When I was young, every night after my swing shift I rode down to the Staten Island Ferry. I’d float home at midnight, or 5, because I would get off the train and close bars on the way. I was usually drunk. Any potential I had I was throwing away. This was my primary knowledge of self. I spent all my time alone or having sex with strangers which is the same thing.
One midnight I sat on the deck staring toward the Narrows. The harbor, on the dark water between Liberty and Governors, is the quietest place in the city. I sat my own bench among thirty or forty silent citizens. I was a pretty boy but I was strong and hard and that year I was scaring people.
That night a very large black girl got up and came to sit near me. She was a stranger, not exotic enough or enough like me to talk to. I showed her my shoulder and smoked my cigarette.
She asked me please to hold her.
She was taller and she outweighed me by seventy pounds. There were people looking. I did not know her but she had chosen me of all the men and women on that deck and this girl needed to be held. I understood holding women and this one was not kidding. She was waiting to be held before she would let herself cry, and she had to cry now.
I did not want to hold her. She magnified my smallness in the universe, my inability to help anybody, to help myself. The night commuters watched, frankly curious what I would do with this enormous, urgent, whispering girl.
I was embarrassed to put my arm around a giant fat girl. I was ashamed of how I must look already, sitting beside her, a doll. I put my arm behind her neck. It didn’t reach her far shoulder. I held her. I hated her now and now she was crying, her forehead on my shoulder. I threw away my smoke and held her with both arms. Her body shook my body. I hated her viciously. I wanted her to throw herself off the boat, drown herself. I held her close.
She had come to me, and I was not hard now. She cried on and I held her tighter to keep her from coming apart. Her sobs were going to knock me off the bench. I couldn’t do it. I hated her. And she climbed onto my lap now, and she was in my arms like a child, this girl so much bigger than me. I looked ridiculous. People looked away. I looked away.
She had come from a bad place in Georgia where nobody liked her to New York where nobody saw her. She was good at nothing, a 230 pound unskilled and friendless black girl. Her aunt was going to throw her out. She barely had a job, working a phone sex line. It did not pay enough. She was a good girl. She didn’t like the work and was too afraid of being rejected to try to find another job. She thought it might make her go crazy like that other time to be told once more that nobody wanted her. And tonight at work a man had said something to her, something awful and wrong, shameful, she felt so ashamed to have gotten herself into this, but nothing was any better before, and nothing was going to get any better again, she knew it. And she knew she would feel better in a minute. She was sorry to bother me. She would stop crying in a minute. She was so sorry. She was so sorry to bother me. I was a nice man.
I looked away even with her on my lap as I said bland things and gave her the cool of my cheek. I looked at the night. I hated being dwarfed in volume of misery: I had no right to feel as sorry for myself. I hated the physical indignity. I hated someone seeing us and thinking I was with her: I hated her most for showing me my shame in what humanity I did not possess.
And I held her after she said she was alright now. When the boat came into St George I held her and I cried and said there was nothing I could do for her. The deckhand told us to go or go around again and she stood up from my lap but I followed to her train and as she got on I stood in the door, tears striping my face, explaining that there was nothing I could do, that she was alone. We were all alone. And she rode away and I climbed the deserted black night hill toward my room, sobs ringing off the courthouse, “Cunt, you cunt.”