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.

Stacked by Jennifer Ray Morell

OBJECT: Two Shipwrecks on Top of Each Other

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River

From our beginning we've been joined, eager to take up the same space, breathe the same air. In our mother, we acted as one. We were almost born stacked, though that couldn't be. Instead we felt a moment of brief separation, a fissure. When the doctor plucked me from my mother, I reached out for my sister. I had never felt alone. 

As girls we slept in bunk beds with matching pillows and sheets, though the colors were transposed. We pulled pillows from the top and threw them to the bottom. We pulled blankets from the bottom and covered the top, until we forgot which set was ours. When I slept on the top, alone, I longed for my sister, throwing a blanket to the bottom bunk and feeling listless until she pulled to let me know she was still there. Sometimes she wouldn’t pull, pretending to be asleep or having vanished completely, and I would listen above the noise of the ceiling fan and cars driving past to hear her quiet breathing. 

If I were one, then I wouldn’t be on the top bunk. If I were one, there wouldn’t be two small desks lining the wall. If I were one, I wouldn’t feel like two. I was afraid to look over the edge to see if she was still there, to see if she ever was. Finally, she would laugh, but only when she heard my breathing change, small cries coming in waves.

I swapped cubbies in school so that ours would be stacked. Our lunches, sweaters, crayons would spill from above to below, mixing and always belonging to two. She would challenge me, trading with others to see if I would follow. High school was the same, and I wished that it was possible to remove the divider between the top and bottom lockers. 

One morning I tugged at my sister's lock after spinning right, left, right and felt resistance. She told me that it was new, that she would offer up the new combination, so I waited. It was our second severing. Later, she was not where we were supposed to meet: by the tree that looked like a deep V. I stepped up to stand in the crook between the two necks, hoping I would see her behind the crowd. I waited until the sky grew orange and pink, then dark, but my sister never appeared. When I got home, she was sitting on the couch, clutched by our mother who cried that I had been missing. “I was waiting for her!” I shouted over her wailing, and through the noise, I heard my sister’s laugh. I dragged my body, anchor and all, up the stairs and to our room. 

I saw that she had forgotten about me, like in those moments after birth when I reached for her, and she lay swaddled, alone. 

That night, in my bunk, the top bunk, I was quiet. I didn't have the words for her, and as I lay there, all I could think of was the bunk collapsing, crushing her beneath me. I thought I'd never be able to sleep. But then dreams came like flipping through a photo album: a wall being ripped from an apartment building like a doll house, people standing above and below but never knowing; a graveyard, coffin above coffin; and then, two ships in the Hudson, colliding and sinking, stacked. 


Jennifer Ray Morell is an MFA student in Fiction at The New School. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Sundog Lit, New School Writing, and xoJane.