Hitting the Open Road
A couple of caffeine deprived hours south of Kiev, we pulled over at a seedy truck-stop. Hookers trolled the idling rigs in front of a crumbling building, once decorated to resemble a Swiss, mountain chalet. Andre yanked the handbrake, flung the door open, like the car was on fire, hitched up his trousers and said, "Need telephone to wife." Then, leaned back into the car, yanked the keys from the ignition and added, "Mobile-nik telephone, not work outside Kiev."
In the stalovaya -- cafeteria -- I sipped a cup of something resembling coffee. It might have been harvested from one of the rusting car, truck, or indeterminate machine hulks out back, for how it tasted. Oh my dog, just let it have caffeine! The payphones by the door were vacant: no Andre. Probably taking a leak, I figured. Then I saw the toilet doors, planked and nailed shut. Yeah, that was going to be a problem, if the brown swill I was choking down didn't destroy my kidneys.
Elena clued into my horrified stare. "Toilets are outside."
They were, indeed. Not just in the great outdoors, but the great outdoors, itself. Squatting between rusting piles of metal, being sniffed at by a junkyard dog, and trying not to pee on my boots, I spotted Andre engaged in a rather animated conversation on his mobile-nik tee-lee-phone. Ah, screw it, I thought, cajoling the increasingly curious canine with my highly accented Russo-Ukrainian doggy-speak. "Good dog. Pretty dog. Go away, little doggy."
In the parking lot, we leaned against Andre's car, waiting for him to come back from wherever. I amused myself, matching the suspicious stares of the working girls, one for one.
"Meg, how can you know they are prostitutes?" Elena asked.
"Know anyone wearing a latex miniskirt, fishnet stockings, spike heels, with a bare tummy in winter, who isn't?" Honestly, I wondered how sheltered Elena had been, back in provincial Russia.
Andre swaggered on over. "Oye, I forgot! it's a long trip. I need snacks and Pepsi." He stuck out his hand.
I looked at it. "What?" Thought, maybe he wanted me to slap him some skin.
"Money." He rubbed his thumb and fingertips together. "I'm not driving all the way there hungry."
I sighed, rolled my eyes, pulled some Ukrainian bills from my wallet.
"Dollars! Give to me, dollars." He snatched a twenty from me. Then, in Russian, "You ladies want something?"
"Can't afford it. Just bring me the change and let's get going." I answered in English.
Laughing, he headed for the chalet.
On the road again, Andre was chain-chugging cans of some highly caffeinated energy drink. Elena slept blissfully in the backseat, and I stared at the Ukrainian steppe passing hypnotically by, an endlessly undulating prairie of snow and stubble. Occasional clumps of brush, rusting machinery, and lonely, decaying buildings broke the monotony, but still... it was so hard... to keep... my... eyes... open.
"Aaargh!" I was yanked from the depths of a nightmare involving swerving, honking and revving engines, to find Andre in the heat of a caffeine fueled highway duel with a delivery van. I didn't even know a delivery van could actually go one-hundred and eighty km/h! He only broke it off when I threatened to chuck his three hundred bucks out the window. It was either that, or the police roadblock suddenly appearing over a rise. Of course, we were signaled over, while the van was waved right on through. I groaned -- nah, that's not right. I probably swore under my breath, like a sophomore caught, shit-faced with the heady stench of Dad's 22 year old scotch and Mom's Chanel No. 5 on her breath -- and peeled a couple of twenties from the wad in my pocket.
I slipped them to Andre.
"You've done this before." He sneered, getting out to intercept an officer on his way over.
I watched them, a couple of meters ahead of the car's crackling engine, chatting it up like old buddies. I scanned the ditch, the frozen field beyond. I ran the odds of Andre kissing off my three hundred to sell us out for a bigger prize. He'd taken the keys. Finally, he and the cop shook hands.
Pulling out, waving genially to the officer, Andre growled, "Dollars you give, not from three hundred you pay to me." Then Russian, "Understood?"
We made it to Odessa's crumbling outskirts by late afternoon. The highway had widened into six or more lanes: an asphalt ribbon traversing a predominantly gray valley of unhealthy, scrub forest. Scars of half collapsed warehouses, abandoned factories and fields of tangled metal, blighted the mangy pelt of sick brush. Attention grabbing billboards appeared randomly, extolling a better life with the products they touted. One of them was disturbingly out of place in the post apocalyptic landscape; the former prime-minister, Yuliya Tymoshenko, cradling a seedling and smiling beatifically down upon the river of cars and trucks.
Closer in, Soviet suburbia had assimilated the outlying, industrial wasteland. Andre shattered my highway-head hypnosis. "Ah, Odessa! The end of our long road, my girlfriends. We must dine together!"
Slathering it with well practiced sarcasm, I moaned, "Right..." The truth of the matter was, I didn't know where in hell we were going, or what we'd do when we got there. Andre was getting more than a little creepy. I hadn't really slept in two days, and we had nowhere to stay. Dining wasn't first and foremost on my list of priorities; especially knowing, damn well, it would be my treat.
Seriously stiff, I fought my seat belt and rigor-mortise-like stiffness to peer into the backseat. Elena sprawled, blissfully comatose, drooling on my Roots Canada knapsack she used for a pillow. How I hated to do it, but I needed her tact and Russian language skills. "Lenna?"
"Hon... we're just about there." I shook one of her knees.
"Grrrr" She, tried to roll over. Awake now, and probably aware of where she was: backseat of a maniac's car on her way to... yeah, that's the point -- to where?
Andre sensed life signs and emergent sentience from the backseat, shoved his face toward the mirror and projected, "Where are you girls staying in Odessa?" He nearly rear ended a flatbed, doing it, but covered nicely by leaning on the horn, the high beams, and proclaiming the trucker an idiot for not plowing into the slower traffic ahead.
"Where are we? Meg, what is going on?"
Andre answered. "We are arriving now, silly girl! Tell me where are you staying in Odessa?"
"I don't know." Then, "Mam-ach-key!" She latched onto a Jesus handle in the nick of time.
"You don't know?! Twits, I have to take you somewhere!"
"Calm down!" I went on, in English, nice and slow. "Downtown. Waterfront. Pushkin stairs. Primorsky Boulevard?" It's only about one of the most famous landmarks in Ukraine. Every Soviet movie had an obligatory scene of whites, or reds, or rabble charging up those stairs. I'd been there before, during the first Orange Revolution, knew it would be the right place to ditch Andre, and crash in a five-star for the night.
"Da, problema!" Then, he went on in English... sort of. "Not know-ink where is."
Exasperated, I muttered, "Merde Alors!" -- Aw shucks, in French -- then, seeing direction signs for the train station, suggested we go there.
It took a random-drive -- like a random-walk, but traumatizing -- and freakish, probability-defying luck to find it. Elena and I were done -- actually, a little overdone, in my opinion. "Hey, that was way too fun, dude. We have so, totally, not got to do that again... ever." Then, I pulled his three-hundred from my pocket, and added, in my comically accented Russian. "Train station is good. We will stay here. It was a pleasure, friend. Good trip back to Kiev. Good-bye."
"But girlfriends, we agreed to dine, to celebrate, before my long drive back to Kiev. We have been through so much. We have become such good friends." You know, he might have actually invoked a tear or two, unleashing his ultimate weapon: puppy-dog eyes.
I swallowed the lump in my throat, shoved the fist-full of twenties back in my pocket, and suggested the basement, food floor of the Athena Shopping Center. I knew the place well; knew it served the best grilled salmon, east of Seattle; and most importantly, knew it was right downtown, surrounded by a plethora of hotels.
Of course, Andre insisted on the smoking section.
Equally, of course, I protested. "But, we don't smoke."
"To me, it makes no difference. There is nobody here." He whapped his tray down and pulled up a chair. "Natalia, Alexis, sit."
Oh yeah, the fake names. I'd pretty much forgotten about that. Wondered how many times Elena and I had slipped up, and who cared, this was do-svedanya, sayonara, so-long babe. A safe and speedy trip back to Kiev, and out of our lives forever.
Condiments, napkins and plastic cutlery had barely been sorted out, when Andre shoved his chair back and announced: "Blyad, I need a cigarette and some fresh air."
Elena jabbed me with an elbow.
She pointed at the cigarettes and lighter, lying neatly beside Andre's abandoned food tray.
A few minutes later -- examining the cell phone that he'd insisted only worked in Kiev -- he sauntered back, sat down and dug into his food. "We need to find a place to stay tonight." He said between mouthfuls. "And, I think you are going a lot further than Odessa. Out of the country, probably."
"What do you mean, 'We need to find a place?' " I ignored the part about where we were going.
"You do not expect me to drive all the way back to Kiev, tonight, in the dark, all alone, so tired. It is one day to here, one day back. You must buy me food. You must provide me a place to stay."
"Da, and not out of the three hundred you owe me, understand?" He stabbed at a Tater Tot -- one of those salty-greasy, coated, deep-fried, processed, potato nodules, we came to know and love as kids -- with a plastic fork. "Do not worry about it. I know an excellent, cheap hotel near here. It will not cost many of your precious dollars."
Dinner was done, eons ago. The molded, plastic seating had, well and truly, exceeded my ass-max tolerance. I was dead tired, and Elena had the same, freaky, blank stare that my students got when they fell asleep with their eyes open during my lectures. Yet, Andre was nursing his third or forth diet Coke, chain-smoking, and deflecting can-we-go-now moans with, "Just a few more minutes. After all I have done for you, you can't let me finish my drink in peace?"
In a far off corner of the cavernous food-floor, a floor polisher whirred, hails and commands were barked in an unfamiliar language. Chairs were being stacked on tables in the darkened sections. The stainless-steel food tubs in the labyrinthine buffet were disappearing. We had to be the only non-employees left in the place, until a wiry, older man in a leather cape and tall riding boots clomped down the escalator. They had been turned off by then. He cast his gaze around the totally deserted eating area, looking for someone, or an empty seat, maybe. Good thing the table right beside ours was available. He threw back his cape, strutted through the imaginary throngs, then took a seat, mere inches from Elena and I.
I watched, incredulous. There was no response when I asked, "Anybody know this guy?"
Elena was silent. Andre fiddled with his lighter, nonchalant. The subtext was clear: the caped avenger wasn't a concern, wasn't noticed. Maybe, he wasn't even there! Krikey, sleep deprivation had me hallucinating. I shook my head, took a deep breath. Looked again.
Nope. Still there, and -- get this -- the caped dude was blatantly eavesdropping. He'd opened a notebook, was scribbling away, staring at us when we spoke; which we didn't, much. Andre was asking questions I wasn't going to answer. I really hoped Elena wouldn't either. Like, where to next? How long in Odessa? Does the American embassy know you left Kiev?
I kept staring. Maybe the intruder would clue in to my subtext.
He cracked a grimace, the international, sub-textual vernacular for, fuck you.
I shot to my feet, turned and bent over his notebook. What the hell!? It was full of numbers, formulae, coordinates. Even, little sketches that looked like coastlines. There was text, neatly printed. It wasn't in Cyrillic, wasn't in English, or French. Familiar, though -- mein gott, it was in German! Under the notebook was a neatly folded, maritime map: the port of Odessa.
Weird, was only one of the thoughts going through my head. Being that tired and pissed off, snide overruled curious. "Hey, jerk! You really couldn't have gotten any closer." I blew off steam, figuring the intruder wouldn't understand. "I hope we aren't bothering you with our private conversation."
"No bother at all. I am doing my calculations for a cargo delivery." He paused, "I'm Captain Alexander Laddin, ship's captain, at your service. I do my best planning here, around people. It is so lonely, you must understand, on those long ocean crossings."
"A ship's captain. Really?" I shot Andre a sideways glance.
"Absolutely! I am from Rotterdam. I will be taking a freighter back to Germany soon."
Well, well, well! A ship's captain, just when we needed a way out of Ukraine. Serendipity certainly seemed to be on our side. Then, it dawned on me, I'd been conversing rather easily... in English! "Are you going to stop in Rotterdam, or go all the way to Germany?"
"No stopping. Going all the way to Rotterdam."
"So, you aren't going to Germany, just Holland?" As far as I knew, Rotterdam hadn't been in Germany since the second world-war.
"What Holland? Ger-man-y." He sounded it out, then added, "Deutschland," for good measure. "I am taking my ship to Rotterdam in Germany, and I must make my calculations."
Andre parachuted into the conversation. Elena and I watched their hunched backs while the two men conferred in rapid-fire Ukrainian. As fast as it formed, the huddle broke. Andre turned to me. "Money, give to me! This man, he can to help. We buy more, how you call those?" He picked up a greasy, cardboard container and waved it at me.
"Tater Tots." I reminded him.
"Yes, tea-tear-tawts! Need some more Tater Tots, then we talk." Off they went, sounding out Tater Tots, over and over. How I wish, we'd just left the three-hundred on the table, damned the baggage, and bolted.
Where they got the Tater Tots is beyond me, but they had a small pile of them when they returned. Captain Laddin, looking disturbingly SS in those tall boots and cape -- might explain that Rotterdam-in-the-Fatherland snafu -- had forsaken English for comically, pompous Russian. He informed us -- sounding like a megalomaniacal windbag reciting late, nineteenth century, Russian poetry -- that our business partner, had told him of our need for discreet, safe passage out of Ukraine. Then, the good Captain wrapped up his monologue by deigning to meet with us the next day.
Andre's excellent, affordable hotel was probably condemned. If not, it totally should have been. Once upon a time, it had been a palatial, nineteenth century edifice, several stories high, with grand staircases and Rococo ornamentation inside and out. By the time I was gaping at holes in the walls, ripped carpets, dripping ceilings, and naked bulbs on dangling wires, it was a neglected ruin. For safe keeping, Andre insisted on carrying the Roots Canada backpack, containing our wallets, cameras, and documents. Into the maws of deserted, barely illuminated, musty corridors, he displayed his dominance, roaring: "Hey, how about some service here!"
Nothing answered back, although, I'm pretty sure I caught movement at the limit of my vision. Giant, mutant rats, maybe. "Right, this place isn't open. We better try something else. Come on, let's go." The carpet squished. I was afraid to look down.
"You know nothing about Odessa!"
"I know we're not staying here!" I reached for my backpack. "I'll give you the three-hundred, and another fifty. You can stay here and Len.... ah, Alexis and I will be on our way."
He backed away, swinging my pack out of reach. "I brought you to a modest place like this so you would not have to pay for an expensive room for me. I offer to stay in your room, maybe sleep in a chair or on the floor to not cost you a single extra precious dollar of yours. How can you treat me like this?"
"Fine, I will give you an extra hundred dollars. Stay where you want, or not. I don't care!" My creep-O-matic detector was off the scale by then. I just wanted to be rid of the guy, into a hot bath, between clean sheets and safely off to dreamland. "We are in Odessa. That's what we paid you for. We'll find our way from here."
"What do you mean, we can't?"
"I tried to say that you know nothing about Odessa." He looked around for a clock. Finally, dug his phone from a pocket. "It is after ten. There are no taxis, no buses. The streets are unsafe. This isn't Kiev. You are not in the capitol, tourist-girls. There are gangs. There are criminals. You are not safe without me."
"I agree, this area... hell, this, this..." I struggled with my limited Russian for a word they called places that rented rooms by the hour. "... this dump is dangerous... truly disgusting. You can take your extra one-hundred and stay here. Len... err, Alexis and I are going to stay in a hotel on Primorsky Boulevard."
"You are crazy! Only Mafia and hookers stay on Primorsky, but if that is what you want, you are the boss, Miss American Natalia." He started for the flop-house's grand entrance. "I will stay in the same hotel as you, and you will pay for it. That is the new deal, my lesbian girlfriends. You will thank me, when you are not dead on the street."
Tires squealing, we peeled out. Within minutes, we were cruising Primorsky Boulevard, Odessa's version of Park Avenue. I scanned the invitingly floodlit awnings, foyers and entrances with doormen; no gun toting mafioso or hookers in sight, but there were clearly tourists.
Andre caught me fixating on the street-scene and broke the tense silence. "You are obviously criminals. You said you were not. I did not turn you over to the police. You owe me for my kindness."
Elena glared at me from the backseat. "Meg! The street, it is ending."
She was right. "There, pull over. Let's see if they have vacancy." I pointed back at the last hotel on the street.
"Of course, Meg." Andre careened into a juddering, spasmodic u-turn. It took slamming on the brakes in front of the hotel, however, to get a satisfying shriek from the tires.
"Classy driving." I was glad we'd buckled up.
"It shows, we mean business." Andre beamed.
"It shows, we're assholes. You clearly don't know how to behave in a place like this. Wait in the car while I get us some rooms." I popped my door, hoping Elena would make a break for it. She didn't: deer in the headlights.
"The girl stays with me!" He snarled. "I have your bags and your money."
A frail, elderly doorman, dressed vaguely like a Beefeater -- minus the tall, fur hat -- started toward the car. I jumped out to intercept. "Stay away from the car, and if you have security, please call them." I chanced his knowing English.
He changed direction, beating me to the leaded crystal doors. "Welcome to the Londonskaya. Will you be staying with us?" His English was impeccable.
A couple of well-dressed, brawny, young men strode into the regal, Victorian lobby, seconds after the doorman picked up an antique desk phone. He briefed them, then told me to wait inside while the three of them headed out. Moments later, Elena walked in with that disturbingly familiar, dazed look on her face. What was I putting the poor woman through? How much more before she broke? Or it broke me? Were the kind of thoughts, etching away my diamond hard, unbreakable, super-Meg veneer. Is all this shit worth it?"
Softly as the wind, Elena put her arms around me, her head on my shoulder. She took a shuddering breath, held it and whispered, "Thank you." Then, she sighed and relaxed. Yeah, it was worth it.
The doorman followed with our bags. "As you can see, there was no trouble at all. I shall take payment to the driver now. I believe he is insisting on American dollars."
"He wants three-hundred dollars and a room for the night." I pulled the money from my pocket. Handing it to him, embarrassed by the damp, crumpled wad, I sensed his sudden uneasiness. "Oh, sorry! I did not mean here. Definitely, not here. Things have become uncomfortable between us. We misjudged him earlier on, and I really think it's best we part ways."
"Very good, madam." He was visibly relieved. "I shall recommend one of the motor hotels on the way out of the city. I believe, thirty American dollars will be more than sufficient to accommodate the young gentleman and his automobile."
"I said I'd give him an extra hundred." This I had to get from my wallet. "Just to get rid of him, you know? I feel kind of bad about how everything ended up. I don't hate him. Please thank him for us, and let him know we no longer need him."
At the front desk, filling out the register, I heard the muffled squealing of tires, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.