Room of Doom

The beginning of April was spent in the Eastern portion of Ukraine. Since my school had suffered a quarantine (remember that? It seems like so long ago,) the administration decided to merge our Easter break and our spring break. This placed my vacation at an awkward Wednesday (of one week) to Friday (of the next.) I caught the nearest thing that the railway of Ukraine has to a Red Eye and shipped out.

The Red Eye train is actually a combination of two trains. It departs Lviv at 7:30PM and arrives in Kyiv at 5:30AM. There is then a hour wait before I jump onto an “express” train from Kyiv to Kharkiv. The “express” train arrives at noon. From Kharkiv I took a bus to Slavyansk, the large city near Raihorodok (which is where my friend Travis lives, and where I would spend my break.)

Now, let’s get something clear:
I like to say that I live in a village. And at 7000 people (small for Ukraine) I am usually justified.
But Travis lives in a VILLAGE. I think there are maybe 5000 people there on a good day. He has no gas. He draws his water from a well. He has an outhouse.
People like to give Travis a hard time because he smells like campfire. Well, that’s probably because he heats his house with a coal/wood burning contraption called a pechka. Yep, he has to shovel the coal (but not before he sifts out the pig iron) and chop his own firewood. In fact, after my twelve days there, I smelled like campfire too. I also just smelled bad.

Since Travis has no running water, the act of bathing is a time-consuming activity. We drew the water from his well (and if my computer weren’t dead, I could post pictures of this… damn) and then put the water on his electric hot plate. Once the water was heated, we poured it into a big metal tub. And once there was enough water, we, one by one, sloshed around and tried to come clean. What really happens is that you get really soapy and then fail to rinse off completely. It’s not clean.

We “celebrated” Easter in Travis’s village, which meant that his students gave us several loaves of Pasky (sweet Easter bread) which we ate. We also had some hard boiled eggs. That was the extent of our Easter celebration.

Our time passed in the village. Travis and I ran a few times. We had dinner with his host family. We had another dinner with his host family’s grandparents. I went to Travis’s school. It’s a lot like mine. He’s got some students who care and a lot of students who don’t.

On the day before Travis and I were going to leave the village and go to Kyiv, we were in Slavyansk. While using the internet there, we met one of the students who had been at Travis’s camp last summer. She was excited to see us and wanted us to come with her and meet her friends. Travis and I have decided that we’ll never turn down a free lunch (read into that as meaning we don’t say no to a possible adventure) and so we said yes. We finished up our internet business and then followed Alyona, her name.

Alyona led us down a street away from the internet cafe. We thought we would be meeting with her friends outside of the cafe, perhaps in the square. This was apparently not the case. Nervously, I asked where it was that we were going. Alyona responded that we would see.
Travis and I exchanged looks.
She veered off of the main street and walked us down an alley.
Travis and I exchanged looks.
“I think we might die,” Travis said.
I nodded. We continued down the alleyway and emerged into the courtyard of an apartment block. There were several “business” fronts around the courtyard. They shared entrances with the apartments themselves.
“Where are we going?” Travis asked.
“We’re going to my friend’s apartment. Sergey wants to meet you,” she said.
Travis and I exchanged looks.
We entered an apartment and ascended the stairs. “Who is Sergey?” Travis pressed.
“My friend who wants to meet you,” she said.
Travis and I exchanged gulps.

///Allow me to interject. This is the kind of crap that happens in horror stories, or in the Twilight Zone. Real people don’t actually get led into crazy apartments where they are then ritually slaughtered by men named Sergey. Not real people.///

We entered an apartment, but did not enter an apartment. The apartment was just a long hallway with doors on both sides. It seemed to take up the entire floor of the building. On the door opposite from the entrance was a sign. The sign had a Triangle on it and the name “Meridian International Group” From down the hall came a woman. She smiled at the three of us and said (in Russian)”Travis, Casey, nice to see you. Please come this way.”
Travis and I exchanged gulps.
“Um, how does she know our names?” I asked.
“Where the hell are we?” Travis asked.
“What’s going to happen here?” I asked.

Travis turned to Alyona and asked (in Russian) “What do you want with us?” (exact translation)
Alyona just smiled.
So, we were obviously confused. We were obviously worried. And we were obviously aware that there was not going to be a free lunch.
We were led into a room that was maybe ten feet by eight feet. There were four desks around the walls and there was a person at a computer at three of the four desks.

Travis leaned over to me and said, “This is the kind of room in which you usually end up selling your soul to the devil.”
I nodded.

We were told to sit at the open desk. We did. There were posters all over the walls. Some of them were the triangle logo. Others were photos of people with labels like “Crystal Member” and “Gold Member.”

Alyona and the woman sat across the desk from us. Travis and I were sitting in the corner with our backs to the wall. We were trapped, at the mercy of whatever foul intentions the people in the room might have had. The woman smiled at me and said (in Russian), “So, Casey, you are from Lviv, no? How do you like the East?”

I looked at Travis, a look that meant why does she know I’m from Lviv?
“The East is nice. I have been here before. My Russian is not so good, but it is nice,” I returned the smile, weakly.
(in Russian)”Alyona, who is this woman?” Travis asked.
“She is my mother,” Alyona responded.
(in Russian)”And what are we doing here?” Travis asked.
“Our friend, Sergey, would like to meet with you.”

Travis and I turned to look at Sergey. He was a tall, skinny man with a greasy black ponytail. His adam’s apple extended as far as his nose. And at the end of his long fingers were long fingernails (I’m not making that up, I swear.) Sergey was currently in the middle of a conversation with two young men. He was speaking to them about something (very quickly, and my Russian is not very good) and they were listening silently.
“How do you like our business?” Alyona’s mother asked.
“Business?” Travis replied.
She indicated the photos on the walls. “Many of them are from Russia. It is a good business. Sergey would like to talk with you.”
Travis looked at me, “Do you realize what this place is?”
I nodded, “Pyramid scheme.”

////Pyramid schemes are blowing up all over Ukraine. The idea of a big payoff for little work is attractive to Ukrainians. Whether it is perfume, makeup, or vitamins, in almost every village/town/city there are people peddling their wares. My post office is always full of boxes from Avon and Oriflame. I confiscated over a dozen Avon catalouges from my students last semester. The schemes are everywhere, and apparently they had set their sights on us////

It then became clear that Sergey and all of the other people in the room were selling something or convincing others to sell something. “Travis, we should get out of here,” I said.
He nodded and said (in Russian) “We have to go. We’re meeting a friend soon and do not want to be late.”
Alyona’s mother nodded and said, “Just one moment. Sergey really wants to meet with you.”
“Who is Sergey?” Travis asked.
“Sergey is a professor of Ukrainian Sciences,” she responed, as though that explained everything. It didn’t. I still don’t know what a Professor of Ukrainian Sciences would do.
Alyona’s mother then stood up at moved over to Sergey. She said something to him, I assume about hurrying up his salespitch.

At that point, Travis and I exchanged looks and stood up. (in Russian) “We really have to go. Maybe another time?” Travis said as we pressed our way to the door.
Sergey stood up and moved into our path. He said, in English, “I would really like to meet with you. It would be interesting for me. When is the next time that you will be in Slavyansk?”
Travis shrugged, “Maybe in a few weeks?”

“Please, come back here so that we might meet. In a few weeks,” Sergey offered his hand. It was moist and limp, but we each shook his hand. We smiled at Alyona and her mother, said thank you and then backed out of the room. Once we were out of the apartment and into the stairwell, we broke into a run. We took the stairs four steps at a time. We did not stop running until we reached the square.

We survived with our lives.
The rest of April passed without incident.

(This is a blog post from one of my former lives. I’d almost forgotten about this wild, skin-of-our-teeth adventure. Are you new to my catalogue and want to see more of this previous life? [or perhaps you just want to revisit the path that I once walked] Walk This Way)

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2 Responses to “Room of Doom”

  1. Dr. Pizza Says:

    One reason why I like this Out-Of-Context post is that it is clearly a chapter from a larger story. References are made (the quarantine) and it’s assumed that the reader already knows certain things about the story (why the narrator is in Ukraine, who the narrator is, etc.). I think I’d like to create a series of short stories that are torn from bigger stories but no context is given (you know, no “Previously on LOST”). It could be Wild.

  2. Some dude in DC Says:

    ah, those were the days……

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