Elena read through an email she'd just gotten, for probably the third or fourth time. Each run-through got her cheeks a little redder and a lot hotter. Sitting beside me at the custom salad-bar in Mandarin Plaza, the woman was putting out enough infrared to make me sweat. "Ah, Lenna, you okay?"
"It's from my best friend. She is saying to me, 'I feel now as if you have died.' "
"Your best friend! What did you do to her?" Not the most appropriate response, but I had to say something.
"What do you think? I told her about you."
"Uh huh, I seem to have that effect on people. It's a real ego boost."
"Not just about you, but about my wanting to be with you." A furtive glance. "I told her that my mother was not wanting me to not be with Dima. So that Tanka phoned to my mother to side with her."
"Side with her?"
"Give her sympathy, and to offer her help."
"That's nuts! Nuts, as in, crazy. This is your best friend? Did you tell her you were happy?"
"She said that I can't be happy if I make others unhappy. That it is egoistical behavior, wrong to do 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 have to live with the stain of what I have done. The shame..." Elena trailed off, already composing a reply on her phone. Thumbs flying over the minuscule keypad with the blinding dexterity of a micro-sushi chef.
"Hold the phone!"
Elena paused, cocked an over-plucked eyebrow. "I am holding it." Then dove back to the cellphone, inches from her face, eyes crossed, nostrils flared. Thumbs worked 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 for Elena. 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. Somehow, and 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 phone.
"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 stunningly blonde, blue eyed Ukrainian, right down to the embroidered apron -- gently interrupted. Our masterpiece take-out, 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 mangled attempts at Ukrainian, or 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, attitude.
As usual, we were running late. Elena's cellphone rang: Mama, calling from Kiev's central train station. Elena promised breathlessly that we were on our way, would be there in a few minutes. With me in tow, Elena was dashing toward the central train station. like a mistress to her lover.
Her mother's behavior had become disturbingly anomalous in the week since Elena spurned the heartfelt invitation to go back for a loving send-off. The danger signs were flashing: contrite, sickeningly sweet conversations; an aloof indifference when Elena mentioned me or her feelings; an eerie cessation of the fanatical demands to return.
Elena was all starry-eyed, thinking, Maybe Mama really loves me; doesn't want to hurt us; wants to see us happy! It could be that her heart -- kind of like Chernobyl's fourth core -- melted away its hard outer shell, to radiate love and kindness on me and my beloved. Oh, Mama!
Our train came to a tooth-loosening, shuddering stop, the doors wheezed open, and the usual subway stampede commenced. I just knew we were waltzing into a trap. Something so ham-fistedly played out, it had to be a sneering message. The telephonic abuse had tapered off, and then, out of the blue, Elena promised me, her Mother was sorry, that she was coming to Kiev to meet the love of her 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? Or, thinking, I might be able to help, follow her right on in? Which is how we both ended up flying from the subway, right into an ambush.
At half past ten, in swirling snow, it was darker outside the train station, than it had been below ground in the subway.
"Blin, Meg! We're half an hour late. Poor Mama."
Straggly gangs of protesters milled around the doors, halfheartedly waving Soviet banners. Gang members -- not engaged in awkwardly trying to leaflet disinterested passersby -- hopped from foot to foot, attempting to save their extremities from frostbite.
Kiev Central, like most of the massive, industrial, Soviet train stations consists of miles and miles of switching yards, maintenance sheds, factories, and even power plants. From its steel lashed landscape, something like sixteen tracks were wrested to serve passengers. A cement, barn-like monstrosity -- and the myriad of incongruous additions it sprouted over the years -- provided the human cargo with a terminal.
The dystopian, post apocalyptic charm of the place had, like always, my nerves on edge. That time, however, dragged along by a somewhat crazed Russian, the feeling that I'd woken up, trapped in Kafka's nightmare, was stronger than ever.
With our hoods and collars pulled up against the biting wind, Elena set her sights on the terminal's entrance, and we trudged a straight line toward a row of doors under the word CENTRAL. The wind was coming up fast, whipping flurries of dry snow into a veritable blizzard. It lent credence to the assumption that meetings and joyful reunions, ought to take place indoors during life threatening weather events. In the station itself, perhaps? But no, not for Elena's mother.
Elena skidded to a stop. "Eta Mama!" We were only half way to the passenger terminal.
I squinted through blowing snow, saw nothing. "Huh? Move! It's freezing."
Then I saw it: a lone, fireplug-like figure, way in the distance, waving its stubby, outstretched arms -- Up. Down. Up. Down -- a lost climber, signaling for help in slow motion. For no sane reason, the weird apparition with the animatronic arms, was out there, all alone, in the middle of a windswept icefall of deserted, passenger platforms.
Elena yanked me toward the stationary, distant snow-baba. We couldn't actually get to her. Several tracks and platforms created an impassible chasm between us and Mama. "What is she doing?" That far from the passenger terminal, there were no trains or people in sight. It didn't stop, or even concern Elena. "Maaaa maaaa!"
No response from the Michelin man. Just that creepy, synchronized, arm oscillation.
"Oh Yeah, this is nuts." I muttered, trying to nudge Elena toward the terminal. "She can meet us inside where it's not snowing! And there are, like... people."
Elena didn't move. "Mama, we are here!"
Mama didn't move.
I tried to move. "She sees us. She can follow us inside." I might as well have been trying to uproot a mighty oak. "Come on. It's freezing. Maybe she's jigging for walleye... or suckers!"
"No! Mama wants to meet us. We must go to her."
Elena hauled me toward the western pedestrian tunnel. An unheated passageway running below the sixteen tracks, and as far from the terminal building as possible. Deeper in, the stench of urine and vomit hit. Platforms and tracks passed over our heads as we lurched along, deeper into the gloom. Always, just on the verge of actual footing. The anemic light, oozing from the access stairwells into the underpass, wasn't enough to reveal the patches of black ice we skidded on.
Mama appeared in silhouette at the bottom of a stairway.
Elena rushed toward her. "Mama, oh Mama..." By the time she saw that Mama wasn't smiling, it was way too late.
Mama ran some kind of sumo-linebacker interference. She shoved past her daughter, turned her back, and then, started swinging her ass at me. Damn, that was weird!
An Ankylosaurus encounter, in a pukey pedestrian tunnel was absurdly disarming. Bizarrely hilarious, I thought, 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. At the time, though, 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, or could make sense to her.
I, on the other hand, thought we were getting mugged. For maybe a nanosecond, that is, until the hobo had Elena in a bear-hug body-lock, and, what I assumed was Mama, just carried on that weird, ass attack on me. Still with those crazy, waving arms sticking straight out, and having trouble turning her head enough to see what she was assing into, she screeched, over and over, in Russian, "Go away! Go away! Go Away!"
Restrained by the unkempt, wildly bearded mugger, Elena yelled, "Meg! It's my father!" and then, tried to defuse the situation with pithy niceties in Russian. "Nice to see you... This is Meg... Have a nice trip? Thank you for coming." It might have been in her delivery: coming from a woman under physical restraint, and all that, but I could swear, the phrases lost some of their inherent warmth and sincerity.
It didn't work, her father wasn't charmed by his daughter's entreaties. It sounded like he growled, snapping Elena around so she couldn't have eye contact with me. The look on his face actually terrified her. Although they had never really interacted -- ever -- she saw such loathing and hatred, she suddenly feared for my life. "Meg! Go home!"
At that, Mama whirled, finally facing me. "Go away!" Then to Elena, "Shut up!"
Fired up by the action, Papa twisted Elena's arms brutally behind her back. Threatening fractures at the first sign of resistance.
It didn't subdue her, she wanted me out of there, out of the dark tunnel, devoid of witnesses or help. "Home, to our flat. Please, Meg... I'll be alright. They just want to talk a while here, and then I'll be back home."
Elena's pleading me to leave her with the crazies, tore at me, left locked in indecision. Her cries of pain, as Papa jerked her hyper-flexed joints and dragged her further down the tunnel, helped clear my mind. Mama's voice was getting hoarse, but she was still shrieking at me with all she had left. The situation was out of control. Communication between Elena and I, ramped-up the violence, exponentially.
"Meg, go home! You need to go. Wait for me in our flat. I will be..." Elena managed, before another cry of pain took autonomic priority.
I got the point: beating the shit out of their daughter to stick it to me. I was frantic. For two weeks I'd 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? And their own daughter, no less. My western rule-set was completely invalidated by this collision of worlds.
Elena's cries and Papa's snarls attenuated, the deeper he dragged her into the tunnel, but didn't let up. The brawling had to stop! But how? Family violence was more of a custom than a crime in their world.
Removing myself from the equation might mitigate the damage to Elena, right? Right! I turned and ran. Climbing the stairs back to daylight, Elena's cries tore at me. I hated myself for completely misjudging the situation, dropping Elena into a nightmare. I had encouraged her to trust herself, to follow her heart. How stupidly naive! Instead, the she grew bold at my insistence that she steer her own course, stand up for herself. I convinced her that she would be admired and respected for that.
Bullshit! What had I done? If only... I thought, feeling more and more like just lying down in the snow and freezing 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 Kiev. If only...
With me out of the way, Elena's parents dragged her from the pedestrian tunnel to a McDonald's restaurant. She wasn't really sure of anything. Her consciousness was retreating, but focusing on the pain from her arms and injuries, kept her from vanishing completely inside herself. Faceless people passed by. If they saw, they turned away. The freedom she found in Kiev was being taken from her, that much she knew.
"Passport!" Mama's face was inches from hers. "Your passport. Do you have your passport with you?"
"What?" The line of questioning was ominous.
Mama shook her, hard. "Answer me!" Uncle Kolya's effective-coercion-and-nobbling tactics were in play. Grab the girl's passport, and she is going nowhere but back to Russia, even if they don't manage to drag her back, then and there.
McDonald's second floor, eating area was about half full with diners, weather refugees, students, and the unspeakably hip -- framing their coolness in the ultra-chic atmosphere of McDonald's. When, what looked like, a red-faced, crazed woman and a bum dragged a completely wrecked younger woman up to the second floor, the diners and hipsters quickly made room. Nobody left, though, whatever was happening, was better than TV.
A hastily vacated corner table provided strategic advantage. Papa steered Elena toward it. Without letting her go, he swept errant fries, condiment packs and wrappers onto the floor with his free arm. He then applied brute force to crumple Elena into a flimsy plastic chair, and hem her in between two walls, the table, Mama and himself.
Finally seated, Mama said to Elena, "We're all spent out. Buy us some food."
Sudden insolvency and starvation didn't add up, Elena thought. Especially, seeing as she was pinned down tight.
"I am hungry. Get some food." Mama repeated.
Carefully, Elena reached for her handbag.
Mama grabbed her wrist, snatching Elena's bag before she could reach it. "Father will go with you." She then dug through Elena's bag, pulled out some cash and shoved it into her daughter's palm. "And, I'll keep your bag here, just in case you try something."
When Mama returned the handbag, Elena quietly checked its contents. Seeing the satisfied smirk on her mother's face, she knew they'd gotten her. Her phone! She yanked open an internal zippered compartment, found her tiny cellphone, palmed and pocketed it with some relief.
Then the deepest, most inner compartment in her rugged travel bag, the securest part. It held her most prized possession. She would never leave it open, not even a millimeter! That's how she knew, seeing its zipper lazily half closed, she was fucked. Her passport -- a very precious and hard to get document for a Russian -- was gone.
Elena couldn't pull away. She was blockaded by her father, the table, the wall.
"What are you doing to us?" Mama demanded. "Do you consider us at all?"
The empty passport pocket helped 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, as she spoke, 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'd 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 starting to frighten Elena.
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!" Although he was nothing to Elena but one of Mama's possessions, standing up to him thrilled her.
"It means you will not be with her!" He erupted.
"Oh, yeah?" She grabbed her coat and handbag -- minus her passport -- and started to her feet.
Mama struck like a black mamba. Elena was down before Papa even knew what was happening.
"Let me go! You have no right to hold me!"
"Oh yes, we do!" Mama, worked Elena into a choke-hold.
Elena dropped fast, snapping her head back, letting gravity assist her escape. She lunged for the opposite side of the room, a glass curtain wall. Gazing at the unreachable world, just beyond the Argon separated layers of tempered glass, her hand found and surreptitiously closed on her cellphone. A split second later, it was speed-dialing my number.
Hundreds of feet below the Palace of Sports, ramming a bow wave of stale air into the station, the Pecherskaya subway train rapidly decelerated. Nothing felt real. I was sleepwalking through a nightmare. I desperately wanted to get back to our sunny apartment, a cup of tea, a chance to think the situation through.
The crowd surged toward the braking train. Condensed around the doors. I held back. I'd learned to let the commuters battle it out, and 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.