Can you fall in love with a dead man? That’s the question Alice asks herself the summer she turns sixteen. Her older brother Marcus has married his high school sweetheart in August, a simple wedding. Two tiered cake, his father’s tux, her uncle’s band. Love, love, love. Love, schmuv, Alice wants to say. And then she meets the transcendentalists, in a quiet corner of the town library, in a large leather armchair that swallows her still-narrow hips and sails her away from her turbulent high school world. She climbs through Emerson’s journal, sieving through lofty aphorisms and sweeping proclamations about God and death and life. “Nature,” he sings to Alice from the page. “Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you.” Alice contents herself with such ideas.
Now, for the first time, Alice has brought home a boy. A real boy, she tells her family, sounding like Pinocchio’s wood carver. She’s an anxious girl, a woman now really, who prefers listening to others speak over hearing her own voice. Maybe this is why she’s drawn to Andrew, with his loud wisecracks and cocky smile. He’s from South Carolina and speaks with a drawl that Alice’s colleagues find dreamy. They tell her this following the employee Christmas party, gathering around her six by six foot cubicle when their boss Maria leaves for her midday meeting. The drawl reminds Alice of all that she and Andrew don’t have in common.
She doesn’t want to fall in love with Andrew, tries not to in fact. They meet at a UVA toga party, two days before graduation. It’s the type of scene that goes down when everyone knows that they’ll never cross paths again, and so three girls have climbed up onto the kitchen table, which they haven’t done since freshman year, and two lacrosse players, lax-bros they’re called, are fighting over an incident that happened two years before—something about a wheelie chair and thirty bucks and a guy named Craig.
Andrew fits into this scene better than Alice does, with his collared shirt and neatly pressed khakis. Alice can’t pull off this look, nor can she pull off the anti-preppy boho style that is equally cool and acceptable. Both looks take effort. And money. She prefers Target or TJMaxx, which are neither classy nor quaint. This she knows and so this she hides, telling those who ask that she prefers shopping in thrift stores.
Andrew laughs at the way her hands become more animated when she speaks of family. They’ll arrive in Richmond the next day, her mother and father driving down from Massachusetts, with Marcus and his two kids, who live in a neighboring town, and her sister May flying halfway across the country from Colorado where she studies Parkinson’s disease. A professor of neuroscience. Alice has started calling May Dr. Adams, ever since she graduated with her PhD last spring. May hates this decorum, even in jest. Alice has been meaning to visit her all year but job applications have kept her so busy that she hasn’t made the trip.
In fact, school and her job search have kept Alice from doing much of anything. That’s why, when Andrew sits down beside her on the beer soaked couch, she finds herself at a loss for words. Andrew’s holding two 12-ounce cans of Pepsi, and he hands one to Alice as he adjusts the couch cushion behind him. She searches the room for the source of this anomaly but sees only the keg and a half-full Bernett’s handle. “Brought them from home,” Andrew says, smiling.
Alice circles her hands around the cold, red and blue can, focusing on the small droplets that have condensed around the rim, then she cracks the can’s metal tab and takes a sip.
“Benny tells me that you’re moving to DC,” he says.
Alice nods. Like Alice, Benny will graduate with a BS in Environmental Science. She makes eye contact with her friend across the room and sees him wink. “I’m interning with the DC Climate Institute,” she says to the stranger beside her. “In policy.” She doesn’t know what this entails just yet.
Andrew smiles, though she’s not sure why. Her hand travels self-consciously over her neatly tied back hair, searching for pieces sticking out at odd angles.
“I’ll be working for the Republican National Committee.”
“Oh,” Alice says, studying the top of her Pepsi. “So you’ll be in DC as well.” She fiddles with the metal tab until it breaks clean away from the can.
“Yep, likely fighting the very people paying your bills.”
Alice looks up sharply but sees that he’s smiling. She lets herself laugh. They make small talk after this—where in the city will they live, have they visited before, do they have any friends there? Not many, both concede to the last question, smiling at each other. When their knees brush, Alice’s stomach flipflops. She wishes she had worn a dress rather than a toga.
Andrew prefers country music, Alice folk or soft rock. Andrew likes dogs, Alice cats. Andrew can quote every top five box office hit since 1998, whereas Alice wouldn’t know the difference between Brad Pitt and Bradley Cooper. But Andrew asks Alice out and then asks her out again, and before long Alice finds herself thinking about Andrew more often than she thinks about climate change or the Alcott family. Alice prefers walks in the woods to church on Sundays, but still accompanies Andrew because he seems dismayed the first time she denies his invitation. The music is soothing, really. She closes her eyes and pretends that she’s home.
What would Emerson would think of Andrew? Her prognosis is grim. It isn’t until their third date that Andrew dates the world’s origins to 4004 BC, and not until their fifth that he begins talking politics. For the most part, Alice just listens. Before Andrew arrives at her apartment for dinner, Alice hides her Native American dream catcher and Zen garden and Buddha statue in the closet. She rips her Cat Stevens poster from the wall and then decides to fold up the Indian wall hanging above her bed. She rotates the stack of books on her desk so that the spines face the wall. “Never change to impress a man,” May tells her. “I’m not,” Alice tells herself. She’s not trying to impress Andrew. But she would like to avoid offending him. There’s a difference, she thinks.
“Emerson was an ordained minister,” Alice tells Andrew, when he finds her collection of transcendentalist writings on the bookshelf. She doesn’t tell Andrew that Emerson resigned from the Second Church three years after joining the clergy. She doesn’t tell him that Emerson questioned his faith, nearly lost it entirely, when he lost his first love to tuberculosis eighteen months into marriage. Every time Alice rereads Emerson’s journals, she relives the death of Ellen, a girl from New Hampshire, with a china doll face and a dog named Lord Byron. An avid reader, a romantic.
On December 28th, 1831, nearly one year after Ellen’s death, Emerson scratches only one line in his journal: “I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin.” White space echoes around this line on the page. What does this mean? Alice wants to know, desperately. She’s not a romantic, but this gesture takes her breath away. What did Emerson hope to find? This man who believed in transcendence, who preached impermanence and the unity of soul? We cannot escape our human impulses, Alice believes. Philosophy and faith can only lead us so far.
On a morning in June, Andrew finds Alice doodling in the New Testament he’s bought her at a used bookstore downtown. She’s sitting on the back porch, chin resting on one hand, pencil held loosely in the other. Alice slams the book shut when she senses Andrew behind her, but he says nothing. Later, he fans through the pages with his thumb and finds an intricate tree planted in Genesis 2. Root tendrils wind around the words, overlapping, curling together, trailing to the margin’s edge and snaking off the page. “The drawing is beautiful,” he says after a long silence.
“She’s a simple girl, isn’t she?” Alice overhears a friend of Andrew’s say. Alice knows that Andrew has always liked simple girls, girls destined to become dutiful wives, dutiful mothers, dutiful daughters of God. But Andrew knows that Alice isn’t simple. Soft spoken maybe, but not simple.
“What’s your denomination?” he asks her, the night that they meet. The word that slips from her mouth surprises her. “Catholic.” She’s not Catholic. Well, her grandmother was, but her parents certainly aren’t and Alice has only attended a Catholic mass once, a college friend’s confirmation. Until Alice meets Andrew, she has never told a lie, not a real one, like this. But neither has she met a boy who tells her he loves her. Alice finds herself adjusting to this charade. “So you think you could get used to this?” Andrew asks eagerly the first time Alice attends his own Methodist church service. “It’s not so different, right?” If only you knew, Alice thinks.
“The soul knows no persons,” Emerson says in his 1838 address at Harvard. “It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love.” July in Cambridge would have been hot. His talk spawned fury. Atheist, Bostonians called Emerson. Infidel. Emerson believed in intuition. This, Alice understands.
It’s Andrew who suggests visiting Alice’s parents and brothers during the Christmas holiday. It’s Saturday afternoon, and they’re sitting at his linoleum kitchen table. Alice reads the Washington Post and Andrew plays Words with Friends on his iPhone. Every few minutes he expels a loud breath and slams his fist down on the table. They had planned on biking through Rock Creek Park that morning, but the sleet tapping a rhythm against the roof has kept them inside. Andrew walks to the window and raises his hands to the dark clouds in mock thanks. He would much rather pass the day indoors, especially in the winter months.
“What do you think?” he asks Alice, standing up to fill a glass with water from the sink. “I’d like to meet them.” Alice isn’t sure if Andrew truly wants to make this trip home with her or if he feels that he should. Alice suspects the latter. Andrew has been nothing but chivalrous since they met, but she’s not so sure she wants chivalry. Alice sets her coffee mug down on the newspaper’s front page, so that a dark ring forms around the word “Washington.” Alice has yet to tell Andrew that she’s not Catholic, not religious at all really, at least not by his terms.
“Don’t you want to be with your parents? Won’t they want you home?” Alice can’t imagine missing Christmas with her family.
The car pulls into the driveway, tires crunching on packed snow. Alice steps into the night air and stretches her arms, stiff from the eight-hour drive. She can see the Christmas tree through the living room window, draped in white lights and the homemade ornaments that Alice, May and Marcus crafted as children—a snowman made from one sock, twine, and a permanent marker, a candy cane molded and painted in high school pottery class, a star shaped from newspaper, flour and water, makeshift papier-mâché. The large window over the sink frames her parents in the kitchen. She can see her mother bouncing around the room as she prepares dinner, singing to Christmas music blasting from the speakers by the door. She’s probably listening to Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Santa Claus is Comin to Town.” Her mother loves Bruce. She lifts a pan from the cabinet and hands it to Alice’s father, who stirs at something on the stove.
Shadows of childhood flit through the dark yard—the tree swing drifting lazily over the snow, the horse corral at the bottom of the long grass hill that Alice and May loved to slide down on plastic saucers, bailing into the snow just before hitting the splintered wooden slats of the fence. The white picket fence that Marcus had built around the vegetable garden to earn his Boy Scout carpentry badge. The off-kilter mailbox, damaged from so many adolescent run-ins with the wooden post during driving lessons. The stone wall against the road, which Alice liked to walk along like a balance beam, stepping her bare feet from one wobbling rock to another. She had fallen from this wall at age eight and broken her collarbone, an injury that had led to sleepless nights and kept her out of school for days.
“Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn,” Emerson writes. “Every end is a beginning.” Does this mean that all beginnings must be ends? “There is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” Alice feels the urge to climb back into the car and drive away. Instead, she takes Andrew’s hand and walks up the gravel walkway. Home.
May arrives the next day, bustling into the house with her lab coat still on. Alice leaves Andrew with her father that night, talking about V-type combustion engines, and runs upstairs to pull May away from her notebooks. “Fruitlands,” she says, bouncing up and down on May’s bed. “Can we go?”
May walks to the window and cranes her head to look at the sky. The stars are bright tonight. In childhood, they would run to Fruitlands to watch the constellations, skipping down Still River Road in the dark and sprawling out on the field, lulled by the cricket chorus sounding around them and talking of their lives ahead. Now, they pull on any clothing they can find—athletic pants over blue jeans over leggings; parkas over logoed sweatshirts over knitted sweaters and long sleeve tee shirts. They will not be cold tonight.
May can barely fit behind her steering wheel, and Alice has to pat down the poof of her parka as she slides into the driver’s seat. They throw their bodies back into the snow, star-fishing their arms and legs to form snow angels, lying head to head so that their matching blond hair tangles together. “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear,” Emerson wrote. That’s how Alice feels now, glad to the brink of fear.
May and Alice snuggle into their snow parkas, pulling their hoods tight around their faces so that the stiff material obstructs their peripheral vision and channels their gaze toward the sky, a sky that stretches vastly onward, riddled with stars like holes in a black, billowing canopy. Alice will miss these stars when she returns to the city.
“I’m stuck to the earth,” May calls out, into the night, an old joke. Her breath puffs white into the air.
“Gravity, don’t let me go,” Alice hollers in response.
She lifts her arms and legs from the ground, as though to clamber away into the heavens, and then lets them fall with dead weight back onto the snow. “I’m stuck!”
“Phew,” May says, giggling.
“Gravity don’t let us go!”
Here, in this moment, they are ageless. Their words disperse into the night, particles of sound unconstrained by the gravity holding them down. The air, the universe, this infinity swallows them up, claims them. Alice imagines a black hole filled with so many voices lost to the night, pleas and whispers and exaltations, ricocheting off one another in a large cavernous space of being lost. Where am I? Don’t let me go! Hows bouncing off whys, the whys expanding in concentric rings, subsuming each other. Why, why, why, why, larger and larger rings looping around each other endlessly. Warm whys, still hot with human breath, congealing into the atmosphere. They laugh, smiling private smiles into the dark. “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end,” Emerson says. “It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world.” Beyond this world, this hole, too, is a circle.
Alice reaches across the snow and grasps her sister’s hand. “Last week in lab,” May responds, cutting into the silence, “I held a human brain. And all I could think was, this is it, this is a person, right here, who she was. Her memories, her neurons, formed by experience. An entire life in my hands.”
Alice murmurs amazement, but wonders if she can truly reduce this woman to that, reduce a life to myelin sheaths and neurons firing. Andrew is not all wrong. She presses her mittened hands over her face and watches these tangled neurons spider web across her closed eyelids. Neurons like the Nashua river delta or the rhizomatic tangle of root growth beneath the snow or the intersecting stone walls and animal routes and walking paths networking through the forest around them. Alice could keep her eyes closed like this, and the tangle would deepen, pulling her further and further into splotchy red darkness.
At one point, Bronson Alcott considered leaving his family for Harvard’s Shaker community, abandoning his wife and children in pursuit of his ideals, in pursuit of what he called the virtuous life. What is the virtuous life? Alice thinks now. The Shakers, so named for their impassioned manner of worship, lived a celibate, ascetic existence. Right now, she envies such spiritual zeal. She desires such passion. This commitment to conviction. “You know,” Alice once told Andrew, “the very best physicists eventually arrive at transcendence. At God.”
Faith and life. Life and afterlife. Guilt, love, peace, life, heartbreak. The words don’t quite fit together. If she were to stack them one upon the other, like Jenga blocks—guilt and then peace and then love and then heartbreak—the tower would topple. These words belong in a heap, meeting and overlapping at odd angles. She knows that she could break Andrew’s heart.
Does cause and effect really work like this? Sometimes, she wants to believe in a world where answers follow questions in neat, linear rows. She lifts a handful of snow in her mittened hand. “God planted a garden and there God placed man,” Andrew tells her. She thinks about Bronson and Louisa, their ghosts flitting across this field she now wanders.
We’re all here for such a short while anyways, she thinks.
The next morning, when Alice and Andrew walk through this same field, where Alice and May have come the night before, she sees their hardened angel imprints in the snow. The morning is bright, the mountain’s form crisp against the sky.
“I believe in your god,” Alice says. “But I don’t think you believe in mine.”
“I don’t understand,” Andrew says.
“It’s all the same,” Alice says. “Emerson said that…” She’s blubbering now.
Andrew says nothing.
She feels him slipping away, retreating into himself. Floating farther and farther away until he becomes a speck on the horizon, above the Alcott farmhouse, above the mountains. Until all they had together dissipates into the air. “Andrew?”