Upside down, the world looked ridiculous.
It was April 27, 1986, my last good day in Kiev, and I was hanging from the exercise rings in the doorway of my kitchen. My knees were tucked into the plastic circles, and my hair grazed the floor, collecting dust as I swung back and forth. “Ivanna,” Mama said, “get down from there. All the blood will rush to your head and you’ll explode.” But I ignored her. If I came down, I would have to help Leta and our mothers, who were best friends, chop vegetables for borscht. Besides, I was enjoying the view. Leta looked like a fool in her velvet dress and stockings, with her slick black hair launched above her head in a braid, as if she expected to be somewhere more fancy than my kitchen on a Sunday evening. Mama and Aunt Alla appeared vaguely menacing as they sliced cabbage and carrots into tiny pieces, Uncle Igor looked silly as he chomped on a pickle and read the newspaper, and our stove and fridge appeared to have sprouted from the ceiling. I was the only thing that made any sense.
Then our front door swung open and Papa ran into the kitchen, ducking past me. I couldn’t make out the look on his face, but it must have been bad because Mama dropped her knife. Papa shut the balcony door and said, “Nobody goes outside today, do you hear me?” My head grew heavy as he said that one of his co-workers from the Kiev Institute told him that there had been an accident at the Chernobyl power plant, only a hundred kilometers away from where we lived. He said the city was silent. There were no rickety ambulances plunging down the Khreshchatyk, no echoes of sirens wailing through the Lilac Gardens, no doctors and nurses leaving the city hospital in droves. This made him even more suspicious. As he continued to speak, I took my legs out of the rings and planted them on the floor. But my knees were wobbly, and bright white spots fluttered in front of my eyes. I tried to reach out to catch one of them. The last thing I heard was Papa saying, “Nobody knows how bad it is, yet, but...”
I woke up on the couch as Leta hovered over me, pressing a wet washcloth to my forehead. Though we had just turned twelve, and though I was older by one day, she was the one who insisted she was an adult. I never saw the appeal. The adults reeked of vodka and spent their nights reminiscing about Soviet summer camp and the slimy fish they supposedly caught with their bare hands during family trips to the Desna, presenting them to their thorny and war-ravaged fathers, who couldn’t have cared less. Didn’t Leta get it? The adults were always pining away for their childhood, yet there she was, acting like a grown-up. The real grown-ups were sitting around the radio, waiting for confirmation of my father’s news.
“For once,” Leta said, “you should have listened to your mother.”
A reactor at the Chernobyl power plant exploded two days before, just past one in the morning, outside the town of Pripyat. A team of technicians botched a safety test, and a nuclear reaction spun out of control. The water in the reactor boiled, and the building’s roof blew off, caught fire, and scattered radioactive particles into the air. Of course, we didn’t know any of the details at the time. For the first two days, the government was as silent as a corpse. The Soviet radio played only classical music. As we grew more and more desperate for information, we were only offered Swan Lake on repeat. Any news we received came from a combination of rumors from our building and the university where our parents worked, information passed down from the doctors, scientists, and firefighters in Kiev who had been called to help out in Pripyat, and from the Russian broadcasts of BBC or Voice of America.
We understood that there were certain things you were not supposed to do after the accident, under any circumstances. You should leave the house only if it was absolutely necessary, and if you did, you’d better wear a hat and long sleeves and shower as soon as you got home. And you were never supposed to walk under a tree or near a bush, and if it rained, forget about setting foot out the door. Many of the residents of Volinsky 54 began to board up their windows and balconies. My parents covered the windows but couldn’t bear to board up the balcony, not just yet; my father was too attached to it. Another thing we did was turn our vacuum cleaners on about twenty times a day to suck up any stray particles of radiation. Though all of us were scared, you had to laugh a little, or you’d go insane. While our mothers furiously scrubbed the apartment, our fathers wrote a song about the accident. It began:
Kiev’s safe, I swear, I swear
Just try not to breathe the air!
Our mothers were hardly amused by our fathers’ antics. “If songs could mop floors and notes could do dishes, I’d love every word,” Aunt Alla would say, turning away whenever Uncle Igor picked up his guitar. When they weren’t cleaning, they spent their time in the kitchen. The BBC sat between them, offering updates on the status of the accident, but there wasn’t much information yet. Mama would shell entire bags of sunflower seeds while Aunt Alla picked at the paint on her fingernails, speculating about the extent of the disaster.
My father, he wasn’t a big talker, but you could always tell how worried he was depending on how much time he devoted to his latest hobby. When he wasn’t singing, he spent his days at the coffee table in the living room, constructing a tower out of matches. Twice, the tower reached over his head until it toppled when my mother turned on the vacuum cleaner. After we got the news, every time I walked into the main room, Mama was either madly dusting or lying in bed with my father, giggling like a teenager. I even caught them in the kitchen, kissing in front of the open fridge while the cold white air escaped around them.
That is to say, things were strange at home after the explosion. Leta and I spent most of that time with our friends, not our parents. Luckily, most of them were within arm’s reach; after the accident, children were not forbidden to leave the building, but staying inside was strongly recommended. Uncle Anton, a retired police officer, patrolled the entrance and stared us down until we ran back to our apartments. We lived on the fifteenth floor of the twenty-two story building. The fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth floors belonged to the Kiev Institute; this meant that Leta and I grew up hanging out with a loud, unruly crowd of scientists’ kids. A few of them were even Jews, like us. Most of them were only children, too, and I liked to think of us all as distant cousins to feel less lonely in my small family.
We spent those first afternoons playing Captain Radiation, a game I created. The designated Captain was wrapped in an old white bedspread and chased the others like a blind and bewildered ghost. To stay safe, you had to direct the Captain toward one of the other “victims,” as we called each other. “Two steps to the left! Three steps back, and you’ll catch him! Closer, closer, closer!” we would shout. And if the Captain was going in the wrong direction, we would cry, “Farther! You’re getting farther away!” Another rule was that the Captain had to be in constant motion. If he faltered, we would count to three and he would melt to the ground and had to sit out the next round. Once the Captain tagged you, the round was over, and you had to take over as the next Captain. Leta was never the Captain—she always fled as far away as possible and was barely even a participant. But I could see the glee in her eyes as she ran away during those first few seconds. She would have loved being the Captain, if she gave it a chance. Our game was chaotic and disorganized, but it felt just right.
As you can imagine, the parents hated this game. It made them uneasy. They banned it just two days after the accident. That day, as the Captain, I ran so fast that I nearly knocked over a lamp in Leta’s living room. Aunt Alla snatched the bedspread off my head. “That’s enough,” she told us. “Now get out of here, you little fools.” We retreated to the apartment of Marat Maksimov. This was where we hung out whenever we were chastised but when our actions weren’t offensive enough to warrant separation. Marat’s family paid us little attention. His mother was a lab technician who spent most of her time at the university, and his father was a firefighter who was hardly there, either.
As soon as we were settled on Marat’s living room floor, one of the three Anyas began laying cards for durak. Leta positioned herself outside our circle, braiding the frayed threads of the rug. My best friend, Yulia, and I were tying and untying our shoelaces together, and the underfed brothers Kravtsov were trying to see how many marmalades and peanuts they could stuff into their mouths at once. I noticed that Marat was unusually quiet that day. He kept looking toward the kitchen, where his mother sat, listening to the radio.
“Well,” I said, elbowing him in the gut. “What is it?”
“What makes you think I know something?” he said, carefully studying his cards. “And even if I did know something, I wouldn’t want to scare the ladies,” he added, gesturing toward us. “Everybody knows women have a weak constitution, and I don’t want to upset anybody.” As soon as he said that, the brothers Kravtsov locked his arms behind his back until it was clear that either he would talk or his elbows would pop out of their sockets. I helped out by repeatedly kicking him in the shins, and Yulia yanked his ear. “Okay, okay,” he said. “But you can’t tell anybody. Promise,” he whispered, and all of us nodded furiously, letting go. He jerked his head toward the bedroom, where his father was. There was no sign of life behind that door—no light, no footsteps.
“Well,” he said. “My dad went to Pripyat a few hours after it happened, just before morning. By then, the worst of it was over, and he was just throwing water over steam. But he says that the ones who lived in Pripyat and got there first got really sick. At least six of them are dead already, and there are like a dozen more in the hospital. And you know what else happened?”
“What?” we all said, even Leta. Her skin was the color of sour cream.
“He said that some of the guys got so sick from the radiation that after only half an hour over the fire, they were purple. And then they got dizzy and started to throw up blood. They weren’t even wearing anything to protect their skin. By the time my dad got there, they gave him a full-body suit. When he came back, he told us what happened and then he just locked himself in his room. Since then, he hasn’t come out once, I swear, not even to take a crap or anything.” Marat paused for effect and added, rather gleefully, “He said that the accident was a thousand times worse than you can imagine. That the worst is still ahead.”
“I’m going to be sick,” said Leta, crossing her hands over her stomach. The Anya cousins didn’t say anything, but they didn’t look so good, either.
“The toilet’s in the next room,” Yulia said breezily, jerking her thumb in its direction. I snorted. The other girls ignored us.
“See?” said Marat, glaring at the brothers Kravtsov. “I didn’t want to upset the ladies, and now look what you’ve done.”
“Are you lying, man?” asked Yuri Kravtsov, the older brother, who, at thirteen, was the second-oldest in our coterie, after Marat. “You sure you’re not lying?”
“Hey,” said Marat, holding up his hands with a wide grin. “Would I ever lie to you?”
Of course he would lie to us. He had lied to us on a number of occasions, the most notable of which was when he convinced us that Uncle Grisha, the drunk gardener, had been in the Gestapo. Only after Yulia and I narrowly missed dropping a potted plant on his head from her balcony and the rest of us pelted him with rocks and called him a “filthy fascist” did one of the Anyas realize that he was the same age as our parents, that he had to have been born at least a decade after the Holocaust. But I still believed Marat, that day. Something in the tenor of his voice told all of us that he was telling the truth, that the BBC was telling the truth, and that the Soviet government, with its silence, was telling the biggest truth of all: that we should be scared, and very much so.