My sweetest friend

In the early 1990s, in the weeks that led up to our departure to America, I remember walking with my father and cousin on the big stadium across from our building in Kiev. The nights were clear, and something about the lights from the more well-lit blocks of town made the sky above our heads look like a giant bowl – darker and deeper in the middle, full of stars that seemed to have been pulled down there by gravity, lighter on the edges, burnished with a reddish glow like a false dusk or dawn.

This same cousin bought a nice apartment right outside the city and we recently sat in his kitchen and drank Jameson while our sons played in the next room, occasionally interrupting a discussion where everyone did a very good job of steering clear of politics with screeches of delight as a toy train raced around the track.

My cousin and I are still in the “gathering” stage of our life, when people tend to gain more than they lose, when enough doors stand open that one doesn’t feel boxed in and claustrophobic from choices made earlier.

We are also both petulantly jobless at the moment, people who have been knocked around so much professionally that having faith in our careers feels childish. 

What am I doing back home, my cousin wants to know. How am I doing back home. “What am I doing home? Mostly struggling with the concept of home.” Home is watching rose-gold leaves in mid-flight in mid-autumn in Carolina, and it’s walking home from a Cretan bar, Lev asleep on his father’s shoulder, the wind from the sea tearing flirtatiously at our clothes. Home is lots of things, basically. But the foundation of the concept is Kiev – a foundation that goes deep and dark into the earth, into something beyond earth.

“Are  you depressed or something?” my cousin asks after he’s had enough of me banging on about leaves and winds and foundations.

In fact, I’ve never been happier. It’s just that I spent too many years thinking that happiness is euphoria. Happiness is nothing like that. It’s listening for noise in the morning – the telltale scraping of butterfly wings against the stomach lining, for example – and hearing only the unhurried beat of your own heart.

My heart is a carpenter. It shapes the movement of my blood through chutes and troughs and delights in the simple act of hammering for hammering’s sake. My heart likes unfussy work, a preference I’ve missed out on in my own career.

I wish I could say all that to my cousin, but I don’t want to kill the vibe with any more of my rambling. We have more Jameson instead.

In Kyiv this winter underground bars opened up for me like old heart-shaped lockets, like invitations into someone else’s stories of love and, increasingly, war. When the smoke cleared over the tables, I could see people looking me in the eyes, seeing me, hearing me, grounding me into the present, encasing my spirit in flesh. Other parties and other towns mostly make me wonder if I’m even real.

You know, Kiev is probably the only city where you can dance to the Johnny Cash cover of “Hurt” and not have it be entirely ridiculous.

I spent the last year working on a space mag and it took me to interesting places – both on the road and in my head – and it made me see how little we know about everything. I also understood why the wise always say they don’t know too much. Not knowing too much gives your mind possibilities. Knowing everything traps you in your own dogma, turns every line of inquiry into an elegant dead end. This is why journalists are rarely wise, I suppose.

And that gives gives me the excuse to see professional troubles as a kind of weird liberation, or so I tell my husband.

My husband worries about me when I go to Kyiv, because I tend to disappear into a complicated web of bad habits and weird family traditions. There are dorky TV show marathons with my brother, assuming he’s in town, and cigarettes and going to bed at five a.m. and singing in bar bathrooms and dyeing my hair increasingly funny colors and writing cryptic essays. “But I always reappear!” I tell him. The thing he doesn’t say is that one day, I may not.

But that’s true romance. Heather Havrilesky put it better than I ever could. Death and distance lend love the intoxicating mystery of the sort we chase after in the early days of liking someone. “Will he like me back? Will there be sex? Will he be as good in bed as his loutish demeanor suggests?” Oh yes, yes, yes. But the years will shape the questions into bigger ones, making us shrink away from the answers.

I am always leaving this city and every leaving is different. I don’t remember how the original leaving made me feel though. All I remember is the stadium and the sky and my cousin’s hand in mine.

Maybe all that matters about that time is contained within this memory. Two children holding hands as they stare at forever and believe forever to do right by them somehow.

The other day it was warm enough for most of the snow to melt and the air turned heady with the smell of a false spring. Instead of the usual joggers, the stadium filled up with people at play.

I watched from my kitchen window as a man and a boy played badminton, just as I had done with my grandfather once, and then with my brother.

Will the boy remember the day? What will he remember? Will he remember the sun turning the clouds the color of seashells and the sound the birdie made against the racket?

And will he feel a presence, like a dark planet giving itself away with a slight gravitational tug on a distant star, and could he imagine that the presence was just some pink-haired chick in a bathrobe holding a coffee mug by an open window, listening to his high-pitched little boy’s laughter and wishing him well?

No guilt-trip, just good times

5 thoughts on “My sweetest friend

  1. So very powerful and beautifully written. Made me think of how I’m chasing a “home” or the idea of home. Feels like you’ve drawn an axis from Carolina to Kiev and in there somewhere is home

  2. A beautiful piece which reminds me of my own sweet friend who passed away before his time.

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