Last month, queer Ukrainian writer Ilya Kharkow sent us a few short stories to be published. These are stories that document chance encounters in the daily lives of queer people living amidst a continuing war, which stress time and time again that life continues, in whatever surreal form, occasionally unbothered by great political questions, but whose fabric nonetheless allows personal experiences in a war-torn country to trickle through, as visceral as they are subtle. Kharkow’s fiction adopts a human lens in the face of History. Drawing from experienced vignettes as well as inventing scenarios that may well have been experienced by someone else, on another day and in another city in Ukraine, Kharkow’s stories reject the didactic tendency. Fiction becomes a medium through which Kharkow can grapple with, and express, his reaction to the traumatic events in his country. In the story we have chosen to publish this month, two guys meet incognito at a hotel, but during their date, a missile strikes the neighbouring building. The guys want to leave, but they can’t because the police and the military have arrived at the damaged building, and they could be forcibly sent to the war. As time passes, they have to get to know each other better. An insight into the queer experience brought into discussions of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in the last year and a half, this short story merges questions of identity and desire, whilst shining new light on homophobic sentiment and action, both state-sanctioned and social, that has persisted in present-day Ukraine. War does not, and should not, stop discussions of such systemic issues. (Miruna Tiberiu, Managing Editor).
Those Who Have Lost are Kept Silent
by Ilya Kharkow
It started out of sheer stupidity on my face. It started with a huge, juicy pimple. Because of the furuncle that appeared on my cheek on the day of the date. We agreed to meet at a coffee shop, but due to a sudden furuncle, I moved the meeting place to the courtyard.
My potential partner kindly brought the coffee. We spent the evening in a dark courtyard. Talked. We were touching each other. Tried to feel the degree of attractiveness of each other. The evening ended with joint masturbation in the same place. But the most fascinating part was not even the synchronised ejaculation, but the complete anonymity that the darkness of the nameless courtyard gave.
The darkness has given us unexpectedly much. The guy did not only see not only my furuncle, I was sure he did not even see the general features of my face. The volume of the voice, the softness of the skin and the warmth of the erect dicks – that is all we shared with each other. Surprisingly, this turned out to be enough.
We pissed together on the wall and laughed. Would I like this guy in the electric light of the café? I do not know. I have many criteria for potential partners. But the darkness deprived me of the opportunity to evaluate my partner by appearance. The guy actively gesticulated, and I saw only his movements but not his fingers, not the colour of his skin. Only gestures and odours. Parasite words. Mild body odour. The power of touch. The fabric of his clothes and the softness of his underwear.
It was one of those meetings where you leave horny even though your partner has satisfied you. He kissed me goodbye on the cheek. Right in the furuncle. Amazing how it did not burst from passionate touch. But it did not. And the happy guy left the courtyard. I do not like to be looked at in the back, but I love to look at other people’s backs. And I looked. Was left alone. And the darkness of the nameless courtyard was transformed into an obsessive erotic desire.
Rotten teeth. Malocclusion. Dandruff. Dirty clothes. Dirt under nails. All this is reason to end the date. But if the goal is not to find a partner for life, but just to have sex, then maybe you should still forgive the guy for an untidy look? Am I willing to miss out on a 20cm dick just because the guy has dandruff? Fucking guys with big dicks is a special kind of fun, especially since there is always a risk that he might fuck you.
I thought the smell of underwear turned me on. Though my fetish was peeping. But anonymity is what eclipsed all the erotic fantasies that have ever visited me. Anonymity is when you watch porn, but you see only black colour on the screen, and the sounds of bodies rubbing against each other become the main characters. Anonymity is when it is not the person himself that is important, but the sensations he gives you.
The more excited I was by the sensations, the more I felt aversion to everything visual. Whenever I met a handsome guy on the street, I looked for his distinguishing feature. For example, hollow cheeks. And I imagined how I could feel the hollowness of his cheeks in the darkness.
Soon my new fetish marked itself in everyday life. I lost interest in brands. Any brand is the opposite of what brought me satisfaction. So, I tore off the labels from all the jars that were on the side of the bathroom. I did the same in the kitchen. Sort the clothes in the closet. New Balance. Under Armour. FILA. To hell with all this! I was no longer interested in brands. They pushed me away. Only the essence. I don’t need pretty packaging anymore. Only the sensations that I received from any thing, product or person are important. That’s more honest. It’s more pleasant.
Soon I went on another date. I arranged it with another guy, but it was still in the same courtyard. To my surprise, the date did not go as well as I expected. It was too cold outside. And the potential partner did not choose the hottest of topics to talk about. He told me that almost all of his friends have got summons to the military registration and enlistment office. And his godfather went to work one day, and he was stopped at the entrance of the subway. They asked for documents. They wrote a summons. They told him to come to the military registration office, on the same day. Obviously, he did not come. And therefore, soon, representatives of the enlistment office themselves came to his house. An adult son opened the door. They took his son with them, and left a fine on the nightstand for failure to report to the recruitment office at the rate of half the minimum wage. The guy hasn’t been in touch for two weeks. They say he became a military medic, although he has no medical degree.
“You’re not one of those… not the military, are you?”
“No, I’m not. Why?”
“What are those clothes you have on? There is something strange about it, but I don’t understand what exactly… everything is unmarked. The military dress up like that, these bastards… Clothes from the military store?”
By that time, I had managed to buy neutral clothes that were practical but not fashionable. They were clothes devoid of tags and inscriptions. Quality material, but standard cut. Pleasant to the touch, but visually ugly. Clothing that conveys the essence of my desire. And now I see that the guy misinterpreted my outfit. What turns me on makes him nervous. It’s not dark enough in this yard. He should feel my clothes with his palms, not with his eyes. But he senses a trick. He sees in me someone who can potentially harm. I’m not like that, but if I say, I’ll ruin the game. A minimum of information about myself is a variant of darkness, and it is important for me to preserve it.
He touches my butt. I’m standing in corduroy trousers. To the touch they are like childhood. Soft velveteen – the carelessness of children and furry animals. I don’t like corduroy trousers. Do not like those who usually choose such clothes. But I like the feeling I get from touching them. His hand slides down my trousers and rests in his pocket, where a rectangular stack of business cards sticks out like a tiny coffin. I saved on paper. Choose too thin. And now my friend thinks there’s a stack of subpoenas in his pocket.
“Don’t even dare!..”, the guy says with a threat in his voice.
“That’s exactly what you think,” I sneer, and watch the reaction. The dark oval of his face wipes tiny bubbles of saliva from his bristly chin. Then he hits me twice in the stomach. Even at the moment of impact, I feel his fist trembling with fear. Runs away. I don’t try to catch up with him. I’ve had to leave dates so often that now I’m even curious what it’s like when someone leaves you.
Once, I left a date because the guy had female breasts. His nipples protruded from under his T-shirt like he was wearing a child’s bra. I remember one time I left a date because the guy was missing one tooth. And one more date I interrupted because of fat fingers. Creepy pork sausages were typing text on a smartphone, unable to fully bend. But all this I would not see in the dark. Thick fingers could give me a special softness of touch. After all, they touched someone. And if this someone could get pleasure from touching, then why did I refuse these touches? Would a missing tooth be a problem if we turned off the lights? And bulging nipples in the dark could be sharp Alps I’d grab onto in bed. Darkness gives us something that a plastic surgeon cannot give. Have you noticed that sperm in the dark is tastier? A person is biased so much that he knows how to deceive even taste buds.
Hotel. Three layers of curtains: from translucent to dense, as thick as a Persian carpet. Large bed in the centre of a small room. A narrow corridor leads directly to the bed. Nothing else I need. Isolation. No extraneous sounds. Let’s listen to the body. You don’t need light. Anonymity.
I wrote that I’m visiting. That I hold an important position in the government, and therefore the confidentiality of meetings for me is in the first place. I didn’t write that anonymity turns me on. Then the guys thought that I had something to hide and lost confidence. But there was nothing to hide except for an erection. Then I lied to them that I was hiding my face so as not to lose my career. They accepted this lie. They also accepted the terms of the game. Enter the room at a certain time. Lateness is punished with an uncomfortable desire. Secret knock on the door. Walk in with your head down. After closing the door, take three steps forward. Sit on the bed. Silence until I find his hand. Groped. We started.
Sometimes I had to pay for these meetings, but only to confirm the legend of the civil servant. I paid them even when I was a student and could barely scrape together for a cheap pizza. I didn’t shave on purpose before meetings in order to seem older to the touch. I grew my armpit hair. Groin hair. I bought cologne used by men over 40. I still buy it. In the dark, I wanted to be not myself. Just as once I wanted to kill myself, but did not kill, so now I seem to have become someone else, although I have not been reborn.
We didn’t talk much. Touch was preferred. We could not see each other, and therefore the tactile sensations seemed bright, like the first parental blow with a belt. Sometimes I pretended to be a foreigner. Sometimes I say that I am a businessman. Sometimes I confessed to financial frauds that I did not commit. And all in order to build a distance greater than darkness. I liked to move away, only to soon destroy the distance with a brazen touch. Here he touches my face, and my capital no longer feels like something unattainable. He puts his index finger into my mouth, and the position of civil servant turns into a mute title, devoid of power.
But in reality, I was an ordinary programmer. Suffered from toxic relationships, even the memories of which continued to hurt. He was an orphan, which already makes you fall in love with him. He invited me to the cemetery for a date. Without hesitation, I agree. I want to read Edgar Poe’s poems with him in the evening cemetery. He also goes there to care for other people’s graves. He has no relatives, but he is drawn to clean the tombstone with an unfamiliar last name from fallen leaves, dust and bird shit. For some reason, he meets my misunderstanding with aggression.
Mood swings. Over-concern alternates with anger and intolerance. He literally forces me to play the role of a father for him. But the irony is, I grew up without a father. I am an actor without a script, and the director, at every opportunity, hits me with a rag that he just washed someone else’s tombstone with.
The only thing we were good at was digging into each other’s traumas. But we were not psychologists, and therefore our leisure became uncontrollably dangerous. I dreamed of writing a novel about our relationship, for which I tried to dive deeper into a partner. But the more open we became, the more clearly, I understood – two abysses met, and now they compete in who will swallow whom.
We began to go to the cemetery every Monday. Soon, from an unusual entertainment, this turned into a household ritual, such as washing dishes or clothes. But why do we need to wash dishes when there are so many restaurants around? Why should we wash other people’s graves? One day, I took a red volume of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poetry with us to the cemetery. He was removing dried flowers from the tombstone, and I read ‘A Cloud in Trousers’ to him. But he did not understand what the poem was about. Began to get angry. And I was laughing at him. Laughed in a good way. And then he pushed me. I fell backwards on a vertical marble headstone. The headstone cracked. He looked at me like a wolf or a social worker. As if it was my fault that the tombstone cracked. As if it’s my fault that he’s an orphan and I can’t believably portray daddy for him. He looked and ran over the hill. I ran after him to strike back. Although I knew, the misunderstood verses had already avenged my offence.
And then he brought home the photograph on a tin tablet. Brought from the cemetery. Hung it on the wall. Said he fell in love. It was too much for me. The photo shows a black and white boy from the last century. Later, I elicited that this boy was similar to his representation of his own father. Only in the photo was he younger than us. And that means weaker. But what difference does it make if he’s dead anyway? The point here is not even that he stole the cemetery tablet. The fact is that soon I felt a kind of kinship with the dead boy. So his traumas became mine, while mine did not penetrate deeply into him.
We dug into each other. We studied everything that we were afraid of in ourselves. We had courage and recklessness. We had time. But at some point, the stories ended, the traumas stopped causing a painful reaction. We stayed in a rented apartment – two teenagers who even in clothes in front of each other seemed naked. Absolute openness suddenly destroyed the attraction. We looked at each other under the lamp in the laboratory, and were angry at any change that happened without our knowledge. Such openness tormented us more than childhood traumas, and therefore it was a huge surprise for both of us that this type of communication can simply get boring. First, sex left our relationship, then we dispersed to different apartments and cities.
Now I avoid talking on anonymous dates. Enough. Words were an erotic tool for me, but nothing more. A good mystery could make a man horny, leaving room for fantasy. I was in a hurry to create the image of an impregnable man, and as soon as I realised that they believed in my image, I immediately switched to tactile games.
After sex we silently dressed. The guest left the room first. Just because I didn’t like being looked at the back, because this is an opportunity to catch up and expose myself. I’ve been waiting. It’s better to say less than to say too much. I lied, after all. Any game is a lie, but that’s why we like games.
On one of these evenings, the silence was broken. The fact is that during sex, we heard a missile explode near the hotel. The windows of a nearby building were shattered. A car alarm sounded from a nearby parking lot.
“Should we stop?”, I ask.
Fused, like two ridiculous embryos, we look towards the window, but it is curtained three times. Darkness gives a sense of security. As if everything that happens is happening somewhere far enough, and we fenced ourselves off from the world with the carelessness of the mother’s womb, which we ourselves recreated. His sweat, my sweat. Sperm and lube. All this is the amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus in the belly of the invisible mother. Our natural environment, protecting from external influences.
“Why are you speaking Russian?”
“This is the language of the occupier”
“But it’s also my language. And I’m not an occupier. What’s the problem?”
“Are you from the east?”
“Is there any difference?”
“If you remembered that you live in Ukraine and spoke Ukrainian, then the Russians would not come to save you. There would be no war. No explosions. You still didn’t get the difference?”
His lips move, but I don’t like what they say. I don’t let them stick to my skin anymore. But we still continue to copulate. Two dogs are ready to tear each other apart because of different political positions, but at the same time they continue to sniff each other’s asses. Because we love the smell. I love that we can confess it. Like rough touches. Like the smell of amniotic fluid.
“You don’t consider English the language of the occupier, do you? England is still an empire. And how many wars have they staged… or here is Germany…”
“Let’s see what you say when the Russians throw a nuclear bomb on Kyiv”
“Remember Hiroshima? Remind me how many years have passed? Seventy? Eighty? I have a Japanese friend who is dating an American. Do you think they’re still fighting because of it?”
“They are all traitors to history”
“Imagine a Jew who learns German just because Germany has a high standard of living and he wants to stay there. Is he a traitor?
“A traitor is everyone who has forgotten the history of their country”
“But during the war, you come to the hotel, not to the military office. You were in no hurry to save the country, but rather saved your own ass, right?”
Another explosion is heard. We are silent. We are accelerating. Body. Erection. Warmth.
“Enough!” he says, pushing me away.
I slide off the bed like a rain-soaked leaf blown off a dirty tombstone.
We are stuck in the room. Getting out is scary. But not because a missile can hit the same place twice, but because the police and the military, as well as the ambulance and firefighters, have already arrived in the yard. Volunteers and local activists showed up. A car arrived with blankets and water. Those who hand out summons also came.
Guys are caught everywhere. They say on TV that during the air raid everyone goes to the shelters, but the military checks the shelters. They monitor security, but in fact they are fulfilling the mobilisation plan. The same thing happens in hospitals, so if you’re a guy, it’s better not to go there. How better not to meddle in any state institution. In simple terms, you should avoid everything that you are offered to fight for.
We switched on the light. In front of me stood an ageing boy. It was as if he immediately turned from a young boy into an old man, having passed the stage of maturity. I don’t remember why we laughed in that position, but when we did laugh, wrinkles surrounded his eyes. His eyes were like the body of an aquarium fish, and the wrinkles at the corners resembled the bushy tail of Betta splendens, or simply ‘betta’, as we used to call the Fighting Fish. Not only his eyes, our very intercourse was like a struggle. But as we wrestled, I felt like I was wrestling with an empty tin can rattling with an aluminium key. This is a hollow man. Artificially empty. And by the light of the lamp, I suddenly became damned interested in what made it empty so that this emptiness seemed so obvious that it could pass for decoration.
Here he is calling someone. Being in the same room, I have to eavesdrop on the everyday details of a telephone outrage. At the same time, the back of his head looks so attractive that I can hardly restrain from wanting to touch him. And soon we ordered dinner in the room. I watch him chew his food thoroughly. How a piece of broccoli crammed into the corner of his lips. How he tries to clean it with a napkin, but he fails. I see everything I wanted to escape from with anonymous dates. I look at him and he suddenly says:
“Yeah, I don’t like it all the same,” he scratches the inside of his thigh with his hand, and then with the same hand he takes a salmon sandwich and hands it to me. “At least I feel comfortable with you naked”
Then someone calls him again. I walk over to the window. There are even more soldiers there now than an hour ago. Women, along with rescuers, clear the rubble. Even through a closed soundproof window, I can hear a baby crying. A tiny bulldozer pulled up and another ambulance. Finally, the reporters arrived.
I received a message. It’s from work. There will be an online meeting in half an hour. Assemble the entire development team. We will discuss minor, but mandatory changes. Key points are listed in the subject line of the email. Font size on the main page and brand colour. Yesterday I came up with an idea – to highlight the text with a branded colour. I know this idea will fail. Some sections of our site use the brand colour as the background, which means that text selection will not be noticeable on them. I’m too lazy to think this idea through. I will suggest it only to be rejected. But I’m in the room, and I can’t get out of the room, because the hotel is surrounded by police and military. I have to confess that I am not a civil servant. The game will be ruined. But the switched-on light destroyed it earlier. And the explosions. And talking about the language of the occupiers. I just have to accept it and pull out the laptop.
A hollow man sits down next to me. He sees that I communicate with colleagues with the camera turned off. The camera turned off is a continuation of the desire for anonymous dates. Any idea often goes beyond the topic. A young mother thinks about abortion while baking stuffed chicken. A pervert is perverted even at work. A person is a set, indecent in its complexity.
“Always envious of colleagues with unhappy marriages,” the hollow man whispers in my ear. “These are the best employees. They run away from home to the office and don’t want to return. You can always rely on such people.”
For some reason, his words make me laugh. I turn off the microphone so my colleagues can’t hear it. Together we examine the squares with the faces of colleagues. Under the squares are their names and the cities in which they are located. I work with a large team, and therefore it is customary for us to indicate the city next to the name. This fact suspiciously captivates the hollow man. I’m sitting in a shirt, but no underwear, although the camera is off. The hollow man touches my calves while looking at my colleagues. And then he offers to look at the air raid sirens map.
“All over the country… except Crimea”
“Interesting…”, he says slowly. “Who do you think will be the first to fall back?”
“Well, yes, dies… who will commit suicide or go to the frontline… who will be the first to disappear from important meetings?”
“I don’t know… and I don’t even want to think about it”
“And for the money? Who would you bet on?”
“Why do I need money, the war is going…”
“Yeah… That’s when you do need money”
“What exactly are you suggesting?”
I wanted anonymity, but ended up giving him confidential information. Colleagues’ personal data. Team structure. Degree of importance. But the main thing is the ability to attend our meetings online through my account. Arranging dates in the dark, I played a game, but the hollow man also played a game, only he had his own game, and he earned money on it.
“Did you notice how foreigners became more active? How all these American CEOs suddenly decided to have more general meetings. Do you think it’s all about caring? And how often are you invited to call during an air raid alert? Doesn’t it confuse you?”
Since the beginning of the war, communication has really improved. And even though I worked for a Ukrainian company, our CEO was an American. And if before the war I communicated with him only a couple of times, then after the start of the active phase of hostilities, he got in touch at least twice a week. I took it as a sign of care, but was it care or curiosity? Which one of them will be the first to recline? Or rather, from us. The business has turned into a reality show. Most web development companies in Ukraine have foreign investors. Most investors know a lot about entertainment.
“They say, to look for a balance between work and personal life, and then they watch the employees burn out and ask to be fired. But how can you ask to be fired when your salary is higher than what your whole family makes in total? To decide on this, you need to go to the edge… to the extreme… and the manifestations of extremes are so interesting to watch…”
At each meeting, he told me about how to have fun. He pointed me to my real place in the system. The way I saw the organisation of the business before meeting with the hollow man – a plane, offensively reminiscent of a saucepan lid. He filled me with new knowledge, but at the same time, something valuable was leaking, spilling out of me. The ideals that motivated earlier were suddenly replaced by disappointment and breakdown. The professionalism of colleagues suddenly seemed like acting, nothing more.
“Here she works as a successful programmer, and then she quits and starts selling drugs. She proudly tells the new environment how progressive the CEO was on her previous project. They are still in touch. He even bought some crystals from her to support business. What a wonderful person he is…”
I just needed to provide access to information about colleagues, because the team was in Ukraine. Meetings were held every day. This meant that it was easy to track who was still alive and who was already in trouble. Most of all the hollow man was interested in guys. The girls also sometimes died, sometimes went crazy. But the boys were in greater danger. The risk that the next developer would not get in touch tomorrow without giving a reason was so high that working meetings became a new sport. Royal Ascot. Formula 1. Tour de France. Football match. Baseball one. All the things you can bet on.
“Business supports Ukraine. That’s what they said, but… let’s be honest, boy, the contracts were signed a year ago. By the summer it became obvious that the war was dragging on. New contracts are no longer coming in. And the old ones… do you agree that you need to get the most out of any situation? How much do you think they are betting that it is you who will not get in touch next?”
He leaves money on the bed. I’m not in a hurry to count. I’m interested in different things. I walk up behind him. I whisper in his ear:
“Are you betting too?”
“Maybe I do”
“Did you bet on me?”
He is amused by my question. We are laughing. For some reason he gets excited. Hugs me. And says:
“I never bet on those whom I cooperate with. If you go missing, I won’t be able to follow your guys.”
“Then can you help me escape the country? Take the money… I don’t need the money… help me to leave.”
That evening he gave me a paper. Lots of text written in illegible handwriting. Two stamps: one is round, and the second is in the form of a triangle and with a coat of arms. He said that if they stop me on the street, then this paper will solve all the problems. All I need is to be confident and calm when you show it to the military.
While the Russian army shelled the cities where I grew up, the Ukrainian military hunted me in the street. If the Russian army declared that it would destroy places dear to me, then the Ukrainian military threatened that they would send me to war, where I would meet death, fighting not for my language and an unfamiliar culture. During alarms, I should have avoided safe places, because over there the hands of the law were waiting for me, ready to judge, calling me an evader and a traitor. Between Armed Forces of Ukraine advance stories and evasive reports on arms shipments, I had to listen to hosts accuse me if I wanted to hear the news because my culture was suddenly hostile. Why can’t the news be neutral? Propaganda… it even crept into my ears, although I thought I was on the alert. My world was being actively destroyed, but the blame for this was shifted to me.
Those who went abroad to work suddenly found themselves without a livelihood. The borders are closed, and therefore men, persecuted by hungry wives and children, crawl to the military registration office, begging the bureaucrats for a livelihood. They sold life for a contract with a payment for which a semi-skilled programmer would not even communicate with the camera turned on, not to say to work.
Truckers and taxi drivers turned into military drivers, and carried either corpses or shells, without asking any questions. Builders dug graves until they were replaced by excavators at mass grave sites so as not to scare citizens with expanding cemeteries. Volunteers watched as their ideals collapsed, as politicians adopted contradictory laws, criminalising disobedience. News of mass suicides was not published. Cultivated patriotic sentiments in society. And the right moods sprouted like weeds. They grew like a living splinter under the skin. They festered and blossomed.
At first, I tormented myself with a moral dilemma. Am I doing bad things to colleagues by giving away their personal data, making them vulnerable betting horses? But my colleagues said:
“The culture of the Russian Federation serves as support for the war. The Russian language is the language of the occupiers. Forget about the fact that thirty years of your life have been voiced in Russian. We have to kill Russians. Renounce the Russian heritage as something shameful. Why do you need Leo Tolstoy’s reflections on the fate of the people, when Ukrainian literature has prepared so many texts about the struggle and defence of its own authenticity?!”
The truth is that no one knew what to do with this authenticity after it could be defended. The rejection caused by the attacks on what I consisted of led me to total indifference. Therefore, when our designer did not get in touch on May 10, I coldly wrote to the hollow man:
“The first one departed. Designer. Sent for training”
The guy became interested in a magnificent woman. Penetrated into her right on the street. The case was in Ternopil. She was inappropriately loud. They were heard. Summons are handed out as punishment. You can’t have fun while the country is at war. You can’t love each other so loud on the street. On the same day he was taken.
Our boss wrote a compassionate message to the general chat, where he expressed his pride that such a good person left to defend the country. At the same time, he gave the order to look exclusively for girls for a vacant position.
“The second one departed. QA. Located in the distribution centre”
On the sixth of July, he was shopping for a present for his youngest son. He has two of them. Exemption from military service gives the presence of only three minor children.
Both guys kept their wages with the stipulation that the decision be reviewed after six months. But this time, the vacant place was taken by a patriotic girl. No one knew that thanks to me, our meetings turned into a subject of bargaining and betting. But even if we put aside the mercenary game, our meetings increasingly began to resemble Russian roulette, in which logic and effort gave way to pure luck. Everyone felt it, but no one spoke about it publicly. This topic was raised only in private correspondence, which only exacerbated the situation, pouring the sauce of hypocrisy onto the microclimate of the team.
“The third one is departed. Sales Manager. Sent to the Zaporozhye direction”
Quarrelled in a taxi. Being one of the most patriotic colleagues, he was angry that the taxi driver spoke Russian. He made a remark to him, saying that it is not permissible to serve a passenger in the language of the occupier during the war. You can speak any language at home, but in public places, in institutions, and even more so at work, please speak Ukrainian. The taxi driver was outraged. Then the manager called the cops.
“If you love, then come to my parents’ house for me,” texted the manager’s girlfriend, with whom he quarrelled the day before. He called a taxi to come to her. Wanted to reconcile. But both the taxi driver and the manager were taken to the police department. They handed the guys the summons. We were given a couple of hours to pack our things and come to the medical commission. Meanwhile, the manager’s girlfriend decided that not having a boyfriend under her house was the answer. That evening, she slept with a school friend, trying to forget the one who stubbornly did not answer her calls.
I knew that sooner or later this situation would happen to me. Even though I worked remotely, I still had to leave the house for dates that I became addicted to. And now I meet a guy whom I once scared with clothes without tags and a pack of cheap business cards in my pocket. I recognise him by his voice, smell and the degree of softness of his body. We fuck in the parking lot minutes before curfew starts. And when I’m about to leave, he grabs my hand and calls a friend. He says that because of his health condition they do not take him to the army, but now he comes to hand out summonses.
My hand is still covered in sticky lubricant, and he is already holding out a rectangular sheet of paper with a place for my signature. Two young and indifferent policemen immediately appear. Then I show them the paper I received from the hollow man. I carry myself confidently and calmly, as he taught me. Not even sweaty palms. Lighting the paper with three flashlights, the young policemen nod importantly and order me to let go. Guy whispers:
“Will we meet again?”
I get paid for every colleague who leaves. Why do they do it? As if I can influence the number of people who quit. Do they pay me to instil the idea that I can really influence? But I can’t. Money will push me to villainy. They want me to turn my colleagues in to the state? Oka-a-a-ay. Let them pay. However, first I need to make a file on him. Choose three photos from social media. There is a condition. And I find them understandable. I need to write a psychological profile. A few facts. Family status. Most of all, the hollow man was interested in their life goals. Whether the dropout was fascinated by something other than work.
“Is there anything else you’re interested in?”
“Bets and sex don’t count?”
Twenty minutes ago, we slept together, but still couldn’t leave the room. Something keeps us together. Not money, neither of us care about that. Not a game, we treat it condescendingly. It’s something else, but we don’t dare to call it a word.
“Why are you interested in betting?”
We kiss. I touch his front teeth with my tongue. He lets me touch them. It is never completely clear to me which of us is the leader and who is the follower in these relationships. The lack of clarity tells me that I’m being played with. I don’t mind. War is the same game, but I’d rather die in the erotic game of a pervert than in the game of politicians and their capital.
“Look, this square is responsible for your team. But these sixteen are for teams in the western part of the country”
“Why are there six tabs here?”
“These are all pages assembled from teams. There are many of you. Do you wanna take a look? Here is my favourite. Eight out of twelve have already been taken here, and they still maintain power. Only four people from the original composition. And that’s just for six months. Imagine the devotion! What patriotism!”
“Do you like it?”
“In times of war it’s important to find a sense of control. It’s easy to go crazy without it.”
“Aren’t you get crazy chasing this control?”
“And who cares about that? The main thing is that I survived today, but your manager was sent to the frontline”
Someone calls the hollow man. And the hollow man goes to the window. Making plans for dinner. Chooses food. Sets the time. Then he moves the meeting place home. He heard that there were a lot of military men on the street of his favourite restaurant today. There may be trouble. Saying goodbye, the way you say goodbye to your mother or to your girlfriend.
“Well, ask… I see how curious you are”
“Yes, I am. How did it happen that you protected me from subpoenas, but you yourself are afraid of the military?”
“How did I keep you safe?”
I take out the paper with two seals and he starts laughing.
“I downloaded it from the Internet. It’s not the paper that saves you, your confidence did it.”
I take a deep breath. I ask:
“Are you dating girls or was it your mom?”
The room fills with air raid sounds.
“I was talking to a girl who plays mother to me. My mom died two days after the war started. But she died in St. Petersburg. That’s why I couldn’t get to her funeral. And I’m torn apart by the thought that there’s no one to even come and clean her grave, you know? Therefore, I found a girl who portrays a mother. She pretends to be waiting for me. That nothing bad happened. And as usual, I don’t have time to meet her. It helps. And if it helps, why refuse it?”
“You can pay someone to come to her grave. For someone to take care of it.”
“That’s not it. I’ll find a performer, but it’s not about someone coming to the cemetery, but about someone leaving their energy there. Сare. Understand? They won’t do it for money.”
“I know someone who would do it for free”
A series of graveyard dates flashed before my eyes. Heart pounded painfully. Train hid under the skin.
“In St. Petersburg? Now? What language would he do it in? If not for the Russian language, then there would be no war… ”
He sits in front of me, illuminated by daylight. He’s wearing a Nike jacket. Smells like cheap Zara cologne. I know more about him than I would like to know. I see more in him than I would like to see. It would be better if we did not come out of the shadows. I offer him to have sex in the dark, just like we started. Then he blindfolds me with a T-shirt and says:
“Let everyone get what they are looking for”
Fooled. Horny. Defenceless. Ready to attack, but not knowing where. And is it necessary?
“Blindfolding me is another way to gain control?”
“Letting me do this is another way to shift responsibility to someone else?”
“I’m not like that”
“Hush, let’s skip the explosions”
The siren stops after a couple of seconds.
“By the way, why are you talking to me in Russian all this time?”
Having received no answer, I ask:
“What is that, handcuffs?”
“Shall we play with a sense of control?”
He chains me to the battery. I am on my knees, facing the ruins and with my back to the room. Outside the window, children are still crying, and women are clearing the rubble. Rescuers drag women and children away, but they rush back. Three policemen run after the young man in glasses to give him a summons. The teenagers are filming it. An old woman, wrapped in a flag, shares cookies with the military.
“Did you open the door? Did someone enter? Hey! Say something?”
Accompanied by a loud bang, the door closes.
“What’s happening? How many of you are here? Who are you?”
And when I already thought that I was framed. That I’m going to be raped by a few cynical perverts. Only then I hear the voice of a civil servant who said dryly:
“Submit documents, please…”
The capital is the place where eastern Ukraine meets western Ukraine. A dark hotel room is a place where culture mixes but is never really mixed.
Translated in English by the author.
Ilya Kharkow is a writer from Ukraine, but he does not want to be labelled as a Ukrainian writer. “In Ukraine, I’m seen as a criminal because I’ve rejected military conscription. Until now, a great number of men in Ukraine have been persecuted and humiliated while locked in the country,” says him. “Fortunately, I was able to escape and get refuge in Europe. The Ukrainian authorities’ intentions to deport me. War supporters hate me. My native town is occupied by Russia. Every day I experience difficulties of emigration. But all this inspires me to write.”. He published in numerous magazines. Now he lives in Europe as a political refugee. His personal website www.ikharkow.com
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