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A True Story of Love, Survival and Freedom

Chapter 20

Every Which Way, But Loose

Either Alexi's timing was perfect, or ours was appalling. Leaving the Londonskaya on yet another, wild-goose-chasing, pipe-dream, crazy-stupid-desperate attempt at a way out: a way to stay together, and there he was. It looked like he was groveling unsuccessfully with the doorman, for entry. "Krikey!" I yanked Elena's arm, trying to back up.

"Ladies, what a wondrous surprise!" Too late, he'd seen us.

"Don't make eye contact." I hissed. "Maybe he'll go away."

We forged ahead, down the stairs, accelerating right passed without a glance. Kind of like a geriatric driving through a four-way stop.

He took up the chase. "Ladies! Young ladies... I have business. Very important business for you!"

Turkish Embassy on Primorsky Blvd Odessa Ukraine

Right next door to the Londonskaya, the Turkish embassy. According to Meg: crazy-stupid-desperate and running out of time, they were there, looking for a way out.

I could see it. Up ahead, less than a hundred meters and closing fast -- the Turkish embassy. Maybe Elena could claim asylum, beg for entry, buy time. As I said, we were crazy-stupid-desperate, and running out of time.

Then, from behind, Alexi sputtered, "Listen to me. I can get you a passport!"

We stopped, dead. I turned. "Really? No cockamamie boat buying. An actual, real passport?"

"Pravda, a real passport."

"How much?" I asked.

"For this, let us talk over lunch." He cracked a smirk.

"Meg... enough game with this man. We must go." That time, Elena yanked my arm. Apparently she had higher hopes for our asylum pipe-dream, than she did for anything A. Laddin conjured from his lamp.

"Ah, I see you are busy." The Captain switched back into business mode. "Of course, I am too. Very important meeting in this area. It was a happy coincidence that I should find you here. Please call my office to arrange a meeting. We will discuss this very important business over lunch."

Hare Krishnas on Primorsky Boulevard in Odessa, Ukraine

A walk in the park. Hare Krishnas stroll along Primorsky Boulevard in Odessa, Ukraine.

Begging for asylum, entry, time... anything, in Turkey, didn't work out. I can hear your sardonic gasps of astonishment. It wasn't all for naught, though. An economic attache filled us in on the burgeoning refugee crisis Turkey was facing. He also made it clear that our type was going to find life harder there, than in Ukraine, or even Russia.

"Our type? Do you mean lesbian or gay?" I recall asking something like that, adding for clarification and defusing potential -- knowing that Turkey is rather devout, "Because we do not have sex. We love each other but we don't say we are homosexual..." Oh. My. Dog. I still cringe, thinking of how I put that incredibly well mannered, and soft spoken man on the spot. I'm not too proud to admit, I have, on occasion, suffered from foot-in-mouth disease. "No, we are just two women who love each other and want to be together." Ah, good save, Meg. Brilliant!

Wedding photo ops in Odessa Ukraine

As a Russian wedding dream-destination, Turkey has columns too. Most without the filthy graffiti classing up the wedding photos.

"I did not intend to infer anything about your relationship. I was speaking of you being women." The attache explained. "Unaccompanied women can find Turkish customs -- how shall I say it -- difficult. It would be unlikely you would find asylum in my country."

"With us, only few weeks remain to stay in Ukraine. Without passport, I must to Russia go." Elena was on the edge of tears.

"Your..." He looked for the right word, although his English was near perfect. "... your friend, she can travel with you to Russia?"

"I want not to Russia!" Elena's English was failing. "They will not let me to come back. Never will I see Meg."

The two of them switched to Russian. Their conversation went a lot smoother. What I got from it, was: Elena feared arrest at the Russian border; she had to request asylum in Ukraine first; and that, in her situation, it would be a far cry better than petitioning a Muslim country for asylum. He also pointed out that loving someone, and wanting to be with them, was not something any country would consider -- nor were they obligated to, under some human rights convention -- as grounds for granting asylum. I think, the way he saw us, was as star-crossed lovers -- sweethearts, fooled by the champagne taste of freedom, yet denying the hangover of reality. He implored Elena to talk to her mother, go home, plan a nice trip to Turkey with her fiance. It was a destination for dream-come-true, Russian weddings, after all.

Young couple watch a ferry depart in Odessa Ukraine

A young couple in Odessa, Ukraine, watch a Black Sea ferry depart, while an abandoned puppy lies at their feet. Perhaps, they too, dream of escape.

The Londonskaya's deserted business center was our connection to the Internet and a fleeting glimmer of hope. Of course, hope by its very nature is technically delusional. We were scouring through immigration and human-rights law, looking for accounts of others in similar circumstances -- didn't find any. I was toying with buying a light aircraft, or chartering one -- in Ukraine! I know, how crazy-stupid-desperate can one get? But, we were both doing battle with frustration, fear, depression and ineffectiveness in our own ways. Even sit-down, stare at the computer sessions felt like we were, at least, doing something to save our asses and stay together.

I was so engrossed with a website called, Yacht World -- a site, Alexi inadvertently put me onto -- that I was barely aware of Elena, at an adjacent desktop, finally having it out with her mother. Elena's side of the conversation had increased in volume to the point, I couldn't help overhearing. I shot her a concerned look. In response, she cranked the volume on the desktop's speakers and glared back at me. Eyes locked on mine and narrowed, cheeks bright red. She leaned toward the tiny boom microphone jutting from the monitor. "How can you do this to me? How can you be attacking me like this? You are lucky I am still talking to you after what you've done to me and Meg, my beloved. Why can't you just let us be?"

Mama's voice, modulated by the familiar rasp of Internet telephony, squawked from the desktop's tinny speakers. "I did it for you, Elena. I was so worried. I don't know who she is and where she is taking you. Who else can help you but me? Who will look after you?"

Elena Ivanova on the phone

Elena, photographed with her own camera, by Meg, during one of the many abusive phone calls Elena chose to take from her mother. The frequency of these abusive calls tapered off, once Elena stood up for herself.

"I'm an adult. I can look after myself, and Meg isn't taking me anywhere. I can go where I want, with who I want. I'm not going to live under you for the rest of my life. I told you, I am happy. Why can't you just accept it?"

"Look what you are doing. You must be insane! That woman, that... that... false friend." Mama refused to utter my name. "She could be a cult leader! She has certainly brainwashed you. Do you really think she likes you? You, of all people?! She wants to sell you into prostitution, or kill you for your organs. You must listen to me. You can not see that she is a criminal! You can not do this with your life."

Elena clenched her fists. "Stop this! Meg, her name is Meg, and she is not a criminal. It is you who is a criminal."

"What? What are you saying? You are speaking in this manner to your mother? If only your father could hear you."

Elena said nothing. Mama said nothing. There was only hissing from the overworked speakers.

"Well?!" Mama flinched first.

Elena took a long, fortifying breath. Her voice was calm and measured. "You stranded me here. I am sure you know that. I am sure it was what you intended to do."

"No, no, no, it was your uncle! He told me to take your passport!"

"I see, you admit to it, after all your denying it?"

An awkward silence ensued. The hissing got louder. Automatic noise suppression is so hard to get right during those shrieking, squawking, bombastic conversations. Then, "I did not say that. It was... her! She... that woman, she took it to kidnap you!"

Meg Stone, Elena Ivanova mirror selfie

Elena snags a mirror-selfie in one of the Londonskaya's enormous hallway mirrors.

Elena continued, calmly, matter-of-factly. "By stranding me here: taking my money, my passport, by attacking us, by making me chose between my own life and what you want, by hating and trying to hurt the person I love, you have made me entirely dependent on Meg. You must know that. You keep doing it, so it must be what you want. If you really believed that Meg was a criminal, if you really thought she was harming me, you would have gone to the police and reported a crime, instead of committing one! If you really cared about me and what I think is right for me, you would not have done this to me."

More hissing.

Elena asked straight out. "Why did you take my passport, Mother?"

"To keep it from that... that... that deviant, that criminal from the filthy West of yours!"

"But Mother, it is my passport, my safety, my freedom. How did you dare to do this? Have you no conscience?"

"You can not think for yourself! You betray Dima, such a perfect man for you. He loves you more than you deserve, and you abandon him for stupid dreams of western perversion. If you think life will be better there with that woman, you are insane. One day you will crawl back to me and beg my forgiveness. You will..."

Elena hit the speaker-mute. The silence was golden. Without knowing what, or even if her mother was speaking, she spoke into the tiny microphone. "I am not insane. I know what I am doing. I am an adult. I am a person with my own choices and feelings. I have my own life, and I want you to give me my passport back." Whew, she'd said it. When she unmuted the speakers we heard the tail end of a series of square-wave modulated shrieks and yells. Eventually, what sounded like a coyote attack on a chicken coop abated enough to let Elena say, "If you worry about me, give me my passport and money back, so I'm not trapped, and completely dependent on Meg."

Silence.

Huge mirror in ballroom at Londonskaya hotel in Odessa Ukraine

Another mirror-selfie in one of the Londonskaya's surrealistically humongous mirrors. This particular mirror is in the grand ballroom.

Then, Mama's voice was ice cold. "No, Elena. I will not give anything to you. You don't know what you are doing! You have already taken everything from me. I am destroyed now. Think about my well being for a change? I might need that money, your father and I, we are not getting younger."

"Then at least give me my passport."

"No! I won't give it to you. You are not going anywhere. I gave up my entire life for you. You have no right!"

"Yes I do! Don't you understand that? In the real world you would get arrested for this!"

"What do you know about that real world of yours? What kind of fairy tales did she tell you, daughter. Don't be so naive. Whatever she tells you isn't true. All you need to know is that father and I love you and know what is right for you."

"You do not care what I think is right for me. You think I want to be with your dearest Dima, marry him and give him children for me to raise? If you really know me and care about me, how can you not see that I am hurt, that I am in pain every single day? I've never told you this, I was never strong enough, and I knew you would destroy me if I did. Well, I'm telling you now, I don't want to live the life you intend for me. I hate this life, and from now on I am deciding what's good for me, not you!"

"Elena, I am tired of this, you are definitely not well. God knows what she is doing to you there. I will not give you the passport. Do not ask me again. I am doing this for your own good. And please, Elena, don't tell your friends about this... whatever you are doing there, it is such a shame on us."

Elena cut the connection with a blow to the mouse that had me wondering what a replacement would cost. "I am sorry you witnessed that."

"I'm not. It gives me some idea of what you've been dealing with." The truth of the matter was, I was overwhelmed with admiration for how she'd stood up for herself -- for the two of us.

"This is not so hard to be, as you say, dealing with." The mouse Elena had just tried to kill was okay. She was using it to shut down the workstation. "Things could be worse. There was a time Mother was to make me to be wife of oil sheik in Dubai."

"You have got to be kidding."

"Not at all. A friend of my mother's was visiting with her daughter. She was so happy because daughter was married to rich sheik. Mama, she wanted me to go with friend's daughter to be bride for one of sheik's friends."

"What about that money? I didn't know you had money. I'm bleeding money here, keeping us alive."

Elena Ivanova on the Pushkin stairs in Odessa Ukraine

A sunrise shot of Elena on the Pushkin stairs in Odessa. Taken before yet another, terrifyingly ineffective day of exploring, and looking for that one way out; that freaking tiny, overlooked, million to one chance of making it out, together and alive.

"I told you of money, shares -- I don't know -- in Kiev, when phoning to brother of mother. He gave to me them for future. Not important, Meg. Shares I never did see. Just was told about them, was promised by uncle. I did not know, mother could take from me, them. I did not believe passport, she could steal. Until now, I could not believe she could do something like that."

"What were they shares of, again." I had a vague recollection of something involving Putin.

"Gazprom, I thinking there sixty-thousand."

"Hoo-lee shit! Do you know what that's worth?" I wasn't looking for a prospectus, just frustrated beyond belief.

"Enough to buy nice apartment, maybe house."

"Enough to buy a passport, a new life and a first-class ticket to anywhere in the whole world. I don't know why you needed me!" Sensitivity wasn't my strong suit; immaturity, insecurity, and abominable impulse control was. I felt like a heel, as the words left my mouth. Then again, I was always walking around, kind of mind-blown that anyone would find anything in me to love, beyond the obvious. I guess, I had a hard time getting it through my child-of-an-alcoholic tempered, psychic armor, that this brilliant, curious, artistic, scared, trusting, loving, woman wanted to be with me, as much as I wanted to be with her.

"Without you I would not need the whole world! Don't you see, I don't need your West, I need you. I run with you because I can not to be without you! I can not, with you, be in Russia. Means, there for us is only to go to the West."

I was hollowed out. Of course, she was right. If only I had the courage to lay bare my feelings -- my heart -- the way she could. It was kind of terrifying. I couldn't speak. The lump in my throat, the ache in my metaphorical heart allowed me only to take Elena in my arms, rub her back, feel her softly crying.

"I am sorry about money from uncle." She eventually whispered, without letting go or lifting her head from my shoulder. "Money never was mine, only for me to be with Dima, or man's wife, was it mine."

"Don't worry. It doesn't sound like it was ever yours." I said, but thought, Like a dowry, or a prize that costs your life and freedom. "Believe me, you haven't lost much."

She pulled away slightly, facing me with her arms around my waist. "Meg, I believe about money. But I have lost... so much." Her voice quivered. "I have lost my past... my childhood. All those times, my mother, father... my family. My, my, all things we were, did, loved with mother. Is now lost... changed. Oh Meg, was it all a lie?"

Elena Ivanova

We were wandering. No idea where, probably engaged in extreme sight-seeing, or feeding abandoned dogs: everything going to shit, doesn't preclude adventure, when Elena -- yes, Elena! -- wondered if it might be a good idea to call Alexi about his passport proposal. Actually, it wasn't so much of a good-idea kind-of-thing, but an it's-the-only-freaking-chance-in-hell-we've-got type of idea.

Elena even volunteered to make the call. I was inwardly ecstatic, but kept my cool, lest I stifle this glimmer of protobackbone development.

With my ultra-geeky, totally-cool flip-phone on speaker -- Star Trek communicator style -- Elena called Alexi's direct, very private, office line.

"Da, hello?" A woman answered over the squalling of a baby.

"Zdrastvootsya, hello, this is Alexis and Natalia. Is Captain A. Laddin available, please?" Despite being taken aback, Elena recited her well rehearsed, plan-B line with aplomb. And, yeah, we were still using fake names with the likes of Alexi.

"What! Who is this?" It sounded like a couple of sumos in a bathtub. Presumably, the woman was juggling the phone and the screamer. "Captain Aladdin!? Jesus, no. Is this a joke? There are no captains here." She hung up.

Elena held the now silent, still open flip-phone out in front of her. "I'm sorry, Meg."

"For a wrong number?"

"The phone dialed from memory. Not the wrong number. It worked before." She was shaking. "I am not used to phoning to people."

I took the phone, slapped it shut. Her overreaction concerned me. When I tried to give her a reassuring hug, she was wound up, tight as a spring.

She pushed me away. "For me, it is not easy, phoning to people. Especially to men with, how to say, power over me."

"Power? You, yourself, have been telling me, Alexi is nothing but a con-man."

"I mean, they can to make me do things, to pay, to have to lie." Elena waved her hands, looking for the words.

"You mean, they have something you need, like a job, or plans approved... or a passport. I get it, you are obligated to them."

"Yes!" Elena was relieved. "Obligated, I must play to them a game, to lie, to hate myself, like to not have him tell Mother told about me and Kiev."

"Ah, you mean, Dima. Shit, that bastard was blackmailing you, this is different. This is just a pathetic con-artist. Means nothing."

Pack of abandoned dogs in Odessa Ukraine

Some of Odessa's abandoned dogs. Cast away, like trash on the street, invisible, they wait for whatever castaways wait for. Either that, or they simply exist until they die, get sold as street-meat and ground up for pelmeni (a smaller, savory, mystery-meat, Russian version of the famous, Polish pierogi or Ukrainian varenyky).

"Means, maybe passport. I need that pathos, pathic... what you said, artist man. We need him. Passport means everything. This woman with baby on phone, I do not care, but maybe Alexi is just criminal with nothing for us but to take money. What if to him this is fun game, but for us, lives! What then, Meg?" She told me later -- years later, in fact -- that, at the time, every failure, big or small; every locked door; every crooked opportunist; every official throwing a temper tantrum; every asshole's opinion that there was no way we could live as we want and be together; was, for her, an end.

The phone rang in my hand. It was Alexi's very private, office number on the display. "Here, try again." I handed it to Elena.

She flipped it open, still on speaker. "Hello?"

"Natalia, is it you that called? My secretary doesn't usually answer my direct line when I am out. Please accept her apologies. What are you doing? Are you ready to talk business about a passport?"

"How can you get me a passport?" Elena asked, in Russian.

"Young lady, you are asking me how to do my job. I am a businessman. I make deals. I make things happen. Your part of the business is to tell me what you want."

"A passport, so Mmmeh... ah, Natalia and I can get home, to Canada..."

"Correct!" He blurted. "A business plan must be made. It is a mission statement. Very important. We must write this down in very legal terms. There must be no mistake. This is important business. We are forming a limited company when we do business together. We must meet, write minutes, write a proposal..."

Elena was avalanched under by his gibberish, right from the start. She held on admirably, mind you, until she footballed the squawking phone to me, cheeks flaming, the rest of her face, white as the driven snow. "You speak. Do you know what is, businessman, business-plan?"

Elena Ivanova with unwanted kitten in Odessa Ukraine

Elena holds an unwanted kitten -- raising her dangerously low 'social' level (a SIMS computer-game reference) -- as long as she can, in Odessa, Ukraine.

"Ahhh, right!" I spoke in English, the language of serious business. "Alexi, it's Meh... me, yeah, that's the ticket, it's me: Natalia." The screaming baby was seriously annoying. "El, ah... bloody hell, what's-her-name..."

"It is Alexis!" What's-her-name hissed at me.

"Yeah, okay. Alexis isn't super familiar with all this business talk..."

"Very important to make business-plan..." His attempt to cut me off was, itself, drowned out by the baby.

"Tell me what you and, um, Alexis were talking about." I yelled over the din. "And have your, eh hem, secretary take the baby away from the phone!"

The kind of noises one might expect to hear from a cell phone carried into a medieval battle, is what we heard from our end of the connection. I think there was some pretty vulgar Ukrainian language exchanged on the battlefield too, but mercifully, the wailing subdued enough for Alexi to prattle on about signing papers and whatnot.

"We'll come to your office at the Port Authority to sign whatever."

"No! I'm not going to be in my office this afternoon. I'll meet you at the restaurant we last spoke at, and we can go through the forms there."

"No, I can't afford the steak and lobster there. We will meet at the Athena mall cafeteria. Maybe, that way I can afford the bill you stick me with!" I said.

Alexi, then oozed, "But my dear business woman, that is a good restaurant for business and I thought you were serious. Serious business doesn't take place in a cafeteria."

"It does, if it is going to be with me. We will be there by 1 pm. Dosvedania!" Snap! Say what you will about them, but flip-phones provided for wonderfully satisfying hang-ups.

Pushkin stairs Odessa Ukraine

The end of another fruitless day. One day closer to "Time's Up" for Elena and Meg. Elena takes this shot of the couple ahead, on the climb up the Pushkin stairs, back to the Londonskaya.

 


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