How are you?

By Natalia Matolinets
Author’s translation


You don’t need a detailed answer to “How are you?” – told English teacher in my first year of primary school. – People say this out of politeness. They don’t really care, how you feel.
Perhaps, she said this in other words, not that directly. I mean: we were kids, we knew nothing about the world and about being polite, in fact, too.
We, age 6 or 7, didn’t even realize at that time, that “How are you?” consists of three words and they have meaning, not just some bubbling our teacher makes us repeat at the beginning of every lesson, right after “Goodmorningteacher!”, because mornings were good at that time, almost nothing bad could happen during the night.
It’s different now. When after dark the map of my country is getting bloody red in the app of air raid alert and numerous chats discuss, what is going on. They discuss, where they saw the missile. What’s the direction. What was that sound. How loud the explosion was. Don’t tell the exact place – it’s forbidden. Did it hit something? Was it destroyed? Loud. Loud. Again. What was that fire just now? Did you see, how bright?.. F-fuck! Hide!..
And you hide. And you wait. And that’s where “How are you?” becomes an ultimate act of care.
When you sit in a bomb shelter, in a subway, in a corridor, in a bathroom, in your bed, after missiles wake you with an earth-shattering sound. When hands shake and shake and shake, and yet you manage to type this – it requires just two words, four letters in Ukrainian. How convenient. You type “How are you?” – “Як ти?”
And you press send.
And you wait, wait, wait. There’s nothing else you can do. There’s nothing you want more, than the answer.
If the answer is
I’m alive.
I’ve managed to hide.
Only windows shattered. But we’re fine.
Wave broke the balcony doors.
We weren’t at home, when it hit the apartment.
Scared, but I’ll manage.
I’m in a hospital, minor damage.
I was sleeping, heard nothing of it.
Fine. How are you?
How are you?

Lviv mo(u)rning

“Get ready now!” says yoga app in the morning.
But you’re ready any moment now. The biggest attack wakes you up in the middle of the night. Building is shaking, mirror on the wall reflects fire. Skies burn, as if it was a daylight for a moment. You start shaking. You want to breath in, but chest feels like stone. The seemingly safe area in your apartment is small. You freeze there. You listen to every sound, even though THE sound isn’t something you can miss at this point. And you hear it again. And you hear it again. And you know you’ll hear it in every firework in every corner of the world. Again. And again.
In the morning. You scroll photos. You know which house this is. Your friend’s house. There’s a café on the corner next to it. You go there to write your stories and enjoy espresso tonic, because it’s good, and the place is spacious. No more coffee, I guess. You create this safe space “I can’t have coffee there”. As if this was important. You scroll photos. Again. And again.
Get ready now. Any moment it starts.

– So, life in Lviv is normal? – asks Polish guide.
– Lviv is relatively safe, right? – asks waitress in Greece.
– It’s getting better in Lviv, yeah? – asks tourist in Prague.
– No.
I answer, going in circles to explain that this red map means an alert, and missiles can reach Lviv too, and if they reach, my windows are shaking, I’m sitting in a corridor, and there are no safe places, no, the siren at night, all summer, all nights, sometimes there is no point in going to bed, the map is flooded with red, sometimes during the day, sometimes several times a day. Lviv is not safe. Nowhere is safe in Ukraine.
But later on, I wake up in the morning and go for avocado toast with filter coffee. And that is the most surprising for them all. What do you mean, you have explosions and missiles at night, and then you go for coffee? How is this possible? I don’t know. I say something about the new normal, which is not normal at all. And coffee helps, as it’s so basic, so common, so usual. As it used to be before 24.02. We count our days like that now: before or after. Nothing else makes sense.
In Gdańsk, in the World War II Museum, there is a door from a bomb shelter, a model of a train to a concentration camp, and an 80-year-old manual on how to act in case of air raid. This is an image of war, that is understandable, distant enough for everyone to see a bigger picture. History, already painted in details and preserved in museum halls, in millions of texts, in strings of memories, terrible, tragic.
Maybe one day we will have a museum with our own stories:
„My facebook feed looks like an obituary now“
„I had to throw out clothes I wore in a bomb shelter, because it’s impossible to wash it enough“
„I’m not going to make it to the post office today, because it’s damn alarm, for the fourth time“
„There was terrible shelling at night, but in the morning, we still went to work, because deadlines are deadlines“
„I worked this summer in a place, half-destroyed by a blast wave“
„During blackouts, I saw the Milky Way for the first time“
„I was afraid of fireworks in Bulgaria, because they sound like explosions“
„That winter, we used to work in a cafe by candlelight because there was no electricity or heating at home, and cafe was at least warm”
„We used to joke that the northern lights were actually nuclear tests“
Life during the war doesn’t always feel terrible or tragic, even if it is. Sometimes it feels like one inconvenience and another one, and they’re piling up, day by day. Sometimes it’s pressure you can’t get rid of. Sometimes it’s a black hole inside of you, growing and devouring sense of safety. Sometimes it’s silent rage. A scream deep down your throat. A glass wall, a blurred vision, all of it, at once.
Over time, when people ask about my life, I answer: „It’s hard to explain, because our experiences are too different.“ But I tell them anyway.

– But it was just one missile, yes? – friend of mine frantically tries to catch up with my story about the latest shelling.
– Yes. Just one, – I reply simply, as it is.
Words don’t help here. One is such a small number, almost zero, almost nothing.
One missile hits – one, just one…
…and then, there’s nothing left.
Rage builds up in me.
This just one missile is so wrong, because everything about it is too much.
Just one missile is already more than anyone needs in a lifetime.
I still need to use words.
So, I say “Yes. Just one” and I add “I’m fine”
Because I’m alive. And today it equals “fine”.
It’s one more day. One is such a small number.