“I never learned to swim, and I’m tired of holding my breath.” —“Monster in Montauk,” Hounds of the Wild Hunt
Several months ago I watched a woman end her life. Sort of. Maybe. It’s still unclear what exactly happened. See, back in October my husband and I were in New York City—visiting friends, eating everything on Momofuku Milk Bar's menu, and riding public transportation that isn't worthless—and one night we decided to take the Roosevelt Island Tramway over the East River to Roosevelt Island to gaze at the city’s skyline from across the water. It was a dark, chilly October night, the perfect fall night for a walk. It was just a few days before Halloween and, no fucking joke, we saw a person in a Grim Reaper costume walk past us and disappear down an escalator to get on the subway. The Grim Reaper had a scythe. It was spooky and funny at the time, but now it's just spooky.
While strolling down the sidewalk that follows along the river, a man who we didn't know was behind us, started yelling at us. He was shouting something about the police and a woman and the river. He ran towards us, he didn’t speak English very well, and kept insisting we call the police. After 15 seconds, maybe 30, I don't know, we realized what was happening.
A woman had climbed over the walkway’s railing. She walked over the few feet of large rocks that lined the shore and slipped into the water. I saw her seconds after she had pushed off of the rocks—I saw the back of her head, her blonde or grey hair. She swam out to the center of the river and then stopped swimming. She just floated—she wasn't struggling, she wasn't yelling for help. With her head still above water, the current quickly carried her out of sight while the reflection of the city’s lights flickered on the water's surface.
It was surreal and confusing and, at the time, not at all morbid. I grew up here in the Northwest where people go swimming in rivers all the time. I didn't assume she was killing herself, I thought she was just going for a swim. At night. In the East River. I didn't know better!
We called the police but they were already there, and more were on the way. Someone else had called them, too. Next came the boats and the helicopters and the divers. They all searched the water, except for the divers, who, they said, would only go in if they did, in fact, spot evidence of a body. But a body was never found. One cop, who stayed with us for the couple of hours his colleagues searched, said that there's a hospital on Roosevelt Island and it’s not unheard of for a patient to leave the hospital, walk to the river, and give up. He said most people usually jump from one of the bridges, though.
Fast forward to today, when I heard that line in “Monster of Montauk," a song I've heard literally a hundred times before—“I never learned to swim and I’m tired of holding my breath." It hit me right in my brain, where I store that weird, unpleasant shit that usually only haunts me when I'm trying to get to sleep or when I forget to take my anti-depressant for a few days. As the band chanted that line, gruffly, with the same amount of exhaustion you might yell something when you're on the verge of giving up, I thought of that woman. I wondered if she knew how to swim, and how long she was able to hold her breath before getting too tired to fight it. Did she die in the river? Did she make it to the ocean before drowning? Did she die at all?
Just a couple days after that woman walked into the East River, Hurricane Sandy hit New York. My husband and I were still on the East Coast, trapped in a Connecticut hotel room after they had closed all the highways and shut down all the trains. While we tensely watched news reports and ate a dinner comprised of carbohydrates from the hotel's vending machine, we were both sort of convinced that the woman's body, dragged back from sea in Sandy’s record-breaking winds, was going to knock into a newscasters’ legs as they reported live while standing in the knee-deep water that covered Manhattan.