The war is still there, and so am I.
I’m in the checkout line at Trader Joe’s in Sarasota, Florida. I can’t perfectly remember the conversation between the cashier and the guy in front of me. But it goes something like this:
Cashier: (holding a can of pumpkin puree) “Oh my God, this pumpkin is the best. Have you tried it?”
Man: “Of course! (Takes wallet out of his man purse that he wears with its diagonal strap across his chest) I love everything pumpkin in the fall. Have you tried the new pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks? Amazing.”
Cashier: “Oh, I know. When you find something you like, you just have to gobble up as much as you can before it runs out.”
In the checkout lane next to me, a middle-aged woman in Lululemon yoga pants holds a Louis Vuitton purse in the crook of her elbow with a BMW car key in that hand. In her other hand is an iPhone 6 in a pink protective case. She’s talking to the cashier about a gluten-free diet.
I’m gone, watching everything from a perch 5,000 miles away in Kyiv, Ukraine, where I really am. Am I back in reality, or have I left it?
The man in front of me says a few more things about pumpkin-flavored stuff and how much he likes fall and then he pays and walks away. I’m back. I step up to the cashier and put my bag of chicken breasts and wheat bread on the counter.
Cashier: “Well, how are you doing today, sweetie?”
How am I doing today? I don’t know. I’m hardly here. I talk to the cashier in a sterile, out-of-body way. I pay and walk outside. A shiny black Cadillac Escalade zips by going too fast through the parking lot. Through the heavily tinted windows I see the driver look at me. I’m in Slavyansk watching the busses take the soldiers to the front lines. There’s one who looks right at me, and we make eye contact. He looks scared.
I get in my car and have to squeeze in because the one next to me has parked too close. I pull away and get on the road and a young punk in a Japanese car with a spoiler tailgates me and then whips around and cuts me off. Suddenly I feel angry and I’m slipping back there but I pull myself from it. I put both hands on the steering wheel and breathe slow and hard and deep and think about the air going in and out of my lungs.
At a coffee shop earlier, I listen to some old men sitting around in high, leather-backed chairs. They sip coffee and eat pastries and have polo shirts tucked into their Dockers shorts, with one leg crossed over the other. They talk with authority about what America should do about ISIS and what Putin will do next. Traffic goes by out the window on the street behind them and the waiter comes by and asks if they want anything else to eat or drink. Someone tells a joke, I can’t hear what it is, and they all laugh and start talking about something else.
It was like this coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq, I remember. Simple, ordinary, normal things feel pointless and silly and I would get angry at what I thought were the petty things about which everyone seemed to care. It all feels familiar, and I know what comes next but am powerless to stop it.
Back home I sit on the couch and turn on the TV. There’s a football game on and it all seems so stupid. I see the young men in their uniforms and their old coaches. I’m at the front lines around Mariupol the day before the tank battle. The Ukrainian soldiers in their mismatched uniforms with Kalashnikovs slung across their backs holding the blue and yellow flag between them for the photo, smiling and giving me a peace sign. Looking back at the photo later I see one soldier in the corner with a stone-flat face looking away from the camera at something else. He’s not scared; he’s just not smiling. There’s nothing in between. The tank battle came the next day. And the fighting there is still going on. I think about fear. I think about the video of my friend James Foley and how he really didn’t look all that scared right before he died. I wonder if I could be that strong, and then I’m back at that separatist checkpoint. I’m terrified and ashamed of my fear even though I’m not sure if I’m showing it.
Was it worth it to go? I had better not think about that, I tell myself. That is the one thing I should not think about.
But I do anyway.
I should have never left.
Then I say to myself, “Yes, I had to.”
But as a war correspondent you should never feel sorry about what war does to you. That’s a trap. Life gave me every chance to avoid that war and I still chose to go. I know that, but there’s no way to change how I feel about it.
I start to slip away again, but I stop myself. I’m good at that now. I want to get up from the couch but I’m hollow and tired. I can hardly sit up straight. After a while I just can’t stand it any longer and I make some coffee for energy and leave for the gym.
Working out I look in the mirror at my body. My veins and my muscles inflate and my arms look young and strong. And then it happens; it finally happens like a wave that has been cresting all day suddenly peaks and breaks apart.
Looking at the muscles of my arms in the mirror I’m back on the battlefields outside Mariupol hours after the cease-fire. There, on the ground, everywhere, lining the road, dead bodies. Some you can still see what they looked like when they were alive. Maybe a bullet or a piece of shrapnel killed the young man fast and easy. The others didn’t die so well. Some with their insides spilled in the earth. I see them with their flesh and blood exposed and spread across the road and soaked into the green summer grass that rolls with the hills and blends with the blue sky in the distance. I look at the flesh beneath my skin in the mirror and I think of the charred flesh of the soldiers who had died trying to get out of their tanks that were burning and I, and I…
I look over and the young kid on the workout bench is looking at me funny. I’m sweating and realize I’ve been staring at the mirror for a while, I don’t know for how long.
I finish working out and the effort takes me back to now and clears my head and makes me feel calm. I leave the gym and drive out to Ringling Bridge, which crosses Sarasota Bay to Bird Key. I park my car and start walking across the bridge with the long rays of the setting sun over the Gulf of Mexico in front of me. A couple walks by holding hands.
I’m back on Khreshchatyk the night after I returned to Kyiv from Mariupol. She’s there, walking toward me in the crowd, standing out from the rest like they’re all moving in fast forward and she and I are the only ones at this speed. The sun is setting behind me and everything in front of me is brighter and in sharper relief than usual. Her smile outshines the setting sun’s light.
I walk the bridge, but I’m not here. I’m back there. I look through everyone I pass. I keep walking. I remember the nights I wandered Kyiv alone, trying to think of ways to write about a forgotten war. That’s it, I think, I just have to write about it. That’s what I’ll do.
I go home and shower and change and I take my laptop to a café downtown. I open it on the table and start a new word document. I try to write but I feel empty and when I try to let it flow nothing comes. I order a beer and the alcohol calms me and everything doesn’t feel like it’s moving so fast any more. I start to write. Probably not well, but at least I’m writing. After a while it’s all used up and I feel better. But I know that alcohol is a crutch and I tell myself that I won’t lean on it any more. I think about the train rides to the front lines and how I wanted to write but I couldn’t, about how I wanted to eat but wasn’t hungry. I think about the train ride out of Mariupol the morning the cease-fire fell apart. I shook off my hangover from the cognac the night before. And there’s Andrey staring out the window, worrying about his wife stuck behind the lines in Donetsk.
“This fucking war,” he says as the train glides away from it through endless fields of yellow sunflowers, knowing he’s going the wrong direction.
I feel the same way here, in Sarasota, Florida. Someone with a cup of gelato in hand walks by, and someone else passes by with a dachshund on a leash. There are some older people sitting outside at a plastic table with glasses of white wine in between them. I’m here, surrounded by this, but I’m not present. I’m passing by on my way to somewhere else. I feel the same dread like I’m on that train again, heading to Mariupol and the war in the middle of the night. Or maybe it’s more like I’m Andrey, stuck on a train going in the wrong direction. Feeling like the war is where I should be.
I open Facebook and check the feeds of my friends back in Ukraine. They say the fighting is back on and getting worse. I read the news. There’s talk now of separatist violence in Ukraine’s second biggest city Kharkiv. And Dnipropetrovsk, a city of more than one million people, is bracing for an attack.
I was here for a minute, but I’m gone again. Taken away, back to where I never left. And then I know I’ll never leave, and it becomes so obvious that I’ll never be totally back. I finish my beer and close my laptop and leave. I think about Ukraine the whole way home.
I read once that no one you love is ever truly lost. That’s true, and so is this—no war is ever truly over. Even if you leave it.