Brighton Beach

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The ocean, along the Belt Parkway, glitters in the cold sun. The open, maritime landscape, so unexpected after leaving Manhattan’s thick forest of buildings, always comes as a shock to me, as though it were inconceivable that nature could exist in such close proximity to concrete. Even with the sunglasses my eyes adjust with difficulty to the blinding light. At first, the ocean evokes a field of snow, then, briefly, the Mediterranean Coast along Autoroute du Soleil going east from Cannes. Then it turns into the Black Sea, and at each exit I pass — Coney Island, Kings Highway and finally Brighton Beach — I substitute the names of port cities in Crimea — Sebastopol, Kerch, Yalta.


Yuri is waiting for me at the door of his building, dressed in a pair of brown slacks and lace-up shoes, and a long-sleeved tan polo shirt. We take the elevator to the fifth floor, to an apartment he shares with a computer programmer from Minsk who’s never there. A narrow bed covered with a sleeping bag, a table stacked with cardboard boxes up to the ceiling, from which hangs a length of blue felt, a Sony TV perched high on a dresser, a metal-frame couch caving in on one side, a glass coffee table cluttered with paper, shelves crammed with Russian dolls. With its big picture window overlooking the ocean, his room gives me an exciting feeling of displacement. I drop my bag on the floor and lean out the window. The deserted beach looks like it has floated across several oceans and clamped itself to this bit of the Eastern Seaboard.
    “You bring bathing suit?”
    “What?” I turn to face him. “The ocean is too cold!”
    He looks disappointed. But I’ve brought my gym clothes, and I go to the bathroom to change. When I come out, he’s got sweatpants on, a T-shirt and a windbreaker. We jog side by side like two comrades into the sun, already angling west, passing the jetties made of cement blocks and rocks. The brisk ocean air fills my lungs in great, exhilarating waves. But after a while I start slowing down. He turns back to me and yells, “Come on, come on, you’re in good shape.” I raise my arm to signal that he should run ahead of me. When I catch up with him he’s standing on a rock, dark silhouette against the sun, moving his arms and legs erratically to make fun of my running style.
    “So, ready for swim?”
    “No way! It’s March. I hate cold water, I told you.”
    “Is nothing. In Russia, we used to break ice in frozen sea, and when we came out we drank vodka to warm up.”
    Still whirling his arms around, he looks like a Norse god, surveying his land and ocean. “Come on!”
    Afraid to pass for a sissy, I untie my sneakers, roll my pants up and jump in and out of the icy waves. Yuri squeals with a little boy’s delight when he notices my lavender toenails. Then he strips down to his bathing suit, a tight Speedo like men used to wear in France before boxers and swimming trunks came back in style, and carefully folds his clothes on the rock. He’s got the body of a swimmer, long thighs and almost grotesquely overdeveloped shoulders that look more at ease naked than ensconced in street clothes. I watch him dive in and swiftly move to the open sea in fast, powerful strokes, then I walk back to the rock where he’s left his jacket, slip it on to keep warm and watch his head bob up and down, way out, like a buoy. We are alone on the beach, as far as the eye can see.
    When he emerges out of the ocean, slapping his sides to stay warm, and complaining that his towel has sand on it, I imagine him as a husband, berating me for having neglected to keep an eye on the towel and letting it drop off the rock. But he is no husband, and I watch him with an anthropologist’s avid curiosity. He shakes the towel, frowns, makes sure all traces of sand have been abolished, then rubs his back and thighs.
    I offer him his jacket, but he refuses and throws the towel over his shoulder. “I’ve spent two years in Russian army. Is little rougher than this. I’d like to see those wimpy Americans, see if they could survive if there’s war on U.S. territory.” As he walks tall and proud by my side in his thin T-shirt, his white skin not even mottled

He strips down to his bathing suit, a tight Speedo like men used to wear in France before boxers and swimming trunks came back into style.

with goose bumps, I wonder if the only way to withstand the unavoidable humiliations of immigration is to convince yourself that you are more of a man than the Americans, spoiled, like Alexander’s soldiers on Capri, by their easy life.

On the coffee table he’s laid out a tin of gleaming black caviar, a jar of butter, black bread and a chilled bottle of vodka. He splashes black-currant juice in my glass of vodka and shows me how to drink it, bottoms up, head tilted back. The vodka shoots like molten lava down my stomach. He nods with approval, then lathers a thick coat of butter on a piece of bread, and an even thicker coat of caviar and hands it to me, waiting for my reaction, while I sink my teeth into it.
    “You like?”
    The briny taste of the fish eggs, softened by the butter, dissolves into my mouth, chased by a new shot of vodka. Yuri the Norse God is the hospitable stranger who picked me up while I was traveling on a foreign road, along the Baltic Sea. Behind us, background shot of the ocean rolling pewter and copper in the sunset, and on the soundtrack, the raucous voice — mournful, but powerfully moving, of a singer whose name I don’t catch, and whose black-and-white poster hangs on the wall, “My hero.”
    “Yes. It’s delicious.”
    He leans against the back of the couch, stretching his long legs under the table.
    “In Moscow,” he says, “it was crazy, in the ’80s, when everything was falling apart." He sighs, nostalgic over the memories. The pyramid schemes he got involved in to survive, the vodka lines in the snow, the motorcycle he had rigged and his accident, the engine exploding, burning the inside of his thighs, his knee cap busted — he rolls up his pants and shows me the scar, a thick flap of skin curling around the knee — and at the army, scabies, little parasites under skin, laying eggs, you know? The bullying, beat up by five guys the night he arrived. “I’m strong, but I couldn’t defend myself against five.” Each detail punctuated by a new shot of vodka bottoms up.







    “Want more?”
    I shake my head. The liquor is still burning inside me.
    “I’m boring you?” His eyes unsure, searching mine.
    “No. Not at all. On the contrary. Go on.”
    Seeing how riveted I am, and eager to establish his credentials as a wild, oversexed outlaw, he launches into tales of his Russian parties. I admire his choice of details. Moonshine vodka. Two chicks for ten guys. Bottlenecks crashed against the wall because they couldn’t be bothered to unscrew them. Girls’ underwear hanging from the chandelier (unexpectedly baroque note, that chandelier). I have a vivid image of him standing in the middle of a cavernous ballroom, grabbing a woman by the crotch with his thick hands, lifting her like a bird and impaling her right on the spot, kneading her with both fists, ramming into her till she erupts into an orgasmic scream. A cheesy porn scene, but set in Moscow unhinged by Perestroika, it takes on a forbidding, almost medieval allure.
    He grabs me by the waist and sits me on his lap. He shoves his hand between my legs and probes me with his thumb, pops it in and out. Like with that first shot of vodka bottoms up, an intense burn zaps through my body. He looks down at my naked crotch, pulls my pants all the way to my knees and sticks his thumb back in. All the time peering into my eyes, with the same watchful expression he had when I was tasting the caviar, as if I were the female of a strange species he has never encountered before.
    “You like if I’m rough?”
    “Not too rough.”
    “But a little, yes?”
    There’s a term, I vaguely remember, for the Russian cavalry sweeping down to fight the Tatar invaders and raping every girl in their path without losing a breath. Cossacks? Or is it Hussards? No, the Hussards might have been Hungarians, renowned for their bold and reckless fighting, but never mind. It’s all happening in the

A cheesy porn scene, but set in Moscow unhinged by Perestroika, it takes on a forbidding, almost medieval allure.

far eastern end of Europe at the edge of Asia, deep into the steppes where moujiks bang their fists on kitchen tables demanding bread and potatoes, and Cossacks — or whoever they are — hitch up women’s skirts and fuck them standing up against a wall. Yuri, whose sexual imagination obviously leans in that direction, has tapped right into this fantasy, and is hurrying to make it come true.
    I’m lying across the couch, my bra and tank top pushed up under my arms, my pants hanging on the arm of the couch, my naked legs spread open, my panties dangling from one of my ankles (flash of underwear dangling from the chandelier), and he’s taken off his pants and his dick sticks out of its nest of pale blonde pubic hair, red and imperious. He roughly gets me ready with two fingers of one hand while whipping out a condom with his free hand, and, kneeling on either side of me, folds my legs against his chest and takes me straight up till I scream. No finesse, but who needs finesse when hunger is so ferocious.
    He unfolds my legs from under him and tosses them on his shoulders, one at a time, and this new posture allows him to penetrate so far in I moan in pain. He coaxes me like a stubborn child. “Relax, let yourself go. Don’t you know pleasure comes past pain? It’s like yoga.” The rest is a jumbled montage of images, ending with this closeup: I suck on his mouth, on his tongue so savagely I taste blood, and I rock under him, creased like an origami paper girl, pliable and docile, yielding to the sure hand of a master until my flesh melts and abandons all resistance. My screams are the signal he’s been waiting for; a long, deep wave takes us over. My legs thrown on the arm of the couch, limp like those of a rubber doll, I can’t stop laughing.
    “What’s so funny?” He pulls out of me, making a face as he lets the condom drop to the ground. He slips a playful finger into me and teases me with it. “You were well fucked. That’s why you’re laughing. That’s how you should always be fucked.”
    And we both erupt into big, enormous waves that leave us breathless.

In the gray, dirty light of dawn, my outstretched arm, palm open, with the thin beaded bracelet tied on my wrist, looks detached from me, a limb abandoned on the twisted sheet. I doze off while Yuri clears the table and puts the food away, but his hoots of laughter wake me up later from a deep sleep. He is sitting on the couch watching Mr. Bean — I recognize the British accent and the silly jokes from the videotapes my mother brings us from Europe — and I sit down next to him. Mr. Bean wriggles out of his little blue car and then tries to wriggle out of his pants to change into his bathing suit, hiding behind a beach towel, until he realizes the man sitting a couple of feet away from him is blind. HaHaHa! I am in no mood for Mr. Bean, and I disappear into the bathroom to brush my teeth. When I come out Yuri is bent over my clothes, picking them one by one and studying the labels stitched on each one.
    “What are you doing?”
    He straightens up and quickly puts the clothes back.
    Before I leave we go and buy two cups of coffee on Ocean Parkway and carry them back to a bench by the ocean. Couples still dressed for winter weather, the women in fur coats and hats, and the men in heavy overcoats, stroll, arm in arm, on the boardwalk, which looks, in the pale sun, with its smoky colors, like a sepia photograph of the past century.
    “Does the shore here look anything like the Baltic Sea? Or like the Black Sea?”
    He shrugs. “I don’t know, but I’d like to buy house on New Jersey shore one day, and Mercedes.” He sets his cup of coffee on the bench between us and opens his hands a foot apart.
    “The extra-long one. You know which one?”
    I shake my head.
    “And then one day, maybe I’ll get married and have kids. But first I have to get legal status. I know Russian woman. She has U.S. citizenship. I pay her $6,000. I move in with her and get married so that I can have papers.”
    Ah, yes. A green card and a family. The immigrant’s dream. It was my dream too. I never thought about what would happen after it would have come true. That I would find myself like a sleepwalker, my arms stretched ahead of me to feel my way out of the darkness.



©2007 Catherine Texier and

Catherine Texier is the author of four novels, ChloĆ© l’Atlantique, Panic Blood, Love Me Tender and Victorine, and a memoir, Breakup. She was also coeditor of the literary magazine Between C and D. Her work has been translated into ten languages. She lives in New York City.