Page 31 - proof

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Exactly three years and 11 months
into my tour, Bicycle Man added
sound. “Dobre utra!” he yelled across
the square — a month before my de-
parture, but better late than never. It
was as if he knew I was leaving, and
this was his hearty farewell.
By our fourth year in Kyiv, my vo-
cabulary had increased and our long-
term presence had apparently made
me less threatening. The wife of a
local vegetable vendor, whom I dubbed “Mama,” began
greeting me with a warm smile, letting me in on all the
neighborhood gossip and relentlessly complaining about
her husband (“Papa”) and adult children. I only caught
about every fifth word, but it was wonderful to be let into
the conversation. And as a woman, I understood exactly
what she meant even without knowing most of the words
she used.
There were many other folks in our neighborhood,
from all walks of life, who also gave us ‘the look’ for years
before determining that we were ‘okay’ and finally ac-
knowledging us when we said hello. It felt like a real ac-
complishment!
The value of our hard-won acceptance became appar-
ent one cold wintry night in our fourth year, when our cat
turned up missing yet again. We guessed that she had
fallen off the balcony, as she was prone to do, and imme-
diately headed down to street level to look for her. It was
already inky dark at six in the evening, and the tempera-
ture was hovering at around 10 below zero.
My first stop was the flower shop. The two ladies who
worked there and I had bonded during the many occa-
sions they had helped me locate my ever-falling cat.
“Bozhe moi!” the older one said, shaking her head, and
they both followed me out into the cold night.
While they headed off toward the back of the build-
ing, I started in the other direction. After a moment of
hesitation, I decided to check with the goombahs and
prostitutes in the casino next to the flower shop. None of
the regulars were outside, so I had no choice but to enter
this forbidding place for the first time.
Film Noir, Ukrainian-Style
The casino was exactly as I had imagined it would be:
dark, choked with acrid cigarette smoke and filled with
zombies hunched over video poker consoles. As the door
shut behind me, everyone stopped
playing, turned and stared at me
with large, hollow eyes. The only
thing missing from this movie set
was Ray Liotta — and then he
showed up.
Emerging from behind some sort
of curtain, and clad in a black-
leather jacket, cigarette dangling
precariously from his mouth, “Ray”
squinted at me as he shrugged an
unspoken “What do you want?”
“Uhhh …my little cat,” I fumbled in Russian, making
a small rectangle in the air with my hands, “I don’t know
where she is. Have you seen her?” It was all I could say
without using one of a plethora of nasty Russian case end-
ings. I had never felt so silly.
The zombies still weren’t moving. Ray stood there ex-
pressionless and said, “No.”
Okay! Good enough for me! I quickly turned to leave,
but before I could put my hand on the door, he added
through his cigarette-gripping lips, “You’re the American
from upstairs.”
It wasn’t exactly a question—more like an accusation.
“Uh, yes.” I turned back to him and smiled, then
thought: “Geesus — why am I smiling? What’s there to
smile about?”
“No,” he said, again, still squinting, “I haven’t seen your
stupid cat.” With that he disappeared back into the dark-
ness and the patrons returned to their grimy terminals.
While someone who has never lived in Eastern Europe
might not see this short exchange as a major break-
through, it spoke volumes to me. It meant that he knew
who I was and thought enough of me to engage me in
what was a lengthy conversation for the leather-jacket
crowd — who, I assumed, didn’t usually say much, even
when they were about to kill somebody. I was touched
by his concern.
It’s Just a Cat!
I then made my way to my most valuable contacts,
Mama and Papa, who saw everything that went on in the
“hood.” As I approached their kiosk, Mama, bundled up
and stepping in place to keep warm, saw my distress and
asked what was wrong. I told her the cat had fallen off
the balcony and was missing again.
“Poor kitty,” she tsk-tsked, grabbing my hand and pet-
J A N U A R Y 2 0 1 2 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L
29
F
OCUS
Perhaps I should not
have been surprised that
it took three years just to
get a wave from a neighbor,
let alone a greeting.