Andrey Gritsman


The traffic buildup was getting thicker on the approaches to the border toll. The vast parking lots, which reminded him of the airports, were almost completely filled with GMs, Fords, and small trucks. Sergei, who lived most of his years in the United States in large tristate areas, was not used to seeing such a monotony of the license plates—all California, two or three wandered from Oregon and Nevada.

The border patrol cars were dormantly parked on the sideways in the dense, lustrous, dusty bushes. Border guards looked bony, muscular, and somewhat older, in tightly-fit gear, a different breed from the town cops. The policemen from various units and the Army guys in fatigues formed a human barrier across the pedestrian passageway to the Mexican side. They did not bother Sergei, although eyed him fleetingly. A couple of shapely young female officers talked sprightly with the tall fellows from the U.S. Marshals’ office and were especially keen on unmistakably sequestering small groups of particularly rowdy teenagers already stoned and tipsy. They clustered them by the steel fence and then sent them back out of the border zone.

Middle-class Mexican families were returning with children, little dark-haired kids tired and sleeping on their father’s shoulders. The smell of burning chestnuts and the flickering lights of the city’s inferno in the valley were mixed in the night air with a musty odor of unexplained danger, excitement, exhaust fumes, and the breath of dry chaparrals.

The dark, polluted square on the other side reminded Sergei of the North Caucasian towns in Southern Russia, railroad and bus stations, where dirt and trash on the ground never gets really frozen, dogs always have something to do, and the mix of dust, warm stones, and rotten fruit and vegetables always brings back some primordial Mediterranean memory.

The fare was five U.S. dollars to downtown, Avenida Revolucion, and the mustached cabby who spoke passable English, one of about 30 who mobbed Sergei on the sidewalk, was firm on his price. As much as the “Mediterranean types” could be firm on the price, Sergei thought. He was in the mood to hit the town, to escape for a few hours from the regimented, formalized routine of the hard-earned, middle-class niche. A slight, but distinct feeling of danger, double mescal with squeezed lime and a coalescence of smells and noises different from the usual suburban life, coagulated into a sexual inkling.

Even after receiving his $6 ($1) tip, the Mexican driver would not let Sergei go and was offering him “the best girl in town,” the pot, roasted nuts, and the most fun place. Cabby followed him into the large, gloomy, empty striptease establishment, abandoning his cab in the middle of the street, and stood by him in the dark room while Sergei was having his first beer and a cigarette. The driver, turned into a chief pimp, stopped the music by waving and summoning the strip “girl,” probably about 40, who looked 55, from the lit stage, and proposed to arrange the deal right there and right then. Much to Sergei’s surprise, she actually stopped dancing and got ready to come down, as Sergei walked out and went down the street maneuvering between the sticky food stands, beggars, and his unsureness of the situation.

It was getting late; he was alone with his life and with all his close ones in his heart. Missing them and being in his middle age, still undecided who he really was and where he was to go.

The place to go materialized from around the corner on the side street. The place was called “Silvia” and was packed mainly with short, peasant-type, young Mexicans and also with a few American guys sitting on the narrow wooden benches, hugging their ladies. Several couples were dancing in the center. Amazingly, it reminded him of the school dance, except here one could choose the partner girl and take her away to a next-door hotel with long corridors lined by the small, boxed rooms, which reeked of sweat and cheap floor cleaner.

At the bar they did not serve margaritas. It turned out to be a gringo drink and junior bartender, barely speaking any English, had not even heard of it. Instead they served 12 brands of tequila from large bottles turned upside down hanging above the counter. Tequila was served double, with the lime, immediately making some big flower to blossom in one’s mind. When Sergei opened his eyes, the big flower materialized into a tall, surprisingly blonde woman. She carried a small but distinct scar running across her lower lip and had attractive bony and slightly coarse facial features. She ordered some non-alcoholic fruit drink with a pompous name in Spanish that cost $8. That was a deal with the owner, she explained. Room and board in the nearby dump cost $15 a day (sharing a room with a girlfriend), but for the drink orders they were getting special coupons from the bartender, $5 value.

She had broad hips, a high-positioned ass, and some traceable sense of humor, percolating even through the dense language barrier. She danced well, like most of the Latino girls working in the establishment, naturally, not thinking, just moving, and even under the circumstances, merely enjoying the music. It was some sweetish, but sad Latin American tune.

To his surprise, she wanted to dance a little more in the room, while slowly undressing. “You smell well,” and, “You are different!” was her whispering conclusion. Amazingly for a prostitute, she was still able to “make love.” Even after her warning not to kiss and not to insert fingers into any orifices, information delivered for the most part in Spanish, he could sense that he actually was liked. That was she who was turning a session into a date. What was it: liking her work, longing for love? Who the hell knows what her life was like back on the outskirts of Mexico City where she was from. She was periodically flying four hours to work in this border town.

Some unknown channel opened for Sergei that night, perhaps this wordless chemistry between two beings, falling into a complete trust with each other, at least for the time of melting into each other. He totally lost his annoying ability to analyze, swept up by this unexpected gift of the moment. Later, he figured, she probably was still able to enjoy sex as it is, based on the immediate chemistry, like animals, like teenagers, without psychological layers of social conditioning and consciousness, that negated the primal sexuality in many middle-class American women he was used to dealing with.

The blinds were down, both on the street window and on the window looking out to the narrow, dark hallway. The guard cleaner with a broom was already yelling irritably from outside, apparently ordering her to get out, their time was up. She was lying on her stomach; her head slightly turned back, eyes floating. She came twice, that startled him even more, her mouth was half open, smelling of cinnamon, mint, and female saliva, the smells of a girl raised on something unknown to him: herbs, vegetables, and Indian fairy tales. She uttered something to the guard sounding like, “Screw off, give me another 10 minutes.” I like the guy (he hoped) she was saying.

There was only one towel given to them at the front desk by a businesslike, friendly, oily-haired concierge. But a Mexican version of the cheap motel “Ivory” soap was put on the sink in the tiny shower room. They took a shower together, touching each other, hurrying, but with some mutual comfortable agreement, like people who had lived together for a while. He did not want to leave that dubiously-clean box room, this woman, trapped with him there, with whom they could barely understand half of what each other was saying.

They came down to the bar, and he ordered another round. It was time to leave. In reality, the time to make an effort to detach himself and just go. As he grew older he painstakingly developed that ability to turn around and leave. Leave people, if he had to, or whole periods of his life.

He went next door to a small joint opened all night. While waiting for his fajitas and listening to a heartbreaking Manuel Santos song on the jukebox, he fell into the warmest conversation with an incidental stranger, local guy, obviously habitual to the place, a friend or relative. He told his whole life story and commented on the girls coming to town to make money. These girls were supporting large families, sometimes including husbands, in far away provinces. Going to the church. Getting pregnant. Leaving the babies to be taken care of by young grandmothers. Returning to Tijuana, back to the pool.

The hit tune by Santos was over and Sergei headed back to “Silvia.” His sweetheart was still, or respectively, already, available, and they met as two lovebirds, touching each other, kissing each other’s ears. She even sat on his lap, drinking her fifth special bonus beverage decked with pink garland around the glass.

That night they went back to the hotel two more times. Sergei felt that he could stay with her for a long time. Or come back again and again, until this would eventually end, like everything else ends. They grew used to each other in a matter of two or three hours. She did not possess that professional ability of the hired women to measure a client contemptuously: money, tipping, sweat, smell, idiotically expressed intention to marry at the end of the allotted and paid for hour, craving for the anal orifice, vague despair, hidden cruelty—this strange mix of traits, dropped by the strangers, like condoms, in these despondent rooms.

She kept saying, “You are a good laver,” with her beautiful, rough accent, not quite traceably Mexican, but with some remote vanishing ingredient. She obviously was not a product of the local mountainous inbreeding of some tribe, he thought. There was some hereditary line going all the way back to medieval Europe, not a noble, of course, but still showing some flickering of the light—sun, playing in the fountain stream on the closed-off, small, European stony square. She briefly evoked and melted a soft smile. “You come back from States see me, right?”

Outside the little hotel, the city was full of roaming personnel carriers with young, dark-skinned, Mexican soldiers in fatigues and heavy boots with short machine guns, boys hanging from the trucks like grapes. They were from the special police division, driving around and mainly making an appearance, it seemed. That night another pretty blonde (the brand highly valued on the local market) who came to work from the province for the first time, was savagely killed in a small hotel room on a nearby street by a gringo stranger. He managed to make it across the border before being spotted. The girl lost most of her blood from the multiple knife wounds.

The women around town were scared but business and fun went uninterrupted, except for a few brief show-off roundups, clattering of weapons, and horn blowing by the military vehicles. Nobody really knew her; she was a novice, that’s why she probably could not spot a weirdo. She was blonde, OK, but almost did not speak any English. Her nickname was Barbie, a dream personage of every Mexican prostitute.

It cooled off, and Sergei decided to walk a bit and take a taxi later, closer to the edge of the downtown area, at the end of the endless warehouses and waste plots stretching all the way to the border zone that was riddled with all-night bonfires. Shadowy figures in their ponchos surrounded the fire, waiting for something to happen at the border for years.

On one of the side streets he saw a local man with a little girl. They were sitting outside on the stairs by the door, their shaky house surrounded by the broken wooden fences. He was showing the girl the full moon that was hanging over the hills and the skeleton of the motionless city underneath. She was clutching her scarf and leaning toward him. It was too late for her, but the father probably just came back from the evening shift and was spending time with his child. Two windows in their house shed light onto the empty street. He could not see anybody else inside behind the curtains. Sergei walked away toward the dirty yellow cab, which appeared from around the corner.

As he was passing the U.S. border turnstile in the middle of the vast resonant hall on the way back, Sergei remembered that this girl reminded him of his favorite Murillo’s peasant boy’s face, which emerged in his memory from the recent exhibition at the Metropolitan.

Left Curve 10/01/08


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