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A True Story of Love, Survival and Freedom

Chapter 7

Breaking the E-Barrier

Oh. My. Dog! I was one broken camper getting off that plane. Immobilized for hours, my ankle had ceased to be an ankle, becoming instead, a tall-boot balloon of blood, muscle, tendon, bone and Pain. See that? I spelled Pain with a capital P. Endless, labyrinthine corridors and galleries lay between me and a dropping place to convalesce before my next flight. The unbroken poured around me. I was a slow motion mastodon in a stampede of creatures fleeing something like a wildfire.

30 stories of Soviet Stainless Steel Defend the Ukrainian Motherland

The Motherland is undoubtedly Kiev's most prominent modern landmark. However, not as powerful as superstition. Mother's sword was ordered truncated by several meters when discovered, it thrust upward higher than the tallest church spire.

Then, "Achtung!" meeeep meeeep, from behind me -- where I couldn't possibly turn my fake-fur festooned body fast enough to to take a look -- cut through my prehistoric pachydermic fantasy. Then, more German from behind.

I started to crutch plant, good foot hop, moan, swing hips, and repeat my way around to see what kind of achtunging, meeeeping creature I'd impeded.

"You! To where are you going?" A smartly uniformed woman snapped in what sounded, to me, like a way overdone German accent.

"Kiev." It was all I could think of on the spot like that, and it was where I was going.

"You speak English, yes?"

"Yes, sorry." I started to hobble out of the golf cart's way.

"Stop! To where are you needing to go?" The driver dismounted her vehicle. "To flight, to customs, to duty free?" She asked.

"Duty free?" I must have mumbled in my pain addled state. Before I could run the ramifications of my actions, Frau Efficiency had me, my crutches, my carry-on wrestled onto the golf cart and was achtunging and meeeping through the torrent. Facing backwards, accelerating past the able-bodied, I caught their scowls and sneers at having a easy pass taken from them. Can't say, that didn't feel good.

Duty free was kind of an entire mall, or a small city, depending on how you look at it. I'd been thinking Skittles and a snow-globe, not a home entertainment system, so I pointed Frau Efficiency at the only thing I recognized: books. She wrestled me from the back of her cart, propped me up in front of a wall of English language paperbacks, and was off, meeeping into the vast airport wilderness.

Usual airport fare: trashy novels, easy reads for the long haul when the in-flight movies suck, true life disasters, ghostwritten memoirs of dot-com glory kings, blah, blah, b.... Wait a minute, bottom shelf, something about being close to the wind. Probably about a lot of wind, like The Perfect Storm, which I absolutely loved and devoured on a previous long-haul. Couldn't reach it, so I hooked the only copy out with crutch.

There it was. Fate, lying on the floor. Me, staring down at Close to the Wind by Pete Goss. Not a disaster book, per se, but a round-the-world solo yacht-race memoir. Okay, so it was a disaster story, after all.

Lenin points down from upon high

"What have you done for your motherland?" Lenin's massive statue points down to the masses of vanished proletariat.

By the time I had hobbled, golf carted, mono railed and veritably dragged myself by the lips to an in-transit-lounge shower-room, I really could have passed for the entire zombie cast of Night of the Living Dead. Seeing as it was my pranged ankle's only swell-limiting compression and support, I hadn't even thought of loosening my boots since Victoria. With my injured leg up on a settee, biting my lower lip and sucking air in through my teeth, I unzipped the boot. I probably should have showered with my boots on. My lower leg looked like a gaudy, house-of-horrors prop.

I assumed that Elena was having an easier time of getting to Kiev than I was. Her series of unanswered text messages led me to believe, all was well. Had it occurred to me -- while recovering from the horrors of my shower, sipping hot tea and perusing the morning paper in a first-class passenger lounge -- that the intense Russian was literally running for her life, it's a darn good bet, I would've been worried about a lot more than a pranged foot. Instead, I rattled off a text message about tea and scones, and the nice, comfy easy-chair I nestled in.

Aging Soviet Infrastructure

Remaining Soviet infrastructure, in use as long as possible.

Elena and Dima got to the bus depot with minutes to spare. The Moscow bus -- her ride -- was nowhere in sight. Her heart was skipping beats. Had she missed it? Did it fill up and leave early? Was there time to catch the next one?

The depot was jamb-packed. Passengers, workers, drivers, scurried along seemingly random trajectories throughout the drab building. All that activity was a good sign, it meant the intercity buses were still running. That close to making her escape, stressed way beyond any sane person's breaking point, Elena expected to find the bus station closed for renovations, under siege by Chechen militants, or blown to smithereens by a meteorite.

Passengers -- guarding cling-wrap swathed luggage, like penguins in Antarctica with precious eggs balanced on their feet -- lined up for a Moscow destined bus that wasn't there. Elena checked her ticket... again. It entitled her to a place on the bus. Fine, the bus was late, or she was early, something like that, she rationalized.

"Let's go over there." Dima nodded at a chaotic waiting area furnished with hard, wooden benches.

"Ah, sure." Thoughts raced through her head, panic through her chest. She stared with such intensity at a big white clock on the opposite wall, it blanched, then morphed into a nauseating swirl of searing light.

Dima picked up on it. "You need to sit down." He guided her toward the benches.

Something chirped then cackled over the station's background cacophony: a woman's voice on the public address system. All Elena's fears had come true. The eight o'clock bus to Moscow was late! Not just a little bit late, but by an entire hour. She fought back the panic rising in her throat. With freedom that close, she couldn't break down. She reminded herself that there was plenty of time to get from the Moscow bus station to Domodedovo airport.

It was sometime around then that my text message came through.

Dima heard, made some kind of derisive comment.

View of descent over Ukraine west of Kiev in winter

From ten kilometers up, the Ukrainian Steppe in winter resembles a slab of white marble riven with imperfections. The enormous clearings, highlighted by snow cover, were once the collective farms imposed on Ukraine by Stalin during the great famine of 1933. Once fertile land in the hands of the Kulaks (peasants), before the Ukrainian genocide, it was quickly stripped of nutrients and rendered unproductive by the massive, industrial farming practices of the collective farms.

Elena ignored him, read the text message and was relieved to have it confirmed: I knew pretty much nothing about what she had been going through over the last several months. Like, her still dating Dima, and why. At the time she simply had no words, no common ground, with which to describe the people in her life; the lies and secrets she lived, just to survive. She was convinced, I would think her crazy, might even run away if she told me how poisonously her mother hated me, despised my very existence, all because Elena liked me.

A numbered, steel post protruding from a filthy snow bank marked the loading bay. Passengers, insulated beyond recognition, lined up along oil spattered ruts. Elena gawked at the crowd. Would there be room for her? Where was the bus? Had it broken down, lost a wheel, been in a collision, or been snagged in a police shakedown?

"Well, well, well... what now?" Dima chided. "No bus. Maybe you will not get to your golden Ukraine."

Alas, the bus -- a barely functional engineering marvel, sitting in its own toxic atmosphere of diesel exhaust, showed up and loaded. Elena, restrained in Dima's arms while he sobbed and prodded for promises of undying devotion, was the last one to get aboard.

The driver eh-hemmed.

She wrenched herself from Dima's embrace, planted one frozen foot on bus's first step.


She turned.

"You promised. Tell me again... Promise me you will be back." His cheeks were wet, eyes puffy, no holding back. "This weekend, right? You will be back on Sunday. Tell me..."

The driver released the air brakes, unleashing an earsplitting hiss from the guts of his machine.

Elena took another step into the bus. There was nothing to say, nothing she had to say to the guy. She had crossed another threshold. Participating for months in her own endless torture, at last, the lying could end.

Outskirts of Kiev from 5000 feet up

Descending to 5000 feet, the outskirts of Kiev appear to rise from the steppe like a geological formation. Note the private-sector housing, metastasizing into the depleted steppe along angiogenic roads (seen here under the aircraft's engine). Resembling western, suburban sprawl, this style of development, -- reliant on private vehicle ownership -- became popular after the fall of the USSR.

Descending through five-thousand feet, then banking into a rate-one turn, an infinite, white-marble slab tilted toward my window. A snowy landscape riven with battleship-gray imperfections: roads, sloughs, trees, creeks, buildings. All of it, crystalline, inhuman, perfectly still -- frozen. The density of buildings, sliding by under the aircraft, increased as their size decreased. Sporadic, humongous factory hulks, warehouses, and power plants were displaced by apartment blocks. A colossal, cellular structure, laced together by a circulatory system of vague capillary trails, arterial roads, and gleaming axon rails: Kiev!

Aerial view of downtown Kiev

Meg was lucky to see Downtown Kiev from the air during her plane's approach to Borispol (Kiev's international airport) to the south of the city. Toward the lower edge of the frame, the tombstone shaped area, with roads radiating away from it, is the famed Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), focal point of the bloody 2014 Ukrainian revolution, responsible for bringing down the Russian puppet government of Viktor Yanukovych.

The Boeing's tires kissed a runway at Borispil International, the plane slowed, and taxied. It was hard not to notice how far from the actual city, the airport was, or how far the plane was from the terminal when it trundled to a stop. All I could think, seeing the terminal a serious, five-hundred foot hobble from the plane, was that this is going to hurt! Psychosomatic throbbing pounded a tympani concerto at the sight of rickety mobile stairs approaching the plane. What I hadn't anticipated, crutching my way out of the aircraft and into the harsh, heat-less sunlight, was the air, so cold it froze my nostrils shut. I wasn't the only deplaning passenger, gasping and coughing in the super chilled, drier-than-dust air.

A driver met me outside customs and escorted me through a shattered, ice-scape parking lot to an idling sedan. Just about every car I saw out there had its engine running. The ones that didn't, looked like artifacts left behind by receding glaciers. When we came to a sliding stop on a quiet, ice entombed street -- apparently, where I had an apartment rented -- I was pretty sure that twilight was setting in. Three in the bloody afternoon and the sun was already setting, it was surreal.

Adding to the whole nightmarish, Kafkaesque ambience of the place was a monolithic building looming right across the narrow street. It featured a phalanx of medieval, wooden doors, over which the word PROKURATURA had been carved from slabs of black granite and painted gold. PROKURATURA means prosecutor. The imposing structure housed the offices of The General Prosecutor of Ukraine. It was with the people in that dark satanic mill that the buck stopped, or the hryvnya, or the gold, or the Scotch, or the bullet -- as the case may be. My flat was right across the street and four floors up. Absolutely perfect, I thought, grinning as I got out of the car -- adventure!

Borispol International Airport, Kiev Ukraine

Meg knew she was in trouble when her plane came to a stop nowhere near Kiev's Borispol International Airport. The puddles to the left of the frame are not melting snow, but deicing fluid.

On a bus full of harmless strangers, every kilometer toward Moscow was a kilogram lifted from her chest. At least, that's how Elena described it in a text message I got just before my flight to Kiev. Then, on a commuter train from Moscow to the airport, feeling more and more thrilled to be on her own, her phone rang. Her heart sank. She absolutely hated that they couldn't leave her alone, even for a few hours. She answered, "Yeah?"

"Lenochka, where are you now, everything okay?"

"Yeah, Mom. I'm on the train to the airport." She watched the trees flying by. She wanted to close her fist on the phone, feel it shatter and die in her grip. Drop the pieces to the floor, grind the remains under the heel of her boot. But they could still stop her, drag her back. She had to play the game. All it took was a phone call to the airport, or the police, or a friend of a friend, or threats and desperate, wild lies. She let her phone live.

"You don't have return ticket. Buy it at the airport before you leave Russia! Then phone me when you have it."

She knew they'd be clawing at her. Stupid to have thought she could make it to Ukraine before they started in on her. A familiar wave of fear rose in her throat, bore into her heart. It didn't let her go. It dictated the rules. It let them demand, crush, destroy and terrify. Distance solved only half the problem. The other half was in Elena herself, her fear, her congenital subordination to her mother, to her station in life, to the intractable conflict of who she was, and who they demanded she be. It was tearing her apart, but with no solution, and time already running out, all she could do was rush blindly on.

Offices of the General Prosecutor of Ukraine entrance doors

Entrance to the offices of the General Prosecutor of Ukraine and focal point of countless protests, desperate pleas, and shady deals.

A sleek, late-model sedan glided into the apartment's parking lot. A glowing ember levitated behind the wheel. Then the light from a cellphone's display killed the magic, cheapening it to just a cigarette jutting from a ghostly face. My cellphone cackled, "New Message." I'd have to change that.

It could have been the jet lag, or the excitement of being in the dark heart of Ukraine, yet again, or my making the very last step toward a mysterious Russian, but the trip back to Kiev's Borispol airport sure felt a lot longer than the ride into town, earlier.

The heroic city of Kiev, highway sign

The Heroic City of Kiev sign adorns the highway from Borispol Airport into the city itself. Soviet cities captured and occupied by the Germans during the Great Patriotic War (WWII) were later given the honorific, "heroic."

* * *

Something went bong in the plane's public address system. Elena felt the airbus rock gently on its undercarriage, heard its engines winding down and watched, in awe, a tornado of activity swirl around her. A hailstorm of seat belts clattered, luggage bins crashed open. Passengers bolted from their seats, crammed the aisle solid, compressed their way forward. The jetway wasn't in position, the door not even open yet. Elena, still in her seat, fought back the panic. Rising slowly, she fully expected to turn her head and see Stephen King's Langoliers devouring the aircraft, tail first.

A juice box and snack, she'd relished, entirely on her own in Moscow, was threatening to come up. Her knees were weak, heart pounding. There wasn't enough air to breathe. Every experience was new. She had never been this on-her-own -- ever. Okay, the others know what to do. Elena watched her fellow passengers for cues. They certainly looked like they knew what to do. Concentrating on them made her feel a little bit better.

Then the crowd slowed, fanned out into a delta of shorter lines, stopped. Ahead, a row of glassed in booths blocked the crowd's path: Ukrainian passport control. Mimicking the others, Elena shoved her passport and a landing card through a slot in the glass.

"Who are you visiting?" A youngish, agent chanted inside his glass cage. He looked at her papers without expression.

Hotel Dnipro Kiev's Best Eastern after dark

The Hotel Dnipro, Kiev's "Best Eastern" hotel after dark.

Elena choked up. What a question! Tell an official that she was here to see another woman, a woman she loved, a foreigner? Her infinite scenarios hadn't included this one. Hesitating before an official on Ukrainian soil just meters from where she assumed I was waiting.

The agent glared. He scanned her face for every telltale sign. His eyes drilled right into her brain, read every impulse, knew every thought, sensed her heart rate, blood pressure, respiration. Coaxed her subconscious into betraying her. "Well..." He tried again. "You must be visiting someone. You came to Ukraine from..." He looked again at her passport. "... Ivanovo, in Russia. You have to be staying somewhere here, are you not?"

"Ah... yes, of course." The floor, the whole building, was yawing, rolling on a subterranean sea. Elena gripped the little counter under the document slot. Held on tight, desperate to keep from sliding to the pitching floor. "At my girlfriend's. She has an apartment here... in Kiev." Sweat prickled on her forehead. Her cheeks were on fire.

"Ah, fine... I see, well then, you will stay at the Dnipro hotel. It will be simpler this way." His voice was gentle, reassuring. "I'll write it here." He scratched something on the card and handed Elena her passport.

A bridge over the frozen Dnipro river in Kiev

Mid-afternoon twilight falls on a bridge across Kiev's Dnipro River. An eclectic mix of Soviet and post collapse development sprawls on the eastern banks of the river.

Doing the human tripod with my good leg and crutches had me cramping up like crazy by the time the plane from Moscow arrived. It was late, of course -- hey, it's Russia, after all. Finally, bleary eyed passengers began pouring down the ramp from customs. Twenty minutes later, there was still no sign of Elena, and the frequency of passengers emerging from the bowels of the airport was on the wane. It was not a good sign.

Then, whoosh, creak, clank, from the doors at the top of the ramp, and there she was. Taller than I expected, but wearing the coat she'd texted about. She looked like her pictures, but now she was real -- really there. She had a small, wheeled suitcase in tow. On the tiled floor, it sounded like a ram-jet. She was grinning, glancing one way, then the other, head swinging around, eyes focusing above the crowd: looking without seeing. Finally, she turned to face the wall beside the ramp, like she just couldn't take in any more faces, and descended into the crowd, completely passing me by.

From somewhere within the crowd, the ram-jet-suitcase went silent. I watched her come to a stop, slowly scanning around for a familiar face. Elena -- at least, I assumed it was her -- looked like a terrified gazelle in tall grass full of lions. It was like she was looking at everyone else but me. Maybe she'd seen the hideous apparition on crutches, and was looking for a way to run screaming back onto the plane that brought her?

But no, I guess not, her eyes met mine. I saw a flash of recognition, then a smile, then a huge, ear to ear grin. I heard the ram jet suitcase roar back to life and felt her arms around me. Her tears wet my cheek. I heard her dark, strong voice for real. I spoke her name, and we held each other tighter. All we could do was stand in that moment, holding on, holding each other, taking in every detail of where we were and who we were with.

Finally, we moved without words. Neither of us speaking. Both of us smiling. With great care -- as though testing unstable ground -- without taking our eyes off each other, we went out into the cold.

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