8 - Hitting the Fan
Sirens wailed a weird crescendo. The fall of Valhalla? Yes, that has to be it. Who can stay awake through the Ring Cycle? No, wait! Shouting, chanting. Not just the fat lady singing, but an entire chorus. A cast of thousands and still those crazy sirens.
I groaned. Opened my eyes a crack. A clock radio -- not something I'd have perched on a Greene and Greene nightstand -- read 9:02 am. Ugh, I shook my head. Blinding light poured in through an enormous window.
"Meg?" Something moaned my name from far off. Muffled, distant.
Sleep was not going to happen. Good leg over the side, gravity assist, locate the floor. Rug, cheap and nasty. What the heck? And cold, really cold. I squinted out the window at intense sunlight off snow. Snow!?
"Meg?" There it was again, "Shto sloochieless?" mewled from a human sized lump under unfamiliar covers.
A boisterous, flag waving crowd swarmed the Prokuratura. "Too cool! Some kind of demonstration or protest." We'd been there a few days but the thrill-factor hadn't subsided one bit. In my case, apart from sleep deprivation, it was on the rise.
"Another one? Is it the coal miners again?" Elena searched under the covers for my residual body heat then pulled the blankets over her head. "Cold!" She said in Russian. "Soviet flat -- 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."
She shrugged, kicked and moaned, but 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 compulsion.
Under the covers, Elena hid from the intensifying wavefront of opposition coming at her from Russia. So far, she'd kept me blissfully unaware of the snowballs chance in hell they would leave her alone. The abuse was getting worse. The longer she cowered in her cloth cocoon, the less of the day she had left to face.
Hundreds of chanting, shouting voices enthralled me. 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. I raised the camera and started shooting.
The last time I was in Kyiv, the Orange revolution was unstoppable, young and brash. But now, even with the revolution right under the bloody balcony, the energy wasn't the same. Where was the rage, the conviction? The armies of color loitered in front of the Prokuratura. They patted each other's backs, swung their opposing flags in unison. Their snazzy, color coordinated, matching vests with printed slogans and party trademarks looked like a product launch. Their demonstration felt more like a pep rally than a revolution.
Elena heard the chanting from under the covers but didn't care. It was getting hard to breathe. She imagined that suffocating would spare her. Not only from what was already coming, but from what was for-sure going to get a whole lot worse. It 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.
Losing toes to frostbite wasn't worth it for a pep rally. I hobbled a hasty retreat back inside. Although impressive, the rallies were planned and paid for. Participants were hired for about a dollar an hour and got to keep those natty flags and spiffy togs. The team spirit was somewhat contrived, but it made for great photography.
"Lenna?" I called from the foot of the bed.
"What?" By then, she was gasping for the last dregs of oxygen in her fabric enclosure.
I took a long, slow breath. "Oh... Elena..."
"Meg, what? What is it?"
I sighed pathetically. "Oh dear..." Another dramatic pause. "I've gone... blind!"
Elena threw back the covers. "Goss-poe-dee (god) what happened? Meg!"
I couldn't help but grin ear-to-ear. My glasses were completely frosted over.
Elena tossed a pillow, exasperated and relieved.
I caught it, laughing uproariously. I absolutely love that gag!
* * *
By the time we'd gotten all suited up in coats, boots, scarves, mittens and other deep-cold survival gear; and were running the icy streets in pursuit of the color coordinated demonstrators, Elena was manifesting her psychological stress, physiologically. More like, pathologically.
"Meg, stop! Please, I can't go on." She claimed it was the worst back pain she ever had.
My face was hidden by the kind of protective layering one associates with an ascent into the death zone. Nonetheless, I shot the collapsing Russian a look.
"I'm sorry. Really, I am! 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 not go further."
"Sudden onset osteoporosis? Krikey, do I have to call an ambulance?"
"An ambulance! 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?" Another group of demonstrators, these ones in bright yellow, were setting up near a former circus building now a shopping emporium. If I could get over there the morning wouldn't be a total write-off. "Exams, you mean sitting at a desk and answering questions? You hurt you back doing that?"
"Yes... I guess. I could not do more." 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?"
"It got better some days after." Elena winced, the wall-lean wasn't helping.
"So, you finished exams and your back got better on its own?"
"No, worse. I could not even get out from the bed. I failed everything. I was studying psychology. That is why I am not a psychologist."
"Flunking out of college made your back better?" It didn't take a psych major to get the undeniable, psychological connection to her back pain.
"It made my mother happy." Elena paused, sucked air through her teeth. "She wanted me to be an architect. Back got better after that."
"Hold on. This is psych 101. If you don't see that, you would have flunked those exams anyway. We need to get back to the flat. 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, or is the ticket open?"
"I do not have a return ticket."
I was knocked for six. "When were you planning to go home?"
"I am not planning. All I thought was getting here to you. Oh Meg, I have no home."
"Wow... they have to know." I was running on Western dogma: regurgitating all that love, support, respect and family-ties programming. Thinking everyone is intrinsically good, caring and altruistic, deep inside. Okay, I admit that when I came out, I was lucky my family didn't hire a hit man. And come to think of it, Elena had been getting a lot of threatening texts and phone calls. I thought it was just an abusive boyfriend: completely normal. It would end when the guy found someone else to harass. That's why I thought that Elena's "coming out" to her family and friends would solve everything. They were family, after all.
"They won't let me have this." Elena, on the other hand, had no delusions.
"This, what?" I worked an arm around her waist.
"You... you are my home." She stood, back pain forgotten. "They will not let me have this."
"Elena... I know." I inhaled, froze a nostril shut, backhanded it with a down-filled mitten. "But they can only take from you what you let them. You need to let them know what is right for you." She sagged like a sack of broken bones. Her body felt so much frailer than her non-physical presence. Eerie.
"We are like wounded soldiers leaving the battlefield." Elena said.
Stalin's not-one-step-back order came to mind. I didn't mention it.
* * *
I put on a kettle of oily tap water, unfolded our tiny, kitchenette table, then pillaged the minibar sized fridge for cookies and ultra-high-fructose jam -- Elena's favorite. I loved our flat'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 tea and biscuits?" I yelled.
Elena shuffled into the kitchenette. Her spinal column was still a tube-sock of doorknobs and broken glass. "What is a tuna-tea-tune?"
Took a while to crack what she said. "Oh, two-ninety-two! That's an analgesic."
She sat, picked up her mobile phone and carefully replaced its battery. It looked like she was committing suicide by hand grenade. Of course, suicide is a conclusion, a resolution, an ending. This, on the other hand, was taking a crowbar to Pandora's box.
The phone connected to the network. Text after text downloaded, "New message, New message, New message..."
"Sounds like the shit is really hitting the fan! You better call back. Want to be alone?"
"They don't know yet. I know they don't want to know." 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."
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