In New Hampshire, the winter ocean is gray, reflecting a white sky. It’s the color of something impermeable, a rippling steel plate descended from the Arctic. When Nora Moran first heard the term “Iron Curtain” in high-school history class, she pictured the ocean, brow-beaten and tired, looking the way a hangover feels, occasionally angry but mostly placid, and waiting for the worst to pass.
Up close, though, the water is clear and cold. At this moment, it seeps across the floor of Nora’s grandmother’s house, the tide pushing under the door. Nora wears slippers that are wet and deathly cold, frostbite cold, as she throws items out of her grandmother’s closet in search of galoshes, the ones her grandfather used to dig for crabs in, but now, when they are desperately needed, completely lost.
Her grandmother sits on the couch, above the water, where Nora was sleeping an hour ago. Her grandmother’s hands are folded in her lap, and her feet stick out in front of her like a child’s. She intermittently and silently watches her socked feet and Nora’s frantic motions. For they are just that—motions in stopping the onslaught—and nothing more. Her grandmother said as much when she shook Nora awake in her flannel housecoat and pointed at the sizable puddle already forming inside the door, an ominous, growing shine. She, in fact, suggested they skedaddle.
The galoshes finally reveal themselves, tucked into a plastic bucket filled with beach toys that no Moran has been young enough to use in a decade. Nora pulls off her slippers and pushes her feet into the boots. They fit her grandfather easily, seemingly a part of his body when he exited the cottage at low tides, plastic bucket in tow. On Nora, they are both too large and too small, the toe box clownish and the shaft bunching around her fat calves. She can feel the chill of the water through the boots, a strange climate forming inside the rubber.
Nora’s grandmother’s house is the only one for a mile with direct ocean frontage. Built in 1911, it operates on another century’s logic, before the town understood the flood plain. All other houses sit on the far side of the road, protected from the raw force of the ocean. The cottage doesn’t have a foundation, it couldn’t possibly, built as it is on rock and sand. Cinderblock and latticework separate the cottage’s front room, bathroom, and bedroom from the ground. Since September, Nora has slept on the couch, her head a wall away from her grandmother’s. Now, it is All Saints’ Day, and her grandmother could not be convinced to close up shop and move to Nora’s parents’ for the winter. She waits each year for the first twenty-four hours below freezing, when the pipes are in danger of bursting, or the first flood. The air temperature has yet to dip so low, but the ocean has been sub-fifty for a month, cold enough to induce hypothermia. It isn’t quite winter yet, but this is a typical late-autumn storm. Somewhere, elsewhere, there must be a hurricane.
“Your grandfather would find this all very foolish.”
These are the first words her grandmother has said in an hour, since “skedaddle,” and they spook Nora, as if her grandfather, dead for fifteen years, had just pushed open the door and strode inside, water whooshing around his knees, catching Nora in his boots.
She doesn’t reply. Instead, she bails the flood into the plastic bucket with a water glass. The tide clock above the door points its blue arrow firmly at high, so surely this is the worst of it. The water stands about a foot in the main room, clearly marked against the kitchen cabinets.
What Nora hasn’t told her grandmother is they can’t skedaddle. Nora has pressed her face to the window next to the door, using her hands to block out all the inside light. The world is water. This has always been the case from her grandmother’s windows, a strip of land and then the gray-green monster, uninterrupted but for the Isle of Shoals, visible only on a clear day and certainly not in the dark. Now, though, the few feet of land at the door are gone. Nora briefly wonders if the islands have disappeared too, been swallowed up, the lighthouse no longer a harbinger of anything at all. The road is behind them, and there is no way to get to it. All they can do is wait for the tide to maybe recede as it has every other day of Nora’s life. In the meantime, she focuses on blunting the damage. She bails.
“The first time I heard this idea, climate change,” her grandmother is saying, “I thought, of course. The ocean was always coming for us eventually. We just didn’t have a fancy name for it.”
Politics are the Moran’s birthright, this being New Hampshire, the first state in the Union to vote for a president, none of this nancy caucus bullshit. Kennedy made Nora’s grandmother a Democrat for life, like any New England Irish Catholic who aspired to what that American royal family had. She has a signed note of thanks from every Democratic candidate since then, because New Hampshire is New Hampshire, and a candidate would promise their firstborn if it would sway an early voter. The letters are (for now) safe on a high shelf in the bedroom closet. If she and Nora can leave, her grandmother will insist they take the letters with them, over everything else in the house.
Nora’s energy is directed at the water at her feet. The flood level appears unchanged, despite the gallons already in the bucket. Besides, her grandmother is not seeking a conversation. She is talking to fill the air, which is characterized by nothing but Nora’s raw panic.
Nora’s anxiety is their frequent companion. Ostensibly, her time with her grandmother is a favor to her parents, who live ten miles inland and want Nora to assure them the Moran matriarch doesn’t wander into the sea. A single day was enough to convince Nora that perhaps she was the one being monitored. Her grandmother doesn’t wander anywhere. Nora unwittingly booked herself into a Puritan-style convalescence, a cover for her joblessness and unmooredness, the ocean and her grandmother the only therapy she will receive.
“We’ve flooded before,” her grandmother is saying, “year after year. They should’ve known better than to build here. It’s a blasphemy.”
She is talking about her parents now, and by extension the town that granted the permits, and maybe everyone in 1911 who thought this construction feasible. Nora’s grandmother has responded to the challenge. There are no rugs in any of the cottage rooms, and all the furniture, including the couch Nora sleeps on, is atop high wooden legs. When the ocean began to push into the front door, they could do little but close the doors to the other rooms and shove towels in the cracks.
The plastic bucket is full. The water inside the bucket and the water around Nora’s ankles is surprisingly clear, free of sand. She would have expected the invading sea to be filled with muck and seaweed. Instead, the front door must be filtering the tide, an accumulation of sand and crabs and kelp piling up outside the door. She has no idea what to do with the bucket. Each of her options returns the water to its wellspring, so it will just come back. She leaves the bucket on the floor. She stops up the sink (who knows the state of the septic tank—sewage is the last thing they need) and continues to bail.
If pressed, which she never would be (the Morans would have to put voice to their feelings to press her about anything), Nora would argue that her anxiety is not unfounded. She and her grandmother might disappear into the sea. The world could end at any time. When Nora suggested that a career was beside the point at this juncture of global history, something shook loose at the core of the Moran family ethos. No Moran said the words mental health, much less depression, out loud. Now, her parents use terms like a brief time-out and an opportunity to readjust, both of which make it sound like they’re considering taking her out behind the woodshed if she doesn’t sufficiently readjust.
“It’s not worth bailing,” her grandmother says from the couch, where she has lain down, seemingly bored. She speaks to the ceiling. “The water will leave as it came.”
Nora, meanwhile, is considering what keeps the house where it is. As far as she understands cottage construction, this one is a series of wood planks nailed together and then covered in shingles. There is no insulation, no concrete. That mass of wood is propped up on cinderblock and, in Nora’s estimation, not adhered to the ground in any way. The house remains on coastal rock by the force of gravity, a few pipes, and little else. A strong enough tide could sweep them out onto open water. There, they would bob until they sank, the frozen water claiming them in an hour or less. She has done her homework. When Rose refused to pull Jack onto that door in Titanic, she doomed him to a freezing death that would take all of forty minutes. And that’s from the moment they rode the boat into the water. As if such a thing were possible. As if a boy from Wisconsin would know the ocean so well. Down the Cape, at Chappaquiddick, Ted Kennedy doomed Mary Jo Kopechne in similar time. But Mary Jo died because the car door wouldn’t open, not from the cold.
A buzzing on the kitchen counter. A text from Nora’s mother: all saint’s day. cure in the water. The microwave clock reads 6:02 am. The text must have been her mother’s waking thought. She doesn’t know about the flooding and likely won’t know until she commutes to work, the inland traffic worse for the washed-out coastal roads.
Nora laughs out loud.
“Cure in the water,” she says, and her grandmother snorts. Her mother has long been the superstitious one, holding a deeply pagan instinct that, on Catholic Holy Days of Obligation, the ocean can heal. Even as the water sinks below freezing on Christmas and New Year’s Day, the full Moran clan can be found submerging a hand in the tide, ailment or no. Nora’s grandfather died at sixty-two. The cure didn’t save him, but as Nora’s mother would say, it didn’t promise immortality.
When the kitchen sink is filled, Nora lines receptacles on the kitchen counter, bowls and cups and pitchers, and fills them. The tide clock ticks slowly toward ebbing. The sky outside lightens toward a gray Nora knows matches the sea long before she dares look out the window to discover how far from shore they’ve drifted on the current, southbound for warmer waters.
But that is not what she sees. The house still adheres to the rock, and the waves lap at the door tenderly, like a pawing dog. Nora can see the granite step and the thin grass below the sandy water, no more than a foot down. In her grandfather’s galoshes, she will be fine. She opens the door and plunges out. Still inside, her grandmother waits on the couch, the thin carpet of water in the house unwilling to recede.
Ahead of Nora, beyond the door, is nothing but water. Behind her, the ocean must have crossed the road at its highest tide but has receded now. A long puddle forms in a depression in a neighbor’s yard, but there is nothing to indicate structural damage, or even a flooded basement. The world is ending only for them.
The idea of walking into the sea always flabbergasted Nora. For a woman who thinks about dying not infrequently, the method strikes her as less than bulletproof, so to speak. For Virginia Woolf, her skirts helped, certainly, and the rocks, and that was a river, so it isn’t a perfect comparison, but still, Nora can’t quite picture that particular suicide. Did Woolf just wade out? Did she succumb to the current? How could Nora do it in the ocean, where she would always need to take one more step out? With the ocean at this temperature, she would freeze before she drowned. Does that even count? From the note Woolf left for her husband: I shan’t recover this time. Shall not. Woolf was British, and it was World War II. Nora doesn’t know how that affected Woolf’s word choice, but she didn’t use can’t or won’t. She meant something different. More formal. Less certain, yet more committed.
What Nora can’t tell her family is that she would love a solution to her mounting dread. If the cure in the water would work, if a career would right her mind, she would fling herself into the ocean or the job with a gusto that would shock them all. So, what ails her? Doomsday is as close to an answer as she’s got. She has the same disease they all have: end of the world is easy to say, but pain is not.
Her feet are freezing. She is sure that, inside the galoshes, they are blue. She bends down and fully submerges both hands, up to her elbows. She won’t let it be said she didn’t try.
▴ ▴ ▴
The house does wash away, but not as Nora thought it would. Just before Thanksgiving, a second storm flattens the house, reducing it to a pile of boards. The devastation would be hard to believe if Nora hadn’t seen it for herself, a mismatched pile of wood with the roof on top, like a toddler’s impatient attempt at popsicle-stick construction.
There are no casualties and minimal impact. Nora and her grandmother had moved into her parents’ house following the All Saints’ Day flood, taking their food, books, clothes, and the presidential letters with them. The only items left in the house were flood-marked furniture and beach-going equipment, chairs and sun umbrellas and the long-forgotten bag of sand toys.
What follows their move is something of a comedy of errors, more than a century in the making. First, the bank does not approve a building loan, citing, in legalese, the likelihood that the whole parcel of land becomes the sea in the next ten years. Then, the town doesn’t extend the proper permits. When Nora’s parents discuss selling the land, the real-estate agent refuses to list it, because the lot will not sell if it isn’t buildable. The Morans are stuck with their oceanfront land, and they can do nothing but set up their beach chairs. Last year, the house across the road sold for three million dollars.
The problem isn’t money. The Morans have plenty thanks to scallops. Nora’s grandfather owned successful scallop boats that he sold to a fishing conglomerate when he retired. The problems are: the town, the ocean, Nora’s grandmother, and Nora. Nora’s parents think the town should pay for revoking prior approval. The ocean never receded entirely, stroking the plot every high tide. And Nora’s grandmother seemingly does not care.
“That house was an affront to God,” she says with a shrug. While she is not particularly religious, the faith she does have is paranoid and steadfast. Her husband is in heaven, and her cottage is effectively the Tower of Babel, hubris reduced to a worthless quarter acre.
Nora’s grandmother lives in an in-law apartment over Nora’s parents’ garage, and Nora in her childhood bedroom. She drives to the cottage-less lot every day to watch the tide come in. She watches and tracks its new heights. For now, she is only going once a day, in the daylight. Any more than that would be crazy.
In December, her grandmother asks to accompany her. She states her request formally, just like that: “May I accompany you?” It is the second Sunday of Advent, which the Morans know only because the church on the road to the cottage lights a massive outdoor wreath, two electronic purple candles burning brightly all day long.
The site is dirt, sand, rocks. A construction crew removed the debris of the house, the single permit the town approved. Nora gets out of the car, but her grandmother doesn’t. The waves lap lazily at the ground. She guesses they reach where the refrigerator used to be. With a long stick, she draws a line in the dirt to mark the highest tide. The other lines she has drawn, every day since the site was cleared, have washed away. The tide steadily advances.
Nora returns to the car. Her grandmother coughs—a wet sound, like something coming dislodged. Her grandmother’s hands are folded in her lap across her handkerchief, an old-timey one actually used for phlegm. This one has a lighthouse embroidered on the corner in tiny navy stitches. The Morans are nothing if not on brand.
“It’s all right, you know?” her grandmother says, and Nora nods absentmindedly.
Because she agrees: it is all right that the house is gone. What could they do to stop the ocean’s advance?
“When I first brought your grandfather to this house, I could tell he decided to marry me right then. He loved me, I think, but he really loved the sea.” Nora’s grandmother doesn’t look at her, the damp handkerchief a twisted mess in her hands. “On that first visit, he said to me: ‘What a blessing to see her every day, first thing.’ I said to myself, ‘It’s okay, Siobhan. No one can compete with the ocean. Think of her like a beautiful friend.’”
Nora had seen pictures of her grandmother young. She doesn’t know what it would mean to compete with the sea, but her grandmother had been lovely. The photos weren’t in color, but the Morans all had the same ginger hair until it grayed prematurely in bright silver streaks. Even in sepia, she seemed on fire.
▴ ▴ ▴
Every day, another few inches. By the pink candle of Advent, the high tide overtakes more than half the lot. On either side, the ocean regularly splashes the road, cars suddenly careening into the other lane. On the following Monday, Nora’s grandmother appears in the doorway of Nora’s bedroom, knocking faintly, an apparition at four o’clock in the morning. She is in a flannel housecoat again. Her downy, dyed hair is flat on the left side, like a bruised fruit. She says, as best she can, that she can’t breathe.
This isn’t new. Nora’s grandmother has had a weak heart for years, its failure to beat part of the justification for Nora moving to the cottage in the first place. A weak heart, so as to not say congestive heart failure. Her grandmother once said at Nora’s parents’ kitchen table that eighty was too old to live, that she should have rowed into the sunset at seventy-nine. A round of shushes met her, Nora’s mother visibly rattled, like a bird startled big and fluffy in its nest.
According to the doctor, who appears hours later after the sun, Nora’s grandmother is at an inflection point. Her lungs will regularly and repeatedly fill with fluid that can only be removed surgically. Operations will be expensive, hard on her grandmother’s body, and only temporarily effective. Eventually, Nora’s grandmother will drown from the inside out.
“What kind of fluid?” Nora’s father asks.
The doctor shrugs. “Blood, mostly. Water, mucus, the usual suspects.”
Nora’s father nods.
“We’ll perform the surgery today, drain her lungs. Then you can take her home, keep her comfortable. When she’s admitted next, if it’s what she wants, we won’t operate.” The doctor fidgets, spinning a pen around his hands. “She’ll have to sign a DNR, though.”
Do not resuscitate. The acronym is so much friendlier.
Nora’s grandmother signs before she is released from the hospital. She returns to the in-law apartment, from which she asks Nora to remove the television.
“Not going to spend the rest of my time looking at that,” she says, and when Nora asks how she will spend her time, she shrugs. “Imposing on you, mostly. Maybe some reading.”
She does impose, but Nora has plenty of time. Her grandmother wants to visit her favorite places, which are all no more than twenty miles away. New Hampshire has eighteen miles of coastline, and the pair spend the days before Christmas crisscrossing the stretch like confused tourists who expect there to be more. They visit beaches, walking trails, clam huts, most of which are closed for the season. When they drive by the marshes, separated from the ocean by the road, Nora’s grandmother insists on opening every window in the car. Nora once had a friend say that the marshes smelled like dying sea-life, but through nature or nurture, the Morans smell only salt, clear and bright and concentrated. The way the ocean floor might smell to fish if fish could smell.
They continue to visit the cottage lot at high tide, which is swamped now. The waves crash at the road, and they have to park on the shoulder. Even when the pair visit at lowest tide, there is more and more sand. Puddles too, in the depressions left by the cottage cinderblocks, sometimes featuring abandoned periwinkles, grasping for the wrong rock. Nora’s parents are trying to get the town to do something—retaining walls or levees or trucks full of sand. Lawyers are involved, experts who have already dealt with this sort of flooding in Miami Beach and Key West and the coast of Louisiana.
“Don’t expect much,” they tell Nora’s father. They are, however, willing to take his money, and the coterie spend whole days at the town hall, a pre-Declaration saltbox colonial where the posted hours are eleven a.m. to three p.m.
“I’m just glad your grandfather isn’t here to see this,” Nora’s grandmother says on one such ride, the ocean stormy to their right as they drive north, almost to Maine. “He would say to me, ‘Siobhan, where did it all go wrong?’”
This is a common refrain for the Morans, all the developments that must have Nora’s grandfather rolling around at St. Mary’s like the restless, cantankerous old man he was. Nora’s despair, the shabby state of the Democratic party, the cottage most of all. Her grandfather would not have tolerated a lineage laid low by the end of the world. He would have kept them all alive, dragged them along until there was no one else left.
“He’d be angry we gave up so easily,” Nora says, and this is also true. The old man had an ancestral-famine survivor’s belief in the continuance of the world. If the Irish could cross an ocean to outlast the disappearance of the potato and centuries of oppression, what were a few more storms?
Together, they watch the sea. The day the storm brought the cottage down, the waves were eight feet of rolling, frigid power, enough to knock a century-old structure free of its bearings. Since then, the sea is a blanket beyond the break. At the shore, it laps at the sand like a lover who has all the time in the world.
▴ ▴ ▴
On Christmas morning, Nora’s grandmother’s lungs fill again.
“People die around the holidays all the time,” Nora’s father would say later. “It’s all the stress and the cold.”
Nora’s grandfather died in July.
The Morans still do the Christmas-morning thing. Everyone up by nine a.m., coffee prepped and fruit bread sliced and served with margarine. It is the only day of the year that Nora’s mother bakes. There are gifts, but the pendulum has swung, and there are more gifts for her grandmother than for anyone else. The gifts are always silly: fur blankets and increasingly massive televisions. This year, the cashmere-lined gloves and framed local art Nora’s mother has purchased seem almost cruel. What do you buy a woman who has everything? What do you buy a woman who is dying?
This year, they never get that far. Her grandmother doesn’t come down the stairs to join them, and when Nora goes to check on her, she is still in bed. She holds one hand to her throat and an envelope in the other. The coffee waits in the brewing pot.
Christmas Day is a Holy Day of Obligation. Her grandmother cannot speak to protest when Nora’s mother insists they go to the ocean before the hospital, even though it is nearly a half hour out of the way. Instead, her grandmother catches Nora’s eye from across the backseat and shrugs weakly, as if to say, What can you do?
Her father drives to the cottage lot out of something like muscle memory; it is not the fastest way to the ocean, but the high break does guarantee they will be able to get her grandmother in and out easily. They do just that, Nora and her father lifting her grandmother out of the vehicle like two mob goons moving a body bag. They touch her hand to the water, which pools around their sneakers, wetting their socks. Nora’s mother has slipped out of the car beside them, her own wrists submerged in the freezing sea. She is reciting the Hail Mary, which is new.
“Insurance,” she says, back in the passenger seat, when Nora asks. “It can’t hurt.”
Nora is fairly sure neither God nor faith work that way, but she doesn’t say anything. Her grandmother, returned to the backseat, withholds her scoff as well.
At the hospital, no one mentions the detour. Nora’s grandmother is loaded into an in-patient room, where Nora’s father waves his carbon copy of her DNR like a white flag. The three letters are already written on a whiteboard opposite her bed. They are bold in red dry-erase; someone has traced the letters twice, so that the tail of the R diverges, two strokes separated by white space.
Her grandmother looks like a dumb child. She has allowed herself to be tucked in; her body has disappeared entirely beneath white sheets. She is a floating head struggling to breathe. No one holds her hands because they can’t find them. The Morans are rule followers, so they don’t dare undo the swaddling. They assume there is a reason for it.
▴ ▴ ▴
scatter me at sea the index card inside the envelope says, in her grandmother’s flawless cursive. Nora’s first thought is to wonder at the index card’s origin; she remembers them as flashcard material throughout grade school. Where did her grandmother find this one?
Her grandmother handed her the envelope before she accepted Nora’s help down the stairs from the in-law apartment. While they were at the hospital, it waited in the back pocket of her jeans. Nora didn’t open it until her grandmother was gone. She is back home alone while her parents attend to paperwork at the hospital.
When her parents return, Nora’s mother sets out the fruit bread. Nora hands her father the index card. The older man’s face is impassive. He tucks the card into an inside pocket of his puffer jacket, which he has yet to take off even though he sits in his living-room recliner.
“It’s illegal to scatter ashes at sea,” he says, and though this doesn’t necessarily mean he plans to ignore her grandmother’s wishes, Nora is filled with the kind of rage she has only read about, the kind that makes it difficult for her to see, and she balls her fingers into fists.
“It’s bad for the environment,” her father says, which is the stupidest thing Nora has ever heard. The idea that her grandmother’s ashes might somehow fuck up the Atlantic Ocean’s delicate chemistry when the water has recently swallowed her house and everything inside it is insane.
“Why do you care?”
It’s not the right question, not really. What Nora means to ask: Why can’t we be on the same team for once?
“I honestly don’t, Nora. Can we talk about this later?”
Later for the Morans is code for never, and though Nora tries to remember that her father’s mother has just died, the exhaustion in his voice is all she hears. I honestly don’t care. What must that be like?
▴ ▴ ▴
The Morans do ultimately scatter her grandmother’s ashes. Nora’s parents feel that to bury her somewhere other than alongside her husband is sacrilege. Her face is already on the grave marker, a granite etching of her grandparents’ wedding photo. When they agree to honor her wishes, Nora’s father takes a beer to the back porch where he shakes snow off a patio chair and sits, wet and brooding.
They go together to the cottage with a glass vase. The town has placed temporary concrete barriers between the road and the sea, the kind used to separate highway lanes. The cottage lot is inaccessible unless you’re willing to vault these behemoths, which Nora has been. She is still visiting the lot every day, twice a day now, at both high tides.
The crematory had packaged Nora’s grandmother’s ashes so they could easily be mistaken for cake mix. Her mother slit the packaging and dumped the ashes into the vase. Nora watched as she stood over the trashcan with the packaging, bits of ash still clinging to the plastic. She did ultimately throw it away, but took the bag directly outside to the bin.
At the cottage, Nora’s mother refuses to scurry over the barrier, so she and her father push on alone. It’s dark, Nora’s father insisting on their activity becoming something like a bank heist. Nora does not remind her father that they own the land. Her mother watches them from the car, headlights off.
Neither of them speak, even at the tide’s edge where her father reaches into the vase and, with a softball pitcher’s wind-up, throws the dust into the air. In the dark, it’s impossible to see it settle. Nora inverts the vase and pours a slight stream of ash along the tideline. She walks up to the barriers and back until the cottage lot is spoken for, a line of demarcation between water and land. Her father says nothing. At home, her mother sticks the vase on a high shelf without washing it.
▴ ▴ ▴
Nora moves into her grandmother’s in-law apartment. Why not? It sits empty otherwise. She takes her grandmother’s letter box from its shelf in the front closet and tapes the presidential candidates to the wall in chronological order, knowing her grandmother would hate this, afraid the fragile letters will be damaged. The personalization, Nora sees, has weakened over time, or else her grandmother gave less money. Jimmy Carter’s is effusive and indicates her grandmother had met the man, whereas Hillary’s note is clearly autopenned, her signature crisp and perfect beneath her campaign smile, the real toothy one. Her grandmother hated Hillary Clinton with the ferocity of a woman who had been made a fool more than once. She voted for her anyway, knowing before everyone else that her election was a lost cause.
Nora looks up her grandmother’s political contributions to discover she had yet to choose a new candidate despite the impending Democratic primary. She’d been giving to several candidates equally in ten-dollar increments. The two of them hadn’t discussed it during all the time they had.
On New Year’s Day, Nora drives up and down the coast, waiting for a sudden wave to swamp the car. She has nothing else to do, and she is looking for some kind of sign, some indication that she should or should not drive into the ocean, send her car careening over an insufficient or nonexistent guardrail. Like at Chappaquiddick, but she would be alone and solely responsible. Her grandmother’s love for Ted Kennedy continued past his own timely death, untarnished by manslaughter.
But the Morans don’t do suicide. It’s a blasphemy, her grandmother would say, to think you can opt out of the world. Besides, escape would feel too easy, like how Ted Kennedy must have felt when the scandal had blown over and his life was unchanged.
And so, it would be easier if the ocean simply came for her, a freak wave or a hurricane or a capsized boat she had taken out in the dead of night. Nora pulls over at the cottage lot and puts her hands in the water, to appease her mother or to hasten the end, she isn’t sure which. But as always, the saltwater provides no cure. Nora cannot find purpose, or push the tide back. They have arrived at a tacit agreement, Nora thinks, that if the ocean must have more land, more of the world, then it may have it. And as the winter months pass after her grandmother’s death, time feels useless, like both she and the ocean are waiting for something to change.
▴ ▴ ▴
At the elementary school, the line to vote winds into the parking lot, even in the middle of the workday. People are hunched against the wind, hoods rendering everyone anonymous. There are pockets of ice all over the lot and sidewalk, and the line snakes to avoid them, almost to the parking-lot entrance, where bundled campaign volunteers hold lawn signs and wave through stupidly large mittens.
The voting booths are arranged in overlapping circles, a Venn diagram of civic duty. Voters wait at the scanners to submit their paper ballots; a laughably old man hands out stickers just beyond. Before the booths, a table of retirees and high-school students find voters in massive binders and distribute ballots. The guidance counselor hands out extra credit for participation in the voting process. It looks great on college applications. Nora was on the other side of the table nearly a decade ago.
“Name?” asks a white-haired man, older than her father, healthy but ancient in that way of ex-presidents. Nora signs the roll. The man instructs her on the rules—”Vote only for a candidate once in each row even if they are endorsed by multiple parties”—and then she is off to her choice of booths.
From the front of the gym, it is impossible to tell which booths are empty. Nora moves to the back where she can see into every tiny mobile desk, voters hunched as they are outside, but here, protecting the secrecy of their opinions on the nation. When she finds an empty booth, she feels the importance too, the high, plastic sides like horse blinders, the pen tied to the desk with twine. She wants to pull her coat over her head and shield out the light.
Nora, despite her recent efforts, is not a political animal. Her grandmother cared with a force that felt untethered to any single issue or candidate, just a deep-seated, spiritual belief in a political party that Nora cannot imitate, though she tries. Why should she care? What has the Democratic party ever done for her?
What Nora must admit, in the privacy of the voting booth, in the warm gym, is that the sea no longer seems to be coming for her. More than a month since her grandmother’s death and no massive wave, no missing guardrail. Even at the cottage lot the ocean seems to have stopped advancing. Increasingly, the flood and her grandmother’s death feel like discrete, unfortunate events and not portents of the end of the world. Nora faces a total lack of plan, and that is harder. She will have to slink back to her parents’ house, contrite, and admit she lost the thread.
The ballot is long enough to accommodate the full list of Democratic candidates on one page. Even as Nora tries to confine the sheet to the mobile desk, it spills off the edge. To see every option, she must back away. Her eyesight is fine, but she wishes for the glasses her mother calls her readers, for something to focus her energy. The names pool together.
Nora’s grandmother gave to four candidates, their names spread across the paper. Nora focuses on those, but within them, she knows nothing to distinguish them. Two are women. She chooses the one whose middle name is on the ballot. Nora concentrates on filling the bubble, dark and round and perfect.
She feeds the ballot into the machine, suddenly nervous she has done something very wrong. She accepts her sticker, a terrible design that reads from top to bottom: i nh votes voted on an American flag.
In the parking lot, the old man from the ballot table is smoking a cigarette without a coat. He nods at her in something like recognition. The man is a stranger to her, but this is unsurprising, even in a town so small. This is the kind of person she would mention to her parents, and they would know him instantly, surprised she didn’t recognize those in their extended circle.
“Of course you know Chuck,” her mother would say.
“You okay?” he says, his breath a cloud.
The thing about New Hampshire is that everyone is deeply weird and deeply private about it. For not-Chuck to ask how she is, she must look particularly out of it, like there are ghosts at the end of her vision. She is glad not-Chuck has asked. She shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
“My grandmother died.” Her voice sounds too loud.
“I’m sorry,” he says, and he sounds like he might actually be. He looks at the cigarette in his withered hand. The other is stuffed in his jeans pocket. He is probably a decade or so younger than her grandmother, if Nora were being generous, but after a certain point the elderly all begin to look the same. “I’m Steve.”
He doesn’t offer her a cigarette, and she’s finding, suddenly, that she very much wants one. She’s never smoked before. Her grandmother never smoked, not a single day, a feat all the more remarkable when Nora considers that everyone smoked when her grandmother was young. To abstain without the threat of consequence requires a confidence that Nora doesn’t have. In the face of enormous, well-documented consequences, she wants some small, partial comfort in the cold.
Nora gives her name in kind.
“What’s it like?” she asks, lifting her chin in the direction of his mouth. Can I bum a smoke? Is that still a thing people ask? She feels too silly.
Cigarette taut between his lips, he points at its bright tip to clarify. He looks like Popeye, an old sailor in an old cartoon, one eye shut in a grimace. Nora nods. Steve probably knew her grandfather.
“Gross habit. My kids don’t like it. They make me walk like a mile from the house when my grandkids are around.” He shrugs. “Nothing I can change now.”
The two of them consider the constant movement of cars in and out of the parking lot. Nora’s mother would say it smells like snow. Nora can’t say what impending snow smells like, but she knows the conditions that might prompt her mother to venture the thought, a particular thickness of the sky.
“Don’t start now, though,” Steve continues, when she has said nothing. “You’re young. There are so many new ways to screw up your life.”
His patronizing tone should make Nora angry, but instead, she suddenly thinks she might cry, wetness welling at the corner of her eyes so that she has to look up toward the gray, impenetrable sky. Why try so hard to weather so much?
When she says nothing but doesn’t move towards her car, Steve tells her he has to go back inside to his shift. He asks if she got a sticker. She pulls aside her jacket to show him i nh votes voted on her sweater, which has already begun to peel. She feels like an elementary-school student, proud of her worthless gold star.
“I like giving out the stickers,” Steve says. “Everybody’s always in a better mood after voting than before.”
▴ ▴ ▴
By the afternoon, Nora has a pack of cigarettes. She burns through two before the experience of smoking them is anything like pleasure, the sound of her hacking coughs filling the empty beach parking lot.
Nora chain-smokes, her driver’s side door wide open, butts already all over the asphalt. She doesn’t know how to do that trick where people light one cigarette off another, so she re-clicks the lighter each time.
The nicotine isn’t providing any answers, but it is a distraction. It occurs to her for the first time that she could just go home, and that would be okay. The water will come for her or it won’t. Her energy is tapped. The house and her grandmother gone, the coldest month of the year, and she is still here. She hasn’t slipped into the sea.
When she has reached the end of the pack, she slides her legs back into the car and shuts the door. Her throat burns, and her mouth tastes like ashes. She drives back toward her parents’ house, taking the coastal road. Polls all over the state are closing. At home, her parents will be watching the news. When Nora walks in the door, they will tell her who won. The winner won’t be the woman she voted for, and Nora won’t know if she should be disappointed, or if her grandmother would have been.
The ocean in the dark is barely perceptible as Nora drives south, a navy expanse to her left, the sky and water indistinguishable on a night with a dark moon. The cottage lot is an eyesore on the inky void, the gray concrete blocks bright in her headlights’ reflection. She parks on the shoulder. Over the barrier is nothing but water, lapping softly at the concrete. In the dark, Nora cannot see the bottom. It could be inches or hundreds of feet, though she knows the latter is impossible unless the ground has given way entirely.
She takes off her coat, then her shoes and socks. Her plan isn’t so ridiculous, she tells herself. A group in town jumps into the ocean on the first day of every month. They insist the icy water is rejuvenating. The night air is too cold for nakedness, so she slides into the water in her leggings and sweater.
The ground isn’t far, perhaps two to three feet below, her legs submerged to mid-thigh. Below is sand where grass used to be, pulled in by the tide or trucked in by the town, Nora doesn’t know. The water is frigid, her toes immediately numb, but soothing. The air is colder, and so she walks quickly out into the void for more warmth.
Where the lot used to end is where her purchase on sand gives way and she steps into nothing, her body plunging into water up to her neck. She is a strong swimmer; every Moran is a strong swimmer. Her legs and arms move by muscle memory, treading against the tide to keep her shoulders above the water and the barriers in her dim, dark sight. It’s old hat, as her mother would say. Like being tucked in by a parent or a lover who will be reading just in the next room.
The channel at Chappaquiddick isn’t open ocean, and it was summertime. The water wouldn’t have been so cold. The problem there was the car, its hulking metal mass sinking quickly into the water, pressure making the passenger door impossible to open. Plus, Teddy was not generous enough to hoist Mary Jo out behind him. He may not have been her lover yet. He was probably still looking to score when the car shot off the road.
Virginia Woolf, in the note she left for her husband before she waded out: i don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.