Getting Over The Affair:
A Ride on the Staten Island Ferry
In 2003, I was new to New York City: 23 years old, in an MFA program at NYU, and I felt the world was my oyster. I had a roommate named Dave, and together we played the game "twenty rats in the sewer" - we had a chart in our tiny, decrepit apartment that we would put a mark on every time one of us saw another rat in the subway. The first person who got to twenty bought the other a drink. I can't remember who won . . . but I do remember we had a lot of fun, and got along like peas in a pod despite the fact that we didn't even have real rooms, just separate loft beds with curtains for privacy. That apartment had a tub with a showerhead you had to use while seated - though the cheap hose tended to pop off, spraying the bathroom with water. There was also carpet in the kitchen, walls that were painted about as high as a person could reach without a ladder (this tells you a lot about my landlord), and the apartment was situated over a gas station, so I'd get woken up from deep sleep at the middle of the night when people would come to fill their tanks and blast Metallica into the night. On a roll of film I've never developed was a picture of a cop on horseback going through the drive-through window at the McDonald's diagonally across the street.
One of my favorite things to do at this time was to take the Staten Island Ferry. Free boat ride! You get to see the Statue of Liberty for a moment, feel the wind on your face, and look down into the lovely green water with questionable life activity within . . . all said and done, a good time. Once, I went on the ferry with Dave late at night. I hadn't been eating quite enough and suddenly got extremely sick on the way there. I realized I was overly hungry, so we went around Staten Island for about half an hour looking for a pizza shop or something open at 11 pm. That shouldn't be hard to find, right? Yes, apparently it is. Finally we found a deli, where I bought some sort of sustenance - a protein bar or something I believe - and at this point we really needed to get back to the ferry, because the last boat was leaving at 12:00 am and the next was not for another hour. Feeling sicker and sicker, I ran doubled over through the street toward the ferry, trying not to throw up . . . the boat was leaving! RUN! through the lobby . . . but no, I couldn't make it . . . and I was that person who vomited in a trash can in the lobby. Classy. Still, I managed to get on the boat before it left. Oh, to be young . . .
But these fun and silly memories all but disappeared nine years later with quite another memory: the one where I was trying to intercept my then-legally-bound-individual (ex-husband) and his charming girlfriend at the ferry terminal. This was one of the worst memories of the whole affair saga. For the purposes of this blog post, I can't quite bear to use the phrase "husband" because it gives me hives, so I will refer to him here forward as "The Individual". He had promised he was going to tell her it was over, and do it in front of me. The way I remember it, he was going to go down to meet her at the ferry terminal on her way back to Staten Island, and I wanted to come, to directly confront both her and the fiasco that had ripped my life apart. The Individual and I had a fight in the street bad enough for a cop to stop and question him. Just like you never think you'll be that person vomiting in a trash can in the lobby of the Staten Island Ferry terminal, you also never think you'll be eight months pregnant in hysterical tears, screaming in the street at your cheating husband. But there you are. I went back toward the apartment, wanting him to stop me. But he didn't. He disappeared. And suddenly, I knew where he had gone . . . he was trying to intercept her on her way back to Staten Island. How dare he do it without me! The feelings of anxiety and helplessness overwhelmed me and before I knew it I was in a cab, heading down the West Side Highway.
Once I arrived at the ferry terminal, I ran about frantically looking for signs of him, or of her. I had never met her, but I had a vague description of what she looked like. I looked for the woman with curly black hair and basketball sneakers, who may or may not have her toddler in a stroller. I even walked up to a woman in the ferry terminal. "Are you Leza?" I asked. She shook her head. What was I doing? I ran back outside, calling The Individual on my phone, over and over. He did not answer. What was happening? Where was he? What was he saying to her?
Finally, an hour later, as I was about to leave, I got a text from him. He was nearby. I went to go speak to him. I wanted to know what happened and what was said. He told me that she was upset. She couldn't believe she had gotten herself into this predicament, and she refused to meet me. Well, what did you say? I wanted to know. Not much, apparently - at least not much that he shared. He said she had just gotten onto the ferry and left. Well, then, what would you have said? The question hung in the air like an icicle over a doorway, dripping meltwater, threatening to crash down, but staying put. Finally I turned and ran toward the subway and got on the train. I partly wanted to get away from him, but again I partly hoped he would follow me. I hoped his fear of losing me would prove that I was consequential, that if I threatened to disappear he would, in fact, snap out of it and chase after me. But this is not what happened.
When Christopher St. station flashed by the train windows, I hopped out without thinking. I wandered around the NYU neighborhood where we had met, retracing memories in my mind, wondering how things had gotten to this point. I texted him something or other - I believe I was attempting forgiveness, telling him where I was, offering to talk if he would meet me. Suddenly, my phone rang, and hope sprang up in my throat. Hello?
The Individual said he would come and meet me. We could talk. I started to feel relief melting my fear. It was all going to be okay. See? He was chasing me after all. He would not let me go. But I'll be a while, The Individual told me. What? Why? Where are you?
He was on the Staten Island Ferry. Impulsively, rather than chasing me, he had chased her. What were you going to tell her? What were you going to say if you went to her house? I demanded. He could not tell me.
Have you ever seen a person screaming hysterically on their phone in public? Of course you have, if you live in New York. And maybe you thought, WTF, keep it to yourself. Well, don't judge. You think you'll never be that crazy person screaming obscenities late at night on the phone, in public, in front of everyone, clutching onto scaffolding rails for dear life because you think your heart will split open in front of everyone, you are afraid you will spontaneously combust into flames, you feel as though you are about to be executed, you feel a baby in your belly and wonder how much agony this child is feeling by transmission of hormones through the blood - can my baby feel my pain? Is he experiencing all of this? And worst of all, you can't stop it. So you scream. And scream. And scream. That person you thought you'd never be: it's you.
I eventually hung up, stopped screaming, went home and cried myself to sleep, talking to The Individual later that night when he called to confess he was afraid of having a son. I thought, if I forgive, if I offer compassion, he will come back. And so I forgave, and forgave, and forgave. I kept forgiving until I was turned inside out and there was almost nothing left of me.
Three years later, I would be getting a divorce. It's hard to explain why it took me so long, but that's another story about self-worth. For the past years, I could not even stand the words "Staten Island" because they prompted a feeling of nausea and shame - how had I ever tried so hard to save something not worth saving - to chase after someone who treated me like nothing? Someone for whom I had grown a sense of disgust? It was hard to wrap my mind around. At this point, I couldn't care less about The Individual, other than I wanted to get him the hell out of my life. What I cared about was the fact that I still had such a hard-wired fear and shame reaction to anything that reminded me of what had happened. And it was affecting my new relationship that I was in at the time. It's hard to be in a new relationship when any little thing can trigger you and remind you of pain, make you feel damaged, make you feel unacceptable, vulnerable, in danger of it happening again. You don't want to be overly needy. You are afraid if you have these fears, they will make the new person leave you, so you keep the fears hidden, until they lash out and reveal themselves, and you feel even more damaged. I felt in danger of being thrown out constantly - this is even more true because I was, at that point, a single mother without a living dad in a city where I had no family, in which I had lost most of my friends, who had really been his friends, a situation I wouldn't wish on anyone - and the divorce was not the amicable separation I imagined it would be, but rather a long and drawn out catastrophe.
Going to court was rather terrifying. But the thing with fear is: when you face it, you overcome. And as I journeyed down on the train to the courthouse, which was so near the Staten Island Ferry, I finally decided that it was time. For several years, I had felt as though I needed to make another trip on the Staten Island Ferry. I didn't want it to define me anymore - I didn't want to feel like my life, these precious bits of my life, my pregnancy, my son's baby years, were contaminated and dirty. I didn't want my memories to belong to her, or to the shame of being cheated on. I wanted to strip myself of the shame and the fear. I wanted it to be again just the boat I had ridden on with my graduate school roommate. So after walking out of the courthouse that day, I got on the train again and headed farther downtown instead of back up.
It was a beautiful but cold, cloudy day. I felt anxious as I boarded the boat. What would happen? Would I have some sort of a reaction? Would I burst into tears in front of everyone? I imagined dropping these feelings of violation into the water - if I had still had my wedding ring, I would have dropped it into those murky waves. Since I did not, I performed a sort of internal silent ritual, remembering what had happened, deciding it didn't claim me anymore. I thought about getting off the boat and walking around. Part of me wanted to visit the street where she lived. I don't even remember how I had discovered her address, but it was still burned into my memory from years ago. I had a picture in my mind of her house, even though I had never seen it. I wanted to stand in front of it and think about what had happened there the night The Individual first came home too late.
But there was nothing for me there. The boat ride was enough. I turned back around and got onto the next returning ferry. And somehow, it felt as though a deep joy was coming up from within. A very cute man on the boat, an apparent tourist from some South American country, smiled at me, and I smiled back. Maybe I am not, in fact, contaminated by what was done to me. Maybe I am free, I thought. I imagined myself being free. What would that feel like? What would it feel like to once again be young, with nine years of my life that had felt wasted, suddenly returned? Could I be young again? I remembered riding this same ferry so many years ago with my friend Dave in graduate school, and how much fun we'd had (despite the throwing up). Maybe this can be my ferry again. My ferry with Dave, and my friend Said, who also rode it with me once, and the cute South American guy. But mostly, just mine.
At this time, I noticed a seagull flying alongside the ferry. Going in the same direction, it seemed held in suspension. There was something so beautiful about that bird on the wind, it seemed to be a beacon just for me. You will rise above. You are free now. It felt almost like a sign, something I could put my trust in. I imagined my heart lifting up on the wind, too - leaving the violation behind, reclaiming my heart and my body as my own.
Returning to the ferry terminal, I noticed something that caught my attention. On a nearby pier was a large sign that read, "AT THE SAME MOMENT." I can't quite say why this affected me so. For reasons I still am not sure, it brought tears to my eyes. It was as though, despite the feelings of disconnection I was feeling, the aloneness from feeling branded by the cheating, labeled a leper, damaged, dysfunctional. . . at the same moment, maybe somewhere, somebody had an invisible connection to me - maybe there was someone who would understand, who would not judge. Maybe I was not, in fact, utterly alone. Maybe, against the odds, I would find new meaning, hope, healing. Redemption. At the same moment, maybe there was someone out there, doing who knows what, disconnected through space and time but connected through this invisible thread of fate, who would understand.
The buildings of New York City and the brand new Trade Center, still being built, loomed up high in the fog. This was no longer her city, or his city. This city was, once again, mine.