Saturday, November 19, 2005

Love and Surgery: The Story of a Man from Idaho and a Woman from Kherson

ODESSA, UKRAINE -- On his fourth day in Odessa, Bill Fields awoke thinking of romantic gestures. Oksana, the thick-lipped forty-two year-old he’d met through the Anastasia marriage agency, was sleeping beside him in bed. They’d been together ever since his arrival to Ukraine three days earlier, a trip for which he'd gotten his first passport, and Bill was getting serious. He hadn’t come here to sleep his way through a romance tour, one of the meet-and-greets common to the "mail-order bride" industry that often has the women outnumbering the men five- or even ten-to-one. Bill saw these socials as nothing more than meat markets, and so before leaving his home in rural Idaho, the fifty-five year-old had only contacted four or five women whose profiles had attracted him online. "It gets confusing if you write to too many," he said. Yes, he wanted the chance to be a one-woman man, and it didn't take long for him to find the opportunity. He and Oksana, a native of nearby Kherson, hit it off, and so while they toured this Black Sea city of one million, all the other women advertised through the Anastasia marriage agency -- more than 8,000 active profiles across the former Soviet Union -- were left online.

On that fourth day in town, Bill left his flat at a little after nine in the morning. He’d seen a shop just a block away, near the opera house, that sold ear-rings, and he thought he’d buy a pair and place them on the pillow. The perfect gesture, he thought. She'd wake up and he'd see it in her eyes. These were the thoughts he was having: to get married, to find the woman who'd share the rest of his life. He was was fifty-five, as sensible as the sun and the moon, and after two failed marriages in the United States this didn't seem so ridiculous -- in fact it only made sense that he try "a different ballgame." Sure, they'd only first exchanged hellos and how are you's two months earlier, but things had quickly progressed to love at twenty-two cents a minute and a $500 phone bill. He thought she might be the one.

As he passed the Opera House, in the heart of Odessa’s downtown, Bill heard a question -- a young man had approached saying something Bill couldn’t make out. Bill shrugged his shoulders and made a face to show he didn’t speak Russian, didn’t understand, which was the truth and nothing more, certainly not the gesture of a man too selfish with his time. So the twenty-something receded from view and Bill walked on thinking of earrings, just a half block away now. He wasn’t a biker. He wasn’t a brawler who’d spent his years in a bar; he was a middle-school teacher from rural Idaho, math and history, it was mid-morning in this city built for Catherine the Great, and there were people all around – he had no reason to keep his head on a swivel.

He didn't see the attack. Bill landed on his side, hearing a pop and feeling the pain shoot out from his hip. He’d been leg-whipped, that was the best he could figure it, the man had come up from behind and kicked his legs out from under him, and now the guy was crouching over him and patting Bill down, moving his hands across his chest and lingering at every pocket. But he was prepared for this; Oksana had warned him. She’d told him to keep most of his cash at home, to take only a thin wallet out onto the street and hide it on his person, and most of all, she'd said, do not go out alone. She’d made him promise her that. “Don’t go out alone.” But it was nine o'clock in the morning, and he wanted to make a romantic gesture.

Bill opened his mouth and said something, not a bark, more a confused wail, but then it didn’t matter – the guy couldn’t find anything, the attack would be for naught, and so he eased off and "just sort of mingled into the crowd," leaving Bill lying there unable to get up.

He looked around for help. There must have been ten people nearby, but no one drew near, and he wasn’t going to lie there forever, not in this street. So he pulled himself across the sidewalk and up the side of the nearest building.

“I probably looked like a drunk,” he said. “I hung on, I leaned myself against the wall dragging myself back to the flat and up three flights of stairs.”

So instead of a pair of earrings, instead of that look in her eyes and the conversation it might have led to, Bill returned to Oksana as a collapsed man on the hallway floor. She got him into bed and ran back and forth between him and the kitchen, feeding her boyfriend hot soup and tea. Bill checked to make sure his legs weren’t uneven, a sure sign of a dislocated hip -- he'd heard this on TV -- and then he told Oksana that if he got confused or short of breath it means shock and she'd better call his sister Susan in North Carolina.

For forty-five minutes, Bill thought the pain might be the result of a deep bruise, nothing more, that it might go away. But he was growing colder, shaking more, and so at last the call was made and a doctor came with the ambulance to ask if he could lift his leg. Bill couldn’t. Bill’d broken something, they'd need x-rays to be sure but he'd certainly broken something, and so off they went, doctor and all, everyone in the ambulance to the hospital – a cash hospital, he learned before the trip.

“Two-hundred and fifty-dollars didn’t even get me in,” he said when me met in Odessa in November, almost nine months after his first trip to Ukraine. “And of course the price went up four or five times because I was an American. I had to pay $100 to the doctor right there,” he said, “and then $900 for the ambulance and my first two days.”

But $900 wouldn’t cover it, not when he learned he’d broken his femur, right where the bone curves in toward the hip, and that he'd have to remain in bed for six weeks. So he paid what he needed to pay and they put him in a cast from the knee down -- not a mistake, though that's what he first thought; it was simply done this way so he couldn't lift his injured leg. "Their medicine's about fifty years behind ours," he said.

It was also about fifty years ahead of him, language-wise. On his second day in the hospital, fearing a needless surgery, Bill made every effort to throw himself out of bed when two doctors, finding him alone in his room, tried to wheel him away -- not to put him under the knife, he later discovered, only for another x-ray.

This accelerated their relationship like that. Bill relied on Oksana more than he'd relied on a woman before. She was his constant interpreter, worrying her English-Russian dictionary until its spine broke into three. She helped the nurses bathe him, she sat with him through the night, she left his side only to go back to the apartment and get the things he needed. This included money, some $3,500 in all, an amount large enough, he thought, to reveal her true intentions.

If he worried about whether or not she'd leave with his money, these fears were carried away with all his others, too many worries all at once, a foreign language and an unknown city, a broken bone and so much unexplained, the power of this after fifty-five years and two failed marriages.

Bill could only lie there and hope for the best.

Bill's story continues here.


Veronica Khokhlova said...

Poor guy.

I hope men like him do look at this whole wife-finding mission as an adventure, not as something like a mere trip to the neighborhood grocery store. It might be easier for Bill to live through this misadventure if he considered himself an adventurous person... That'd be a very realistic attitude, too.

Very interesting - do keep writing please.

WittyName32 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
WittyName32 said...

Thanks for reading, Veronica. I'll be sure to flesh out his mind-set in the coming installment. He was strangely serene, not in any way bitter, and if anything, he did look at this as his great adventure in life.

Anonymous said...

It is horrible what happened to you and very unfortunate. Odessa is such a calm, soft, non violent city for the most part.

Good luck.