I like too much, our hostess Vartuhi confided, smiling knowingly and pointing at a halved lemon resting face-up on a saucer on her kitchen table. My partner Jacob had just finished interviewing her for the radio, a special segment about life along a closed border (listen here, here, and here), and she and I were still sitting in her high-ceilinged kitchen as the last hours of the day slowly faded.
Our ‘crackpot team,’ comprised of Jacob and Ricardo (print versions of Jacob’s are also available here and here), Fil, a photojournalist based in Ukraine whose work can be seen here, and myself, a teacher with a week off school, had arrived at her house in Gyumri, Armenia the previous evening from Kars, Turkey after about twelve hours of hard (read: bus) travel.
I’d been prepped about it being a long trip overland via Georgia – all those miles later, I think we may actually have been ready to kill each other. So when Vartuhi opened the door to her house before I even had to knock, and proceeded to show me to a room with soft, heavy pillows ‘normal for Armenia’, I knew that everything was going to be just fine. (Note to self: buy gorgeous pillows.)
She had shared the house with her mother and her two daughters, but they have since passed and moved on. She had just returned from Berlin, where she had been visiting her daughter, and had stopped into the market to buy lemons, when she heard about the murders on her street, a whole family. She ran home, without the lemons, to her empty house, and commenced jumping into the air each time a piece of paper shifted.
It had been a soldier, the murderer. Completely random, or so it seemed. Asked for a glass of water, killed a family. And then she told me her grandmother used to like her to get her attention if a soldier was going by – maybe he would need something. And I got to thinking about all of the ways in which we close ourselves off to each other, divide each other, annihilate each other.
And I know what it’s like to be a woman by herself in a big house, all of the noises you hear. My mother used to tell me she would hold the cat in front of herself while checking the closets: I, too, have been frozen in bed, imagining that the lamp I will touch will be a face; that the one benefit to still sleeping on a mattress on the floor means no one is waiting under there with a switchblade to slice my Achilles.
In the room where my friends were working, there was a Statue of Liberty snow globe filled with multi-colored stars where the snow should have been. I’d like to say I spent the time that followed thinking about where people are born, and whose stories they hear, and how everything eventually collides and intersects, but the stars kept falling so fast, so I just kept flipping it over, again and again.