“They pick it at random,” explains Kostja, taking a final bite out of his 5th slice of processed meat and laying the skin on the side on his plate in a pile of coiled skins. “You don’t get a say and what they pick is what you’re stuck with.”
“It’s weird, right?” Sveta whispers, noticing me staring at her fiancé’s plate. They’re freshly engaged, have been going out for just over a year, met (like us) on Independence Square during the Revolution of Dignity. I shake my head.
“Well, not completely random,” he continues, reaching for the bottle of Georgian cognac and pouring the rest of the bottle out into our glasses. “They ask you what you did for a job or what your hobby was or whatever. Pass me the cabbage, sweetheart.”
“I made it myself!” Sveta chimes, passing Kostja the bowl of pickled cabbage proudly. Marichka acknowledges how good it is with a smile and asks Yehor if he wants some. He says no without lifting his head from his mother’s tablet— he’s watching youtube videos of other people playing RPG video games with silly commentary.
“Maybe you sing songs and they’ll call you Maestro. Or you like to write poems— we had Poet 1 and Poet 2. Or you build houses and they call you Lumberjack…” He cuts himself off, picking up his glass and raising a toast. “Ok. What can I say? To our beautiful women. May they continue to be as beautiful and healthy as they are and bring us much joy.”
“Better we drink to peace, seeing as we’re drinking Georgian cognac,” says Marichka. “The first toast at every Georgian table is to peace. Right, son?” Yehor is focussed on a lego warrior cautiously making his way through the woods.
“We’re on the third toast and I prefer beautiful women,” says Kostja. Sveta nudges him under the table. “But you’re the guest of honor.” He winks, raises his glass “to peace” and shoots it back. We all drink.
“What do you do?” I ask, putting down my glass.
“I’m a driver. Airport service.” He shovels cabbage into his mouth and stabs another slice of meat with his fork. “Eat something! You’re not eating anything.”
“I am, I am. So what’d they call you?”
Marichka starts guessing— “Chauffer? Limo?”
“What’s that have to do with taxis?” I ask.
“Nothing,” says Kostja, putting the empty bottle under the table. “They said I look like the actor from the movie.”
“I dunno.” Yehor makes laser noises with his mouth, giggles at the sound of a fart as a woodland warlord steps on the hero onscreen and lego pieces go flying everywhere.
Everything on earth dies
If it doesn’t die, it dries up,
Only our cossack glory
Doesn’t die, doesn't go out
“I’m trying to quit,” Kostja announces, pulling a skinny cigarette out of the pack with his lips on our way out the front door of his apartment building. “Do you smoke?” I shake my head; he lights it. “They’re half of a real cigarette.”
We walk to the corner store to pick up another bottle of cognac. Kostja had some vodka at home but he hates mixing because of a bad experience with Canadians.
“They mix everything— beer, vodka, wine, tequila… and then they smoke weed on top of that. I don’t know how they do it.” He pumps his fist back and forth like a piston. “I was so fucked. I started to have that feeling when the grads hit close and you go deaf for a second, you know? And you look up at your boys and they’re clearly screaming but their voices are muffled and everything is whompy.”
Then he launches into his story— how he served 2002-2004, how he was on Hrushevskoho Street when everything started on Maidan, how his brother fled and he couldn’t understand it (“I turned around and he was gone”), how he knocked out a few cops himself, how Sveta wrapped up his leg when he got hurt and “that was it,” how he got the letter in March, how he joined the 95th battalion paratroopers, how they re-train you and send you on convoys to adapt for a couple months before putting you on the front, how when they asked his unit of 18 who was ready to defend their nation, only 2 didn't step forward, how they freed Slaviansk, didn’t free Debaltseve, how of the 16, only 8 returned.
“Did you know you could eat these?” He bends over and picks up a dried up seed from a maple tree— the kind kids throw up by the handful in the early fall to watch them spiral down to the ground like crashing helicopters. “The seeds. You peel off the propellors like you would wheat or any grain and chew it up. It can keep you going for several hours for sure.” He flicks his butt over the curb. “Let’s go get some booze.”
In the store, a mother is hustling her children to decide between two flavours of gum. We go straight for the cognac, choose another Georgian bottle, line up behind them.
“Worms, too,” Kostja continues without breaking his train of thought. “The ones you see on the asphalt. You just have to soak them in vodka for a few minutes.” The mother doubles back for a single gin cooler while the kids contemplate. “Some people will tell you you have to cook them, but that’s bullshit.” They decide and Mom takes out her wallet. “Just a couple of minutes in vodka.” I don’t ask him how they would have vodka around if it comes to the point at which you have to eat worms.
“So what did you do?” I ask Kostja as we leave the store. “On the front.”
He lights another skinny.
“I know a sniper in your batallion— Ljosha….something.”
“I don’t know him.”
“We spent some time with him in the fall when we were volunteering— he’s a friend of Marichka’s. He told us all kinds of shit.”
“Like that his nickname was Mr. Clean because he always kept his fatigues spotless.”
“Like what kind of cake he dreamed about.”
“Yeah… see, snipers won’t tell you much.”
“Like that he sometimes had to stay in one place for really long. Like in a tree for 3 days. Like how he had to drink dirty puddle water.”
“Yeah. Ok. It’s just puddle water. You drink it and that’s that.”
“Sveta once called me when I was in a tree. I couldn’t answer, but I sent her selfies.”
“What’d she say?”
“‘What the hell are you still doing in that tree?’”
We both laugh. The kids come out of the store with their mother blowing bubbles that pop on their tiny faces.
“But that’s not as bad as the fields.”
“You remember August? How hot it was?”
“It was hot.”
“And you’re on your back in the grass. And the sun is beating down like a motherfucker. And you can hear you skin baking. And your rifle is burning you through your jacket. And you only made subtle movements like unzipping your fly and slipping your dick out to piss into a little baggy you’re gonna drink out of later.”
“It’s not pretty. We got blisters all over our faces.”
“That’s not pretty.”
“They heal. You survive. At least some of us did.”
Our black zaporizhzhians
Don’t fear death
It’s better to lay your head
Then to give yourself up
“I know it’s ridiculous, but I always wanted a zaporozhets.” He explains that he’s from Zaporizhzhia, that he grew up near the ZAZ factory, and that he wanted the common soviet subcompact car just to be reckless. “They’re like 200 bucks. I just want to be able to fuck around and skid into fences and not care, you know.”
He calls up to Sveta, asks her to grab his car keys from the dresser and unlock the car. She sticks her hand out the window 6 floors up and the hazards blink twice as the car unlocks. He sits in the driver seat, reaches over the the glovebox and takes out a knife.
“This was with me all eight months.” It’s a heavy 4-inch black utility knife. He locks the blade into place and hands it to me.
“I don’t know anything about knives,” I say, not knowing what I should be checking out.
“Why would you need to?” He takes it back and throws it in the glove box. “Did you see the Canadian flag on my bumper?”
“I was about the ask about it.”
“Canadians always sport the flag on their luggage.”
“It’s true. Most.”
“When I see them come out of the airport, I point to my bumper. ‘You’re from Canada?!’ They get so excited when they see that flag. ‘What city? Such a small world!’ Sometimes I have a sister in Toronto. Sometimes my kids are studying in Vancouver. Either way, they always get in my car and I’m making 25 bucks easy. Sometimes more. Depends on how patriotic they’re feeling and how much I think I can squeeze out of them.”
“I’m taking the maple leaf patch off my backpack.”
“I wouldn’t do that to you.” He winks at me and smiles. “But it’s not just easy money— 1, 2, 3. The fucking airport cab mafia always takes their cut.”
“What do you mean?”
He laughs. “Yeah, I’ll bet you don’t have that shit in Canada! Those bitches take 30% of your fare. Unless they don’t catch you taking someone on the side, then it’s all yours.”
“What, like a cab company?”
He laughs harder. “It’s not a company. Or an organization. It’s just a bunch of guys who have been driving forever. And when the Soviet Union fell apart— they made a grab, just like with everything else.”
“Bitches. Like I picked up this gypsy-looking guy yesterday and I ask him where he’s from and he says Turkey. So I know he has USD. He doesn’t have to go far, but he’s dressed pretty nice so I think I can get $30 off him. We don’t drive 30 metres before he remembered that he forgot his smokes in the trunk and told me to pull over. Fucker! Of course the super comes over. He asks me how much I agreed on with the guy. I low ball, of course: $20. But then the turk lights his cigarette up and the super starts chatting him up in english! And their english is way better than mine and within thirty seconds he knows I charged $30. I tried to signal to him to say lower but how the fuck is he supposed to know?”
“So what’d he do?”
“Nothing. But I’m gonna have to bring him money tomorrow.”
“A lot. Or they’ll fuck me.” He starts smacking the top of his closed fist into his open palm, the local sign for fucking or getting fucked.
“You know. But in the end I’m still making out alright. $25 a ride, about five rides in an eight hour shift— that’s $125 a day. 3125 hryvnia. Two days and I make what most people don’t make in a month.”
“That’s not bad.”
“And that’s average. This one time I caught this ripe young girl from Moscow coming out of arrivals. High heels, dog in the purse, lips like fucking pillows— the whole thing. And I start speaking with her. Moscow lilt, right away.” He rubs his hands together. “She was fucking ripe!”
“She was only in on a layover.” His eyes go wide just telling the story. “And she wanted to find some salo for her old man.” Salo is a Ukrainian staple— cured pig fat, goes well with garlic, butter, and vodka. “And then driven back. How much would that be, she asked.”
“What’d you take— $50?”
“$75. There. And $75 back.”
“It came at a cost— the bitch kept talking about how she loves Putin and how she wants to have his babies.”
“I shit you not. And it’s not the first time. This one time I drove a couple of Russian girls to Vinnitsya who drank Bailey’s in the back the whole time and didn’t believe there’s a war in Ukraine. I swear— they kept looking out the window and saying ‘looks pretty peaceful here’ or ‘i don’t see any war going on.’ Fucking idiots! We were driving to Vinnitsya!” Vinnitsya is in central Ukraine, nowhere near the front.
“What’d you say?”
“Man. I couldn’t help myself— I was so angry. I told them that of course there’s a war, that I had been there, that there are Russian soldiers dying there.”
“And what’d they say to that?
“They didn’t believe me. Then I told them I killed several myself.”
“They started calling me a fascist. Why am I a fascist if some assholes come to my home in tanks and start shooting not only at me, but at everything in sight? Including civilians! Nope. There are no Russian tanks in Ukraine. Putin says so.”
“They believe that.”
“They eat that propaganda shit up. Tried to tell me the Americans shipped tanks over to Europe. That the fucking Americans supply LNR and DNR.”
“T-64s! BM-21s! The Americans don’t use that shit! It’s ridiculous! I wanted to throw them the fuck out. Or drive them to Pisky.” Pisky was like the staging area of the battle for the Donetsk Airport. After the airport was levelled, Russian tanks advanced there, levelled it, too.
“What did you do?”
“Smoked a pack of cigarettes.” He pulls out another skinny.
“I can imagine.”
“Anyways, I got back at them through this other Moscow bitch.”
“Yeah, yeah. Go on.”
“So I take her to Besarabska market. I never shop there— you understand…”
“It’s way overpriced.”
“Exactly. So I walk her through the main entrance and it doesn’t take long for every vendor in that fucking place to know she’s ripe.”
“Oh right— the heels and the lips…”
“So I take her to the babushkas selling meat and we find ourselves some salo. While they explain all the different kinds they have— marinated, with herbs, with garlic, minced, whatever— I’m jumping up and down behind her and mouthing ‘higher’and telling them to fuck her.” He starts smacking the top of his closed fist into his open palm. I couldn’t help laughing at the thought of this image in the heart of Besarabska Market in the centre of Kiev, not far from where the revolution took place.
“$150. They sold her $20 worth of pig fat for $150.”
“They must have been grateful.”
“They practically chased me down on our way out with a care package— I still haven’t eaten it all.”
“Rightly so! At least $20 worth!”
“And she still stood there asking me if I thought it was too expensive! No, no. Of course not, sweetheart. It’s market value. Your dad is worth it, isn’t he? And you can give a slice to Putin, too.”
Every man dies mid-song
For the freedom of Ukraine
Every man fights with moscovites
Until the day he dies.
As we’re leaving, Sveta hands me a jar of pickled cabbage and an envelope.
Marichka flies out of the washroom. “You guys have a radio in your shower, too!” she blurts out. “Euro style— fancy, fancy.”
“It doesn’t work,” says Kostja. “The whole shower’s a bit….” Sveta shoots him a dirty look. “Never mind.”
“We wanted to invite you both to our wedding.” Yehor continues to make laser noises in the background, not taking his eyes off his mother’s tablet as he kicks off the oversized Batman slippers Kostja gave him on the way in.
“Yehor! Turn that off!” She tries to put on his coat. “We’re leaving now.” She turns to Sveta as she zips up Yehor’s coat. “Wow! We’re so thrilled! This is so exciting!” He continues watching the video.
“When is it?”
“Not for a couple of months,” says Kostja. “It’s all written in there.”
“And of course we’d love if you sang,” says Sveta, almost crying.
“Ideally something I know,” pipes in Kostja. “Or something from my parts.”
We think about it for a second, then launch into an old cossack song from Zaporizhzhia:
Everything on this earth dies
If it doesn’t die, it dries up
Only our cossack glory
doesn’t die, doesn’t go out.
“Perfect,” says Kostja, reaching for his blue buret hanging on a nail by the door.
“Not exactly wedding fare,” says Marichka. Kostja bends over to put the hat on Yehor’s head.
“It’s perfect. Right, soldier?” Yehor looks up from the tablet, lifts his index finger and thumb and shoots Kostja in the face.