How I punched a Russian in the face in NYC

One Friday I went to a party in Bushwick, a neighborhood in northeast Brooklyn with factories converted into studios occupied mainly by artists or aspiring artists, by default the same thing. Earthy brick buildings and graffitied walls. There were few people when I entered the apartment and I figured I would not last there for too long. I deposited twenty dollars in a donation box, opened the refrigerator and grabbed a beer. Objects everywhere.

The cabaret light flooded the kitchen, a crystal petal chandelier refracted pink and violet sparkles in different shades, covering the tonal spectrum of the ecstasy and voluptuousness. At times it seemed as if we were in a satin dress. Then you passed through a corridor with luminous wallpaper lining the walls, arabesque carpet on the ceiling, a sticky red light, that stabbing light with carmine and sequins like dead strips of a shattered romance.

The back room, topped by a wide window overlooking the street, looked like an antique shop the pop studio of a falsely tormented soul, a wonderfully frivolous den, the lyrics to a bolero, a queer DJ’s booth, a theater room, a film set, a color-saturated still, all at once. There were long, narrow mirrors with silver frames, a drum set, a bookcase crammed with volumes, shirts hanging on the wall and a t-shirt that said, “Now or Never”, drawings, photographs and portraits, a Puerto Rican flag, a reproduction of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe and garlands with changing LED lights.

Two boys, a Russian and an African-American, were making out in the middle of the room, others were wearing black tights, sailor berets, a blonde in a short skirt without panties, another was carrying her dog, and one of the hosts, Hector, was dressed as a Greek with his Trojan name and was singing José José with a Caribbean accent, an accent that came mostly from a mixture as bizarre as it was effusive and vibrant. I went back to the kitchen area and sat down on a couch next to a closet.

“You’re going to write about this,” my girlfriend said. I went to the bathroom without answering and came back. I thought for a bit. “I have an answer you’re going to like,” I said. Normally, the things I say don’t amaze her, essentially because they are not things that amaze, mainly because they seek to amaze. “Let’s see,” she said. The preamble also worked to take play the matter down out of an idea so contrived and so obvious in its pretense. “This is already written. You don’t write literature, you write reality. I liked it,” she said. I thought something else, and there was the mistake. I should have killed the idea on the spot.

That place, and us, were not only written, but also told by a bad writer, and although in the instant it seemed like a bad business, later I understood that perhaps there is no more pleasant experience than to inhabit the narrative clause of an erroneous text, prolific and scruffy unconsciousness. Someone who, at least, is not going to put you into tedium or drowsiness. The other question, with which I confirmed that bad writing is also a device of complex temporal folds, had to do with the fact that I was not entirely sure, and I was not going to be sure at any moment if we had already been written or if we were still being written if we were dead letters or insufferable live strokes of lousy spelling.

Photo: Courtesy of the author

I looked at everything again, none of the people present seemed to be telling anything, and I couldn’t make out in anyone else any conscious trace that we were stuck inside a cheap imagination. I walked around the place, opened another beer. I didn’t understand if people were kissing or pretending to kiss, or if there was, in general, any difference between the two acts. Russians, Cubans, Gringos. What could it mean? The postmodern residues of the Cold War. Before, I thought, I should be telling about tonight it myself, no squeamishness, but as you get older the subjects get smaller.

Learning to write means that almost nothing should be written, the topics are one, two, break them down, make a silence. When I had no discipline, no visible method, I scribbled on everything that happened or threatened to happen, but understanding words means seeing things and letting them go without discomfort. To use language is, precisely, to be wrong and make it wrong. Now I was more precise, but I was an infinitely less free man.

The music, the people’s clothes, the gossip in various languages. A physicist friend of mine, a Google employee, arrived on the scene. He brought packets with half doses of crushed mushrooms, a brownish, bitter powder. My girlfriend, he and I took two and a half grams, then a little more, the remains of another bag. People came and went, flirtation and movement, strabismic dancing.

Things kept happening that led nowhere, those typical gestures that die in themselves and are unable to make sense. I slid into the seat, sunk in the pleasure and lightness of the drug. From the couch I visualized shots of Xavier Dolan, of Gaspar Noé, or even, for that matter, Trainspotting. A disruptive camera angle, someone who wants to experiment with form and produces a visual dunghill.

The music seemed to come from a massive concert, dragging ghostly echoes. Discussion somewhere, vanishing strokes, half-made sentences that went up in smoke before reaching the verb, as if, whoever was writing and constantly erasing. I thought then that we were going to go back to the beginning because everything stopped. No Bushwick, no mushrooms, no Friday.

I closed my eyes, body slack, electric darkness. I stood up, sat down. The Russians were talking in a corner. A lot of people started to arrive. Hector, the host, wanted to try the mushroom, but only a pinch. “It’s not blow,” he was told, “a pinch won’t do anything to you.”

One of the Russians sat next to us, he was drunk. Two new African American colleagues joined. I remember the name of one of them, but it’s just the name of the one that doesn’t matter, so I will not mention it. The Russian started leaning on my girlfriend, throwing himself on her. He did not do it with sexual way, but simply out of clumsiness. My girlfriend pushed him away a couple of times, told him not to touch her. The Russian replied that he was not touching her.

He had a wide chin, an angular face. My girlfriend told me to sit between the two of them, so I did, and then the Russian threw himself on top of me. I went to the bathroom again. When I came back, one of the African Americans was talking to him, trying to stop him and take him out of the apartment. The Russian was resisting. The African American had asked my girlfriend if he was okay, and she said yes, but anyway the Russian seemed to have done something that took him completely out of the story. Someone told me that he had already been kicked out of the party and that he had come back on his own.

There was a scuffle, more guys joined. My friend and I told my girlfriend to get off the couch. I couldn’t, I was at that point of the mushrooms where the force abandons you. People pushing each other next to her. I don’t know if we told her to get up again or if we already tried to lift her up at once, but, while my friend took her by the arms to help her, I yanked her to her feet.

He looked at me with disgust. My friend scolded me. The Russian was taken outside. I tried to justify myself that something could happen to him, but I had no excuse. The proof that I could have done it differently was just our friend, who helped her without any further issues. It had spoiled the night. I did not play the role I thought I played, and it is likely that from there I rebelled and taken control of the facts, as when they say that a certain character gets out of hand and the author can only let it go.

I secluded myself in the back room. I sat in the middle of the room, as if punished. I had a lot of anger inside and had unloaded it with my girlfriend. The Russian had already been taken away; the noise of violence vanished. Where did all that come from? Two friends were soon to be banished from Cuba. It wasn’t public yet, but I already knew it. Others were imprisoned for their political ideas. I was still had my mind guys who a few months ago, in Havana, had interrogated me, had watched me, and had even kidnapped me, policemen with whom I had to deal in an unequal psychological struggle, and that in reality what I had to have done was to beat the shit out of them and let them beat the shit out of me.

I was part of a disintegrated family. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed not by any individual cynicism, but by totalitarianism, dictatorial stupidity, and the lukewarm complicity of the Creole Girondins. I had to constantly remind myself that there was no moral flaw in me for not being in a Cuban jail now. At that level of sacrificial caricature could take you the confrontation with an institution, the Castro State, illiterate and degrading.

I was staring down. The wooden floor, watered plastic red roses, an empty beer can, the internet router, another box to equalize the music, a bottle of liquid soap, dimed light, and a hardcover book on the archives of Pedro Almodóvar. I left the apartment, no one in the hallway. I stood there, looking at the walls, lost. I opened the service door and looked out on the stairs. The corpse of the industrial world ululated through that extinct factory, colonized by the multiple identities of capitalist progressivism.

On the other side, from the elevator, there was a bustle. It was the Russian, a fellow countryman of his and the two African American colleagues. My wish was drawing them, since there was no other reason for them to move around, pass by the door of the apartment and reach that last funereal light hallway. At some point, presumably exhausted from interceding for his friend, the countryman vanished. One of the African Americans remained in the background, and the other, with short braids that fell like curls, gently pushed the Russian towards the stairs and told him to leave.

The Russian was beating his chest and mumbling in Cyrillic. A Slavic drunkard, I’ve seen that before. I also began to push it, to separate. The Russian looked defiantly at the African American and yelled “fuck you” at him repeatedly. I kneaded with I don’t know what, he put his hand in his pocket. I realized he was not carrying anything, he did it to intimidate. He advanced towards us. For many years, more than ten, I had not hit anyone, and I had not been hit back. It was easy and very liberating. His nose started to squirt, and he came up to me. He threw a wild punch and I hit him again. I opened the door to the hallway, and he slipped out that way. He tripped on the stairs and rolled to the landing. He ran away scared.

I walked into the apartment elated, high fiving and hugging the two African Americans, like a successful gang, pure brave people. They had more flow to tell it. The guy with the braids said that I was a badass and spoke loudly. I always wanted to be told something like that. My girlfriend and friend looked at me like at somebody that just ridicule himself. I didn’t care.

“He was racist,” I said, “and he messed with my girlfriend.” They didn’t answer me. “There’s also Cuba, I had to let it all go.” Nothing. My knuckles started to hurt. I went back to the back room. I sat on the floor, next to the bookcase. There was an altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and a letter in English, green paper burned by the edges, where they asked for power, grace, and light. What else? Do I steal my letter, or I do not steal it? I folded it, put it in my pocket and apologized to the Virgin. It was the right thing to do, it had no other purpose. A lit candle. From her silence, Our Lady said something to me.

After a while my girlfriend picked me up. In the hallway, down the stairs to the street door, there were drops of blood. Halfway down I started to tear up. It was Russian blood; it was like pouring something sacred. That’s the blood that Dostoevsky talks about, that Pilniak talks about, that Shalamov talks about. Purple polka dots on the dead steppe. I don’t know if Pilniak speaks of blood, but I always think of him.

I draw a line in the air: “I have beaten a man and seen how, in his blood, he is more worthy than I am. Is it hot?”, I asked my girlfriend. “No,” she told me. Then I fell silent, and she riposted with a terrible possibility: “Did you give him a punch because of what you say or because you needed it to tell something about your night?” The one who had been writing all that from the beginning was me, and there is always a character who knows more than you do.

CARLOS MANUEL ÁLVAREZ
CARLOS MANUEL ÁLVAREZ
Carlos Manuel Álvarez (Matanzas, 1989). He studied Journalism at the University of Havana. In 2016 he founded the independent Cuban magazine El Estornudo, and his texts and opinion columns have been published in media such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, BBC World, Al Jazeera, Internazionale, El Malpensante or Letras Libres. In 2013 he won the Calendar Award in Cuba for his book of short stories La tarde de los sucesos definitivos. In 2017 he was selected by the Hay Festival for the Bogotá 39 list, and published his first collection of journalistic chronicles, La tribu. Portraits of Cuba (Sexto Piso). Los Caídos is his first novel. He is winner of the Don Quijote and Granta 25 awards.

1 COMMENT

  1. Excellent text! It has everything needed to attract the reader’s attention, and somehow our deep understanding and compassion. Great!

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