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Two Women, One Planet, Infinite Risk

Chapter 2

Elena's Lifeline

Only one, desolate email graced Elena's inbox. It was mine. I'd sent it the day before. Actually, given the way times zones work on opposite sides of the planet, I had sent it late at night, the day before that. She had been at work. When she got home, probably with her mother -- also an architect, in the same construction firm, on the same floor, always keeping an eye on her 26 year old daughter -- she still didn't check her email. So, there it waited, alone in the inbox. Even, had she not all but abandoned hope that I'd reply, she still couldn't have gotten online. At least, not until her parents had gone to bed.

Elena Ivanova 2005 profile photo

Elena’s Profile Picture from 2005. Nobody knows whose red car that is.

Over the years, her mother had become insanely possessive and controlling. She would throw a fit at the slightest hint her daughter -- destined to marry a righteous trophy-dude -- was communicating with anyone she didn't approve of, or control. Part of her psychopathy stemmed from the overwhelming evidence that her daughter was screwed up! Probably gay, whatever that meant. Definitely, something wasn't right with Elena. She skulked around, mooned at her computer screen, was embarrassingly awkward -- especially in pretty, feminine clothes. She balked at slathering on makeup, dressed like a man, walked like a soldier, and her mother took it personally: all that work to get the girl married off, and she sabotaged it by making herself unattractive. "The horror... the horror..." What it meant, was that Elena had to sneak online whenever Mama was less likely to be lurking around; listening, like a sniper in grass, for the slightest hint of a hard drive spinning up, or keys clicking an elicit invitation to the freaks out there, filling her daughter's head with sick nonsense.

I knew nothing about this, and no one could blame me for my ignorant bliss. Elena went to heroic lengths to hide her twisted reality from me, afraid I'd see her situation as way too Bates Motel and run screaming in the other direction. It was throughout the years that followed, in storms, and tears, and endless miles, and nightmares that I learned of her private hell. Bit by bit, and over time, she lay the tiles of a disturbing mosaic. Back then, in my house full of holes -- and renovations to infinity and beyond, or Bed Bath and Beyond, take your pick -- I'd assumed from the lack of a response, the strangely interesting Russian had lost interest in me. I couldn't blame her. I had been away from her chat-sphere, wrapped up in my own world, for a long time. My bad. I felt like a schmuck. I had actually, kind of, started to like her.

In the dark and absolute silence -- despite feeling like she'd burst with excitement -- Elena carefully brought up my email and glanced through it. She was relieved to see it was real, not a hallucination, or a one line sardonic witticism. Her first impression: long -- that Canadian can write... a lot! She scanned through the three, densely packed paragraphs of English text, then hesitated, peered around in the dark, half expecting to see her mother standing there, glowering over her shoulder at the monitor. Dare she risk reading it right then and there, or wait for sometime safer? Sometimes her parents went to a cabin on the weekend. She'd be alone then. It would give her the time to go through the letter in detail, and look up the words she didn't know in her English-Russian dictionary. Her mother was one wall away from her, and Elena could swear Mama could hear paint dry, let along dictionary pages rustling late at night. It would trigger a snit in the morning, for sure.

Zombie panda killers from Ivanovo

One of the photos Elena sent to Meg, showing her at her computer.

She looked back at the screen. My letter was right there. No, she couldn't leave it, go to bed, and expect to sleep. She crawled through my rambling text, absorbing all the meaning she could from it. Last time someone scoured my writing for that much meaning, was when my high-school guidance counselor thought my teenage angst poetry sounded suicidal. Like, whose teenaged, poetic musings aren't dark and disturbing? Anyway, that's how Elena went through my email... over and over again. In it, I told her about afternoon outings on a little sailboat with friends. Hiking well marked trails in just the right footwear and outdoor apparel from Mountain Equipment Co-op: Canada's go-to place for outdoor gear, know-how and inspiration. Not that I knew anything about hustle and bustle, but I pontificated on needing to escape from it all. Who doesn't? That's the beer, we drink out here, and if you don't, then you're just... ah, you know what I mean.

Knowing Elena was an architect, I figured she'd be thrilled to read about my rebuilding a house, or fixing it. I'm pretty sure I told her about making my own cement. I didn't know that the closest she got to construction was, pixels and paper. Still, what she got from my dissertation wasn't a reverent appreciation for what I'd managed to achieve with my own electric cement mixer, but a yearning for the kind of freedom she thought I had, that she could only dream about. The freedom to wear ratty work clothes, sensible footwear, and have one's face smeared with caulking, air tool oil, and primer, instead of makeup.

In my late night, fireside email, I had written, "Beautiful pictures of Turkey, but why none of you?" It took her several read-throughs to get a grip on what I was asking her. Why would I, a westerner with the world by the tail, want to see pictures of her: a country bumpkin from deepest, darkest, provincial Russia? It boggled her mind. But mental bogglement was rapidly superceded by a heartwarming hint of friendship and discourse that went beyond the usual, look at how unspeakably cool I am, and pictures of food, on social media.

Years later, the boggled mind would be my own, when Elena admitted that my being more interested in her than the wonders of ancient Turkey, caused, for the first time in her life, an uncontrolled cascade of emotions: thrill, excitement, joy and confidence that something beautiful was happening, something that would last her whole life, energize her, and give her the strength to fight for herself.

Russian courtyard

The view from Elena's room 10 years after her escape.

The frequency of our correspondence increased exponentially over time. In each others company, we found an escape that drove us relentlessly closer, although for different reasons. I was learning to trust Elena. She was learning to trust herself. I found her naiveté off-the-scale, barely believable at times. I wondered if she was mocking me with astonished reactions to really basic common sense. It was like, follow-your-heart was the encryption key to a Theory of Everything. For Elena, I see now, it really was the key to everything.

On the other hand, she was devastatingly sincere, wickedly intelligent, innocently childlike, and eventually, terrifyingly trusting. It took only a couple of incidents to make me realize that in my hands -- via a tenuous data stream -- I held this woman's heart, her future, her life. Scary doesn't even begin to describe how that feels. I was looking for meaning -- I found it, or maybe it found me. One way or another, there it was.

Years later, I learned that Elena's Internet connection with me had become her lifeline. Sure, I had more than an inkling at the time, like a misunderstanding leading to a desperate string of teary pleas, but it was recollections in Elena's Russian language memoir, Talking to the Moon, that gave me the whole picture of what she was going through. One word: wow. In a few more words: it was vital to her, that she kept her connection to me safe from others. Letting them suspect -- for even one second -- that she wasn't the perfect daughter and faithful fiancé, would put an immediate end to any Internet access. Very likely put an end to everything: contact, freedom, hope and her future. She was living like a spy behind enemy lines.

I didn't know anything about her double life. To anyone in Russia, Elena's life looked perfectly ordinary, if not ideal: walks to work with her overly attentive, and enviably handsome fiancé; the occasional girls-night-out for gossip, chit-chat, shopping, fashion tips; and a killer career, despite its rapidly approaching best-before date. In actual fact, Elena was effecting an elaborate ruse to deflect, disarm, and delay her eventual handoff to Dima, the man her mother chose to be her fiancé. At some level -- it wouldn't be an overstatement to call it, all-consuming -- Elena was scheming for a way to part with Dima, survive her mother's wrath, and bring me from the shadows, and into her life.

Elena in her room

Elena’s room is the only bedroom in a small flat she shared with her parents. In Russia it is not uncommon for children, and grandchildren to live with their parents well into adulthood, or longer. Elena was privileged to have her own space, defined by this bedroom. Her parents used the living room as their bedroom. Elena is sitting on a hide-a-bed beside her beloved cat, Pashoota, using a timer to take this photo from her desk.

It was a Saturday morning. At least, I think it was morning. In late autumn, mornings don't come early that far north. It's even worse in Winter. Around the solstice, mid day, you'd be lucky to see the streetlights go off for maybe fifteen minutes.

The torrential rains of Victoria thundered on the roof. The yard was a sea of mud and rotting leaves -- most of them still on the trees. Victoria doesn't have seasons as conventionally accepted by the majority of humankind. It has cold-and-wet, and more-cold-and-more-wet. What comes in the transition between those two seasons is called autumn. In Victoria, it is rotting season. Leaves don't change color and drop gracefully from the trees in glorious splendor, they just die on their branches and rot there.

Elena told me -- more than once, by phone and text -- that live conversations were close to impossible. Something about her mother going berserk every time Elena spoke to me. If I did call, though, it was best to set it up by email ahead of time, and for really late at night for her. It was a little weird, and it did cross my mind that that kind of telephone behavior would be the sort of thing expected from somebody having an affair. It didn't matter to me, I had grown rather fond of the quirky Russian, didn't think of our interaction as an affair, and loved being connected to her in real time.

Meg at home with ceramic chicken

One of the photos Meg sent to Elena, showing her in her natural environment: the dining room, sipping a cup of Red Rose tea. This photo was later used by Elena's father as proof of Meg's international, organized crime connections; something to do with the ceramic chicken in the foreground.

I dialed an endless string of numbers, almost passing out at the thought of what it would cost. I'm not sure the phone even rang on Elena's end. In fact, it pretty much hadn't. Earlier, she considered yanking the battery to avoid my call and the concomitant conflict with Mama. But she resented that, and thus, steeled herself to talk to me anyway. As a precaution, she sat in her darkened room, clutching the phone in her sweaty palms. The instant she felt it vibrate, she hit the call button before the phone could make any noise, planted it to her ear, and then, froze.

I heard absolutely nothing. Thought for a second that the phone had gone dead. "Elena, is that you? Are you there?" If it had connected, the silence was costing me a fortune. "Hello, can you hear me?"

Finally, "Yes, hello." Elena murmured, hyperventilating and close to passing out. "I can hear you. I am also... glad. I am very glad to hear your voice."

"How are you there, Elena?" Silence. " What's new with you?" A beat, maybe two. More silence from the other end. "Tell me something about your day." Silence. "Anything, give me a feel for what it's like to design buildings." Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock...

"With me?" She inhaled, long and deliberately. "Ya, I... I am... okay." She was struggling in English and excruciatingly aware of her mother's surveillance. She knew, every sound she made fueled her mother's impending wrath. And then, "Meg... oh Meg." Her voice, low, confidant, gathered strength. "Meg, I... I miss you very much."

Elena a self portrait

Elena takes a picture of herself in the mirror to send to Meg.

"I... miss... you... all-so." I spoke slowly, giving Elena time to function in my language. "I think of you, always. I re-read your wonderful letters all the time."

Elena didn't say anything for quite a while, but I could hear her breathing. "It's okay. I'll speak, you can listen. The things you have written, all you have told me, you astonish me. You surprise me. You make me see things differently."

Silence.

"Oh dear..." My turn for a deep breath. "You are so different." How would that translate? I started over. "Elena?"

"Yes, Meg?"

"You are my Russian princess." I told her what I was thinking.

Elena froze.

Damn it! I stunned the poor girl into silence. What an idiot! "Elena... are you there? Don't be silent, say something... anything at all. I want to remember your voice."

"Meg, I... I love you."

Neither of us spoke. Long distance, be damned. Breathing was more important.

"Elena, I love you too." Of course, I could only say what was so obvious, but so dangerous.

"I love you, Meg! I love you!" Elena said it again, not for me then, but for herself. She said it to the walls that could never hear those forbidden words, and I heard them too.


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