by Eleanor Lerman
“Are you sure this is what you want to do, Ed?”
“Yes. I’m sure.”
“You’re not going to come back to work?”
“I don’t think so. No.”
“Then you should apply for Social Security disability soon. It can take forever to come through, and your long-term disability insurance through the company is going to run out in two months.”
“I understand,” Ed said, nodding his head in a way that he hoped would emphasize how fully he comprehended and appreciated what the human resources director had just told him. “I already have the forms at home.”
He was lying, of course. At the moment, he wasn’t really capable of thinking far enough ahead to have done anything like call Social Security and obtain some complicated paperwork. But he would. Sometime soon, he would.
The human resources director, a young woman who managed to project an unassailably professional demeanor while also displaying a pleasant smile, responded to his seeming enthusiasm for her advice with a few more words of caution. “You know, Ed, Social Security denies disability coverage to almost everyone the first time they apply. All the more reason to get on the case.”
Again, Ed nodded at the young woman. Yes, yes. Soon he would get on the case. A few minutes later, he walked down a hallway in the office where he had worked for the past decade. Posters of the firm’s award-winning designs hung on the walls: book covers, magazine spreads, pages from high-end art auction catalogues. Ed had worked on some of these projects. He glanced at the posters as he walked, reminding himself that he might never see them again. In the reception area, he said goodbye to the girl at the desk and was just opening the glass doors that would lead him to the elevator bank when he heard someone call his name. He turned to see a woman he had often worked with, Judy Demeter, waving at him.
“Hey,” she said. “I didn’t know you were back.”
“I’m not really,” he told her. “Human Resources asked me to come in to discuss my plans.”
“Well, that’s great!” Judy said.
Ed reminded himself that people in the office often responded to almost anything you told them by saying that it was great. He turned towards the doors. But Judy stopped him.
“Hold up,” she said. “It’s almost lunchtime. Let me get my coat and I’ll take you out someplace.”
Ed usually ate lunch somewhere else, but he didn’t want to be rude, so he waited for Judy while she got her things and then followed her into the elevator and out to the street, where she took his arm and steered him to a nearby café. She selected an outside table separated from passing pedestrians by a low wrought-iron fence and some decorative planters.
“It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” Judy said. “Almost spring.”
“It’s warm,” Ed agreed.
A waiter brought them menus. Ed ordered a sandwich he didn’t expect to eat much of and Judy asked for a salad.
“So,” she said after the waiter left. “Tell me everything.”
Ed shrugged. “I just don’t think I’m coming back to work,”
Judy seemed surprised. “Really? Why not? I thought you were better. In remission, I mean. Cured.”
He didn’t explain that “in remission” and “cured” were two very different conditions and that he was probably somewhere in the middle. Maybe moving one way or the other but it was hard to tell. At least, that was what he gathered from the doctors, who told him they were encouraged by his progress and would be more definitive about his long-term prospects if and when that was possible.
“I am better,” Ed told Judy. “Finished the chemo and all that. But I just don’t feel…” Well, how to explain what he didn’t feel when he couldn’t even explain what he did feel? He had gone through many stages of panic and fear, but that had mostly subsided. Mostly. What else? Probably a lot, though he didn’t feel he owed enough to Judy Demeter to start exploring his psyche right now, at a café table on Lexington Avenue on the east side of Manhattan. “I just don’t feel like I can focus on work,” he said, hoping that would serve as enough of a reason to quit a good job.
But he soon realized that he didn’t have to concern himself too much with what Judy thought about his decision to leave the office. She was a dedicated gossip and was most interested in the state of Ed’s relationship with his boyfriend, Peter.
Ed and Peter, who had lived together for a dozen years, broke up before Ed had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Judy knew that because, in what now felt like a completely different life, a different time, Peter had confided in Judy once in a while. But now she started probing for new information—she seemed to have the idea that maybe, like in a romantic novel, illness had brought Ed and Peter back together again, which was not the case.
“So you haven’t seen him at all?” Judy asked when Ed told her that indeed, he had not seen or spoken to Peter in over a year. He was lying, though: Peter phoned him several times after Ed had the operation that had removed half his left lung. Peter meant well, but the conversations always ended up uncomfortable, and Ed was glad when the phone calls stopped.
“I still think it’s a shame, what happened between you two.”
“It’s an old story. At least, I guess, for our generation.”
Maybe, Ed thought, what he really meant was that it was a story endemic to his generation—he was forty-three—but was going to get old pretty soon, because what had happened to him and Peter seemed to happen to all kinds of couples nowadays. Two people fall in love even though one of them has a drug and alcohol problem, and the one who doesn’t thinks he can help the addict fix himself because, of course, the addict says he wants to. But he doesn’t really, and then, some number of painful, heartbreaking years down the line, the non-addict has an empty bank account, an emotional dependence on a semi-crazy person, and has lost all his friends, which is why he ends up talking to people in the office who are more interested in the drama of his situation—and in congratulating themselves that no matter how lousy their relationship is, at least it doesn’t involve late-night scenes about credit card debt and crack cocaine—than in helping to figure out how to cope with it. Of course, in reality, there is no coping with it, which is why Ed finally moved out. He left Peter with the one-bedroom, rent-stabilized apartment in Brooklyn that had been his even before the two of them met, along with most of their shared possessions. He just wanted to get out, to get away. He had to. His life had become impossible, frightening. Being awakened at two in the morning by the person who supposedly loves you but can apparently hold that thought in his mind while also demanding that you go out to the ATM to get cash because he can’t live through the night without an eight ball of cocaine is an experience you can only live through so many times.
“You know,” Judy said, “it’s usually women who have those kinds of problems.”
“What?” His attention had drifted and for a moment; he wasn’t sure what she was talking about.
“You know, the domineering spouse. The one who gets drunk—high, whatever—but still controls everything and destroys your social life to boot because no one can stand him.”
Ed had the fleeting impulse to defend Peter and say no, things weren’t that bad, even though of course they were. Instead, what he heard himself say to Judy was something that sounded like he was reading from an editorial, or the lead-in to an article in a magazine. “That might be reducing things to gender stereotypes just a bit, don’t you think?”
“Not really. But if you do, then I’ll put it another way: all of us seem to be metamorphosing into each other. Nowadays, men have women’s problems and women have men’s.”
“Like what? I mean, what men’s problems do women have?”
“Are you kidding? Staying in shape. Being ambitious. Competing for jobs and promotions. Supporting your family. Fixing your own damn car. I could go on.”
But she didn’t, thankfully. She spent the next few minutes eating her salad, and when the conversation resumed, it became less personal. Ed asked about Judy’s current projects and she told him, in great detail, about a website redesign she was working on for a chain of clothing stores. Programming issues abounded, and Judy’s description of these took them through to the end of her lunch hour and a little beyond. Finally, amid a flurry of goodbyes, she rushed back to the office and Ed headed for the subway.
Two stops got him to the station where he changed for the train to Jersey City, where he lived. In the middle of the day, that train ran infrequently, so he considered himself lucky to find it waiting in the station, about to depart. The doors closed just a few moments after he got on. Sitting alone in the car on bright blue and orange plastic seats, he passed under the Hudson River, traveling through a long tunnel.
After disembarking from his station on the Jersey side of the river, he walked a few blocks to his building. Even after almost two years, as he approached the hi-rise, he often still felt surprised to think of it as his home. The modern, luxury building possessed a magnificent view of the river, along with doormen and a gym and other amenities including a rooftop area that could be reserved for parties. It was so different than the old Brooklyn brownstone where he had lived with Peter—not necessarily better or worse, just very different.
Ed could only afford an apartment in this new glass and steel tower of condominium units because it was a sublet—a tiny one, at that, just a studio with an alcove for the bed. The original owner didn’t want to sell it but needed a renter to cover the maintenance charges, which was just about what Ed could afford after he paid off the debts Peter had racked up in both their names. In fact, there was a time when Ed thought of all the obstacles he faced, including the breakup, the move, and the mountain of debt, as challenges he had to overcome. In particular, relocating from his large apartment to a tiny studio, leaving behind most of the things he owned including furniture and kitchenware and all sorts of mementos and other objects he had collected over the years, seemed to him like a process of stripping himself down to fighting weight as he prepared himself for a more stable and fulfilling life—maybe even a new love—that would begin to take shape somewhere in the yet-to-emerge but foreseeable future.
Instead, he ended up fighting death.
Ed was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after he moved to Jersey City. He went to the doctor because of a persistent cough and within two weeks was in the hospital having half his left lung removed. No one could explain to him why this had happened—he had never smoked and he had no family history of deadly cancers. His doctor had said, We’re never going to figure out why, so let’s just go ahead and do everything we can to give you the best possible outcome. Ed didn’t like the word “outcome” because he thought it made his entire life sound like a badly thought-out plan that now had to be substantially revised by a team of experts.
But once the experts took over, Ed did what they told him to do, and he very quickly stopped thinking of his role in dealing with the operation and its aftermath, which had included both radiation and chemotherapy, as anything even remotely resembling combat. He would have been defeated the first day. That wasn’t because he didn’t have any inner resolve or a healthy will to live, because he knew that he did possess those qualities—instead, he felt like he just couldn’t get a good grip on the reality of what was happening to him and so couldn’t come up with any kind of battle plan. From the moment he’d heard the diagnosis Ed felt like he was holding hands with Death, but at the same time, he couldn’t quite believe it. Still, the idea of dying seemed so inexplicable—How could he, Edward Rosen, cease to exist? What could that possibly mean?—that he went into a kind of mental and emotional shut-down rather than try to confront it. Being in that state did not make him a good warrior.
It did, however, make him a good patient. He had followed all the doctors’ instructions so well in terms of treatments and medications that now, when much of the medical attention he required was beginning to taper off, he sometimes found himself feeling adrift. These days, when he looked at his watch, or happened to see a clock in some store window, he automatically consulted his mental checklist of which doctor’s appointment he had to keep, which pill he had to take, and when there was none, he almost felt flummoxed. What was he supposed to do with himself?
Sometimes that question answered itself: he just had to sleep. Walking into his apartment now, he was so exhausted from the trip into the city that he was ready to simply fling himself onto his bed in the alcove at the end of the small studio and close his eyes. But before he could pull the covers over himself, the phone he kept at his bedside rang, and he answered it.
“Eddie? Hi. Were you sleeping?”
It was his cousin, Mary. She was the same age as he was and a close companion since childhood. They were good at reading each other’s moods, but since his illness, Mary had gotten even better. Even on the phone, all he had to do was say hello and she could tell if he was feeling tired or out of sorts.
“I was going to take a nap,” Ed told her.
“I wanted to hear how things went at work. How about if I stop by around seven? I’ll bring a bottle of wine.”
“Sounds good.” It was only since he’d completed chemotherapy that he’d been able to have beer or wine again, and while he’d never been much of a drinker, just the idea that he could have a glass of shiraz made him feel like he was one foot further away from the land of the dead.
He woke from his nap a few hours later without even remembering when he’d fallen asleep. Outside, the blue evening deepened its color; the ferry traffic running back and forth across the Hudson had noticeably increased. Mary would be on one of these, so Ed took a quick shower and then looked in his refrigerator to see what he had to offer his cousin. There was cheese, some bread, a couple of apples. He put the food on plates, which he carried out to his terrace.
Mary arrived about half an hour later. A thin woman with an intelligent face and straight blonde hair that she kept in the same shoulder-length cut that Ed remembered from their childhood, she gave him a quick embrace and then walked out to the terrace, carrying the bottle of wine and two glasses. Ed followed her and asked how her day was.
“I wish we were making more progress,” she said. “But we’ll get there.”
Mary, a biochemist who worked for a pharmaceutical firm, led a team researching a new Alzheimer’s drug. The work consumed her; she enjoyed little social life outside of work and remained unmarried.
There had been boyfriends—chilly men who seemed to come and go without much fanfare. Ed knew that. He knew a lot about her life, just as she knew about his. The bond they shared stemmed from an upbringing that threw them together much of the time. Their mothers were sisters, the families close, and Ed and Mary, only a few months apart in age, were often in the same class at school. They had grown up in the kind of Connecticut suburb where being athletic had a strong relationship to popularity. Both were the kind of studious, library-going youngsters who had few enough friends to have learned the value of each other’s easy company.
They drifted apart during their college years when Ed was in New York and Mary in California, but became close again when Mary moved back east for her first research job. Now, she worked in Manhattan and lived in New Jersey in a town just a few miles away from Ed’s apartment. During his illness, Mary was constantly at his bedside, or sleeping on his couch when he was home, ill from chemotherapy and unable to get to the bathroom to be sick. Both their mothers and fathers had died years ago and with no other family around, Ed had been grateful for her attention. He knew that people sometimes thought her too cerebral, to controlled to get close to, but that was not his experience of his cousin. It had never been.
Now, as Ed sat beside her in a lounge chair, she poured them both a glass of wine and remarked, as she often did when they sat here together, on how lucky he was to have a view of the river. It was getting dark enough to imagine that the lights they saw crisscrossing the Hudson moved across the water by themselves instead of being attached to ferries and tugboats and barges.
“So,” Mary said. “You were going to fill me in about work?”
“I told them I wasn’t going back, so they said I should apply for disability. I’ve already looked all this up,” he added. “I can be on disability for a while and then go back to work when I want to. When I can.”
“So, do you feel disabled?” Mary asked.
“I feel…” Ed said, and then stopped. It occurred to him that he had been searching for the right word all day: the right thing to tell the human resources manager, to tell Judy Demeter about what had happened to him, why he wasn’t exactly the person they were used to. Why he had changed, because he had. And now, in the dark, sitting on the terrace high above the moving river, it came to him.
“I feel wary. You know how in movies, after someone has nearly died but they didn’t, they go around making speeches about how special and precious life is and they just want to eat it up? Live every moment to the fullest or something like that? If that’s what happens in real life, too, then I guess I skipped right past that phase to something else. A different phase.” He paused for a moment. He wasn’t thinking at all: the words came to him as he spoke them. This was new territory; he was saying new things. “I feel like I’ve been exposed to something. Mortality, maybe? Eternity? Or maybe I mean the possibility that there is no eternity for your average everyday human being.” Unexpectedly, he laughed at himself, at the terms he was using. He couldn’t remember the last time he had spoken the word eternity.
“Anyway, every minute of every day, or almost every minute, I feel like I’m peering around corners and there’s something I should be able to see but I can’t. So how can I sit at a computer and design brochures? It would be ridiculous. Impossible. I can’t make myself think about brochures or ads or the color scheme for some magazine spread when I have to get ready for whatever is coming at me.”
Mary nodded. The contours of her face finally seemed to have formed themselves into an expression that Ed was meant to read. She was serious, attentive. “I understand,” she told him. “I do.”
Then, suddenly, Ed felt a kind of jolt go through his body. He was immediately aware that his eyes had been closed and the lightning stab he’d felt was just a dream that ended with some imaginary hand shaking him awake.
Blinking, he looked over at Mary. “Did I fall asleep?” he asked.
“Just for a few minutes,” she told him.
“That happens every once in a while. I don’t even realize it.”
“It made me think of something. Watching you sleep.”
She wanted to tell him what it was, but Ed got the feeling that she was waiting for some kind of permission. Maybe she thought it would make it him uncomfortable?
“The hospital?” he guessed, which was his way of saying, go on. He’d had some touch-and-go days in the hospital and Mary had been there for most of that time, but she hadn’t spoken to him about it much.
“It was after the operation. You were unconscious for a long time and I got the feeling the doctors were afraid you weren’t going to wake up. They didn’t tell me that, but I knew. I remember sitting beside your bed one night and I suddenly remembered a lecture I went to years ago at a conference. Most of the presentations were more or less routine—I mean, it was all very technical research on brain chemistry, but nothing, really, that I hadn’t heard before—until one fellow came to the podium and presented a paper on consciousness. He was a biologist, actually, but his paper was more philosophy than science, and it caused quite a stir. In essence, he said there was no real proof that human consciousness is created in or arises from the brain. His contention was that the brain is an organ, maybe a highly complex and sophisticated one, but still, it’s just matter, neurons, glial cells, and bundles of axons fired up by electrochemical brain fluxes, so how does that manifest consciousness? How does that produce a self, or at least, what we think of as the self? The thoughts, feelings, tastes, predilections that comprise who we are and what distinguishes us from each other. At the end of the presentation, someone asked him where he thought consciousness emerged from if it wasn’t a product of brain function. The biologist’s reply was that he didn’t know, but it must be somewhere else.”
“That’s a pretty strange idea.”
“I guess. But it is intriguing. Where is the mind if it’s not in the brain? When I was in the hospital with you, when you were asleep—unconscious—I began thinking about that question and it made me wonder where you had gone. I was wondering the same thing just now, when you were asleep. Maybe your brain was in some somnolent state, but at the same time, maybe your consciousness was…I don’t know. Elsewhere?”
“Elsewhere? You mean, like, around the corner?”
Mary laughed. “Okay, Eddie. Touché.”
They soon drifted away from that subject then and talked about other, less weighty things. Mary left in a cab around nine. Ed stayed up for a while, watching television. He dozed off watching reruns of a program where a judge mediated disputes about car loans and dog bites, woke up again around two a.m., and took himself off to bed.
The next morning, Ed went to his cancer survivors group. This was another therapy that his primary doctor had recommended. The group, four women and two other men, only got together every other week, meeting in an old, narrow building not far from Ed’s apartment. Entering through the unlocked front door, Ed went down a flight of stairs to the basement meeting room where the usual battered metal folding chairs were arranged in a circle. Once all the group members had shown up and seated themselves, one of the women began their session by discussing her ongoing problem with insomnia and how none of the prescribed sleeping pills helped at all.
There was no leader of this group, no counselor or therapist—the idea was that they were supposed to help each other cope with their problems. They were all post-chemo, so they were all in the same boat, more or less, and generally, they talked frankly with each other. Usually, almost everyone participated, but today, Ed stayed silent. No one noticed as he sat, glancing from one person to another.
Maybe it was that he had stayed up too late or gotten up too early and so was having a hard time engaging with the group, but whatever the reason, his perception of these people had shifted. Bald, scarred, gaunt—and he included himself in that litany of woes, even though his graying brown hair was beginning to grow back and his scars were hidden under his shirt—it had suddenly occurred to Ed that none of these people were in their original bodies. They couldn’t be. The surgeries—and some of them had several—the drugs, the radiation… they stripped a person down, weakened muscles, pulled the hair from your head, grayed your skin. Everyone had lost weight, everyone looked a little stooped and walked a little hesitantly. Their clothes no longer fit properly. Once, they’d even discussed how hard it was to see pictures of themselves before they became ill because they knew how different they looked now.
It was a disturbing idea. Ed could imagine that aging would do that to you, too: make you feel like your body was entirely different than the one you had started out in—or at least, matured into, when you felt, looking in the mirror, that you were really you—but getting older was a gradual process. Maybe, Ed thought, it gave you time to adjust. Being at death’s door speeded up that process in a way that no one could be prepared for. Ed certainly wasn’t, and he found himself regarding the group members with something like fear. Close to fear. They looked like ghosts. Still in their bodies, but ghosts nonetheless.
Because of these thoughts, it was hard to sit in the dingy basement room for the full hour of the meeting, but Ed managed to remain in his chair. As soon as the session ended, however, he was up the stairs and out the door. Half a block away, he reminded himself that it was only eleven o’clock, which meant an hour until his usual lunchtime destination opened for business. It was a nice morning—early April and warm enough to pass the time outside, so Ed found a bench in a tiny park a few blocks away from the community center and sat in the sun for a while. The next thing he knew, it was twelve-thirty, which meant he had dozed off on the bench. Pulling himself to his feet, he started walking before he’d even completely shaken off the lingering feeling of drowsiness, as if it was something that could be outpaced. He hoped that this business of falling asleep without even being aware that it was happening was going to end as he got stronger, because he’d already lost enough control over his life. He didn’t need this reminder that even staying awake was a tenuous proposition.
But he soon felt better. He passed by the street that he would have turned down to reach his building and headed in the opposite direction. Running alongside a promenade beside the hi-rise where Ed lived was a narrow channel leading from the Hudson to a marina situated at the edge of a broad swath of parkland that jutted out into the river, opposite the Statue of Liberty. The channel, which allowed small watercraft to travel between the river and the marina, was a little over a hundred feet wide. Moored on the opposite side of the channel—the park side—was a former lightship, a big red boat that served as the marina’s office. Last summer, the marina’s owners opened a small restaurant on board—the Lightship Grill—which served hamburgers and beer. It was a time that Ed was still undergoing treatment and he didn’t have much of an appetite. But somehow, he thought he could get down a burger, and besides, he needed something to anchor his day, something to get him out of the house and headed someplace that wasn’t a doctor’s office or a hospital. Eventually, getting to the Lightship Grill became his daily goal, despite the fact that it was often more of a challenge than he expected.
Though it would have taken just a minute or two to cross the channel and reach the lightship, there was no way to do that—no bridge, no walkway. So, to get to the Lightship Grill, he had to walk deep into the older, commercial area of Jersey City—a neighborhood of bodegas and auto body shops—that people like himself, living in the newly built riverside condos, rarely saw. Then, with the aid of an unreliable traffic light, he crossed a highway near a marker that informed him he was leaving one county and entering another. Finally, after what sometimes felt like an epic journey, he reached the edge of the parkland where the channel ended and could walk along the shoulder of the paved road leading to the marina. In the summer, he strolled through a border of flowers; in the winter, he tramped through snow.
Today, in spring-like weather, the walk seemed less strenuous than usual. He reached the lightship and climbed the metal stairs affixed to the side of the hull. To Ed, the ship, which had been rescued from a junkyard after having spent half a century stationed at various spots along the east coast where it had served to mark dangerous reefs, shoals, and other low-water points, always felt steady and substantial underfoot. It had a multitude of heavy mooring lines that kept it tied up parallel to its dock. Two tall masts, one at each end of the ship, held the electric lanterns that gave the lightship its name. Ed had never actually seen them turned on, but he assumed that they still worked. The ship’s deck held chairs and café tables protected by brightly colored market umbrellas. At an outside bar nestled into the corner, you ordered your food and drinks from a young woman who then brought your order to your table when it was ready. Ed liked to sit on the deck during pleasant weather, and in the winter he passed the time in a small below-deck dining area ringed by a series of portholes that sliced the view of parkland and the cold blue sky above into small, perfect circles.
Today, he ordered a hamburger and a beer from the girl at the bar and seated himself at one of the café tables. Except for the occasional individual who climbed the stairs and then immediately headed below deck, to the marina office, he was the ship’s only lunchtime patron.
This is a nice spot, he thought to himself, as he did almost every day, even those days, in the past, when he had felt so weak that he could barely eat. One of the things he most enjoyed was the tang of salt water wafting in on the breezes. The lightship floated not far from where the Hudson River emptied into New York Bay, which meant that the wide ocean was just over the horizon. Occasionally, one of the cruise ships that docked on the New York side of the river passed by, blowing a long, low note on its horn as it headed out to the Atlantic.
As Ed ate his lunch, he distanced himself from his reaction to the survivors’ group that morning. The idea of the body’s metamorphosis from the familiar form that encapsulated the self into a kind of ghost-like decay seemed a little less threatening—a little less like something that had to be dealt with in the immediate present—now that he was out of that depressing basement, relaxing in the sunshine that lit up the world this early afternoon. But thoughts of body and self led him back to his conversation with Mary last night, and her suggestion that the mind—and hence, the self—might not actually be anchored within the body, at least, not in the brain.
It was still a strange concept, but it reminded Ed of a television program he’d seen during one of his late-night sessions of channel surfing: it was about the Egyptians and their belief in the afterlife. They thought so little of the brain as the container of the self—and its soul—that after death, they pulled the brain out of the skull through the nose and disposed of it. Then the soul could begin its journey to the afterlife, which, if Ed remembered, involved traveling across the Milky Way, which the Egyptians regarded as the Nile of the sky. That was why they sometimes buried boats along with their exalted dead, or, if you were of a lower station in life, you might be accompanied in death by a model of a boat or a pot painted with sailing vessels that could carry you along toward your next destination.
And that, Ed told himself, was enough consideration of big, unresolvable issues relating to life and death for today. Not that, as he’d told Mary, these kind of thoughts weren’t with him much of the time, anyway, but once in a while he had to allow himself to let them slide, or try to anyway. Warmed by the sunshine, concentrating his attention on the surprising sight of a kayaker paddling through the marina, Ed sat on the deck of the lightship for a while as he drank his beer.
Two weeks later, on a Saturday night, Mary was to receive an award. An association of scientists that she belonged to had singled out her work on brain chemistry for a top honor, which Mary would receive at a banquet at the Hilton Hotel in the city. Since there was no current male companion on the scene, she asked Ed to come with her. He’d had one of his suits taken in so it would fit properly on his thinner frame, and after he picked it up from the tailor on the morning of the event, he went for his usual lunch at the lightship. Then he spent the afternoon at home, resting. In the evening, as he got ready, Ed actually looked forward to the dinner: he hadn’t been to any kind of social event in a long time, and even if he wouldn’t know anyone there, just the idea of being around people—people who weren’t sick, who weren’t patients or doctors—seemed like another step toward normalcy.
The plan was for Mary and Ed to take a car service into the city and then home again. The doorman of Ed’s building buzzed his intercom at six and told him that a car waited for him outside. Ed grabbed his coat, locked his door and descended in the elevator. Downstairs, he thanked the doorman and went outside, where a black Lincoln town car was parked.
Mary sat in the back seat. Ed got in and was immediately struck by a change in her appearance: her blonde hair had been sculpted into an upsweep that made her sharp-planed face look even more finely honed and she was wearing makeup, something she rarely indulged in. But it had been perfectly applied—the tones she’d used deepened the blue of her eyes, defined her brows and lips. She looked, Ed thought, quite beautiful, and he told her so. In response, she simply nodded. Then, a moment later, she gave him a warm smile and said, “Thank you, Eddie,” but her reply was an afterthought.
The driver got them through the Holland Tunnel from Jersey City to downtown Manhattan with just the usual stops and starts caused by the evening traffic. It took another half hour to get to the Hilton in midtown, where dozens of other cars and taxis were depositing passengers. Mary confirmed the time that the driver was to pick them up later and then turned toward the entrance of the hotel. As she did, Ed held out his arm for her, and she laid her hand on his sleeve.
Inside, signs directed them to the banquet, which occupied the hotel’s main ballroom. First, they stopped at the coat check that had been set up. It was a crowded area, and as Ed took off his coat, he found himself separated from Mary, actually losing sight of her for a moment. When he spotted her again, walking back to his side, she had her coat off, too, and what she wore surprised him.
Most everyone dressed in what Ed thought of as evening wear: dark, tailored suits and an array of cocktail dresses, many embellished with lace or sequins. But Mary wore something quite different: a strapless, ankle-length sheath of midnight blue so deep and satiny that it looked like it was woven from shadows. It was a dramatic dress, severe and yet subtly sensuous.
Ed escorted his cousin into the ballroom, where several people stopped to greet her. They complimented her on her award, but Ed could tell that they were mostly trying to take in how dramatically different she looked than the usual, daytime Mary, their colleague in the pursuit of science. Mary thanked everyone politely and then moved on, letting Ed lead her between the crowded tables decorated with linen and flowers and crystal glasses.
They sat at a table with Mary’s colleagues from the pharmaceutical lab where she worked, along with their spouses. Though there was a lot of chatter at the table, Ed noticed that Mary made little effort to join in—she simply sat amidst the noise and bright lights, looking impassive. But as the room filled up, more and more people stopped by their table to say hello to Mary and to congratulate her on the award. Though Ed had been aware that Mary was both successful and widely respected in her field, he realized that he had not really understood just how highly regarded she was, and by how many people. He was impressed, and he told her so.
Her reply was the same mild, succinct response she had provided when earlier, in the car, he’d complimented her on her appearance. She simply said, “Thank you, Eddie,” and then turned to greet another well-wisher with a cool smile.
Black-jacketed waiters brought salads and then entrees of fish or steak to the table before the program began. Ed ate what he could of the food—his appetite was still not back to what it should have been—then put his fork down. Perhaps assuming that he was done, the woman sitting next to him took the opportunity to engage him in conversation.
She introduced herself as a biochemist who worked in the same lab as Mary. Specifically, she continued, she was part of a team of researchers who were trying to refine a promising new drug to treat depression. “And you?” she asked. “What are you working on?”
The way she asked the question gave Ed the impression that she thought he, too, was involved in some sort of scientific research. He was about to answer her—to say that actually, he worked in graphic design and was only here tonight as an escort of the one true scientist in the family—when he realized that he didn’t really know what answer to provide. Was he still a graphic designer? He had officially quit his job and made an appointment with his doctor to fill out the paperwork to receive disability payments from Social Security. So if he was no longer employed as a designer, could he still claim to be one? Should he say the kind of thing he knew you were supposed to say when you were unemployed but wanted to put a positive spin on your situation—something like, Right now, I’m taking some time to explore my options—which, come to think of it, wasn’t a complete lie. Though of course, if he was going to go down that road, the honest truth would be to tell the chemist that about a year ago, his life had stopped, and he was waiting for it to start again, but he wasn’t sure when that would be.
Too much, Ed told himself. You’re making this too complicated. The answer he finally went with was, “Nothing as interesting as what you’re doing.” And then, thankfully, someone appeared at the podium on the stage at the front of ballroom and announced that the ceremony would begin shortly.
Over an hour passed. On stage, people came and went, receiving plaques and proclamations written out in elaborate calligraphy to mark their achievements. Sometimes, a short film detailed their progress in some esoteric field of research expected to, someday, have beneficial effects on humankind. Eventually, the evening’s host returned to the platform and spoke Mary’s name, adding a description of her research, which he called ground-breaking, and concluded with a testimonial to the significance of her work. It now became clear to Ed that her award was among the most significant of the night.
When the speaker concluded his remarks, Mary rose from her chair and made her way to the stage. Every eye in the room followed her.
The emcee handed her a shining plaque before she moved to the podium to deliver her acceptance speech. Ed barely heard what she said; instead, he was trying to process a revelation that suddenly presented itself to him, an unexpected insight into the beautiful woman standing on the stage with her Grecian hairdo and close-fitting sheath of midnight blue satin.
And she was beautiful: regal, sexual, enigmatic—all that and more. And Ed’s revelation as he studied this commanding figure on the stage was that she was broadcasting a message, and that message, which was meant for every person in the room, every one of her colleagues, admirers, employers, and rivals, was, You think you know me but you don’t. You have no idea who I really am.
But why? What had compelled her to present this heretofore unseen and totally unexpected persona—the beautiful woman of mystery—to an assemblage of her peers? Was this some kind of hidden rage showing itself as prideful vanity, or perhaps some long-suppressed neurosis manifesting itself as an urge to upend her image as a conventional soul? Or could it be that she was simply enjoying making mischief? Here is the great scientist presented to you as a goddess in blue, with golden hair.
Nothing Ed knew about her lent any credence to these speculations. And yet he was absolutely sure that he was right: come Monday, no doubt Mary would put on her city suit, her lab coat, and take up her daily tasks just as she always had, but tonight, she was not that person. Not at all.
When the beautiful woman in the midnight blue dress came back to the table, everyone tendered their congratulations. Ed did, too, but she said nothing in reply. She simply offered an inscrutable smile and returned to eating her dinner.
The program wound up around ten, but the banquet guests lingered in the ballroom, milling around under the brilliantly lit chandeliers and chatting with one another. Mary, however, didn’t want to stay. She led Ed out to the cloakroom, brushing off whoever tried to greet her or offer congratulations on her award.
Ed got their coats and they walked out of the hotel. The town car Mary had arranged to pick them up was already waiting. The cousins entered the car and headed downtown, towards the tunnel that led across the river.
For most of the ride, Mary remained silent. She seemed distant, serene. Ed got the feeling that conversation wouldn’t be welcome, but when they were stopped in the line of traffic waiting to enter the tunnel, Ed finally spoke. He wasn’t even conscious of forming the words before they came out of his mouth.
“I have to ask you,” he said. “What were you doing tonight?”
Again, Mary presented him with the unreadable smile. “What do you mean, Eddie? I was getting an award.”
Mary looked out the window at the cars, the lights, the people passing by. Then she laughed. “What was I doing? I was playing dress up.” She reached over and patted him on the hand. “I should have guessed you’d see right through me. You know me so well, don’t you, Eddie?”
But that’s just it, he thought. I don’t. Apparently, I don’t.
Could that really be true? Was it possible that this woman who he had bathed with when they were babies, played with as a child, seen at least once a week ever since they’d graduated from college, who had even nursed him when he was at the edge of death, was still ultimately unknowable to him? That her feelings, motives, desires—her inner self, her true identity—were secrets he could never know?
As the hired car slipped into the lighted tunnel, this chilling idea left Ed wondering if, by extension, that meant all human beings were somehow always and irrevocably separated from one another, self-contained enigmas moving through their days and nights, through time and space, not only alone but also complete mysteries, even to themselves. He saw himself as a perfect example of this hypothesis: tonight, he couldn’t even reply to a simple question about his work, because what he’d really heard was, Who are you? And to that, he had no ready answer.
They arrived at his building first. As the car idled outside the entrance, Ed leaned over to give Mary a kiss on the cheek. Then, for the third time that night, she said, “Thank you, Eddie.” She faced forward again, looking out into the night. A moment later, the car took her away.
Inside, Ed said hello to the night doorman and rode the elevator to his apartment. Still feeling unsettled, disturbed, he walked out onto the balcony and watched the river for a while. The boat traffic at night was sparse: a tug slowly pushed an empty barge north, towards the forested banks of the upper Hudson; a late-night ferry, an old one that looked like a square yellow shoebox, crossed from a docking near the marina, heading to a pier near the financial center buildings on the Manhattan side. A dark sky brightened by stars and a half moon decorated the landscape above the river. It was a quiet night, a quiet scene, and Ed let it make him feel better than he had for the past few hours. Eventually, he went inside and prepared himself to sleep.
But when he woke up the next day, it was at a much later hour than he usually allowed himself, and he felt out of sorts. Nothing he could pinpoint, exactly, except maybe a little shaky, a little blue. And he had no appetite for breakfast. He showered, managed to get down a cup of coffee, and then turned on the TV. For two hours, he channel surfed, registering little of the stories and images parading before him on the screen.
By lunchtime, he still didn’t feel like he could eat much and held a brief debate with himself about whether or not to follow his usual routine and head to the Lightship Grill. But he knew the answer even as he considered staying home: every day that he was physically able, he had stuck to his commitment to get out of the house so as not to let himself just drift through the day without some movement, some destination. So he dressed, put on his sneakers and jacket, and went downstairs.
It was a day of changeable weather, warm but overcast, with shafts of sunlight suddenly pushing the clouds aside now and then to light up one side of a street or, as Ed finally arrived at the edge of the parkland, a bed of yellow tulips and a patch of the roadway that led towards the lightship.
As was almost always the case during the week, he was the only customer who arrived around noontime. He ordered his usual lunch, sat at his usual table on the deck. A mild breeze rustled the edges of the cloth umbrellas that provided shade for the tables on brighter days. Someone had left a newspaper on a nearby chair, and Ed appropriated it. He had been thumbing through the pages for awhile when he heard a noise. Looking up, he saw that the waitress—the same thin, pony-tailed young woman who served him every day—was trying to change one of the bulbs in a string of colored lights hung above the bar. The sound was the scraping of a ladder as she set it up on the ground below.
He went back to reading and then, in the next moment, the lightship rose up, as if a great hand lifted it from the surface of the river, and then heaved sideways so far that Ed flew from his chair. In the brief minute or so that he lay on the deck, his thoughts flashed through a sequence of ideas about what had just happened: bomb, sea monster, tsunami? He would have accepted any of those as an explanation. But he didn’t have much time to waste in wondering because, almost immediately, he heard someone calling for help.
Getting to his feet, he saw the ladder laying on its side and realized what had happened: the waitress had been thrown off the top step, over the deck rail and into the channel. Ed ran to the railing and saw her thrashing around in the green, oily water as it heaved up and down in rolling waves. She saw him too and called to him, “Ed, help me!”
He had no idea how she knew his name, though hours later it occurred to him that she’d probably seen it on the credit card he sometimes used to pay for his lunch. But that was hardly the main question he was asking himself now: really, he needed to figure out what to do.
The answer wasn’t left to him. Suddenly, a heavily overweight man wearing a blue jacket with the words “Lightship Marina” stitched on the back was standing next to him and he, too, apparently knew Ed’s name. He said, “Listen to me, Ed. I’m going to go throw a rope ladder off the dock. You jump in and help Lisa. Can you do that?”
Could he? Ed had no idea. He did know how to swim and maybe it was just because he had been through so many panicky days and nights worrying about whether something inside his body was going to kill him that this particular cataclysm had left him feeling untouched, calm. Maybe too calm? So quiet and smooth inside that he almost felt he could detach from his body—throw it overboard and see what happened. Watch from a distance, as it were.
Still, he tried to be sensible. “Is it deep enough to dive in?” Ed asked the fat man, but he was already gone.
So it seemed that his job was indeed to help the girl in the water, whose name he now knew was Lisa. “Hang on,” he called to her and then, after climbing over the railing and lowering himself as far as he could, he jumped into the channel.
The water was cold, but not unbearably so. Ed reached Lisa with a few strokes. She grabbed at the surface of the water as if she could slap it hard enough to make it solidify in her grasp and provide her with a lifesaving handhold. “Hold onto me,” he told her, though he knew that wasn’t the right thing to do. There was some special way you were supposed to latch onto drowning people and pull them safely to shore, but he couldn’t remember it and besides, he only had to get them both about thirty feet to where the fat man in the blue jacket stood deploying a rope ladder affixed to the dock.
Lisa grabbed Ed’s shirt and he managed to plow his wave through the heaving water, half-swimming, half diving up and down with the frightened girl clinging to his back. They were climbing the rope ladder in no more than a minute or two. Ed tried to tend to Lisa, who coughed up some water, but otherwise, seemed okay. As he helped her to her feet, he heard the fat man gasp. Or maybe it was a growl.
“Jesus H. Christ,” he said, pointing out toward the river. “Would you look at that damn thing?”
Ed looked, but he couldn’t quite register the sight before him. “What is that?” he asked, his voice raspy with river water.
“It’s the goddamn World,” the fat man replied. “I thought they weren’t going to let it anywhere near here.”
Ed’s attention was suddenly distracted by the sound of sirens, the voices of people who were running to see what had happened. An ambulance pulled up, as did two police vehicles: one from Jersey city and one from the nearby state police barracks. Everyone chattered to everyone else or talked into squawking radios. The paramedic who helped Lisa into the ambulance tried to persuade Ed to get in as well. Maybe he should have—his immune system still stunk and God knew what kind of toxins he had swallowed in the brief time he had been in the channel—but he didn’t want to go to the hospital. He wanted to stay with Frank—he had heard the fat man tell one of the police officers that was his name—and go on staring at the amazing sight in the middle of the river.
The World. It was by far the biggest ship Ed had ever seen. He couldn’t imagine that even an aircraft carrier was this enormous. It took up all the space from the Jersey side all the way to Manhattan, though of course, Ed knew that had to be some kind of optical illusion. It stretched so high that it obscured a good part of the city skyline: deck after deck after deck, most of them ringed with balconies, rose up from the main deck like the glass-fronted floors of a brand-new, architecturally daring apartment building. Which, as it turned out, was exactly what it was.
“They’re condos,” Frank explained to Ed. “Instead of cabins, that ship has apartments. Rich people buy them and travel around the world, going wherever they want. Going nowhere, if you ask me. It’s the wake of that damn ship that nearly rolled us over.”
The World now sat dead in the water. Tug boats rushed towards it from both the New York and New Jersey sides of the river, whistles blaring. All the ferry traffic had been stopped by police boats and Ed saw passengers out on the decks, cell phones held aloft to snap pictures of the behemoth that blocked their way across the river.
After a while, the tugs pulled alongside The World and guided it slowly up the river toward the mid-Manhattan piers. When Ed and Frank turned back towards the ship, they saw that someone had strung caution tape across the metal stairway leading up to the café deck. What then ensued was an extended argument between Frank and various city, state and federal authorities. The heated discussion eventually culminated with Frank tearing the tape off the staircase and climbing aboard. He called back to Ed to follow him.
Ed started up the staircase, expecting to be pulled off by some representative of the assembled authorities, but no one stopped him. They seemed to accept that he belonged on the lightship, and since they’d allowed Frank to board it, there was no reason to deny access to Ed.
He followed Frank down to the office, where they found a scene of disarray. The wake of The World had knocked over computer equipment, coffee cups, and piles of paperwork. Muttering to himself, Frank started picking things up off the floor, but then he stopped, walked over to a closet and pulled out some clothes. He handed them to Ed, saying, “You should change.”
Ed found a bathroom, stripped off his wet clothes and gratefully put on the sweat pants and tee shirt Frank had given him. Returning to the office, he saw Frank slumped in a chair, regarding his damaged domain.
“I called some guys to help clean up,” he told Ed. “And we’ve got to get the ship inspected. I don’t think there’s any damage, but it’s better to be sure.”
“Do you own this place? The marina?”
“Just the manager.” It was clear that just was a relative term.
The phone rang and Frank answered it. He listened for a moment, then barked out, “No, not tomorrow, now. Do you understand what now means?” He slammed the handset back into its cradle and said. “Everybody’s got a story about why they can’t do what you need them to do.”
“I guess that’s true,” Ed replied.
Frank then changed the subject, the world of floating condos still on his mind. “I’d like to go ram that monster,” he said. “Take this ship right up the river and stick its nose in her ass.”
“Really? Could you still sail this ship?” Ed asked, more to make conversation than anything else, but Frank seemed to take offense at his question.
“Of course she can still sail! She’s just moored here, Eddie. She’s not disabled. In fact, I could take her right out to the harbor, turn on the lanterns and light up the whole damn river if I wanted to.” And then, unexpectedly, his mood turned almost jovial, and he laughed. “Oh well,” he said. “I guess that’s for another day.” Heaving himself out of the chair, he looked around the room and said, “Want to help me with this mess?”
Yes, Ed did want to help. Eventually, other employees of the marina showed up and Frank put them to work on deck, cleaning up the bar, where so many bottles had broken that the whole area smelled like a distillery. Ed stayed in the office with Frank, trying to put things back where they belonged. He was even able to get one of the computers rebooted, which made him feel good. In fact, he felt really good—he felt happy, energized. And why not? He had saved a girl and did some useful work on a ship. A ship. When he had awakened this morning, feeling ill and disoriented, could he have possibly imagined his day would turn out like this?
He stayed until dark, sharing some sandwiches that Frank salvaged from an undamaged refrigerator. Then, because he thought he was finally running out of steam, he told Frank that he was going to head home. Frank thanked him, shook his hand, and said good-night.
But back on the dock, Ed lingered. He wondered if his mind—maybe just at the moment, maybe all along—was misinformed about the hidden strengths and functions of his body and therefore, he wasn’t really as tired as he had thought. So, as the night once again unfurled its tapestry of ancient stars, he sat down on a bench and watched the river. He found himself imagining what it would look like all lit up by the great lanterns of the lightship, which he thought he could hear straining against the ropes that still held it to the dock. Perhaps the sounds Ed believed he could identify—the ship groaning as it pulled against the ropes that bound it fast, the ropes themselves slapping against the dock—were coming from somewhere else, but it was impossible to tell. Either way, for now, nothing could change the fact that the ship had to remain where it was. But never mind, Ed thought to himself. He was just glad to know that the ship could still sail. That it was still possible for someone to use the lightship to navigate the great river, if they ever hoped to do that. If, even with few means and less understanding, they someday felt compelled to try.
Eleanor Lerman, who lives in New York, is the author of six award-winning books of poetry, two collections of short stories, and two novels, most recently, Radiomen, released in 2015 by The Permanent Press. For over forty years, her short fiction and poetry has been widely published in numerous print and online publications. She is a National Book Award finalist, the recipient of the 2006 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets and a Poetry Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2011 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. More at www.eleanorlerman.com