his back, a long lean dive breaking the surface of gray-green. "Hey-come back," I shout. "Goodbye, you didn't say goodbye." Sometimes I yell, angry, "You forgot to say goodbye!" Then I laugh; it's just like him. But after a while, when the trail through the water disappears, I just stand there surface of gray-green. "Hey-come back," I shout. "Goodbye, you didn't say goodbye." Sometimes I yell, angry, "You forgot to say goodbye!" Then I laugh; it's just like him. But after a while, when the trail through the water disappears, I just stand there.

I don't know when, I tell myself in the dream, but he will come back when I least expect it, and it will be on a beach like this one.

From the shallows, Moshup watches. In legend, he watches his children and, to keep them free, turns them into sharks. I believe he watches John. And he watches the girl, he sees the girl. But if you you were looking, you would see a woman alone on an empty beach, heavier than she once was, speaking to the waves as if they hear her were looking, you would see a woman alone on an empty beach, heavier than she once was, speaking to the waves as if they hear her.

The next day, we leave, and whatever spell's between us is still there. It's been seven months since August, since we did the play. Seven months since we met near the Ramble and the words fell between us and we began.

I put it off-the weekend away-wary that the curious alchemy of mystery and knowing might dissolve with four days in a row. But it hasn't. It's stronger. And like thick black ice, I begin to trust that it will hold me.

"I have a surprise for you," he says over breakfast. We'd flown up commercial, but he tells me he's chartered a plane back, and now we have more time. Over the years, he will say this when he does what pleases him. A surprise for you A surprise for you. And for a long time, I will find it charming. Like when he orders three breakfasts and tells the waiter two are for me.

The pilot greets us at the shingled terminal and drives us to the plane in a cart. It feels glamorous. "You're lucky," the pilot says. "Gonna be a great sunset. Clear skies all the way to New York." It's a single-engine Cessna with three passenger seats. Blue-winged, with a striped nose. The pilot checks wheels, pressure, flaps, gauges, and John follows him around the plane. He's had lessons before, and they talk shop.

When they're done, the pilot pulls me up the wing into the tilted plane, then John. Something breaks. I reach inside the pocket of my coat; there's his stone and pieces of a scallop shell I found near the cliffs the day before. We buckle in and the tower clears us. I've never been in a plane so small, and he holds my hand for takeoff. His face-all of him-it's eager. Once we're up, he gives me the headphones. I listen for a moment to the monotone jumble of numbers and letters and codes I know fascinate him, then hand them back.

I'm entranced by the shapes from above-the coves and cliffs and ponds, the yellow borders of beach against the deep dark sea. I try to memorize and tuck them away like my life depends on it: I must have this snapshot of now. The pilot was right-the sky's clear, only a thin bank of violet at the horizon. The din in the cabin is a dull roar-like you're underwater. We can't hear each other and speak in an amalgam of excited gestures and facial expressions. Below, there's Gay Head and the empty islands we saw the day before from the cliffs-only now, from the sky, they're complete. Naushon, Nashawena, Pasque Naushon, Nashawena, Pasque. I say the names to myself to remember. In case this is the last time. In case it's all we have. Just then the sun drops and floods the plane with ruddy light. Look! Look! He lets go of my hand. He wants me to see. He lets go of my hand. He wants me to see.

The camel coat's on my shoulders. The sky's shot with red. And there's something I've never seen. Small lines-the creases at his eyes, when he's happy, when he's smiling. Like bird wings.

Acknowledgments.

First: Without the love and encouragement of Jennie Moreau, Fredrika Brillembourg, and Mia Dillon, this book would not have been written. They knew that going back would not be easy, and like many of my friends, they had faith when I faltered. They persuaded me to tell my story and reminded me of the heart when I veered away. In addition, I have endless gratitude for Elizabeth Auran and Tom Diggs, who read so kindly, so carefully, and then shed light. And for Bernadette Haag Clarke and Rebecca Boyd, who knew, and always said, "Keep going!"

Profound thanks to Gary Murphy and Kirk Stambler for their counsel and keen insights; Paulette Bartlett, Rachel Resnick, and Erin Cressida Wilson for their thoughtful reads and good advice; Asaad Kelada, Arye Gross, Cordelia Richards, Daniel McDonald, and Andrew Haag for braving early drafts. And to Lynne Weinstein for her beautiful photographs and her friendship.

Heartfelt thanks to my agent, Suzanne Gluck, whose steadfast belief in my story and whose guidance at every turn have proven invaluable. And to her assistant, Caroline Donofrio, who answered my questions with cheerfulness and clarity. I am enormously grateful to the fabulous Julie Grau and the superb team at Spiegel & Grau: Sally Marvin, Avideh Bashirrad, Erika Greber, Richard Elman, Dana Leigh Blanchette, Greg Mollica. And to Evan Gaffney. Special thanks are due to Hana Landes, who kept things running smoothly, and to Dennis Ambrose, whose patience and good humor during the copyediting process meant so much.

For beginnings, I will always be grateful to Mary Jemail and Mary de Kay, my inspired eighth and tenth grade English teachers; and to Will Scheffer, Lisa Glatt, and the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. And for the beginnings of the book to playwright and actor George Furth-he badgered until I began. A big thank you to Lainey Papageorge, who provided prayers and made a cherished return possible, and to Roger Miller for Daruma.

For keeping a place at their table and, when I needed it, generously offering a quiet room to write in, I must thank Matt O'Grady and John Shaka, Matthew Sullivan and Harriet Harris, Victoria Tennant, Keir Dullea, and Jason La Padura. Your friendship and love have meant so much. Thanks also to Jonathan and Helena Stuart for providing a glittering view of the sea for several crucial weeks.

For tireless help with facts and for sharing their memories, I am indebted to Anne Korkeakivi, Tom Dunlop, Tim Monich, Laurence Maslon, Spencer Beckwith, Billy Straus, Robin Saex Garbose, Lisa Curtis, Stephanie Venditto, Katherine Swett, Sarah Miller, Susan Burke, and especially, the quicksilver Ultan Guilfoyle, who responded to each and every one of my emails, no matter how trifling. Cumberland Island: A History Cumberland Island: A History by Mary R. Bullard and by Mary R. Bullard and Convent of the Sacred Heart: A History in New York City Convent of the Sacred Heart: A History in New York City by Timothy T. Noonan were books that inspired memories of my own, and I am grateful to the authors. by Timothy T. Noonan were books that inspired memories of my own, and I am grateful to the authors.

Many thanks for the kindnesses of Mikel and Margaret Dunham, Karen Watson, Laney Fichera, Lynn Blumenfeld, G. Marq and Karen Roswell, Robert Haag, Elizabeth Reed, Jessica Queller, Kari Catalano, Adam Green and Elizabeth Fasolino, Stephen DiCarmine, Bob Morris, Samantha Dunn, Richard and Louise Paul, Elyn Saks, Jennifer Fraser, Christopher Clarke, Karen Balliet, Robert Levithan, Debby Stover, Diana Berry, Spencer Garrett, and my manager, Christopher Wright, who has always shown patience and support. I would also like to thank Mujah Maraini-Melehi, who made a respite happen, and Donald Antrim, whose honest words at the right time meant a great deal.

I am deeply appreciative of the Monday Night Writers Group, especially for the support of Sara Pratter, Kathleen Dennehy, and Fielding Edlow; the John Jermain Library; and the communities of Montauk and Sag Harbor, New York, which provided the welcome, seclusion, and peace I needed to complete the book.

To Father Daniel and the monks at the Hermitage: The gifts I received on the hill remain. To the nuns at Sacred Heart who encouraged us to keep journals: I listened, and years later found I had boxes full.

Finally, I would like to thank my brilliant editor and friend, Cindy Spiegel. I am humbled by your gifts. When we met again in 2006, I sensed we shared a vision. Now I know this to be abundantly true. As you once said, this was meant.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CHRISTINA H HAAG is an actress who divides her time between New York City and Los Angeles. She is a graduate of Brown University and the Juilliard School. is an actress who divides her time between New York City and Los Angeles. She is a graduate of Brown University and the Juilliard School.

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Come to the Edge_ A Memoir Part 13 summary

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