In spite of persistent sadness, the next two days almost convinced Rai that she would make it without Z. Yazmín was off work, so they spent the weekend together, exploring parts of the city that Rai had never seen before. Yazmín had taken her deep into the Bronx, where decay and despair mixed with the ecstatic life of Boricuas on the street (Yazmín had to insist several times before Rai would call Puerto Ricans “Boricuas.”). Then they went to Jackson Heights, because Rai had wanted to find an Algerian neighborhood; they had found Yemeni coffee houses and Iranian restaurants, Morrocan textile shops and a blank shop window with an Egyptian flag, but no signs of Algerians.
Rai had been less disappointed than she had feared with her inability to find her imagined countrymen (and women, she insisted parenthetically). As they had poked their heads into a tailor shops making south Indian saris, Yazmín drinking a fruit juice whose name they couldn’t pronounce but that they had bought in a Colombian grocery, and she trying not to wince at the taste of Arabic coffee, Rai had begun to wonder if she might be happy. Somehow, the meaning of life just didn’t feel quite as important right then.
She had not been able to exorcise Z from her mind, and from time to time (especially on Saturday night, when Yazmín had to leave her to get back for curfew), she obsessed over the meaning of his inscrutable recent quotes. Why hadn’t he accepted her apology? Even so, these thoughts had not occupied the front of her mind, and she had felt a vague contentment that seemed completely inappropriate to the material conditions of her life.
More pleasantly, cops had absented themselves for the weekend. Unfortunately, they’d been replaced by gangstas in the bat cave. Yazmín had explained that the Crips and the Latin Kings were back at war over control of dealing along 46th, which made Rai think of the rumbles in high school performances of West Side Story, but Yazmín disabused her of this illusion. In fact, she had explained, these wars were fought with single gunshots, late at night, or by intimidating the junkies when they came to buy the dope. Rai didn’t really care about the reason; she had just been glad that she could go the The Place without being constantly on guard.
Z chose Monday to punish Rai for her lack of attention — or at least it felt that way to her. She has already been worried the night before — what sort of a person was she to forget her best friend? Even ex-best friend — she didn’t know how to name him any more. She hadn’t even worried about their debate on the walls of the city, hadn’t passed along 46th or 53rd Streets. Perhaps he was ill, perhaps he was mad. Or perhaps he was evil. But she would never save him by traipsing around Jackson Heights with Yazmín.
Rai did not have to flagellate herself for long, because the walls soon stole the job from her. At Lafayette and Spring, there was not just one quote, but a long series of them, as if Z had been so furious with her lack of response that he had to pile argument on top of argument. The thick strokes of paint stood beside the previous column of quotes, bold enough that Rai could read them from a distance.
“Great art loves chains.”
“The weight of misfortune is heavy, but happiness is heavier still.”
“I am utterly perplexing, and I create only confusion.”
The last line seemed most to the point.
Once her confusion had cleared slightly, Rai felt fortunate that the lines on the graffiti were so bold, so that she did not have to leave the camouflage of the crowd. She had a moment to stare at the wall and ponder it.
What was Z getting at? None of the lines hearkened back to his thoughts about freedom. In fact, that Stravinsky quote seemed to contradict everything he believed. And when had he ever read that? And who the fuck was Hölderlin? Clearly the man (or the woman, Rai corrected herself) had never known real misfortune. Rai would have traded all of New York for a couple more of the hours of happiness she had felt this weekend.
She looked at the last line… Ironically, the quote about confusion was the only one that made sense. Clearly he was trying to perplex her, but why? To undermine her arguments, to force her to give up, to drive her mad?
With a start, Rai realized that she had been standing too still, staring too intently. Soon she would attract attention. She stepped into the flow of pedestrians and sped downtown, her mind still spinning.
“Great art loves chains.” Did Z know that the cops would soon catch him, that he would be in jail? But he had never claimed to be an artist, so those chains would offer him nothing. His art was politics, so maybe he meant that “Great politics loves chains.” It didn’t have the ring of the original, but it was more Z. Maybe it was a reference to Lenin’s time in jail in St. Petersburg, or Mandela’s years in a prison camp. Prison would purify his thoughts, teach him to inspire his fellow inmates. The argument had the same point as all the others: violence was justified by his future time in prison, which would…
Rai stopped her argument in its tracks as she waited for the light at Canal Street. Her thoughts weren’t making any sense at all. Not only was she inventing a stupid argument for Z, but he had never shown such insight into himself, or how to correct his own flaws. It had to be something else.
Maybe he wanted to say that terror was art? Sometimes his manifesto had hinted at something like that. It was almost Russian and 19th Century, something that Nikolai Stavrogin might have said in one of his saner moments. The thought pleased her, not just because she had remembered the name of such an obscure character, but because it made her think that she might have taught Z something, that maybe he had been listening when she went on about Dostoyevsky. But if terror was art, what sort of chains did it love? What was a chain on a bomb? What made him stop?
Her words. The idea came to her suddenly: only her words had stopped him from blowing more cars up. Her quotes were the chains he loved: was he accusing her of complicity?
Suddenly, the line from Socrates took on a new meaning. It wasn’t that he perplexed her, but that their argument confused the reading public. Might people think that her beautiful, eloquent quotes were written to justify the bombs? That some evangelical Marxist terrorist was roaming the city? Maybe that’s why the cops were after her! They thought she was the terrorist mastermind. This was the worst possible result, that people would reject her philosophy as she wanted them to reject his.
And with that, the middle line came to make a perverse sort of sense. She still didn’t know who this Hölderlin was, or where Z had read him (or her), but the quote was right on. She had been thrilled with each refutation, proud of her power and her erudition. Those moments made up most of her brief time of happiness over the last several weeks. Now, indeed, that happiness was a heavier burden than misfortune.
Her ruminations had brought her all the way down Broadway to South Ferry, and as her mind returned to her body, she realized that her feet hurt. Maybe she could sit for a while on the boat.
Then, with a rush of excitement, she saw that the Herbert H. Lehman was pulling into the dock. She hadn’t even thought to look there on the bench, under that first Descartes quote that Z had carved into the wood. Maybe he had left more quotes there, something less perplexing and confusing. She rushed up into the waiting room, brushing aside the stench of the old men who had slept the night there.
The sliding doors were already open, so she rushed through them, ran onto the ferry, then dashed upstairs to the deck where she and Z had started this adventure. Instantly, she was furious: people sat in the seats that she so desperately needed to see. Tall bearded men and their girlfriends, carrying shopping bags from the Armani Exchange. “God free me from the fucking Argentines!” Rai thought so loudly that it almost came out her mouth. She pushed past them to find an empty seat.
Rai couldn’t stop herself from fidgeting, even though she knew that she looked like a five year old who needed to pee. The occupants of her seats sat there calmly, slowly smoking Marlboros. Rai was sure that was illegal on the ferry — it certainly pissed her off.
What would he have written there, she wondered. What sort of quote would fill up the blank spaces in the puzzle? Here was a place where he could sit and write comfortably, without the fear of cops catching him, so he could have written something long and complex, maybe my Marcuse or that Lukács guy he liked so much. She fidgeted again.
As the ferry pulled away from the dock and turned toward New Jersey, the tourists rose automatically to photograph the skyline. Rai slid eagerly down the bench, knowing exactly where to look.
There was nothing there. Someone had just added a new coat of orange paint.
The rest of the ferry ride was interminable. She had brought no book with her, so restless thoughts were her only company. She had struggled so hard to make sense of those last quotes on Spring Street, but how much was lost under that fresh coat of paint?
She knew that only the walls of 46th and 53rd Streets would offer any answers, but she felt a strange resistance to going there. She wanted to figure it out for herself before she got there; to do otherwise would be to read the last page of the Agatha Christie novel before she’d made it through the rest of the book. Perversely, she decided that she would walk to Times Square, and that if she hadn’t figured it out by then. she would deserve to look at the last clues.
She sat for a while in the Winter Garden, then crossed the bridge into the World Trade Center, but she didn’t even look up at the towering walls. If no one was writing on them, they held no interest for her. Then she paced up Church Street, crossed onto 6th, went through the Village into Washington Square Park, watched the chess players for a while, then headed further uptown. As Broadway turned into the West Side, then entered Times Square, her mind was still blank.
She almost forced herself to ignore the words on 46th Street, but curiosity overcame her. In the same broad brushstrokes she had seen downtown, she read three new quotes:
“If the judges were just, perhaps the criminals would not be guilty.”
“It is more important to want the good than to know the truth.”
“If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.”
Petrarch? Who the fuck was Petrarch, she fumed. What had Z been reading since he’d been on his own? At least he’d had the grace to include a little bit of Russian wisdom.
Containing her ire, Rai forced herself to think through the puzzle. All these quotes made sense in the moral universe that Z had created for himself: vaguely self-righteous, justifying his own actions, seeing himself as put upon… Except that line from Emma Goldman. Z had never danced in his life. He hated it. Called it “bourgeois and unproductive,” even if Rai thought he was just frightened that people might see him in an unguarded moment. Why would he want to dance at the revolution?
It had to be a metaphor, but for what? What did Z love to do, something fun and frivolous? Sex, of course, but that was too obvious. He certainly loved to argue, so maybe he was saying that he would still argue after the revolution. Did that mean that the dictatorship of the proletariat would guarantee the freedom of speech?
Her hypothesis was so trite that Rai forced herself to reconsider the other quotes. It wasn’t just the Dostoyevsky quote that flattered her; she also liked “It is more important to want the good than to know the truth,” because it meant that she’d won the debate about the definition of truth. He’d retreated into “wanting the good,” which struck Rai as a pretty feeble defense for terrorism. Even so, none of the quotes fit into the rest of the argument. They weren’t about liberty, they didn’t accuse her of complicity or of confusing the public. Nothing helped to explain why “Great art loves chains.”
She paced back and forth across the sidewalk, failing to notice how Officer Safran stared at her with more than idle curiosity. None of the quotes seemed directed to her at all. What was Z trying to say?
It was dinnertime, and she hadn’t eaten all day, but Rai couldn’t go into the Place without first understanding. What was his point? And how could she rescue him from himself now?
Without another thought, she sprinted past Officer Safran, then ran up 6th against the rush hour crowd. She was winded by the time that she turned toward the MOMA, but the clearing crowd gave her the energy to push on. She saw a lone man standing where the quotes were, intently reading. Her heart brightened for a second: someone was reading what they had to say. Perhaps she and Z had accomplished something, made people think. If a solitary man would stop to read the quotes in the middle of a busy day, how many others had learned something from them? She would ask him if he was confused, if he blamed her…
With surprisingly little effort, she threw her head back and pulled her shoulders up. The man dropped to his knees. Was he reading a new graffito? she wondered. Z had returned to this wall for a new argument. The last clues would be there. Rai looked more closely as she rushed forward.
The man pulled out a paintbrush and a little tin of paint. Confused, she walked closer, seeing him begin to sketch letters on the wall. Closer, she saw his dark coat.
And, as he turned to dip his brush in the can, on his chest, she saw the unmistakable shine of a badge. An NYPD badge. Yet he was painting words under hers…
As the meaning of all the quotes crashed down around her, Rai sprinted headlong toward Fifth. The cops had written the quotes?
New York collapsed into a junkyard of senseless signs. Nothing meant what it seemed.
In the midst of the insanity of the last week, Rai had looked forward to her date with Yazmín as a possible island of calm, but she still arrived late. By the time she ran into at the museum, sweat covered her body and Yazmín was pacing the lobby with a worried look. Rai called to her apologetically.
“You worry me, girl!” Yazmín exploded. “You don’t show up and I dunno what’s up with you. You coulda jumped off the fucking Brooklyn Bridge for all I know.”
Rai restrained the resentful bile that rose in her throat. “I’m sorry. I haven’t exactly been myself recently, y’know.”
“See? That’s why I worry. You sure you’s OK?”
“I’m fine.” Rai noted, condescendingly, that Yazmín’s grammar deteriorated with anger.
“Cool. Since you’s late, you can buy me a ticket. ‘S’only a nickel, so I know it’s not gonna break ya.”
Once Rai had checked her backpack and bought the tickets, Yazmín refused to allow her to go up the escalator, instead dragging her to the right, where they heard quiet jazz chords. “No, come on,” Rai protested. “My life’s tough enough without having to listen to this shit.”
“That’s the thing, ain’t it? It ain’t shit, and you’s gonna learn that right now. While I was waitin’ for you, I looked through all the stuff that’s goin’ on tonight, and this band looks way hot. Double Quartet: half typical jazz, then a string quartet with it. OK, maybe it’ll suck, but more likely you learn somethin’.” They stepped around the corner into the modernist café, jammed with almost two hundred people, most bobbing their heads to the syncopated music.
Yazmín pulled Rai toward the larger tables at the front, where she saw a couple of empty seats. Unexpectedly, no one looked at them as they pushed through the crowd; for the first time, Rai noticed that Yazmín suffered from none of her usual awkwardness or anxiety. The music and her desire to teach had given her a certain grace. She pulled out a stool from under the table and sat lightly on it; Rai tried to do the same, but the metal chair shrieked on the floor, and everyone, including the saxophonist, stared at her. She sat quickly to hide from the gazes.
Between her rush to get to the museum and Yazmín’s angry urgency, memories of the week had no space to intrude. Now, with time to think, she could not, because the music confused her too much. Certainly it had some of the rhythms she expected from jazz, and she heard certain themes return time and time again from different instruments. Yet when the first violinist stood and began to saw away at a melody the trumpeter had just started, Rai had almost no idea what she was hearing. Violins were not supposed to play jazz, and certainly not like this, with violent motions and long curly hair thrown wildly from side to side. The violinist seemed transported into another world, one that Itzak Perlman and Yasha Heifitz had never known. In middle school, Rai had taken a great liking to classical music, at first in order to show her cultural superiority to the denizens of Vanillaville, but later because she actually liked it, and now she wasn’t sure whether to be offended or overjoyed by this explosion of strings.
Finally, with a great burst of vibrato on the G string, the violinist sat down and the crowd applauded politely. Offended that white yuppies could muster no more enthusiasm for this extraordinary performer — though she still had no clue if it was good or not, Rai knew that it was extraordinary — Rai clapped as loudly as she could.
Yazmín looked over and smiled. “Told ya.”
“Amazing,” Rai said under her breath, increasingly convinced that she did, in fact, like the music. “Fucking amazing.”
Yazmín turned back to the musicians, not more that ten feet away from their table, and began to tap her thumb and foot in radically different rhythms. Rai felt her head moving unconsciously and knew that her body mimicked a beat she could never figure out with her brain. Finally, with a slow diminuendo, the band closed the piece.
“Told ya you’d like it.”
“I dunno. It’s fucking weird, but there’s something, y’know? That woman with the violin. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
An old woman sitting next to her turned and nodded at Rai. “I came tonight just to see her, and it is not even her band.” Her voice had an Upper West Side, Yiddish accent that almost creaked. “Not many Jews who can play like that anymore.” She smiled with the sort of nostalgia that Rai generally hated about old people, except that this time she didn’t even notice it.
“She’s Jewish? And she can play like that?”
“Probably from Israel, by her name.” The band had begun to strike up another tune, so the woman just pushed her program toward Rai, then began to move her hands in a complicated rhythm that no old woman should have been able to manage.
Rai picked up the mimeographed sheet. Then, loudly, “Holy shit.”
Yazmín turned to her with her finger to her lips. “Shhh.”
Rai pointed to program and whispered intently, “Yaz. She’s not just Jewish. Look at her last name!”
Yazmín, a bit resentful to have her attention distracted from the music, read the name. “Miri ben-Ari. So?”
“Ben-Ari. That’s my name!”
“Rai: your name is Helen Miller, just in case you forgot.”
“No, my real name. From Algeria. It was Rachel ben-Ari.”
“Yeah, and there are lotsa people named Rodríguez, but do you see me having a fuckin’ orgasm in the middle of the room?” She turned her back to Rai to watch the musicians, and Rai followed her eyes toward the improvised stage. This piece sounded calmer, and it swung with a more constant beat. Rai almost thought she heard something of North Africa: though she could not have pointed to what it was, the music brought sand before her eyes, great dunes and long lines of Bedouin traders. Though she wanted to think they were memories from her own past, she knew she had stolen the images from National Geographic. Reverie had overcome her, and now the Berbers and the nomads carried saxophones and violins…
Yazmín shook her shoulder. “Whoa, chica. I wanted ya to like this stuff, but I didn’t mean–”
Rai opened her eyes. The music had stopped and the musicians had left the stage. The audience milled around the café, carrying coffee and wine back to their tables. “Was I asleep?”
“Sittin’ up straight as a dick in a porn flick, but I guess so,” Yazmín laughed. The old Jewish woman barked out something halfway between a laugh and a gasp, then turned to Yazmín, whose face instantly fell. “Sorry ma’am. Sometimes I forget where I am.”
The woman’s eyes twinkled. “We need more colorful language around this place. These concerts… Sometimes they make me feel old.” She gestured around the room, largely filled with people in their fifties and sixties. “It’s not like going to hear Coltrane in the Village back in the ‘50s.” Her face had taken on a nostalgic tint again. Rai began to fidget.
Yazmín, however, was not about to leave. “You saw John Coltrane? Live?” she gasped.
The old woman nodded. “Now that was a handsome man. I took the train all the way down from Washington Heights whenever he played at the Village Vanguard, even though my husband refused to go with me…” Rai stood up, squealing her seat once again, and excused herself to go to the bathroom. As she walked through the crowd, she heard the woman reminiscing about Dave Brubeck.
After she stood in line at the bathroom, Rai did not return to the café, but wandered out into the lobby. She noticed that the theater was showing Casablanca, and though she had never seen it, she knew that it took place in Morocco, and she felt like she needed more North Africa that night, so she asked for two free tickets. She hoped Yazmín would want to see the movie with her. Finally, she took the escalator up the stairs, walked quickly through the galleries, and sat down in front of her favorite Miró. She wondered why she had not noticed it before: the background was the same tint as the Sahara of her dreams.
By the time she finally made it back downstairs, the band had ended its thirty minute break and was preparing to play again. Rai pulled out the chair carefully, wanting to make sure it did not squeak.
“That was a serious pee.” Yazmín raised her eyebrows.
“I wanted to go see the Miró.”
“Cool. It was cool to get to talk with Essie, anyway. Did you know she saw Gilespie’s first…” Yazmín could tell instantly that Rai was not interested in this piece of information, so she turned back to her conversation with the old woman.
Rai could not take her eyes off the violinist. She watched the way she moved, the way she swished her hair, the laugh lines at the corners of her mouth. “So that’s what a real Sephardic woman looks like,” she thought to herself. “That’s how she walks, and how she cocks her head. God, I’m so far away from what I am. I don’t know anything about that; I’m just a little white girl in a body I don’t understand and that I don’t deserve…” The band began to play, interrupting Rai’s internal torment.
During the second set, Rai prohibited herself from falling into the reverie that had possessed her before. Instead, she watched the violinist, imitated her movements, felt her fingers on an imaginary wooden neck. She resolved to speak to her afterwards, to find out if her family had come from Algeria, from what part, why Jews would still have been there in 1982, whether there were other Ben-Aris in the world, whether they might like her.
At the end of the third piece, the band leader came to the front. “I hope you all don’t mind,” he began, confusing the audience. “But a friend of mine is here tonight, and I was hoping you’d let him join in.” Rai wasn’t sure what to make of this, but she took some consolation from the uncertain air in the café. The bandleader didn’t seem put off. “So, without further ado, Winton Marsalis.”
Yazmín fainted onto Rai. At first, Rai thought it was a joke, but then she felt her friend’s dead weight against her chest, so she slapped her face lightly. Yazmín opened her eyes sharply, then shook her head. “He didn’t say that.” Then, as she turned to look at Rai, a dashingly handsome black man with a round face and beautiful suit walked by, carrying a trumpet. “He did say that!” She leapt up and began to clap and scream at the top of her voice, which Rai would have found tremendously embarrassing except for the fact that even the old white people were doing the same thing. Finally, the black man and the bandleader calmed the crowd down and Yazmín sat again, excitement shining from her whole body.
“Who’s Winton Marsalis?”
“Only the best trumpeter ever in the history of the world,” Yazmín sighed.
“Don’t forget Miles…” Essie began, but the band had begun to play, so she fell silent.
Rai thought the new trumpeter was fine, but he stood directly between her and the violinist, so she fidgeted from one side to the other, trying to glimpse her new heroine again. Finally, Yazmín reached back and forced Rai to sit still.
At the end of more two pieces, the audience exploded in a way that white people should not, in Rai’s imagination of the world. Half of them rushed the stage, and through they were only trying to say a word to the trumpeter, they got in the way of Rai’s attempt to find Miri ben-Ari. By the time that she had pushed her way to the front, only the handsome black man stood there; the rest of the band was gone.
Crestfallen, Rai snaked through the thinning crowd to find Yazmín. She and the old woman traded amazed comments, repeating the same, “I don’t believe it!” over and over again, then humming a bit of a melody the trumpeter had played.
At a brief pause, Rai broke in. “I got tickets for the movie at eight,” she told Yazmín.
“Eight? Shit. I got curfew at nine. I’m sorry.” The curfew confused Essie, so Yazmín had to explain about Covenant House and what it was like to be homeless and how she got interested in jazz even though she was living on the street. Rai was equally surprised. When had Yazmín checked herself into Covenant House? And why? Unexpectedly, she fet terrible not to know this detail, betrayed even, so Rai got up, told Yazmín to find her in the Matisse room, and sulked off.
Once again, she felt lonely, even in the bright lights and brilliant colors of post-impressionist France. Her bitterness with Yazmín slowly calmed as she reminded herself that Yazmín had no responsibility to entertain her at every moment. She accused herself of being pathetic, of needing constant, unmerited attention. “You just have to grow up, Helen,” she lectured herself.
Finally, Yazmín arrived and sat down on the floor next to her. She noticed Rai’s slumped shoulders. “God, I didn’t even notice you was so bummed. I’m sorry.”
“No biggie. I’m just a loser for needing people around all the time.”
“Fuck that. We all need people. Especially when life sucks.”
“I shouldn’t. I gotta be stronger than that.”
“It don’t work that way.” Yazmín looked up at the huge canvas of white dancers on a blue background. “Look. At least I can keep ya comp’ny for a while more. Let’s go to that movie. What’s showin’?”
“Casablanca. But you got curfew.” She failed to keep the disdain from her voice. “The Cov? What the fuck you doing in Covenant House?”
“Got tired of turning tricks, y’know? Thought I’d see if there were some other options. But it’s no biggie. I got a plan.” She stood up and dragged Rai to a phone by the bathrooms. “Yo. You can talk all yuppie. Just tell ‘em you’s my boss and that I gotta work till eleven. We’re set.”
“Yuppie? What? I thought your bos would be a…” She let her voice trail off to avoid the word “pimp.”
“Yeah, I was gonna save this for a surprise, but fuck that, huh? I got a real job. Figured I’d sucked enough cock for one life.”
“So checked into the Cov?”
“It sucks, but maybe I can save some money, huh? I was thinking maybe we could even get an apartment together or something…”
Rai missed the last phrase. “So whaddaya do? What do I tell the fucking fascists when I call them?”
“I clean apartments. ‘Maid Right.’ Just say your name is Justine LeMalle.” She picked up the phone, put in a quarter, dialed a number, and put the phone to Rai’s ear.
“Yes, hello.” Rai made her voice as professional and deep as possible. “My name is Justine LeMalle of Maid Right, and I am the employer of Yazmín Rodríguez. Unfortunately, we have a serious backlog of apartments to clean on Park Avenue, and I have had to ask Miss Rodríguez to work late. I hope you will extend her curfew.”
After the staff member took down the right information, Rai hung up. “Easy as shit. Why don’t you do that every night?”
“Ya can only get away with it once in a while, or they start checkin’ up. C’mon. Let’s see the flick.”
Though the movie, with its melancholy humor and dark aesthetic, did little to improve Rai’s mood, Yazmín’s presence did, so by the time they had agreed to meet next day at the Place, Rai felt as good as she had all day. They had not talked of Z, of meaning, or of the cops, and she had felt deeply relieved at the chance to forget, if just for a moment. Deep in the Ramble, as she wrapped herself in the tarp and looked up at dim stars, she wondered how much brighter they shone over Algeria.
“Is there still dinner?” Rai gasped as she stumbled into the Place. She didn’t recognize the receptionist, a tall Asian guy. Evening staff seemed completely irregular.
“You just get run over by the A train?” His face mixed concern with humor, suggesting to Rai that she looked as frantic as she felt. “I think there’s still time.” He picked up the phone and dialed three numbers. “Enough food for one more hungry soul? Thanks.” He turned back to Rai. “Hurry up. Pity the shower’s closed for the night. Looks like you need one.”
Though Rai might normally have been offended by this indulgence, she brushed it off.
After as much pasta as she could stuff down, two containers of yogurt, some fruit, and a rather harried conversation about chess openings with Toker, she almost felt ready to go to the park alone. Even so, she sat alone for a while, trying to understand why the cops had gotten so worked up.
Someone sat down next to her. “How ya doin’?” It was Dashel, the big guy with the kind voice who handled crises.
“Tired. But fine.”
“Yazmín told me you’d been in some trouble. Gotta be scary to be on the street without Z around. What’s up? Crips after you or some shit?”
“Something like that.” That explanation sounded much better than the truth.
“They’re hard asses. Gotta be brave to stand up to them.”
“Little girl doesn’t mean little courage.”
“You go, girl. Even so, if ya ever need somebody t’walk ya to the subway, just ask me.” A quick look at his muscles assured Rai that no one would mess with him. “But I just wanted to know if you need anything. Looks like you’ve been having a tough time.”
“Not so bad.”
“’Cause we can help you find a place to stay, or somebody to talk to–”
“Thanks. But unless you’ve got a new interpretation of Bulgakov, I’m not really interested.” Rai used this line whenever anyone offered help, especially psychiatric help. She had found that, when uttered with the right mix of irony and superiority, it drove away anyone who wanted to do something for her.
“Just an idea. You know where we are.” As Dashel got up, he slid a couple of Power Bars in front of Rai. “Just in case you miss dinner next time.” With a kind smile, he walked out of the lunch room. Rai remembered Z’s repeated comment that The Place would be much more tolerable if the staff were just mean enough to allow you to resent them. She sat for a while longer, chewing at the core of an apple, but finally Kwame asked her to leave. He was closing up. She walked slowly down the stairs to find Dashel chatting with the new guy at the front desk.
“Yo Rai. Whassup.”
“Whassup whassup,” Rai replied in her best street accent. Tomorrow, she would change her clothes, but she couldn’t do it tonight. Maybe the cops wouldn’t recognize her if she weren’t alone, though. Or if she had Dashel’s body to hide behind. “Yo, so you mind walkin’ me through the bat cave? I don’t wanna be paranoid or some shit, but the Crips hang out there.”
“Yeah. I was just tellin’ Gene about it.”
“Some big cojones you got there.” The Spanish word sounded strange on Gene’s lips.
“Ovaries. Cojones are on the outside so you can smash ‘em.”
Gene and Dashel laughed in the way Rai had hoped they would. “C’mon,” Dashel said. “Let’s get you to the subway.”
As they stepped out the door, Rai asked, “So why you here this late? Doesn’t seem fair.”
“Racking up comp time.” He grinned boyishly, then turned to greet the security guard at the hotel next door. Even if Rai had wanted to continue the conversation, it would not have been possible. Everyone on the street — the kids, the security guards, the workers in the restaurants — greeted him with waves and smiles. Even the Crips in the bat cave shook his hand as he passed by. Dashel was a big, strong guy, Rai thought, but that wasn’t how he kept the peace. His laughs and his handshakes and his friendly “whassup whassup” calmed everyone. So different from the cops.
At the turnstile, Dashel pulled out his Metrocard. “I doubt you got the money for a token, and I don’t wanna see you jumpin’ the train. This is unlimited, so no skin off my back.” He slid the card through the reader and pushed Rai through the gate. “See ya.” He whistled as he jogged back up the stairs.
Rai wondered how long it had been since she had been on the subway legally. Never, she thought.
Rai felt immensely grateful for a calm, quiet night. She had cruised out to Prospect Park, where she felt sure that no Crip or cop would find her, and she slept hard. Not her usual, guarded doze, ready to wake and knife an attacker at any second, but involuntary, real, deep sleep.
Bored by her usual haunts, the next morning she decided to stake out new ground for her morning reading. Almost unconscious of the trains she took out of Brooklyn, she found herself at the corner of Fifth and 59th, across from the Plaza Hotel, by the de Kooning sculpture that she and Z had debated over so many times. She sat down on another sculpture — at least she assumed it was a sculpture, though it just looked like a collection of tumbled rocks — pulled Anna from her bag, and began to read.
Up until this point in the novel, Rai had tried to read slowly, paying close attention to every description and every conversation in order to figure out how Anna had wrenched herself free from the oppression of Russian formal society, but now she could no longer constrain her eyes. The story had become too exciting: high society was corrupting Levin, who had gone to see Anna and almost fallen in love with her; Anna and Vronsky had moved to the country, built a hospital, and now Anna was writing a book; the evil Countess Lydia Ivanovna had convinced Karenin to deny Anna a divorce… Her eyes devoured the words and her fingers flicked the pages more and more quickly. She failed to notice anything around her, not the tourists, not the drizzle that fell from the claustrophobic sky, not even the two policemen who stood and watched her for several minutes. Rai noticed none of this; she roamed free through the countryside near Moscow.
At perhaps three in the afternoon, Anna could no longer control her jealousy. She pursued Vronsky to his mother’s house, obsessed by an imagined rival. She scorned every face she saw on the train.
“When the train stopped at the station, Anna got out with a crowd of other passengers and, keeping away from ther as if they were lepers, stopped on the platform, trying to remember why she had come there and what she had intended to do. Everything that had seemed possible before, she found so difficult to grasp now, especially in this noisy cowd of hidous people who would not leave her in peace. Porters rushed up offering their services. Young men, stamping their feet on the planks of the platform and talking in loud voices, looked her up and down, and the people who came toward her always tried to get out of the way on the wrong side. Recollecting that she had meant to go on if there was no reply, she stopped a porter and asked if there was not a coachman with a note from Count Vronsky.”
She paced up and down the platform, carrying her little red bag, tortured by thoughts of betrayal. Then, finally, with no options left, she threw herself under the wheels of the oncoming train.
As her blood splattered the tracks, Rai closed the book, stretched, and sighed. Her eyes were moist. For the first time, she felt the damp of the drizzle and the emptiness in her stomach. She took one of the Power Bars Dashel had given her and devoured it. The book still promised a hundred more pages, but Rai knew it was over; she felt the odd fullness in her gut that heralded the end of a story, the completion of something important. She savored the sensation for a moment, then grew bored of it and wondered if Mike was at the softball fields yet. She stood and stretched again.
After a quick walk through the south end of the park, Rai slipped out of the woods onto the open grass of the softball fields. As she had hoped, Mike sat in his accustomed spot. She ran through two softball games and dashed up the bleachers. “Yo Misha, how’s it hangin’?”
Mike his his confusion well. “I have been waiting with bated breath. How was your date with young Vronsky?”
Rai laughed almost dutifully, but then became serious. “Still haven’t found him. Anna just offed herself, though, so I’m kinda thinking you might be right, and I shouldn’t look so hard for him.”
“A wise choice, I believe.”
“But the book’s so fucking right on, Mike. That’s the thing. Tolstoy thinks he’s telling some story about Russia, but you know what it’s really about? Me! My little fucking life. He’s put words to everything I feel… no, it’s like even better, ‘cause they’re not just words like ‘anomie’ and ‘angst’ and all that fucking pretense I only pretend I understand. The story tells who I am so much better than my story does.”
“Perhaps you exaggerate, Helen.”
“OK, a little. But the metaphor’s right on, the whole way through. Everything but Vronsky. Who’s Vronsky? That’s the thing. Who’s Vronsky?”
“What about that Sudanese boy you mentioned?” Mike’s eyes twinkled, as if to subvert her intensity.
“C’mon! He’s cute and all, and maybe I’d even like him. Or maybe other guys, too. But ‘like’? Come on! We’re talking me here. I can’t get by with some little affaire du coeur. I need epic. A freight train running me down — nah, that’s a cliché. A plane that crashes into me… I mean, I guess this sounds kinda stupid, but I gotta make this metaphor work, ‘cause otherwise it seems like I’m just obsessing over this book for no good reason.”
“It is a good book.”
“But it’s gotta relate to my life. I’ve been thinking about other stuff with Anna, y’know, like when she decides to write a book, and I’ve always wanted to do that, but that’s no big deal. Or maybe the way she’s so charming, but at the same time she’s excluded from society, so she’s a bit dangerous and romantic, right?”
“Have you developed a coterie of alienated aristocrats?”
“Hardly. I’ve barely even got any friends.” Mike wanted to interrupt her, but she barreled on. “And then there’s the whole freedom thing, but that’s just too obvious, isn’t it? Plus, I’m looking for real freedom, while she’s just exchanging one prison for another.”
“You try very hard to escape prisons.”
“Dude.” She smiled to break her funk. “So I dunno. Maybe I should think about the other characters and see if I can figure it out that way.”
“Helen, this is a book written almost a century and a half ago. It is not a metaphor for your life. And perhaps it is not good–”
“But if I’m gonna learn from it and from this fucking life I’m suffering though, I gotta put ‘em together. That’s just how my mind works, so that’s what I gotta do.” She looked at him with eyes that brooked no dissent. “Anyway, so it’s pretty clear that you’re Oblonsky: always cheery, a bit ironic, fun to be around. What’s he say? Something like the whole point of civilization is to make everything enjoyable. That’s you. You’ve learned to laugh at the worst shit.”
“I know you believe this a compliment, Helen–”
“But Oblonsky doesn’t come off great in the end, I know. He can be a bit of an ass and he keeps cheating on his wife and he’s way too interested in his own ambition… But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s got a pretty decent philosophy of life. So you’re like a good Oblonsky. I don’t see any of his bad qualities in you, but you’re still funny and I like to be around you.”
“Thank you, but–”
“And, I mean, not that I think of you as my brother or anything, but if we’re making a metaphor here, it’s pretty clear I’m Anna. She’s so awesome.”
“Yet, Helen, in the end–” Mike’s eyes had become serious, and Rai resolved not to let him get away with it.
“Yeah, yeah, she throws herself under the train. But here’s the thing: it’s like you’re a good Oblonsky and I’m a good Anna. I want to feel freedom like she did, and I want to live and piss off society and maybe have an epic romance — except for the kids, I definitely don’t want that, ‘cause the whole labor thing just sounds like a pain in the ass and they’d prob’ly just run away from me, anyway — but suicide? Hardly. I got too much to figure out. Look… remember how I was so into Pechorin? He’s just about storytelling and imitating people in novels and shit. Like your Madame Bovary, right? But I was reading through Anna and I figured out exactly the problem I had with Pechorin, even thought I didn’t know it at the time.” She paged through the Anna and found a page turned down. “Yeah, here it is: ‘But she found no pleasure in reading, that is to say, in following the reflection of other people’s lives. She was too eager to live herself.’ Cool, huh?”
“It does not appear that you have lost the pleasure of reading.”
“What, you expect the metaphor to be perfect? Of course I still get off on books. But that was the problem with Pechorin as a role model. He doesn’t let you live. He’s just so stuck on the story — in the book, right? — that he never really finds what’s happening in life. Like, there’s never any real relationship with Princess Mary; he never puts himself on the line and lives. Anna? She’s in danger the whole time. She knows her heart might break, she knows the risks she’s running, but she does it anyway.”
“But Anna did not know Vronsky, either, I believe. No more than Pechorin knew Mary–”
“Maybe not, but she actually follows her heart, y’know? For Pechorin, once he gets together the balls to do anything, it’s way too late, but Anna — she does it. She’s free.”
Mike shook his head, then sighed. “I am not so sure I find myself as Oblonsky flattering.”
“What, ya wanna be Betsy? I remember one thing she said that was just like perfect for you.” She searched through the book again. “Yeah, here it is. I even wrote ‘Mike’ in the margin.” Rai felt the tension of the last 24 hours float from her body. It felt so nice to talk to someone, to forget Z, hunger, the cops.
“You wrote in the margin? And how will you sell it?”
“It’s a paperback. Low resale value anyway. Right, so, ‘You see, one can look at a thing tragically and turn it into a torment or one can look at it simply or even gaily. Perhaps you are inclined to take things too tragically?’ That’s like you. Like that story about the Gulag you told.”
“I must tell you, Helen, that I was never–”
“I know that. You’re a shitty liar, Mike. But it was a good story, huh? I mean, great for the whole life on the street thing. Sometimes this whole gig is awful, but it’s fucking loony, too, so it’s better if you can laugh about it. So I like what you said. Anna shoulda listened to Betsy or her brother.”
“She listened to Betsy too much.”
“Yeah. Just on the wrong stuff, huh?” She paused for a moment to set down the book. “Kinda sucks for you that Tolstoy puts your philosophy in the mouth of the bad guys, huh? That can’t make you feel good.”
“Oblonsky is not exactly a villain.” Rai noted with a smile that Mike had become a little defensive.
“And then he puts his own philosophy in Levin’s mouth, even though Levin’s such a bore.” She thought for a moment. “So who’s Levin?” She scrunched her mouth in thought. “Nah, that’s the wrong way to think about it. How ’bout this: Z. Who’s Z in this whole thing?”
“Your friend. A felon. I do not know what you mean.”
“In the whole Anna analogy. I mean, if I’m gonna make the metaphor work, he’s gotta play a role, right? Like, right at the beginning I kinda thought he was Karenin. Y’know, I was gonna leave him for some dashing cavalry guard–”
“You never believed that.”
“ ‘Course not. But it was a pretty good story. Thing is, Z’s no Karenin. Short, fat, boring bureaucrat? Hardly. There’s nobody in Anna who’s like Z. Except maybe Vronsky, and he sure can’t be Z.”
“ ‘Cause I was never in love with Z. Never even close.” She stared out over the fields. “I dunno. I gotta think about it, I guess.”
Mike allowed her to think for a while, but when it became obvious that no answer was coming, he changed the subject with his usual abruptness. “But I have been rude. I so wanted to speak of novels that I have ignored the more simple courtesies.” He bowed his head, then spoke as one might at the beginning of a conversation. “Tell me more of your life.”
The honest happiness she found in the ebb and flow of the conversation had almost erased thoughts of the previous twenty-four hours, but with his question, memories flooded back into her consciousness. Her face fell.
“I am sorry. It has been a difficult time?” he asked.
“Fuck yeah. Cops after me again. The effort they put into persecuting an honest graffiti philosopher.” With the last sentence, she managed to force a little levity into her voice.
“But you say you scare the police. More than simple graffiti.” Rai could never understand exactly what Mike thought of her more outrageous theories, whether interpretations of novels or explanations of police behavior. He seemed to see them as part of a game; sometimes he scolded her for breaking the rules and suggesting a totally ridiculous idea, but most of the time he seemed content to play with them.
“Maybe. I mean, it’s clear they’re after something. I still dunno what. You’re right: Z’s not clued into what freedom’s about. He’s just gettin’ off on his own fancy words. I dunno what the cops are up to.”
“Perhaps they do not like graffiti.”
“There’s lotsa graffiti around. I bet they don’t like philosophy. Or the idea of a street kid who knows more than they do.”
“Perhaps.” His eyes twinkled.
“But I think they know something. They’re trying to stop us from saying it.”
“And what is ‘it’?”
“That’s the problem. Like I said, I dunno. But these words mean something. Not necessarily what Z wants to say or even what I mean. It’s like… like I’m a pen who’s writing the meaning of life, ‘cept I don’t know what I’m writing. I gotta wait till it’s all done, then I get to read what I wrote.” She liked the metaphor; it felt clever on her tongue.
“You do not look like a pen.”
“It’s a simile, Mike. C’mon. I think it’s a pretty cool image.”
“You, who are so careful with your metaphor of Anna–”
“Hey, yeah! It’s like that, too. Anna’s writing a message, right? Her character, I mean, is part of the theme of the book. She doesn’t know what the theme is: only Tolstoy and the reader do. She’s just a part of this big–”
“You will remember that Tolstoy sacrifices Anna to convey his meaning. We would not want that.”
“You also compare yourself to a pen. A pen does not think, yet this is your great pride, yes? Thinking? You choose two metaphors that put you at the mercy of another hand.”
“Yeah, OK, but–”
“And whose hand writes with this pen? Who would be your Tolstoy? I do not think you believe in a God who works this way. And you are not–”
“OK, OK!” Rai had to laugh. “You win! The metaphor sucks. I gotta look for something better. Or maybe I gotta think about Anna some more. Figure out who Vronsky is.”
“Ah, Helenushka…” Mike looked at his watch. “I am sorry, but I must go early today.”
He blushed. She had never seen this reaction from him. “I am having dinner.”
“Dinner?” Then she realized the meaning of the blush. “With a skirt? Yo, Mike, congrats! You’re gonna hafta give me all the details tomorrow. You’re gonna score. I got a feeling.”
“Helen, I am sixty-two years old. I do not ‘score,’ I fear.”
“Don’t sell yourself short. Go buy some Viagra or something.”
“This is not what I meant.”
“Yeah, well, have a good time. You got enough condoms?”
Mike blushed. “I will see you tomorrow?”
“Unless you’re sleepin’ it off.” She winked, then laughed as he sprung down the bleachers with steps too spry for an old man. As he walked away, she watched the game for a while, thinking perhaps that it had a meaning that would clarify her life, but she saw nothing of interest at all, so she pulled her book from her pack and began to read the last, Anna-less hundred pages. They were a struggle to read; with her heroine dead, the words felt heavy and pointless. She wished she could just talk with Mike some more.
Deep in the logical part of her brain that sometimes surfaced to give good advice, Rai may have known that finding Z in a city of 10 million people would be impossible, but as was often the case, she stubbornly dismissed that logic. She would find Z, heal him — first body, then soul, just like she had done before — and then they would go back to what they had always done. Well, maybe off the street, because she was getting tired of that, but go back to being old fashioned intellectuals, ineffectual revolutionaries, reading and arguing incessantly in the city’s parks.
As she pushed through the Ramble, searching for campsites they had abandoned months before, she dwelt on “ineffectual,” another of those words that rolled off the tongue with a strange, vague pleasure. The problem had begun when Z began to think that he could actually accomplish something. That had made him violent and crazy. But their happiness came from knowing the right answer and knowing that they could never do anything about it. Superiority and cynicism. A great combination, and they’d lost it.
None of the old campsites showed any sign of her friend. Discarded cans of beans and chili suggested that someone had been there, but Z never littered like that.
By the time she had emerged onto 5th Avenue, Rai had convinced herself that ineffectual cynicism was the meaning of life, and that she needed to find Z so that she could beat all of the passion and hope out of him. That’s what Pechorin would have done, or Bazarov, or Dmitry Karamazov. That thought turned her mind to Anna, and she became sympathetic to passion once again…
“Damn it, God, why couldn’t you make this fucking easier?” she shouted, to the clear distress of tourists walking up to the Met.
Z wasn’t sitting by the sculptures across from the Plaza Hotel, where he often had read his revolutionary tracts and spit vaguely in the direction of the Trump towers. He wasn’t in any of the atria (Rai congratulated herself on the correct use of the Latin plural) along Madison in the 50s. Nor was he in the Rose Reading Room, where Rai sat for a while to stare at the clouds. In the open stacks of the branch library across the street, she even paged through the biographies of Che and Trotsky where he had left her messages last summer.
On page 69 — an inevitable and unfortunate touch, she thought — she found the old message: “Bryant Park, noon, Saturday,” but even if she hadn’t remembered that long week when Z disappeared with a pretty I-banker, who gave him all the acid he wanted in exchange for eating her out when she came home from work at midnight, the faded pencil showed how long ago Z had left the note. In the other book, some conscientious reader or librarian had erased Z’s ancient message.
She didn’t really expect to see Z in Bryant Park, in spite of a warm afternoon that would have given him an excuse to show off his pecs, but she still felt a twinge of disappointment when she failed to see him in the streaks of sun that penetrated the skyscrapers from the west. He was hurt and she still couldn’t find him. How many times had she saved his ass from drugs or gangsters or his own idiocy? She wasn’t going to fuck up eighteen months of work just because he didn’t want to be found.
Not only was Z not at The Place, no one had seen him for days. Nurse Martinez hadn’t patched him up, and Tanya insisted that he hadn’t come in the front door since that morning when she found the bomb.
“How did he look then?” Rai wished she could have kept the fear and worry out of her voice.
“Like Z, I guess. Real intense, but bored at the same time. He was real eager that you get that note, though. What was in it?”
Tanya laughed, but Rai didn’t join her. She had already pushed through the front door.
In the bat cave, where her intense questioning of Toker and Petey blinded her to the angry eyes of a handful of gangstas, she remembered the quote on the wall across from The Place. “If you see him, just tell him to find me!” she interrupted, and sprinted across 46th, oblivious to traffic. She ran to the quote and stared at it.
Refuting Z was far from her mind. She needed to find him. How could she make him come back? Some line from Henry Miller or Anïas Nin to compliment the sexual prowess she’d insulted? Except that she’d never read those books, and didn’t have the time to go find them. Perhaps a good line from Adorno or Horkheimer, something to flatter him that he’d won her over…
In the end, she chose another line she remembered from Sunday school.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
– Gospel of Matthew
Forgiveness, she thought. That’s what Z needed to feel, the knowledge that she still loved him, wanted his friendship. And the Bible — it even showed that she’d forgiven him for that awful insult from John’s passion narrative. He’d see that, and he’d seek her out.
Yazmín signaled enthusiastically for Rai when she walked into the common room at the Place. “Nice duds, babe. Did I do a good job on you.”
Rai looked at her, confused, and then remembered the punky outfit that Yazmín had chosen for her — it had begun to feel so comfortable that she didn’t remember it was a disguise. Or perhaps, she had enough real real stuff on her mind that she didn’t have time to worry about clothes. “Yeah, thanks,” she mumbled.
“Hey, so you wanna see a movie or something? I feel like I gotta get outta this fucking rut, y’know? Place, 34th Street, fleabag crackhouse…”
“You could move in with Toker and Petey.”
“That squat they got over on 9th? You know the price they’d charge me for that. I don’t even wanna fuck for money, so why the fuck’d I wanna fuck for fun?” She winced as her tongue twisted. “But whatever. I got twenty bucks and I wanna see a movie. You gonna come, or I gonna have to blow the rest on popcorn?”
Rai didn’t remember the last time she’d been to a movie theater — not just the videos they showed from time to time at the Place, or the little screen at the MoMA on free Friday nights, but a real movie. Maybe it would be entertaining. Maybe it would get her mind off Z. Maybe… “I can’t. Z’s lost. Prob’ly hurt. And I gotta find him.”
“You’s better off with that cuntlicker a longass way away, girl.”
“He needs help. Like, serio. This time I think he’s really fucked himself up.” She told her about the bomb across from the Place, the drops of blood on the sidewalk.
“You gotta get your head fucking screwed on right, yo. That boy can take of his scarfaced self.”
“He can’t. That’s my point. He’s gonna kill himself, or get himself thrown in jail, or I don’t fucking know what, just ‘cause I’m not looking for him hard enough.” Rai was having to struggle to fight back tears. She wasn’t used to these emotions.
Yazmín looked at Rai with unexpected seriousness. “You made of something, girl. He’s whack, but you stick with his black ass. I admire that.” She spoke more softly. “I just wish you’d find someone worth saving.”
“So you see why I gotta find him?” Rai had missed, or failed to understand, Yazmín’s quiet commentary. “I’m looking everywhere, and he’s not around. He doesn’t even come here to eat. It’s like he’s trying to avoid me.”
“Then you’re sure as fuck not gonna find him tonight. C’mon. Let’s go see a flick.” She took Rai’s hand and squeezed it, almost tenderly. “We’ll go see something real sexy, or real scary. Whatever you want.”
It took another half hour of talking and a heavy dinner in her stomach before Rai finally agreed. Maybe she needed to chill out. Z would find her, or she would find him, and she’d fix him, and then they’d go off to Africa and… something. She didn’t ever let her fantasies go that far, because details hurt too much. Where was he?
Yazmín read her obsession well, and would not allow Rai to leave the theater until she agreed to a date at the MoMA that Friday night.
Over the next several days, Z did not seek her out. Nor could she find him, even as her quest became maniacal. The north end of Central Park, the Cloisters, the quads at Colombia, Washington Square Park, Wagner Park, the Ferry, even — once — a trip over to Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
She did, however, find signs of him. Later, she could not even describe the feeling of relief when she saw a line of graffiti under hers on 46th Street. Every muscle in her body had relaxed, almost dropping her into a faint, there on the sidewalk.
“A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of communism.”
– Karl Marx
For the next fifteen minutes, she couldn’t even think about the fact that the quote made no sense. But after she had lost a pair of cops in the thick crowds of Times Square — much easier there than on Lafayette — she began to wonder what it meant. In the basement of Virgin Records, listening to the newest in Algerian hip-hop, she couldn’t figure it out. Marx after Matthew, a spectre after forgiveness. Was it a rejection of her offer of Christian charity? Did he think she was advocating pacifism again, or patronizing him? Was he the spectre? Was New York Europe? It made no sense.
Without an east answer, he mind wandered. A spectre — wasn’t that the name of the evil cartel in the Bond movies? Bond was all narrative, all sex and violence without meaning at all. Was that the message? Or did Z see himself as a sort of Bond villain? She would never pass for a Bond girl, she knew, with her dark hair and small breasts… no, that was a dead end. And Europe… was he trying to play the race card, that blacks and hispanics and asians would rise up against the children of Europe? But that made no sense, either.
Europe, Europa — he’d quoted that silly line from Heraclitus, so maybe it was about Greek mythology? The rape of Europa? What was that about? She remembered a painting from some museum, a naked woman on the back of a bull… was this another threat?
The relief she felt at learning he was alive had dissolved in a sea of confusion. As always, her solution was peripatetic: she needed to walk. She paced through Times Square, looking at the huge and meaningless ads that had first inspired this graffiti philosophy campaign, at the pubescent girls gathered outside the MTV studios, at the tourists flowing along the sidewalks.
The MoMA, she thought. Maybe he’s left another clue there. Maybe that would explain what he was trying to say, or tell her where to find him, or assure her that there was real hope. She stretched her legs along 42nd, then rushed up 6th.
Nothing was there, only the long list of quotes she and Z had exchanged over the last several days.
“He alone is worthy of life and freedom
who each day does battle for them anew.”
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
-Gospel of John
“And Pilate said to the Jews, ‘Here is your king.’ They cried out, ‘Crucify him! We have no King but the Emperor.’”
St. John 19:14-15
“Only theft can now save property, only perjury, religion, only bastardy, the family, only disorder, order.”
Nervously, she looked around her, but then she remembered her courage. No need to shit her pants because of cops. She could always get away from them. She was too fast for them, too sharp, too well disguised. She felt her back straighten with that thought, and it felt good.
She thought for quite some time, allowing the crowd to flow around her, but no one’s words came to mind, none that conveyed the forgiveness and worry and hope and love and everything else she felt for Z. Or maybe she didn’t feel it — but she needed him to think that she felt it. If that’s what it took to save him, she’d write anything. What she needed was a complete break, something that would end the silly, erudite game they were playing. She moved five feet to the left, so her writing wouldn’t fall under the long text that scrolled down the wall.
She didn’t even introduce the word with the usual quotation mark.
Z. Come back. I need you.
That was exactly the thing, she thought. Flatter his vanity with her need, letting him ignore the fact that he needed her. If that’s what it took, she’d act humble. Act, she reminded herself.
She left the same message by the quotes across from the Place, then told Tanya to tell Z to find her. Then she hopped on a downtown N-R and got off at Prince. With a note everywhere, there would be no way he would miss her meaning.
Recently, the cops had been most active by the battleground of quotes on Lafayette, so she approached the garage and the Zapatista mural with some trepidation. No, with care, she corrected herself. She was not scared.
She hid herself in the crush of foot traffic as she looked toward the long column of graffiti; it now stretched from six feet high, where Z had scribbled the quote by Heraclitus, almost to the ground.
“War is common; strife is right, and all things happen by strife and necessity.”
“Resist not evil.”
“The ends justify the means.”
“For the proletarian, the Truth is the weapon that brings victory.”
Though she wondered if Z had added another quote in the days since she’d last been here, from her angle and distance, Rai couldn’t tell, so she snuck several steps out of the crowd into the empty lot. Nothing on the wall, but she did see something on the ground, in white paint… Still careful, she looked around herself before she approached, and saw two cops in the door of a diner across the avenue. Afraid the cops might see her away from the human camouflage, she slithered toward Prince and stood with two dozen commuters waiting for the light to change.
Though she could not see the cops inside the stoop, she could see the smoke of a cigarette. They stood on the other side of the street from the quotes, with a good view of anyone who walked along the opposite sidewalk. Rai mentally conjured a group of commuters who all walked along Lafayette, where she could hide herself long enough to see what was written there, or even to scribble a response, but people only came down the street in ones and twos. Unfortunately, this new outfit did not blend into the crowd. Not at all.
How had Z written the quote there? she wondered. For the last several days, any time she’d come to this corner, cops had patrolled it. Probably in the middle of the night. Z would need at least a minute to paint the long quote she could barely make out on the sidewalk. How could he stay out of police eyes? She stared longingly at the splash of white on the ground.
Suddenly, the answer occurred to her. He had written on the sidewalk; the rest of the argument occurred on the walls, where space still remained to scribble a graffito. Why on the ground? Because from where the cops stood, they couldn’t see that low. By crawling close to the cars, he would have stayed out of their sight.
Urgently, Rai slid over to the cars in the garage’s lot, then dropped to her knees. Crawling as close to the tires as she could, she moved slowly toward the graffito, trying to ignore the stares of pedestrians walking past her. Within a minute, the splash of white had turned into a barely legible quote.
“The philosophers are dealing in shades, while we who live and breathe know truth.”
Another quote by William James, she thought. She never even remembered Z with a book by the American philosopher in his hand. At one time he’d even said that he refused to read anything by “any fucking American imperialist.”
“Young lady, may I speak to you?”
Rai didn’t even turn to see who was speaking to her; from the feigned politesse in his voice, she knew it was a cop. Crouched down to hide behind the cars, her position was like a sprinter in the blocks, so without a wasted motion, she dashed back onto Lafayette. She heard the pounding feet of one cop behind her, then the voice of the other speaking breathlessly into his radio. “Suspect spotted, running South on Lafayette. We are in pursuit.” Rai wished she’d looked more carefully at the patrol officers. Were they the fit guys who had chased her before? Or the typical donut chompers she could outrun?
The sound of panting and of heavy shoes on the sidewalk slowly faded. Perhaps the cops were out of shape. She dared a quick glance behind her, and indeed they had fallen behind as she dodged foot traffic. A heavy, older white man and a younger black guy; the younger one looked fit, but his face winced with pain, and Rai noticed a white bandage wrapped around his left hand and arm. Rai quickly thanked God for whoever had hit him or bitten him. The wound was slowing him down.
At Spring, she feinted left into the street, then dashed right. A mistake, she realized too late. The street was almost empty and the cops could spot her easily. She sprinted even faster, then dodged left onto Broadway. Crowds of commuters made it difficult to run, so she dashed into the street, between parked cars and oncoming traffic. A glimpse behind her showed that the cops were now gaining as pedestrians moved aside to let them pass. Her heart began to beat even more wildly. Her energy was flagging; her poor diet might permit a quick sprint, but this much running had drained her last store of calories. She couldn’t let them catch her; in a brief lull in traffic, she sprinted across the street.
The flow of cars had stranded the cops on the other side of the Avenue, so before she doubled over, gasping for breath, Rai managed to give them the finger. Yet before she had time to rejoice in her victory, a cop car roared down the street and stopped just behind her. Mustering the last of her strength, she sprinted downtown again, ignoring the commands to stop. She thought she might have seen the black of a gun, but she knew they wouldn’t shoot her. Cops in New York were in enough trouble without shooting little girl graffiti philosophers.
She crossed street after street at a full sprint, ignoring traffic and lights. She could feel the new cops catching up. They were fresh. She needed to get away now. She dodged through a knot of pedestrians, knocking the shopping bags from a man’s hands and spilling coffee on a woman, then glanced around. The cops were no more than twenty feet away.
The opening to the subway yawned before her, disgorging a crowd of commuters. She pushed through them, not caring what damage her elbows and knees might do. With curses and screams, the crowd parted, and she fell down the steps. A local train stood on the platform. The beep of closing door sounded. Rai leapt the turnstile like a hurdle and threw herself in the closing doors, held barely open by the crush of people. The door slid shut behind her and the train roared away. Struggling against the tired mass of people in the hot car, she turned back, hoping to reward the cops with a rude gesture, but she did not see them before the train slid into the black tunnel.
Exhausted and breathless, Rai was glad for the press of bodies around her; they kept her from falling to the floor. She knew she needed food and water and a place to rest, but she didn’t know where would be safe. The Place, she thought. The cops didn’t seem to know she went there. She seemed to be on an uptown N, and if she remembered the stops right, that would take her right to Times Square.
For Rai, the next night and morning were a torture. Not for the reasons she had become used to: cold and rain and hunger and loneliness and fear and whatever else she suffered on the street. Certainly they still afflicted her, but fear for Z erased everything. How badly was he hurt? Had he lost much blood? Where was he? Was someone taking care of him? She could barely believe the ferocity of her worry. The noble anger she had felt, in which she thought she had found meaning, had dissolved in a sea of guilt and pity.
The letter — or “manifesto,” as she had come to call it in her confused inner monologue — thrilled her. It proved he was doing something more interesting than just blowing shit up. He was creating a road map to freedom, and posting his quotes to mark the way for other people. For her, too. If only she could find him, help him, tweak his ideas to make them work better, cut out the worst violence…
She needed to share it with Mike.
This time, she waited for him, sitting in exactly the place where she knew he would come — except, of course, when she paced the bleachers or stood on tip-toe, hoping to see him approach from Columbus Circle. Anxiety didn’t allow her to read; waiting was interminable.
Finally, around one in the afternoon, when the growls of her stomach had reached epic proportions, Mike appeared along the path. She ran toward him.
Before he could even sigh in relief that it was not a mugger, Rai exploded, “I’ve figured it out!”
“What this all means!”
“ ‘This all’?” Mike managed an amused grin to leaven his obvious confusion.
“With Z! What he’s trying to do.”
“I am sorry. I do not understand. Z makes excuses for the bombs, yes? And you make arguments against them.”
“It’s a lot more than that. It’s like, Z’s always doing more than I think he is. I dunno what all the time, but he’s deep. Sometimes. I think.” She realized that she was not helping her argument, so she returned to the point she wanted to make. “Look, so I’ve been trying to put all the quotes together, find out what they mean.”
“I believed you knew that–”
“Yeah, yeah, I thought they were all about justifying violence, but there’s gotta be more to it. ‘Cause any time I show up to write a quote, the cops are there. And they’re after me. Hard. I mean, not just like trying to catch some graffiti punk, but real hard.”
“This is because they want to catch the bomber, no?”
“But I’m not the bomber. That’s stupid. No. This is like censorship. They’re afraid of the words. Like afraid that people are gonna read ‘em and… and I dunno. Rebel or something. I didn’t know why they were so scared of two little kids marking up the walls, but now I got it figured out.”
“I still do not–”
“Don’t ya wanna know what the secret is?”
“I do not even know that there is a secret.”
“C’mon, Mike. Doncha believe me?”
Mike smiled tolerantly, realizing that he would have to play along with the game. “What is the secret, dear Helen?”
“Freedom! No wonder they’re so fucking scared. Z’s gonna tell people howta be free, and that’s gotta scare the shit outta the cops.”
“Why? I am confused.”
“You’re from Russia and you don’t get it? C’mon, Mike, it’s obvious. Cops want control. That’s what they’re all about. And right now they got a great gig. All the stupid Muggles think they’re free, right? ‘Cause the government tells ‘em so, ‘cause nobody’s sending them to the Gulag. But they’re just prisoners of their stuff and their jobs and their morals and shit. So the cops just hafta worry about a coupla deviants and crackheads. Other’n that, they got control just like they want.”
“But in America the police seldom tell me what to do.”
“It’s not just the cops, Mike. They’re just like the fist of the system. They whack anybody who goes outta line. The real power’s in the… I dunno where the real power is, but it’s somewhere. Like corporations or some shit, but mixed up with the government. And commercials. Z knows all this stuff. I never really paid much attention.”
“I see…” With supreme self control, Mike did not allow his irony to move beyond his eyes.
“But whoever it is, they wanna control us. Make us buy cokes and jeans and cars and Calvin Klein underwear–”
“I notice that you smell of–”
“Yeah, but I stole it. They’re not getting anything from me.”
“I thought you worried about freedom. Not profits. Does the advertisement not make you wear that scent?”
Rai stopped her planned response in mid-word. “Huh. Never thought of it like that. Maybe I better find another scent.”
Mike grinned. “But you were saying–”
“The perfume just proves my point. If I can’t be free of Calvin Klein, who the fuck can? I mean, besides like the Unibomber. So like they’re all trying to control us, and Z’s figured out a way for people to be free.”
“And he will tell it in these graffiti.”
Mike sat for a while, thinking. Though Rai wanted to interrupt to show him the manifesto, she realized that she had already been too rude, so she let him think. “I do not understand. Perhaps I just miss it because you talk so fast, but why do the police want me to buy Calvin Klein?”
“You don’t see? It’s obvious.”
“It’s like…” Rai couldn’t figure out exactly how to describe the police’s motivation. “You don’t see it? Don’t be blind.” She wanted Mike to speak again, but he just sat there, waiting for an explanation. “It’s like, it’s… it’s all the same thing. Calvin Klein and the government and–”
“But they are not the same.”
Rai had become frustrated. “Calvin pays taxes, right? That’s how the government runs. So they want everybody to make as much money as they can so they can take lotsa taxes and pay the cops big salaries.” Rai realized she had not even convinced herself.
“Hold on. There’s something else. If everybody’s buying lotsa shit, then they’re like cows. Happy, bored, boring. And cows don’t rebel. So the cops don’t hafta deal with lotsa people like me and Z.” She liked that argument better.
“You are not throwing bombs.”
“No… But I’m like fucking with their heads. They gotta hate that.”
“Of course…” Mike still looked somewhat credulous. “But Helen. You say your friend will speak of freedom. Yet of all of the words you tell me, they are all of war, yes? The Aristotle, the Heraclitus, ‘the ends justify the means.’ But now you talk of freedom.”
“I was messed up about the whole thing, too. It didn’t make any sense. But then…” She proudly pulled the manifesto from her pack and handed it to Mike. “Check this out. It shows it’s not just about violence.”
As Mike read, Rai leapt down the bleachers and paced along the first base path, distracting the first baseman, who allowed a routine ground ball through his legs. Curious what Mike would think, she did not even notice the error. Finally, when Mike looked up from the papers, she bounded back up the bleacher. “Whaddaya think?”
Mike looked unsure how he should respond. Finally he said, “The style. It is… interesting.”
“Yeah. Kinda like Nietzsche on crack, huh? Keeps ya flippin’ the pages.”
“And way erudite, huh? All those quotes. Like, I didn’t even know he read Pliny. And who’s this Tertullian guy?”
“Though the quotes do not really connect…”
“Whaddabout the freedom stuff? Isn’t that hot?”
“The ashes of civilization. Yes, I suppose that is hot…”
“C’mon, Mike. Don’t be sarcastic. Whaddaya think? Freedom. Like, absolute freedom. To do whatever you want like that?”
“Whatever you want? Come, Helen. Even the freest of men cannot fly to the moon. And you could not, I think, chose to live in a culture where men buy and sell women as slaves. Because of who you are certain options are closed. Freedom is never absolute.”
“But that sucks. I mean, why can’t I decide to go and be a slave or a concubine or something? Just ‘cause I don’t want to? But that ‘I don’t want’ is a fucking wall. It keeps me from being free. So maybe I just gotta go and do what I know I don’t wanna do. That’d be free, huh?”
“I believe you confuse ‘free’ and ‘chance.’ A die may fall on one of six sides, but it is not free, because it does not chose.”
“And it can only land on one to six. Not seventeen or blue or Burkina Faso.”
“Yes.” Mike laughed. “But more important is that the die cannot chose, yes? Freedom demands consciousness.”
“And consciousness means ‘I want’ means ‘who I am’ means that all options are not open. So freedom isn’t fucking possible.”
“Absolute freedom? Perhaps not. But more or less freedom, certainly. I may not have absolute freedom here, but is better than in Russia, and much better than under Brezhnev.”
“But that sucks.”
“For me, is wonderful.” Mike waited again, as if searching for a way to return to the subject they had abandoned. “But this letter. I think… I believe that it is… disturbing.” His voice shifted into the serious tone that Rai so disliked. “And I admit that I worry that you like it so much.”
“It’s awesome! Like, anything for freedom. That’s what it’s all about.”
“I believe that you have read wrong. He does not say that he will gain freedom by violence. He says that freedom is violence. This is very different.”
“It is also not something that you like. You want him to stop the bombs, and yet here, you love how he justifies them.”
“Yeah…” She found that the muscles in her face were moving in uncomfortable, unexpected ways. “Yeah.” She paused again, looking for a way to dig herself out of an uncomfortable rhetorical hole. “You’re right. What was I thinking? I mean, freedom’s cool and all that, but he’s got a pretty fucked up view, doesn’t he?”
“I believe yes.”
Rai looked pensive. “But y’know what else? He’s got it exactly wrong.” Her words came out more and more quickly, as they always did when she discovered a new idea. “Freedom’s not about doing whatever you want. The Muggles already have that. Well, more or less. Even if they’re not going around blowing stuff up. Sure, they’re free, but whadda they use their freedom for? To buy shit. To go to the beach. Is that freedom? You coulda done that in Russia.”
“Indeed. Though there was not so much to buy.”
“Whatever. When people have freedom, they just waste it.”
“Perhaps they like shopping.”
“And Z likes bombs. Who cares? Freedom’s pointless if you don’t fight for it. In Muggle-land there’s never really a chance that you’re gonna lose your freedom, so who really gives a shit? It’s like we all just get freedom as a gift, so everybody just throws it away. It’s different if you’ve gotta work for it. Like think about Tom Paine and those guys, the ones I had to learn about fifteen times in school even though we never even read one book by Dostoyevsky. I mean, they’re fighting. And struggling and suffering and all that, and finally they get the freedom they want. I mean, those people are free. These people” — she gestured at the apartment towers of the East Side — “are just monkeys with credit cards.”
“Exactly. But monkeys don’t think. They want, and they eat, but they don’t think. Nothing means anything to a monkey. But when you’re suffering or oppressed, when you’re thinking ‘how can I be free?’ — that’s when it’s cool. Or like, when it means something to be free. So we gotta suffer. We gotta have somebody shit on us and oppress us if we’re gonna be free. Well, like meaningfully free.”
“And you always look for meaning.”
“Yeah. No wonder America’s so boring. We don’t have anybody to rebel against.”
“Bring on the Nazis.”
Though Mike had intended the words as a joke, they brought Rai up short. “Shit. That’s the problem, huh?”
“Yes. And if I may add a personal comment, life under communism was not very fun. Most days, it was not very meaningful, either. It was just frightening.”
“Yeah.” She thought again. “So maybe what we need are tyrants who aren’t very effective. Where you need to rebel and struggle and shit to be free, but it’s not so awful–”
“When does this happen?”
“I dunno.” She watched several pitches and several strikes. “This sucks, Mike. I mean, it’s such a hot theory, and then we get this shit.”
“How cruel that the world confuses beautiful theories.”
For a time, they sat and watched the game, Mike wearing a knowing smile, Rai’s thoughts thrown into turmoil by freedom and oppression, by Z’s manifesto, by hints of Mike’s life in Russia, by thoughts of her friend bleeding on the street. “Why’d I get so caught up in it?” she found herself asking aloud. “Here Z’s saying exactly what I hate, and I get off on it. What the fuck’s that all about?” She gazed over the field again, where the first baseman she had distracted had just wiffed at a wild pitch.
“Do you mean that question for me? Or for yourself?”
“Huh?” Rai had lost the train of the conversation in the brief pause. “I didn’t even tell you the best part. Best. Right. What the fuck am I saying? Z’s hurt. He’s gotta be. So, like, right before I got the manifesto, I’m walking along 46th, and guess what I see? Yeah. Bomb and quote, but this time there’s blood, too. Maybe you’re right and he’s going crazy and he’s hurt himself and he needs me and I don’t even know where he is.”
“You are a good friend, Helen. Perhaps too good a friend.”
“Hardly. Abandon him, diss him, compare his dick to a magic marker, force himself into killing himself with some fucking bomb just to get my attention? Fucking A. I gotta find him, Mike.” She leaned her head on her hands, then quickly picked it up. “And now he’s dying and I’m sitting in the sun talking to you. Fuck!” She jumped up and ran down the bleachers, stuffing the manifesto into her bag as she ran. She dashed toward Columbus circle, then stopped suddenly and walked back to the bleachers. From behind, she smiled ruefully, touched Mike’s hand, and said, “Thanks.” Then she ran off once again.
Rai had spent that day waging graffiti warfare, so it wasn’t until the next afternoon that she made her way to the softball fields. As she had hoped, Mike sat in his place, as fixed as the trees that gave shade to the field.
He cut straight to the chase. “How goes the quest, my dear?” he asked as she sprinted up the bleachers.
“For meaning? Looks like guardsman Vronsky has taken up a post in Astrakhan. No sign of him. But he’ll show up.” She vamped in her new outfit.
“Yes, of course.” She was rather disappointed that he didn’t comment on her spiked belt. “And the other quest? To refute the philosophy of terror, yes?”
“Yeah. Super-cool. He’s smart, I gotta give him that, but nothing against me.”
“I do not doubt it.”
“I told you about the bomb in Soho, right?”
“But you have not yet told me how you defeated him. He quoted Heraclitus, yes?”
“Guess what I wrote.”
“I do not know. Anaximander? Thales of Miletus?” His eyes twinkled.
“I never read that shit.”
“You do not always understand my jokes.” He paused. “I imagine Tolstoy. Yes?”
“Tolstoy kicks ass.”
“You did not once believe that.”
“Then I started to read Anna… Yeah, so I wrote that phrase I used to hate so much. ‘Resist not evil.’ I mean, yeah, Christian and all, but a whole lot better’n–”
“Gandhi said that book influenced him deeply. And he was no Christian.”
“Cool. Anyway, so I went back yesterday, and you can probably guess what Z put there.”
“Something from Lenin. Or Gorky, perhaps.”
“Think about the context. I mean, I’m sayin’ that all paths to the same end aren’t the same, that a struggle has to be moral, right? So–”
“You give too many hints. He quoted Machiavelli.”
“Of course. ‘The ends justify the means.’ I mean, how trite. And stupid, too.”
“Machiavelli’s great if you’ve got lotsa power, armies and shit like that. All Z’s got is a pack of matches, far as I can see. Machiavelli’s stupid if all you’ve got on your side is being right.”
“’How many divisions has the Pope?’”
“A myth, I think. An advisor tells Stalin that the pope will not be happy if he invades Poland, or the Ukraine. I do not remember. So Stalin asks–”
“Z doesn’t have the Red Army behind him. What an idiot.”
In the pause that followed, Rai suddenly missed the cries and insults they would generally hear from Z on the other field. Today they heard only the crack of the bat and the shouts of the game. It made her sad.
“You have not told me how you responded. I am certain that you did not permit him the last word.”
“Actually, I thought about it. I mean, even a Muggle who knew what was going on could see how stupid he’s being, except… well, I guess not too many Muggles think that much, right? So I couldn’t trust them to come up with the right conclusion.”
“One should never trust a Muggle.” Mike’s eyes sparkled again.
“Exactly. Yeah, so I had to come up with something to show them what an idiot he was being. I thought about Kant — you told me he was the best answer to Machiavelli once — but he’s so boring, y’know?”
“And you have never read him.”
“I tried. Really. But I did remember a quote Z told me. I mean, I’ve never read the guy, but I have a pretty good memory, and… well, I may have messed up a word or two, but it was perfect.”
“Please… I cannot survive the suspense.”
“It was great. I bet he just shit his pants when he read it.” She paused again, hoping to elevate the drama. “ ‘For the proletarian, the Truth is the weapon that brings victory.’ Not bad, huh?”
“Who said that?”
“Georg Lukacs. Who Z loves. I mean, almost as much as Trotsky or Che. So I got one of his heroes to go after him. Truth is the weapon that brings victory. Not a fucking bomb. So Z boxed himself in. Two Marxist quotes to condemn terrorism.”
“I cannot imagine that he will abandon the argument so easily.”
“He has so far. No bombs for a while. He’s stuck. Struggling in the vicious grip of my logic. It’s like what I was saying about that babe of yours. What was her name? Emma Bovary. Yeah. Z needs beautiful words first if he’s gonna do anything. And I’ve just cut up all his beautiful words at the knees. Unless he comes up with some new philosophical system, he won’t do anything.”
“Perhaps you have based too much on a character from a novel?”
“Why? Z’s just made himself a character in a novel, so why should he be any different?” Mike looked at her with confusion. “Well, maybe I’m being tough on him. He’s not that superficial. There’s something more there. But the point’s still the same. He’s gotta have his words, and now he doesn’t. Case closed. Truth is the weapon that brings victory.” She smiled proudly. “But y’know what else? This is way fucked up. Both of the places are swarming with cops. Like, after each time I scribble some kinda response, they appear outta nowhere and I gotta run. I mean, thank God they’re fat and I’m fast, ‘cause they’re never even close to catching me, but it’s kinda stressful.”
“I had wondered why your clothes had changed.”
“Yeah. Third time this week.”
“You do not think there is much… I do not know. Much danger and little benefit in this graffiti battle?”
“ ‘Little benefit?’ People’s lives depend on it!”
Mike smiled ironically, but decided not to contradict her, instead turning to the slowly progressing game. Rai had many things she wanted to say, but she couldn’t figure out how to connect them to the conversation. Finally she decided that she did not need a connection.
“Y’know, I’ve got my doubts about Anna sometimes.”
“What doubts?” Mike asked hopefully.
“Anna’s great. Like I told you, it’s only page 400, and we’re like best friends.”
“Anna might have done better with a friend like you.”
“No doubt. But look, here’s the thing. Anna reads lotsa books, right?” She paused, as if unhappy with what she was about to say. “Nah, that’s not it. It’s more complicated.” Pausing again to arrange her thoughts, she noticed that Mike was listening eagerly. “OK, y’know the myth about love all these novels have? Like everybody’s looking for love all their lives and life doesn’t make sense if you’re not in love? Like love’s where we find meaning? You get it with this fucker Levin,” she pointed to her book, “but even with Myshkin, or somebody as cool as Olga.”
“Olga?” Mike had never quite accustomed himself to Rai’s habit of referring to characters as if they were her intimate friends.
“Olga Sergeevna. From Oblomov, remember?”
“You choose the most obscure novels, Helen–”
“Kinda cool, huh? But what was I saying? Oh, yeah, like this whole fucking love fetish the Russian elite’s got. It’s like a myth, but way powerful. So Anna knows she doesn’t love Karenin. Which makes sense. I mean, the guy’s a bastard. So she thinks, there’s no meaning in my life, I’m gotta fall in love. So she does. With the first dickwad cavalry guard who shows up.”
“If she’d realized what an putz he was at about page one hundred, she would have been a lot better off.”
“But that is the point, no? Her story is not really about Vronsky. It is about Anna. She is in love with love, not with him. She wants to be free. Vronsky is only the opportunity. Perhaps he had charm, but he is bald, and not a good artist, and not very smart.”
“Yeah, that’s it, huh? She just wants love. But then it drags her down the wrong path. Why doesn’t she see it? I mean, she’s no idiot. There’s lotsa ways to make life meaningful: books and philosophy and politics–”
“Maybe. I just wish Anna’d been smarter about planning her life.”
“Then no one would read the book.”
“Yeah. That’s the thing, huh?” Without another word, she ran down the bleachers, leaving Mike to wonder, not for the first time, how sane his young friend was.
Wanting to avoid the Crips who often hung out in the bat cave, Rai walked along the south side of 46th Street on her way to dinner at the Place. Her worn soles scuffed along the street as she slipped between parked cars; she walked along the front of the high school, then by the construction site for some new ridiculous luxury hotel, looking down at the sidewalk to keep herself from tripping over dropped beams and cinder blocks.
She saw no construction detritus: instead, there was a trail of blood. Small drops, and not many, but new. She often saw blood on the sidewalks, especially since the Latin Kings had tried to take this street back from the Crips, so she kept her guard up for a knife or a gun. But then, against the wall, she saw the telltale signs of a small explosion: shards of glass, blackened brick. “Z,” she said aloud. “Shit.”
Confused, she looked at the cars parked along the sidewalk. She ran along the sidewalk and saw what she had feared. One of the cars was an Infiniti.
Behind the car, she found yet another graffito.
“The true is only the expedient.”
Unusually, she didn’t even consider what the quote meant in their graffiti polemic. Drops of blood on the sidewalk washed those thoughts from her mind. She only worried for her friend. Had the bomb exploded before he could roll it under the car? He might be seriously hurt, even if he hadn’t lost much blood. Running, she followed the trail of blood drips down 46th and up Broadway. Suddenly, at the curb, the trail of blood drops stopped. It was as if he had stepped into a car or a bus, but the bus stop was a hundred feet away, and Z would never have the money to pay for a cab. Maybe he had pleaded for a ride to the hospital? But would Z have gone to a hospital when it was clear that his injuries came from a bomb? There was no better way to tip off the cops. Where would he have gone?
Confused by the quote and terrified for Z’s health, she stumbled back toward The Place. Maybe Z was there. Maybe someone had seen him.
She wanted to run upstairs, to ask anyone if they had seen him, if they knew he was all right. Maybe the nurse would know. But before Rai could even get to the steps, Tanya stopped her. “Rai, hold on. I got a message for you.”
“Not now. I gotta find Z.”
“It’s from Z.”
She turned. Her heart stopped. She took the three folded sheets of paper from Tanya’s hand, then slipped into the little vestibule where they kept the water cooler. She sat down on a bench painted an awful shade of blue and unfolded the papers. Z’s cramped script filled each sheet, leaving no margins at all.
The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
– William Blake
The bourgeoisie pretends that History can create without Destruction. As in all of their words and works, they lie.
Freedom descends not from Creation, no more than Man descends from Shit. Creation imprisons the spirit as defecation imprisons the body. Man must move beyond the anal retention of defecation and the deification of labor! Let us destroy, for in destruction lies freedom. Destruction of the state, destruction of the bourgeoisie, destruction of Lexuses and of Infiniti itself! Down that Path lies Freedom and Bliss.
Bakunin: Our first work must be the annihilation of everything as it now exists. Piddling anarchists do not understand what the philosopher meant. Do not just annihilate the WTO! Annihilate everything. Rejoice in explosions, in sacrifice, in death! For that is the nature of the world, and if we cannot rejoice in death and violence, we find joy in nothing. Or better: We must learn to find joy in Nothing! That is our Path.
The Peripatetics and the Stoics and now the Liberals see Freedom in obedience to the Law. The Law is a fool’s feces.
No, I say! Freedom does not lie in shit! Nor in the Law! Freedom lies in destruction, in the explosion of all boundaries and walls and taboos. Here is the quest: to be free, unshackled, unchained, to run naked and unshod across the smoking ruins of civilization.
“There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Ah, but Herr Benjamin, you have forgotten the corollary: Documents of barbarism are themselves the documents of civilization! Have you ever seen Truth in the charred shell of an Infiniti? I have! Beauty, Truth, Civilization, Barbarism, all joined in a single, fiery bottle rolled under the chassis. To toss that flame: there you see freedom. The match and the gun and the spirit defend liberty; not the Court, not the Constitution!
Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblance, mon frère, you rebel against my words? You find them painful, difficult, hateful? Or perhaps you reject my works, the burned cars that litter Manhattan as a promise of the world to come? Recall the words of the great eaters of shit: Works do not Save, but Faith. I have faith. In freedom. In truth. In barbarism. In the future!
“The first reaction to truth is hatred.” Tertullian, that great Father-Of-The-Church, (father of shit!) for once speaks true. That you hate me only affirms the truth of my message and of my future. The bourgeoisie cannot tolerate Freedom. They prefer comfort and sloth and a BMW with twin cup holders.
Fortunately for the the rich, they need not suffer their freedom. They will crumple against the bloody wall of History long before they need fear such horror. For they fear to be. Bataille: “the fear of being changes a man into a pubkeeper.” What joy for us and for the pubkeeper when we sacrifice him against the wall! There is freedom for all: freedom from the pubkeeper, and the pubkeeper’s freedom from himself.
Perhaps you say that I am evil. “Where are his morals?” I hear whispered in the crowd. “Has he no love for his fellow man?” I do love! So much that I would give you your freedom. But do you desire Freedom? Knowing the pain of that choice? The pain of skipping and laughing over the coals of what you once treasured? If you say that destruction is evil, then yea, behold evil in these words and in these acts. But also behold Evil in God, who destroys. In the wind and the sun and the worms who fertilize the soil. Life demands destruction. I shall provide it. Let the weak and the stupid use their morality to preserve that of no value. I destroy, and History marches on.
For what is morality? I have made a study. Rimbaud: Morality is the weakness of the mind. Even better, the sodomite Wilde: There is no sin except stupidity. This is the sin I have come to avenge. The foolish and the stupid and the weak can find freedom only in death. I will grant them this grace. This is the greater ethic: to drive forward the creaky cart of History, for so long mired in a debate over how to build a better cup holder for the cappuccino of false consciousness! Let us push forward through the shit, leaving behind the debaters. For Freedom lies forward, and its price is dear.
I quote for you another of the “fathers” of the West. Ambrose, teacher of the bastard Augustine. “There is nothing evil save that which perverts the mind and shackles the conscience.” Indeed! So what is evil? I, who break the shackles of a conscience imprisoned by Dunkin’ Donuts? I, who free the mind of the perversions of consumption and emptiness? Or those who force the worship of gasoline and steel and bad SoHo Art? Who serves a false God? Not I. Not I!
For here is the Truth, though in the mouth of a fool: “Live dangerously and you live right.” Faust sold his soul, but he lived! Lived fully. He drove History forward, broke new ground, showed Truth to the people. Perhaps he sacrificed his soul, but for whom? For his own glory; this we hear from the craven, callow bards of the past. No! Faust sold his soul for the Glory of Man! He sacrificed himself on the altar of History to give us the Future! I see the same altar before me, and it calls my name. That I may have the courage.
If the Fathers of the Church can sometimes speak Truth, so, too, can a fascist. Recall Borges on the crucifixion. Jesus dies, but within three days he reigns in glory over heaven and Earth. Judas, essential to salvation, loses his soul, his life, is condemned to eternity in hell, and suffers the slings and arrows of every outraged Christian! Both died for the Salvation of the World, but whose sacrifice was greater? Judas! Judas, who sacrificed his soul, not merely his body. We celebrate of the passion of Judas, not that of Christ. Who is the Lamb of God? Who the savior?
In these words, then, behold! Ecce Judas! For I have sold my soul for the salvation of the world, for the freedom of the people. Historians may condemn me, but History Will Absolve Me.
Let this be the judgment of history: not by morality, but by genius.
I care not whether Man is Good or Evil; all that I care
Is whether he is a Wise Man or a Fool. Go, put off Holiness
And put on Intellect…
Perhaps Blake was mad, but we may not judge there his value for history. I have put off Holiness, the Sanctimoniousness of the Impotent, and affirmed the Strength of the Universal Intellect. Thus Spake History!
Thus Spake Zarathustra: “One must have chaos in himself to give birth to a dancing star.” I feel the chaos flowing in every vein and artery, in the bitterness of betrayal and the joy of sin and the longing for freedom. But what is the dancing star? A star burns bright, and its rays dance like the sparks that fly from exploding Infiniti, or the bacchanalian reel around the Lexus of Emptiness. Now that place is no more, now the Infinite cannot imprison us! Feel the chaos that gives birth to the dancing star, the genesis of Freedom.
Should you condemn me for infamy, declare that sin is not freedom, I say to you, “He who hates vice, hates mankind.” Lest Pliny seem too archaic, or lest you miss the reference, again to the Irish Sodomite: “Disobedience is man’s original virtue.” I do not embody the morality of the bourgeoisie. I represent the Virtue of Mankind. None will thank me, no generation will call me Blessed, but my hands bring forth the future with fire and ice, with fury and joy.
“All armed Prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed Prophets have been destroyed.” I am armed with the truth, but also with kerosene. I am armed with a thousand quotes, the annihilating, fecund distaff of the West. But most: Behold, I am Free, and I make Freedom!
For I do not desire Truth. Nor Good, nor God. Nor Salvation. I desire Freedom. And it is mine.
Rai arrived at The Place late in the morning; she’d spent hours sitting on one park bench after another, watching cops to see if they recognized her. They didn’t seem to, so she decided it would be safe to walk by Officer Safran, the beat cop who patrolled 46th at the bat cave. Generally he was cool and quite un-cop-ish, and today was no different. He waved to her as she passed, and she returned a sheepish smile.
The shower room was empty. All of the kids who needed to clean up must have finished already, so Juan sat in front of the television, watching a baseball game. “Excuse me,” Rai asked nervously. “Can I talk to you a second?”
“Yeah, ‘course.” Juan flicked off the TV with the remote controller. “Whassup?”
“Um… how’s the clothes situation?”
“In your size? Not much. You lookin’ for a new outfit? You wouldn’t be Rai without that black skirt.”
Juan looked confused, but invited her into the back room, then began searching through piles of donated clothes. “Whatchu want?”
“Anything inconspicuous. I dunno. Jeans, a t-shirt.”
Juan nodded slowly. “I’m not even gonna ask who you’s runnin’ from.” He found a small pair of jeans and a green polo shirt. “Try these.” He walked out, then closed the door to give her some privacy. Once she found that they fit, she tucked a donated baseball cap into her bag and threw the old clothes away. After her shower, Juan feigned that he didn’t recognize her, which she took as a good sign.
As she sat in the common room reading, trying not to feel awkward in her new clothes, she noticed a strange sort of quiet among the kids. Without the loud shouts that generally punctuated chess games or the busy chatter of gossip, rap, and insult, the room felt surreal, almost haunted. The atmosphere felt so strange that Rai could not even read Anna. Finally, she turned to the girl sitting next to her, a thin waif she had seen many times at meals but never spoken to, and asked what was going on.
“You didn’t hear?”
“No. Somebody’s dog die?” Even before she had spoken, Rai felt her foot in her mouth.
The other girl winced. “No. Exxxstasis.”
“The fat girl?”
“On the stroll last night.” Though offended by Rai’s blunt questions, the girl seemed to find consolation in telling the story. Exxxstasis, she explained patiently, was not a girl like Rai had through. She had been born a boy, grown up in the Bronx, and then, at fourteen, couldn’t handle the pressure any more. She told her father she didn’t feel like a boy. She wanted to wear dresses and makeup.
In the South Bronx, this was not an option. After her father tried to beat the feminity out of her with a baseball bat, she ran away and found herself at 14th Street. With the help of back-alley estrogen, the advice of the girls on the stroll, lots of makeup, and the money her pimp allowed her from the four tricks she turned a night, she slowly transformed herself from José to Exxxstasis. Though she had not been a pretty girl, she had learned to pass so well that she hoped he might be able to find a job outside the skin trade.
“So she was just trying to get enough money for an apartment, y’know? Said she was gonna turn tricks just this month, then start to look for a real job. And she woulda got one too. Smart girl. Fucking smart. And funny. But last night she goes with some john at three in the morning and she doesn’t come back. Coupla hours later the pimp goes to the spot and she’s in three pieces. Body, head, dick. Clean slices.” The girl nodded slowly, sadly, like someone who had seen everything before.
“Same as always. You know the story.”
“John comes, thinks he’s got a nice piece of ass, takes ‘er back to the room, fucks ‘er, then suddenly pretends he don’t know she got a dick. ‘Course that’s what he wanted in the first place. Ya don’t go to the 14th Street Stroll if’n ya don’t wanna chick with a dick. But he pretends its some kinda surprise. Rage, guilt, all that shit, and he kills her. That’s the story he’ll tell at the trial. If’n they ever catch ‘im. Jury’ll go ‘ick’ ‘n’ let ‘im off with a slap on the wrist. Fuck.”
“Yeah.” Rai didn’t know what more to say. Further words of consolation seemed pointless, for she hadn’t known Exxxtasis and didn’t know the girl she was talking to. At the same time, she felt the oppressed sadness of the room; it wormed through her new clothes and onto her skin. Though she had never wanted it, the culture of the Place had suddenly caught up with her. She had shared a defining moment. Next, would she become one of them?
Though Exxxstasis’ death and the heavy atmosphere in The Place had taken her mind off Z and the cops, impatience forced Rai out of the street after lunch. As she wandered the streets, her mind landed on the strange feel of wearing jeans. Her skin felt confined, she worried that people could see the shape of her legs, and the denim rubbed against her thighs uncomfortably. Except for when she donned a pair of sweats to clean her skirt, she couldn’t remember having worn pants since she’d left home.
People looked at her differently. She had become used to the stares and even whistles her carefully developed look had inspired. Now men passed her without a glance and teenagers did not scoff at her fashion sense. As much as she had hated those gazes, she almost missed them. With her jeans and baseball cap, she had become just a girl, and not the sight she had been. Maybe not even a girl, she thought with a shock. With short hair, sharp features, and no breasts to speak of, her skirt had always marked her gender clearly. The terrible thought sent her to Sephora, where several layers of makeup left no doubt. She failed to notice that the cosmetics had also obscured her beauty, an exchange she might not have been willing to make for anonymity.
However strange her new look seemed to her, she did not regret throwing her more dramatic outfit into the trash. During the rest of the day, she walked by dozens of cops. None of them looked twice at her; eventually, her heart did not even race at the sight of dark blue. Once, hiding from a brief rainstorm, she sat for ten minutes with a cop in a public atrium at 61st and Broadway. From time to time, the cop glanced up from his coffee at her, but no recognition registered on his face.
That afternoon, Rai only waited by the softball fields for an hour. She wanted to see Mike, but she feared another hungry night more, so she rushed to The Place in time for dinner. Toker and Z, still shocked at the way she’d dissed Z the night before, offered to let her stay in the abandoned warehouse where they squatted, but she had been burned by new male friends before. They accepted her unconvincing excuse. Everyone had something they were running from, after all, and both of them admitted that sex was not the least of the motives for their kindness. Even if she looked like shit in that new outfit.
Rain began in the middle of the night in the little island of trees near the duck pond where Rai set up camp, and it lasted well into the morning. For some time after light slithered through the leaves, Rai huddled in the tarp, hoping that the rain would end and she could walk to The Place without getting soaked, but the storm showed no sign of abating. She got up, sloshed around in the mud, folded the tarp and stuffed it into a plastic bag sliding it into her pack. Moving every night was becoming inconvenient. She needed to find a place to leave the stuff so it could dry.
Readjusting the things in her pack to make sure that the tarp didn’t crush her books, she felt a folded piece of paper she didn’t recognize. Torn newsprint, she realized, folded into… was it supposed to be a car? What a bad job of oragami. She was about to toss it away, not even curious how it had made its way into her bag, when she noticed ink running in the rain. Not the ink of the news, but red bleeding through the paper.
Quickly, tearing the wet paper, she unfolded the crude oragami. Blotchy red letters filled the page, almost illegible:
“Every movement of infinity is carried out through passion.”
Z’s writing. She remembered the quote, which he had pointed out to her as he was struggling through one of his few forays into non-Marxist philosophy.
The quote didn’t fit with the other graffiti he had posted. No hints of revolution, no desperate self-justification. What did it mean?
“Infinity” had a bit of a religious air about it, reminiscent of the Göthe and St. John quotes. “Passion” could be a euphemism for his campaign of terrorism, which certainly required suspension of his intellectual facilities. But if that was what he was trying to say, it was just another tired defense of what he’d already done. Z’s arguments were often repetitive, but this was just boring. If he’d gone to the effort to sneak it into her bag, it had to be something important.
He’d put it in her bag. The thought ran through her mind again. He knew where she was. He’d found her in the middle of the night in a place where she’d never gone before. Though she wanted to find innocuous, even benevolent explanations, it scared her. If he could find her like that, what could he do to her? Passion and infinity: those were sexual words, handed over in the middle of the night. A threat? A confession of long hidden lust?
She looked around herself, relieved to see only dripping trees, but also frightened. Where was he? Where would he find her next?
“Fuck,” she said aloud, trying to damp down the fear that had risen in her gut.
As her thoughts ground down into confusion, Rai realized that she stood in the pouring rain, getting colder and colder regardless of the intensity of her thoughts. She turned away and walked quickly into Midtown.
By the time she reached The Place, Rai was shivering bitterly. It was well past nine, putting her name low on the list for showers. She slogged upstairs, water dripping from her clothes, and collapsed on a couch.
As Rai shivered in the common room of The Place, Yazmín had attempted to catch her attention several times. Finally, when Rai looked up, she saw her new friend standing not more than two feet away, looking down her nose with disbelief. “It’s like you go into some other world sometimes, girl!” she said in a tone halfway between a joke and authentic anger.
“Oh. Yeah. I’m trying to work some shit out.”
“Work shit out on the pot, not when I’m waitin’ to talk to you.” She laughed, and Rai joined her, though with less energy. “You didn’t even hear ‘em call your name for the shower, did you?”
Rai had to admit that she hadn’t heard a word. She was glad that someone was awake enough to listen.
“I’ll wait for you here. Go warm up!”
The warm shower did wonders for Rai, as did new, dry clothes. As she had brushed her teeth, unwilling to don her wet jeans and t-shirt, another girl had let her in on a secret. “Donate the old shit,” she whispered. “Then get new. They clean the old shirt and you can just take it again next week.”
Though uncertain of the ethics involved, Rai knew she needed dry clothes, so she threw the wet rags in the donations bin, walked to the back, and found a new outfit: too-tight cords and a sweatshirt.
Back in the common room, Yazmín hid a snort with her hand. “God, girl, you been on the street two years and you never learned how to dress?” One of the most important differences between street kids and homeless adults, Rai knew, was that you couldn’t distinguish a street kid from a cool kid. Street kids just knew how to do it cheaper: theft, knock-offs, the iron downstairs. “That skirt you had, that was bad. But now you look like a bag lady!” She took Rai’s hand and led her back downstairs, then, with a wink at Juan, passed into the back room. Rai was amazed at how passively she accepted Yazmín’s authority.
“So. Yeah.” She gave Rai a look, then began to rummage through the clothes as Rai wondered why she was taking fashion advice from… well, from someone like Yazmín. She pulled out lots of black: underwear, tights, short jeans, jean jacket. “Undress.” Rai did, unsure, again, why she didn’t tell Yazmín to fuck off. But even Yazmín’s admiring whistle when Rai pulled off her pants didn’t inspire the expected rebellion. It just made her blush, then hurry to pull on the tights.
Within half an hour, Rai looked like a different person, somewhere between a street punk and a french existentialist poseur. Undeniably hot, but also unapproachable. She rather liked it: the outfit made her walk with a straight back and a mean look in her eye. No way she would have let Yazmín strip this off her, she thought.
After a game of spades in the common room — Rai hated spades, thought it was a gangsta game (not to mention that she always lost), but she did it to make Yazmín happy — everyone filed upstairs for lunch. The Place was crowed that day, as always when kids wanted to escape the rain.
Though Rai was not pleased with the hamburgers and fries Kwame had decided to cook for lunch, she still ate three servings. After a quiet day of informal mourning for Exxxstasis, The Place had returned to its usual level of volume and repressed violence. Looking around, Rai began wonder who would be the next kid murdered; who would OD’d on dope or crank; who would freeze that winter. Since she’d come to The Place, four kids had died.
“You thinkin’ about Exxx, huh?” Yazmín asked, with a completely different tone from that she had used all morning.
“Wondering who’s the next to go. Hoping it’s not me. Or you.”
“You’s too smart to bite it like that.”
“I don’t even know most of these kids. I mean, I wanna feel sad for Exxxstasis, but how’m I gonna do that if she’s just a face to me? I didn’t even know she was a boy.”
“You wanna know the rest so you can cry, right?” Again, a real understanding that Rai had never heard before.
“Not for that. I don’t think so. But… I dunno. Without Z, it’s kinda like I wanna know other people. Or know about ‘em, at least.”
“It’s a start.” Rai felt the tone of superiority that she preferred to use than hear, but Yazmín talked on quickly. “So check it out. You know Toker, right? Guitar genius, pretty decent chess player. Parents threw him out when he was twelve. Never figured out why. Smokes a lotta pot. I think he’s kinda cute, but…”
“No street boys for me. Not anymore.” She pointed to the girl next to Toker, an emaciated blonde in a black leather jacket. “Slick. Whatta name for a girl, huh? From Jersey. Rich family, they say. Mom was a dope fiend, got Slick hooked on it when she was ten. She started hookin’ to buy the dope, then on the street. She’s workin’ at Wendy’s now, but the money don’t pay for rent, so I think she’s shacked up with some guy.”
Rai had expected a sort of voyeuristic pleasure from Yazmín’s description of the kids in the lunchroom, but she had not expected these feelings for people she had dismissed and disdained for the last eighteen months. It almost felt like compassion, or pity. Yazmín pointed out a Lebanese girl who came home one afternoon to find her parents deported. The suburban boys who ran to the city on a lark and could never get back. She detailed more forms of abuse than Rai had ever imagined, from teenagers locked in closets for days to a pornographic film cult where children were raped on video. Then drugs and prostitution and jail.
By the time Yazmín had reached her fifteenth story, they had left the lunchroom and walked onto the street, where the sun had burned last night’s rain into a sticky haze. As they walked through the bat cave and Yazmín pointed out two or three of the Crips who always hung out there, Rai demanded she stop. “I can’t handle any more of this.” She felt close to crying. All of the barriers she had created to keep tragedy and other people out seemed to be crumbling. Even the new hardass outfit was no shield. “Please, don’t tell me any more. I guess there’s a reason I never wanted to know these people.”
“Yeah. After a while they’re all stories though. I dunno. I don’t really feel it anymore. I just kinda listen to what everybody tells me, and I nod, and then… I go home, I guess.” They walked quietly up Sixth. “Well, not really home. You know what I mean.”
After fifteen minutes of sad silence, as they walked past break dancers on the corner of 53rd, Rai wanted to speak again, except she didn’t know how to frame the question. “Look, Yazmín. It’s like… I wanted to know why these kids are on the street, and you told me. But there’s two kinds of ‘why.’ I think. Like the empirical why and the metaphysical why–” She noticed that Yazmín didn’t understand. “Um… it’s like you told me what put them in this shit, like ‘why’ it happened, but not, like, what it’s for. That kinda why.”
“Por qué y para qué.” Yazmín said.
“There’s two words in Spanish for ‘why.’ Kinda like ‘from what’ and ‘for what.’ Something like that.”
“Yeah.” Rai nodded. “That’s what I wanna know. For what. For what are these kids in the street? There’s gotta be some reason.”
“’Cause their parents beat the shit outta them. Pretty simple.”
“That’s from what. I wanna know the purpose of their lives. Or what they’re gonna do for the world–”
“What good’s gonna come outta this? Why God lets kids suffer like this?” Rai couldn’t understand Yazmín’s voice, which sounded almost sarcastic, almost, “you don’t really know shit, do you?”
“Yeah. Exactly.” She slid her own sarcasm into the words, hiding their importance behind irony.
“’Cause God’s a fuck. Either cruel or really, really bad at His job.”
Unfortunately, her pride in the drama of the scene she had produced did not keep Rai warm or dry that night. The drizzle did not prevent her from sleeping (when she reached the park, she realized exactly how tired she was), but drips off the trees constantly woke her, or threw her into tosses and turns that dislodged the tarp and muddied her clothes and body.
Even so, when she woke in the morning, she felt good about herself. She had done something… again, she paused to think for a word, but her cynicism could accept none of the adjectives she proposed. “Moral,” “noble,” “virtuous,” and “brave,” were all good words, but even if she had stood up to terrorism and her best friend’s hysteria, those concepts couldn’t possible apply to her.
Muddy, but almost content, she folded the tarp, hung it over a tree branch, and began the long walk into midtown. Long before she crossed the bridge over the lake, she saw the two old drunks that accosted her from time to time. She almost looked forward to the offer of a “moustache ride,” a wonderful excuse to kick the asshole in the balls and push him over the rail, but she didn’t get the chance to realize her righteous anger. The men were too drunk even to look at a pretty girl.
In the back of her mind, Rai knew that life without Z would require all of her hard-won street survival skills. Not so much where to get food, how to avoid the cops, or how to stay warm at night, as the skills that kept her sane. Happiness and pride were hard-to-earn commodities, and she needed to steal them where she could. This, at least, was her reasoning as she directed her steps toward 53rd Street. It wasn’t narcissism that motivated her to look at her quote, but survival.
Underneath the Christian quote she had found it so difficult to write, a new graffito surprised her. She was not pleased.
“And Pilate said to the Jews, ‘Here is your king.’ They cried out, ‘Crucify him! We have no King but the Emperor.’”
St. John 19:14-15
Angry as Z might have been, why would he post that horrible, Jew-baiting quote? He knew the story of Rai and the Easter Service better than anyone. He knew how much she hated the lines the reverend had quoted that fateful Sunday.
Suddenly, Rai realized that where their graffiti philosophy campaign had been directed at the world, an effort to teach the Muggles something, this line had nothing to do with the Muggles; it would not mean anything to any of them. This line came from one of their private debates, and Z directed it only at her.
One day during their migration to Florida last winter, when talk of Che and Fidel filled the air, Rai had gotten tired of Z’s knee-jerk attack on Cuban exiles. “Gusanos,” he called them, mimicking communist propaganda. “Worms. Grubs. No value at all except to fertilize the soil,” he’d declared.
“Just a reality check here, Z. OK, as far as I can figure, there have been three successful communist revolutions in history, right? Russia, China, Cuba. Lot of other countries went red, but they were pretty much derivative. Sound right?”
“Election, not revolution. And hardly a success.”
“Fucking Henry Kissinger. OK.”
“So of these three, two of them fell flat on their ass. Killed exactly the poor people they were supposed to save. Ten years after the October Revolution, you’re got the Gulag, Ukrainian peasant collectivization, all that shit. What, just four years after Mao takes Beijing, zillions are starving because of the Great Leap Forward. Not exactly a great record.”
“You’re just looking–”
“I’m not done yet. Then we’ve got Cuba. OK, great health care. Go education. A tip ‘o the hat for land reform. But you wanna be a punk in Cuba? Or a Rasta? Wanna wear dreadlocks? I don’t think so.”
“Those are just the same bourgeois arguments–”
“And you’re not even listening. I’m not sayin’ ‘no revolution.’ I mean, I’m not quite so ‘damn the torpedoes’ as you, but give me credit for a sense of liberté, egalité, et fraternité, OK?”
“The French Revolution was just an explosion of bourgeois consciousness–”
“Quit mouthing Engels to me. What I mean is that I’m with you. Go justice. Up with the poor. Proclaim release of the captives and let the oppressed go free–”
“You’d be a lot more convincing if you didn’t quote fucking scripture.”
“Exactly my point! You’re so caught up in the whole ‘opiate of the masses’ thing that you’ve missed the best revolutionary plan ever. Judaism.”
“Come on. Don’t gimme that shit.”
“Look, let’s start from the beginning, huh? Moses leads the slaves out of Egypt. Paradigmatic liberation narrative. Happy anarchy for the next couple hundred years — judges come in to clean up the occasional mess, but lotsa equality, no oppression–”
“After they massacred the locals.”
“Minor point.” She barged on. “Huge resistance to the kings, once they showed up. Even if the rulers were Jews, the prophets and the people weren’t gonna take any oppression. Then resistance to the Persians and the Babylonians — good anti-colonial struggles there, Franz Fanon couldn’t do any better — then we kick out the fucking Greeks, and we’re the only people with the ovaries to stand up to the Romans–”
“Right.” Z was sarcastic.
“Check it out: Pharisaic revolt against Herod, a Roman puppet. That’s about 40 BC. Then a huge revolution in 70 that the emperors can only put down with genocide. Then Bar-Kokhba in about 125, a really cool Jewish revolt in North Africa a coupla years later — not even in Israel! — and then another revolution in 250. OK, so we lost every time, but we kept trying. Pretty major shit. We just kept goin’ and goin’. We’re the fuckin’ revolutionary Energizer Bunny for three millennia, and you hop on a bandwagon that falls apart after 75 years. A wagon that’s run over lotsa poor people. Get a grip, Z.”
“Yeah, like Jews are the vanguard of the revolution today. Ya got piddly liberals on the Upper West Side and fascists in Jerusalem. Looks like a plan to me.”
“Marx. Trotsky. Walter Benjamin. Rosa Luxemborg. Emma Goldman. The American Civil Rights Movement. Even your man Lukacs. Need I say more?”
“Rosa Luxemborg wasn’t a Jew.”
“OK, but the rest–”
“Atheists with Jewish parents.”
“Still Jews. Marxism’s just a failed Jewish heresy. Go back to the source, I say.”
“OK, I’ll concede to the year 250. Maybe the end of the Roman Empire. Fine. A thousand years of pretty cool lefty history. But check it out: from then on, Jews are merchants and traders and bankers and scholars. I mean, yeah, thanks a lot for keeping the lines of communication open between Europe, Arabia, and China, but really. Look, who was the backbone of the Spanish civil service? The tax collectors, the accountants, the bookkeepers? The Jews.”
“That’s a lie.”
“Read Benzion Netanyahu. His son’s a Fascist motherfucker, but he’s got some cool stuff to say about the Inquisition” (What, Rai wondered, had inspired Z to read obscure tomes on Jewish history? Her?). “No, you’re gonna have a tough time convincing me that the Jews have been much for revolution since the Roman Empire fell. Since then, all you’ve done is support whoever’s in power until they turn on you. Then you run away.”
This was one of the few arguments in eighteen months that Z had won. During the time that politics still mattered to her, she still thought the Hebrew Bible was a pretty decent blueprint for a just world, even if contemporary Jews had given up the most important ideas. But as she read the quote from the gospel, she remembered his last line: “Since then, all you’ve done is support whoever’s in power until they turn on you. Then you run away.”
He was accusing her of betrayal. Betrayal of him, betrayal of their cause, betrayal of the future. Judas all over again. He’d found the One and Only True Path to Revolution, while she, the namby-pamby Jew, was just supporting the powerful. Rai was not pleased.
Looking around to make sure no-one was watching, she pulled out her marker and scribbled a quote to remind Z exactly who was on the wrong path. If he thought terrorism was the way to revolution, she could appeal to a higher authority. After all, what did the explosions do except convince the yuppies that they were basically good people — after all, somebody else was even worse. She clearly remembered a quote Z had hammered into her brain:
“Only theft can now save property, only perjury, religion, only bastardy, the family, only disorder, order.”
She underlined “save,” “order,” and “disorder” twice, then saw a telltale flash of dark blue in the corner of her eye. She walked quickly down the crowded sidewalk, trying to lose herself in the crowd, but when she turned to look behind her, she saw two cops pushing through the pedestrians — fortunately, morning rush hour had clogged the streets. Her heart began to beat: not with the excitement she had felt when she and Z ran together from the cops, but with something closer to fear. She tried hard to keep her head low, and gave a quick thanks for her short stature as she slid past the long line waiting to enter the MoMA.
After the museum, the crowds thinned to almost nothing; the cops would certainly see her, so she ran at a full sprint toward Fifth Avenue, not even glancing at the Church of St. Thomas, where she often spat on the steps. Fortunately, tourists and shoppers jammed Fifth Avenue, so she could pause long enough to glance back between their bodies to see the cops hurrying down the street. Rai turned uptown, slithering between fat midwestern bodies and thin Japanese ones. Her heart pounded; her breath was shallow; she wished she were not wearing a yellow blouse.
Again, she took the chance to glance around her. The cops — both tall, fit white men — looked confused. One talked into his radio, the other scanned the crowd. Rai made herself as small as possible, flowed uptown with the window shoppers, then, when she felt she was far enough away, followed some Israeli tourists into Tiffany’s. Though she felt deeply out of place among the jewels, most of the other shoppers looked equally inappropriate, so she walked through the display cases, watching the huge windows carefully to see if the cops would pass.
Over the past year and a half, she had become so used to running from cops that it took Rai several calm moments to note the strangeness of the chase. What had she been doing? Nothing more than scribbling on a construction site, a wall already littered with posters and paint. Even with the cops’ zero-tolerance policies, their response seemed excessive. Cops didn’t sweat unless they had to, and those two had run hard to find her.
Something was going on. She just didn’t know what.
Tiffany’s made her think of Z again — spend enough time with these diamonds and emeralds and any sane person would see the need for revolution. She often wondered how the rich managed to survive in the city, where a middling street gang from the Bronx could take down a brownstone in Lennox Hill without blinking an eye. Instead, they went after each other.
These were not the thoughts she wanted, so she scanned the windows again, then slipped out the side door, walked down Madison, and headed back to The Place on 46th. She desperately needed a shower. Her sweat smelled of fear and mud, and she wanted it gone.
Zapatistas filled Rai’s dreams. Or more exactly, cartoons of Zapatistas, ski masked figures in black and write, running and dancing against a dirty background, a poorly animated movie. But then, they began to speak, and Rai’s oneiric camera zoomed out to see people watching the figures, now emerging from the wall. They spoke in quotes: Shakespeare, Marx, many that she didn’t recognize. The people seemed deeply affected, listening carefully, nodding, then walking off into the city with a determined step.
When Rai woke, she knew exactly what the dream meant. Each moment that she left Z’s quotes unanswered, they touched more and more people — people who would go into the world to wreak terror, fight revolutions, kill innocents — all because she had failed to refute her ex-best friend. She quickly unwrapped herself from the tarp, shook it dry, tucked it into her bag, and walked off eastward, bashing through the undergrowth until it led her to the ring road. The first joggers of the morning plodded past.
She hopped the turnstile at 77th without even a glance from the woman in the booth, who seemed too immersed in her copy of Cosmo to notice, then rode the 6 as it made its way slowly downtown. She allowed herself to doze, but woke at Spring Street and climbed out onto Lafayette, then walked north to where Z had blown up the second Lexus.
The scene of the crime was remarkably clean: no glass, no damaged car, not even a yellow police line. Only a few black splotches on the wall indicated that anything had happened — except, of course, for Z’s two line graffito.
“War is common; strife is right, and all things happen by strife and necessity.”
What was Z trying to do with an obscure quote like that? A moral defense for using violence? Trying to fit himself into a long tradition of philosophers who defended war as the essence of humanity? Setting up the equivalence of capitalist exploitation and revolutionary violence? They weren’t the same! She had taught him better than that. If they were going to be better than the fucking rich, they had to be better in all ways. Ethically, too.
Seeing the graffito and the scarred pavement, she understood better what Z was trying to do. If she had read that line in a library or a classroom, she would have thought “strife” was something abstract, like principles in formal conflict with each other. But here, with the soot of explosion on the wall, strife and necessity and war took on concrete meaning. In suburban America, Muggles could dismiss the idea that “war is common,” but here on the street, where beggars tugged imploringly at fur coats and expensive shoes crunched the glass of the exploded Lexus, war stood right next door. Like it or not, Z had forced people to read exactly what he meant.
She pulled out the black marker she had compared to Z’s penis and scribbled a brief response.
“Resist not evil.”
As she’d told Mike several weeks before, she found Tolstoy’s pacifism unconvincing — especially since it derived from the pedantic, self-righteous Sermon on the Mount — but if Z was going to advocate violence like that, well, she was going to have to be a counter-balance. Maybe pietism wasn’t the proper response to consumer capitalism either, but it had to be better than random acts of terror. Anna Karenina had reminded her that Tolstoy, for all his occasional condescension, did have something worthwhile to say about how people should relate to each other.
Just as she had begun to wonder if this internal discourse had become a bit too moralistic, even for her, Rai remembered the police who had chased her through midtown the day before. Much wiser, she thought, not to stand in front of the graffiti, particularly with a marker in her hand. She stepped away from the wall and turned left onto Prince, thinking she’d catch the N-R to Times Square and breakfast.
Since the morning commute meant that she was hardly alone on the street, she noticed the cops before they noticed her. They were on the opposite sidewalk, walking from Broadway, half obscured by the scaffolding of a construction site. She knew that the narrow strip of cobbles and asphalt would not protect her from them, so she whipped around and blended in with a group of elderly women.
Trying to be subtle, she looked over her shoulder. The pair, a black man and a white woman, had crossed the street and were conferring. They must have seen her. Rai broke from the women that had camouflaged her and walked faster. An eye over her shoulder showed that the cops had picked up their pace, too. She crossed Lafayette against traffic, dodging a couple of slow, honking cabs, then ran along Prince, past a little diner, then a gallery filled with awful glass art. Here the sidewalk was crowded and narrow. She could barely run. And though the crowd wouldn’t part for her, they slipped out of the cops’ way. They were getting closer.
With an eye on her pursuers, she failed to spot the couple that emerged from the apartment building on the corner. The woman cursed, and Rai saw that she’d spilled coffee on her blouse. With a quick “sorry,” she ran across the street, then up Mulberry, much less crowded in spite of even more construction on the sidewalk. She ran along the street, close to the parked cars, with the creepy and inexplicable feeling she always had on this street: of decay. Old St. Patrick’s on the right, the Puck on the left, an Ethiopian restaurant — but not the time to remember her 16th birthday, because the cops were getting closer.
She turned. Here in the open street, the cops were running too, and fast. She stepped up her pace, longing for the legs that had won all the races at elementary school field days. Houston Street in front, full of cars not yet slowed by full rush hour. No way she could pass. Left or right? Where should she go?
For the first time, she felt scared. This was no ordinary chase, where the cops gave up and headed for Dunkin Donuts if you didn’t just fall at their feet. These cops cared. Why? They recognized her. Why? What was it? What had she done that was so important?
Now at Houston. She looked behind her again. The cops were 30 feet away. They were going to catch her. Without a thought, she sprinted straight into the traffic, barely missed by a black Lincoln, slipping behind a taxi, standing stock still on the white stripe, then another dash. The median. Again, ten foot dashes across each lane, a rude gesture for each offended honk, a close call with an Explorer. Then the other side.
Without even a glimpse behind her, she sprinted uptown, sure that Pharoah’s army was stranded on the other side.
Mulberry Street entertained Rai for a while, as she watched the crowds of tourists sitting in tables along the street, unaware that the place they were visiting no longer existed. Little Italy had been absorbed by Chinatown, leaving only this strip of Italian restaurants, the memories of gangster flicks, and the smell of marinara sauce. By eleven o’clock, though, the tourists had dispersed to their hotels, or to the bars and clubs of Soho, and boredom returned to Rai with a vengeance. She continued to walk, but her feet hurt.
Z’s apology had better be good to make up for this, she thought sleepily.
Finally, at perhaps ten minutes ‘til midnight, she made her way back from Soho toward Little Italy. Rai was terribly hungry and tired, and ready to be furious if Z was as late as usual. She wished she had thought to steal an eclair from the bakeries on Mulberry.
Lafayette Street below Houston manages to be seedy and terribly expensive at the same time, perhaps because an enterprising real estate agent had managed to convince a lot of retail outlets that danger was sexy. Behind an empty lot on the other side of the street sat an ancient garage, graffitoed with the black outlines of ski-masked terrorists, bandits, or Zapatistas. Z had always loved the mural, claiming that it pointed to an increasing proletarian consciousness in the city. Maybe that’s why Z had asked her to meet him there, she mused.
Waiting for traffic, Rai glanced across the street at the lot; a couple of expensive cars were parked there. Then, silhouetted against the building, like a mobile graffito, she saw a tall, lithe body dash through the light, onto Prince Street, and around the corner. Seconds later, as she still tried to convince herself that she had actually seen Z sprint away, a car exploded in flame. With every other pedestrian on the street, she ran toward the explosion.
Just like outside the MoMA, the car was a Lexus — this time an SUV, but the stylized “L” was obvious on the scarred tailgate. The crowd began to push at Rai, and she knew that she should leave before the cops arrived, but she had to look around.
Indeed: there on the wall, painted as a cartoon bubble above one of the Zapatistas, she saw the quote:
“War is common; strife is right, and all things happen by strife and necessity.”
She looked at the graffito for quite some time, trying to understand why Z would post such a strange quote. Nothing came to her mind — she wasn’t blank or shocked or any of the things that most people might have expected. She was just confused: why was Z doing this again? Hadn’t she convinced him to give it up? And what did it all mean? “War is common and strife is right”? Sure, it sounded a lot like Z, but could it serve any purpose in advancing Z’s precious revolution?
Sirens screamed in the distance, and red and blue strobes added color to the stark graffiti mural. Rai pushed through the crowd, slid onto Lafayette, and walked quickly uptown. Suddenly, she was furious with Z. Why was he doing this again? Though she saw regular entrances to the subway, she just kept walking and thinking, her mind going in useless, worried circles, each deeper than the last. She should have talked to Z more while she was sick, made sure that he never went for that sort of idiocy again. She rehearsed the arguments she should have made, devastating proofs of the pointlessness of terrorism; she thought of all of the bombers in her Russian novels, the foolish revolutionaries of Dostoyevsky and the noble — if rather boring, in her opinion — poems of Mayakovsky. Why hadn’t she told him that? She had thought the victory won, she was sick, she was so happy to hear Z’s deep Jamaican voice reading Anna Karenina… none of those excuses mollified her guilt. Soon, Z would be in jail, and it would be her fault.
From time to time, she forced her thoughts out of this vortex, and she began to wonder what Z could possibly have meant. Why choose a violent, illogical quote from a Greek guy no-one had ever heard of? Would Heraclitus convince New Yorkers to join Z’s revolution? She doubted it. Either he was crazy, or his intentions stretched beyond the capacity of her imagination.
And then she returned to feelings of guilt. They lasted through a long night’s walk; she feared to go into the Park, where she might meet Z. She didn’t want the closed space of a subway, which felt terrifying after the explosions she’d seen in the streets. Plus, she needed to think; to think, she needed to walk. So up Broadway to Fifth, up Fifth to the Park, across to Madison, up through the closed façades of the world’s most expensive stores, where Muggles could spend $500 on a t-shirt. She laughed a bit at what she saw through barred windows — pre-ripped and dirtied jeans for several hundred dollars, Dolce and Gabbana studs that would have made any street punk blanch — but fashion made her think of Z.
Then up to 96th, where she turned around, knowing that Spanish Harlem was no place for a girl to walk alone in the middle of the night. Down Lexington… By the time dawn came, she had no idea where she had been. She only she that she was tired, enraged, that her feet hurt, and that she understood nothing more about what Z was doing and why he was doing it. From the South Street Seaport, where she watched the sun come up over Brooklyn, she began to walk slowly uptown again, and by the time she reached Times Square, the Place was open.
Rai quickly managed to offend several of her new acquaintances with her pensive, tired silence, but she dismissed them as thin-skinned and brushed off their hurt looks. How many times could she play chess against Toker, anyway? Wasn’t he bored to beat her all the time? Still in her own world, she climbed down into the basement, brushed her teeth, and took a long shower. Frustrated that her hair had grown long enough to comb, she asked Juan for the clippers and shaved it close to the scalp. Looking at herself in the mirror, she was rather surprised how pretty she was — tired, short, confused, but really not bad looking.
Somewhat relieved of the pensive burdens of the long night, she walked back into Times Square, then into Sephora. With some eye liner and a touch of base to hide a zit that had broken out that morning, she felt almost sharp. That’d teach Z not to be such an ass, she thought. Show him what he was missing.
More significantly for her interior struggles, a clean body had led to a clean mind, and Rai no longer felt trapped in the tail-chasing spiral of thought that had imprisoned her the night before. The thick mucus in her throat, that eternal sign of a clogged brain, had decomposed, and though she still didn’t know what Z was trying to say, she finally thought she might be able to figure it out. Maybe there was another clue by the MoMA, where he’d begun his erudite terrorism, a line she’d missed. With enough determination in her step to erase the pain in her feet, she headed up 6th Avenue.
Later, when asked what had inspired her response to Z’s graffito, Rai invoked a genetic, Semitic demand for commentary. “Midrash, you know,” she would say with the condescending tone she had mastered during many arguments with Z. In fact, her motivations eluded her. She had simply seen Z’s graffito, not yet hidden by concert posters, and it made her mad.
“He alone is worthy of life and freedom
who each day does battle for them anew.”
She felt in the backpack for a thick black marker they had used to deface an ad on the subway and scribbled the first phrase that came into her head.
“You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
-Gospel of John
It hurt Rai to quote St. John-the-fucking-anti-semite, but the line just worked. Even with the Lexus towed away, “battle” had a very clear meaning, and its meaning was wrong. Freedom was not about violence. She refused to accept that. Even more, she refused to let other people read such an idea. She wanted to teach them about thinking, about philosophy, to offer a moral response to terror. She wasn’t quite sure why it needed a moral response — perhaps so the Muggles wouldn’t associate literature and violence, perhaps to make them think a little, perhaps just because she couldn’t let Z have the last word — but she knew it did.
She walked away with an unexpected feeling of contentment, even feeling the need to look over her shoulder from time to time to remind herself just how cool she was. And to see if anyone had stopped to read the words. They hadn’t. Even so, she wanted someone with whom she could share her genius, but that thought led to Z, so she pushed it from her mind. “Fucker,” she thought. “Here or not, he’s still fucking with my mind.”
Fast steps took her downtown on Fifth, and though she thought of running up the monumental steps between the lions to the Public Library, she concluded that she really needed open stacks. The branch across the street would serve her much better. Without even a thought, she found herself in the tight shelves of fiction in the back of the first floor.
Oddly enough, she didn’t come to these stacks to read — at least not while in this mood. Many wonderful pages of Anna lay unread in her backpack, and she felt no need for new plots or new friends. No, the point of the experience was… æsthetic, she insisted (always with the “æ”, a letter she loved). Z called her walks through literature obsessive-compulsive, but that was just because he didn’t know shit about psychology except for a couple of long words. Starting with “A,” Rai ran her eyes over each spine, searching for the Russian authors she had never read. Aksakov, Aksyonov, Briusov, Bunin… And then (this was why Z called it obsessive, but that was just because he didn’t understand the pleasure of fingers on a dust jacket), she caressed the spine of each novel, wondering what the pages might contain. Her fingertips touched Georgian mountains and Khazak steppes, troubled cavalry officers and young women glowing with depression, duels, winters, the drawing rooms of a thousand aristocrats…
By the time she had reached Zinoviev, Z had disappeared, as had the exhaustion of a sleepless night, even the heat of the street. The ritual had done its assigned work.
Rai would have preferred to spend the evening alone, stewing on Z’s idiocy and convincing herself that it would all turn out OK, but she was too hungry to go straight to the park, so she found herself at the Place, avoiding conversation with Toker and Petey while trying to remember the contentment she had felt with her fingers on the spines of books. She was staring at her food so intently that when Z walked into the lunchroom, she almost failed to notice. Even so, he would never permit anyone to ignore him; as he strutted across the room, he sent her pulse racing and tightened her muscles, leaving her with the same confused anger that had cursed her pacing through the city the night before. Maybe this is what it’s like to have a lover betray you, she thought, remembering Dmitry Karamazov, Vera, even Karenin himself. Her hands clenched senselessly, breaking the plastic fork she’d been holding.
“Fuck, what’s wit’ you alla sudden?” asked Toker, but when Z sat next to him with a catlike grin, he lost any chance of an answer.
“Yo, viva la revolución,” Z pronounced, in an accent that sounded nothing like Spanish. “When you wanna tell me exactly how much I kick ass, well, here I am.” He leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head, a gesture that might have looked cool in a Scorcese flick, but which Rai found ridiculous.
“You, you… you cunt-licking…” she looked for a noun strong enough for her anger, but couldn’t find it. “You have no fucking clue, do you? None!”
“Gotta break some eggs to make an omelet–”
“Don’t you quote fucking Stalin at me! Or do! Maybe that’s what people need to hear, that you’re some baby Stalin who thinks he’s got a dick that makes bitches moan, who thinks he’s some big shit. Well,” her voice had now become a shout, and those of everyone else in the room had become silent. “Well, let me tell you, Z, that I feel your prick every night when you’re dreaming about me, and I…” she paused dramatically, “I am not impressed.” As he gasped for words, she reached into her bag and pulled out the magic marker she had just used to refute his graffito. “This,” she said, waving it in his face, “this is what it feels like, OK?”
Z’s usual command of language had failed him. “But… but… revolution. Literature. It’s all there… everything we wanted…”
She stood, calmly tucked her chair under the table, and walked — regally, she thought — to the door. “Read the writing on the wall, asshole,” she declared, brandishing the marker, before she swept down the stairs.
When Rai arrived at the Place a half an hour before breakfast, she sat down in the common room and pulled Anna from her bag. But before she could even read a page, she heard a commotion in front of her, then looked down to see a chess board and Toker’s hands arranging the pieces. “You’ve avoided me enough. Today, we’re gonna play.”
“Oh, please, Toker. I barely slept last night. You’re just gonna whoop my ass.” She liked Toker, and even felt a bit bad about having ignored his offer of a game for so long, but right now, she wanted to be in Moscow, not New York.
“We both know better’n that. Half your brain tied behind your back, you’re still smarter’n Einstein. But if you wanna be a wimp, take white.” Toker noticed Rai’s eyes on his motley collection of pieces: blacks, browns, reds, even a blue bishop. “There ain’t any full sets of dark left. This is multicultural chess.” He seemed proud of having used such a long word.
Rai shook her head as if to clear the cobwebs and opened with her queen’s knight. Toker responded with his queen’s pawn, and the game developed quickly. Rai surprised herself with her play; her mind and her instincts were working much better than she had feared, and though Toker was clearly the better player, she kept in the game for quite a while. Several other kids gathered around to watch them play. Rai felt good about her game, even when, after half an hour of play, Toker slid his queen onto the C2 square and mated Rai’s king.
Petey, sitting beside Rai, laughed. “He’s always gonna win with that square. Defend C2, then put the queen there. Ya hadn’t already figured that out?”
“Don’t blow my game, you fucker.”
“She’d see it soon anyway.” He turned to Rai. “Wanna play?”
“After breakfast,” she said, gesturing at the kids filing out of the common room.
Over breakfast, she considered telling Toker and Petey about the graffiti that she and Z were planning around the city, but she decided that, smart as the boys were, such erudition was throwing pearls before swine. Great chess players, sure, but hardly well-read. Hard to read great literature on the street, after all. Though quite true to her character, it does not speak well of Rai that she had failed to notice the tattered copy of The Dharma Bums that poked from Petey’s rear pocket.
The call for breakfast had saved Rai for a moment, but when they returned to the common room, Rai played three games against Petey and lost all of them. Badly. She continued more out of sheer perversity and inertia than from the delusion that she might be able to win a game; he was so much better than she that she didn’t even feel like she was learning. Finally, she realized that these losses were not doing any good at all for her already delicate self-esteem, and she begged off yet another rematch.
On the way out the front door, Rai heard her name. “Whoa, I got a message for you,” Tanya said, and dug into her desk.
“Thanks.” Rai read her name in Z’s handwriting.
“He seemed way high on himself. Boy’s smart, but I got no clue how you put up with him.”
“Me neither.” She raised her eyebrows, turned out the door, and opened the envelope.
Midnight. Prince and Lafayette. Be there.
Couldn’t he just have come into the common room to tell her? Rai thought. And why all the secrecy? And midnight in Soho? Wasn’t that a trifle melodramatic, even for Z? And where was she going to sleep afterward?
As she turned uptown on 6th, she finally realized what was going on. He was just planning a dramatic apology. But why did he have to wait so long? 12 hours…
Several days had passed since she had last seen Mike, but Rai instantly dived into the finest details of her personal drama. Whether her story was happy or tragic, she always felt an intense narrative pleasure when her life merited story-telling. In the flowing words, misery became story; yet in that pleasure, she failed to notice the shadows of concern that passed over her friend’s face. “It’s so fucking dramatic, don’t you think? I almost feel like Anna.”
“I see you have fallen for yet another of my countrywomen.”
“Yeah. She’s way cool. But it’s really not that complicated for her, is it? She wants to know what it’s all about, too, but she doesn’t have to live on the streets and stop terrorism all by herself and obsess about Lermontov and tell her stories to other people so she can think she’s cool. Meaning just shows up, and she grabs it.”
“It?” Mike asked, with more than a touch of disbelief in his voice.
“Meaning. Vronsky. Whatever.”
“But meaning and Vronsky are not the same. Not even close, I think.”
“The dude is a bit of a loser, huh? Bummer she couldn’t have fallen for Pechorin. That would be a kick-ass novel. Maybe I’ll write it some day. But even if Vronsky is a dweeb, she meets him and suddenly something’s going on in her life. It’s going somewhere. I mean, who the fuck would read a novel where Anna and Karenin are happily married? Boring shit.”
“Going somewhere is not always going somewhere good–”
“Don’t blow the ending for me, huh? The thing is that it’s interesting. That’s the deal. She’s got a narrative arc in her life, and–”
“Sometimes, I wish that you did not have these theories about your books.”
“What, narrative arc? Cope with it. I just like the phrase. It sounds good. Lotsa words do: onomatopoeia, Ouougandougou–”
“Capital of Burkina Faso. I used to sit at the kitchen table with Dad’s globe, look around the world, imagine where I was gonna go when I grew up, y’know? Ouougandougou. I wanted to go there. I don’t know anything about it, it’s prob’ly just some podunk shithole in the middle of the desert, but what a cool name.”
Unexpectedly, Mike spoke a couple of lines in Russian; though Rai didn’t understand a word, she loved the sound. She asked him what it meant.
“By chance, on a pocketknife,” he said slowly, as if unsure of the translation, “you will find the dust of faraway lands, and strange, vague colors will wrap your life.”
“ ‘Cept for me it wasn’t dust. It was maps. No, really, like words. Ouougandougou. Pretoria. Mogadishu. Windhoek.”
“You speak like you say the name of a lover.”
“Yeah, huh?” She paused. “That’s what I wanted, y’know? Travel the world, find out if there was really anything there under the map.” A note of real melancholy had entered her voice.
“You speak as if you cannot. But you have only 17 years, Helen. Much time to voyage.”
“And loads of money to do it with. Does it look like I’m saving up for a cruise to fucking Namibia?”
“I would not expect these words from one who survives with no money at all. You are a clever girl, Helen. You decide to go, and you will go.”
“I’ll swim. Get into the Gulf Stream and follow it around.”
“You are much less charming when you are cynical.”
Mike’s words brought Rai up short. He was right, of course, even if she did not want to admit it. She could do what she wanted. “Like Abdul,” she said, half aloud.
“This guy. He’s from Sudan, I guess, but he got here by stowing away on a ship in Cairo or some shit. I met him at the Place. Not exactly the experience I want, ‘cause it sounds like he almost starved to death… but there’s a narrative arc, huh?” She looked at him sideways, with newly coquettish eyes.
“There are better ways to travel.”
“I gotta get Z to go with me, though. They say Kinshasa’s pretty dangerous, so a bodyguard would help, huh? Pity apartheid ended, ‘cause I coulda got him to go to Mozambique and join the ANC. Any other oppressive governments he might want to overthrow?”
“Helen, I had wanted to talk to you about your friend…”
“I guess pretty much all of them, huh?” Rai continued as if she had not heard him, though she had. “Mugabe sure sucks, but no way Z’s gonna get on the side of those white farmers. What about taking up the with Tutsis in Burundi? Think he’d go for that?”
“I do not…”
“Y’know where I really wanna go, Mike? Lethsotho. Now that’s a fucking cool name. And y’know what? I did this report on apartheid in social studies class once, right? And there was this king of Lethsotho named Mshwshwsh. What would you do to have a name like that? Fucking whack!”
“Helen.” He spoke in a tone that finally got her attention.
“I believe that you do not think enough of the actions of your friend. To destroy a car, this is not something small.”
“I talked him out of it. I told you that. Z can be a dick, but he listens to reason.”
“You know I do not lecture you, my young friend. It is not in my character.”
“And it wouldn’t work.”
“Yes. But I worry about this. I do not want to see you in jail.”
“No jail for me. That’s why I put Z back on the straight and narrow. He’s gonna listen to me. When I put my foot down–”
“Your foot is heavy.”
“Pure strength of will. I’ll show you how to do it some day, if you ask real nice.” She was relieved that a teasing tone had re-entered their conversation. She hated it when Mike voiced her own worries. “Hey, so I got a question. Why the fuck did Anna marry Karenin in the first place, huh? You’d think she was smarter than that. Dude’s a complete fuckface.”
“I believe you are not correct. Yes, the man is formal…”
“Perhaps. Bus he is not unkind. He gives his wife much freedom, he does not beat her. When you think of most husbands of that age…”
“But there’s no sex appeal. Zippo.”
“We are speaking of marriage. Helen. Not sex.”
“But it’s so unfair. Marrying somebody ‘cause your daddy says so, or ‘cause you gotta pay fifteen million servants to keep the estate. I mean, these people are just prisoners: to daddy, to money, to tradition…”
“You are normally more original in your attacks.” He raised his left eyebrow, and she laughed.
“Pretty obvious, huh? Thing is, everybody and her cousin’s already read this book, so it’s not real easy to say something new.”
Mike stayed in the fields longer than he often did, staring out over the grass when they were not talking, but eventually he needed to return to Queens, and she still had seven hours before the time Z had set for their meeting. During Rai’s first days on the street, boredom had attacked her like nothing else, for the hours stretched out with nothing to do: no homework, no obligations, not even the fixed hour of a curfew or a bedtime. For someone as impatient as she, those stretching hours had been pure torture. At some moment, she had learned the term “horror vacui,” and she used it about time. She needed something to fill those hours.
Z, of course, had always provided that service. One could complain about almost every aspect of her friend’s character, but he was never boring. To argue with him, to listen to him pontificate, to prowl the streets late at night… he gave content to her days. How long until she was supposed to meet him? The big clock above Columbus Circle marked 5:15.
With a sigh, Rai ceased her pacing around the fields and strode over to the rocks where climbers always gathered. She envied their grace on minuscule holds, but she wondered how the girls there survived the testosterone poisoning. She scrambled to the top, where the sun would last longest, and opened Anna.
Tension overcame even the memory of boredom. Stress filled the stables where Vronsky prepared Frou-Frou for the steeplechase; sexual tension filled the mansion, as Anna and Vronsky tried to escape the servant boy who would surely gossip if he saw anything interesting. God, but that repression was exciting, Rai thought, that search for any chance to insinuate a flirt where the boy would not notice, the imagination of a furtive touch so much more thrilling than any real caress…
Had she stepped back to think, Rai might have said that time dashed like Vronsky’s horse, but she had no time for such thoughts. She only felt Anna’s anxiety, watched the horses race, jump, trip… God, to be at that steeplechase, to hear the shouts, the rustles of satin dresses, to feel the gaze of a too-bold cavalry officer. Vronsky’s horse sprinted; Anna and Rai rose with the crowd. He would win! The horse leapt the last ditch. Vronsky sat back too far…
Frou-Frou writhed on the ground, its back broken. Rai ran onto the field… or perhaps she did not. She could no longer make out the words on the page, for darkness had fallen on Central Park.