By Yana Walder Cook
Sensitive material is contained in this essay. Mention of rape/sexual assault.
I grew up in post-Soviet Union Collapse Ukraine. In 1990s, being a female teenage girl was a hazardous liability. I watched girls disappear into the dark underbelly of nightclubs, human trafficking and drugs and did my best to escape that. All through middle school I bartered potatoes for English lessons. The year twin towers fell I turned 16, and given one lucky break, I found myself in Boston with a United States Green Card. I ended up on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts where I slowly healed from years of scarcity and violence. I diffused into the scenery and went to the ocean every day, until my writing and my love of travel brought me face to face with the reality of human trafficking again.
I met a Ukrainian girl on a night train in Italy; it was 2011. I was travelling from Vienna to Venice. My laptop sat open on the table between us and she watched me typing at it until it got very dark. She ordered us each a glass of steaming black tea and a cookie.
“I have a story for you,” she said at around midnight. “It is a story of hundreds of girls like me; half of these stories will have died with the body they belonged to, And those stories that survived will never see the light of day because of the shame and stigma and the powerlessness…”
Listening to her was like looking fear right in the face, but there she was sitting across from me, so I knew the story was going to end well somehow. She was like quiet ash, beautiful, sad, soft-spoken, transformed by life into fine mincemeat. Here is Sefi’s story.
When this story began her name was Serafine. The name was given to her presumably by her mother.. at least that was her hope. She knew she was born outside of Kharkiv in Ukraine, but she never met her mother because for one reason or another she could not keep the baby and gave up Serafine at the hospital. This story began when she was 14 years old. That day in November of 1999, she got busted for smoking, which was prohibited. At the orphanage of 200 kids between four and seventeen years old, her only reprieve was smoking a cigarette in the outhouse above a hole in the floor over a pile of shit. Hiding away, she thought about how it was even possible to feel this alone even though she shared her bedroom with 18 other girls her age. And she thought about how painfully cold it will be to go pee in this outhouse in about a month. No indoor toilets at this orphanage.
That morning, even before her classes started, she was caught by a caretaker doing just that, smoking and thinking, leaning her small angular shoulder bones onto a wall with eyes closed. That caretaker, she smacked Serafine on the back of the head and hissed obscenities pulling the sleeve of her thin coat hissing…’Mangy whore… Addicted, disease ridden skank. Refuse of society.’
She was sent away to help at the laundry room instead of to her next class. Sending kids to wash laundry by hand and to endlessly iron bedding was a cruel punishment set aside for those that were simply hated without parole. After her knuckles had worn down to raw pink meat from rubbing cotton and wool clothing, she was told to hang it outside on a clothes line. She went in and out with handfuls of steaming laundry into the chilly air. She took the dry laundry off the clothesline and brought it in. It was around 2 in the afternoon when she realized the tips of her fingers had cracked and seeped blood onto the clean semi-white sheet she was supposed to iron.
A child stuck between wanting to please, wanting to make good, to succeed at something for someone, for once, but whatever she did was never enough. It was never good. There was always something for which she was smacked and yelled at. She dropped the sheet onto the dirty wet floor, grabbed her pack of cigarettes from the laundry lady’s desk and walked out of that windowless room, walked out on her life. She walked around the outskirts of town turning randomly right and left, avoiding downtown, until the afternoon turned into a chilling November night. When she stopped, she was in front of the train station. The building was large enough for her to not stand out. It was heated. She was then firmly planted without a plan on a lacquered wooden bench, feet unmoving on the polished concrete floor, clean, she thought. The waiting area of the central train station was a hub of activity full of shops and cafes. She felt the bitterness rising in her stomach like a fist, she was hungry, but brave. She was not going back.
Now here we must consider the timing. So much of life’s potential to create beauty for us, or horror, depends on the timing. The magical fate or universe or God, whatever you call it, they say it is only waiting for you to make a choice toward actualizing and it makes beautiful things happen for you. Do you think the universe helps defenseless 14 year old girls alone at a train station? Do you think God does? Well, he did appear out of nowhere with a thermos of hot tea. He approached a skittish kid like another kid, even though he was much much older than her. Fatherly, he said he was worried that she would catch a cold in her thin coat. She was in fact very cold.
He sat down on the bench. He blew on her tea. He had warm hands. The time went by, people became few, just her and him with one hour before midnight. His train to the capital of Ukraine was leaving in another two hours. What’s in the capital, she asked. The Italian Embassy, he replied. He was traveling to pick up his European Union visa and was flying out to Rome to see a friend who just opened a restaurant there. But enough about him, what was she doing there alone at midnight? It is not safe at all, he said many times, looking around and shaking his head in disbelief. She wasn’t going to tell him how old she was. Oh no, she wasn’t even going to tell him her name.
She held the silence and thought about what was she doing there. She thought about what she would have to do to avoid getting sent back to the orphanage. Just to not get caught, she thought. Don’t get caught here in this waiting anteroom till sunrise. The man got up and walked away. She could walk along the train tracks, she thought, in the direction of any big city during the day and sleep at the train stations during the night. “Where are you going?” he asked, handing her a gigantic hot dog. He asked that and she should have lied, but she was so tired and besides, at the first bite of that food a trust she did not consent to wove itself through her cold bones. This is how she now knows there was still a child inside of her that day, because children do not think for themselves, but rely on those who feed them to be the solid bearers of good news. A mistake of course to rely on those who procure food for us because we forget our own intuition. So she didn’t lie, she told him she ran away from an orphanage. He lit up in a smile. But you are so brave, he told her. I didn’t have the guts to stick it up to the system and to the nasty teachers in a place where I grew up, I stayed there till I graduated, he said. But you, however, you are the brave one.
Growing up in an orphanage is not a life sentence, it does not run like a ticker across your forehead, he said. Look at me now, I started with nothing and now I travel between Ukraine and Italy on business every month and vacation in the Emirates where it is eternal summer. You just have to change a couple of things about yourself and you will be alright, kid. Come with me to Kiev, I have enough on me to buy you a ticket and you can go from there, he offered. She knew then that she was looking at him directly, eye to eye, for the first time, not his shoes, or hands, or black buttons of his coat. But she looked at him in a different way and when she saw him, she wanted to be him. She wanted to be this nice solid guy who can provide for himself and rock a black leather coat. And as payment for making that kind of eye contact now she knew that in turn he wanted something from her. “Do you want to come with?” he asked again. And she did… and nodded yes. “Then I’ll need your name for the ticket.”
Bullshit that God looks out for people like her. The universe doesn’t owe you anything.
He talked to her most of the night on the train. This was a done deal. It was easy to fake emotional connection for her. Easy to classify her as a rare treasure just like he did all the others, and treat her like such… young, beautiful, fearless, suggestable product. He asked her if she by chance spoke any Italian, himself knowing that at an orphanage like hers if you knew how to read in your native language, you were lucky. The question made her chuckle of course, he knew it would.
That’s too bad, he said, because you could have come to Italy. At this restaurant I am going to they needed extra help right now and would hire almost anyone, any age to do the dishes. She spoke at the dark of the train car, the flat line of her lips breaking in a hungry smile, thinking out loud: “It is a crazy idea.”
“About this trip a month ago…” he continued a soft-spoken story filled with sunny vineyards, abandoned castles, cafes everywhere, and gorgeous Italian women. She has never tasted a grape. She has never owned a piece of clothing that was solely hers. His every word stood on her tongue as textures she has never experienced before stood on the pages she read in the dictionary — velvet and pearl, skin of pineapple, wine in a glass bottle, sticky top of chocolate cake, lemon shavings, thunderstorm reverberating through the back of her tongue. She fell asleep with the idea hooked in her head: Italy was where she wanted to go.
Tea, hot dog, ticket, plus the hotel and food for a day, expedited passport, visa, ticket…. 1,2, 20, 100, 600, 400, about $1300 total. He told her he would take care of her expenses of getting to Italy. You pay me back when you become rich and famous, he joked. “We will be not far away from Venice. I could take you there by car to see for yourself that maps are really useless in Venice.” He added in passing that she may have to borrow some money from his friend, the guy who owns the restaurant, but then again she would be working and making money and will pay it off very quickly. She felt better about not having to be indebted to him so that the nice things he spoke of could to happen more naturally. She had heard about this kind of stuff before. People came to the orphanage to warn girls of the same kind of money borrowing scam. Comes on quick, takes care of everything, seeks a commitment, makes arrangements for you to borrow money from your employer to pay for your visa and ticket to a foreign country to work as dancer in a night club. Other girls, it happens to ‘other’ girls.
Nothing was as bleak of a future as going back to the orphanage. Only forward now, there is nothing to fall back on. The orphanage and that life may as well be charred ashes smoking in that village, because now she can only move toward Italy, not away.
She stayed with him in a hotel in Kiev while her documents were being made. She slept on a separate bed – he was well-mannered and a gentleman. “I would break the fingers of any man who tried to hurt you,” he said petting her hair as if she were a pet rabbit. He called her “baby girl.” And she unwound into his protective hold.
On the plane he drank Bloody Marys and she drank for the first time. Once outside of Rome, he pulled a rented car over into a wooded parking area. “Time for fun,” he said and held out three white pills to her. She didn’t even question it. She swallowed them without water. In the car, he played with her hair again, but this time much slower. He said that after some time she will know that this was what had to happen. This was her lucky break and her life was never going to be the same again. She was fuzzy confused and her head was heavy, so she draped it over the seat and noticed that she was drooling.
One last thing she remembered before closing her eyes was him saying “One year, Serafine, and it will get better” and “the easiest way out is never to run for it.”
And then she closed her eyes.
She told me about her first 18 months in Italy, she told me about one man, three men, twenty men, one bed, zero windows, isolation, rape, fighting back, beatings, rape, festering wounds, more rape, walls of concrete, no light, no sun, other girls, maybe thirty, one who escaped, one who was killed while all the other girls watched, seeing the sun for the first time in months while she dug the dead one a grave, with a spoon, no more escaped after that, rape, no sun…
And then she slid down her seat, lying down on the opposite seats and covered her eyes with her hands. I watched her lips move as if she was still having a conversation in whispers with me. Her skin was alive with some weird energy, she looked flushed and exposed.
She sat up abruptly at midnight and grabbed my hand.
“Enough writing, come with me.” She pulled me through the corridor of one, two, three train cars to the empty smoking lounge. She lit a cigarette and stared into emptiness.
“I really did love the girl I had to bury. Sometimes when I feel like she is about to disappear from the face of the earth, from my memory, I repeat the story of us at that place to myself. It’s hard to move on when you are holding onto a story which is the only proof of existence of another person. She was so beautiful. I just don’t know how a person can be alive one second and gone the next. Where has she gone? It can’t be that all her memories, emotions, laughs, all of it gone. Can it? Why her?”
She looked like a drunk child, poisoned by sadness. Back at our seats, I turned the light off, pulled her shoulders onto my lap and rested my hand on her shoulder blade.
“Sometimes,” she said. “I give into a fantasy of being on a train to Venice like this with my dead girlfriend. A hallucination, a perfect lie, a dream come true. She could be on this train with me or somebody else, I don’t care, only alive. When they gave me a spoon and told to dig, I was sure that I was digging a grave for myself. I believed it. But it was worse, it was for someone I loved.”
A stranger’s head on my lap in the dark. Moon through the window illuminating the slightly fuzzy shell of her ear, a pulsing hollow on the front of her neck and her beautiful jawline. I held my breath and let her fall asleep. And she slept, wrapped in my grey sweater and my warm body lines. Both of us kind of bruised. And in the morning I stepped off the train and onto Venice carrying the story which I have been writing for five years.
Yana Walder Cook loves books, chocolate, and her family. She currently lives in Vermont, where she is busy enjoying all the outdoors offers. She is also finishing her first book, To Your Insolent Warm Pulp. Yana can be followed on twitter at @YanaCook.