Woman From the Mainland
by Mark MacNamara

She referred to her old boyfriend as the "little man from Macao," because his penis was only two inches long. "Like this," she said, measuring with thumb and forefinger. "When I was leaving him I said to his father, ‘you should do something about your son. You know, there are pills and those sticks'."

She turned to her new lover, an old professor of Humanities.

"The fake thing, what do you call that?"

"You call that a pros—thesis," he said.

She tried to pronounce the word but couldn't. "Sticks," she said. "Too closed-up in there, little thing couldn't sprout."

"What did the father say when you told him that?"

"The father's very rich man. It's nothing to him."

The professor imagined the little penis. "What do you call me?" he asked, partly to provoke her.

She knew his tricks. "Maybe, I call you ‘Mr. Big'." She let the word ‘big' hang in air and added, "Because you come from America, where everything is big." She disappeared into the next room to undress.

Always the appearance of subservience, he thought, but underneath absolute dominance. He lay on his back, half dead from too much Skyy and stir-fry, arms crossed on his chest, in a three room sarcophagus a few blocks from Denfert-Rochereau. From Manhattan to the catacombs of Paris: It was the best he could do after his separation, and all that he could afford what with his obligations to ex-wives and children.

Now, long after midnight, far from home, having all but given up hope of being saved, he awaited this woman less than half his age. He heard her in the bathroom, rooting through her green silk bag embroidered with dragonflies and inside, the spermicide. "To keep life still," she said before their first time. He had been both relieved and saddened.

His eyes closed.

His wife appeared, lying in the tub on Riverside Drive six months earlier, her breasts swaying under the surface, like kelp in a swell, and he asked her, an auburn-haired woman of 40, a well known poet and mother of his daughter, "Are you having an affair?"

"Yes," she replied, without hesitation.

He was forever terrified by her honesty.

"But why?"

She held up a washcloth by the corners, and then as though laying a sheet, covered her breasts. "I suppose we promised each other too much."

They had spent years circling each other, first on different continents then in different cities; in the end, drawn together not by magnetism but by the relentless push of expectation.

"Is it serious?" he asked.

"Have you been serious?"

A reference to his heavy drinking he thought.

"What do you want to do?" he demanded, unwilling to accept ambiguity even for a night.

"I'd like to get out of this tub and go to sleep," she said, waiting for him to leave her alone.

The next morning he moved into a friend's apartment, hoping to create a vacuum that might lead to reconciliation. But the vacuum had no effect and a week later his wife moved in with her lover, which created a severe bout of jealousy. It got so bad that a month later he fled to Paris, where they'd been introduced to each other. It was the only place he could think of that might draw her back. But she never even called to find out that he'd left.

At first, he'd been happy to be alone but then as always happened with him, his desires snuck out one night and he began prowling through the cafes around Sciences Po. Eventually, he found a Chinese graduate student named Mei-Mei. They had struck up a casual sexual relationship and now here she was again and in another moment he would be inside her.

It bothered him that he knew so little about her. He knew that she was younger than his daughter, and that she had a child's figure and a child's long black hair, with bangs cut at a slight angle. He knew that she never closed her eyes when they made love. That her father and mother worked in a dye factory two hours from Beijing. That three months after birth the state put her in a "comfort center" so her parents could work. That at six she returned home, making her own way to and from school, cooking for her parents. That her cousin was a government spy who tracked foreign businessmen.

Sometimes, they discussed the dictatorship. Once, he brought up Tiananmen Square. "What good was that?" she said derisively. "That's not the way to change things."

"I've spent my whole life opposing regimes," he said, shiny with self-righteousness and some bitterness. "That's the difference between us."

"That's not the difference," she said. "What do you know about dangerous things?"

Something bumped against the window. His eyes suddenly opened. He had drifted off to sleep. "Mei Mei," he called out. No reply. He called again and again no reply. He stumbled around his bed in the dark and went up a few steps to a closet-sized room he had intended for his daughters, should they ever visit. He opened the door and there was Mei-Mei, reading a magazine in dim light. She did not look up.

"Watcha reading?" He asked as though he were talking to a child.

Mei Mei turned the magazine to show him a photo. "The gardens at the Temple of Heaven."

"Shouldn't you come to bed?"

She smiled but did not look up. "Isn't Beijing beautiful?"

"It is" he said, bobbing in the doorway.

"You were sleeping," she said, not looking up. "I heard you."

"I was waiting."

"I think you forgot all about me."

"No, I was waiting," he said, feeling the lateness of the night.

"You're a ‘hungry ghost'," she said, waving him away. "That's what a Buddhist would say."

"You," he said, with a drunk's drama. "You, are my hunger."

"Really? I don't think so," she said. He couldn't tell if he had put her off.

The light bulb in the lamp flickered for a moment.

"Okay," she said, with no hint of either enthusiasm or reluctance.

Coming out of oblige, he thought, but it can't be helped. He took her hand, kissed it and led her back down into his tiny room with the pillowcases full of Rousseau's wild beasts, peering out of their jungle.