As my childhood friend and I gaped at these non-nesting Russian dolls, they displayed their assets and danced with more enthusiasm than seemed natural. When I spotted a tiny blond woman in a tuxedo-style top, short shorts, and six-inch plexiglass and cork wedges, I couldn´t stifle myself.
¨Who dresses like that?¨
¨Hookers. Russians...,¨ my friend said, making a short list and then doing the math for me. ¨Russian hookers.¨
It wasn´t just the women who were dressed extravagantly. Many of the men were Euro-pimping it, just a little too slick (thanks to hair gel) and stylish (thanks to expensive jewelry and clothes) to be Palm Beach County Americans. The razor-creased duds and the smoldering cigars, as well as an imposing guy with a shaved head, looking equal parts Mr. Clean and Daddy Warbucks, made us think that maybe we had stumbled into a gathering of some international organized-crime syndicate.
The restaurant itself -- a chain that, among other things, serves specialty coffees and deli sandwiches, chicken wings, and salads (evidently with Russian dressing) -- was everything I expected of Palm Beach Gardens. I´d fled that soulless hell as soon as I graduated from high school, and when I returned on occasions like tonight to visit family and friends, the tidy lawns and expensive-yet-tasteful jewelry frequently sent me into a rant about suburban superficiality.
But this was a scene we never knew existed. Just in case our suspicions about the commercial appeal of the women were right, my friend insisted I call her by the assumed name Madeline. While she worried and I wondered, we struck up a conversation with the casually dressed couple standing next to us the only other people not dressed to the nines. They´d just sucked down shots of red stuff and were canoodling at the bar. These were personal trainer Jimmy and former flight attendant Denise.
¨We thought this was a coffee place,¨ Jimmy told us. With a small army of empty shot glasses in front of them, it looked like he and Denise, dressed in Capri pants and a tank, had adjusted just fine.
¨Free shots,¨ she explained.
We grabbed a couple of freebies off a tray, quickly downing what was clearly a lot of cranberry and a little vodka.
¨By the time we have a couple of these, we´ll have the cleanest urinary tracts ever,¨ I said, reaching for another and then ordering a proper vodka drink.
Just then, a brunet in a curve-hugging red dress was sharing the spotlight with a blond with a Paris Hilton look, though the ponytail and open-back dress with the flouncy kerchief hem were also saying ¨Ice Follies.¨ As they danced, they kept an eye on the crowd to make sure they had their attention, and we kept our eyes on the dancers, trying to work out alternative explanations for their behavior.
¨Why are these women working so hard?¨ Madeline asked, as if answering that single question would unlock the mystery.
When I went to nose around, I was surprised to recognize a familiar face. Things were already looking more legit: It was Zhenya, an international student whom I´d helped with her college essays. I´d never seen her in stretch velvet animal print and pumps before.
¨I´m Bulgarian, but most of my friends are Russian,¨ she said when I asked what she was doing there.
¨You know these people?¨ I asked, genuinely surprised.
She said that her usual party scene was Palm Beach or South Beach, but tonight she was part of a large group that had come for a birthday party, which explained the table full of presents and purses and another with jumbo shrimp cocktails and cosmopolitans. The birthday girl, Elena, was standing nearby in a pink, ruffled top and a pair of white slacks. She´d moved from Russia to the United States, ¨the best country in the world,¨ 15 years earlier.
¨European women have a different kind of taste,¨ she said with a smile. ¨They want to be elegant and feminine, and it´s something, I think, American women could use more of.¨
Suddenly, my silver-leafed T-shirt, pink Capri pants, and Mary Janes -- all perfectly funky for the coffee-shop scene I´d expected -- felt conspicuously plain.
¨Wow, I just got told,¨ I said, turning to Madeline, who took up the cause, more defensive of feminist values than of American fashion.
¨I think American women don´t want to be seen as a piece of meat,¨ Madeline began, and then I missed the rest because she leaned closer to Birthday Girl so they could actually converse over the house music. Whatever she said made Elena gesticulate emphatically. Not wanting to be in the line of Soviet fire, I stepped back and stayed out of it. After that cultural exchange, Madeline and I went outside to discuss what she´d learned.
In our seats by the ¨lake,¨ which true to the town´s artifice was actually just a retention pond with a fountain, Madeline repeated what she had understood: ¨Those women she was pointing out actually have jobs. She said they just love to dress, and they love to dance.¨
¨It´s a Russian thing,¨ a voice interrupted. ¨One of them is my wife -- the one in the red dress.¨
If the unaccented English hadn´t first given his American status away, the orange Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts would have. The Tequesta business owner explained that he´d met his Ukrainian wife on an international dating Internet site, LoveMe.com.
¨Are Russian women better?¨ I asked, wondering why he´d opted to import.
¨They are until they´re Americanized,¨ he said, wielding his seven years of marital insight. ¨These are RAPs Russian American Princesses.¨
His wife and the ice-skating Paris Hilton, whom Hawaiian Shirt Guy told us was married to ¨a very rich man,¨ were promoters of the event.
¨A lot of it´s a show,¨ he concluded before he went back inside. ¨My wife is actually pretty prudish.¨
I started to extend my sympathies for his bad luck, but I figured I´d already exceeded my offending quotient here, so I kept it zipped.
Madeline had begun to warm to the event: ¨It´s kind of cool this place is in Palm Beach Gardens,¨ she said, proud of her town´s cultural progress. ¨It´s so bizarre.¨
Back inside, the American interlopers, Jimmy and Denise, were dirty-dancing in their casual duds, impervious to the fact that denim and khaki stood out like scuffs on new shoes against the glitter and glam.
¨I wouldn´t have dressed any different if I knew I was coming here,¨ Denise insisted. ¨You need to live life and love it. It´s all up here.¨ She tapped her temple with her finger.
I assumed she wasn´t just talking about the vodka, though the dancing suggested that, yes, Russia´s best was starting to go to her head. Back at the bar for more vodka, I met Jim, an American day trader who had met ice-skating Paris Hilton at the polo matches. He pointed out the Russian restaurant owner.
When I commented on the women´s slutty clothing, Jim gave me a once-over. ¨You could be hot too if you got some streaks in your hair and put on a designer dress,¨ he said.
I took my schlubby American self across the room to get the real story from the owner, Edward Kogan, who told me he´d been in the United States for 30 years.
¨Longer than I was in Russia,¨ he added.
Though he´d just moved from Manhattan three months earlier and opened Java Moon a month later, he attributed his place in the local Russian community to MeetUp.com. Up-to-date networking, retro fashion: It was a jarring combination.
Two gorgeous and elegantly dressed young women thought so too.
¨I feel like I´m at the skating rink,¨ remarked Remy, a Bradley´s bartender.
¨It´s so ´80s,¨ agreed her friend Jordan, a Nordstrom´s sales associate.
Remy dug into her knowledge of party fashion niches. ¨Some of it´s South Beach house.¨
¨I thought everyone was on drugs when I saw how they were dancing,¨ Jordan said. She stomped her foot and extended a disco finger heavenward, like Tony Manero.
¨That´s how they dance in South Beach when they actually are on drugs,¨ Remy said.
Now I was perplexed: Were these Soviet ex-pats still clinging to outdated fashions? Or was I just reluctant to acknowledge that the garish ´80s were back?
¨We´re going to Noche,¨ the young lovelies said enticingly. ¨Come with us!¨
Noche? That was one way to call it a night.