3 I Carry An Infectious Disease…
"Willing to go through a keyhole,
but not through an open door."
The heavy rainfall was followed by a series of dull, damp days. My eyes half closed, I was walking alone on the way to school. The passersby were all bigger than me. I had no heart to lift my eyes to enjoy the scenery along the way, because going to school depressed me so much.
A madman came up to me and started to laugh. His withered body was as thin as a straw swaying in a whistling wind. Staring into my face, he laughed as gaily as if he were on a road leading to some blissful heaven. Maybe he wasn't really a madman, but I thought he was. Would anyone other than a madman start to laugh at some stranger on the street, especially at a little girl of no consequence like me?
He darted past me as cheery as a crackling fire. I stopped and turned, unable to take my eyes off him, and continued to watch until he disappeared behind a wall at the corner of the street.
The schoolyard was enshrouded in a thick fog that curled itself around everything. Today Teacher Ti was going to divide the entire class into extracurricular study groups. I dashed quickly toward our classroom.
He was already there, pacing up and down between the rows of desks. He hadn't rung the bell yet, but all my classmates were sitting in their seats as stiff as pencils. Something must have happened. They were on tenterhooks, awaiting Ti's outburst.
The moment I entered the room, I could hear his whistling bronchial wheeze. This was a kind of signal, an omen that something very serious was about to happen.
Once, near the end of the term when I was in fourth grade, just as Mr. Ti was launching into a denunciation of the despicable behavior of someone caught cheating on an exam, the thin, shrill sound of a whistle broke the solemn silence in the classroom. Mr. Ti barked, "Who blew that whistle?"
Struck with disbelief, we listened intently, until we realized that the whistling was coming from Ti's own throat; then we started giggling, hiding our faces behind our hands.
After a moment, seeming to have discovered the source of the noise himself, Mr. Ti cleared his throat angrily. "So you find it amusing, do you? This cruel memento that China 's history has foisted upon me. You couldn't possibly understand."
Over the preceding several years, from the few things that Mr. Ti had revealed to us out of his discontent, I knew that he was one of the educated youth who had graduated from middle school at the time of the Red Guards. In 1966 he was labeled one of the rebels among the children of high-ranking officials who had been ousted from office and was sent to the northeast as a soldier in an army agriculture and construction team. Once there, he stayed for eight years, returning only after his father was rehabilitated in 1974. But his father died suddenly only nine days after his name had been cleared, and from that time the family's fortunes began to slip.
Whenever Ti told us of those times, he was overwhelmed with the injustice of his never having had a chance to realize his potential, and he got so upset that he found it hard to breathe.
Much of what I know of Ti's personal history comes from what he revealed to us in those days, but what I know of his inner self comes out of the strange and confused personal relationship that developed between us, which I came to understand only many years later.
When I entered the classroom that day, I very quietly edged my way to my desk. Once in my seat, I started to look around.
My desk partner told me in a veiled whisper, "Someone has stolen some money."
The student behind me immediately countered, "No, someone's been writing reactionary slogans in the toilet."
My heart started to pound.
Like a caged animal, Teacher Ti angrily yet calculatedly paced up and down between our desks, cold nails flashing from his watchful eyes as they swept across our faces. It seemed as if his eyes could see directly into our minds, past our faces into our innermost secrets. I don't know whether it was my racing heart that affected my appearance or whether those cold nails sweeping our faces had actually pierced my cheeks, but my face felt red with blood as hot as chili peppers.
Please, please, don't blush; you haven't done anything, I said to myself.
"One of you," at last Mr. Ti spoke out, "has been passing around pictures of the human body, pictures that display the private parts of men and women!"
Oh, thank heaven, thank earth! It's not stolen money or reactionary graffiti. But private parts – what are private parts?
The way Mr. Ti said "private parts," the words seemed to be coated with phosphorous, which, touched with the heat of his voice, flared to life like the heads of matches for a moment, to stand out from the rest of his words.
From the tone of his voice, I knew that the private parts must be in a special location, probably "that place." But as soon as this occurred to me, my face, without my bidding at all, flushed crimson.
"Ni Niuniu, stand up!" Mr. Ti was addressing me. "Why are you blushing?"
The accusation in his voice isolated me from the others even more. They distanced themselves from me as is I were some sort of plague, a carrier of some infectious disease.
When classes were over, Mr. Ti took me to his office and left me standing there to stew while he graded papers.
After a while, when everyone else had left the office, he at last stilled his busy red pen.
"Tell me," he said, very gently, obviously wanting to make things easier for me. "Why were you blushing?"
I cleared my throat and thought for a moment.
Because Mr. Ti was making an effort to be gentle, I decided not to be totally uncooperative, but to meet him halfway.
I said, "This has absolutely nothing to do with me. I haven't seen the pictures; I have no idea what's in them."
"They are pictures of private parts. If you didn't know, why did you blush?"
So there they were again – "private parts." And again I got the feeling that these words were burning Mr. Ti's mouth. It was like he had put a hot date just out of the boiling water on his tongue and wanted to swallow it but was afraid it would burn.
I hesitated, then said uncertainly, "Private parts… where are they?
Really, I've never seen them."
"I find that hard to believe. Then why did you blush?"
I didn't respond.
The room was dead quiet for a moment, and my resentment began to grow again. I turned away from him, determined not to look at or speak to him anymore.
Suddenly he spun me around, as if he were getting angry.
One by one, he waved the pictures in front of me and put them down, as if he were laying down a hand of cards.
"Private parts, surely you must know about them?" He paused a moment. Then, "These are your private parts," he said, touching my breasts, "and this," he said, putting his hand briefly between my thighs.
I jerked away from him, my heart pounding, afraid to utter a word.
His eyes fixed on my face, Mr. Ti seemed overcome with an uneasy excitement.
"Truly, Ni Niuniu, I have always been concerned about you. I like you very much. Why are you always so difficult with me?" he said, his voice filled with gentleness and sincerity. For a fleeting moment, I caught in his expression a hint of distress over our impasse.
I said nothing. It seemed like something was wrong, but I couldn't speak because I wasn't sure what it was.
"Niuniu, you're a big girl now, you should know about things like our private parts," he said, again putting his hand on my breasts and between my legs. He seemed unable to pull his hand away, as if it were glued to me.
Suddenly I knew the source of our difficulty. It was his hand – he was touching my body.
My faced flushed hot, every bit as hot as it had been in the classroom that morning.
In a confused state of anger, wanting both to defend myself and to strike out, suddenly I felt an urge to put my hands on the same places on his body and say, "These are your private parts, these are your private parts!"
I took a deep breath, but in the end I did nothing.
What I wanted to say and do happened only in my head. Every action, every word, existed only in my imagination.
"Niuniu…" Mr. Ti didn't want to say anything. I could see that. All he was doing was repeating my name, "Niuniu." The expression on his face was imploring and conciliatory.
I turned and ran.
There was no one in the schoolyard. To get from the office at the back of the campus to the front gate, I had to go through a long, narrow passageway with high walls on either side. I tried to be quiet, because I was afraid I would think that the sound of footsteps was from someone following me. I kept thinking about the daring nature of the things that I had imagined doing, my heart filled with revengeful anger and fear.
But as I continued, I felt my anger gradually dissipate. As I hurried along between the two smooth, hard walls that stretched ahead of me, I felt a kind of frightening and strange satisfaction growing within me. Because the passageway was so narrow, there were not "four directions"; there were only two, "ahead" and "behind." With my arms repeatedly bumping against the closely set walls, I felt like I was moving in a dream. And that strange, frightening feeling of satisfaction came first through the repeated bumping of my arms, not through my eyes.
Suddenly I felt an unaccountable sense of triumph.
But what kind of triumph, I had no idea.