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A True Story of Love, Survival and Freedom

Chapter 6

Taking Flight

It's like highway seventeen goes on for-bloody-ever! Especially if you're heading north. It only goes to the ferry terminal and the airport. Pretty hard-deadline kinds of places, so who isn't in a hurry? Of course, the sadistic designers knew that, and imposed progressively, stupefying, rage inducing, reduced speed limits, the closer one got to either terminal. I figure the cops must've loved them for that bit of civil engineering genius.

Lufthansa 747 taxis to the terminal

Lufthansa Boeing 747 on the taxiway.

I turned to Bernadette, perched bolt upright behind the wheel, to see over it. "Hey, can't you drive any faster?"

"Hey, you want to drive?" She glowered at me, jammed in the passenger seat with my pranged, right leg up on the dash. "Oh, that's right, you can't drive, all busted up and broken like that."

"Not funny, it hurts."

"I bet it does. They're going to love you at the airport." Bernadette signaled to pass. Some kind of farm vehicle lumbered along, a blizzard of flower petals swirled in its wake.

The airport was small, obsessively clean, and run like clockwork. Not a Herculean task, given its traffic consisted of mainly commuter flights to and from Vancouver. Victoria was, in many ways, a terminus: end of the line. It's no wonder the place was lovingly referred to as the city for newly weds and nearly deads. And it might have been, once upon a time, but by then, it was pretty much, only the nearly dead that could afford it. So yeah, Victoria really was, all about being end-of-the-line, or one big checkout station.

Bernadette in the volvo wagon

"Bernie" Bernadette in the ol' reno-wagon

Bernadette pulled my Volvo wagon -- affectionately dubbed, the reno-wagon -- up to the passenger drop-off area. "Hang on, I'll get a luggage cart." She said, bolting from the driver's seat, on a bee-line for the terminal.

I groaned, trying to sink deeper into my seat, maybe demolecularize and become part of it. Drivers leaping from their abandoned vehicles in the drop-off zone, then vanishing into the terminal, invokes an immediate visit by a parking commissar. One was one his way. I opened my passenger-side door to head him off. He watched me, with a kind of stunned expression, trying to improvise an exit maneuver from the car.

It wasn't ballet. I was monstrously overdressed for stretchy-pants-casual, dank Victoria, in my fake-fur and suede parka -- good for former Soviet republics in the dead of winter, but way too big to pack -- and crutches. Before Bernadette made it back with the luggage cart, a wheelchair had been proffered. The parking commissars really aren't that bad a bunch, it turns out. By the time I'd been pried from the car, I'd gone from crutches to a full-blown wheelchair. Talk about an inauspicious way to set off on a new adventure.

Following an agonizing, blister raising, pity invoking, plane change in Vancouver's sprawling airport, I was, at last, buckled into deluxe accommodation for the long-haul to Germany. I breathed a sigh of relief, damn glad -- given my swollen my ankle, by then, threatening to burst my boot seams -- that I'd booked first-class on a whim. Each seat sported a single, red rose in an integrated vase. Imagining the aerospace engineering directive for tiny, personal, flower vases in aircraft seats, had me stifling a giggle. What the airworthiness and certification testing requirements must have been for such equipment; it simply boggled my mind, but was innocently appreciated.

Departure from Vancouver seen from an airliner

Departing Vancouver, British Columbia one is lucky to reach this altitude without entering cloud. The region's torrential rains and eternal gloom were probably inspiration for the Ferengi Home world of Ferenginar, in the Star Trek universe.

An angel of mercy drifted through the cabin with champagne on offer. I accepted. The bubbly felt great, doing some kind of tango with the analgesics already coursing through me. A refill was offered. Seen through streams of bubbles and crystal, the rose became an impressionistic masterpiece. Overwhelmed with the art of the moment, and intoxication, no doubt, I texted, "On my way. Toasting to our meeting with champagne and a red rose, see you soon, my love." Of course, Elena would be asleep by then. So what? I hit send.

Finally, there was nothing left to do but change planes, ten hours and a million miles ahead. From there on in, someone else was doing the driving. I cherished the feeling of not being in charge. Of knowing, the option of yelling, "Wait, turn around! I forgot such-and-such," had expired. No turning back. The luggage doors slammed, and the wide-body-heavy pushed-back onto the taxiway. Destination was set, no decisions to make, and I mercifully relinquished control. It was the last time I would ever feel that way.

Earth's terminator at sunrise from the edge of space

The Earth's terminator or twilight zone, seen by Meg from the edge of space, somewhere over Europe, on the morning of February, 16, 2006.

"New message!" Chirped from my mobile, seconds after picking up an undoubtedly expensive, local, German network. It chirped again... and again. I didn't know if it would stop by the time the jet taxied to, and parked at the terminal. All from Elena, of course. She was on her way. Had hurdled the first of her many barriers -- that, back then, I really didn't know about -- on her way to Kiev.

Somewhere between Vancouver and Frankfurt, doing a good two-thousand km/h -- the tangential speed of the planet's rotation, added to the ground speed of the aircraft -- I, and my fellow passengers, left yesterday behind, blasted through true midnight, and flew into today. Time travel, jet lag, too much time to think... call it what you will, I was now only two time-zones from Elena. It was February 16: the day we desperately planned to break the e-barrier.

Her text messages were one more confirmation that this was really going to happen. That something as tenuous as an electronic communication link could actually become real. Let's just say, it was kind of blowing my mind. I scrolled back to the earliest text she'd sent. She'd gotten mine -- the one I sent from the plane in Vancouver just before the friendly kill-your-electronics command -- and replied with something like, "Awake now. I wait too for you. I think nothing but meeting with you. Over ocean you are maybe." And then, something along the lines of, "Was afraid that maybe uncle was dead but is alive, so everything fine."

USSR, political billboard

Soviet, outdoor art cheers on the proletariat during their daily shoe-commute. These roadside attractions were commonplace in 1986, when this photo was taken. Nowadays, this Soviet propaganda, is coveted by collectors.

A dead uncle? Okay, so that was weird: weird for me, but terrifying for Elena. Just another facet of Elena's life, one of the many obstacles she had to overcome, and definitely not something she was telling me about at the time. Since then, the whole picture had come together throughout the years, countless conversations and Elena's Russian language memoir, Talking to the Moon. It all gave me a pretty clear idea of what happened back then.

It was Valentine's Day, two days before Elena's escape to Kiev. She was walking to work with her mother, glad not to have Dima chaperoning her, and hoping he wouldn't ambush her along the way. Her mother stopped, and took her aside for a serious heart-to-heart. "Your uncle..." Elena's mother paused to catch her breath, "... uncle Kolya..." pause, gasp.

"Yes, Mamma?" Elena was sure he'd died. Damn! She'd have to attend the funeral. Perfect timing! Goodbye Kiev. "What, what about uncle Kolya? What happened Mamma?"

"Slow down. Why must you be so impatient?"

"So... uncle Kolya, what happened to him?" Given uncle Kolya's atypical lifestyle, his sudden demise wouldn't be a surprise. His Volgograd apartment had been a magic portal to the West. As a wide-eyed kid, Elena had goggled at the forbidden fruit lining his walls and shelves: video-disk players, video cameras, American brands, Western music and the mythical technology to play it on, Scottish whiskey, Swiss chocolate, blue-jeans in all sizes, greenish money with funny old men on it, a Polaroid camera with film that developed itself... and a gun. Oh sure, uncle Kolya said it was a toy: a mere air gun, a target pistol. But it sure was heavy, and uncle sure did keep it with him and get really scared outside, like tigers waited in the shrubs. Siberian tigers, it would have been, because back then, it was the USSR. Following the collapse, nothing had changed for uncle Kolya. Elena saw him less, but the strange uncle still peered around corners and kept a tight reign on his man-purse.

Soviet coat of arms on a red background

Public art to the glory of the communist party decorated most public buildings in the USSR. Considering all buildings were public, that was a lot of art. In fact, factories existed to churn the stuff out. This Soviet coat of arms, is actually a rather fine building adornment.

Mother's gasping lessened to rhythmic wheezing. "You... know... he... gave me... some money?"

"Of course." Elena stared straight ahead. "I thought it was for me." Or, so that's what he'd told her. But without her own bank account, Elena relied on Mama to store and keep her money safe.

"It was... I mean, it is, Lenochka." Her mother used the cute diminutive for Elena.

Elena started to move away, she didn't want to think about the money, or uncle, or any creepy and unforeseen traps preventing her escape.

Mama snatched Elena's elbow. "Wait..." She looked around. "Dima, he is not coming. You don't need to run. We can talk without him. This is important."

"About Dima?" Elena relaxed a bit.

"About you and Dima." Mother took a deep breath. "You two need a flat of your own." Another breath. "I want Dima to contribute, even just a little bit."

"What?" Mama's declaration hit like a sucker-punch. Elena gaped at the dirty cars flying by.

"When you get back from your silly little holiday in Ukraine, I am buying you two an apartment with that money."

"But Mother, uncle meant that money for me." Elena stared into the intersection, saw the light go orange. Cars flew by faster.

"This is for you, for you and your husband, for your children."

"I don't want..." Elena reconsidered. "I am not ready for children. How can you think..."

Mama snapped, "You aren't living with me and Papa forever! You are just about twenty-seven -- an old maid. You have had enough time to be ready. You and Dima are buying an apartment when you get back, even if he doesn't have two kopecks to his name."

Elena was silent. Frozen.

"Unless you want to live in that..." Mama looked for the right word, "... hovel of his."

Studded tires snarled under the cars whizzing by. Elena's subconscious fled inward, away from the terror of considering, even for a second, what would become of her, should she not make it to Kiev and to me.

Crowded bus stop in small Russian city

A crowded Russian bus stop in winter. Unquestioningly normal in Elena's world.

"Dearest, I wait our meeting. Having breakfast now. Dima will come to walk with me for bus to Moscow," was the last of her text messages. I knew about Dima, but not that he was chaperoning Elena to the bus. I had been under the impression, she had broken up with him after I had suggested that she didn't have to date someone that she didn't like. It seemed crazy-simplistic to me, but what did I know? Especially after she asked, would I be in a relationship with her if she was in a relationship with someone else at the same time. It sounded like a general human-dating-rituals, woman's magazine, kind of question, so I answered in the negative. Elena responded by declaring, that she had broken up with Dima. A little weird that he was chaperoning her around. At least, I hoped he was only chaperoning her, and not coming with her. I was jetlagged as all-get-out, changing planes in Germany, on my way to a former Soviet republic, and I really had no idea who, or what, was waiting for me in Kiev.

I was running under the assumption that Elena had told the people in her life what she was doing, who she was meeting, how she felt. Of course, I had my Western blinders on. She was an adult, after all, and wouldn't be out to deceive, or cower from everyone in her life. Right? Well, no… Dima was, in fact, blackmailing her into dating him. He threatened her with telling her mother that she didn't want to marry him, was running off to meet another woman, and must be gay: in need of a violent intervention to cure her sickening depravity. Not wanting sex, domestic slavery, or children, there was simply no other explanation.

In lieu of telling her mother in person, and then, having her put an immediate end to any hope of escape, Elena composed a letter to her parents the previous evening. Her plan was to hide it, and then tell her mother how to find it when she was safely in Ukraine.

It was short, just one paragraph. She wrote of finding me, and unexpectedly falling in love. Of how natural it was for her to feel the way she did. She wrote that my love for her was unconditional, and that my honest interest and actual concern for her was a precious gift. But what was most precious of all, was that through my words and Western common sense, she had found herself. And that now, having finally joined me, and able to be herself in Kiev, she was happy.

There was just one thing left that she had to do before she slept. Rebooting her computer into MS-DOS, she typed, "C:\FORMAT." To, "Are you sure?" she answered, "YES." Then she sat, motionless and barely breathing, light as a ghost -- in the room she had known her entire sentient life -- waiting, watching, while her digital existence evaporated.

Bustling intersection in post Soviet provincial Russia

Where cars are still a luxury, not even the Russian winter keeps people inside.

The following morning -- the morning of the day we would meet, if all of Elena's meticulously laid plans went well -- Dima showed up around seven at the apartment's front door. "Lenochka?"

Her heart jumped. She stole a last, desperate glance at everything she'd ever known: the kitchen; a motley tablecloth she had chosen; the sugar-bowl, her favorite; a brand-new microwave oven; their cute, little TV-set. Forcing herself down the hall was like wading through setting concrete. Almost at the apartment's door, her legs simply wouldn't carry her past her own room.

Another soft knock from the stairwell landing. "Are you awake. I am waiting." Dima sounded so far away.

She angled into the room she'd grown up in, inhaling its somewhat musty air. Her desk was over by the window. She imagined making eye contact with a first-grade version of herself, sitting there, looking back at her. What can a terrified adult say to this credulous child? "When you are me, standing here and now, you will know how precious every second here is, how finite, and conditional. Cherish it!" Elena told the little girl in her mind. She scanned the shelves, saw one or two of the echo-child's most beloved things, still there, among her own grown-up books, music and entertainment center with its pure-blue LED lights.

Elena Ivanova's first day of grade-school

Elena's first day of grade-school. About seven years old in this photograph, Elena is wearing the standard USSR school uniform.

Knock, knock, knock. Louder this time.

The child was gone. Elena's desk was unoccupied. She crossed the threshold, released the locks on the outer door and swung it open.

"About time." Dima said, stepping into the apartment. "I probably woke up everybody."

"You did, but that is okay." Elena's mother stood in her night-robe, smiling at the two of them from the far end of the short hallway. "I need to be up now. Are you ready to go, Elena?"

She was already in a warm, down-filled parka -- purchased precisely for its unfeminine practicality, and the frosty streets of Kiev -- she said, "I am ready, Mom." Her feet -- in devastatingly trendy, but horribly uncomfortable, forest-green, Doc Martin boots, bought to impress me -- however, refused to move.

"Well then, be careful there." Olga shuffled into the kitchen.

Dima stepped back into the stairwell.

Elena gripped her small suitcase, felt cold air rushing in from the landing. She froze. That was good-bye?

Dima stopped, turned, saw her standing there. "Elena, you forgot something?"

Dima was one thing, but her own mother? How could she not know or feel, the tiniest bit, that this was good-bye.

Elena Ivanova at 14 in her cloister

Elena in her room was photographed when she was about fourteen years old. The only room she ever had, she referred to it later as her cloister.

Sourcing the blast of cold air from the apartment's open door, Mama stuck her head into the hallway. Her daughter stood there, clutching her suitcase. "Oh dear, you'll be fine." She walked toward her. "Dima will make sure you are safely on your way, you will be back in a few days. I will look after your cat."

Elena let go of the suitcase and embraced her mother, acutely aware of her cozy warmth. In that moment, more than ever, she needed her mother's soft shoulders. She fought back her tears, rage, despair. How she wanted to spell out to this woman that raised her, nurtured her, loved her, made her; the truth of all the suffering she inflicted. She wished her mother knew that those very seconds would be their last.

Dima reached into the vestibule, grabbed Elena's suitcase. Feeling awkward, he turned away, concentrating on poking at the elevator call button.

" 'Have a soft flight then,' as they say." Mama quoted from one of their favorite comedies, then prodded Elena toward Dima.

On the landing, Elena turned. "Mother... Mama?"

In mid-close of the outer door, her mother stopped, one hand on the doorknob, the other on a heavy security latch. "Yes, what?"

It was right there! Everything she wanted to say, so close to bursting out. But she kept it inside, instead shrieking in her mind. Mother! Mamma, I love you! Why do you push me away? Mother! I love her, love her too! She is a beautiful person. Don't hate her and me! You are destroying the most precious thing on Earth. You are destroying love. I love you all, don't force me to choose!

"What? It is cold! I need to work."

Elena heard the elevator arrive. She looked into her Mother's face one last time, saw only anger. "Ah... nothing."

Elena Ivanova 4 years old with the group of architects she would eventually join

Elena, at about 4 years of age, is standing with her mother, (center) surrounded by the working group of architects she would eventually join. This photograph was taken on the day of the Communist Mayday celebration (May 1), in front of the building they, and eventually Elena, worked in.

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