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A True Story of Love, Survival and Freedom

Chapter 14

Going Dark

The Great Gate of Kiev

Kiev's Golden Gate some might call it the great gate of Kiev, and hang a picture of it at an exhibition, and then someone else might come along and turn it into a rollicking piano piece about those pictures at an exhibition... but, I'm just saying. This Great Gate, part of the original city wall, sits atop the Teatralna subway interchange, used frequently by Elena and Meg.

Bad breath and body odor, oozing through winter layers, infused the packed subway with one hell of a malodorous pong. To me, it smelled great: the stench of ordinary. Elena clung to a strap, swaying beside me in the standing-room-only car. Despite the heady euphoria of still being together; not in jail; not tied down on a train bound for Russia; not a human popsicle in a police compound; and neither of us dead; I had the shakes. A delayed reaction to our narrow escape at the police station was playing catch-up.

Deflecting an onrush of emotional realization, I asked, "Was that some kind of necklace your mother gave to you at the police station?"

"Shtow? (What?)" She answered in Russian. Her cheeks glistened with tears, her own emotions playing catch-up. She pulled her hand from a glove, leaving it clutched in her left and dangling empty from the strap. From a pocket, she extracted a pendant on a silver chain, held it up and stared as it swung gently in front of her face. "St. Nicholas." She said, like I'd asked for its inventory code.

Meg hides in her mastodon hide coat

Meg hides from the paparazzi (or Elena) in her mastodon hide coat.

"Ah, jolly old St. Nick. You get that for Christmas?"

No reaction. Maybe she was trying to hypnotize herself.

"Get it? St. Nick… That's Santa Claus!" One of my ninja, mind-deflection techniques is humor. Couldn't let that go to waste.

"Dima gave it to me." Deep breath. "When we were in Turkey. I suppose, Mama thinks it will break my heart, and I will go running back to him -- and her." She opened her hand, letting not-so-jolly St. Nick fall to the muddy floor.

The subway came to a skreeling stop at Teatralna while I was crouched to pick up the silver icon. It gave me a great opportunity to mop the floor with what was left of my now wet, bloodstained, matted, fake-fur coat -- yay! I righted myself in time to see Elena following the crowd onto the platform. "No, don't get off here!" I hollered before knowing I wanted to say it.

"Yes! This is where we get off to other line."

I was impressed with my faster than thought decision and ensuing command. "No! What if we are being followed?" I expounded, at the top of my lungs, for both of our benefits.

Eldorado in Kiev, Ukraine

Eldorado, an electronics superstore, sits atop an entrance to the Kiev Metro (subway). That monstrous line up isn't for subway tokens, or even home electronics, but for McDonald's.

Surfacing at the Khreschaitik metro station, we disgorged to the steet through the gaping maw of a discount electronics emporium. The air was super chilled air, nostril seizing, breath stopping. For the simple fact that we were still together, the heart of downtown Kiev hummed and glowed more beautifully than ever. We wandered silently past Stalinist-era architecture festooned with crass capitalism in bright neon, in love with the city's indifference. Finally, without direction, we descended ice-covered stairs into a subterranean universe of neocapitalism. Following the collapse, kiosks, shops, stalls, even supermarkets, had spawned throughout the formerly dank, Soviet, underpass walkway system. Noise, blasting from endless storefronts throughout the labyrinth, felt so good. Jungle drums of consumerism, banging a trance-beat, kindled the primal obsession for flawlessly pirated movies, designer wear, mobile phones, flowers, even cars. But to me, it was the sound of normal: proof of our narrow escape.

Without thinking, we fell right back into our usual routine: a late afternoon or early evening stroll through Kiev's downtown. A cup of tea in an interesting café, or Kofe Haus -- in the science-fiction, above ground foyer of yet another subterranean mall called, Globus. Most of the time, before then, we'd been there people watching and getting to know each other.

Elena doing the shopping

Elena getting groceries and finding freedom, choice, responsibility -- and same sex couples -- at Mandarin Plaza.

One of these urban rambles, maybe a week before the attack, we stumbled upon a spacious, tastefully decorated, clean, and well stocked, supermarket. Totally alien to Elena, it felt like being at home -- or Whole Foods, for a spoiled Westerner like me. Having done the whole normal, Ukrainian, grocery shopping experience -- and, let me tell you, it's really not that different from the former Soviet, Kafkaesque way of doing things -- I was astonished that this modern, downtown supermarket would not be jam-packed. I am guessing, the reasoning was that something nice must be expensive, so don't even think of going there! Needless to say, Mandarin Plaza became our downtown, supermarket of choice.

We weren't the only downtownonites claiming Mandarin Plaza the go-to cornucopia of calories. The place pulled in a younger, hipper, downtown-dwelling, twenty-thirty-something, kind of crowd. It's a no-brainer: the entire atmosphere of the place was decidedly Western. No yelling, shoving, naked light bulbs, bare concrete walls, filthy floors, abysmal selection, vermin, hateful security guards, or stray dogs snarling menacingly from beneath trestle tables piled high with bleeding, mystery carcasses.

First time down the escalator, into the basement of Mandarin Plaza, I swear, I could hear Elena's paradigms shifting. I felt like Ponce de Leon, parting a jungle thicket and coming across that elusive fountain. Elena cowered behind, tripping on my heels while I filled a shopping cart with items I took from the shelf with my own hands.

Shopping carts, goods one could help themselves to, pleasant decor and lighting, actual selection, soft music, flooring; all of it, well and truly, blew Elena's mind. She'd seen places like that in movies. Not in reality, and not for the likes of her! I mean, we'd been in the store for nearly fifteen minutes, and nobody had accused us of shoplifting. Nobody had berated us for the choice of goods in our cart.

Becoming accustomed to shopping there, it dawned on Elena that the denizens of Mandarin Plaza were, by and far, a self assured, upwardly mobile, non-threatening, new generation of Ukrainians -- they certainly weren't Soviets. She saw, for the first time in her life, open displays of affection.

Okay, it's here in the narrative that I absolutely have to provide some reader direction. Trust me, it will enhance your reading experience immensely, and you'll see why, when I commit this next bit to pixels.


INT. MANDARIN PLAZA BASEMENT -- DAY

The opening to Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra -- for those
without a master's degree in music, it's the huge, pounding theme from
2001 A Space Odyssey -- is playing, loud! The text fades in from black,
becoming so bright your entire mind-screen is awash with light.

                        NARRATOR
        (in slow-motion, voice like James Earl Jones)
                Including displays of affection
                among people of the same gender!

Globus Mall under Maidan Nezalezhnosti

One of Kiev's multitudinous, subterranean, shopping malls. This one happens to be directly under Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), site of the bloody Maidan democracy occupation.

"It has to be here!" Elena dug through layers of obsessively well-organized underwear.

"Hey! It was you that told me she took it in McDonald's, yesterday." I swiveled to avoid a flying drawer. Still, it managed to clip my sore ankle on its tumble from a pile of clothing. "Lenna, enough!"

"No! You, enough. Passport cannot be so easily to, to be…" She struggled for the right word. English-as-a-second-language takes a definite hit during a rage. So did the apartment, a direct hit from hurricane Elena.

Window sill disaster area

The bedroom window sill, in the Kiev apartment: A small example of how it had become something of a disaster area by the time Elena was ripping the place apart in search of her passport.

"... Replaced, perhaps?" I held out her tiny cell phone. "Call, ask her if she has it. Maybe it fell from your bag when they ambushed you? Then, for safekeeping she picked it up and simply forgot she has it."

She snatched the phone. Dialed. Paste, back and forth, back and… "Damn her! She will not to answer." Then she was dragging the mattress off the bed. No telling, how easy it is to lose a passport in a box spring.

The phone rang. Neither of us knew from where it was ringing. Under something, of course. Thrashing ensued. "Allo? Da, Mama?"

"See how you like it when I ignore your calls!" Or something to that effect, was Mama's response. To the, did you steal my passport question, Mama was still vehemently adamant; it was me that took it, to facilitate Elena's sale to white slavers and internal organ merchants. It wasn't all for not, Mama cooed reassuringly, Elena could get safely home to Russia with her internal, Soviet, identity booklet.

Elena was eyeing the wall-to-wall a little too maniacally. "She took it -- obviously."

"She says she did not. She cried so sadly that I should accuse her of such a thing. She says that you have turned me against her, you were brainwashed me to hate her."

"Damn, my nefarious plan has been uncovered! Get a grip. Deal with what you can, given the current conditions." I waved a hand around at the mess. "Admit it: it ain't here! She took it to pin you down; screw you, big-time; force you back to Russia; and she's lying through her teeth about it."

"How can you say such things about my… my mother?! She is my only, closest friend. How you say, someone so close, to tell to things you cannot speak with others?"

"Conspirator?" I suggested, covering for my far-from-irrational fear that Mama was textbook, DSM, BPD, psycho-bitch-from-hell nuts-o-rama. But, that's not really it either. My fear went deeper than that, into the realm of the truly disturbing: Mama was behaving like an ultra possessive jilted lover. Yuuuuck! What was I getting into? And could I possibly get us both out of it?

Globus mall under Maidan Nezalezhnosti

More of the subterranean Globus Mall, under Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Kiev's Independence Square). No way Elena and Meg could know, that several years after they shot this photo, Ukrainians on the square above these retail Meccas would be shot by Russian snipers.

Accepting that the passport wasn't in the apartment -- but rejecting the Mama-stealing-it thesis -- we ended up retracing our steps through the glittering Ukrainian capital, from the day before. You just can't be too sure about these things, and who's to say, somebody didn't come across it and turn it in at a subway station kiosk, or lost and found. Predictably, they hadn't, which wasn't a big surprise to me. Then again, I wasn't on a wild goose chase to find the passport, as much as I was hoping it would help Elena deal with what had happened to her.

At the order counter in McDonald's, reality caught up, and collided head-on. It was where she had been -- restrained by her father the day before -- while one floor above, Mama rifled through her bag and took her most valuable possession: her freedom. "What we do now?" Elena asked, in a defeated monotone.

Stalker in McDonald's

The weaselly looking tail Elena and Meg picked up. Hilarious table turning when the stalker became the stalked. Photo deliberately crappy, to protect the guilty.

The cash jockey was already interacting with the next in line. I took her arm to guide her from the counter. "We need to go to the police and report it stolen."

"We can't!" Elena froze. "It wasn't stolen. My mother took it."

"Taking without your permission is stealing."

"Not if it's your mother, or your father, or your boyfriend, or your family." She reminded me, how the detective reacted to her suggesting her mother had her passport, then stopped midsentence and yanked me closer. "Don't look. Man by door, he is watching. I think, maybe he is following. On metro, I have seen him there also."

My blood ran cold. I had been having the same feeling, but figured I was paranoid. "We need to go to the toilet." My reconnaissance of the burger joint, from the day before, had given me the idea. Snapping around, to head for the stairs leading to the basement restrooms, I saw a familiar, weaselly looking, blonde man, jerk backwards into the crowd. "That the guy?"

"Uh-huh."

Shopping Mall for the Whole Family somewhere in Kiev

"Whole Family" what a concept. An intensely poignant art-photo (if it had been in black and white, and maybe, coffee stained) of a mall entrance. English, the language of shopping sits atop Ukrainian. Elena and a bit of Meg are reflected to the left of the frame.

The machine-gun gate guard veritably leapt from his shack at our approach. Nothing like the day before, this time he was welcoming, rather jovial, happy to see us back at the police compound. "My friends, I trust all is well. How may I be of service?"

Elena told him about the missing passport, suggested it might have been lost at the police station during the commotion, and turned in by someone.

He nodded gravely, assured us, all would be well, and retreated to his shack to inquire on our behalf. Mere seconds passed before our new, detective best-friend was striding through the snow in shirtsleeves, hand extended, and apparently overwhelmed with joy to see us. His private office -- off-limits to mere criminals and lowly victims of crime, such as we, before I paid him a handsome bribe -- was just another interrogation room, personalized with several ratty chairs crammed in amongst overflowing filing cabinets, piles of books, dead potted plants, and stinking ashtrays. He too, asked warmly, how he could be of service to his friends.

"My passport, it has gone missing." Elena said.

"Yes, I know. You told me this yesterday." He became serious, leaned over his desk and continued in a low conspiratorial manner. "I have learned, through channels of some authority, that your parents, through a legal agency in Moscow, have declared you to be insane and a danger to yourself and possibly others." He leveled a concerned stare at Elena, making sure she didn't miss the gravitas of her predicament. "Of course, most of the police and officials of Ukraine don't like, or cooperate with, Russian apprehension requests, but, some may find opportunity in turning you over to the Russian authorities."

Russian Internal Passport -- what a joke!

A Russian Internal passport. Pretty much an identity document. Useless outside the USSR. The Russian Express Card: don't leave home!

"Um, okay..." Elena managed. "What should we do?"

"Certainly, you should trust nobody but me and my associates, if I should need to introduce them to you." As if we needed more convincing, he added, "There has been some suspicion of terrorism made against one or both of you, by whom, I cannot say, but I can tell you that this accusation will be taken very seriously by Interpol, and will make travel impossible until we can get your record cleared."

To me, it was all sounding very expensive and I wasn't looking forward to his bill. Elena, on the other hand, was unswerving from her primary goal. "Again, what should we do about my passport? It is missing. Should I declare it stolen?"

"Your mother has it. This you told me yesterday. So, your passport is not stolen. It is not missing. You need only to get it from your mother." Flicking a crumpled pack, he loosened a cigarette just enough to extract it with his lips.

"And yesterday," Elena wasn't quite done. "When I told you she had it, you couldn't ask her for it then?"

I knew the answer: that was pre-best-friend times. We were lowly shits before I bought him off. Of course, I didn't voice that!

Our detective bestie literally flinched, like he'd suddenly become aware of inadvertently committing an unspeakable faux pas. Unlit, bent cigarette, dangling from the corner of his mouth, he gestured toward Elena, then me, with what was left of the soft, cellophane wrapped pack -- a brand I hadn't seen since childhood. "Cigarette?"

"No, thank you!" Elena said.

"Right, smoking is too expensive for the likes of me. An honest, hardworking cop, barely getting by on slave wages." He looked wistfully at the nearly empty pack.

Thanks didn't butter his bread, nor -- I assumed -- did it feed his nicotine addiction. Before he came right out with the invoice for his undying friendship, I got in a query about the gatekeeper's warning about men looking for me.

"Yes, there were men but they were not professionals. Only paid for one day only."

"One day! Who paid them? How do you know they were paid?"

He sneered. Spent an inordinate amount of time lighting his cigarette. Took an intense interest in his fingernails. "These men are known to us. They do..." Long drag. Pick tobacco from teeth. Examine the picking. Deposit on pants. "... jobs."

"Jobs! What kind of jobs? You mean someone," I pointed at Elena. "Her parents hired..."

He held up a tar stained hand to interrupt. "This is how it is done. It is normal. I do not know for certain that these men were here for you girls. Maybe somebody else... people like... well, I do not know, but girls... people like you. It is very dangerous in Ukraine for people like you." An enormous drag on his cigarette generated a trousers damaging bolide.

"What can we do?" Elena jumped on the break he took for fire suppression.

"You can go home! Back to your boyfriend and parents, and your..." He hesitated before oozing out the Russian word for a female friend, "... girlfriend, can get out of Kiev before she floats in the Dnipro river."

Not bloody likely, I thought, the river is frozen solid.

Elena stood.

"Before you go out there, do not forget that it is good to have a friendly militia man on your side. Especially in a place that is not so friendly to people like you." He warned, or more like invoiced, in his inimitably charming way.

Of course, I paid the guy.

Downtown Kiev at night

A night scene in downtown Kiev.

In Kiev, the Canadian Embassy is conspicuous in its artificiality. It's like a miniature Canada with its meticulous landscaping, multilingual signs, and sacred maple leaf fetish-icon, flying out front. It fits in with the surrounding architecture as well as a mini-golf in the Roman Coliseum. A strangely insecure security guard greeted us politely in both French and English. The transition from full throttle, brash Ukraine to fearfully solicitous, Canadian condescension, is actually, rather jarring. I asked the guard -- at least, I think he was a guard: he was at the security desk, but confusingly, dressed in a shiny, pinstriped, Hugo Boss suit -- to let me speak to someone in the consular division.

"And to what, may I inquire, is this all about?" Well-dressed-man demanded.

Good question, flashed through my mind. "My partner's passport was stolen, and we'd like to go back to my place in Canada." Was my on-the-spot answer.

He stared at Elena, standing there with her deer-in-the-headlights look. Probably wondering why she wasn't speaking for herself. "Ah, Miss... Your missing passport is, Canadian?"

"No, Russian." I answered for her.

Percherskaya Lavra in Kiev Ukraine

Percherskaya Larva, a religious compound that survived the Soviets, was the site of many a distracting walk while trying to find a way out of Ukraine.

At that, he looked visibly relieved. A pat, fill-in-the-blank answer would solve the problem, and get us out of his waiting area. "In that case, she will need to get a new passport at the Russian embassy." Seconds later, he was writing down the address of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Kiev. With a flourish, he handed it to me and asked, "Ladies, will that be all?"

Oh my dog! That patronizing ladies crap irks me beyond belief. "No, that will not be all." I really did try to keep my cool. "I am a Canadian citizen. My friend and I were attacked and robbed, which is how this woman's passport went missing."

"That, Madam, is a matter for the local police. Have you notified them?"

"Of course, the police were involved. They let our attackers go, and they asked for a bribe, and then, they told us our lives are in danger from, not only mystery thugs, but from members of the police, themselves." While I spoke, a creepy, older, bald man -- on a bench in the waiting area, beyond the metal detector -- started looking all perky and interested.

The guardian of the consulate modulated into concerned voice number three. "Do you believe your life is in danger? Do you believe you were attacked or mistreated by the police because you are a Canadian?"

That was absurd. "No! Not Canadian..."

"What!? You aren't Canadian?" Ah hah, the keeper of the waiting room got thrown an exception and didn't blue-screen or freeze. Maybe he was human, after all.

"I. Am. Canadian." I quoted the Molsen beer commercial, just not quite as vociferously as seen on TV. I pointed at Elena. "Her parents beat the crap out of us, and ripped off her passport to tie her down."

"I see, it was a hate crime?"

"It's not like we're members of a visible minority."

"What, then? A mugging? That's something for the local police." Waiting-room-warrior shifted into full deflection mode.

An old chunk of wall at Percherskaya Lavra

Love is in the air at Percherskaya Larva! A chunk of some old wall -- perhaps, some saint sidled up to it for a whiz -- has become the go-to chunk of old wall for wedding photos.

I caught it, changed tack, headed straight for the point. "We were attacked because this woman ran away from the man her parents expect her to marry."

"Still, not a problem for the Canadian consulate." He was standing, ramrod straight, and appeared to be getting taller as he spoke. "It's not a hate crime. It's a matter for the local police and the Russian Embassy."

"The local cops literally did nothing. They pretty much sided with our attackers, and only let us go because I paid a bribe." Then I thought about it and added, "Actually, more than one bribe. And nothing trivial, I can assure you."

"That's right, you've been to the cops -- oops, I mean the police -- already." He looked at the now, dark bloodstains on my coat. "I can see why they would attack her, but why you?"

I felt my cheeks flush. "Because she was with me. Because, I guess, she came to Kiev to see me." Then, it hit me like a Canadian Tire truck: the guy wanted to help. A Russian, running away from a forced, arranged marriage, getting attacked and robbed in Ukraine, wasn't a Canadian matter. Even a Canadian getting attacked, mugged, whatever... wasn't something the consulate would get involved with, unless, "And, the caw... err, the police refused to help, and were treating me like I was some kind of criminal."

"Why do you think the police were treating you and your..." His hesitation conveyed volumes. "... Your, girlfriend, your partner, that way?" He leaned across the desk, closer to me. I caught a whiff of his cologne, something familiar, something expensive. He knew about hate crimes.

I hadn't really thought about it, named it, defined it, until then. Elena and I had certainly never discussed it. Love was a given. We wanted to be together, without question, without a contract, without the obligation of a physical act to prove our devotion to each other. Because sex had nothing to do with it, and never would, we didn't think of ourselves as lesbian, until then. We just thought of ourselves as us: Elena and Meg. But the consulate clerk was driving the big Canadian Tire truck with a sign on it saying, Canadian victims of hate crime get consular assistance. Resigned, I said, "They treated us like that because we are lesbian. They told us, people like us are not very safe in Ukraine."

"Okay, I will refer you to consular services." He looked visibly relieved. I think, I even saw him smile when he motioned for us to take a seat on the bench beside the creepy, bald guy.

"Hi there, I'm Jim from Mississauga." Mr. Creepy had his hand out, imposing unwanted, physical contact.

Elena still had her mittens on. Yuck. It's always up to me, I thought. Then again, meeting a fellow Canadian in a foreign country obligates me to physical invasion. "Yeah, hi." I shook his hand. Hating it, like always. When it comes to societal norms, allowing personal violation is always the right thing to do, or at least, easier than confrontation.

Exterior or Percherskaya Lavra, Kiev, Ukraine

Icons festooning the exterior walls of one of the churches within the Percherskaya Larva in Kiev. That's real gold in them thar chap-hills!

"So-called, god-fearing folk treating you people like that, saddens me." Jim, from Mississauga, confessed. "I attest to you, true Christians love without judgment, as Jesus does."

Stuck in the middle, between Elena and Jim from Mississauga, I raised my eyebrows, turned my head only enough to see from the very corners of my eyes, and replied, "Jesus, you mean, like Elvis?"

"Elvis was a good Christian man..." Jim from Mississauga began.

"Jesus, like Elvis, is dead! Their problems are over." Okay, Jim was nuts. Maybe housekeeping swiped his neuroleptics, and he was waiting for a refill at the consulate. I carefully, and with no sudden moves, turned away.

Apparently, turning my back on him was born-again body language for, more blather, please. "They claim to know Christ, and yet they do not follow his lessons of loving all. The exalted, the pious, the heathen, the sinner; Jesus loved all, his love shows us the one true way. Those who cast aspersions on you, instead of showing you the way, they are not true Christians, they do not know Christ in their hearts."

"They?" I said, through gritted teeth. "You mean, the police?"

"I mean the Soviets. The Ukrainians. They are like children. Now that they can worship, they don't know what the word of God is telling them. I am here to bring God's true words and the teachings of Jesus to these people, so that they may be saved."

I glowered a super intense WTF at the clerk. I swear, I saw a smirk on his face.

Creepy Jim from Mississauga, kept right on going. When he launched into something like, how incredibly much his huge flock counted on him to bring light and love to the godless horde of former Soviets, I thought I was going to bust a gut trying not to laugh my face off.

That got the clerk's face buried in his hands, shoulders shaking under pricey threads. What got him out from behind the desk, like a human cannonball heading for a side door, was creepy Jim's promise of a Ukraine, tolerant of even homosexuals like us.

The guy had to be kidding, right? That's what I was thinking: a televangelist send-up to make Robin Williams proud. I turned, tears in my eyes, stomach muscles actually sore, and played right along, "Yeeee-ass, Ukie queers can be saved... for later, and then slow broiled on Satan's rotisserie." I totally laughed! That, for later, part was pure improv.

God's mouthpiece went silent. Holy crap! The guy was for real. What's worse, I think, he thought I was too, and, he was really getting off on my suggestion. He reached out, invaded my space, placed a hand on my shoulder and cooed, "Praise Jesus, sister. Let me pray for you, that you may be saved."

Elena had gotten off the bench, pressed herself to the wall, and was inching away from me and Mr. creepy. She probably thought I had completely lost it, or that all Canadians enjoyed a bird's eye view of the cuckoo's nest.

I toned it down for her sake. But never one to squander a good pun, I replied: "Ah, thank you, but no thanks, we have been preyed upon quite enough, already."

Crestfallen, doesn't begin to describe the look on his face. More like, I'd just backed the Volvo over his baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary, prize-winning, Sunday-school diorama.

I very carefully removed his hand from my shoulder, suppressing the urge to remove his arm, and then, manifesting a look of such extreme sincerity, hitherto only fabled to have graced the countenances of real estate agents, or used car salesmen, I assured creepy Jim from Mississauga: "Don't get me wrong, we are totally into savings, although, mine are running a little low, with the high cost of bribes, and all."

Detail of Kiev's Percherskaya Lavra

Architectural details and outdoor icons adorn god's house, or weekend cottage, at the Percherskaya Larva, in Kiev, Ukraine.

The deputy, vice Consul, herself, rescued us from the waiting room. We followed her through the consular inner sanctum, past really large, impressive, undoubtedly expensive paintings -- I was thinking, Group of Seven, hoping I didn't trip on my tongue. Then, up a grand, atrium encircling, stairway; through an expansive, tastefully decorated, thoroughly modern, and oh-so-Canadian common area -- redolent with plush sofas, carpeting, food and beverages for the taking, television sets tuned to the CBC, and piped in classical music -- and finally, into her office.

I gave her the rundown on the mess Elena and I had gotten ourselves into. She listened, jotted down a couple of notes, and said, our story was not unique. "Well, in Ukraine, and especially Russia..." She waved at Elena. "It's not unusual for parents to attack, threaten, or strongly convince, their adult children, to -- hmm, how shall I put this? -- do, and live as they see fit, or do what they think is in their best interest." She glanced at her notes, bouncing a ballpoint an a legal pad. "And, as you have seen, society, the legal system, and law enforcement -- if not outright supporting this behavior -- turns a blind eye: they, allow it to happen. In your case, what's unique, is that you managed to get away. You are still together, and something a lot worse didn't happen."

"A lot worse?" I tried not to sound too pathetic.

"Oh yes, it could have been far worse, especially in situations like yours." Once again, she held her hand out to Elena. "When it involves an adult child's sexual orientation, serious assault, even murder, are very real possibilities."

"Wow... Now what? Are we still in danger?"

"I would think so. Paying off the militia and concealing your address here, in Kiev, is probably what prevented a far worse outcome. But, it's just a matter of time before the police or..." She paused to cogitate. "... your pursuers find you."

"Or I run out of bribe money."

"That too." She gazed at the pad, checking off points she'd probably already made. She checked off a blank line, and looked up. "The police don't know who you are?"

Deli counter at Mandarin Plaza

Elena at the deli counter in Mandarin Plaza. Before Mandarin and Kiev, choice was only a concept to her. So many cheeses, so many choices!

"Who I am?" Like what, flashed through my mind, an international crime boss of epic proportions!?

"Your name, nationality..."

"Oh shit!" It was out before I could stop it -- the swear, not the end product of digestion -- "Ah, sorry... but yes, the detective I paid off, demanded my passport. Xeroxed it. Two copies: one for the cops, one for Lenna's parents."

The consul's turn to stifle an expletive, at least, that's what it looked like. "So Ukrainian border services has your address here?"

"No, I didn't know where I was staying. I gave them the address of a place I stayed at a couple of years ago."

"Come here often?" She flashed me a suspicious arch of her impeccably groomed eyebrows.

"Orange revolution. Yeah, I was here for some kick-ass shots and wild footage." Again, with the swearing -- jeez, Meg!

"Journalist?"

"Freelance." After some thought, "More of an adrenaline junkie, an adventurer with frequent-flier miles to burn."

"They won't know where to find you -- for a while, anyway -- but they will know what flight you were on, and which one you're going back on. They've got your passport number, and tagged it, probably. Elena's passport has been stolen, probably tagged by her parents. You've been warned of intimidation -- and do not take that lightly." She waggled her pen in my direction. "You need to get out of Ukraine."

"How can we? Her passport is missing."

"You have a valid Canadian passport and you are free to travel. Once again, I strongly advise you to get out of Ukraine. We can provide an escort to the airport, and onto the first available flight out of the country."

"Thanks, but it's not going to work. I'm not leaving her." I glanced at Elena, sitting stiffly in front of a colorful, Québec winter Carnival poster, kneading her mittens, cheeks red as the Canadian Maple leaf. "She's as good as dead, maybe even worse, if she stays here. If she goes back to Russia, her life as she knows it is over. I'm not leaving without her."

Mandarin Plaza salad bar

The Salad Bar at Mandarin Plaza. Site of major backbone development by Elena.

"That's commendable and there's no denying the danger, but in reality all the consulate can do is recommend evacuating. Your Russian acquaintance doesn't fall under our jurisdiction. We couldn't intervene on her behalf, if we wanted to."

"Acquaintance?" I muttered.

"Personally, I think you two need to get as far away from Kiev as possible, at least until you figure this out. Without a passport your... girlfriend, here, is not going anywhere. Get a police report about the alleged theft, then try to get a replacement passport from the Russian Embassy here, in Kiev." She then ran through the draconian requirements for documents -- and proof Elena had to provide that wouldn't stay in Canada -- in order to qualify for a tourist visa.

"What about a refugee claim?" I was grabbing at straws. Looking for a trapdoor, a loophole, some way out.

"Not possible unless she applies here, to the Ukrianian government for amnesty first. A foreigner in Ukraine can't make a refugee claim in a foreign embassy unless it has been documented and denied by Ukraine first."

"Ukraine won't protect her. Give her amnesty from what: forced marriage and treatment for homosexuality? Here, that's a good idea, not a refugee claim. We both know that." I pleaded. "Officials here are as corrupt as the Russians. Hell, they probably are Russians. They'll feed her to the goons she's running from, for a few bucks."

"Then she must return to Russia. It is her country after all. Russia has a duty to protect her."

"Yeah, right. They'll look after her." A countrywide, residential registration database, left over from the Soviets; tracks every citizen, tourist, visitor and bipedal, non-feathered, air-breathing, living creature this side of Vladivostok. Which, for a few dollars, can be accessed by anyone. Not only can friendly cops sell information from police or government databases, but for a modest fee, anyone can plant what they want in that database. They can elevate it as high as they can afford: all the way up to Interpol, if they've got the dough. "Russia is completely unsafe. Especially now that they think she's homosexual."

"She isn't?"

"I don't know. It's not like we're sexual! We don't have, want, or even think about sex. It's really not a part of our relationship."

"So, you are asexual?" He cut me off. "Do they, her parents, the police know this?"

Asexual!? Whoa, it was probably the first time I'd heard the term. Certainly not like I, or Elena, spent a lot -- or any -- time thinking about it, discussing it. "I guess... yeah, right... that fits." I was certainly thinking about it then! "And, no. Nobody would know we are ay-sex-you-all." Sounding it out -- saying it -- felt damn weird: I had never really thought about labeling either -- heck, I was just me, she was just Elena. "What difference would it make?"

"Her parents might not be so upset? Her father sounds extremely homophobic."

"So, what? It's because we love each other; because we want to be with each other; because we refuse to slave for husbands, and babies, and social programming; and because we both happen to be women; they think we must be homosexual: having sex, screwed up, deviant... sick."

"I suppose so." She sighed, giving off this-meeting-is-over vibes.

"What about Canada? Can she make a refugee claim in Canada?"

"Considering the situation, she would likely have a claim, but she needs to be on Canadian soil to make it. But, really..." She shook her head slowly, slapping the legal pad down. "First and foremost, you need to get out of Ukraine."

"I'm not leaving Elena."

"Then, in the very least, get out of Kiev, and do it discretely: no identification, no credit cards." The deputy vice consul stood. "I wish there was more I could do but you're sitting ducks here." Near the door, she paused, picked up her ballpoint, and using the top of a filing cabinet, jotted her private number on a business card. "While you're in Ukraine, you can use the embassy as a contact point and proxy address for mail, messages, the police... especially, the police. Let me or the consulate, know where you are and your plans. In fact, why don't you get in touch tomorrow morning?" She handed me the card. "I wish there was more I could do."

Extreme shopping, Soviet style

Extreme Shopping: usually outdoors, below freezing, dangerous, commerce through conflict, price includes derision and contempt. It's the Soviet way. A far cry from Mandarin.


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