Following yet another vodka-soaked, Ukrainian feast, I sat at the table and stared blankly ahead at the kitchen wall in Uncle Vladimir’s farmhouse. I was grinning like the village idiot, which was fitting since we were in a village.
Katya tried to get me to drink from a glass of water, to no avail.
“Bobby, drink this!” she commanded, putting the glass of mineral water up to my lips. I refused.
“Drink it!” she said, sternly.
“I have to go to sleep,” I said.
“No sleep. Drink.”
“I already drank too much.”
“This is water!”
I finally gave in and took a sip, dribbling most of it onto my chin and down the front of my shirt.
“This is all your fault!” Katya said, angrily pointing to her uncle and father.
“It’s not our fault that he can’t drink,” Uncle Vladimir retorted.
“We’d better get him to bed,” Elena said, concerned.
Katya’s worry deepened as I continued to stare at the wall, grinning.
“Maybe we should we take him to the hospital?” Katya suggested.
“No. I have a better idea,” Sergei said. “Remove his shoes.”
Katya knew immediately what Sergei was going to do next, and began removing my shoes.
“What are you doing?” I mumbled incoherently.
“We’re helping you,” Katya replied, as Sergei and Uncle Vladimir lifted me out of my seat.
“Where are we going?” I asked, as we headed for the door.
“For a walk.”
“Yes, a walk.”
“For your own good.”
As we headed down the porch steps, I lost my balance, almost taking Uncle Vladimir and Sergei down with me.
“Yeah … I’m floating,” I said, as Uncle Vladimir and Sergei struggled to help me regain my balance.
“That was fun,” I said “But where are my shoes? I can’t go for a walk without my shoes!”
“You’ll get your shoes back later,” Katya promised.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked, a small amount of concern and apprehension now starting to register in my vodka-addled brain.
“Siberia,” Katya replied.
“I don’t want to go to Siberia. What are you going to do to me?”
“Sober you up,” Katya said.
“Am I drunk?”
Elena, Aunt Nina, and Karina followed us outside into the chilly night, as Uncle Vladimir and Sergei dragged me by the heels to the outdoor shower stall.
“Is that a gas chamber?” I asked in terror.
“Yes. Now take off your clothes,” Katya commanded.
Sergei opened the door and turned the shower on.
“I don’t want anyone to see me naked,” I pleaded. ”Too skinny,” I added, echoing Babushka’s earlier refrain.
“Then at least take off your shirt,” Katya demanded.
“Nyet!” I said, like a petulant little schoolboy.
“Fine,” Katya said, before helping Sergei shove me inside the stall, and slamming the door shut.
I screamed as the frigid water pierced through my clothing. So much for waiting until we returned to the apartment to shower.
I tried to escape, but Sergei and Uncle Vladimir held the door closed. This was waterboarding, Ukrainian-style. I pounded on the door, begging to be let out, but it was no use. I was completely at their mercy.
“Katya! Please! Let me out!” I pleaded, but to no avail.
After a few minutes, Sergei opened the door. I stumbled out, shivering like a wet dog, already starting to feel more sober. Aunt Nina handed me a towel.
And just when I assumed that the worst was over, little did I know that the worst was actually about to begin.
Still dripping wet from my arctic shower, Sergei and Katya proceeded to frogmarch me, barefoot, along the rocky, pothole-laden gravel driveway— beginning my own personal Bataan death march, Gulag-style, as the rest of the family watched along the sidelines.
Sergei counted in broken English: “One! Two! One! Two!” keeping me in step, as we marched back and forth along the broken path.
Hearing all of the commotion, a nosy neighbor approached, muttering: “Ah, to be young again.”
“One! Two! One! Two!” commanded Sergei, trying to keep my drunken march in rhythm. “One! Two! One! Two!” he barked, leaving me yearning for an occasional “Three! Four!”
As I struggled to keep tempo, Katya joined in on the count. Before long, even I joined in, in a desperate attempt to distract myself from my sore, sure-to-be bleeding feet.
Fifteen minutes into this drunken parade, I demanded to know how much longer I would have to endure this.
“Until you’re sober,” Katya responded.
“I am sober. I’m fine,” I said.
“You wouldn’t be going through this if you were fine.”
“I want my shoes back.”
“When we’re done,” Katya replied.
“Just trust us. We’re professionals”
“I don’t understand why I can’t wear my shoes.”
“Because a little pain will help sober you up.”
“But I’m not drunk, any more” I pleaded.
Katya proceeded to kick off her own shoes in a show of solidarity.
“Look, now we’re in this together.”
“Put your shoes back on!”
“Don’t worry about me.”
“Just do as we say … or else,” Katya said, in a thick, exaggerated accent.
Minutes later, Sergei brought us to a halt. My feet were throbbing.
“Are we done?” I asked, hopeful that my torture was now at an end.
“Not quite,” Katya replied.
And before Katya had finished answering, Sergei pushed down on my shoulders from behind.
“Up! Down Up! Down!” Sergei commanded.
Previous to that night, I may have done squats once in my lifetime. And certainly not drunk.
“Up! Down Up! Down!” Sergei continued.
Up and down I went. This went on for quite a while.
The worst was yet to come.
Sergei demonstrated the next step in his patented Ukrainian style sobering program, by pretending to stick his fingers down his throat.
I looked at Katya in desperation, who was now standing over by Elena.
“You gotta vomit now, Bobby,” Katya stated, ever so matter-of-factly.
“What?! No way!” I exclaimed.
“You have to! If you don’t, you’re going to waste our last few days together with the worst hangover of your life.”
Realizing that Katya was probably right, I attempted to stick a finger down my throat. All I produced was a dry heave. Sergei grabbed my hand and proceeded to “help” me stick two of my fingers further down my throat. Still nothing.
“This is inhumane,” I pleaded, almost in tears. “Nobody should have to endure this.”
“You’ll thank us later,” Katya said. “Trust me.”
Sergei decided that he needed to lead me up and down the driveway of destruction one more time.
“One! Two! One! Two!”
“I gotta pee!” I said, grasping for any excuse to end this torture.
At Katya’s request, Sergei led me behind a tree and held me up so I could pee. When I was done, Sergei forced me to do more squats. When my knees felt like they were about to burst open, Sergei held up three fingers and aimed them towards his mouth. I shook my head in protest. My refusal prompted him to grab me by the wrist, prying open three of my fingers from my fist. As he began to cram them down my throat, I shouted for Katya.
“I’m over here, Bobby” Katya yelled back. “You’re doing great!”
“Your dad is trying to kill me!” I exclaimed.
“No, he’s not trying to kill you. He’s trying to help you.”
I was no longer convinced. No longer able to resist, Sergei finally succeeded in shoving my fingers down my throat. You have not truly lived until you have had a grown man jam your own fingers down your throat in an attempt to sober you up.
I dry-heaved a couple more times before spitting up a tiny bit of vomit.
“There! I threw up!” I proudly proclaimed.
“That wasn’t throw up!” Katya exclaimed.
“What do you mean it wasn’t throw up? Something was thrown up. Didn’t you see it?” I argued.
“Keep trying,” Katya demanded.
“No! I refuse to be tortured any longer.”
But my pleas went ignored, as Sergei once again began to march me back and forth.
“Be thankful you’re drunk. And remember; you’re in good hands,” Katya continued.
I wasn’t convinced.
“This is torture!” I exclaimed.
“It’s not torture,” Katya replied.
“Sometimes!” Sergei blurted out.
“I’m walking barefoot on this stone driveway and your dad is forcing my fingers down my throat. How is that not torture?”
“Okay, okay,” Katya said, heading inside.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“One! Two! One! Two!”
“Katya! … Katya!!!” I shouted.
Moments later, Katya returned—with my shoes.
“I’m here. And so are your shoes,” she said, bringing them over.
I reached for them, but Katya pulled back.
“Not until you vomit,” she insisted.
And so I did.