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A True Story of Love, Survival and Freedom

Chapter 8

Hitting the Fan

9am sunlight pours in through bedroom window

Sunlight pours in through the Kiev flat's bedroom window. This window proved to be a nearly perfect vantage point for demonstration watching.

Somewhere, just beyond the reach of my conscious mind, sirens wailed a weird crescendo. The fall of Valhalla? Yeah, that's it, I'm sleeping through the Ring Cycle. No, wait! Shouting, chanting, an entire chorus. A cast of thousands, and still those crazy sirens.

I groaned. Blissful slumber was gone, leaving me in its wake. A cheap clock radio -- not something I'd have perched on a Greene and Greene nightstand -- read 9:02. Ugh, I shook my head, careful not to open my eyes more than a crack. Blinding light from an enormous window flooded in. Nine o'clock: it has got to be night! Too late for sunshine. Okay, still dreaming -- another nightmare.

"Meg?" Something kind of moaned my name from far off, muffled, distant.

Sleep was not going to happen. Then, "Bladder calling. Up and at em!" Good leg, over the side, gravity assist, locate the floor, provide support... Rug? Cheap and nasty. Polyester Berber, what the heck? And cold, really cold. I looked out the wrong window, squinted into intense, diffuse light: sunlight off snow. Snow!?

"Meg?" There it was again, "What is going on?" mewled from a human sized lump under unfamiliar covers.

Communist party and friends march in front of the general prosecutor of Ukraine office

One of many colorful, well orchestrated, and paid for protest-demonstrations in front of the Prokuratura, and right below Elena and Meg's windows.

Ah hah! I was coming to -- fast. Definitely not a dream. Face against the window, I saw a vociferous, flag waving crowd of protesters swarming the Prokuratura. "Too cool! Some kind of demonstration, or protest." Over the past few days I'd been there with Elena, the thrill-factor absolutely hadn't lost its edge. In fact, apart from sleep deprivation, it was on the rise.

"Another one? Is it the coal miners again?" Elena groaned, searching under the covers for my residual body heat. She pulled the blankets over her head. "Cold!" She said, in Russian. "Soviet apartment -- cold."

Two armies of exuberant youth converged on the Prokuratura's fortress-like front doors. One of the mobs -- kitted out in matching red vests and communist party regalia -- waved the Soviet hammer and sickle. The other, wearing blue, flew the banners of a Kremlin supported party. This crowd was young, energetic and color coordinated.

"Coal miners aren't this well dressed... or behaved." I prodded the grumpy lump under the covers. "Lenna, you have got to see this! It's like a parade."

Elena shrugged, kicked, then moaned, "Hollowed-nah!" The Russian word for cold. She wasn't budging for yet another demonstration.

"Really! A bunch of them are red. Another bunch are blue." I kicked into one slipper, shoved the other as far onto my swollen foot as possible. "I bet they'll merge into a purple blob visible from space."

The bed lump remained inert.

"Suit yourself. I have got to get some shots from the balcony." Camera in hand, slippers crunching through ankle deep, crusty snow, I fed my photojournalistic fixation.

Elena concentrated on hiding from the rapidly intensifying wavefront of opposition coming from Russia, for as long as possible. So far, she'd kept me blissfully unaware of the snowball's-chance-in-hell that they would leave her alone. Every day was harder than the last. The longer she cowered in her cloth cocoon, the less of the day remained to be faced.

Ukrainian Communist party supporters and Party of Regions supporters

Two staunchly anti-European integration parties, The Ukrainian Communist party, and The Party of Regions', supporters, meet for a political demonstration at the office of the General Prosecutor of Ukraine (Prokuratura). It would seem, Meg's conjecture of the two parties combining to become purple was only partly in jest. Note the purple banners, of the Socialist Party mixed in with the crowd.

From four floors up, the sound of hundreds of chanting, shouting voices was absolutely enthralling. Crisp, newly screened banners flapped and sizzled in their own wind. Hundreds of boots clomped on icy sidewalks. The air, a throat-raking twenty-below and hazy with ice crystals, left me coughing. I wasn't going to last long in my slippers and pajamas, and so, with bare hands stiff from cold, I brought the camera to my face and started shooting.

My last time in Kiev, the Orange revolution was unstoppable, young, and hungry. But now, even with the revolution right there, under the bloody balcony -- front row and center -- the energy just wasn't the same. Where was the rage, the conviction? The armies of color loitered in front of the Prokuratura. They patted each others backs, swinging their opposing flags in unison. In their snazzy, color coordinated, matching vests with printed slogans and party trademarks, they looked like organized sports teams. The whole thing felt like a pep rally, rather than a revolution.

Under the covers, Elena heard the chanting. Didn't care. It was getting hard to breathe. She imagined that suffocating would spare her, not only from what was already coming, but what was for-sure going to get a whole lot worse. It had started with Dima going full-on snot-fest at the bus depot, then Mama haranguing before she even got out of Russia. Now, every sobbing, nagging, abusive, lying, manipulative phone call, text message, and email, took an exponentially increasing toll on her.

The cold got me quickly to a decision point: losing toes to frostbite just for a pep rally really wasn't worth it. I hobbled a hasty retreat indoors. The demonstrations were impressive, but marred by the fact, a lot of the participants were hired. They got about a dollar an hour and got to keep those natty flags and spiffy togs. So, the team spirit was somewhat contrived, but it sure made for some great action photography.

"Lenna?" I called from the foot of the bed.

"What?" By then, she was pretty much gasping for the last dregs oxygen in her fabric enclosure.

I took a long, slow breath. "Oh... Elena..."

"Meg, what? What is it?"

I sighing heavily, woefully, and with such despair. "Oh dear..." Another dramatic pause. "I've gone... blind!"

Elena thew back the covers. "Goss-poe-dee (god) what happened? Meg!"

I couldn't help but grin ear-to-ear with my glasses completely frosted over.

Elena tossed a pillow, exasperated and relieved.

I caught it, laughing uproariously. I absolutely love that gag!

"No to corruption in Ukraine's judicial system" An amateur protest at the Kiev office of the General Prosecutor of Ukraine

What a photo-op! A non-professional, anti-corruption, protest at the Kiev office of the General Prosecutor of Ukraine.

By the time we'd gotten all suited up in coats, boots, scarves, mittens and other deep-cold survival gear; and then, were running the icy streets in pursuit of the color coordinated demonstrators, Elena was manifesting her psychological stress physiologically. Actually, it was more like, pathologically.

"Meg, stop! Please, I can't go on." Apparently, it was the worst lower-back pain she'd ever had.

Despite my face being hopelessly lost behind the kind of protective layering one associates with an ascent into the death zone, I shot the collapsing Russian a look.

"I'm sorry. Really, I am!" She knew I wanted to chase the demonstrators, camera first, into trouble. "Something is wrong with my back. It is like my spine is broken."

"Maybe you slipped a disk?"

"I need to sit down, I can't go further."

"Sudden onset osteoporosis? Lordy, do I have to call an ambulance?"

"An ambulance, are you crazy?" Elena tried to relieve the pressure on her crumbling spinal column by leaning on a low rock wall. "This has happened before. I need to stop. It is not from slipping on a disk, or on anything."

"From what then? Heavy lifting? Extreme sports? High G launch to orbit?"

"Taking university exams." She groaned through gritted teeth.

"Exams?" I watched another group of demonstrators -- these ones, in bright yellow -- setting up near a former circus building, now a shopping emporium. If I could get over there, the morning wasn't a total write-off. "Exams, you mean sitting at a desk and answering questions? You hurt you back doing that?"

"Yes... I guess. I couldn't continue." Elena saw the yellow Pora! (About time!) protesters too. I have it on good authority, she was hoping I'd go chase after them and let her die in peace.

"How did you cure your back that time?"

"I didn't. It just got better some days later." Elena winced, the wall-lean clearly wasn't helping.

"So, you finished exams, and your back got better on its own?"

"No, it got worse. I couldn't even get out of bed. I failed everything. I was studying psychology. That is why I'm not a psychologist now."

"Flunking out of college made your back better?" I wasn't a psychologist either, but acutely aware of an undeniable psychological connection to her back pain.

"Well, it made my mother happy." Elena paused, sucked air through her teeth. "She wanted me to be an architect. I guess, it got better after that."

Pora (About Time!) protesters setting up in Kiev

Pora! - About Time! protesters set up for a chilly demonstration.

"Hold on. This is pure psychology one-oh-one. If you don't see the connection, you probably would have flunked those exams anyway. We need to get back to the apartment. It's high time you tell your mother about that letter you stashed."

Her response was the practiced-to-perfection deer-in-the-headlights look.

"Really, you have to tell them. At least, tell them you are okay and what your plans are. Speaking of which, when's your return flight?"

"I don't have one."

I gazed forlornly over at the Pora! demonstration. Astonishingly, one of their banners made a declaration about a Ukrainian airline and Kiev's Borispol airport. "One can fly internationally without a return ticket?" Stupid response, I knew that, but had to say something.

"You can. That is the way it is done in Russia." She paused, then added, "Former Soviet republics and Russia."

"Well then, when did you plan to go home?"

"I didn't. All I thought about was getting here to you. Oh Meg, I have no home."

"Wow... they have to know." I was running on Western precepts. All that love, support, respect, family-ties malarkey -- you know, the kind of things everyone else has in abundance -- dictated what was the right thing to do. No question: everyone is eventually good, caring, altruistic; deep inside, when you give them the benefit of the doubt, let them show their true and good colors. Sure, there had been a lot of heavy texts and phone calls, I give you that, but I figured, all that added up to was a jealous, abusive boyfriend. Nothing alarming, or unusual: expected behavior -- a ritual of human mating -- that would end when the guy got bored. I was sure that Elena's "coming out" to her family and friends, would solve everything.

"They won't let me have this." Elena, on the other hand, had no delusions, whatsoever.

"This, what?" I worked an arm around Elena's waist.

"You... you are my home." Elena suddenly stood, back pain ignored. "They won't let me have this."

"Yeah, wow... Elena." My turn to choke up. "I... I know." I inhaled, froze a nostril shut, backhanded it with a down-filled Michelin-Man mitten, it came away wet. "They can only take from you what you let them. But you need to let them know what is right for you." I actually felt Elena sag, like a sack of broken bones, as I said that.

With my pranged ankle still complaining, I physically supported Elena on the return shuffle to the apartment. Feeling her body, through all those layers of insulation, astonished me. It was so much frailer than implied by her non-physical presence.

Together, we hobbled along. "We are like wounded soldiers leaving the battlefield." Elena said.

Stalin's not-one-step-back order, came to mind. I didn't bring it up.

Pora (About Time!) protesters setting up in Kiev

Pora - "About Time" preparing for a demonstration in the deep cold, in front of the building referred to, by Meg and Elena, as The Grocery Circus. Which isn't far off, given its purpose in a past life.

I got a kettle of oily tap water going on the RV sized stove, unfolded our flimsy, kitchenette table -- about the size of a junior-high-schooler's desk -- then pillaged the minibar sized fridge for cookies and ultra-high-fructose jam -- Elena's favorite. Don't get me wrong, I loved our apartment's kitchenette. Loved it for its surreal smallness and unapologetic simplicity -- a playhouse for grownups. Elena loved it because it was ours.

"Want a two-ninety-two with your hydrocarbon infused, rotted plant, beverage?" I amused myself by yelling to Elena, assuming she was lying down in the living room.

"What is that?"

"Tea, Chai... Russian tea, to be precise." I was reading the label, and had to add, "Funny, I didn't know they grew tea in Russia."

"Tea is nice, and biscuits?" Elena didn't get it, or didn't want to get it -- maybe she didn't want to encourage more of my brilliant humor.

"Already on the table."

Elena shuffled into the kitchenette. Her spinal column was still a tube-sock full of broken glass. Getting vertical probably crumbled her last vertebra into grit. She moaned. "What is a tuna-tea-tune?"

Took me a while to crack what she was saying. "Oh, two-ninety-two! That's an analgesic." Wow, even in the throws of exquisite pain, Elena was trying her best to understand and strengthen our communication. I really wasn't used to anyone actually listening to me, let alone caring about, or trying to understand what I said.

Elena took the proffered, codeine enhanced, pain killer tablet. Her cellphone and its battery lay on the table beside the plate of biscuits. She picked it up, put its battery back in, and clutched it to her chest, like she was committing suicide by hand grenade. Of course, suicide is a conclusion, resolution, ending; this, on the other hand, was taking a crowbar to Pandora's box.

Back then, just before her mad dash to Ukraine, she had written and hidden the letter to her parents with a glimmer of hope for understanding, maybe even consideration. Four days and three nights of rapidly intensifying tele-harassment poured black tar on those misguided glimmers. The phone connected. Text after text downloaded, "New message, New message, New message..."

"Sounds like the shit is really hitting the fan! You better call. Want to be alone?"

"They don't know yet. I know they don't want to know." Poking at her phone, Elena's hands shook. "When my mother reads that letter, they will know. 'The shit,' as you say, 'will really be hitting the fan.' This will be very bad."

"Aw, come on, your parents are professionals, university educated. You'll probably be surprised... I'll bet you an ice-cream at Globus, your back will feel better after you call." I left the tiny kitchen, giving Elena her own space. Then bursting with confidence that Elena was doing the right thing, and sure everything was going to be just fine, I started bundling up for the celebratory trip downtown.

View from Elena and Meg's kitchenette window

View from Elena and Meg's kitchenette window, into the typical Soviet courtyard formed by a palisade of nine-story panel-buildings.

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