An excerpt from the novel "Your Gaze, Cio-Cio-San"
by Andriy Lyubka
Translated from the Ukrainian by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler
That December evening, fog had to settle on Uzhhorod, a drunk judge at the wheel of a BMW X5 had to be flying along the slick asphalt of Hrushevskiy Street, staring at his phone—he didn’t notice, didn’t react, didn’t brake—and slam into my wife’s tender, 115-pound body with two tons of black metal, and she had to flutter into the air and land on the ground, already dead, and that damn German airbag simply had to pop out and save the driver, for me, twenty-nine years into my life, to finally have a real purpose.
Murder isn’t exactly an obvious mission for a man with no screws loose. I should have wielded wisdom and arguments to emerge victorious, ought to have made my case in court, thereby compelling lethargic justice to take the blindfold off its eyes and slay the guilty with its sword. But I happened to be born and raised in a country where Themis is in the habit of using scales filled with valuables rather than the blade. And is it actually possible to judge a judge—forgive me for being redundant—to prove their guilt in court? Even though I’d had different plans for the remainder of my life, I had to devote myself to a matter of the utmost importance. Revenge. For without the rule of law, the game returns to a primal level: an eye for an eye, a life for a life. The Honorable Judge Mykola Zinchenko took my Raluca’s life, so now I would take his. Not his wife or his daughter’s—“no women, no kids,” as that character from my favorite film once said—but the actual murderer’s life. Then we would be even. That’s the only way Raluca, who was entirely without guilt, would be avenged.
Perhaps she’d had good reason to be hesitant about moving to Uzhhorod. We’d both recently graduated from the University of Warsaw; we had some decent career prospects, plus the right contacts, and we were establishing some degree of professional reputation, but I didn’t want to stay in Poland. And Raluca was in no hurry to return to her native Romania. Eventually, I managed to convince her to come with me to Ukraine, which, given the recent revolution and acts of aggression by Russia, didn’t appear to be the perfect place for two young people seeking domestic bliss, yet it seemed to be full of hope and opportunity. Our friends gave us looks of interwoven astonishment and admiration. Well, it was romantic, at the very least: a young couple goes to live in a country that is fighting a war against an empire several times its size. Now I know that was a mistake.
Yet at the time, it seemed as though the country needed young, ambitious people with degrees from Western universities, so every door would open before us. I had earned a degree in political science, and my analysis of the situation seemed flawless to me: we’ll go to Ukraine and build our careers there, the country will reform quickly and become more prosperous, and we’ll lead a happy, calm existence. This was reverse logic at work—when everyone’s fleeing the ship, it’s the perfect time to return and make captain without breaking a sweat. At that time, I’d already been working remotely for an NGO mundanely called the World Politics Institute for over a year. I wrote analytical pieces about Romania and the Balkans; the pay wasn’t sky-high, but it wasn’t too shabby either. I planned to open a branch in Uzhhorod, steadily work on some grant-funded projects, organize conferences and roundtables, and enjoy myself. Raluca could work with me—after all, who knows Romania better than a Romanian?—or teach Romanian, if she cared to, since I’d maintained my contacts in the foreign language departments at Uzhhorod University, where I did my undergrad work.
After her time in Warsaw, Raluca wanted to live in a major city; she mentioned Kyiv several times, but I flat out refused to even entertain that idea. I didn’t like the city itself or its way of life. Uzhhorod, on the other hand, appeared to be the perfect choice. It was a small, cozy, beautiful, green town just a stone’s throw away from everything, closer to twelve European capitals than to Kyiv. Plus, in Kyiv, I would’ve had to become part of a team, work for someone else. In Uzhhorod, I was looking at the prospect of managing my own small, nearly independent organization. Transcarpathia sharing a border with Romania proved to be a key selling point for Raluca, since that way she could make the occasional trip without too much hassle. Not to visit her family—she had a strained relationship with them—but just to go back to her homeland. She missed the food, the music, and being able to buy books and magazines in Romanian more than her childhood home, mother, and wretched stepfather. Yet a more practical concern was much more important than all those theoretical arguments—I owned an apartment in Uzhhorod, so we had a place to live.
It’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond—that phrase popped into my mind when we arrived in Uzhhorod late one night and went straight to bed without even unpacking our things, dead tired from the drive and the lengthy wait at the border. Raluca snoozed smoothly on my shoulder. I was too riled up to shut my eyes, though. I kept thinking about the future that would begin the next morning, about our dreams, plans, and challenges. My hopes were tinged with some apprehension, but mostly with the thirst of a young professional seeking success, of someone who studied for a long time, constantly imagining the day when they could finally toss their textbooks aside and begin their real, adult life. When it’s all up to you. Those thoughts beat back sleep; I tossed and turned. My restlessness was relayed to Raluca, who seemed to sense my agitation in the dark.
“Mark, everything’s going to be alright, yeah?” she whispered. “We’re going to be happy here, right?”
Then her warm, soft lips touched my back warily. She knew how to put people at ease and she was well aware that I, with my choleric temperament, was sometimes in dire need of that. She often said it was being an only child that had made me so intolerable, that all the excessive care and attention made me that way. She was wrong about that, though. Cross my heart, I never truly felt loved; it was like raising me was an obligation for my parents, and they only did so because they were the ones who brought me into the world. Respect and gratitude—that’s what I felt—not love. I was incapable of love and I didn’t even believe in it until I met Raluca. She was the one who taught me, helped me open up.
My parents had placed a certain set of expectations on their son, but I didn’t live up to them, which merely exacerbated their chilly attitude towards me. My father saw me as a serviceman or engineer, but I wasn’t interested in any of that and I looked at my new toy cars and guns—allegedly gifts from St. Nicholas—with utter indifference. My mother dreamt I’d become a singer or a renowned artist, at the very least. So she was all smiles when she’d see me pick up her hair dryer and pretend it was a microphone as I sang in front of the mirror. She apparently wanted me to seize her missed opportunities, without fully realizing that imposing your own dreams upon your child, forcing them to be someone else, to correspond to some ideal, is a form of abuse. But—luckily?—I didn’t have a good voice. I couldn’t even make the school choir. Nonetheless, my mother nurtured the hope that my voice would turn mellifluous when I hit puberty, but it was just the opposite. I didn’t have a knack for drawing or playing any instruments either. Add the inconvenience caused by my health problems, which was enough to make my family move from Solotvyn to Uzhhorod, and my parents’ love was nearly snuffed out. That embittered me—unable to justify their hopes for me, I disappointed myself. It took many long years to rebuild my faith in my own abilities.
I may not have been the most talented kid, but I was quick on the uptake. Actually, I stumbled through algebra and chemistry, but I had a good handle on history, geography, law, and literature. Languages came easily to me, too. I effortlessly committed everything I was interested in to memory, without any cramming. I did some digging, made some discoveries myself; at an early age, I acquired the ability to identify patterns, compile, compare, and sift through information. I knew how to analyze, make hypotheses and forecasts, and arrive at sound conclusions. I loved reading—I went through many a flashlight battery late at night as I turned the pages of fascinating books under the covers. I learned how to speak articulately and write eloquently, without ever letting form overshadow content. Conveying my point was always more important to me.
So, when it came time to choose a major, the insecurities sown by my mother’s hopes made themselves known. I decided to study foreign languages and literature, instead of history. It seemed like a more creative pursuit. The English, French, and German departments were highly selective, and given my family’s financial situation, I couldn’t count on paying a bribe to get in. So I opted to major in Romanian, even though it’s not the most prestigious language. I did so for several reasons. First off, Romanian is similar to French and Italian. If you know Romanian, you’ll be able to make yourself understood in Paris and Rome, too. Secondly, it’s exotic, and hardly anyone is proficient in it, so my skill set would be in high demand. And lastly, Romania is right around the corner, just about sixty miles from Uzhhorod, which provides opportunities for travel, networking, and student exchange programs. Also, I already spoke a little Romanian. I picked some up from the kids in my neighborhood back in Solotvyn, and that, coupled with several months of lessons and the department’s low rate of enrollment, proved to be enough.
Upon graduating from Uzhhorod University with honors, I couldn’t find work for the longest time. I freelanced for a local newspaper and posted news stories from home; I worked for a political party during an election campaign; I tried my hand as an HR manager at a factory that manufactured cable harnesses. There was no work in my field at the department or in the whole city of Uzhhorod. I was offered teaching jobs in benighted mountain villages by the Romanian border, but being a schoolteacher wasn’t for me. Not to mention the fact that working with kids would wreck my nerves.
All of that spurred me to relocate to Kyiv. I still wasn’t working in my field, but at least I was earning more. I translated one of Mircea Cărtărescu’s novels from Romanian, which proved to be an exercise for the soul: I tormented myself at length, giving it everything I had, searching for the appropriate style, juggling synonyms, and finally, after two years of toiling away, editing, and polishing, I showed a publisher the final product. He said that he could publish it, yet couldn’t offer an honorarium, since nobody was going to read a book by a Romanian author, so he wouldn’t make any money. Still, he’d publish it to encourage my efforts. After all, I’d done a good job and deserved a quadrans of fame and my name on the inside cover. I willingly accepted his offer. The book was published, but not a single review was ever written. I never translated any more fiction.
That was when I realized I was interested in more important things. Politics, history, international relations—that was my true passion, not high-brow literature. Moreover, I detested my life in Kyiv, as well as the city itself, so I hightailed it out of there as soon as the opportunity presented itself. I was afforded a magnificent chance: one of my friends sent me a link to the Centre of East European Studies at the University of Warsaw, and they were accepting applications from international students who’d already received a bachelor’s degree. They were offering a rare program—east and central European regional studies. Basically, they were training future diplomats, government analysts, and experts on the space between Germany and Russia. When I saw “Balkan Studies” among the list of programs, I no longer had any doubts. I’d throw my hat in. Polish scholarships were available for those who hailed from the former Soviet countries, and that strengthened my desire to re-enter academia. I completed all the paperwork, took the exams, did an interview, and then one May morning, I received an email congratulating me on being accepted. That’s how I got into the University of Warsaw, where I met Raluca.
Soul-searching, as well as various jobs and side had devoured several years, so it was no wonder that I wound up being the oldest student at the Centre. I’d just turned twenty-five, and all of my classmates were three or four years younger than me. That didn’t bother me, though. Actually, I relished my new position because I’d finally begun to derive satisfaction from what I was doing. My high-school insecurities regarding my lack of a definitive talent were left behind, and I had acquired a certain degree of experience by wandering from job to job, which enabled me to feel like a leader among my younger colleagues. I hit a lucky streak in Warsaw.
That came to an end that December night when Mykola Zinchenko ran Raluca over on a crosswalk in Uzhhorod. How long did that streak—a streak not without happiness—last? Almost three years. Well, thanks for that. Those were the best three years of my life. And Raluca’s presence offered some hope that my lucky streak would continue into the future.
It won’t. It stopped at some streaks of white on the asphalt.
It’s all because of that scumbag, that guardian of the law who’s above the law. Raluca had her reservations about moving to Uzhhorod, and it turned out she’d been right. This city killed her. This country killed her. A country where a judge can go tearing down the road at night, stinking drunk, and murder a pedestrian with a car as enormous as a hearse, bought with blood-stained bribes, and then go unpunished by leveraging his connections, smoothly crafting what is called a “system of collective responsibility” in the criminal code: the policemen who didn’t even handcuff the influential, upstanding murderer at the crime scene; the lab technicians who performed a drug test and reached the conclusion that the judge’s blood alcohol content wasn’t actually all that high; the investigators who established that the accident supposedly happened not on the crosswalk, but twelve yards away, thereby placing the blame on the tender-bodied pedestrian, not the drunken degenerate at the wheel; the false paid witnesses who spewed all sorts of nonsense about Raluca running into traffic; the prosecutors who were determined to get the murderer off, by hook or by crook; his fellow judges who stripped the murderer of his driver’s license in the name of Ukraine—talk about a harsh punishment; journalists at the local media outlets whose owners and editors instructed them not to publicize the incident too widely or discredit the judge, who could one day wind up being of use in this little serpentarium teeming with scoundrels and criminals.
Raluca was gone, but justice was not forthcoming. So I decided to take revenge myself. After all, I had no future without Raluca. So if I landed behind bars instead of him, at least he wouldn’t live to see it.
The realization of that fact, of my purpose, came rather quickly, yet not instantly. When they first delivered the news about the accident (I was just told to head to the hospital, no details were furnished), I was at a loss. I didn’t know how to act in a situation like that. I was sitting at the computer, mouth agape, phone in my hand. My heart rate accelerated, I could hardly breathe, and my body wouldn’t cooperate. I locked up. I couldn’t get out of my chair. A minute or two later, once I’d snapped out of it, I began rummaging around the apartment, frantically opening dressers and wardrobes, not knowing what to grab first.
“Do you know Raluca? Are you two close? Come to the hospital as quickly as possible. She’s been in an accident,” said the voice on the other end. I didn’t even register whether it belonged to a man or a woman; my temples were clamoring and everything kept slipping through my fingers. What should I bring? Slippers, clean clothes, food? What does a person in the hospital need? What about a book, some pills, a blanket, wet wipes? I picked up all of those items, one by one, and then put them back.
Once the first wave of panic subsided and I managed to regain my composure, at least a little, a plan took shape in my head: get a move on, don’t take anything. If she needs anything, the doctors will say so. Just bring some money in case you have to pick anything up. So I rifled through my pockets, grasped my wallet, ran over to the bookshelf, where I extracted our savings for a rainy day from a ragged edition of Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—1,800 dollars and nearly 1,000 euros—stuffed the wads of cash into the inside pocket of my vest, grabbed my car keys off the table in the hallway, and anxiously bounded down the stairs from our third-floor apartment. I started the engine and took off like I had a blazing sports car instead of a tiny Toyota. There was a horrible traffic jam by my building, taillights glimmered, so I took a different route, through the newer part of town and across the bridge. That way would be faster. I put the pedal to the metal. I reached the hospital in six minutes, although it usually takes me three times as long to get to my office, which is nearby (you can see the hospital buildings from my bathroom at work).
What was I thinking about on the drive over there? Nothing. Actually, my head was spinning with thoughts, but they were all so disjointed, chaotic, absurd, and superfluous. When I was halfway there, I remembered that I should’ve grabbed Raluca’s ID and I nearly returned home. As I passed the large hardware store before the bridge over the Uzh, I suddenly remembered that we still hadn’t gotten around to buying a towel rack for the bathroom. We kept on forgetting. I was supposed to do it because I was the one who drove and I could take it back home hassle-free, unlike Raluca, who got around by walking or taking the bus. She kept reminding me, and I forgot time and time again, as if I didn’t actually need it. Or like I had some much more important business to attend to. As I was turning by Era, the store just around the corner from the hospital, I remembered that last week, I’d received a slip from Novaya Poshta stating that my books had arrived—I had to go pick them up or I’d face a penalty. I looked at the fuel gauge when I was parking to see whether or not I’d have enough gas if I wanted to go anywhere else. Oddly enough, my consciousness seemed to be forcing those panicked, menacing thoughts out, trying to focus on the rational, even the commonplace. Political analyst to the end, that’s me.
Right in front of the hospital, I unintentionally glanced at my reflection in the enormous windows. It was dark, the lampposts shone yellow, giving off almost no light at all, and only the snow sparkled, a thin film of ice forming after a warm day. I was in such a hurry that I’d forgotten to throw on a jacket. I ran out in a shirt and vest; my glasses fogged up immediately, steam rose from my mouth, and my bangs stuck to my forehead. I brushed them aside. The pudgy face of a person who moves too little and stares at a screen too much, of a man on his own wavelength who is most comfortable away from throngs of people. Overall, I was pretty pleased with my appearance and I looked respectable enough for the doctors to take me seriously. I’m ashamed to admit that I was thinking about all those stupid things at that moment, but that’s how the human mind operates—countless thoughts, some relevant, yet most of them not, swarm in your head simultaneously.
After that…Well, after that, I struggle to recall the flow of events. I remember what happened, but the order is all out of whack. I come in, they ask me who I’m there to see, my wife, I answer. What’s her name? Oh, sorry, of course you don’t know, her name’s Raluca, yes, it’s a strange, uncommon Romanian name.
“Raluca?” the lady asks, lowering her eyes to a rudimentary notebook and running her finger down a list, from top to bottom. “Raluca?” she asks again. “Don’t have anyone by that name. Oh, wait,” she says, going pale. “The young girl they brought in an hour ago? That’s your wife?”
“Yes,” I answer, my tone carefree. I was overcome with relief when I heard that they didn’t have anyone by that name. So it was some sort of mistake, a silly mix-up, and I, dope that I am, didn’t even think to call Raluca. Maybe she’s alive and well, still in class. My mood improved instantly, as fast as lightning, my chest expanded, and I could breathe alright again, but the lady was calling someone.
“Yes, he’s here, the husband. Standing next to me. OK, I’ll tell him.” And she didn’t look up at me again. She just stared at her notebook and began tracing something with her pencil. Shortly thereafter, out came a short, rotund doctor, who looked somewhat like Karlsson-on-the-Roof—flabby arms, rosy cheeks. You could tell he was a nice guy. He walked over to me, took me by the arm for some reason, and spoke, pronouncing the words slowly.
“I’m very sorry, but I’m afraid your wife died on impact. All the ambulance team could do was pronounce her dead at the scene. I know how you must be feeling right now, but please follow me. We have to take care of some paperwork.”
The rest happened not to me, but to my body. It entered an office. Somebody was sitting there, a police officer holding a folder. He was saying something or other, and I was looking at him and the doctor, but I wasn’t taking anything in. The thought that Raluca was dead throbbed in my head, my legs went soft, and I lowered myself onto the chair. My throat went dry—I didn’t have any saliva, so I couldn’t swallow—and my ribcage was so compressed that my lung capacity was only a third of normal. The officer kept talking, looking at his shiny wing tips (how can his shoes be so clean in this weather?); I was taken to see Raluca’s body—I wasn’t there, just my body looked at Raluca’s body, cold and splayed. Then I signed something and then the officer drove me home. I still can’t ascertain what happened then, what they told me, and what I said in reply.
Only later on did I remember that the officer asked whether or not we were married. I said that we got married because that made it easier for Raluca, a Romanian citizen, to receive a residence permit in Ukraine (you moron!).
“So it was a fictitious marriage? Did you even live together?” His questions brought me out of my daze, like a sudden slap in the face. What the hell am I saying? Yes, she’s my wife, and I love her very much. A fictitious marriage?! That’s freakin’ ridiculous! He apologized and jotted something down. Then I asked how they’d found me. They just looked at her recent calls. “Mark.” She called that number often, so they figured he was close to her. “Oh Lord, what would’ve happened if I had been the one to die and they looked at my recent calls?” went a thought whizzing by. In my phone, Raluca is listed as Cio-Cio-San, the leading lady in her favorite opera. That was my nickname for her, even though I did really like the name Raluca.
Then the officer (I don’t even remember what he looked like!) said that the driver of the vehicle that hit Raluca was currently undergoing a drug test, yet that was merely a formality since it was blatantly obvious that he had alcohol on his breath.
“Where did this happen?” I asked.
“On the crosswalk of death,” the cop replied and launched into an explanation, but the subsequent information was of no interest to me, for it pertained to the notorious crosswalk on Hrushevskiy Street, right past our building. They devised all sorts of tricks, but to no avail: there was at least one accident a month there, and people had started avoiding it. Basically, Raluca was almost home, she was rushing to see me when she got hit by the car…
“What’s going to happen to the driver?” I asked.
“He will be punished severely,” the officer assured me. “Because he ran a pedestrian over on a crosswalk, and he reeked of alcohol. He’s a rather courteous man, though. He was visibly upset. We established his identity,” the officer drawled, seemingly justifying himself. “He’s a local judge—Mykola Zinchenko—so he isn’t a flight risk. And he asked me to tell you that he would cover all of the funeral costs.”
These last few words hit me like a whip, so I emerged from my stupor for a split second. He’ll cover all the funeral costs, that bastard! I don’t need any hand-outs. I can pay for my wife’s funeral myself, and let that murderer rot in hell with his blood-stained money! The doctor tried calming me down, the officer mumbled something encouraging, and then my eyes finally opened. I suddenly felt all alone, surrounded by strangers, and my Raluca—dead, maimed—lay on the other side of a wall.
My next memory—I’m already home, sitting in a dark room, holding my head in my hands and swaying like a Muslim at prayer, swaying and swaying, and then I’m drinking the absinthe given to me as a birthday present, crying, taking a shower, washing all of this away. I’m drunk, shouting, calling Raluca’s mother in Romania; the words churn in my mouth, and she has no idea what I’m saying. I’m trying to speak louder, I break into screaming. It finally hits her, and cries come from the other end of the line. I hang up and drink absinthe straight from the bottle. I reach into the kitchen drawer, where I have a stash of marijuana, light up to calm myself down, suck in thick smoke. My throat dries up, and I wet it with more absinthe. I’m smoking and drinking. My phone rings. Now Raluca’s mother is trying to reach me, but I switch off my phone and collapse into bed. The pillow is wet with tears and my chin sticky with absinthe. I’m sobbing, but I have no clue where I am or what’s going on. The darkness thickens. I can’t see anything, but I hear a voice, Raluca’s tender voice, my Cio-Cio-San’s warm voice.
“Avenge me,” she says from out of nowhere. Someone’s in the room, someone’s talking to me, egging me on. I’m drinking and I can’t fall asleep. I listen. Raluca isn’t dead. She’s here, sitting at the head of the bed, whispering to me.
“Avenge me… kill him…”
Photo cover by Michaela Kostková