I was drinking my morning coffee on the terrace, same as I do every morning, with the roar of car horns and ambulances sweeping through the streets below my feet. The buzz of this city pairs nicely with my mood: anxious, restless, and excited. Athens never skips a beat, not even then in 1939 when war is beating down Greece’s door. I lift the welcome mat behind my chair, the place I stash my father’s finest cigars, and light one up before the big journey. Inhaling the smoke from that flavorful montecristo, I remember thinking about giving them back to him before I take off, but then he’d realize I took them, and saying goodbye would have been much more burdensome.
I toss the ashes out from the tray over the railing and make my way back inside, the cigar tucked neatly inside my pocket. Mother is packing away everything I don’t need, the routine of her hands and feet masking the worry on her face.
“Ma.” I wait for her to stop folding my socks, socks I probably won’t need. “Ma, please stop. It’s almost seven, I have to get going.”
She doesn’t stop. Instead, she continues to fold my shirts, my pants, my underwear, and all other items that will most likely be thrown over board if I am caught. I rest a hand on her shoulder, humming her favorite old folk tune. She relaxes and I can almost see a smile tugging on her cheek. “The boat will be cold at night,” She finally looks up at me, “At least let me pack you a few extra pairs of socks.”
“Nicholas,” My father enters the room. His hair gelled tightly behind his ears and gut tucked firmly beneath his belt. He places today’s paper on the counter and picks up his coffee with both palms. I assume it’s so that he has an excuse not to hug me goodbye. “All packed I presume?
“Got your bags?”
“Are you sure that thing will work?” He eyes my white pants and jacket with the navy blue trim, then studies the identification pass strung around my neck.
“Ernie knows a guy who works for the shipping company, had his wife sew me up a sailor suite just like his. Says it’s practically identical.” I lift the pass from my neck and hold it out. “And here, the pass isn’t a phony. It belonged to a Mr. Stavros Papas.”
My mother zips up my luggage and hauls it off the table and onto the floor. Looking at me with the most troubled expression, she squeezes my cheek and kisses my forehead. She has said this same goodbye to four other sons leaving Greece to find a better life across the ocean. No tears will be spared for the fifth.
“We will see each other again,” I brave a smile.
My father puts down his coffee and holds my mother and I in a warm embrace. The smell of tobacco and red wood remind me of another time, a time when I was the youngest and the quietest and our family was all together. “Write to us when you dock in New York City,” He says, and then pulls away.
That was not the last time I ever saw my parents, but it was two years before actually arriving at my oldest brother’s residence in the States. Mistakenly, the ocean liner I had boarded was not carrying cargo directly to America. There were stops on every continent and before I knew it I had become a world traveler. My fellow crewmates, as loud and rough as they were, helped me fit in as well as I could. They spoke all sorts of languages other than Greek. I practiced my English with them and picked up a poor gambling habit as well. Although I blended in nicely, it was important to lay low and stay out of trouble.
My best friend Jason practically hunted for trouble. He considered himself a smooth talker, comedian, and part-time philosopher. He always bragged about getting accepted to Colombia University, but that he couldn’t go because of money issues. None of us bought anything he said, but no one ever called him out for it. It was just amusing to hear him ramble on. I remember when we docked in India and he thought it would be funny to saddle one of the elephants at the pier.
“Hey, Stavros!” Jason yelled, “Come on up here with me. Lets show that bindi over there how it’s done.”
I have no clue what a ‘bindi’ is as I look over and see him talking up a beautiful young woman with the most elegant red dress and a golden headscarf. She appears uninterested in his cocky, American-style flirting. Jason pleads with me to join him, but I shake my finger and walk back up the ramp to the ship. Before long, the elephant under Jason becomes uneasy and restless. He tries to jump off but the animal takes off with him still clinging on to the reins. A few broken bones later, Jason never did get the girl. He did, however, learn about the uncleanliness of Indian hospitals in the early 1940’s.
That ship traveled to Australia, South Africa and Brazil before reaching the shores of the Hudson River where I first spotted the colossal skyscrapers of Manhattan. I looked at them with a mixture of awe and relief. I felt bad about disappearing after the ship docked. I thought about telling my friends in the crew about the truth of my identity, or at least slipping them a goodbye letter, but it wouldn’t have been safe. I couldn’t trust anyone, not even Jason. I did, however, leave my father’s cigar in his quarters before jumping ship. He always admired its elegance and flavor. I wasn’t as attached to it anymore now that I was safely in New York with my brother and his family.
After almost a decade without seeing George, I was surprised I still recognized his square chin and furrowed brows. He took me back to his apartment with the luggage my mother had packed for me almost two years ago.
“Enlist in the army,” he said to me that first night over dinner, “You’re a man of, what? Twenty? It’s a perfect way to gain citizenship.”
“I don’t know,” I said nervously, “fighting for a country I never knew before this morning?” I pick at my mashed potatoes and consider everything that I went through to get to this dinner table. “And besides,” I add, “When Dimitry and Adonis enlisted we were not in the middle of a war. I could be killed.”
“Nonsense, Nicky. You’ll work the soup kitchen. Rhea’s got a few connections on her side.” He smiles up at his wife now pouring gravy all over my chicken.
“Thank you Ma’am,” I place a hand on Rhea’s arm. “This is the warmest meal I’ve had in, well, years.”
George’s wife laughs and covers my hand with her own. “Call me Rhea,” she says. “I also have connections in the ladies department as well,” she grins.
Two years on a boat with dirty men and the most distasteful living conditions imaginable, I had not thought about a women in years. Of course, my wife would have to be Greek. Well bred and a good cook. None of that stuff mattered to me in particular; it was my family who needed to be impressed. Rhea gave me the addresses of several Greek women in the States with whom she had connections. She told me to write to them all with a picture and see who was interested.
I spent the next few years drafted in the army, working the kitchens as my brother had promised. I communicated with a few of Rhea’s friends back and fourth. None of them caught my interest. By the time the war was over I was 24, an American citizen, and ready to start my own diner business as I had always dreamed. A few of my other brothers were interested in helping me start up the restaurant, but only George wanted to be partners.
It was 1946 when Olga had written back to me, Rhea’s most boasted about cousin. To tell you the truth, I was more disappointed than anything. She came from an excellent family with a ton of money, but her picture looked atrocious. I didn’t care for her letter either. She had little sense of humor and seemed eager as a dog playing fetch, except the ball was a wedding ring and I wasn’t going to be the one tossing it.
George and Rhea were disappointed. “Come on,” George probed, “Give the girl a chance, would ya?”
But I had already found another girl on my own. Her name was Eva and she was from a little Greek island in the Ionian Sea. Her family had little money and she was funnier than I even remembered Jason to be. “The perfect girl for me,” I thought. We sent letters to each other every month for half a year. I had already drawn up her citizenship papers before my proposal even reached the telephone.
New Jersey, 1999
Eva and I have been married over fifty years now. I still reminisce about my days at sea and my time serving the army. A successful business and two sons later, she still reminds me of how lucky I am to have such a woman. Whenever I forget, she just whispers the name “Olga” under her breath and I am in love all over again.
This short story is dedicated to my grandfather, Angelo. After having spent 2 years at sea, he traveled the world before docking on the shores of the big apple. Creating a life for himself in this great country, he joined the army in order to gain citizenship, almost married a wildebeest named Olga, and ended up falling in love with my grandmother, Evangelia.