What a thing to happen to a person alone in a park, to get hit by a wave. Not a figure of speech, this wave, but an actual sudden freak tidal slap of East River water, oily and duck shitty and horrible. Worse things could happen and this week they had; forty-nine people had been shot dead in a gay club and the unfunniest joke of a presidential candidate had responded with a tweet that began, “Appreciate the congrats.”
But now it was five thirty and balmy so I could think of that David Berman poem, “The Charm of 5.30”, in which nothing bad happens to anyone because, “the sky is blueberries and cream / and the wind is as warm as air from a tire.” And it was true: the blue above swooshed through with cirrus cream and below, ferries chugging up and down the East River looking so eager and cheerful that I saw big Pixar eyes and grins on their prows. In Berman’s low-key rhapsody, his 5.30 offers a “kind of fellowship”, “out in the public spaces.” But this wasn’t his small town, it was a waterfront park in Brooklyn, a whole other kind of public space. The kind whose inhabitants induce not fellowship, but a slight terror that comes from the symmetry of their features and the length of their limbs and width of their strollers.
From a distance, you might have mistaken me for one of them, with my sandals kicked off and my sunglasses on and my bottle of San fucking Pellegrino beside me. I was reading for work, so it was a smugly justified leisure. I’d forgotten the Post-Its but was taking pleasure in turning down certain pages, making tiny prim dog-ears of them. Sometimes I’d sit up and take off the sunglasses for a second to see, like Berman (who I think of as Dave in this poem) that it was “earlier/ and lighter out than you had accounted for.”
I spotted you sitting at the end of the concrete promontory, that low wall banking the rocks once placed there to fake a beach. Fake beach, but the seaweed growing there is real. What I mean is, this is a spot where people go to summon a bit of dignified solitude, a place where the placid slappings of the East River might stand in for, you know, the turbid ebb and flow/ Of human misery. You can be Matthew Arnold on Dover Beach, striving for Sophocles.
Except now the turbid ebb and flow suddenly got choppy and panicky, as if one of the boats had frowned, stuck its nose in, and turboed up and down the river, raging. You didn’t have time to gather up your stuff or get out the way. I watched a huge wave rise up, pause above your head as though exquisitely sensitive to the exactitude of comic timing, and then dump itself over your body. It was fist in mouth funny, or awful, or funny-awful.
You stood up and then I stood up and then I moved towards you in that urgent uncertain way people do and said, “Are you OK!” And now I could see you, your hair plastered and dripping and your whole outfit several shades darker — drenched. Your notebook in your right hand was open and all that orderly handwriting in blue fountain pen was now wobbled, blotched, swollen and smudged. (A pang: you were the kind of woman who wrote in notebooks in blue fountain pen. Like recognizes like. I usually carried miniature Post-Its.) With your keys and ugly bike helmet in the other hand you were stupefied and helpless: too many things in your hands, all of them soaked.
I took your helmet and then your hand to help you off the rocks and of course you didn’t look at me because who can look a stranger in the eye after being slam dunked by a freak wave. You were fine — I mean of course you were fine, it’s just water — but you muttered an embarrassed little joke about water-borne illnesses. As you walked off you left a trail of drips on the tarmac.
I really did think there’d been some sort of cosmic misunderstanding. As in, you must have seen me as the serene person with the sunglasses and the San Pellegrino, but that was all wrong. I wanted to make you understand this, to insist it — that my truth is being dumped on by a wave of disgusting river water. Instead it had happened to you and I felt bad.
At home, I Googled “east river pollution”, learned the word “eutrophication” and decided you’d probably be ok.