Of the three women in my poetry workshop, Veronika Shashkevych was the one who didn’t come across as trying too hard. Her cheap, anonymous clothes, her bowl of black hair, suggested she hardly cared how she was perceived. Her poetry, when I finally heard it, was serious — there she obviously tried — but nothing special. She wasn’t even a poet, in fact.
By comparison, the other two women were remarkable. One was a waitress with flowing blond hair who wore frilly, low-cut dresses, like the lady on the cover of a romance paperback. She sat by the window, sunlight glinting off her head, and spoke with a soft voice that was both comforting and confidential, like a lover’s murmur. She was so pretty, so intensely feminine, it was beyond alluring — it was confusing. Could anyone be so feminine as to have several different white frilly dresses — some short, some a little longer — and wear them so consistently to class? Was she putting us on? Unable to decipher her presentation, and a little spooked by its sheer audacity, we didn’t know what to say. So when it came time to critique her work, the men in the workshop offered only the most general comments.
The other woman actually was a performance artist. Her name was Callie (or, as she spelled it on her manuscript, Kali). She would appear in class in thematic guises, such as the hot day in September, when the temperature was about eighty degrees, and she entered in a full fur parka and mukluks, and all her comments were expressed in metaphors about hunting and fishing. Commenting on a poem by one of the bearded, t-shirt-wearing young men, she said: The lines in your second stanza are too short. When lines are too short, you catch only the stupid fish who cluster close to your boat, mistaking it for shelter from the eagle and the heron, and putting them within the fisherman’s reach. Instead, lengthen your lines, and catch the courageous fish who venture into deep waters. The writer humbly made a note, but one of the other men in the class said sarcastically: How long would you suggest? Glancing meaningfully between his legs and arching an eyebrow, she said: Longer.
Compared to these two, Veronika was easy to approach. I saw her on the streetcar heading back into town from the campus of San Francisco State, and we began chatting. Coffee turned into dinner which turned into one of those conversations which goes on until you realize the staff is waiting for you to leave so they can close the restaurant. I went home with her.
After we had sex, she asked me about my favorite poets. I said my thesis was going to be on the San Francisco Renaissance, specifically Kenneth Rexroth. I talked about Rexroth’s wanderings in the Sierra, the political engagement of his work in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and how his home on Potrero Hill had become a gathering place for artists and writers. No, I couldn’t recite any of his poems. People used to memorize poems, she said, and gave me a few stanzas of Ukrainian-accented Blake.
She hadn’t presented her poems in the class yet, and I said I would like to see her work. We sat up, and she reached for a black sketchbook on the bedside table. She opened the sketchbook to a page of sketches, from the point of view of her seat by the window of the classroom where our poetry seminar met. There was the bearded guy who continually wore a fedora of the kind they carry at Whole Foods. There was a different bearded guy who had come out as a transman. There was yet another bearded guy who talked, and wrote, disarmingly about his one-year-old daughter. I turned the page. There was the professor and the blond waitress and the guy whose lines Callie said should be longer. There I was, hunched over a notebook and looking up with an anguished expression; she had drawn little glowing lines around my Adidas sneakers which, it was true, were new at the start of the semester. She turned the page again, and there was Callie depicted in an R. Crumb style, with her hair radiating out around her head like snakes, clothed in a leopard skin, and beating her chest like Tarzan.
You’re an artist? I asked. I’m a painter, she said. But don’t tell anyone. I’m letting Callie eat up all the attention. I’m just in class to learn poetry.
The next day we went out to her studio, a freestanding shack in the post-industrial waterfront of East Francisco. It was in the shadow of a rusting steel tower, and in the middle of a weedy patch of pavement, but it was impossible to tell the original purpose of the small building. The Port Authority leases out abandoned properties it had seized, she said, and I’ve had this as my studio for three years. God knows what toxins are here, but the paint I use is toxic enough. She unlocked the door. All I saw was a large worktable and an empty easel. Until she reached behind one of the legs of the table, turned a key in a lock, and opened one of the drawers, I didn’t even realize the table had drawers. It was all to keep people from breaking in and stealing everything. They could take the easel, but they couldn’t make off with the table. She opened drawers and showed me drawings and paintings, all abstract. I pointed to some that I liked, and she gave a small smile. She didn’t seem inclined to talk much about the pictures, so I asked her to tell me about one of them. She pursed her lips. It’s hard for me to talk about them, she said. I’d rather people just look. Maybe this is why I need to take poetry. I said: I don’t know, it’s just another method of oblique expression. She was standing near me, and I put my arms around her. You make the pictures, I’ll write a poem about them, I said. She threw back her head and laughed without sound, as if I had said something silly.
We carried on an affair for several weeks. She presented her poems in class, and they were on opposite ends of the spectrum — too simple, or like her paintings, impenetrable. She didn’t invite me to her studio again, and if I asked her about what she was working on, she would deflect the question. I’m in between things, she would say. Maybe a new thing is coming. Maybe the poetry is distracting me. But I’m not worried, I know something will come. One evening she came to me with dark blue stains on her fingers, cobalt blue. I asked if that was one of the toxic colors she had referred to. Oh, definitely, she said. But at least it stays mainly on the brush. I knew a painter who used to apply paint to huge canvases with a sprayer thing. She wore masks that made her look like a chemist or a bomb-maker. But even if she waited an hour after stopping application, there were still particles in the air, and she was breathing them in. She said that this would kill her long before her time, but that only made her work faster, to do as much work as possible before a brain tumor had time to take hold.
Veronika told this story as she was removing her clothes; her small breasts emerged from her sea-green sweater like the backs of turtles coming up out of the sea. Which is another way of saying that I forgot about the blue paint and its possible dangers, and took her in my arms and carried her over to my bed, where she buried her fingers in my hair as I caressed her.
Our affair seemed ordinary, though I was aware that I really liked Veronika, who allowed me to see her in vulnerable moments. Once she called me and said I am sick, Nicholas, I must have the Swine Flu — it was the winter when that was going around. I brought her soup from Whole Foods, quarts of it, and bags of supplies from the drugstore. Even though she said she didn’t want me to catch her illness, I stayed the whole day with her, until her coughing was under control, and she fell asleep.
But before the semester was over, she left town. I got a text from her from the airport saying she had to fly back to Ukraine because an uncle was dying. She didn’t know when she would be back. There was nothing I could say except I’m sorry and Safe travels and Come back soon and I’ll miss you. Then a final word came: Boarding. And she was silent.
I didn’t expect her phone would work in Ukraine, but I thought I might at least get email. No, nothing, and a week turned into a month, then two months, then six months without a word. I had only her email address at the university, and not only did she never reply to the messages I sent there, but after the end of the semester my messages started bouncing. You think that everyone is within reach of a phone call or a message or an internet search, but it was remarkably easy for Veronika to disappear simply by leaving the country.
If I couldn’t contact her, it would have been easy for her to contact me. She had my phone number, and searching for my name along with “San Francisco” would immediately turn up more ways to reach me — I made sure of it. At the very least she could have gone to an internet café and, after finding my email address, sent a message. Something like, “Uncle still hanging on, return unclear.” Or, “Have inherited Uncle’s flat in Lviv, must stay to sort things out.” Or even, “Have been granted commission to paint several frescos depicting Orange Revolution, see you in five years.”
Not a peep. Thinking it was possible that she might have returned without telling me, I went by her studio in East Francisco a few times at night, when I would have hoped to see a glimmer of light inside. But it was always shut up tight.
At first I used her absence to get work done. I finished all my papers for the semester, I reorganized my desk at home, I went to Mexico City for a change of scenery. I wrote a series of poems about her that I figured I would read to her when she finally returned. I learned letterpress printing and handset the poems into a chapbook for presentation. I began another semester in the MFA and wrote another series of poems — the first had been about loving, the second was on longing. I took part in a program to teach poetry to middle school students, who thought that writing poetry meant composing hip-hop lyrics. I handset the second series of poems and started a third series — on loss, naturally. Because after ten months I thought I would never see her again.
I hadn’t expected her to matter so much to me. I met new women and slept with them; occasionally I did the same with women who were just friends. I even went to bed with Callie, the obstreperous performance artist from our seminar. I can report that she had a bed covered with stuffed animals, that she was a total bottom, and that she got tired before I did. There was nothing moving about our encounter. Veronika, on the other hand, had caused something in me to stir. A part of me beyond my control listened more intently to her than to others. As a poet-in-training who was learning to distrust clichéd and overused words, I was reluctant to call this component my heart. But wherever it was, it was conscious of the fact that she was far away and not responding to its silent call; this part was mourning, and it drove my writing.
In addition to poetry, I wrote my thesis. Rexroth’s despair over the outcome of the civil war in Spain and the beginning of World War II; the attention he paid to the movements of the stars; his omnivorous reading of classical Greek, Roman, and Chinese poets, how he confronted and strove with them in his work; the simultaneous majesty and intimacy with which he addressed both Tu Fu and his young daughters in poetic lines that were carved from Sierra granite. I had all winter and spring to write my thesis. It didn’t break any new ground, but it made me familiar with all of Rexroth, an achievement in itself. And it made me realize how much it was necessary to know in order to write. One had to know everything, which was impossible. One wrote nonetheless.
Then before dawn one morning in May, my phone rang. Not my mobile phone but the regular telephone, the landline. The jangle instantly raised me from a sound sleep into a sitting position, from which I grabbed the receiver and barked out a hello as if I were a squadron commander about to receive orders for a bombing raid.
Nicholas, a female voice said. It’s me, Veronika. Do you remember me?
I looked wildly around me to ascertain whether or not I was dreaming. It seemed still to be night. The window across the room looked onto a narrow passageway between the house I lived in and the one next door, on whose wall a slash of moonlight shone like the blade of a knife. Where are you? I asked. I’m at the airport. My plane landed hours ago. It took forever to get through passport and customs. I still had your number, Nicholas. But even at the airport it’s hard to find a telephone now.
You’re in San Francisco? I asked, since her voice sounded faint, as if she were calling from Ukraine or from a ship traveling to the South Pole. Yes, San Francisco, she said. It was dark when the plane took off, and dark when we landed, and it’s still dark. Does the sun still rise, Nicholas? Does the earth still turn?
I told her to stay where she was. I pulled on clothes and washed my face. By the time I reached my car where I had parked it three blocks away, the sky was getting light far down where Grove Street began. I made my way down the freeway through morning traffic that was already heavy. I parked in the airport garage and stumbled through tunnels to the International Terminal, until I finally found Veronika. She was sitting against the wall outside the customs zone, beside a small duffel bag. She was swallowed up in a green parka, its fur-trimmed hood back on her shoulders, revealing long, curly hair which was pinned atop her head, less a deliberate arrangement than a pile.
I had hoped for a joyous reunion, but all she did was blink up at me for a few moments, as if we hadn’t seen each other for ten years rather than ten months. Then she got to her feet and gently put her arms around me. Hello, Nicholas, she said.
After we had embraced, I asked if her luggage hadn’t come out yet. No, this is all I have, she said, motioning to the duffel bag. Everything else, I left behind.
I led her through the surreal concourse between the terminal and the garage, a passage that appeared to my half-asleep eyes to be endlessly long. I had to look down to make sure my feet were still moving, that I hadn’t stepped on a moving belt going in the wrong direction. Shaking myself alert, I led Veronika to my car. During the drive into the city, she looked straight ahead, patiently enduring yet another leg of her long journey. I asked her: Where did you fly from? How long ago did you leave? Have you had anything to eat? She answered me with a word or two. I realized she must have been exhausted. I’ll bring you to my apartment, I said, and she nodded. I have nowhere else to go, she said, laughing quietly, as if this thought had just occurred to her.
In my apartment, I gave her tea and some toast. Though I wanted to keep staring at her so she wouldn’t disappear, I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable, so I washed dishes. She sipped her tea and watched me vacantly. When I was done with the dishes and the sink, I turned around and gazed at her. I said, You look tired. Why don’t you take a shower and get into bed? That would be very nice, she said. I gave her a clean towel, and after the shower she came out of the bathroom with it wrapped around her, her hair still in place atop her head. She looked at me shyly and I decided I shouldn’t even try to make love with her, much as I wanted to. I kissed her on the cheek and wished her a good rest.
I had passed so many months longing to see her that I didn’t want to go to work, for fear she might vanish while I was gone. But I couldn’t do anything to stop her, all I could do was leave her a note saying I would see her in a few hours. Rushing home at the end of the day, I found her sitting in the front room overlooking the quiet street. She donned her parka again — the usual cold springtime breeze was blowing down the streets — and we went out in search of something to eat. I am starving, she said, and laughed. It’s funny to speak English. In Ukraine they don’t speak lightly about starvation. In America you say everything lightly. Nothing is serious. We walked along the narrow sidewalks on Divisadero, dodging the planter boxes and signboards put out by shopkeepers. She went on: It’s not cool, putting quotes around the words. In the West I can speak ironic again.
We went into a Thai restaurant. Tell me about your trip, I said. It was like a fairy tale, in more ways than one, she said. Really, you would not believe it. Try me, I said. They tried to burn me as a witch, she said. I laughed and said, Okay, that’s pretty good. No, she said, it was very bad. Okay, I said. Seriously, they tried to kill me, she said. You will see. She didn’t say it in an upset way. Again it struck me that she was speaking from a distance, as if floating above the plane of existence. But I put it down to simple exhaustion.
She took a long pull of beer. This is not real beer, she said. Not compared to Europe beer. But anyway, let’s see. My cousins are all married now. Even the gay one. Him they did not try to kill. So, some things have changed. I drank my own beer and looked back at her. Sorry, she said, I will lighten up.
I asked if she had done any painting or drawing while she was away. A little drawing, she said. Nothing I wanted to keep. She fiddled with the knife at her place setting.
When we returned to my apartment, I told her it wasn’t that I wanted her to lighten up, or not to tell me what had happened. I’m your friend, I said. If something happened, you can talk about it with me. Okay, she said, in a tone that made it sound as if the word “okay” still sounded foreign in her own mouth. We should go to bed, she added. I didn’t know whether she meant together or separately, but she took me by the hand and led me into my bedroom, where she took off the heavy sweater she was wearing and then began to unbutton her blouse. To forego any more ambiguity, I too began removing my clothes, and when we were both fully naked, we got into bed.
She lay with her head on my shoulder and pressed her hand against my breastbone as if assuring herself I was real. Then we began kissing and making love. When I was inside her, she looked intently into my face with an almost anguished expression. She seemed to be looking at me, into me, and through me all at the same time, as if in my eyes she saw the night sky. Me, I was simply happy to be with her again; this is what I had longed for during those months alone, and I tried to feel happy, even if she didn’t seem light-hearted. I placed my hands under her shoulder blades and pulled her to me and tried to contact her through the act of sex, though it felt only a little successful. Afterward, I stayed in her as long as I could. After resting on her breast for a minute, I raised my head and told her how much I’d missed her.
She nodded solemnly. Then she looked frightened for a second. If something’s wrong, tell me, I said. She sighed, and taking my hands gently in hers, she pulled them up to her head. She had never taken down her hair, but the curls atop her head had come loose and spread around her head in a dark corona. She drew my hands to her scalp, where buried in her hair I felt strange objects, two of them. They were not loose in her hair, but fixed to her skull. She dropped her hands as I explored them with my fingers — they felt smooth and cool, neither skin nor metal nor hair. But in the forest of her hair and the dim light of the room I couldn’t see anything clearly. Sensing this, she said, We’ll sit up. We both sat on the edge of the bed. Turn on the light, she said, and gathered her hair and held it back. Even then her thick hair mostly hid the things that I had felt. I gently divided her hair over one of the bumps, and gradually uncovered it. Then I did the same with the other. Growing through the flesh of her scalp were horns.
They were a couple of inches behind the hairline, silver-grey in color, and I remembered that I had read that the horns of rhinos and other animals are essentially the same stuff of fingernails. These were quite hard, and about an inch high. One was more pointy than the other, but otherwise each was a sort of pyramid of keratin — the word came to me.
That isn’t all, she said. She directed the reading lamp on its long neck to her legs, where I saw something else I hadn’t thought to notice in the dark. On much of her left leg was the mark of a terrible burn. I told you, she said, they tried to kill me.
She said: When I left for Ukraine to see my uncle before he died, it was autumn. I flew to Frankfurt, then to Kiev, then to Lviv. My cousin Irena was waiting for me. We loaded my bag into her Fiat and drove straight to the hospital, where Uncle Kyryl was dying of cancer.
It was night, cold and rainy. It had only been six years since I left Ukraine to go to university in United States, but I looked at a city I had never seen before. It was gaudy, with new shops and nightclubs. Hundreds of taxis, each of them with two or three passengers, and many small cars from the West. Across from the hospital was a bus station, and buses sat in a large parking lot or plaza between the two buildings, their engines turned on. Exhaust was pouring from the tailpipes, and smoke was coming out of the driver’s window of each bus, as the driver sat smoking and waiting. We had to park on this plaza and make our way through the clouds, like walking across a plain of volcanic vents.
People were smoking even inside the hospital, even in the elevator as we rode upstairs. I hadn’t realized how used I had gotten to America where no one is allowed to smoke inside. Uncle Kyryl was receiving oxygen, so thank God no one was allowed to smoke in his room, but outside in the hallway members of my family, and other people outside other rooms, were smoking. It was like a courthouse, where they were taking a break from trials where their family member stood accused of a capital offense. Yes, I thought to myself, the patients are on trial for their lives.
Presenting me to the crowd in the hallway, Irena said only: Veronika. Each of the people there embraced me with one arm, keeping the other free for their cigarette. My mother, her sister and other brother, many cousins. Even a ten-year-old boy who was the son of one of my cousins. He, at least, was not smoking.
My mother had been crying. She hugged me, then she and her sister, my aunt Sylvia, took me into the room. My uncle was lying on the bed, among a tangle of cables and lines, beneath a bright light. An intubation tube was taped to his mouth. Kyrya, my mother said, it’s Veronika. My Veronika. She came from America. My uncle opened his eyes and fixed them on me. He reached out for my hand, and grunted — what could he say with that tube in his mouth? — then closed his eyes, keeping my hand in his. His hand was rough and callused, the hand of a worker, though he worked as a hydrologist. He earned his calluses in his garden.
His wife, Sylvia, was about sixty. He was watching football at the pub, she said, when he collapsed. They found he had two arteries blocked. They did surgery, all routine they said, but something went wrong. They had to revive him twice. I’m sorry, Uncle Kyryl, I said. I’ve been away so long. We sat there a few minutes, and then my mother tugged my arm. Come, she said. I bent over and kissed my uncle on the cheek and said I was tired from my journey and would see him tomorrow. Sylvia took my place at the bedside, and I followed my mother out.
We will pray, she said. I have been traveling for twenty hours, I said, can it wait until tomorrow? Did you see him? she said. He will not wait until tomorrow. How do you know? I asked, but she strode ahead. She led me through hallways, up and down sloped ramps that seemed to indicate transitions between newer and older buildings, and then to confuse me even more, we took the elevator up to the fourth floor, even though Uncle Kyryl’s room had been on the fifth. We emerged from the elevator into a zone that was very dark and quiet, lit only by dim lights that shone indirectly on walls. There were no crowds of relatives standing in the hallways; there were no nurses going from room to room. The doors were marked Dialysis and Chemotherapy and Outpatient Clinic, and I guessed that this part of the hospital was used only for daytime appointments and was vacant at night. We turned a corner and went into a doorway under a lighted sign that said Chapel.
They must have gotten some donation to design and build the chapel, which was very Sixties minimalist. Blonde wood pews, a gestural altar table composed of bare black marble. On the wall behind the altar, a crucifix using the same color wood as the pews bore a metal Christ, stylized and extenuated, like a Giacometti figure. Behind him were golden metal rods suggesting radiating light. A spotlight on this monstrous thing was the only light in the room, other than a rack of candles off to the side. My mother led me to the candles and told me to buy one.
I haven’t any hryvnia yet, I said — that’s the currency. God doesn’t care, she said, though I should say she said it with some irony. Even though she brought me to pray, she had never been very religious. But here we were in the hospital, one of the gates to the underworld. I understood that whatever coin I left might be used to pay the ferryman who conducted my uncle to the other side, so I put in a two-euro coin I’d gotten in change at the Frankfurt airport. I lit a candle and then we went to sit in a pew, looking at the crucifix, since that was the only thing to look at. I should add that it was freezing cold in there, but no matter how I tried, I couldn’t make steam with my breath, as if I were the one who would soon be a ghost.
Are you praying? I asked my mother. Why not? she said, Doctor Obolonchyk isn’t watching me. He was my economics teacher at university, an atheist of the first order. You could get on his bad side if you simply wished someone a happy Christmas. Once he even said that people with names from the Bible, like Maria or Josef, should change their names to those of Communist heroes, and he would get mad if you suggested that men named Josef were already named after Stalin. Anyway, he’s not watching, unless it’s from the grave, while maybe he is — she gave the briefest of nods toward the figure on the wall. Still hanging up there after two millennia. The Protestants took him down, you know. Their crucifixes are empty. Now that’s progress. Anyway, let’s say a prayer. Jesus Christ, receive my brother Kyryl into your arms — if you can take them down off that cross long enough. And let him not suffer, I added. And not suffer, she repeated, for you know we suffer enough already. Fine, amen.
I wish I could say that when we got back to the hospital room, Uncle Kyryl had already died. Then our prayers would have been answered. But that was not the case; he had merely fallen asleep. We left his wife there by his side, and my mother said that Irena would take me home. I thought she meant Irena would take me to my mother’s apartment, but Irena took me to her own house, where I slept in a small bed in her room, a bed that used to be occupied by her older sister.
Oh, why am I telling you all these family details? It’s enough to say that I spent the night with relatives, who let me sleep as late as I needed to, and in the morning fed me. Then it was back to the hospital. I joined the crowd of relatives outside Kyryl’s room. I couldn’t see the point of just standing there against the wall, so I paced slowly up and down the corridor, and when I couldn’t stand the cigarette smoke anymore, I went downstairs to the garden behind the hospital. There I could walk in the rain along a circular gravel path between shrubs. I even went to the bus station across the way and found an umbrella which someone had left behind, so that I could walk in the rain as much as I wanted. Irena would come with me, and ask me about life in America, though almost everything I said compared unfavorably to the life of her sister Krystyna, who runs a restaurant in Toronto with her husband. Krystyna has an SUV, a big house, two children, and they own a business. My life as an artist in San Francisco sounded ridiculous by comparison.
The day after I arrived, I started to get headaches. My whole head felt tight, and at first I thought I had a sinus infection, one of those low-grade illnesses you get after a long flight. Gradually, the pain transferred itself from my sinuses to my temples, a feeling as if someone was holding me suspended in midair by my hair. I tried everything to make the pain go away — European-grade ibuprofen, codeine, alcohol. Of course, since I spent most of my time at the hospital, I associated the sensation with being there, and with Kyryl’s illness and his decline, and with the constant smoke. By the fourth day of my visit, he was no longer conscious, and the fifth day the nurses said his organs were failing. By the sixth day, everyone was simply waiting for his last breath, but Kyryl’s heart was strong. No one went home, we simply stayed in the hallway like stranded travelers who have given up hope their plane will leave. Finally, in the middle of the night, the alarms went off, and his wife forbade the staff from doing anything more to him. She put her head on his chest and cried.
After an hour of paying our last respects, I told Irena that I would take a taxi back to her place — I had my own key by this time. But instead, I stumbled out of the hospital, carrying my stolen black umbrella, into the light of dawn. It was a Sunday, and the city was quiet and empty. I walked through the old city in a light rain, the same rain that had been falling since my arrival. From time to time, I lowered the umbrella and let the rain fall on my head, since the cool moisture was the only thing that made me feel better. After an hour or two I grew tired and stopped in a church, where a mass was going on.
I took a seat in the last bench, along with an assortment of refugees from discos who had been abandoned by their friends without cab fare. From the back of the church, a large space with absurd rococo decorations, the ceremony at the altar resembled a miniature tableau. The priests and altar boys were tiny yet crystal clear, as if I were looking at them through the wrong end of a telescope. Just as the priest raised the host and the little bells rang, a wave of pain hit me, and I nearly blacked out. I started to lie down in the pew, but an usher hissed at me that I wasn’t allowed to sleep off my hangover there. Fortunately, at that moment everyone sank to their knees, and I joined them, resting my head on the pew in front of me. Every time I moved my head, raising it from time to time so the usher wouldn’t think I was sleeping, I felt like my head might simply roll off my shoulders and across the floor. I raised my hands to my scalp, and then I felt them for the first time, these things. They were trying to push up through my skin.
I thought I was hallucinating, the effect of the pain and the pain pills. But a part of me said, This is real.
When people near me stood up to make their way to the front to receive communion, I left the church. The rain was falling even harder now. I found a café and had espresso; it seemed to help my head a little. I kept touching the place on my scalp, hidden in my hair, and every time I touched them, the bumps seemed to be more prominent. I couldn’t stay in one place. After awhile I decided that the only place I could be was in some anonymous seat on a train, so I went to the train station and got on a train to Kiev. As the train pulled out I sent a text to Irena saying I needed some privacy for a day or two, but I would return in time for the funeral. I had nothing except my wallet and passport and some handkerchiefs I had bought the day before, thinking I could put some ice in them for my head.
As the train made its way through the Ukrainian countryside, through forests and past enormous dead industrial installations from the Soviet era, the horns broke through my scalp. I held the handkerchiefs to my head. Fortunately, few people were on this Sunday train, and the conductor didn’t comment on my bloody handkerchiefs. And in fact there wasn’t much blood. It was as if my scalp knew what to do, yielding to the horns as if it understood they had their rightful place on my head. By nightfall I reached Kiev and checked into a cheap hotel near the station. The pain had lessened, and I fell into a dead sleep. In the morning I was awakened by the cleaner’s knock, but I wouldn’t let her in. I stayed there wondering what dream or nightmare I had gotten caught in. I couldn’t keep myself from repeatedly checking that something was happening on my head. When I looked into the mirror, I saw that my hair was a mess, matted with blood; I looked like a monster. I took a shower and carefully washed my hair and my head of the dried blood. Then I gently dried myself, approached the mirror, and parted my hair. There they were, silvery nubs appearing through my scalp, which was bleeding only a little bit. I arranged my hair so that they were hidden, and went down to get something to eat.
I stayed in that hotel for three days, leaving my room only to go down to the bar on the ground floor to have soup and sausages and beer. Each day these things grew, until it was obvious what was happening. I had spontaneously developed horns. I did not know what fairy tale I had stepped into; I only wanted to contact the author and tell him that he had set the story in the wrong century. But since this was really happening, I wondered what would come next. Day to day, I could keep them covered with my hair. Eventually when I saw a hairdresser I would have some explaining to do, but by that time I would be back in San Francisco, where nothing fazed anyone.
Once the pain passed, I felt almost normal. The only problem was that I had missed the funeral of Uncle Kyryl. I called Irena and apologized, then spoke to her mother and apologized again. I had been ill, I said, which was the truth. I felt better now and would come back to Lviv and visit for another few days before returning to America. I went to a chain store, something like Target here, and bought some new clothes and some toiletries, since I had brought no luggage on the train. I sat in a laundromat while the new clothes washed and dried, and when I got back to my hotel I put on the new clothes and checked out.
Now that I was clean and rested, I felt like a new person. I got on the train and happily watched the view out the window. When the hostess came around, I bought two beers, and when those were finished I went to the café car and bought another. I got to talking with some young men. One was a scholar returning home to Lviv, two others worked for a ship manufacturer on the Black Sea. They were only too happy to speak to a young woman who had been to America, and we got tipsy together on the train. As for me, this was the first time on my trip that I had the chance, aside from my walks in the hospital garden with Irena, to talk to people my age. I began to enjoy myself. While they were talking, I was thinking to myself, perhaps this will be all right. Maybe my horns will be like a superpower, something hidden that marks me as special. Even if there is no magic associated with them — not that I had tried anything, who knows, maybe there were some spells I could cast, probably not — I will still be one in a billion. Maybe I would keep them a powerful secret, maybe I would become a rock star or something.
After some time, the scholar went to the WC. One of the boat workers said, This beer is making me sleepy, maybe I will take a nap. Yes, you should come too, the other said to me. Normally I would have just laughed and stayed there, but I found myself getting up and going with them.
What happened, happened. We went into their compartment, which was empty. They drew the curtains and had me sit between them. A moment later their hands were on me. Well, I can’t say I didn’t expect it, and I was drunk enough to say to myself, Let’s try to enjoy this. I am the horned woman (not that I intended to show them to these two), I have the power to slut around. So we proceeded to have this bout of, I don’t know what you’d call it, quasi-sexual activity imitating the porn films they’d seen. I wasn’t particularly aroused, but I tried to enjoy my role. While I was going down on one of the guys, he put his hands on my head and felt my horns. Wait, what’s this? he asked. I tried to suck him harder to distract him. But he was one of those stubborn types who, if they catch you trying to divert them in any way, will immediately do the opposite, in order to prove who’s boss. He pushed me away from him and then roughly pulled my hair back until he could see my horns. Then he started swearing, saying Fucking Christ God, what have we here? What kind of freak are you? I thought I could still charm him, so I answered: A freak who is sucking your cock. But he shouted, You’re a fucking vampire or something. Meanwhile his friend, who had been tugging my pants off during the previous action, was saying, What the hell are you talking about? I was just about to get some. And they began to argue back and forth. The stubborn one, his name was Yuri, was between me and the door, and I knew I would never get past him unless I did something extreme. He was standing over me, his pants still around his ankles while he was arguing with his friend, so I punched him in the crotch as hard as I could, twice. That knocked him over. Pulling up my pants, I charged toward the door. His friend caught my elbow, and I turned and whispered to him, Just you, just you. Leave him. It’s you I want. So he came with me into the corridor and shut the door on Yuri.
Get some help, I said, you go that way, and I’ll go this way. Now I should say he was the drunker of the two, and as he tried to understand me, the train gave a lurch, and he stumbled. I pushed him down the rest of the way, and while he was lying in the corridor, Yuri came out of the compartment and tripped over him. I ran away. I managed to get to the next car, which was a normal coach, not a car with compartments. I was no longer drunk; the adrenaline had overcome the alcohol. I knew I had to suddenly become a normal middle-class woman, and I straightened my hair as I walked through the car as if I had simply come out of the WC. I was able to get through that car and to the next one, where my seat was. Sitting down, I thought to myself, I will become invisible. If I have any superpowers then let that be the one.
Behind me I could hear the two boat workers coming into the car, their breath heaving as if they had been running. From the other direction, two policemen entered the car. I sat as still as a stone. You can imagine what happened — the two workers tried to get past the policemen, the policemen had none of it, they asked for papers, so on and so forth. No one ever saw or questioned me. No, I don’t think I was truly invisible, but in any case, I managed to save myself.
From then on I was much more careful. I went back to Irena’s apartment and apologized to the family again for ducking out like I had. They were forgiving because — and I don’t know how I had missed this — they were in the middle of preparations for Irena’s wedding, which would occur the following weekend. So that was fine, I would stay for the wedding, everyone would be distracted, and then I would go back to America, my family duties fulfilled.
The wedding was held in a small parish church. I was ushered up to the front, seated with the family, and when it came time, I approached the priest to receive Communion. Of course I didn’t think the horns made me devilish or any such thing. I had a medical condition, not demon possession, and this was the 21st century. So I received Communion with a clear conscience, not that I was governed by their rules anyway.
Afterward we went to a hotel for the reception. I tried not to drink very much; I didn’t want to forget myself. Since the incident on the train, I had given a lot of thought to how I should conduct myself from now on. I would keep the horns a secret, avoiding misunderstandings and curses of strangers. They would be like an amulet, a private mark of my uniqueness and power. I would not try to use them for publicity, or as a personal ... what are Americans calling it? As a brand. I would not become known as the Devil Girl or bullshit like that. That is for shitty reality TV.
So there I was at the reception, dancing with cousins and their friends in a restrained way, and returning often to my seat. I didn’t want to appear standoffish, nor did I want to attract notice. I was already notable enough as someone who lived in America, but fortunately my crass cousin from Canada was there, showing off and drawing all the attention. The reception was transpiring normally, and the next day I would fly back. But fate intervened.
As the party went on, it started to get noisier and wilder, and I decided to take a break. I left the ballroom where the reception was being held, and followed a sign that pointed to a garden. I went through some French doors and found myself on a patio surrounded by a small lawn. For once it wasn’t raining, though the sky was overcast. On the other side of the lawn grew some of those skinny pine trees, forming a kind of hedge. And beyond them I could see the flames of a fire.
I was curious, so I ventured over to the edge of the garden and looked between the trees. I saw a vacant lot, with some cars and trucks parked, but near the trees where I was standing, a fire was burning. What do you call it? A bonfire? It was more like a trash fire. I saw part of a wooden palette, and what looked like some window frames, but it was not a small fire. Standing around the flames were some young people, maybe six boys and two girls. At least some of them appeared nicely dressed, and I supposed they were wedding guests who were also taking a break from the party. I saw them smoking pot, which explained why they were out there under the gray sky. One of the boys looked up and saw me and said, Hey American. So he knew who I was. I went over to them and said hello, gauging from their brief greetings who was stoned and who wasn’t, which of the men were with each of the girls and which were unattached. After chatting with them for ten minutes, and refusing the marijuana, I said I was getting chilly and was going back inside. The girls said they were coming too, but one of the boys started objecting. He took off his leather jacket and threw it over my shoulders and said, Here, now you’re not cold. Then I realized that he and another one of the boys were not from the wedding party. I tried giving the jacket back to him so I could follow the two couples who were already going back between the trees toward the hotel, but he had his big hand on my shoulder. I saw this would get bad very quickly, so I struck back with my foot, kicking him in the knee. He cried out in pain and dropped his hand, whereupon I shrugged off the jacket and ran after the others saying, Wait, wait, don’t leave me with this shithead. They laughed, either at me or at the man I had kicked. They disappeared inside the hotel, just as I felt a hand grab me from behind.
The men spun me around and slapped me, then someone was pushing his tongue inside my mouth. Another man was laughing. Someone held my hands. I won’t give the details, you can imagine. It was like being caught inside a wave at the beach, underwater, like an undertow, and drowning. But to hell with that, what was happening wasn’t a metaphor, it was just a nasty piece of sexual violence by hoodlums, or more likely by boys who I’m sure were usually very nice but who were at the moment rapists. It happened in the shelter of the trees, in a place that was hidden from both the street and from the hotel. Just as before, there was a moment when one of these oafs had his cock in my mouth and his hands on my head, and he discovered my horns. Just as the other one had, he crowed, What’s this? What’s this? like a teacher who discovers a joint in a schoolboy’s desk. He made one of the other boys look at my horns. And once this boy had seen, he said, My god, she’s a fucking devil. The man who was fucking me at the time jumped away as if afraid I would bite it off from inside, and then once they’d all had a look, the first one said, Let’s burn her.
They picked me up — the one who’d been fucking me trailing behind as he zipped up his pants — and carried me over to the fire and pushed me into it. I managed to fall in such a way that only my legs were really in the flames, but my dress caught fire anyway. It burned up almost instantly, but the leggings I had on clung to my legs as they burned. The pain was indescribable; I was screaming like in a horror movie, rolling on the ground. They might have thrown me back into the fire again, but at that moment two men from the party came through the trees, drawn by the commotion and by my screams, perhaps. At the sight of these men, my attackers ran away. An ambulance came quite quickly — we were in the center of the city — and took me to the hospital, the same one where my uncle had died. The doctors there knew what to do. They plunged my legs into a tank of cold water, hooked me to IVs, and pumped me full of fluid, antibiotics, and morphine. While they were doing this, the police came. They waited while the doctors got me stabilized, and then came forward. By this time I didn’t see any point in trying to hide what had happened to me. It might have been one thing if we had been in a police station, but we were in fact in a hospital, so I decided to tell the cops about the attack and the reason the boys had thrown me into the fire. Of course they didn’t believe me, so I said, Look for yourself. They stood around taking turns, but at least they didn’t make a scene. I guess if you’re a policeman in Ukraine, you’ve seen everything. They called the doctor in; the doctor called his boss in. Bear in mind that I was on morphine by this time, so I was beyond being embarrassed or annoyed by the attention. The boss doctor said to everyone else, It’s a known, but very rare, condition. It’s not black magic or anything of the sort. It’s a spontaneous growth. He turned to me. How long have you had this? Only a few days, I said. Impossible, he said, growths of this size would take years. I’m on morphine, I said, how could I lie? That’s a myth, the doctor said. One of the cops broke in. Are you saying these are real, not implants, not a costume of some kind? We haven’t X-rayed them, the doctor said.
But what does it matter, I said, what counts is that when these boys discovered the horns they threw me into the fire. They thought they were real. But what matters is what they did to me: They held me against my will, they raped me, and then they tried to kill me. This brought the minds of the police back to the primary matter, and they interrogated me for almost an hour, before the doctors kicked them out. She needs rest, I heard the doctor say, before I fell asleep.
When I woke, I was in a regular hospital room. The first thing I noticed was that my arms were encumbered with plastic lines. It was difficult for me to reach up to my head; when I tried, one of the lines became bent, and an alarm went off. I quickly reached up and felt my head — the horns were still there. Then a nurse came in to see about the alarm. Don’t try to get up, she said. If you need help, ring the bell. She stopped the alarm and went away.
I lay in the bed, trying to put together what was real. It was difficult, because not only was it hard to believe all this had happened to me, but I was in pain, pain that made me feel as if my calves were being eaten alive or stung by invisible insects. I was also groggy with anesthetics, which did not eliminate the pain, but caused it to retreat behind a deadening curtain — still present, still making itself felt, but dimmed.
And I saw a deeper part of me — I don’t know if I was hallucinating or disassociating — behind an even thicker barrier, like the two-foot-thick whitewashed wall of a church. A wall that protected my consciousness from the fiery heat of the pain. This protected part seemed lucid and reasonable; it was even conscious that I was on drugs and that it might not be as lucid as it felt. But with this part I could think to myself: I got into a hell of a lot of trouble. I am in a hospital, I remember I am in Ukraine. Yes, I used to live in America, I used to be an artist. Now I am just a burn patient, and what the future holds is a complete mystery.
The only thing within sight was a crucifix on the opposite wall. I remembered how my mother had spoken to the Christ figure in the hospital’s chapel — had prayed. Praying is not something I do, but then again it was not something my mother did either. It’s something you do only at the point of despair, when you don’t care about science or the harms of religion, when you need something beyond all that. The lucid part of me considered whether I was yet at that point of despair and could pray. Because if you are an atheist, any prayer from you would be false unless you were at that point.
Before I could decide whether I was truly despairing, I found myself forming a prayer anyway. The rational part of me said, All right, write your prayer, but make it like a letter you write but wait to send, and then when you are truly in the depths, you can send it. So I formed this prayer: Take my suffering from me, it said, you who suffered enough for all. Restore my burned flesh, you whose flesh was whipped and pierced. Take these horns from me, you who wore a crown of thorns. If your suffering means anything.
But as I say, I didn’t send my prayer. I thought, I am not at the bottom yet. I am in the valley of death’s shadow, but I am not at the very bottom. I still have something left to me. And then I thought: If I am not in despair, then I won’t have them touch my horns. They will be the symbol of what I have left. Maybe they will bring me strength.
I went to sleep. When I woke, it was night. A different nurse was there, hanging a bag of fluid. I told her I was in pain. I had to wait until she came back with a dose, which she pushed into a line that went straight into my veins. While I waited for the relief, I focused on the nurse’s face. At first I didn’t understand what I was looking at; in the shadowy room, her face refused to resolve in my sight. I thought perhaps I was hallucinating. Then I realized her face was marked with a raspberry stain, spreading from her right temple to her left cheek, a blot that resembled a Rorschach test, or the map of Central America.
You, I said, you are like me. How so? she asked quietly, her attention on the syringe. You are a marked one, I said. If you’re talking about your burns, yes, I’m afraid you’ll have some scarring. I wasn’t thinking about that, I said. Haven’t they told you about my horns? She looked at me guardedly. I did hear something, she said, but I thought it was just a rumor. Look, I said. They’re hidden in my hair. I reached up with my free hand and pulled my hair aside. Here and here. She bent over and looked, in that quick, clinical way nurses have. Wow, she said. So you see, you’re like me, I said, you are marked. I suppose so, she said. I was afraid she would turn and go. Listen, I said. I will need your help. I don’t know what they want to do to me, but I want everyone to know: They’re not to try to remove my horns. I’m here because of the burns, not the horns. I don’t give anyone permission to treat them. I depend on your honor and professionalism. She looked at me and said, I will tell the doctors.
Of course, they tried to talk me into it. We don’t know how big they will grow, they said. You might not always be able to hide them in your hair. And what if you get into another situation like today? I refused to discuss it. I am an adult, and I have the right to refuse medical treatment, I kept saying. I asked my mother to get a lawyer to defend me, and the lawyer sent an assistant to get a sworn statement, and he had it delivered to the hospital. Law still means something in that country, thank God. Meanwhile, of course, they were treating my burns.
I spent several weeks in the hospital, and six more months living at home with my mother and going to outpatient appointments. They took skin grafts from my back. Really, the horns are not even the most freakish thing about me. In the morning you’ll see — what with the scars and the skin harvesting, I’m quite a mess.
But finally my medical treatment was over. I said goodbye to my family and bought a ticket and now I am here. I called you, Nicholas, because I remembered the kind way you treated me before. I thought you would be kind to me now.
I felt that anything I said would seem inadequate, but I told her I had missed her very much. I didn’t try to tell her how much; my feelings, my experience for the last several months seemed less important in the moments after I had heard her story. But she turned to face me, her expression in shadow — we were lying in my bed, the bedside lamp was behind her — and said, You missed me? How is that? I was in love with you, I said. I mean, I am.
Hmf, it is good you used past tense, she said. You missed one person; but I am not the same. Even with all that happened, I said, you are still you. No, she said. What did you miss? Painter? I have not painted since leaving U.S. Poetry classmate? I have not written a word since leaving. Girl who fucked you? Now I am rape victim. Pretty girl? Now I am horned girl covered in scars. Nothing is the same about me.
I said that she had survived, and that the person who survived so much was a strong person, a resilient person. Someone admirable, someone I admired, I corrected myself. Admiring is not love, she said. We were silent for a minute, and then I said — playing the card every San Franciscan holds which every non-resident finds hard to procure, namely a place to live — Look, you can stay with me. I have nowhere to go, she said, as she had before. Thank you, but don’t do it because you think you have back girl who painted. I am different. Aren’t you going to paint? I asked. Sure, I will try, she said.
The next day we confirmed that she had lost her place, and that her possessions had been put into storage. I offered to redeem them — hundreds of dollars of rent had accumulated on the storage place — but she said I shouldn’t. I don’t need that stuff now, Nicholas. That’s my past life, let it go. But your clothes, I said, your notebooks, everything you had. It is not that much, she said. I only lived in America for a year before we met, I hardly bought things. True, it would be nice to have some of my clothes, but these are just things. I went through the fire, Nicholas. My life is a different life now.
But she still had her art studio. Through an arrangement the city demanded, its rent had been paid to the Port Authority automatically, from a bank account that was regularly replenished from an account in Ukraine ... I never quite understood how that happened, but somehow she still had her studio. She began going there on the bus, on days she felt like it. She didn’t always feel like it, because her legs were still healing, and she was in pain most of the time. Sometimes she didn’t even feel like walking, but she would force herself up, because the physical therapists had told her that walking would help circulation, and circulation would speed healing. After another year, she might be pain free.
After I realized how hard it was for her some days to walk, I bought her an old car for a few hundred dollars, so that she wouldn’t have to get to her studio on the bus. She accepted this as she accepted everything else I did for her — with polite thanks, but no show of gratitude. Not that I expected a show of gratitude, but sometimes her equanimity was unnerving. She seemed to accept everything that came along, good and bad, as if the good couldn’t make any difference, and the bad was simply what she expected. She had always been a little bit that way. I remembered taking care of her when she had the flu, when we were first dating, and how she seemed both grateful and a little embarrassed by my efforts. But now she was more distant. A cup of tea, a car — any offering was acknowledged by a small, hesitant smile, as if she couldn’t bring herself to tell me how little such things mattered.
Sleeping was difficult for her. She would jerk awake at any hour. She would never scream or cry, but an involuntary word or two, always in Ukrainian, might escape her lips. I would wake up and comfort her, whisper to her that she was safe. Often she would go back to sleep before I could, and I lay in the dark. At first all I felt was concern, but after several nights of this, when the interrupted sleep was dragging me down, I started to feel resentful — and then guilty, because what had happened to her was worse.
If we fought about something — always a trivial subject, such as dirty dishes in the sink, or who was responsible for the wasting vegetables in the refrigerator — she could end the argument by saying, You are selfish, rich American, I am a fucking traumatic, of course you don’t care. Actually, I did care, much more than her. I was trying to love her; she was just trying to survive what had happened to her.
On calm evenings, if she had gone to her studio that day, I would ask her how it went. At first — during the early summer months, soon after her return from Ukraine — she would mostly answer neutrally. I am not doing much, she said, I am experimenting a little, but nothing is really coming on paper. Once I asked her if she had done any drawing while she was recovering in Ukraine. She said: I did a lot of sketching in the hospital, pictures of women with horns, why not? I drew the same thing over and over, a young woman with horns, like Diana the huntress with a bow and arrows. She crouches by a stream, drinking with a cupped hand, looking around. I was drawing myself, or what I thought was my real self, but not everyone knew I had horns. I covered them with my hair and with a scarf. At the burn rehabilitation center no one paid attention to what was happening on my head, so I kept them secret. I cleaned my own hair from time to time with a kind of foam they gave me. No, my family never knew.
I’d like to see those pictures, I said. Oh, I threw that sketchbook away. I got tired of it. What was I drawing, a cartoon character for young girls? Go on the internet, you can see endless of that crap. No more pictures of girls with horns. But where my art will go now, I have to keep experimenting. I only know it can’t be the same as before.
While she went to her studio, I went to work and I came home. My job involved handling records at the Health Department. There was always the same amount of work to do, and always the same order for every task. Monday tasks, Tuesday tasks, and so on; beginning- and end-of-the-month tasks too. It wasn’t possible to do well at the job; one could only go unnoticed, or do badly. Nothing could or did happen in my day-to-day life — no accomplishments, no tragedies, no victories — that I could bring to my relationship with Veronika. This meant I was able to focus intently on trying to love and comfort her. Unfortunately, that proved almost impossible.
She said she appreciated that I was giving her shelter, and she said she liked living with me. But eventually I was forced to acknowledge the one-sidedness of our relationship. Whether she was too damaged to think about anyone else, or just too self-centered, she never told me I looked nice, never tried to make me laugh, never even asked me about my writing. I had to think back over the time we’d known each other, both before and after her trip to Ukraine, and I had to admit she had never said she loved me.
But I still loved her. I loved her curly hair, whether it hid horns or not. I loved her for trying to work despite all that had happened, and I was curious about what she would eventually produce. I loved having sex with her, and when one of us climaxed — I’m sure she wasn’t faking, because she didn’t fake any other kind of pleasure, so why should she fake that? — I felt ridiculously close to her and grateful to be with her. Even when I realized she didn’t love me, it didn’t make me want to throw her out. Somehow it made me want to protect her even more. Because if she couldn’t love someone who was good to her, and I was trying to be very good to her, then if I threw her out she might wind up with someone who wasn’t good to her. And I couldn’t stand that thought.
As for my writing, it had been easier for me when she was in Ukraine and out of touch. Then things were simple: I missed my beloved who, in my memory, didn’t change. As long as that was the case, I could write about that cherished, absent object of desire. When she returned and I had to deal with the reality of Veronika, it wasn’t so simple. But finally I realized that the theme of the third part of my book, the part about loss, still pertained. The Veronika who had returned to me wasn’t the one who left and the one I had written about. I had truly lost that person.
I came home one day to find her sitting on the toilet lid. She was sitting very still, her elbow propped on the sink, her hand reaching up to touch her horns. Her face was relaxed, almost docile. Only her eyes were alive. It was as if she were listening to something.
I hesitated to interrupt her reverie, but after several minutes, when she still hadn’t noticed me observing her, I spoke. Hey, I said. She looked at me as if from a distance, even squinting a little. What’s wrong, I asked.
Her eyes refocused. Horns are just horns, she said.
I asked what she meant. Horns are not evil, are not good, are not super, not sick, not power, not terrible. Except they are in the way sometimes — more and more. And are getting harder to hide. So they’re growing, I said. Of course horns are growing, she said, fingernail does not stop growing, horn of elephant does not stop. Tusk, I said. Anyway does not stop, she said. Some day I will be like deer, she added, and began to cry. Like deer caught in rose bush, like Frida Kahlo painting.
Well, I said, you could reconsider having them. I mean, you could probably have them removed surgically.
No, she said immediately. They are mine. They were given to me, gift or curse is up to me to live. You have a choice, I argued. Yes, we all have a choice, she said. Even Christ had choice. At least I don’t have to choose between living and dying.
I didn’t know what to say to that. I put my arm around her, awkwardly so in the narrow bathroom. Finally I said, Well, at least they aren’t painful. No, she said, wiping her tears. It’s strange, horns are the cause of everything, but it’s the rest of my body which is painful. If horns were painful, I might think differently. Then I would have simpler problem.
She stood up. I have to take a bath.
Most evenings, she would take a bath in epsom salts, then spread her scars with sap directly from an aloe vera plant. She had so much scarred skin that the small plant we bought had been quickly used up, and we bought three more — one to use up completely, two more to grow while the first one was sacrificed. I would kneel in front of her as she sat on the toilet seat and help her apply the aloe. She could do it without me, but there was so little I could do to make her feel better that I wanted to do this one thing.
My hands had grown cracked and raw, so I put on gloves to apply the aloe gel. What’s this? she asked. My hands are bothering me, I said, I think I developed an allergy to the aloe. Well then you shouldn’t be doing this, she said with irritation. I’ll do it myself. I want to help, I said. I don’t need you to help, and I especially don’t need to you take on suffering for me. You are not Christ. I’m just trying to help, I repeated. By being a martyr, that’s stupid. Why I can’t be the injured one? Do you have to injure yourself, and take even that away from me? Even that, I echoed, what have I taken away from you?
You treat me like a baby, she said. Yesterday you jumped up when I came into the room with a laundry basket. I am not pregnant, I am not weak. I am a burn victim, a rape victim. I am not delicate, I am strong. I survived. I don’t need grown man to kneel and apply jelly on me.
She began to cry again. I retreated, got a drink and went out to the couch.
After awhile, she came out to the living room, carrying a mug of tea. Night had fallen outside, though the view out the window was still of the upper floor of the building across the street, and above it the foggy sky, simultaneously purple with night and yellow with the reflection of the city lights in the fog. You haven’t asked me about my work in a while, she said. I decided not to reply, and she went on. In fact, she said, all I want to do is throw everything away. Throw it away? I repeated. I want to take everything in the studio and burn it, she said. That would feel honest. That seems like what I can do with my work now. It’s like those monks who make the mandala, and then they destroy it. No, it’s not really like that — because the mandala is perfect, and an object of devotion, and it isn’t supposed to be art. It’s more like those rock musicians in the old days destroying their instruments on stage — but not really, because at least they had played a concert and done what was demanded of them. I can’t even do what I’m supposed to do. Has this happened before, I asked, being blocked like this? What did you do in the past to get out of it? No, she said, it’s not like those times. Things are different. I’m different.
Do you think, I said, that you are suffering from traumatic stress? After what happened to you ... That’s possible, she said, in the same even voice. You should see someone, I said. But I don’t want to just talk about it, she said, I can talk about it with you, I can tell you over and over: I was raped and thrown into the fire, I can recount what I remember to the last detail. It wasn’t like they say, that you go blank or go out of your body. I was in my body for the whole thing, believe me. And now, you’re in your body just as much? She paused to consider my question. I think I am, she said, but a way to describe it has just come to me. As an artist I work with my hands, correct? I don’t paint with my mouth or with my feet — though it’s true that some people do, who have no hands — I paint with my hands. But it is not only my hands which are painting, it is a spiritual hand, and a spiritual arm, connected to my spirit, which paints. And now it’s as if my spiritual hand is gone. Or not gone, I don’t feel it’s gone. But my connection to it is broken. It’s only the body and the mind which are trying to paint now, but that’s like trying to speak without lungs. I can form the words, but no breath comes out, and breath is spirit. We sat for a few moments considering what she had said. There, anyway, she said, you see you are a good therapist. You saved me the money today. Why are you crying? It was true, tears were rolling down my face. I said I felt close to her. You didn’t feel remote to me when you were talking to me just now, I said.
She didn’t reply, but took my raw, cracked hand in hers. You should not do this, she said, you should not hurt because I hurt. I already hurt enough, enough for you and for a few others, perhaps. Like a saint, I suggested. She shook her head, letting go of my hand.
We left the apartment and walked to a grocery where, because neither of us cooked, I often got takeout. I wanted to preserve the moment of intimacy we had just shared, and I put my arm around her. She let me, but looked ahead while we walked. Are you okay? I asked. No, I’m not okay, she said, I can’t work. Just because we talked, do you think you healed me? All I did was describe how fucked I am. And even if it was magic, and I had broken the ice or whatever you say, then I would right now be having a thought about painting, and you would be interrupting it. I said I was sorry. Maybe you should think about your own work, she said, and stop worrying about me.
So after that I didn’t ask her about her work. If she volunteered something, I would prompt her in the most unaggressive way possible, simply hoping she would continue. One day she came home and said, Well, I no longer draw girls with horns, now I paint fire. That figures, I said. For days I painted abstract fire, then I painted fire coming out of a train. Now for days I’ve been painting trains on fire, cars on fire, buses on fire. It’s terrible as art, but because it’s fun I’m hoping if I just keep at it it’ll lead somewhere. The train is moving? I asked. Maybe it’s going somewhere. Maybe the train has a destination. She said something in Ukrainian, probably a swear word. Stop it, Nicholas, she said, you are not really a therapist.
The summer approached its end. We slept together, ate dinner together, took walks. She brooded.
Toward the end of August, when the summer gloom was at its worst, she said she was sick of the fog and needed a change. She decided to go up to Lake Tahoe. She had heard it was beautiful, and she would look for a beach and take a swim. It’s cold, I warned her. What’s the difference? she said. Here ocean is cold too, and you can’t swim. At least sun will be visible, air will be warm. I need a vacation.
She didn’t ask me to come along. I told myself that maybe it would be good for us to be apart for a few days. She left the next day, kissing me briefly.
I didn’t hear from her while she was gone. It was a little like her absence before, though I believed her when she said she would be back within a week. My life, once again, didn’t change. I kept going to work and coming home, where I would sit at the kitchen table and stare out the window at the low, darkening clouds. If the Giants were playing, I would listen to the game on the radio, because that neatly divided the evening from the night. When the game ended, I went to bed.
I wondered if this were merely a trial separation, a test to see if she preferred being somewhere else, or alone. Maybe she would call and say she’d gotten a job as a waitress in a casino. Maybe she wouldn’t come back at all.
But she did come back as promised. It was the day before Labor Day. She seemed rested; she almost smiled. I have an idea, she said. Maybe it is my last idea.
She didn’t say anything else about it, and this time I didn’t ask. I waited. She resumed her schedule of going to the studio each day. When she came home each evening she seemed, for the first time, engaged. Clearly she was at work on something.
On Thursday she came home from the studio smiling. This was so unheard of that I just stood there smiling back at her. I wanted the moment to last, but she said: Let’s get something to eat. Then let’s go to bed. Tomorrow will be a big day.
We walked to the store, picked up some food, came home and ate it. She took a bath and dried herself off; she seemed unbothered by pain or the stiffness she often suffered. Walking into the bedroom she said: Come and make love.
As I hovered over her, she hooked her hands behind my neck, but looked up toward the ceiling with wide eyes. Her face was filled with passion, and though she didn’t look directly at me, she whispered encouragement and seemed to embrace me with her whole being. It was such a change from the aloof stance, the pained distance, that I began crying as I came. Her full embrace was all I had wanted.
Afterwards she told me she was making a project that was almost finished. I need your help, she said. Come tomorrow after work. I asked what I could do. It’s a surprise, she said, her hand reaching up to touch her horns in what was, by now, an unconscious gesture. Just come down to my studio.
The afternoon fog was coming in over the hills behind me, turning a clear day windy and overcast, as I drove the next day into East Francisco and approached the old wharves. Clouds had already ranged out over the bay, hiding the sight of the East Bay hills. In the rest of California, the sun wouldn’t set for two hours, but in San Francisco and along the coast the sky was darkening. Outside Veronika’s studio, wind drove trash across the broken concrete. Her car was next to the open studio door, its trunk and doors open, and I pulled up behind it. She emerged carrying a pile of paper, tossing it unceremoniously in the back seat atop more papers and a pile of canvasses. On the floor were brushes and tubes of paint and cans of chemicals.
Good, she said. Carry everything into my car. What’s going on? I asked. I’m moving out, she said. I need everything out of here. Put it in my car, not yours, I don’t want to mess up your car. I went inside and saw a stack of canvasses. All this? I asked. Yes, all of it. Where’s the project you were working on? I asked. Did you finish? It’s all here, she said. It all goes with me, but if you want to take something for yourself, pick one thing. Look quickly and choose one, everything else goes with me.
So I chose one of the abstract paintings I remembered from my first visit, before all this had happened. I didn’t have time to look closely at it before she called to me. I put the painting in the back seat of my car, then helped empty her studio of everything that could be carried away.
I can take some of it in my car, I said. No, I have to take it all. What will you do with it all? I asked, thinking of my cramped apartment and wondering if there was room for everything. Don’t worry, she said, I have a plan. She locked the door of the studio. Follow me, she said. Without further explanation she climbed into her car and closed her door.
We got on the freeway and drove south out of the city, past the airport and into heavy Silicon Valley traffic. We passed through shafts of sunlight, but the fog was coming in like a ghostly avalanche over the hills of the peninsula, and it would soon be as gloomy as the city. When we had driven past thirty miles of office buildings, shopping centers, and housing developments, she took an exit, crossed under the freeway and headed east toward the bay. This far south, the width of the bay significantly narrowed. Between the freeway and open bay waters were acres of wetlands and salt evaporation ponds. We were passing these so-called ponds, which were invariably not filled with water, only mud and salt, marked off by low dikes. A sheen of white covered their surface. On the other side of the road was an industrial park. Several semi trucks towing huge flatbed trailers lined up to go into the site. The trailers carried loads of smashed cars, compacted down to a foot high, over a dozen cars on each trailer.
In contrast to the salt flats on one side and the industrial site on the other, in the distance I saw a fantastic green-glass office complex, like the city of Oz. As we approached this seeming mirage, it refused to dissolve, and soon we were driving on a landscaped access road past immaculate lawns, waving flowers, and shining four-story buildings. The road curved in a wide circle around these palaces, which kept revealing themselves behind one another, as mirror images do when you position yourself just to the side. Surrounding the office complex, between the buildings and the salt flats, were vast parking lots.
We completed our circuit of the office park and returned to the place, screened by rows of trees and a stone wall, where trucks were lined up to unload their cargo of metal waste — not only smashed cars, but also tangles of aluminum and steel. The trucks inched to the front of the line, where a claw machine lifted the scrap off the trailer beds and onto a dismal pile. There another claw lifted the scrap onto a conveyor belt, which trundled everything up to a metal structure from which horrible rendering noises issued. Completing the picture was the smoke belching from the trucks and from the metal structure.
Veronika started her car again and waved at me to follow her back to the edge of the salt complex. She got out for a moment, and I rolled down my window. Wait here in your car, she said. Take my phone. Here, I am putting it on video mode. Film everything from now on — I am going to make art. She got back into her car and waited until I waved out my window that I was ready.
She put her car in gear, accelerated across a weedy piece of ground at the edge of the parking lot, and rammed through a gate that led to one of the salt flats. Holy shit, I said out loud to myself. A flock of seagulls which had been resting on a nearby mud dike flew into the air as the car bumped onto the surface of the dry pond, which stretched into the distance for at least half a mile. I saw a flash of fire. Then I saw her leap from the moving car and roll in the salt. The car burst into flames as it tore down the salt flat and began to veer off in a wide curve. I saw Veronika pick herself up and turn to watch her artwork. Before it got to the end of the salt flat the car exploded, and the wreckage collided with a mud levee.
She turned and ran toward me. Stumbling up through the busted gate, she sprinted to my car. Get us out of here, she said, climbing in and slamming the door.
I drove away quickly, but then slowed down and turned into one of the office complex parking lots, pulling into line behind two other cars which were leaving.
What the fuck just happened, I asked. In my rearview mirror I could see a column of smoke.
I had handed the phone to her so she could continue shooting, and she focused on the smoke, then turned off the camera. That was my best work to date, she said. No more painting pictures of burning cars and trains — I made a real burning car! It included all my work until today, she added, laughing. What’s the word? Like to put things into a container that you maybe bury for the future. A time capsule? I asked. Yes, but the verb. Encapsulate? That’s it, then. The burning car encapsulated my work until this moment.
By now we were driving down the road back to the freeway, just one of many cars heading away from the office complex. A fire engine passed us going the other way. I looked into the rearview mirror and saw that the column of smoke had already diminished.
What now? I asked. I need a shower, she laughed. Look at me, I’m covered with salt and seagull shit. Oh, let me check. She felt on her head, where her hair was streaked with salt and mud. Yes, still there, she said. I still have horns. Fine.
Veronika’s car had been registered to me, so as soon as we got back to San Francisco I reported it stolen. She had been clever enough to strip the vehicle of not only its license plates but its VIN number and any other identification — I saw the film of No Country for Old Men, she said, I resolved no one would trace me by the car — and had thrown these incriminating pieces of metal into the bay near her studio. No one remembered what my car looked like enough to identify it. The video from security cameras at the office complex must have been unhelpful. The police never came looking for us.
Veronika took a shower and a long bath, then came to bed. She put her head on my shoulder. I have to go, Nicholas. I’ll go to the bank tomorrow and close my account. When the rent payments stop, the city will possess the studio again. So I’ll leave my key on the dresser here, and you can go in and remove the table. Sell it on Craigslist, someone will pay good money for it.
What are you going to do, I asked, where will you go? I’ll go where everyone goes to disappear, she said, I’ll go to Los Angeles. I’ll stay there for awhile and then move on.
But what’s the idea? I asked. I have to acknowledge what’s already begun to happen, she said. I am metamorphing, I am transforming. I am not the person I was before, and I don’t know what I am becoming. But I am going to seize reality, or rather surreality. I am going to be surrealist art. I don’t know how surrealist art which is also a living person manages to be both, but I have to find out.
In the morning, I got up as soon as she did. I watched and drank coffee as she packed a backpack with half of the possessions she had brought back from Ukraine. Donate the rest to a thrift store, she said. Don’t look so sad. Where I’m going, you cannot go. I won’t disappear, unless it’s absolutely essential — if I do, know that it was so important that I had to leave everything behind, even this body. But I’ll do what I must. How, I asked miserably, can I help? I will tell you if I need you, she said. But what’s the American expression? Don’t hold your breath.
She thanked me for helping her. You have been very kind, she said. You are a good man. She kissed me and went down the stairs and out the front door. I rushed to the bay window over the street and was able to see her last few steps before she turned the corner. She didn’t look back.
So after all, I was able to finish my collection of poems, with its last section about loss. One of the poems was published in the literary magazine of the university’s creative writing department, and another was published in an obscure online journal, one of thirty I sent poems to. These two published works provoked exactly no reaction. When the department’s magazine with my work was published, they even forgot to invite me to the party. I submitted my manuscript as my Master’s project, and my grad school experience was complete.
Only a few of Veronika’s possessions remained: a few unremarkable pieces of clothing and a copy, in German, of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. The only other object was the painting I had saved, almost at random, on the day she burned everything. I had the painting framed, and I hung it in my living room, over the couch where Veronika and I used to sit and talk while watching the afternoon light. The picture was abstract, a little over a foot wide and slightly taller. A burst of golden yellow covered most of the canvas, with scraps of dark red and brown along the left and bottom edges, and some thin black filaments seemingly floating down, like prayers that had never reached the ear of God.about the author