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12 A Bed Cries Out

It is said that the sounds we hear are an illusion, that there is no absolute connection between the objects that produce sounds and the objects that receive them. Without our minds, without illusionary desire, all the ears in this world would be silent voids.

In reality it is our own skin that cries out, and the sounds we make sink into our own bodies and fade away within us.

In all my years as a student, most of the serious events took place during my final summer holiday at the end of middle school, the most intense two months of my entire school life.

In July that summer it had rained without letup, and the endless, unbroken string of examinations, like the interminable rain, had tried my patience to the limit. By forcing myself to fight to the bitter end, I was able to muddle through the exams successfully and win a place in one of Beijing 's liberal arts universities.

I remember that when the tests for each subject were finished, I took the course texts, which I knew from cover to cover, tore them up, dropped them in an examination hall toilet, and flushed them down with my feces so I would never have to carry them home again. By the time the exams were finished, I was as thin as a beggar, without an ounce of extra fat on my body.

Another thing that was still going on at this time was my parents' covert and "civilized" divorce agreement. In this major event in the history of the family, my father displayed an unusual male gallantry, like a war hero of the first order leaving the field of battle (except that this was a special battlefield where there were no winners or losers). Early one morning when it was raining torrents, he pulled on his trousers, put on his glasses, picked up his briefcase, and departed a stirring spectacle.

Ultimately, his final departure forced me to stand up among the ruins on this civilized battlefield and take on the role of a mature woman.

I don't want to go through the story of the destruction of my family, because it is unimportant. What is important is that the belief in marriage of every person who scrambled out of the ruins had been totally destroyed. My mother and I had both become cynical about that institution, which the majority of people consider wonderously beautiful.

In China in the early '80s, it was really very difficult to find anyone who wished, as I did, that her own parents would get out of their unfortunate marriage, but I never felt awkward or guilty about feeling this way. On the contrary, I always believed that I was the staunchest supporter and advocate of their "liberation movement." At the same time, I never blamed any of my personal distrust or negative feelings toward any aspects of society, such as its outworn ways of thinking, on the mess at home.

I have never thought that the family alone could generate in an individual such powerful negative feelings.

Not long after my father left, an official order came down for the demolition of the houses on our block, and we were given two apartments in a new high-rise residential complex in the western sector of the city.

To our good fortune, it was fated that Ho would move into the same building, two floors directly below my own apartment.

Mr. Ge from the courtyard in front of us had disappeared without a trace after the murder of his wife, and his daughter's family had moved into the house. So she too was moved into our building.

On the day that Mother, Widow Ho, and I went to look at our new quarters, the building, which had just been completed, towered gray and empty on the construction site. As there had not been time to plant trees and grass, the surrounding land was barren on all sides. Like a man caught naked in broad daylight, the building seemed displeased and unwilling to be seen, and we had to look for a long time before we found the path to the main entrance.

The elevator wasn't working yet, so we started up the narrow but gently inclined stairway. After climbing around and around, Mother and I finally found ourselves standing at the end of a hallway on the eleventh floor before the door to a three-room apartment.

It was a depressing door, gray and huge. As we stood there catching our breath, I noticed that the weak, unsteady light came from a ventilation hole covered with a steel grid, which served as a sort of skylight in a corner above the door on the left. Through a crack in the door I could hear a strange, faint noise, perhaps from air in the water or heating pipes, that sounded like unbroken sneezing from some tormented netherworld. I put my ear against the door, straining to hear more clearly, but the noise had faded away.

This was to be my mother's apartment, my own being down the corridor. At the very outset, a kind of cold, ominous premonition had twisted its way out through the crack in my mother's door and crawled up onto my face. In some vague way, through that gray steel door that made me step back as soon as I looked at it, I felt I had touched upon something associated with death. This totally groundless premonition made me reluctant to open the door for my mother, as if doing so would open the door to some disaster.

And in fact, not too many years later this turned out to be true.

It was a dreadfully hot and long summer. Like unleavened loaves of steamed bread that never seem to be done, no matter how long you leave them in the steamer, the days dragged by interminably. I opened all the windows in my apartment, but it was very noisy outside because on the opposite side of the street not too far from our building, another high-rise apartment building was under construction. From my window, where I could see the scaffolding that was being erected in the construction area, the building modules seemed more like toys than actual parts of the building. I stood by my window thinking that it wouldn't be long before that building too would be jammed full of people, all separated by walls into their own square spaces, all living their not very real lives.

I turned around and examined my own place. The light blue of the lower part of the walls looked back at me serenely. The front room, the kitchen, the bathroom, and the bedroom all told me that this was a home where I could pass the days peacefully. The hubbub of the crowded living of earlier years was a thing of the past. The furniture and the walls would no longer be troubled by the tension and confusion caused by the endless traffic of people.

I had always dreamed of having a place of my own, because it is a prerequisite for the pursuit of a life of reflection.

In her apartment down the corridor from mine, my mother was trying to recover from the invisible "wound" left by her almost twenty years of marriage; and I could communicate with Widow Ho, resting on her big, soft, warm bed in the apartment two floors below mine, by knocking on the water pipes. And more important than this, my special silent conversations with her were not impeded by the concrete slabs separating the building's floors. With my mother and my dearest friend so close to me, I was calmer and more at ease than I had ever been before.

Late one evening an unexpected guest suddenly arrived at the door of my new apartment.

I assumed that it was Ho coming to see me, so when the bell rang, stuffing my feet in my slippers and slipping into a cotton T-shirt that reached to my thighs, I went to open the door.

When I opened it, I was caught completely off guard.

Tall and handsome and dressed to the nines, Mr. Ti was standing there holding a bouquet of fresh flowers. His flashing eyes betrayed a kind of confusion, but he had a stiff smile fixed firmly on his face.

For the two months prior to the university entrance exams the students studied at home and no longer attended classes, so I had not seen him for three months.

Ti's sudden appearance left me confused, especially the unexpected bouquet of flowers. I had no idea what I should do. A cold chill ran through me to my very fingertips, which felt like icicles.

For many years, Ti and I had apparently been caught in some kind of subtle entanglement or relationship, but it had always been like a balloon pushed beneath the water's surface, lurking there where I wasn't quite conscious of its existence. Perhaps it was our uncertainty and blindness that had exasperated him to the point where he was at times rude and contemptuous toward me, and at other times affectedly solicitous and understanding.

This abrasive, confrontational, even antagonistic relationship had gone on this way for many years.

My feminine intuition had made me dimly aware that these years of confrontation and antagonism perhaps stemmed from some latent, unspoken danger that had always had a secret existence between us, even though I couldn't clearly identify it. So I instinctively avoided him, keeping him at a distance.

When I opened the door and suddenly saw him again, after we had already parted, it felt like the huge door that had been closed between us had been reopened, catching me completely by surprise.

Standing there at the door, I was nonplussed for a moment; then I moved aside and invited him in, while I very self-consciously pulled down on my big T-shirt.

Ti said, "I've come to congratulate you."

I was terribly embarrassed, my face flushed hot, and for a while I could think of nothing to say.

Finally, when he was already in the living room, with a great effort I managed to say, "Sit down."

He again said, "I"ve come to congratulate you!" and the stiff smile on his face seemed to relax a bit.

Awkwardly and a little coldly, I said, "For what?"

"For all that you've managed," he said.

After he sat down on the sofa, since I still hadn't gone over to take the flowers from him, he very casually put them down on the tea table in front of him. I sat down in the chair facing him.

He rattled on about whatever he could think of, not at all like the urbane teacher at the front of the classroom. I responded somehow or other, not really thinking about what I was saying.

I felt very uneasy sitting there, because my thighs were almost completely exposed.

Eventually I drummed up enough courage to stand up and say, "I'm going to put on something more suitable."

"It's not necessary, Niuniu. I like you the way you are." He paused a moment, then went on, "Your legs are slim and shapely. They're extremely beautiful." As he spoke, he stood up as if he were going to stop me, as if he were afraid I was going to leave to change my clothes.

I hesitated a moment, then went to the bedroom.

When I had taken off my T-shirt and before I had time to get my dress from its hanger, the bedroom door groaned as it was pushed open.

With a hopeless look on his face, Ti stood at the door, breathing hard, with tears welling up in his eyes and streaming down his face. His tall, strong frame looked like a crumbling stone monument that was about to collapse in ruins.

I was so stunned I didn't know what to do or say.

He walked unsteadily toward me, and without uttering a word he wrapped his arms tightly around me.

Locked firmly in his arms, I whispered desperately, "Don't do this, don't do this," as I twisted angrily in an attempt to get away. But his arms were like fetters, and the more I struggled, the tighter they became.

His body, as hot as a stove, was all over mine. He cried out softly, "Niuniu, Niuniu, I beg you, stay in my arms." Because he was so tense, the sound of his voice had changed.

"No. I don't like you." And again I tried to get away from him. "I have always, always loved you, Niuniu. I swear it." His lips were trembling so much that he could hardly speak.

"You're lying!" I answered angrily. "I've always hated you." I was gasping for breath from my struggle to get away.

Ti's tears were spotting my shoulder like rain. Unable to speak, he clasped me even tighter in his arms, pumping his groin hard against mine, as if he were suffering muscle spasms.

Staring at him with hostile intensity, all I could see was that his usually arrogant face was as pale as a girl's, and that a seemingly uncontrollable and dangerous grief and longing shot from his eyes and from every pore on his body. It was as if this apparently sturdy, handsome male had crumpled into a great heap of garbage around my shoulders.

This made me recall the scene on the army cot in the inner room at Yi Qiu's and the sudden spurt of lightning from between Xi Dawang's legs.

I began to feel a bit frightened.

His rapid and heavy breathing gave an indication of how long he had been tormented with desire. There seemed to be a deep hurt lurking beneath his expression of sexual passion.

Gripping me tightly by the shoulders, he murmured brokenly, "Niuniu, you're a very seductive girl. Do you know that? Everything about you, your body, your face, has a special attraction. You're like a garden filled with exotic flowers and grasses that allows me no exit, that tortures me. Why can't you see how I"

My shoulders hurt in his grip. Tears were streaming down his face and he was sobbing uncontrollably.

This was the first time I had ever received praise from a male. And what stunned me was that it came from a male whom I had detested for many years.

Only after living through many different experiences did I discover that women (including myself at that time) are highly susceptible to praise. Such praise is an ingenious weapon that can make women lose their sense of judgment and their sense of place, reducing them to mindless little girls, to the point where they are nothing more than female animals who subserviently do what they are told, becoming praise's willing prisoners and slaves, the spoils of battle. It is only the most mature of women who can remain cool and rational in the face of this invincible weapon.

That day Ti's sobbing frightened and disgusted me, but at the same time I felt an obscure kind of pity for him. His intense grief, in fact, placed a restraint on my own feelings, suppressing my resistance to his pleas.

Twisting this way and that way around the bedroom, with me trying to get away from him, we looked like a pair of combatants in a mixed-sex wrestling match.

I was gradually losing strength in my struggle to get away.

His tears of despair fell without cease on my face, and I could feel their coolness penetrating into my body, where wondrously it was transformed into a feeling of languor, which in turn passed outward through my skin, to be drawn in by the intense heat of his body.

Eventually, I stopped resisting him.

All the time I was touching him, I kept seeing animated images of Yi Qiu and Xi Dawang's entwined bodies, which further stimulated my imagination and my senses. I felt a delicate shuddering spreading outward through my body to my skin, leaving me feeling faint.

So I closed my eyes.

Then in the darkness behind my eyelids I dimly saw that the image of Yi Qiu and Xi Dawang entwined together had suddenly changed. The stage properties and the set were still the same. It was still the inner room of Yi Qiu's house, and the same old army cot was still there in the semidarkness. But it was not their bodies twined together on it. Hand in hand, Yi Qiu and Xi Dawang had risen from the bed, and, smiling slyly, Xi Dawang was saying, "It's your turn on stage. What a beautiful thing it is!" Yi Qiu turned to me and said, "Don't be afraid. You have to step onto this stage sooner or later anyway." Then the two bodies on the cot turned into Ti and me.

When this cartoon image in my mind changed, something even stranger happened. As if I had been hypnotized, my body suddenly possessed a demonic strength. The terrible fatigue that I felt as a result of the struggle to free myself was suddenly transformed into a new and opposing strength, and I pressed myself rigidly against Ti

In the twilight of that summer evening in August, as the light in the room slowly faded, the passionately hot body of Mr. Ti, a mature male, was grinding against the almost naked body of his female student, his chest pressed helplessly against her breasts. It seemed that an agonizing pain was mounting in his lower groin. The warmth of his hot breath washed past her cheek, over her neck, down her spine, and into her loins, where she started to feel a tingling sensation.

He held her tightly by the waist so that they were pressed as close together as possible. She felt what seemed to be something like a hand increasing in size in the front of his trousers. This "third hand" was vigorously and wildly probing, as if trying to find a way to reach within her body. The student was straining her upper body away from him as much as possible, trying to leave a little space between them. But he inclined his head toward her to press the tip of his tongue in her ear and into the hollow of her neck. Then he buried his face between her breasts and began kissing and sucking their nipples and marble-white skin. Her eyes slowly closed as she lay there, unable to resist.

Then she felt him thrusting violently as something hot seeped through his trousers, soaking her groin

It was twilight outside, and the last warmth of the day flowed languidly into the room through the open window. Ti and I, soaked with perspiration, could both hear our hearts beating as fast as the second hand of my watch.

When I extracted myself from his embrace, I saw that the crotch of his trousers was all wet, and that my stomach too was all sticky. It was disgusting.

I was angry and at the same time embarrassed by my own behavior.

I said to Ti, "Please go. I want to have a bath."

His face was filled with shame, guilt, and loving tenderness, all at the same time. Looking rather awkward, he said, "Niuniu, Niuniu, I'm not a playboy who chases after women for the fun of it. I'll be good to you, I'll take care of you."

I said, "Please go. I want to have a bath."

"Why don't we go out for dinner?" he suggested.

I said, "No. I'm having dinner with my mother. Some other time, perhaps. I have to think about it."

"Niuniu, please don't think badly of me. I've always yearned for you, hoping that someday maybe you and I"

"Nonsense." The moment he started to talk this way, my anger flared and, heedless of everything, I confronted him. "You have always made life difficult for me, always criticizing me, making me feel embarrassed!"

"But I never wanted to be like that. I have no idea why I treated you like that. Niuniu, I swear it. I need you, I want you, I love you."

I persisted, "You have to go now. My mother will be calling me for dinner in a little while."

Ti heaved a sigh and said resignedly, "All right, Niuniu. I'll come to see you again tomorrow."

"I don't want you to come again," I answered in haste.

"I won't touch you, I swear, Niuniu. I just want to see you, to take you for dinner, to talk to you," Ti said, his damp eyes downcast. He paused a moment, then continued, "Niuniu, I apologize for my crude behavior today."

He had jettisoned all his former stiffness of manner.

A fly buzzing around in circles by the bedroom window made it seem like the glass in the window was undulating and my bed beneath the window was swaying unsteadily. From that moment on, it seemed, the entire room would never feel safe and secure again.

Ti's eyes turned toward the big bed, its flax-colored sheets like some spotless, forbidden zone denying him the fulfillment of his desire. The last rays of the setting sun cast a pink glow on the center of the bed like the warm color of flower petals staining a milk-white skin, or the still-warm blood flower of a just-taken virgin.

Unable to stand steadily and gasping for breath, he collapsed on the bed.

The bed gave out a forlorn and bitter cry.

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