I wanted to run. Every muscle in my body was so tense, that it felt like a wire humming inside. My feet stomped in vain, while my upper body leaned forward. It was like I tried to pull the whole van to make it move faster. We needed to get out of Kyiv. Faster. Faster.
The van was hopelessly stuck in the middle of the traffic and barely moved.
Nastya was sitting right next to me, monitoring the news. I couldn’t make myself even look. I didn’t want to know what was happening. I struggled to know. I knew it already.
The sun was up and hitting the windshield. It was hot as hell. The dusty smell of an old upholstery mixed with the cigarette smoke and the scent of strong alcohol. The men started drinking in the backseat. I couldn’t breathe. I got angry.
“I need to get out,” I said.
“What? Where do you think you’ll go?” Nastya answered.
“I need the restroom, there should be one around. I’ll go with my husband.”
I turned back to ask him, whether we can get out for a couple of minutes. He nodded.
“Ok, you go, I’ll stay,” Nastya said.
The street was full of people standing next to their cars, making phone calls, smoking, or silently talking to each other. Foreigners, natives, children, pets. Everyone seemed tense, everyone looked like screaming from the inside, everyone stayed silent.
My husband and I went down the road, looking for a restroom, an ATM, and a grocery store. “When we get back home I’ll go sign myself up for territorial defense,” he said.
I squeezed his hand so hard I could hear his bones crack. My legs felt as wea as water. I wanted to cry but pushed that feeling deep down. It settled somewhere in the stomach and burned from the inside.
“Do it,” I answered. “It would be the right thing to do.”
Dreadful silence. The sound of footsteps. Wind making noise around corners.
An open door led to some sort of a restaurant in the basement. The basement is safer, I thought.
“Let’s get in. The door is open,” I said. We went down the stairs. The hallway was empty. Nobody was around, yet it looked like someone was there just a minute ago. I asked whether somebody was there, but no one answered. I used the restroom, washed my face, and saw my own desperate and somewhat angry look in the mirror. Face completely pale, even grey, but the eyes… The eyes were black like charcoal. Like there was an abyss looking back at me instead of my reflection.
Is this forever? Is this what would be there forever?
I came out and saw a woman in the hallway talking to my husband.
“I’m from Sumy,” she said. “That’s unbelievable what they are doing. My family is there. I just don’t know… They have occupied almost the whole region. I’m trying to get them out… But where can we go?” She stopped talking for a minute. It felt heavy as a cold stone. “Where are you heading?”
“West. We are from Rivne,” my husband answered. “We are going home.”
“Please, forgive us for invasion. It’s just… You are the only one open around. I’m so sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be. I’m open for a reason.”
“Thank you so much.” I almost cried from the kindness in her eyes.
“I wish you a safe journey. I hope it would be quiet in Rivne.”
“Yes, dear, you too.”
We made our way to the street, and I turned back to wave her goodbye. The woman stood right next to the door and lit up a cigarette. The sign said Funeral dinners.
It all felt surreal. The people, the cars, the trees at the road. We walked farther to check out the traffic and find some food. All we had with us were 2 bottles of water and now, after a couple of hours some sort of hunger mixed with nausea. It crawled up our stomachs and burned our throats.
Eventually, we found the next subway station. All the malls were closed, people stood here and there, smoking, aimlessly drifting around. The local market had a couple of stalls open. My husband dragged me into one; it was selling meat and sausages. “We can buy something here, it should be enough,” he said.
Standing at the cashier we suddenly realized we had no cash. “Is your payment terminal working?” I asked.
The woman nodded. “Sure.”
We grabbed some of the leftovers and rushed out. My phone rang again: the driver. “I won’t be waiting for you,” he said. “We are moving now, get back!”
It sounded like a joke. The traffic was so tense, we already knew it would take hours to get out of Kyiv. Even though he might have moved a bit farther, it didn’t make any difference. But we rushed back.
It took us less than 10 minutes — the minutes we made on foot would later take 2 hours by car. I saw Nastya sitting in the van just as I had left her. She was still nervously scrolling through the news. She saw us and got out of the van.
I looked at my husband. We had quit smoking for months by that point.
“Yeah, it’s the time we can’t care less about it.”
The van stood in the middle of traffic and didn’t move. It had barely driven one kilometer after we’d left. The men from the backseat had gone out to find a grocery store, too.
“Why would he yell at me for getting back? I just don’t get it.”
“Well, we did start moving at some point,” Nastya answered.
“It could take a lot of time before we get out,” my husband said. “We have to have patience.”
The cold air made us crawl back inside the smelly old van. Our driver was smoking right at the window.
“Wanna eat?” my husband asked.
I didn’t know. I felt like I could try — my body definitely needed it. But the nausea had blocked my throat completely.
I took off my coat and tucked it behind my back. Nastya didn’t. The van moved a bit forward. The leaden weight fell down on my shoulders. I leaned forward and lay my head on my knees. Darkness grew inside and filled up my eyes. I fell asleep.
“What time is it?” I asked as soon as I opened my eyes.
“You slept like 20 minutes, nothing changed so far.”
“Let’s get out, I need some air.”
We stood on the street and stretched our limbs. We suddenly heard some noise. It was barely audible, but all our senses seemed to be ten times stronger than usual.
“They are shelling the Antonov Plant,” said Nastya. “It’s on the news.”
“Fuck, it’s like 2 kilometers away!”
We got back into the car, knowing it wouldn’t really help. Won’t really help, they are so close. But they are behind us, we just need to move forward. Just move. The van stood right where it was. The van barely moved in the flood of cars.
Photo provided by the author.