Monday, November 28, 2005

The Story of a Man from Idaho and a Woman from Kherson

ODESSA, UKRAINE -- Before Bill Fields returned to Odessa in November, his sister gave him three gifts. The first, a flat cap like the kind Ben Hogan used to wear while making the turn at Amen Corner, would help him blend in with the Ukrainian population, which he apparently hadn’t done in February, when a mugging in front of the Odessa Opera House had left him lying on the street with a broken femur. The second and third gifts were less ordinary, but then he’d only need them if the first didn’t work and he once again encountered a violent situation.

“One’s a light to blind people with,” he said, “and the other makes this screeching noise.”

When he told me this, with a little dance in his eyes and a lift to the corners of his mouth, he was standing in his rented Odesa flat, a recently refurbished apartment that had walls the colors of the Ukrainian flag, yellow and baby blue. On the window-sill were two hats, one the flat-cap from his sister, the other a more traditional American baseball hat. World’s greatest hunter, it read. Then that last word was scratched out and replaced by another: Grandfather.

Bill Fields was fifty-five, twice married and twice divorced, a middle school teacher from rural Idaho. He had lived a boring life until February 2005, he'd be the first to admit, and I had traveled from Kharkov, fourteen hours by train, to ask him one question. “Why come back?”

He answered with a name: Oksana.

“I thought we were both planning our future life together,” he said.

But not long after his plane touched down at Borispol International, he learned the woman he longed for (imagine an aged Tawny Kitane, say twenty-five years after she writhed atop a car for Whitesnake) had disappeared, along with the future he'd imagined. It was all very confusing.

Since meeting in February, when their affection for one another had been tempered by the dramatics of Bill's mugging and hospital stay, they had remained in contact, communicating at least three times a week, mostly by phone. They had cut down on email, Bill said, because Oksana, though verbally fluent, didn’t write English very well. (“She’s an E4,” he told me, when explaining the Dungeons & Dragons-like system used to rank a woman’s command of the English language. “An E1 means she doesn’t read or write any English whatsoever.”)

Also, her only free access to the internet was in the office of the marriage agency she’d signed up with -- one of the hundreds of affiliates of the Bangor, Maine-based Anastasia web that is located in the Former Soviet Union. And after meeting him, Oksana was trying to stay away from there as much as possible, Bill said.

“When she comes in,” he told me, “they make her answer all the letters from all the men (who’ve contacted her).”

This is one of the ways the agencies make their money. Men using Anastasia web must pay $15 for a woman's email address, then no less than $3.99 more for each message back and forth, more if a message requires translation. The company's partners get a percentage of this.

"She had to write back and say I'm not interested," Bill said. "She's polite, but it's very stressful for her. She'd rather stay away and not answer."

Other agencies are more resourceful. One former translator, also based in Odessa, spoke of women who entered into agreements with agency owners to get a certain amount of each fee her picture generated. Not all of these women were totally averse to meeting a foreign man and possibly getting married, but some were strictly business women -- women who had no interest in even writing their emails themselves. This they left for the agency's translators, with the understanding that, if a man booked a ticket and actually followed her fabricated sweet nothings to Ukraine, she would read all the past missives and be prepared, like an actress on opening night, to smile for the audience.

The translator I spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous and would not identify her past employers, said she had worked for three agencies, all now defunct, and only for those interested in "making a girl's destiny." A fourth agency approached her, but she refused to enter services with it.

"'If you want to work with us,'" she said, when asked to explain what was expected of her at that agency, "'you'll get a lot of money but you'll have to lie and say not sincere things.'"

But Bill was convinced his Oksana wasn't behind such sentiments. Because while their emails had stopped, they had kept in touch by phone -- at least when the lines weren't down and his call, maybe because of the weather or poor maintenance, didn't get cut off halfway through.

All of which is to say, he didn’t think it necessary to receive a solid confirmation from Oksana before flying across the Atlantic. She’d told him, in a letter she signed with her “warmest hugs and a tender kiss,” that though her boss was in "a bad temper," she thought her vacation would be the first of November, and so he’d planned accordingly and written to say he hoped to see her here when he arrived, being sure to give the date and the time. Only in the final days before his departure, without any word from her since that letter on September 11, did he worry enough to call her agency.

“They said she came in in a hurry,” he said, “and had to go on an urgent business trip (to Kyiv).”

When they met, she had worked as a secretary to a dean of a nearby university. But since then, she had been let go – she hadn’t told him why, but he suspected it was her age and declining looks. Perhaps she had been replaced at the front desk by a younger woman with a firmer body. "That's how it still is over there," he said.

So now she was working as a seamstress, a seamstress who worked on wedding dresses of all things. “They make this part,” he explained, indicating the torso of an invisible dress, “and someone else makes this part,” he said, dropping his hands to the waist, “and I guess somebody else puts it all together.”

If anyone could put his mystery together (because what kind of seamstress goes on a business trip?) Bill thought it would be Oksana’s 22-year-old son, Alexei. But when he called him, Alexei’s broken English only offered Bill so much. “Mama’s not coming," he said. And when Bill called again – and he did, four or five times a day, “just in case" – he only learned she’d be back in December.

“She may have a low-end apartment without a phone,” he said.

That could be why he couldn’t reach her. Or maybe not. Maybe it was all a scam, nothing more than an equation involving his hope and her cunning, a certain percent of business and a certain percent of love.

When I interviewed Bill, he had only one day left in Odessa, and though he insisted he was a one-woman man, he didn’t plan to spend it alone. After arriving and finding Oksana gone, he’d picked up his rented cell phone and tried to call the agency that had rented it and the apartment to him. But after scrolling down through the names already programmed into the phone, he went one too far, getting not Odessa Flats but Olya. A young man answered. There was the expected confusion, a polite exchange of names, and then a dial-tone.

But Bill looked again at his phone, last used by another agency client, and thought something strange. He’d brought with him five email addresses, the information he’d need to contact five women in case Oksana didn’t show. One of them was an Olya.

So he called back, and again got the young man. “I says, ‘George, is your mother on the dating side?' He said, 'Yeah.' And I said, 'Well what does she look like?'”

She was in her early forties, a few inches taller than five foot, not quite 130 pounds. It was all kind of familiar, he said, and so they arranged, George, and Olya and Bill, to meet at the Irish Pub in town.

“I didn’t have to go through the agency or anything,” Bill beamed, before acknowledging that introductions arranged through the agency-supplied email addresses cost $50 -- more, by $7 an hour, if you then wanted to leave the office with the woman and a translator.

As it turned out, Olya was indeed one of the five women Bill had intended to look up, so he ditched his plans to see the other four and spent his days with the one.

“She’s cooked me two meals,” he said, “two huge meals that I’ve been eating on since I’ve been here just about. She says I’m like a little boy, and that she’s got to take care of me.”

Now he doesn’t know quite what to do. He’s enjoyed his time with Olya, but she’s an E1, meaning their dates have been a troika, him and her and the son. When I left him, he said he was going to spend his last day in Odessa buying Olya a set of CDs to teach her English. But at the same, he was looking off to December and hoping to hear back from Oksana.

“I will come back to Ukraine,” he said, “and I will probably marry a Ukrainian woman. Whether I’ve found the right one or not yet, I don’t know.”

Before ending above, Bill's story started hereand continued there. All names in this series have been changed to respect the privacy of those involved.


Richard said...

An amazing and singularly insightful adventure. Thanks!

Richard said...

And BTW, I've linked your blog on mine. Thanks!

You can find it at: Satori Kick .com


WittyName32 said...

Thanks, Richard. I noticed that earlier today, when I visited and saw the pictures of the snow covered mountains. Beautiful sight. And love the name -- know it well, Satori.