West Side Highway

This piece is part of Waterfronts, a series of personal essays that engage with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Underwater New York.

I heard a story on NPR recently about a family living aboard a boat in the Pacific Ocean, in waters so unpredictable that they literally tied themselves to the boat in case it capsized. Though experienced sailors, eventually a health emergency forced them to send out an SOS signal. When the rescuers came, the mother explained that the hardest part wasn’t the decision to get help, it was leaving their boat: “having to say goodbye to our home.”

Moving to New York City from a suburban nest of quiet creature comforts is a lot like leaving that boat behind. We find refuge for our lost selves on this dry island.

During my childhood across the Hudson, I often wondered what it was, exactly, about New York that necessitated so many bridges and tunnels. From the backseat of my family’s Ford station wagon, the lanes of traffic reminded me of tiny metal specks being sucked toward the giant magnet across the river. If we opted for a bridge, I’d lean my head against the backseat window to marvel at the height. I wondered who had the audacity to build something so tall from so deep. I imagined a scuba diver boldly laying cement at the bottom of the river, flippers counterbalancing slabs of sheet rock. On the long car ride home, we’d go under the river, my parents braving the Holland Tunnel. If I dared to doze off, the fluorescent lights would wake me up with a flickering shock. Once I learned to read, the New York/New Jersey sign was the pivotal moment where we left behind the echo and abuse of the city, toward the quiet, frosted lawns of my suburb. I was grateful to be home.

Years later, I moved to New York for college. After my first semester, things were different. I felt adrift.

I made plans with some friends to head back into the city for a New Year’s Eve party. In my parents’ New Jersey bathroom earlier that night, a friend tried to convince me that glasses don’t go with formal wear. The air was full of that post-Christmas pre-New Year’s sense that we must enjoy this freedom from academic obligation. Our bellies were full of family traditions, lazy winter days of sleeping late and nights of watching films—not movies—while smoking joints in the basements of our childhood homes. We donned the costumes of our adult life, readying ourselves for one of those alcohol-addled, aimless nights in New York.

At the train station, my friend Mitchell was uncharacteristically dressed up—tie, button down, blazer, the whole works. A semester away at college and he’d shed a layer of awkwardness and was feeling brazen enough to show it. He’d already picked up train tickets the way men find things to do with their idle hands while waiting for the women folk to prepare.

I knew I had too much make-up on when I saw his face.

Mitchell looked around nervously bending his paper ticket in his hand so it made a u, then a lower case n. U, n, u, n.

We sputtered on and so did the Raritan Valley Line, traversing the swamplands and entering the tunnel under the river. My ears popped at the exact moment that the car went dark, as the water pressure closed in on all sides of the train. I always pictured the tunnel springing a leak, water rushing in like an open fire hydrant on a hot city street. Somehow, imagined catastrophes kept me centered, soothed me. It was the only kind of optimism that felt natural: assuring myself things could be worse.

My friend’s West Village apartment had a tiny, porthole-like window in the exposed brick of the living room. As the party raged on, I stared out at the sparkling river while I slowly sipped a rum and Coke. Known and unknown partygoers promenaded around me, one stopping to marvel the view. He said a condo would be erected before long, co-opting the waterfront bragging rights.

At some point I lost track of Mitchell.

If he felt anything for me, I didn’t know it. I was foreign to myself, unrecognizable like my own voice on a tape recording. One night between high school and college, we held hands like children and walked around my quiet, artificial neighborhood. Earlier that summer, we’d hiked through the reservation near his house to a clearing where we could see the city skyline across the river, hazy in the day, covered in smog and lazy afternoon sun. On the walk home I complained of blisters. He bandaged my foot and glanced up at me with a question in his eyes.

Mitchell confidently circled through the party that night while draining his beer. His college metamorphosis was obvious. And I wasn’t the only one seeing this version of him. I knew what was coming, and it was wholly preventable if I could only work up the nerve.

I passively stared at him, then the patio, silently willing him out there, with my big city magnet eyes. Maybe he’d put his coat around my shoulders. We’d stare up into the night sky, and do the damn thing already.

In the moments before the ball drop, we all squeezed into the bedroom. Our party and Dick Clark’s Rockin’ Eve were happening simultaneously, thirty blocks apart. If I closed my eyes, the TV screen provided no boundary between the revelry of Times Square and this tiny bedroom in the West Village.

I watched an unrecognizable version of Mitchell as he slung his hand around the neck of a high-pitched, negligee-clad girl, with a lop-sided Happy New Year tiara.

I pet the cat in the corner, watching.

And then, of course, it came. Three, two, one, and all of that. Mitchell leaned in headfirst. He kissed her like he meant it. Like he liked her, or her body, or thought this was the way to find someone.

Amid the confetti and noisemakers, I saw red. I left without my coat and walked the half-block to the West Side Highway, a location I’d loved since moving to Manhattan. I spent a lot of lazy afternoons weaving my way through the maddening confusion of the village, comforted when I finally saw Christopher Street spill out onto the highway, then the piers. From here I could look across the river at my hometown, making sure it saw how far I’d come.

That night I needed the piercing cold in my face, the lapping water angry at the air and resisting freezing. As I breathed in the putrid smell of the city river I felt my toes begin to numb in their silly high heels. A couple to my right leaned against the railing, clawing at each other.

I began to shiver, my shoulders hunched against my ears. I turned away from the water, back toward the city, felt the chill of dashed expectations mixed with the New Year’s first cold breezes coming off of the Hudson. Across the many-laned highway, I saw the shadow of my friend Meg. She was carrying my jacket, slung across her arms like Jesus in the Pieta.

I collapsed into a hug and, as she rubbed my back, I thought I’d try to harder to be a grown-up that year.

Erin Baer is a writer and social worker. She is involved with the organization Girls Write Now and has participated in the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband.