Sea Level

Gerry LaFemina

Because the body is mostly water we suffer gravity:

a pregnant woman’s ankles swell

when standing long; the wounded man in the alley bleeds;

we experience tides as if the moon

dictated more than the sea’s

insatiable taste for sand.

And use my knuckles as an abacus to count

my visits to the ocean—

I blame myself not Freddy Clark in his dad’s four door Chrysler

driving some girl to a state park

 after closing

     Friday nights.

Saturday’s stories:

                              All the same.

                                                     He’s still telling them,

and I’m still listening, the words remaining long in the hollow shells of mornings

after I cursed him—

          seeing a woman I wrote poems for

in his back seat.

That night I climbed the ladder of a lifeguard chair and chose

the maudlin canvas the constellations painted on the waves.

Two hours later I was naked and treading water,


   How common.

             More often I rise above sea level,

shedding myself of the undertow. At five,

I raced my building’s elevator to the eighth floor,

up one more team of stairs to the roof. Hide-and-seek

among its congregation of aerial antennae,

behind the ventilation shafts. We played everyday;

From that height, I could watch the street:

stickball, mail deliveries, Loretta

walking the block to join me for a game of super hero-

and-the-saved. Our curiosity a kind of desire.


In school I’d sneak to the roof,

and study trigonometry in the sine curve pattern

a Super Ball thrown to the street would make:

bouncing skyward, a bright rubber sphere, the way the sun caught it

with a glove of brilliance… I’d lose it

high above Eighteenth Street on clear days

tobacco smoke rallying its upward spiral:

a spirit like the ghosts of word problems

erased from the board: If sea level increases

one foot per day…



Because the body is mostly water a man falling fourteen stories

strikes the sidewalk like a wet sponge, bouncing once,

twice on the concrete.

That’s me gawking from the street.  Seventeen.

I hadn’t heard a thing but had to explain

to the police why my head was down

while I walked,

  Why I wasn’t in school.

               One cop laughed,

All you kids,

          depressed and tough.


I bet you wish you were that stiff:

         Shit, he was twice your age.

You kids: all dopes.

Shaking the Coke can in his hand,

he scanned my answers one last time

before telling me to beat it. He must be a detective by now

or retired.

Or dead—

some stray bullet while enjoying the ripe gallery of family life

with a day off at Rockaway Beach

when three guys got into a fight over a woman or a remark.

Which one had the gun…



On yesterday’s news flood victims rowed boats

along Oak Street, Stuart Avenue.  Volunteers

with sandbags by the river bank.

A morning later: silence

followed by the shine of a sump pump running, the slosh of boots

and damp jeans through ankle-deep living rooms, the occasional expletive

while the river sleeps with the unease of a newborn.



Somewhere someone is drowning

and someone else is breaking surface.  It’s coming up for air

I remember. Three, maybe four,

I’d been jumped from behind

by the tide;

I would have given a pocketful of sand dollars,

my imagined pirate’s gold,

to stand with the breakers bowing at my ankles:

Toddler Neptune.

Instead, I crawled the linoleum of broken shells

coughing salt water; crawled past a construction crew of brothers

excavating tunnels for their cars,

young hands steering them through sandy highways; crawled

The brunette girl who could have been Loretta,

her ponytail damp, stringy, and barnacled to her back.

She stared and hugged her Barbie close.


Even these are acts of love:

I wanted to dive into the bay after a woman said no.

I was tying my wrists together when I was discovered

on the docks by Battery Park;

    I once climbed seven stories

by fire escape onto the roof of a walk-up because of yes.

By then I knew the difference

between love and desire,

     knew the two met somewhere:

a hormonal horizon that I can’t see even with hindsight.


When the water bursts, it’s time.

       And to water we’ll return

go under and feel the pressure in our lungs,

almost libidinal.  Listen to the sea:

       I want. I want. I want…

In bathrooms all over the country salt water

gossip echoes in conch shells; even far from the coast

they know the stories: the dead lovers forever dancing on the ballroom

of the Titanic.  She wears a gown of sea weed,

           and his eyes glow

phosphorous as innuendo,

         and intentions.

The sun fires just beyond the horizon.  First light

far to the East because the earth is mostly water.

High tide and low tide exchange shifts;

already old men with metal detectors clutter the shore

seeking some pirate treasure that’s slipped through the pockets of the sea,

a declasped bracelet or an excommunicated earring, but they’re lucky

if they find dimes from the years of their birth.  Look,

one of them is now on his knees.  I can’t see

what he lifts to this infantile sunlight

before surrendering it, indifferent.

          Only memories.

Those bottle cap and quarter beeps.