Even on Vacation, I Can't Shake Off a Sense of Impending Doom

Our trip out West generated more than its share of fears, and after two weeks I was dying to get back home.

Sayed Kashua
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An illustration of a motel.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Sayed Kashua

We got home at midnight, after landing in Chicago in the late evening and saying goodbye to my mother, my brother, his wife and their two children. They were going on to New York without us for a few days before heading back to Israel.

In the United Airlines terminal, as they waited for their connecting flight, my mother cried. I don’t like it when my mother cries. In fact, I don’t like farewells. I’m in favor of leaving without saying goodbye or see you later, or straining to find words that will never capture the right feeling.

“Why are you crying like someone died?” I found myself scolding her, with a smile, before shooing away the kids, who were having a hard time parting from their cousins next to gate B12. “Get going,” I snapped, hoping to abort the drama before it took on the trappings of a maudlin Egyptian movie. “We have a long trip home.”

After two weeks of traveling, I was longing to get home. Sometimes, when I’m desperate for something to happen, like getting home safely, I get scared that something terrible will happen — so I always try to minimize the desire. This trip generated more than its share of fears. The rides at Universal Studios really scared me; I skipped them and kept an eye on my younger son from a safe distance in the shade.

“Text me when you get off the rides, okay?” I said to my wife. “And keep an eye on the kids.” We didn’t want them getting lost in the awful crowds, which sometimes mean a wait of more than two hours in line, under the broiling sun, as giant fans spray mist into the air to relieve the heat.

But the kids loved it. They just ignored the swarms of people, the endless lines and the feeling of exploitation that starts with a $105 entry ticket, which doesn’t even include parking at $30 and hotdogs at $5 apiece.

I was also really worried about traveling along scenic Route 1, which all my friends recommended: the famous spectacular coastal highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco. “Give yourself two days for that part of the trip,” experienced travelers urged us. And they were right. The scenery was gorgeous. In Malibu, we walked along a pier into the heart of the ocean to have breakfast with bespectacled Americans and seagulls who have no fear of them. But my thoughts were focused on how safe the pier’s wooden foundations were, on whether expert American engineers check the safety there daily, monthly or yearly: Is there a signed inspection sheet with an expiry date, like in elevators — a small but reassuring note that whispers: Have no fear, no one will fall into the ocean, the pier is stable and the sun is shining?

I led the whole way, assuming the role of guide even though I’d never been there before. On top of all the advance planning, I began each morning by perusing maps, looking for tourist sites, checking out ratings, looking at prices, examining the number of stars — out of five — awarded places by reviewers, and making sure that we didn’t stop more than once a day at restaurants where the $ signs that signify the price on the travel sites exceed two.

With my family and my mother in one rented car, and my brother following behind, I tried to overcome the panic attacks that seized me on the winding mountain roads. Breathe slowly and regularly, I told myself, while putting one hand in front of the air conditioner vent every so often to dry the perspiration. Don’t speed, even if there are irritated drivers behind us who don’t understand why we are traveling way below the speed limit.

For sure engineers checked the roads, I told myself. For sure they set a speed limit that’s appropriate for making sharp turns and that’s lower than the actual speed at which the curves can be negotiated safely. I was so happy I was driving north, next to the mountains, and not coming the other way, with the car right above the cliffs. Just don’t lose control on the bridges; breathe deeply; keep your hands firmly on the steering wheel and try to take in this beautiful-but-hellish road.

“It’s so beautiful,” my wife said, as I drove on and avoided looking at the ocean. “Like the road to the Dead Sea.”

We’d reserved three rooms in a motel for the night. We found the reception desk after an exasperatingly long search amid labyrinthine grounds. It was also the entry to the restaurant and the bar. Some French tourists begged for a room, and the receptionist apologized wholeheartedly in a foreign accent I couldn’t place, swearing that he didn’t have a single room available. It’s high season, and a room that looks like something out of a B-movie motel sets you back $250 a night. A plain, cheap inn with coarse toilet paper that I thought wasn’t even made anymore. The kids thought it was the best motel they’d ever been to, even though there was no cable TV and the shower was primitive, with a plastic floor and a door that didn’t close all the way.

There was a karaoke evening in the bar. An older man in an Elvis getup, with matching sideburns and hairdo, was reprising “Love Me Tender.” But a beer cost $7. I’ve been doing so many calculations lately. Sometimes the enjoyment is dampened by financial uncertainty; sometimes I think my economic fears are unfounded. I try to remind myself that we’re working and earning a middle-class salary, and that this is the way everyone lives here. Still, when the sight of a homeless person breaks my heart, I always think how easily it could be me instead. I’m not sure why, but I don’t give homeless folks money — maybe because I’m in denial. The beautiful streets of San Francisco are lined with homeless people, and the children couldn’t help but look at them and ask tough questions for which I had no answers, other than, “Yes, it shouldn’t be like this.” Or, “There has to be a serious change.” Or, “A society that has homeless people is not a worthy society.”

Sometimes I envy my brothers, who returned to our hometown of Tira after their studies, because somehow in the homeland, no matter how poor you are you don’t become homeless. “Are you nuts?” my brother said after I’d shared my thoughts with him. “I just got a message that someone was shot nine times in the legs in our neighborhood. What Tira? What homeland?”

We arrived home last night, and I’m so happy to be back. My younger son cried, because the nose of the panda teddy he bought in Chinatown fell off. I promised to fix it in the morning, and was overcome with sorrow for not having parted from my mother in the way she would have wanted.