When Christina Haag was growing up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, John F. Kennedy Jr. was just one of the boys in her circle of prep school friends, a skinny kid who lived with his mother and sister on Fifth Avenue and who happened to have a Secret Service detail following him at a discreet distance at all times.
A decade later, after they had both graduated from Brown University and were living in New York City, Christina and John were cast in an off-Broadway play together. It was then that John confessed his long-standing crush on her, and they embarked on a five-year love affair. Glamorous and often in the public eye, but also passionate and deeply intimate, their relationship was transformative for both of them. In “Come to the Edge,” Haag paints a portrait of a young man with an enormous capacity for love and an adventurous spirit that drove him to live life to its fullest. Here is an excerpt.
Rehearsals had ended earlier that evening at the Irish Arts Center, a small theater in the West Fifties. It was a Thursday, and the play we were in rehearsals for was scheduled to open that Sunday. Winners is set on a hill and our director Robin Saex had always talked about finding time to run the scenes outside; this would also give the crew an entire day to finish the set and hang the lights in time for our first technical rehearsal on Friday night. After toying with spots in Central Park and Riverside as stand-ins for the hill, John had volunteered a slope near his mother’s house in New Jersey. It was steep, he told us — so steep we could roll down it!
The three of us set off in his silver-gray Honda, and when we arrived close to midnight, we found that supper had been laid out by the Portuguese couple who were caretakers of the house. They were asleep, but a very excited spaniel was there to greet us instead. Shannon was a pudgy black-and-white dog — offspring of the original Shannon, a gift from President De Valera of Ireland to President Kennedy after his trip there in 1963. John scolded him affectionately for being fat and lazy. He told him the bloodlines had deteriorated, but the spaniel was thrilled by the attention.
On a quick spin through the house, John showed us his old room and had Robin drop her bags there. A boy’s room — red, white, and blue with low ceilings. Some toy soldiers were still on the bureau, and in the bookshelf, “Curious George” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” We went downstairs and ate cold shepherd’s pie and profiteroles, a meal I would come to know later as one of his favorites.
After supper, Robin yawned. “Guys, I’m turning in. We have a lot of work to do tomorrow.” I was tired, as well, but too excited to sleep, and when John asked if I wanted to go see the horses in the neighbors’ barn, I said yes. He put some carrots and sugar cubes in his pockets, and we headed down the driveway and across the road to where the McDonnells lived.
Murray McDonnell and his wife Peggy were old friends of his mother’s; for a time, she boarded her horses with them and their children had grown up together. The McDonnell hound, who spent most days visiting Shannon, began to follow us home, and Shannon, who never went far from his kitchen, trailed behind. John teased both dogs, saying they were gay lovers. He leaned over and shook a finger at Shannon, admonishing him again for being fat. “Don’t be too sweet, Shanney, don’t be too sweet. Or I will bite you, I’ll bite you.” Shannon thumped his stub of a tail, and waddled happily back up the drive.
It was 1 a.m. and I was getting the moonlight tour. When I asked if we would wake the McDonnells, John shrugged and told me not to worry. He showed me a childhood clubhouse and we ducked through the small wooden door. He showed me the roosters and the barn cats and the caged rabbits. And when my fingers were nipped through chicken wire by an especially eager bunny, he said that Elise, his mother’s housekeeper, ate them for treats. I whimpered, the desired response I now think.
We moved into the cool of the barn and met Mr. McDonnell’s gelding and Toby, John’s mother’s mount. Like us, the horses could not sleep — or had been awakened by a whiff of carrot. I was not a horsewoman by any stretch of the imagination, but I’d ridden summers until I was 14 and I knew how to feed a horse. Still, it felt like the first time and I let him show me. I had begun to value when he taught me things — his patience, the joy he took, how he never gave up.
“See, you keep your hand flat and your fingers back.”
I stood close to him by the stall and he reached into his pocket.
“Let him take it, he won’t bite. Like this …” Toby sniffed, lowered his velvet head, then looked up expecting more.
“You try.” In the darkness, John had stepped behind me. “Go on, keep your fingers back.”
“I’ll just feed him a carrot.” The carrot, for some reason, seemed safe.
“Here,” he said, opening my hand and placed a sugar cube there. “Don’t be scared.” And with the back of my hand resting in his palm, the horse kissed mine and the sugar was gone.
Our hands broke. But his touch stayed with me as we fed the horses the rest of our stash. It was with me when we left the barn and walked out into the ring. And when I climbed onto the split rail fence, John hopped up beside me.
The moon was full and we were quiet, watching the sky.
“It’s a blue moon tonight,” I said. “I heard it on the radio.”
“Oh yeah?” He crooned the song. Without a dream in my heart, without a love of —
“What is a blue moon?” I wondered aloud.
“It’s when there are two full moons in one month. Not as rare as an eclipse, but definitely rare.” With the time spent in Outward Bound, a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) stint in Kenya, and his innate curiosity, he knew so much about the natural world that I didn’t.
“So it’s got nothing to do with being blue?”
He shook his head, smiling.
“But it seems special, like a stronger moon.”
“Maybe it is,” he said, looking into my eyes.
“Look,” I pointed. “It is brighter. Everything is silver, the leaves, the barn, the stones, the horses, the road, everything.” I shifted my weight on the fence. Everything, I thought.
Again we were quiet, the shyness that came from knowing each other well in one way, as we had for 10 years, and then the knowledge deepening. We had been friends in high school, housemates in college, but now — walking home together these last weeks, practicing the kiss in rehearsal, falling in love through the imaginary circumstances of the theater (a professional hazard for actors: Is it real? Or is it the play?) — attraction had become undeniable. I remember that we sat for a while under the stars and felt no need to speak. But then he did.
“Can I do this for real?”
He didn’t wait for an answer, he leaned in. Only our lips touched. It was gentle, hands-free, exquisite. I opened my eyes for a second, not believing that what I’d dreamed of was happening, and saw, by the lines at his eyes, that he was smiling. I held on to the fence, woozy. A world had opened.
“I’ve been waiting to do that for a long time,” he said, looking not at me but at the sky. He was still smiling, and I remember thinking then that he looked proud. For the last week and a half, we had kissed in rehearsals, but in my mind, we were the characters, Mag and Joe, teenagers from Ireland about to be married because she was pregnant. At least, I had tried to believe that. But this kiss was different. This kiss was ours.
“I guess that wasn’t supposed to happen,” he said finally, tucking the toe of his sneaker behind the fence rail.
No. It’s right. Again, don’t stop, I thought. Then my mind went to the actor I’d been with for almost three years, who was kind and good and could make me laugh, even in a rough patch, and to John’s girlfriend from Brown, whom I liked and admired. Reality. People would be hurt. Or did he mean it wasn’t supposed to happen because we were friends and should remain so? It occurred to me only later that he was testing the waters.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he took my hand and said he wanted to show me something, and I followed him into the woods, twigs snapping under our feet. The sky had grown brighter and light danced through the thicket of elms onto the rocks and the river.
Sound rushed, loud and exhilarated. In my dreams, I’d promised myself one kiss — just one — and now I’d had that.
From “Come to the Edge” by Christina Haag. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Spiegel & Grau.