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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.

More Manageable Space by Rebekah Bergman

OBJECT: Parts of Zone B

BODY OF WATER: Hurricane Sandy

 

When the rain starts, we don’t know each other’s names. We share a line on our address and assume that is all. We are an actor in 1J, a doctor in 3C, law school students in the large unit on the fifth floor. We’ve left dark pockets of tiny towns in the Midwest, the Deep South, the West Coast to emerge in this city. We thought we’d like to join its sprawling crowds.

We shape our mouths to speak in newscaster accents but have still not quite acclimated. We are awed by the night sky—how big it looks starless, how bright. We thought we could shed our hometowns like a snake leaves behind its old skin, but it is difficult to belong to a place that is even right now expanding. One neighborhood splits into two and the city grows like a cluster of cells, multiplying each time it divides. The city-natives harbor deep resentment for us, the non-natives. They blame us for the dense smog, the littered streets, the whole notion of urban sprawl. We find this confusing because we also miss the color green.

To belong here, we learn, you must dream of finding more room for your legs and your elbows—a secret closet, a hidden staircase, an extra half-bath. This is how we feel our foreignness; our preference for bounded landscapes, more manageable space. That ugly word “sprawl” makes us wonder: How can we live inside a place that has no edge? 

It is an autumn of beautiful sunsets that the weatherman says will bring rain. We breathe the chemicals that color the clouds and see how the city spreads into the atmosphere even. The season is warmer than we expected. We unlayer our scarves and wool sweaters, thinning ourselves to stay cool. 

The rain finally starts on a Sunday and at first it is only a misting. It gives us bad hair and shines in our eyebrows, glistening over our skin. We take umbrellas with us when we leave in the morning. But we carry them closed just in case it gets worse.

It gets worse. By evening we sit at kitchen tables but the noise of rain drowns out our chewing, our thoughts. We go to the roof for a closer view. It’s been a long time since we’ve watched nature run its course. We pass through the doorway one by one or two by two, until the whole building spills outward, emptied out on top. We congregate, squeezing shoulder to shoulder to fit. But we say little as the water soaks through to our bones. When night falls, we turn back inside.

The rain persists through the next day and we meet back on our rooftop at dusk. Tonight we scream over the wind, making small talk in big voices. We learn names and faces and when we return to dry beds and put on warm clothes, it is the blurred time between late and early.

The flood shows no signs of slowing. We keep going out to our rooftop all week, getting closer to the storm and each other. We line up around the perimeter, faces turned outward. Sometimes we hold hands. The world has flipped, we decide, and the ocean’s falling out of the sky. We notice the lack of both fish and of birds. There is no rail around us and we have the sensation of floating on a raft together, the street below carrying us like waves.  

Soon we speak softer, familiar with each other’s mannerisms, able to read lips and faces. Sometimes the old accents slip in. It is a comfort to know our neighbors. To know they are strangers here too. We discuss the size of our hometowns, saying: You could stretch out your arms and feel the width of it.

It continues. We don’t leave home for days. When we think of the city we picture only this rooftop and smile, remembering how the building unsprawled to concentrate up at the top. We sleep with our heads in the storm clouds and dream of removing the floors from our building. Everyone living between the walls together, heaped together in the hollowed out space.

When the city is flooding, we know its dimensions. Everything has a finite volume. Nothing that is drowning can grow. But if the rain stops we will step from this ledge of certainty into what exactly? It is foggy beyond the edge of our roof. The universe is expanding even as the rain falls. It expands now and now.

But the rain is still falling.

And it falls now and now.

And even right now.

 


Rebekah Bergman is an MFA candidate at The New School. She lives in Brooklyn and works as an editorial intern at Tin House Magazine and an associate editor at NOON. Rebekah has received grants and fellowships from Tent Creative Writing and Brown University and will be an upcoming resident at Art Farm in Marquette, Nebraska. Her recent work has been published in Banango Street and Spittoon.