Sunday, October 16, 2011

FICTION: The Coward by R.D.Cullipher


                There was something horribly wrong with the world, just what it was; I hadn’t quite worked out over the past few years of my idleness.  These were the thoughts that were hovering in my mind as I boarded the plane in Moscow heading for Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine.  At the forefront of my mind were her last words, ok maybe not her last words, but the words ‘you’re a coward and a user’ she had spat at me over the telephone. We had eventually made up, but these words forced me to contemplate on where to go or what to do next, in this chaotic life I was living.  As I sat down and adjusted my seat belt. I couldn’t help thinking that ‘here I go again, going to screw up another marriage.’ 

“Excuse me, do you speak English?” I asked the stewardess as she went by checking the overhead bins, she was obviously Russian or at least Slavic, it was easy for me to recognize after two years in Moscow, slightly Asian eyes with a narrow face that came to a point like a fox’s snout.

“Yes, but not ‘wery’ good” she replied.

“How long is it to Kiev” I asked, wondering how long it would be, exactly, before I could grab a smoke (a user, a drug user, crept along the perimeter of my mind, probing my defenses).

She twirled a strand of her hair whilst rolling her eyes, in thought, not frustration, before she replied with a smile “tri..ah, Three howers.” She smiled, obviously proud of herself and of her mastery of the English language. And then she just stood there, playing with a strand of her hair, looking me in the eyes, waiting for me to reply.

She hadn’t said or done anything to make me think I had any chance with her, she was just doing her job and being polite, but, my reptilian brain gave me a green light to start hitting on this girl, the soldier in me said attack, but the civilian social codes of the day had dictated that I was married and this type of behavior was not tolerated.  The pig in me fought the social standards ‘as useless as wearing a tie, you’ll never see her again, those who don’t risk, never drink champagne. Nevertheless, I simply replied “O.K., thanks, can I get some whiskey when you get a chance?” The civilized man won out, better safe than sorry, nothing ventured, nothing loss.

The flight lasted exactly three hours and fifteen minutes.  I deplaned and headed as fast as I could towards passport control, dying for a smoke.

“Zdrasvuicha (or a formal ‘Hello’)” I said as I handed my passport to the immigration official. She began to look at my photo and my passport, I only hoped she wouldn’t look at me, but it was too late, for at the same time I was hoping this, she held my passport up to examine my photo and myself.

“What’s your name?” she said as her eyes squinted then widened trying to reconcile the photo of me, in which I was 50lbs heavier with a crew cut, to the new me, skinny with long hair.

Thirty minutes later and after showing two alternative forms of Identification, numerous questions, asked and answered, I was released to get to the smoking room, which I went to straight away knowing I would definitely be stopped at customs for possibly a cavity search. The words a coward and a user, still hovering like a fog in the back of my mind. Fuck it! I decided not to think about it and to try to enjoy myself in Kiev, I was going to be here at least fourteen days, and I didn’t want to waste them on self analysis, plus I picked up a bottle of ‘The Glenlivett” 18 years old, which would help me enjoy my time.

You know my name know now, it’s Jack, Jack Tralidas, or as I used to tell my men while I was active in the Army, TRavel LIve DAnce and Sex. Actually I am still owned by the US Army, for about two more years, but I don’t have to show up, cut my hair, run or any of that other bullshit that goes with being in the Army. No, I’m not some Spook or Special Forces guy, just a regular old grunt, an Infantryman, with some bizarre circumstances that have me living a pretty surrealistic life right now, maybe that’s why I married a Russian woman after divorcing my first wife (denial? Ok after she divorced me) and abandoning her with my four kids. Confused yet? If you’re not, then help me out. Sorry, I go off sometimes.  I figured that if a Russian wife made Salvador Dali famous, then maybe I should get one. My life, to the present, has been nothing short of unbelievable, which makes it quite difficult to answer questions about my past, what I’ve done, where I’ve been, when meeting new people without an hour long autobiography, therefore I have begun to say to my new acquaintances that, “I’m a writer now, with no past, only a present and hopefully a future, it’s easier this way and not as painful.”

After 45 minutes of riding the Kiev Metro or underground, I made my way up and out of the teatralna (theatre area) metro station and found my Hostel. The fifteen minutes it took me to walk the 300 feet to the Hostel, through the puddles and falling snow, concentrating on each step as not to fall on the half frozen cobblestone sidewalks, put the critical and self doubting voice in my head to rest.

At the front door of the flat that was serving as the Really Central Hostel in Kiev. I rang the bell. While waiting for an answer, I was examining what had to be at least a hundred year old building, smelling of mold and rotting vegetation, Slavic graffiti covering the walls in the Cyrillic alphabet, although I could barely make out what it said due to the dimness of the corridor, there being only one naked low wattage bulb hanging about ten feet above my head, then I heard the locks at the door being retracted, it seemed like eight or nine of them.

The door was opened by a woman, whose fertility wafted as a strong perfume into the corridor, temporarily defeating the earlier smells. “I’m Jack, I called last week about a room.” I said, hoping that she spoke at least some English.

“Hey, you’re the American living in Moscow right?” She beamed at me. My spirits rose.

“Yeah, are you Sveta?”

“Nyet, eto Luba, do you speak Russian?”

“Nyet, ya punimayo, chut, chut paruskie” I explained, meaning that I spoke or understood very little Russian, although I understood that she was Luba and not Sveta, whom I had spoken with earlier when booking my room, or bed.

“Come in please” she said stepping aside as I lugged my bag over the threshold and immediately begin taking my shoes off in the Slavic tradition, so as not to track dirt off the street into the living area, a habit I had already incorporated to my daily routine, a habit that only seemed strange to my American friends when I did it at their houses.

Luba showed me around and helped me choose a rack (even though I am technically a civillian now, I can’t stop calling a bed a rack, the restroom a latrine or head and even exercise or working out ‘PT’ or physical training) close to the heater, being from California originally, she figured I would need the extra heat from the radiator, even though it was placed just under the window, something that didn’t make sense but is a basic design along with the toilet always being right next to the kitchen, design flaws that I stopped trying to point out to my Russian wife and friends a long time ago.

I had been at the Hostel for three days, going out to drink at night at a bar called the Baraban (drum in English) which had cheap whiskey and a decidedly British patronage that allowed me to ease drop on my native tongue without committing to a conversation (I chose to order in Russian as to not invite that commitment which I wasn’t ready for). What really drew me to this bar was the difficulty in finding it; it’s nestled in a courtyard accessible only by traversing a couple of flat blocks then going down some stairs as if entering the basement of one of these flat blocks, a place where you won’t find some random tourists coming in from the cold for a drink. When I returned to the Hostel after the Baraban bar, I met Luba, smoking in the corridor.

“Jack, I have a supreese for you” she said jumping up from the step.

“Really, a Soopreyes, for me” I said slowly, allowing her to hear the correct pronunciation.

“yes, we have a new boy, and he speaks English” she continued.

“ah, great, is he from the states?”

“no, no, Brasilla” she replied then added “he looks like Johnny Depp.”

“Cool” I said as I opened the door and began taking my shoes off.   

“Hi, where you from?” was the first thing he asked me as I stepped into the dorm room we would be sharing, I remembered this because of how American it seemed to me.

I told him California originally but now Moscow Russia and before I got too far into my biography I stopped. “Listen; let me make this easier, I am a writer who lives in Moscow and am originally from California, let it lay at that.” I smiled as I saw his confusion and awe before I quickly added, “No, I’m not a spy, I’m not famous nor am I infamous” (My mind added internally, ‘Neither am I a coward or a user’) “I’m just a normal guy with abnormal circumstances.”  I had sufficiently confused him, and the sense of mystery my words had inspired, thoroughly satisfied my ego.  Johnny laughed at this and told me he understood and asked if he could just tell me that he was a photographer and leave it at that. Having agreed, I asked him if he had eaten yet.

We learned over the next couple of days that we had both served time in the Military as Infantrymen or grunts, and were therefore ‘brothers in arms’. I had learned a lot more about him than he of me, (you shouldn’t underestimate the importance this held for me) like the fact that he was here to re-unite with a girl he had met on an earlier trip in Europe but that it was complicated because she had a boyfriend, he learned from me that I loved Whiskey and that I was married to a Russian woman. We found a bar called the Arte Club 44 and even though the whiskey here was more expensive than at the Baraban, I agreed with him that ‘this was the place, of above all others in Kiev’ for our evening entertainment.

Our first night out together I realized that Luba and I weren’t the only people who thought that Johnny resembled Mr. Depp, at least one woman in the Arte Club 44 felt the same way. I remembered that one minute I was ordering some beers for Johnny and I, and when I turned around to hand him his, he was lip locked with a local. When he finally came up for some air I asked him, “Does she speak English?”

“No” he laughed as he took the beer I was holding out for him. “What is this?”

“12 Grevna, or Cheap for me, free for you, don’t ask” I answered.

 It was just at this moment when a Fat Ukrainian man grabbed Johnny by the collar in a manner that could only mean trouble and I instinctively grabbed his collar and in turn, my collar was grabbed by a much larger man, whom we figured out later, was the brother of the fat man, who was the husband of the woman that Johnny was kissing.

If you’re a man, I mean a real man, or at least ‘a fucked up man who doesn’t fit into society very easily’, like a Tennessee Williams character, then you already know about bar fights, that they last only about 15 seconds, but the story material they provide will last years on end, and by the last telling, the number of combatants and their physical size and strength are equal to or greater than the forces that battled for the beach at Normandy on ‘D-day’, therefore, rather than bore you what could only be an elaboration on the facts, I will just tell you that Johnny and I lived through this one, a Fat man was hurt, his brother’s Knuckles where damaged, and regardless of my injuries, I gained the undying admiration of a Brazilian, who happens to look like Johnny Depp and he had gained my admiration of being a real lady killer, one not afraid to dive head first into the arms of any woman, married or otherwise.

We had only slept for about two hours when we were awoken by the scuffling of some new arrivals to our dorm putting their gear away. I had peeped with one eye to see who they were, one mountain of a man, blonde closely cropped hair, and one almost as tall but not as muscular, with longer darker hair. I glance at Johnny as he did the same, both of us with one eye shut before I went back to sleep, a long sleep for our plans for this night were going to be a repeat if possible, back to the ‘44’ as we began calling it as the locals did.

I would like to be brief here and just glide over the events of this second night and just tell you that we went bowling instead of the ‘44’, that we met two guys, one cool, the other a bit, I guess eccentric is the best way to describe him. It would be justifiable to just leave it at that if Johnny hadn’t had forced an epitome on me that is, therefore I will just bring you up until today, this morning.

My neck hurt so badly from our first night out at the ‘44’, that the little sleep I did get was worthless. I slowly turned in my bunk, trying not to cause additional pain or make any unnecessary noise that might awaken the others still sleeping in the dorm.  It was no use, every position I tried was uncomfortable and the pain, while not unbearable, made it impossible to sleep. ‘Might as well get up and smoke’ was the thought that got me moving.  I glanced at my watch, the hands blurry, I had no idea where I put my glasses the night before, but I could vaguely make out that it was either 12:05 or 1:00 pm translating that I had from 6 to 7 hours roughly in the rack with possibly 2 to 3 hours of sleep.  I grabbed my pants and tiptoed out of the dorm, my flip flops slapping and the floor boards creaking with sounds hardly audible during the day’s ambient noise, but louder than a china shop during an earthquake here in the still of the afternoon slumbering dorm.  As I passed Johnny’s rack, I glanced down and felt a parental like warmth pass through my mind and soul, as I noticed a smile on his face in his undisturbed, well deserved rest.

            With a cup of instant coffee and a cigarette, I stepped into the corridor, closing the door slowly and lightly behind me. I sat on the cold step of the stairwell. I sat, trying to recall my dreams from the night before as I pulled a drag off my cigarette. Recently, all of my dreams had been fish related; catching them, befriending them or swimming with them.  These dreams seemed to fit with my surreal situation in life lately. You see, I was in Kiev, Ukraine in order to renew my Visa to Moscow, Russia where I was currently living with my Russian wife whom I met whilst living in Sharm El Sheikh Egypt, a soldier of the U.S. Army, part of a peace keeping force between Israel and Egypt and in support of operation Iraqi freedom, I might also add that I had already had an American wife and four children when I met my current wife.  You can now appreciate when I say I was living a surrealistic life. I don’t know if there is any way to explain my circumstances in a manner that we may understand them better, but let me add that an Injury I had sustained made me unfit for duty, although I feel fine..But once again I am off topic, forgive me.  It was the fish that occupied my mind mainly, sitting there alone in the corridor.

The door to the flat opened, Johnny was joining me.

“Whoops” I said with a smile, “looks like I am in your chair” I said as Johnny, stepped into the corridor.  This had been the ongoing joke since Johnny, hadn’t quite caught on to the idea of taking his shoes off every time he entered the hostel and had therefore spent his evenings, sitting on the step that I now occupied, shivering as he edited the photographs he had taken that day, (he’s a photographer) shivering the entire time while chain smoking only coming into the flat when he was ready to call it the night, or morning, since, as he put it…

“like most creative people, I am an insomniac and can’t sleep”.

            I had laughed at this when he said it and replied “you don’t seem to find a problem sleeping during the day”.

This morning, we made some idle chit chat, both of us refusing to touch upon last night’s events.  He was still wearing the jeans and rumpled bloodied shirt from the night before, shuffling about in my old slippers, which I had tried to throw away because they smelled of rotten feet,  but then decided to give them to Johnny since he was having trouble adapting to the ritual of removing shoes each time he wanted to smoke, I figured, smelly feet would be better than pneumonia. 

After a pause, Johnny drew in a deep drag off of his cigarette and in his best Russian said to me “So, Dobrie Utro Jack” or good morning Jack . Being proud of his pronunciation; I felt for sure that he would wake the others still sleeping in the flat dorm. I was especially worried that he might wake our friend from the Georgian region of the former USSR, a short tempered man whose mannerisms had convinced the both of us that he had designs on pulling off some plot or other that would put our lives in danger.  Alexander was his given name and Sascha the familiar, but we had finally agreed to call him Al Qaeda, or Al for short.

“shh, you don’t want Al to bomb your bed do you” I whispered mischievously.  I continued in the same subdued voice “how do you feel man? Sorry if I woke you up, I tried to be quiet”. He was still smiling over the Al Qaeda bombing reference when he answered,

“Me, no you didn’t wake me up, I woke up on my own to find, as usual, that you weren’t in your bunk.”

 For the last couple of days he had been voicing his concern over my sleep habits.

 “Man, do you ever sleep?”

I ignored his jibe for I had begun reflecting about our boy’s night out. (It’s hard to tell when in the midst of a conversation I might drift off into reflections or reminiscences, but that’s how my mind works, can’t help it.)

 “Last night was the best night I’ve had in Kiev” I immediately caught myself and added, “well, except for the earlier events of the evening” My statement was focused on the warm fuzzy memories of bowling at 2 am and drinking liter after liter of the cheapest beer the place had to offer, discussing life, love and romance with Johnny and Chip, the canuck.  Chip was our Canadian friend who had just joined us yesterday at the Hostel, a man hell bent on visiting 90 countries in one year, he had under a month left to do it in and was at 87 countries thus far, his plan was to hop a train after a couple of days to head to Poland and from there hit ‘Bohemia’ as he referred to the Slavic states around the Balkans. When we had asked him the night before why he was going to the Balkans, he replied as if reading a tour pamphlet, “Why it’s obvious, the women there are beautiful and friendly.”

My attempted save in reference to the ‘earlier events’ only served to highlight  my level of un-comfortableness with the subject of those events, I felt like a complete idiot.  I only hoped that the non-chalant manner in which I tried to deliver this statement would communicate to him how insignificant they were and allow us to focus on the end of the night; but his silence and the lack of expression on his face made me nervously add with a chuckle, “all’s well that ends well?”  I don’t know why it is whenever I get nervous in a social situation, a faux pas, if you will, I always fall back on Shakespearean quotes, maybe as a way to attribute the mistake to someone greater than myself and therefore remove any responsibility I might have had from the situation. It’s a tick, a nervous habit that I was well aware of, but could not stop from doing. When I looked up again to see what affect if any this had on Johnny, I found him in deep reflection, starring at the grimy elevator doors.

He exhaled the smoke from his last drag and began in a somber tone “but it’s not over, it hasn’t ended. I got an email from her last night while we were out Bowling, a bible of an email, some good some bad, but it didn’t end ‘well’” he paraphrased me. “She called me a coward”

            There it was, the issue we had been avoiding, pretty damn well I thought, brought to the forefront and center of our conversation. I knew it had to be discussed in order for him to move on, but god damn it, why now, why hadn’t I prepared. I took a long drag off my dying cigarette, replying with the smoke still in my mouth, “Fuck her Johnny”.

He laughed before I could continue and added wittingly “I was trying to fuck her, but never got the chance”

I chuckled, truly appreciating his ability to find humor in the situation. I kept my silence and turned my head as if in thought toward the flat door, hoping beyond hope that we may still be able to avoid the issue, but I knew in my heart, that the corridor we shared, now stunk with the odor of this wound and we would need to settle up the accounts in order to clear the air. 

Johnny took the lead, pressing forward; he asked “Jack, do you think I’m a coward?”

In my mind the words “into the Breach” or “Follow me men” or even better “Charge” reverberated as I knew, like every good soldier knows, when the commitment to action is unavoidable, it’s best to get it over as soon as possible, I charged into the fray.  Looking up into his eyes, his puppy dog eyes that every woman in Kiev seemed to lose themselves in, my courage wavered, but I was now committed, or charged with the duty of carrying out this tribunal, the outcome of which I was not sure as of yet. “Well” I began shakily, stalling for time in order to reference my past experiences to his situation.

Johnny unexpectedly interrupted, to my relief, “Man, I ran like a coward, I ran so fast and without any thought other than to get away, I ran in -10 weather, leaving my jacket, gloves and scarf behind at the café. Shit man, I didn’t even know where the fuck I was, I remember just looking back to see if he was still after me, I never stopped until I was sure he had given up, then I slowed down and began to look around to see if I could recognize where I was then I worked my way back here.” He looked down at his feet as he spoke, his self-loathing was so strong, I felt it emanating off of him like heat from a pot-bellied stove, but I was glad for the extra moments his soliloquy had given me to organize my thoughts and allow me to began my reply, a reply to his question that was not to be completed by me or any man I thought at the time, until the instant of our deaths.

At this moment, here in our corridor, the best I could come up with was an Infantry analogy, “Johnny” I started, “I don’t know much about the Brazilian Infantry, but in the US Army, our infantry training is comprised of battle drills, and the battle drill that comes to my mind concerning your situation is the reaction to close ambush.” I had his full attention, being a man, talking about or listening to manly men speaking about manly things, acts as a sort of opiate. I continued “make no mistake, what happened to you was an ambush, a close ambush.” I paused again to give weight to this statement for I would later point out that Olla’s beloved one, Olla being the girl that Johnny had travelled all the way from Brazil to Ukraine to see, the her that had called him a coward, and her beloved one, The ‘beloved’, was the name we gave to her live-in boyfriend,(we pronounced beloved with three syllables for added emphasis) was the coward for initiating a sneak attack, or more appropriately, attempting to land four sucker punches on Johnny under the pretence of having a chat.  “We are constantly drilled in these battle drills in order to make our reactions automatic and expedient” I couldn’t believe I had used the word expedient, but it seemed the best word at the moment.  “We also know that the likelihood of surviving an ambush is not very good, but if you do survive the initial volley, then your immediate actions following will either save you or get you killed.” I waited a moment to ensure he was following me. “Upon realizing you are in a close ambush, you should immediately push forward, fight through the ambush, gain distance from the enemy, regroup in a defensive position and await re-enforcements.”  I paused here, feeling as if I were in front of my men again, instructing, and leading them. I continued in a manly manner, full of confidence and belief in what I was saying.  “In my eyes, what you did as a soldier was to react to this ambush by pushing through the enemy, putting distance between you and him, you then rallied back here at the hostel and awaited your re-enforcements. Militarily speaking, it was a textbook execution, perfection if you will.” I lit another cigarette as he was digesting my summary of his actions the night before. I slipped back into the reflection of those events.

It was a Sunday night, a night of Jazz at the Art Club 44.  We had planned to go out, have some beers, Johnny, Chip and myself, (ok I was looking for Whiskey, but they didn’t know that), Johnny was going to meet another girl named Nastia that he had met on the internet for Olla had set the ground rules before he had even left Brazil. The ground rules being that they could only meet during the week when her boyfriend thought she was at work, but never on the weekends because he would get suspicious of her going out alone.  We had showered and were smoking in the corridor waiting on Chip to finish getting dressed; Al Qaeda had already waved us off, stating that he was having money problems that couldn’t be fixed until Monday morning when the bank opened.  I heard Johnny’s phone chirp announcing a new text message.

As he read the message, a smile began to spread on his face from ear to ear and he beamed with excitement as he told me “Jack, we have a change of plans, I need to find this address” as he handed me his phone. I saw that Olla had messaged him that she was free from her beloved and wanted to see Johnny. 

I had met Olla a couple of days earlier when she came to meet Johnny at our hostel.  I remember thinking that she looked very young, was cute and had a certain charm owing to her sense of retro-fashion that reminded me of early 1980’s Madonna, down to the bow in her hair.  What I remembered the most were her eyes which beamed with intelligence and hinted to her calculating ways, like the eyes of a mouse, using the periphery vision to take in as much information as possible, I actually imagined her as a mouse traversing the dangers of the night time kitchen floor, stealing across the wide open space before coming into contact with the sleeping house cat, freezing, and staring, not at the cat, but watching the cat out of its peripheral vision for any movement. 

When she had first arrived at the hostel, Johnny was still in the shower giving Olla and I a few moments to talk. She asked what I was doing here in Kiev, where I was from, basically all of the common questions when meeting someone new. I told her that I was currently living in Moscow, from California, was in Kiev in order to renew my Visa to Russia, was married, and my latest attempt at a career was that of writing, after having been a sailor, a soldier, a business owner and an Engineer.  She latched onto the writer attribute, leading us to a discussion about literature, favorite books and authors, and ending with a flirtatious request by her to read my work.  Johnny was ready by this time and was catching the last fragments of our discussion, I told her that I would give my work to Johnny and that she could get it from him.  She offered that it would be easier if I had her email and just sent it to her.  Johnny was a bit on guard for he saw my reptilian brain fighting for control and after my comment earlier on how he should proceed with her, I stating that he should just ‘Fuck her like a man then see what happens’ understandably he didn’t quite trust me around her, therefore, I just responded “We’ll see.”

I googled the address that Olla had sent Johnny as the rendezvous point for the evening, I noticed that this café was next door to the Art Club 44 and explained to him that he could easily keep both dates, if he were talented enough, going between Olla and Nastia on the pretense of using the toilet. 

“No” he chuckled “I already told Nastia that something came up” with this he headed down the stairs to meet with Olla. He was back inside of three minutes.

“Wow, that was fast” I quipped.

 “I forgot my gloves” he replied smiling shyly whilst looking at his feet.

“Ohhhhhh” I cautioned with my forefinger waving in front of him, “make sure to look in the mirror, stick out your tongue and smile before leaving again or you’ll have bad luck.” This was another superstition of the Slavic people that I had educated Johnny on earlier, along with the tradition of taking his shoes off before entering the flat.

He laughed and said there was no way he was going to take his shoes off again just to go back inside and carry out this ridiculous tradition, anyways, he was Brazilian not Russian or Ukrainian.

I smiled and only added “When in Rome…”

The next time I saw Johnny was 45 minutes later, no jacket, no scarf, no gloves, every exposed part of his body was bright red with Chill Blains from the -10 cold of the Kiev winter night, eyes glazed with the affect of adrenaline pumping through his veins and his left cheek a little swollen where two of the intended four sucker punches had landed.

“So Jack, what I did was a tactical move, not cowardice?” Whilst I was lost in recalling the past events, Johnny had finished his analysis of what I had told him and his question snapped me back to the present and our discussion of the events.

 “Of course, look, would a coward fly all the way from Brazil to see a girl he met in Paris, knowing…”

“Barcelona” Johnny interrupted.

 “What?” I stopped, confused.

“I met her in Barcelona, not Paris, remember, I hated Paris, and I met Olla in Barcelona.”

I stammered trying to regain my train of thought, “ok, a girl that he met in Barcelona, would a coward do that? Much more than that, do you think her beloved would fly all the way to Brazil to see her, knowing that she was living with you, her boyfriend? Have you considered this, tables turned and all?”

He lit a cigarette and smiled as he replied, “He couldn’t! He doesn’t have a job.”

I was blown away by this, “What the fuck, does this guy have a monster dick or what?”

Johnny laughed at this and replied, “I don’t know, I don’t want to know” he replied grimacing. We both chuckled at this.

I continued, inspired by his elevated mood, “I’ll tell you what a coward is, a coward is a woman who can’t tell you, ‘No don’t come’, or a woman so afraid to be alone, she would rather hold onto a loser without a job instead of taking a chance on a great guy like you, you know ‘bird in the hand is better than two in the bush’, remember, ‘he who never risks, never drinks champagne’ , or something like that” I was fired up now and on a roll, “Or how about a guy who is taller than you by at least 15cm, if your description of her beloved is accurate, taking sucker punches at you? I don’t know about Rio De Janeiro but in America we say, ‘Hey, I don’t want you around my girl anymore, and if I find you with her again we are going to settle this with our fists’ I mean, come on man, have some balls!”

Johnny was laughing and in a great mood again.  As I was collecting my thoughts and my breath Johnny began a new round of laughing and told me “you want to know the funniest thing about this whole scenario?”

I raised my eyebrows urging him to continue…

 “I ordered and drank a 50 grevna drink and just realized I didn’t pay for it!”

I couldn’t help but laugh as well and added “So what you’re saying, is that it cost her beloved 25 grevna for each landed punch” Johnny was still chuckling at our wittiness as I was recalling how the incident came to an end.

After Johnny had returned, half naked and fully frozen, explaining all that had taken place, to me and Chip, I tried to lighten the mood by exclaiming out loud “You should have looked in the mirror and stuck your tongue out and smiled.”

Before he could respond to this, his phone chirped again with a new text. “It’s her!” he began reading then continued, “She’s bringing me my jacket and stuff.”

I brightened up a little and took off my freshly ironed white oxford shirt. 

“What are you doing?” asked Chip.

“I don’t want to get blood on my good shirt, my wife will kill me” I replied as a matter of fact. 

Startled, Johnny asked “Whose blood?”

I thought about it a second and asked whilst chuckling nervously, “Not sure, how big did you say this guy was?”

“He doesn’t have the balls to follow the enemy into his own lair” Chip added with confidence.

“Let’s kill him!” Al Qaeda yelled from inside the hostel before opening the door and joining us in the corridor.

“Kill him” Johnny asked, obviously vexed at the worsening situation.

Al Qaeda lit a cigarette, was lost in thought a couple of seconds then looked up at us. “Killing him though is the easy part, the trouble being here, in Kiev, none of us know anyone who could help in disposing of his body, and there my friends lies the problem” Al Qaeda took a seat on the steps and put his earphones in, closing out the world and leaving us to settle the situation for ourselves.

The three of us shook our heads in our own way before I turned to Chip and replied, “he doesn’t have any balls, we know this from his previous actions, what I am counting on is that he doesn’t have the brains to stay out, he is so scared of losing his meal ticket that he isn’t thinking clearly.”

We only waited a couple of minutes before we heard footsteps on the stairs.

Olla exited the stairwell and entered the corridor, immediately greeting me with a cheery “Hi Jack” as if I possibly didn’t know what had occurred. I made no acknowledgement to her but as soon as these words had left her mouth I saw a tall skinny guy with a cheesy teenager mustache peek around the corner.  I moved to get a better look at the beloved and I couldn’t believe that this was the guy she had chucked Johnny for. Her beloved had mistaken my advance as an attack and bolted back down the stairs.  I looked at Chip and he slightly shook his head communicating to me in a second, ‘Don’t start any trouble Jack, let it end’. 

“I’m sorry” were the only words offered by Olla to Johnny whilst handing him his things. Johnny, I am proud to reflect, was silent, almost brittishly stoic; this wall he erected gave her only one option. She slithered back down the stairs to meet her beloved in the gutter from whence they came. Once safely out our reach he began to hiss at her in Ukrainian, most likely scolding her for not letting him know that there were other men in this lair. 

“Well” I said, “that’s that, let’s go get some beers.” In an effort to lighten the mood and erase what had just transpired.

Johnny brought me back to the present again “You know Jack, it’s funny the way you described her as calculating.”

I noticed that my cigarette was nothing but one long ash; I got rid of it and fished another out of the pack and asked “why’s that?”

“Well the reason I haven’t seen much of her this last week was because she’s working on her master thesis for her computer science degree” he chuckled. 

I thought about this for a second and asked, “What kind of argument can you make in computer science that would warrant a thesis” I asked full of mirth, “I thought it was either yes or no, 1’s or 0’s, you know on or off, no maybes.”

Johnny’s eyes lit up, “I thought the same exact thing! Yet, She told me there were many things to consider but I couldn’t understand, maybe that’s why I am a photographer and she’s the ‘calculating one’.

We began a giggling bout, giggling like we were 13 years old, both of us brought to near tears as finally the tension broke and the subject seemed covered.

“You’re not a coward Johnny” I started once we had regained our self control and a moment of silence had passed. “you’re from Rio De Janiero, one of the most dangerous city’s on the planet, Imagine her beloved in Rio, getting sucker punched… fuck, he would not only run but shit his pants as well” The mental picture this invoked threatened to throw us back into the giggles but we maintained ourselves.

“Thanks Jack” he said.

 I raised my hand waving his gratitude away, “no need to thank me for the truth, you should always expect it from a friend.”

 “No I mean it, I was having serious doubts but you cleared my head, thank you.”

“Johnny, if you remember only one thing, remember this, just the fact that you questioned yourself and then had the balls to question me shows that you are no coward. A coward would have made excuses for his actions, but you played the prosecutor and left it to me to defend you in your own court of condemnation.”

“Only a fool hires himself as a lawyer” Johnny said laughing and added, “you know that when her beloved asked me to step outside because we needed to talk.”

 I interjected “Yeah, hello, I can’t believe you fell for that one.”

“Yeah, I know now, but, that which does not kill me makes me stronger. Anyways, I thought to myself, cool, we can get a smoke and I am going to come clean with him because I was starting to feel sorry for him”

“How were you going to come clean?” I asked. 

“Simply tell him that I came from Rio to Kiev because I was in love with his girlfriend, I thought that was courageous, but now I think I was a bit crazy.”

 “No Johnny, that’s fucking romantic idiocy! Love can make you the biggest idiot in the world and it’s because of this you will win her love in the end.  I see it like this, you can bring a woman flowers, diamonds any material in the world, but the man who hands her his heart by showing her he is not ashamed to play the fool for her, is usually the man who wins the prize of her heart in return, this takes a lot of courage, courage that I don’t have, but you have a shitload of .”

Johnny chuckled, “so what you’re saying is that I’m pretty much a fool.”

I snubbed out my cigarette, stood up and put my hand on the door to the flat before turning around to him as he took his seat back, and said “No Johnny, not a fool, I’m saying that I am a coward in this area and you aren’t. Hell what surprises me the most is that you haven’t initiated the code duello and asked me to be your second, but I am sure that will be on the agenda before the week is out.” Then I entered the flat leaving him there alone on the step, in his seat silently beaming with pride.

My time in Kiev came to an end as my Visa back to Russia was approved and I had retrieved my passport from the consulate, Johnny left one day ahead of me for another woman in Poland, opting to ride the rail with Chip. I asked him with a smile, “I hope this new one is single at least”, but he wouldn’t divulge this information to me.  Although, I have never had many convictions in my life, I will usually touch the surface to which the “WET PAINT” sign is attached, just to ensure that the paint is actually wet, but coming away from Kiev, I had a firm grasp on what cowardice was, and it was not Johnny, for one cowardly act in the face of his courageous heart, more courageous than I ever hope to be in this area, does not a coward make.

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