Shimmering water in the middle met dull ice close to shore. Bright crumbs of it lay scattered over the sheet. A child picked up a chunk and threw it. Four masked women and a dog watched her and followed the chunk as it slid almost to the edge. The smallest woman had a long ponytail overflowing the side of her hood. She picked up a stick and began poking the edge where ice met the peninsula. It broke apart like frozen crust on a puddle.
The dog leapt up and bit the end of her stick. The others laughed and pulled the dog away. Another of the women, short haired in a grey wool coat, began scooping chunks of ice from the freezing water. The others followed her (turning their hands red), and shot the ice chunks off with a sideways motion as if they were skipping stones, but instead of stuttering, they slid like hockey pucks and plunked off the edge.
The dog stuck his snout in, but couldn’t hold the chunk to pull it out. The tallest of the four women, in a heavy black coat, reached in and scooped out a big jagged piece for him. He grabbed it with his teeth. Most of it broke off onto the ground, but he noisily crunched what he’d managed to hold onto and soon began poking at her demanding more.
A green jacketed arm belonging to the last of the four, reached over and grabbed his leash.
“No way, that water has nasty bacteria that will land him in the doggie ER for $500 bucks.”
The dog pulled toward the water.
“Cut it out Crackerjack!”
“Well give him another treat!”, the tall woman in the black coat laughed pushing bits of hair back under her hat.
Greenjacket pulled something out of her pocket and fed it to the dog.
“You are so indulgent with him. You should have been a preschool teacher not a lawyer.”
The others laughed at that. They had seen Crackerjack jump up on the woman in the black coat many times, and while other people would push him down roughly, she always hugged him and held his paws to dance till he started gnawing at her arm.
“Dont eat her up to show you love her.” Greenjacket would scold.
But Blackcoat would just laugh
“He never hurts me.”
Pulling the dog down the path away from the water Greenjacket walked ahead of her friends. Trees were bare. On her left a giant leaned in with twisted branches. Fencing lined the path on one side enclosing the woods, but a couple had found a way in and were playing there with two dogs. It seemed to Greenjacket that she was peeking into the private play space they’d discovered . It was a family scene though there were no actual children. The two were laughing and circling the trees with their pups. She was glad she and Crackerjack were walking with friends today and not by themselves.
Just ahead a tree had fallen flat into the water, its crown of branches half submerged in ice. The woman in the green jacket and her dog made a shadow in front of the fallen tree. The dog pulled. She could imagine him walking out onto it. He was surefooted, but still she held the leash tight. At the same time she felt a pull herself. .
“If I was a kid I’d climb right onto it and see if I could balance to the end. I’d like to stand on the branches right over the ice.”
Her three friends stood behind her.
“I bet that’s why they put the fencing up. They don’t clear out the dead trees over here. I wonder if the city is liable if someone gets hurt.”
The woman speaking had a light grey coat with blue trim and bright blue scarf that stood out from the other’s dark jackets. She looked up at her tall friend.
“Not my area.” the lawyer in the black coat replied.
The four of them walked on circling the end of the peninsula. Sun fell on the bright water and through the trees making stripes and patches on the leafy ground. They passed more people and dogs. There were many more than they would have found on the peninsula last year. Now anyone who wanted somewhere to go on this bright, cold, covid Sunday had to go to the park. No brunch spots, no museums, no movies and no dance classes like the one where these four had met.
But they agreed the park was never too crowded, especially since they took the woodsy paths where Crackerjack could wander unleashed, free to chase a squirrel or sniff another dog’s butt. Greenjacket noticed a man about her age walking a Doberman. He was in good shape with gray hair and a craggy face. That was perfect, she wasn’t looking for a younger man. She glanced back as he moved past her.
Greycoat yelled, “Crackerjack!”
Greenjacket’s head turned to see the dog running toward the lake. He splashed his front paws into the water and stood barking at the ducks. She watched as they flapped out into the middle of the lake and resumed floating as a group at a sedate pace. When she turned back the man with the Doberman was far away. She let him slip from her mind and walked with her friends into the little house with no walls that stood at the very tip of the peninsula. They stood close together and stared at the lake.
Across the water catkins waved back and forth in front of the skate rink. Their reflections made long yellow stripes. A loud voice came at them across the water.
“Everyone needs to keep masks on their faces while skating. This includes your nose. C’mon folks we’ve been doing this for 8 months, we shouldn’t have to tell you. And no cell phones on the ice. Anyone texting or taking pictures while skating will be escorted off!”
“This includes your nose!“ Greenjacket imitated him. “That guy would make a good kindergarten teacher. He has just the right exasperated tone.”
The others laughed.
“That reminds me,” Blackcoat looked at the small ponytailed woman, “How is Lucien?”
Ponytail shook her head wearily before answering, “I’m going out of my mind actually. He’s bouncing off the walls. This morning he was climbing on the table and jumping off. He’s always jumping on the bed. Drives me crazy.”
“Not easy to tire out a 4 year old in a Brooklyn apartment.” Greycoat commented.
“No. I had been taking him to the park, but now with the English variant I’m too scared. Always a lot of kids there.”
“Such a tough time to have a little kid.” Greenjacket looked at her with sympathy.
“How are your kids?”
Greenjacket bent down to nuzzle Crackerjack. “They are OK I guess. I don’t see them much.”
“I thought only your son was away.”
“My son is away. My daughter’s home from school cause of Covid. But she’s 18, so she may as well be away. She’s on her phone or with her friends or at her Dad’s house. I don’t think she likes to be seen with me. I did tell her I want to walk in the park next week. ‘That’s my birthday present’ I told her.”
“Well that’s not much to ask for.”
“I don’t know about that. I’ll be surprised if it happens.”
“It’s your birthday next week? I’ll bring chocolate cupcakes for us.”
“Thank you. That’s something to look forward to.”
“You know, “said Blackcoat, “they have those mobile firepits from REI. We could have a fire circle in the park on your birthday.”
Greenjacket laughed, “You are ambitious! I’ll be glad for just the walk or the cupcakes.
Next year though, when I’m 60, then I really should have a party.”
“Oh definitely!” They all agreed and began throwing out ideas.
Crackerjack was dragging his leash in the dirt and they followed him as he chose their path through the woods and back over to the water. Suddenly a sharp noise cut through the air. All heads snapped toward the lake
Was it a fish slicing through the water? A tiny buzzing shark?
“It’s a drone.”
‘No drones fly. It’s a motorized boat.”
“A toy boat?”
They watched as it zipped toward the ducks who flew frantically to the side. They all shook their heads. Without speaking they agreed there was something very wrong about breaking the peace of the water and the lazy floating ducks with a manic metal toy controlled by some child (or childish man).
“We should all write letters.” said Blackcoat.
Just then a giant swan flew to the spot where the ducks had been. Skimming the water, his whole huge body spread wide, wings flapping, water splashing.
“I feel he’s coming to take revenge.” Ponytail whispered. She leaned forward toward the water.
The motorboat circled the swan.
Greycoat twisted her blue scarf around her hand, “If that boat hits him, I’m going across the lake to punch somebody.”
They stood still and the motor boat disappeared. The swan fluffed his feathers.
“It’s just wrong!” Greycoat called out, relieved but angry.
“Listen to Crackerjack.” Blackcoat walked over and kneeled down by the dog, rubbing his neck. He turned to lick her face.
”He’s agreeing with us! He can scatter the ducks cause he’s a dog. He belongs in the park, but the drone boat does not!”
“Now you’re a dog lawyer. Write a brief on behalf of the dog and swan asserting only they have the right to terrify ducks”
“It’s true, they should not have motorized boats on this lake.” Blackcoat declared.
“I totally agree with you. A thousand percent. I just like to tease you. You should have a dog. Why don’t you have a dog.?”
“Oh you must be dating someone.”
“I’m texting someone, haven’t met him yet.”
“Don’t date anyone who hates both their parents. They have to at least like one of their parents. That’s my new rule.” Greycoat wrapped her scarf twice around her neck.
“Well I have no idea how he feels about his parents.” Blackcoat responded, “I’m just waiting to see if he can keep a date. He cancelled the last one. What about you”
“No” said Greycoat, “not in Covid”
“Ahhh who could compare to my Crackerjack?” He walked over to her and she patted him.
“I’m always dating,” she went on, “it’s like a reflex. But I don’t think my heart or my body is in it anymore.”
They had circled the peninsula and entered the narrow field before the Wellhouse. Families were kicking soccer balls and throwing frisbees. The air was chilly but the field was full of sun. Here the lake spread out and the ice stretched much farther into the water, curving gently as it followed the line of the shore. It caught the sun’s brightness, and the thin outer edge began softening, breaking off, giving its solid shape up into the cold liquid.
Fluffy catkins glowed and tilted in the wind. The women walked slowly, chatting and stopping for Crackerjack to sniff or be petted by strangers.
“What about the guy with the bird?”
“Oh him? He was pre-Covid. Where have you been? …Anyway that man loved his bird too much! I could understand the kids being more important, (though who has an eleven year old at his age?) and I could understand the job, but then I realized the bird was also more important. I was at the bottom of the list. He said he couldn’t stay over at my place more because his bird would miss him.”
“Did you hate the bird?”
“No, I really liked the bird. He was sweet. He would cimb on my shoulder and I could pet his feathers. He was a lovely bird. But in addition to this bird being more important than me, he had a trumpet he was always dying to practice and he was planning to get a trombone.” Greenjacket rolled her eyes.
She slowed down as she spoke to Blackcoat and the other two wandered ahead.
“I only saw him every other weekend, because he had his kids who, by the way, he never even suggested introducing me to, and then he had to go play music with his buddies on our Saturday’s. I’m telling you!”
“You couldn’t talk about how you felt?”
Blackcoat spoke to her friend softly now. Her joking tone was gone.
“Oh please. He told me these musician guys were his support system. A big shift from what he said when we started dating. Rigid, he was rigid. When I tried to talk about the future he informed me that after his kids go to college he just wants to go down to Miami and live in a hotel. I told him by then Miami will be underwater.”
Greenjacket saw an old tennis ball on the ground and threw it as hard as she could. The dog chased it, scooped it up in his mouth but failed to bring it back. He dropped it halfway and began sniffing excitedly at something on the field. She kept talking as they walked over to the dog.
“I was already frustrated with him. And when Covid hit, believe me, that man was not getting into a pod with me! Oh no! He’s hibernating until it’s all over and he won’t get vaccinated until half the country gets it first!”
Greenjacket picked up the ball.
Anyway enough about an old lady. You had a dinner date in someone’s actual apartment, didn’t you? You risk-taker!”
Blackcoat picked up the dog’s leash and tried to pull him away from the exciting spot.
“Oh that one? He’s gone. I knew he wanted to get physical and I tried to be open but… I really didn’t feel it.”
She tried pulling the dog’s leash but he pulled back.
“He sensed I wasn’t into it I guess. He didn’t even make a move. I think if it wasn’t Covid I’d have let something happen, given it a go… He was a nice guy. Very nice guy actually. He made me chicken and something he called a kitchen sink salad which required a lot of chopping… He was attracted to me. He’d told me before the dinner date that…wait a minute this is too funny…he wanted to swap spit with me.”
“What? That’s a disgusting phrase.”
Blackcoat laughed and gave Crackerjack a big pull that finally got him to walk away from his patch of grass.
“Yes it kind of is. But it was sort of endearing when he said it. He’s from the South, I guess it’s something they say down there. He was sweet. Seemed like it’s been a long time between drinks for him. He’s a lawyer too, but he did all this charitable work overseas. A real social conscience. I liked that about him.”
Greenjacket threw the ball again but when Blackcoat dropped the leash, Crackerjack ran right back to the same patch of grass and started sniffing all over again.
“I wasn’t sure if I was attracted to him but I felt he was a good person. Still, I was stressed just from being in his apartment. How much risk could I take for someone I didn’t know if I was attracted to?”
“Did he kiss you? Did you swap spit?”
“He kissed me hello and goodbye on the mouth. Closed mouth, no spit. Still I felt incredibly nervous until I got tested again.”
They pulled Crackerjack away from his patch a second time. The other two had stayed on the path and were circling the field.
“Not really… I biked over to his place from Brooklyn at night. You know I avoid the trains now. Well that was really fun. An adventure. Going over the Manhattan bridge the bike path picks you up right on the Bowery. I loved biking along the Bowery past all the old tenements and Chinese markets and Jewish stores and then turning onto the 2nd avenue bike path up through the East Village. You know I lived on E 10th when I first moved to the city … I probably would have hung out with him again. I could have biked in and we could have gone to eat outside at a place with heaters. But he never called and I didn’t call him… I don’t know if I can get physical with someone now. I would have to be wildly attracted to them.”
They had pulled Crackerjack off the field and joined the other two on the path. Greycoat and Ponytail were talking about cooking shows and breads they tried to bake. They turned toward the Nethermead. Greenjacket was the only one who really knew where they were, but she could be trusted to move them through the least traveled path to Grand Army Plaza where they would break apart until the following Sunday.
They followed her down a small hill and under a coppery blue bridge toward the Boathouse. Greenjacket, Blackcoat and the dog walked ahead of the other two on the narrow path.
“Well I’m glad at least the bike ride was fun. Swapping spit is a big goddamn deal now. Dating men doesn’t seem light and fun anymore. It seems agonizing…Sometimes I think with my covid enforced celibacy, post menopausal hormone drop, Zoloft prescription,and general exhaustion with men, maybe I should look at the next decade as one where they are not very important.”
“You think you’re done with them?”
Not completely. I mean, they’ve been so important for so long. Even before I started having sex, I thought about guys all the time. I’m just considering that maybe they are not central anymore. I really think part of this is biological. I used to have so much sexual desire…even a few years ago. And when I was young, forget about it, I remember eyeing men on the subway. There were times I felt like any one of them would do. I remember thinking, why can’t a woman just hire a man for some uncomplicated sex?… It’s funny to think of that. It was me but me in a different body.”
Greenjacket took off her hat, stuffed it in her pocket, and unzipped her jacket.
“My body feels like my most authentic self somehow. Now I’m still me, but, there is a way I’m really different… I feel men could be friends, they could be lovers if I got turned on…I would like that. But it doesn’t drive me anymore. Maybe I should face the fact that I’m best suited to have Crackerjack as my favorite companion.“
“I can understand that.” Blackcoat nodded.
“Not that I’m dying to be alone. I wouldn’t mind if the four of us got a place upstate and hung out: practicing our moves, watching movies, cooking, taking hikes with the dog.”
“We could build a dance studio! We could have a fireplace! …But of course, none of us has any money.”
“It’s just a fantasy. But it’s different from the fantasy of building something with a man. I’d like to let go of that fantasy. That fantasy makes me tired.”
“It’s an exhausting time. You do rethink things.” Blackcoat slowed her pace and looked at her friend, “I’m better at being alone than I thought. At the same time I need to be around people. Friends make me much less lonely, but I’d still like to find a guy.
They were walking on a dirt path by the water, a path made by the feet that walked it, an unofficial path. They could see the wide green bridge that arched over the Lullwater Lake in front of the boathouse. The ice crept in from the edges of the river creating a narrow channel of water flowing toward the bridge.
Greenjacket pulled the dog’s leash to keep him from sniffing a bush. He kept sniffing and peeing every few feet.
“Of course, that makes sense. You’re younger than me. You’re in a different phase of your life. In a way I want to find a man too. I still date. But then I wonder…I feel what I really want is just to be peaceful and less lonely. I really like the walks we all take in the park…We wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t Covid. We’d be running all over the city, all of us, including me. We just started walking and talking here every week because we couldn’t dance and dating is depressing…”
She pulled again on the dog who’d seen a family of ducks on the water: ears rising, body straining.
“…but it made me notice that… it’s possible I’d rather walk in the park with my friends and Crackerjack than run around the city. I’m older than you, maybe that’s all I want. Maybe that’s who I am now.”
Greenjacket walked faster to distract Crackerjack from the ducks. The path veered away from the water back into the trees. She waited until Blackcoat was next to her again and slowed down before she spoke.
“On the other hand, if the dances were happening…I feel dancing kept part of me going. It was so playful and flirty dancing with different guys. I felt good about my body. I just love those sexy moves. Having that contact with different men, feeling their energy…was kind of wonderful. It’s as if a part of myself was kept alive by that. I wonder if we’ll ever do it again.”
Blackcoat stopped and touched her arm.
“You know the studio closed.”
“Closed? I knew they gave up one floor.”
“No, it closed. Nancy gave up the whole lease. She couldn’t keep paying.”
“Oh My God! Really?….. I remember everything about that place. I remember walking over there from the R train, getting off at Herald square and walking past the jewelry story and the wholesale accessories store with all that glittery shit in the window and past the $I pizza shop…”
Blackcoat laughed and cut in, “I can see that whole block of 32nd street with the church, the Japanese noodle place and the Blarney Stone with all the drunk guys who came for the hockey game.”
“Oh those guys!” Greenjacket laughed. “Remember at Christmas there would be hordes of drunk kids dressed up like Santa? You would literally have to dodge them to turn onto 8th Avenue. I still remember the code to get buzzed in. I can see myself changing shoes in the elevator so not to waste a minute. I remember the coat rack and the shoe shelf overflowing with our stuff. It was such relief to leave everything there and walk into the studio. I remember it like it’s etched in my brain.”
The other two had caught up to them. They spoke over each other when they heard the news . Ponytail’s voice was soft but high pitched.
“I knew they lost one floor but the whole thing?
Oh my God, we will never have class there again. We will never have another social dance there. The last class I took was the last class I’ll ever take there.”
Greycoat pulled the blue scarf tight between her two fists.
“I remember stretching in the studio after class, before the dance started. I remember Liz doing my eye makeup. It was always the best party. Everyone came. Remember how we’d go to Pizza Suprema after? ”
They all stood in the middle of the path. Blackcoat bent down to stroke the dog as she spoke. “The city bought all the buildings around there. They’re going to expand Penn station. Pizza Suprema’s gone too.”
“They are literally taking all the buildings down?”
Greenjacket stood in the center of the group announcing, “All of a sudden I’m Fran Lebowitz remembering the real New York. That was the last seedy neighborhood in Manhattan. Now nothing but malls and condos. Jesus, maybe it is time to leave the City.”
“People will make new dance studios.”
“Where? Where can anyone rent a big space in Manhattan? Anyway, a new place won’t have all those memories. I don’t know if I’ll want to go back if it’s a strange place.”
Greenjacket continued with closed eyes, shaking her head as the line between her eyes deepened.
“Life has phases. I already knew that…Once I felt my family was solid… Covid’s just made things change faster. The signs are everywhere. If the studio is gone, even the building, it’s really clear this phase of my life is over…No more dancing, I’ll just walk around the park with my dog. “
Surprising them all, Blackcoat reached out and touched her friend’s sleeve.
“You’ll change your mind.”
Greenjacket looked at her. “I really don’t know if I will.”
The dog had given up on the ducks and was looking for something new to explore. He pulled on Greenjacket and she began walking. She led them up past the boathouse waterfall, over the transverse and into the woods.
Spring, summer and fall the woods were thick with leaves. But this strange Covid winter the women found themselves walking the trails among empty trees. Now for the first time, they could see all the way across the ravine where hills rose up. They could see the stream crawling along the ravine floor leading their eyes to yet another waterfall. The unfamiliar view caught all four of them and held them still for a moment.
Suddenly he pulled so hard it hurt her fingers. Greenjacket dropped the leash and Crackerjack flew away from her and disappeared down the hill after a squirrel he would never get. They weren’t worried. The dog returned before they crossed the stone bridge. He never let Greenjacket get far from him. She glanced down and touched his head. They stayed on the dirt path through the trees talking softly till the path opened onto a rise at the very edge of the Long Meadow. The Picnic House sat solidly across the field.
Greenjacket picked up the leash and they left the woods down a small hill turning right onto the paved path cutting through the meadow. It would take them to a stone tunnel, musty and echoey, with small piles on the benches belonging to the homeless who slept there at night. The tunnel would lead them out onto the Plaza. There, three busy streets would converge in front of the Grand Army Arch, and each woman would go off in a different direction.
Judy Schneier is a psychotherapist and writer living in Brooklyn. She has published in the Dillydoun Review (Pushcart Prize-nominated) and Blood Pudding. She read frequently at The Brooklyn Poets Yawp.