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11 min read

Love in the Time of War

What happens to love when the man is at the front or alone and abandoned in his home separated from the woman he loves and the bombs are within reach? When the wife who has been forced to flee struggles daily to make a living? Can love be kept alive?

The Ukrainian writer Irena Karpa chose to write this beautiful text about love in time of war for PEN/Opp.

She is a writer, singer, journalist and television presenter born 1980 in Cherkasy. Karpa lives with her family in Paris.

Credits By Irena Karpa Translation from Ukrainian by Kate Tsurkan  August 26 2022

“War is a drug,” he says. It’s already the third one for him. “And it’s unlike either of the previous ones.”

He mentioned drugs when she asked him how people reach the same level of emotion, tension, and adrenaline after. In normal, post-war life, that is. It’s a rhetorical question about PTSD. He says he’s used to it from his past experiences and that he’d learned to enjoy life after it’s over. Those who haven’t served before have a harder time “melting” from the heat.

The word “melting” is one of the main parasitic buzzwords in this war. We’re all “melting” from it, regardless of whether we’re made out of wax or iron. It hits some of us harder than others – like my former classmate, a mother of three children. After taking on the daunting task of everyone who asked for shelter in her house in Bratislava, she began to suffer from moderate depression. (But if only you could hear how gently her husband speaks to her, having taken over care for the children with all of their cello lessons and sports…well, in addition to his regular job and a wife caught up in fierce “volunteering.”)

Some people are “melting” less, like that hardy commander mentioned above, who, having already been through two wars, found his love during the third.

“I will be in Kyiv on July 3,” she writes. “At least I’ll be a little bit closer to you.”

They correspond at night, depriving each other of sleep. They agree to talk for forty minutes, and recall the time after three hours. Nighttime is the only opportunity he has to speak. And then only when he’s not on a mission. During the day she is exhausted but very happy. Tachycardia, goosebumps – the first and last thought of the day is about him, as if she were fifteen years old again.

These two have never seen each other face-to-face. The main intrigue of their story is whether they will ever meet. They each have their own battles on different fronts of the same war. It’s a daily lottery: Will he come back from a mission? Will she receive a new message from him?

“The gods of war must really like you, since they got you the chick you’d been wanting for so long…” She writes, poking fun at his indecision. It turns out he has been in love with her ever since he spotted that black-and-white photo of her on social media. “But why would I try to become a part of your life?” he writes. “You have children, a husband. So, if it wasn’t for war…”

If it weren’t for the war they never would have started messaging each other. And so word for word, thermal imager after motorcycle, volunteer after soldier, night after night they poured into an endless stream of: “I love you. In Ukrainian…” It’s pouring out because it’s all about “melting”. All the mentioned ingredients of an alloy make it unusual. Who knows how sturdy it is? Time would tell under normal conditions. In the conditions of war, time itself changed shape.

“This war is completely different,” he says. “I’ve seen many, but this is unlike anything else. Do you understand?” She nods and lies: I understand. And she thinks about what is completely different for her – this love story. There have never been such high stakes. It was about a rivalry. It was about divorce. It was about disillusionment following the first weekend together. It was about belly fat and an unwillingness to do sports. About disliking each other’s taste in music. But it had never happened before that the life of a loved one was at stake in all this intrigue.

Her heart sinks every time a message from the volunteer who introduced them appears. “No news is good news,” as they say on the front. Bad news comes the fastest. Currently, the volunteer is writing about other needs (a motorcycle, a minibus, for the previous ones were burned by Russian multiple rocket launcher hits.) She collects money. The volunteer writes about the funerals of his friends, once young and smiling. She cries thinking about their lovers, mothers, or sisters. Perhaps, for a fraction of a second, the thought crosses her mind: this time it’s not him. It’s not a thought of relief, no. It is just that at this very moment, sitting at the terrace of Café Saint-Victor, smearing a tartine with apricot jam, watching the caretaker trim roses in the flower bed, hiding behind the glass from the noises on the street, she can’t imagine what the pain will do to her, if one day it is going to be him.

Because it already happened. It was him. With another woman, her friend from Kam'yanets' - Podil's'kyi.

“I’m going on a date,” she wrote in a video post on Instagram. “I’m even carrying flowers. Although it’s him who would usually give me flowers.”

A long gray road divided by an even, dotted line. A fresh grave among the other soldiers’ graves.

“I love you with every fiber of my being. You are the woman of my life. Marry me. I even love your daughter as if she were my own child. I transferred everything in my name to you, by the way, all of my estate.”

“I will! But you’re a fool. Are you going to die or what? Promise, you won’t die.”

“I promise.”

He died under the rubble of the building where he underwent training – not neven on the front. A traitor had directed Russian fire there. Later on the traitor was found. Eight soldiers were killed.

“Tell her where the money is, let her take the car,” were his last words. And he truly cared. Now she and her daughter have something to live off of for a while. The main thing is to want it.

“When I wake up, I just lie in bed for the first hour and want to die. And then my character takes the lead and I rise.”

She keeps on going. And sooner or later she will forgive him for breaking his promise not to die.

“He never deceived me. Only that one time.”

A soldier in the Azov battalion gave his T-shirt to a volunteer to pass on to his fiancée. He proposed to her via Zoom. She laughed because she wants to do things “the normal way.” And she went to bed with his shirt, his smell. The soldier was captured – no news. The trap of hope. The trap of the void. One day she turns on the television and sees footage of him in a Russian propaganda piece–exhausted, with traces of torture, but alive. “I will do everything to free him!” vows a girl in her twenties. The trap of hope. The strength to escape the void.

Another woman lives in Paris, while he lives in Kyiv. He doesn’t go to fight because of his health. They won’t let him leave the country, because he’s over eighteen and under sixty. Although, if he wanted to, they would have let him leave again, because of his health. But he doesn’t want to. He sits at home and suffers, paints the walls in a new color. He eats almost nothing, monitors his wife’s movements on his phone (he installed a program at the time.) He sends her dresses to Paris. And then he blames her for the fact that she has a beautiful life, and he will die alone. The fact that she took their thirteen year-old daughter abroad, so as not to run to the bomb shelter at the sound of every air raid siren and grow pale at home, is not a good enough excuse for him. “You just ditched me.”

The woman doesn’t sleep until three in the morning. She’s crying. She assures him that she loves him and pleads with him to at least travel to Lviv so they can meet. “Gas is expensive, I’m not going anywhere.”

The woman is a high-profile engineer. She doesn’t speak French, but she’s learning. At night, she develops energy supply systems for a hotel in Kyiv online and for free, so as not to lose sense of her profession. During the day she works as a cleaning lady in a hotel in the fifth arrondissement of Paris. It’s difficult work, offline, for ten euros an hour. The woman laughs at her situation but she has to earn money – she just can’t live any other way.

“He never gave me any presents,” she realizes suddenly. “Not even on my birthday or Christmas. When the girls at work bragged about the gifts they’d received from their husbands, I had to make something up. I only worked. All the time. To make repairs, equip the kitchen, and buy a car. We didn’t even take that car somewhere on vacation.”

“I sacrificed everything for you,” her husband writes. “I sat at home with our child while you were building your career. I cooked meals for you after work. And you ditched me for a better life.”

The woman silently reviews her “better life”: shiny cans of sardines, wilted peppers, a pinch of ham, eggplant, and two yogurts from Resto de Coeur. There were no eggs left that day –she’d come late after her French lesson.

When some friends invited her to a freak-cabaret, the woman decided that she must have died, and those transvestites, hundred-kilogram bearded strip-teasers, people in costumes made of sequins and plastic balls, were the inhabitants of the netherworld. Because who else would come to comfort her with such sad eyes, as if something dark and thick was about to pour out of them, which would cover their glossy joy with, impenetrable layer of longing?

“I’m alone here,” he writes. “I’ll get sick with Covid and die. There will be a missile strike and I’ll die. The food will run out and I’ll die of hunger. And you’ll be in Paris.”

He sits and endlessly photoshops her pictures. He makes his beloved woman lighter, darker, with clearer eyes and smoother skin. He makes her his. Let at least her image belong to him if she’s not around. He registers her on Tinder, flirts with strangers while pretending to be her, and then rudely shuts them down. He makes jealous accusations, cries, and sends a video of himself crying. He demands a divorce. He begs forgiveness, deletes the messages about divorce. He threatens her, begs her. He blackmails her. He exhausts himself. But he exhausts her more, this delicate woman with blue eyes weighing forty-two kilograms, who will once again drag fifty kilo mattresses in the hotel tomorrow, despite her two degrees in higher education. How much does one mattress weigh if you sift it with tears and shake it with reproaches? How much longer will she last and what will end sooner? Her love, which is losing weight and volume every day? Her patience? Strength? Sense…?

The first drops of rain fall into the foam of the coffee which the woman sitting on the terrace forgot about.

Why do those close to us become so distant, and distant people become close?

Because of war.

Why is everything you feel now a thousand times stronger than everything you’ve ever felt before?

Because of war.

Why is it that you can truly live only on those two days a month when he’s around, or those two hours a night when you are messaging?

Because of war.

Why do you so strongly love someone who you might never even see?

Because it’s a fucking war. With the highest possible stakes.

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