Time Gap

Written By: Erin  Fleming

Emily, my closest friend and old roommate in Manhattan, has a family home on Shelter Island. In the summer, before the achy responsibility of real lives & real jobs set in (or, in her case, a cross country move for grad school) she stayed the summer at this modest home, waiting tables at the Chequit and, on days off, driving a creaking thirty year old car through the impeccable East Hampton main drag to pick me up from my nannying gig for dinner or surfing. She described Shelter Island to me when we were still suffering through the smelly humidity of Manhattan in early June, the half-functional marina across from her grandparents’ house, the central hilltop town dwarfed by a cemetery, the dark old feeling of the Chequit, the nearness of the North and South Fork lobster claws. She started laughing as she described the South Ferry, “literally a 30 second ride…the most pointless ferry ever…it would seriously just take a small bridge” and I laughed with her, used to her hyperbole. *** The first time I see it, I am in the passenger seat of a tiny vintage Alfa Romeo. The driver–my boss–is telling me about how he bought the car when he moved to California after college to work at the LA Times, ready to cruise the temperate beachside expanses in aviators and a leather jacket. As we approach the slip, barely a sliver of water separating the blocks of land, I laugh: 30 seconds might be stretching it. When I alight onto the ferry I can already see Emily across the brief bay, leaning on her car with her arms crossed. But despite the worlds on either side, as soon as we push off I’m on the water, immersed only in the rocking currents, the sunset’s awesome refractions, the hugeness of the world. I lift my face to feel the expanse, taste the salt, sniff the breeze like a dog. *** I am at the Island Boatyard, drinking with friends around an unfilled swimming pool and wandering the docks. As the gloaming goes down and the night stage rises, we grow restless, adventuresome. We walk down to the boat slip that faces the differing darkness of North Haven. –I could swim across that, a man named Ben says, waving a tequila bottle precariously close to my face. He’d been trying to impress Emily all night and demonstrates some heady drunken confidence boost. –I’ve always thought that…maybe…under the right conditions…I sigh. To me, by dark, the bay stretches infinite. The water lapping up to the launch is brackish, still enough to host mosquitos, and as he starts to wade out sludge stirs up and disturbs their unholy nesting. Then he dives under and is gone into the inky night, emerging on occasion as a splashing or gasping sound, part of the water that grows fainter with every repetition. When his noises grow louder again I calculate his time gone–just under 4 minutes–and think for an instant that it might be possible for him to have reached south fork land and returned in that time; then he emerges, shivering and sobered. Any water at night is an ocean, endless, timeless, unknown. He turned around after swimming a few hundred yards and when he couldn’t see the land behind him he began to hyperventilate, hallucinating sharp or slimy surprises just beyond his range of vision, and turned back, hitting ground first at a point that extends some dozen yards beyond the boat launch. In 4 minutes and a swimming pool’s length Ben lost himself completely, buried himself in the black. *** I am laughing, a passenger in another boss’s car. We are driving from Southold to a charity event (our charity event–I’m now the associate director at a nonprofit that funds ALS research) at Shinnecock Hills. We need to get back to Southampton before the golfers finish their pricey 18 holes and when I suggest we loop back around Riverhead my boss replies, “Let’s go through the east end.” She insists there’s a road that will take us from the north fork to Southampton. In a way, she’s right, as 114 just disappears under water for a brief sojourn after Greenpoint before popping back up on Shelter Island and returning again after a blink away in Sag Harbor. After the first crossing, I lean back as we wind our way past the Dory, past the bank and post office that constitute a town, down and over the rolling hills that lead to the South Ferry. It’s a vista I know well, but I feel removed as we drive down the ramp. Today we visited Gerry, a man who, at 40, fulfilled a lifelong dream and opened the North Fork Inn &Table with his beautiful wife and who, at 42, was diagnosed with ALS, a uniformly fatal, untreatable disease that will continue to take away his basic abilities of walking, cooking, eating, talking, and eventually breathing. I am awkward with him, unable to speak unless asked a question and then inclined to ramble about the weather while chain eating the delicious chocolate chip cookies that have made his wife famous. I walk to the ferry railing after it pushes off and slump against it, defeated. The brilliant early June sun illuminates the water until the horizon and I think: I could scream at this expanse, hurl all of my anger and confusion skyward, and the sun would not change; its incessant refractions would continue. I am lost in the gap. I often wonder why the world careens on, as it ravages relationships, livelihoods, even lives, and how we continue staggering through it: the family who I worked for, and became close with, has endured a tough divorce and no longer owns a vacation home. Emily lives 3000 miles away with a boyfriend and a dog I’ve never met. Gerry, who showed us around his beautiful kitchen two years ago, is wheelchair-bound and cannot breathe unassisted. The slow-moving, incongruous South Ferry is a comfort: I have not been there since that afternoon in 2012 and still I often think if it, or more accurately I picture myself on it, my hair whipping wild around my face, my gaze on the horizon. In that brief rocking gap there’s an infinity. I hope to inhabit it again.