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.

Descending by Ella Mei Yon Biggadike


BODY OF WATER: The Narrows

Everett’s not asking why anymore.  He rubs the wedding band on his finger, shimmies it down to his knuckle, and pauses.  The band hovers loosely as he steps closer to the edge of the bridge.  He looks over to Staten Island and over to Brooklyn. The adrenaline is numbing.  He sticks his hand into the wind and shakes the band free, letting it fall into the blackness. He watches it disappear, wanting to hear it break the water’s surface. This is what he’s gotten himself into. The groove in his finger where the band once was is a smooth valley and it makes him realize she’s carved into him.  It reminds him why he is doing this. From behind, the sound of a car horn emerges, as the bridge, brittle, wavers in the wind.

They got the rings on a whim in a tiny little antiques shop in a Long Island beach town two hours from the city.  Olivia wanted beach, despite the weather. They were bundled head to toe in a vacation town muffled with snow and finding it difficult to make conversation.  Each could imagine the sunshine, spilled ice cream cones, saltwater taffy and amusement park laughter–– mental images that, much like their happier selves, haunted them. They too, had seemed like ghosts of themselves lately, haunting each other.

Olivia sat on the floor of the shop, pulling on items from a woven basket. By the time she held the two gold rings, tied together with a red string, out and toward Everett she was wearing a large English tea hat, strings of faux pearls, big crystal clip-on earrings, lacey black gloves, and a pair of 50’s style winged glasses.  He burst into laughter at the site of her, grabbing his stomach and nearly stumbling.  It was finally something genuine.  He had been making his way through a stack of weathered old photographs from the early 1900’s.  He got the chills looking at their stone-like expressions, their pale ashen faces, half expecting them to come to life and start talking to him.  Seeing her dressed up like that was a relief to him. He looked at the two shining gold rings dangling from their string between her thumb and forefinger. This trip had been meant to save them.  He walked over and took them from her, held them in the palm of his hand, and bounced them around a bit, listening to the rings’ optimistic jingling. He was ready to save the day.

On the bridge, Everett lifts a leg over the barrier and stops for a minute, straddled there.  This seems the point of no return.  He shrugs to himself.  It doesn’t quite matter that much anyway now. The night comes back to him. The sweet girl and her blond hair in his face, the floral bed sheets, the perfumed spots on her neck and wrists. She hummed in his ear, and that made him certain she loved him, loved him in the way Olivia couldn’t. He curls his toes over the edge, grabs on to the safety rail behind him, and leans into the wind, a preview of what it will feel like to jump.

In the summer of 1988, Everett, 11 years old, stood on the diving board, bent at the waist with his hands hanging down toward the swimming pool.  His camp counselor, Suzanne, to whom he was hopelessly attracted, held him under the hips, her legs pressed up against him.  She lowered him slowly giving him time to focus on what he needed to do, though he couldn’t.  “Tuck your head before you hit the water,” she reminded him.  It wasn’t as scary this way, with Suzanne behind him, easing him into the water.  By summer’s end Everett was diving from the three meter, mostly to hear Suzanne cheer him on from down below.

Underneath him, below the bridge, is something like a black hole or the Bermuda triangle, or the rest of his life. Everett breaths intensely, working himself up, trying to get Olivia out of his mind and Suzanne in.  He tries to feel Suzanne behind him, feel the safety of her.  The water is black and slick in the moonlight. This is the point to jump, he knows.  It’s the deepest section of the river floor.  Ninety-six feet down. That’s where he wants to get to.  It’s his abyss; his prison. He hangs his body forward and drops his arms and tells himself it’s 1988.

Camp had been Everett’s relief.  The echoes of his father’s yelling resounded for the first week at Camp, but by August, he’d nearly forgotten how his body crawled away from the belt and his mind crawled further up the perfect floral wallpaper in their perfect 1950’s colonial.  The Christmas Everett broke the frosted glass Christmas tree his mother bought at Pottery Barn was the year he got on a Greyhound and rode three hours to Camp, only to find it boarded up.  He walked the campgrounds up and down, from his old bunk, to the tarp-covered pool, to the counselor’s bunks where one night the last summer he’d watched Suzanne through her bunk’s window.  She was wearing boxer shorts rolled down at the waist and a white tank top, reading a trashy novel with a flashlight. He watched her for a long while, until her light went out and even then sat, leaning against the shingled bunk exterior, looking into the sky.

Everett pushes off with his toes and falls. He had been trying to make himself dive by leaning further into the wind, half-expecting he could stop himself, half-expecting Suzanne to pull him back and say, “not until you tuck your chin–– hit the water with the crown of your head.”

His body breaks the water and a surge of pain runs up his arms. It is silent in his own mind and for a moment he just sinks. And then he remembers that he hadn’t meant to hurt Olivia, really.  He hadn’t meant to do her wrong, but even once he did, he hadn’t meant for her to find out.  He hadn’t even realized that what he was doing was quite as wrong as it was.  The girl was his and she had a woman’s eyes and that’s what made it seem okay.

As Everett descends, the warm water becomes cool, then cold.  The mixture is disorienting.  He rights himself and digs his feet into the sand.  There is a darkness floating in front of him. As he moves toward it, his foot slips from under him sending the bay floor up into a cloud.  He remembers bored days at the camp pool on Suzanne’s day off. He would let all his oxygen out and slide down the pool floor where the shallow end slowly became the deep end, then swim quickly to the surface for a deep and relieving breath.  He’d keep himself down there long enough to feel that he was a scuba diver searching for treasure or a merman looking for a cave.

Everett flips to his back.  The view from below the water’s surface: the underside of the Verrazano Bridge, like a long black strip with cables flying to nowhere and vague outlines of cruise and container ship hulls floating above like revolving full moons. He is nearer to the surface than he meant to be and he drifts on that top layer of water, his arms and legs lapping with the current.  The city lights make a galaxy and there is, nearby and coming closer, the red blinking light of a coast guard boat.  Out of the darkness comes the unnatural electric sound of a loud speaker.  “We’ve been looking for you.”

It was clear to Everett now.  Olivia had been the one badge of honor that he wore. That was all gone now.

Ella Mei Yon Biggadike has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College and an MSc in Creative Writing from The University of Edinburgh in Scotland, UK. She lives, writes, and edits in the Bay Area.