It was sort of surreal the way the whole thing unfolded. We picked up Grandma and Grandpa in Mom’s Honda Odyssey. Grandpa was wearing a plaid short-sleeved shirt tucked into khakis. He had some stubble on his cheeks which pricked when I kissed him hello. And Grandma looked better than I had seen her look in years. Yes, she was still in the wheelchair, but she was sitting erect, with it, her eyes watching. She smiled, called me tatala, which I think means ‘boy’ in Yiddish. Before they climbed in the backseat with me, an aide had them both turn and face their home—a house in one of those Twilight Zone communities where the same cactus sits on the same square of grass in each yard—as a way of saying goodbye. But the house never meant anything to them anyway. They had only spent the last ten years there. This wasn’t Czechoslovakia, or Ukraine, their childhood homes, the places they left because of the Nazis. This was just one of those retirement communities, the kind named after the things they destroyed in order to build them.
Dad was driving and Mom got in the back with me and Grandma to give Grandpa the front seat. I noticed they didn’t have any bags with them—not even a cane for Grandpa—but I didn’t want to ask why. It felt like the kind of thing I should have already understood, whatever it was we were doing. I had been in Hebrew school for a couple of years, so I was sure it was my fault I didn’t get what was going on; I was probably drawing the KISS logo or working on my lyrics during the section about what happened after the Holocaust. I knew we were saying a kind of goodbye, and I knew there wasn’t going to be a funeral or anything, but outside of that, nothing.
It was a long drive to wherever we were going. I kept nodding off and hitting the side of my head on the window, then jolting awake. Mom talked the whole time. I could tell she was really nervous. Dad was quiet, but he was always quiet, keeping his hands at 11 and 2 on the wheel. Grandpa looked straight ahead at the road. Mom was talking about growing up, basically going through whatever memory was in her head at that exact moment. It was like pouring water out of a big jug and onto the patio. Her hand was holding Grandma’s, hanging between the two bucket seats, swishing with the bumps on the road. The grocery store they used to own, the kosher butchery, the shame that Grandma and Grandpa’s other two kids, my two uncles, weren’t coming with us to say goodbye. I watched Mom squeeze Grandma’s hand a bunch like little pulses. Every once in a while Mom would ask a question like “Do you know what’s going to happen,” or, “Are you sure you don’t need coats” but no one would answer back. It really was like she was the only person in the car. I didn’t think I had the right to participate; I felt bad about not paying attention in class. I made a promise to do better, though I felt bad in advance for breaking that promise.
We must have been on the highway for hours. I kept dozing off, jumping up, dozing off. I kept trying to stay awake because I had just turned ten. But nothing changed. Not even the highway, which had these big beige walls that rose and fell like waves. Birds perched on them and palms peeked over the top.
Eventually we got off at an exit. It occurred to me that this was one of the longest drives I had ever been on, even though it was only like four hours. We usually just flew everywhere because there’s nothing really in driving distance worth going to, just more beaches and more retirement communities, places with names like The Falls or Snapper Creek or Flamingo City, though I might have made that last one up.
Dad pulled the minivan into this giant parking lot, a square like a mile wide. There were hundreds and hundreds of cars, and crowds worse even than Disney World. It was a dock or a pier, like a place where they ship those huge crates. We parked really far from the entrance and it took literally hours for Grandma and Grandpa to walk. Grandma was easy with the wheelchair, but Grandpa didn’t even have his cane, so he had to hold onto Dad’s arm for support and my shoulder, which I didn’t like because he squeezed too tight and his hand was like a talon.
People were everywhere, walking with their own old people, some slowly, but some really pushing it. The people seemed sad, but with that look that adults get, when you know they’re sad but you also know that they’re kind of happy about something, too. Like sad but what can you do. There wasn’t any pushing either, everyone was really polite. At some point there were ropes, and we started to file into lines that snaked back and forth. People in uniforms were smiling in a nice way, ushering everyone along, asking them kindly to form orderly lines. Everyone was polite and waiting their turn. We went through a small building with some security—X‑ray machines and metal detectors—and then on the other side there was the ocean.
Humongous cruise ships floated gently in the water. Dad said it was organized chaos. There were signs above each of the docks or piers with the names of different countries written on them. Italy. Moldova. Hungary. Estonia. Ukraine. Czechoslovakia. Lithuania. France. Croatia. Some I hadn’t even heard of before. We got to a desk and a man asked “Country of origin?” Mom touched Grandma and said Czechoslovakia, and Dad touched Grandpa and said Ukraine, but then Dad said, “But they’re happy going wherever, as long as they can stay together.” Then Dad touched Mom and smiled. Mom cried a little. The man gave a ticket to both Grandma and Grandpa and said, “Sure, no problem.” Then we moved to the side and Dad told me to say goodbye.
I looked around and everywhere there were people hugging old people and crying, and kids my age kind of standing back and watching. I made eye contact with a boy like two years older than me and he made a gun with his fingers and touched it to his temple and laughed. Then I looked at Grandma and Grandpa who were watching me. I didn’t want to kiss Grandpa again because of the stubble, but Dad nudged me forward with his hip and I kissed him anyway. I bent a little and hugged Grandma in her chair. They both looked at me. Grandma’s eyes were wet. They told me to be good and then said goodbye, and Grandma called me tatala again. I said bye back, but it didn’t occur to me I would never see them again. Then they turned toward a guy in a uniform who led them up this long ramp into the middle of one of the ships. I glanced back at Mom and Dad. They had their arms around each other and Mom was crying again, but also exhaling a lot, like she was really relieved. The ship’s horn sounded, echoing in my head.
Zachary C. Solomon is a Miami-born, Brooklyn-based writer and adjunct English lecturer. He holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from Brooklyn College and his work appears in Green Mountains Review, Full-Stop, Tablet Magazine, and Bookslut. He recently completed his first novel.