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.
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.