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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.

Black Sails from Barbary by Ben Greenman

OBJECT: Shipwrecks

BODY OF WATER: The Rockaways 


CHAPTER ONE: WATER, LILY

World of the usual kind. Sunset on the widest of oceans. The Captain was eating supper with the crew down below. The mate notched a piece of wood and his action was rather brilliant. Edwards watched the water. He was not accustomed to these pleasure cruises for the rich, to the beautiful strong-jawed ladies and the men concerned less with those ladies than with their own pocket squares. It was above all a comfortable business, and Edwards had said to himself “With these people the sea’s more a bed than a grave.” It was not a remark that interested him. He was equally uninterested in the remarks of other men, and history, and parliamentary politics, and Lily who he had married the year before, and the goods of the earth. Nothing stuck to him so long as the whole business remained so comfortable. This was an atrocity, really, to make of the sea something safe. Didn’t they know what was down there, the serpents that could wrap around a woman’s leg and drag her to the ocean floor, the massive bivalves that could swallow a man whole? When Edwards had first come to the sea he had lived for those moments of fear, when the enormity of it all would expand to fill him. But he grew older, learned to affect a certain calm, met Lily, bought a bed, hung up his boots.

For a while he had lived that way. He worked a series of jobs and then settled into a management position at a small grocery. He smiled in the morning and let himself go to Lily’s smile in the evening. The two of them talked about starting a family, conversations that lasted late into the night, and the talk frightened him enough that he was secretly relieved when it did not happen. Then a woman he had known in his youth saw him in the street and told him that he had become “sealed.” It was a strange word and he parried with what he thought was wit: “Envelope or coffin?” But she did not answer him. She turned her back and walked away. He called at her door that night but she would not let him in, no matter how many times he said her name. The next week he answered an ad in the newspaper to crew on an ocean liner. Over dinner, he told Lily he was shipping out. He thought she might cry but her broad pale face broke into a sad smile. “I know where your heart has always been,” she said, and tapped her own chest, which confused him. 

Edwards was not senior crew. He had been away from the ocean too long for that. He was assigned to work as a weather scout. It was what he knew more than he knew anything else, to read the sky for signs. He stood at the stern of the boat and watched the sun disappear into the water and counted the wisps and whorls of clouds and smelled the air for moisture and tried to figure whether the storm was moving toward him or moving away. He stood there for a long time, marveling at the vastness of the water.  The sense of isolation was majestic. It was then that he saw the black sail in the distance and a single word escaped his lips: Pirates.

As they drew nearer Edwards saw that the ship was not what he suspected. It was not fearsome, not even intimidating. It was not much of anything. Though its sail was black, it was no more than twenty feet from bow to stern, and the only people aboard were one man and one woman. The woman had one gold tooth that gleamed in the evening light. The man carried a big flat sword and seemed to be attempting a beard. The woman was slight, dark, and quick. The boat drifted within earshot.

“I’m going to tell them to prepare to be boarded,” the man said. He was threading a rope through one of the stern cleats.

“Avast,” the woman added.

“Not avast,” the man said. “That’s what you say when you want them to stop doing something, or when you’ve given an order and you want to rescind it and give a new order. 

“Oh.” The woman turned her head and Edwards caught sight of a fine profile. She had a small nose and an equally delicate chin; her mouth wore an expression of amusement. “So I should say, ‘Trim the sails,’ and then say ‘Avast’?”

“You should say nothing,” the man said. Edwards could see now that he was younger than the woman. “You should let me do the talking. We don’t want to be comedy marauders, do we?” 

“I’m not familiar with that term,” the woman said. “Your mastery of the technical language of this job is intimidating to me.”

“Shut up, Nancy,” the man said.

“Don’t you mean, ‘Avast’?” she said. “And please don’t call me Nancy. You know we had an agreement, Howard.”

It was then that the woman looked up and saw Edwards, who realized that he had not sounded any alarm or even alerted the mate who was on watch. The whole thing had the feel of an amateur theatrical. The woman smiled at Edwards, and because she was a pretty young woman the smile seemed sweet at first, but it quickly sharpened into something vicious. 

“Prepare to be boarded,” the man said.

“Yes,” Edwards said.

They were on the deck in a moment and into the society of the boat.  The man went straight for the mate and made him kneel and stabbed him right there and then, once in the shoulder, hard enough that the blade disappeared entirely into flesh. This got Edwards’ attention. He ran for the Captain, who came up with food still on his face. “We are pirates,”  Howard said, and the Captain fainted dead away. Howard went on, speaking loudly to the fainted Captain. “This ship is ours now. You’ve been sailing pretty until now. You’ve had some nice and merry living. But now you have to get acquainted with the dead. Do you know this man?” He pointed at the mate with the toe of his boot.

“Of course. That’s Loomis. He was the mate." 

“I am going to dump Loomis overboard,” Howard said.

“What?” Loomis said.

“I thought you said acquainted with the dead,” the woman said.

“Please,” the young pirate said. He sounded desperate. 

“I have a better idea,” Nancy said. “Why don’t you put Loomis in our terrible little boat and then blow a hole in the hull? It’ll sink and he’ll sink with it. He can be Captain for once.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Howard said.

She turned to Edwards. “Who else is on board?”

“Lots. It’s a liner.”

“I mean what other guards.”

“One always mans the safe. Most of the others patrol corridors.”

“Corridors?”

“Hallways,” he said.

“I know what corridors are,” she said, kicking out at him unexpectedly. “What I meant was that it’s good that they’re off patrolling, and that you should take me to the one who mans the safe.” Edwards did not know how he could possibly have been expected to understand what she had meant.

“How was I to know that?” he said.

This time, her kick landed on his shins. “Shut up,” she said.

Edwards could not. “I can’t,” he said.

“Can’t shut up?”

“Can’t take you to the safe. I don’t know where it is. Loomis knows.” But Loomis was unconscious again. “It was stupid to stab him.”

The woman’s eyes widened. Edwards wasn’t provoking her. He hoped she understood. It was just that he always said what he was thinking, and he never lied. Lily always told him that his life would be much better if he could just say something that wasn’t true every once in a while. He thought about what Lily would say if he told her that he had been captured by pirates. “Good,” she’d say. “You’re learning.”

Nancy produced a gun, a small stub-nosed thing, and stuck it in the Captain’s back. “I’ll take him downstairs and get the engine room squared away,” she told Howard.  

Howard moved quickly with Nancy gone. He hauled Loomis over the side, onto the pirate boat, jumped back onto the liner, and then cut the rope that held the two boats together. The pirate boat slowly drifted out to sea. “In ten minutes, that thing’s going to blow, and then it’s hello, bottom of the ocean.” Edwards could think of nothing to say to this.  

Nancy reappeared, gun still in her hand. “I found the Captain’s guards and then I gave them all a shot.”

“You killed them?” Howard said. His voice rose hysterically. 

“No, I didn’t kill them. What do you think I was doing this morning when I packed the syringes and the sedative? Did you think it was for me, in case I got so excited listening to your stories about robbing banks and needed to calm myself down so that I didn’t jump you right then and there?”

“Now my stories about banks bore you?”

“Let’s not fight,” the woman said. “I did my job. I sedated them and tied them up. The captain got a half-dose so that he can steer the ship. Now do what you’re supposed to do. Introduce us to the nice man.”

“Okay,” Howard said. “I’m Carter and this is Dowling. Those are our last names but you don’t need to know our first. We’re pirates. What’s your name?”

“Edwards.”

“Last or first?”

“Last,” Dowling said. “There’s no one whose first name is Edwards.”

“I knew a guy once,” Carter said.

“What was he in prison for?” Dowling said.

Edwards thought Carter would laugh it off, but he struck Dowling on the arm with the flat of his sword. “Ow,” she said. “That really hurt.”

“Next time I’ll cut it off.”

The woman smiled appreciatively.

“Now take Mr. Edwards downstairs and give him a shot of that sedative." 

Edwards followed Dowling downstairs. He briefly considered trying to overpower her but then he remembered that she had a gun. She led him past a berth, where he saw the captain and the crewmen tied up. Then she pulled him into a small berth and slid the door shut. “Look,” she said. “I’m only going to give you a half-dose too. I didn’t bring enough. Also, I don’t think I’m going to put tape on your face because you have a beard and it won’t really work. That good for you?” Edwards nodded. “Before I load up the syringe, just tell me one thing. Tell me that Howard didn’t kill the only person who knew exactly where the safe is.”

“I don’t know. I was a late addition to the crew. There’s one guy, Symons, who probably knows. He’s easy to spot. Tall and bald.”

Dowling took out the syringe and turned it in her hand. It reminded Edwards of Lily, and the way that she held a pen. “Elegant,” he had told her when they had first met, but the truth was that it was belabored, as if she was aware that she was being watched. He wasn’t certain if that made it less elegant, but it made it less compelling. Compelling was the way the lady pirate was holding the syringe, not looking at it or even near it, aware of it by touch alone, sensual with ease. Her fingers danced as if she were playing an instrument. She caught him looking and gave him the shot, not as nicely as she might have. “We’re going to make our getaway soon enough, and I want to make sure that we can do this quickly and quietly.” She jabbed Edwards again. “Soon, you’ll feel kind of heavy around the eyes and mouth. You might nod off. When you wake up, there’s a decent chance we’ll still be here, on account of the half-dose. But don’t worry. We’re not going to hurt anyone else. The one, Loomis, we’ll have to write off to Howard’s personality. He isn’t much under pressure.” She smiled, and this was the reverse of the smile she had given before: it started out sharp but softened. “Howard’s only mean because he cares too much. You know how people are: a flower in a garden where metal spikes are the rule.”

When the woman began to hum a lullaby, Edwards figured that he was hearing from inside the sedative. He let his eyes close and went to sleep. In there, he dreamed water, dark and lovely.


 

Mysterious Goo, Immune to Diseases by Ben Greenman

OBJECTMysterious White Goo

BODY OF WATER: Gowanus Canal


“Except for waist-bands, forehead-bands, necklets, and armlets, and a conventional pubic tassel, shell, or, in the case of the women, a small apron, the Central Australian native is naked. The pubic tassel is a diminutive structure, about the size of a five-shilling piece, made of a few short strands of fur-strings flattened out into a fan-shape and attached to the pubic hair. As the string, especially at corrobboree times, is covered with white kaolin or gypsum, it serves as a decoration rather than a covering. Among the Arunta and Luritcha the women usually wear nothing, but further north, a small apron is made and worn.”

— W. Baldwin Spencer and Francis James Gillen, “The Native Tribes of Central Australia,” 1899

This description never fails to fill me with a mixture of longing (for the frank and carnal descriptions of the indigenous peoples) and boredom (I cannot abide the implication that it took two men to write that paragraph). But I do not want to remain focused too narrowly on those Central Australian women and the fur-strings that are fanned and attached to their pubic hair. Instead, I would like to turn to Spencer and Gillen, the two men responsible for this bit of informative, if somewhat wooden, prose.

As any student of Australian anthropology knows, Spencer was a principal of the Horn Expedition in 1894.  The expedition, the first to make a comprehensive attempt to understand Australia’s interior, left by train from Adelaide, proceeded to the railhead at Oodnadatta, and then left the tracks for camelback. The brave men of the Horn Expedition, Spencer among them, spent time in the Finke River basin, the Macdonnell Ranges, and Alice Springs. “It is beastly cold and beastly hot,” he wrote home to his elder brother, “sometimes simultaneously. In last evening [sic], I witnessed a buzzing bug the size of a dingo land upon the back of a wallaroo and drain the poor thing of its very vitality.” Spencer was prone to exaggeration.

Gillen was not. He was the more cautious of the pair, submissive and romantic. Though he was Spencer’s senior by five years, he was merely an assistant on the 1894 expedition. Following that journey, the two men struck up a friendship that blossomed into a professional relationship, and they soon collaborated on “The Native Tribes of Central Australia,” which was published in 1899, and from which the description above is drawn. I have been told by anthropologists that “The Native Tribes of Central Australia,” which runs to more than six hundred pages, contains valuable insights into initiation rituals, sun and moon myths, and the Witchcetty Grub Totem. I must believe them, as I have no desire to investigate for myself.

My interest in Gillen and Spencer stems not from their scholarship, but from the fact that they produced in me the greatest pleasure known to man. This requires some explanation. In 1990, I was disowned by my family, which was an Austrian industrial dynasty responsible for designing and then improving the kind of light aluminum railing that can be seen around the edge of suburban pools and other small bodies of water. “This is a terrible thing to be rich for,” I used to say to my father, and though he scowled at me, this was not why I was disowned. Neither was it the result of my scorn for his railing-gotten millions, or my insistence on using some of those millions to train myself as a bespoke boot maker. “I can buy you all the world,” he said, “and yet you waste your time making them,” to which I responded, without any intention of cleverness, “I do not need all the boots in the world, and I prefer to think of it as spending my time rather than wasting it.” The cause, rather, was Pamela, my first wife, who had a face as smooth as a water-worn stone and a mind as dirty as the bed of the river beneath it. The first time we met, we were at a formal dinner that was being hosted by my family and paid for out of my father’s trench-deep pockets. I introduced myself, and she scowled slightly. Later, she would tell me that she had an inborn suspicion of money and that which it had poisoned. But she was kind enough to speak to me, and moreover, to ask me questions. When she learned that I was a reluctant heir, and that I considered boot-making not only my trade but my fundamental identity, her eyes went soft and watery. “That’s not the only thing that went soft and watery,” she said: a mind as dirty as a riverbed. That was enough to spark the flame of love, but what kept it burning was her elaboration. She was an anatomist, a biologist, but also a sensualist, her great-grandfather’s great-granddaughter in many essential ways. “The female of the species, when aroused,” she said, “is liquefied by science.”

I repeated this insight to my father, who asked me where I had heard it, and then, upon learning its source, cautioned me against indulging the weakness brought on by the female of the species. “You are not exactly resistant to the manipulations of others,” he said.

“Except for yours,” I said.

“Just do not marry this woman,” he said, “or else it will be your final act as a member of this family.”

I committed this final act, of course. For anyone who thinks I was acting foolishly, I can only remember Pamela and what she looked like then. It is a form of explanation, which is not to say rationalization. When my father disowned me, he made the only joke I ever knew him to make. “You’d think you would like getting the boot,” he said.

As a wedding gift, I made Pamela the most wonderful pair of black leather cowboy boots. When I presented them to her, my head was still ringing from the dressing-down I had received from my father, and so I did not notice that she began undressing immediately. She took off everything and put on the boots. I let her break them in on our honeymoon night. We scuffed the tips repeatedly.

The next morning, she told me that she had a present for me. I closed my eyes. She leaned her bare breasts into my hand and then laughed. “That’s not it,” she said. “But open your eyes.” I did. Her great-grandfather’s book was on the table, open to the paragraph I have reprinted above. I read it.

“Do you want one?” she said.

“One what?”

“A tassel,” she said. I did not respond. “I mean a tassel on me that you can remove and then tie around your finger while you have your way with me.” I nodded. “Come,” she said. “Let’s walk.”

I followed Pamela out of the house. The boot heels clacked on the pavement. She kept a few paces ahead of me and sped up whenever I did. I could not catch her. As we went, she told me a story. While her great-grandfather was exploring in Central Australia, he filched one of the pubic fans from a woman to whom he had an immediate and powerful attraction. “Science was not impersonal for him,” she said. Later, when he married and became a father, he showed the tassel to his wife, but did not allow her to wear it. “Marriage had meaning for him, but it did not have ultimate meeting,” she said. When Gillen’s children were old enough to look for mates of their own, he presented them with a series of what he called “inspirations and injunctions,” the central message of which was that they should look for a partner with whom they felt a “powerful and uncontrollable mix of respect and attraction.” When they located that prospective partner, Gillen said, they should present him or her with the tassel (which would be passed from eldest child to eldest child) or the equivalent (this, Gillen said, could be anything that a younger child believed had the same symbolic and talismanic value as the tassel). Pamela’s grandfather, an Australian physician, was the first recipient. Her mother, who came to New York City as a fashion model and then, later, a furniture designer, was the second. Pamela herself was the third. When Pamela was thirteen, her mother gave her a box fashioned from desert rosewood; inside was the tassel. “Show it not to your first lover, but to your true love,” she said. When Pamela was twenty years old, she met a man, found herself attracted, traveled with him, even shared an apartment with him briefly, but did not show him the tassel. A few years later, she met another man, felt a significant attraction, felt respect, but did not feel compelled to show the tassel. Some years after that, she fell completely in love. She did not give me the man’s
name, and so I will have to invent one. I will call him Bill. When Pamela met Bill, she knew at once that they would be together forever.

“I felt everything,” she said, “from the cleanest and most crystalline intellectual affinity to the most transporting frightening physical throb.” One night, she disrobed before him and revealed the tassel, which she had attached to her hair in precisely the manner described in her great-grandfather’s book. She passed a blissful month with Bill, but at the conclusion of that time, he told her that he had met someone else. She despaired. She considered ending her life. Instead, she committed a kind of symbolic suicide, casting the pubic tassel into the river. That was eighteen months before she met me. Now that the two of us were together, she wanted to retrieve the tassel and try again. “Just because I have not yet lived up to my great-grandfather’s ideals does not mean that I should stop trying,” she said. Then she said, “Here is the spot.” We were on a bridge that spanned the Gowanus Canal. She went to a nearby tree and broke off a branch, scratching her hand in the process. “A small amount of pain is a small price to pay for what we are about to see,” she said. Then she walked down
to the water’s edge and stepped over a short aluminum railing, pointing at it and laughing as she went (her message, I assume, was that it was manufactured by my father’s company, and I admit that it could have been, though I did not check). She knelt down and sunk the branch into the canal to its hilt. Her hand almost touched the surface. She wiggled it around against the edge of the wall and then withdrew it with a happy cry. On the end hung the tassel. “Come here,” she said. I went down to the edge to meet her. She dried the tassel on the hem of her dress. On the way home, she stayed a few steps of me again; the boots went quickly on the sidewalk. When we were inside the apartment, she lifted her dress entirely, revealing that it was the only garment she was wearing. Again, a mind as dirty as a riverbed. She quickly fastened the tassel to herself. “Come here,” she said. I did. “Hold it in your hand,” she said. I did. The tassel oozed through my fingers. She frowned and quickly untied it from herself. “Look,” she said. I did. The white material, the kaolin covering that had been immersed in canal water, had come into contact with the scratch she had received from the branch, and it was having an immediate and visible effect, shrinking the scratch away to nearly nothing. She quickly saved the rest of the kaolin, which was softened nearly to a lotion, in a bag, which she put inside a jar. The effect of the canal water was not uniform: while it had jellied the kaolin, it had brittled the strings, which snapped in half. Pamela threw away the rest of the tassel. That evening, we repeated our performance of the previous night. When we were finished with our carnal exertions, she got up out of bed—again, wearing only her new black leather boots—and went to get the jar containing the kaolin. She set it on her bedside table and scrutinized it. Now it was no longer a jelly, but something even less solid. She inspected the contents with a magnifying glass. She held it up to the light. She dipped the end of a cotton swab into the jar. When she applied the tip of the swab to a blemish on the back of her hand, the mark vanished immediately. “Somehow, this substance has acquired healing powers,” she said. I did not understand how this was possible, and said so. “You know how it goes,” she said. “Liquefied by science.”

I did not understand, but I was not such a strong man that I was able to insist upon scientific transparency after being fobbed off by a glib remark from a beautiful woman wearing only boots. The marriage did not last long. When we dissolved our union, she wept and raged and told me that she was going to go down to the canal and pour out the contents of the jar. That time, she went out the door not in her black leather boots, but in a far more modest pair of flats. She did not return for the boots. She did not return at all. I reconciled with my father and was presented with a sports car that he told me was worth half a million dollars. I drove it like it was worth far less. I drove it thinking only of Pamela. I drove it with a mixture of longing and boredom. A few months after that, I received a letter from Pamela in which she told me that she thought of me often, but never thought of me directly. “When I went to the canal that day,” she wrote, “and crossed over the railing, I thought of it as you, in a fashion, and I could nearly not bear it. I poured out the jellied kaolin and was surprised to see how fast it broke the surface and made for the bed of the canal. It is there now, sitting at the bottom, healing whatever it touches.  It could have been yours.” A few days after that, she sent a second letter, her last, asking me to send her the boots.


Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker and the author of several books of fiction, including SuperbadA Circle Is a Balloon and Compass Both, and the recent novel The Slippage. He lives in Brooklyn.

Wet Work by Ben Greenman


Water is not simply a beverage, not simply a medium in which to swim or shower, and it is one of the egregious errors of our thinking to limit the role of this miraculous substance based on function, and in doing so to deny its ability to define, energize, and sanctify our daily lives.

Jason Santorini, having made this point in an interview, elaborated upon it in his journal.

“We are hell-bent on thinking of water at something at the end of a hose, or the leavings of a faucet, or what the sky deposits when it is displeased, or what fish are wont to soil,” he wrote, “but we do not admit the degree to which it is our parents, grandparents, and stern uncle all rolled into one miraculous molecule, an atom of oxygen sentinelled by two of hydrogen, in the fashion in which a certain cartoon mouse’s head was sentinelled by his two ears.”

In fairness, Santorini had been institutionalized since 1982, the year before this entry was written, and before that he was better known as a surrealist painter than a rigorous thinker in science or philosophy.

All the same, though, Santorini was especially conversant with the magical properties of water prior to his hospitalization.

“Water is in us all,” he wrote in 1978, “if we are fruit.”

This remark was taken as a joke in the spirit of one of his paintings or, at best, a glib comment on the rumors of Santorini’s bisexuality, but it was also a form of prophecy.

Scant months after writing that sentence, he met Sylvia Benton.

Benton was an apple heiress—her grandfather had hybridized several varieties and found his way to a large green specimen he called the “fantasmo.”

His name was Sylvio Antonelli, though he later Americanized it to Sam Benton and made millions from his fantasmos and their cousins: the brillantes, the ancoras, the saporitas.

His son, Jefferson Benton, was a responsible businessman who perished in a seaplane crash just off the West Twenties in his late forties, the result of which was that his granddaughter, Sylvia Benton, inherited the apple fortune when she was nineteen.

“That’s lots of high heels, cocaine, and rock-and-roll records,” she told a magazine columnist, who had the good manners to add that she “threw back her head (and the coppery red hair that was overgrown on top of it) and laughed.”

At the time, Benton was a fashion model, one of the most famous in the nation.

She had begun modeling at sixteen, and developed a reputation as a wild child: there were countless stories of affairs with captains of industry, actors, even a U.S. Senator.

She did not admit to these rendezvous but she did not deny them either.

At 21, while attending a private party aboard a docked lightship owned by one of the actors with whom she had been romantically linked, she met Santorini, who had just celebrated his fortieth birthday and was at the height of his fame as a painter.

“I heard you were a handsome man,” she reportedly told him, “and you do nothing to disappoint.”

“I heard that you like handsome men,” he reportedly replied, “and if that is so, then neither of us is disappointed.”

“Unless you, too, like handsome men,” she reportedly said, “and then I will experience a different sort of disappointment.”

“I prefer a beautiful woman,” he said.

“Let me make a note in your file,” she said.

This bit of banter evidently impressed several others, as it has surfaced in no fewer than three memoirs, the titles of which will not be reprinted here in the interest of space.

Santorini and Benton had an immediate and powerful attraction to one another.

For years, she denied what he insisted from the first, that they had consummated their relationship in the bathroom of the lightship as it went past the spot where her father had met his final reward.

Santorini saw the sadness in the situation.

“Life is death, and both are only feathers,” he said, possibly not surreally.

He also saw the carnal comedy in it.

“If the ship is a rockin’,” he liked to say, “use it for camouflage,”

That remark was reprinted in numerous newspapers.

Eventually she admitted that they had repaired to the bathroom for this reason.

Over the next two years, Santorini and Benton were inseparable.

They were both known as ardent travelers, but during their relationship, they spent most of their time at her home in Jersey City and his in Tribeca.

He called her the “apple of his eye,” always doing so in a hearty rounded tone that appeared to be thick with irony but was probably entirely without it.

She called him “her brush with greatness” in much the same spirit.

His pet names for her included “ancora,” “brillante,” and “delicato.”

She had no known pet names for him.

The two of them were photographed extensively, largely as a result of her celebrity and beauty, though Santorini himself took a good picture—he was often told that he resembled a much shorter Robert Mitchum.

The paintings that Santorini made during the beginning of his relationship with Benton need not be remarked upon in great detail, as they have been shown in several retrospectives and reprinted in assorted modern art texts.

They were always of boats, or rather always of a single boat, the lightship on which the two of them met.

What varied was what was occurring on board the boat. Sometimes, Santorni painted love scenes.

Sometimes, he painted scenes of shipboard theatre.

Sometimes there were animals in attendance.

Sometimes there were trees growing up from the deck, though they were not for the most part apple trees.

Often, there was a line of text scrawled along the side of the boat, sometimes an aphorism, sometimes a question.

Santorini insisted that the boats were not the true subjects of his paintings.

“It is not the vessel but the water beneath it,” he wrote, “which contains all the power, hope, and mystery that the poor and insubstantial craft, the bandit boat, trades upon.”

Critics wrote admiringly of Santorini’s technical abilities, particularly the way in which he captured the complicated pattern of light and shadow along the boat’s waterline.

Always, there was a woman hidden somewhere in the corners of the frame, whether standing or crouching or leaning over the rail to the water, a young woman with a voluptuous figure and red hair: Benton.

Santorini never tired of talking about her.

He liked to say that the two of them had been fated to meet, that they shared an ancient bond as a result of their common ethnicity.

“She has a little Italian in her,” he liked to say, “and it’s often me.”

This remark, too, was reprinted in numerous newspapers.

Santorini also told the newspapers that he and Benton bathed together every evening, and that though the ritual began as a way of celebrating the fact that they met aboard a boat, it came to have much broader significance.

“Water is not simply a beverage, not simply a medium in which to swim or shower,” he said, “and it is one of the egregious errors of our thinking to limit the role of this miraculous substance based on function, and in doing so to deny its ability to define, energize, and sanctify our daily lives.”

This remark, being wordy, was printed only in one newspaper.

Santorini spoke of Benton so much so that the preoccupation further fueled the rumors of his bisexuality.

She continued to model.

He continued to paint.

Her stock rose.

In 1980, Benton was hailed as “the most beautiful face on the planet” by a national magazine.

Santorini clipped that article and saved it.

In 1981, it was said that “beauty was in her like water was in the ocean: on the surface but also at far more profound depths.”

He saved that as well.

He put the clippings in a file that he labeled “Mia donna saporita.”

In 1982, for reasons that have been discussed in detail elsewhere and will not be restated here in full—it is enough to say that they involved the arrest of a dealer, the death of a critic, and the rezoning of a downtown waterfront neighborhood—Santorini’s paintings began to fall out of favor.

He denied that these factors played a part in diminishing his reputation, and instead placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of a trio of young painters he dismissed as slavish imitators.

One painter in particular, a tall and strikingly pretty young man named James Fogue, executed a series of canvases which restaged Shakespearean scenes on cruise ships, and became the sensation of the season.

“A ripple,” Santorini wrote, “resulting from another idea dropped into a pond years ago.”

Fogue sought out Santorini and admitted that the elder man’s paintings were an influence on his work.

Santorini softened his attitude toward Fogue.

“An echo,” Santorini wrote, “can sometimes be louder and more distinct than the original noise, and though this is not the case here, it is not so preposterous to assume that it may one day be so.”

Santorini befriended Fogue and was frequently seen with him in public, further fueling the rumors of his bisexuality.

He confided to friends that he was spending time with Fogue out of fear that Benton’s interest in him was cooling as his star fell.

“What could she possibly want with a dried-up old thing?” he wrote in his journal.

He drank heavily and doodled images of himself crucified, with Benton turning away triumphantly.

He began to add these doodles to his “Mia Donna Saporita” file.

For some reason, the magazine statement likening Benton’s beauty to the water in the ocean obsessed him.

He made copies of it and then, beneath the text, added doodles of her in which her hair, streaming behind her head, was drawn as waves.

Santorini did not show Benton the contents of his file.

He told her that he was writing poems about her.

He spent many nights drinking with Fogue.

He told friends he was drowning in despair.

“I know that she loves me, and know that as a result I cannot look at her directly without seeing the disappointment in her eyes,” he wrote in his journal.

In that same entry, Santorini declared that he was planning on rededicating himself to his relationship with Benton, and even expressed an interest in having a child with her.

“If we manage to combine her looks and her brains,” he wrote, “that child would have a chance to be something in this world.”

A few days after writing that entry, Santorini had a public falling-out with Fogue.

One man threw a glass of water at the other man, who returned fire with a glass of scotch.

Santorini stormed out of the bar and returned home.

“Upon reflection,” he wrote, “he was no more than a ripple resulting from another idea dropped into a pond years ago.”

Just before the holidays, Santorini and Benton were invited to another event on the lightship on which they had met.

The boat took the same course as it had previously.

Fogue was in attendance but kept his distance.

Santorini and Benton squabbled.

Santorini told Benton that he did not trust that she would stay with him and Benton admitted that she had thought of leaving.

Santorini was drinking heavily.

He noticed that Benton was not drinking and accused her of being pregnant.

She did not deny the accusation but did not confirm it.

“If you are, it’s not mine,” he said.

He waved his hands around.

“Affection has been alienated since before the summer,” he said.

She tried to walk away.

“I have to use the restroom,” she said.

“I know how you use it,” he said.

She did not answer and began to walk away.

“You are rotten to the core,” he said, and followed her.

The specifics of this argument are not in dispute as it has been entered into the record.

On the way to the restroom, Benton went off the side of the boat.

The boat was very near the spot where Benton’s father’s plane had gone down.

No one witnessed the events other than Santorini.

He did not report her as missing.

He slumped down in a chair.

Fogue came to talk to him but Santorini would not respond.

Another passenger, not Fogue, said that Santorini looked sick.

When the boat docked, Benton’s assistant, who had come to meet her, noticed her absence.

The ship’s staff established that she was not on board.

Police searched the river for Benton.

They found her body the next morning.

She had a bump on her head that was inconclusive.

Santorini surrendered to authorities.

“I did not push her, but I wanted to,” he said, “and that is crime enough.”

An autopsy confirmed that Benton was pregnant, and that the child was Santorini’s.

Santorini was never charged in connection with Benton’s death.

Over the course of the next year, Santorini had a series of nervous breakdowns that left him unable to care for himself.

On the anniversary of Benton’s appearance, Santorini was placed in a psychiatric facility.

The hospital building overlooked the Hudson.

Santorini frequently reported seeing seaplanes flying too close to the hospital.

He imagined that he had visitors, including Benton and Fogue.

Nurses bathed Santorini twice a week.

He could not bear to bathe alone and said so.

Every day at lunchtime, he set a fantasmo apple in front of him and took a single bite.

He saved the remainder of the apple and asked his nurses to cast them into the bay.

For the most part, they threw them away in a garbage can behind the nurses’ station.

Every once in a while, a nurse would experience a pang of pity and let Santorini watch as she walked out to the water’s edge and threw the apple into the river.

He asked the nurses who walked to the bay for him if they had seen the seaplanes.

Some of them patted his hand and told him that they had.

His daily lunch ritual included, along with the apple, a single glass of salt water.

He made it himself by shaking salt into the glass of water that the hospital provided for him.

He told the doctors that he was priming the pump of his tears.

They made a note in his file.


Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker and the author of several books of fiction, including SuperbadA Circle Is a Balloon and Compass Both, and the recent novel The Slippage. He lives in Brooklyn.