Andrew Cartwright, Peace Corps Volunteer, Rivne

Life of the Day in a Ukraine

13-12-11

Woke up at 10:30, which is my wont as a university teacher whose classes don’t start until at least noon, which means I stay up late working or writing or washing my brain clean in the blue rays of the television and movie screen that is my computer, as I did the night before, which means I could have started writing notes about this day long before now, from its first moment. But, I didn’t, wanting to spare you the yawning, scratching, nodding details of the late-early hours. And actually, I don’t have classes today at all, it is my first unofficial day of winter holiday, and all I have on the docket is an English club holiday party in the evening…I hit the snooze one time and get up at 10:40.

The restroom door is bolted from the inside, an unsurprising but awkward-when-you-have-to-pee-real-bad development when you share a dorm bathroom with 14 young college girls—cue naughty imagined scenes of steam and cliché—but there is nothing sexy at all about waiting out in the hallway, doing the pee dance—everyday I’m shufflin’…back and forth because my bladder is about to burst. The toilet flushes and the door pops open, and I wait until I hear steps down the corridor and another door open and shut before hustling into the toilet room. There is old bread, dusted with mold, stacked neatly on the toilet roll holder above the trash but not in the trash because it’s not okay to throw away bread (though I’m not sure what happens to it when it is taken away by whoever takes it away). I’m also not sure why there is currently no seat on the toilet because there has been one before, and I don’t know what could have possibly happened to that one, don’t know that I would want to know, but I do know that no toilet seat is fine for my current purposes.

I have a meeting with a teacher who wants to do projects with me. Not any specific project, mind you, just projects in general. She smiles often, interrupts even more often, and when I mention an idea that I’d like to explore, she takes it and runs away, hiding out underneath the stairs, brushing its hair and scratching under its chin, knitting the idea a new sweater with an eclectic design and her name in neon across the chest. The conversation feels like a competition that I’m forced into and happy to lose…as she talks excitedly, her excellent English nonetheless accented, I’m just happy to find someone who wants to do projects with me.

It is a cold, wet winter day in a Ukraine stubbornly clinging to fall like a teary child, latched onto a mangy teddy bear with an eye missing, leaking its fluffy guts on one side, his mother wanting to throw it away. The cars splash in the puddles, though not like children splashing in puddles, well, maybe bully children, threatening pedestrians with flying walls of filthy water. An unseen dog cries nearby, sounding muffled, complaining at a muzzle or a muzzler or something else entirely.

Walking up the stairs in the dorm, I text my friend, Melissa, who I assume will also be writing about this day of her life in Ukraine seeing as she invented this whole project. Ostensibly (never ever shy away from an opportunity to use the word “ostensibly”) I am writing to her about the creative writing project that I have just been convinced to agree to be a part of—the one that was my idea in the first place, but had evolved rapidly enough to make heads spin, mine and Darwin’s both. In the text, I tell her to call me whenever she has a moment. It occurs to me that there is a good chance that I will now make a cameo in her day, and so the story of her day, either because of the text or because she does call me back later that evening, in the middle of the holiday party, apologizing that she had been too busy to call sooner. I wonder if this incursion into a day she is obviously recording isn’t also a motive for my feeling an urgent need to contact her. I wonder if I’m not just trying to make it into another story, wonder until I nearly trip and fall up the stairs right in front of a girl who is almost certainly thinking that one shouldn’t text and walk up stairs.

I pass Helen six times as she sits in the dorm lobby. Today is her day as our attendant, our guardian and protector, the keeper of the keys. I say “Hello” the first time I see her in the morning, as she sits there on the sofa in her little glass room, well, actually I say “Dobry den” and smile weakly, as I rush out to the meeting that is scheduled to start in five minutes. She is there still when I pass through the lobby on the way back in after the meeting, the way back out on the way to the party, back in after the party and out when I leave to go to Laura’s house for the night. After the first “Dobry den,” I don’t know what to say the next time, my limited language skill set and penchant for running late never lending themselves to idle chitchat, do I say “Dobry den” every time I walk by, or wait until it’s evening and say “Dobry vechir,” or simply walk by acting like I’m lost in thought about books or baseball and feeling guilty about avoiding eye contact and walking too fast?

At the holiday party, we, the seven of us, six students and I, eat sugar snacks—cookies and roll cake, toffee peanuts and yogurt peanuts—drink tea, play a game like charades until we’re bored and then fall to talking, mostly about their upcoming exams which leads them to talk about which classes they like and which are pointless, which teachers are worth listening to and which are worth sleeping through. Katya, one of two Katyas in our small seven-person group, says of one teacher, “I think she’s the smartest teacher in the university. We hate her class, but we love her.” The other students, all English Club regulars and all students of mine the year before, nod in agreement. “What about me?” I say, feigning offense. Tanya, my former student, current project collaborator and all around rock-star, says, “No, no no. We do not think of you as a teacher anymore. You are our friend.”

Walking from the dorm to the bus station later, a random rhythm spins out of my centrifuge brain and sticks. Bouncing along with each step, I begin to append words, spend too much time trying to find a good word to rhyme with “tables,” until it becomes a sort of strange, pop-ish anthem…

It’s a

peelin-off-the-labels

turn-the-tables

rock-the-gables

party

rearin-in-the-stables

tellin-fables

Cain-and-Abel

party

I step aside to write this down on a piece of paper dedicated to the purpose, stand on the sidewalk near the wall as I have done throughout the day, scribbling, taking a step, shaking my head, scratching out, scribbling some more, ignoring the suspicious rubber-necking glares and snickering whispers. Near the post office, I see an older woman leading, dragging, fighting a cat on a leash. The cat walks sideways on its toes, slanting, as if being blown akimbo by the gusting wind of its own unwillingness.

Akimbo is another word that you should never skip if you can help it.

Laura, who I affectionately call “Bean” for reasons I won’t explain (because I’m in charge of the story after all, you are just along for the ride), is incredibly busy when I arrive. We have both been busy lately, and haven’t seen each other since the previous Thursday, which still seems like a long absence in the context of our short nine months together. I have to ride a packed-tight-and-then-still-squeeze-on-one-more-impossible-person mini-bus, a “marshrutka,” to get to her village just outside of Rivne, the city where I live and work. She meets me at the door with a kiss and a tight embrace. I know she is busy with teaching and trying to figure out what she will do once her service ends, so I offer to make dinner for the evening. We eat fried rice and then she gets back to work, alternating between worrying her grad school applications to perfection, cram-jamming one more GRE word into her brain, and cutting out tiny slips of paper to use in her lesson with the fifth-formers the next day, even though “they probably won’t appreciate the effort.” I am on winter break, and so I fall asleep, waiting on the other couch while she works on the bed. I fall asleep because I am tired, and not because I want to make some sort of statement, or throw a tantrum about her not paying attention to me. But, I have tantrummed before, cried wolf one too many times, and Bean has seen one too many flashcard for the night, her racing brain, edgy and testy, perceiving my other-couch slumber as a slight and so the stage is set for a fight, each of us preparing our knockout lines, her “You know that bothers me when you do that but you still do it any way” vs. my “I didn’t do it on purpose but if that’s how you’re going to act, then I don’t want to sleep over there any way.” Except, anyway, the fight never comes to blows because Bean is a firecracker, rising hot and bright but flaming out fast, and though I am usually a campfire, building and building until I roar then staying hot for hours, on this night, I am simply too tired to burn.

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