Water Lovers by Michelle Dove

When the glass doors open, the crowd boards the ferry. I don’t even have to imagine myself at the snack bar to get there. New York City reeks of overzealous renovation and harsh dates and hot dogs, but a domestic tallboy on the water is still five dollars (the ride is free). If you get in line when the line isn’t yet formed (is still forming), you’ll have time to find a bench spot on the ferry’s west-facing deck. Tourists will have crowded the east-facing deck, already photographing the Statue of Liberty (as if a view over water meant one has already arrived).

I measure the journey in sips. One tallboy is one way across. When I get a second beer on the ferry back to Manhattan, I’ll hear a warm internal whisper telling me I’ve been somewhere.

You don’t need to ride the ferry even twice to get the system down. The motion is easy, like checkers after you learn to play chess. There’s a rhythm in transport. Motion of bodies, engines, fowl.

The air tonight is sticky. I’d texted Tam this morning. Tonight originally belonged to her, but she bailed when I was halfway to the port. I have a hunch I’ll see her anyway, like she was only cancelling on companionship—not the ferry. It’s better to ride alone besides, so I wouldn’t blame her if she was somewhere inside the vessel, coiled up into herself with a tallboy between her legs. I wouldn’t even approach her to tell her some man with a passive chin was eyeing her or kneel next to her to invoke my theory of time wasted/time spent. You need to feel timeless when you’re alone, right?

The sky has turned a shade of swimming pool green. Water hovering above water. The only way I’ll run into Tam is if she’s floating. In my immediate view, there are lovers—water lovers or motion lovers or human lovers—but no single men.

I’ve been counting lately how many times you can feel undetected in a crowd (the answer is in your mind and the answer is mostly).

As I watch the land recede, I externalize motion. I pretend to interview a man who rides the ferry every day for a year. This imagined man never quits, not even on holidays.

“Does motion beneath feel like movement upstairs?”

“Does water have a consistent message or advice?”

“Where else do you enact consistency and is a tallboy the exact time that it takes?”

“What do you know that I don’t?”

Last summer, I took the ferry at night. It wasn’t a routine, but something goaded me to ride across the water to Staten Island on repeat. When it was waning dark, I got to where I could throw something over the edge—a comb discarded in the street, a pocketknife wedged into a bar booth, a cement shard kicked from a construction site. There was no getting anything back. I don’t know if anyone ever saw me, or if the water ever minded. I was only offering pieces of the city it already knew. I was only entering a circle of what already was going (and never got to went).

Tonight, I have nothing in my pockets to drop in the water. I picked up nothing, even as I arrived alone at the port and registered objects worthy of being lifted, moved from the streets into water. I walked quickly past everything that provoked me, hoping when the dark came over the ferry, I wouldn’t need to enact an old urge.

I’ve sipped the tallboy halfway down (a cue that we’re nearing the Statue of Liberty). I don’t even have to see the tourists to know they’re already becoming the memories they’re still creating.

Ride the ferry long enough and you’ll feel the pull—the flash when the ferry speeds up. I close my eyes and enter the increased motion. When I reopen them, there’s a new man in my periphery. He isn’t a tourist, though he is maybe a lover, or the kind of man you’d like to have close, framing the distance around you. His button-up shirt is flowing in the warm air but wrinkled where it was tucked. I try not to look directly at his face. I don’t want him to think I am secretly coaxing him over.

I turn from him and count the seagulls gliding alongside the deck. I don’t count the one that has landed, stowing away on what is already free.

“Why shouldn’t he ride too?”

“If you vary the journey, can it still be called routine?”

“How many times does it take the real thing to stick?”

I gave Tam an idea once. She’d only been singing at night, when we drank beers around the city or when she showered to ready for the dates we’d spend afternoons prepping her for. I told her she had a voice, and if she wanted to, she could sing in bars or clubs and make some money doing it. Now Tam tours Europe every year. Behind her is a band of synthesizers and drums. Sometimes she plays the flute, but mostly it’s her voice that hovers over the crowds, beckoning people to tread outside themselves.

When the man in my periphery approaches me, I’m not alarmed, only unsure whether something I did brought him over.

He doesn’t say anything at first. He sits a few feet from me and flattens his shirt. I can’t hear him exhale over the sounds of wind over water. I have four sips remaining. I drink them one by one, wondering if he’s the man I’ve been interviewing this whole while in my head. When he leans into the deck’s bench while everyone else starts to exit, I wonder if he’ll tell me what’s essential about the view across water (or how this isn’t yet a memory we’ve made). I wonder if he’s come to answer my questions.




Michelle Dove is the author of Radio Cacophony and fiction that appears in Chicago Review, Hobart, and Entropy. She works and teaches creative writing in the English Department at Duke.



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