Original version was published here.
She Had Eyes So Blue They Looked Like Weather (Tom Petty)
My father and I sit outside the Armadillo (“Armadildo”) Grill on campus. He gets huffy with me when I try to hug him. The autumn is still warm, and our beer is rapidly approaching the air temperature.
He says he got the phone call about 7 a.m. on Sunday, September 25th. He was in the kitchen with Auntie Milla, getting coffee. They couldn’t reach him on his mobile, and so they found him at Auntie Milla’s, where he had stayed the night.
My brother was asleep upstairs, and they left him in the care of Uncle Jenia.
Outside the Mel’niks’ building, about eight other people had gathered. Yaroslava’s father was walking up and down the sidewalk, muttering that he couldn’t tell, he couldn’t tell, he couldn’t tell.
My father led the congregation to the third floor. Auntie Olya started screaming and tearing at her hair when she saw the procession. My father held her and told her.
The body was left abandoned in a village morgue right outside the city. The man who had hosted the party paid off the cops’ towing service and had the mangled car hidden behind his summer house. He made sure the other kid’s body and the still-breathing driver were placed in the hospital in the city, where he worked. He had intended to swtich the blood samples. He didn’t want anyone to know that he hosted the party and let people drive drunk; this is, apparently, punishable by Ukrainian law.
He had been a family friend.
There were no freezers in the village morgue, and she had been left among the rotting bodies of the unclaimed, her own body beginning to grow cold. Nobody could stand the stench, and my father walked in alone, and identified her despite the dried rivulets of blood coming from her nose and mouth and ears. Her lower half wrapped in a bloody sheet, a pillow pressed to her chest. My father signed the necessary paperwork.
That night, he sat on the balcony, the balcony where we often sat, squeezed next to each other like sardines, popping open champagne bottles for no occasion whatsoever. My father drank half a bottle of vodka and didn’t feel a thing. He called me then. It was one o’clock in the afternoon on the East Coast, and I was just beginning to wake up.
My father made the funeral arrangements. He oversaw the grave-diggers, working next to his aunt’s grave. Right above her, my great-grandmother and her sisters are buried. My ghost-women. It feels right and wrong that her body should join theirs.
My father insisted on a normal casket. Some family members had been blabbering about getting one made out of something like cardboard, for a whopping 300 ghrivnas (60 bucks, in those days).
“Taras, your eldest daughter is dead,” my father said. “Don’t listen to them and get her a normal fucking casket.”
And so they got a normal fucking casket.
“How much vodka should we get for the wake?” Someone asked. “The Orthodox side of the familly booze like crazy. What a goddamn inconvenience.”
My father remembers he almost got into a fight. Uncle Roman stopped him. My father sat with his head in his hands.
Back at the morgue, they did the necessary things to slow down decomposition. I’m not exactly sure of the exact procedure – I don’t think they had the equipment to go all-out. I’m pretty sure they drained her blood. It wasn’t her in there anymore – but I will always think about it, all that young blood, getting drained.
When my father got there, they had dumped her on the floor, to make room for the new recruits. He started yelling and told the old woman in charge to move his niece. The woman refused. My father picked her up off the floor himself, picked up her small body, picked up the girl he used to twirl around the cobwebbed living room on Kominterna Street, and carried her into the next room, and found her a stretcher to lie on.
The next morning, a guy with shaking hands and what appeared to be track-marks on his arms did her make-up in the village morgue. They took off her chain, silver leaves, and handed it to my father. The make-up was all wrong, and Auntie Milla was yelling about it outside the morgue, and my father told her to stay quiet.
Taras wouldn’t look at his daughter in the casket; with the make-up wrong, and dressed like a traditional Ukrainian bride, with a garland on her broken head.
After the service, they carried Auntie Olya to the grave. She was screaming that Taras “got what he wanted.”
There was singing by the grave. It was a bright fall day. Over two hundred people were there to see her off. On the East Coast, I stayed up well into the morning with Anna, watching the sky change colors as the dawn came.
My father chain-smokes a lot now. Back at the apartment, he lets me make him a screwdriver. We sit outside with my boyfriend and periodically raise our glasses.
“Kingdom of heaven,” we say. “Memory eternal.”
“I feel like I’m looking for something,” she says, back in the kitchen in Kiev, the slanted rays of the sun bursting through the grapevine on the window. “I think I’ve almost found it.”