Daniel Kearns didn’t believe he had much control over outcomes. Life came at him rapidly, inexplicably, and reacting was what mattered. The universe was a vague, dumb expression of indifference and he wasn’t the center of anything. This outlook was partly the influence of his father, who exhibited a Depression-era, knock-around humility now absent in the culture. But there was also his long, drawn-out ancestral inheritance, a French-Irish melancholia born in the hedgerows of Normandy. They said his people had been French Huguenots centuries earlier. The Catholics had reviled them, so they’d fled to Ireland, where they eventually became Catholic there anyway. It didn’t make any sense to him, but somehow the feeling of being lost, misplaced, had its origins in this generational saga, and he would have accepted this fate if he hadn’t thought so much about love and war.
Daniel had written Edith Marks from Iraq, not in Fallujah (there was no time for that) but from FOB Al Asad and while Charlie Company was billeted at Abu Ghraib Prison. He wrote to her, not of war exactly, but of the acceleration of living that only war could initiate. He didn’t phrase it this way, but Edith had learned to translate for him early on. In battle there were no ambiguities: you were either dead or tempting death. War was a cyclone of terrors, and you could hate it, condemn it as nasty and brutish, yet still miss it when it was gone. He wrote of war’s tiny sufferings too: desert heat and grouchy NCOs and tasteless MREs, but what he really meant—what he never stopped thinking about—was Edith’s strawberry red lips and slinky figure. Love’s centripetal force had hooked him deep, and the experience had schooled him on the enormity of what one can feel. Loving Edith meant he may never possess her, or if he did, he could lose her. It was a joy inseparable from sadness. The Japanese understand this. It’s why the brief flush of the cherry blossom stirs them; beauty does not rest on aesthetic perfection alone, but is always wedded to ephemerality.
Daniel didn’t know it, but he was already being shadowed by the inexorable law:
if it is beautiful, it is something passing.
there’d been adolescence,
and its passing always leaves its mark.
Daniel spent much of the fall of ‘87 alone. He was inconsolable after being cut from the junior varsity basketball team. He played hooky. He took up smoking: first clove cigarettes and then a committed go at Camel Lights. How pathetic do you have to be, he wondered, to get booted from the backup team? His mother suspected clinical depression, the illness par excellence of the 1980s. She’d read in Newsweek about a wonder drug called Prozac, and suggested he see a psychiatrist. But Daniel refused. I’m not messed up in that way he declared. I’m just—I don’t what.
Daniel avoided his former teammates. He used the less-traveled stairwells and hallways; he walked to school and ducked gym class, but the Hobbesian realities of the lunchroom were not easily avoided—you had to sit somewhere—so he sat with “the Mopes,” a misfit crew of theater kids, exchange students, metal heads and assorted unclassifiables that included Daniel’s old junior high friend Neal Belansky. Two years before, Neal had split with the mainstream after he’d reinvented himself as a punk rocker. He had spent the summer of ‘85 at his uncle’s home in Los Angeles—he had two older cousins who kicked around West Hollywood on the weekends—and under their influence he’d returned to Massachusetts wearing a leather jacket and listening to U.K. bands nobody had ever heard of.
The two old friends renewed their acquaintance. Daniel wanted to know what the music thing was about, but Neal rebuffed him, acting like a curmudgeonly-old rabbi dissuading conversion. But Daniel wore him down, and Neal eventually lent out several choice cassette tapes. He started him off slow: New Order, Public Image Ltd and The Smiths. And when Daniel’s feedback proved thoughtful, he challenged him with edgier bands like Bauhaus and Joy Division. Over the winter Daniel fell hard for the music, but it was the cultural mythology of punk that got him most, the whole Do-it-Yourself-approach to your life, your dreams, your pent-up anger. Kids like him and Neal, kids who didn’t even play instruments, had started bands and ended up with record deals and music videos and influence. Punk rock also made Daniel sensitive to the outsider, the discarded one. Being marginalized as a punker had revealed the rotten cross beams of society, along with the sordid workings of the human heart. But more importantly, it put him on the path toward Edith Marks, the one woman who would cleave his life into two; the woman who would become all things for him, and would remain all things.
The two friends started college in the fall of 1990 with big expectations for city life. Neal chose Boston University because of its proximity to the rock clubs on Lansdowne Street. And Daniel ended up the commuter school Suffolk University, because it was only college that would have him. Everything started well, but by early December, Neal began ditching classes at an alarming rate and partying with industrial rockers in the South End. He befriended members of the band DDT and tattooed his upper-arms with Egon Schiele-like images. He dropped acid, plus there was ecstasy and a swift introduction to cocaine. And just when Daniel feared his friend was going to break from all norms of collegiate life entirely, he met Shelly Mueller and stepped back from the throes of self-destruction. The two met a Skinny Puppy show. She was 16 and the high school girlfriend he’d always wanted: blue hair, ripped fishnet stockings, a nose earring, and an oversized sport coat defaced by gas station patches and safety pins. Under her care, he started attending classes again and scaled back the recreational drugs. Shelly was at first uncertain about Daniel’s influence (she initially suspected he was a poseur), but saw over time that his basic kindness helped dilute some of Neal’s knee-jerk misanthropy.
It was through Shelly that Daniel met Edith. The two were best friends at the prestigious Yarmouth Day School in the Back Bay, and their friendship, while not as inevitable as many adolescent pairings might appear, was a good one. They took the same classes and loitered with the skaters and punks on the steps of the Boston Public Library. On the weekends they met in Harvard Square to smoke cigarettes and flirt with college guys. Their devotion to each other was legendary, but somehow they managed it without the exclusivity most teen friendships demand. Edith had her own theater and literary acquaintances, while Shelly’s fake I.D. got her into clubs where she befriended the same industrial rockers Neal knew. It was a progressive arrangement, highlighting the girls’ accelerated maturity, and one that Shelly abandoned whenever Edith was dating anyone. Romance, she believed, required an interventionist mindset among friends. She expected a detailed accounting of every minute Edith spent with a boy. Edith, on the other hand, was more circumspect, more French. She was interested in Shelly’s crushes, but more easily enthralled by her own obsessions, which were not inconsequential. Edith, Shelly had to admit, was a bit of a slut. She was both naïve and hell-bent on proving her accelerated maturity. And at 16, she was already worryingly tall and languid, and gifted with curves criminally incompatible with her age.
It was Shelly’s idea to secretly set up Daniel and Edith. Neal condemned the suggestion right off calling it rubbish. But she knew he meant “rubbish,” not in the sense of it being a bad idea, but simply rubbish in that he, as a punk rocker, could not lend his good name to something as hokey and conventional as match making.
Edith rushed down the stairs and teetered into the living room—nearly falling as she did—before catching herself and recovering with a mock theatrical pose. Neal was at the baby grand tapping out the melody to Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” He didn’t acknowledge Edith. He’d met her before, and took this as license to ignore her. Shelly sat on the sofa leafing through a coffee-table book of Willem De Kooning prints. Hey sister, she said, raising her fist straight up in a Sixties black power salute. When Edith entered the room, Daniel had been scanning the built-in bookshelves in vain for a familiar-sounding title. He had never been in a house so redolent of travel and culture before. In the few minutes before Edith arrested his attention forever, he’d been stealing greedy glances at her family’s Persian rugs, novels in their 1970s sun-faded dust jackets, art pieces, foreign curios, and tropical houseplants, all the while trying to conceal his wonder and intimidation.
Edith-Daniel. Daniel-Edith, Shelly said, not looking up from the book.
Edith curtsied before Daniel. She resembled the French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil. Her beauty had an old-world feel to it. It was pale skin, a black bob (hair all angled and artsy) and lipstick crimson lips.
Daniel, go ahead and say Edith’s last name, Shelly said. She then looked up at Edith: Listen to this. It’s so funny. Daniel gapped at Shelly, now overcome with both embarrassment and love-at-first-sight sickness. Don’t listen to her Dan. She’s making fun of us, Neal said. You know, like we’re a pair of townies.
Edith, you’ve got to hear them. They say, ‘Edith Mahhks,’ Shelly said. And for my mom, they’re like ‘De-neer.’ I’m like: Hello! It’s Dina!
She’s saying if you have a Boston accent you’re a low-class nobody, Neal said pressing up from the keyboard. How freakin’ ironic, huh? Sounding like you were born and raised in Massachusetts—when you were—stigmatizes you among the upper class. I guess you got to take speech lessons at Yarmouth to sound smart.
That’s not what I’m fucking saying you Cretan, Shelly gasped. It’s cute. It’s endearing. I like it is all.
As an aspiring Marxist and daughter of privilege, Edith was ever-sensitive to class differences. She smiled and scrunched her nose in empathy. She had a fondness for the Boston accent, appreciating that it was the way the people spoke, a way of being that was more real and connected to the area than her own, with her French-born mother and OB/GYN father from New Jersey.
What are you reading? Neal said stomping over to Shelly and jerking the book cover back. Ah, more art school crap…Who is it now? De Kunning? De Kunting? De Kunting Neal? Really? Shelly said. I mean: are you like a total savage. Yes, he said falling on top of her. I say things like ‘Edith Mahhks, pahks her fucking cahr in Harvahd Yahd.’ Get off you moron, Shelly said. The sofa and your boots! Edith’s mom is going to kill us.
Daniel then said, apropos of nothing: the Boston accent comes from Irish immigrants. Well, I mean, it influenced it…And, well, my mother is Irish. She is from Ireland I mean.
Neal and Shelly stopped their play-wrestling, stared at each other, and then burst out laughing. And my grandmother’s a freakin’ Crimean Jew, Neal hollered. Who cares? Let’s go. I’m starved.
The two couples picnicked at the Mount Auburn Cemetery alongside a stretch of 19th Century tombstones. The Celtic crosses gave their lunch of D’Angelo’s steak ‘n cheese subs a peculiar touch of gothic chic (always a plus for Shelly). After eating, Neal and Shelly wandered off among the headstones, leaving the two acquaintances to enjoy a meandering, surprisingly-easy back-and-forth on music, books (Edith was on a Jack Kerouac and F. Scott Fitzgerald tear back then), their families, and because of their macabre surroundings, a series of jokes about death and dying. Daniel sensed they’d connected, but he wasn’t entirely sure, for love was like foreign travel, On The Road, Thai food, downhill skiing and espressos, just one more thing he’d yet to experience in his parochial life. But meeting Edith was an unparalleled experience to be sure. In the days after being with her, he lived through a dizzying mixture of poetic fancy and visceral suffering. He lay in bed crushed with longing and endless wonder. He discovered love was chest-collapsing passion and grandiose, spiraling thoughts. And it got better, or perhaps worse, when Shelly invited him to her friend’s Eliza’s house party in Newton and said, oh-by-the-way, Edith will be there, and she can’t way to see you again.
The song “Jane Says” crested over them as they stepped into Eliza’s house. It was a typical New England colonial, prosperous and proud, with all its personality hidden away inside. They walked toward the kitchen, looking for signs of their host as they went, or at least Edith. Daniel guessed there were 40 kids in the house, talking in groups of four or five, and oblivious to the late-arrivals. The living areas were dusty, charming, cluttered, and filled with bookshelves and LPs and Buddhist statues of every conceivable size and cultural variation. It was an artsy crowd, a mix of Yarmouth students and kids from places like Mass College of Art, Berklee and Emerson College. Daniel was struck by their nonchalance, their almost preternatural maturity. There was a discernable ease to their movements; a lack of self-consciousness in their arguments about books and films, even in their flirtations and outbursts of adolescent horseplay. Their sloppiness in drink was different too from kids back home: it wasn’t teenage excess, but more like high theater—they appeared to be totally in control. This is why the rich run everything, Daniel thought. They can handle it. A house party back home attracted the hockey team or thugs from the vocational school, who would push their way in, drink all your beer, and upset the neighbors.
Eliza stepped into the kitchen from the screened-in porch. She broke through the crowd, hugged Shelly and then, because she liked to mock Neal’s punk rock machismo, paused to give him a quick fist pump. Eliza spotted her friend Ian and quickly made introductions. Ian wore a straw boater hat and a leather motorcycle jacket over a Hawaiian shirt. Oh, you’re Edith’s new guy, Ian said. Cool. You know, you look like a young F. Scott Fitzgerald or something. She picked well. I’m her new guy, Daniel happily repeated to himself. What am I thinking? Eliza said. I must have had too many G&Ts. Duh? Of course, like, you want to see Edith, like now. Eliza slipped her arm around Daniel’s, and in lockstep, she guided him into the living where Edith was sitting around a coffee table with five other kids. She held a martini glass filled with red wine and was explaining in her slow, methodical explorative tone that the Persian Gulf War hadn’t been about oil or money, or even militarism, but meaningfulness. Edith! Eliza said. Hello? I found somebody you might know. Edith turned, saw Daniel and immediately pushed up from the floor. Danny, you came! You’re here. She ran straight up to him, hugged him, and then snuggled her head to his chest, clutching him tightly for a few moments as everyone clapped and hooted. Daniel could see Edith was buzzed, but she wasn’t drunk; this was still the girl he’d fallen in love with a week earlier.
I have so much to tell you, she said. Let’s go talk. Edith grabbed Daniel’s hand and led him toward the front of the house and halfway up the staircase where they were conveniently within ear-shot of the party’s cozy chatter, but enough on its margins to feel secluded. She put her hands on his knees and announced her poem “Accidents” had been accepted by a small literary journal in Vermont. That’s incredible, Daniel said. Now I know the poem’s immature, she said. It is mostly derivative of Anne Sexton, but it’s my first acceptance anywhere. I want to read it, he said. You will. You’ll get your very-own copy, inscribed of course. Inscribed? Daniel asked. I mean I’ll write a special message inside and sign it. Like a real poet does, Daniel said. You’re sweet, she replied. You know, I tell people I write a little, but I’m never comfortable saying ‘I’m a poet,’ but in light of publication, maybe I’ll reconsider. I don’t know. You should, Daniel said. Poets publish stuff—and you did. I know, but I haven’t published a collection of poetry, this was just one poem. That’s my hesitation. No. This is huge, Daniel said. If you publish poetry, then you’re a real poet.
Daniel didn’t have to manufacture enthusiasm for Edith’s success. He was already bought in. Right then he wanted to pull in and embrace everything she was. He thirsted for her failures and secrets, even her hatreds too. He wanted to merge with this feeling, disappear within it, within her, while expecting nothing more than she remain fixed in this emotional moment with him forever. It was an impossible demand, even a cruel one, but Daniel’s faux nobility blinded him to this folly. He wasn’t going to seduce Edith, no, he was going to worship her. This was his game. In the 17th Century La Rochefoucauld wrote that in every affair one person is the lover, while the other is the beloved. Daniel wanted to make love to Edith, he daydreamed about it, but he was also angling for a particular scenario. He wanted to be seen as noble—not because he valued nobility—but because he thought it would distinguish him in Edith’s eyes. He was as calculating as any Lothario, but he cloaked it behind a romanticized version of courtly love, which to young Edith was as foreign to her experience as foot binding or chastity belts.
Daniel’s sexual worldview was something like a hand-me-down. It approximated his father’s 1950s version and naturally stood out as almost countercultural amid the sexual mores of the ‘90s. In many respects it was chauvinistic, but it also contained principled modes of behavior, such as the condemnation of cheating and the belief that women deserved special treatment, i.e., “ladies first,” and all the consequent gentlemanly acts now viewed as suspect in America. But there were big problems there too, outright myths, including the curiosity that women didn’t enjoy sex, that they used love making as a currency to get what they really wanted: attention and security. This anachronism was not something Daniel (or his father) had ever articulated, but they both lived with it as a given, as true and as indisputable as the difference in physical strength between the sexes. And so if you loved a woman, you didn’t press for sex too quickly, you restrained yourself—not as a tactic—but as a sign of deliberate good will.
Daniel recognized a familiar song playing in the background. It was the Beatles, but which one? Edith held up her hand: Oh, I know. It’s—Blackbird, that’s it. The White Album, Daniel added. They listened in earnest, though self-consciously, as if eavesdropping on a solemn liturgy. And they stole glances at each other as they did, because they were still discovering one another, and there is nothing more sacred than this. Daniel had joyful, child-like associations with Beatles’ music. His childhood neighbors, the Doughertys, used to throw parties on summer nights and invite families up-and-down Springdale Street to drop in. The men would loiter in the unfinished basement playing billiards and drinking high balls, while their wives sat at the kitchen table smoking Merit-Ultra Lights and sipping chianti, freeing the children to trample about the house and backyard unsupervised. Tom Dougherty had a record player in the dining room, and he didn’t take requests. It was all Beatles, all night. He’d been a Marine artillery observer in Vietnam and claimed the Fab Four had guided him safely through his 13-month combat tour. He played early Beatles, albums like “Meet the Beatles” and “Beatles for Sale,” and the songs became Daniel’s internal soundtrack to easy, carefree ‘70s nights. Looking at Edith, touching her knees as McCartney sang, music was once more christening the sweetness of life. And then he kissed her, pressing his lips against hers in an act of willful, ravaging self-immolation.
Edith and Daniel circulated courageously all night, despite wanting nothing more than to be in each other’s company. They outlasted most of the guests, including Neal who got drunk, passed out, and was put to bed upstairs, effectively stranding Daniel for the night. Shortly after two, the remaining die-hards gathered in the kitchen to smoke Parliaments and finish a bottle of Absolute. Ian and Edith were arguing whether Jack Kerouac had actually been the real deal, a writer’s writer or simply a beneficiary of hype, when Eliza inserted herself between the two (if Ian wasn’t talking to her, he would talk to no one). Listen, she said grabbing Daniel’s arm and pulling him closer to Edith. I’m going to set you two up in my dad’s study. There’s a pull-out sofa. It’s comfy. I used to sleep there when I was a girl. Come darlings, she said, follow me.
Daniel had never spent the entire night with a woman before and now, without any initiative on his part, he was being whisked off to his first conjugal bed. He glanced at Edith, who appeared neither panicked nor even surprised. This, he told himself, is what every guy fantasizes about. So why then, does it all feel so out-of-control?
Eliza led them into her father’s study. She flipped on the lights and then left to fetch bed sheets. The room was small and lined with bookshelves. It smelled faintly of apple pipe tobacco. On the wall was a column of framed diplomas and professional certificates. Her dad graduated from Harvard? Daniel said, as he stripped the sofa of its musky cushions. Freaking impressive. So did my father, Edith said. Really? Daniel said. My dad dropped out of South Boston High in ’59 and enlisted in the Navy. You should be grateful, Edith said. Ivy Leaguers can be really high-maintenance nightmares. I mean, being around scholastic and professional perfectionists gets old after a while. Daniel considered this for a moment, and as he did, a sudden silence fell descended on them. After a few seconds of ear splitting nothingness, their eyes met, and they both burst out laughing. I don’t know why I’m laughing, Edith said. Me either, Daniel said.
Eliza returned to the study with bed sheets and pillows. You didn’t yank the thing out? She said. Come on guys, help me out here. Daniel grabbed the frayed strap and pulled the mattress from its crypt. Eliza quickly made the bed, lamenting as she did how cute, eligible and wrong for her Ian was. I’ve loved this kid since like fifth grade, she said. But I know I shouldn’t. No, you shouldn’t, Edith echoed. Go upstairs and crash. For once, let Ian be fabulous, and like, all byhimself. You’re so right, Eliza said as she paused at the door. Should I turn off the lights? Please, Daniel said. And just like that, they were alone together in the dark.
At first, they lay on their backs, but soon they turned and faced each other, despite seeing little but silhouettes of the other. A yellow rectangle of light shone from under the door jamb. They talked about Neal and Shelly, reviving their first conversational attempts at the cemetery. They agreed the two were a surprising couple, but also that there was something adult and solid about their bond.
Daniel was the first to stop talking. He reached out and caressed Edith’s hair, causing her to edge closer and kiss him. Edith then took off her shirt and bra. Daniel immediately edged down the bed so he could kiss her chest. She lovingly pressed her fingers into his hair and whispered, just loud enough for him to hear, I want to make love. She then got at his jeans, wrestled with his belt briefly, and went down on him.
And that’s when he stopped it.
Hey, maybe this is just too fast, he said, gently guiding her back up to him. I mean, I want this bad. You’re gorgeous, but think about it—and then using an analogy he’d regret for two decades, he said—people spend more time deciding what brand of appliance they want then who they want to make love to. I mean, it’s all backwards, don’t you think? Edith smiled, but didn’t say anything. You’re not hurt are you? Daniel asked. No, she said. It’s just that it’s late I guess. I suppose I’m tired. They cuddled briefly and then rolled off to separate parts of the mattress to sleep.
Daniel drifted off into his semi-intoxicated stupor feeling ennobled. He had behaved like a gentleman in his estimation, and he was certain Edith would realize how special—and most importantly—how different he was from other boys, and reward him accordingly.
In the morning, however, it was all different—entirely off script. Edith didn’t say anything, but she was distant, unsmiling and formal with him. She answered his inquiries, made a brave show of being pleasant, but her face revealed a great strain. An older, more experienced man would have seen that she was hurt, confused, but not necessarily angry. Yet anger is what he detected, and all morning he kept asking himself, why is she mad at me?
Daniel saw Edith two more times, before she told him his feelings were too intense for her. She was sorry, she was young, and she didn’t want to get too serious, too soon. The breakup crushed Daniel, but even more painful were the unanswered questions. At first he gave little thought to his silly little speech, but over time his words became like a looping Zapruder film in his head: mesmerizingly real, and shameful to witness.
He wouldn’t see Edith again for another 13 years.
After 9/11, Daniel had joined the Service and they’d started up a surprising correspondence. They wrote each regularly, but didn’t meet in person until just weeks before Daniel’s battalion deployed to Al Anbar Province in 2004. They had lunch in Harvard Square. It had been pleasant, far from awkward, but still, Daniel couldn’t manage to say anything approaching the truth.
In November of 2005, just weeks before his discharge from the Marine Corps, Daniel was suffering another of his sleepless nights at Camp Pendleton. As his separation date approached, he was becoming nostalgic and emotional about his life before the Marines, particularly his adolescent time with Edith. (He’d stopped writing to her after the 2nd Battle of Fallujah, because, how were you supposed to describe shit like that?) He remembered the afternoon at the cemetery and Edith talking about Fitzgerald. She had said The Great Gatsby was a perfect novel—not her favorite novel, she emphasized, but a perfect one. It was a masterpiece of art. And the beauty that flowed from it was obvious and undeniable; the book had to be acknowledged and respected. What must it have been like to create a perfect novel? A perfect piece of art? Maybe once you’ve done it, it ruins you for anything else. Or maybe that’s what death is—your reward for finally doing something beautiful. I suspect that’s what really killed Fitzgerald, the impossibility of ever repeating perfection. And he tried to hold onto it, you see? And you can’t. So he drank. He drank to kill the pain and hide from the joy of perfection.
Edith’s remarks meant little to him back then, but now as a man in his 30s, a veteran, a lonely man—they were finally meant something to him. Something like Fitzgerald’s dilemma had plagued him too. His perfection wasn’t a book, but the experience of briefly loving Edith. She had been beautiful, perfect really, yet she had been just 16. And he’d wished to freeze her in that moment, isolate and lock her into place, although she was only going to change on him, and change on herself too. One person is the lover, while the other is the beloved. She was his ideal and he’d tried to preserve that. How cruel is it to meet the love of your love when you’re 18 and your beloved is still a girl, and there’s a damn war going to come (one you couldn’t even imagine back then), and you’re going to experience real existential-type lostness? What if you wrote TheGreat Gatsby, knowing it’s perfect, yet every time you return to the manuscript it’s changed, words are misplaced, sentences crossed out, and the ending is always different? That’s what happens in love and war: the ending is always changing on you. And nobody damn well tells you. Mothers and teachers and drill instructors all fail you. They talk about one, like it is perfect hell, and the other complete bliss, but they aren’t either. Somehow young Edith knew this. Surrounded by gravestones at the Mount Auburn Cemetery she knew we chased perfect beauty at our peril, that it could kill us, but if not for the pursuit of beauty, what is life for exactly? There were no precise answers, of course. But you keep longing nonetheless. And each spring the cherry trees gut you with their bleeding, ravaging pink blossoms. You are humbled by their beauty, you are in love—but they spiral to the ground and expire—and you are left with only memories, which are a sour blessing appreciated only by the dying or the soon-to-be dead. And as for the living? They can never truly delight in beauty’s passing, for the passions are their lot, and the passions are nothing but eternal longings with no known cure, except for one.