An Inexperienced World by Sheng Keyi
Extract from HEAT 20
The screen prints red characters, the train is late. The woman retreats to a distant corner, pillar at her back, holding herself apart from the press of higher-order animals, sniffing the mingled scents of male and female, and thinks shapeless thoughts of humans and things. It is Saturday, March 17th, and it is drizzling. The woman generally enjoys the weeping lament of the city, it brings a kind of grace into her bones, such a welcome release from the so-called writer with her feigned cool, her speculations about the world and its people.
The train persists in being late. What does heaven have in store for her? The woman fingers her fruitless conjectures until they are as crumpled and distorted as the train ticket in her palm. Bored, she studies the ticket’s creases and wrinkles, thinks of past loves she has crushed through her lack of patience. The wasp of experience darts at her, stings her heart and it swells; soon experience allows her to extricate herself with ease, and recover her reason. Experience hops onto her lap like a small furry creature, warming her hands. Once again she is the ‘writer’; she swiftly eliminates the swelling of her heart. She peers at the males and females embracing within the crowd; blinks at the shoulder-bags of small-time businessmen; squints at men in suits, corpulent and crab-walking; stares at the rings thick as armor on the fingers of frizzy-headed young artists…The woman secretly seizes upon these details and what they reveal. A male in a white tracksuit passes before her eyes, a crane among a flock of geese; she wonders whom he has pressed into his arms in secret.
Luggageless, she finds her place, glances at the empty seats opposite her, counts the raindrops on the window, returns to her identity as ‘woman’, is dragged into an eddy of old sorrows. Other passengers straggle onto the train, plant themselves like saplings in their seats, each leafs forth a mood. A round-faced girl sits next to her. The woman has occupied the girl’s window seat but the girl doesn’t mind. The woman has nothing to say to her.
A woman like this, well past thirty and possessed of a certain experience of life, has long since surrendered the field of love. She conceals no quivering creature in her breast, has ceased feeding old flames. Life’s moment of glory has faded like the sun over the plains, and dusk has fallen. She has no desire to linger over the history of her loves, though it would be untrue, naturally, to say that all the old wounds were healed. She still feels occasional yearnings but they are insubstantial, and quickly pass. It would be vain to encourage real hope; dalliance with a young man in his prime would be impossible without extraordinary mutual attraction.
The protagonist of the woman’s story takes the stage abruptly, catching her off-guard. The woman cannot describe the details of his appearance; his simple body has blocked the wellspring of her words. There is a period of emptiness and silence. He and his companion sit down across from her. Her vocabulary has already begun to recover; strangely, it is her seasoned heart that has received the heavier blow. Heart-stung and agitated, the woman notes that she has neglected to make herself up before embarking on this journey; she thinks of the days of travel and the weariness which must have taxed her looks, and grows even more flustered. She lowers her head, combs her hair with her fingers, it insists on tangling, she must go to work on it. Damned experience withholds rationality from her, denies her its impregnable calm, brings only mortification. Her face burns hot at her own thoughts and actions.
The woman tidies herself, raises her head. There are two new bottles on the table, one pale blue, one bright orange. Gatorade, a product of the Pepsi-Cola company; the price sticker on the cap reads six yuan. The fingers of the drink’s owner play nimbly on a cell phone. They are young, after all, and heedless of the woman’s furtive coquetry. The one in the white tracksuit, across from the round-faced girl, is the young crane from the waiting room. The woman faces a youth in a blue track uit; they are separated by his half-bottle of orange beverage. The sun breaks through the drizzle and gives off dazzling rays. No one speaks, a thread of restraint runs through the atmosphere. The train is full of empty seats but they chose to sit here, and juggle feet and knees. She puts this down to the allure of the mature woman – a common error for a woman of a certain age, who mistakes the promptings of plain vanity for calm judgement. A secret within her is revived by a chance look from the white-clad youth – his gaze ignites a withered wick, and the walls of the woman’s dark lonely chamber are illuminated. A girl re-enters the woman’s body; her blood bashfully reverses its flow.
The woman attempts to describe his appearance, but finds language drab and dull. There is this about a woman of experience: she desires to attract attention, but is also wary of appearing frivolous. Feeling this constant friction, the anxiety of the display, she knows that wasting words on the youth’s external appearance is beside the point. The woman represents the world of experience, and how can that world comport itself before a world that lacks experience? He is no more than three feet distant from the woman; the boys look at each others’ cell phones, chuckling easily. His jacket is only halfway zipped up, exposing a V-shaped expanse of flesh and a large ring threaded on a rough silver chain, lying between two ridges of muscle. That exposed chest gives a sensation of strength, it draws her and fascinates her. He has perfect masculine fingers, both strong and soft, clean close-cut nails, fine wrinkles on the knuckles. They move nimbly over the Nokia’s color screen, evoking bursts of music.
The woman lives alone. She has long been sexless. When lustful dreams trouble her, reminding her she has a body, she reaches her legs to the other side of the bed, and lurches onto the cold emptiness. The bed seems wider than the world, her heart empty as the heavens, no boundaries in sight and no one to hear her plaint. Before others she is exaggeratedly happy, covering over the cold wounds of those dreams, laughing easily, not the kind of woman people pity. The title and identity of ‘writer’ is draped on her like a tiger’s skin, terrifying the herbivores; even the carnivores dare only watch from a distance. The woman licks her paws to pass the time. If she were licking them as a prelude to snaring her prey the scene might bear a thrill, but it clearly indicates only regret and bitterness over the waste of such rich physical resources. This is the consequence of experience. Experience has taught the woman to see at a glance how this or that meat would yield to the tooth; to gauge weight and height from the beast’s posture in flight; to accurately judge age by the sound of its cry; to know by its scent the purity or pollution of its soul. Experience has left the woman cold; experience has made her supremely discriminating…