At no point had I actually thought I was skipping out on my appointment. It had simply slipped my mind. As soon as I remembered it I told myself I’d get off at the next stop and catch the uptown line. But the next stop came and it was 86th Street and I didn’t get off because I wasn’t sure if there was a free transfer to the uptown line until 72nd. Seventy-ninth came, then 72nd, and as the train was pulling out of 72nd I was still telling myself it was okay—it was early, I told myself, I’d have a bite to eat then head back uptown, the testing center was open till four, maybe only three, but according to Trucker’s watch it wasn’t even noon and I still had plenty of time, I told myself, plenty of time. When the conductor announced Christopher Street I got off the train with the idea I could eat a little something and make it uptown with time to spare. What I was thinking was that I was a gay man new to New York City and I still hadn’t seen Christopher Street or the West Side piers, and so I walked down one to get to the other. Along the way I acquired a juice, something beet purple but tasting more of ginger and carrots, some candles, and the phone number of a middle-aged man who’d chatted me up at the juice bar (he was wearing his own jumpsuit, yellow rather than orange, and he used the coincidence as his pick-up line). The morning’s drama was gone and in its absence a weightless calm had taken over me. I stuffed the phone number in my wallet, dropped my cup of juice in a trash can, and, my feet bouncing in those shoes as if I walked on pillows, crossed the West Side Highway and saw the Hudson River for the first time.
I’d read about the old piers, seen pictures even, or one picture. It must have been taken from a boat far out in the river, and it showed a swaybacked ramshackle structure that looked like a section of an old-fashioned white-beamed rollercoaster. On its maze of warped scaffolding had sat or leaned a half dozen shirtless men whose baskets and brush mustaches were visible across a hundred yards of water. My fathers, I said to myself, my gay dads, for they’d had as large a role in my upbringing as my real father. But the pier was long gone, in its place an asphalt strip that stretched from Chelsea all the way to Battery Park City, a tar ribbon as flat black and ugly as any Plains highway. It was the province of joggers, skaters, bicyclists, dog-walkers, hand-holders even, of all persuasions; but where the men who once came for an anonymous fuck now went I didn’t know. Maybe they were all dead. Maybe, for the same reason, their descendants now preferred to score in juice bars or gyms or online, but as I made my own slow way down that barren promenade—it was the very antithesis of the Yellow Brick Road—what I was reminded of was the Big N, and what I found myself wanting was a quickie, something to stop the normal flow of time and erect a wall between the morning’s misadventure and what lay in store for me uptown.
What I got, instead, was a splash.
In the movies there are shouts when this sort of thing happens, but in the real New York, I was discovering, no one shouted when you expected them to. They ran, they gawked, they even pointed out the scene to anyone who did or didn’t care to look, but they discussed the situation in a seen-it-all-before tone of voice, and as I hurried toward the confluence of bodies and bicycles at the river’s edge I too felt strangely unexcited, curious, but not aroused. Snippets of voices came to me.
Did he fa
I think he ju
Then I saw him. He floated face up, not more than ten feet out, his arms wafting on either side of his body, his legs pale shadows beneath the surface of the water. Save for the current’s rollicking southward drift and the membranous movement of his white shirt and pants, he was still, and I felt it as well as saw it, the tranquility of floating. His eyes were open and he stared straight up. I could see the sky as well, its cloudless expanse reflected in the smooth water around his body, but it was the man’s face that held me, his blank eyes, his hair like seaweed darkly haloing his head, his lips puffing out like rising dough with his refusal to answer the shouts from people on shore.
“Are you okay?”
“You need a hand?”
“Can you make it over here?”
“Man, what the fuck you doing?”
Someone mentioned the police, someone else mentioned the fire department. A skinny man in running shorts ran off to find a pay phone even as a half dozen other spectators pulled cell phones from purses and pockets and belt-slung holsters, but that was all the help anyone was willing to give. With a weak gesture, the man in the water used a fingertip to pull a splayed lock of hair off his face, and all the while the current carried him steadily south—toward, I saw then, a tangled mass of pilings, the jagged base of some long-gone pier, perhaps even the one I’d seen photographed. Its ghostly specter hovered above the river, the ghost of a ghost, and by the time the apparition had dissolved I found myself on the chainlink fence separating the walkway from the river, my feet, freed of those shoes for the first time in nearly a year, pinched in the tight diamonds, my fingers pulling me up with a grace and strength I didn’t know I possessed. This can’t be happening, I was thinking, but that thought was erased by pain, belied by it, as the jagged fencetop tore through the fabric of the ridiculous jumpsuit Trucker had given me and ripped my leg open. I saw the river below me, as black and impenetrable as a chalkboard, and then I saw my reflection—saw the boy I’d seen two weeks ago in the barber’s mirror, his hairless skull as unadorned as a death mask. I wanted to say something to that mask, but before my tongue could find the words my real mouth bestowed a rushed kiss on its reflection, and I was in the river.