© Ksenia Ryctycka 2012-2023
Crossing The Border — Excerpt
The last time Luba saw her husband alive, he joked about the color of
his suits in the same way he joked about his enemies — laughing, always
laughing, as if a boisterous chuckle could fell death threats by the very audacity
of its sound. Luba had wanted him to wear the dark suit for his campaign trip to
the communist-oriented South, where support for a political prisoner-and-poet-
turned-politician seemed about as absurd as buying vegetables from the
contaminated zone north of Kyiv.
"A presidential candidate has to look distinguished," Luba told Roman.
"You've got to convince them a former dissident can be a good president too."
"I'll wear the tan suit," Roman answered, waving away her words with
a grin. "I'm not ready for the coffin yet."
And then Roman grabbed Luba close, lifted her by her waist and swung her
around in circles until she fell laughing against his chest, Roman's fingers
stroking her hair long after the laughter subsided.
* * *
Today is her husband’s funeral. Six days after he refused his wife's request
to dress in black, Luba has no choice but to remove another dark suit from the
closet, iron it so carefully that the pleats stiffen, as crisp as the tone in her voice
when she answers the phone, and Oles, Luba's stepson and Roman's son, tells her
that the police investigation into Roman’s death will take weeks at the very least.
"The rumor is they want the investigation to look solid," Oles says.
"Brakes going out on a brand-new Toyota?" Luba asks. "They can’t claim it was an accident. Everyone knows the roads
were dry that night."
"I told him this campaign was a crazy idea," Oles says. "All those years when I was growing up, he was in the labor camps,
and now he’ll miss his grandson’s childhood too."
"He couldn't just sit idly by," Luba says.
Oles doesn’t respond, but Luba knows what he’s thinking: She should have talked to Roman. As if anyone could have
prevented Roman from campaigning, even if she’d agreed to try.
"Oles,” Luba's voice trembles. "You know that no one could have stopped him." But Oles is hanging up the phone, telling her
he has to go, and he’ll call her later. Before she can say anything else, the line goes dead.
* * *
Luba's been to many funerals in her life, but her husband's funeral at St. Nicholas Cathedral in the center of Kyiv seems more
like a gathering of the masses than the typical affair. As the black hearse weaves its way past city blocks filled shoulder to
shoulder with people, Luba stares out the window. She takes in the wide concrete buildings, the chestnut trees that have
unexpectedly burst into bloom a few weeks early and all the wood barriers closing off the streets near the Cathedral. Buses are
lined up, bumpers touching, parked erratically on the edges of the cracked sidewalks, and Luba can see by the signs in their
windows that people came from all parts of the country.
"You see, darling," Luba whispers to herself. "They've all come to pay their respects."
Next to her in the hearse, Luba’s older sister, Marusia, who’d taken the overnight express train from Lviv and arrived only a
few hours earlier, pats Luba’s hand.
"There wasn’t an empty seat on the train last night," Marusia says. "Not even one."
Inside the immense Cathedral whose ceilings rise high to the sky, Luba feels the hot breath of friends and strangers against
her neck. Their eyes look deeply into hers as if seeking some sort of solace or perhaps even a promise of retribution. Luba turns
away from the questions mirrored in their faces, the awkward shrugs and the sympathetic nods and unexpectedly finds herself face
to face with the president of her country. He is hardly taller than herself as he holds out his hand, mouthing sympathies, sweating
noticeably in the stifling heat. Even through her black veil, Luba can sense the looks of disapproval cast his way. The looks around
her are shrill with accusation, but Luba accepts the president’s condolences just as she accepts condolences from the leaders of all
the other political parties — the graying men and the outspoken women — many of whom Roman had adamantly opposed.
Murder is the first word out of Oles’ mouth once the funeral is over, and they are back at the apartment where Roman and
Luba lived. There are about 20 people who have come over, bearing plates of kanapky, chicken and an assortment of beet and
potato salads. It’s traditional during pomynky to share stories about the person who’s left them behind, but this time there’s no
room for any happy memories to shake away the somber mood.
the top," he says, searing the room full of people with a look of fury.
Silence falls around the table with some of the guests nodding their heads in assent. In the past, Luba was always surprised
how her stepson bore no resemblance to his father. While Roman was short and wiry, his son looms well over six feet tall and is as
stocky as Roman was slender. But today, his grief is so outspoken that Luba can’t help being reminded of his father. Roman’s
passion, once ignited, swept through obstacles in his path like a runaway elephant, oblivious to any attempts to stop the onslaught.
"Did you notice how they tried to keep the people away?" Marusia asks. "The police formed a human chain and wouldn’t
even let the old babusias in. "It’s too crowded; we have to keep the order,’ was all they’d say."
"It's nothing to do with order," Oles says, rising from his chair. The edge of his hand accidentally sweeps a plate of food onto
the floor. And even though he’s had little to drink, Oles stumbles, eyes blurring and falls onto the red and white kilim covering the
hardwood floor. In the 20 years she’s been married to Roman, Luba has never seen her stepson lose his composure, but when she
rushes to Oles’ side and murmurs words of reassurance, he pushes her away with a look of confusion. The two of them stop and
stare at one another; two people who have lost the one man binding them to one another, and for a second amid hesitation, their
eyes lock. Then Oles looks away, and Luba steps back, her hands shaking at her sides.
* * *
When Luba was born, her parents named her after the Ukrainian word for love. Lubov. Moya Luba. Lubochka. Every letter
Roman had ever written Luba started out with a different variation of her name.
Luba sits in their bedroom and sifts through the stack she's collected over the past 20 years. While Oles is calling daily press
conferences, Luba can do nothing more than walk through the apartment, waiting for a breath of warm air against her ear (hadn’t
he always whispered to her, even in the middle of the night when he thought she was asleep?) or the sound of footsteps in an empty
room — anything to convince her she hasn’t been completely left behind. Three weeks since they've buried Roman, and there's
been no word from the police about the investigation. Luba knows this only because Marusia has been staying with her and
fielding all the phone calls. The newspapers keep piling up on the kitchen table, but Luba barely glances at the headlines. She
already knows all the conjectures and theories about Roman's death. From the communists who've hung on to their seats in the
parliament to the current president whose fast dance with corruption is no longer a state secret, Roman's death appears to have
paved the way for easy victory in next year's elections.
"They might argue about who's behind it," Luba tells her sister. "But no one believes it was an accident."
As Roman's widow, Luba is on the hot list for interviews. So far, she's turned down every single one of them and has instead
focused on Roman's love letters that fill an entire drawer in her dresser. Luba's kept them all, the short notes that start off with a
poem and end with a pencil drawing; the long letters that cover every square inch of paper, words crawling up margins in disarray.
Once, on the back of a theatre program, Roman had even drawn a sketch of the Saint Sophia Cathedral, complete with the kiosk
booth in front, where the two of them had gawked at images of saints plastered next to postcards of Soviet monuments and city
vistas on the glass front of the booth.
Roman was good at noticing details like that. It was something Luba would tease him about; how he'd remember what tie a
certain writer wore at a dinner; what song was playing over the loudspeaker when they'd kissed for the first time on Khreshatyk
Boulevard while waiting for the metro; and what promises certain politicians made only to later deny they'd ever spoken those
words aloud. Roman remembered details as if they were etched in glitter across a bare table. He told Luba it had been the only
way he'd been able to write his poems during his 15 years in the labor camps — he'd memorize them in his head, then recite each
line over and over until someone was able to sneak him in a pen, and he'd write them down on the back of cigarette paper.
Luba can hear the phone ring in the background but ignores it and instead turns to the first letter Roman had ever sent her. It's
all about their first meeting, and now Luba only wants to remember; to breathe in the crisp air of that October evening and retrace
the steps she'd forgotten she once took.
Appropriately enough, they'd met at a poetry reading. Roman, as master of ceremonies, had stood at the lectern and jingled
some coins in his pocket, then looked across the room when Luba slipped into a seat at the back. He waited until she set her purse
on the floor and settled back in the chair before starting the reading. At 42, Roman had a head full of curls and a smile so wide that
even Luba, who was usually nervous around strangers, had been immediately set at ease. She knew all about Roman. She knew
about his wife who’d been arrested along with him and later died of pneumonia in a Siberian labor camp. She knew about his only
son who was raised by his maternal grandparents and had only seen his father a handful of times during his entire childhood.
Later, Roman would tell her more about Oles and the letters Oles wrote documenting his day at school or a trip to the Black Sea
with his grandparents. His letters were always precise and full of detail and never once mentioned the taunting he’d endured when
one or another of his teachers would make note of his family background to the class.
When the poetry reading ended that night, Roman walked up to her at the fourchette, Luba's hand losing its grip on the wine
glass she just lifted to her lips. He was quick, but not quick enough and caught her fingers as the glass slipped to the floor. They
laughed about it later, shards of glass at their feet, fingers sticky from the red Muscat that splattered and spilled all over the white
tablecloth and even on their clothes. Roman kissed Luba's hand then, bowing longer than necessary, and Luba could feel the warm
touch of his lips settle on her skin with an almost easy familiarity. When she shivered, he rose immediately, releasing her hand
from his grasp. They talked for the next two hours and continued their conversation while they walked downhill through the
narrow, poplar-lined streets all the way to the Dnipro River. The metro had stopped running by then, and they stood at the river's
edge. They talked and stared at one another, their flow of conversation finally cut short by some fishermen who arrived with the
break of dawn. Roman hadn't kissed Luba again that night, but by the time he walked her to the door of her apartment building,
Luba knew she was in love for the first time in her 36 years of life.
Author | Poet | Editor