“Dio santo, I can’t take this much more!” The skirt of her sundress flapping in the June gusts, the Italian took flight across the weaving deck and skidded to a halt at the ship’s side rail. She grabbed hold of its top rung, hoisted herself up and leaned forward, parallel to the water. Dampened by the exertion, her hair clung to her scalp, the curls a tangle of seaweed.
Another passenger spotted the human gangplank and cried out. “Teresa Camara!” He dashed up to her and, snatching her by the waist, yanked her back to safety. “Sei pazza? I ought to have you committed!” He carted the brunette a distance from the rail and then dropped her to the deck, close to a full bucket of water.
Unable to hold back for another second, Teresa vomited into the pail, its overflow splashing her sandals. “Antonio, you idiot!” She swiped her mouth on the back of her forearm. “Why can’t you leave me alone?”
“A brother tries to rescue his crazy sister and what does he get? Nothing but ingratitudine.”
“Want me to be grateful? Help me wipe my shoes.” Her face buried in her hands, she sulked as Antonio whipped out a handkerchief and patted her sandals dry.
Oblivious to the drama, the veteran freighter steamed ahead across the chop of the Atlantic at a steady speed of 11 knots. Instead of the wartime supplies it once transported for the Allied forces, it carried 9,000 tons of commercial cargo along with fifty passengers, Teresa the queasiest of the lot. The days at sea had taken their toll on her stomach and her nerves.
“I never expected it to be this bad,” Teresa moaned. “How much longer before we get there?”
“Just two more days to go.” Her brother placed a palm on her bare shoulder, his calluses rough but comforting. “Compared to all the years it took for Papà to arrange this trip, what’s another 48 hours?” When the freighter lolled to the stern, Antonio maneuvered his hand to the small of her back. “America’s waiting. Are you ready to…?” The roar of the engine drowned out the end of his sentence.
Teresa shouted back, “Sì…sono più di pronta…more than ready to get off this ship!” Fists clenched, she pounded her foot against the floorboards. “Mattina e sera, night and day, I’ve paced these ugly decks, too nauseous to relax for a second.” Aware that the sway of the boat hadn’t bothered her brother in the least, she narrowed her eyes and studied the casualness of his stance. Why me?
“I can’t even hold onto a meal for more that a few seconds before, presto, I’m ready to feed the fish.” Absorbed in her own self-pity, she didn’t notice the stowaway meowing nearby or the remains of a mouse the seasick cat had regurgitated.
“Povera ragazza…poor, poor girl.” Antonio pacified.
When a woman who was almost as green around the gills as Teresa dragged by nibbling on a soda cracker, Antonio stopped her. “Excuse me, signora. Have any crackers to spare for my sister?” With a nod of compassion, the woman handed him a few and then hobbled towards the aft of the ship. “Here, Teresa, eat these and, for God’s sake, stay away from the rail!”
“No, grazie.” Teresa pushed his arm away, knocking one of the crackers out of his hand. “Can’t even stomach them anymore.” Catching sight of a handsome deckhand nearby, she lowered her voice to a whisper. “They give me gas.”
“I’ll say.” Antonio pressed his mouth against the back of his forearm and trumpeted a discordant melody, a parody of serious flatulence. Hearing it, the sailor turned around and grimaced at Teresa and then hurried away, his nose lifted in disgust.
“He actually thought it was me!” She smacked her brother’s arm. “With you around to embarrass me every chance you get, I’m doomed to be single.”
“Oh, who am I kidding?” With exaggerated drama, she extended the fingers of both hands down the front of her frame. “Look at me, a skeleton compared to the other women on the ship.” She poked the back of one fist against her hip and thrust out her buttocks. “Tell me. How am I supposed to catch a decent man?”
His hair blown back by a strong breeze, Antonio patted Teresa’s rear end. “Don’t sprain any muscles over it. There’ll be plenty to eat in America.” She smacked his hand away and, when another passing sailor leered at her small but firm rump, Antonio’s grin mutated into a scowl. “If Papà doesn’t fatten you up, I will.”
Teresa’s expression soured at the thought of her father. Although the image of the man was vague in her mind, she hadn’t forgotten the sterness of his voice when he had announced his imminent departure. She was nine years old the day her father sailed from Sicily with two of her brothers and left her mother stranded in their hometown of Trapani with the youngest two of five children.
“How could Papà abandon us the way he did?”
“What’re you talking about?” Antonio rolled his eyes. “He left to start a better life for us in America, not to abandon anyone.”
Sure he did. Dried by the wind, Teresa’s locks now swung free with skepticism. “He should’ve taken all of us with him in the first place.”
Antonio clicked his tongue in annoyance. “How many times do I have to tell you? Papà was flat broke at the time.”
As if he cared…he hardly bothered to write. “Poor Mamma,” Teresa’s throat constricted. “Don’t know how many times I caught her crying after Papà shipped out.”
“Sì. Once, when I asked her why, she whispered more to herself than to me, ‘Tuo padre, he made his promises but who knows who’s keeping him warm in America.’”
“You’re making that up.”
“No, è vero. At the time, I was too young to imagine what she meant. But, now, an awful bedroom scene comes to mind.” Teresa grimaced at the vision of her father, his arms and legs entangled with those of a stranger.
Antonio suppressed a smile. “Shame on you.”
“I remember her words, ‘Non vedrò mai la terra promessa.’”
Teresa’s mother had convinced herself that her husband would never arrange for her to join him in America, the promised land. Four years after her husband left them, their mother’s prediction that God would claim her first came to pass. She literally died of a broken heart, a congenital coronary condition.
Teresa sniffled. “We were…così giovani…too young to realize how awful Papà treated Mamma.” Refusing to add fuel to Teresa’s fire of indignation, Antonio shook his head in denial.
Barely teenagers at the time of their mother’s death, they had also been too young to fend for themselves. So, until he could arrange for their immigration to America, their father enlisted the help of their eldest sibling, a married sister who lived in the city of Palermo.
“Just be thankful for Nina.” He contemplated why she had agreed to house them, sardines packed tight in the tin can of a small apartment.
Before he had a chance, Teresa blurted what Antonio was thinking, “Papà never sent her the money he promised her, did he?”
“He probably forgot,” said Antonio, still feeling obliged to defend his father.
Antonio can be so naïve. Teresa propped a hand on her hip. “Well, at least we earned our keep.”
Nina had used the situation to her advantage. In compensation for the expense of two extra mouths to feed, she insisted that Teresa tend to her young children and Antonio stock shelves in her husband’s food market.
“I’m not sorry.” Antonio flexed his biceps. “The hard work helped me build these muscles. But you? What did you do besides play with the bambini or fool with Nina’s old sewing machine?” With a finger held up to his lips, he tilted his head to the side and lifted his eyes to ponder the answer. “Hmm, let me see.” He looked back at Teresa and snickered. “Oh, yes. You stuffed your face.”
Antonio’s ill-advised attempt to lighten the mood unsuccessful, Teresa’s cheeks flushed purple with anger. The nerve of him! I sewed the children’s clothes at a fraction of the cost that they charged at the negozi. She flipped up a hand. “It wasn’t all fun and games!” Considering the ramifications of all the food she gorged out of boredom, Teresa added, “ Besides, if I hadn’t gained weight then, I’d be invisible by now.”
“Invisible?” He looked her up and down. “Not quite. But I must admit losing all that baby fat does agree with you.”
Unappreciative of the backhanded compliment, Teresa pouted. “Thanks.”
“Hey cheer up! You seemed so happy the day we found out we were headed for America.”
Teresa lifted her nose. “Sì, contenta. I was thrilled that Papà finally made the arrangements.” She placed the back of one hand against her forehead and, knees bent, feigned a faint. “But nearly collapsed once I caught sight of this…” she pointed to a smokestack, “this deathtrap. I never thought we’d make it this far.”
“Come on, Teresa, you’re so dramatic. It’s not that bad.”
“That’s your opinion!” Teresa gave Antonio her back then spun around not two seconds later. “The very day we sailed off, I promised myself that I’d do all I could to help the relatives we left behind.” Teresa raised a fist in the air. “And I will! I swear it.”
“I’m sure you will, Teresa.” Antonio smiled. “You’re very determined when you want to be.”
Teresa expelled a forced breath, along with some of the bitterness toward her father. “Antonio, will you be able to pick out Papà in a crowd? After all these years, I’m not sure I’d recognize him…even if he spat in my face.”
“Now why would he spit in your face, Teresa?” Antonio laughed.
“Well, we’ll be a burden until we can earn a living for ourselves. And what if he has lady friends…amanti? We may get in the way.”
“You must be joking! È vecchio. Papà’s over fifty by now, too old to fool around with women.” Antonio chuckled. “Sono sicuro il suo uccello non vola. At his age, I’m sure his bird can’t even lift its head out of its nest.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Teresa suppressed a giggle. Let Antonio wonder if I understand. She figured her brother would be furious if he knew how many advances she’d dodged in the last year alone.
Antonio sobered. “Never you mind.”
Another wave knocked against the side of the freighter. “Think Papà will try to push me around like he used to when I was a boy?” Antonio paused and mustered some bravado. “He better not try or I’ll lift him up by his suspenders…toss him across the room.”
“Sure…sure. You say that now. Vedremo come sei coraggioso. Let’s see how brave you are after he knocks you off your feet.” Teresa laughed out loud, baring two black keys that blighted the ivory of her smile. When she realized she’d exposed a flaw, one that might hamper a future objective, she quickly covered her mouth. Frowning, she dreaded the possibility that, even in America, she might not be able to afford to have her cavities filled. How can I attract a rich Americano like this?
As the ship seesawed once more, the stowaway cat crawled behind the water bucket, curling into a queasy ball of fur.
Oblivious to anyone’s distress but her own, Teresa paled and clutched her belly. “Oh no, not again!” She turned away from her brother but, before she could make it back to the bucket, released a mouthful of stomach acid, barely missing the feet of a passing deckhand. His face twitching with annoyance, the sailor ran off to fetch a mop.
"Brava, Teresa, good way to scare off another man!”