“Try to come early tomorrow.” The director says, not looking away from the computer monitor on her desk as I shuffle into the office like a resurrected corpse.
“Oh, why’s that?” I ask, peering hopefully at the calendar on the wall. The 24th stares back at me, both of us holding our collective breath.
“You were nearly late today.” Her usually bubbly tone is coated with a bitter tinge of disapproval that silences me like the stuffed puffin sitting on the windowsill. The 24th disappears from view amidst the other dates stolidly lined up waiting to be marked off and relegated to the past. I return the wilting textbooks to their customary place on the shelf and gather my coat and other wintry belongings from the medieval looking rack.
The puffin is especially mournful tonight of all nights, it’s view out the window obscured by the listless fog which has settled against the glass. I try and rub the milky film away, but it sticks. I mutter a silent apology to the creature, a prisoner of most unfortunate circumstances. The American Institute at which I work likely meant to procure an Eagle for symbolic reasons but, finding those in short supply here in Ukraine, must have decided that the puffin mustered enough exotic appeal to make the swap relatively unnoticeable. I imagine the puffin thinks differently.
“Goodnight.” I say, clothed in winter armory once again. “Merry Christmas.”
“That’s right,” the director looks up, turning to the calendar to make sure. “It’s Christmas for you, isn’t it?”
I look back into the office, the lights from the fluorescent bulbs above my head casting the tiny room in an unearthly yellow that makes the whole place feel like a movie set inside a soup can.
“According to the calendar.”
“Congratulations then.” She offers with a quick smile before turning back to the monitor.
I don’t feel like I ought to be receiving congratulations for anything, really. Though as soon as I step through the heavy wooden doors leading to the negative twenty-degree weather waiting outside, I think otherwise; mere survival being a kind of achievement here.
The cold cuts me like an icy bandit, robbing me of my breath and swallowing me into the darkness of the dimly lit outside before dragging me along the sidewalk, unintelligible underneath inches of freshly laid snow.
All is silent save for the wind, which howls in such a way as to rue the existence of humanity, and the crude soviet structures which it has constructed to hinder nature’s path.
I see in the far reaches of my vision a light burning like a beacon, smoldering but surviving. Though mere feet from it, it still burns impossibly far until, nearly upon it, I recognize it as the cursed and unwelcoming kiosk of Baba Yaga, as I have taken to calling the decrepit and wretched soul that haunts the place.
Upon arriving in Kharkiv nearly a year ago, I knocked on the kiosk’s little glass window to ask for something behind the display. Whether milk or bread, I can’t now recall, but the grimy and toothless individual who sneered back at me from her perch behind the glass took the money I had placed on the counter before her and threw it out onto the ground behind me, castigating me for my apparent failure to pronounce what I had wanted in proper Russian. Either that or she didn’t like my constant smiling which, I have learned in the time I’ve been here, is something some of the more stony faced locals frown upon, though it’s hard to tell as they are generally frowning anyway.
Unfortunately, as it happens, I need bread and the Russian witch sells the best around. Ordinarily, this doesn’t make a difference as I just traverse to the next best place: a little bakery about a ten-minute walk down Karl Marx Strasse, the street where I now stand.
With half my face already numb and my legs feeling like lead tree trunks, I see the prospects for my getting all the way down there as fainter than the light inside Baba Yaga’s little snowy retreat so I slow to a halt before the nominal structure with it’s imposing resident.
My gloved hand raps loudly against the glass, yet my fingers feel nothing. I try and peer inside the glass but the windows are all fogged up, the light inside revealing nothing.
I’m about to turn away to spare what’s left of my frostbitten fingers and toes when the window slat slides open in a grating meeting of metal and ice to reveal not a decrepit old woman with missing teeth and a wicked sneer but a young woman with green, inquisitive eyes and lips that look like twin pink sponges. Her straight black hair and fair skin give her a kind of ethereal quality. She looks to have wandered ashore from the Baltic, a mermaid who traded her immortality in for legs and a chance to be human, or however the story goes.
I stumble over my words which, as they are spoken in English, likely doesn’t make them any less understandable than they already are. The girl’s eyes spear mine yet her gaze is anything but intense and something more akin to a kind of pithy curiosity.
She hands me a loaf of warm bread in exchange for four grivnas (about 50 cents) but I hesitate there, willing myself to leave but not yet able to.
Seemingly reading my thoughts, and addressing me in surprisingly good English, the girl speaks.
“Olga, my grandmother, is in the hospital. I don’t think she will ever leave.” Tears come to her eyes then as I stand there, my gloved hands clutching the loaf of bread to my chest, trying to decide whether or I should try and comfort this girl or just walk away.
The next moment I’m not sure which is stranger. That this heavenly creature is the granddaughter of the woman I’d sneeringly referred to as “Baba Yaga” or that I find myself now uttering the words “I hope she gets better,” in an attempt to placate the sad but beautiful young woman in front of me. It all seems quite otherworldly and odd, especially as seconds later she bids me farewell with a cheerfully genuine “Merry Christmas” as if she had been watching my crumpled form trudging in the snowy darkness towards her and made it her mission to cheer me.
Stumbling back out into the wind and snow, I shake my head, trying to make sense of the odd encounter. It strikes me as somehow odd that this is the very first white Christmas I’ve had, and yet it isn’t Christmas at all… at least not in Ukraine, which doesn’t celebrate the holiday until the 7th of January due to some absurd soviet hanger-on or another…
Minutes later I’m trying to maintain my balance down the slippery steps leading into the metro which, even for 10:30 at night, is surprisingly empty. Two policeman, no doubt feeling very important, observe me as I walk past. I make sure to hide my novel by my side so they can’t make out the English lettering. The police here are infamous at detaining those they suspect to be foreigners and questioning them on their whereabouts within the country until said foreigner agrees to pay them whatever money they have on them. A bribe we’d call it. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re in the country legally or not, I’m not anyway, they will inspect your passport (hopefully you’re smart enough to have it), making an issue over the slightest peculiarity or inventing one until you acquiesce to their request to pay them a “tax.” In nearly a full year here I’ve been stopped once, many months ago, and now take precautions, keeping my head down for one thing, to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. It also helps if you keep no more than 100 grivnas (about 10 euros) on you at any given time.
As they usually do, they ignore me and return to their tired banter and I descend the escalator. Once down I walk until I reach the very end of the platform and position myself behind a jagged outcropping of wall so that my figure remains obscured should any students be waiting further down. It’s one thing to get paid to teach, it’s quite another to get stuck alongside a student on the metro who still can’t figure out the difference between future tense and future perfect and wants you to explain the rights of usage over the forty minute ride home. It’s a conversation I’d like to avoid most any night, but especially tonight as it’s Christmas Eve and I’ve got about 40 pages left in finding out how Kurt Wallander wraps up this latest mystery. With that thought in my mind, I pull out my worn paperback and open to the bookmark. I’ve only just familiarized myself with where I left off when the familiar voice of the announcer over the sound system rings out, telling passengers to stand back and make way for the incoming train. At least, this is what I imagine she must be saying, but as I don’t speak Ukrainian she could very well be telling people to prepare to throw themselves in front of the train. As this is the chosen method of suicide in this former Soviet city (drinking notwithstanding), it wouldn’t altogether surprise me. However the rickety old car slides into the station, unhampered by the presence of any bodies littering the way.
Even at 10:40 in the evening there is a mad dash for the escalator once the doors open. I’ve never understood quite what this is all about. Maybe it’s everywhere, but I’ve never especially noticed it on public transport in any western European city.
By now well accustomed to this, I stand back and watch as a young man with blond streaks tears past an old babushka, leaving her muttering curses after him. Once the metro empties, I take a seat in the furthest car, again for the reasons dictated above. Once I’m sure it’s safe and we’ve started moving, I open my book once again.
The main character, Wallander, is hunting the killer through an abandoned mine shaft when all of a sudden… a man with a guitar starts strumming the chords like the way he’s seen somebody once do it on TV. Notice I say “man with a guitar” and not “guitarist,” because that is certainly something this lanky, strung out looking fellow is not. I can’t even hear the music now over the din of the metro car whoosing through the antiquated tunnel and yet the way in which this punk’s mouth is twisted sorrowfully with the supposed emotion of whatever words he’s garbling strikes me as horrific, like the butchering of a baby dolphin by Japanese fisherman before it had filled the oceans with its joyful odes to life and freedom. Take away the dolphins and the water and this city is what you have; a decaying, dried up ocean devoid of life and most anything resembling joy.
I look around at the wax-like faces around me. Men and women whose lips look like they haven’t stretched to form a smile since Gorbachev was still running things… and even then I’m doubtful.
The metro screeches to a halt, causing the man with the guitar to quickly scramble the rest of the way through the car, tipping the front of his instrument down and dangling the attached plastic bag before the faces of the passengers, willing them out of their comatose state and into their pockets. He finds little success and darts out the open doors to the next car where he’ll repeat the torture a second time.
A woman sits down beside me and plants her heavy, checkered bag on my feet. Perhaps she didn’t notice them there, perhaps she did but doesn’t care, either way it’s slightly annoying. I start to say something, to shift my feet away, but already she has noticed my book and has opened her mouth to speak.
“Angliskiy?” She croaks, likely a product of the Parliament cigarettes spilling out from the bag still on top of my feet.
The bag, for the record, is something I’ve become convinced that you get upon birth here in Ukraine, along with a birth certificate it would seem… but it might be possible that here, you only get the bag.
Look around the carriage of any short or long distance train and I promise that you’ll find at least a couple dozen of these bags. They’re everywhere. If democracy were given out with as much frequency as these bags, the world would be free, possibly having elected Hamas but having elected them freely no less.
“Angliskiy?” The frog repeats, her eyes glazed over and making me feel like I’m at the doughnut shop back home, sans the sweetness.
As I have many times before, I contemplate exactly what to do in this situation. I could keep quiet and pretend I don’t understand a word of what her worn looking mug is saying, but that would preclude my overly distracted self from really getting back to and reading my book with much peace, so what the hell.
“Yes,” I say, regretful of the fact. “Yes, I do.”
“Nice.” She says, immediately perking up and folding her hands in front of her as if in prayer. “My ex-husband was English.”
I feel like Richard Gere during a meeting with the Dali Lama, sequestered in search of enlightenment with a fervent believer in something, me apparently; only I suppose Gere enjoyed those meetings. Me, I’m counting the stations.
“Good for him.” I reply, allowing my brain to briefly contemplate what would drive a man from a supposedly affluent country into the arms of such a- I count the frown lines burrowed into her pale, sickly looking face- saucy vixen. “How long ago was that?”
“Oh,” she pauses, assumedly counting. “Last year.”
Before I can stop myself, I ask.
Now I’ve gone and done it. I’ll never be freed from this conversation. This luckless leech of a woman will fix me up with some sad pill about her life and I’ll be left to choke on it.
“He left me.” Naturally.
“I’m sorry.” However, not surprised.
“Don’t be.” I nod. She needs not worry, I think. Her lips are still parted as she starts to say something else. “I slept with his son.”
For a minute I think we must have stopped moving, all I can see are her saline eyes boring into mine.
“What was that?”
“I fucked his son under the Christmas tree in our London flat this time last year.”
My thoughts stumble a bit, trying to form into words as they make their way into my mouth and not bile.
As if reading my thoughts, she answers my next question.
“He was 16.”
“His father kicked me out the next day. Said I wasn’t supposed to be his son’s first.”
I sit paralyzed in the hard plastic seat, no longer counting stops.
“Yes, well, I suppose that makes sense. You really ought to have waited a couple more years, at the least.”
“I asked Rodrigo to give me another chance, but he didn’t want me any more after that.”
“Wait,” I raise a finger to emphasize my confusion. “Your English husband’s name was Rodrigo?”
“Not my husband,” she says, scooting in closer next to me. “His son. He only wanted me the once. That whole distressed virgin thing I suppose.”
I can only imagine how contorted my entire face must have been at that moment. The eyes of everyone in the metro were on me, not that that was unusual as they normally would have been hearing someone speaking English. If only they knew what the hell they were missing…
“Your English husband’s son was a virgin who seduced you into taking his virginity and his name was Rodrigo?”
“No,” she shoved me with her hands in that way I’d long since attributed to characters in Brazilian soap operas. “I seduced him. He was young and his body tasted delicious. Can I say this about a boy? Delicious?”
The thought nauseated me but I nodded nonetheless.
“Something like that.”
“Yes, I seduced delicious Rodrigo on a trip with his father in Spain.”
“Spain?” I asked, more than a bit perplexed now. “I thought it was under the Christmas tree in London?”
“London?” The supposed dominatrix asked herself, eyes downcast as if trying to remember. “Yes! I seduced him in Spain but we made love under the Christmas tree by candlelight.”
I noticed for the first time, or maybe it had just started, that she was shaking, her whole body actually, vibrating and not because of the train as we were stopped.
Her eyes suddenly turned on me again, fierce, violent.
“It doesn’t matter now, does it? Why should it matter?? Now he’s back in London with his whore and I’m here, alone once again and shriveling.”
The train starts off again, the announcement of the next station echoing in the car. My station.
“Say, where exactly are you getting off? Where do you live?” I make to stand but think better of it, staying seated.
“Actually,” and now she draws a horrifically manicured finger down the length of my arm. “I was hoping to get out with you. At your station.”
I sit, at a loss of words as she plays with my arm hair, weaving it around her finger as if she is looking to make a rug out of it.
“Well, I don’t know about that…”
“Oh,” she grips my wrist. “But baby,” and here she starts in a deeper voice than even the one she’d been using conversationally. “Baby, it’s cold outside.”
The metro jerks to a stop. I wait as the car empties before throwing her hand off me.
“That’s my stop. Dasvidaniya.” With that I leap out of my seat and sprint between the closing doors, turning back just in time to see her staring, mouth agape, after me as the metro pulls off down the tracks, leaving me far, far behind.
I am in something of a bewildered state as I clamber up the 40 steps to the exit, pushing the heavy door open and stepping into the softly falling snow.
The statue of the Soviet soldier, bronze fist extended triumphantly having vanquished the Nazi forces from the city, is flecked with white and stares cruelly at me as I maneuver past.
The electronics store, Eldorado, is on my left and, even at this time of night, music emanates from inside. It is, however, to my utter surprise that the music my ears discovers is not that of Maroon 5 or some loathsome Russian rock band but is, instead, the smooth crooning of one Bing Crosby, bringing back my own memories of Christmas trees and childhood and perhaps most importantly, the family I never really appreciated until now that I’m here without them.
A truth is then revealed to me. The truth that I don’t really understand the place I am in right now, and even more so that this lack of understanding, filtered through the anxiousness and hardness I see all around me, has made me into something of a harder, more anxious individual. I’ve become what I mock, what I see paraded on the streets here daily. This cool envy and, oddly enough, seeming lack of collective spirit has percolated in me something of a disconnect with the world outside, a wish to be withdrawn and removed from a society that I view as withdrawn and removed. And lest I become indifferent, enslaved to this complacency, I must withdraw myself physically from this place.
I think of the train tickets I’d purchased earlier in the evening; the last remaining tickets on a train that, in the middle of the next week, will have me going cross-country to board a plane that will take me to the other side of the continent.
The tickets. The tickets are my bookmark, reminding me that I am almost at the end.
My book. My book is still on the train. Left on the seat next to that woman who wanted to molest me under her Christmas tree.
I laugh then. What else really can I do?
Bing Crosby’s words echo in my head as I ascend the apartment building’s steps to knock on a door not my own.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white