In order to understand the bizarre circumstances in which Aleksa and I were fated to meet, you must first know the story of how my parents met.
In 1991, my father was a captain for Circle Line, the company that formerly operated the ferries that carry visitors to Liberty Island (where the iconic Statue of Liberty stands) and Ellis Island.
My mother was living with my great-grandmother at the time. Mafalda, affectionately nicknamed Mary, was an Italian woman with a fervor for wanderlust. Throughout her life, she took trips back to Amalfi — where she was born —and across the globe. Her home was garnished in the souvenirs of her travels: ceramic vases from Germany, geishas made of opal mosaic, even Polish tea sets.
And if not for Mary, who had her heart set on seeing the Statue of Liberty in 1991, who had urged my mother to take the trip with her to New York one Saturday in September — my parents wouldn’t have met.
And their story goes like this: My mom is a tourist boarding the Miss Ellis Island ferry. My dad is in the wheeling house, where the captain sits atop the shop. And from way up there, he sees some beautiful, dark-haired woman crossing the bridge from the dock onto his boat. Supposedly, REM’s hit song “It’s The End of the World As We Know It,” was playing on the radio. And if my dad was telling this story, he would unapologetically say it really was the “end of his world” — a world without my mother! My Dad sent down a deckhand to retrieve her phone number. But my mother — that femme fatale — sent his deckhand away with this message: “Why don’t I take your number instead?”
And that next weekend, my father drove from Brooklyn to New York to pick up my mother for their first date. Six months later, he proposed on Christmas Eve in Central Park. And they’re still very much in love today.
In 2017, I had applied for a lucrative fellowship that promised a travel fund for a creative project. I had my heart set on Ireland so that I could study Gaelic folklore. I had made it to the final round of interviews, but was ultimately rejected. “Don’t stress about this,” my sponsor had told me. “This fellowship is notorious for turning away freshmen. What they like to see is drive. If you apply again, they will take you. I’ve seen it happen many times.”
I did just that. In 2018, I applied yet again to the fellowship. This time, my heart was set on a different idea; going to St. Petersburg to study the methodology of Russian literature. To my sponsor’s shock, to my college’s shock, and to my own … I was rejected, again, after the final round. As disappointed as I was, there were new issues on the horizon, like, where was I going to live this summer? I had made no plans for residency since we had all hoped I’d be going abroad.
Panicked, I called my Dad to ask him what I should do. He suggested I spend the summer working at the Statue of Liberty “because I still have friends there who can get you a job.” And after a few phone calls, my summer plans were decided. I would be working in the gift shop at Liberty Island.
I did not know anything about Liberty Island at the time; I did not know that there was a foreign exchange program for students; I did not know the ferry schedule. So on my very first day of work, I was late. And I missed the Liberty Island ferry.
Without much choice, I had to take the Miss Ellis Island ferry instead. It still would take me to my destination, but the commute would be fifteen minutes more. I was stressed — I would be very late!
And waiting on the dock — also late for his first day of work — was a man with chocolate-silver hair and dark eyes. He was pale and he was tall and the moment I saw him, I felt strange. He was wearing a black v-neck and blue jeans with white Hogan trainers. It wasn’t that strange, unless you consider that I was wearing the same outfit (only they were white Nikes). It wasn’t a work uniform, it was just our outfits for the day. The first weird coincidence.
And this man turned to me and said something, like, “Are you here for orientation?” and I said yes, taking note that he had an unfamiliar accent. And he replied, “Nice. I missed the ferry,” while running his long fingers through his hair.
We spoke about our backgrounds as we waited for the Miss Ellis Island to arrive. His name was Aleksa, and he was from this country wedged in between a bunch of Balkan countries: Serbia. I was Kasey, and I was living in New York to go to college.
This next piece of this blog will be from an excerpt from a memoir I wrote in 2019. I never usually do this, but I think the memoir will convey the story better, and richer, than blog writing will:
As we start nitpicking at our backgrounds, the Miss Ellis Island ferry pulls into the harbor. It’s one of the first ferries of the day, so no passengers are disembarking. Instead, we watch as the deckhands slam the gangway off of its tracks and slide it down onto the dock. A deckhand wraps his hands around a thick, brown rope and pulls. The captain shouts, watch your step.
Aleksa and I step onto the steep, metal sheet and enter the gray first floor of the ferry. I walk past him, confused, and sit on a metal bench alongside the starboard windows. I didn’t understand what I was feeling. I’m on the Miss Ellis Island ferry, and there’s a man, and I feel something much more present than just my attraction to him. I feel like I’m not meeting him for the first time, and just the thought of it makes me feel ridiculous. As I move over to make room for him to sit down, his thigh touches mine for an instant— an instant that completely scares me. It’s not just deja vu, but it’s electricity … It’s like I am undoing the amnesia, like I am remembering him, like our history is coming back to me. Only today is the first time we’ve ever met.
“I’ve never been to Serbia,” I say, trying to distract myself. “What’s it like?”
“We’re very proud. I’m not sure how to describe it.”
“How did you get this job?”
“I applied for a work visa.”
“So you don’t live here, now?”
“No. My visa will expire, eventually.” My heart sinks. How could I read a situation so wrong?
“That … sucks,” I say, and I mean it. That moment where the atoms were pirouetting between our skin … — was it really that fantastical, I think to myself, or am I just smitten for his accent? The ferry continues to board with passengers. It’s May, and the air is warm and good for my dry skin. I don’t know what to think about other than the strange omnipresence he has.
“It does sucks,” he says a few moments later. “ I love New York. You guys are so open.”
“How could you live here?” I ask. I’m genuinely clueless about the issue.
“I have to figure it out. Most likely a long term work visa.” He crosses his arms, leans back, and smiles at me. “Have you been to Europe?”
“Some. I haven’t been to Italy,” I say. “And my family is from Italy.”
His eyes open wide. “You’ve never been to your motherland? That’s insane.”
He looks me up and down like he’s trying to understand me. “I’ll take you there,” he finally says. “I will take you to Italy.”
“Okay,” I say, knowing he’s joking. “I’ll go to Italy with you.”
Then he closes his eyes, and his eyelids act like translucent sheets against the sunbeams spilling into the ferry. I notice his short, black eyelashes, the tiny-spider veins around his sockets revealing he’s tired. I notice his shoes, which aren’t white and clean — the flaw of this compelling me to like him more. I like how he has a big dimple in his chin, I like that his fingers are long and his palms are wide. I like that he smells faintly of pine trees and sweat. And I like how his shoulders move with the boat’s motions: gently up, then down, then swaying, unaware that they’re doing so.
He doesn’t notice me noticing him; or maybe he does. With his eyes still closed, he responds, “you think I’m joking with you. You want to see Italy, I’ll show you Italy.”
Little did I know, then, but Aleksa kept his word. A few months later — when the leaves were browning, when New York was adorned with ghosts and pumpkins, when Aleksa’s visa had ended and he was back in Serbia — I called him one night. “So, what do you think about Italy?” I asked. Within minutes, he booked our hotels and our plane tickets. We would be reuniting in Rome.
If you ask Aleksa what happened next, he would say that he went to bed, woke up, and asked his father: “Do you know a good jeweler? Because I know the girl I want to marry.” And that afternoon, he bought a ring.
So, kind reader — that is how we met! On a boat one fateful day in May, with so much coincidence and symmetry, with the beginning of something that looked like love, with the previous history of my parent’s destined meeting, with all of New York’s tourists crowding us. All because we were late to our first day of work.
That American Girl