"Her situation is delicate," says Gennadi, translating Valentina’s words carefully, afraid, it seems, of betraying her. Valentina, 30, and her son Ilias, 6, arrived from Kishinev, Russia, one week ago. As Ilias, an adorable kid who never stands still, whizzes in and out of the room, Valentina plays hostess, arranging plates of cold cuts and potato salad and pouring plastic cups of vodka. "We met accidentally, through friends, at a Russian church, and she told me to visit her," says Gennadi. "She moved here to get married. She has been corresponding with this man since 1995. She met him once, last year, in Spain. It was arranged through an international agency. He was originally from Nigeria, but is an American citizen. He does something with computers. He’s 51. They were supposed to live together for three months, then decide. Within three days, he decided he wasn’t going to marry her. He put her here in this hotel, gave her $50, and said she can stay until Monday and then he’d send her back. "She has no place to go. She has a lot of problems in Russia because her child is black. His father is from Cameroon, he was studying in Russia. She got pregnant right before he graduated. He went back to Cameroon, and she was supposed to follow him. Then he wrote to say he already had a fiancée, but he is Muslim, and he wanted two wives. She said no. Five years later, he wrote to say he was coming back and wanted her to love him as she did before, but obviously, she didn’t. "She came here to find a father for her child. In Russia, she has so many problems with family and friends. The prejudice Ilias has in Russia, it’s been that way for centuries in Moldova. She couldn’t find a kindergarten for him, so she sent him to a private school. One little girl stabbed him with a fork and said she wouldn’t eat with a nigger." Valentina stands up and pours more vodka. She is lean, erect, with a Mongolian face: extremely high cheekbones, no eyelids, and paper-smooth, ivory-yellow skin. She wears her hair in a turban, and her cheap checkerboard stirrup pants show off a high dancer’s rump. "Three days ago, she was crying, she was so scared. She has no money, no rights basically. Now, according to the law, she’s supposed to leave the country. She has no driver’s license, no Social Security card, no bank account. She’s studied music, aesthetics, she cuts hair, she is looking for anything. She needs to work. She speaks German and Hebrew, also. She has no help from her family, but she is not scared. She’s a fatalist. It’s a dream, Hollywood. There might be a lot of opportunities for her here. Her son is very creative, and there could be a lot of possibilities for him. He sings, he dances, he’s good with mimics." Valentina brings out a computer drawing Ilias has done, a black blob she calls "The Shining Dream." Ilias is excited to see it and shouts, in Russian, "Look, Mama, it looks like a dog!" Then he turns to a Toyota commercial on TV and says, in English, "This is a good film." "She says her son is considering himself an American, that he is very happy here," says Gennadi. "She will be very proud for Ilias to be an American. You’re very free here." Baby-faced Ahmed suddenly walks into the room. Once he understands the situation, he begins grilling Valentina on her résumé and tells her he can probably find her a job in a restaurant. She slides closer to him on the bed and says to Gennadi, in English, that they need more ice.
With dark shades, tight jeans and a combed mustache, J.J. looks like a detective off a ’70s TV series. A taut 45 and holding, he says he’s from Tupelo, Mississippi, but won’t say exactly how long he’s been here, aside from an opaque reference to a house in Malibu. "When I had to get out of there, I came here, because my attorney is just down the road," J.J. says, apparently unaware that this statement might invite qualification. "I use it as an interim place. It’s centrally located. There used to be a grocery store right across the street, and the laundry is next door, and, like I said, I have to deal with my attorney several times a week." When asked what he does for a living, J.J. hedges. "I’m writing my second film for Playboy. I write in the room." He looks for this information to leave an impression, then asks, in a conspiratorial whisper, "You know what the best thing is about staying here? I have a room in the back, so I can see into the parking lot. I get to see the girls coming out of the strip place next door, and hear what they talk about, and also, you know, see them with some customers out there. I can see everything. Sometimes prostitutes, too, doing their thing right there in the cars. It’s the best room."