What We Hold Onto

3 min
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I grip the railing under my hands more tightly. It is slick so the action does not make me feel more secure in my position so close to the sea, moving further from land with every sharp intake of breath. It is a miserable night, with low slung clouds darkening the stars and heavy mist enveloping the deck and weighing on me like sore muscles. I cannot help standing here though my thin coat is wet and matted to my skin and I know my lips have purpled from the cold. I can no longer see land, even if it were sunny and clear, but I am afraid to turn my back on the place I have called home. I may never see it again.

It hadn’t been my home for some time now. They threw me out. The whole country did. When I was a child, I did not know what I was other than one of the neighborhood boys. We played down by the river, poking at mines left over from the war that had begun to peek out of the banks. When it blew up, they bled red like me and the boy I was died with them. I thought I was the same as them. The occupation changed that. It made where I came from matter. It made where my great-great-grandfather came from matter. And suddenly, I was not the same as them. And I became what I did not know I had always been. A man without a country.

A man with no land should feel more comfortable here, drifting between lands. But I have not found my sea legs yet.

I boarded the ship with my wife this morning. She had our infant son nestled in her arms, swaddled against the chilled, sea dusted air. I carried our secondhand suitcase, with its loose handle, a little more absentmindedly than usual, but I had other things on my mind. Our son was fussing. My wife’s soft shushing noises and rocking arms should have been lost among the shushing of the water rocking the ship but I was huddled close to them as we walked the gangplank, hunched around them as if I could protect them from any past or future monsters, and I let her shushing lull me too.

But she has gone to bed and the ocean does not soothe me the way her voice does so I stare in the direction of my memories, unable to look away.

I feel a tug at the hem of my coat, pulling the wet cloth away from my body. I turn to see my wife, also unsteady on this ocean. I reach for her hand and help her to stand next to me at the railing. She loops her hand through my arm and grasps the crook in my elbow. I can feel the pads of each of her fingers. She is not wearing gloves.

“Your hands will get cold,” I say as I place my fingers on top of hers, leaving one hand on the railing, anchoring us both.

“We have been cold before.”

“George?” I ask and she knows my worry for our son extends beyond this ship and my question is for more than this moment.

“He is still asleep. I think he likes the ocean.” This is a relief to me, given my own unease in our current location but I know her words are meant for that purpose.

“Is Anna watching him?” Anna with the empty bunk beside her. Anna with the missing piece. Like so many of us now, living with spaces where loved ones should be. I press my fingers in a steady rhythm, playing piano against my wife’s hand.

“Yes. He seems to like her too.” She pauses. “Lucky boy, our son.” She starts to lean her head against my shoulder but quickly pulls back with a light laugh that barely reaches my ears. “You’re all wet. Perhaps it’s time to relieve Anna?”

I move the hand that still holds the railing to wipe her cheek and for a moment I am unanchored. But then my knuckles graze her skin and I steady myself. “We have been wet before.”

“Yes. And this is just some heavy dew. I’m sure the air will be much lighter in America.”

“I believe it rains in New York too.”

“We’ll get an umbrella.” She laughs again but this time it reaches my ears and I smile against the night. “Or we’ll dance in it.”

“Perhaps we’ll do both.”

She tugs at my arm and I turn with her. We walk idly toward the bow of the ship, finding our balance amidst the rocking. We rest at a similar railing, looking out at the same sea. Only this time, we are looking ahead, toward home.

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