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A True Story of Love, Survival and Freedom

Chapter 9

Declaring War

It was around five pm. We were foraging for groceries at a store on Lesi Ukrainky, when Mama called in response to The Letter.

"Oh blin!" Elena used the Russian soft-swear, which actually means, pancake. It was one minute past six in Russia. Of course, she'd told her mother she could call her that evening.

I heard the phone and Elena's culinary curse and thought, excellent! There she is, setting the record straight; dealing with the source of her spinally compromising stress; putting an end to further harassment; showing them all that she's a big girl now.

Elena was frozen, wraithlike.

I took her grocery basket and gestured toward the exit. "Go, go..."

Kiev Moskovska Boulevard in winter

Elena stands, in pain, on Moskovska (now renamed) Boulevard. The state of this major arterial road is pretty typical of winter conditions in former Soviet republics.

I watched her, out there with cars roaring past on the wide boulevard. Light from the storefronts poured onto the sidewalk, illuminating the pedestrians swerving to avoid the statuesque woman holding a tiny phone. From inside the intensely over-illuminated grocery store, Elena looked like a visitor from another dimension, like she didn't belong there, shining with her own light, begging for an immediate beam-up.

Elena lowered the phone. Finally, she moved -- like walking through water -- toward the plate glass windows of the grocery store. Looking in from the outside, she gazed at me standing in line at the checkout. I looked back at her and saw only fear.

Side-by-side, carrying the groceries, we headed home from Lesi Ukrainky boulevard. It should have felt so good, so perfectly natural. It certainly had before, but something had changed. There was some kind of unspoken terribleness brooding just beyond our courage to bring it up.

We came from completely different worlds. Elena could imagine nothing but the worst, when those worlds collided, and she knew they would. The phone call made it clear. Her world wasn't going to let her go without a fight. She hadn't claimed her independence with that letter, she declared war. And now, that war was on it's way to find her. She didn't know if I would flee during the first barrage, or be there for her. I had a choice, she didn't.

In one reality -- let's call it, The Megaverse -- oppositely charged particles will attract, a dropped object will fall, adult human beings have inalienable rights, and borderline antisocial-behavior is held in poor taste, or prosecuted for. But in an alternate reality -- for the sake of argument, let's call this one, The Elenaverse -- human rights are a subversive Western ploy, domestic abuse is none-of-your-business, everyone is out to get you, and the golden rule: if you don't get what you want, resort to violence, are fundamental laws.

Elena knew that my misplaced idealism, self-actualization, and Zen philosophy didn't stand a chance in her world. She knew it would, more than likely, enrage anyone faced with it. Elena envied my naivety, and she cringed in embarrassment at her backwards, narrow-minded, hateful world.

Demonstration on Boulevard Lesi Ukrainky, Kiev, Ukraine 2006

Russian leaning party supporters demonstrate on Kiev's Lesi Ukrainky Boulevard, winter 2006. These are the well funded colors and paid supporters of a decidedly anti-European party.

Lieutenant Colombo added, "Just one more thing." The venerable lieutenant's words were captioned at the bottom of the laptop's screen.

I had just come in with breakfast -- continental: bit of fruit, a baguette, brie, juice -- on a tray.

Elena hit the space bar, looked up from the laptop, did a double take at my tray piled with food, and then she smiled. "Oye, such a feast! What, in the bed?"

"Scooch over." I backed along the bed, preparing to land without dumping the tray.

Blank stare.

"Scoot over." I tried again.

"What is this, scout, where?"

"Just move the computer down, and then make some room for the tray. We are having breakfast in bed!"

Breakfast in bed

Breakfast in bed.

It was a time of firsts for the woman who thought herself a provincial misfit, a fugitive of expectation. Elena went along with it. Every single second was borrowed time. French cheese, a baguette, watching a movie in bed, and with someone she wanted to share it with. She was learning to be happy, and liking how it felt.

Then her phone rang. She looked at me, crestfallen.

"Leave it. She's abusive. Let her wreck the morning after this gourmet breakfast I've slaved over."

"I'm afraid." Elena put the phone down, still ringing. "I don't know what she can do." It stopped after twenty or so more rings. "But, I am afraid."

Colombo continued his investigation. We watched and ate without comment.

The phone chimed incoming message after message. That they were now coming from more than Mama and Dima was, in the very least, highly disconcerting.

Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc supporters on Kiev's Lesi Ukrainky boulevard

The trademark Valentine's heart on white flags of The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc are waved by her supporters along Kiev's Lesi Ukrainky Boulevard.

After a rousing warm up in front of the Prokuratura, supporters of the ousted, Orange Revolutionary prime-minister, Yuliya Tymoshenko chanted, stomped, and color coordinated their way toward the Pecherska metro station. The young, exuberant, Bloc Yuliya supporters never disappointed. I grabbed my camera. Elena grabbed me, and off we went, chasing the crowd. I loved their trademark, Valentine's-heart-on-white flags.

Riot police were out in force around the Central Election Commission -- an organization with zero credibility, but a huge building, and an expansive public square. Lesi Ukrainky and Moskovska Boulevards were lined with paddy wagons. Bored militia leaned on fenders, but nothing impeded the flow into the square. The factions, the parties, the forces were out in droves. Colors everywhere. Fronts and swarms of trademark colors swirled around speakers, booths, tents, demonstrations, displays. An aerial view would reveal a real-time, full-color, graphic illustration of crowd psychology. On the ground, the atmosphere was exhilarating, carnival like, almost overwhelming.

Militia paddy wagons line Moskovska Blvd, Kiev around the Central Election Commission building and square in 2006

Militia paddy wagons line Moskovska Boulevard in Kiev. At the time, Winter, 2006, their presence was an optically calming influence on protests and demonstrations in the Central Election Commission of Ukraine's, public square and building, which they were keeping a watch on.

I was in seventh-heaven. That was the kind of energy and excitement I craved, yearned for, breathed. My camera never stopped. It was real life, raw, unpredictable, risky -- dangerous. I was on fire.

Elena was confused, intimidated by the surging crowd. The younger, better coordinated, trendier groups leaned toward European integration. The pro-Kremlin mob -- older, rougher, dangerous -- looked ready to start busting heads. She saw rage, hatred, fear; knew exactly where it was coming from. She recognized it. Knew it wouldn't bend without bloodshed.

Then her cellphone rang. Her back tightened, and our fun was over.

On the hobble back to the apartment, I was virtually Elena's spinal column, supporting her upper body with my own -- for all the good it did. Her pain was back, and with a vengeance. Elena, cried that she felt like she was being torn in half.

I knew I wasn't the cause of Elena's distress, but running away, taking myself out of the equation, would solve the problem -- one way or another. It's not that I didn't think about it, but what would happen to her? She had opened her heart to her family, her friends: losing her support, because of me. The reaction was utterly inconceivable. Bridges burned. Diatribes intensified. Her mother, Dima, and even her friends were organizing against her. It tore at me, seeing Elena hurt and thinking it was my fault, or that I was the catalyst. Still, I wouldn't leave, not unless Elena asked me to.

Bugging out wouldn't leave me unscathed. Elena's hunger for the world, tentative experiment with freedom, guarded innocence, curiosity and unbridled joy at the simplest, things, captivated me. Long conversations at the folding, kitchenette table; stinky, cheap candles, now garish puddles of wax; empty bottles with French labels: unintended milestones on the way to a closer connection; would leave a gaping hole in my heart.

Elena's adaptation to a completely new world, had me absolutely in awe of her. Watching her assert herself, define her space, question her programming, was thrilling. I loved introducing her to new experiences, responsibilities -- letting her do the driving, so as to speak, and see where we ended up.

More than anything, we found, in each other, an unconditional, safe, loving, and ever expanding place for ourselves. Elena's greatest fear, and darkest certainty, was that they would never let her have that. They would stop at nothing, to take it from her.

Maidan Nezalezhnosti during a 2006 demonstration

In 2006, Maidan Nezalezhnosti - Kiev's Independence Square, was already a focal point for massive demonstrations.

Nearly back home, we came across a black Lexus, wheels spinning at an ungodly rpm, stuck in the apartment building's driveway. Vehicle and pedestrian surfaces are rarely cleared in Kiev. Ice builds up into wickedly slick humps, hillocks and ruts that not only make walking an adventure in sprains and fractures, but driving a highly specialized skill. The inept driver wasn't quite getting the hang of what not to do on ice. He was, however, making enough noise and billowing clouds of steam to have several concerned Prokuratura guards, in ill-fitting suits, running to his rescue.

The tailoring-challenged muscle rocked the Lexus free about the time we shuffled close enough to see a stony faced mound of blubber in the back seat.

"Oooo, that's probably a big shishka." Elena told me.

The car pulled into our building's lot and parked by the stairwell entrance. The guards, heading back across the street to the Prokuratura, stopped and glared when I just had to blurt out, "Shishka! Hilarious, a big 'pine cone!' Cute, you call mafioso 'shishkas.' Too funny!"
"Shh, they hear you!" Elena tilted her head toward the guards.

"So what? We're speaking English."

" 'Shishka' is Russian, and 'mafioso' is the same word." She whispered.

We had a great view from the kitchenette. I played super-spy, snapping photos of the driver and a bodyguard smoking nervously outside the car. A finely accoutered shishka from the Prokuratura had waddled over to join the one in the backseat. Elena sipped tea with her biscuits and pain killers, none too happy with the risks she thought I was taking. Eventually, aided by the bodyguard he'd left out in the cold, the visiting shishka got out and shuffled back to the Prokuratura. Business done, the Lexus skidded its way onto the street and was gone.

Typical overhead view of drivers, bodyguards, waiting outside a vehicle while a backseat deal takes place between big honchos

Typical overhead view of drivers, bodyguards, waiting outside a vehicle while a backseat deal happens between a Prokuratura shishka (pine cone: poo-bah, honcho) and interested party.

Elena's cellphone rang. They just didn't let up. New tactic: "Sergei needs you. The company needs you. There is work to be done. Come home, just for a few days, then you can go back. There is a sign board that needs designing. You can say goodbye properly, let everyone wish you well."

She said she'd ask me if the two of us could swing the trip.

Her mother went nuclear.

Elena was pretty much in a fugue state. Grabbing things she saw around, throwing them into her small, ram-jet suitcase.

"You really think they'll let you come back?" I asked.

Elena assured me, on her mother's honor, that all they wanted was to bestow their bon-voyage wishes.

Right... I knew there would be a fight, maybe to the death, or close to it if she tried to leave them again. With things going from bad to worse, and lately, stuff Elena told me about an uncle -- that just screamed "Black Market" from back in the USSR, and now "Laundry business" -- I knew she would be safer not having a reason to come back. "I won't be here."

"What?" Elena stopped, cold.

"The apartment is paid for though March. You can stay here, if they let you come back, but I won't be the reason you get yourself killed, or wreck your life."

Elena was in free fall. Her knees buckled. She sat heavily on the bed, flopped over, sobbing. I tried to approach, and she kicked at me without connecting. My eyes stung with tears. I tried to say something, anything, but what? Screaming into a pillow, she told me to get out.

Russian Embassy in Kiev as seen from the CEC's public square

The Russian Embassy's building -- yes, the one with the Green Party banners -- is seen from the Central Election Commission's public square. Note the militia officer standing guard behind the iron fence.

Shaking, I wandered without thinking into the kitchenette, got the whiskey. Didn't pour any. Already hollowed out, it wouldn't do me any good. Just make it worse when wits were required. Instead, I watched a platoon of Prokuratura guards in cheap suits and light jackets, swarm the apartment's driveway with picks, axes and shovels. They worked into the last twilight, providing an anvil chorus accompaniment to the usual megaphone protester's wailing and shrieking. They did a beautiful job, clearing sedan-trapping ice and frozen crud from the building's parking lot and driveway.

Influence at work, I thought, smiling without joy. "I'll raise a glass to that." I clinked a couple fingers of scotch to the window pane. "Such admirable, neighborly concern for the residents across the street. Here's to you, gentlemen!" Which is when I saw a ghostly reflection in the window.

"I'm staying." Elena took the glass from me. Inhaled the vapors, took a long, slow sip. "It's not going to get any easier, you know."

I reached for her. "I know that, now."

Elena put down the glass, pulled in close.

It felt good, and for a moment, worries were elsewhere. I still reach back in memory and savor it, because at the time, neither of us knew, just how inconceivably bad, it really was about to get.


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