We felt every inch of the giant pothole on the main road back to Rivne, as the marshrutka jumped, jolted, shuttered and then righted itself; several kilometers later the driver pulled over onto the side of the road. The interval was long enough for us to have forgotten about the pothole and so instead we silently cursed the little boy whose mother had already stopped the bus twice for his potty breaks in the trees. But, when the driver pulled over, and the testosterone exodus commenced—with almost all of the men shuffling out together into the frigid night—we knew this was no mere bathroom stop.
You have probably guessed from the beginning that all of this ado was because of a flat tire, but I had no idea why we had stopped. Really. The signs did not at all point to anything being seriously wrong with the bus, and there was no consternation, only a bit of good-natured frustration, as the merry men piled out, giddy in their masculinity and the chance for an exhibition, the whole lot of them crowding around the problem tire, smoking in long drags, consorting with the driver over the best methods and strategies. Actually, I don’t know exactly if that’s what happened, I didn’t actually see it for myself, but I imagined it this way when they started to jack up the bus with me still sitting inside with the women and children and Charley the Boxer—no, not the dog breed…Charley is actually an amateur boxer, in addition to being a Peace Corps volunteer. While I contemplated whether and in what exact circumstances a writer ever really deserves to strut and crow, or if there is really a place for him crowding around with the other men—mechanics now, all of them—Charley sat beside me fidgeting, wondering if we should go out and “help”, asking me if we should go out and help, feeling bad about not being out there “helping”. I said that it only takes one man, two tops, to change a tire, but he was already climbing over me and out into the cold dark by that point.
The overhead movie, all in Russian, showed a giant naked man wrestling with a smaller naked man, holding the smaller man over his shoulder and squeezing. Sitting there with only the women and the children, I too went though Charley’s progression, though decidedly more slowly and deliberately. I was trying to find reasons not to go out there, pondering gender roles, and social equality, and general logic—when a man yelled at all of us still inside through the open front passenger door, something something something in Russian, which I understood even less than the film. I assumed however that it was some kind of order to get out of the bus because the jack wouldn’t work with all of the extra weight; this seemed to me like it would have been a logical first step rather than a last-ditch seventh step. I also thought I heard a chastising undertone in the man’s voice, and because I generally assume that all Ukrainian yelling within my earshot has something to do with me (I’m either paranoid or egotistical that way, I guess) I stood up and made my way toward the side door. However, it turns out, I had very much misunderstood the man’s command, and as soon as I opened the door, he screamed at me to sit back down and not move until the men with the jack were done. An older woman stuck up for me, saying, “He doesn’t understand” on my behalf. This was true in the most literal sense, but my pride knew enough to be wounded and I consoled myself with the thought that I really never wanted to be out there anyway, and I would have been worthless out there in the cold, and it was so warm on the bus—until a different man opened the same door I had only moments before been driven away from and ordered everyone without children off of the bus.
Outside, every man had found a role: Charley held a dim light up to the broken jack that two men were scratching their heads over, kicking and poking at it from time to time with their boots; two others were evidently the designated smokers/commentators for the group, and another stood at the side of the road trying to flag down a car—any car with a working jack—with another dim flashlight. My role was as yet undetermined, but the clouds parted suddenly as I remembered that I had a good, bright flashlight attached to my keys; I gave it to Charley.
Eventually, two cars pulled over at almost the same moment, one in the back and the other up front. The smokers turned into emissaries and hustled off in both directions. With a working jack (or two) and enough light to really see, the tire change was quick enough work—though definitely not up to Indianapolis standards—and with everyone back inside, the bus was off once again. Still, all was not the same as before the incident: the driver changed the movie because so much had already been missed by the heroes during their noble service. And, I realized that I had lived out the answer to my own question about the writer’s place among other men—both then and now again, I am the bringer of light…maybe not quite as cool as “the Boxer” or the “flagger-downer”, but I’ll accept it graciously nonetheless.
I. Am. SPARTACUS!!! (…articus…articus…)