“The Ukraine”

So we stood and blew on each other’s fingers until, fifteen minutes later, he pulled up fifteen metres. Her face flushed in the frozen air. In the van, too, our breath turned to vapor. We paid the driver, who grumbled, “This is the stop.” She giggled softly and whispered in my ear, “This here is the Ukraine.”

She was generally quick to laugh, though sometimes with a dark sense of humor. For instance, one time in Khotyn we were taking a selfie at her prompting in front of a store called Funeral Supplies and Accessories. She let out a ringing laugh and said that this, too, was the Ukraine.

When the bus stopped on the highway north of Rivne and in climbed an old woman whose sheepskin coat smelled of hay and cows, the people turned up their noses, not appreciating that this old woman was, in fact, the Ukraine. The official folk kitsch—that stereotypical woman with ribbons flowing from her hair, holding bread and salt on a traditionally embroidered towel—is a fake, but that dilapidated mosaic at the entrance to the village, depicting a Ukrainian woman with ribbons in her hair—only she’s missing an eye—now, that’s the Ukraine. The Ukraine is also the romance of decline. The unfinished concrete building on the outskirts of Kamianets-Podilskyi. The bottomless, purple-green lake in a submerged quarry in Kryvyi Rih, which you’re looking at from a tall pile of bedrock, fearfully watching as a single minute swimmer slowly does the breaststroke, holding himself up above the lake’s impossible depth on the treacherous film of the water’s surface. It’s the slow destruction of the Dominican cathedral in Lviv, grayed by rains, and the faded-white plaster Soviet Pioneers with lowered bugles in Kremenets, in a gorge between the creases of mountains, unanticipated among all the fields overgrown with withered grass. The abandoned Pioneer camp outside Mariupol, where we sat on rusted swings, thermoses in our hands, with a view of the Sea of Azov, which swished with ice, pushing its surf, layer by layer, onto the shore. And even in Kyiv—the gray, multilevel concrete interchange at the Vydubychi transport hub, framed by the smokestacks of the TETs energy plant, which belch a thick, dense smoke into the deep-blue sky.

We were wanderers: we glided on the surface and often saw the Ukraine through misted windows. In the final years, she’d have her treatments in the summer, and we couldn’t travel then. That’s why the trips I typically remember were in late autumn or very early spring, when the country is in a palette of gray, rust, faded yellow, and pale green. It is unimaginably beautiful. Side roads along alleys of poplar or birch trees, barely winding through hills, lead you to places where you haven’t been and aren’t visiting, and you feel the urge to stop, to climb out of the bus, and go—actually go—to those places where you haven’t been and aren’t visiting.

One time I dozed off, my head resting on my hat against the steamy pane, and, when I awoke, through the window I saw, right next to the road, large and seemingly metallic waves frozen in time.

“Is this a reservoir?” I asked her. “Where are we?”

She laughed softly and stroked my temple.

“Rub your eyes.”

Those waves frozen in time turned out to be large mounds of plowed black soil.

Once, at night, behind a belt of forest, bare in November, a tractor was running with four blinding headlights, two on the bumper and two above the cabin, and this detail struck me as particularly romantic, for some reason, yet somewhat mysterious. Another time, the minibus driver stopped at a café in the middle of the woods—near Chudniv, I think. The café was encircled by a wall of logs, sharpened on top like pencils, with frightening, elongated, crested faces of Cossacks wearing large earrings carved on them. It was trash and kitsch, but it was the Ukraine. The night was frosty, and star-pierced deep space loomed, black above the forest road.

I think that fatigue, too, affected our perception on these trips. We were under-rested, and everything struck us as a little unreal and simultaneously über-real. Blurred objects and people emerged through the fog, becoming distinct as they approached. In silence, with a shared pain and delight, the two of us could spend whole minutes watching a droplet trickle down the other side of the pane. Even then, she was succumbing to mood swings, which were rubbing off on me, too. One time, I recall, the other people in the bus were mouthing, “Starkon, Starkon. We’re heading to Starkon.” There was something cosmic, futuristic, and damply mysterious in this word. When, an hour later, it turned out to be Starokostiantyniv, for some reason she grew disenchanted, pouted, and withdrew into herself. For the next hour, everything seemed horrible. In Starkon, two young men sat down behind us, reeking of alcohol. All the passengers were gray in the partial darkness of the cabin and swayed like sacks on the rugged road; no one was smiling. Then, suddenly, one of the drunks behind us began to tell the other one about his little son.

“I look over, and he’s got a snotty nose and he’s crying. I tell him, ‘Open up your mouth, I’ll take a look.’ He shows me his mouth, and he’s got a little side tooth that, you know, had pushed through in two places. I felt so sorry for him. ‘Poor little kid!’ I say. And I start kissing him, and I grab him in my arms. . . .”

The bus was suddenly bathed in love and beauty. All the people who had been sitting silently, swaying with the bus’s motion, lost in their own thoughts and their own problems, ceased to be gray mannequins: inside each of them, behind the mask of weariness, was an entire universe, a gigantic cosmos brimming with internal stars, and she leaned over and whispered in my ear, “People are beautiful, even if they don’t realize it.”

Sometimes she and I would set out on our weekend journeys on foot. In the early years, when it was still possible. Outside Yuzhnoukrainsk, on a Polovtsian grave field in the steppe, we ate a stolen watermelon. Outside Konotop, we got lost in the meanders of the Seim River; emerging from waist-high mud, we walked onto a farmstead, and a young woman, whose husband had gone off fishing in his boat, fed us boiled perch and polenta flecked with scales. And, when we paid her, the woman tried to refuse, but her hands began to tremble because it was an enormous sum of money for her. While it was still possible, we climbed a mountain overlooking Yalta, and from a kilometre up we saw clearly that the earth was round: the deep-blue sea segregated itself from the pale sphere of sky in a distinct arc.

Cartoon by Amy Kurzweil

I had anticipated that during our early trips she and I would be constantly making love, particularly in the fields or in secluded and beautiful spots like that mountain over Yalta. Yet she almost always said, “Ew, we’re dirty.” Once or twice, during a mood swing of hers, she initiated lovemaking on her own—like in the transit hotel on the highway in the bogs of Polissia, where we startled the long-haul truckers—but I quickly understood that, for her, our trips weren’t at all about that. She was catching time, which was trickling through her fingers. Particularly in the final years, when she needed more and more treatments and we travelled less and less.

I was jealous of her past in the U.S., of her learning, which came from I don’t know where. Or, rather, of her chaotic erudition. For example, she had this category: “random fact.” We could be travelling in a black vehicle through a snow-dusted field in the boondocks, which, between the two of us, we referred to as “Kamianka-Znamianka,” and we’d be marvelling at the greenish hue of the asphalt when, out of nowhere, in response to some mental association, she’d burst out, “Random fact: When Voltaire died, his relatives sat him up in a carriage as if he were alive. And just like that, seemingly alive, the corpse was driven to a remote eastern region. You know why? To beat the mail. So that the Church wouldn’t have time to give the bishop there an order prohibiting Voltaire’s burial in consecrated ground.”

I was jealous of her past in the U.S., the past from which these paroxysms flared, while she, it seems, envied me those years which she had missed in Ukraine. I would tell her stories. I told her about how in the nineties, as a schoolboy, I was forever digging in our gardens with my parents because, at the time, we had amassed as many government-issued plots as we could till from elderly relatives and relatives who had gone abroad for work—so that there could somehow be enough food for all the children through the winter. I told her how the electricity would get shut off in winter, and my entire family—clad in thick sweaters, because even the gas heat wasn’t all that warm—would gather in the kitchen, first around candles and eventually around the car battery that Dad had bought, which enabled a light bulb to emit a pale glow; and how, on those kitchen evenings, Mom would bake flat biscuits with a dollop of jam in the gas oven or fry crêpes on the stovetop, which we ate with preserves; and how at the time, of course, I didn’t understand that these would be the happiest memories of my childhood.

I told her how my brother and I travelled to my grandfather’s funeral from Kyiv. I was living at the Polytechnic Institute then, not far from the train station, while my brother lived in a hostel in the Vydubychi neighborhood. We bought tickets for the no-frills train that was leaving for Radyvyliv in the middle of the night, when the metro wasn’t running, so my brother came to my place, in order to be walking distance from the station. We sat and sat, talked, smoked, but, when we headed out, it turned out that we were running late, and so we sprinted the last kilometre, as fast as we could, panting and sweating, and jumped onto the moving train, teetering on our bellies on the already raised steps. The conductor saw all this and scolded us: “Dumbasses, you could have had your legs chopped off!” I wanted to laugh in relief but thought that laughing wasn’t appropriate. We ended up late for the funeral all the same, and, when we arrived in the village of Boratyn, our dad and the neighbors had just returned from the cemetery and were sitting at a table beneath the old pear tree in the yard set with cheap booze, cheap smoked sausage, and homemade pickles. They tried to force me and my brother to have a drink. A minute later, the neighbors were recounting how good each of them had been to the deceased old man and what the deceased had promised to bequeath to whom. Our dad, his son, sat at the table in silence, and later, as he led me and my brother to the grave, he complained, “The body isn’t even cold yet, and they’re already divvying up the inheritance. I don’t need anything, but at least don’t start in front of me.”

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