1. The Wake
There's a glare on the double-paned glass, a shimmer on the waves beyond. Stinging your eyes as the ferry curls by Staten Island's eastern beaches, as it passes under the Verrazano's empty length, the whole Atlantic opening up before you.
Watching the peninsula approach and thinking about all the ferry rides past. Remembering sitting here in sandy shorts, drinking rosé from a tiny plastic cup as jet skis roared across Jamaica Bay. Returning from a gorgeous, fifteen-hour summer day spent lounging on sun-drenched sand, bouncing up from every wave-hit with a spark of joy in your heart.
Trying to recapture that careless, expansive feeling—even though it's a brisk October day in the middle of the darkest time you've ever known. The water empty. The ferry maybe a quarter full, its concession stand roped off like a crime scene. And there you are. Double-masked and breathing shallow breaths, like that's what will save you.
Thinking that this, somehow, is what vacations look like now.
Inside the short-term rental, you and your partner feel safe and nearly free. Sleeping in. Reading books you've been meaning to get to for years. Spending hours watching comfort-food TV on a flatscreen bigger than the one you have in Brooklyn. And finishing every evening in the backyard's two-person hot tub. Feeling tension leach out of you as the minutes pass. Feeling calm and wrung out and even a little amorous, the sensations strange and new after half a year of cortisol-driven numbness and dread.
But when you walk the peninsula's abandoned streets, the terror returns. Your steps tentative, fearful, the mask tight against your jaw. Feeling protected, but aware of how fragile it all is; feeling like an astronaut investigating a dying world.
Cars pass now and then. There are some homeless people on the streets, the occasional cop. The grocery store is open. The pharmacy, too. A few restaurants, a wine shop. But the whole place feels shuttered, dormant. Maybe it's the virus—or maybe it's just fall. When the day-trippers stop coming, when the peninsula prepares for the long, frozen months ahead.
Each day, the two of you close the metal gate behind you and step out onto the peninsula's strangely suburban streets. Passing bungalows a few blocks from the water that wouldn't look out of place in Southern California. Passing beneath the elevated train tracks and crossing four lanes of nonexistent traffic. Passing a house outfitted with both a TRUMP 2020 banner and a massive Puerto Rican flag. The sight reminds you of the dystopia you're living in, that you'll be voting early the day you return.
3. The Boardwalk
The boardwalk ends just a stone's throw from Long Island. You've never walked this far east before. It's miles from any attractions, from the prime beaches, from the bars and restaurants where the hipsters all hang out—where you hang out, too, if you're being honest. There's a distinct chill in the air, but right now you're all heat and sweat, cringing from the blisters on your feet. Maybe that’s because you've walked the full length of the boardwalk. Maybe it’s because you're in what's unquestionably the worst shape of your entire life.
And as you reach the end, you cast your thoughts back. Rewinding. Allowing the walk to play out in reverse. You and your partner strolling slowly backward step by step, toward the place where it all began.
Past the handball courts and the fitness area, past the parking lots and the empty tables for playing chess and the pockets of hard beach brush; past Beach 25th Street, where city workers and the Army Corps of Engineers were piloting earthmovers out into the arctic waters, assembling rock jetties stone by enormous stone, the squared-off boulders crashing into place; past Beach 36th Street, where the sand narrowed to a cramped strip, barely big enough for an umbrella and a single towel; past Beach 44th Street and the vast barren expanse of Edgemere, once a resort and now a graveyard for developers' broken dreams, the road signs there amidst the overgrowth a reminder that this was still, somehow, part of the city, no matter how many feral dogs roamed its fields; past Beach 60th Street and its desolate playgrounds; past Beach 67th Street and all the high-rise towers that survived Sandy, their foundations built on massive, elevated piles of earth; past Beach 90th Street and its cold, empty sands, where a pair of women speed-walk by in the other direction; past Beach 98th Street and all the shuttered concessions stands, past a notorious local pizza joint where the big-personality owner had been arrested for growing marijuana in his backyard—and then again for freeing the pizza oven from his shuttered restaurant with a forklift; past Beach 105th Street and its high-rise Mitchell-Lama buildings; finally passing Beach 116th Street and reaching the spot where the boardwalk begins.
You stood surrounded by senior housing, by windswept buildings you’d seen so many times before and always walked right past without a thought. Thinking now of all the retirees clustered inside. Frightened. Trapped. Waiting for this horror to end, for life to resume before it was too late. Praying silently that it would.
4. Before and After
Remembering your first trip to the Rockaways, not long before the hurricane. It was five full years after you'd moved to the city; five years where you'd vaguely intended to check out the peninsula, pulled in by the hype, by all the new bars and restaurants sprouting up. But this was before the ferry, when getting there from your South Brooklyn apartment meant a nearly two-hour journey across multiple train lines, meant twenty minutes spent waiting at Broad Channel in the sweltering summer heat, praying that the shuttle would finally come.
Back then, your beach days were spent at Coney Island or Brighton Beach, surrounded by grumpy children and elderly Russian men, amusement park rides looming there in the distance. The Rockaways were different. Going there was an undertaking, an investment of time and energy with an uncertain return. It was easy to talk yourself into going, but over and over you'd talk yourself right back out of it; the day was too chilly for the beach, the journey too long. Until it seemed like you might never actually make it there.
And when you finally did take the trip, you decided to soak everything in. Riding the shuttle all the way to the end of the line, then climbing out in the heart of Rockaway Beach. Lounging in a cafe, eating a cinnamon bun and listening as the locals gossiped about tourists and hipsters and other outsiders. Heading over to where the boardwalk started, strolling over creaking wooden slats installed decades before, bound for a beachside craft beer festival. Accepting four-ounce samples of IPAs and sours and stouts from an endless procession of red-faced middle-aged men. The twenty-taste limit built into your pass forgotten by day's end; the train ride home all flashes and fragments and half-formed memories.
The hurricane struck just before Halloween. Flooding the whole place, leaving behind uninhabitable summer rentals and trashed businesses. Smashing the rail link across the bay. Tearing up the famed boardwalk. Washing most of the beaches out to sea.
And when train service was finally restored months later, you returned to see what had become of the place. Feeling at times like you were walking through a peninsula-long construction site. Bungalows condemned. Restaurants and shops surrounded by construction fences and caution tape. The boardwalk, now made of concrete, reappearing block by block.
Five years passed before it felt like Rockaway Beach was truly back—or, perhaps, that a new Rockaway Beach had been born. The L-train hipsters who'd been here and there before the hurricane now neighborhood fixtures. Some of them surfing here every weekend, year-round. Some of them even moving to the Rockaways full-time. Taking their place among the locals; eventually becoming locals themselves.
Leaving the peninsula half-gentrified, the middle section seeming at times like a tiny Williamsburg by the Sea.
And on that very first visit, before you made your way east, before you drank the first of those endless beers, you found yourself with time to kill. Wandering aimlessly through the streets of Rockaway Beach, past police stations and summer rentals and housing projects. Finding yourself in a solemn little park ringed by a coral-colored stone wall. Realizing slowly that it was a memorial, that the names inscribed there honored those killed on Flight 587, which had crashed nearby more than a decade before.
Standing on that spot eight years later, staring out through the gaps in the wall to the ocean beyond, you find yourself wondering what the memorial for all this might look like when the plague is finally over, whether there's any way for a wall—or a statue or a shrine—to capture the scope of this terror, this loss.
T.B. Grennan was born in Vermont, lives in Brooklyn, and once read the entirety of Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus while stuck on a delayed plane. His writing has appeared in The Indiana Review, The Seventh Wave, TIMBER, and “Spaces We Have Known,” an anthology of LGBTQ+ fiction, among other publications, and he was a 2021 recipient of a New York City Artists Corps Grant. The initial version of “Cold Sand” was written in connection with the Vermont Studio Center’s Creative Imperative #5 virtual residency in the fall of 2021.