thunder suddenly rumbled above me and the woman I was talking to. But not a single drop fell from the sky. The thunder turned out to be the first chords of a song I didn’t know before. After the thunder the song poured out from the loudspeakers placed in the street. Two rectangular black boxes encased in moss-like cloth transmitted the voices of alien civilizations from their radio-mouths: Soviet, Russian, and American songs.

We were standing on the former Karl Marx Avenue in Dnipro. We met one another not so long ago, though long enough to understand that it would be difficult for us to be around each other. I came here to see Andrea, whom I hadn’t heard from for some time, and she was ready to talk about anything except the very reason we were meeting up. Last week Andrea claimed to know a certain secret about the war, its original cause no less, but when we met she behaved as if she had forgotten about her phone call.

A broad and unfamiliar avenue stretched before us. To the right a couple of carousels with bright plastic seats went round and round to the sound of a drumroll. The rotating mechanisms carried soft, yielding children’s bodies forward and in a circle; the children laughed and laughed. Maybe the whole trip was pointless. Standing next to Andrea I often tried to imagine what would have happened if I had been someone else. If, instead of going from town to town with a list of questions, I myself were the paragon, the example, the processed voice illustrating a specific story. But my imagination brought me back to a vacuum where there was nothing, not one point of reference. More and more often I would ask myself during interviews: Where is my listener? Who is he? His hearing fails; he alternates between feelings of horror, hope, and emptiness; he is smothered by the fear that—as he now realizes—it’s not possible to say anything about anything.

I wasn’t able to focus, but Andrea kept talking, having decided that the time had come for flashy editorializing about Ukraine. At first she sprinkled declarations of love, assuring me that she was in love with the Ukrainian character, but also said, at the same time, that Ukraine is, as she put it, “the land of residual phenomena.” Everything noteworthy, significant, and living escapes from Ukraine, so she said, and only the residue remains: restless substances full of longing that by chance found themselves in demand nowhere else, abandoned by the rest of the world. She kept pointing to herself and saying: I am a microsubstance.

“Only the smallest particles can survive in Ukraine, a country that leaves its inhabitants very little room for any maneuvering in its practice of humongous fakery and high-stakes play. The drive for freedom is a collective imitation. Maidan, the Revolution of Dignity, the Orange Revolution—each a skillfully staged spectacle. These events weren’t real protests, never mind revolutions. They were illusions, the dreams of exhausted people. Exhausted by Europe, by Ukraine, by the memory of the Soviet Union, by the very thought of having to lead an inconspicuous meager life among worlds gaping to swallow them.

“Our real flag,” she explained,” is the spot left on the wall by the hammer and sickle. Not the yellow-blue flag, but a white, empty flag showing only the shadows of the hammer and sickle, and of the wheat stalks tied with a red bandage, or else just the line dividing the yellow and the blue a thin, barely discernible straight line.

“Factories and industrialization cost my parents’ parents their lives. But there’s no trace left of that industrialization today. We don’t have anywhere to work, but it’s silly to sigh about it—there’s no way we can work the way they used to work, anyway.”

It’s impossible to follow Andrea: she makes continuous assertions, anxiously swerving from one idea to the next, demanding that everything be recorded and documented exactly, but a minute later she looks over her shoulder and asks me to cross out this or that thought.

“Everything I say—somebody will take note of it. They kept an eye on my parents, although it was more like a half an eye, because my parents were considered the right sort of people, worker class. Both of them were very naive, listened to forbidden radio stations for hours, and thought they knew the world inside and out. I’m completely defenseless next to you. You might be at the employ of Western secret services; you might be an agent, and anyway they could be tailing us and my words could recoil and hurt me badly.”

She was glancing around with a histrionic fear while I stupidly desired to justify myself, to explain to Andrea whose side I am on.

It’s true, Andrea did ask me several times, as if playing a children’s game, “Whose side are you on?” There are lots of sides—pick any one. Russia is waging war against Ukraine. Ukraine is waging war against an internal enemy. We are waging war against those who don’t understand us. People say that Europe is also waging some kind of war here.

If the story of this meeting does wind up in my book, it will be its most convoluted story—perhaps the one that will be described as the “worst” story. Every dust particle, thingamajig, object, rainwater pipe, children’s amusement ride on the avenue must have had a clearer idea of what was going on than I did. What a pointless day.

Andrea asked me to refrain at all costs from describing her appearance, to do everything I could to make her unrecognizable from my description—it would help her to tell me things she wouldn’t entrust to anyone else. She wasn’t the first person to come to me with this request. But that day, at that moment, I thought that Andrea hid herself from the eyes of others because of excessive modesty. Gradually she adopted the habit of repeating: “How can I possibly matter? Because I don’t matter at all. People like me live an inconspicuous life and wilt after a short blooming period, like lilacs.” She said that she compared herself to lilac flowers because she used to be so gorgeous that she would avoid looking at herself in the mirror.

“At least this is why it’s better for you and me if no one knows about me. I could be called to account, couldn’t I? But is there anything I can change? Not only can I not change anything, I don’t dare to. You’re taking my words down, you must be counting on something. Maybe a tearjerker about how we’re all full of hope for a new future, or how the country that we loved became our prison. We’re left to eke out a life in small towns, to die in plundered hospitals, in dirty public wards, or in empty little apartments where there’s no hot water for months and the lights go out at night. Someone will want to hear about us, and then you will be the one invited to a grand festive table, you will be the one they’ll raise a toast to.

“That’s when you’ll remember me, how I summoned you to Dnipro to entrust you with a secret, but then I didn’t dare tell you anything. Believe me, not out of duplicity or malice, but out of good old fear. An instinctive, animal fear having to do with being recognized, having my features identified, that they will laugh at me, at best, and then they will mock me. Tell me, is that naive? Is that funny or unsophisticated?

“I’m nobody, and I understand that perfectly well. But if you’re going to write about me anyway, change everything: name, hair color, or better yet don’t mention my appearance at all. Friends and acquaintances could easily recognize me by certain signs, or by things you omit.

“When the soldiers arrived, we didn’t know what army they were from, we didn’t even know from what direction and why they had come. We lived on the outskirts of the village. I stepped out of the house to help my neighbor. A soldier was standing in front of me. He asked me for water, I led him to the well. I was afraid to look him in the eye. I was walking with my head down, but he still touched my shoulder with his hand several times. Our neighbor’s daughter had come to see her parents during her vacation: She was screaming, I heard her calling for me, but for some reason I couldn’t run to her rescue. With my hands trembling I turned the wheel of the well, gave him some water to drink. He asked if I knew where they were from, what army, whose side they were fighting on. I didn’t know or understand anything. I’m over thirty, but I couldn’t understand.”

Suddenly she was interrupted by the announcer’s voice. The city radio station reported through the loudspeakers: “Today the church of the Renaissance in the city of Dnipro offers a day of prayer for the cure of chronic diseases. And featured later tonight—the long-awaited prayer for the breaking of personal curses! All in the run-up to tomorrow’s holiday ministry talk: ’You’re Destined for Happiness, Girl!’”

Andrea immediately began persuading me to go to church with her. For a long time, she said, she hadn’t been able to find peace, so she had asked me to come meet her. But now that she was talking to a complete stranger who has not lived through anything, she said, she feels better and is finally ready to take care of her soul. Especially since she personally knows a priest without a family. “He is handsome,” said Andrea, “and he’s a man with a dark past—he’s very attractive.

“They say he’s from the underground,” added Andrea, slightly lowering her voice.

But we didn’t go to church.

For a while we were trying to discuss the incident with the soldier but it was hopeless. We decided to stop by a late-night café.

In the morning we woke up in the same bed.