Darkness had fallen and the red glow of my paper lantern was taking over. Jingfang had clearly not come to my office for business but was hanging out. Usually they don’t start stopping by till later in the semester, after enough time to size me up in class, but it was only the third week. Okay, I mused, let’s draw her out a bit. “I gotta go. How about lunch tomorrow at the Friendship Hotel?”
The Friendship Hotel was where the Chinese Government first housed its enemies, namely foreigners, who were needed in China for their technical expertise in the early decades after 1949. The Soviets helped build the massive hotel complex. After the opening up in the 1980s, foreigners in Beijing grew too numerous to confine to one place and were allowed to settle in designated compounds elsewhere in the city, and in the case of teachers, on campuses in foreign guesthouses. Meanwhile the Friendship Hotel turned over most of its space to foreign tourists, while a few businesses and schools, including mine, rented space to house us in the Park of Elegance, the remaining compound for us “Foreign Experts.”
I took her to a restaurant that served residents discounted meals in the compound’s Friendship Palace nearby. “Shall we go?” I said as we finished up.
“To my place, of course.”
“Okay,” she answered with hesitant surprise.
We detoured on the way to a shop in the huge building that sold liquor. I picked out a bottle of Chinese vodka; it’s hard to screw up vodka and Chinese vodka was actually not that bad. Winking at her, I said, “We can have a drink.”
We sauntered past the registration office and up the stairs to my room on the second floor. The service staff had been lax about things lately and tended not to be present in the office to register Chinese guests, as they were normally required to do. I stuck the vodka in the freezer, and we settled down to chat. The traditional Chinese living room lacked a sofa; couples were expected to sit politely side by side in the customary pair of hardwood chairs separated by a small table. My room was furnished with two comfortable upholstered chairs, which I angled towards each other for more intimacy.
Jingfang was a bright and curious student and I found her company pleasant enough, but after an hour the conversation began to flag. She was showing no signs of wanting to leave, slumped lazily in her chair rather than nervously perched on the edge of the seat like the more timid variety of female guest. The afternoon needed injecting with more purpose. “Have you ever had a vodka massage?”
“A massage using vodka instead of oil. Would you like one?”
She laughed and said nothing.
“C’mon,” I gestured. We went into my bedroom. There were two twin beds instead of a single large bed – again, the dour assumption that couples should only engage in polite activities. “You’ll have to take off your clothes.”
“All of them?”
“Yes, all of them.”
I removed the silk comforter from one of the beds and invited her to lie down on the sheet. She lay face down without taking off her clothes. I pulled off her shirt for her, released her bra, and loosened her pants partway off her ass. I got on top of her and dry massaged her for a few minutes until she was more relaxed. Her fingers curled around my legs. “Hold on,” I said, as I jumped up to go grab the vodka out of the refrigerator. It was ice cold by now. Vodka doesn’t freeze but only becomes viscous, the perfect lubricant for vigorous erotic massage. I peeled off her remaining clothing, opened the bottle and emptied half of it onto her back. She screamed and jumped up. I emptied the rest onto her front and furiously spread its contents over her body. The heady fumes from the alcohol knocked her out of breath. “What are you doing!” she gasped.
As the cold went away, she burst into laughter. “It’s stinging me.” She held her legs tight together. “I’m a virgin.”
“You’re already a senior student and still a virgin? Oh, boy. Somehow I thought you wouldn’t be.” I sat on the edge of the bed and sighed. Here we go again. “So that means we have to undergo the operation?”
“Don’t frighten me.”
“Not today. Give yourself time to think over your virginity.”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
It was now dark and we relaxed in bed with some beer. After a silence she said, “I like your music. What is it?”
“Turkish gypsy music. The music before that was Egyptian. You know, I have to tell you something. I sleep with a lot of women.”
“I don’t care.”
The next day my phone rang and it was Jingfang. “Can you talk now?”
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“Something very strange happened. A man called and said he had a video of me having sex. He wanted me to do the same thing with him.”
“How could that be?”
“Did you tell anyone about me?”
“Of course not. It must be an obscene caller. There’s no connection to us.”
“Could someone have filmed us?”
“Absolutely not. I always keep the window covered with the curtain.”
I peeked into the bedroom anyway. Directly across the alley just behind the wall of the Institute of Science and Engineering was a two-story apartment building whose windows had a direct view of mine. But only the far bed was in the line of perspective; we had used the bed near my window. Any person trying to peer into my bedroom from the window opposite might have been able to see us sitting up on the bed but not lying down. And the translucent fabric of my white curtains would surely have obscured our facial details.
“Did he use your name?”
“Then he couldn’t have known you. He would certainly have used your name if he knew it. Did you talk to him?”
“I asked him who he was.”
“You should have hung up immediately. You see, he dials numbers randomly until he gets a young woman like you on the phone, catching you off guard. As soon as you hesitate, he knows you’re not a virgin. Well, you are still a virgin, but no longer completely so. If you believe his threat, he can blackmail you. But don’t worry. I guarantee you it’s impossible for someone to have filmed us. Let me know if he calls back.”
After hanging up, I thought more about the window and began to worry. It faced south and sunlight pierced the room for a spell on its afternoon course. It was now late afternoon and the bed was still in the sun. Yesterday we had gotten going a bit earlier and it was hard to say exactly where the sun’s rays would have fallen during the brief flurry of activity with the bottle. Whatever had been illuminated could have been startling.
Extraordinary is the power of the sun’s vectors. Once I saw a woman in a white summer dress walking toward me on a street in Beijing. Her black triangle burned right through her panties and dress with molten beauty, courtesy of the sun. I mean, I noticed it even before I noticed her. She had no idea. And the female students on campus in those gauzy skirts far sexier than they realize. I don’t have to do anything. I just wait until they swivel into the sun until their groin lights up. I can see the bulge of their fucking maxi pads. I can count the pubic hairs sticking out from under their panty rims. They have no idea.
Thus I had to consider, at this point, the possibility that the sun had similarly illuminated far more of us than I could ever imagine. Not only could this have been easily filmable once the sun’s timetable had been mastered, but again and again with my countless bedroom visitors over the previous year.
And this gave rise to a new concern: that the video might not have originated from outside the building. A Chinese friend had once half-jokingly alluded to secret cameras fixed inside TV sets in foreigner-occupied hotels. This could be taken with more than a grain of truth. What if my bedroom had been rigged with tiny video cameras? The idea wasn’t so farfetched, considering the dubious history of the Friendship Hotel. Yet organized surveillance had significant limitations. For what purpose would the State want to capture intimate footage of a domestic female in the embrace of a small-fry foreigner such as myself?
I had no illusion Jingfang’s anonymity was somehow assured because she had slipped into my apartment without registering at the entrance. Her identity could have been quickly ascertained, given the close relationship of the hotel and our school and the huge numbers of Chinese employed by the Public Security Bureau for the purpose of espionage, with nothing else to do on their hands. Or even if it was a rogue individual in the employ of the hotel who had placed the camera, I assumed any content captured through so gross a violation of privacy would be equally useless. Not that this was any consolation. No motive was needed in any case. The ongoing recording of people in compromising positions is from the State’s perspective absolutely necessary, if only because technology demands it. The problem is what to do with all the footage.
Though I could not rule out the likelihood that the State had filmed us, I was confident the man who called Jingfang on the phone had not. Except for small problem. He called her again the next day, and the next, and every day after that. While he called only once a day, the calls came at different times of the day, and always when she was home. She regularly answered the phone; her parents – who in the meantime had asked the police to try to track the caller – dared not. Each time the man reiterated his threat, and each time she hung up on him. We speculated he might be an unknown neighbor of theirs who had somehow gotten their number through another neighbor or acquaintance of the family’s and waited to espy her whenever she came home. His claim to have filmed her having sex the very day she first got naked with a man was nothing other than a hoax and the most extraordinary and perverse of coincidences. The possibility that he happened to be a State spy or worked for the PSB and was privy to her Friendship Hotel visit occurred to me as well, but I dismissed this as too outlandish to obsess about, particularly as he never revealed any details such as our names in his phone calls.
I scoured my brain for other possibilities. They were quickly dwindling, each one more unpleasant to contemplate than the next. Jingfang was among the better of my students, not the hardest working but naturally intelligent and creative enough to compete with the top of her class of 100. Her first paper in my writing class depicted a city made entirely of glass, intended to render the workings of both the government and residents completely transparent. The total illumination from every angle of all urban activity down to people’s intimate ablutions would virtually wipe away crime, she proposed, if not individual’s private thoughts. I was impressed. But now her utopian vision unsettled me, as it was clear she had the imagination to invent just the sort of scenario we were experiencing, and for some concealed purpose. What if, for example, she had quickly wanted to gain the psychological upper hand by disarming me from the outset?
No, she was too spontaneously friendly for that. More likely, she was undergoing the upheaval so many young Chinese experience upon first romantic or sexual release, after years of pent-up frustration and not even close friends to confide in, given the culture’s arid atmosphere of sexual discourse. In other words, she was exploding with emotions, and these encompassed everything from passion to paranoia; her confused desires expressed themselves as projected anxieties. I have seen the extreme instance of this – when delayed first sex causes a woman to go mad. What convinced me that this was probably not the case with Jingfang and it was my own paranoia that was to blame was her consistent gentleness during our subsequent naked encounters.
The one final remaining possibility, of course, was that I was the one who had filmed us. I at first rejected this out of hand, as not even the weakest doubt needled my conscience. Occasionally I had left my apartment wondering if I failed to turn off the stove that heated my morning coffee, and the worry that I conceivably had not, despite my habitual fastidiousness, was enough to turn me around and march back to the hotel to check, to prevent a disaster. Only upon taking a conscious snapshot of the burner off could I leave the apartment at peace. In regards to the utter impossibility that I had filmed us, I was as confident as I typically was in not having left the burner on, which is to say more or less 100%. But what if I had not been fully conscious at the time of filming us? The extreme event enabling this would have been a so-called mini-stroke. But an alternative, more plausible theory is that I had in fact filmed us and was completely lucid at the time but my memory now was flawed and incomplete. But then how to explain the strange man who was calling her? Was he someone I personally knew and had confided in about the footage?
Months later, these questions had still to be resolved. Meanwhile, the man kept calling everyday. Jingfang was always home at the time and could usually predict when the phone would ring. Her parents were glued to their seats in terror awaiting the brief conversations and said nothing. The police still had no leads and were turning out to be useless. She continued to come over and was as lovely as usual, but like the law of receding horizons, we kept trying but never managed to achieve full penetration.