Standing in the stairwell and waiting for the lift, I suddenly grabbed my husband’s hand and leaned towards him for a hug. He put his left arm around my head and gently scratched my hair. I felt the warmth of his fingers, the softness of his touch, and I wondered why it felt so right. Why is it ok? Shouldn’t we be doing something else? Something completely different… Something… More appropriate?
This feeling slipped right past me and vanished for good. I’m just remembering this, I thought. I’m remembering the comfort and the peaceful silence, nothing else really matters anymore.
I called up my mom once we got out on the street. I knew I had to do this, even though it meant telling her… telling what had happened.
“Hi, baby,” she greeted me cheerfully.
My god, she has no idea. What should I say? How can I tell it without terrifying her to death? Is it possible at all? For two seconds, I felt broken. I couldn’t make myself start talking.
“How are you?”
“Mom, we heard the explosions. The war has started.”
My mom shrieked so loud, I bet everyone on that street could hear it.
“Stop it,” I said. “We don’t need any panic right now. We have found a car. We are going home.”
“What about Nastya?”
“She comes with us. We are meeting her at the subway station in an hour. I’ll call you back once we get there.”
“Okay… Please, stay safe”
“Everything will be alright. I’ll call you back”
“Everything will be alright,” she repeated. “Yes, everything will be alright.”
We rushed to the subway station. Going down the street, I took one last glance at the Kyiv panorama just when the first air siren went off. It was a bright morning with a perfectly clear sky. The sun had just started to crawl up the buildings, leaving the long glaring reddish traces. I saw people walking by, buses going along their routes, and the smoke coming from the fabric chimney. The chill of the morning wind touched my skin.
Will I ever be able to see this view again?
I wondered how many things have stayed all the same — the road full of cars, the Chinese restaurant at the crossroad, the blinking traffic lights. But it all felt so different. The cars were heading away from the city. The Chinese restaurant was closed. People standing in the crosswalk were carrying huge suitcases and backpacks.
The air siren still went off. The sound of it was cutting right through my ears and falling somewhere deep into the belly. I looked around and saw a silent fear in people’s eyes. I knew, my eyes were filled with it, too. The siren was echoing from our insides right into our eyes wide open.
Getting to the subway felt comforting. It was the best bomb shelter in Kyiv, especially its deepest stations. I knew we could stay there, in case… We’ll be safe in there in any case.
When we took our train, my husband started monitoring the news. Some were read out loud, some were ignored. I stood by his side, crammed in the corner, and tried to clear every disturbing thought coming to my mind. Don’t think. Stop thinking. It’s ok. Two more stations, then out, change the subway line, another 6 stations, meet Nastya, go out, go home. Stop thinking. It’s ok.
The Ivano-Frankivsk airport is bombed — the message from Nastya. We have returned from a trip there the other day. Most of our friends were there. The city that is far West. The city that can’t be reached from the North. The city that was expected to be the safest place in Ukraine. Bombed. Fuck.
“We are in the subway already.”
“Me too. I’ll be waiting at the station.”
“What are we riding on? What is there at Sviatoshyno station?”
I knew telling her about the car would provoke a lot of objections. I definitely can’t fight them all in messenger. I can’t let her go back home — that’s what she could do if I would answer.
“I’ll come and tell.”
What should I say? How will I make her come with us? Stop thinking. Just move. Move.
We got out of the train to change the subway line. I hadn’t seen that many people at the station since COVID started. Suddenly we had to move slowly, following the flow of the crowd, taking down the backpacks to leave more space for the others. It felt odd. Hundreds of people with backpacks, suitcases, pet carriers, kids… So strange. My phone rang right in the middle of the crowd : the landlord.
“Olya, have you heard? Yeah, of course, you did. How are you?”
Somebody pushed me in my shoulder to get around.
“We are fine, getting out of the city. We’ll go home.”
“We have shut everything down in the apartment,” I said.
“Oh, forget the apartment. Forget it. Get out. Call me if you need something. What’s your ride?”
“We are going by car.”
“The car. Have you found the car?”
“Yes, my father did.”
“You are going to Rivne? By car?”
“Call me if you need something. We are getting out too.”
“Stay safe,” I said.
“Yes, dear, you too.”
Another train, another crowd. Each station flooded the train with more people, more suitcases, more pet carriers. I remember watching them come in and stay all the way to the end of the red subway line. We all knew where we are going. We all couldn’t stop to think for how long.
We got out of the train and saw Nastya waiting at the station with a small blue suitcase. She half-waved with her hand holding her phone.
“So, what are we riding on?” she asked.
“It’s some sort of a van.”
“Are you nuts? We won’t make it! Olya, we won’t make it by car! We have to stay! We have to stay in the subway and wait through it! You hear me?”
I felt like a fire started growing up inside of me. I wanted to yell at her, for she seemed deeply illogical. Hesitating at the most inappropriate moment. Making it difficult for us to get out. Making us talk about the decisions that didn’t seem perfect for me, too. But they were made already. It was done. You can’t scream, it won’t help — I thought. Stop the fire. Push it down. Push it down now.
“Please, talk to her,” I asked my husband. “I’ll call up our ride.”
When I came back, Nastya was silent. I didn’t know what my husband had told her, but it clearly worked. She followed me to the exit without saying a word. I tried to grab her hand, but she pushed me away. It’s not the right time, I thought. Just not the right time.
The bright light of the street burned the eyes for a couple of seconds. We looked around — thousands of people, endless lines to the closest ATMs, chaotic rush, and the longest traffic jam we had ever seen in Kyiv. But no air sirens. I opened Google Maps and started searching for the road were our car was. The driver said they stood somewhere in the middle of traffic, so we had to walk there and find the old red van with a ‘security’ sign on it. Security… What an irony.
“Good morning, are you okay?” said the message from my manager in Germany.
“Trying to get out of Kyiv. Fine so far, as much as it can be.”
“Where are you heading? Lviv?”
“Rivne, my hometown.”
My fingers froze in the wind. Even though I hated typing on the go, I knew I couldn’t leave him without an answer. Every message had to be answered immediately. It was important. I turned back to check whether Nastya and my husband still followed me.
“Okay. Fingers crossed, keep me posted.”
The three of us went down the street looking for our car. “It should be red, with a black cabin behind the van,” I said. They nodded.
The dreadful silence hung up in the air. How can Kyiv be that silent? The city that never sleeps, never shuts up, never leaves you alone… How can it be that silent? How come you can’t hear anything in the middle of the biggest crowd of people, cars, pets, fabrics, subway noises… The heart of the country, the heart of my country stopped beating. I couldn’t hear it anymore.
The sun rose and lit up the streets. The wind whipped up the dust, and I noticed my boots getting messy.
“Good morning, Ukraine. Wake up now, it’s time.” I suddenly started to hum a sort of cheerfully sad song. Yet each word of it tasted just like that dust whipped up by the wind.
I hummed it again and again, “Good morning, Ukraine. Wake up now, it’s time,” hoping nobody could hear me. Hoping the sound of it could somehow break the silence of the city. The silence this city could never have.
We found our ride deep in a traffic jam. The driver has opened the trunk and helped us throw our stuff inside. We crawled into a smelly van with four strangers. My husband sat down in the back, Nastya and I took two seats in the front.
“Hi, Mom, we’ve got into the car. We’re going home.”
I sat back and breathed out. It’s over. We’ve made it. We are going home. Going home.
Photo provided by the author.