Tiao didn't know why her upper-bunk roommate had to associate dried hawthorn fruit with virginity, as if she didn't deserve to eat dried hawthorn fruit if she were still a virgin. The statement "I'm finally no longer a virgin" jarred Tiao, and made her confused and agitated. In any case, that "finally" shouldn't be the highest expectation that her upper-bunk roommate should have for her own youth. Maybe she exaggerated. When one era urgently wanted to replace another, everything got exaggerated, everything, from novels to virginity. But the frenzied enthusiasm of her upper-bunk roommate still affected Tiao. When her roommate chattered, she felt like an ignorant moron of a country girl, completely uncultivated, an idiot who'd fallen behind the times and whose youth was flowing away downstream with the current. It was indeed an era of thought liberation, liberation-liberation, and liberation again. The trend swept over Tiao and she felt like she were being dragged along, accused, and ridiculed by her upper-bunk roommate. Her body seemed to be filled with a new and ambiguous desire. She must do something, but even the "must do" was a kind of blind exaggeration. What should she do? She wasn't dating; there was no man on campus worthy of her attention. Then she should look beyond the campus. One day her roommate said she was going to introduce her to someone. She said, though the guy was neither a writer nor a poet, he was pretty close to poets, an editor for a poetry magazine. She said he was fun to talk to. She said at a literary gathering he read a poem called "My Ass": "O my ass and this ass of mine, why would I sit down beside the bourgeoisie when I sit down? Stool of the working class, I beg you, I beg you to receive my ignorant asseven if you are a neglected stool . . . " Tiao didn't think it was a poem. Maybe the author was imitating those who did crazy self-denunciations in the denouncement meetings. The "poem" just reminded Tiao of her own butt, making her think about the secret, happy times when she pretended the down pillows were a sofa. She had never realized that one could talk about asses so openly in poetry; after all, very few could have the imposing manner of Chairman Mao, who wrote about asses in his poems. But she went on a date with this editor, deliberately looking for some excitement. After all, she was only a student and the man was the editor of a poetry magazine. An editor was no more than a step below a writer; barely lower than a writer, a tiny bit.
They met on a cold evening in front of the art museum and shook hands with a little stiffness. After the greeting, they began to stroll back and forth. With the thick down jackets and tightly fitting jeans both wore, from a distance they must have looked like a pair of meandering ostriches. Tiao had never gone on a date alone with a man, particularly a man so "close to poets." As they started to walk around uncomfortably, Tiao was struck with the meaninglessness of it all: What was she doing here? Where did she want to go? Didn't her roommate tell her that the editor was a married man when she set them up? She meant this to indicate that Tiao could relax; they could date or not, no pressurecan't a man and woman meet alone, whether they're on a date or not? In eras like the sixties or seventies it might have seemed absurd, but things were different now. From her roommate's perspective, only when a single female student dated a married male editor could an era be proved open and a person be proved free. And at this moment, her theory was being put into practice with Tiao's help. Unfortunately, neither Tiao's body nor her mind felt free; she was very nervous. When she felt nervous she just babbled. She talked about the boys and girls in her class, the food in their cafeteria, and how their professor of modern literature walked into the classroom with a misbuttoned shirt . . . she went on and on, quickly and at random, so her conversation wasn't at all intellectual, clever, fun, or witty. Her mind went completely blank, and her blank mind soberly reminded her again and again how ridiculous her meeting with this "ostrich" beside her was. By spouting endless nonsense, she was simply punishing herself for going on this most absurd date. She rambled on and on, full of anxiety because she had no experience in ending a meeting that should have ended before it began. She even stupidly believed that if she kept on talking without a pause, she could hasten the end of the date. Finally the editor interrupted her, and not until then did she discover how nasal his voice was. She didn't like men with nasal voices. People who spoke that way sounded pretentious, as if they were practicing pronunciation while speaking. The editor said, "Do you plan to go back to your hometown? Your hometown is Fuan, right? Even though it's an ancient city, it's still provincial. I suggest you try and arrange to stay in Beijing for your graduation assignment. It's the only cultural center. Of this I'm very sure."
Excerpted from The Bathing Women by Tie Ning. Copyright © 2012 by Tie Ning. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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