Daniel Cowan knew well what it was like to be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. But it wasn’t loneliness he felt as he wended his way through the crowds on the deck of the S.S. Pretoria. Instead, he perceived his solitariness as conferring a kind of freedom. For once, he had an opportunity to be who and what he chose, unlimited by anyone’s prior knowledge. On this ship, no one knew about his past, nor did they care. They were concerned only with their own uncertain but hopeful futures.
He was headed for the ship’s bow hoping to catch his first glimpse of land although rumor had it that they wouldn’t reach Ellis Island and the Port of New York until the next day. Twenty-two years old and gangly, with wheat-colored hair, guileless blue eyes, and gold-rimmed glasses, he stood at least a head taller than most of those around him. Even stooping a little, as was his habit, he had an excellent view of his surroundings.
The deck was more crowded than he’d seen it in the two weeks they’d been at sea. The re-emergence of the sun, after three days of heavy wind and rain, no doubt had something to do with that. To his right, people lined the rails that ran along the sides of the ship from stem to stern. To his left, the upper-class decks rose like tiers on a wedding cake. Everywhere in between was filled with the tops of people’s heads, making the deck appear as impenetrable as a tree-covered mountain. Any movement from one part of the ship to another would require determination and patience. Daniel had both.
He forged a serpentine path, detouring around clamorous families who had staked out pieces of deck as if they were the front parlors of the homes they’d left behind. Darting children cut in front of him, forcing him to pull up short to avoid tripping over them. But he didn’t mind. With every delay, his anticipation grew. There was a current of excitement in the air and he felt it charging through him.
The sound of a crying child caught his attention. It came from a little boy planted like a small, stubby rock in the midst of streaming people. Daniel had never been able to pass by any creature in need and he was tempted to help. But even before he had taken a step in the toddler’s direction, a young man about his own age came along and scooped the child up in a big hug. Relieved, he resumed walking.
By now, he had come within fifty feet of the bow. It was even more crowded here with people jockeying for a spot that would afford an unhampered view. Searching for a way to get closer to the rail, his attention was arrested by the sight of a young woman perched on a box as still as a statute.
She was immersed in a book and clearly oblivious to the people around her as she rapidly scanned one page after another. Seeing her so completely absorbed, Daniel realized how he must often have looked to others — there, but not there — his mind, his self transported to a place and time created entirely by words on a page.
He tried to make out the title of the book. But a young girl who stationed herself directly in front of the reader with her hands on her hips suddenly blocked his line of sight.
“Lena,” the girl said loudly. There was no reaction.
“Lena,” she said again, louder. Still no response.
The girl cupped her hands around her mouth, took a deep breath, leaned in, and yelled. “Lena!”
Watching, Daniel could see it all play out on the young woman’s face. The abrupt collision of the real world with the one in her head and her obvious irritation when she realized who had interrupted her.
“What is it?” she said warily.
“Are you deaf? I’ve been saying your name over and over.”
“I didn’t hear you.”
“You mean you pretended not to hear me so you could keep reading.” The young girl said.
“What is it?” Lena said with practiced patience.
“You have to come back with me. We’ll be arriving in New York any minute and we have to get our things ready. Don’t you even care that we’re almost there? Don’t you care about anything besides that book?”
At the mention of the book, Lena’s annoyance seeped away and her gaze softened. Daniel knew that she was back again in the world in which she’d been lost only a few moments before. Her mouth curved to reveal a generous smile. It transformed her face, softening her angular cheekbones, punctuating her pointed chin with a dimple, and bringing balance to her wide-set eyes.
“It’s a wonderful story,” she said, her voice passionate, her face animated. “You must read it. It’s about a woman named Hodel who falls in love with a man named Perchick. He’s a revolutionary fighting to overthrow the Czar. And Hodel wants to fight alongside him. So they decide to get married and –“
“What kind of crazy story is that?” the younger girl interrupted. “A woman fighting? And the two of them deciding to get married without the help of a matchmaker? The whole thing sounds stupid.”
Daniel watched Lena struggle with the urge to make some retort, her face an easy read. But she reconsidered and instead smiled. “You’re still young,” she said. “You’ll feel differently when you’re older.”
“Well, maybe I am younger than you,” the girl said, thrusting her chin forward. “But at least I’m not a dreamer.”
As Lena’s smile vanished, Daniel recoiled inwardly at the barbed words. Variations of those same words had been hurled at him many times. He wanted to tell the rude young girl that reading was a gift, that books were to be treasured, and that there was nothing wrong with being a dreamer. While he debated whether to thrust himself into the conversation, Lena responded.
“Yes, I know. You’re not a dreamer. In fact,” she said with the barest hint of a smile, “I can barely imagine you ever having any dreams at all.”
Daniel had to stifle himself to avoid laughing out loud at the way Lena had turned the girl’s insult back on her without the youngster even realizing it. But at that moment, his presence was detected.
“What are you looking at?” the young girl demanded.
Heat flooded his face and he knew he was turning red as he always did when he was flustered. He opened his mouth to apologize for staring, but no words came to mind. So, he looked down and his glasses slipped down his nose. Hurriedly, he adjusted them. By the time he raised his head, they were no longer paying him any attention.
“Come on,” the younger girl said.
“Alright, I’m coming.”
He watched them as they wove their way into the crowd, a mixture of emotions swirling inside him. Chief among these was regret that he’d not spoken up in defense of Lena. Here he was dreaming of taking on a new identity but still allowing his old one to determine his actions. He would not let it happen again.
He resumed his journey toward the bow and almost at once, off in the distance, he saw another female. Someone he’d been dreaming about ever since he’d conceived of this journey. She was just as beautiful as he’d imagined. As the ship steamed forward, her outlines became clearer, the draped garb, the raised torch, the crown on her head.
A grin monopolized his face and he found himself wanting to share the moment with someone. Around him, fathers were hoisting children onto their shoulders so they could see the fabled statue. Next to him, two sisters stood, their arms around each other’s waists, their faces rapturous. On his other side, an elderly couple trembled shoulder-to-shoulder, whether in fear of the unknown future or in delight it was hard to tell.
A hand clasped his shoulder and he turned to see a gleaming smile creasing a worn olive-skinned face and twinkling dark eyes. It was Martelli, the dapper little Italian man who slept in the bunk directly opposite his. “Bella, no?” Martelli asked. He gestured toward the statue. “Signora Liberty e bellisima no?”
Daniel grinned. “Yes, very bella,” he said.
He looked back at the Statue of Liberty. He had been dreaming of this moment for so long. Now, he just had to pass the immigration inspection and be admitted into the United States. Everyone knew that America was the land of new beginnings and no one needed a new beginning more than he did.