An April Crossing
A voyage is a voyage is a voyage. And so whenever I board the ferry in New London, bound on our monthly visit to my father’s home in Greenport, I feel the same adrenaline rush you’d get embarking on a liner across the Atlantic, never mind that we’re only crossing sixteen gentle miles of Long Island Sound and we’ll be there for dinner.
My wife teases me, says I must be crossing the Atlantic, I bring so much gear. Binoculars for bird and seal spotting, rain gear in case the weather deteriorates, a thermos of hot tea, three or four books by my favorite authors. No one boards with a heavier daypack than me.
“But what if we’re becalmed?” I tell her, in my best old-salt manner. “Be prepared they told us in Boy Scouts, and the lesson stuck.”
We won’t be becalmed today. It’s April, and a strong onshore breeze helps push the Mary Ellen along at a frisky clip. Ten minutes into the voyage, I feel my cares drop away just as if it were an ocean voyage after all–feel, for that matter, an adrenaline rush of anticipation and possibility; even on short ride like this one, anything can happen. We leave the car and climb up to what Celeste likes to call the “Luxury Deck,” stand by the rial staring down at the creamy, plow-like furrows the ferry cuts through the blue.
As beautiful as the water is, as exhilarating the waterscape spreading out on all sides, there is no one on the top deck besides us. Not many passengers below decks either, when we later duck down to grab a snack; we’ve picked the quietest voyage of the day. And while it’s relaxing, having a ferry that size to yourself, it can be a bit disappointing, too, since one of the traditional pastimes on any boat ride is doing some speculative people-watching, just you would in the Downton Abbey days crossing to England aboard the Mauretania.
I count four passengers in the ferry’s lounge, as in four total. They’re sitting together around a table with their coffees, though no one seems to remember the cups are actually there. One is as tall as a NBA center, wears a striped button-down shirt, has a tangled red beard so long the bottom touches the table and spreads apart like a plate of pasta. Sitting next to him is a young Asian boy half his height with a Ben & Jerry’s sweatshirt; he’s suffering from allergies or sadness, since he constantly rubs his teary eyes. Across from them sits a girl who looks and dresses like Paris Hilton–for a second my wife has me convinced it is Paris Hilton–and beside her is an older, more serious-looking girl wearing a Manchester United replica jersey and a big Hillary for President button.
Promising material, it would be fun to overhear their conversation, but there is no conversation, since they’re all silently engaged in exactly the same activity: staring grimly down at their cell phones, motionless except for their thumbs. Their coffees steam away unsipped and untasted. Their personalities, potentially so interesting, remain hidden and caged. Their friendship, at least the visible part, is all with their phones.
I mutter something sarcastic to Celeste, old fogey that I am now. What is the world coming to, when young people, who, on such a glorious afternoon, should be laughing and clowning around on the top deck from sheer high spirits, instead immerse themselves in the bowls of the ship saying nothing?
We flee back outside to the open deck, find ourselves a bench where the sun hits our cheeks. Cormorants fly low over the water in the heavy cormorant way (they could be staring down at cell phones), but above them the gulls and terns seem happier. The familiar welcoming arm of Orient Point is coming into sight, and I ready my binoculars, since on other crossings, if the mist isn’t bad, I’ve been able to spot my father waiting for us in the parking lot by his vintage Beetle.
Celeste, eyes closed, head leaned back soaking up the sun, lifts a lazy arm in the general direction of Europe.
“Someday we should do it for real.”
“Cross the ocean on a ship.”
I make a checking-off motion in the air, adding it to our bucket list. Hot air balloon ride. Safari in Africa. Cross the Atlantic on a ship.
“For sure we will.”
I’ve gotten up, stretched, moved to the starboard side to see better, when I realize we’re not alone out there after all. A girl of about fourteen is making long elliptical circuits around the deck with a book held outstretched before her at eye level, reading as she walks. I can’t see the book title, but something in her posture, her intentness, the way she manages to walk and read at the same time (and chew gum, too) gives me the impression she has found it on her own–that it isn’t homework, something assigned, but a book she reads because it’s delightful and important to read, even more important and precious than the soft April sunlight through which she moves.
I haven’t seen anyone doing this in years–the book lover in me, the teacher, wants to immediately hug her. It’s not exaggerating (well it is, but I’ll do it anyway) to say that on her slender form, her intentness, the future of reading now rests. Will her absorption, the quiet zone that so perfectly surrounds her, last as far as the ferry slip or the front door to her house? Will she be jeered out of it by well-meaning friends? Will she be able to continue her book far into the night, using a flashlight if she has to, or will it be dropped in favor of gadgets competing for her attention, machines that chatter, chirp, and beep, or taken away from her by the indifference of parents and teachers as surely as if they yanked it from her hands?
Or will she be able to take that book to her room, read to her heart’s content, one book leading to another, one exploration to another, her bookshelf growing, not only the one she patches together out of cartons in the corner of her room, but the far larger, more portable store of knowledge and wisdom and wonder any good reader carries around with them for life?
I watch her as she disappears around the bridge and then comes back again, backlit by the sun now, her flip-flops squeaking on the steel of the deck–walking, thanks to that book and the effort required to hold it outstretched at precisely the right level, as erect as a princess at a coronation, a pilgrim, the loveliest creature, for a few minutes longer, on the whole shining expanse of Long Island Sound.