When I was 12, I unwittingly discovered the edge of time. Horseshoe Cove was a narrow shoreline that peeled off the western side of a main barrier spit that separated the Lower New York Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. On one side of the cove was a salt marsh, a pocket of muddy water where fish laid their eggs before returning into the sea again. The other side was a sandy margin where horseshoe crabs crawled ashore to mate and spawn during the high tides of full and new moons. At a marine biology summer camp in the summer of sixth grade, our instructors netted the crabs, pipefish, flatfish and sea robins that lived below the water, and I realized that for all my life, I’d been looking for fish in all the wrong places. I was mesmerized by the aliveness of the cove, far enough from the recreational beaches smelling of Coppertone SPF 70 and filled with moms looking at waterproof watches on the other side of the sand spit. I loved the cove’s sleepy waves that lapped onto the shore in gentle rhythms. Its seabed was sloping and gradual, shallow enough for children to walk far into the salt water with no sudden drop in the ocean floor. Most of all, I loved that it had a salt marsh — nursery of the ocean. After the camp ended in July, I begged my mother to take me and my two younger sisters to the cove instead of the beach. She raised her eyebrows but allowed me to direct her as she drove past our usual recreational beaches.
Since then, we spent our summer trips without lifeguards or beach umbrellas or crowds, on a quiet cove where silhouettes of nesting osprey appeared above the tall marsh reeds. As a middle schooler then high schooler, I was by far the oldest of the children — still, I ran with the toddlers and preteens, collecting hermit crabs in buckets and grabbing at translucent fish around our ankles. I brought no peers to these excursions, never minding that I was an outlier in age. With my sisters and their friends, I chased gulls into the sky, reliving childhood under the guise of responsibility.
Each time I went in search of new forms of life I hadn’t seen before — the sea robin, pipefish, another lions mane jellyfish — I’d always remember how we’d drawn seine net circles in the bay during that summer camp so many years ago. During these trips of my teenage summers, I followed the shores tightly, wandering out far enough only for the water to ripple at the edge of my shorts. Each year I could wander out a little bit farther. Wet feet sinking into wet sand, it was my mind that swam out into the open seas.
Staring out past my littoral boundaries, I was swimming past the continental shelf and far into the oceanic abyss. Ten meters, 100 meters, 1,000 meters, down and down and down until I was there, unanchored and unmoored, floating 4,000 meters below the surface where sunlight could not reach. Bathed in the eerie glow of luminescent jellyfish, I met prehistoric fish that had not evolved in millions of years. I swam alongside anglerfish, viperfish, spook fish, frilled sharks and giant squids with strange, stringy teeth, undulating bodies and monstrous glassy eyes or none at all. From above, pieces of fish carcasses, dead plankton and seaweed drifted down into the depths like snow, fading into an unlit purgatory. I was safe in my alien Neverland. I lay on the ocean floor like benthic starfish, watching time wither as it neared me.
Even in swimming pools, where I had no ocean floor, I would sink into the deep
end and fight buoyancy until my back pressed into the tile floor, face up towards the surface 10 feet above. I was at the bottom of the ocean, sinking into the infinite depth; time held its breath as I held mine. When I surfaced to breathe, time rushed into my gasping lungs like waves crashing on the wrong side of the sand spit.
Memories of Horseshoe Cove blurred into singular moments — hands reaching into the cool water to sift through eroded pebbles, feet padding across lumpy gravel, fingers rubbing at the grainy sand between toes, lungs breathing in sulfurous scent of salt marsh. The years passed, and Horseshoe Cove’s shoreline was shaped by the tides, each time the slightest bit different, but always familiar. I made my last visit to Horseshoe Cove the summer after my first year of college. Despite my sisters’ vehement protests that they wanted to go to a “real beach” that summer, my mother drove us again to Horseshoe Cove. It felt like coming home. The same cordgrass still lined the same marshy water. The same gulls flew through the same ocean spray. The same bridge stood at the same distance reflected in the same bay, the same ocean, the same breeze, the same sand, the same cove.
But as I pulled up an old photograph of the cove I had taken to show my friends back in middle school, I realized, in the way you suddenly realize how white your mother’s hair has become, that I hadn’t noticed how much the Cove had changed over the years. The shape of the shore had entirely shifted — the now-familiar strip that jutted into the sea had not been there six, seven years before when I first fell in love with the cove. A side-by-side comparison of then and now. Almost unrecognizable, and somehow it had felt the same to me always.
But it was not just the cove that had changed. This time, I displaced no hermit crabs and caught no fish; I left my sisters at the shallows and walked westward. This time, I did not imagine myself swimming away from time. Instead, I slung my camera over my shoulder and climbed past the warning signs, across the fractured concrete — farther than I had ever dared wander before. I waded through scraggly bushes that scratched my legs, climbing up the sand dunes and broken concrete until I found myself on the gritty roof of an abandoned military building overlooking the bay.
There, I was far from the ocean. For the first time, I did not feel the need to be standing at the shoreline with the water lapping at my feet. Instead of holding my breath, I breathed with regularity. Dusk was now yielding to night, and across the bay, New York softened into a pursed lip skyline, thin and silhouetted on my horizon. Through my camera, I watched the sun set in a fiery red, as if it were swirling into a funnel, into the sea, its light draining from the skies into the water and sinking, sinking and sinking unfathomably deep into the yawning ocean depths, floating gently, like snow.