by Emma Greenberg
“So your mom told you about the new houses?”
“Yup.” I lunged too aggressively for the volume control and my seatbelt tensed and slapped me back into my seat. The second verse of “Livin’ On A Prayer” blasted from the speakers.
He reached for the dial and turned it down slowly, eyes still on the road.
“What did she tell you?”
I shrugged and clenched my teeth. “Not much.”
“They’re only a few minutes away from each other, we’ll all be close by.”
I had been playing 80s music in the car since I got to boarding school the year before—before that, actually, after I had visited for a night in ninth grade and all of the girls on Hall II played it from their laptops as they got dressed for a dance or geared up for a field hockey game. By now I knew all the lyrics too, but Bon Jovi’s hopeful words and electronic guitar solos suddenly sounded idealistic and whiny. It made me angry. I skipped to the next song, the next, the next—they were all annoying. I switched to the radio.
“I think you’ll like the new house. You’ll have to share a room with Molly, at least for now, but you can pick out your new wallpaper and everything.” I felt him glancing at me, but I kept my eyes on the dashboard, focused on finding a station. “I know you were sick of that floral one your mom picked out when you were eight.”
“I like that wallpaper.” I found a station playing some angry girl song—Pink or Gwen Stefani or something. It wasn’t perfect, but at least it was angsty.
“I think you will have your own at your mom’s though.”
I hated how he had started saying “your mom.” He had always referred to her as “Mommy” when he was talking to my siblings or me, then “Mom” as we got older. But over the past two years he had started saying “your mom,” the way any stranger might refer to her. My mother still referred to him as “Daddy.”
“So we haven’t figured out the exact schedule yet, but Molly and Jack will go back and forth between the houses every few days—your mom and I will split the week. But it will be flexible, of course, whatever works for you guys. When do you come home next?”
“Sometime,” I said through my teeth. But I meant never. Now that they were selling the beach house too, the one thing left from before they separated, there was no home to return to whatsoever.
“It won’t be that different from the way it is now, Sea. It’s just finally… official.”
The car slowed as we pulled into the line for the ferry. My father lowered his window to hand a ticket to the attendant. Icy air poured into the car.
“It’s gonna be a rough one,” said the bearded man. He rubbed two dirty ski gloves together after punching a hole in the ticket. “I suggest you stay in the car tonight. The wind might blow that one overboard.” He nodded towards me.
“It will be an adventure,” my father replied, looking over at me. “We’ll be okay, she’s a brave one.”
I reached into a bag at my feet and pulled out my aviators, even though the sky was gray and on the verge of dusk. It would be dark by the time the ferry arrived in New London an hour and a half later. I put the sunglasses on deliberately as the car inched towards the ferry.
“Looks like it finally might snow,” my father offered. His hands held the steering wheel casually. They looked pale and in need of hand cream. “Although you’ve had snow at school for months, haven’t you. Maybe we’ll just have to come visit you to go sledding! I’m sure Molly and Jack would love that.”
I stared straight ahead through the streaked windshield at a black Volvo station wagon in line ahead of us. Stickers on the window boasted PROUD YALE MOM and ANDOVER FOOTBALL. I squinted, trying to figure out if I knew the shaggy-haired boy in the car. I hoped I didn’t.
“You excited to get back to school? I can’t believe it’s already been two weeks.” My father’s voice was annoyingly bright.
“Has it only been two weeks,” I said into my scarf. The bearded, gloved man beckoned us towards him and my father eased the car onto the boat. We moved forward towards the Volvo until one of the gloves gave a thumbs up. My father put the car in park. One of the gloves knocked on my window and I pushed the button to roll it down. I shrunk towards the center console as the biting air again cut through my fleece.
“You folks can keep the car on ‘til we get moving, but then you’ll have to shut it off. I know it’s cold.” His lips disappeared between his rusty mustache and beard as he pressed them together tightly. He shrugged. “Policy.”
“Got it, thanks,” my father said loudly. The weathered face disappeared as I rolled up the window.
“We might have a blanket in the back,” my father said, opening his door carefully so as not to scrape the car next to him. He returned from the trunk with a few sandy towels.
“No blanket but these might help a bit,” he said, handing me a faded red and white striped towel.
“Thanks,” I said, shoving the towel by my feet next to the bag. He tossed the others into the back seat. Some leftover grains of sand hit the leather with a hiss. An old Sugar Ray song came on.
“Remember this song?” my father asked, turning up the volume. I noticed I had started singing quietly, out of habit. I stopped.
“Who sings this again?”
“What ever happened to that guy?”
“Don’t know.” I tried to shrug, and noticed my shoulders were already tensed towards my ears. I lowered them.
A foghorn let out a low, loud bellow and the boat began to move slowly. The bearded man walked up and down the aisles, miming an exaggerated key turn as he peeked into each car. My father nodded and mouthed “Okay,” and cut off Sugar Ray mid-verse. The car grew cold almost immediately.
“Want to go upstairs before it gets too choppy? It might be warmer up there.”
“Maybe they have hot chocolate. Want me to go see?”
“Okay, I’ll be right back.”
I looked away as he got out of the car. My window was just inches from the car next to me. A dark haired man sat in the driver’s seat. He was turned around towards the backseat. I could only see the back of his head, but I assumed he was making funny faces based on the giggles coming from two little girls strapped into car seats behind him. I leaned forward so I could see around the father. A woman in a puffy black coat typed furiously on a Blackberry. Her blonde hair hung loose by her face, hiding what I pictured were furrowed eyebrows and piercing eyes. But when she lifted her head, I was surprised by how relaxed her freckled face looked. She turned towards her husband, and her eyes landed on me. I sat back quickly but she gave me a brief smile before turning towards her laughing girls in the back. She reached back and gave one a tickle. Her husband pulled her head towards him and gave her a kiss on the side of her forehead. The action was so seamless, even though they were twisted around in their seats: he must have done that all the time.
“Success!” I reared around as my father slid into his seat, balancing two hot chocolates against his chest with one hand.
“Thanks,” I said, reaching for one of the paper cups. I held the cup between my hands before opening it, thankful for the warmth.
“No marshmallows, but at least it’s something,” my dad said, peeling open a section of plastic lid and blowing into the cup. “Careful, it’s hot!”
We sat in silence for a few minutes as we drank our hot chocolates. I turned towards my window again, but I could no longer see into the other cars—it had gotten dark.
“It’s starting to get a little rocky,” said my father as a few drops of hot chocolate escaped from the opening in the lid and onto his scarf. He brushed them off with a frown. I could feel the duffle bags shifting in the trunk as the boat moved over some waves.
“You don’t say,” I said, surprising even myself with my caustic tone. Silence hung thick in the dark car.
“We’re all going to be okay, you know.” My father turned towards me, but I kept my eyes facing forward. It was now completely dark, but my sunglasses were still on.
“I’m fine.” This time, my voice sounded so bitter it scared me.
“It’s better for all of us, for all of you. It doesn’t mean we don’t love each other—your mom and me, I mean. And we both love you and Molly and Jack so much. It’s just been a tough period, and your mom and I—”
I had already slammed the door and was walking stiffly between the cars, then jogging, then running. I heard another door slam, assumed it was my father. Icy, salt air whipped strands of hair across my face. I brushed past the bearded man and heard him call “Where you goin’?” from behind me. I lunged up the steel stairs two at a time, until my boot slipped and I came to a halt as my chin hit the cold metal. I reached for the banister to pull myself up, but my body felt overwhelmingly heavy. I let myself collapse against the hard stairs. I lifted my face a few inches off the stair, touched the bottom of my chin. Sea spray and tears soaked my cheeks. I buried my face in my arms on the stair.
“Are you okay?” My father’s voice pierced through the loud wind as he bolted up the stairs.
“No, I’m not okay,” I said into my arms. “Leave me alone, I want to be alone.”
But I let him help me to my feet and down the stairs. We moved slowly back towards the car, and I fell heavily into my seat. My father wrapped a towel around me. He walked around the car and got back into his seat.
“We’re all going to be okay,” he said, starting the car.
The foghorn sounded.
Image credit:Emma Greenberg
Emma Greenberg grew up in New York City and the East End of Long Island. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. She is a regular contributor to Rolling Stone, The Last Magazine, and Policy Mic. “The Ferry” is an excerpt from her upcoming novel about a teenage girl at a New England boarding school. She currently lives between Philadelphia and New York.