We bought a car in the fall of 2021. A large, shiny Ford: the embodiment of the American dream. It’s like a car from an old Hollywood film. I proudly said: “Fill up our American!” at gas stations, and at least one attendant always nodded with understanding in reply. Sure, 20 liters for this beauty. Would you like some coffee, too? I always did. 2022 seemed like it was going to be a great new year: the coronavirus was almost defeated, I was 30 years old, and it felt like the best time of my life. Sometimes, when we had trouble parking near our standard Kyiv nine-story building, I asked my husband why he’d purchased such a large car. He pursed his lips, then said: “We’ll flee the war in it.” I laughed in response: “No, you’ll drive in it to pick me up from a literary retreat in the Carpathians.”
At the beginning of January, we took out some of our savings from the bank. I browsed the websites of Kyiv real estate developers. “Do you think we’ll have our own home on the left bank in a few years?” My husband pursed his lips, then said: “This money will sustain us through the war.” I laughed a little less than before but answered: “No, this is our first down payment. Look, there’s a big pantry here in this property….”
On February 23, my best friend and I sat in the office of our publishing house. We discussed the threat of war, and both did our best to brush it off. I absent-mindedly typed an email to foreign rights holders: Yes, of course, we want to publish this author. Yes, it will happen by autumn. No, everything is quiet here. We laughed, and I looked over at the bottle of red wine one of our authors had brought in. I was eagerly waiting for the working day to finally end.
At home, I looked towards my bright blue suitcase. Now it has a sticker with a yellow tit bird on it, but back then, the surface was clear; not even a speck. We’d bought it for a trip to Vienna in May on a low-cost airline. In black-and-white films, such suitcases are highlighted in color to add to the drama. No, I wasn’t going to pack it.
I worked all night because I had three literary consultations the following evening. Documents were highlighted with green (good), red (need rewriting), and yellow (doubtful) comments. I finished at half past five, thinking that my workaholism would be the death of me. The news was quiet; outside the window, a man was dragging a garbage bag to the dumpster. Thankfully I’d managed to remind my grandmother that, „throwing garbage out at night brings bad luck“ and opened the window to air it out. We had plastic window sills made to look like marble for some reason and ordinary double-glazed windows: they would be taped up in two days. Dogs were barking in the distance, and the front door creaked loudly–it was your typical Kyiv apartment building.
At five o’clock, I woke up from what was either a phone call or a series of explosions. I immediately corrected myself: someone was beating their carpet. Indeed, it was a normal thing to do at five o’clock in the morning in winter. I picked up the phone and heard the most banal and cinematic phrase for the first time, which I would have to repeat a hundred times in the next few days: „The war has begun.“ The view from my window was pink, and someone was beating a giant carpet in the unbearably idyllic sky. The carpet banged and exploded. I dismissed the suddenly realized truth like a ball accidentally thrown in my direction. But the truth rounded back–it was squash, not tennis–and it hurt. My stomach twisted, and my mouth filled with the bitter taste of insomnia.
At half past six, I numbly opened the suitcase. My husband was snoring peacefully nearby. Happy to see me awake early, my cat started to demand food. In just a few hours, we would look for those damn packets of cat food in all the local minimarkets, ignoring the air alarm for the first time in our lives. Until then, I focused on packing my bag. I put in only the most necessary items: photos of Franz Kafka as a child, a seashell, a green glass bird, and a recently bought lush maxi dress. I cautiously rejoiced that I’d managed to buy new underwear a few weeks ago. Finally, I threw 15 senseless packages of pea soup that I hadn’t yet eaten and picked up a block of 15 bottles of water. Each bottle was 1 liter and had been set to become beer in my home brewery. I didn’t know how to turn water into beer with my bare hands, though, so I had to take them as they were. For some reason, I washed my hair for a long time and even sprayed it with a hair de-frizzer afterward. Then I realized that this was how I reacted to any event that I could not control: as long as I washed my hair, I was definitely alive.
At ten o’clock we loaded our suitcases into the car, the handsome American Ford nobody wanted to fill up anymore. We went to my parents, a ten-minute drive from us, and I conducted my first author consultation. On the computer screen was the author, who was in Bucha and even more frightened than I was. “What if this is our last consultation? In that sense that you are already finishing the novel, well, you understand?” I pointed out rather tongue-in-cheek.
Five days later, we were in Lviv. I poured my first cups of tea for refugees in the volunteer tent. Cheap, black, and barely brewed, it cooled instantly and smelled like grandma’s barn. We had three kettles, one of them a little cracked, and a hundred hungry people from Kharkiv and Mariupol. A woman was pulling a carrier with three cats and a small bag; she’d taken nothing else. I cried into her tea and turned away, ashamed. Near the refugee tent, an elderly lady opened her wallet to prove that she had no documents. A paper icon of the Mother of God fell from her purse, and she carefully picked it up from the snow. I had to put this woman on a bus to the border, but she had no documents, only the Mother of God, and it was not enough to help her. Incredibly serious-looking children approached the tent. Someone had brought us a whole box of candy, and I shoveled them in their hands, not one at a time, as we’d been instructed, but in handfuls all at once, as if it were Halloween. Trick or treat. Why do we always have to choose?
Our big shiny Ford, the embodiment of the American dream, could barely fit in a Lviv parking spot.
The first week of the great war was underway.
Translated by Yulia Lyubka, Kate Tsurkan