The 2007 crisp autumn air of Portland, Oregon, invited Rosa and me to stroll down the tree-shaded central streets of an immaculate city.
Later, we wandered through Chinatown and laughed while we cracked and read fortune cookies, carefree like the youngsters we were when we became college friends fifty-two years ago in Buenos Aires. Since then, our lives had taken us on our separate ways, but we had continued to nurture our friendship. Now we were alone, as it sometimes happens in time . . . .
Far away from our Florida homes, during our flight to Portland, we had released arrays of troubling thoughts and unresolved problems. We longed to absorb new discoveries during our short vacation that would include a visit to the iconic Mount St. Helens Volcanic Monument.
“Let’s take the trolley to the other side of town,” Rosa said.
We walked to the trolley stop. A couple sat on a bench, silent. While we tried to find the street we wanted to go to on a city map, the man, a well-built, husky specimen in his sixties, got up and approached us.
The middle-aged, tan-skinned, inconspicuous woman remained sitting. Her darting eyes scrutinized Rosa and me. She didn’t return my smile and sat small, clutching an oversized black purse on her knees. She wore a babushka and an old-fashioned flowered dress, which she kept pulling down as if to cover her legs. Evocative images of similar women, emigrants waiting for a ship into the unknown, flashed through my mind. And the images of thousands, millions of deportees, Stalin’s victims dreading the arrival of cattle trains bound for the Gulag—Siberia or Kazakhstan—my Polish father among them.
“Where you going? I help you,” said the man with a razor-sharp Slavic accent, stomping over the “r” as if it were an obstacle in his mouth. He had the fleshy complexion of a farmer. His intense blue eyes towered over a regular nose and a half-smiling, full mouth. The warm expression in his eyes and on his face was that of a “jolly good fellow.”
Just as we answered his question and folded the map, the trolley bulged next to us.
“Dis is good trolley for you. Get on,” the man called.
The little woman rushed and boarded first, disappearing among the packed trolley car. Rosa boarded next. I squeezed in a few steps away from her with the man directly behind me. He stood at breathing distance from me; such closeness demanded some sort of communication.
“So, where are you from?” I asked.
“Russia,” he said.
“From what city?”
“A village in Ukraine.”
“So why did you say Russia?”
“Because nobody knows what Ukraine is. Where Ukraine is. Nobody.”
“Do you feel Russian . . . or Ukrainian?”
My question had only one purpose: if he would say Russian, I’d end the conversation quickly. It would have been a gut reaction, against all logic and politeness. I knew the Soviets had invaded Ukraine after the end of WW I. Its population was either deported or died of famine by the millions. The country had not become free until 1991. Where was the man’s national pride, his patriotism, I’d think. I couldn’t help it; the skeletons of World War II still lived in my brain—some jammed deeply, others stacked neatly in layers where they had been fermenting for over half a century.
“Am Ukrainian,” he answered. “Come to America in 1988. No want go back.”
“I’m Polish. Escaped Communist paradise in 1946. Now I live in Florida,” I said guessing that probably to him I was a pure American.
“No afraid hurricanes?”
Using the charming Slavic sentence structure so familiar to me, he spoke loudly about Portland weather and kept tilting his head toward me. I didn’t have space to move since I stood against a wall, holding onto the rail. People around us threw frequent furtive glances our way. I was glad he didn’t question me any further; but I did.
“Is that lady who was with you your wife?” I asked in a hushed tone.
“No. No. Am free man. Dat is my friend. From Moldavia.” He motioned his hand downward and in the direction she had gone, as if discussing something of no importance. Aha, perhaps a marriage of convenience, I thought. A visa-marriage? Maybe he was protecting her from expulsion from the U.S. and kept her anonymous?
“Am free,” he repeated louder.
His voice had acquired a tone of confidentiality as if extending me that immediate Slavic bond, which I too felt. From the corner of my eye, I caught two or three people turning away to smile at one another. I regretted my question, but being familiar with the many stories of Eastern European men, the so called barracudas, who abandon their families back home and flirt around in America, I quietly continued my unnecessary, blunt inquiry.
“Do you have a wife and children in Ukraine?”
“No. Am free. Can do what I want.” The man raised his voice again and almost brushed my ear with his lips. I knew all the other passengers had heard and seen him, too. I didn’t dare turn my head and look at him because I feared our noses would collide.
“Have car. Can go to mountain. To sea. To city,” he continued and with a broad, earnest smile added, “Can fix anyting in my house and in my garden. Can fix car. Toilet. Anyting. Everyting.”
I was amused by his candor, but I also understood what incredible value freedom and the possession of an automobile, a house with a garden, and indoor plumbing have for an immigrant/refugee who had probably fled from the misery of the Eastern European Bloc; I suspected he was still afraid to admit it. Many years ago, I’d been in that situation.
It seemed as if we were the focal point of the trolley car. Embarrassed, fidgety, I intended to shift my backpack from one hand to the other. The moment I let go of the rail I had been holding for balance, the trolley charged forward with a powerful jerk. I plopped flat on the floor, grabbing and pulling the Ukrainian down on top of me. Laughing hysterically, I tried to latch onto something to begin my slow return to a vertical position, but my chronically-torn knee ligaments delayed the awkward process. The man stood up first and I climbed on his legs, thighs, and arms, while thanking him several times. He almost fell again under my weight. Rosa looked at me, petrified. She knew I shouldn’t fall because of my blood-thinner medication.
“I’m okay,” I signaled her. I couldn’t stop my nervous laugh.
“Maniac driver! Crazy person!” the Ukrainian yelled repeatedly and then said in a low voice, “Maybe crazy woman driver? Yes?” He smiled and winked at me.
I grinned and made a throat-slitting hand motion.
“Why do you think it’s a woman?”
“No, no, no. I joking,” he said, pronouncing the “g” the guttural way my parents used to. “Woman important. What is house widout a woman? Noting. Man needs woman.”
I looked at Rosa. We had been on several Elderhostel trips and had an ongoing humorous fantasy: that of meeting an imaginary, handsome multimillionaire, in this case none less than an Oregonian cowboy. We had vowed that, of course, we would fight for him—fiercely, mercilessly.
The Ukrainian, although good-looking and strongly advertising himself, didn’t remotely fit the prototype. I knew she would tease me until the end of my days. She bit her lip and turned away to stare at a poster of an upcoming musical show.
“I get off now,” the man fired abruptly. “You go tree more stops. Remember.”
“I’m sorry about my clumsiness. And my weight—”
“No worry. I fall, too. Everyting okay,” he said, full of gallantry, bowing and clicking his heels.
I shook his sturdy, pulpy hand while he strangled mine and left. The small, self-effacing Moldavian woman appeared from nowhere. Frantic, she zigzagged away without a word. For a moment, I glimpsed the profound blue-gray patches of her haunting eyes, in them the scared look of a vagabond animal, and she was gone.
Eduvigia (Junia) Ancaya is a nonfiction writer who has taken creative writing courses at USF and numerous courses at OLLI. She has published two nonfiction books honoring her parents’ saga during WW II : Struggle for Freedom: Marta’s Courage—A Memoir and Stefan’s Journey on the Road of Sorrows. A native of Poland, who escaped Communist tyranny in 1946, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1963. She is a retired physician.