I have a lot of memories of the Ukraine war. But the one I keep replaying in my mind more than any other is of her standing in the middle of Kreshchatyk Avenue in Kyiv, waiting for me after I returned from Mariupol.
Kyiv’s main boulevard is closed to traffic on the weekends, and the six-lane road becomes a pedestrian thoroughfare filled with artists, street performers, parents, children, and young couples holding hands. It was a sharp change from what I had just seen on the war’s front lines, which were only a few hour train ride away. And it was a long way gone from what happened on this street in February.
This is where under grey winter skies hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered during the revolution. Tonight the summer sky was clear and cool and people danced and sang and performed magic tricks where riot police beat protestors with batons and lobbed tear gas canisters. Tourists on segways and young children holding onto their mother with one hand and an ice-cream cone in the other strolled over scars on the pavement, evidence of where protestors burned tires as a smoke screen against FSB snipers who gunned down more than 100 people.
I stepped off the Maidan and turned left to walk along Kreshchatyk and put the sun, which was setting at the other end of the avenue, at my back. The long end-of-day beams of light increased the brightness of colors of the buildings lining the road in front of me. The few high-altitude clouds streaked across the dusk sky in oranges, purples and red like from an impressionist’s palette.
With the setting sun behind me like this, I walked into the crowd along Kreshchatyk. It seemed like I was the only one moving in this direction. All the other people were moving against me, their faces in sharp relief against the setting sun’s light.
She had texted me and told me to walk through the Maidan to Kreshchatyk and turn left and she would find me on the street. With all the people on the road I thought for a moment that we might miss each other, but I knew it was her as soon as she was there. Even though she was walking toward me like the rest of the crowd, she stood out from the fluid mess. She floated down the road like she wasn’t even touching it. Her long legs and model’s body swaying back and forth like a flickering flame as she walked toward me.
There was the distance between us and then it was gone. She wrapped her arms around me, and with a smile that wrapped across her entire face and outshined the setting sun at my back she put her hands on either side of my face to hold me there and then she kissed me long and hard and I kissed her back and we were both feeling very passionate about it. Everything happening around us on the road, or in the war, didn’t seem to matter in that one instant of forgetting that kissing each other gave us.
Then she pulled away and rested her cheek against my chest and said, “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t help it. I just felt like I had to do that.”
I felt like I was swaying. Not from supporting her or balancing our two bodies that leaned into each other, but from this that was so different from where I had just been.
“Trust me, I don’t mind at all,” I said, smiling, wishing I could think of something better to say.
I had my hands on her slim hips and looked at her face. God, she was good looking, I thought. Staring at her face felt like when that first glass of wine settles into your head and you feel warm and happy and it makes you want more to keep feeling this way as long as you can.
She kissed me again, and again and again, and we put our foreheads together and laughed in the space between us like it was only us in all of Kyiv before we turned and walked down the road together.
That’s what her standing in the middle of Kreshchatyk at sunset was for me; a way to escape the world within, for a moment at least. Walking along Kreshchatyk with her by my side and life playing out around us was a temporary pass to feel like I was part of the show for a night.
A walk through a city of millions can be a lonely one if you don’t speak the language. The foreign language in your ears is a blackout curtain between you and the people who swirl around you like fallen leaves in an autumn breeze. The things you see and hear and smell and feel seem like a great big show and not real life. Real life is inside you, not this circus.
Maybe that’s why I noticed the faded burn marks on the pavement over which thousands of people unknowingly walked, or why I constantly scanned the facades of buildings looking for landmarks I might recognize from photos I had studied of the revolution. I wanted to appreciate the places within which I walked in the context of what had happened here in February. That took me away from here, now.
Coming back from war is like walking alone in a foreign country. In Kyiv the memories I carried of the life I left behind were a weight that constantly reminded me of the differences between this place and home. War is another kind of weight to carry. And war, like being a foreigner, defines every atom of you. It’s there with every step you take. Every street sign, every store front, every girl you smile at, every foot of pavement, every pigeon on the street or police officer at a street corner—you notice how each one of these things is different from home.
Coming home from war is a big scam. Because when you’re home the memories of war end up living inside of you like memories of home in a foreign country.
You notice everything about home that you never did before, because you don’t feel like you belong there any more.
For the lucky ones, though, something finally releases you from that cage. And all that aloneness comes tumbling down when you find a bridge to the world outside from the one within.
As I walked with her I realized I hadn’t been thinking about the war for a while, not until I saw a group of young soldiers walk by. Seeing them reminded me of the day before.
I thought about the hundreds of young Ukrainian and rebel soldiers I had seen spread dead on the battlefield outside Mariupol. Most with their bodies ripped apart like used firecrackers. Some were charred, burnt and twisted in horrible ways that conveyed the terror of death in static poses no artist could imitate.
“I was worried about you, you know,” she said. I flashed back to here, now. I was with her again, but not wholly.
“What was it like?”
“It was much worse than I thought. It’s a real war down there. I thought it would be just skirmishes and gunfights. But there were tank battles and rocket attacks and heavy artillery. It felt like World War II, or something.”
I didn’t tell her about the bodies, though. And I didn’t tell her about the checkpoint. I thought I shouldn’t. Like somehow that was all part of the unavoidable damage that war does to you that you shouldn’t offload onto someone else just to feel better. That’s the cost of being a war correspondent, after all. You choose to go there and the see that, and you should never ask for sympathy for the consequences. Life gave me every chance to ignore this war, and I ignored those chances and went anyway.
Yes, to write about a war truly you have to see it, but don’t feel sorry for yourself, you knew the cost going in. And I shouldn’t let that damage spoil this perfect summer evening with a beautiful Ukrainian girl, with whom I think I’m falling in love. And there’s a good chance she’s falling in love with me too. And if it isn’t love, and it rarely truly is, it sure feels a lot like it in this brief moment of peace after war.