It is an easy thing to do. This is what Aleksei tells me. Aleksei who now calls himself Alex. He says everyone puts petrol into their own cars and that it is very simple. He hands me the small plastic card. “If you have trouble, Mama, just ask the attendants at the gas station to help you.” I take the card too slowly, I think, and Aleksei sees my hesitation. “Mama, please! If I had time I would fill the tank myself, but you know I have to go now.” There is a hint of annoyance in his voice. I take the card quickly.

“Yes, Aleksei! It will be okay. I can do this. You go, and don’t worry. We will be fine.”

He relaxes a bit and turns away. I am the opposite. I am so tense. I feel like the spring of Grandpa Petrenko’s watch, wound too tight. I remind myself to breathe.

Grandpa Petrenko! How long since I have thought of him. He would not allow a woman to drive, much less pump petrol. These, he would say, are the jobs men do to serve their women. “Lyubov, yaka sluzhytʹ” — Love which serves. I tried to teach these things to Aleksei, but now he is progressive. This America, where everyone is independent and everyone thinks of themselves first, is too advanced for me. Very stylish. Too trendy. No more Aleksei Marchenko. Alex March. If I, Vasylyna Marchenko, stay here too long, will I too become modern? My grandson calls me Granny Vaseline. Granny Vaseline!

Aleksei told me that it was a small city, this Concord. “There are only 43 000 residents,” he said. I thought Pidkamin was large. There were 2 138 in Pidkamin. Now there are 2 137.

It was not my choice to come, but when Grigori passed and I was left all alone, Aleksei packed my things and brought me to his home. In the beginning I was thankful more than afraid. I thought Aleksei was showing me lyubov, the love which cares. But the more I am here, the more I think I am a nuisance to him. Nepryyemnistʹ. A barnacle.

Aleksei comes back into the kitchen with his briefcase. He is surprised to see me standing still, holding the card like it will bite me. “Mama! You need to go. Billy will be waiting if you don’t leave now.”

Aleksei has a lecture. He is an important man. He is a teacher of the law at a big university. I am proud of him to be an important man in this big place. He is an important man. And I do not know him.

“Yes, Aleksei.” I say. I grab my thick jacket and zip it up to my chin. I pick up my handbag, drop the card inside and take the car keys off of the counter.

We walk out of the house together. Aleksei goes with me to the small, white car called “Civic.” It is old and tired, but it still runs. Alkesei said it was his first car in America and that it has many good memories for him. But he only drives it on weekends. He drives the black “Lexus” which is shiny and has fancy wheels to work every day.

I open and get into the car. Aleksei holds the door and will close it, but first he speaks to me. “Mama, I should be home by seven. You and Billy eat if you are hungry. I can catch something after the lecture.” He goes to close the door and then opens it again and adds, “Sorry about the gas, Mama, but you’ll be alright! Ask for help if you need it!” Then he closes the door, walks to his car and gets in, switches on the engine and drives away.

I start the Civic slowly. I learned to drive in Pidkamin. Grigori insisted. He said everyone should know how to drive, in case of an emergency. The cars in the Ukraine were all “manual transmission,” so I learned to drive with a clutch. Here in America everything is automatic.

I pull away from the curb. I will fetch Billy from school and bring him home. It is not far and I have memorised the route. In Pidkamin we would walk twice this distance to go to school. But Aleksei says it is not safe. The children must be collected in a car.

My heart is pounding and my palms are sweaty. The little light by the steering wheel is red. No petrol. Fill with petrol. Aleksei apologised for not putting in gas. I will have to buy some now.

There are several petrol stations on the way to Billy’s school. One is the easiest as it is on the same side of the street that I am on. I pull in to the station and up to one of the pumps. I am so anxious; my stomach feels like it is doing flips. In Pidkamin there are men who work at the pumps. They stand, just so, and when you drive up they smile and act pleased to see you. They politely enquire as to how much petrol you would like and they expertly put it in the tank. America, Aleksei says, is progressive. Americans pump their own gas. Even the women.

I sit for a few moments in the car. I do not see any of the station helpers. The radio is playing some music loudly. It is the programme Aleksei listens to on weekends when he takes Billy out for ice cream. I watched the two of them arrive home one day after a father-son adventure. They were singing the song on the radio like they were professional performers. Something in my heart was touched with softness and I decided then that I would stay as long as they would have me.

I open the car door. Still there is no one except for some customers. I get out of the car and look for the little door for the petrol tank. I find it easily enough, but I can not understand how to open it. I pull and yank it, but it does not budge. I hear some footsteps behind me and realise that the tall man from the next petrol island over is approaching me. I turn quickly and see him coming.

“Es-cuse me,” I start. “This is not my car. It is my son’s car and I cannot open this.” The tall man keeps coming. He smiles at me. He seems friendly and part of me wants to trust him. Aleksei told me to be careful about trusting people. Not everyone likes or understands foreigners.

“There is probably a lever somewhere inside on the driver’s side which releases the latch to open the gas tank. May I open your door and have a look?”

I nod my head. I don’t really know what he is doing. He bends over and puts his head into the car. He is looking for something. He runs his hands over the inside of the door and near the ignition. What if he grabs my bag and runs? I have a lot of money in there. And the house keys. And my passport. If I scream will someone come help me? I am breathing too rapidly.

“I can’t find it. I’ll have to sit in the car to get a better look.”

Now he gets into the car. It is not easy for a tall man to fit into the seat, but he twists and turns till he is sitting behind the steering wheel. I panic. Why is he inside Aleksei’s car? What if he drives the car away WITH my bag? Aleksei will be furious that I lost his car of memories. This man sits still for a minute. I think he is listening to the song on the radio. I think he likes it, because he makes a small smile. Then he starts feeling with his hands again.

“Ah!” he says. “I found it. The catch is on the floor. Look here. See?” He shows me the small lever and how to pull it up so that it releases the little door to the petrol tank. He starts to unfold himself out of the car.

“Thank you,” I say. I try hard to sound sincere. “Thank you very much!”

“Can I help you put in the gas?” he asks. I look up at him as he stands full height. He must be nearly two metres tall! He must be able to tell that I have never done this thing before. I swallow and force a small smile to my face.

“Yes, thank you.” I say. “Please.”

“How much?” he asks taking the nozzle and heading toward the tank opening.

“To fill it, thank you, please.”

He smiles and starts pumping. I realise my anxiety has been draining away and that I am breathing normally again.

This young man is someone’s son. This young man has love which serves. This young, American man understands “Lyubov, yaka sluzhytʹ.” Perhaps this Concord place will not be so bad after all.



This piece is written in response to a wonderful account of a meeting of two people at a gas station.
Check it out here.
(Thank you for the inspiration, Chris!)
And another friend has also written a story in response!
Have a look here.
Why don’t YOU write one?  😉