An Excerpt from Love Is Never Past Tense by Janna Yeshanova
Serge didn’t try to catch up to the shuffling, thin, leather skirt.
Serge didn’t try to catch up to the shuffling, thin, leather skirt. He hadn’t a clue what he would do if he actually caught up with her. So he continued following her along the high embankment for a fairly long time, until they crossed the whole of Lanzheron Park. But, reaching the beach, the girl quickly descended to the sea. Serge even began to jog a bit to keep her in sight. His head was clear this morning, and soon he would try out his cunning for the first but not the last time this day. The spy set up camp at the upper solarium and watched over her. Maybe she was waiting for some company, or a young man, or a girlfriend (which would undoubtedly seem to be better), but to our spy, all were equally bad possibilities. This guessing game carried on in his head, but it seemed she wasn’t looking for anyone. She ducked into the changing room, and her leather skirt momentarily hung over the edge of the stall. After a minute, she exited, and Serge, pulling his long hair away from his head with both hands in anguish, groaned something unintelligible. Her breasts exited the little room first. The spot from where Serge looked down provided such visibility that his knees began to tremble. Her face was impossible to discern through her long hair and sunglasses, but something told him it would also be in order. She laid before her a light beach towel, and laying down she took a book from her bag and began to read. Burning her “landing site” into his mind, Serge took off like a shot to the nearest cabana rental. Fast as lightning, he exchanged his clothes for a key, crammed two metal rubles in the pocket of his swimming trunks, and became Don Juan. He feared, though, that there were already a bunch of admirers slinking ever closer to the sacred beach towel, and that he would simply be too late. He’d have to crawl to his place in line, and like the others, would have a poor chance of success.
He flew down the stairs and quickly found the beach towel, but … its owner was nowhere to be found. There was a book, a beach bag, and sunglasses, but their owner had disappeared. Oh, yes! This would be the second time that a smart thought visited Serge’s head today. People come to the sea to swim, after all! This interpretation of her disappearance comforted and delighted Serge. He became bolder and impudently tossed his glasses onto the same towel and cheerfully marched to the water. With his half-blind eyes, he surely could not see her. And where, among dozens of bathers? He dove into a wave, and swam away from the shore. First, he couldn’t stand to watch bathers jumping around like frogs in the shallow water. Secondly, at this moment, his exceptionally quick-witted head told him he couldn’t be the first to return to her beach towel. Then he’d have to take his glasses and fiddle around a bit in front of the beach towel to buy time as he came up with a new plan. Perhaps he’d cover himself with the towel, or maybe … no, he needed to work on his initial scenario.
He even came up with a sophisticated opening: “Excuse me, young lady, but I left my glasses here on your towel. I simply didn’t have anywhere to put them, or myself for that matter.” With this, his stockpile of ideas was depleted …
At last he climbed out of the water and headed along the well-trodden route to her beach towel. The towel was in place, and on this towel lay the magnificent body of its hostess, but Serge’s glasses were lying a little bit farther on the edge of the towel. Serge squatted down and mumbled his introduction. He was counting on her to respond with typical beach chit-chat: “Where are you from? How long ago did you arrive in Odessa?” or other such nonsense.
“Your glasses are fine,” she responded. “I figured someone just confused their beach towel with mine, but have a seat anyway.”
She scooted over, freeing up half the beach towel. He got scared. If he lay down, then he wouldn’t be able to resist the urge to nuzzle up to her. Then he’d certainly look like a pervert, a youth brought up with no manners, or a pest—in a word, he would give the exact opposite impression than he wanted. He mumbled something like a “thank you” and lay down beside her on the sand. She motioned towards him with a little bag of sunflower seeds, “Help yourself.”
”Oh God, what’s this?” resounded in Serge’s mind. “Are you kidding me … sunflower seeds?” And his hand with a subsequent “thank you” reached in the bag.
“Do you like Ilf and Petrov?” 1
”Lord, who is she talking about? I’ve only heard of them in passing, but I don’t know the slightest thing about them …” Serge thought to himself.
“My name’s Janna,” she came to his rescue.
“Sergey,” he stammered in reply, “but at the institute everyone actually calls me Serge, or Seriy …”
She chuckled – in Russian, Seriy means grey.
“Grey. You’re actually black as tar. Where did you get such a tan?” she asked, spitting out sunflower seed shells. Not even awaiting a response, she exclaimed: “Here is an interesting moment”—and she began to read her book aloud, something about Ptiburdukov and his Varvara, who was leaving her first husband for him but couldn’t make up her mind. Janna read for a while, probably about five pages, and then thrust the book towards Serge and said, “You read from here,” marking the place with her fingernail. Serge began to read, but he didn’t understand a word. He was too busy worrying about his diction, trying not to miss any letters or words. He fought through two pages, but his audience was clearly not impressed.
“Would you like a cigarette?”
“If he has a smoke, then he’ll stop reading.” Serge could almost hear her thinking. He pulled a cigarette from a mashed-up pack of Javas, the best tobacco the Soviet Union could offer at that time. She handed him the matches. He brought the flame close to her face. She took a drag and rolled over on her back. Serge absolutely didn’t know what to do: read, blow sand from her, ask her about something. But she was not waiting for any questions and didn’t ask any questions. It was as if he simply was present. And that was that. The only thing that remained was for Serge to stare dumbfounded into the sand and observe the ants. Having smoked half the cigarette, she jammed the other half into the sand and turned back over on her stomach, brushing her leg up against Serge’s. But she did not hasten to remove it. Silent Serge, who really didn’t look the part of a reasonable person, turned into an animal. His uncontrollable desire sprang to life, pulling his swimming trunks down into the sand with such force that it became painful. Serge secretly burrowed a hole in the sand, easing the pressure. He became obsessed with a craving to climb on top of her. But this was out of the question, which made his desire even stronger …
“It’s hot. Let’s go for a swim,” she said, lifting herself up on her elbows. For the first time he could see her breasts up close, causing his heart to leap through his ribs like a bird in a cage. He muttered he’d catch up to her, and when she left, his desire ever so slowly began to hide itself away, until he was finally able to get up and head towards the sea.
She splashed around in the waves, which towards midday became quite sizable. He flopped about next to her, often brushing up against her body. Then he suggested tossing her in the waves. He cradled her head and shoulders, gathered her hands into his, and finally lifted her up and tossed her into the waves. Janna liked it, and so did he, but for a different reason: every time she hit the waves, her bathing suit slid down slightly, and when her breasts finally became exposed, he was ready to splash to his very death. Suddenly, she ended up cradled in his arms. With one arm, she grasped his neck, and he now understood that everything will happen, he just needed to patiently wait.
Once something starts, eventually, it ends. The delightful swim as well: they returned from the water and again lay down on the beach towel.
“I want to get tanned like you.” (She had already switched to the informal you4 in the water. He liked this, as it made him feel less uneasy around her). She placed her arm next to his for comparison, and her brown skin seemed much paler than his almost blackened arm. Guiltily, he informed her that he just returned yesterday from his apprenticeship in Baku, and so it was not surprising that he was so dark.
“You have beautiful hands,” she pensively remarked. Then, determined, she added, “No, you just wait. I’ll catch up with you in two days. Just wait and see.” These words poured over his body like oil. For Serge, this meant that he would spend at least two more days with her.
“Get some ice cream. Do you need some money?”
“I have it,” answered Serge, but before he could get up and leave, he had to turn and crawl to hide his “desire” …
An Excerpt from Love Is Never Past Tense by Janna Yeshanova
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