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10 Bed A Stage For The Drama Of The Sexes

When we got home after my injection and picking up my medicine, Mother had to leave for work immediately, so she asked the Widow Ho to come over and look after me.

Looking out the window from my bed, I could see that it was a heavily overcast day. Last night's raging storm had blown itself into a gentle breeze that stirred the bare branches of the date tree so that their shadows flickered against the rice-paper panes in my window. My fever had begun to drop and I felt much better. The hospital procedures in the morning had taken almost two hours, and I was exhausted. Lying on my bed looking out my open window at the low-hanging winter clouds, now shot with the orange glow of the sun, now leaden gray, I fell asleep thinking about the frightening affair with the Ge family in the neighboring courtyard, and didn't wake up until Widow Ho called me at noon.

Feeling my forehead first, then pressing her own against mine to double-check my temperature, she said, "Much better, but you still have a little fever. Sit up and have something to eat. I've made you some shredded mustard root and egg-drop soup with black pepper and sesame oil. Have some while it's hot. It'll make you sweat and drive your fever out."

I said, "I'm not hungry. You eat it."

She said, "Niuniu, be a good girl. Sit up."

As she spoke, she pulled back my quilt and bent over to help me up. Resisting her, I said, "I feel sick, I'm sore all over. I don't want to eat."

By this time, I was almost as tall as she was, and because she had suffered from diabetes for many years and could eat no more than two and a half ounces of grain a day, she was thin and not very strong. If I just lay there not wanting to get up, she couldn't possibly move me.

I said, "You eat. I'll watch you."

"Ai!" she sighed. "I'm not going to eat by myself."

She sat down on the edge of my bed and tucked my quilt in around me again, saying, "You're like a candle. After burning with fever for just one night, you're almost melted away."

Like a sleepy cat sitting on the edge of my quilt, she twisted around so that she could look at me. The whites of her eyes were the limpid pale blue of lake water, and an anxious loneliness lurked in her dark pupils. The loveliness of her eyes was like a virus that made me drug dependent. It was as if some hidden desire flowing in her blood was projected through her eyes.

I pulled up my knees so she could make herself comfy leaning against my legs. Though my legs were soft and weak, the moment she touched them they felt as powerful as wound-up springs, and I rooted them firmly in the bedding so that she could lean against me.

"Well then, I'll just sit here so we can have a chat." She shifted around to get more comfortable, and leaning against my legs, she wrapped an arm around my knees.

I said, "It must hurt when you give yourself injections."

She said, "No. All you have to do is pretend it's nothing and relax. Then you hardly feel a thing. The more tense you are, the more it hurts."

I said, "The nurse who gave me my injection this morning must have been angry at someone, and she took it out on me. You would have thought she was giving an elephant an injection." I pulled my panties down below my hips. It was all hard where she had stuck in the needle and was already turning blue. "Look."

She winced when she saw it, and said, "Don't go to the hospital for the rest of your shots. I'll do them for you. You won't feel a thing."

I said, "You know how to inject penicillin too?"

"They're all the same." While she was talking, she pressed the swelling with her fingers, rubbing it very lightly.

Her fingers were very cool and limber as snakes, as if they had no bones. I could see her long, curved neck above me and the gentle swell of her breasts inside her sweater as she leaned over, pressing her thin body against me. Her body curved in an arc that was as fluid as a beautiful melody. Her face was a bit too pale, but the skin of her entire body bespoke a tender readiness to rush to me at a moment's notice, to watch over me, to protect me, and to drive away any pain or misfortune that threatened me.

All of this made me feel totally at ease, especially her touching me, allowing my senses to run along vague and unexpected paths. I thought of that time many years ago when she wanted me to lie next to her and kiss her breasts, which glistened like the polished jade stones on her pillow, and of the doleful tears that slowly gathered to roll across her cheek and fall. Then, for some reason, an image of the two naked bodies entwined on the military cot in Yi Qiu's inner room flashed briefly through my mind.

Switching my attention, I looked at the door to my room, and I noticed that the December light slanting in through the window was much brighter than it had been in the morning. I could see the dust motes floating in the light.

Purposely switching my train of thought, I asked, "Did Mrs. Ge really die?"

Ho replied, "Yes. Just after six in the morning a man from their courtyard who works an early shift noticed that their front door was wide open. He called a couple of times but there was no reply, so he stuck his head in the door. He thought something must be amiss when he discovered that the bed was unmade and there was nobody home. He stood outside a while, uncertain what to do. He suspected there might have been a burglary, and he was afraid to go into the house. So he called some other people, and the longer they shuffled around outside, the more convinced they became that something was wrong. Mrs. Ge was bedridden. How could it be that her bed was empty? If she had gone to the hospital, surely they would have locked the door? So everyone was certain that something untoward had happened."

"Weren't any of the women home?"

"After a while, some people ventured inside for a look. Only after a thorough search did they discover her, tied up and pushed face down under the bed with a towel jammed in her mouth. Frightened, they rushed from the house and called the police."

"Was she really dead?"

"The police came right away, and they didn't take her away until eleven. She was dead."

"Was it her husband who killed her?"

"It's hard to say what things were like in that family. They spent half their lives quarreling. Stuck together under one roof, these two perfectly normal people gradually became enemies. The bed was about the only place they acted in harmony. Their neighbors all said that they used to spend their life in the bedroom making love at the same time they were making war, but that after Mrs. Ge became ill, the only stage where they had ever acted together in harmony ceased to exist. At last this war without winners is over. It takes more than one cold day to make three feet of ice." Ho sighed and continued, "Although marriage can sometimes be an inexhaustible source of life, it can sometimes also be an inexhaustible source of bitterness. It can be creative, but it can also be destructive."

I thought of my own parents and my mood immediately darkened. "My mama and papa don't fight, but"

"Their kind of 'cold war' can burn just as badly. Have you heard of Spinoza's leaves?" said Ho.

I had long known that Ho liked books. I was very excited the first time I saw those two long, black boxes filled with foreign books under her big bed. Once, probably during the summer holiday at the end of my first year in middle school, when I told her I would like to look at her books, she chose two novels from one of the boxes. I remember their titles: one was The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, the other, The Gadfly. She told me I could read all of them if I wanted to. But after that, because I was busy with tests and assignments, I didn't borrow any more books from her. I knew, however, that she had read the lot of them.

"Spinoza?" I shook my head indicating I hadn't.

"No two leaves are exactly alike. Just look at the families in our courtyard."

After a moment, I said, "Why must we always get married? Men are if too undependable."

Ho said, "Too true."

Then she fell silent, probably thinking about her own life.

After a long silence, she spoke again. "Sometimes marriage seems like some kind of hoax. Only the walls, the windows, and the furniture are real, can be counted on. Human beings are the least dependable of all creatures. The blossoms of marriage are plastic ones. They look like the real thing, and they may never fade and die, but they are nonetheless false."

I said, "I don't want you to look for a new husband. Please. My mama has my papa, but the only thing he's good for is causing trouble." Then I lowered my voice and continued, "A few days ago I found an old book about men and women in my father's bookcase. The book said that women were a rampant noxious weed, that they were dangerous and crude predatory beasts. It must have been written by a man. I'm sure that my papa has read many books of that sort. But, in fact, I think it is the men who behave that way."

Ho started to laugh, saying, "But Niuniu, you melonhead, if it wasn't for your father, you wouldn't be here."

"But you, you don't have any children. And I'm not going to have any when I grow up," I said.

"But what about when I'm old?" she asked.

"I'll take care of you. I'll always be good to you. Really."

Ho looked at me quickly, her eyes shining. She put her arms around me, quilt and all, and hugged me fiercely, then she bent down and kissed my face. "Just like I'm taking care of you now?"

I nodded.

"But will you be able to carry me on your back?"

"When I'm better I'll try. I'm sure I can. You're so thin."

This seemed to please her, and she bent down and hugged me tightly again, without uttering a word.

Even though they were outside the quilt, I could feel her thin arms as she slid them around my waist and hugged me as desperately as if she were holding her own future. I heard her breath quicken slightly as she repeated softly, "Niuniu, Niuniu." Through her sobs and her unsteady voice I could feel the complex tangle of feelings of injustice, grief, loneliness, and hope that she was caught in.

In my mind, Ho always had a very powerful aura of the tragic heroine about her. This stemmed in part from her delicate, natural loveliness, and in part from a very strong self-destructive urge that had always burned within her, an air of decadence and ennui that came to her through her regal Manchu blood. These qualities, which she passed on to me, so much younger than herself, made me feel a special tenderness and devotion toward her.

At this point, she sat up beside me, apparently a bit surprised to see that her dress with its tiny blue flower petals was spotted with tears. Then she raised her eyes and asked, "Are you hungry? I'll heat up some lunch for you."

I said, "No, thanks."

She stood up, then felt my forehead again to check my temperature. Her cool, gentle fingers were as soothing as a fresh facecloth.

I poked one arm out from under the quilt to pick a piece of thread off the shoulder of her dress, then I took hold of her hand on my forehead, wanting her to stay beside me.

As soon as I touched her hand, she forgot about going to heat up lunch. Slowly and hesitantly she sat down again. I lay on the bed unable to move. It seemed as if the beautiful petals on her dress were drifting down, covering me with a pure blue fragrance.

After hesitating a moment, she said, "Niuniu, would you like me to rub your back?"

I was lying face up on the bed, unable to move or to say anything.

"Mmm?" she queried again.

I lay there stiffly, like a corpse, without the strength to respond in any way.

She pulled back the quilt, and, grasping my shoulder, she eased me over onto my stomach. Then she put her two cool hands up under my pajama top and began to gently rub my back. Her fingers were like a wonderful kind of cool fire on my skin. It was as if I had jumped from a very high place and the free fall generated in me an indescribably beautiful sensation of dizziness.

At that moment, tired and relaxed after my fever had dropped, I wanted Ho to stay with me forever, I wanted desperately to die in this state of bliss. I knew that she too didn't want this moment to end, because she was bent over, pressing herself as close to me as she possibly could.

I was terribly afraid that I wouldn't be able to cling to this beautiful moment for very long, afraid that the next instant it would fall away forever. I couldn't think of a way to keep it from ending, so I pretended I was sleeping and abandoned myself to the touch of Ho's cool, gentle hands on my skin.

In this way, I found myself trapped between two contradictory states: a pleasurable feeling of ease and a tense feeling of panic. The wonderful feeling came naturally from some kind of vague adolescent desire growing within me. But under my tranquil guise of sleep, panic slowly began to overwhelm me, because I couldn't think of a way to make it look like I was really waking up.

This was very similar to the panic I felt on another occasion when I had "calmly" lied to Mr. Ti. On that day, he was standing on the dais, about to ask some of the students to stand up and read their written assignments out loud. His gaze swept back and forth across the classroom like a searchlight, ready to seize upon any information that our eyes might reveal. I was much more frightened than usual, because I had not finished my assignment. So all the while, I was furtively inventing a story. If he were to ask me to read aloud, I would say that I had forgotten my composition book at home. If he told me to go back home and get it, I would say that Mother had my key. But if he stubbornly insisted on phoning Mother after class, then It was at this point that panic really struck me. I was afraid that my trembling with fear as I sat there rigidly at my desk would attract his attention.

My tension on that occasion was very much like the tension I felt at this time, lying there on the bed feigning sleep.

But on that occasion, the look of equanimity that I was able to keep on my face saved me. Mr. Ti didn't see through my false calm, and he didn't call upon me to read my essay to the class. It turned out to be just as easy as getting a good grade from him for one of my spirited essays. The final bell that day was like the all-clear siren after an air raid. I flew out of the classroom, and the air and the sunlight outside were filled with a fragrance and joy as they had never been before.

Although Ho's hands touched only my back as I was lying there on my bed, they were the source of everything that I was feeling. I don't know why at that moment I chose to waste so much time recalling that insignificant incident in composition class, even though it had turned out very well.

My eyes closed and my mind empty, breathing in only the touch of Ho's fingertips on my skin, I slowly became aware of moving toward some very deep or distant and still indistinct idea that was entwined somehow with the anxious happiness of that moment, that seemed to enclose it. I made a great effort to focus my thinking, wanting to give some kind of order to these obscure and disconnected thoughts, to find out just what this intangible feeling signified.

Gradually, the feeling began to clarify: it was my indefinable longing and desire for Ho. It seemed as though at that moment she was not beside me at all, that she was somewhere far, far away.

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