Elena & Meg

6 - Taking Flight

Highway seventeen goes on for bloody-ever! If you're going to the ferry terminal or airport, it's even worse. Hard-deadline destinations. Who wouldn't be in a hurry? Of course the sadistic road designers knew that, which is why the closer you get to either terminal, the more they drop the speed limit. The cops must love them for that bit of civil engineering genius.

"Hey, can't you drive any faster?" I whinged.

To see past the steering wheel, Bernadette sat bolt upright on a cushion. "Hey, you want to drive?"

I was jammed into the passenger seat, my pranged ankle 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 in the passing lane. 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 air-traffic is mainly commuter flights to and from Vancouver. Victoria is a terminus. End of the line. No wonder it was called the city for newlyweds and nearly deads. Now, only the nearly dead can afford it. So yeah, Victoria really is all about being end-of-the-line. One big checkout station.

Bernadette pulled the Volvo up to the passenger drop-off area and sprang from the car. "Hang on, I'll get a luggage cart."

I sank as deep into my seat as humanly possible. Abandoned vehicles in the drop-off zone invoke an immediate visit from a parking commissar. One was on his way. I opened the door to get my comeuppance. He took one look at me and circled back to get a wheelchair.

Getting out on crutches wasn't ballet. Seeing as I was wearing most of my luggage, the jaws-of-life might have helped. Stuff like my stone age, fake-fur and suede parka -- good for former Soviet republics in the dead of winter -- was way too big to pack.

In Vancouver, I buckled into deluxe accommodation for the long-haul to Germany. Preflight champagne was offered. The bubbly felt great, doing some kind of tango with the analgesics already coursing through my bloodstream. I couldn't refuse a refill. It would be rude. The plane hadn't left the terminal, and I was already flying. Probably why I texted, "On my way. Toasting to our meeting with champagne! See you soon, my love." Elena was asleep by then. So what? I hit send.

Nothing to do but change planes ten hours and a million miles away. 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 set. Decisions made. I mercifully relinquished control. It was the last time I would ever feel that way.

Soviet coat of arms on a red background
Back in the USSR

* * *

Seconds after it roamed onto an insanely expensive German network, "New message!" chirped from my mobile. It chirped again... and again. I didn't know if it would ever stop. All from Elena.

Her text messages were one more confirmation that this was really happening. That something as tenuous as an electronic link could actually become real. She'd replied to my boozy text from Vancouver, 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."

A dead uncle? That was weird: weird for me, but terrifying for her. Something I knew absolutely nothing about. The story came together in the years since. Through countless conversations and Elena's Russian language memoir, Talking to the Moon, I have a pretty good idea of what happened back then.

It was Valentine's Day, two days before Elena's escape to Kyiv. 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 Elena 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 died. Damn! She'd have to attend the funeral. Goodbye Kyiv. She knew it was too good to be true. "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 flat had been a magic portal to the West. As a wide-eyed kid, Elena goggled at the forbidden fruit lining his walls: 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 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. 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.

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

"Da, I know." Elena stared straight ahead. "I thought it was for me."

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

Elena started to move away. She didn't want to think about money, or her uncle, or anything that could stand in the way of 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 a flat of your own 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 your own place when you get back even if he doesn't have two kopecks to his name."

Elena was silent. Frozen. 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 Kyiv.


Bustling intersection in post Soviet provincial Russia
Not even the Russian winter keeps people inside.

* * *

The last of her texts read: "Dearest Meg, I wait our meeting. Breakfast now. Dima will come to walk with me for bus to Moscow." I knew about Dima, but not that he was chaperoning Elena to the bus. After I suggested she didn't have to date someone she didn't like, she told me she had broken up with him. Having her ex chaperoning her around was a little weird. I hoped it was only to the bus and he wasn't actually coming with her. I really had no idea who, or what, was waiting for me in Kyiv.

Elena composed a letter to her parents the night before her departure. Her plan was to hide it and tell her mother how to find it when she was safely in Ukraine. Anything else would have put an immediate end to her escape.

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, 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 found herself. That, able to be herself in Kyiv, 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.

* * *

Crowded bus stop in small Russian city
A crowded Russian bus stop in winter.

The following morning -- the morning of the day we met -- Dima showed up around seven. "Lennetchka?" He called softly at the flat's door.

Elena's 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; a brand-new microwave oven; their little TV set. Forcing herself down the hall was like wading through setting concrete. Almost at the door, her legs simply wouldn't carry her past her own room.

Another gentle 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. Inhaled 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 among her own grown-up books, music and entertainment center.

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 flat. "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 Kyiv -- she said, "I am ready, Mom." Her feet, 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 stopped. That was good-bye?

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

Her own mother? How could she not know or feel the tiniest bit that this was good-bye.

Mama stuck her head into the hallway. Saw her daughter standing, 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. Awkwardly, he turned away. Concentrated on 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?"

Mama had the outer door half closed, she 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 own 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."


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