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10 - Worlds Collide

Her cheeks were the color of her tiny mobile. I thought she was trying to destroy it, holding it in that death grip. She was putting out enough infrared to make me sweat. "Ah, Lenna, you okay?"

"It's from my best friend." She was perched on a stool beside me at the custom salad-bar in Mandarin Plaza. "She is saying to me, 'I feel now, as if you are dead.' "

Elena Ivanova and others are shocked by something on Kyiv Ave Kreschatik
Kyiv's Kreschatik Street was closed to traffic on Sundays, turning the city's main street -- including Maidan (independence) Square -- into a huge, human arena. The experience was often dazzling, and more often than not, shocking. Here, Elena and bystanders are photographed experiencing one of those moments.

"Your best friend! Krikey, what did you do to her?"

"What you think? I told about you."

"Uh huh, I seem to have that effect on people around here. It's a real ego boost."

"Not just about you. About wanting to be with you." A furtive glance. "I told that mother was not wanting me to not be with Dima. So, Tanka phoned to mother to side with her."

"Side with her?"

"Give her sympathy. Offer help."

"That's nuts! Nuts, as in, crazy. This is your best friend? Did you tell her you were happy?"

"She said, I can't be happy if I make others unhappy. That I am egoistical girl. Terrible, what I am doing, what I have done." Elena thought for a moment. "Done to Dima, to my mother, my family, to my friends, to her. They must to live with the stain of what I have done. The shame..." Elena trailed off. She was already composing a reply on her mobile. Thumbs flying over the minuscule keypad with the blinding dexterity of a micro sushi chef.

"Hold the phone!"

Political rock concert in Kyiv
Political rock concert in downtown Kyiv

She cocked an over-plucked eyebrow. "I am holding it." Then dove back to the keypad. Inches from her face, her eyes crossed, nostrils flared, thumbs working the tiny thing in her cupped palms like a third grade teacher performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the classroom hamster.

"That means, stop! You're going to dignify her indigence with a reply? You're dead to her. Forget her."

Elena got that deer-in-the-headlights look. She really had a hard time with my good-old, down-home, common sense approach to things. I tried to explain. "They do this. Then you do that. Someone doesn't want to see you happy, then they don't really love you. Ta-DA! Problem solved -- forget about em."

Nothing was that easy. Try as she might, she couldn't end toxic relationships with one decisive move. She had been hard-coded to take whatever crap they dished out. In some twisted way she felt like she deserved it.

"What can you say to Tanka that you haven't already?" I prodded.

She stared at the tiny display.

"Really, you are trying to convince her that you aren't bad? You are going to make excuses? Explain yourself... As if you need to. Forget about her."

The salad girl -- a suspiciously blonde, Ukrainian maiden, right down to the embroidered apron -- gently interrupted. Our take-away, ten-kilo, all-vegan, ultra-deluxe salad was ready.

"Dee-ack-oo-you." I parroted the Ukrainian word for thank you and passed her my credit card.

Elena cringed. She hated my bungling attempts at Ukrainian or even Russian for that matter. The truth be told, she lived in a state of constant shame. All the while, envious of my couldn't-care-less what others thought, bad attitude.

Kyiv Mandarin Plaza entrance marquee
Mandarin Plaza's entrance marquee, Kyiv

* * *

Elena's phone rang. "Da! On the way, Mama!" Like usual, we were running late.

Frankly, it was Elena doing the running -- like a mistress to her lover. A creepy mad dash to Kyiv's central train station. I was reluctantly in tow.

The subway shuddered to a tooth-loosening stop. The doors wheezed open and the usual subway stampede commenced. I knew we were waltzing into a trap. It was so blatantly ham-fisted it had to be a sneering message in itself. The telephonic abuse tapered off, then out of the blue, Elena promises me, "Mama is sorry. She is coming to Kyiv to meet the love of my life and to wish us well."

Common sense screamed at me, "This is wrong!" But so what? Abandon Elena and run like hell? Play all passive-aggressive, and add to the ocean of hurt she was diving into?

At half past ten, it was darker outside in falling snow than below ground in the subway.

"Blin, Meg! We are half an hour late. Poor Mama."

Kyiv's Central Train Station Metro station surface entrance
Kyiv Train Station subway entrance. Not taken at the time of the assault.

Clots of protesters milled about, half-heartedly waving Soviet banners. Those not leafleting disinterested passersby, hopped from foot to foot to save their extremities from frostbite.

Kyiv Central, like most Soviet train stations, consists of miles and miles of switching yards, maintenance sheds, factories and even power plants. From this steel lashed landscape, sixteen tracks serve passengers. A cement, barn-like monstrosity -- and the myriad of incongruous additions it sprouted over the years -- provide a terminal for the human cargo.

This dystopian, post apocalyptic landscape put my nerves on edge. However, dragged along by a somewhat crazed Russian, the feeling that I'd woken up trapped in Kafka's nightmare was stronger than ever.

Hoods and collars pulled up, Elena set her sights on the terminal's main entrance. "Come on!" She yanked me toward a row of doors labeled CENTRAL. The wind was coming up fast. Micro-flurries whipped blowing snow into a veritable blizzard. It lent credence to my misguided assumption that meetings and joyful reunions ought to take place indoors during life threatening weather events. But no, not so for Elena's mother.

Elena skidded to a stop. "Etta Mama!"

We were only half way to the terminal. I squinted through blowing snow, saw nothing. "Move! It's freezing."

Elena resisted.

Then I saw it, a lone, fireplug-like figure. Way, way out in the distance. Waving it's stubby, outstretched arms -- Up. Down. Up. Down. Freaking codswallop! An inflatable yeti? Animatronic fun house clown? The Michelin man? Whatever it was, it was out there all alone, surrounded by windswept passenger platforms.

"What the...!? Is that her?"

Elena thought so. "Maaaa maaaa!"

Nothing. Just that slow-mo, arm oscillation. Hundreds of meters from any indoor space, not a train or human being in sight.

"Oh Yeah, this is nuts." I nudged Elena toward the terminal. "She can meet us inside, you know? Where it's not snowing! And there are, like... people. It was like trying to uproot a mighty oak. "

Kyiv's Central Train Station passenger terminal, main hall
Kyiv's Central Train Station passenger terminal, main hall

"No! Mama wants meet us. We go to her."

Elena hauled me toward the western pedestrian tunnel, an unheated access way below the deserted tracks and platforms. In the gloom, we skidded on patches of ice we couldn't see in the anemic daylight from the stairwells.

Mama appeared in silhouette at the bottom of one.

Elena rushed toward her. "Mama, oh Mama..."

Mama shoved past her daughter. She turned her back and started swinging her ass at me. Damn, that was weird!

An Ankylosaurus encounter in a pedestrian tunnel was absurdly disarming. Hilarious. Until a crazed vagrant launched at Elena from another stairwell.

Ten years later, in her book, Talking to the Moon, Elena described it: Looking like scenes from a documentary film about the life of hyenas. She was in complete shock. The two people she loved unconditionally -- mother and father -- were destroying a trust built up over her lifetime. Nothing made sense to her.

I thought it was a mugging, until the hobo had Elena in a body-lock and was dragging her away. What I assumed was Mama kept up that weird ass attack on me. Screeching over and over, "Go away! Go away! Go Away!" in Russian.

Elena yelled from the mugger's embrace, "Meg! It's my father!" Then she tried defusing the situation with pithy niceties. "Lovely to see you... This is Meg... Have a nice trip? Can we show you around? Thank you for coming."

Anti-Europe protest at the Ukrainian Central Election Commission Building on Boulevard Lesi Ukrainky
Pro Russian, anti EU supporters. Generally, not the kindest, happy-go-lucky, warm-and-fuzzy sort of mob.

It didn't work. The mugger growled, whipped Elena around to keep her and I from making eye contact. The look on his face terrified her. She saw such loathing and hatred she suddenly feared for my life. "Meg! Go home!"


Mama whirled to face me. "Go away!" Then to Elena, "Shut up!"

Fired up, Papa twisted Elena's arms and slammed her into the wall.

It didn't silence her. She wanted me out of that dark tunnel devoid of witnesses. Out of harm's way. "Home, to our flat. Please, Meg... I'll be all right. They just want to talk, then I will be back home."

Elena's plea tore at me. I was locked.

Papa tore at Elena's hyper-flexed joints, dragging her deeper into the tunnel. He inflicted pain every time she spoke. Mama was getting hoarse, but still swinging and shrieking to beat the band.

"Meg, go home! You need to go. Wait for me in our flat. I will be..." Elena choked, pain taking autonomic priority.

They were beating Elena to get at me! I was frantic. For two weeks I watched a determined but fragile -- and absolutely terrified -- human being come into her own. Cram as much discovery, freedom, and even expression into every second she had. What let them do this, crush this spirit? They were family! My western rule-set was wiped out by this collision of worlds.

Papa manhandled Elena deeper into the tunnel, but they didn't let up. Following Mama's orders and getting out, might mitigate the violence toward their daughter. I turned and ran. Elena's screams hollowed me out. I hated myself for bringing this nightmare down on her. I encouraged her to trust herself, to follow her heart. She grew bold at my insistence that she steer her own course, stand up for herself.

Bollocks! What had I done? If only... I wanted to lie down in the snow and freeze to death. If only I hadn't come to this wretched train station maybe Elena wouldn't have either. If only I hadn't come to Kyiv. If only...

Russian leaning supporters ready to bust some heads
Those supporting closer ties with Russia weren't a kind, open minded, fun loving, bunch.

* * *

"Passport!" Mama's face was inches from hers. "Your passport. Do you have your passport with you?" They were dragging her toward a McDonald's restaurant. She wasn't really sure of anything by then. Focusing on the pain from her injuries kept her from vanishing completely. Faceless people passed by. If they looked, they turned away. The freedom she found in Kyiv was being taken from her. That much, she was terrifyingly aware of.

Kyiv's Central Train Station exterior layout
Kyiv's Central Train Station exterior layout. The passenger terminal is to the left, the subway station's surface entrance is in the middle of the frame. Between the passenger terminal (on the left) and the subway station entrance (in mid frame), is the entrance to the western pedestrian tunnel, blocked from view by people and objects. The McDonald's restaurant, where Elena was held, is to the right. Not taken at the time of the assault.

* * *

McDonald's was about half full. Diners, weather refugees, students and the unspeakably hip would have seen a crazy woman and a strung out bum wrestling a wrecked young woman up to the second floor. The diners quickly made room but nobody left. This was better than TV!

Papa spotted a hastily vacated corner table and steered Elena toward it. Without letting go, he swept errant fries, condiment packs and wrappers to the floor, then shoved her into a flimsy plastic chair. She was hemmed in between two walls, the table, Mama and himself.

"We're all spent out. Buy us some food." Mama said.

Insolvency and starvation didn't add up for Elena. Especially as she was pinned down, going nowhere and not particularly hungry.

"Get some food." Mama repeated.

Puzzled, Elena reached slowly for her handbag.

Mama snatched it from her. "Father will go with you." She dug through the bag, pulled out some cash and shoved it into her daughter's palm. "I will keep your bag here in case you try something."

Elena knew the trap had sprung. She just didn't know what it was until she and Papa returned. Smirking, Mama gave back the handbag. Her phone! She yanked open an internal zippered compartment, found her tiny mobile, palmed and pocketed it with relief.

Then, the deepest, most inner compartment in her rugged travel bag, the securest part that held her most prized possession was open! She would never leave its zipper open, not even a millimeter. That's how she knew she was fucked. Her passport -- inconceivably hard to get for a Russian -- was gone.

Anti-Europe protest at the Ukrainian Central Election Commission Building on Boulevard Lesi Ukrainky
Pro Kremlin, anti-European integration protest in front of the Ukrainian Central Election Commission Building on Lesi Ukrainky Boulevard.

"What are you doing to us?" Mama demanded. "Do you consider us at all?"

The empty passport pocket beat decades of indoctrination back into a dark corner of Elena's psyche. "What am I doing to you? I just want to be with Meg." Realizing too late, those were trigger words. She flinched.

But the blast came from her vegetative father. "Oh, how stupid! She wants to be with Meg! Shut up about this Meg!" He glanced at Mama for approval. "I will not hear of it ever again! Can you not see? She is a criminal. Yes, a criminal! Your sweetheart, dearest Meg is a criminal. We will report on her to the Ukrainian police, to the Russian militia, to Interpol! Got it?!" Glaring at Elena, he slid a sheet of paper from a tattered satchel.

"Yeah, so?" Elena knew then that they hacked her formatted hard-drive for the grainy photo of me.

Papa wasn't satisfied. He shoved the page closer. "See, your beloved is a criminal!" His tobacco stained fingers crinkled the paper.

That these two people might actually be insane and dangerous was crossing Elena's mind about then.

The page continued to crumple in his jittery grasp. He jabbed it closer to her face. "Well, what do you think of that?"

"So what? You printed her picture. It means nothing!" Standing up for herself was a strange, new thrill.

"It means you will not be with her!" He erupted.

"Oh, yeah?" She grabbed her coat and handbag and started to her feet.

Mama struck like a black mamba. Elena was down before Papa knew what happened.

"Let me go! You have no right to hold me!"

"Oh yes, we do!" Mama trapped Elena in a choke-hold.

Elena dropped fast. Snapping her head back, letting gravity assist her escape. She lunged for the opposite side of the room. Staring out at the unreachable world beyond a glass curtain wall, her hand found something in her pocket, her mobile. A split second later, it was speed-dialing my number.

Seeming endless Kyiv subway escalators
The deep Kyiv subway is accessed via seemingly endless escalators. This is just one that leads to a landing and then another. There can be several escalators and landings to reach the surface.

* * *

Hundreds of feet below the Palace of Sports, ramming a bow wave of stale air into the station, the Pecherskaya subway train decelerated. Nothing felt real. I was sleepwalking through a nightmare. I desperately wanted to get back to our sunny flat, a cup of tea, a chance to think the situation through.

The crowd surged toward the braking train, converging on the doors. I held back. I let the commuters battle it out, then, just as the nasal, door-closing warning hooted, I'd hop aboard unscathed.

That's when my cellphone rang. Repeaters underground? No kidding! Elena's number on the display. The doors hooted. I ignored them. Missed the train. "Lenna, I'm worried. Is everything..."

"Meg, I am here! McDonald's. They are holding me. Near the station." Sounds of a scuffle from Elena's end. Then a scream. "Meg, Meg I love you!" And then, nothing.

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