I’m one of those people who can’t sing by herself. Someone else has to hit the first note for me. Two of my aunts are music instructors – one disabled, the other partially disabled these days – and they both say that it’s an issue of confidence, of being sure. As if that hidden first note is trying to tell me something.
In another lifetime altogether, when neither one of my aunts was particularly sick, I would take long trolleybus journeys downhill to the best theater in Kiev. That winter, the air was so cold that it literally glittered. I couldn’t afford to be ethically fashionable and bundled myself into an enormous fur coat I had discovered in the back of the closet.
It was only a matter of time before I would return to the States. That was pretty obvious. The States was where the life was. Mine – and everyone else’s. The States had a credit ratings system, good roads, and HBO. I would rent a room in Brooklyn and write a blog complaining about not being able to get laid as often as I liked. Assuming I partied with the right people, it would inspire a television pilot eventually. Or some dorky, deceptively undersexed-looking man/bird-thin woman in a vegan sweater would offer me a book deal. It was how I pictured it, anyway.
The future had been clearly penciled in, but before it came, there was plenty of time to write, party, and stumble out of taxis into blustering sunrises with curly-headed clouds tossed aside by a strong wind that seemed to blow into Kiev both from the East and the West simultaneously.
I started writing plays largely as a means of amusement for myself and the actor friends who rode in taxies with me. “I would SO love to, like, be in a one-act that you wrote, you know? Don’t tell me you can’t write in Russian! You totally can!” they would tell me, never underestimating the power of cheap flattery. But we all loved each other too – in was that were obvious and not obvious.
Then bearded men from Moscow started showing up and giving their pronouncements on these plays. When they poured me vodka, it always overflowed.
I sat next to one of these men at a party in what passed for the theater’s foyer, where chairs were glued to the ceiling and a large tank overflowed with lethargic turtles. My friends sang. My throat opened up on the second note and I joined them – and the man snapped his head in my direction with a surprised look. He told me later that he had never heard women sing like that. They were old, calcified songs, the notes etched on mineral deposits below the dark basements of the city.
After I sung myself out, I kissed him goodbye on the cheek. I was leaving for a road-trip to Poland in the morning. He went back to Moscow in a couple of days and I didn’t think of him, I didn’t think of him at all (maybe once or twice did I think of him. Maybe a little bit more).
I realized recently that I hadn’t seen April in Kiev in years. The April rain here must contain some kind of chemical in it that strip layers off of everything – including people. April is a month of dangerous clarity and what’s increasingly clear right now is that we are all dangling off a precipice and below us are the hard, shining peaks of war.
In the midst of all that, the city fizzes with wind and rain. I no longer drink vodka. My actress cousin, the one who started bringing me to the theater years ago, has painted her bedroom walls white, and we sit up against them with an uncorked bottle of wine and the twilight for company. “I changed your life trajectory,” my cousin says, uncharacteristically solemn. “You never went back to the States – because of me.”
She doesn’t know whether or not she should be sorry. Heavy-handed on the metaphors, thunder rumbles in the East. Russia says it doesn’t want to invade, but is in a “difficult position” due to the many calls to “intervene.” CIA director Brennan flies to Kiev and leaves. Speeches are made. Sanctions are discussed.
People are disappearing in the east, and some are turning up dead and mutilated. And our lives feel interrupted – not by ennui or bad boyfriends who don’t know how to commit – but heavy, clanging geopolitical gears.
At best, we are emotional hostages to an entire host of interested parties. I don’t think I can think about the worst. Not with the evening spreading like a bruise and the hours feeling so watery and brief.
I tell my cousin that she should never be sorry for anything. Least of all for that winter.
People are fond of hunting “enemies” and “traitors” nowadays. Television crews search for the CIA/GRU/SBU/ETC behind every potted plant. The jokes get darker on Twitter.
At night, I dream that the shadows in this city have lengthened and come alive. I dream I am walking through the old cemetery and the shadows are crouched on the leaning tombstones, watchful and silent. I feel as though I am visiting old pets that have returned to the wild. A part of them longs for me. A part of them wants to eat my heart. I reach out to pet them, and in the dream, they feel like ancient moss and crumpled lace of the veils they used to bury unmarried women in, and underneath all that is hard, beastly muscle. Petting monsters in the moonlight, I feel a happiness so enormous it threatens to collapse my ribs.
Over a year after I drank vodka with him in that theater foyer that looked like a crazy person’s living room, the bearded man from Moscow would joke that back then, I was “a little too thin – but could easily improve with proper feeding.” It was so cold in Moscow then that it made my teeth ache. “You wanted to eat me?” I asked him. “Still do,” he replied.
I was hiding my wedding dress from him in a paper shopping bag. The groom was not supposed to see it, even if it was bought it for the equivalent of sixty bucks at Topshop. Surely that was a nice detail for a possible television pilot? Except we weren’t in Brooklyn. Stalin-era buildings rose majestically all around us. A terror attack killed a fellow playwright and friend at Domodedovo – along with over thirty other victims – and that wasn’t the kind of thing that nice American girls from middle class homes could relate to, right? The glass shivered and froze in the windowpanes. Power stations sent entire continents of steam into the air. We went to the theater and the country and stood on snowy train stations in the Moscow region, watching the stars come out, hand-in-hand.
In Kiev this April everyone wants to know what I’m going to do next, but I am wary of penciling in the future. Every detail of the surrounding present looks fragile – a cat’s whisker, a single petal drifting off a flowering pear tree, a black puddle trying to contain the reflection of an enormous moon, the chattering birds, the faces of people I love. The chestnut trees are blooming with flowers like white candles lit in the dark – in memoriam or in hope – and they are doing so early this year, so that I can pretend they’re a gift just for me.
I can sing as well as I used to, but only starting from the second note – as always. For now, there are those still willing to give me that first note, to throw an arm around me in the interiors of grand, crumbling buildings built by our great-grandparents, and show me the way. It’s so good to be loved.
The churches are bursting at the seams on Easter and the singing and the sounds of bells carry for miles. “Christ is risen!” cries out the priest. “Truly He is risen!” booms the congregation. I’ve never seen such huge Easter crowds before. It’s not just old women crowding into those churches – it’s teenagers, married couples, girls like me, in torn jeans and with Italian silk scarves on their heads, excited children, middle-aged men whose faces hardened into grimaces long ago.
My priest, Father Nikolai, is ex-military, and manages to be both brisk and jocular as he makes the rounds dousing everyone and their Easter bread with holy water. He gets me good – so that my make-up starts running, and I look as if I’ve been crying, but I am laughing, it’s like being hit in the face with a wave, and the light hits the water droplets in my eyelashes, and the droplets shine like jewels, and those are the riches that I have in that moment, and that is good enough for me.
On TV and on the Internet, everyone is calling each other “fascist.” The Euromaidan crowd is “fascist,” the Russians are all “fascists,” the EU is “fascist and gay,” and the States are “fascist and fat and stupid and they get caught saying embarrassing things on the telephone.” Watching the ever-changing skies over Kiev, I wonder if an alien invasion might save us all before destroying us all. At least then human civilization will be extinguished in a moment of pure, rapturous unity – rather in the act of fighting amongst themselves for scraps of land on a little planet orbiting an entirely unremarkable star in an altogether quiet corner of a galaxy we so touchingly refer to as the Milky Way.
In church, I reflect on the fact that within the parameters of the life I gave up without noticing or thinking, the phrase “praying for peace” sounds like a terrible affectation. Because one is inevitably “praying for peace” somewhere far away. Because saying it makes you sound too sincere and therefore vulnerable. Because saying it like you mean it automatically kills the vibe.
In my real life, the life that happened to me, the life I chose – whether thinkingly or unthinkingly – “praying for peace” feels like an act of transcendence. It’s a magic spell, changing the fabric of the world, rippling outward. I can’t decide if that is the reason why I didn’t buy that ticket to the States a few years ago. Neither can I decide whether or not this means anything for my future, for our future, for anyone’s future.
I miss the illusion of invulnerability of the earlier years. God, do I ever miss it.
Yet neither am I sure that I would trade it for the raining blossoms and the girls taking selfies underneath them, the babies trying to outdo the church choirs, the bursts of laughter on the street in the witching hour, the broad shoulders of men in the dark, the high-heeled clomping of women, the tall windows opening on the illimitable air, the this frail and lovely present, this here, this now.
In an evening traffic jam in the city, a strong wind snatches a paper bag from the hands of a child on an old, crumbling balcony and the bag circles the honking cars like the ghost of a dove. In our car, my father and I watch it float in the sky. We don’t say anything to each other afterward, because some things, I guess, are discussed better without words.