It's very late at night now. Outside my window, the waves of the Pacific Ocean sound like they're right in your ears. I hope you receive and read this letter. I'll be returning to China within the week. If it's possible, can you please write me back? You can send the letter to the movie studio. Of course, this might well be too much to hope for on my part.
Wishing you happiness,
_____, _______, 1982
When she was a senior at a university in Beijing, her roommate in the upper bunk, the one who took her to the conference on Fang Jing's work later, often returned to the dorm late at night. Everyone knew she was madly in love. Miss Upper Bunk was a plain girl, but love gave her eyes an unusual brightness and made her whole face radiant. One night, when she returned to the dorm on tiptoe in the dark, she didn't climb into her upper bunk as usual. That night, Tiao in the lower bunk was also awake. From her bed, Tiao quietly watched her roommate walk into the dorm room. She saw Miss Upper Bunk take out a small round mirror from a drawer, raise the mirror toward the window, and study her own face by moonlight. The moonlight was too dim to allow her a good view of her own face, so she tiptoed to the door and gently pushed it open. A beam of yellow light from the hallway shone on her roommate's body. She stood in the doorway and angled her head and the mirror toward the light. Tiao looked at her face; it was a beautiful face with a hint of drunken flush. She must have been content with herself at that moment. This girls' dorm, deep in sleep then, had become rich and peaceful. Tiao was touched by the sight, and not just because of her roommate, but why else, then?
Another late night, her roommate tossed and turned in her bed after coming back. She leaned her head down to Tiao's lower bunk and quietly woke her up. Then she climbed down and lay side by side with Tiao, and began to speak in urgent tones. She said, "Tiao, let me tell youI have to tell youI'm finally no longer a virgin. A man loves me, and how wonderful a thing it is you couldn't possibly understand." She wanted Tiao to guess who the man was, and Tiao guessed a few boys from their class. Miss Upper Bunk said condescendingly, "Them? You can't mean them!" She said she never would have anything to do with the men on campus. She said they didn't have brains and she admired men with avant-garde ideas and a unique insight on society, those forward-thinkers who could enlighten people. She had fallen in love with a forward-thinker and that forward-thinker liberated her mind and body, turning her from a virgin into a . . . a woman. "A woman, do you understand or not, Tiao? You have a right to enjoy this, also, and you've had the right for a long time, without realizing." Her upper-bunk roommate described the experience of being with that forward-thinker. She said, "Do you know who he is? You'll be shocked if I tell you his name." She paused as if to let the suspense build for Tiao. Tiao was really excited by her words and couldn't help asking, "Who is he, who is he?" Her upper-bunk roommate took a deep breath and then breathed out a few words gently as if she were afraid of frightening someone away. "The author of Zero Degree File." The name was indeed breathed out, barely formed on the lips. To this day Tiao still clearly remembers the nervous hot breath of her roommate when she said the words: "Zero Degree File."
Zero Degree File was a work of fiction, representative of the "Scar Literature" school, particularly popular among young people, with whom the author of course had made his reputation. At the time, people followed a novel and author with great sincerity and enthusiasm. The enthusiasm might be naïve and shallow, but it had an innocence and purity that would never come again. Tiao would certainly have envied Miss Upper Bunk had she stopped right there, but she couldn't. She felt compelled to share her intimate happiness with others. She said, "You have to know he's not an ordinary person but a writer, a writer overflowing with talent. Tiao, you know, only now do I truly understand what 'overflowing' means." She said, "This writer, overflowing with talent, is so good to me. One night I couldn't fall asleep and I suddenly had a craving for dried hawthorn berries, so I shook him awake and asked him to go out and buy some for me. He actually got up and biked through the entire city looking for dried hawthorn berries. A writer, overflowing with talent, went to buy me dried hawthorn berries in the middle of the night! Did you hear that, Tiao? Did you hear that? Are you still a virgin? Tiao, are you still a virgin? If you are, then you are really being cheated. Don't you realize how late it's getting? You're really good for nothing until you . . . "
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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