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Humans in New York

Hurricane XLIX, Clifford Ross, 2008. Courtesy the artist.

Honeymoon Sandy

A Manhattan wedding, a cancer scan, and the largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded.

On my 40th birthday, I married Sharon Marcus, my partner of 13 years. A cop spotted our bouquets as we exited New York’s Chambers Street station and directed us to a city office where the smiling clerk gave us her blessing. Our twin nephews sang, “Here come the brides!” I wore a white linen shift and sunglasses; Sharon wore the red-and-white dress she’d chosen for our commitment ceremony eight years prior, before gay marriage was legal in New York.

“You’re even more beautiful the second time around,” I told her.

I have an autoimmune disorder called Reiter’s Syndrome that causes an inflammation of the middle layer of the eye, or uveitis. Hence the sunglasses. My left eye had been flaring all summer, so painfully light-sensitive that I had to keep the shades down whenever the sun was out, found even streetlights too bright at night, and could not go near a computer screen. The weekend before our wedding, a pupillary membrane had formed over the eye. When the ophthalmologist asked how many fingers he was holding up, I couldn’t tell.

“Uveitis is rare, but it’s one of the leading causes of blindness,” he said. “You have to take these drops religiously.”

Sharon and I had planned a honeymoon weekend in Jamaica, but Caribbean sunshine no longer seemed so appealing. We cancelled our travel plans.

On Monday, October 29th, four days after our marriage, Hurricane Sandy struck New York City. On the first Sunday of our wedded lives, as the vision in my bad eye began to return, we walked home through the West Village with a cartload of storm supplies. Half the adults around us were shepherding tiny costumed children, while the other half lugged bottled water and toilet paper.

“We seem to be in some sort of hurricane-Halloween crosscurrent,” Sharon said.

On the overcast afternoon before the storm hit, the Hudson rode high and choppy, gray water slopping through the promenade railing toward our shoes. That night, as we listened to the wind bellow in the chimney, the hundred-year-old maple in our courtyard blew down, blocking egress for our two wheelchair-using neighbors. An hour later, our living-room lamps flickered and died. We brushed our teeth by candlelight and sat up in the dark with a hand-cranked radio—ever since 9/11, disaster preparedness had been one of Sharon’s hobbies—listening to live storm coverage on 1010 WINS.

Tuesday morning, we woke to no lights, no heat, no traffic signals, no streetlights. Just two miles away, the South Ferry subway station had flooded with seawater. Trucks floated in the Rockaway streets. Water had seized a Staten Island woman’s kids right off the roof of her car.

Con Edison called our landline to say that an electrical station at 14th Street and Avenue D was down. I moved our warming food from the fridge to a chilly windowsill. Across the street, most of the storefronts remained shuttered.

Sharon went out for a walk and returned with a band of chainsaw-toting firefighters whom she’d persuaded to help with our fallen tree. They hacked two sawdust-y cuts into the downed maple, loosening a section of trunk so massive, four firefighters lined up to roll it off the brick path.

Walking uptown, we passed a darkened pizza shop where a man with a miner’s lamp strapped to his forehead rolled out dough. On Eighth Avenue, we passed a three-story hotel whose entire front had fallen in the storm: the rooms stood exposed to the street, each neatly-made bed tilted just so.

“Do you think we should get out of the city?” I asked.

“With the cat?” she said.

“I know, it wouldn’t be easy.”

“Well, on the one hand, we have no heat, no hot water, no electricity, and no cell phone service. On the other, we still have cold water. The landline works. The gas works.”

“It’s supposed to get much colder,” I pointed out. Sharon raised an eyebrow, unconvinced.

“We can use the fireplace,” I conceded. “All our things are here.”

“‘Shelter in place if you can,’ the manuals always say. Why don’t we try staying and see how it goes?”

 

Sharon’s and my wedding had marked, we hoped, the end of a medical saga involving cancer, a full hysterectomy, and oncologists’ orders to stop taking the medications that had been keeping my autoimmune disorder in check for the past three years. I had been given a 26 percent chance of five-year survival and no indication that chemo or radiation would help. Would not-taking Humira be enough to keep the cancer from coming back? Only a CT scan would show for sure.

My eye had begun flaring after surgery in July, during the stressful countdown to the cancer scan. From July to October, Sharon and I had often meditated together: it was something I could do with my eyes closed. A few weeks before the scan, after we finished meditating, Sharon took my hand.

“Ellis, I want to ask you something.”

“What?”

“I hope it doesn’t happen this way, but we might be spending a lot of time in hospitals during the next few months.”

I swallowed.

“This summer at the cancer center, everyone was so much nicer to me when I tried introducing myself as your spouse than when I introduced myself as your partner.”

“They were,” I recalled. “Do you think we should get married?”

Sharon grimaced. “I feel the same way about marriage that I always have.”

“I do too,” I said.

Legal marriage had never struck us as romantic or sexy, perhaps because neither of our parents’ marriages ended well. For our fifth anniversary, eight years prior, we exchanged rings and vows in front of family and friends, and that had been enough. When gay marriage became legal in New York in 2011, we shrugged. But somewhere in there—maybe after we had bought an apartment together and renovated the bathrooms, or after we had endured my mother’s recent death and my cancer diagnosis—we had come to feel married, regardless of how we felt about marriage.

“Let’s think about it,” she said.

“If I ever lost you, I would tell everyone that we’d been married, so that they would understand just how enormous that loss was.”

On an overcast Sunday two weeks before the cancer scan, we went to a yoga class together, drowsing as the teacher walked us through a shavasana meditation on our backs. I could live or I could die, the slow unafraid thought formed inside me. But that didn’t make me special. Sharon could live or die, too. When the teacher woke us, I looked over at Sharon and smiled: our fingertips were touching.

As we walked quietly home, I tried to put what I’d experienced into words. “I think about dying a lot, but this time I thought about you dying,” I told Sharon. “If I ever lost you, I would tell everyone that we’d been married, so that they would understand just how enormous that loss was. You know? So if I can imagine doing that, I figure, why not just get married?”

“Is that a yes?” she said.

“Yes. Not so much in the service of romance, but in the service of accuracy. I’m game if you still are.”

“Well, okay, then,” she said. “Kiss me.”

 

Two days after the storm, the subway reopened above 34th Street, but our power was still out. The big-box stores in our neighborhood remained closed, but the little organic grocery shop opened its doors, its generator buzzing, its shelves half-lit by hanging flashlights. Until that day, it had never been dark enough for me to see the dim dirty skylight over the vegetable display that was now a time capsule of pre-Sandy deliveries. The cold weather had kept the produce crisp for days.

“Thanks for reopening,” I told the manager.

“Proud to do it,” he said.

Ten minutes later, I stopped to buy four AAA batteries at a newsstand.

“Ten dollars,” said the shopkeeper.

“No,” I said.

“You want cheaper ones? Five dollars.”

“Okay,” I said, and took his packaged-for-Asia Duracells. Walking away as the next customer asked for a couple of batteries, I heard him say it again: “Ten dollars.”

On the walk home, I passed a small gathering outside a hardware store, which was offering free Sterno-hot coffee and cider, and power strips for people to charge their computers. I remembered how strange it had felt to visit my sister in Zimbabwe right after our mother died, just a few months before my cancer diagnosis. Milk comes in plastic pouches here. My mother. Look, an elephant. My mother is dead. I felt similarly numb and rubbery now, walking through my altered neighborhood. My shoulders and backside could still feel the cold narrow table on which I’d slid through the white ring of the CT scanner. I could still hear the brisk light voice of the doctor on the phone the next morning, just two days before our wedding. Look, no power. The scan. Look, we’re all pulling together. The scan was clear.

 

The next day, cold, I wore my grandmother’s fur coat indoors. I shopped for firewood in bodegas lit by kerosene lamps. Every clear scan increased the chance that the next one might be, too, the doctor had told me.

“I might just get to walk away from this,” I murmured on the way home, giving the splintery wood in my grocery cart a superstitious pat. At home, I washed, chopped, and braised my produce in the dark. I washed a stack of dishes by touch in cold water.

 “Eating by candlelight is romantic,” I told Sharon that night as we curled up by the fire. “Cooking by candlelight? Not so much.”

“We got a call from our new best friend Con Edison,” she said. “They say the power’s coming on tomorrow morning.”

“This has been pretty squalid, but I’m so relieved about the scan that it’s been fun, too, in a can-do kind of way. Maybe this is why people like camping,” I said.

“I know what you mean,” Sharon said. “If I hadn’t had to go to work uptown with no subway service, it would even have been cozy.”

“This is nice,” I agreed, pointing at the candles lighting our Scrabble board, the hand-cranked radio playing jazz. “And I liked not having streetlights or sunshine for a few days. It gave my eye a break.”

“Your eye saved us from that honeymoon trip to Jamaica, Ellis,” Sharon said. “I don’t know if we would have made it out of town, but if we had, we’d still be stranded there.”

“Sheesh,” I said. “We’re lucky.”

Sharon laughed. “Your mom died, you had cancer, your eye is a mess, and we have no power, but we’re lucky?”

“We are,” I insisted, half-laughing. “There’s no one in the world I’d rather shelter in place with.”

“We are lucky,” my lawfully wedded spouse-of-one-week repeated quietly. The scan was clear. And then she kissed me.

Ellis Avery, the author of two novels, a memoir, and a book of poetry, is the only writer to have received the American Library Association Stonewall Award for Fiction twice. Her novels, The Last Nude (Riverhead 2012) and The Teahouse Fire (Riverhead 2006) have also received Lambda, Ohioana, and Golden Crown awards, and her work has been translated into six languages. This essay is an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, The Family Tooth. More by Ellis Avery