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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.

Cold by Nicki Pombier Berger

OBJECT: green teacup with internal scene of house and people

BODY OF WATER: Dead Horse Bay

Editors' note: This story was written for Underwater New York's January 24 event at Winter Shack, a temporary exhibition space designed by Alex Branch and Nicole Antebi, who curate a series of site-specific installations/readings/exhibitions that encourage audiences to engage with one another's work and to build community in the darkest hours of the year.  

 

I remember when the cold hit Barren Island. It came from the east, across the open sea, and pressed like a hand at my back as I rode the Friday ferry, hurrying me home for the weekend. It seemed to still the smell, the cold, and hold it in one place. I could have drawn a line around it, or marked where it started and stopped. I suppose that’s what I do when I remember you, too.

How strange, that my world before was blank of you – no you to even lack. I think about that, sometimes idly yearning the world into symbols – trees with their vanishing leaves, the sudden mourning bay of a steamer receding – or else it hits me stripped bare, as when I watch my girls take their tea.  Is there any pain as sharp as what it costs a mother to bring, from a blank, life for another?   

There you were, half a cantaloupe in each hand, their sherbet fleshy insides flashing, stepping up the gangway like a poem. Where had you come from? You found me, wrapped to my chin in a flannel scarf from the island, breathing in its taste of the homes of my students, bacon and cabbage and brine. “I come bearing summer,” you said, and slipped. One half plunked over and floated there, gaping like a mouth around an “Oh!” In my memory, I’ve burrowed further into my scarf to laugh there in secret, but you see me – right away, you see me – and then you draw me out.

You were a journalist, trained to pin a story, hold it still – a fish caught and mounted, glazed to look life-like and whole. I was a teacher, a mother-in-training I suppose. A fish on a wall just a fiction.     

You had a hunger that spread the more you fed it. On our first ferry ride, you made me name the islands, Duck Point, Fish Kill, Bergen, and then you were there again the next week, ready with their legends and lore. On one, a whole meal once washed ashore, course by course, cheeses and linens, a fat roast and a full head of lettuce, a jar of soup screwed shut. Off one, the pirates Gibbs and Wansley scuttled a brig and waded in, laden with Mexican dollars. A local barkeep fed them, keeping his life, and after each bite Gibbs licked his fingers, pulled out a coin, shined it bright and swallowed it whole. On another you could hear nothing but the breathing of the sea.

Despite your profession you believed in things, and in this way too you were like the fishermen we must have passed each week that fall. If I try to remember seeing them I can’t, but surely they were there, thigh high in the frigid marshland or rocked by our wake in their little boats, patient in some faith sometimes rewarded, or straining against its sudden proof. How else could I summon them so clearly now, in this my mainland life, with no view to the sea?

“You don’t need to have seen it to see it,” you would say.

“Is that what you tell your editor?” I would play along, and you would bring me books to prove me wrong: “Read these and you’ll see.”  

We sometimes have these talks. This one while I thumb the empty spines in my library. I can’t remember when I lost your voice, just the ache of the search for it since, and the drone of my own, thrown back and back to me, like a tide.   

All fall we rode the Friday ferry back to the mainland, finding each other at the Canarsie dock again on Monday to return to Barren Island, after our weekends at the homes we never mentioned. You with your notepad and a deadline like the horizon, always out there, never closer. I was the one whose life loomed. In December I would stop for the winter and the mainland would reclaim me. I would step off the ferry with my jelly legs and climb up for one last carriage ride to the Brooklyn Flatbush station, board the Brighton Line and watch the windows slowly fill with noise until, at Fulton and Franklin, there he would be, waiting, and you were a dream or invention, a tale of your own telling, and the whole of Barren Island would be erased with one wave of his hand, as a name etched in sand.

What’s there to remember? The stink, of course, though I can’t describe it. That was all they wanted to know, back home, about the smell. What could I tell them? The impatient captain rush rushing us aboard and then swaying there, starboard, staring at the sky. The sea oats weaving to some music we can’t hear. The bark of the immigrant mothers, calling their boys by their given names, not the ones we gave – Peter was Piotr, like a dishrag whipped, and more than once I saw her pull him in sweetly, lose her face in his hair. Yes they took our trash, but they had their own treasures. One man hammered stolen glass with brutal swings into shards he shaped to Celtic crosses, which he gave away grinning to any who asked. I left mine in the window of my boarding room the day I left, with no time to go back and get it. Every now and then I flush with shame that he thought me too haughty to take it ashore, and then the final sadness, that he does not think of me at all. None do, I am certain, or ever did. Another girl took my place the next spring, and another, and another, until it’s been ten years. Today my own little girl broke a teacup – the green one painted with a family on a hillside, all that space to breathe – and I sent it like a missive to the trash. Tomorrow a team of horses will cart it off to the island with the rest, and soon enough the horses themselves will be worn by life into bodies, borne to Barren Island, boiled into bone.   

The small grey space of my boarding room there, its bare walls and one little window, the angled square of sunlight that arced across the room, true as a clock. My simple desk with a sprig of some beach flower dying there, my thin, firm bed, the constant brush of sand on the floor, the twilit daytime indoor dark where you once appeared, still and grey and unreal as a photograph, silent while the room between us roared. I moved toward you and you moved away, as if we were locked those two yards apart, until – did this happen? – you slipped out the door and ran.    

For years I looked for your bylines, but they slowed to a trickle and stopped. Sometimes still I search the faces on the Fifth Avenue El, looking for you, perhaps, or more likely that old promise – that in a blink, from a blank, things can change. But I rattle along up there inside the train car, one errand to the next, the world the thing passing through the panes, sometimes nearly believing in the girl there beside you on the ferry, with her back to Canarsie, her face to the open ocean, the coming cold a kind of life she could not see.     

1899


Nicki Pombier Berger is the founding editor of Underwater New York.