A woman watches the fireworks on Independence Day in New York City
The crowd was pressed so tightly together that it moved as one living thing. It flowed down Broadway like a swollen river on its way to something big. The whole city was ready for it, and the air seemed to tingle with expectation. It would be the greatest show ever seen and the mass of people moved as one to the docks and piers to get a good view. It was Independence Day and the bicentennial extravaganza had been developing for weeks. The Tall Ships had come from all over the world to be in the grand parade into New York Harbor, up the East River and around Manhattan Island to the Bronx. The city had promised to welcome the parade with the biggest fireworks display ever done.
She let the momentum of the crowd carry her along, feeling oddly alone in the middle of them. Excited voices filled the air with a jumble of words. Connected somehow from one to another, they swam and danced around her. It made a muffling cocoon that closed her inside the isolation she felt. Alone on this night of all nights, in the middle of a gigantic party, Ellie was without Sam for the first time since they had become “Ellie and Sam” some two years before.
As soon as she said his name in her mind, tears welled up in her eyes. Sam, her anchor, her rudder, her lover, her friend. Sam with the blue eyes, the sandy hair, the ready smile. Sam who said he loved her. Sam who should have been here at her side.
The crowd turned a corner and spilled into Battery Park. The sudden loss of that directed energy that had carried her this far, left her disoriented and uncertain which way to go next. She looked around. In the building darkness everyone seemed to be wearing black. Forms moved and shifted, filling in the gaps, taking up their places on park benches, under lampposts, and on blankets in the grass. Everywhere, the crowd settled and grew quiet. Ellie kept moving and found herself at the entrance to the ferry. She thought, “why not?”
The view from the back of the ferry was her favorite way to see the city, her everyday escape from all the noise and commotion, a half-hour vacation that costed twenty-five cents. It was familiar. It was safe. She lined up at the turnstile with a coin in her palm.
In front of Ellie, a couple held hands and whispered, their heads inclined toward each other. Behind her a man in an overcoat scowled at no one and everyone. A young mother with a baby on her hip held her young daughter’s hand. Ellie realized they were part of the usual Staten Island crowd, people who lived on the island and rode this ferry every day. The crowd of sightseers on the docks and in the park were staying in Manhattan for the show. It seemed odd but somehow comforting to have left them behind for a little while.
On board, she stood in her usual spot on the rear deck. From here, she could watch the city expand at first and then recede as the ferry slowly made its way out of dock and across the harbor. The ferry whistle blew and she turned up her collar.
The city began to slip away, and soon she could see the whole of lower Manhattan. The masses of people she knew were crammed into every open space in the street and park disappeared in the dark silhouette of the city, stark and familiar against the purple sunset sky. As if on cue, the lights came on.
The city sparkled and the bridges twinkled like necklaces strung across the neck of water between Brooklyn and Manhattan. As the full span of the Brooklyn Bridge came into view, it was a great gothic castle. It dominated the skyline of the East River. She wondered how many times she had walked across that bridge with Sam. It was something she knew she’d never do without him.
They used to walk the Promenade from their apartment in Carroll Gardens, then cross the bridge to Chinatown or Little Italy for dinner, or down to the Village for a poetry reading, some music or a show. Ellie met Sam at one of those little village coffeehouses. She knew from the minute Sam walked in the door that she was in love with him. It was the first time she’d ever felt that way and the first time she’d ever approached a man and taken the initiative to meet him. Sam was so absorbed with reading his poetry, and surrounded by admirers, she knew if she didn’t do something she wasn’t going to meet him at all. So she’d gotten her nerve up and walked over to his table, interrupted him to introduce herself and asked for his phone number. Sam seemed surprised and not sure what to make of her, and when he gave her his number, she quickly excused herself. It was, she recalled, an awkward moment. But when she called him, he remembered her, “the lady from the reading,” and they met for coffee. It had been possibly the most assertive thing Ellie had ever done. How had things gone so terribly wrong, she wondered?
The city receded until it was a postcard on the horizon. Apart from the ferry’s engines and the lapping of waves against its sides, the night was quiet. The Statue of Liberty stood elegantly off to the side, and then a new set of lights burst forth. Ellie knew the parade of Tall Ships had begun. Fireworks began to erupt in the sky as the ships sailed across the harbor and headed east.
Even in July, the breeze off the water carried a chill, and Ellie missed having Sam’s arm around her back to keep her warm against his side. She knew at that moment Sam was back at the apartment, packing up and leaving, just as they’d agreed, while she stayed away to avoid an unpleasant goodbye. They’d said everything already a hundred times over, discussed it from every possible angle, and every time it came out the same.
Sam liked women and women liked Sam. He said he loved women and that he loved Ellie above all others. Sam thought that should be enough. For Ellie, his total failure at monogamy was a deal-breaker. She just couldn’t share him. And there was no longer any way to lie to herself about the number and frequency of the other women in Sam’s life. He was just irresistible and women were just as irresistible to him.
As the ferry chugged its way back to the city, fireworks lit up the sky. The Parade of Tall Ships turned up the East River and the last rays of sunset faded to black. Ellie realized she was crying and looked around self-consciously, but there was no one nearby.