WAITING FOR ILYUSHA
KYIV (October 5, 2000)
Chestnut trees are shockingly beautiful on this Indian summer evening - like redhead women on a stroll, oblivious to all but their own electric universe. Tomorrow, they may turn back into rusty decorations, stuck all over the city to remind us of the ugly November. Today, they rule.
The last thing I wanna do now is look for a vacant park bench. But I've come here to wait for Ilyusha, and I know I may have to wait for him till next morning.
This is a crowded archipelago of wooden benches swarming with all kinds of people - the young ones, some with beer or kids, and some kissing ardently; the elderly ones, some with newspapers or grandkids, others napping quietly. I want a bench of my own, a desert island of a bench, to wait for Ilyusha and see what happens while I wait for him this time.
I love Ilyusha. Once, we were at a birthday party in an obscure Kyiv neighborhood, and at midnight he decided there wasn't enough liquor left to last us all till dawn. So he went outside to buy more and disappeared. At first, I was worried sick about his fate, but then someone or something told me he must've caught the last bus back home. I relaxed and soon befriended a guy who was into rockabilly and had forsaken his normal-sounding Ukrainian name for a more enigmatic one, Billy. (I think Billy was the birthday boy, but I may be wrong.) At 7 a.m., we all awoke to a non-stop ringing of the doorbell: Ilyusha returned just in time for breakfast, looking slightly more disheveled than usual. In one hand he held a half-finished bottle of wine, in the other - a crumpled piece of paper with a detailed map of the neighborhood, sketched for him by some kind strangers from a beer-and-snacks kiosk: School, Lake, Kindergarten, Forest and, finally, the Crescent-Shaped Apartment Building, huge but so elusive that Ilyusha had to wait for the morning sun to track it back down again. Six years have passed since then.
I manage to find a bench I like, but before I even have time to open a beer, an old woman - starushka - sits down next to me. I light a cigarette, hoping to smoke her out - but she acts as if we're sitting in parallel universes, as if I'm invisible and second-hand smoke is a joke. All she sees right now is a man a few meters away: he's finishing up his beer. The moment he puts the empty bottle down next to his bench, she plunges towards it. She leaves her plastic bag behind, with four or five bottles already in it. But she's in a competitive business and, out of nowhere, another starushka appears. They both grab the same bottle, tug at it fiercely, and my starushka wins. Her defeated competitor curses loudly at her; she retorts with as much rage; their verbal fight is getting quite bloodcurdling - and I find myself begging them to stop, promising to donate a bottle when I'm done with my first beer. The old woman returns to our bench and carefully places her newest trophy into the plastic bag.
I realize all of a sudden that I have so much compassion for my starushka, I'm ready to adopt her. I offer her one hryvnia (a paper bill of the lowest denomination; to earn it, she'll probably have to gather at least ten empty bottles), but she refuses. "Then I'll give you three full bottles of beer in addition to this empty one - if my friend doesn't show up in 15 minutes," I insist. The starushka smiles and sighs. She tells me her daytime job is to sweep the park and the area surrounding it. This place is truly her turf - but collecting bottles and exchanging them for money is as "Great Game" as any, and intruders abound. She gets up to leave after a while. "Don't worry about the bottles, take your time - the weather's so lovely," she says. I ask her to please accept that one hryvnia from me, and eventually she concedes, blessing me profusely.
With enough blessings to last me a lifetime, I continue waiting for Ilyusha. Janitors love him, too. One winter day, Ilyusha's mother was approaching their apartment building when a local janitor intercepted her: "You have such a wonderful son! Last week, he helped me so much: he shoveled away all the snow for me - at 6 a.m., just to sober up," she exclaimed. "An amazing boy!"
Amazing he is. Thanks to him, my own mother once had a birthday surprise for me. I left them in one room for five minutes and when I returned, she announced: "I'm going skydiving with Ilyusha when it gets warm! He says it's totally safe - and so breathtaking! I wanted to keep it secret from you - until I actually did the jump - but then I thought that if something goes wrong, God forbid, you'll have a heart attack if you hear about it from someone else... So I decided to prepare you." She meant it, and Ilyusha just sat there, nodding supportively. It took another dear friend, a kind-hearted journalist, and a graphic description of a hapless parachutist he'd seen, to dissuade my mother.
I finish the first beer and put the bottle down on the ground. The natural light is already faint and the sky is barely distinguishable through the leaves and branches above; but the darkness is faint, too, because in the distance, the first streetlights have been switched on. No one rushes to pick up the bottle; it'll probably have to wait till morning. Ilyusha's still not here.
Two polished and perfumed young women take the starushka's place on my bench. Both are blond and wear all black. I'm eavesdropping on their conversation: "So it got me thinking: he's getting himself all these cell phones and cameras, but he's not buying anything for me... He said he wanted us to celebrate my birthday without guests, just the two of us, and I was like, does he understand that if he's got no money to pay for it all - I mean, we'll go out to a restaurant, right? - does he understand that I wouldn't stand looking at him after that again?"
If only Ilyusha knew what he's putting me through. But waiting for him's never been easy, and he's doing it to everyone. Ilyusha and I once stepped out to a nearby store, telling his sister and her boyfriend that we'd be right back. On our way across the street, we kept running into Ilyusha's numerous friends, and a few invited us to come over to their apartments for tea, and then, several months later, Ilyusha's sister angrily told me that she got pregnant that night and we were the only ones to blame.
The blond girls have left and I'm done with the second beer. A man and a woman of indefinite age - no more young, not yet old - place themselves in the parallel universe by my side. They cuddle happily and start talking about copywriters and Leonid Kuchma. My third beer distracts me from full-scale eavesdropping.
Soon, Ilyusha arrives. It turns out he's bought a car, recently. And he has to park it. So he leaves, promising to be right back.
I am waiting for Ilyusha, again.