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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

Division by Elizabeth Pickard

OBJECTDemolished Teapot

BODY OF WATERDead Horse Bay

 

Waves lapped at its rust and leaked out the spout.  Tepid where it used to boil.

The teapot had once lived in Brooklyn after it lived in New Jersey after it lived in France after it lived in Germany and so on back to the earth’s iron ore.  In Brooklyn, a woman’s fingers recovered moldy tea leaves from the kettle-sized space on the mantle.  She relit a joint.

Her phone vibrated faintly atop the glass coffee table.  It pulsed from beneath weeks of unopened letters and bills that were tossed there as they arrived.  She stabbed out the joint to smoldering.  Just glancing at the pile of mail prodded her with expectations from the other end of the line.  Tugged at her genes.  A mysterious split of a cell in an egg and then there were two.  Anna and Janna, names hooked by the “j” in their likeness.  Janna limped quickly in the opposite direction.  Past the coffee table.  Past books that would mostly go unread, toward the kitchen, gathering half-empty take out containers on her way.

She placed the containers in a garbage bag and threw in some crushed out roaches.   She scraped in this morning’s coffee grounds and suddenly recalled the used tea leaves dumped in the spot where the kettle should have been.  The realization wrenched an ache like a pulled tooth.  Another haze-induced mistake.  The loss thrust guilt at her through the fog, and she jerked the bag into the hall.  As she did every week, last week just after having tea, she left the garbage bag outside her front door.  The building had no bin.  Her landlord would drive the trash to the nearest harbor as his cheap father had and probably his father before him.  The trash would settle itself in marshes and bays, depending on the current, all along the Brooklyn coast.  Some families’ traditions continued.

The kettle had been her mother’s and her mother’s mother’s.  Passed to the eldest daughter.  Anna was older by seconds. On her last visit to New Jersey, Janna had taken the kettle from under the mirror on her mother’s mantle when no one was watching.  When she was a child, she hadn’t understood mirrors.  She would look into the glass and say, “there’s my sister.”

They had shared a room growing up and thoughts slipped between them on the air, in their smallest motions.  A touch from Janna sucked the sting Anna felt from their parents’ scrutiny.  A look from Anna re-firmed Janna’s footing after heartbreak, tugged her out of shyness and linked her to the world.  But adulthood brought with it physical distance.  Necessitated the ungainly use of words.  Anna had increasingly spoken of their differences, Janna’s missteps.

At first, details of Anna’s disappointment only occasionally traveled across satellites and wireless networks from the Midwest to the East Coast:  a misspelling on a gift card, over- or under- expressed enthusiasm, less and less frequently returned calls.  But during the year Janna tried to conceive a child, the exploration by experts of Janna’s unresponsive ova, Anna unexpectedly became pregnant.  Anna’s occasional criticisms became frequent, expectant lists.  After months of injections, extractions and ultrasounds, errant sleeping, crying and forgetfulness, Janna learned from the experts that she would never conceive at all.  And there was something else, a shadow they should explore.  Toward the end of her pregnancy, Anna called to say how hard she found it to express her needs, texted her disappointment, again, that Janna hadn’t called daily.  The “ah” that began Anna gaped unbounded before Janna.  Insatiable.  Janna suddenly saw the vertical line of her “J.”  Felt its shelter.  She unplugged her computer and began to ignore her phone.  She brought the teapot to Brooklyn.

Now Janna knelt over the garbage to catch her breath.  She leaned against a wall.  Sometimes the nausea slowed her, sometimes the ache in her knees.  Funny, it had begun in her womb but she mostly felt it in her bones.  At the doctor’s yesterday, she had watched a video of quivering cells.  Hollow-eyed pyramids and spheres caressed, merged, burst into vanishing specks and eventually filled the screen.

In Chicago, Anna looked at her hands as she cleaned and imagined Janna’s similar fingers making tea.  It was morning.  Janna would be cleaning, too.  Anna dialed again.

From the hall, Janna felt as much as heard her phone and it occurred to her that there were some things she might want to say.

Water leaked out the side of the teapot that once contained it.  Tides drew it deeper into the mud.  To the eye, it was barely distinguishable.


Elizabeth Pickard is a writer and librarian. She is currently working on her first novel. She lives in Chicago and can be reached at efpickard (at) gmail (dot) com.