Mao, On Contradiction


Moshe Dann

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 111 in 2006.

Outside my window, overlooking Eighth Avenue and Twenty-Third Street, three cars joined fenders in holy communion and traffic backed up for several blocks, honking in celebration. Next door my Puerto Rican neighbor was having a fight with her boyfriend, or maybe they were just saying goodbye. They shouted and then in the sudden stillness that followed, I imagined they struggled, fell into each other's arms and made love. Half-asleep, I felt Toni moving restlessly next to me, but it was too early to get up.

"A Chelsea Morning,” she hummed in my ear. “What a way to start the day.”

The morning sun brushed us gently, sparkling through her tangled reddish hair. A spidery layer of frost covered the window. Pulling the covers around us I tried to put my arm around her warmth. "I don't want to be late," she said suddenly as she jumped out of bed, put on my sweatshirt and tiptoed across the cold tattered linoleum to the bathroom.

The phone rang. A message from the landlord reminding me that my rent was overdue.

When I peeked over the edge of the bed, Che wagged her tail and stared at me in anticipation. She needed to go out, but I was lazy, Toni was still around and the apartment was freezing. The boiler had been "broken," or the landlord had refused to pay the oil company, or both.

When I'd found Che shivering and stunned in the middle of the slush-filled street she was so thin and battered that I wasn’t sure she'd survive. But she did and remained obedient and loyal, happy to have found a home. There were times when I needed her companionship as well. Toni flushed and dashed back into bed. "Burrr," she shivered, warming herself against me.

We'd met at an anti-war demonstration the day before. She'd carried a huge sign almost as big as herself, a picture of crying Vietnamese children covered by dollar signs; mine portrayed Nixon with fangs. A line of cops stood on the other side of the street, their arms crossed or swinging billy clubs, preventing us from moving closer to the building. Chanting slogans, we looked up at people watching us from their offices in Rockefeller Center, waiting for action. People tried to avoid looking at us as they passed swaddled in heavy coats, sucked in through the revolving doors, safe at last. I stamped my feet in the snow and thought of sneaking inside just to warm up.

I was attracted by Toni's wildness and her easy smile that seemed to come from as much loneliness as mine. She wore an army jacket far too large for her slight frame; I wore a long black woolen coat that had belonged to my father. I'd taken it after he died, remembering how proud he was to see me dressed nicely, a way of connecting. My mother gave the rest of his clothes to the Council Thrift Shop. He'd wanted to buy me a coat like his but I'd refused, preferring my ski jacket. It was hard for me to make concessions. I wanted to be different, to set my own mark; I also liked the coat.

"Where you going with your life?" he'd asked when I told him I'd decided to move to New York City. I didn't know; I couldn't answer and wouldn't admit that as much as I wanted the adventure I was scared. Standing in the doorway of our solid brick home, he watched me carry boxes of books and clothes to his Buick. I wanted his blessing; he gave me a check and loaned me the car. "I'm sorry," I said, wanting a hug and drove away, regretting that I was leaving and unable to do anything else. I watched him in the rear-view mirror alone, defeated, full of expectations I could not fulfill and when I was far enough away I wept for all the things that could never be between us. At his funeral I said Kaddish, wishing he could hear me, a way of forgiving, trying to settle unfinished business.

Toni was from the Bronx; I was a Jew from Manhattan. She was Irish Catholic; I was in therapy. We were Marxists, or at least said we were. We had the same books on Imperialism, Political Economy, and Social Revolution, and we were cold from standing outside for hours. I was happy when she accepted my invitation for spaghetti dinner at my apartment. We were hungry and impatient and got through dinner but not dessert.

In bed we forgot our differences, overflowing with each other. I wanted to say, 'I love you,' but was afraid that she would perceive it as neediness. We didn't talk much; clinging to each other was so much simpler. It didn't matter who we were, or where we would be tomorrow. Nearly strangers who wanted to be close to someone, we found a place where that meager intimacy would suffice until the next time and the next lover. Che stretched herself and waddled to the front door.

Toni pulled the covers around her shoulders. “It’s warmer here,” she said and snuggled against me. I put my arm around her, feeling her breasts and bones and the warmth of rekindled passion. "I like that," she said as I rubbed her back. Seducing her again was easier than wading through ambivalence and the future.

Afterwards, we covered ourselves under blankets of innocence and unanswered questions, our differences and the beginning of a snowfall. I listened to her breathe into white and grey patches of sky and our smoldering silence.

She didn't touch me after we made love. Moving away she covered herself with a blanket and put her feet up against the wall. "That was nice," she said. "I'm still feeling the afterglow." I felt proud of myself. Another "bourgeois male deviation," she would have commented. Perhaps I was only compensating for what I couldn't grasp about relationships, about giving and taking, the incompleteness in my life and the terrible sense that in all of this I had no idea of what I really wanted. Getting laid was a substitute for self-revelation, an escape from the darkness of loss and confusion.

Propping myself up, I tried to draw her towards me; she grasped my hand and held it against her belly.

"Do you think my boobs are too small?" she asked, pushing them up. I didn't.

"You probably do," she sighed. I wondered what she'd wanted me to say. "We talked about this in a feminist consciousness-raising session last week. One of the leaders came on to me. It was a drag." She ran her hands across my chest. "Maybe I'm up-tight about that."

"I wasn't sure we should do this," she continued. "I mean, last night we were having such a good discussion. I didn't want to spoil it. I hope we didn't." She gazed at the ceiling and frowned. I suddenly felt far away.

"Last week I slept with a man who's in The Movement. It wasn't good; it ended our relationship. I only wanted to be friends, but he insisted and I thought it wouldn't matter, but it did. We have to be open. Liberated. I also care about you. I mean, I feel good about this, being with you. But I don't want to get involved."

She sounded as if she was giving me a lecture, or homework. I didn’t want to argue; it felt good enough to know that she appreciated me, if only for now. In The Movement, one has to be very tolerant and very forgiving. As we lay there listening to the noises from the street, she sat up suddenly and stared at me intently.

"Let's get something straight. I'm very busy. I have meetings and my work. I don't have a lot of extra time. So if we don't get together for a while, it isn't because I don't like you, or anything. I just don't want a heavy relationship. You know what I mean?"

I didn't, but nodded anyway.

"There are limits to everything," I offered philosophically, feeling self-protective, not wanting to sound disappointed. "But I didn't expect..." as if I didn’t care."I understand...” I began, but didn't and wondered if she was thinking about someone else. Mao says that your head must rule over your heart. Everything must be sacrificed to The Revolution, even love.

"Don't get hurt," she said. “I don’t want any heavy trips.” Suddenly I felt like I'd been playing a game with different rules and lost. Mao says that The Revolution creates its own reality. In meditation class the teacher instructed us: "Be here now." But I didn't know where I was. Okay, I thought, I forgive you, you forgive me and I forgive myself. It all balances out.

Nothing lasts; take things for what they are. I wondered if she could sense my insecurity. But having exposed myself, I now felt vulnerable.

"It's okay; I'm not upset…" I replied trying to sound casual, but I was disappointed and she probably knew it. I'll bring this up in therapy, I thought; let Dr. Wachteller figure it out.

She swung off the bed and pulled her clothes over her thin body. I watched her button her shirt and wished she would stay. Can you? I wanted to ask, but dared not. She'd already laced up her boots half way. Reluctantly, I dressed and joined her in the kitchen. I turned on the stove for some heat and made us coffee. I'd ‘liberated’ a dozen cans of fine espresso from the supermarket across the street after a fire had gutted the building. At night, after the fire department had left, the whole neighborhood descended on the still smoking ruins. Survival of the fittest, I reckoned and took what I could.

She held her cup against her cheek. The freckles on her nose darkened with her eyes.

"What are you thinking?" I asked. She didn't answer.

Pigeons strutted arrogantly across the rooftops below, pecking at the snow and each other. I thought about working on my dissertation and a woman I’d met in the library the day before. She seemed friendly and intriguing; I was angry with myself for not getting her number and wondered if we would meet again.

I'd taken a half-year off from substitute teaching at a junior high school in Brooklyn’s Bed-Sty neighborhood. I loved teaching and the kids, but was afraid that if I stayed I'd never finish my dissertation. I was one of the few white teachers that the parents’ committee trusted. Mrs. Mayes, a heavy-set, single-parent head of the committee, said I'd let them down when I told her that I was leaving. I tried to explain, but I didn't persuade her, or myself. I was leaving; that was bottom-line. She shook her head.

"That's OK, Whitey," she said and smiled knowingly. "Yo'all come back. We be here. We ain't goin' no place." As I walked down the street past the school yard some of the kids shouted my name. I turned around and waved to them. I'd miss them too and worried what they'd think when I didn't show up. 'Cop-out. Traitor,' I thought descending the stairs to the A train. I felt like running back and then the train arrived and I pushed my way into a packed car pressed against strangers. Survival contrives its own morality.

The Empire State Building glittered majestically over the flat rooftops and steaming chimneys. I threw some stale bread to the pigeons below and watched them scramble for the pieces in the snow. I wondered if Toni was thinking about another man, or what she would do with me. Her preparations to leave made me want her more. She looked at me as if reading my mind and shook her head.

The phone rang. I didn't answer. My mother was calling from Florida. She couldn't sleep, the weather was warm and she wanted to know how I was and when I was going to visit.

"More coffee?" I asked and filled her cup again. She held it against her chest, enclosing it with her hands.

"My Mom died when I was in high school. Dad raised us, but it wasn't much of a home. He was sloshed most of the time. Or hanging out with one of his girlfriends. Two of us, me and my sister. She was a couple of years younger. We grew up fast; we had to. He was pissed when I moved out. Guess he thought I'd take care of him forever." She shook her head. "We don't talk much now. Sis stayed for a while and then she got pregnant and moved in with a black dude that lived in the projects. He's into cars, fixing 'em, sometimes stealing 'em. But he's a good guy. He cares about her and the kid."

We’d argued the night before about her latest attempts to teach people how to fight the "capitalist pigs and the ruling class.” Old stuff, I'd said, full of thorny slogans and rhetoric, warmed over by "the vanguard" to set us on the right path. "Clichés," I said. She didn't appreciate my comments. I too could be "the enemy," she'd said, half-jokingly. "It's how you think, as well as what you do, or don't do. Time will tell." The kitchen was warming up. Che waited patiently for me by the door.

A large roach crawled from behind the stove in bloated confusion. I tried to kill it with a sudden stomp, which raised dust from beneath the torn linoleum. Toni glared at me, startled by my sudden rage. I wished she would hug me undialectically.

I turned on the radio for the morning news. "Listen to this," she said and turned it off. She read a manifesto she'd written in a spiral notebook covered with a subway map on which she had scrawled "We're all victims!"

"It lacks imagination," I contended when she was done, handing her back an anti-war flyer, wanting poetry. She looked at me indignantly. Not the correct thing to say to a disciplined revolutionary. I turned the radio back on. The war. Stock prices. Sports. The weather.

"Wall Street doesn't care about people," she said sharply.

"They're not supposed to," I replied, thinking about a friend of mine who dropped out of grad school to become a stockbroker.

"It’s over,” he'd told me over beers. “I've taken a permanent 'leave-of-absence.' I’m making money and I like it. Screw the degrees, man.”

"Hey, you betta get yo act together," Toni scolded, pointing at me. At first I thought she was teasing, but then she seemed upset with me; it was the last thing I wanted. "We gotta bring the revolution," she said, shaking her head for emphasis. Power to the People! proclaimed the button she wore on her faded denim shirt. I nodded and wondered whether she would come back to bed.

She was going off to teach in an elementary school in East Harlem. She would read her students a Vietnamese story and call them ‘comrades.’ She would tell them that she was quitting next week because she had to work on "Media for the Masses," a project run by her ex-lover.

She would tell that to the little boy who kissed and hugged her whenever he had the chance and resorted to biting her when she didn't pay enough attention to him. She would tell that to the little girl who stood in the corner and stared at her with angry love. But there were more important things to do. As Mao says, 'Someone always gets hurt in the struggle; make sure it isn't you.'

"Without a sense of humor," I told her, "you can get very confused."

She looked at me and squinted, measuring the distance between us. The A express shook the building as it hurtled past. For a moment, she looked frightened or amused. Was it me? Had I said the wrong thing? I tried to find a way back. I brushed her hair with my hand; she pushed me away.

"Why did you do that?" she demanded. "My father used to do that; I hate it. Makes me feel like I'm your childslave, your toy." She stood up defiantly.

One of the neighbors began banging on the water pipes. In Brooklyn, Malta, Greece, or wherever they were from, this was a signal to send up more heat. But the boiler had been broken for weeks. In our old rent controlled building no one was listening.

Cars continued to back up in both directions. An ambulance stuck in traffic wailed over the grudging pattern of chaos and confusion. I wanted to ask if we would see each other again and if she could love me; I wondered if I could love her. A game of chance, cafeteria of desires. Eat as much as you want; no matter how much you're always hungry. I raped you softly with my love… A song from the radio. I raped myself.

She stuffed her books and papers into a small satchel and put on her army jacket. Soldier of Misfortune, I thought, wondering if she would be warm enough. I put on a record of Bach fugues, hoping to drown out the desperate chorus of horns and her leaving. How easily differences could be worked out, forgotten in music, or not.

The windows rattled against the cold wind. I wished she would put her arms around me, just because she felt like it. I tried to hug her. She moved back, flipped the double locks and opened the door.

"I have to go," she said, standing in the hallway with her book bag slung across her shoulder, baggy pants covering her boots. Yes, you have to go. Of course. No problem.

"Should I call?" I asked, sounding formal.

"Sure," she said, smiling. We hugged uncertainly.

I kissed her on both cheeks. "For the revolution," I said and smiled back. Mirrors never lie; it's only those who look into them.

"For the revolution," she repeated, adjusting her wire-rim glasses and kissed me back.

Suddenly she was out into the world, mindful of the divine warning to Lot's wife, Chairman Mao to the contrary not withstanding. The door slammed behind me as I went back inside, its vacant finality echoing in the hallway. From the window I watched her walk quickly down the street and enter the subway.

An elderly white woman emerged from the grocery store across the street, started to cross between the cars, then retreated suddenly and dropped her packages. A young black man offered to help and they walked across the street together, arm in arm through the herd of cars that waited impatiently, their engines steaming imminence and progress, the compassion of moving on.

A sanitation man strolled along the curb in slow motion, pushing a pile of papers, bottles and dog shit with his broom. Finally the police and tow trucks arrived, separated the gnarled cars and towed them away; traffic flowed again as if nothing had happened.

The record got stuck on a scratch playing the same phrase over and over, mocking its subtle beauty, unable to avoid repeating what it did not understand. Somewhere I heard the sound of a parade. Perhaps they're working on the boiler. False hopes. I warmed my hands against the stove.

I wondered if Toni would come back and whom I could call if she didn't. Perhaps she would meet someone new and go home with him. "Jealousy," I remembered her saying, was a "bourgeois trait."

A small pile of exams remained on my desk, overdue. I rummaged through notes for an evening course on Social Revolution I was teaching at the New School. I planned to give out Marx’s essay on Alienation. Toni had left a flyer on the table. "Comrades!" it began.

I called an old girlfriend who baked fancy French pastries in her loft apartment for small local restaurants, wondering if she was still with the guy who'd replaced me, or if there was someone new. Last winter she had taken me to her parents' summer home on New Jersey's South Shore. Alone for the weekend I felt like we were falling in love. But she liked variety and a week later when she told me she was "busy," I didn't understand. "Don't like commitments," she warned. Once while cooking dinner for me wearing only an apron and having forgotten some ingredient, she just pulled on her trench coat and went down to the corner grocery store to buy what she needed. The soft drawl of her voice humbled me as I left a message on her answering machine, wondering if she was listening and with someone else. A snobby Israeli artist I knew had invited me to a wine-and-cheese opening at a gallery in SoHo that evening. I thought about going to a lecture on “The Political Economy of Imperialism,” hoping to meet someone and fall in love again, spinning once more through a revolving door of connection and separation.

'If you don’t know where you’re going,' Mao warns, 'you could get very lost.' I wondered if he'd ever had girlfriends, or tasted espresso. Or if he ever felt alone, even with Ms. Mao.

On the mist that covered the window I drew a heart and watched it drip slowly away waiting for the revolution, or a phone call.

Che wagged her tail and scratched at the door. I'd forgotten.

"Let's go,” I said, grabbing my coat and opening the door. She bounded down six flights of stairs as I swung down behind her as fast as I could and raced into the street. Angelo, the janitor, was setting out battered garbage cans in front of the building. The Italian funeral home next door was in the midst of business. Long black cars. Elegant black suits. What a way to die.

Che wagged her tail gratefully. I snatched a still-warm neatly folded copy of the Times from the trash basket and tucked it under my arm. An elegantly dressed woman passed me. We looked at each other and I wondered if she had seen me pick up the newspaper and if she would go out with me anyway.

My father would not have approved, but like him I had to go my own way. Yet I wanted him to be proud of me, to receive his blessing, to fill a hollow place inside.

Mr. Kolker, who took care of the shul next to the Chelsea Hotel, hobbled down the street looking for stray Jews for his minyan. I pretended not to see him and began walking away. He called to me, remembering that I had said Kaddish there for my father, gesturing to me with a desperate urgency. I shrugged and pointed to Che, my excuse. He kept swinging his arm like a policeman directing traffic. Dutifully I followed him back to shul, into the nearly empty social hall where eight other men waited for me, for anyone. Che curled up under a folding chair in the corner.

Standing in the back next to a table piled with prayer books and blue and white silk prayer shawls, I picked up one and wrapped it over my head and shoulders, feeling my father's presence, an embrace that I could not have given him when he was alive.

I cried softly into its folds, "Why couldn't we be there for each other? You were in your revolution; I'm in mine." Yisgadal vyiskadash… light scattering through dust, an emptiness to fill.

When the service was over I went to the coffee shop on the corner, bought two cups of coffee and two doughnuts and gave one of each to the homeless man who stood near the entrance to the subway. He reeked of urine; his nose dripped, his face was streaked with dirt, a ski cap pulled over his ears. Holding my gifts in his grimy hands as if praying, he nodded, blessing me without words. He stuffed the doughnut into his mouth and placed the coffee on a ledge. Then, reaching into the pocket of his once-fashionable grey overcoat he pulled out a crumpled piece of paper and handed it to me. Instinctively I stepped back. He insisted. It was a magazine ad of a beautiful woman in a bra. I handed it back to him. He looked at me curiously.

"You a Mormon?" he asked hoarsely.

"No," I answered emphatically. He shook his head.

"You look like a Mormon." The coat, I thought.

"You Jew?" he leaned forward and peered at me. I nodded.

He reached into the other pocket and handed me a neatly folded picture of the Temple Mount, an ad for El Al Airlines. Come To Israel, it read. Come Home.

It began to snow more heavily; I pulled my coat around me. Home, I thought. Where do I belong?

Suddenly he unbuttoned his coat. Shit, not a flasher, I panicked. Flinging open his coat he revealed a blue and red superman outfit. Instead of the letter "S" there was a picture of Mao, smiling radiantly and underneath the words, Crazy Eddie, His Prices Are Insane! Grabbing his coffee from the ledge he turned and dashed down the stairs into the subway.

On the way back to my apartment building I saw the elegant lady who'd passed me before. I tried to catch her eye as she walked straight towards me. Surprisingly she returned my stare and slowed her pace as we got closer. The click of her high heels reverberated inside. Probably an executive, I thought and smiled; she smiled back. A good beginning, I thought, an understanding woman, warm, sensitive, an immediate sign of her interest and our possibilities.

"Hi," I offered as we passed. I could see her face more clearly now, more make-up than I'd noticed and a sense of absence, as if she was paying attention to something else. I caught up with her at the corner of 21st Street. "From the neighborhood?" I asked as we began walking down the street together. "Haven't I seen you before…?"

She stopped suddenly and stared at me boldly. "Could be," she answered evasively. Perhaps she was wary of such encounters, or was just busy, on her way to an important meeting, a corporate big-shot on her way to work. "You want something?" She had a slight Southern accent and smelled heavily of perfume.

"Well, I thought maybe we could meet. I live over there." I nodded towards my apartment building. Angelo was hauling garbage cans back inside. I tried to sound polite, sincere. "Maybe we could have coffee…" I imagined long intriguing conversations, telling her about myself, comforted by her gentleness and wisdom and of course her sexual generosity. Here was a woman I could trust, on whom I could depend, a woman who would join me on the road to enlightenment and ecstasy. Real love.

"Honey," she said flatly, "I'm a whore. You wanna come up to my place, it'll cost you." I stepped back. "I give ya a good time, but no kissin.'"

"Ah, no thanks," I mumbled and began walking back to my apartment, noises of the street bouncing around in my head, a half-cup of cold coffee in my hand. Just ahead of me Che was enthusiastic about every smell she could find. I turned around briefly and watched the lady enter a brownstone at the end of the block.

I thought about Mao: "We can learn what we didn't know. We're not only good at destroying the old world, we're also good at building the new." Pulling my father's coat around me I suddenly felt raw, uprooted while everything around me remained in its place. I thought of Dr. Wachteller listening patiently to my stories for exactly 50 minutes and then turning me out without a word. I wanted to scream and run home, wretched among all the things I thought I knew and did not know.

I called Mrs. Mayes from the payphone on the corner. The sound of her voice was familiar and distant. "Changed my mind," I said. "I want to come back."

She paused for a moment and then welcomed me happily, as if she'd known all along. "See ya'll in the mornin' an don't you be late," she replied and chuckled.

When I looked back my dark footprints already melting in the snow, for a moment unobscured by others, they seemed to mark a simple path, an intricate trail of purpose.