New Jersey Days, Nautical Nights by Joan Harvey

BOMB 16 Summer 1986
016 Summer 1986
​Nancy Spero

Nancy Spero, Artemis II, (detail) 1985, handprinting/paper, 66 × 110 inches. Courtesy Josh Bear Gallery.

The train takes you there, passing rapidly into a long tunnel, plunging immediately into night where reflections shine on the dark glass and you suffer from nausea caused by the motion. Then you emerge into daylight, into smoky narrow landscapes where the light is bleak on the earth in winter. The train is always late and the sun on the snow hurts your eyes and with your ears you hear only the creak of tram wheels. You go over bridges and beside you men read newspapers, and as you pass into New Jersey you watch the bare tree branches against the white sky.

In the room it is as if she is not there, you sense already that death has claimed her although she is not ill, it is only her age, the translucency of her skin, so that anywhere in the room it is as if she is off to the side, just slightly apart. When she speaks it is difficult to hear her, although she speaks in a clear voice and often of the most current events, the most recent occurrences. You try to listen while your mind wanders, it is hard even to see her, although she is quite solidly built, and not at all slender. You sit near her and listen and all around you the other old people are talking, lingering for hours over bits of cheese and vodka, sipping and chewing, telling the same stories again and again, discussing in detail the smallest events in their lives, talking to you.

At night you sleep in a small room away from the rest, they have had it made ready, the sheets are fresh, there are small flowers by the bed and books selected especially for you. You climb under the soft blanket with relief and immediately you are carried off into fragile green seas, seas so cool and bright that each ripple is an extreme pleasure, you are drenched with salt, the water washes over you and dissolves you in the wet green night.

In the days you take the car, the old man’s car, MD plates, sunroof, blue metal skin, and you drive out, drive all day through the state of New Jersey. You smoke the cheapest sweetest cigars you can find, you pick up young people along the way, the younger the better, and you give them cigars too, and speed along, the radio on, until you reach the Delaware River. There, just where Washington crossed, you cross, and briefly you are out of New Jersey. You feel almost free as you drive along the banks of the river, past the Library of the American Revolution, past the Fife and drum cafe. You go to all the places you have gone before, to the same grassy field where when it is warm enough you roll in the grass and drink beer, to the same bars in the same little towns. You drive with the windows open and the sunroof open and the heater on and you turn the radio up very loud when you pass the soldier’s graves and a sign that says the park closes at sunset. By sunset you know you will be back in New Jersey.

They always want to celebrate when you come to stay, because although to you it seems as if you visit frequently, to them it seems as if you visit very rarely, and so they always have special things for you, special foods, fruits out of season. The refrigerator is always filled to bursting for your arrival; there is ice cream, asparagus, champagne. They sit in the dusk talking over their drinks, while in the kitchen you prepare the lobsters they have bought, putting them live, one by one, into the boiling water, cutting them open, washing the thick green guts away down the sink. Then you help the others to the table, they move along slowly and you arrange pillows, put canes carefully out of the way. You all sit at the table, drinking the champagne and eating the lobsters, which seem far too rich to you, so you drink more champagne and listen as they tell the same stories over again. Later they show you the photograph albums, so many pictures of you all very young, you had forgotten how beautiful you were.

At night you retire to the separate small room where the noise you make when you fight the storms won’t be heard, where they won’t be disturbed by the roaring and crashing of the waves as you sail the fleet across, the ships torn and broken by the pounding of the water and the spray flying up, your ship leading the others, rising and falling from the enormous gray watery heights.

You wake late, exhausted from the storm and go quietly to breakfast where the old ones are just arriving, they sleep late because they are old, and in the mornings they are extremely polite, cracking open their soft boiled eggs, sipping their coffee, asking you about your plans for the day. As always, you go out, taking the car.

You can take the old man’s car because he no longer drives, they don’t let him have the keys, he can no longer tell directions properly, he no longer knows where he is. He stays in the house and he counts things, he counts the birds in the trees and the books in the room, he admires the number of hairs on your head. He smiles at you without knowing your name. And just as he has forgotten the times he took you by the hand and showed you special things, you forget those times, you forget his ideas, his hopes for you. You sit with him silently in the room as he waits for his meals and you can’t quite look at his face. His eyes are blank and it is only at dinner, after enough champagne, that he can remember the words to a few old songs.

When you come in from your drive in the evening they are sitting in the darkened room with one light on; the oldest one is talking, making motions with her hands, slow and delicate as if she were tracing patterns in the air, and she looks at you so intently that you blush. You feel that just to be inside a body as young as yours is a vulgar display of luxury, just to be in front of her with a skin that smooth. You blush and listen to the voices of the others in the room and the shrill whistling of hearing aids, talking back and forth to one another in a private language of their own. When you speak you have to shout and even then they don’t quite hear you, you are never having quite the same conversation with them that they are having with you, they stare with stupefied amazement at your words. You grow more and more irritated as the evening progresses and late at night you escape again, in the summer you go naked to the pool where you float up like a champagne bubble and just above you the fireflies flash their signals in the sky.

When the nights grow warmer water runs off your body in rivulets under the hot sheets, you swim through the sweaty night, you drown in the sticky sea. You sink down and down, spray filling your mouth and you wash up on the beach at daylight and again walk slowly through the house to breakfast.

They are all so old, there are so many of them, so many with roots spread through your life. They go on and on and never die, though your young friends die frequently, in car crashes or by drowning or shooting themselves. The old people live on and they are greedy for your life, you can feel this when you’re near. They like to watch you eat, you can eat so much while they can only eat a little; they like to see you drink, to indulge, to excite them with your pleasures and your vices. But the more they want from you, the more you withhold, the more you grow tight-lipped and prudish, helping yourself to very small servings of food to deny them, telling them nothing, giving them nothing, nothing of yourself. You can’t wait to leave them, to stumble off to your room, tired and guilty, ready for your young sleep.

Cresting up on a wave, tangled with sea weed, barnacles, anchors, ropes, smelling of salt, soaring away, spilling back down, knowing that each time you land you will be a bit older, each time you crash down on the shores of New Jersey.

Joan M. Harvey lives in New York. Her stories have appeared in BOMB, Between C and D, Fiction Monthly, Osiris, and Prism. She has just completed her first novel, Windows.

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Originally published in

BOMB 16, Summer 1986

Linda Hunt, Alexander Liberman, art by Jeff Koons, John Baldessari, Barbara Bloom, and more. Cover art by James Nare.

Read the issue
016 Summer 1986