“You don’t belong with us,” my father said. “You need to make your own way through life. Go have fun. Have lots of sex.”
It was 1987 when I returned to my hometown of North Miami, Florida after years of college and graduate school in the freezing Northeast. I packed my few belongings and moved south to defrost, and chill out. My parents allowed me to live with them while I searched for employment. When I found a solid position, they asked me to leave.
My dad repeated this mantra to me daily. According to him, this was the most important freedom a single person could have. He said, “Once you get married, it’s all over. You’ll only have sex with one person. Don’t do that until you’ve experienced everything.” I hoped that wasn’t said in regret, but rather through life’s experience.
My mother’s father, Grandpa Bob, lived in a high rise in Miami Beach occupied by hundreds of his contemporaries. In the 1980’s, the average age of most of the renters in the buildings on the lower end of Collins Avenue was seventy. Today, it’s the Art Deco area, fondly called SoBe, and a popular LGBT community. The restored buildings are colorful and architectural, sprouting neon lights and hip concerts. Back then, the streets were gray, and the buildings dilapidated.
Grandpa Bob was my only remaining grandparent, and I wanted to bond with him while I could. That Thanksgiving, Grandpa Bob invited me to a dance at his apartment complex. I quickly accepted, neglecting to tell him I didn’t know how to waltz or polka. I didn’t know what boogieing old people did with their bad hips and knees, heart conditions, and poor mobility, but I was sure I could physically handle it. I couldn’t have been more right in my limited assessment.
The following Saturday I left my apartment at five p.m. for the forty-minute drive, hoping to arrive early enough to spend a few minutes with Grandpa Bob before the dance. I pulled into the valet section of the twenty story Collins Avenue haven for retirees on fixed incomes and had to wait ten minutes for the lone attendant to exchange my keys for a ticket. He told me the dance was in the banquet hall on the first floor in the Bayview Room, and I proceeded there. I pulled open the door and walked through a portal of time.
Fifty or so well-coiffed heads, mostly gray and silver, turned to stare at this tall, young woman with wavy curls down her back, and wearing khaki pants and a flowered shirt. They must have thought I was lost, looking for a luau on the outside deck where my lei and Mai Tai awaited. The men were in suits and ties, and the women in long skirts with solid-colored demure blouses. Among the senescent partygoers were hand-carved canes, walkers with tennis ball glides, and electric wheelchairs.
I stepped back, with the intent of verifying the room name, when Grandpa Bob burst forth and rescued me.
“Hey, everyone. This is my granddaughter Susanna.”
The heads nodded as he walked me to a row of chairs on the left-hand side of the floor. He introduced me to too many women, ranging from seventy-five to ninety-five. Then he took me to the other side of the room where the men waited to greet me. Their ages spanned sixty-eight to eighty-nine, and they numbered a third of the ladies.
Before Grandpa Bob went to help the designated DJ for the night, he pointed his finger at me.
“You must promise, Susanna, that I get the first and last dance.”
I went to the snack table and took a water bottle, not knowing what the special drink mix in the bowl was. It could have been spiked with Metamucil or Imodium!
I munched on a carrot stick and surveyed the spacious room. There were no decorations as you would find in a prom or graduation party. There was the polished floor, the two rows of chairs, and three tables, one with the DJ and two with the snacks. The tables were covered with white linens, summing up the maximum the apartment building provided this forgotten group. The sides and back of the immense room were barren and dark.
I politely smiled at the sets of green, blue and brown eyes studying me. The proud ladies kept their seats, and shared whispered conversations. I jumped when the loudspeaker behind me blared. I moved to the chairs, hoping to observe the protocol, but was thwarted by a tug on my arm.
“Swing with your gramps.” He led me around, prompting me to follow his steps. His head was held high, and his hand pressed in my back, guiding me. I learned to avoid his toes and followed the box he outlined among the other couples. As we moved, he explained the dynamics of the group.
“The ladies wait for a gentleman to ask them to dance. After the gentlemen have chosen, the ladies pair up.”
I remembered the feeling in high school when no one asked me to dance. “I hope that the same ladies don’t get asked every time. That would be sad.”
“The men are fair. There are favorite women, but they ask different ones each time. They are very sensitive to their feelings. Most of them are widows. We do have a few married couples here, but they also alternate partners.”
He continued, “I remember your mom attended our dance once. She used to be a wonderful dancer, but after a few trips around the floor, she sat and only contemplated the group.” He twirled me around, surprising me, and regained his hold.
“Remind me to tell you about when your mom and dad met.”
I nodded, beginning to speak, but he bowed and left me. The music had stopped, and he went to ask a sitting woman to accompany him. I made my way across the room, but a tall, thin man blocked my path.
“Will you be my partner?”
“Of course.” He pulled me close. He smelled woody and spicy, not unpleasant but strong, like incense. I noticed his eyes, sunken between saggy eyelids. From a distance, his complexion looked smooth, but now I could see the lines and grooves, like a road atlas.
“Where do you live, young lady?”
“I live in North Miami.”
“I’m Martin from Baltimore. I worked as a pharmacist for almost forty-six years. My wife and I raised two wonderful sons. One’s a doctor and the other a lawyer.” He pushed me away and brought me back in close, keeping my left elbow above his, and grasping my right hand. “You probably aren’t interested.”
“I am. I’d love to hear.” No way was I going to deny his entreating eyes. I don’t think we moved more than ten feet from our starting position, so following him was a breeze.
“I graduated college and married my high-school sweetheart. We raised our kids in an upscale neighborhood, denying them nothing. It was the best time of my life.” A small tear escaped one eye.
I started to say how sorry I was, but I didn’t know what for.
“My boys left, leaving my wife and me to enjoy our golden years. We had dreams of traveling the world, but she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died two years later.”
I gasped. “I’m terribly sorry for you. That’s a horrible story.”
He pushed me out and back.
“I dealt with it. A few years later, I remarried.”
“So that’s good. Right?” I looked into his sad eyes.
“Good and bad. My sons became angry with me, calling her a gold digger when I changed the will to include her. You see, she was my maid.”
“Oh, I see.” I really didn’t. How can children alienate their only parent?
“They wouldn’t let me see my grandchildren. They had moved to other states, and didn’t call. We were married for twenty years until she passed away from breast cancer. My boys didn’t know until I decided to move here. They only found out because my grandson came to visit when he did an internship at the State Building.”
He nodded to a lady beside him, who winked.
“A few of the ladies have asked me to live with them, but I’m all done with that.”
“So, do your sons visit you now?”
“No. They helped me move here three years ago, and I haven’t seen them since. My grandchildren call once in a while.”
I searched his face for some contentment but found only regret. What would, could, he have done differently? Not provide them with everything, or sacrifice his happiness for their inheritance? I was looking at a man who tried to do the right thing and ended up suffering for it.
“I hope your sons realize their mistake.” I knew they wouldn’t.
The music stopped. He led me to the women’s chairs and held his hand out to an obese woman sporting a cane. She jumped up with the enthusiasm of a six-year-old. I took her spot.
I watched several of the dancing pairs limp and hobble in unison, while others stood tall and proud. After a few partner changes, a large hand appeared in my face.
“You dance vit me.”
I looked up to see wide-set eyes in a double-chinned face. She didn’t smile and looked like she never had. Her thin hair was cropped as if she went to a barber for regular cuts. I dared not decline her gracious invitation. As soon as I stood, she pulled me close and into the whirling bodies.
“My name is Nadia. Vat is yours?”
“Dees is very pretty name. I like. Your grandpa, he’s very good man. I come from Russia. You know vere dis is?”
“Of course. My father’s mother was from Kiev.”
Her lip curved into a slight smile. “Ah, Ukraine. Then ve are family.”
I prompted her. “Where did you live in Russia?”
Her beady brown eyes bored into me. “I vas born in Moscow, but ven I vas one, my father vas sent to Siberia—the Kirov region. I theenk he vould not join vith the army, and they relocated him. My mother vas pregnant and vould not leave him. My brother and sister were born there. Ve didn’t have much, but ve had more than most. My father vas a good hunter and could sell vat ve didn’t need. Ven I vas ten, my father vent vith his friends to trap the sables. They came back, but he didn’t. My mother got permission to end the exile and leave the country, and brought us to a boat to go to America. Ve had very little money or food, but ve had each other.”
I looked at Nadia with renewed respect. Her hard looks were minor compared to her hard life. I was grateful to have been born in the 1950s. I wanted to hear more.
“Things got better once you got here, right?”
She led me in a few circles, counting. “Vun, two, three, Vun, two, three. Yes, you dance very good.”
We settled into a rhythm, with Nadia leading better than most men I’ve danced with.
“Vell, the boat vas difficult. My sister vas six, my brother nine, and I vas eleven. Ve huddled in a cubby under the stairs, moving only to use the buckets. The stench and heat ver intolerable, and people got sick and died. Unfortunately, my sister was one. Ven she passed, they came and tore her from my mother’s arms. Ve know they threw the bodies off the boat. Ve comforted my mother, but she vas heartbroken and never recovered. Ve made it to America, hungry and poor.”
“Did you come through Ellis Island?”
“Yes. It opened in 1892, twenty years before ve came.”
I quickly calculated. She came in 1912 and she was eleven. She was born in 1901. It’s 1987 so she’s 86. I beamed at my math ability, my favorite school subject.
“You’ve been to this place?”
“Yes, Nadia. I visited the museum there a few years ago. They have a list of all the passengers who came through.”
“Vell, not all.”
“Really?” I thought she was mistaken but wouldn’t dare question her.
“My mother met a woman who let us stay vith her in New York. She vas vaiting for her brother and his family. She goes every day to see if he comes. After many months, my mother is working, and this lady is gone to the port. A man comes to the house with his wife and three children. When the lady returns, she is shocked but happy. She asks him why he doesn’t come in through the immigration inspection. He laughs. ‘First class, he says. Ve came first class.’ So, you see, if you have the money, you aren’t on that list.”
I made a mental note to check that, suspecting she was right. I was about to ask about her mother and brother when the music stopped.
“Spasiba, shana maidel.” She pinched my cheeks and backed away from me. I watched her masculine form disappear behind forming partners and headed for the door. I needed a bathroom break, and a mental one.
I returned refreshed and chatted with a few ladies by the punch bowl. I saw Grandpa Bob foxtrotting with one of the more agile women. He was in his element. He was popular and proud. I had never seen this side of him and wondered if anyone in our family had. We were used to a lonely, sad old man, who sat at the head of the dinner table, clanking his dentures, and sipping a schnapps.
A thin man with a marked limp approached. “Would you make me a happy man and dance with me?”
I wondered if he could, and hesitated.
“I’m fine. It’s only a Trendelenburg lurch.”
“I’ve never heard of that dance.” I took his hand and shuffled on to the floor.
He laughed. “No, child, it’s a condition in my hip. The abductor muscles have atrophied, and it causes me to walk funny. It doesn’t hurt.”
I chuckled nervously. “You sound like a doctor.”
“I am. I was. Many years ago. Dr. David Kaufman at your service.” He led me to the center and spun me, then pulled me close. I could smell peppermint masking a hint of gin. His steel blue eyes stared into my soul. What was he searching for? I kept his stare, forcing him to break first. His face softened and I thought he might cry.
“You look like my daughter would’ve at your age. She would have been a great beauty.”
“I’m sorry.” Here I go again, apologizing for something I knew nothing about.
“Why? I lost her long before you were born. You see, she was born in Germany in 1941. When the Nazi’s came for us, she was two. They took us to Dachau in trains, where my wife and daughter went to the women’s camp. I entered hell in the men’s. I was only twenty-three and had recently finished my studies in philosophy. I was to be the next Socrates or Aristotle. I ended up only a man with lingering dreams. Two years and three camps later, and weighing half what I used to, I was liberated.”
I faintly heard my name.
“Hey, Dave, don’t talk her ear off. Susanna, last dance is coming up. Don’t forget it’s mine.” Grandpa Bob’s partner pulled him away.
I turned back to Dr. Dave. “What happened to your daughter and wife?”
I think he would have cried if he had any more tears.
“I’m told all mothers of young children were taken to the showers upon first arrival in Dachau. Some handed their children over to older women, who were also selected out to die. I know she wouldn’t have abandoned our daughter. When I was liberated, I joined the community
at Bad Reichenhall, a displaced persons’ camp, after reconciling myself to the loss of my wife, daughter, parents, uncles, aunts and cousins. After about a year, a group of refugees traveling to the ports in Italy in hopes of boarding ships for America, passed through. Among them was my former neighbor, Ibby. She had lost her family, including two young sons. She had seen my name on a survivors’ list and came to see me. It was one of the great joys of my life, to see a familiar face.”
“Did she go to America?”
He spun me around a few times and refocused on my face.
I repeated my question.
“Oh, Ibby. Right. She tried to say goodbye, but I pleaded with her to consider me as a travel partner. That was impossible as we weren’t related, so I proposed on the spot. We found a rabbi and were married within two hours. She went to America, but with a new, damaged husband.”
I wondered how that worked out. They were barely acquaintances. How did these two injured, penniless souls find the strength to start over?
I noticed his eyes drifting away. “You did it. You made it here and became a doctor. You should be very proud of yourself.”
I repeated my statement.
“Oh, right. Ibby and I worked hard. Once I became a doctor, I let her follow her passion. She loved to paint. She created a world of watercolors, acrylics and oils along the walls of our home, until she fell under the spell of Parkinson’s disease. I lost her after forty-eight years. They were amazing, happy years.” His steel blue eyes softened. “And then I retired and moved here.”
I looked around the room at the aged creatures. Their movements were a snail’s pace compared to two hours ago. There was no twirling or spinning anymore, simply bodies shifting from space to space. I stepped on Dave’s foot.
“Sorry. I guess I’m kinda tired.”
“Me, too,” he whispered in my ear as the music stopped. He sniffed my hair and adjusted a wandering strand. “Thank you, my dear.”
Was he talking to me or Ibby?
The DJ called out. “Last dance.”
I looked for Grandpa Bob, knowing he owned the first and last dance. Out of nowhere, he appeared before me.
“Thanks, Dave, I’ll take her from here.” Dave stepped back and disappeared like a bottle thrown into a river current of bodies.
“Did you enjoy this evening? Everyone loved you.” Grandpa Bob proudly beamed down at me, although his shoulders slumped a bit more than they had a few hours ago.
“Gosh, Grandpa, it was wonderful. I never realized how sheltered my childhood was. My parents were overprotective, and my father doled out chores and rules. He still wants me to guide my choices by his advice.”
“Ah, your father. He is the product of the new life my friends and I embraced. He didn’t suffer our wounds, but our scars. When your mother met him, grandmother and I didn’t approve. Your mother was athletic and popular. He was penniless, and hungry in his career and sexual appetites.”
I blushed. “He keeps telling me to have sex with anyone and everyone.”
“I hope you take that advice with caution. It’s probably his biggest regret in marriage— only having one partner.”
“Why didn’t you forbid my mom to marry him?”
He pursed his lips and shook his head. “You’ll learn when you have children. You respect their decisions and throw your support behind them.”
We moved in slow motion among the couples. The room had darkened, and the air conditioner must have been turned up few degrees as I felt sweat tickle my armpit. I caught the scent of cigar smoke off a passing jacket. After a minute, I returned my gaze to my grandfather’s face. My heart sank and I held back a tear.
“I don’t want children, and I don’t want to get married. I hope that doesn’t disappoint you.”
“Susanna, dear, you could never let me down. I respect your decisions.”
I searched his perspicacious blue eyes. Grandpa Bob understood me, and my mood brightened.
We threw our heads back and laughed. During our outburst, the music stopped. Faces turned to stare, which halted our final dance.
“Please help the women clean up. I need to help the DJ.” He walked right and I moved left. In twenty minutes, the hall had cleared. Grandpa led me to the valet.
I looked around. “Where did everyone go? It’s not even nine yet.”
His smile didn’t waver. “We have our calls to make tomorrow morning. We need to rest.”
“What calls? It’s Sunday.”
“We each have a list of residents to call every day. If a person doesn’t answer after three tries, we do a welfare check. You know, just in case.”
“That’s reality.” My car arrived. “Next month we have another dance. You’ll come?”
I hugged him and kissed him on the cheek. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
I never got the chance. Grandpa Bob didn’t answer his calls a week later, and with him went countless dreams of whirling and mesmerizing storytelling. I was comforted knowing I had that last dance.
At his funeral, I stood by his casket. Was that music? I looked up to the skies. Ah, maybe there were dances in Heaven, and I bet Grandpa Bob wouldn’t miss a single one.
Dr. Barbara Needell Preslier is a 1979 graduate of Colgate University in Hamilton, NY, and a 1986 graduate of the Goldman School of Dentistry in Boston, MA. She practiced general and forensic dentistry in South Florida for over thirty years. She currently focuses on her writing career and lives in Monument, Colorado.