Getting the Hell Out of Dodge
"So far, so good." I yarded open the ridiculous, upholstered, outer door. The inner, wooden door wasn't blemished with gouged death threats, swastikas, or bullet holes. Keying its lock, I expected a booby trap. Possibly, I've seen way too many action flicks.
The lock released. The knob turned. The door opened. No commandos in black body armor, rappelled from helicopters. No atomic bomb -- LED counting down mere seconds. Just our dark vestibule and the stench of wet laundry rotting in the machine. Yeah, it's true, I can be a bit messy.
We crept through the apartment, lunging for light switches, cringing at closet doors. With the place lit up like the palace of Versailles, I pleaded with a just-as-strung-out Elena, "That car, it was just a random thing, right? Happens all the time in places like this, doesn't it?"
"What places?" Blank stare from Elena.
"The former USSR! People get run over all the time, right?" I begged for an excuse to slip back into a complacent, do-nothing, wait-for-something-to-happen routine.
"No, never it has happened to me."
"But it must happen to others. Those guys, you saw them! Just regular, pedestrian-running-over idiots, right? You don't think they were after us, personally?"
"After that what you did to their car, goss-poe-dee Meg!"
"But, they ran me down."
"They ran after you because you kicked their car."
"What I mean..." I rubbed my forehead. "Forget it. You're right, they are just mad at us because I, for no reason at all, went berserk and wantonly attacked their car. Those innocent skin-heads certainly have nothing to do with the extortionist you think we saw leaving the subway, or your scary uncle, or your psychopathic mama."
"How can you say such things about my family?!" Elena was quick to tears at the best of times, but say just one thing about Mama Dearest, and it was an Arizona flash-flood. The conversation was over. The way she pretty much turned the bedroom door inside-out, made that clear.
Stress -- to use that dismissive, weaselly term -- was getting to us. How about we cut the crap; call it what it is: anger, frustration, fear, and it was freaking constant. It just never let up. Waiting for something, anything to change; for someone to help, was eating at our psyches, eroding our strength, killing time. Worse, we were turning on each other. If there really were evil forces against us -- and it sure as hell felt like it: jealous Mama; uncaring consulates; corrupt cops -- that weaselly stress was taking us down, way down, into wallowing, self-indulgent victimhood.
It's like this, all those grindingly shitty factors were just factors: environmental conditions. Like rain isn't out to get you wet, it's just rain. Sure, it sucks when it destroys your phone, drenches your shoes, and delaminates your key-card, so you can't get into the computer lab at one AM, and your bloody assignment is due in the morning!
Sorry. Where was I? Oh yeah, factors, right. Rain drenches. Assholes abuse. Militsia milk. And parental-units with-a-screw-loose behave like jilted lovers. Point is: it's not personal. It's in their nature. At the time, though, it sure-as-hell felt personal.
We stopped riding the subway home, wrangling rides from Mandarin Plaza, back to our apartment, instead. It made getting followed a little less likely, and we were getting good at picking the right rides. Hey, we're still alive to recount the tale.
Snagging rides had the added advantage of greater grocery capacity. We were eating like kings! Empty wine and pepper-vodka bottles filled the cupboards and spilled out onto the limited floor space. We were going to have to: one, clean the place up; or two, abandon it. As luck would have it, cleaning it up was suddenly not an option.
At first, it sounded like a drunken brawl in the stairwell. Elena was in the kitchenette, hoovering down Italian asiago. I was in the living room, dealing with email on a ten inch Dell laptop. Violent hollering, in what sounded way too harsh to be Ukrainian, echoed up from below.
I tossed the laptop. Ran for door. "It's a fight! Len, we have got to check it out!"
"Nyet!" Then, "shhhh," from the kitchenette. "You crazy? Maybe us they are wanting?"
Crouching, like cowering rabbits in the vestibule, we listened. More bellowing, definitely Russian, no hint of Ukrainian accent. Then, what sounded like doors being kicked and pounded on and angry responses. The melee was getting closer, door by door. Words were easier to make out. Vile Russian equivalents for prostitutes, homosexuals, deviants. Oh yeah, they were looking for us.
Elena went white as the driven snow. I crawled around, turning off lights. Like, that was going to help. The gentlemen callers were systematically going door to door. Obviously, no one in the building had noticed us, knew for whom the lads bellowed, or ratted us out.
Then a new sound keened its way onto the scene. Distant at first, but undeniable by the time the belligerents were hammering on upholstered doors near ours. "Someone called the cops!" I hissed.
"So what? Those men out there might be the militsia." She used the local nomenclature for the boys-in-blue-polyester. "What do we do, Meg?"
"Our friendly detective might have sent them ahead to convince us to give generously to his chocolates-and-wine-for-his-girlfriend fund."
"I guess." Elena looked at me like I'd just gone full-on, transient-ischemia aphasic: had a stroke and started speaking in tongues. "We should not open the door. What if they try to kick it down?"
"I don't think they can."
"What if they have guns?"
"Who, the cops? I'm pretty sure they have guns!" I added, "It's the police we need to be afraid of, more than the thugs."
"But you kicked their car! I saw what you did to it. They can kill you for that."
"Maybe, but the police know that I throw money at the slightest provocation, like some Pavlovian, money drooling poodle. I can just hear them down at the station, 'Hey boys, we need chocolates and wine for our girlfriends. Go scare up some dollars from that foreign dike and her Ruskie chick.' "
"Poodle?" Elena was looking at me funny again.
The sirens went silent. New voices from below quieted the belligerents. Furtive mumbles and frantic shuffling vanished into the background murmur of the lower-floor occupants carping to the cops. Knees and foreheads together, hands on each other's shoulders, we crouched in the vestibule, and waited.
"What now?" I whispered.
Elena shushed me.
Blue flashers reflected from the Prokuratura. It reminded me of sheet lightning before one hell of a prairie-storm. Boots on our landing -- or horses, for how subtle they were. Mumbled insecure ribbing. Forced laughter, and then, Ding-dong. I was pretty sure it wasn't Avon calling.
Elena stifled an inhalation eep! with one hand.
A couple more, ding-dong's and even a foomf-foomf-wheeze of a knocking attempt on that ridiculous, padded vinyl, and the militsia -- we think -- moved on to the next upholstered door.
Jotted on the deputy vice consul's terrifyingly official, Government of Canada business card, was her direct number. That fetishistic, Canada trademark sent chills down my spine. You see that logo, and you just know that you're fucked. Like getting a letter from the Reichstag, or NKVD. But we were pretty well as fucked as can be, so it was high-time to use the number she'd written below the federal government's totem.
Not that I didn't know what had to be done, but I was desperate to talk with someone who understood everything I said; someone -- in a billion to one, snowball's chance, in a parallel universe's hell -- who might know of a loophole I'd missed, or a way to help.
Nope -- same, old same-old.
"What? You are still here?" She spoke with a sort-of, I-can't-believe-I-gave-you-that-number, vocal inflection.
I told her about the stairwell storm troopers.
"You have got to get out of Ukraine. You have a valid passport, you have an open, return plane ticket. What are you still doing here?"
"I'm not leaving Elena." I waited for a response. I waited some more... Then, to make sure I hadn't been cut off, I added: "Elena is that woman whose parents attacked her and stole her passport."
"That's right. The Russian?" Came from her end. "If she doesn't have a passport she can't travel, and you really need to get out of Kiev." Then she added, "Out of Ukraine," like some kind of official boilerplate. "You need to go home... to Canada. If you need a ride to the airport or someone to deal with your ticket, we can set that up."
I said it again. "I am not leaving someone I love behind." Adding, "In a hostile country." The silence was painful. I asked her, "Would you?"
"Would I, what?"
"Leave someone you love, in danger, in a foreign country. Would you?"
"No..." She sighed. "... I wouldn't. But Meg, you are in a very dangerous situation. All the consulate, the government of Canada, can do, is look out for you. It is up to Russia to look after your friend."
Of course, I knew that. I also knew that what Canada can do, was really, what Canada was minimally obligated to do. Some obscenely well paid Canadian or British shishkas had, no doubt, decreed that my government had to, at least, pay lip service to dragging my Canadian ass from the fire. Derrieres of other nationalities -- regardless of their importance to the brandisher of a Canadian keister -- however, weren't their problem.
"I'm really sorry." She sounded like she meant it.
"Yeah me too." And I really meant that. Growing up sucks. Like finding Dad on christmas eve, tiptoeing around the tree, cookie crumbs on his face; that's the kind of psychic blow I'm talking about. How badly I wanted to believe in the sacrosanct superiority of my Canadianness. How foolish I felt for having done so. How utterly stupid I had been thinking it stood for something.
"Meg, still there?"
"Uh, yeah? Sorry, I was thinking. You're right. I... ah, we need to get the hell out of Dodge."
"Kiev... Too much TV as a kid."
"Be careful. You know they run identity documents?"
"They?" I assumed she was talking about the police.
"Commercial carriers: the train, bus, plane. Anyone leaving the region -- the city, in this case -- gets identified. Databased, I suppose."
I did know that. Hadn't really thought about it -- with all the other crap hitting the fan. Yay! Yet another obstacle to get over, around, or crash right into.
Leaving the building together, waltzing out; laughing at big shishkas; spitting olive pits at pricey cars: our normal routine, wasn't going to happen. Not then, and not ever again.
Mind you, we indulged in one last hurrah. A fond farewell to our Prokuratura neighbors. In the wee hours -- after packing only what we could carry -- we lined all our liquor bottles up along the foundation of the Prokuratura's closest corner. Those bottles weren't all empty, and here's to hoping, some anti-graft protester, or shattered soul, found the abandoned, liquid remains of our life in Kiev somewhat fortifying.
In the murky darkness before sunrise, Elena went first. From our bedroom window, I watched her go. Lit by sodium vapor light, she disappeared up a snow dusted side street. The second time she'd fled in as many months. I forced a cough to clear the lump in my throat. Damn, the apartment was empty, cold, hostile. I had no idea it would hit me that hard, but it had been home, a space brought to life by our interaction within its walls. Elena wasn't coming through the upholstered door with forbidden foodstuffs ever again. I wasn't either, but that didn't matter as much. I was the one left feeling the cold, afraid of the silence, looking at all the things that used to be a part of us, scattered about -- abandoned.
"The plan, damn it! Stick with the plan, Meg." I growled the stoicism mantra and unclenched my jaw.
Our suitcases were packed and standing at attention in the vestibule. Mine, marked with a huge masking-taped letter M, was huge. Elena's wasn't. What we couldn't cram into them hung in closets, dangled from coat hooks, sat in cupboards, lay in drawers, and festooned the furniture. Maybe someone could use it. Nah, more than likely, they'd toss it all. Cursing us to the devil, all the way to the dumpster.
Elena caught a bus to Arsenalnaya. A subway station on another line, and totally off our usual route. I took a random walk in the opposite direction, flagging down a ride when my surroundings looked unfamiliar.
I swear, the Arsenalnaya area architects must have been poached from Hitler's house of design, for how disturbingly fascist the buildings look around there. I limped down concrete stairs, trying not to slip and bash my badly bruised butt on black-ice, frozen spit, and ABC gum. In case you aren't familiar with ABC gum: it's an acronym for Already Been Chewed. Elena told me about gleefully chiseling ABC gum from the ice, then chewing it for days, until it became sludge. The buried treasure started appearing around the time of the USSR's collapse.
Just outside the super-heavy, steel and glass doors of the subway station, Elena paced like a caged wolverine. I mouthed, "Go inside," waving her into the station. Then I elbowed my way toward a bank of pay phones.
Astonishingly, they still had pay phones in Ukraine. They weren't even vandalized. It's not that I had a sudden urge to reach out and touch someone, but figured a jaunty phone yakking lean, and a disinterested gaze around the subterranean plaza was less obvious to a tail than stopping mid pedestrian flow and peering backwards over my shoulder.
It was still dark when we emerged from the subway, downtown at Khreshchatyk. "The brochure didn't say anything about perpetual night. Is the sun ever above the horizon here?" I moaned.
"What brochure?" Elena gave me a funny look.
I almost explained myself, but, it's all in the timing, and fabulous wit takes a big hit in translation. "Forget it. We need a cash machine. You recall seeing one in Mandarin?"
"Cash? You mean, money?"
"Yeah, in dollars."
"Oh Meg, there is not a machine to make money. You would be put to jail."
"ATM, an Automatic Teller Machine... a bank machine." That time, it was from my countenance, a look of such utter incredulity -- it has hitherto, only been fabled to exist -- emanated. "Yeah, if there's one anywhere, it'll be there. Let's go."
I felt -- and probably looked -- like a crazed Floridian making verbal love to a slot machine I'd been feeding for the last thirty-seven hours. "Come on. Come on. Come on... Baby needs new shoes. Lucky sevens. Lucky, lucky, lucky." I air-kissed my TD Canada Trust bank card, like it was the last time I'd ever see it, and fed it to the ATM.
Elena leaned on a railing behind me. She'd become quiet. Might have been crying, something she had been doing a lot of lately. If there had been anyone else in Mandarin Plaza's uber-chik atrium, her tears, tumbling from the second or third floor, might have threatened an expensive coiffure or two.
Booop from the bank machine, then, "Language choice: Rooskie, Ukrainska, English." Flashed on the screen.
"No French!?" I joked, too mind-blown for anything wittier. "Holy kapoosta!" That's Ukrainian for cabbage. "Maybe it's going to work! Maybe we're going to be okay." I punched in my code, then requested an inordinate amount of cash.
The machine refused, but offered to shell out my daily maximum limit.
"Score!" I fist pumped with whatever hand wasn't poking YES on the touch screen. It even asked me for what currency. I'm pretty sure I had tears in my own eyes, watching sixty, gorgeous, US twenties clog the cash dispenser.
Rocketing to the fourth floor in one of the glass elevators, I sang my happy caffeine song: "Coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee-chameleon," and Elena looked at me funny. I was desperate. We'd been up pretty much all night, under the kind of pressure given to spawning really high, atomic-weight elements in super-massive stellar explosions; we'd just been given a stay of execution by a munificent money machine -- which eased the pressure off me, at least -- and I hadn't had a hit of caffeine in twenty-four hours! It was full-on migraine headache time, if I didn't get a fix, and fast.
"Aaaarrrrg!" Bars, restaurants, every bloody one of them was closed, up there. Apparently, high-end dining doesn't rise and shine with the junior executives of new Kiev. I could see them outside, though. Just beyond the expanse of glass doors, alighting from their limousines and taxis. All freshly pressed, groomed and caffeinated up, no doubt. I hit the call button for the elevator. If our favorite executive-class grocery store was open in the basement, I could maybe buy a jar of instant, and eat it with a spoon.
Closed. Damn it!
The passenger drop-off area, just outside Mandarin's steam-punk-modern foyer, was a throng of expensive, blacked out sedans. At least a few regular looking passenger vehicles stood their ground among the metallic bulls. Don't forget, actual taxis were seriously decrepit death traps with a sign riveted to the roof. It meant that virtually any semi-serviceable vehicle with a driver was a potential ride. I spotted a sound looking, nondescript, light blue Opel by the curb. A non-scary driver sat behind the wheel, reading a paper.
I forged onward toward the Opel.
"Let's just get the hell out of here. You coming?"
"To where?" Elena stood her ground, waved toward Khreshchatyk. Stammering to come up with words. "Coffee, McDonald's will have. We don't need car. It is close to here."
Oh. My. Dog! I would have killed or died for a cuppa Joe, but was frantic to get on with getting out. I also wanted to do it fast enough to trample the inevitable melancholy that running from the city we fell in love with, and fell in love in, would unleash. "No... Coffee can wait." I still can't believe I said that.
"Now to Odessa!? But your head, it aches..."
"Yup, it's now or never." We'd talked about it. I had been to Odessa, was reasonably familiar with it. It seemed as good a place as any to hide out and buy time. "We can get coffee on the road." I knocked on the Opel's passenger window. The driver signaled us into the car. I eased into the front. Elena got in the back.
"Where to?" The driver -- curly blonde, thirtyish, conservatively dressed: shirt and tie -- asked without taking his eyes off the newspaper.
"Train station or airport?"
"Just downtown. Near the Opera House." I knew where it was, knew it would land us in an affluent area rife with hotels.
"Odessa!?" He folded the paper, slapped it on the dash and glared at me. "Are you going by train or plane?"
"No, you misunderstand." Elena leaned forward from the backseat. "We need to get to Odessa, and we would like to get there by car. Can you drive us, and if so, for how much?"
We'd discussed this too. Probably at three in the morning, stuffing suitcases and thrashing out a viable escape-from-Kiev plan that might not get us killed or arrested. All public transport -- planes, trains, busses, and donkey carts -- leaving the city, required official travel identification: my passport; Elena's Soviet, internal travel document. The cops had the numbers on those. Even the Canadian, deputy, vice consul warned us. Yeah, we flash those travel docs, and we'd be toast.
He put the car in gear, sped away from the herd of idling Mercs and Bimmers, and into a loading bay around the corner. "Odessa is very far. A thousand kilometers, certainly. Very expensive to drive there." He spoke to me in simple Russian.
"It's about six hundred kilometers. How about two hundred dollars." I said.
Elena was silent.
"You crazy? That won't buy gas! I need to drive back from Odessa and the car belongs to my brother-in-law." He'd reverted to completely colloquial Russian.
He lost me. I got maybe fifty percent from his words, but a hundred percent from his tone of voice and body language. "Ahhh, Lenna... you can join the conversation, anytime."
Driver guy, zeroed in on the language. I visualized his Terminator-like, heads-up display: English -- language of money!
I raised my offer. "All right, two fifty. Cash. And we go now."
"What are your names? You are Americans, yes?"
Elena finally chimed in. "I am Russian, my..." she hesitated, "... girlfriend is from Canada."
"Don't tell him that!" I groaned. "And no names."
"Blyad, you are on the run, or you would take the train." Okay, driver-guy understood some English. "Maybe you murdered someone. Maybe drugs. I don't care, but I need something for my risk. I don't know what you two have done."
I upped the offer again. "Three hundred -- that is all. It is enough, or we find another car."
Elena popped the back door, stuck a Doc Martin clad leg out.
"Okay, okay, okay, three hundred in American dollars, and I want to see it. We get pulled over and it is everyone for himself. All I know is you missed your tour bus or something." He handed me a card. "My name is Andre."
Elena got back in. She translated Andre's instructions for my benefit. Switching to Russian she added: "My name is Alexis, and this is my friend, Natalia. Nice to meet you, Andre."
I thumbed fifteen twenties from the concealed wad in my pocket, showed them to Andre, and off we went. First stop: the Prokuratura.
While Andre locked the apartment's keys between the inner and outer doors, and then, trundled our suitcases down to the car, Elena and I stared out the back window at all our bottles lined up like soldiers along the Prokuratura's corner. More than a few bemused passersby did double-takes. I wonder what they thought.
The trunk lid blocked our view, then whump: Elena's suitcase. Then a moaning grunt, a string of expletives and a tooth-loosening impact that lowered the poor car's back end nearly to the road surface. "Ah, that would be my suitcase." I grimaced.
Andre got behind the wheel, fuming. "Have you stones in that bag? My back could have been broken, then what?" He wasn't making conversation.
The car spun and pulled out. Elena stared back at the bottle festooned corner. I knew she was crying. I managed a couple of pictures before... damn it, I had tears in my eyes too.