Imagining Kiev


Susan Smith Nash




I asked them to lock me up in a cave.


The truth was, I was terribly afraid of the surface world, and I could no longer endure my terrible nightmares.  In a cave, no one could get me.  In a cave, no one would even know where I was. 


            So, I begged them to inter me in a vault with the other doomed souls -- I had lost my will to live, perhaps because I never managed to understand the trick of survival, and I never quite overcame the creeping conviction that I somehow deserved any negative things life dealt me.  I would be alone.  In the hole, with the sick, sour comfort in the promise of solitary confinement.  That's what you do when you're a people-pleaser and you can't say "no."  You finally give up & ask someone to bury you alive, PLEASE, so you just won't have to satisfy people's unreasonable demands.


My friend Vitya had arrived in the U.S. with 37 cents in his pocket and a tourist visa.  Now he had a thriving computer programming business. He’s the one who told me about the caves in Kiev -- the ones where monks lived for the rest of their lives, never emerging, never coming up for air or light, never seeing the images of the ones they owed their identity to, never touching, or embracing, or even puking on life. 


       "Was their cave like a big catacomb?" I asked.


       "Not exactly," he replied.  “They lived there.  They buried them in another part.”


       Earlier that year, I visited a man-made cave excavated by monks in Antigua, Guatemala.  I traveled through the cathedral and monastery that were being uncovered after 200 years of entombment after a major earthquake leveled the fabulously ornate buildings.  There was a narrow, dark staircase leading to a cool, horrible room alit with flickering candles and glass cases.   Above us, attractively-groomed waiters were setting up for a wedding reception.


       "This is the monks' crypt," said the guide. I read the plaques on the wall -- PUTREFACTORIUM.  In front of me was a wax replica of a dead monk, who, in the 17th-century, would be laid out for some predetermined time before they placed him in his vault in the wall.  The wax monk’s skin was green. 


"Por que verde?" I asked.  (Why green?) 


"Because he is putrifying," said the guide.   “We try to be authentic with every detail.”


I wrote in my diary:   "In the 18th century, the monks were small, weren't they?"


I also wrote:  "The locals say don’t go to the local market.  It could be dangerous, especially if you're an American tourist."


       Thanks to my bleached blonde hair, I looked like a typical North American tourist. I spoke Spanish, though, and my literary vocabulary was excellent.  That meant my street vocabulary wasn't worth shit.  I wanted to live in South America, but circumstances would not allow it.  The truth was, I wouldn't commit.  I didn't want the abject poverty of the immigrant, and the sudden relegation to second-class citizenry.


       I was glad the monk was made of wax.  It reminded me of a visit to a Paraguayan funeral home (“velatorio”) to pay last respects to a young man killed in a tragic Semana Santa car accident.  Ordinarily they would have interred him right away, but no one could locate his father, who lived in Argentina and was traveling.  They didn't want to bury him until his father was there.  So, a week dragged on.  The relatives, in order to adhere to their beliefs, had to stay with the body.  To stay awake, they recited rosaries and drank espresso coffee.  Refreshments at a wake?  Who could drink espresso when the smell of rotting flesh and putrefying carnations filled the air?  I didn't understand that the function of the coffee was simply to keep the family members awake for their vigil, and I was rather appalled at the entire concept.   His body was already discolored and bloating.  I, for one, was nauseous, light-headed, on the verge of fainting. 


His mother was clawing at her arms.  Her only other son had died a year ago, almost to the day, in a similar car accident.  Later, she begged to be buried with her son, and had to be restrained as she tried to crawl into the crypt.


            “Did you ever wonder about their lives?” I asked Vitya.  “The monks in the caves.”


Vitya was watching a documentary on Korean girls used as “comfort women” for Japanese troops during World War II in China.  Vitya was brilliant.  He was quiet.  He had gotten away from a place he perceived as hopeless, and for that I respected him.  I also respected his intelligence and the scars he bore with him -- the memories of terrible uncertainty and hard times.  Some people turned profligate under the influence of such memories.  Other people became cautious, even cruel.  He was none of those things.


“Fear of life is not the same as fear of death,” said Vitya.


            When I thought of him, I also contemplated my fantasy of conducting a little experiment -- going to another country with virtually nothing -- only a laptop and a c.v. and one small suitcase -- and seeing if I could land something.  Of course, I would rent out my house in the meantime, sell off everything I didn't need, and put everything into Treasury bills.  I would give myself a year.  If I couldn't make it, I'd go back, my material things virtually unchanged, but my inner life much richer -- my survival skills much more well developed.


       Who was I kidding, though?  I could have done all those things, but practical considerations always impinged on the fragile superstructure of the dream, and I came crashing back to reality remembering I had a son, and that, perhaps more importantly, it's not so simple to re-invent oneself, or to create a different life for oneself.  Even when I was young, I somehow resisted becoming a missionary or joining the Peace Corps.  I knew I would no longer be mistress of my own destiny, but simple fodder for someone's ideology.  My parents would pay in the end.


       He had done it, though.  He had managed to come here and reinvent himself, even carving a niche for himself with a tight circle of friends.  He spent a lot of time in escapist games and fantasy role-playing activities.  For someone else, that would indicate a certain pathological aversion to reality.  In his case, it indicated an inner strength, and it was a window into the source of his strength -- his ability to dream, to have a vision, to withstand the assault of annoying "surface noise" and details that tended to paralyze typical Americans.


       And here I was, the soft American, with every card stacked in my favor, but with terrible visions of caves and rotting bodies in Latin American velatorios and putrefactoriums.   The smug, the rational, the optimistic – everything that made me “American” did me no good here.  Meaning and reason came unglued, like walls melting like wax.  The sure, secure touch of long, thin fingers on my interior walls, aroused me like skulls placed along a wall in the Guatemalan cathedral. 


I was stuck in some sort of postmodernist theory gap – and for me, postmodernism was incapable of dealing with the past millennium and its inability to position itself clearly.  What was it we feared?  Apocalypse or utopia?  Democracy or brave new world?  Militias or Bakunian anarchists sitting in their smoking jackets sipping a lovely merlot saying they'll blow things up, but at the same time fantasizing that the Russian aristocracy will someday return, this time without hemophilia.  Vitya’s long, slender fingers reminded me he was part of the Russian intellectual elite and that his position had been extremely privileged.  There was a sort of Socialist aristocracy because privilege transcends ideology.  Why?  I didn't know.  I was afraid to ask.


       Time passed.  My nightmares ebbed and flowed, probably in conjunction with lunar cycles.  I was preparing a cucumber and tomato salad with Vitya.   He was chopping a cucumber into a pile of mush.


“I got a call from INS,” he said. 


“Why are you nervous?”  I asked.  “You’ve had a green card for two years now.” 


“I’ve been successful.  There are people who are jealous,” he said.


“In the Ukraine?” I asked. 


“No,” he said.  He put down his knife and looked at me.  “They’re jealous.  Here.  Don’t you think it would be easy to get rid of the competition by having me be deported?”


“I’m sorry,” I said. I often filled the air with foolish, self-effacing words just to maintain a wall between us.  I didn’t want to be too close. It was something about that strange victim / victimizer equation in his eyes.   Now, when I wanted to say something reassuring, I didn’t couldn’t say anything at all. Did he know he made me feel vulnerable?  Did it matter?  He was the vulnerable one.  And still, I just wanted to protect myself.


“Let’s go out to eat,” I said.  “Lift your mood.” 


I decided on a Mexican restaurant with loud, roaming mariachis so I wouldn’t have to talk.  The American woman at the bar where we waited for a table to open up was already drunk and lonely for conversation in English.  "Pour me a scotch, honey.  I want to talk about when I sang the blues for a living."


       I said nothing.  My St. Benedict medal was hot against my sweaty skin.  I wasn't interested in what she had to say.  I realized I was reeking of fear and uncertainty.  When did doubt begin to have an odor?


       "Could you live in a cave?"  I asked him.


       "No." His answer wasn't too surprising.


       "Have you ever been afraid to go outside?  Afraid you'll be put in jail?  And then, when that happens, does your own life become your own private prison?"  I was finally asking him the questions that had been tormenting me.


            “Thanks a lot,”  he said.  “I get a call from the INS fascists, and you start talking about jail.  How is that supposed to make me feel?


       We sat together and drank a nice Australian shiraz.  We looked out the window.  The restaurant suddenly seemed bitterly cold. Ambient temperature was too low for the Australian red to be at its best.  A small candle flickered.  It was the same shadowy ambience as in that collapsed cathedral in Antigua, Guatemala.  But we were in the U.S. and I wanted to talk about the caves in Kiev.


            “I’m sorry.  I wasn’t thinking about that,”  I said. 


            “That’s nothing new.  You’re just all about thinking only of yourself,” said Vitya.


            “It’s the Day of the Dead,” I said.


            “Now you’re talking INS talk again.  I don’t like South America.”


Día de los Muertos. Last year, it was as tangible and immediate as the sting of insults, the harsh hurt of verbal abuse.  I put a bottle of whiskey on the grave of my fourth ex-husband and shed a few tears for his stupid, doomed ass.  He couldn't help it that he hurt.  I had to understand that the way he stung me with his put-downs was not as bad as how he mutilated his own psyche with his rage.


Eventually I got away.  He died.


“Vitya, order some vodka.”  I said.  I looked at him smoking his Marlboro Lights and broodingly contemplating the lights above the bar.  He fascinated me.  He had dreams, courage, and the ability to endure doubt and an uncertain future.  He wasn't really Ukrainian.  Russian, but with roots in Antigua.


            The restaurant was smoky.  I was uncomfortable and cold.  More than anything, I was hungry. And then I thought of the new dawn, the new dawn of signified / signifier erasures, of bringing words down to the skin & teeth of resemblance.  The candle flickered in the chill.  There was a damp draft coming somewhere from the stairwell.


            We didn’t really have much more to say to each other that night.


For some strange reason, this made me feel a wild, terrible emotion welling up from deep inside.  Was it dangerous?  I hoped so.


            We became friends, and talked about making it more permanent.  His ex-roommate got deported after his paranoid schizophrenia got out of hand.  My friend continued to be successful, but his success made him cautious and fearful.  Instead of perturbing him, it manifested in me in the form of strange dreams. 


            However, that didn’t bother me – it gave me something to think about the next day.  And, then I began to fear I would be deported, even though I was born in the U.S. and possessed U.S. citizenship.  Explain that one, I remarked to him.


            Eventually, it all went away after we went to Kiev and I saw that the monks’ caves were not putrefactoriums at all, but little underground apartment houses for medieval types.  It was disappointing to be so obsessed with the gothic.