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A True Story of Love, Survival and Freedom

Chapter 22

Flying the Coop

The phone rang at the crack of eight in the morning. If the ceiling had been lower than five meters, I might have ended up clinging to it, like Sylvester the cat in the Looney Tunes cartoons. I lunged for my phone -- that ultra geeky, Captain-Kirk's-communicator inspired, flip phone that I told you about earlier. I'd chosen a retro-cool, antique telephone sound for the ringtone. "Hello!" Silence... "Allo, Joe's pizza. We deliver, if you've got the dough!" I joked. Then r-r-r-ring. "What the!?" My flip-phone couldn't be ringing, it was dead. After the midnight Bernie incident, I'd killed the thing.

"The phone." That was Elena. "Answer the phone, Meg!"

It rang again. This time my spidey sense zeroed in on the source of the ringing; an actual, antique, desk phone. "Holy kapoosta! The room phone. I didn't even know we had one." I picked up that listening-talking-part that's attached to a heavy base with a dial on it, and spoke into it. I'd seen similar technology used in old movies, so I knew how to use it. "Hello?"

"Good morning, and do pardon the intrusion, madame. This is the front desk." I heard a woman flawlessly speaking The Queen's English. I could have been listening to the BBC World Service. "There appears to be a woman with a child, waiting for you outside the hotel's entrance."

Magpie in fountain, Odessa, Ukraine

A couple of raucous magpies horse around in the Londonskaya's courtyard.

"A woman?! Who is she? Who is she looking for, me or Elena?" Krikey, it had to be Mama with the goon squad.

"She is looking for Alexis and Natalia. She tells me they are a Russian and an American traveling together."

"Canadian." I corrected.

"As she provided the aliases you informed us of, staff have concluded that it is you and Elena she would like to see."

Elena froze by the bathroom door. She glared a whiskey-tango-foxtrot expression in my general direction -- ravaged eyebrows fully raised, mouth agape.

"Shall we send them away?" The front desk asked.

My mind raced. Between us and hotel security, the front desk had been instructed not to let anybody up to our room, especially anyone using our fake names.

"Eh, hem..." The woman at the front desk expected an answer. "Her child is quite young. They have been waiting outside in the cold, for considerable time now. We, however, felt it only right, not to disturb you before eight in the morning."

"You didn't let them in?" I asked, with way more relief, than concern, in my vocal inflection. "How long have they been there?"

"The note on my desk says, they have been there since five-thirty this morning." Then, somewhat icily, "The woman declined our invitation to wait indoors."

Primorsky Boulevard, Odessa, Ukraine

Primorsky Boulevard, Odessa, Ukraine

I waved the room key at Elena. "I have to scope this out. I'll peep from the second floor, make sure it's not somebody you know."

It wasn't. As it happened, it was Alexi's niece: Lyudmila, with -- get this -- her kid in tow. Everything came together, and then, blew itself to smithereens over the breakfast buffet. Mother and son, having spent the entire night crisscrossing Eastern Ukraine to drop their bombshell on us, and with things just about as awkward as humanly possible, my plan was to feed them, and get them on their way back east, pronto. Lyudmila's plan was to heave her kid, kit-bag, and kabooty over the gunwale of the tramp steamer -- we certainly had to have dockside by then -- and head to America with us.

"We aren't going to America." I made that crucial point, following Elena's heroic translation of Lyudmila's declaration. She didn't speak a word of English, and I couldn't make out her Slavic: Russian-Ukrainian-Polish with a smattering of Serbo-Croatian thrown in." We don't have, nor are we getting, a boat. For krike's sake, we can't even leave Ukraine as long as Elena has no passport."

"You have a passport. You can leave. You can take me and my son with you to the west!" Lyudmila told me through Elena's translation. She then prompted her son to present crafty, folk-art gifts he'd made in school. "Look at this child! He has no future in Ukraine! You must take us to the West. I will cook and clean for you. I will do anything!"

As gently as I could, I put it out there that I had no intention of ditching Elena, or had no need for an indentured housekeeper. Crushed, but not defeated, Lyudmila changed tack. "Woe be to me! My life is already lost, but my son's is just beginning. Take my passport for your Russian acquaintance. Take my little boy to the West with you." She dug her passport out of an enormous handbag and handed it to Elena.

The absurdity of the situation had me looking for hidden cameras. I expected to catch the Juste pour rire: Les Gags film crew, snickering away behind the breakfast buffet. I mean it, Lyudmila really couldn't have looked any less like Elena. Lyudmila's face was huge, round. Her hair was blonde. She looked twenty years older than Elena. Her eyes were blue -- Elena's are brown. She had a multi-centimeter advantage on Elena, not to mention, a couple dozen kilos.

Elena read the familial data in the passport and explained its ramifications. "The child is listed in passport. Leaving Ukraine without child, or permission from father is not possible. Passport is useless."

"Like, Alexi didn't know his niece had a kid. Fuck!" So, that got me a couple of poisonous looks from other breakfasters. "This is ludicrous. You don't look anything like her! Even without the kiddie clause, this is a joke." I got up.

Lyudmila's hand shot up. "Wait, I will call my uncle. He can fix the passport to look like Alina." She rifled through her supersized handbag-on-steroids.

"Elena! The name is Yeh-len-nah." She corrected Lyudmila, grabbed my arm and pulled me back to my seat. "Meg, sit!"

buffet at the Londonskaya Hotel

The breakfast buffet at the Londonskaya Hotel.

Lyudmila wasn't dialing. She stared at her cell phone, horror-stricken. Thumbing her way through multiple text messages, she explained that her boyfriend -- a man twenty years her senior -- caught wind of her plans to leave him. He was threatening a messy suicide and a note blaming her. "So sorry. I should not have come. I can not go with you to America. I did not know, he loves me so dearly." She had tears in her enormous eyes. "I will leave my passport with you. My uncle can fix it to work for Irina." She snatched several blister packs of jam and honey and swept them into her bag. "You can mail the passport back to me, and you can send for us to join you in Turkey."

Despite the language barrier, I definitely caught the part about joining us in Turkey. I looked at Elena. "Hey, Irina! How come she thinks we're going to Turkey?"

"Where else, choomeechka!? Ukrainians, Russians... we like diseased rats. Only place go for Slavs is Turkey, maybe Egypt. Dictator friends of Putin only let Russians to visit. Not West." Elena explained, in English.

"Uncle tell, Tuortsieya. You go, Tort-tsieya." Lyudmila knew some English, after all. Looking straight at me, and switching back into Russi-krainian, she said, "If your friend cannot go to Turkey, you will still go? We can meet you there. Go to America with you. It will be for you, so easy to arrange with the Embassy in Ankara, to take us to your beautiful town." She batted her big, bovine blues at me.

Turkey, was about all I understood. Elena sat, ramrod straight, tight lipped. Finally, Lyudmila demanded Elena translate for my benefit. My response was, "If my friend can't leave Ukraine, I'm sure as hell not going to Turkey on my own, or anywhere, for that matter. We're not on some freaking sightseeing tour." I'm pretty sure it lost something in translation, however, Elena got my point across.

With a heavy sigh, Lyudmila cogitated, then patted the passport and slid it toward me. "We must go now, my dearest friends. There may be a train to Makiyivka departing soon. I ask only the tiniest favors, for we have spent all the money we have getting here..." You get the drift. While Lyudmila grinned beatifically, Elena translated what she understood, along the lines of: "You're a rich American, dependent on her passport. She wants money. Cough it up, or we're stuck with her."

Odessa train station, platforms and waiting train

Odessa train station, platforms and waiting train.

The next train heading anywhere near where Lyudmila and her kid came from was full. People were stacked up like cord wood in second class. First class was sold out. The next train wasn't for eons. I'd be bankrupted, accommodating mother-and-son, and complicit in a messy suicide, if I didn't do something -- anything! To preserve what little Elena and I had left of our sanity, they had to be on that train! What's the savvy accidental-adventurer to do in the former USSR when the train is full? Simple: she bribes someone. I gave a first class conductor a fistful of twenties, and mother-and-son were on their way home.

Although we had Lyudmila's passport, our own way home was light-years from certain. Alexi agreed to meet us at the train station, and for once, he was actually on time. He lurked in the shadows, mind you, until the train to Eastern Ukraine was long gone. I'm thinking, he felt somewhat snubbed by his beloved niece. Gone was the captain of business pretense, along with the cape and SS boots. His dress and deportment was disturbingly innocuous, almost normal. It was kind of disheartening; A. Laddin had no genie, wasn't The Wolf of Ukrainian Wall Street, or the Godfather of Odessa. He probably wasn't even crazy, just an opportunistic old man who smelled money. Like he gave a shit what happened to us. Hey, I get it: business is business. It ain't personal, but it sure felt like it.

Alexi took us downtown to see a close, personal friend of his. A graphic artist, he assured us, who was a magician in the official-document doctoring business. She was an older woman, ensconced in a small room with floor to ceiling shelves crammed with books and file folders. No light-table, special pens, air-brush, cameras, fancy printers, or even computers: no tools of the forgery trade, or even graphics arts business. From the look of her workplace, she was an accountant, with absolutely, nothing whatsoever to do with the underworld.

Alexi took Lyudmila's passport from Elena. The way he puzzled over it, had me thinking he had never met its owner. He handed it to the document doctor. She examined it, bent over her desk for some more light, rubbed her eyes more than once, and finally, leaned back in her chair, exasperated. With hand gestures and sideways looks at Elena, she muttered something unintelligible to Alexi and shoved the passport back into his hands. The conversation was over. Alexi told Elena to go out and get passport photos taken, then meet him back at the woman's office. It was the last time we ever saw him.

Returning to the woman's office an hour later with the photos, Captain A. Laddin was gone. The woman solemnly told Elena that there was nothing she could, or would, do with Lyudmila's passport. Alexi had woefully overstepped his bounds by suggesting she would have anything to do with it. "Do not make a mistake with these black-market, document games. Nothing is foolproof, unless every officer who you pass the document to is corrupt, and has been paid. It is too easy to blackmail the desperate bearer of false papers. Please find another way." Rather emphatically, she advised us to stay away from Alexi, and that was it: another dead end.

Electric trams and an ambulance in Odessa, Ukraine. Spring 2006

Electric trams and an ambulance in Odessa, Ukraine. Spring 2006

Another day, another pilgrimage to the Athena mall; another feverish prayer session, head penitently bowed, before the almighty ATM. The ritual was so routine, I could do it in my sleep. As a matter of fact, I was reliving it every night in my dreams; specifically, in my nightmares. Then it was: get up; head for the breakfast buffet; stare into the how-in-hell-are-we-going-to-get-out-of-here abyss, and see nothing staring back; go to the ATM to withdraw my daily maximum limit; wander the streets of Odessa trying to be tourists, pretending everything is fine; fight the panic back into its lair in the pit of my stomach; and finally, mercifully, give in to sleep, perchance to dream. Then, get up, and do it all over again.

This soul-crushingly hopeless cycle was, in the very least, amassing us a small fortune in US cash. With no idea of when we would have to make a run for it, go into deep hiding, buy our way out of yet another life threatening situation, or get severed from my bank account, hoarding cash seemed like a good idea. In action thrillers, the protagonists stockpile cash, ammo, canned peas. Cash I could do. By wiping out my savings and gnawing away at my house -- with a Home Equity Line of Credit my banker insisted upon -- I was slaughtering our future safety, all for the present illusion of having options -- also known as, a snowball's chance in hell.

We were surviving on canned goods -- yes, canned peas, included -- we bought at Athena. Candlelit dinners in our room. Sardines right from the tin with toothpicks as utensils. Alfresco, sunset dining on park benches, nothing could be more romantic, and the ticking clock made it all the more so. Knowing how precious the time we had left was, we existed in a heightened state of love and fear.

Elena uncorked a bottle of Zinfandel. "You want?"

"You mean, right now?" I feigned shock. "It must breathe. And red! With fish?" I held up my half eaten tin of partially dissolved, headless fish and guts: sardines.

Elena filled the drinking glasses she'd found in the bathroom. A DVD we'd bought in Kiev -- flawlessly pirated, no doubt -- played on the Dell laptop I'd dragged along from home. Then her minuscule cell phone rang. "Not Mama!" She reassured me, having programmed a special ringtone for calls from her mother. "Allo? ... When? ... Really! ... Where? ... How much?"

Elena Ivanova with Alexi in Odessa, Ukraine

Alexi gives Elena the low-down on passport forgery and very important business, indeed. By the time Meg snapped this photo, she and Elena had pretty much given up.

I could only hear her end of the conversation. I looked questioningly in her direction. I assumed it was Alexi, or Lyudmila, or yet another crazy-stupid connection we desperately made, looping back and sniffing around for opportunity.

Elena turned away, extending her left hand into my face -- the internationally accepted talk-to-the-hand gesture -- and retreated to the bathroom. Apparently, it wasn't something she wanted to share with me. Eventually her end of the conversation terminated, and I heard her drawing a bath.

"Ah, everything okay?" I tapped on the door. Nothing. "Lenna, want me to bring your wine? It's probably well breathed by now. Maybe, even a little over-breathed." Still, nothing. Knock, knock, knock. "It could be hyperventilating, getting all lightheaded..."

"Bring to me, wine." Came through the closed door. "And a candle."

I didn't prod. I knew better than that. She would tell me about it when she was ready. While she luxuriated in the tub, I perched on the toilet, commented on the wine, the lovely shade of purple it stained our teeth, the ultra-romantic aspect of candlelight in a steamy, hotel bathroom -- anything, but the phone call.

By the time she told me who had called, I'd been sitting on the toilet so long my ischial tuberosities -- ass bones -- were shooting daggers of pain all the way to the back of my eyeballs. Of course, the lid was down! I wasn't using the crapper at the time, just sitting there, showing my concern in a very non-prodding manner. I'll cut to the chase, in case you are similarly perched upon an uncomfortable contrivance, hanging on my every word.

"Tanya got the passport from Mama." Elena told me, absolutely deadpan.

I would have been shouting it from the rooftops, dancing on the ceiling. Anything, but a monotone, one-liner statement of fact. Elena is like that though: too many hopes dashed to let go of fear.

Electric locomotives at the Odessa train station. Ukraine, 2006

Electric locomotives at the Odessa train station. Ukraine, 2006

"I'm sure it's Art Deco." I argued, thinking that's what the architectural style of the Odessa airport most reminded me.

Elena begged to differ. "Modern, I tell you. Like from Poirot."

"I thought he was a detective, not a designer."

"From the BBC series, choomeechka!" Elena has a way of being right. Then again, she is an architect. Verbal jousting had become a coping mechanism.

Our driver pulled the hotel limo into a passenger drop-off-and-pickup zone. "I will wait in the car? The plane from Moscow is already here. Your friend may be waiting."

"No, I don't think so." Elena wasn't going to let the poor guy out of any awkwardness. Hotel security had suggested an escort for the pickup. No telling who would turn up. The Kiev train station was an all too vivid reminder of what can happen, and it had been way too easy for Tanya to get the passport.

Beige, double doors -- the kind allowing passage in only one direction, like heart valves -- separated the passenger arrival hall from customs. Just beyond those doors, Tanya inched her way toward us along with the throngs of arriving passengers. Elena's passport was stuffed in one of her pockets, or so we desperately hoped. Every time those doors swung open, and a weary, or relieved looking woman came through, and Elena said, "Not Tanya!" my heart sank: more like crashed. I swear it was going to punch through my pericardium, diaphragm, peritoneum and end up in my left foot, by the time it was all over.

The entire female population of Russia had to have come through those doors by the time Elena bolted toward an older, stout woman. I scrambled to keep up. Our bewildered chaperone, glancing left and right and up at a mezzanine, followed me. It looked like Elena had thrown her arms around some horrified stranger. It actually was Tanya. It's safe to say, she wasn't terribly comfortable with the whole two-women-showing-affection sort of thing.

The hired muscle ushered us away from the double doors. He pointed toward the second floor mezzanine. "Up there is unoccupied, you and your friend can exchange the passport and speak. I will stay by the bottom of the stairs to give you some privacy, and to be ready if you need me. Shout to me, if I should prevent someone from climbing the stairs."

I was impressed. The muscle knew his business. On the deserted, second floor, Elena was talking in gasps. I don't think she was even making sense. Tanya, on the other hand, looked defeated, beaten down, outright depressed. It was like she had something to say, would start, Elena would jabber something, Tanya would give up with a sigh. This went on for a few minutes.

Finally, and with an air of utter resignation, Tanya dug the passport from a pocket and handed it to Elena. "Here it is. And a letter with it that you need to read."

Elena was either in a fugue state or not in the mood for a manipulative missive. She snatched the dried-blood colored passport, turned her back on us, and trance walked away. I took up the chase. I had to stop her before she collided with something. I cornered her between a wall and a four meter drop. She stopped, looked at what she was holding. It was her passport, alright. It wasn't damaged, as far as we knew. It wasn't dusted with anthrax spores -- again, as far as we knew. It wasn't ticking. Fixating on the photo ID page, her free hand absently swept a wad of folded paper from the passport. A couple of A4 sheets and a few snapshots fluttered to the floor coming to rest by her forest-green Doc Martins.

"Ah, Lenna?" I gathered the fallen payload. Put it in the hand she'd discarded it with.

She glanced at the wad. "Oye, what is this?" Followed by something unintelligible, like, "I don't need this," also in Russian. And then, staring at the passport in her left hand, and with careful precision, she took a couple of steps toward a 1960's, canister, trash-can-ashtray -- one of those thigh-high, tin cylinders with a bowl of butt infested sand on top. Into an opening in the cylinder, she dropped the sheets of paper, but she stopped herself before sending the snapshots after them. Without a second glance, she crammed the photos into a back pocket.

WW2 medals on building facade in Odessa, Ukraine

Soviet medals, awarded to the heroic city of Odessa (for having resisted, or survived, the Nazis) are proudly displayed, larger than life, on public building facades, like this passenger terminal.

Tanya was pie-eyed. The Londonskaya blew her mind. "Such luxury, such expense is not for the likes of a mere structural engineer."

Elena begged to differ. Honestly, I think she was showing off. Using her final pay-bundle: a wad of Ruble notes that Tanya picked up and brought from their mutual workplace, she got Tanya her own Londonskaya room. I too, was incredulous at the sight of a bundle of cash, but believe me, that's how twenty-seven-year-old, career architects, in large, Russian, civil engineering firms are paid -- in cold, hard cash. Like itinerant pickers on California raisin ranches. It worked for Elena. Physically hiding currency in her framed picture of David Suchet's Poirot, was how she sequestered any of it from Mama -- for rainy days, genderless Doc Martins, or a desperate run to take back her life.

Between the two old friends, I was feeling as out of place as an actor in Hollywood, and probably just as unappreciated. Elena and Tanya -- well, mostly Elena -- were reconnecting, in Russian, at a mile a minute. I gracefully took my exit, stage left, and bolted for the business center. A well practiced Internet search turned up nothing new. No missed loopholes. No overlooked escape clause. Elena's passport might get us out of Ukraine, but it sure as hell wasn't going to get us home.

I called the Canadian Embassy in Kiev. My call got footballed around -- like really, what else was new? "No job. No money. No ties to Russia. No tourist visa. No how. No way! Unacceptable risk of her staying."

"Of course, she will stay! We want to be with each other... forever." I added that last forever at risk of sounding like an Air Supply song. I had to impress upon whomever I'd been deflected to, that Elena wasn't worming her way into the Great White North to steal Canadians' jobs and rape their daughters. Just trying to be a family with me, that formerly naive, Canadian sucker in the rose tinted glasses.

"Exactly! You've said it yourself. 'She will stay.' That is unacceptable on a tourist visa."

"What then? What now? What do we do?" I was on the verge of tears.

"You go home... to Ca-na-da! Your Russian friend goes home... to her home in Russia. You can sponsor her under the family class from home. She can apply through the Canadian consulate in Russia, not Ukraine. You can wait a few years and if she is not deemed to be a threat or drain on Canada, she might be allowed to stay and work in Canada as a permanent resident."

Holy shit-on-a-stick, I thought, don't fall in love with a foreigner!

I'm pretty sure I was speaking to someone in the visa division. She took my stunned silence for an invitation to provide more boilerplate. "Look, even for a tourist visa, your friend needs to apply from within her own country." She rattled off the usual list of required documents. All of them -- except the passport -- were safely in the possession of Elena's loving parents.

"She can't go home. She has no home! Her parents beat the crap out of her, hired thugs to get us. They threaten to lock her in a dom durakoff crazy house, and fry her brain with enough juice to light a city."

"She is mentally ill?"

"No!" Damn, I was in tears. I don't do tears. If I start crying, I'll never stop, what then? Pull it together, Meg! "She just wants to be with me."

"I see. It's a homosexual thing." She took a very audible breath. "It's a matter for the local authorities," then added, "in Russia. Not here."

"It is not a sexual thing. Sex has nothing to do with it." Why are relationships about nothing but sex? "It's all about love. We don't want sex. We want to love each other, and we want to be together."

"Oh yes, I see. The family class of immigrant visa is probably wrong. You are not in a sexual: equivalent to married, conjugal relationship?" She didn't wait for an answer. Probably didn't expect one. "You are friends. Good friends, to be sure. Best that your friend approach the Canadian consulate in her home region in Russia."

Tanya and Elena at the Londonskaya hotel in Odessa, Ukraine

Tanya and Elena, photographed by Meg, dining at the Londonskaya hotel in Odessa, Ukraine.

I tried to thank the woman for her time, but what came out was a horrible, wracking sob. I closed the flip-phone and started to lose control. Being alone in the business center, was at least a good thing. I can't be faulted for the occasional, self indulgent cry now and then, but I was fighting back a sickening, this can't be happening, what have I done? Wake up, damn it! Kind of feeling. Not even my superhuman powers of denial could deflect what was clawing its way up from the pit of my stomach. Like that dinner table chest-burster in Alien, it was fear. I was bloody terrified. Whoever said that, "There's nothing to fear, but fear itself," absolutely, totally nailed it.

"Think through the problem, Meg." Sure, I mutter to myself on occasion. Who doesn't? "Break it down. Fit the pieces back together. Constants, variables, factors, outcomes." I'd eventually figure it out: Elena leaped, I caught her. Hell, I encouraged her. She'd told me a zillion times, and in as many decibels, that she'd die before going back. That she was as good as dead anyway. Trashing her mother's plans, and society's expectations, effectively axe-murdered the family and grandchildren she hadn't had yet. If she went back, they-that-know-best would never let her out again.

Flying home was not an option, unless... Wait a minute, yeah, wait a damned minute... Unless I was doing the flying! The point I'm making is that the only way the two of us were going to get home, was by doing it entirely on our own. Captain Janeway got Voyager home from the delta quadrant. She crossed the galaxy! All we had to cross was the planet.

I surfed back online with a vengeance. Search: light aircraft for sale. Uh-huh, nothing in Ukraine but some seriously timed out, Soviet era, bush-craft. Worse than boats. Boats! Yeah, could be that old coot was on to something. What was the name of that website? I swear, I could hear the theme music from Jeopardy playing somewhere. According to yachtworld.com, there was a massively disproportionate number of boats for sale in Turkey. Something to do with taxes, and -- no doubt -- evading them, but what the hell, it was one of the very few countries Elena could go to on a Russian passport. Crucially, it was time that we needed, and Turkey was where we could buy it.

Tanya and Meg hamming it up on Odessa's waterfront

Elena's friend (and bringer of the passport from Russia), Tanya, and Meg, hamming it up on Odessa's waterfront.

They say that what one leaves behind is evidence of one's existence. If that's true, the crap left strewn about our room was a monument to ours. Packing for the next mad-dash to who-knows-where was yet another brutal lesson in personal triage. Kiev was bad -- other than the bottles lined up at the Prokuratura -- but then, we had a vehicle to cram what we could into. Now, it was luggage only: airline baggage restrictions. I'd booked business class, and that gave us a bit more baggage allowance, but it was decimation time for our worldly possessions.

I watched Elena, kneeling on her suitcase, bouncing violently to get it closed. "Krikey, I'm no climatologist, but I'm pretty sure you won't need that parka in Turkey!" A helpful suggestion, I'm sure you'd agree. "Just leave it. We'll tell the hotel to give what we can't possibly take with us to their staff, or to chuck it."

"Nyet, I will need in Russia, if they do not to Turkey let me go with you. Think, Meg! Why Mama so easily gave to Tanya passport?" Elena had a point: a Trojan horse was easy, especially in Russia. Declare her daughter missing, or a fugitive, or insane, or a terrorist, or an alien doppelganger. "Blyat, Mama wants to hurt me, to hurt us." Elena gave up, yanked the down-filled winter coat from her bag and put it on. It was, of course, the same coat she was wearing when I first saw her at Kiev's airport, and then, when she was attacked at the train station. Nice coat, bad memories.

Tanya, with her minuscule carry-on bag, met us in the lobby. Elena fled up the grand staircase, back to our room, and crammed what she could of our leavings into a duffel bag. Computer speakers, ridiculous high-heeled shoes, books, useless fashion clothing, makeup, all she could cram into that bag, was on its way back to Russia. Tanya could keep it, give it to Mama or toss it. It didn't matter to Elena, at least she wasn't forced to abandon it.

The ferry, Southern Palmyra, departing Odessa, Ukraine

The ferry, Southern Palmyra, departing Odessa. It is notable that St. Petersburg, Russia, is referred to as "Northern Palmyra" and Odessa, Ukraine, as "Southern Palmyra." The actual ancient city of Palmyra, in Syria, was destroyed by ISIL in 2015.

Tanya's flight to Moscow was first. As the last of the heavily clad, collectively morose, Russia bound passengers shuffled through the beige double doors, Elena embraced her friend. Holding her tight and softly crying -- while the Londonskaya's driver/bodyguard rocked nervously on his heels and looked anywhere but at the two women. It looked, to me, like they were avoiding eye contact when they let their embrace go and pulled away from each other. Elena took the last of her Russian Rubles from a pocket and shoved them into Tanya's hands. "For lunch. For the taxi. For everything. Until we meet again, have a soft flight, my friend."

I told myself, the Rubles were useless where we were going, and hell, what I'd ransacked from my savings had to be enough to get us seriously on our way out of harm's way. Between us, we had a little over four thousand dollars crammed into our various pockets. All of it, accumulated in ATM runs to the Athena mall. I have to admit that watching Elena give away that money, had me a little concerned about our own needs. Still, I knew it then, it was her way easing the final farewell to her friends and country.

At last -- and not a moment too soon for the Londonskaya's disconcerted driver -- it was our turn to run the gauntlet of security screening, passport control, and other opportunists between the beige doors and our flight to Istanbul. He gave Elena an awkward hug before she could deflect it. When it was my turn, I pulled one of his outstretched arms from the air, locked my right with his, and shook in a firm and business-like manner. Although I hadn't seen a tips jar proudly perched on the Londonskaya's front desk, I gave him all my Ukrainian cash and asked him to share it with the staff that served us. You know, that kind of parting philanthropy might have done something for Elena, but it did nothing for me. Maybe I'm just shallow, or it could have been, I wasn't leaving everything and everyone, I had known and loved, behind forever. Then again, it's probably because I really didn't know the guy.

Security screening was a gentle harbinger of what lay ahead. Elena passed through with ease. My Canadian passport engendered a far more thorough screening process. Not only were my bags searched multiple times, but I was asked to describe fuzzy smudges on the ancient x-ray monitors while someone, in a reflective safety vest, turned my socks and skivvies inside out. A couple boxes of chocolates were of intense interest, "Drugs! You have drugs here. Show these to me." I pulled them out. "Ah, very nice. Kiev In the Evening chocolates. To be such a rich foreigner as to buy such confections, we can only dream."

Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! Duh! Krikey, I can be dense at times. "My pleasure, the chocolates are yours." A rotund, woman from a side office, wearing makeup she must have applied with a trowel, smiled and was off with both boxes. A couple of uniforms looked at me sideways while rifling though what was left of my luggage. "Unfortunately, I have no more chocolates. Why not buy yourselves a couple of boxes?" I handed each a nice crisp American twenty. Ta-DA! Inspection was done. I passed the first gate and was on to the next.

Passport control: privateer gatekeepers in high-tech, bulletproof cubicles, lay dead ahead. In front of us, a man, woman and two cranky kids, waited behind the yellow line. An officer behind thick acrylic signaled to them with a half wave. The man spoke something reassuring to his wife -- I assume it was reassuring, being soft and in Ukrainian -- and approached the booth. There were some hand gestures waved in the general direction of the woman and children. Something about family members traveling together presenting themselves together, came from a speaker embedded in the bulletproof acrylic glazing. The woman herded her kids across the yellow line to join their father at the booth. A lot of head bobbing and stamping ensued, papers were shoved in and out of the booth in a sliding metal tray, and then, the family passed by the booth and was gone. They made it.

The officer -- a humorless man in a surrealistically large hat -- busied himself with tidying up, leaning back in his chair to confer with comrades in other booths, psych himself up, and psych us out. That yellow line is freaking terrifying when it's your toes up against it. What happens on the other side can destroy your life, or effectively end it for the person you love.

Elena Ivanova checks out a first-class train carriage

Elena wistfully checks out a first-class train carriage at the Odessa train station.

The blithe, half handed come! gesture finally got flapped in our general direction. Breathlessly, we held hands and stepped up to the booth. "What is this? One at a time!"

"We are together." Elena managed to say, despite a vocal tremolo that sounded like she swallowed an electric toothbrush.

"Sisters?" He looked at the blood red and cobalt blue passports in the metal tray.

"A couple."

"Nyet! One goes back to the line." He slapped the metal tray back to our side of the acrylic shield.

I scooped out my passport and fell back. If that yellow line was scary before, having it between us was hell-on-the-half-shell. I watched the enormous hat bobbing up and down, catching up with the officer's head a split second after each glance at Elena and the monitor inside his booth. My mind was screaming, "This is bad. It's taking too long. We're screwed!" when the officer's amplified voice squawked from his embedded, shield speaker, "You! Come here."

Those were a couple of the longest meters in my life. Elena waited for me with her customary deer-in-the-headlights look. "A problem, Meg. He wants to speak to..."

"Forbidden! No talking. The Russian goes. Now!" He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder, waving her on toward the third gate: passenger security screening -- as if the ancient, humongous baggage scanners, leaking enough radiation to roast a side of beef, and the chocolate shakedown gang, wasn't enough.

I dutifully plopped my passport and various excrescent papers in the tray. There they sat, on my side of the barrier. The metal tray didn't retract. The officer in his bulletproof cage casually tidied up, spoke with colleagues, raised his enormous hat, ran his other hand through his hair, took a phone call.

Well, shit! I must have suddenly gone invisible. I hate it when that happens. "Eh-hem."

"Silence! You wait."

People were moving past the other booths. Those waiting for mine were getting ugly. Elena was nowhere in sight. I assumed she passed through passenger screening without a problem. Did she have her passport? She must have, no one got through without one and a boarding pass. Why me? What kind of bullshit game was I caught up in this time?

"Meez Stawn-yeh, pleez." Came from somewhere outside the passport-control stockade ropes. "Meez Stawn-yeh. Pleez to come to office." There it was again. I turned. The chocaholic from baggage screening, the one with the spackled-on makeup, was beckoning.

"You go with her." Rattled from the booth's speaker.

A split second before I could grab my passport from the metal tray, it snapped back into the booth. Krikey, I could have lost some fingers. "Ooooh-kaaay, I see that you're going to keep my papers safe for me. I'll just pop back round in a bit to collect those, shall I?" It was starting to feel a bit like the Russian consulate in Odessa, but nowhere near as funny.

"Go! Now!"

The woman with the bulletproof makeup closed her office door, ushered me to a battered metal chair. Then, sitting at her desk, and sighing like she had to broker a Mid-East peace deal, she offered me a Kiev in the Evening chocolate.

"Thank you, no. I'm kind of off chocolate now." I noticed the box was almost empty. I felt more like throwing up than gobbling confections, anyway. "Is there another problem with my luggage?"

"Problem with Russian girlfriend." The woman's English wasn't bad.

"She wasn't stopped, she went through. What is..."

"You wait." She lifted the chocolate box. Again, shook it in my direction. The last of my chocolates rattled in their extruded plastic grid. "Have candy. Hmmm, good."

At first I thought she wanted me to prove that they weren't laced with poison. Then again, they were almost all gone. I guessed it was some kind of stalling tactic.

Without a knock, the office door opened and in came the passport-control officer. He pulled off his giant hat, tossed it on the woman's desk and dropped into the other metal chair. Helping himself to a chocolate, the two of them exchanged pleasantries.

"Excuse me," I said in Russian. "My flight soon departs for Istanbul, and my partner..."

"The Russian girl," the officer started, "she can fly to Turkey. I have stamped her passport." Then he continued in Ukrainian. Russian is hard enough for me, but in Ukrainian I'm complete bollocks. I couldn't catch a thing they were talking about.

"This Russian girl, she can go to Turkey. This man has not to stop her. She should not travel to out of CIS." The woman spoke to me slowly, in English.

"Why?" I said it before realizing the right response was how much?

Meg and Elena on the Pushkin Stairs in Odessa, Ukraine

Alfresco dining on the Pushkin stairs. Nothing could be finer! Tins and buns from the Athena mall, a concrete buttress to perch on, a sunset over the Black Sea, a terrifying need for cash, and a couple desperately out of options... Now that's the epitome of adventure and romance!

An intense back-and-forth Ukrainian dialog ensued, followed by the woman saying, "No time if to Turkey with Russian girlfriend you want to travel. There is problem with girlfriend her passport in computer." She looked at me intently. I waited for the bottom line. "To Russia she should only travel." The woman sat back in her chair, visibly exhausted by her translation effort.

"But she is stamped out of Odessa and boarding a flight to Istanbul. A flight that I should be on, as we speak and eat fine chocolates." Reasoning was pointless, but I wanted to know how real the threat was.

"Suka!" That means bitch in Russian -- I guess the officer didn't get what he wanted from me. He fired some more Ukrainian at the woman.

"This man, he has done, how to say..." The woman racked her brain, face twisted in concentration.

"A favor?" I offered.

"Da, yes! He has done to you a favor. Your kind," more brain wracking, "how to say, gommasecky, (Russian, vulgar: homosexual) are not welcome here. But much worse for you in Russia. You should thank to this officer for not to send Russian girlfriend to dom durakoff (Russian, slang: crazy-house). Instead he let her to fly to Istanbul with you."

"Why do this? Was her passport flagged?" Stupid question, I know, but my tolerance for that kind of incessant, directed, senseless hatred at anyone, let alone someone as kind, and beautiful, and curious, and complex, and gentle as Elena, had been far exceeded. My blood was boiling!

The woman just sat there. Slowly, she leaned forward and said, "Plane to Istanbul, it leaving soon, yes? You thank officer, fly with Russian girlfriend."

My mind raced. Of course, the passport was flagged! When he queried Elena's passport number, the officer in the really big hat probably saw three cherries on his monitor. It wasn't personal, it was business. I had to just suck it up and eat it, or the chocaholic was right, I really was going to miss the damn flight. I plunged a hand into one of my pockets and pulled out a fistful of twenties. I heard stitches popping in the process.

The woman carefully flattened the bills on her desk and started counting them out one at a time. Putting his hat on, the officer tipped it at me, saying, in Russian, "It was a pleasure," and then, he left the office. The woman was up to the fifth twenty, smoothing it out, saying "One hundred," out loud. "One hundred, twenty... one hundred..." She stopped, looked up at me in fake surprise. "You are still here! Do you not have a plane to catch, or do you wait for a receipt for overweight baggage payment?

I bolted for the door. The lineup at passport control -- minus an officer -- was going to strand me in Odessa. I wondered if I'd even get my passport back. Oh my dog! I hoped Elena would just get on that plane without me. Get safely out of Ukraine, know that no-matter-what, I'd find her.

The woman ordered, behind me, "Go to his booth, get your passport from him," as I pulled the door open.

I turned, stared, slack jawed. "Huh?"

In one deft movement, she swept the twenties into her top drawer and shot up. Stomping past, she grabbed my wrist and pulled me toward the passport-control booths. Past the lines of petulant, nervous passengers, right to His booth, where he was already seated, straightening up. He never made eye contact. How could he, given the size of his hat? "Where to?"

"Istanbul, Turkey." I said, but thought, you asshole.

"You came to Kiev, but you leave through Odessa. Why is this? How did you get from Kiev to Odessa? Need to see travel tickets." At this, he did make eye contact. I could just make out the first hint of an evil gotcha grin on his face.

Shit, shit, shit, I didn't have time for another shakedown. I couldn't just hand over money at the booth, with all those eyes and cameras on us. "No tickets. We traveled with friends in their private automobile." Brilliant! I thought, hearing it as I said it. My subconscious came to the rescue.

He picked up his stamp, then wielding it like a gavel, ponderously slammed it down on my papers and finally my passport. I scooped up what he didn't keep and heard, "Thank you for visiting Ukraine," in English, from his speaker, and then, "Next!" in Russian, as I hurried to passenger screening.

A flight-side passenger transfer contraption at the Odessa airport.

A flight-side passenger transfer contraption at the Odessa airport.

Business class was all ours. It was eerie, considering the rest of the plane was chockablock full. We didn't know why Mama gave up the passport. Elena thought that with Tanya knowing the truth, she could contradict whatever lies Mama was spreading to explain her daughter's disappearance. Maybe she didn't expect us to fly the coop before Tanya reported back that she had been unsuccessful in convincing Elena to go back to Dima. Maybe passport-control smelled opportunity when a rich Western gommaseck -- throwing chocolates and crisp twenties, left-right-and-center -- showed up with a pie-eyed Russian claiming they were a couple. Maybe the passport was flagged and I outbid the flagger.

Maybe we were running headlong into disaster. Damn, I was getting the shakes. Elena stared out her window at the terminal. I could hear her fighting a losing battle to hide her tears. It was threatening to unleash an avalanche of emotion in me. If I started crying, I'd never stop. Maybe later, in flight, in a lavatory, if Elena slept -- maybe then.

I didn't know where we would end up in Turkey, or what we would even do once we got there. I sure as hell didn't know what would happen when our pocketfuls of twenties ran out. All that mattered at the time was that we were getting out, and we were still together.

Warm seawater splashed on the back of my hand. Okay, so my tears didn't wait for takeoff.

Turkish Airlines Boeing 737 in Odessa, Ukraine

Turkish Airlines Boeing 737 in Odessa. Meg photographed their 'ride' out of Ukraine, minutes before boarding, and still not sure they would both be on the aircraft.

 


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