**This story is part of Love & Vodka, a memoir Bobby Fox wrote about his travels to Ukraine.
The Sobering Method
By Bobby Fox
The single most humiliating experience of my life happened on an Ukrainian farm. I was traveling with my fiancé and her family to her uncle’s farm in the village of Tomakovka, outside of the industrial city of Zaporozh’e.
After watching the sun set on a field of sunflowers in the Ukrainian countryside, we were soon enveloped in darkness, creating the illusion that everything else had fallen off the earth, as well.
After an over three hour drive in the stifling heat of a car with no air conditoning, we finally arrived in Tomakovka, but the lack of street signs in Ukraine – especially in village areas – makes getting to your specific destination very difficult.
“You’ve been here before, right?,” I asked.
“Of course,” Olya said. “But he isn’t sure if this is the right house because of the dark.” Leonid pulled down a street that he thought looked familiar, going so far as to get out of the car and walk right up the dark house, before being told by its owner that it was not the right one.
This went on for a good half or so before they finally found Uncle Vladimir’s farmhouse, where we were enthusiastically greeted with hugs and kisses from Uncle Vladimir, his wife Nina and their six-year-old granddaughter, Karina.
Uncle Vladimir greeted me with a hearty, well-intentioned “Good morning!”
“Good morning,” I replied back, laughing and going with the flow.
“Good evening,” Olya corrected him.
“Good evening,” Uncle Vladimir said, which was clearly the extent of his English.
“Bobby, welcome to my farm,” he said in Russian. “Have you been on a farm before?”
“Not a real one,” I said, not really sure what I meant.
“Good. Because tomorrow, you’ll get up at three-thirty to do real farm work.”
“Okay,” I said in agreement, not really sure if he serious or not. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was.
“Joke,” he said in Russian. Karina approached.
“Hi, Bobby. It … is … nice … to … meet … you,” she mangled in English.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “So you speak English?”
“Nyet,” she replied, staring down on the ground in shy shame. Olya explained that she just started taking English lessons.
“Tell her I’m very impressed,” Olya translated.
“I used to talk that way when I started learning English.”
We then went inside, where yet another hearty Ukrainian meal was being prepared by Aunt Nina. Leonid and Vladimir streamlined directly toward living room for some chess and vodka.
Feeling sweaty and gross from the steamy car ride, I inquired about taking a shower. But upon realizing that the shower consisted of an outdoor, ramshackle wooden stall, I changed my mind.
“The shower situation in Ukraine continues to impress me,” I commented.
In the living room Leonid and Uncle Vladimir were engaged in an intense game of chess, each with a half-finished bottle of vodka by their side.
“It’s war when these two play chess,” Olya pointed out. “See that vacuum behind my uncle?.” I nodded.
“It’s my dad’s if he wins the tournament.”
“And if your uncle wins?”
“Papa, what does Uncle win?,” Olya asked her father in Russian.
“He won’t win, so it doesn’t really matter,” Leonid boasted. “But if by some unfortunate twist of fate he does beat me, he wins my flashlight,” Leonid said, pointing toward his flashlight sitting nearby.
“One of my dad’s favorite possessions,” Olya said.
“Wow, it’s serious.”
“And one game can last the entire weekend.”
“What if they don’t finish it?”
“Whoever is winning wins.” Leonid demanded silence.
Aunt Nina invited all of us to take our seats. Everyone came to the table except for Leonid and Uncle Vladimir, who remained embroiled in their game of chess.
Olya took a corner seat next to me, but Alexandra immediately grew concerned and asked her to switch with me.
“What’s going on?”
“If a single woman sits at the corner of the table, she’ll never get married.”
We both chuckled at this.
“Ukrainians sure have a lot of superstitions,” I remarked.
“You gotta believe in something,” Olya said in reply.
“Vladimir! Leonid! Kushat!,” Aunt Nina shouted into the living room.
Leonid and Uncle Vladimir staggered in, their vodka bottles nearly empty and merrily singing a Soviet military song. Leonid went to retrieve another bottle of vodka from what I was guessing was an endless supply.
“The difference between my father and my uncle is that my father only drinks for social occasions. My Uncle drinks for all occasions,” she said, as Leonid and Uncle Vladimir all but stumbled into their seats.
Uncle Vladimir poured three shots for me, Leonid and himself. He then raised his glass for a toast. “Here’s to food. May we eat to live, not live to eat.”
After clinking our glasses, Leonid and Uncle Vladimir downed their shots, immediately sniffing their sleeve.
“What’s that all about?”
“Just a tradition. Sometimes, people eat a pickle instead.”
I took a baby sip. Vladimir noticed this and laughed, saying something or other in Russian.
“What did he say?”
“Nothing. Don’t worry about it. He’s an alcoholic.”
“Aren’t you going to finish it?” Uncle Vladimir asked.
“Of course,” I said, forcing myself to finish it off in two more sips in a feeble attempt to impress. Gagging, however, ruined any chance for redemption. Uncle Vladimir immediately attempted to pour me another shot.
“Nyet, spasibo,” I begged. But judging from his look, along with Leonid’s, something told me this was going to be a long night.
“A man who drinks too much has nothing to say. But I also understand that a man who drinks too little has nothing to say. So I say, chut-chut’!
I gave in by flicking my neck.
“Bobby, please don’t,” Olya warned as Uncle Vladimir eagerly filled up my glass. She tried to stop him at half, but it was no use.
Uncle Vladimir raised his glass for another toast.
“To Bobby. Control toast.”
“What’s control toast?”
“It means to the bottom.”
“Time to prove you’re a man.”
With all eyes on me, I realized it was now or never. It was time to take off the training wheels and drink my first full shot of vodka. I looked at Leonid, who saluted me in encouragement with his own glass, then slowly raised the glass to my lips.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Olya said.
I took a deep breath, tilted my head back and let it slide down my shot, before sniffing my sleeve. It went down surprisingly smooth. I was growing a tolerance, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. But in this context, it was.
Everyone applauded. I pumped my fist. Leonid and Uncle Vladimir issued congratulatory handshakes. Even Olya applauded, despite her growing concern for my well-being. Little Bobby Jr. was finally growing up.
I was a bit surprised at how quickly I became buzzed. Uncle Vladimir poured another round of shots, finishing off the bottle. And for the first time, I had no fear.
Aunt Nina tried to stop him. He yelled at her in Russian. How dare a woman interfere with this manly ritual!
“I think I had enough vodka for now. How about some wine?,” I suggested, eyeing an unopened bottle of wine sitting on the table. Little did I know that it was already too late.
“Normally, this is saved for the women,” Uncle Vladimir said, before handing me the wine bottle and corkscrew. “But let’s see how well you can handle a cork.”
Never having used a traditional corkscrew before, I might as well have been handed the controls of a space shuttle.
I struggled mightily, causing several fragments of cork to fall into the bottle. When he couldn’t bare it any longer, Uncle Vladimir finally grabbed the bottle from me and effortlessly removed the cork, before pouring a glass for the women, and lastly me.
“Bobby, I think you should eat something,” Alexandra wisely suggested.
“Here. Have some chicken,” Olya said, putting a roasted leg down on my plate. As I began filling up my plate, I noticed I felt a bit numb, my vision a bit blurry, my motor functions slightly impaired.
I took a few nibbles before Uncle Vladimir raised his glass for a toast.
“Here we go again,” Olya said.
This time, both Uncle Vladimir and Leonid stood up.
“Third toast always goes to the women.”
Uncle Vladimir tipped his glass toward me.
“For women,” he said in very broken English, tipping his glass toward me and chuckling. Was he calling me a woman? I quickly stood up with my glass of wine to join my fellow comrades.
“To women. And all their beauty. Like vodka, may it never run out.”
Uncle Vladimir and Leonid downed their shot. Uncle Vladimir reached for my shot glass, poured it into his and quickly downed as I joined the women with a sip of wine.
We continued eating for a while longer before Uncle
Vladimir pulled a new bottle of vodka out from underneath the table, holding it up for me to see.
“Pepper and honey vodka,” he said in Russian.
“Bobby, I love honey!,” Leonid added, as Uncle Vladimir began pouring a new round.
“Please don’t,” Olya said with dread in her eyes.
“I’ll just try a sip,” I said loudly. “I ate some chicken, so I’ll be fine.”
Leonid raised the stakes.
“Bobby, perhaps you’re ready to give a toast of your own?”
“Compared to your toasts, I’ll only embarrass myself.”
“Not if you drink more of this,” Uncle Vladimir said, raising his glass.
“To vodka. Control toast.”
I raised the glass to my lips, suddenly determined to down it thanks to the liquid courage I already consumed.
But it wasn’t meant to be. Everyone downed their shot as I immediately spit it, all over the spread of food.
“Tastes like varnish!,” I exclaimed.
I took a sip of my wine to wash the burning sensation off my tongue. Uncle Vladimir poured the remainder of my shot into his glass.
“I’ll be damned if I’m going to let good vodka go to waste,” he said, putting my now empty glass back in front of me. Olya pushed it away.
“No more,” she warned.
I grabbed it back.
“Bobby, how do you like Ukraine?,” Uncle Vladimir asked me out of left field.
“I’ve never experienced anything like it,” I said, realizing I was now beyond buzzed.
“What does he mean?,” he asked.
“I am very happy I don’t live here.”
Olya kicked me in the shin.
Everyone awaited her translation.
“He said the food’s great,” she said in Russian.
“Spasibo,” Aunt Nina said.
“Pazhaluista,” I replied back.
“Let me tell you what I think of America,” Vladimir said. “America’s imperialist days are numbered. It’s time for a new superpower to emerge in its place.”
“Vladimir! Enough,” Aunt Nina commanded.
We continued eating. And that’s when my eyes noticed the plate of pickled herring, swimming in their own juice. Now it is important at this juncture to point out that the course of events that transpired over the remainder of the evening are foggy and fragmented in my mind. I am simply reporting based on descriptions given by eyewitness accounts.
As I continued to stare transfixed at the herring, I began to grin ear-to-ear like a fool, before mumbling for anyone within earshot:
“The fish are swimming.”
“No, Bobby. They’re not.”
Leonid and Uncle Vladimir laughed.
“Are you trying to humiliate him?,” Olya scolded.
“Don’t worry,” Uncle Vladimir said. “I’ve seen worse.”
Suddenly, I got up from my seat, shot glass in hand.
“Where are you going?”
“Bathroom,” I mumbled, incoherently.
“Are you going to be okay?”
I either didn’t hear her, or kept on walking. Only, I didn’t go to the bathroom. I snuck out the backdoor and walked around yard, amongst the poultry. But at some point, I must have kept walking.
Meanwhile, the following conversation took place back in the dining room.
“He went to the bathroom. I should probably go check on him.”
Olya got up. But I wasn’t in the bathroom. Nor anywhere else in the house where she looked.
She rushed back into the dining room, frantically proclaiming:
Everyone headed outside to look for me, but I was nowhere to be found. Not in the stall, nor in the chicken coop.
Olya and Karina walked down the road in search of me.
“There he is!” Karina said, pointing down the road, just as I drunkenly turned a corner.
“Bobby!,” Olya shouted down the road. But I kept on walking. Olya and Karina followed me. When they turned the corner, I was staggering back and forth across the road.
“Where are you going?,” Olya asked when her and Karina caught up with me.
“I drank too much.”
“When are you going to learn?
“No more alcohol.”
“But I’m in Ukraine.”
“You’re not Ukrainian.”
“I’m trying to build up my resistance.”
“It’s obviously not working. You don’t always have to drink just because it’s offered to you.”
“I’m just trying to fit in.”
“By wandering off by yourself like a little boy? C’mon, let’s go.”
Olya helped me up. As we walked back to her Uncle’s, this time, I was the one in the middle, asking to be swung back and forth, as we did to Karina earlier.
When we returned to the farmhouse, Uncle Vladimir immediately offered me another shot. Aunt Nina scolded him. Olya and Alexandra helped me sit back down at the table, at which point I stared blankly ahead, grinning like a fool.
Olya tried to get me drink from a glass of water to no avail.
“Drink this,” she commanded, putting the glass of bubbly water up to my lips. I refused to comply.
“I wanna sleep.”
“No sleep. Drink.”
“I already drank.”
“This is water!”
I finally gave in, dribbling most of it onto my chin and then onto my clothes.
“This is all your fault!,” Olya said, pointing to her uncle and father.
“It’s not our fault he can’t drink,” Vladimir retorted.
“He better get to bed,” Alexandra said. “It’s going to be a long night.”
Olya’s concern deepened as I continued staring and grinning into space.
“Should we take him to the hospital,” Olya suggested.
“No. I have a better idea,” Leonid said. “Remove his shoes.”
Olya knew immediately where he was getting at and removed my shoes.
“What are you doing?,” I garbled.
“Helping you,” she said, slipping off my shoes, before helping Leonid lift me out of my seat.
“Where are we going?”
“For a walk.”
“Yes, a walk.”
“For your own good. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
I lost my balance, nearly taking Olya and Leonid down with me.
“I’m floating,” I said, giggling like a little bitch as Olya and Leonid struggled to help me regain my balance.
“That was fun. But where are my shoes?”
“You’ll get your shoes later.”
“Where are you taking me?”
“Siberia,” Olya said, as they led me through the door.
“I don’t want to go to Siberia. What are you going to do to me?”
“Sober you up.”
“Am I drunk?”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Alexandra, Uncle Vladimir, Aunt Nina and Karina followed us outside into the humid night, as Olya and Leonid dragged me by the heels to the outdoor shower stall.
“Is that a gas chamber?,” I asked in concern.
“Yes. Now take off your clothes.”
Leonid opened the door and turned the shower on.
“I don’t want anyone to see me naked. Too skinny.”
“Then at least take off your shirt.“
“Fine,” Olya said, before helping Leonid shove me inside the stall, slamming the door shut. I screamed as the frigid water pierced through my clothing.
I tried to escape, but Leonid was pushing against the door. This was water-boarding, Ukrainian-style. I pounded on the door, begging to be let out, but it was no use. I was completely at their mercy.
“Olya, please let me out of here!”
I was no longer in control of my own destiny. And Olya was certainly not in control of her father.
After a few minutes, Leonid finally opened the door. I stumbled out, shivering like a wet dog. Aunt Nina handed me a towel to dry off, already feeling a little sober. Just when I assumed the worst was over, little did I know that the worst was about to begin.
Still dripping wet from my artic shower, Leonid and Olya led me by the arm and began walking me – barefoot – along the rocky, pothole-laden driveway, beginning my own personal Bataan death march, Gulag-style, as everyone else watched along the sidelines.
Leonid counted in broken English: “One! Two! One! Two!,” keeping me in step, as we marched back and forth along the broken path as everyone else watched
A nosy neighbor approached, muttering: “Ah, to be young again.”
“One! Two! One! Two!” commanded Leonid, desperately trying to keep my drunken rhythm in line. “One! Two! One! Two!,” he shouted, leaving me yearning for an occasional “Three! Four!”
As I struggled to keep on tempo, Olya joined in on the count. Before long, even I joined in, perhaps in a desperate attempt to distract myself from my sure to be bleeding feet.
Fifteen minutes into this drunken parade, I pleaded to know how much longer I would have to endure this.
“Until you’re sober.”
“You wouldn’t be going through this if you were fine.”
“I want my shoes.”
“When we’re done.”
“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.”
Olya proceeded to kick off her own shoes in a show of solidarity and support.
“Now we’re in it together.”
“Put your shoes back on!”
“Don’t worry about me.”
“Just do as we say … or else,” Olya said, in a thick accent.
Minutes later, Leonid brought us to a halt. By now, my feet were throbbing.
“Are we done?” I asked, hopeful.
“Not quite,” Olya replied.
And just like that, Leonid was behind me, pushing down on my shoulders, forcing me to do squats. I think I had done squats just once in my lifetime. But not drunk.
“One! Two! One! Two!”
Up and down I went. This went on for quite awhile, with the worst yet still to come.
Leonid demonstrated what the next step in his sobering recovery program was by pretending to stick his fingers down his throat. This was what I was expected to do to myself.
I looked at Olya in desperation, who was now standing with her mother.
“You gotta vomit,” she stated ever so matter-of-factly.”
“If you don’t, you’re going to waste our last few days together with the worst hangover of your life.”
I reflected on this and realized she was probably right. So I attempted to do what I had to do and feebly attempted to stick a finger down my throat. I dry heaved, but nothing came up. Leonid then grabbed my hand and proceeded to “help” me stick my finger further down my throat. Still nothing.
“This is inhumane,” I pleaded, nearly in tears. “No man should have to do endure this.”
“You’ll thank us later,” Olya said. “Trust me. And we’ll walk all night if we have to.”
Leonid decided to lead me up and down the path to destruction once again.
“One! Two! One! Two!”
“I gotta pee,” I said, grasping for any excuse to end this torture.
At Olya’s request, Leonid led me behind a tree and helped hold me up so I can piss. When I was fully drained, Leonid forced me to do more squats.
Afterward, it felt as though my knees were about to burst open, Leonid held up three fingers and aimed them towards his mouth. I shook my head in protest. This only prompted him to grab me by the wrist, prying open three of my fingers from my fist. As he tried with all his might to shove them down my mouth, I shouted for Olya.
“I’m over here, Sweetie,” she yelled.
“He’s trying to kill me!”
“He’s not trying to kill you. He’s trying to help you.”
I was no longer convinced. No longer able to resist, Leonid finally succeeded in shoving my fingers down my throat. One hasn’t truly lived until a grown man jams 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 like a baby after a feeding.
“There, I threw up.”
“That wasn’t throw up.”
“What do you mean it wasn’t throw up? Something was thrown up. Didn’t you see it?”
“Just keep trying.”
“No. I refuse to be tortured any longer.”
But my pleas went ignored, as Leonid continued marching me back and forth.
“This is the most humiliating night of my life!,” I screamed out into the night.
“Be thankful you’re drunk. Remember, you’re in good hands.” I wasn’t too sure about that.
“This is torture!”
“This is not torture.”
“I’m walking barefoot on rough terrain and a man is forcing his hand down my throat. How is that not torture?”
“Okay, okay,” Olya said, before heading inside.
“Where are you going?” I pleaded to deaf ears.
“One! Two! One! Two!”
“Olya! … Olya!!!!,” I shouted.
Moments later, she returned. With my shoes.
“I’m here. And so are your shoes,” she said, bringing them to me.
I reached for them, but then she pulled them back.
“Not until you vomit.”
“I told you. I already vomited. What else do you want from me?”
“That wasn’t vomit.”
“Please, beg your dad to stop. I’m fine. I’m completely sober.
“Just trust us. We’re professionals.”
“Please. This is so embarrassing.”
“You have nothing to be ashamed of. I’m going to sit down now. You’re doing fine. And when you vomit, I promise to give you your shoes.”
Olya rejoined the rest of her family, reveling in the festivities at hand. Aside from Olya, only Alexandra showed genuine concern.
“I’m sorry!” I blurted out, as Leonid continued marching me along the path.
“Why are you sorry?”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry—
“You don’t have to be sorry.”
“If I vomit, will this really be all over?”
“Okay. Okay. I’ll vomit.”
“He said he’ll vomit!,” Olya said, in Russian.
Leonid brought me to halt. Knowing what I had to do, I shoved three or fingers down my throat as everyone watched in eager anticipation. And then I threw up. At first I thought I was throwing up blood. But then I realized it was just borsch.
“Was that so bad?,” Olya asked, completely serious. All I could do was stare down at my red vomit. And with that, we headed inside for some tea.
Once inside, Olya cleaned and bandaged my bloody feet, before tucking me into bed, surrounded by the Karina’s stuffed Chernobyl victims.
“Stay with me,” I begged.
“You know I can’t do that,” she said, before kissing me gently on the forehead before turning off the light and leaving the room.
I awoke at the butt crack of dawn in a state of confusion to the sound of a rooster crowing. As it continued crowing, I looked out the window in an effort to locate it. And there he was, sitting on a fence just as I would have expected. I then fell back to sleep.
Hours later, I awoke to a giggling Karina standing over me, along with Olya.
“Kuck-a-ree-kuu!,” Olya said, which turns out to be the Russian translation of a rooster. Karina snapped a picture of me, then said something in Russian. Olya translated.
“She said you have needles.”
“Whiskers. How’s your head?”
“I told you so.”
“Remember last night?”
“What happened last night? And why are my feet bandaged?”
“You’re lucky nobody speaks English.”
Olya explained what happened. I would have preferred to remain clueless.
“It happens to the best of us.”
“How do you think my dad learned about this method? He learned from his father-in-law.”
I laughed as I reflected on this.
“You do realize you’re truly Ukrainian now?,” Olya pointed out.
“I thought I feel a little different.”
“We almost took you to the hospital. I don’t think I ever saw somebody that drunk.”
“I wasn’t drunk.”
Olya and Karina burst into laughter.
“What time is it?”
I slowly crawled out of bed. Meanwhile, Leonid and Uncle Vladimir continued on with their tournament. Uncle Vladimir held out his bottle of vodka.
“Bobby, chut-chut?,” he said, laughing.
“Nyet spasibio,” I said, suddenly feeling ill. “It’s probably not a good idea.”
“Vodka is always a good idea,” Uncle Vladimir said.
We headed outside to brush our teeth. As we walked along the driveway, flashbacks from the night before raced through my memory like a Vietnam Vet at a fireworks show. And then I noticed the shower stall.
“Look familiar?,” Olya asked.
Another brief glimpse from the night before raced across my memory, like something long submerged in ice, but now beginning to thaw. Olya laughed as recognition filled my face.
We then passed a clothesline, where my underwear and pants were blowing in the wind.
“My underwear,” I said in a slight state of shock.
Suddenly, a loud, manly shout emerged from somewhere inside, followed by a painful moan.
We rushed inside where Leonid was holding the vacuum cleaner over his head like a trophy.
“I take it he won?”
“Thank God,” Olya said, “This guarantees we’ll be leaving today.” Never before had the outcome of a chess match have any bearing on my life.
Leonid and Uncle Vladimir loaded up the trunk with whole watermelons. Last, but not least, they loaded the vacuum cleaner. Vladimir gently laid his hand upon it one last time before Leonid closed the trunk.
Just before we got into the car, Uncle Vladimir handed Leonid a jar of honey, which looked as though it belonged to Winnie the Pooh. Leonid proudly showed it off to me.
“Bobby, I love honey!”
As I shook Uncle Vladimir’s hand, he took my hand into both of his, looked me squarely in the eyes and said: “Allow me to recite a poem I wrote for occasions such as this.” As he recited the poem, he held onto my hand.
They’re always the same.
When we part.
Time turns memories into dreams.
When we part.
Bright joy turns to burning tears.
When we part.
No matter how many times we face it.
When we part. It’s always like the first time.
When we part. Piercing the heart.
When Uncle Vladimir was done reciting his poem, he embraced me as though I was a long-lost family member that he was about to lose once again.
He then proclaimed, “For ever more, this driveway will be known as Bob’s path.”
Everyone laughed, appreciated the return to levity.
“May God always light your path,” he added.
“Spasibo,” I said in return, genuinely touched by the sincerity of his goodbye and realizing that another, more painful goodbye was less than a week away.
As we drove away into the setting sun, we waved out the back window until Uncle Vladimir and his family disappeared over the horizon.
Ukrainian outhouse by Bobby Fox: http://yareah.com/?p=1277
Bobby Fox web: http://www.foxplots.com