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Joshua Malbin

South Street Seaport

Ben met Ness for the first time on New Year’s Eve. They’d bought tickets to the same party with the same extended group of friends, and at midnight they twined their champagne glasses, sipped, and kissed. Later she vomited on the street outside, then grabbed his arm and said she wanted him to take her home. It was the single most difficult night of the year to get a taxi on the packed streets of the East Village, and they stood in the cold a long time, watching already-hired cabs pass by. She pressed herself to his side. “My place is freezing,” she cooed wetly. “Will you come keep me warm?” When they finally did get into a car the heat diffused the smell of puke through the whole interior, but he was drunk himself, she was sexy, and he didn’t care. She directed the driver far downtown. He thought she must be in one of those luxury post-college dorm buildings around Wall Street, but she brought them to a stop at the apron of the South Street Seaport. He hadn’t been here in years. Only tourists ever came here. It was brutally cold, the wind blasting in from the harbor. Ness hurried out the pier toward the far end where the party boats docked in fair weather, the ones that served booze and classic rock as they sailed around Manhattan. None was there at the moment. She led him down a flight of steps to a dock just a few feet clear of the water’s surface, and scurried across a gangplank to stand on the top deck of a submarine. It was about


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forty feet long, as best as he could tell in the dim light, and its top hatch was secured with a pair of U-shaped bicycle locks. She unfastened these with a couple of keys she took from her pocket, lifted the hatch, and climbed inside. It was pitch dark in there, so he had to descend the ladder behind her entirely by feel. It was every bit as cold inside as out, only less windy, and the metal rungs made the bones of his hands ache. When he was halfway down she turned on a light, and when he reached bottom she shouldered past him and clambered up to close the hatch. He heard it clank shut and she half fell back down the ladder, collapsing on him. “I’ll turn on the space heater, but even with it we’re best under the covers,” she said. “There’s an electric blanket.” “Not to be a jerk,” he said, “but could you maybe brush your teeth?”

He woke a few hours later, wedged with her on a narrow bunk bed, and half froze his feet on the metal floor before he found a cramped bathroom—the “head,” he supposed they called it aboard ship. As his bladder drained and he came more fully awake it finally occurred to him to be astonished. When he was tipsy he hadn’t cared where they went so long as he was with this girl who’d wanted him; now that his lust was sated and he’d sobered up, he began to recognize how remarkable it was to be in a submarine, in the water. To have had sex in a submarine. In the morning, over microwaved oatmeal in the galley, he asked many, many questions. The sub belonged to her father, it turned out. He and his investors had bought it from the Navy when it was decommissioned, and for a decade he’d run a business doing seafloor exploration for oil companies. That business had failed for reasons Ness


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didn’t specify but vaguely blamed on Obama, and her father had decided to try running tours of New York Harbor’s many shipwrecks. He planned to start in the spring, and in the meantime she was living there rent-free a caretaker. When he got her out to the sunlight for a frigid goodbye kiss, in that first clear daylight look he realized that not only was she the most beautiful woman he’d ever slept with, she was likely to be the most beautiful woman he ever would sleep with. She had a wide, smooth forehead and wide green eyes, a long, graceful torso, and ballet dancer’s hips. She was young, only a year and a half out of college, and in her colt-limbed, glowing health she looked like a fashion model who’d stopped starving herself.

He called her the very next day and proceeded to spend as much of the next two months as possible in her bunk. She was the only woman he’d ever had in bed who looked better naked than she did clothed, so he had her naked as often as he could. He ran his hands and tongue over every inch of her as if he could take possession of her form for good. It was always in her bunk because he was subletting a hole of a front room in a tiny one-bedroom on the Lower East Side. He had a futon in the corner and no privacy at all. His roommate had to pass him to get to her own bedroom, and she refused to make any accommodation to his sex life. Ben thought it was because she resented Ness’s youth and beauty. She claimed it was because she disapproved. “Can’t you find someone your own age?” she wanted to know. About the only good thing about the apartment was that the nearest train took him reasonably close to Ness. He’d get out of the subway and start walking toward the river,


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and as soon as he saw the first cobblestone street he’d start to get excited. At the first of the kitschy kiosks he could distinctly feel potential gathering in his groin—not yet even a distinct pressure, just a focusing of his body’s awareness. It was pure Pavlovian conditioning, and the degree of it he felt the moment he climbed down the sub’s hatch intensified almost to the point of absurdity. It was beyond a physical response. When he reached the belly of the sub, cradled under the surface of the East River, he felt happy. Part of it was that he associated the space with beautiful, naked Ness, true, but part, he decided, was that the literal separation imposed by being underwater let him set aside the rest of his life and ignore it awhile. It wasn’t that his life was terrible. He had a job, a place to live, and now a lover. It was that he’d had dreams—it didn’t matter what they were, all unfulfilled dreams having the same bitter taste—and was reaching an age when it was no longer possible to pretend they might yet come true. But while he couldn’t believe in them anymore he couldn’t yet surrender them, either. They’d been the polestar of his desires for more than a decade. He simply had to keep trudging after them even as he came to understand that they really were like the Pole Star, separated from him by an uncrossable vacuum. In fact, much of the time he no longer even wished for the achievement of the dreams themselves but for the return of the naiveté that had allowed him to apply himself with unalloyed hope. That was the joy he missed, the feeling that came from working hard when he thought it could make a difference. In the sub he sensed the possibility of a return to that innocence. Maybe it was because Ness was so young and didn’t yet comprehend it was possible to strive hard and


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fail nevertheless. She was still under the delusion, engendered by years of school, that hard work was always rewarded. The sub had been retrofitted with a clear Plexiglas nose, and sometimes after sex they wrapped themselves in the electric blanket and cuddled there, watching the drift of sediment in the water and the occasional fish that flitted close enough to be seen through it. At those moments he felt swaddled in a whole world that belonged to her, an aquatic haven where he could understand that he had a lot of life ahead, plenty of time, no need to obsess about the years already spent.

The difficulty was that he didn’t love her. He liked her. But he also looked down on her, perhaps because she so openly admired him. He had a bad habit of stating things as if he were completely certain of them when in fact he’d only deduced or half remembered them, and she always took him at face value. In fact she treated him like an oracle, asking his opinion on nearly everything. He tried to admonish himself that this was unfair to her. She was capable and smart, and if she didn’t have the solid, independent self-awareness of a woman his own age, that was simply to be expected. But he couldn’t bring himself around. It was simply too easy—and flattering to his ego—to believe it when she presumed he was, well, superior. Meanwhile he could tell she was falling in love with him. She was already edging up to confessing it, snuggling close to his side after sex and saying things like, “You make me so happy. I’m almost scared of how happy I am,” or closer still, “I love being with you,” which went so far as to include the word that scared them both.


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He knew the honest thing would be to break up with her. Eventually the effect of the sub must fade, as his mind integrated it with the rest of his life. Once it became merely a part of his normal experience it would cease to separate him from everything else, and he would be as unhappy there as anywhere. But he was weak. One day they lazed in the Plexiglas nose, watching the silt snow, and she said, “I love the way we make love,” and stole a glance up at him, cringing her body against his like a puppy afraid of punishment. He kissed her forehead. “I love you too,” he told her. She threw her arms around him and he reflected that maybe it wasn’t such a sin to make her happy with a lie.

A week later she said her father was coming to town and she wanted Ben to meet the other most important man in her life. He agreed and fretted about it. Ness couldn’t see through him, but her father might. As the day approached, she clarified that he was coming to town with the rest of the submarine’s crew. First they would take the sub on its maiden voyage around New York Harbor, with Ben as a passenger if he liked, and afterward her father would take the three of them out to dinner. Ben was relieved. At least this way he’d get to observe the man from the wings a little before the spotlight turned on him. Ness said her father and the others would arrive on a Friday to check over the vessel following its months in dock, and they should be ready to take it out by Saturday afternoon.


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At 1 p.m. on the appointed Saturday, though, Ness met him on the pier and told him they were still far from finished. His roommate was upstate for the weekend, so he invited Ness back to his place. She smiled impishly, a little girl getting naughty behind daddy’s back, and came with him, and when he got her naked he was surprised to feel an echo of the happiness he’d grown accustomed to in the sub. When they’d finished and lay sweaty on the futon, steam heat hissing and making the tiny apartment a hotbox, he felt almost as content as he had at times lying in an icy Fiberglas bubble with her.

When they came down the hatch together the next day Ness’s father shook hands with Ben hurriedly and then ignored him. He was a neat white-haired man with a white mustache and gold-rimmed glasses, and he seemed annoyed. Ness whispered to Ben not to worry, he just hated to be kept waiting, even if it was because he’d been ready early and they were merely on time. She led him through the familiar series of bulkhead doors toward the nose. Since the last time he’d been inside all the partitions forward of the bridge had been removed, leaving a larger empty area for passengers. One of the spaces defined by those walls had been the captain’s quarters, where Ness had been living these past few months. He wondered where she would go now. He also wondered whether this meant the end of sleeping with her down here. He’d been assuming that even when her father started running tours she’d still get to live here as a custodian. Apparently not. The removal of all those forward partitions left the controls and navigation instruments separated only by a waist-high railing of welded pipe from a long gallery stretching all the way to the fore viewport. There were half-a-dozen men at those controls,


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though Ness’s father alone wore any part of a naval uniform, a cap with some sort of insignia on it. The others had on t-shirts, jeans, and work boots. Still, they all acted with the crisp decorum of military men on the job. Ben heard engines rumble to life somewhere below and behind them, setting up a humming vibration from the soles of his feet to his teeth. He felt their acceleration a little, but it was subtle. If he hadn’t been alert to it he might not have noticed. The waves didn’t jostle them, of course, and the viewport showed the same silt rain as always. Ness’s father had his eyes glued to the periscope, calling out corrections to his crew. Time slowed. They crawled forward ten minutes, twenty. The floor tilted forward; they must be diving. If Ness could no longer live here, he thought with a spasm of anxiety, this happy interlude in his life was probably coming to an end. It was already over, in fact. It had ended the moment he’d come down here and seen how they’d changed things. He felt like there should be another version of the sub he could visit where his happiness would be preserved, like entering another room just beside this one. But of course that was nonsense. Ness poked his arm. “Look.” A floodlight had winked on somewhere in the sub’s underbelly, casting its beam forward and down. Through the silt, far ahead, Ben could discern the outline of something manmade. It expanded and rose toward them, took on solidity and depth. A shipwreck, not an elegant boat like a yacht but a squat and oblong box. Fish drifted about it in lazy schools, still too far to see very clearly; they were like clouds surrounding a mountain, indistinct and at first glance stationary, only revealing their constant motion if


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watched steadily. A school of zebra-striped fish made steady progress straight toward them, then all together turned and zipped off to the side, out of the light. They came yet closer and Ben saw it was the rusted shell of a subway car, in fact several subway cars, all on their sides in a broken line, crusted with mussels and barnacles. There must have been hundreds of fish passing in and out the holes where windows and doors once were. Sea urchins clung to surfaces between and atop the barnacles, and the hazy outline of a lobster watched from one of the doorways. A football-shaped seal shot into view, propelling itself with effortless flicks of its back half and hind flippers, its giant black eyes examining them with curiosity. Then just as quickly it disappeared, heading up to the surface. “There are seals in New York?” he said. “On the little manmade islands by the Verrazano,” Ness said. “For a few years now.” There were marvels and wonders down here, a natural world quietly going about its business without any idea of the city right beside it, and for its part the city knew just as little about this. It was as if this whole peaceful underwater scene were exactly the happy world from which Ben was about to be barred: adjacent to the world he lived in but denied him by forces as immutable as physics. He couldn’t breathe underwater. He couldn’t be twenty-two again.

Ness’s father paid for their dinner at one of the soup dumpling places in Chinatown. It was an awkward meal. He asked Ben all the usual questions about his career and aspirations, and Ben had to say the usual things about how he was temping right now but that wasn’t what he had in mind for himself long term. He made himself sound bright and


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hopeful because he thought he owed it to Ness to present himself well, but he had no conviction to put into it, and as quickly as he could he diverted the conversation, asking Ness’s father about his plans for this tour company. Afterward he walked Ness and her father back to the hotel on Canal Street where they were both spending the night. The next day they planned to search for apartments. It was not clear whether they’d be doing this separately or together and Ben didn’t want to ask. They all said good night and Ben headed for home. He only made it a few dozen yards before Ness’s father caught up to him. “Nessie thinks I went back out to get cigarettes,” he said. “Let’s get a drink.” He guided them to an upscale quasi-French restaurant mostly emptying from its dinner seating and sat them at the bar. Since he’d paid for dinner, Ben felt obligated to pay when beer came for him and a martini for Ness’s father. “You’re a lot older than Nessie,” Ness’s father said. “If you were forty-five and she was thirty-five it’d be different, but you understand, the gap is a lot bigger now.” Not asking, stating a fact. Ben nodded. “Do you love her? You can be honest. I won’t try to break you up.” Ben took a drink of his beer. It was a Belgian wheat thing they’d had on tap that came with a peculiar sour aftertaste. “No,” he confessed, “I don’t think I love her. She makes me happy. When I spend time with your daughter in your ship I feel young again, like I can still do everything I want.” “You’re a little young for a midlife crisis, aren’t you?”


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That stung. It hadn’t presented itself to Ben that way before, but yes, you could sum up everything he’d been feeling in that simple old cliché. It was embarrassing. Ness’s father sipped his gin. “When I was young, you know, and in the Navy, for years my biggest problem living on a submarine was that I never got to take a peaceful shit. You’ve got more than a hundred men and only a couple of heads, so there’s always someone in there when you want to go, and always someone waiting before you’re done. You hear how sailors are supposedly all about sex when they get shore leave? For me it was a bigger luxury to take a stress-free, uninterrupted dump. Especially if it was in a hotel room where I could see the sky. “Then I retire from the Navy and round up some investors to go in with me on this subsea exploration company, and from then on I’m never out of port more than a few days. But I’m still away from home a lot and I miss my family. I don’t get to sleep next to my wife or hold my kids except once a month. “My point.” He fished the olive out of his glass with a forefinger. “There were years and years when I wasn’t getting everything I wanted. A lot more years than you, I bet. You know how I got through it?” Ben couldn’t tell if Ness’s father was haranguing him out of anger or if he was trying to be sympathetic. His tone was warm, sincere, but after the “midlife crisis” crack Ben was on guard for a vicious turn. “I didn’t obsess about what I was missing, that’s how. I didn’t pretend like I wasn’t still alive while I was waiting to get back to land or get back home. We played poker. We watched movies. We bullshitted. We traded porno magazines and books. If I’d tried to go for months without any feeling of being happy, I’d have fucking killed myself.


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“But you. You’re pathetic. My daughter makes you feel happy when you’re with her, but you can’t believe that means you actually care for her. You don’t have everything you want right now so what you do have must be worthless. You know, it is possible to want more from life without hating what you already have.”

Rather than go home, Ben walked directly from the bar to the South Street Seaport. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do there. Something like say goodbye to the submarine, as stupid as that seemed when he formulated it in those terms. Say goodbye to what the sub had represented. It was a long walk. He could have taken a cab and been there in under ten minutes, but he didn’t want it all to be over so soon. Spring hadn’t yet fully set in, and the chill night air snapped him out of his mild buzz. He passed through the Lower East Side, full of obnoxious young and semi-young drunks just like him, and then through the eastern part of Chinatown, where the people on the street were a mix of immigrants hauling out restaurant trash and a new, yuppier bar crowd. He navigated the giant buildings and plazas and blocked streets around the Brooklyn Bridge and emerged on Fulton Street. The Seaport was closing for the night. The tourist foot traffic had dropped to almost nothing, though the lights were still on in the mall and the chain restaurants fringing it. He walked down the pier to the submarine. The party boats had returned all around it, and rolled gently on the river’s small waves. He wished he could simply jump into the water and live in that quiet world of shipwrecks and sunken train cars. If he were a seal, he could chase fish among those barnacled hulks, or collect oysters, or whatever it was seals did, and sleep with the


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colonies near the Verrazano Bridge. Neither the skyscrapers across the river nor the ferryloads of people passing by would mean anything to him at all. He’d have no hopes for himself and be happy. He even began to imagine himself changing: Everything rose away from him, and as soon as he looked down and saw his body shrinking, becoming squat and glossy, he pitched forward, flung out his arms to break his fall, and discovered instead stubby flippers that couldn’t save him from landing on his belly. He yelped in surprise, but not pain, because it hadn’t hurt. Mostly he rolled forward and his hips flew up behind, and he inchwormed down the gangplank to the sub’s upper deck, then slid down its metal side to the water. It was cold, so cold that if he’d still been a man his muscles would have stiffened in hypothermic shock and within minutes he’d have drifted out of consciousness and drowned. Instead he felt it only on the surface of his sleek gray skin. It penetrated no deeper, and when he dove it was effortless. This was how he’d always been meant to live, weightless, slipping through the water like a bar of soap.

He stood there on the dock awhile while that imaginary part of him escaped under the surface of the East River. Then he turned and headed home, intending to gather and stitch together as many scraps of real happiness as there were to find in his real life. Maybe he really did love Ness. What was love, after all, but when another person made you happy? Maybe that was enough.


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