I watch the shore get smaller and smaller as the ship sails towards the open sea. The huge oak tree, which had shaded a group of women, now seems the size of a fist. Somewhere on that shore is my grandma, standing there with arms tired from frantic waving, watching our ship disappear into the horizon. Mother is sitting on a bench that is on the front deck, her fingers tightly hold a cigarette, but she seldom brings it to her mouth. Father is standing next to the rails, next to me, and he watches the brown line of the shore slowly get swallowed by the blue sea. He is holding baby sister in his arms, and she is holding on to her new hat
Grandma had given her this hat the other night so that baby sister would always remember her roots. “She is only three,” Grandma had said a few weeks ago. “She’ll have very few memories of this country, if any.”
“Perhaps that’s a good thing,”Mother had said, and Grandma nodded quietly. However, Grandma did not agree, because after their conversation she began to sew this hat. It is a beautiful hat. Grandma had made it out of white silk, and she had added a white lace trim to it, and in a deep blue thread that matched the color of the ocean, she had embroidered baby sister’s name on it. The beauty was not the only trait of the hat that gave it value. The silk and lace Grandma had used had been torn from her wedding dress. A dress which her mother and my mother had also worn. It would have been my wedding dress if I had chosen to stay, and to marry my fiance. Now, parts of this wedding dress are on baby sister’s head, to remind her of the woman who helped raise her and the legacy of her family; and although baby sister does not understand the significance of the hat, she still knows it is special, and her small hand clings protectively over it to shield it from the strong ocean winds.
Once the shore is no longer visible, Father, baby sister, and I join Mother on the bench. “What’s under the sea,” baby sister asks no one in particular as Mother inhales smoke from her cigarette.
“Mermaids,” Father replies. “Beautiful mermaids with golden hair and bewitching blue eyes.”
“Don’t lie to her,” Mother scolds. “There’s only fish under the sea.”
“And dolphins,” I add. Mother stands, walks to the rail, and flicks her cigarette butt into the water.
“There’s cigarettes under the sea too,” Father says, but baby sister is no longer listening, her attention has been diverted by two boys playing dice.
“Will things be better in America,” I ask Father for the third time today.
“Everything will be much better there. It will be wonderful,” he reassures me for the third time.
Later that night I awake to the massive rocking of the ship. Baby sister is asleep beside me, breathing softly while her tiny fist clutches her silky hat. She had refused to let go of it when she went to sleep, and Mother had remarked that Grandma should have made her a toy instead. “This hat is silly sentimentalism. She is going to outgrow it in less than a year.”
Mother is awake too and she is silently throwing up into a basin. Father has lit a light, and he holds Mother’s hair back as she shakes violently. When Mother is done, she sits with her back against the wall, and she gives me a blank look that is void of all emotion. I remember seeing that look on her face during the horrible night, the night that changed our lives forever.
It was a long time ago, many years before the birth of baby sister. I had been awoken by loud knocking at the door. As I lay in bed I heard a strange man’s voice saying something. I had gotten up, and tiptoed quietly to the edge of the living room. I was afraid that my parents would hear me and give me a stern lecture. I did not yet know that disciplining me had been obliterated from my parent’s mind by the dark coldness the night carried.
I stood at the edge of the living room, and I saw a police man talking to my parents. I did not trust policemen. They always seemed mean and angry, and Mother always seemed frightened of them. I could not hear what the policeman was saying, but his voice sounded kind, so different from the angry shouts they usually gave in the street. Father sat in a chair his hands folded, and Mother stood next to the stove. She was wearing her night clothes, and mother never even had guests if her make up was not on. When the policeman was done talking, Father thanked him for coming by, and he walked the policeman to the door. “I’m sorry,” I heard the policeman say as he walked out of our apartment. The three of us stood still, father at the door, mother at the stove, and I trying to hide in the hallway shadows. It began to rain. At first only a trickle could be heard from the outside, but soon the thunder was making me shake. I walked into the kitchen, and it was as if my actions had given my parents life. They both sat around the table, and Father put his face in his hands. “What happened,” I asked, and Mother told me, quietly, calmly, as if she was telling me what was for breakfast. I began to cry, and somehow I found myself hugging Father, and we both sat there crying. Mother had watched us with dry blank eyes, and her stoic stare was the last thing I remembered before I fell asleep. I woke up in my bed, sunlight streaming over me, and the horror of the news from the night before had sunk into me, had become a part of who I was. That night changed our lives in many ways, and although my parents said the reason they are moving is to live in a place with a better economy and more freedom, the real reason we are leaving our country is so that we don’t have to live in the same place where the worst day of our life had occurred.
Mother gets back in bed, and Father makes the room dark again. In the darkness I can hear baby sister breathing. “Will things be better in America,” I ask Father.
“Everything will be much better there. It will be wonderful,” he reassures me.
The next morning we are sitting at a table on the deck eating breakfast. Well only Father and I are eating. Mother is smoking her cigarette and baby sister is playing with her food. “You should eat something,” Father tells Mother. “I would if I could, I’m just really queasy,” she replies.
“I’m keesy too, so I can’t eat,” baby sister proclaims.
“I guess I could handle a piece of bread,” Mother says grabbing toast from Father’s plate, and his face lights up in a smile.
I began to wonder if my fiance, now my ex-fiance, would have been that concerned about my eating habits if we had gotten married. I did not have to move with my parents. I am nineteen and I could have stayed. Grandma would have been happy to have me live with her, and a few months after my parents left I could have worn her wedding dress while promising my life to my fiance.
My fiance told me this in similar words. “You don’t have to leave,” he said. “ We belong together. We could marry early so that your parents could attend. If you loved me, you’d stay.”
“I do love you, that is why I’m not asking you to move for me or to wait for me. I wanted to be married to you, but now that I have an opportunity to start over, I have to take it.”
“What your saying is that you don’t love me enough to stay.”
“You know I have to leave.”
He had said nothing. He knew what I meant. We had grown up together, my fiance and I. As children, we used to play in the park together and compete with each about who could collect the most acorns. We had known each other before and after that terrible night. He had tried to comfort me after the tragedy had happened, but there are times when words and hugs do not help. He had seen how this tragic event had transformed my family, and how even the birth of baby sister could not heal the wounds that night had caused. When we became older, he started to wait for me after school. We would walk together and laugh, and after a year of walks he had asked Father for my hand in marriage. I wanted to be married to him, not because of a deep passion, but because he had always been part of my life, and I could not imagine a life without him.
After I told him I would be leaving, we continued acting the same as before. I still called him my fiance, even though we both knew the wedding would never happen. The day before my departure, I met him one last time in the park. We held hands and discussed our favorite poets.
Don’t go,” he said suddenly.
“I thought we discussed this, you know why I’m leaving.”
“I know, but it’s stupid. You can’t erase the past.”
“I don’t want to erase it, I just don’t want to be surrounded by it all the time. You could come with me. Not this ship, but perhaps the next. Why do we have to start our lives here, a place that kills people out of principle. Come to America. We can start over.”
“If you really want me to come, I will.”
I looked at him. I loved him and before the move became a possibility, I was perfectly happy spending my life with him. However, when my parents asked me if I wanted to come with them, I had said yes without hesitation. It was not just this country I wanted to leave, but I wanted to shed all parts of my life that had been with me before the horrible night, and had been unchanged by the tragedy.
“I will always remember you,” I had told my fiance.
Father has turned his toast into airplanes that glide through the air and land in baby sister’s mouth
“Will things be better in America,” I ask Father, who is probably tired of my question.
“Everything will be much better there. It will be wonderful,” he says with a smile.
After breakfast we walk around the ship. I hold baby sister’s hand, and Father holds Mother’s hand. “What color are the fish under the water,” baby sister asks.
“They are blue and green and red and yellow,” Father replies.
Baby sister giggles and says, “that’s a lot of colors.”
The ocean winds are blowing all around us, and scraps from people’s conversations assault our ears.
“When I get to America I’m going to eat lots of cake. I heard America is filled with cake,” a fat woman tells her friend. “I miss daddy,” a ten-year old girl whines to her mother. “I had the most amazing sex last night,” a mustached young man tells his friend. My parents look nervously at baby sister, but her head is turned as she watches something scurry across the deck.
“It’s a bird,” Mother exclaims as she sees the object of baby sister’s attention. A seagull has landed on the ship and it is running around looking for bread crumbs. Two boys are chasing it, trying to grab it with their hands. One of the boys leaps towards it, but he is tripped by the other boy, and lands face down on the deck. He gets up, tries to look dignified, but there is blood in his nose and tears in his eyes. The seagull seems to have decided the ship is too dangerous of a place for it, and flies away.
A strong gust of wind blows at us, and lifts baby sister’s hat into the air. I chase it, but unfortunately I am not fast enough, and the hat lands in the sea. A spec of white is visible only for a few seconds on the deep blue surface, before a wave swallows the hat. The sea is completely blue again, showing no signs that it has just obliterated a grandmother’s gift to her granddaughter. I turn around and watch as Father tries to comfort baby sister, who is loudly sobbing in his arms. Mother is lighting a cigarette.
“Will things be better in America,” I ask Father as he wipes baby sister’s tears away.
“I have no idea,” he answers, shrugging his shoulders. “But I hope so.”