August 11, 2017

The other side of the fence

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Every few years Prof. Dr. Dr. Ivan Khval’ko-Yerundovych – despite his two doctorates, an entry-level clerk at the Bureau of Standard Classifications – scraped together the funds to visit Lviv. And whenever he did so, he would make sure to see his former student Pani Kvitka Nechipailo, whom he had attempted to teach English during a summer course at the Borysthenes Autonomous National Academy Named After Shevchenko (BANANAS). Pani Kvitka was now widowed, with two teen-aged children, and worked in the BANANAS office of external academic relations.

On this occasion, as always, they sat down in the cramped office she shared with two other administrators and started the electric samovar. The professor produced a packet of hibiscus-scented tea he had brought over from New York, and Pani Kvitka set down two teacups and a plate of fresh almond biscuits. As always, their conversation soon turned from family news, weather and Ukrainian politics to the trials of everyday life.

“You are so lucky to live in America,” sighed Pani Kvitka. “Life is so much better there.”

“Yes, in many ways it is. But what is it exactly that attracts you? It is, after all, a very different country,” the professor asked.

“Well, for one thing, you can earn a decent living from honest work. You can buy a house and car. Your children can get a good education and grow up as normal people. And there is, after all, our diaspora, and the Church, so one doesn’t feel lonely.”

“I suppose that’s all true. And yet, something draws me to Ukraine. Sometimes I wish I could live here for a year or two, even permanently.”

“Why on earth would you want to do that?”

“You see, when I walk the streets of this city, everywhere I see the ghosts of history. I pass the houses of Franko and Hrushevsky, and I can almost see them ambling up the street. Why, yesterday I saw the library my grandfather used to frequent, with that Latin motto on the façade, HIC MORTUI VIVUNT ET MUTI LOQUUNTUR – ‘Here the dead live, and the mute speak.’ And I thought, the whole city is like that library. Here, I can actually afford to go to the opera, the theater, the philharmonic, the ballet. I’m among my own people, everywhere I hear the language of my family. Here, religion is alive and creative…”

At that moment, the electric samovar erupted in sparks, and the room was filled with smoke. As if through a Soviet-era loudspeaker, the professor and Pani Kvitka heard a rough bass voice announcing, “Your wishes will be granted! But only for 10 minutes.”

Pani Kvitka woke with a start. It was still dark in her dingy little room, but it was time to help the elderly Mrs. Altman get up, wash and dress, and to prepare and serve her breakfast. It was Sunday morning, but she would not be asking someone for a ride to church because Mrs. Altman insisted she work on Sundays; she only got Wednesdays off. She did manage to attend church at Christmas and Easter, and the services raised her spirits. But the shifty guest-workers gave her suspicious looks, and the Third Wavers pretended not to see her at all.

She hadn’t saved up enough for a car, much less a house, as she had to support her children. She looked at the little framed photo of her daughter Lilia on the dresser. Lilia was away at college in Illinois, studying pre-med, which was wonderful, but the debts would be colossal. She had had an American boyfriend, which worried Pani Kvitka, but had broken up with him, cut her hair short and declared she hated men, which worried Pani Kvitka even more. She looked over to the photo of Taras, a handsome boy sporting a death’s head tattoo, a lip-ring, and a black Legion of Satan T-shirt. Taras said he was studying too. He said he could support himself, which made Pani Kvitka happy, but he would not tell her where he’d get the money – which did not.

Meanwhile, Prof. Dr. Dr. Khval’ko-Yerundovych was awakened in his fourth-story walk-up flat with its quirky pre-war plumbing and creaky floors by the plop-plop-plop of water dripping from the ceiling. A stain the size of the Habsburg Empire was expanding southward down the wall. Promptly at seven, the whining of an electric saw ripped into his consciousness. He had complained to the neighbor, only to be met with a torrent of abuse (the gaps in his vocabulary of Russian profanities had proved a blessing).

He dimly surmised that these intrusions were connected with a rumored attempt by a recently arrived oligarch from Donetsk to take over the entire building. Protecting his ownership interest by accumulating the requisite seals, stamps and signatures had cost the professor countless hours in waiting rooms with his fellow supplicants (BYOTP for the WC) for the privilege of an audience with one of the all-powerful bureaucrats, not to mention several bottles of brandy and fat cash-filled envelopes.

The stress had prevented him from reading, thinking or writing, and had finally brought him down with influenza. But the previous year’s experience with the local hospital, where he had had to supply his own towels, bedsheets and medicines, as well as a hefty gift for the physician, had persuaded him to stay home and cure himself with hot tea.

Suddenly the cloud disappeared. Pani Kvitka and the professor looked at each other meekly, as if they had just shared a profound and intimate revelation. She dropped teabags into  their cups, filled them with water from the samovar, and offered him a slice of lemon and some sugar. She complimented the professor on the excellent tea, and he praised the freshly baked biscuits. Through the tall French windows, they could see lilacs waving in the breeze, which filled the room with their tantalizing aroma.

And for an hour or so, they were happy.

 

Andrew Sorokowski can be reached at andrewsorokowski@gmail.com.

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