Joseph went to Los Angeles and stayed
in beautiful hotels and walked on beautiful streets surrounded by
beautiful people but knew he would not speak to any of them much less
understand them much less fall in love with them and he thought about this
as he sat in the airport in his dirty jeans with his awkward luggage,
looking out the window and waiting for his flight home. He saw a beautiful
girl waiting across from him and imagined sitting next to her on the
flight, but he also imagined winning the Lottery, because he knew that no
one wins the Lottery and no one gets to sit next to beautiful girls on
The plane took off and Joseph didn’t
get to sit next to the beautiful girl but he could see her a few rows up
reclining in queenly posture and speaking to her friends in some exotic
language so he made the flight attendant bring him some scotch and he
drank it. When the scotch was securely inside him he wrote “Hello, 18C” on
a piece of paper and folded it into an airplane and threw it at the
beautiful girl in seat 18C.
The paper airplane flew through the
metal airplane and stuck in the girl’s thick black hair. She pulled it out
and read it, and looked around for the culprit, and Joseph waved. The girl
looked at him and smiled, and she wrote on the paper airplane and threw it
back to Joseph, and this is how they began talking inside the plane while
it flew millions of miles per hour over flatlands and forests and tiny
The beautiful girl was from the Ukraine
and was trying to get to Alaska for reasons Joseph couldn’t understand
through her broken English. He had imagined befriending her in Seattle and
showing her around and enjoying something like romance but she assured him
she had to go immediately to Alaska, a place that sounded to Joseph even
colder and more remote than the Ukraine.
The girl’s name was Sveta, and when the
plane landed they met in the hallway and shook hands and Joseph finally
got to hear her voice, which was low and dark and flowed through a tiny
smile that declared the world amusing and rarely left her face.
She asked him to help her get her
ticket to Alaska, where she said she would go to work and “live in
chocolate,” and Joseph agreed to help even though he didn’t want her to
go. They bought the ticket together but then as they sat at the Arrivals
gate and smoked tiny Russian cigarettes Sveta changed her mind about
Alaska and refunded her tickets and decided to stay in Seattle to work and
live and change Joseph’s life for a few days.
Joseph carried Sveta’s heavy bags and
they took a long journey on the Metro bus. Sveta taught Joseph Russian
words like ya and ty and bizdatta which meant “I” and
“you” and “everything is wonderful”. They went to Joseph’s apartment and
Sveta fell asleep quickly on his couch. Joseph lay awake in his bed.
Sveta immediately began searching for
work, but found none and began to worry. Joseph tried to reassure her but
soon she decided she would have to go to Alaska after all to work on a
fishing boat, and she and Joseph resigned themselves to it. Sveta was
small and young but very strong. Joseph would listen to her talk about
terrifying things with casual calm, and feel his admiration grow.
She lost her innocence to an old man on
a Black Sea beach. She was fourteen and walking with her father and the
old man approached and simply asked if he could walk alone with her, and
her father said yes. Did this make sense? Was this reasonable? A cultural
difference immune to Joseph’s outrage? No, she said, it did not and was
not. She hated her father. She missed her mother. She was in love with her
cousin, a stupid, violent man who dabbled in the Armenian Mafia.
With a wry smile Joseph asked if her
cousin killed people, assuming his mental picture was an ignorant
caricature drawn from films.
Sveta assured him, laughing. Just hurt them very bad.
was emailing her threats. He said he
wanted to kill her for leaving. He said he wanted to kill all Americans.
She left her country and continent to escape him, but not because he was a
monster who hurt people very bad and had once ripped an earring through
her lobe because he didn’t like the style. She left because she loved him
and did not want to.
Sveta asked Joseph to show her Seattle
so he took her to Capitol Hill and they strolled Broadway. She bubbled
with energy, running ahead, falling behind, pointing at people and places.
She wanted to find drugs. She wanted to go to strip clubs. Joseph wanted
her not to want those things. He wanted her to be something he could
understand. Something he could follow.
America too polite, she frowned as a cheerful barista served them coffee. In
Ukraine, everybody rude! I
She wanted to go to bars, to get drunk
and forget where she came from and where she was and especially where she
was going, but she was somehow too young to go to bars, so Joseph took her
back to his apartment and she found his whiskey. They drank on the balcony
and watched the lights of the Space Needle glimmer in the clouds. She drew
cigarettes from her purse like weapons, tiny gun barrels shoved in her
mouth and then removed, reconsidered, and Joseph just smiled while she
smoked, declining four out of five of her offers.
In America, kids start smoke maybe
fourteen years old, she
said. In Ukraine, this
is age when trying to quit.
Sveta was small and even her
vodka-soaked genes were no match for the alcohol. She drowsed in and out
and sat on Joseph’s bed with his laptop, drifting the internet, checking
emails and profiles and bitterly deleting letters from home. Joseph sat
next to her, close enough to feel the warmth radiating from her, tense and
feverish with her strange joys and rages. She leaned against him but he
didn’t touch her. He knew he had taken this girl, snatched her from the
airport and absconded with her like either a guardian or a thief. He would
not be the latter, even in her imagination. He wanted to touch her because
she was as beautiful as she was horrible, as present as she was ephemeral,
and she would be gone soon or would perhaps never have existed. So he
wanted very badly to touch her then, but he didn’t.
She fell asleep on his bed. Wrapped in
a single sheet, resting her head on a couch cushion with her arms folded
under her cheek, she was impossible, certainly unreal, so he took a
picture to prove her. The picture developed normally. Sveta did not
disappear from the frame like a ghost. But her pose was so perfect, her
face so beatific, she could have easily been a statue, idealized in marble
by ancient craftsmen for ancient temples.
This was all he gave her. This moment
was all he would allow. A split second window, just for a glimpse. A tiny
sliver of an opening, pried open then carefully closed.
The next day Joseph’s phone rang with a
number thirteen digits long. Joseph listened to Sveta babble in Russian,
trying to pick out a few words in the stream, perhaps a stray bizdatta
to tell her family that “everything is wonderful,” but all she
offered was bizdiets, “everything is shit,” and Joseph knew that
she was almost gone.
Sveta talked for hours, eventually
hanging up dialing other numbers, exchanging the Ukraine for Alaska, and
soon her plans were set. She looked sadly at Joseph. She asked him if he
would drive her to the docks tomorrow night, and he said that he would.
Sveta’s new life would be processing
fish aboard a small ship. She would rip out their spines and discard their
guts. She would wipe their fluids on her apron and try not to breathe. Her
rivers of black hair would be caught tight in a net from which they would
not escape. She told Joseph she would make no friends on this ship and
have no portside revelry. She would talk to no one. She would keep herself
alone and think hard and deep until she could finally see herself. Until
she felt real. Joseph knew this vow wouldn’t last; she was too full of
heat, a capricious fire that dazzled while it razed, gorgeous and deadly,
but he nodded at her declaration and hoped for her with at least a glimmer
of faith. He knew human nature and he knew young girl nature, but was
Sveta really either of those?
Sveta hated American food. Joseph took
her to several of his favorite restaurants, and she rejected them all,
singing the praises of Ukrainian vegetables, cabbages thick and meaty
pulled from the rich earth. Her one concession to American cuisine was
Japanese cuisine. So in the last few hours of their last day, Joseph took
her out for sushi. A look of melancholy came over her as she stared at the
tuna and yellowtail, salmon and eel.
Maybe when I am on ship,
she said, I will write notes and put them in the fish. How I am doing
and what I am thinking about. Then you will eat sushi and find my notes in
the fish, and you won’t forget about me.
Joseph drove her to the docks, and sat
with her in his car, parked next to the ship. Sveta watched the sailors
climb the boarding ramp, big dirty men with roving eyes and cruel smiles.
She told Joseph that she was afraid. What would happen to her on this
ship? Joseph choked on his honesty and reassured her; he invented calming
words and fabricated comforts and told her there was nothing to worry
about, though he worried about everything.
In the car on the dock Joseph realized
he was not the guardian. He had stolen her from the airport and delivered
her to this midnight exchange like illicit traffic. He had failed to solve
her life or build a new one for her, so now he would load her onto this
rusted garbage scow to be hauled away and devoured by time and distance
and inevitability. He was sad for her and for himself, but also warm and
awash with relief, because this time he had been careful. He had given her
only a sliver.
Joseph wrote down his phone number and
address and asked Sveta to contact him, but knew that she wouldn’t. He
asked her to be safe, but knew that she wouldn’t. She embraced him in the
car, leaning over the gearshift and filling his nostrils with her cheap
Ukrainian perfume, like strawberry toothpaste, and he asked himself to
kiss her, but knew that he wouldn’t.
After Sveta vanished, Joseph’s life
resumed. His plans and struggles woke up and carried on like blackout
drinkers, unaware of the long night before. His business in Los Angeles
flourished, he wrapped himself in work, and so he began to fly more and
romanticize less. He got on planes and put on headphones, ordered
sandwiches and watched inflight movies. He saw beautiful women in the
seats in front of him but granted them their privacy, threw nothing at
them, and never stole them away from their destinations. When he ate sushi
he swallowed fast and hard, not at all wary of choking on folded wads of
paper. Every few months he would think about that strange girl from the
Ukraine and wonder if she was okay, alive and unhurt, perhaps even happy,
but the questions cut less with each swipe until they left barely a
scratch, then barely a tickle, like the pit and the pendulum in merciful
Joseph continued. As each new year
accrued, the years preceding it shrank, becoming smaller and less
significant to make room for the ever-complexifying whole. Time heals all
wounds and dulls all points and crumbles all statues, and Joseph asked
himself to remember someone, but knew that he wouldn’t.
Isaac Marion, 2009