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That evening in the bathtub, I sank quickly into dreams.

After not leaving the house for a number of days, I took a very long walk. This walk led me to a much deeper understanding of life and of Beijing.

This is a city completely devoid of any feeling of being shut in. I discovered that the city's broad and long streets in no way separate the people in its different corners, either in terms of space or in their hearts. The streets are filled with modern means of communication so that moving between widely separated places is as fast as making a phone call. In the twinkling of an eye, an uninvited guest who wants to talk to you can be on your doorstep. With the spiderweb network of telephone lines over the city, the noise and clamor of an even more distant world, however you might protest, will force its way into your innocent ears. Like a green wind blowing across the sea of people, postmen whisk everything from far away, the true, the false, before your eyes. You become the news for others; they become the news for you. Endless rounds of information keep bursting like shells all around you. Row upon row of new buildings crowd together cheek by jowl. Windows like endless rows of eyes stare inquisitively into each other from every angle. Walls as thin as insects' wings whether you're at home or on the street, your breathing, your muttering, your deepest inner thoughts are common knowledge among the crowds

Because of all the noise and clamor, the city's heart is becoming every day emptier as its arms extend everywhere into the surrounding farms, covering the soft-complected fields of wheat and vegetables with hard asphalt roads, making them its own. It is getting harder and harder to find scenes of country life around the outskirts of this city, or smell the rich fragrance of the vegetables that grace our tables growing in the soil that nurtured them. All we can do is retreat to our balconies, where we can symbolically "promote agriculture" to get a little feel of the farmer's life. As this city grows bigger and bigger, it is becoming more and more stupid and obtuse.

I took a long walk along the streets between the Third and Fourth Ring roads. As I looked around at this huge, crowded city, I thought back over the recent years of my life. I realized that I was becoming like an old woman, my old enthusiasm for dreaming about the future all gone. Aside from observing, there was nothing left in my head but memories.

Senility at my age how ridiculous!

Maybe I really am sick, but certainly not "agoraphobic" or "mentally disordered" or whatever, as diagnosed by the doctors. My mind is as sharp as ever; I know myself. My problem is "premature senility" simple as that. And I'm convinced that there are a lot of other people suffering from the same thing. More all the time. It's going to be an epidemic by the end of the century.

When I got home, instead of reporting to the hospital where I had convalesced for a checkup, I wrote them a letter:

Dear Doctors: How are you!

To be accurate, I should really refer to you as my teachers or guides. You clarified my thinking, rectified my attitude, and reformed my overall outlook, rekindling in me the same flame of enthusiasm for living and life that burns in the masses! My intractable obstinacy and extreme pig-headedness must have exhausted you, given you no peace at all, and left you emaciated from the need to give me constant attention. I remember you once saying that it would be easier to deal with an undercover commando or a posse of female American CIA agents than to deal with me. Obviously, I've been a major headache to you, and a thorn in your side. And worst of all, despite your help, I treated you as my enemies. It fills me with shame and distress to think back on how heartless I have been.

Now, at last, I understand, and it is because of this that I am writing to you here to express my sincere thanks, and to give you a full report on my life and work at present.

My mood has changed, and I'm always happy now. Sometimes I have a hankering to feel melancholy, but I just can't bring it off. I often go out for a walk, and I've discovered that every day it's a new sun, and the touch of its golden light makes me smile. All the women that I meet on the street are just like my mama. They ask me if everything is okay, if I'm hungry, or not feeling well. And all the men I meet are just like the model soldier and citizen Lei Feng. If I should carelessly stumble, they fight to be first to rush over and pick me up, and make great efforts to help me brush the dust off my clothes, and they offer me money to go to the hospital to get my cuts bandaged, even if I haven't so much as scraped the skin on my knee. I really don't understand: when I walked on the streets before, why did those empty scenes leave me so cold, so troubled? Why could I not suppress my tears?

Even a vegetable seller in the farmers' market gave me things for free. It was one time when I had gone there to buy some cucumbers. There was a little boy in line right behind me. Actually, there was all kinds of room around us, but he stuck there right behind me anyway. I had seen him around before. He was always in the market, perched on the top of a heap of vegetables in the sunshine, eating an apple or reading some children's book. I guess he was one of the sellers' kids, maybe the lady's in front of me. I thought they looked a bit alike, so I didn't pay him any further notice. The lady selling vegetables was particularly friendly that day, talking nonstop about this and that, asking me where I bought my dress, and how much money the mayor earned. Picking over the cucumbers, I said, "The mayor serves the people. He just doesn't think about things like that." When I went to pay her, I discovered that my purse had disappeared. I must have carelessly dropped it somewhere. I was so upset I started to cry, but the lady said, "Don't cry. We all have troubles sometimes. Here, the cucumbers are free." I was so deeply moved!

Now my house is always jammed with visitors. I wend my way among the happy crowds, nodding my head in greeting, smiling, clinking glasses, never the least bit lonely. And the telephone is constantly ringing off the hook. I used to have a sign on the front door that said, Visitors please say "Bye" after ten minutes. There's still a sign on the door, but the message is totally different. Now it reads, Make yourself at home you're welcome anytime. Now in my home, the front room is like a market, the front door always open. When one group leaves, another arrives. My friends go on about my complexion, they say my face is beautiful, my skin delicate and fair. When I say, "I haven't had a chance to wash it yet!" they all laugh. What bothers me is that I can't figure out why all these male and female friends love me so much, or whether or not I should get married. I'm afraid that if I marry one of them, I'll lose too many friends; yet if I marry the lot of them, not only will they wear me to a frazzle, I'll be in trouble with the law as well. It's such a happy time the days flit by like minutes!

Even if it should happen that none of my friends comes to visit, I am very happy all by myself. With my supper I have a tiny glass of American ginseng whisky (please note: just a tiny glass, not a large one), for health purposes only. With the weather gradually getting colder, and my blood circulation being rather poor, as you know, my hands and feet are always cold, and a little shot of whisky warms up my nerve endings. Although there was one time when I drank just a tad too much and chatted with myself the entire night. Asking this and answering that, I was quite a scene, a veritable symposium all by myself, so much so that the next morning when I bumped into my neighbors in the hall, they asked me, "Just how many guests did you have in your place last night?" But, I promise you, nothing like that will ever happen again.

My present rapid progress is, of course, all the result of your guidance and your treatment!

What is especially pleasing is that no longer do I just sit at home staring at the walls, living off what my mother left me. I have gone out into the world and joined the work of society. Not too far from home, I got a job in a warehouse, keeping track of incoming and outgoing inventory. Because of my extensive educational background, I was very quickly made the manager of my section, but even then people thought the job didn't tap my abilities. But I was very pleased. Even though, counting me, the warehouse had only two workers, being manager of a section was not too far from being deputy head of a department, and after that it's only one more little step to becoming a bona fide cadre.

Of course, a road up is never without its twists and turns, and responsibilities are always arduous. As you all know, I'm not very good at mathematical calculations. Although I am quite aware of the old saying that when there's a tiger on the mountain you should skirt around it, when you choose a job checking inventory you can't avoid dealing with numbers, and even after a tough stretch of trying, I still managed to mix up incoming and outgoing inventory. So I had no choice but to give up my management job. But this didn't dishearten me at all.

Yesterday, a city census officer knocked on my door. Looking through the peephole, I first thought it was a man, but when I looked closely, I saw it was a woman. She was beautiful, very striking; and, quite reassured, I opened the door. With Mother's death, the number of people in the house had changed from the original two to one, and she had come to take care of the change in registration. Right then and there, I decided that I would like to be a census officer. I told her this and asked her to help me. She talked to me for a long time that day. I could see that she really liked me and would surely be able to help me. As soon as I thought that before long I could put on my uniform and go from house to house mixing gloriously with the common people, knowing who was eating rice, who was out of soy sauce, who borrowed an onion from whom, who had a new daughter-in-law, I felt an ineffable joy and completeness. What pleasure all this will bring me!

It is obvious from all this that my "agoraphobia" has been thoroughly rooted out by you. And from this written report you should be able to see how clear, how precise, and how logical my thinking has become. So, since I am now fully recovered, there is no need for any further examinations.

Thank you all once again for your care and attention!

Ni Niuniu

Early winter, 1994, Beijing

After I had mailed the letter to the hospital, I went to the store and bought a blue lampshade, a vibrant yellow artificial sunflower, and a milk-white and lavender porcelain flower vase, which I took home and carefully arranged in my beloved bathroom.

When I was finished, it was just like another world.

Whenever I go into my quiet, simple little bathroom suffused in pale blue-green light, for example, at noon when the sun and the hub- bub of the streets are at their height, it makes me feel the hush of nightfall, when everyone is sound asleep and the world is at peace, and I feel totally secure.

On one of the ledges at either end of the snow-white bathtub sits the solitary, green-and-yellow sunflower in the plump lavender vase the effect, a twilight scene bathed in pale sunlight. On the floor beside the bathtub, a faded yellow straw carpet of dense and intricate pattern adds a touch of old and simple beauty. A soap-scented towel hangs casually over the long chestnut-colored wooden rod across the white tiles behind the tub, and a pair of pitch-black pajamas, the color of sleep. It is as misty as the rainy season.

A three-dimensional modernist painting, a fictitious world.

It doesn't matter what time of day it is, all I have to do is cast a glance into the bathroom and I feel as if I had just come back from a long journey and, tired and short of breath, all I want to do is feel the warm currents of water flow around me as I lie there quietly, naked as an eel in the shush of running water, conscious only of its caressing warmth.

The scene in my bathroom is rich in pattern, order, and certainty, while the scenes in the world outside are brushed in sloppy, incoherent strokes, a constant uproar of changing appearances and structures.

Two worlds, one inside, one outside, and I can't decide which one is nothing more than dreams.

One by one, the days go by. All time has passed away and left me here alone.

On one such day, I noticed that my rubber tree, my tortoiseshell bamboo, and all the green shrubs on my balcony were growing so vigorously that there was no longer enough room for them. My first thought was that perhaps I should move them to the flower beds outside. From the way they were gazing down from the balcony window, I could see that they too had been thinking about this and couldn't make up their minds. If they were to move outside, they could draw nourishment from the rich soil of the broad, deep beds, but they would also have to struggle ceaselessly with all the other plants to survive. And they would be unprotected from the wind and sun. On the other hand, although they could escape nature's ravaging heat and cold on my balcony, they would be deprived of any deeper sustenance.

They are thinking about this. So am I.

21 The Lonely Are A Shameless Lot | A Private Life | Chen Ran