Unhappy Genes

Her high-cheekboned beauty does not immunize her from feeling just as transparent as any other mate in the line. A quarter past seven and there she stands silent and haughty in this Kyiv summer afternoon light, waiting for her marshrutka. Poor people stand unnoticed on the curbs of the world, she has learnt that long ago as a five-year old would-be violinist clutching Baba’s warm hand in freezing winter afternoons, the small instrument case a carapace for her tiny shoulders.

Her frowned grey eyes sparkle into the melting sun as the yellow minibus pulls up. She gets on board, earphones on – old style ones, nothing like the wireless kind she cannot afford -, Johan Sebastian Bach keeping her company. The eight hrivnas in her hand are gently handed over to the driver who briskly fits them into his rectangular hand-made wooden box. She carefully fits her violin case into the tiny space between her seat and the bus side window. The driver steers into the traffic flow and there the usual parade comes up.

Along the avenue sidewalks Aroma Kava points pop up with their reassuring white, red & blue logo, passersby come and go in their working day pace, an overconfident Favorit billboard takes perfect care of a new building site, a stout babushka presides over her tiny flower kiosk armed with her short broom, untamed kids skim back and forth below a soviet-time tank monument embellished with withered patriotic wreaths. As always what she is more drawn to are the zupinka teeming with single men and women of different ages waiting for their yellow minibus at the end of yet another ordinary day. Bach knows better and the Goldberg Variations give these people a purpose, turn them into her heroes.

True, poor people wait a lot and equal to a silent invisible army to those who ride their fast cars across town, but a superior mathematical order oversees and regulates everybody’s lives, none excluded, each destiny enacted according to a pattern, only with shared sun coming from above and an individual light springing from somewhere inside. That light she totally lacks and it’s not her fault. She has always wondered why she cannot smile. In fact, she is definitely too young to have gone through any of the hardships her parents, grandparents and ancestors had, yet her mind seems to keep record of all the bad her folk have been exposed to in the course of time. All forms of annihilation inflicted on the skin of her nation – pogroms, the Kulaki repression, the scourge of the Holodomor, Baba Yar genocide, any other past soviet mischief – you name them – must have locked down the genes of smiling deep inside the Ukrainian blood. 

“Mom, what’s the matter here in Ukraine, why nobody ever smiles or talk cheerfully on the street?” was my son’s first question when we landed in Kyiv. 

Back to Irina. She has just lifted up her chin to stare at the brand new roof up of a glass-paneled skyscraper being raised on the opposite side of the avenue. She bets they will name it after yet another big American city, people here need very little to dream about America. Up there wind is making clouds almost as restless as her mind. Traffic jam in the rush hour, still plenty of time to indulge in her usual labyrinth of thoughts.

Unaccompanied Cello suite n.1 in G Major. Tomorrow she will be twenty. Will he be wishing her something like “buon compleanno, amore“? Alas, the coronavirus pandemic has cut any hope for her to meet him up again in the flesh any time soon. Will he remember their unspoken mutual bond? What do six months ago equal to in the mind of a young Italian artist? All the couples she has known have never seemed to survive to long distance relationships. In the course of time all of them have split up. What if Giovanni were different?

She is fighting to dispel anxiety and procrastinates the time for feeling hopeless. The thing is she is still too naive to just feel confident and rely only her physical beauty. She actually does not want to: she feels different from all the others, but how different? All she does know right now is how badly she is missing everything in him: his warm eyes, his stern voice asking delicate questions about her childhood, his elegant hands. Will he ever again be coming to welcome her at any train station in the world, will their violins ever play again in the same quintet?

She tilts down her head to check out her phone, the screen has just lightened up. One unread message from an Italian number. An urgent question is surfacing now: which – today – is the exact number of times she has been taking this marshrutka since her very first one with Baba Virochka? Bach suggests that she finds out that number out and in search for the answer she cast a glance to the outside landscape now locked into darkness. The sun has totally decamped, silhouettes of dozing passengers survive onto the marshrutka side windows. Her mirrored image looks different: haughty, on the point of turning and reflecting back the smile that has just flourished on her petal lips.