As he made his way to the door, he stopped. "One last thing," he whispered, "when you're out alone, try not to let anyone hear you speak English. It will only bring you great trouble." With that, Vlad, the man who would facilitate the adoption of our Ukrainian daughter, strode down the dimly lit hallway, leaving us alone for the night.
The next few days were a blur of bureaucracy. Meetings. Files. Cold, unsmiling faces; suspicious eyes. We came to Ukraine to find our child, a daughter . . . with red hair just like mine, adopt her, and bring her home. Whatever the obstacle course, we would handle it; we were together, we were strong.
After an overnight train ride to Kharkiv, we squeezed into a sub-compact car -- all five of us: My husband, our four year old son, our translator, our driver, and me.
First, we were taken to more offices. More papers in an unrecognizable language to sign. More stony, staring faces.
Finally, midday, we were taken to our apartment. A cold, concrete tenement much like this:
No number on the building, no name on the street. A meager, but clean space inside, appointed this time with twelve locks.
We dropped our bags and were off to more meetings, more mysterious papers to sign. No sleep, no shower, barely any food. We were squeezed into the tiny backseat of a seatbeltless car careening through streets with no signs, no lines, and no rules. I had begun to profoundly regret bringing our son. We knew the trip would be a challenge, but we had not realized it would be dangerous.
While we were at our last meeting of the day, a taxi strike erupted. Our driver had been moonlighting as a private driver; his regular employment was a taxi driver. We had no ride home. We didn't even know where "home" was. Our translator assured us we could find our way back on the subway and rode along with us. She walked us to the street level and pointed us down the street toward our building, assuring us we would be fine. Before we could protest, she disappeared down the subway tunnel, off to her own apartment.
We started down the street. It was dark now. I held my son's hand, reminding myself not to clutch it fearfully, but to hold his hand firmly, confidently, assuredly. I choked back the impulse to speak out loud to my husband, remembering Vlad's warning. People were all around us. I trembled inside. We walked until we came to the building. Amazing how different and unfamiliar the building looked now, alone, in the dark.
People loitered around the entrance, a stout old woman perched on a stool, broom in her hand. I breathed in deeply as we approached the building. I heard my husband do the same. Just as we were about to cross the threshold to the concrete building, the woman dropped her broom handle across the doorway, blocking our way. She did not recognize us, therefore, it was her duty to deny us entry. I looked back, frantically, in the direction we last saw our translator. Only darkness. My husband motioned that we wanted to enter. The woman shook her head sternly. People began to lean in, crowding. My husband held up one finger, signifying we were in apartment #1. No, still no. Her face grew more grave, an angry expression beginning to evolve. People began speaking in Russian. I felt my son's hand in mine, so small, so tight; he had clutched his fingers into a fist.
My eyes scanned the lot behind us. No cars, just trash and a few people bedding down for the night. We weren't even sure where we were. No address; no street name. Everything looked darker and meaner. My heart beat so hard and so fast, it felt like one continuous boom in my chest. The sensation of water poured down my body as adrenaline flooded my flesh. My mouth opened to capture more air, to catch my breath.
I looked around again at the crowds of people smoking, laughing. At the figures lying on the strip of grass next to the road, bedding down for the night. We couldn't spend the night out here. Could we? Would we? My poor son. He must be so scared. Would our driver be back in the morning? What if he wasn't? Would our translator be back? Without the driver, maybe not. What then? Who would we call? We didn't even know where we were.
My husband looked at me, parting his lips to speak. Then his eyes left mine, fixing on a point slightly above my head.
Another building. And another, and another . . . probably ten all in a row. Why had we not noticed this earlier today?
Perhaps this was not our building. With an equally angry scowl on our faces, lest we appear afraid, we stomped off, amazed we weren't followed. As we came to the second building, we could see this was, indeed, our building. I remembered the dumpster in the parking lot now that I saw it again. No one was monitoring this doorway. We slipped in the open entrance, fumbling with the keys, hands shaking. Once inside, we bolted all twelve locks. Never would we be out at night again.
As we laid down to sleep that night, my husband and I on the floor, my son on the sofa -- not all families have bedrooms in Ukraine, I replayed the walk back to the apartment in my head. To calm myself, I recalled the all the locks on our only door. Some were thumb-turn locks, some were key locks. No one could get in here, I assured myself. Then I began to think about the iron grates over all the windows. Iron grates on the windows, twelve locks on the door. . . No one could get out, either . . . and there were gas stoves next to wool curtains in every kitchen.
It would be twenty more days before we could leave. It would be twenty more nights before I really slept again.
My thanks to Tina at Life Is Good for generously supplying this prompt and reigniting my will to write.
Pants On the Ground
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