There is something inexplicably amusing about my current position, made more so by the bottle and a half of Crimean wine I consumed back in Sevastopol, now more than three hours ago. It was sweet, as Crimean wine tends to be, and cheap- the more important of the two at this point in my penniless life.
The bitter stench of burning rubber and the sudden spasming of the bus I had formerly been on, god rest her soul, has led me to where I am now, on an even smaller bus (or marshrutka as it’s known here) lacking air conditioning and sandwiched between a bikini-clad would-be Vogue cover model and a woman who looks to be about 60. This being Ukraine however I’d guess her to be more so around 45.
Her arms are yellowed from the sun, or frequent baths in urine. Like all Ukrainian woman over a certain age, I’d place it somewhere around 40, she has her hair cut short. Here, such haircuts are government mandated once a woman hits menopause. Perhaps as a way to ward off would be suitors, or just keep the lice away.
The Vogue cover model looks to be in her 20’s, with long red hair that sweatily clings to her body in much the same way as her bikini top adheres to her breasts. I stare, more out of amusement than arousal, as small droplets of sweat spill off the tops of those breasts into the little crevice that resides between them. There they evaporate into the red fabric of her top and accelerate the degree to which her nipples can be seen.
I smack my lips. The wine has left my mouth dry as dust leaving me to desire Vogue’s sweaty body in an entirely different way.
Are these women on my right and left really sprung from the same seed? Is a similar haircut for Vogue inevitable 20 years down the line?
The marshrutka jolts, causing me to shift my position and accidentally step on the foot of some guy seated next to me. He glares at me and I mouth a “sorry,” though it’s uncertain he knows what that means. The old babushka (same menopausal haircut) sitting next to him appears comatose, staring blankly ahead as the little girl on her lap peels dead skin from her arm. The girl appears utterly transfixed by this, peeling away a large papery layer of the skin while the woman just stares forward, remarkably indifferent.
Then there’s me. Ordinarily (without wine) these circumstances would have me feeling a bit frazzled. What was to be a simple one and a half hour bus ride to Yalta has instead turned into a three-hour long (and counting) Lord of the Rings sized epic.
Left on the side of the road after our tour bus sputtered to a stop after suffering something akin to a mechanical epileptic seizure, we’ve had to squeeze on to a series of marshrutkas (i.e. really tiny shitty buses) in order to reach our destination. If hell has a public transportation system, this loathsome little bus would be it.
Due partly to the heat and partly to being crammed into this tin can as tightly as human sextuplets fighting for space in the womb of a bat, this journey has become both uncomfortable and potentially life threatening, judging by the quality of our driver.
A buttery man with a shirtless belly that protrudes so far it seems to be driving the car, he takes swigs of some unidentified bottle while hugging curves so tight it’d be deemed rape in all 50 states.
The Black Sea lies below the cliff’s edge on the right, threatening to swallow our insignificant little detail should our trusted driver’s belly rumble or have any digestive difficulties.
Before long night falls and I can no longer see the danger that lurks, though the whizzing of the engine and the drunken wheezing of the driver allow me still to hear it. I look back over to the girl, now sleeping against the sweaty chest of the babushka, her little hand closed tightly around a clump of dead skin.
When we arrive in Yalta it’s already past 10 and the last bus back to Sevastopol has left just ten minutes prior, meaning that new sleeping accommodations will have to be acquired for tonight. The bus station is surprisingly devoid of the litany of older women wielding signs that read “квартира,” or apartment as we know it. I start off in the general direction of the port, as directed by a shirtless man wearing a sombrero, though following the direction of such an individual might prove regrettable. Just to reassure myself, after walking for some minutes I repeat my question to a group of young people walking the opposite direction.
20 minutes later I’m downing shots of vodka with Vlad, Dima, Tanya, and Marta portside, watching the moon reflect over the Black Sea and the dozens of tiny boats that dot it. I find myself inundated by the usual questions;
“Why did you come to Ukraine?”
“What do you think of our country?”
“Is it true that Ukraine has the most beautiful women in the world, what do you think?”
Tanya and Marta noticeably quiet with this last question, and Dima and Vlad watch carefully for my response. There really is no right answer to this question. If I say no, I risk disappointing the two women which, of course, I am loath to do. If I say yes I risk stirring up the jealousy of the men in the group, which while unfortunate may also be inevitable. While guys and girls can claim to be just friends in Ukraine, it’s a fine line that often is crossed back and forth and is far more movable than the one that exists between friends in the United States. Having watched the four “friends” interact tonight, I can see that for Dima and Vlad, this friendship with the woman is more or less something that they put up with, waiting for that inevitable day in which the lines will become blurred once again. My presence here, while accepted by all, is something which I can feel makes the two men in the group slightly uncomfortable, although they try to hide it.
Marta, a slender brunette who bares, in my drunken state, a slight resemblance to Penelope Cruz, has been making eyes at me all night. Something which I think has left Dima feeling slightly jealous.
“Yes,” I reply at last. “Of course.”
I return with “of course” because it is a favorite of Ukrainians. I can’t exactly say why, but it seems that if a Ukrainian knows any English at all, it is likely to be these two words. As I have noticed with students and other acquaintances here, this phrase is often used at the most inappropriate of times.
I was recently teaching an English class about music and, when asked my favorite artist, replied that I favored the mostly obscure German DJ and trance artist ATB.
“Have any of you heard of him?” I asked.
“Of course!” One student pipes up. No one else in the class had a clue who the DJ was.
Similar to the U.S., “of course” is levied in such a tone as to suggest that the person asking is an idiot for presuming otherwise.
“Have you ever visited the U.S.?”
“Do you play tennis?”
“Do you cook?” (as directed to a man)
These are all questions I have asked Ukrainians and which have generally garnered an overwhelming “no” in response, but which, from those one or two odd individuals, I receive an “of course” as a reply. I mean, seriously. No Ukrainian man cooks, it just doesn’t happen (Shashlik, a kind of Georgian shish kabab quite popular in this part of the world, doesn’t count as word has it grilling it earns you man points). I hear “of course” even more than I hear “yes,” which leads me to conclude that most English speaking Ukrainians don’t differentiate the two.
In response to my answer, Tanya smiles shyly while Marta again bats her eyes at me. Vlad and Dima on the other hand noticeably bristle before hiding it with awkward laughter. I encourage everyone to take another shot, quickly putting the moment behind us.
I’m quite inebriated at this point, and when we get up to start walking once again down the shoreline, it feels in some way as if I’m really not moving at all.
I’m not quite sure how far we’d walked when we first noticed that Tanya had slipped off from the group, prompting Vlad to call out anxiously for her. The pumping techno music radiating from a nearby club is all he gets in response, and with scantly a word to the rest of us, he sets off in a scamper back down the beach to look for her.
The time on my phone reads 2:38 and while walking we’ve seen only the occasional passing, handholding couple or token mumbling alcoholic. The rest would seem to either all be at home, in the aforementioned club just down the beach, or already passed out somewhere.
The three of us wait there for a seeming eternity, but neither Vlad nor Tanya have returned. Dima suggests that we go back down the beach to try and find them but Marta protests, suggesting that then we’d all get lost.
Even in my intoxicated state it occurs to me how odd it is that none of these individuals has a cellphone which would seemingly make matters significantly easier. I could offer mine, but choose to remain silent, far more entertained at the situation than concerned for Tanya who, as the drunkest of us, probably found herself having to pee and blindly wandered off to one of the cafes back down the shore.
Dima hesitates, uncertain of what to do. His former suspicion of me forgotten, he declares that he’ll be back and to stay put. His shirtless form soon disappears into the night.
Whether because I’m drunk and more easily impressed, I find myself somewhat amazed at the frequency in which the members of the group have splintered off and am not sure whether I have ever seen anything quite like it in real life. If this were a horror movie, we would all most certainly be doomed.
I hear Marta groan, having momentarily forgotten she was present, and turn to see her slouched over on a nearby bench.
“Are you alright?” I ask her, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“Of course.” She replies, and then promptly throws up all over my shoes.
It’s hard to properly evaluate in the light, but it looks like Marta had borsch for dinner.
I eye the nearby sea hungrily, cursing myself for not bringing an extra pair of socks as the recycled borsch has seeped through my worn shoes.
“I’m going to go and wash off.” I inform her, though judging by her prostrate position on the bench, I doubt she cares.
I tiptoe the 30 or so feet down to the water, trying to limit the audible squishing in my shoes to a minimum. Once at the shoreline, I gingerly remove my shoes and soaked socks. The sea breeze picks up the stench and brings it to my nostrils, causing me to nearly throw up myself. I brush the shoes through the water as rapidly as I can, trying to get all the little flakes of tomato, or whatever it is, off.
There is nothing like being puked on to totally sober you up and now, feeling the waves lap at my desecrated feet like starving little dachshunds enjoying a fresh meal, I try and recollect how I got here.
At nearly the same moment I recall the image of the stalled bus on the side of the road, I hear a scream pierce the darkness just next to me.
I turn with a start, and see the dark form of Marta splashing in the waves next to me. She laughs and grabs my leg, nearly causing me to lose my balance.
“Come on, come deeper!” She cries, standing and grabbing my hand with hers, urging me out further. Though there is little light, all the cafes and clubs being nestled back along the other side of the beach, I can make out that Marta has somewhere along the way misplaced not only her clothes but her underwear as well. She seems completely oblivious to this fact and has now taken to splashing me with her free hand.
“Good to see someone is feeling better.” I say, not really knowing what to say.
She begins singing some song in Russian, still pulling me out towards her, like a mermaid luring me out to a watery death. I doubt however that Marta, wailing like a drunken banshee in heat, would enchant many wayward sailors to jump overboard. Jump overboard they no doubt would, but not out of some lustful enchantment, more so out of desire to end the screeching rattling in their brains.
“Marta…” I try, holding both my shoes in one hand and pulling back on her with the other.
“Come on!” She squeals in her thick Ukrainian accent. Frustrated at my resistance, she grabs a shoe from my hand and reels, throwing it out into the sea.
“What are you doing!?” I exclaim, pushing her away from me. I test the depth of the water, aware of the iPhone and wallet in my jeans pocket and wishing them not to get wet.
Marta sprints after the shoe and, grabbing it, heaves it even further into the black, murky sea.
“Hey!” I start to pursue it but stop when the water reaches my thighs, knowing that I risk the health of my phone should I go any further. Anyway, I am unable to see my shoe.
I turn and stride angrily back onto the dry pebbles that litter the beach like cold little reminders that I have no other shoes. I hear Marta yelling after me, but I don’t turn around. Her clothes lie strewn across the pebbles, her heels about a meter apart. I stoop to grab one, my mind racing with ways in which I might destroy it.
She’s out of the water now and running after me. I turn and, seeing her, start running further down the beach. Lacking clothes and thus being more aerodynamic, Marta is a touch faster than I am, and soon she is at my back, screaming at me to return her shoe.
A drunken old man sits up on his bench when we approach, watching us curiously before lying back down again. I imagine we must be quite a sight, a naked young woman chasing after a guy holding a heel aloft.
She’s Gollum chasing me up the slopes of Mount Doom, trying to stop me before I destroy the ring.
Her fingernails claw at me as she closes the gap between us. I yelp, feeling a nail dig into my skin. I heave her shoe up the beach, nearly hitting the drunkard on the bench. She swears at me (I think) in Russian, but turns to retrieve her shoe. She’s the drunk’s problem now.
I wait until I’m far enough away before turning back, my lungs heaving and my body spent. The city has faded behind me, obscured in the early morning mist, and the sound of the waves striking the pebbles conjures up visions of pirates and fairy tale lands.
I sit, stretching out on the cold pebbles to better take it all in. I think about the marshrutka, about the stalled bus, about the world behind me.
I open my eyes. I’m still on the beach, but the sun is rising over the sea now.
A new hangover has come.