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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.

Web Waters by Alice Neiley

There’s a perfect view of the ocean if I sit on the highest monkey bars of a Battery Park playground, or on one of the blue chairs that face north in the Poets House library across the street. Tree branches block the reality of an opposite shore. Green and yellow leaves catch Manhattan’s gauzy sunlight and the water appears endless; the Hudson River is the sea.

This won’t work in the winter of course, but for now, early October, my imaginary ocean and I still have another month or so together. Soon, I’ll just be watching as the river flows toward the New York Harbor, underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and into the darker, truer sea I can’t see from here.

Sometimes I wonder if love is fate, a choice, or what. Can you make a list of what’s in it? 

*

Before moving to the city, I lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a small fishing village at the tip of Cape Cod. I jumped in the water every day my last year there—no wetsuit—even in January. Patchy sheens of ice over the beach some mornings, I’d dive in head first, breath leaving my body as if sucked through a vacuum. The quiet cold would tighten around me fast, squeezing all the energies I’d ever had through my body and just like that, I’d be wrapped in a rumpled towel, strangely warm. The whole experience never lasted more than five minutes. It was like being shot from the belly of a firecracker for the hundredth time—both mechanical and explosive.

I told people I did it for the invigoration, the kick-start to my day. But really it was for the moment between underwater and running to shore. When I’d burst back into the December, January, February air, only my skin noticed if there was sun, or snow, or waves. My skin woke up, questions disappeared, and for that moment there was nothing else to say or think, nothing else about me at all.  

 

Since moving to New York, I’m prone to anxiety attacks. Sweaty, chest tightening choke holds that seem to come out of nowhere—in the middle of a quiet stretch of Central Park, in the middle of a meal, in the middle of the night. I found Battery Park a few weeks ago, and watching the boats drift on their moorings, I can breathe.

I’ve started to make a mental list of all accessible bodies of water near the city, researched where the water is deepest, most swimmable.

“Hell’s Gate,” a portion of The Narrows tidal straight where the New York Upper Bay, Long Island Sound, and the Hudson River intersect, is 35’ to 40’ deep. But even though the tides keep the area relatively clean, I’d need a boat in order to take a dip out there, and probably a tether to attach myself to its cleat. That same tidal flow can speed up to 5.0 knots depending on the wind and lunar cycle, increasing the depth and current to a swirl unforgiving to swimmers.

When my girlfriend, Karen, and I are  apart, I think about her hands a lot. Even for the longer, three month stretches we’ve spent in each other’s company, I’ve never been able to stop looking at them: her long fingers typing, turning a key, braiding between mine like the beginnings of a web.

One winter visit to Ottawa, near sunrise, Karen threw on a giant hoodie sweatshirt and went downstairs to get a fire going. I got up, stood by the window, and rubbed my eyes. There. There was the ocean. I pressed my nose up against the snow spattered glass and almost yelled out why didn’t you tell me it was here!, when a pink and blue tinted cloud lifted, and the smoke stacks across the city appeared, the hard angles of houses.

“Hey do you think the almond milk from last week is still good?” Karen called up the stairs; she knows I like it in my coffee.  

I sat down on the bed. I covered my eyes with my hands and rubbed, trying to get the ocean back.

I sometimes still wish she would figure out a way to bring it to me, even just a little piece—a piece of my old self for this new, concrete self I don’t recognize at all.

“I’m never going to be able to buy you a nice sweater for a gift, am I?” she joked once. I wanted to tell her that of course she could. I wanted to say I’d love anything from her. A sweater, a bunch of flowers. I wanted to be an easier person. But what I wanted even more was proof that if I was to forget who I was, she would remember. I wanted her to know that one rose and a bouquet of carnations were found in New York City’s Dead Horse Bay, still fresh and colorful, probably not even a day old. I wanted her to know—osmosis, telepathy—that those flowers would be a perfect gift. Or a photo of those flowers, or even if she had been the person to tell me about them—how they survived underwater and died when they were pulled out.

 

There’s a tangle of cross currents known as the “The Spider” off Battery Park. The Hudson’s breadth and the East River’s fast flow converge at their worst about two hours after high tide. The current rushes north in the Hudson River and west from the East River. This spidery water movement can cause ships to be trapped, unable to turn or change course under their own power. For hours, no one realizes they’re motionless, stuck, even in the place they most understand how to navigate.

*

When I turn all the other lights off, my room is illuminated only by a string of Christmas lights, completely green. For a moment I’m not pretending to be somewhere else. I’m not wishing whatever I’ve left behind would come back.

The Hudson River is not the ocean, but they’re the same color, especially when the light hits at 6pm. My room is suddenly the flashing safety light on top of coast guard stations, buoys, lighthouses, ship masts, underwater forests. 


Alice Neiley has a BA in English from the University of Vermont and an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from Hunter College in New York City. Her work has been published in Vermont Quarterly, Nashville Review, Eckleburg Review, Brandeis University’s Kniznick Gallery, ReSearch: Ezine of Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, ReviewYou, Tottenville Review, ReviewYou.com, Tahoma Review, Provincetown Arts Magazine, and now Underwater New York. She currently works as a creative writing professor for undergraduates at Hunter College.