Jack of hearts

Men have always said, “Don’t you dare write about me.”

Max never said anything of the sort, because writing didn’t exist for him, not really. It was real the way Australia might be real to someone in Europe. You’d see people from Australia posting on Twitter when the night was too hot for sleep and that would be as far as you were willing to cross into that particular reality. Not that Max had a Twitter.

One time, a drunk cab driver hit Max with his car outside a highway gas station somewhere in darkest East Ukraine. Max, who was drunk himself, got up from the asphalt, dragged the cab driver out of the cab by his hair and started punching him. Max’s friends told me this story, so I know he didn’t make it up (I hadn’t known him to make shit up, but at that point, I had worked as a journalist for too long to believe people outright most of the time). They said his then-wife had been literally hanging off of his arm, trying to make him let the cab driver go. He had several broken ribs and fingers at the time. What was impressive, they said, was how his anger was bigger than his pain. I think about that anger often, as I watch the news from East Ukraine.

“Goddamn it, Natalia,” you just said. “This trick of telling us about Ukraine via the prism of Dudes You Used To Date is getting old. If that’s what you’re doing again…”

That is exactly what I’m doing again. And it’s also not what I’m doing at all. That is not what I meant at all. That is not it. Etc.

Max, whose name isn’t really Max, didn’t date me. Instead, he came to see me at odd times. One time, he came to pick me up from the airport, after I’d flown in from Dubai. I was expecting my parents, but there was Max instead, grim like the weather, a bomber jacket on him I have never forgotten, because of the way the collar felt against my fingers.

“What are you doing here?” I said.

“I’m taking you home.”

I wanted to say something dramatic about how I have no home, but I was too tired from the flight. The familiar road from Borispyl Airport to Kiev was curiously empty, and it made me briefly wonder if the world had ended.

Timing is everything. It’s what John Donne knew, and Keats, and Dire Straits, and the man who once served Max and I beer in a roadside cafe, then turned around and said that it’s technically too early for beer anyway, but that we look like adults willing to take responsibility for our bad decisions. How we laughed. How small my hand felt in his hand, then – and my hands aren’t exactly small. How absolutely feral, his presence. Hungover, I rested my head against the complicated topography of muscle underneath his shirt.

Every once in a while, you need a man to be your wolf, carrying you on his back through the night.

When you don’t have that – well, you stagger on through the night on your own accord, and you skin will cry tiny seams of blood from the brambles, and you will probably get old prematurely, and none of that will be a tragedy, in the end. Or, rather, it will be a tragedy that’s muted in a very English way, on in an Anna Akhamtova way, when she struggles to get the glove onto the wrong hand, because she is distracted.

You might expect me to write that I took Max for granted, that I took youth and freedom for granted, but honestly, I don’t think I did.

And when he carried me on his back through the dark after we left some bar, I shuddered with every step he took, and staring sideways at the moon, I felt as though I might go cross-eyed, and I asked the pale face of the moon to not punish me for my happiness, and when we walked together we would stop and light candles in every open church we came across, and when I felt my hair streaming down my back as he undid my topknot the sensation thickened my blood into amber, and my breaths were very, very slow and light, and I felt afraid of disturbing the way the atoms in the room had arranged themselves. And when I asked him, much later, if he had been happy, he raised an eyebrow at me and told me not to ask extremely dumb fucking questions. It was just that the time allotted to us was short.

In Moscow last month, there was a heat wave before the cold spell. The air kept getting hotter with the dawn, humming with invisible energy, stifling the breath and blooming wild roses on the children’s cheeks, growing more and more unbearable with the minute, until the entire damn pressure cooker erupted in thunderstorms around lunchtime, making me pause in the street, palms up in exhausted gratitude. It felt as though if I stood there long enough, the rain would wash my thoughts away.

I have been concerning myself with work, with a new play, with my son’s immediate needs, with chilling the champagne. I have never felt more stupid or more uncertain about anything.

I just wanted to write that “I have never been more afraid,” but that’s not exactly true. 

People are not the same in their wants, but what unites (almost) all of us is want itself – there are absences inside of us, shaped like different people and things and like the qualities we wish we would have.

The wishing is the worst part. You sit around and think, “My God, wouldn’t it have been better had my named been Angela, and I’d been born on a farm in Oregon, and had actual good teeth, baseball-playing brothers, a succession of boyfriends with names like Tripp and Skip, and a fucking accounting degree and paid-off mortgage?”

It was Max who started teaching me how to live in the moment (my husband took over eventually, with limited results) and banish Angela from Oregon. The trick, he said, is inhabiting those moments you may not necessarily want to inhabit. And doing it with gratitude, even. When you can.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been a terrible student of that particular discipline. Though I seem to be getting better.

When he made me sad, I tried to inhabit those moments with something resembling a dignified pose. Then I would break down and call him. Then he would drive the long miles. Though please don’t think we were star-crossed lovers, or anything of the sort.

i defy you stars

Max and I were never destined to be star-crossed lovers – because we couldn’t be bothered. Also, we traded wisdoms, and wisdom and romantic tragedy don’t go together very well. “You taught me to be cool,” he (very improbably) announced to be much later. I thought this had something to do with me teaching him how to pick out decent polo shirts, but he claimed that I had taught him how to “not try too hard.” It’s the last thing I could ever teach anyone, except perhaps he saw something in me that I couldn’t or wouldn’t see in myself.

In light of that, it feels appropriate to say that Max was the man in my life who offered me the chance to love myself more than I loved him, and that I flunked that test entirely. Because I couldn’t accept that he wasn’t mine to have, and then threw that back in his face when he did, suddenly and inexplicably, become mine to have, and because I can be a very silly girl in general, and silliness isn’t all that charming or useful. Particularly when the fairy tale forest that you are walking across gets very dark.

My excuse for all that is that I was a kid when I first met Max. The foundation of my feelings for him went too deep for me to fully process. He was already an adult – in the sense that he was deemed old enough to get a buzz cut and carry a weapon and wear combat boots. When he started visiting my general grandfather during his leaves, I developed an enormous crush on him that amused him greatly, albeit not in a cruel way.

“You like me,” he said once, touching my chin.

“I will bury you for saying that!” I remember yelling back at him.

Seeing each other years later, we weren’t prepared. He somehow thought that I would still be a little girl, and I had incorrectly assumed that he would be as banal as all the other older boys from my childhood – overweight, perhaps, or fond of wearing white pimp shoes, or something.

He randomly drove into town while I was back in Kiev for the summer. He was coming to visit my father, as my grandfather had been dead for a long time by then. He had no idea I would even be home.

A few hours after he rang the doorbell, I remember that I went to the balcony and set up my father’s hookah very slowly and deliberately, watching the round piece of charcoal light up. I remember asking myself what the hell was going on. It was completely foolish. I sucked in the air through the pipe again. It was ridiculous. I blew out a dense cloud of smoke and pretended as though I was outside my body, watching myself. It was insane. I wanted to ask my father what the hell Max was doing there, and why hadn’t I been warned, but couldn’t risk giving myself away – because I knew my dad would make fun of me. Not in a cruel way. But still.

He had a small scar on his cheek that hadn’t been there before. His son was already older than I had been all those years ago. We hadn’t seen each other in over a decade, but there was no rush to fill each other in on how our lives were going. For me, that life, all those other days that bled together to form the months and years, had suddenly gone out of focus. All I could clearly see was the man in front of me, and he was drinking a beer in a way that was entirely too nonchalant for a phantom of my childhood, and I didn’t know what to do about it, except for the obvious thing.

Neither one of us was single. Neither one of us tried to justify ourselves, much.

He made me laugh. He never called me to him – he was always closing the distance between us himself, insistently, keenly, but casually too. He didn’t over-think anything, or look for symbolic meaning in the shapes of the leaves above our heads as we loitered on the sweltering streets, holding hands. He had a lot of stories and he had seen some terrible and beautiful things. He was convinced that things were going to get bad in Ukraine, much worse than they were already, and I said, “Oh, come on.”

When historians sit down to write about the Kiev that existed between the Orange Revolution and the fall of Yanukovych, they won’t write about the way things really were for us. They won’t write about parties that were so bad that they were actually good, the middle-aged couples dancing to a transvestite pop star at weddings with seven-course meals slathered with mayonnaise, the hideous funeral wreaths shuffling their plastic flower leaves like restless fingers in the wind, always the howling dogs, always the stars that did not give a damn, always someone else’s windows lit up at night in a way that made you sorry to be walking away down the street, and how silly and wrong we were back then, and how good we were at being wrong, and how passionate too, and how a clock was always striking midnight somewhere in the corner, under a pile of discarded clothes, and a lonely cricket was chirping, and someone at the edge of all space and time, a lantern was already burning to light the way into some impossible country, though we had our backs turned on it then.

Just a couple of years before the war and Crimea and everything, I was on a night train that passed through Max’s town. The train stopped at the station for three long minutes. Tired people were saying their goodbyes and hellos at the station. Grandmothers sold beer in the sickly yellow light of the street lamps. I had an unfathomable craving for a cold bottle of Chernygivske. I imagined myself saying, “I will only be a minute.” Or five. Or ten. Or as long as “forever” can keep one swallowed up, under the circumstances. And I wasn’t able to say anything to anyone – not even to my father, who had a big falling out with Max when I went to work abroad again, and over something stupid too, and that’s just the way things happen, sometimes.

It might seem as though I’ve said a lot now, but I have said nothing. Nothing that matters, anyway – about Max, or myself, or the war, or anything or anyone else. Time has kept me silent and safe. Time is like water, filing down the edges of things, rippling over memories, often making them either too grotesque or too beautiful to be believed. Every once in a while, the tide recedes, only to rush back again, more forceful this time, the water getting deeper and harder for the light to penetrate.

Men have always said, “Don’t you dare write about me” – and I really don’t.

28 thoughts on “Jack of hearts

  1. Rather thoughtful. You remind me of my wife, who is also Ukrainian, and who often says similar things.

    There is something oddly charming about Kyiv (if I may use the Ukrainian spelling). ‘So bad that it’s good’ is somehow in the right direction, although it doesn’t really capture it. It’s as if something in me wanted to say: there are so many things in this city that are, from a dispassionate perspective, really bad (oh god, the bathrooms in public buildings!), and yet somehow this city fills you with a certain inescapable joie de vivre, as if saying: all those bad things are just part of the sauce, not really so bad after all, they give us Ukrainians some spice… Something to explain why the same nurse who nonchalantly said “that’ll be 50 hrivnya” to my wife after the ultrasound near the end of her pregnancy (the ultrasound was supposed to be free, since my wife had ‘health insurance’… ah! corruption…) was also around to compliment us on how nice the baby looked, and even winked at me saying ‘da, vot nash papa!…’ and started telling us all kinds of details about her own experience as a mother, including advice on medicine and diapers.

  2. I wish my wife’s English was at the level that she could read this and understand. And I wish my Ukrainian was good enough to accurately translate. Well done!

  3. Great essay. Very becoming of a well-known life-ruiner. Can you go ahead and ruin my life? I won’t insist you don’t write about it.

    But seriously, I really mean it, you’re a great writer. That passage about what the historians won’t write about gave me goosebumps.

  4. I am engaged to a lovely Ukrainian woman and fail to see whats special about this blog. My fiance would never be caught dead writing about an ex-boyfriend on the internet (the lady has more class than that).

    Its nice to see a Ukrainian woman with such a solid grasp of the English language, but who is she trying to impress? Western men aren’t interested in Ukrainian women for alleged smarts;; we value fidelity and commitment to family values first of all (don’t see evidence of that in this blog). I haven’t heard of Ukrainian men being interested in smarts (or much else beside vodka) either.

    So while I don’t know the author personally, I would suggest that if she wants to start a family with a Westerner, she should hone a different set of skills. It’s just my opinion and hope it doesn’t offend.

  5. lol, last time I checked the author was a (sadly) married Ukrainian-American journalist, essayist and mother, who likely doesn’t need relationship advice. If she needs it, I’m sure she’ll seek it from someone other than a random Neanderthal like HockeyFan. My god, HockeyFan, you are such a perfect caricature.

  6. @HockeyFanMICH

    Natalia married a Russian playwright in 2010, he is the father of her son, and AFAIK she is still married to him.

    As for your comment “we value fidelity and commitment to family values first of all (don’t see evidence of that in this blog),” read Natalia’s blog since she got married. After her marriage, there is no evidence that she doesn’t value fidelity and commitment to family values.

    On this blog, Natalia has never shown evidence of being interested in starting a family with a Westerner. She affects to despise Westerners, although that might be tongue-in-cheek on her part.

    Read Natalia’s blog consistently, and you’ll find she doesn’t fit the American stereotype of Ukrainian women.

  7. Am I the only one who found this essay problematic? I used to know Natalia Antonova as a fairl prominent feminist blogger and now I’m honestly not sure what to make of her writing.

    The Ukrainian man is an exotic noble savage type (doesn’t use Twitter, punches people, described as “feral”). This is beside the fact that this is presented as a beautiful love story when in fact the both of them are cheating on their SOs. He warns her that things in the country will get worse but she dismisses them. Also he knew her when she was a child and apparently thinks it’s ok to have a relationship with her now that she’s older (major creep factor, power differentials in these relationships are always an issue, I think all psychologists would agree). Also the author is implying that there are a bunch of things that she didn’t tell us, which probably means that this story is even worse.

    Anyway, I see that this website is no longer brimming with feminist commentors as before (no longer welcome?), but if any are reading here, let me just say that I miss the old, stalwart Natalia Antonova who wrote briliant essays on Feministe. This blog is more regressive than progressive now.

  8. Beth Ranch, as a feminist who’s been reading here for years (and saying this in the spirit of sisterly love, bla bla):

    You need to get out more.

    This essay included a lot of self-critique and a helluva lot critique of the relationship with Max, and how the author relates to Max. The narrator keeps tripping herself up. It’s one of the saddest things Nat has written, and I’ve read a looot of her sad stuff.

    If you didn’t notice all that, then you’re not a very good reader. Sorry.

  9. Delurking to call bullshit on Beth Ranch. I was born in Ukraine and partially grew up there (meaning I went back and forth a lot), and when I was reading this I didn’t think “exotic,” I though, “Huh, he sounds just like my cousins from Kharkov and Donetsk.”

    I’m not saying that there aren’t issues with Ukrainian masculinity (speaking as a gay guy here, – no, I’m not out to my relatives), but Beth Ranch is obviously sheltered/has clearly spent too much time in the ivory tower if she thinks that this essay is some kind of deliberate exaggeration meant to demean the subject.

    Sorry if your expectations don’t line up neatly with the rest of the world, Beth Ranch.

  10. @ Beth Ranch and other commenters

    I myself read this story as creative nonfiction. It certainly re-uses the stereotypic attributes of Natalia’s Russian-Ukrainian BFs — they emerge from the darkness wearing a leather jacket and carry Natalia through the darkness to her destination. Sometimes, before or after they carry her to her destination, they utter an oracular warning of darkness and danger. Then they eventually disappear back into the darkness. They never seem to have a sunny past or a sunny future. There is never a hint that ‘Max’ or any of Natalia’s other Russian-Ukrainian friends will ever enjoy a happy ending. That’s understandable, given that the setting is the former Soviet Union, but after more than one such story, it no longer seems original or compelling.

    As far as cheating on their respective SO’s, I never got the impression that either Max or Natalia were cheating on anyone when they encountered each other. That’s because when Natalia re-
    encounters Max at her father’s place, she leaves the timeline of intimacy in a fog. I received no sense that Max’s untying of Natalia’s topknot took place while they each had SO’s. Maybe I’m not reading the story closely enough, but I interpreted Natalia’s narrative style as intended to create a sort of dream-like atmosphere (“phantom,” etc.) in which linear history is blurred. But maybe I misread.

    Also, I received no sense that Natalia was condescending in her portrayal of Max and I don’t think she was exoticizing him, either. I do think that Natalia, in her portrayals of her FSU BFs, intentionally confronts Western audiences with explicitly non-Western examples of masculinity. If so, I’m not sure what that’s supposed to accomplish, and it does get predictable. But that’s just my own reading of Natalia’s stories.

  11. Lol, how predictable, a gay man comes in to tell the feminist to shut up. The level of the comments is very predictable!

    To respond to James, who at least trying to be reasonable, I didn’t think this story was very dark (no leather jackets, lets be fair, it was a bomber jacket – lol!), and I actually don’t remember writing Natalia writing about her exes in a lot of detail before (her essay about Kyiv and the Berkut guy and others comes close, but has a different trajectory and has to do with a bunch of different things? I don’t think the two are comparable).

    I also didn’t see him as emerging from the darkness, I thought the essay was very clear on that they got to know each other while he was in the army and came to visit a superior who was Natalia’s grandfather.

    I don’t think there is any foreshadowing either. She keeps mentioning their later conversations, which seem very casual and relaxed, and while the train incident isn’t, it’s also not about their friendship anymore but about how she wanted to go back to him, suddenly. That for me was actually the best part of this, again, HUGELY PROBLEMATIC essay.

    I do think she exoticizes Max, and even if she makes herself look like a fool for not believing him when he says that things are going to get worse, it doesn’t quite stick. Like, she mentions that he has a son but there isn’t even any detail while it’s obviously important to the story. He isn’t being portrayed as a full human.

    This is also totally unambiguous:

    “Neither one of us was single. Neither one of us tried to justify ourselves, much.”

    The essay jumps around in time a lot, but if you pay attention, you see that neither is single when he first arrives to meet her again after their years of being apart. Why put that in there if not to make it obvious that they cheated?

    Sorry if Im getting too much into the details. I guess what I am trying to say is that Natalia Antonova can write about whatever she wants. It just disappoints me that we lost a progressive writer to cliches, stereotypes straight out of romance novels for blinkered women.

    Bc I take this blog seriously I thought I should mention that. And once again I don’t appreciate CorneilO comments in the slightest, but I was also expecting that. This place doesn’t have a progressive vibe anymore.

  12. Beth Ranch, you’re a fucking piece of work, you know that? You ride in here on a white horse, demanding justice for poor, “exoticized” Ukrainian man, and the minute an ACTUAL Ukrainian man tells you how wrong you are, you basically tell him to fuck off. if you’ve heard about ally work in your little feminist circles, you should know that you’re doing it wrong.

    As for James, he’s entitled to his own opinion, but honesrly he gets so much wrong that it’s almost like this is deliberate on his part? Look, James, Natalia didn’t marry a playwright in 2010, she doesn’t write about leather jackets, and her writing is more self-deprecating than it is negative. The last point is arguable, but this is why her essays have always worked for me, they’re fucking FUNNY as shit in places. I don’t know, maybe your definition of “dark” is just radically different than that of mine, but half the time I read here I am cracking up. It’s a subjective thing, but hell, it almost makes me feel as though the people who see a lot of darkness here are coming at it with their own firm prejudices // Big ole shrug.

  13. “Every once in a while, you need a man to be your wolf, carrying you on his back through the night.”

    Cuz you can’t walk on your own two feet?

    Dainty ladies like you are the reason why nobody takes the feminist movement seriously anymore. You’re a joke.

    Disrespectfully Yours,
    Radical. Feminist. Vamp. Slayer.

  14. Wait, are you a Vamp or a Vamp Slayer? Your signature with the hilarious punctuation implies you are a vamp and a slayer, but your handle implies you are a “vamp slayer”? I really curious, is this like a Blade thing, where you hate Vamps but are one yourself?

  15. @James Well, I had worse. Perhaps I should have directed my comment directly to Beth. Ya know sometimes a story is just a story, but it seems the repressed vagina bitching about her dissatisfaction with this blog because it doesn’t fit her narrow views of her sad sexless household cat infested life. So much so that it detracts from the blog itself. Beth, get a dildo out of the box and go get laid. And James, my comment was not directed at you for that I am sorry.

  16. Ah come on and smile! You know what they sing about your kind:

    You said the sky would fall on you
    Fall on you
    Fall on you
    Through all the pain you eyes stayed blue
    They stayed blue
    Baby blue


  17. You stole the sun straight from my heart
    From my heart, from my heart
    With no excuses just fell apart
    Fell apart, fell apart

    No, you won’t make a mess of me
    Mess of me, mess of me
    For you’re as blind as a man can be
    Man can be, man can be

  18. I could have seen for miles and miles
    I could have made you feel alive
    I could have placed us in exile
    I could have written all your lines
    I could have shown you how to cry

    (Um, wow, OK. This did not just happen. Did this happen?)

  19. Your love alone is not enough
    Your love alone is not enough

    & so on.

    (It happened. That was a good essay BTW. Seriously cheer up and smile.)

  20. Max must be the soldier you mentioned recently on Twitter.

    Reminded me of Arseny Tarkovsky’s poem First Days.

  21. Staggeringly beautiful. Also it made me cry. You are a great poet. Thank you for the candlelight, the grapes and sourdough bread Thank you for summoning the love and anguish we feel
    This world so
    It’s palpable
    As thick Murano glass. Thank you for being in the world and writing so wonderfully that words can matter again.

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