On the Ferry
by Nina Adel
Benedetta carries the boom box and a huge, woven raffia bag filled with delicacies from the Lebanese corner market, a small tablecloth, a bottle of Mateus Portuguese wine. Leila carries a ragged Moroccan purse containing a couple of half-used, outdated tubes of drugstore sunblock; some hastily made cassettes of Willie Colon, Ruben Blades, and an older collection called La Salsa Es De Borinquen; far more plastic wine goblets than just the two of them will need. They teeter down the subway stairs in their high-heeled summer shoes and jewel-toned sundresses, Guatemalan shawls from Benedetta’s college days wrapped around their shoulders, large earrings dangling from their lobes. They catch the A train down to the ferry.
They get seats right away, before the train is crowded. By the time they reach the lower tip, near Battery Park, they can barely stand up. The pressure from the weight of the other passengers is holding them in, crushing them back. They are pink, breathless.
At the exit, Leila and Benedetta walk up three flights of stairs, past a fading Sbarro’s in the lobby. Garlic knot crumbs stick to their shoes.
To ride the ferry as a pedestrian, with no car to account for, it only costs a quarter, and you only pay one way. You can stay on the ferry and ride back and forth all day. The best deal in the city, says Leila, always worried over money, to her well-situated friend. Benedetta is beautiful, assured, has a profession. Benedetta is launched.
They pay. They ride. They let their matching dark curls flutter back and forth gently in the city wind rising from the Hudson River. Their colorful shawls trail behind them. Flanked by commuters who couldn’t possibly fail to notice the shining lips, the large gypsy earrings, they ride all morning.
They land on Staten Island, return to Manhattan, set out once more for Staten Island until the tolerant, amused crew makes them exit and pay again for re-entry at lunchtime. This is when they undertake the bigger purpose of the mission.
Benedetta lays out the tablecloth on a bench along the perimeter of the ferry deck. Leila sets the boom box down on one end of the cloth, holding it in place; sets her shawl and water bottle on the far end. Benedetta begins to take the food out of her raffia bag, while Leila puts a tape in the boombox. With the first salsa tune, the two women just stop what they are doing; move to the open space on the deck; put their arms around each other and begin the first twirl.
Oh, yes, they can move. They can dance.
The commuters are watching now. Open-mouthed and smiling. Snapping their fingers and moving a little awkwardly to the music or sulking and cursing. There is no doubt they are watching.
After several hours out on deck in the hungry wind, they need food. They’ve brought good bread in a loaf, excellent brie, marinated Italian green beans, Lebanese salad. There are grapes in a bowl. Benedetta pours the Mateus; Leila laughs, proposing a toast to their last adventure, several weeks gone by.
May we never forget the Colombian Weekend! she says, and they both smirk a little at the memory of the Friday through Sunday. From club to club, party to party, café to café they’d gone with a group of Colombian journalists from the UN that they’d met at a friend’s house. Dancing and drinking and eating large bowls of hot mofongo, they made out with a couple of the guys at every stop along the way—a tall one for Benedetta, a wide-lipped, broad-chested one for Leila.
And may we find better kissers the next time! she blurts, a spray of wine blasting from her windblown mouth, flecking Benedetta with drops of vinho verde, choking a little on her own saturated laugh. They toast, they dance, until some of the commuters are compelled to join them.
Have some grapes! shrieks Leila as she does a fancy turn under Benedetta’s arm. And wine! Please, have some wine. We have too many plastic goblets!
By this time, even the crew members have come to dance, abandoning their stern responsibilities altogether. Leila and Benedetta take turns dancing with these ferryboat sailors, with men and women in suits and professional attire, in skirts with sneakers; with amused tourists and exhausted stragglers. Then they dance together again as the first streaks of caramel and pomegranate sunset appear beyond the river.
Pausing over the Hudson, they know it is time. They are tired. Leila lifts her face toward the dusty streaks, breathes the ocean aroma coming in through the mouth of the river.
Benedetta glances around at the changing scene. They have to pack up the food and wine and music, but first, they take each other by the arms, linking close. Leila turns sideways and leans in. She rests her head on Benedetta’s shoulder.
They stand watching passengers descend toward the streetlights beyond the darkened, sparkling port.
I’ve always held that a well-lived life is composed more of struggle than of ease. Even most of our moments of ease carry an underlying tension. Leila experiences this in On the Ferry. She is a character I often write about and is the subject of my recently-completed manuscript, a hybrid fictionalized memoir.
Nina Adel is a writer, artist, and musician originally from Milwaukee. She is the 2020 winner of Bellevue Literary Review’s Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction for her lyric essay, “Refugere,” and has been published in journals like Moria, Sweet Tree Review, Selcouth Station, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and Louisiana Folklife Studies Journal. A resident of Nashville, Nina holds an MFA from Hamline University, runs the Porch Writers’ Collective’s Creative Writing for Immigrants and Refugees program and teaches writing at a local college. You can find Nina on Twitter @writethinkspeak and read more of her work at ninaadel.com.