Monday, July 25, 2005

Everybody I Love You: An Introduction

Everybody, Ukraine. Ukraine, Everybody.

Not a perfect match, you say? Well, if 40 percent of the women born in the 70s will divorce, who is a perfect match anymore? So no, the purpose of this blog is not to ridicule or condemn those people who seek out the services of an online marriage agency. It is to push past the pictures and get into the stories -- the stories of the women who post their bios, the men who travel thousands of miles to see them, the business people (legal and otherwise) pulling the strings, and the families and cultures left behind.

In September, I begin a ten-month Fulbright Fellowship in Ukraine, where I will be based in Kharkiv and working on a book about the world of online marriage agencies. This will take me all across the country, from Odesa on the Black Sea, to Donets'k in the east and L'viv in the west, to Kherson on the Dnipro River and then back again to the capital of Kyiv.

If I have a personal connection to this subject, it is this: back during the run-up to Y2K, when I lived a stone's throw from Lake Mendocino, my landlord married a Ukrainian woman. I learned about it the day I went to drop off my lease, when I met Denny's daughter-in-law and had my first question answered with "he's in Ukraine getting himself a wife."

My landlord was a real throwback, a man who'd built his own home and one next to it for his son, a cowboy of sorts who had only two fingers and a thumb on one hand and not because he'd been born that way. I'd liked him right off. He worked hard and looked after his own, could live off the land, and yes, he'd agreed to rent to me on the strength of a handshake, not a credit check. At the time, that meant a lot. And so when his daughter-in-law told me what she did, I knew Denny hadn't met his new bride at a contra dance at the Grange Hall. This was the turn of the 20th century not the 19th. You didn't serenade your sweetheart with fiddle music anymore; love was now accompanied by the sound of a dial-up connection.

I lived on Denny's property, in what realtors would call a cottage and my mother would call a shack. This was, suitably enough, on the banks of the Russian River, right where it meets the mouth of Cold Creek. Denny's house was on the other side of the creek from me, and so when he returned I saw that his new wife was also entering into her second marriage, as she had brought with her two children of her own: one a boy of eleven or twelve, the other a girl about a year or three older. Yulia, as I'll call the girl, actually only looked that young -- she was in fact old enough to join the graduating class at Ukiah High, where she soon had a boyfriend and dreams of moving to New York City.

Yulia didn't gain much weight during the year that I knew her (this is what had made her look so young, a diet that was more Ukraine post-Communism than America at the drive-through) but we did become friends, going out for the occasional cup of coffee or short day-hike. And so that's how I learned that she was too old to be considered a dependent of her mother (unlike her younger brother), and that the only way she could stay after the expiration of her visa was if she got married.

Her boyfriend from the high school wouldn't commit; maybe he thought himself too young or maybe he wasn't in love. So Yulia fell in with a young man at a local bakery, the same bakery where my then-girlfriend worked. This guy knew Yulia didn't love him, but he was in his mid-twenties and already a little soft in the middle, to say nothing of single, and Yulia was beautiful, wasn't she? So couldn't he dream? Couldn't he imagine that she'd learn to love him and that it'd all work out? He could and he did, but then he caught Yulia sneaking away to see her ex and so he called the whole thing off and Yulia told me about it on a walk through the woods.

"Now," she said, "I have to find another husband," she said. "That," she said, "or go."

As she spoke, I followed her along a narrow path of hardened dirt that was shaded by the trees we were pushing through. I kept one hand up to keep the branches from snapping back into my face. "That or go," she'd said. So was this a vague appeal for help, a marriage proposal of sorts? I could change her life, I knew, and why not? I was twenty-eight and never married, my last relationship thrown onto the trash heap like all the rest, with the ending, as usual, being announced through that most standard of American romantic expressions, The Exchange of Stuff. I was tired of it. And I could keep her from having to go back to Ukraine, a country that at the time only brought to mind chaos and poverty, Chernobyl and the collapse of the USSR.

But then this was marriage, and I didn't know if it'd be for the better or the worse. Yulia was beautiful, and nice, and she spoke the lingua franca of my dreams, an English that halted and hiccupped and broke so good. But you couldn't build a marriage on that, could you? So no, I didn't answer her. I only nodded as I followed her through the woods. I only did that and shielded my eyes from the branches she pushed back in my face.

If I saw her after that, I don't remember. She's now living in Kyiv. I haven't spoken to her since she left.

And so what became of her? How is she doing? Yulia's is just one story I want to tell during the length of my fellowship, when I plan to write a book-length piece of creative non-fiction (and, I'm sure, a little fiction too). Part expose, part travelogue, part memoir -- my book will be many things, all of which you'll be able to follow here. But for now, let me leave you with this, a working title: Everybody I Love You: Dispatches from Ukraine's Internet Marriage Agencies.

A more detailed, three-page book proposal is available upon request. It includes a chapter-by-chapter break-down of my proposed research.


Jai said...

look forward to it Stephan!

Alicia said...

Looks vedy good Stephan.

From Burbank, With Love

barb said...

Wow. Shoot and you said you wondered if you were in over your head at MY blog! Good lord, man, what an interesting idea for a blog or a book. will definitely be checking back in!

Anonymous said...

Looks vedy good Stephan.