Dima the Russian

        The first time I met Dima the Russian, I swore that he’d been sent by the universe to kill me.
         Let me explain. More than anything else in the world, I fear being anywhere near the center of attention of even a small group of people. Dread it. Seasick at the thought of it. Now and forever. The source of all this knee-knocking? There may be too many to recount, but I’ll share a few culprits I’ve considered over the years.
         At five, I played a fish in a Jonah and the Whale play at my family’s church—Our Lady of Lourdes. I was super excited because as part of my costume I got to show off my red footie pajamas to all my friends. And when it came time to get on stage, I ran maybe a bit too fast and, to the great uproar of the parishioners sitting in the darkened pews, I slipped and fell hard on my ass. Rang the old butt-bone like a gong. A nice church lady came out to hold my hand and encourage me to sing and prance with the rest of the little kids, but I couldn’t. I just stood there, my bones still shivering from the fall, my wet eyes glued to the floor because whenever I looked up I was confronted with what appeared to me as a floating sea monster, a thousand-eyed creature made of shadow and rows of teeth that squawked at me from cathedral depths.
         When I was ten—just to keep things linear because there are countless instances in the intervening years that I could just as easily distract me—when I was ten, I quit playing baseball because I couldn’t handle the batter’s box. At the batting cages with my mom or sometimes in practice with my coach, I was a great hitter, but put me in front of an opposing team—mean-eyed kids who spat and taunted, “Hey batter! Swing batter batter!” and their overzealous fathers drank from paper bags and grunted harsh directives at their sons—and I couldn’t hit because of how much my knees wobbled. Three-hundred and sixty degrees of bill-capped eyes all on me, like hungry birds. I couldn’t handle it. The only way I ever got on base was if they walked me or hit me.
         So I switch to another sport, and by the time I’m fifteen, I’m one of the strongest weightlifters in my school. It was a much easier sport for me because it’s unpopular and as such poorly attended. But as I climbed the ranks, the weightlifting halls got bigger and fuller, and I became one of the last lifters on the platform. The knowledge of being so closely watched by another crowd, knowing that there were so many eyeballs—which are a terrifying organ if you think about it—scrutinizing my every movement, grazing on me like fish, that knowledge made the weights just a bit heavier, just enough to break my form and roll me over like a wave.
         I made it to thirty-five largely by avoiding any and all situations where more than two sets of eyeballs are pointed my way at once. I keep to myself. I read and write. I never speak during large Zoom meetings. I run from dance floors. I’ve stopped teaching in the classroom in favor of one-on-one tutoring. My wife and I eloped instead of having even a small wedding. I’ve even avoided giving wedding speeches by avoiding friendship.
         But I also don’t want to paint myself as some sort of joyless misanthrope—I love individual people. I work with a lot of talented kids who make me feel confident about the future. I have a family whose company I cherish as long as there aren’t too many of them in one place at the same time. A loving wife with whom I can share anything. It is true that I don’t have many friends—my wife likes to joke that my closest friends are the dead men who wrote my favorite books—but that is because anyone, except those dead ones, can also become part of that fickle and foul monster known as a crowd, that thing that is much less than the sum of its parts. So I did like anyone would do—I avoided the monster.. And I was pretty good at it too. So when my wife and I moved to Miami Beach so that she could pursue her post-doc, I didn’t think I would have any trouble at all keeping to myself. I didn’t give a shit about the slogan “What happens in Miami, stays on Instagram forever.” I’ve got this, I say to myself.
         I swim through three months in Miami Beach easily. My routine is solid: write and read in the morning, visit the beach after lunch, and tutor in the evenings. My midday break is key to a productive day. Nothing hits the reset button like a float in the ocean: the water is blue and gentle, the waves make little sound, and the palm trees nod approvingly in the Atlantic winds.
         But before I take a dip in the ocean, I like to work out at Muscle Beach—a free, open-air gym in the sand by the volleyball nets and water fountains. It’s got all sorts of weights and is right next to the ocean, so what’s not to love? The best part, though, are the people working out there. The gym attracts an interesting mix of vacationers, fitness instructors, social media influencers from all over the world, as well as a lot of Miamians—who are often the most brightly and tightly dressed. On the weekends, especially, Muscle Beach is a spectacle of color and dance that would make a great episode of Planet Earth. I can hear David Attenborough’s crouching-in-the-bush voice now, “watch as the pink-thonged male extends his rear and performs the mating call while swinging the kettle bell between his legs.”
         Although I do enjoy watching the Muscle Beach show, I have no interest in participating, so I mostly go during the less-crowded weekday afternoons when I can chat with some of the other low-key locals. We’re not hard to spot—older, less sexy, and generally wearing more clothing. I’m no longer the lean, sixty-nine kilo weightlifter I once was. I have more handles than a subway car, but I still have square shoulders, strong legs, and good control in most lifts.
         I was there on such an afternoon using a squat rack in the far corner of the gym where the sand is flattened by life guard ATVs, and where you can see a bit of the bright blue ocean through the salt bush.
         I had already put the rack safety pins at the right height and completed a warm-up set, when I’m approached by a boulder-shouldered, tank-topped, chimney-necked, sharp-stubbled, long-jawed man in a SUPREME hat and with a thick Slavic accent, telling me, not quite asking me, “If you will share barbell that is ok.”
         “Come again, big fella?” I say as I make a show of looking around at the empty racks nearby. As he gets closer, I realize I’m only as tall as his chest, which is as wide and deep as a cowcatcher.
         “I train with brain,” he says to me as he points to his phone which is clamped onto a complicated-looking selfie stick. It takes a moment for my brain to cut through his accent, and in the meantime my eyebrows lift like I understand exactly what he’s talking about.
         “Yes, you know it?” he says. “I show to do exercise correct.”
         I know what’s going on here. Sometimes, when noticing my crisp form or the ease with which I regiment my workout, another gym goer approaches me and tries to clown around with my weights, show me how strong they are or how much they know about lifting. I assumed this was why this train of a man approached me like this. So, trying to be nice, but also as a way of accepting his challenge, I agree to share the rack with him.
         “I know English, but I don’t experience much—can I move?” he points to the pins that are used to hold the bar between sets. He wants to change the height, but that sounds dangerous to me because being able to safely rack and un-rack the weights is important, and I’m certainly not as tall as him. I compromise by pointing to a height that we can both reach, even though I do have to get on the balls of my feet to be able to reach it.
         “It’s on you to help if I don’t make it,” I tell him jokingly, but he doesn’t laugh. I think he understands me, but I can’t tell for sure because his phone starts to chime, and he steps away to take a video call in what could be Russian. I’m a little irritated but whatever—I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to get my workout in. So I focus on my sets, and I spot him from afar when it’s his turn with the bar. We gradually increase the weight. He had a great strength proportional to his size but not much in the way of form, so I was able to keep up for a while, even though I was sweating and breathing and focusing on form. He on the other hand, kept plowing through the weight, plate after added plate, moving with the inertia of a locomotive.
         In completing a medium weight set, I go to rack the bar and miss the pin on one side. I knew this would happen. I grunt over my shoulder at him, and he promptly helps me get the weight back on the rack. After the set, he slaps me on the shoulder (which hurts more than he thinks) and grunts at me, “—not name. My name is Dima.” I extend my hand and introduce myself, and he gives me one of those extra-long handshakes, playfully firm and with a lot of eye contact.
         We continue taking turns with the bar and conversing during down time. He confirms he’s visiting from Russia, and I tell him that I’m American but my parents are from Latin America. We talk about the beach, sports, and broken bones. I get most of what he says but his accent is tough to untangle at times. I’m also busy trying to pretend like every set isn’t wrecking me. Dima, on the other hand, seems hardly winded. He spends all his time in between sets fidgeting with his phone, taking calls in enthusiastic Russian, extending the tripod of feet on the selfie stick and setting it up in the sand so that he can record his lifts. He even lays out a little reflecting screen on the ground in front of the rack so that he can get better light for his recordings. This new generation is so addicted to their phones—I think to myself and admire how I don’t need to bring a phone to the gym.
         On the last sets, I am barely keeping up. I’m holding my form through the bounce out of the bottom, but as I slowly rise I can feel my back starting to bend like a palm tree. At the top of every rep, I take big breaths while looking out on the blue ocean peeking through the salt bush. On my last rep, my vision starts to get spotty. Dying to get the weight off my shoulders, I miss the pin on one side again.
         “Dima!” but no one answers.
         “Dima! Where the hell are you, god dammit!” There’s a kid in a nearby rack who doesn’t hear me because he has headphones in. I curse and mutter another ornery gripe about kids and technology before I regroup and consider my options. I could drop the weight, but one side would swing down, and I might get hit in the fall. So I decide to try one more time and put all my force into the side of the bar I need to get onto the pin. I take a big breath and tighten my core. I spring at the knee and I feel the sand under my feet slide, but I’m lucky, and I get the weight back on the pins. I let exhaustion pull me to the floor where I stare at blue sky until Dima returns from having what sounds like another phone call.
         “Where the hell were you, Dima?” I think I sound like an angry spouse. “Are you trying to get me fucking killed?”
         “What do you mean? And do not swear at me.”
         I explain to him what happened, and he gets very angry, “Why you do this when Dima not here? You should not run before horses!”
         “Dima, I don’t know what horses have to do with you not spotting me when I moved that damn pin to help you out.” He doesn’t apologize but he does help me up and smacks some of the sand off my back and says, “All the time we have to lift together. You do not come unless Dima is here.”
         I briefly wonder here if the language barrier here may be greater than it originally seemed. I’m also touched that he seems so concerned about my well-being. He’s not a bad guy—I think to myself. He probably just enjoys keeping his friends and family up to date on his vacation. And maybe he’s a little spacey. Who isn’t these days? We make amends, and he asks me to record his last set of squats for his Instagram or whatever Russian app he’s using—he actually had a really nice phone with a bright screen that was already recording when he handed it to me. Even in his last set, Dima’s strength was unrelenting, rhythmic.
         We finish up, and as we’re cleaning our weights, Dima invites me to come with him to do deadlifts. Now I don’t normally do deadlifts, but I’m so filled with bonhomie at having made friends with a gentle giant that I accept his offer. Plus, there’s no spotter needed for a deadlift, so what more could he do to me?
         As we walk around looking for the right equipment, Dima is on another video call. He seems excited to be here in sunny Florida and is speaking Russian at a mile a minute. He stops to film the beach through the salt bush, the weights, always holding the selfie stick out in front of him so that he can be in the shot. I frequently find myself also standing in his view as well, but I’m quick to step out of the frame as soon as I notice.
         We find the equipment we’re going to use for the deadlifts—a large hexagon-shaped trap bar that is difficult to carry alone, so Dima picks up the front end with one arm, and I take the back end. With his free hand, Dima still holds his phone out in front of him and continues conversing with whomever, and I walk awkwardly behind him. He eventually stops and says something over his shoulder, and before I can answer, he drops his end of the bar, which causes me to lose my grip and sends the end of the 45-pound bar right into my big toe.
         I howl and leap around on one foot like a cartoon coyote. I curse in English and Spanish. I fall to the sand and take off my sneaker and sock and examine my big toe closely. Even though there doesn’t seem to be any swelling or bruising, I regress to some childhood panacea and blow on my toe as if that were going to make it all better.
         Dima, on the other hand, is oblivious. He’s standing with his back to me, right where he let the bar drop, never pausing his conversation with the phone held out high on the selfie stick in front of him. I actually remember thinking to myself how amazing it is that some people have no idea what’s going on around them—how removed from the reality of things they can be. How unexpectedly right I was.
         “This son of a bitch,” I say to myself, “I’ve got to call it quits before this guy actually kills me.” I’m still in the sand, cradling my toe when Dima finally finishes his call and turns to me and says, “I sorry Ian. Dima ready.”—I look up at him and give him a piece of my mind.
         “You motherfucker! Hell no man! Are you trying to kill me?”
         “Motherfucker? Me? You know in Russia man fight because of talk like this.” He plants his selfie stick in the sand and squeezes a fist at me.
         “Did you see what happened to my foot?”
         “What? I don’t see anything!” he looks at my foot briefly.
         “Well, it fucking hurts, Dima!” I whip my arm and inadvertently throw sand at him.
         “Ian, if you curse at me again, I will kick you off show,” I think I see a vein start to twitch on his in his thick neck.
         “Show? What show?” but before the words are even out of my mouth, I feel what’s coming.
         “You are very specific—I already tell you. I have show. Train with brain. Two million Insta followers.” He raises up the phone on selfie stick so that we are both in view of the camera, and tips his SUPREME hat, “Live stream. Fifty thousand people watch.”
         That’s a hundred thousand eyeballs—floating out there in the murky light of the internet, probably laughing and rioting at the antics with my toe. When I lay back in the sand, it feels like I’m falling out of the blue sky. There never were any phone calls. It wasn’t machismo but capitalism that had led Dima to my corner squat rack. It was the view of the blue waters through the salt bush. And Dima wasn’t trying to kill me by crushing me with some great weight or breaking my toes on the ends of bars. No, it was far worse.
         I put my hands over my face, and the bright sunny day is gone in an instant as if I’d been dropped into the ocean. It gets dark under my hands, like I’m sinking to the bottom of the sea where light no longer reaches. Again, I’m the frightened little kid standing before that monster made of eyes. Despite my best efforts to hide, it had found me again—it would always find me. No amount of control or decision making could save me. Like Jonah, I was cursed.
         “Ian—I am worried. You quake like little girl.”
         I laugh. I couldn’t even tell I was shaking, as though I were back in the batter’s box. I marveled at all the things I couldn’t see about myself. And that’s it—that’s the thought that started as a flicker but grew into a flash and for a moment let me see the monster for what it really was—a personal hell of my own creation, and as my creation, an inescapable part of me.
         “Ian, I think toe is ok. Dima is not doctor but—
         “Yeah, Dima, up in a jiffy,” I shout as I try to pry my hands off my eyes.
         “What is jiffy? You need me to get nurse for your toe?”
         “God dammit, Dima, would give me a second here?”
         The first time I met Dima the Russian, I swore that he’d been sent by the universe to kill me. Well maybe not kill me, but at the very least send me a message—the old me sleeps with the fishes. I open my eyes and say, “Before we start, how do you say thanks for watching in Russian?”

Ian Perez is currently working on his first literary, science fiction novel, “Dark Matter”, about a ghost in search of its origin as it haunts a troubled family that is unknowingly on the verge of a catastrophe. Ian holds a B.A. in Chemistry from the University of South Florida and, when not writing, teaches Science, Math and Literature–an amalgamation of subjects that helped birth his novel. This is Ian’s first publication, taking the place of one of his most gratifying moments in the 9th grade when he got to read his essay on Martin Luther King over radio for Black History Month. You can find him Olympic weightlifting, reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Derek Walcott by the ocean, or traveling on a whim to Latin America with his beautiful wife.