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A True Story of Love, Survival and Freedom

Chapter 11


Mama was on top of her, like the Chicxulub impactor. That Elena wasn't catapulted through the curtain wall, and into the parking lot, was pure luck. Clamping onto Elena's cellphone and a fairly significant hunk of her hair, Mama tore it away from her. On the triumphant strut back to the table, she snapped the back off the phone and yanked the battery, making a show of sequestering the parts in separate pockets.

Although the crowd of diners was giving a wide berth to the violence, not a soul made to leave. That three word phrase was familiar to everyone -- whether in English, Russian, Ukrainian, or otherwise. Of course, its meaning would have been taken somewhat less charitably, had they known, the besieged Russian was screaming it to another woman. It was making for some great theater, and Elena was center stage. But amazingly, and for the first time in her life, she didn't care. She was at war with all of them: her parents and that creepy, crazy world where she was the pariah, instead of her attackers.

Kiev train station Mcdonald's

Kiev's train station's McDonald's restaurant. Photo taken following the attack, as part of Elena and Meg's forensic examination of what happened, and how in hell to go on from it.

Mama had not only seized her daughter's phone, but also her coat and handbag. Stripped of communication, money, documents, and survival-wear, Elena was trapped.

The curtain wall -- she had very nearly been body checked through -- despite its layers of argon separated glass, conducted some of the deep cold in from outside. Elena pressed her palms and burning cheeks to it. She drew the coolness into herself. There, just outside, was Kiev. Her Kiev -- a place she had never really thought about, but now cherished because it was where we met. Where she first felt safe and in control of her life.

So this is how it all ends, Elena thought. She gazed out at the frenetic activity around the train station. At people rushing around, all bundled up. At trains and vehicles spewing clouds of ice fog. She yearned for our sunny apartment; our tiny kitchenette, radiant with candlelight; classical music from tinny laptop speakers; French wine, cheese, bread; half understood conversations with dreamy expressions, meandering late into the night; breathless photo safaris, chasing, dancing, chanting, laughing with demonstrators down wide, Soviet boulevards; spitting olive pits through the window onto pricey sedans below, while big shishkas made backseat deals, points scored and teary laughter with each satisfying "toink!" generated by an olive-pit luxury-car impact. It could all be taken from her. She was afraid to think it already had been.

Deal making Kiev style by the Prokuratura

Deal making, the Kiev way below the kitchenette window.

The subway was packed. By the time over stressed steel was shrieking demonically under the decelerating train, I was a high-tension bundle of nerves. Somewhere up on the surface, was McDonald's -- and Elena. Waiting out the inevitable doorway battle wasn't an option, not that time. So, a subway gladiator, I became, plunging into the melee and through to the platform -- surprisingly alive and unscathed. Already, impossibly dense, the crowd continued to collapse inward on itself -- a choreographer's depiction of a neutron star's birth. Then I was carried along by the human current streaming onto the endless escalators for the ascent to the surface. I usually avoided that particularly Kievian, close-and-personal experience, but Elena's screams just before the line went dead, eliminated that option.

The color of the Orange Revolution, Nasha Ukrainia (Our Ukraine) flags color the horizon

The color of Orange Revolution. Nasha Ukrainia (Our Ukraine) flags color the horizon of Maidan Independence Square. The building behind, was eventually burned down.

Before Elena could see me emerge from the subway, Mama ordered her to sit down, drop the embarrassing staring out the window act. With no alternative, she complied. Tension eased. One by one, normal environmental sounds returned. Like the way that deafening silence following a hunter's killing shot is soon swallowed up by the normal sounds of the woods. Life goes on, for some -- at least.

Mama jammed herself back in, blocking Elena's only escape route. Then took up her where she left off with her spitting vitriol.

Papa was at the breaking point. "Enough!" Mama's incessant, full-auto harangue had what was left of his teeth totally on edge. He slapped the table so hard, it bounced. "There, look! Three tickets for the train. You are coming home with us."

Elena froze. She'd never heard her father speak with any sort of authority, until then. He'd always just, kind of, been around, like a creepy lodger. Never really a part of anything. Barely there, looking over his shoulder, sneaking around, pissed off by Elena's presence. This freakishly violent declaration was coming from a part of him she'd never known. Really didn't want to know. There was a lot about him she didn't want to know, but actually did: things she'd learned by accident. Things like the wife and daughter he'd abandoned -- and forgot to tell her about; like his proclivity for philandering; and worst of all, his off-the-scale violent xenophobia, homophobia.

Elena knew that something had gone horribly wrong with his life, somewhere, a long time ago, to make him that way. Whether he was at the wheel, his life skidded out of control. When he'd encountered Elena's mother, she maneuvered him into a role in her meticulously engineered drama. Giving birth to Elena, provided the obligatory child to weld his cage shut. Not one step back! Then, grinding decades later, there he was, in that god-forsaken, Euro-leaning Ukraine. Days of hard travel from the apartment he marked time in. And that skulking, suspicious, awkward kid-he-never-asked-for, thinks she can just turn gay, and then, up and traipse off with some disgusting, aberrant foreigner. No. This time, she goddamn pays.

pro Russian supporters of Nataliya Vitrenko

Pro Russian, supporters of Nataliya Vitrenko, a candidate for the 2006 Ukrainian presidential election. Vitriol, rage and hatred make fine bedfellows, and define a culture. Elena and Meg's experience at McDonald's is no wonder, given the environment, and where Elena's parents were coming from.

Getting the sluggard off the sofa, all the way to Kiev, and then, gleefully engaged in an ambush, obviously took more than Mama's command. There had to be something in it for him. Elena analyzed the situation. She was trapped, over powered, actually afraid of these people. Harder still was coming to grips with the realization that her mother was human, fallible, acting on base emotions: fear, anger, spite and jealousy, and could actually be wrong. Accepting that, meant that only Elena, herself, could know what was right for her. It was another first. Right there, under the Golden Arches, she finally got it: she had a will of her own, she had a choice.

Elena stared down at the tickets. "No," she said, without emotion. It was a statement of fact. "I am not going with you."

Mama nearly choked on her burger. "What do you mean, 'no?' "

"There is nothing you can do." She stood her ground. "I am staying here. In Ukraine. With Meg. I love her."

Inches from Elena's face, Papa slammed his fist into his palm. Growling, he rocked back into his chair. Tubular, metal legs howled on the vinyl composite flooring.

"Oh, you will stop loving her." Mama regurgitated some quack-treatment, talk show she'd heard at work. "What you feel is all nonsense, chemicals in your blood. You will forget her in eleven months. There are drugs, treatments for what you have." If her reanimated sofa-ornament-of-a-husband didn't kill the girl first.

Elena was speechless, dumbfounded. Her feelings amounted to nothing. How the violent gonzo and the shrieking cuckoo, could be her parents was way beyond comprehension. The situation was ludicrous. Any love or tenderness that she might have once felt for them, was well and truly gone. It was time to end the heartwarming reunion, and get back home to our apartment.

Meg and Elena at their sunny Kiev flat

Meg and Elena in their sunny, Kievian flat, enjoying some down time.

When I got to McDonald's, the joint was packed. Standing room only. Early birds getting a head-start on the lunch crunch. Visibility was practically nil. I scanned the area for a vantage point. A sloping ceiling -- obviously stairs above -- paralleled stairs down to a basement. Recently honed, gladiatorial, subway skills got me through six lines of hypoglycemic, caffeine addicted, and ornery-as-hell diners -- stretching from the order counter, and all the way to the back wall -- alive.

I saw Elena on the second floor. Cornered by her entourage against the far wall, her makeup smeared, cheeks flaming red, she did not look good. A conspicuously unoccupied buffer zone had formed around their table -- evidently, there had been some action before I got there. Amused by the carryings on, but aware of the risk it posed, patrons of the packed burger-shack kept a safe distance from the skirmish.

I knew what I had to do. Going stealth, I pulled up my fake-fur hood, melted into the crowd, and took up an empty seat among the diners.

Elena tried to stand up.

Mama dove, kitty-corner across the corner of the table, trapping her with a bear-hug around her midsection.

"I won't go with you, anywhere." Elena started to struggle. "Let me go!" It did absolutely no good.

"Oh yes, you will!" Mama constricted. It looked like an anaconda on a flamingo.

Papa began to stir. His physical advantage and unpredictability presented an extreme risk. Added to that, was the certainty that no bystander would interfere with Elena's attackers. They operated with absolute impunity, knowing they could beat her up, tie her down, drag her back, and nobody would utter a peep.

"You have no right to hold me!" Elena's voice was weak, feeble. She knew she was vulnerable. She knew that no matter what she said, people -- the police included -- would support her parents; not an upstart, young woman, challenging society's dictates.

From across the room, I clung to my seat to keep from leaping up. Totally powerless: I was in a foreign country; didn't really speak the language; barely knew what was actually going on. What was Elena after? How hard would she fight for it? If I jumped up and crashed the party, would she see it as help, or interference?

She told me later, that all she could think about, at the time, was fighting to get away, to be with me, to see me again and every day, whenever and however she wanted. She was determined not to let them take that away from her, and so, she fought them.

I watched her yank and writhe her arms free. She braced against her chair, shoved up against a wall, and then, reaching for all she was worth, inch-by-inch across the table -- despite Mama anaconda squeezing her internals to new highs -- she stretched her arm... a little further... and... snatched her handbag by the strap. Reeling it in, she looked up, and right into my's eyes.

From under my shamanistic, stone-age, mega-sized, faux mammoth-hide, hooded coat, I locked my eyes on hers.

Her passion to escape the strangers hell-bent on breaking her was reignited. All that malevolence, for what? I wondered. What did it matter to them? She was in another bloody country. Not like the shame she cast upon them could ooze all the way back to tarnish their esteemed reputations in back-country Ivanovo.

With the cavalry -- that would be me -- riding into Dodge, Elena reckoned, breaking free, running, hiding, making our escape, vanishing into the crowd... and then home, had just slightly more than a snowball's chance in hell. She poured everything she had into rising against her mother's grip. Arching her back, straightening her knees -- and like those stories you hear about superhuman strength to lift a grand piano off the kid it fell on -- she raised the entire table with her hips, Mama included. "Meg!" She half choked, half cried. "Meg! Help me!"

Elena and Meg's kitchenette table spread with goodies from the west

The taste of freedom is spread on Elena and Meg's folding, kitchenette table in the Kiev flat. Determination to not let it be taken from her, hardened Elena's resolve to stand up for herself.

"Silence! You are coming with us." Papa slammed the table down. Then back, hard into Elena's midsection. The backs of her knees folded against the chair, and she crumpled into it with a whump.

"Nyet! No, you can not do this! Let me go. I am staying here." Elena shouted back.

Mama let go of Elena. No problem, Papa had the ingrate pinned with the table, like a bug in the grillwork. Knowing I was there, Mama turned, and started shrieking at me, "Go away! Go away! Go..." in Russian, on infinite loop.

Diners, those closer to the shrieker, spooked and scrambled for cover. Snatching fries, shakes and trays, they opened up buffer zone between their goodies and the action. They weren't, however, inclined to leave, and it looked like patrons were coming up from downstairs. Drama like that, one didn't want to miss out on.

"No! Don't leave, Meg! Help me!" Clawing though her bag, finding the only thing her brain considered significant at the time, Elena leaned as far as she could over the table, and thrust a wad of money toward me. "Here, get someone to help. Hurry!"

Papa's fist smashed into Elena's outstretched arm. Bills fluttered to the floor. She got out a choked cry. "Bag. Meg, take my bag!" Papa shoved the table harder into her ribs. She gasped. "Take it, keep it safe, don't let them take my papers!" She had just about managed to toss her bag, but Papa intercepted, and lateralled it to Mama, who tucked to her bosom, like a wide receiver facing a rushing linebacker.

The exponentially increasing violence had me on my feet, without thinking. Sweeping back my faux-fur hood, I dove instinctively toward Elena. It's not like I had a lot of time to think what to...

Mama screamed a warning. Papa spun around, driving a roundhouse punch into my face that sent me flying. Empty chairs spun and toppled. A maimed table wobbled, one of it's extruded steel legs bent inward by my spinal column. Diners went silent. Nobody moved. This was serious: furnishings were involved! What-in-the-fuck had I gotten myself into?!

Far enough from the crazies to be reasonably safe -- besides, they were pretty busy with Elena going absolutely nuclear -- I rolled onto all fours. Drops of blood fell from my face -- nose, probably -- and spattered the floor. "Shit, shit, shit." I was gagging on blood from something in my mouth I'd bitten through. No stars, not dizzy: a good sign. I got to my feet, slowly... slowly. Pranged ankle still not great after two weeks of running around Kiev. I tested it, carefully... no problem, it still worked.

Mama saw me getting up. Her satisfied smile melted the straighter I stood. When it was clear, I wasn't leaving, it vanished completely. Her screaming recommenced: "Go away! Go away! Go aw..."

Papa had Elena by the collar, was dragging her away. His other hand, which looked like it might be in some pain from the impact with my face, was ready to backhand his daughter if she resisted. The look in her eyes gave me chills. She was resisting. She was going to fight. She wasn't going to let them take her. She was standing up, and I knew, with devastating certainty, that they were going to rip her to pieces.

I turned to the amused lunch crowd. "Call the police!" and then, I yelled it in Russian.

Nobody moved. The collective look they gave me -- over the tops of sesame seed buns and cup rims -- might have been the same for an actor, stopping mid, "To be, or not..." and calling offstage, "Line, please." It just wasn't done! And like, who was I kidding?! The police? For a fight... not even a real fight, but good, wholesome, family violence. Who's going to call the cops for something like that? Be like dialing nine-one-one when the neighbor's cat pees in the petunias.

I shook my head, saw tiny droplets of blood fly from my hair. Mama's suggestion to "Go away!" would be so easy, if it wasn't for Elena. The look I'd seen in her eyes, her actions, her words: she was making her stand. But it wasn't a stand, it was a running leap -- right off a cliff -- and she'd made it, not knowing if, what, or who, would be there to catch her.

I considered that maybe my presence emboldened Elena to act, then and there. Regardless, there was no going back. Even if she did, in Russia her parents would stop at nothing to break her. Lock her up, have her in a mental hospital, or simply drive her to suicide -- and all with society's approval.

I was in awe of Elena's courage; loved her more then, than I'd ever loved before; knew that going away would kill anything left inside. Wipe out all I'd spent a lifetime trying to find. My own survival depended on Elena's, as much as Elena's, on mine. It all made sense: the risks, the revolutions, the renovations, the mountains and storms, the cliffs -- of my own -- that I'd stared down from. All of it came together, then and there, with Elena's heroic leap, in a convergence that would define our lives.

Green Party of Ukraine members at the Ukrainian Central Election Commission headquarters

Green Party of Ukraine members pose for Elena and Meg. A younger, kinder, gentler, aware and hopeful vision for mother Earth. They didn't stand a chance.

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