Watching Oksana

Aleksei, with his lambent, sea-scorched eyes and fault lines of scars and only new memories, sailed under frozen skies. He watched his laundry dry on ships’ decks making certain nobody stole it. He sailed in blistering heat, in terrible storms that swung even the flat bulk of a grain carrier like a toy. He was only frightened when he stared into the huge darkness of an empty hold.

Then for the first time he came to America. Seeing a newspaper, he found he knew English. This was in Buffalo where a bumboat pulled alongside his freighter and he bought toothpaste and the New York Times. He was wary of America. He assumed any women he met would have AIDS; he assumed there would be efforts to entice him into spiritualism or buying a revolver. The newspaper, though, challenged his ideas. He was fascinated by the advertisements, by black faces in pictures.

By the fifth time he had traveled through the locks of St. Lambert and Cote-Ste. Catherine, heading west through the snaked route of seaway and lakes, he had lost his surprise. True, it still felt odd to be sailing between countries too alike to fight, odd to be on a freighter that needed a second set of load lines for water that was fresh. (How, he still wondered, could vast seas with giant waves not be salt?)  But he had his own notion of America now, his own experience of it. His own places to go.

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