Nothing Beside Remains
Here is a scene: July, and I’m boarding a ferry on Boston’s downtown pier with a man I met on a plane. The ferry is blunt-nosed, a metal bath with the words harbor island express stenciled on its flank. The sky is domelike, blue, crosshatched in jet trails. Less than a month ago, I broke up with my girlfriend of three years. Most of what little I own is still with her in the studio apartment we shared at the other end of the country, an apartment that I will return to at the end of the summer and find empty.
The ferry accelerates to tooth-rattling speed. Porpoises burst up from under the prow and launch themselves, nose-first, into the bright white shields of our wake.
What are you doing is the question my mother keeps asking me, and it is a fair question. I’m twenty-seven and I’ve never dated a man before. I doubt I know how to date anyone. The man points a camera at me, a moderately fancy digital thing too heavy to take camping. The man is an engineer. He is dimpled, earnest, younger than me. He cuts me off at the chin in every picture.
Here is the gateway to Boston Harbor, thirty-four islands scattered in the skinny embrace of the Nantasket Peninsula. We disembark at Fort Warren, an octagon of granite named for Revolutionary War hero Doctor Joseph Warren, the man who sent Paul Revere on the famous midnight ride. Tourists pass under the fort’s granite arches. Daytime has turned to brilliant, blinding heat. Three nuns pause to fan themselves in the shadow of a vertical map.
In the attached museum, I examine a Plexiglas case of fake food: waxy humps of mashed potatoes, loaves of putty-colored bread. Hanging from the ceiling, the allumic silhouettes of de-activated underwater mines. Here is Boston Harbor during World War II, stippled in contained explosions. Here is Doctor Joseph Warren, dying at the Battle of Bunker Hill without signing the Declaration of Independence. An eyewitness reported his last words: By Heaven, I hope I shall die up to my knees in blood!
I fill my water bottle at the bathroom sink and sit on my backpack. A park ranger in a wide-brimmed khaki hat announces an incoming ferry, onward to Peddocks Island.
The shoreline of Peddocks is gravel beach pressed low under piney bluffs. Between the two is a stripe of grass and an abandoned church as sun-baked as a clamshell. The ferry captain brandishes a poorly Xeroxed map, on the back of which he writes his cell phone number in yellow hi-lighter. In case of emergencies, he says. I tell him I don’t plan on emergencies. The man smiles at him, maybe a little apologetically, and takes the map.
We are the only people to disembark. There is a trailhead behind the church, uphill through the woods. I ask the man to describe the geography. Peddocks has four headlands, or drumlins, rounded formations like inverted spoonfuls of earth deposited by glacial movements sometimes during the last ice age. Six thousand years ago this old land was young and dry, a grassy plain named by the people who buried their dead under our campground.
“The oldest human remains ever found in New England!” says the man enthusiastically, hoisting our food into a tree.
There is one other tent in the clearing, and three fire pits. I unstrap the tent from my backpack and unfurl the ground cloth. This tent is a familiar body to me. I understand its contours and its weaknesses, and I can pitch it or break it down in something like a minute. Only a little more in the dark.
A woman emerges from the other tent and begins throwing matches into a fire pit. I lie on my back in the grass. A plane passes overhead, and then another, both bound for Logan Airport. The man calls to me. I can tell from the way he says my name, he already thinks we belong to each other. Another plane drags overhead and I pretend not to hear him. The trees grasp hands and ring my vision.
The ocean is whispering. Under my feet is a narrow spine of dune grass. Everything is slow now that the heat is gone, everything is the same temperature and the ocean is whispering. I am trying to understand. The man touches my shoulder. I grab his hand and cut sideways off the trail and down to the beach, tugging him behind me. There is a cluster of houses here, thresholds mere meters from the dunes, all shedding flakes of pastel skin. None have electricity or running water. The largest is pink, tilted forward as though poised to slide into the ocean.
This is Crab Alley, the site of a Portuguese fishing village from after the second Industrial Revolution. Somewhere out on the mud-colored ocean, families are floating their houses across the water on rafts of driftwood. Despite the Parks Service’s best efforts to evict them, the descendents still live here year round. Behind the houses is a row of windswept oaks, their branches curved upward like dancer’s arms, reaching green in the peach-tinted sky.
I’m still holding his hand. Down the beach, a middle-aged couple is perched on a tilted picnic table, smoking a joint in their underwear. The sand tapers to algae-covered boulders. The man sits cross-legged on a rock and watches when I pull off my shirt and wade into the ocean. The water is warmer than the sky. I’m still wearing my sneakers.
Here is a scene: three twenty am. Two people stumble through the ocean-dark. He holds a flashlight, but I try not to look at what the beam illuminates. Instead, I look at my feet. The ground used to be paved here, the dirt is mixed with asphalt. I’m wearing socks under my sandals. All over Peddocks are tall brick barracks with boarded up windows and caved-in roofs. There is no graffiti, but humanity is apparent. We follow a chain link fence to the edge of the water. At the edge of the woods is a makeshift fire pit, a granola bar wrapper and a used condom.
We tumble down to the water, beach rocks turning under our feet. It’s a little like falling out of the jungle. Across the water is the strange, smoky orange glow of the Boston skyline, hanging over the water like an oasical mirage. Behind me, the man twists and looses a coin of granite sideways over the water. It’s so fast I can only see the rippling concentric circles. Three thirty-five, three thirty-six.
At three forty, The International Space Station flickers into existence just above Boston. It’s brighter than the brightest star and moving shockingly fast, much faster than a plane but completely silent. It arcs upward across an entire quarter of the sky, a white freckle mutely banding the earth. Six minutes later, the station fades into darkness, winking into the night just before it falls into the wall of trees. I close my eyes. What are you doing I think to myself, but I’m not entirely interested in the answer.
“We’re so lucky,” the man says. I agree, we are lucky; my happiness is ridiculous. “I can’t believe I found you,” he says again. In outer space, the astronauts are watching the sunrise and set every forty minutes.
Somewhere at the end of the summer, also around three-thirty in the morning, I return to my empty apartment, holding a grocery store bag with freeze dried okra and cheerios because they are the only two foods in the entire store that don’t remind me of my girlfriend or anyone else. I lie in the middle of the floor. The okra shatters in my mouth like glass.
On our last morning on the island, we walk down to the beach to meet the ferry. I lie on the sand and place rocks in a line, from my collarbone to my bellybutton.
No one gets off the ferry.
“Glad to see you survived,” the ferry captain says.
I watch Peddocks until it melds with the other harbor islands. Boston Harbor is filled with yachts. They are tall and sparkling white like glaciers, floating mansions carved of ice and their hulls like cliff faces. On the pier, more tourists wait to trade places with us.
What is my hair doing? I ask the man.
“I think you look great,” he says. He leans towards me but I start forward across the grass. On the pier is a row of collapsible booths where some kind of maritime festival has taken residence. A man is gluing toothpicks together to make a tiny ship’s mast, demonstrating how to make ships in bottles. Another sands a plank of wood to velvet softness. He is building an old fashioned, wooden canoe. The boat is overturned across a pair of sawhorses, its ribs exposed.
The man runs his hands over the hooked stern of the canoe.
Knowing how to bend canoe ribs is a kind of art, because they are so easy to snap. They must be soaked and then cooked in a special oven.
How many things are as delicate as that. The sun comes through the ribs and casts long shadows across the grass, rungs of a ladder that lead nowhere yet.
D.R. Glass is a teacher in New Orleans. Her work can also be found at The Stoneslide Corrective.