?Oh, one moment,? she said abruptly, reversing course. ?I will be right back.? Flashing an apologetic smile, she disappeared from the showroom, walking quickly across her workspace to the stairs that led down into the living quarters. Layla reappeared maybe three minutes later with another bag draped over her shoulder, sized somewhere between the purse and the suitcase. It was one of those reusable shopping bags made of canvas, and it mostly just contained snacks for the long journey ahead.
Leading the way to the door, she held it open for him with the luggage, then locked it once he was clear. ?I have not travelled by boat since I left Egypt.?
?It?s quicker than just staying on the bus but? not as expensive as a flight.? It was about half the cost, and though it caused them to spend more time at sea, Jeremy wasn?t in a place to pay for that sort of travel. Just getting there and back this way would have to be enough.
?Good idea,? he could spot a snack bag when he saw one. Once all of that was situated, he grasped her suitcase by the handle and began walking. He was excited-- he had to remember not to walk too fast.
She smiled, pleased that he was pleased, and then fell into step beside him. Or tried to, anyway, given his height and his excitement, Jeremy?s stride easily outpaced hers, and there were times she had to almost jog to catch up. ?It will be nice to see the sea again, I think,? she said at one point, thinking of the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean, the mysteries that were hidden beneath the Red Sea.
?Where I am from, there are two entire cities underneath the water,? she told him. ?One on the Nile, which is a very big river, and one in the ocean.?
?Oh? We have a few but? I didn?t grow up on them. We had a few rivers that would flood when the ice melted in the mountains,? it was nothing, of course, compared to the Nile. The flooding was only by a few feet,and the rivers themselves were not as broad. There were some that might have been comparable, but Jeremy had not seen them or grown up with them, they were as real to him as the Nile.
They waited at the bus station. Jeremy would say at times a few things about home, to prepare her. Layla would let him know where she related, sharing stories of a home and the parts of it that were similar to his own. The topic of homes and what they were like dominated conversation for the better part of three hours, at which point, he napped on the bus, his body leaned against hers since she had the window seat. Jeremy was considerably taller and heavier than her, it took some finesse to comfortably balance his body?s sleepy lean against her. At one of the stops they ate the food at a local diner which seemed to survive on patrons that were too hungry to argue and too short on time to have any other choice.
By the end of it, Jeremy thought his bones were always vibrating from the hours-long rumble of the bus ride. The usual slowness at disembarking left them not far from the pier. They were at the point where the other members of the bus splintered off. Some had arrived at their destination, some had other places to go and a handful were headed, like them, towards the boats.
?I forgot how long that bus ride was,? he could feel it in his back and bottom from having sat so long. His neck, from being rolled against her shoulder, ached. Jeremy rolled his head two to three times to loosen it before he shouldered his backpack and took her bag by the handle, ?I think that?s the way,? he nodded to the trail other bus survivors were walking towards the ocean, ?It?s supposed to be pier eight. I think.? He dug into the back pocket of his pants to confirm what the tickets said.
Layla had been on buses before, but never for so extended a period of time. She?d never been so still for so long, either: nine hours hadn?t seemed like an eternity in the abstract, but the reality of it was a different matter.
She?d done her best to commit the details of his homeland to memory, hoping she could keep the particulars straight and not do anything that would embarrass or shame him. She wanted so much to make a good impression, to make him proud to have her there with him. For the longest time, she couldn?t sleep, her body unaccustomed to the prolonged sustaining of the same awkward position. She read while Jeremy slept on her shoulder, carefully turning the pages so as not to disturb him. Eventually, the steady rhythm of his breathing, the warmth of his body where it pressed against her and the endless rumble of the bus? turning wheels lulled her into to something like slumber.
Her dreams were vivid, a chaotic jumbling of her native lands and his, the bold blue of the river Nile a brilliant streak slashed across the cool whisper of wind in the coffee trees.
It felt like she might never experience solid ground again when at last they emerged from the belly of the mechanical beast. Closing her eyes, Layla could smell the strong salt of the nearby sea when she breathed, and it brought on a wave of nostalgia so thick it nearly knocked her over. Swaying on her feet, the dancer stretched, coaxing aching muscles to cooperate with her just a little longer. Following the direction he?d pointed with dark eyes, she slipped one finger into the folds of the scarf underneath her chin and eased it along the curve of her neck, then nodded. ?Seems to be. That is where everyone else is going, at least.? She gave him a smile. ?I am glad to be away from the constant drone of that engine.?
?Just for a minute. I don?t remember the boat being very quiet.? With the smaller vessels the noise and vibration could be worse than a bus. At least it was different and there would be a pause for them.
?There,? he nodded, but the pier was empty, which caused his eyebrows to knit as he muttered, ?I guess they?re running a little behind. We?re not supposed to launch for another forty five minutes.? He was rambling the thoughts and details to her as they walked. The heat of the sun on the back of his neck was as refreshing as the air that shook off the lethargy that bogged down his legs. A few times during the bus ride he had gotten up, walking the aisle for some relief. Jeremy was used to being active, but walking at the downward slant towards the pier was more satisfying that the bus aisle. It was as if his body knew the difference.
There were other people around them, but it wasn?t crowded. As they approached the entrance he saw a man in a red hat taking tickets and pointing in the direction they should go like a concert usher. Jeremy?s eyes moved to the right where he saw a brightly colored kiosk, the umbrella used to shield the vendor from the sun a bright rainbow of colors.
?You want one?? he nodded towards it and smiled in that way which said he wanted it, but couldn?t seem to give himself license to do it unless she did.
?It is a less...cramped kind of loud,? Layla replied, her brows furrowing. She wasn?t sure she?d settled on the right word, and tried to indicate what she meant with gestures. Liftng her hands up, she held them flat, fingers straight, and pressed them together. ?...Cramped.? Musing, she tried another. ?Close? You know, when there are too many people in too small a space and the noises are all louder because of the echo?? Claustrophobic.
The engine on the boat could be loud, but it would be intermingled with the gentle roar of the sea, and the wind would carry some of the sound away with it as they moved. Layla was looking forward to being able to walk its planks, to seeing the land from its rolling boards. With any luck, the seas would be calm for them, the weather clear and warm as it was now.
Peering at the brightly colored umbrella, her dark eyes blinked in confusion, turning back to him expectantly.
?What ...is it??
?It?s something sweet,? he admitted with a smile, shedding his backpack so that it slumped to the ground. When it dropped, the movement was on the threshold of being too fast, as though the bag might bounce after landing. It didn?t. The bag took the fall like a hit on the chin.
?I?ve had some and I think you might like it. They?re really sweet but if we share one? I think you might like it.? His smile was for her, but he seemed more excited about whether or not it was a new experience than the ice cream having value. Jeremy bit his lower lip as he looked at her, gauging her reaction to the idea. She could be conservative, he tried not to push her too much but always, always, left that door open.
?Oh, they sell ice cream here?? Layla had tasted ice cream before, once, with Jeremy himself. They had shared a scoop of strawberry on their very first ?date?. Looking up at him as he dropped the backpack from his shoulders, she nodded readily, a smile curving her lips. ?I would share one with you again, yes. I think it is too sweet to have one on my own. Will it be strawberry again??
Her smile spread to see the look of anticipation on his face, though she didn?t immediately understand its origin. Lifting one hand, she gently smoothed a wrinkle in his shirt along his shoulder, where it had bunched up underneath the weight of the backpack?s straps. It was an excuse to touch him, more than anything.
?We could do that or something else,? there was a nod at the menu, ?most people like chocolate.? He noticed her touch, but his smile was brief because he was focused on the treat at hand. His smile suddenly broke his lips further as he said, with amusement, ?They have a coffee flavored one!? His eyes turned on her as if some secret joke had been made.
?You?ve had coffee before, right?? It occurred to him, then, that he had no memory of her drinking coffee, nor did it seem like it had been exotic to her in the time they had spent together.
?Coffee flavored?? This private joke was one that she actually understood, and the soft rush of her laugh was as much from the pleasure of having gotten it as it was the joke itself. ?We simply have to try that one, then,? declared Layla with a smile as her hand fell away from his shoulder. There was a nod of assent for his question, her dark eyes straying past him to the brightly colored umbrella stand once more. Its colors stood out against the deep grey blue of the ocean beyond, and perhaps that was the point. A beacon to distract weary passengers from what lay ahead, or perhaps behind, them.
?I have, but the coffee we have at home is not like the coffee that is here,? she turned away from her contemplation of the ice cream vendor to look up at him once more. ?And I expect it is not like what you have at your home, either.?
?It?s different,? he agreed, but it was from his own point of view, from how he had experienced coffee. She caught that, though, at the last moment and he smiled, nodding in a way that was more than just agreement. It was appreciation.
He turned from her to talk to the vendor, offering up some coinage for the ice cream. There was a brief discussion about currency and the exchange, and what a headache it was for him to sell at the port because of it. Jeremy smiled in an understanding way and took the ice cream cone. It was one scoop on a handmade (or made to look as such) waffle cone. He offered it up to her so that he could take their bags and continue the walk towards the pier.
?Where you are from,? he paused, his eyebrows coming together in a look of concentration before he continued, ?were you rich??
Layla was quiet during the exchange, smiling politely at the merchant when he glanced briefly in her direction though she never quite met his actual gaze. She accepted the waffle cone when Jeremy handed it to her, taking a step back so that he could gather the bags unhindered by her proximity.
His question took some contemplation to answer, her dark eyes thoughtful as they walked. ?I...suppose,? she said after a time, and the effort it took to formulate an answer had distracted her from trying the ice cream in hand. The day was hot, and it would begin to melt over her fingers before long if she wasn?t careful. ?Me, personally, no. But my father was -- is -- a well respected merchant with a large family, so he must be. I presumably would have been married to someone of equal or better standing, had I stayed, so? I guess so??
She shrugged helplessly, looking up at him as they walked with a little shake of her head. Her smile was apologetic. ?I have never really thought about it. I have never paid any mind to money until I came to this place.? A surefire sign that she had been.