22 - Escaping Ukraine
Another day, another pilgrimage to the Athena mall. Another feverish prayer session before the almighty ATM. Withdraw my daily maximum limit. Wander the historic district with Elena. Pretend to be tourists. Fight back the panic. Suppress the urge to stand on the street screaming my head off.
Not knowing when we would have to make a run for it, go into deep hiding, buy our way out of yet another life threatening situation, or get severed from my bank account, hoarding cash seemed like a good idea. By wiping out my savings and gnawing away at my house with a Home Equity line of credit, I was slaughtering our future safety for the present illusion of having options, a.k.a. a snowball's chance in hell.
* * *
Elena's phone rang. "Allo? ... When? ... Really! ... Where? ... How much?"
I could only hear her end of the conversation. I looked at her quizzically. It had to be Alexi or yet another crazy-stupid-desperate connection we made.
Elena turned away. Shoved her palm into my face -- talk-to-the-hand -- and retreated to the bathroom.
I heard her drawing a bath. "Everything okay?"
"Bring to me my wine." Came through the closed door. "And a candle."
I didn't prod. I knew better than that. While she luxuriated in the tub, I perched on the toilet, commenting on the wine and the lovely shade of purple it stained our teeth. Anything but the phone call.
"Tanya got my passport from Mama." Elena monotoned.
I would have been shouting it from the rooftops, dancing on the ceiling. Anything but a monotone, one-liner statement of fact. Elena is like that though -- too many hopes dashed to let go of fear.
* * *
Our driver pulled the hotel limo into a passenger drop-off-and-pickup zone. "I will wait in the car?" He said. "The plane from Moscow is already here. Your friend may be waiting."
"No, I don't think so." Elena wasn't going to let the poor guy off the hook. Hotel security had suggested an escort for the pickup. It had been way too easy for Tanya to get the passport and there was no telling who would turn up.
Beige, one-way doors separated the passenger arrival hall from customs. The entire female population of Russia had to have come through those doors by the time Elena bolted toward a quiet, stooped woman. I scrambled to keep up. Our bewildered chaperone, glancing left, followed me. It looked like Elena had thrown her arms around a stranger. Tanya really wasn't keen on public displays of affection.
The hired muscle ushered us away from the beige doors and pointed toward the second floor mezzanine. "Up there is unoccupied, you and your friend can exchange the passport and speak. I will stay by the bottom of the stairs. Signal to me if I should prevent someone from climbing the stairs."
I was impressed. The muscle knew his business. On the deserted, second floor mezzanine, Elena was talking in gasps. I don't think she was even making sense. Tanya, on the other hand, looked defeated, beaten down, outright depressed. It was like she had something to say, would start, Elena would jabber something and Tanya would give up with a sigh. This went on for minutes.
Tanya finally dug the passport from a pocket and handed it to Elena. "Here it is," she sighed, "And there is a letter..."
Elena snatched the dried-blood colored booklet, spun on her heel and trance walked away from us. Stopped by a wall, she stood fixated on the photo ID page. Her free hand absently swept a wad of folded paper from the passport. A couple of A4 sheets and a few snapshots fluttered to the floor by her Doc Martins.
"Ah, Lenna?" I gathered the fallen payload. Pressed it into the hand she'd discarded it with.
She glanced at the wad, took a couple of steps toward a 1960's trash-can-ashtray -- one of those tin cylinders with butt infested sand on top -- and threw out the sheets of paper. The snapshots, she absentmindedly crammed into her back pocket.
* * *
I felt as out of place between Elena and Tanya as an actor in Hollywood. Probably just as unappreciated. They -- well, mostly Elena -- were reconnecting at a mile a minute. I got the hint and made a gracefully exit.
Elena's passport changed everything, or so I thought. I called the Canadian consulate in Kyiv and got the same old story: "No job. No money. No ties to Russia. Thus, no tourist visa. No how. No way! Unacceptable risk of her staying."
"Of course, she will stay. We want to be a family." I said.
"Exactly! And that is unacceptable on a tourist visa."
"Wow... What do we do?"
"You go home... to Ca-na-da! Your friend goes to her home in Russia. She can apply for an appropriate visa through the Canadian consulate in Russia, not Ukraine. If she meets requirements, a permanent resident visa would allow her to stay and work in Canada."
It was like a hard kick in gut. "That takes years!"
"It can. Look, even for a tourist visa, your friend needs to apply from within her own country." She rattled off the usual list of required documents. All of them -- except the passport -- were in the possession of Elena's parents.
"She can't go home. She has no home! Her parents beat the crap out of her, hired thugs to get us. They threaten to lock her in a dom durakoff crazy house, and fry her brain with enough juice to light a city."
"I see." She took a very audible breath, "That is a matter for the local authorities... not Canada!" and hung up.
Not even my superhuman powers of denial could deflect what was clawing its way up from the pit of my stomach -- fear. I was bloody terrified. Whoever said that: "There's nothing to fear but fear itself," absolutely nailed it.
Elena leaped, I caught her. Hell, I encouraged her. She'd told me a zillion times that she'd die before going back. That she was as good as dead anyway. That if she went back, they would never let her out again.
There was nowhere left to run but Turkey. If we got there, then what? At least, it bought us time.
* * *
They say that what one leaves behind is evidence of one's existence. If that's true, the crap strewn about our room was a monument to ours. Packing was yet another brutal lesson in belongings triage. Airline baggage restrictions meant decimation time for our worldly possessions.
I watched Elena kneeling on her suitcase, bouncing violently to get it closed. "Krikey, I'm no climatologist, but I don't think you need that parka in Turkey! Just leave it. We'll tell the hotel to give what we can't take with us to their staff."
"Nyet, if they do not let me go and send me to Russia, I will need it. Think, why Mama so easily gave to Tanya my passport?" She had a point: a Trojan horse was easy, especially in Russia. Declare her daughter missing, or a fugitive, or insane, or a terrorist, or an alien doppelganger. "Blyat, Mama wants to hurt me, to hurt us." Elena gave up, yanked the down-filled winter coat from her bag and put it on. It was, of course, the same coat she was wearing when I first saw her at Kyiv's airport.
Tanya, with her minuscule carry-on bag, met us in the lobby. Elena flew back to our room and crammed what she could of our leavings into a duffel bag. Computer speakers, ridiculous high-heels, books, useless fashions, makeup. Tanya could keep it or toss it. It didn't matter to Elena, at least she wasn't forced to abandon it.
* * *
Tanya's flight to Moscow was first. Elena embraced her friend, holding her tight and softly crying. They avoided eye contact when they pulled away from each other. Impulsively, Elena dug the last of her Russian Rubles from a pocket and shoved them into Tanya's hands. "For lunch. For the taxi. For everything. Until we meet again, have a soft flight, my friend."
Elena and I had a little over four thousand US dollars crammed into our various pockets. All of it accumulated in ATM runs to the Athena mall. Giving away her Russian money might have been Elena's way saying goodbye to her friend and country.
At last -- and not a moment too soon for the Londonskaya's driver and bodyguard -- it was our turn to depart.
Initial security screening was a gentle harbinger of what lay ahead. Elena passed through with ease. My Canadian passport engendered a far more stringent screening process. Not only were my bags searched multiple times, but I was asked to describe fuzzy smudges on the ancient x-ray monitors while someone in a reflective safety vest turned my socks and skivvies inside out. A couple boxes of chocolates were of intense interest. "Drugs! You have drugs here. Show these to me." I pulled them out. "Ah, very nice. Kyiv-In-the-Evening chocolates. To be such a rich foreigner as to buy such confections, we can only dream."
Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! Duh! Krikey, I can be dense at times. "My pleasure, the chocolates are yours." A woman in makeup applied by trowel, retreated to a side office with both boxes. A couple of uniforms looked at me sideways, still rifling though what was left of my luggage. "Why not buy yourselves a couple of boxes?" I handed each a nice crisp American twenty. Ta-DA! Inspection was done.
Passport control was next. A man, woman and two cranky kids waited behind the yellow line, ahead of us. An officer signaled to them with a half wave. The man approached the booth. There were some hand gesturing in the general direction of the woman and children. Something about, family members traveling together presenting themselves together, came from a speaker embedded in the glazing. The woman herded her kids across the yellow line to join their father at the booth. A lot of head bobbing and rubber stamping ensued. Papers were shoved in and out of the booth in a sliding metal tray, then the family was waved on.
The officer, a humorless man in a surrealistically large hat, tidied up his bulletproof booth. No big hurry. He leaned back in his chair, conferred with comrades in adjacent booths. Probably a tactic to psych us out. That yellow line is freaking terrifying when it's your toes up against it.
The blithe, half handed come! gesture finally got flapped in our general direction. Breathlessly, we stepped up to the booth. "What is this? One at a time!"
"We are together." Elena said with an I-swallowed-my-electric-toothbrush tremolo.
"Sisters?" He looked at the blood red and cobalt blue passports in the metal tray.
"Nyet! One goes back to the line." He slapped the metal tray back to our side of the acrylic shield.
I scooped out my passport and fell back. If that yellow line was scary before, having it between us was hell-on-the-half-shell. I watched the enormous hat bobbing up and down. Catching up with the officer's head a split second after each glance at Elena and the monitor inside his booth. My mind was screaming, "This is bad. It's taking too long. We're screwed!" Then the officer's amplified voice squawked from his embedded, shield speaker, "You! Come here."
Those were a couple of the longest meters in my life. Elena waited for me with her customary deer-in-the-headlights look. "A problem, Meg. He wants to speak to..."
"Forbidden! No talking. The Russian goes. Now!" He jabbed a thumb toward the third gate: passenger security screening -- as if the chocolate shakedown gang wasn't enough already.
I dutifully plopped my passport and various excrescent papers in the tray. They sat there on my side of the barrier. The metal tray didn't retract. The officer in his bulletproof cage casually took his time. Tidied up. Spoke with colleagues. Raised his enormous hat, ran his hand through his hair. Took a phone call.
I must have gone invisible. "Eh-hem."
"Silence! You wait."
People were moving past the other booths. Those waiting in line behind me were getting ugly. Elena was nowhere in sight. I assumed she passed through without a problem. Did she have her passport? She must have, no one got through without one.
"Meez Stawn-yeh, pleez." Came from somewhere outside the passport-control stockade ropes. "Meez Stawn-yeh. Pleez to come office." There it was again. I turned. The chocaholic from baggage screening was beckoning.
"You go with her." Rasped from the booth's speaker.
I reached for my passport. The metal tray with my papers snapped back into the booth. Krikey, I almost lost a finger. "Ooooh-kaaay, I see that you're going to keep my passport safe. I'll just pop back round in a bit to collect it." It was starting to feel a lot like the Russian consulate in Odessa. Just nowhere near as funny.
Sitting at her desk and sighing like she had to broker a Mid-East peace deal, the woman offered me one of my chocolates.
"Thank you, no." The box was almost empty. I felt more like throwing up than gobbling confections. "Is there another problem with my luggage?"
"Problem with girlfriend." The woman's English wasn't bad.
The big-hatted, passport-control officer came in without knocking. He dropped into a metal chair and helped himself to a chocolate. The two of them exchanged pleasantries.
"Excuse me," I said in Russian. "My flight soon departs for Istanbul, and my partner..."
"The Russian girl," the officer started, "she can fly to Turkey. I have stamped her passport." He went on in Ukrainian. Russian is hard enough, Ukrainian is beyond me. I couldn't catch a thing they were talking about.
"This Russian girl, she can go to Turkey. This man has not to stop her. She should not travel to out of CIS." The woman spoke slowly in English.
"Why?" I said, before realizing the right response was how much?
An intense back-and-forth Ukrainian dialog ensued. The woman broke it off, turned to me. "No time, if to Turkey with Russian girlfriend you want to travel. There is problem with girlfriend her passport." She looked at me intently. I waited for the bottom line. "To Russia she should only travel." The woman sat back in her chair, exhausted by the translation effort.
"But she is stamped out of Odessa and boarding a flight to Istanbul. A flight that I should be on with her."
"Suka!" That means bitch in Russian -- The officer snapped at me. He fired some more Ukrainian at the woman.
"This man, he has done, how to say..." The woman racked her brain, face twisted in concentration.
"A favor?" I offered.
"Da, yes! He has done to you a favor. You should thank to this officer for not to send girlfriend to Russian authorities. Instead he lets her to fly to Istanbul with you."
"Why do this? Was her passport flagged?" Stupid question.
The woman just sat there. Slowly, she leaned forward and said, "Plane to Istanbul, is leaving soon, yes? You thank officer, then fly away with girlfriend."
My mind raced. Obviously, the passport was flagged! When he scanned it three cherries probably flashed on his monitor. The chocaholic was right, I was going to miss the damn plane. I plunged a hand into one of my pockets and pulled out a fistful of twenties.
The woman carefully flattened the bills on her desk and started counting them out one at a time. The officer tipped his big hat at me. "You are welcome." He left the office. The woman was up to the fifth twenty, smoothing it out, saying, "One hundred," out loud. "One hundred, twenty... one hundred..." She stopped, feigned surprise. "You are still here! Do you not have a plane to catch?"
I bolted for the door. The lineup at passport control -- minus an officer -- was going to strand me in Odessa. I wondered if I would get my passport back. Oh my dog! I hoped Elena would just get on that plane without me. Get safely out of Ukraine, know that no-matter-what, I'd find her.
The woman came from behind, grabbed my wrist and pulled me toward the passport-control booths. Past the lines of petulant, nervous passengers. Right to His booth. He never made eye contact. How could he, given the size of his hat? "Where to?"
"Istanbul, Turkey." I said, but was thinking, you asshole!
"You came to Kyiv, but you leave through Odessa. Why is this? How did you get from Kyiv to Odessa? Show to me travel tickets." At that he made eye contact. I could just make out the first hint of an evil gotcha grin.
Shit, shit, shit, I didn't have time for another shakedown. I couldn't just hand over money at the booth with all those eyes and cameras on us. "No tickets. We traveled with friends in their private automobile." Brilliant! I thought as I said it.
He picked up his stamp, then wielding it like a gavel, slammed it down on my papers and finally my passport.
* * *
Business class was all ours. It was eerie, considering the rest of the plane was chockablock full. We didn't know why Mama gave up the passport. Elena thought that since Tanya knew the true story, she could contradict Mama's lies about her daughter's disappearance. Maybe she didn't expect us to fly the coop before Tanya had time to report that she had failed to bring Elena back. Maybe passport-control smelled opportunity when a Westerner doling out chocolates and crisp twenties showed up with a pie-eyed Russian. Maybe the passport was flagged and I outbid the flagger.
Maybe we were running headlong into disaster. I was getting the shakes. Elena stared out her window at the terminal. I could hear her fighting a losing battle with tears. It was threatening to unleash an avalanche of emotion in me. No, I couldn't cry. This was no time to fall apart. Maybe later in flight. If Elena slept -- maybe then.
I didn't know where we would end up in Turkey or what we would even do once we got there. I sure as hell didn't know what would happen when our pocketfuls of twenties ran out. All that mattered at the time was that we were getting out and we were still together.
Warm seawater splashed on the back of my hand. Okay, my tears didn't wait for takeoff.
Previous Chapter | CONTENTS | Next Chapter