What you know, you know. A short story

When we must resort to the whip

Sang Di was demonstrating how the seam on her antique Chinese shirt opened up for breastfeeding, and by the time she got through all the knotted buttons—they take as much dexterity to undo as to do up—my cellphone had rung twice. I was praying Du Ji would not call, but it was an unidentified number. They are usually telemarketers and I ignore them. Whenever it rings a second time it’s someone who knows me. Her mother.

Sang Di was not expecting this. “Oh, no. Tell her I’m not here!” she whispered, “I don’t want to talk to her.”

I had met her mother only the day before, when I had been invited over for dinner. A tidy and nicely decorated apartment, with a calligraphy scroll on the wall and not baubles but books in the glass cabinet. The mother was a good cook and trim and attractive for her fifty years, graceful, an unaffected poise. The husband was stationed in another city with his job. I was almost more interested in her than in her daughter and gave her my card. Now I had her on the phone, and I don’t like to lie. “Yes, she’s here.”

I handed her the phone. Her mother’s voice splayed out like barbed wire. Sang Di reassured her she was just over for a friendly visit, nothing untoward was going on, and she would march right back to her dorm for the night. When she hung up she said her mother would be calling Du Ji there in an hour and would have the latter personally hand her cellphone over to Sang Di to confirm she was back. I was perversely going to suggest we ask Du Ji to come over here instead. But Sang Di then announced she was not going back to the dorm after all. It was her first night at my place and she intended to enjoy it.

“Our cover will be blown,” I said. “When your mother calls Du Ji and finds out you’re not there, she’ll tell her where you are. Du Ji won’t be very happy about it.”

“I don’t care. I’m already twenty-three and a big girl now. It’s about time.”

Du Ji had warned me to stay away from her. She claimed Sang Di was a virgin and very pure and had a boyfriend to boot (not always a contradiction in China). But now that she was finishing up her master’s degree she was indeed growing up, and though Du Ji was my student, Sang Di was not.

“In theory I don’t either, but you have to live with her and deal with her. You don’t think she would cause trouble, do you?”

“I can handle her.”

Our very acquaintance was the outcome of the unlikeliest of scenarios. It all started when Du Ji had asked me to look over Sang Di’s PS. The personal statement tends to confound Chinese grad school applicants. Out of pity I’m always a sucker to help, even if it means breaking my rule against assisting students not my own. I knew Sang Di was attractive as soon as Du Ji demanded it all had to be done online and I was not allowed to meet her in person. Nor was I allowed to communicate with the mysterious girl directly via email or cellphone. I was to forward the corrected PS back to Du Ji who would then relay it to her. In response to this petty jealousy, I reminded her I was professional enough to assist the girl without expectations of recompense. But after going over the PS and discovering all the hands-on editing it would need, I had no choice but to confer with Sang Di face to face.

“Go over the points with me now,” said Du Ji. “I’ll tell them to Sang Di. She’s sitting next to me.”

“I can’t speak with her directly? She’s preparing for PhD study in the UK in literature and her English isn’t good enough to talk to me herself? This is ridiculous. I hate explaining things by cellphone. The delay in response time makes conversation unnatural and annoying. It’s not an efficient means of communication. I need to go over the PS together with her, paper in hand.”

Sang Di’s application deadline was coming up. We compromised. Du Ji agreed to let me confer with Sang Di by email but not in person. I suggested the normal way of going about it was to have her email me a polite request for help and some details about the schools and programs she was applying to. Du Ji said Sang Di would email me the next day. No email arrived the next day or the day after that. Fine, I mused, it’s their problem.

Du Ji didn’t think so, however. She got back to me a few days later. “Tell me honestly. Did you intend to get her contact information to seduce her?”

“Du Ji, I haven’t even met her. She never emailed me.”

“She told me she emailed you.”

“I didn’t receive it.”

“But you would try to seduce her.”

“I spent an hour making corrections on her PS. I was helping her, but she doesn’t seem to want help. With no way to contact her, I couldn’t seduce her even if I wanted to, so it’s irrelevant.”

“How can I believe you?”

“Okay, if you insist I’m intent on seducing her, I did seduce her in fact,” I said, my annoyance escalating. “She came over to go over her PS with me and she agreed to a massage. It was great.”

“When?”

“That’s my business.”

“Despite I told you nothing should happen between you two, you still did that? Why don’t you have a basic sense of morality? Why can’t you let go of any single woman that passes your way? Why can’t you compromise only once? Why do you have to be so greedy? I can’t stand such a person like you. If I go on with you like this, I will finally become mad if I don’t commit suicide. You should understand how bitterly difficult it is for me to deal with such a person like you. It’s over between us. Good luck. I hope the time will come when you can learn to be a good person, not so self-centered and caring more about how others feel, doing things for friends not out of expectations of getting return. Try not to let the animal desire common in every human nature dismiss the possibility for you to have some basic principle to control yourself so you don’t go too far astray that finally everyone that was once intimate with you leaves you—”

“I’m not going to say anything more.”

The next day I finally received an email from Sang Di, brief and none too pleased: “Why did you tell Du Ji we had sex? Now I’m sure I don’t want to meet such a terrible person as you.”

I apologized by explaining that Du Ji was in need of a homeopathic jealousy cure. I had no intention of seducing her but was only trying to help. She made me promise likewise and thereupon, remarkably, met me for coffee, again at her mother’s, and now, here at my place, all within the space of three days. Du Ji’s claim of her virginity, Sang Di confirmed, was correct; her loyalty to her boyfriend less so.

I wondered what he would have made of the fact that once out of her clothes she was as limp as a big slab of noodle dough. Then she came out with it. “I need to be spanked. I can’t get excited unless I’m spanked. And if I can’t get excited, nothing gets inside of me. My boyfriend doesn’t know how to spank me. That’s the only reason I’m still a virgin.”

“Oh, no. I’m not into that.”

“I need it. Please spank me. Please.”

I gave it a try but twenty long hard slaps had no effect on her and my hand tired out. It’s amazing how much strength you need for something you’d think would be easy. We threw in the towel and went to sleep.

The next day I had an idea. I took her to Marcus’s.

Marcus was a Canadian entrepreneur in the software business who had helped me transfer a 100-gigabyte porn collection to my computer. He lived in a three-storey duplex in the Dongcheng District he shared with his cats. Deadpan eyes and a debauched grin. You don’t see men twiddling waxed mustaches anymore; he required one. We might have become good friends but for his soon setting up shop down in Shenzhen. I asked him what Shenzhen had that Beijing didn’t.

“It’s more evil,” he said, his eyes gazing in the distance toward the southern city.

Much of the porn turned out to be in the S/M category. Again, not my thing. In the morning I called him up and asked if by chance he had a knack for domination and could wield a whip. The question seemed to catch him off guard. Nonetheless he was intrigued, and Sang Di and I showed up hours later. But though his apartment was large, it lacked a dungeon, and he confessed he needed to rummage around a bit for an appropriate instrument. He came up with a Ping Pong paddle.

We turned to Sang Di. She got out of her clothes and lay prone on the bed. The paddle proved clumsy. He then produced a wooden yardstick. This was found to concentrate the energy better along its narrow surface but soon broke. He took off his belt and tried that, doubling it up for greater sway. After fifty lashes, Sang Di’s buttocks developed red welts. She remained quiet. Another fifty and a few beads of blood appeared. She was quietly sobbing while arching up her ass, desiring more.

“Sorry, I don’t have any more strength,” Marcus said. “I can’t seem to get the right ‘snap’ out of the belt.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of Du Ji’s text message to me that evening. “Did you sleep with Sang Di?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Answer my question.”

“Well, we tried, but I couldn’t get her excited. She needs to be whipped, and I don’t have the technique.”

“What? You tried? I was going to apologize for accusing you of seducing her. I was crazy the other night and finally calmed down and realized you were only testing me. Now I can see you’re playing with me again. Would you please tell me truthfully, did you meet with Sang Di or not?”

So her mother never called the dorm after all. “Yes, I did, and as I just told you, she needs to be whipped and I don’t have the technique.”

“Why are you treating me like this? Why are you mocking me? She has never met you. She told me she hates you. But you can’t accept that. So in order to torment me you pretend she likes you. What shameful behavior! Why can’t you be honest with me and tell me what’s going on?”

“I’m being perfectly honest with you. You can ask her.”

“I did ask her! She denies seeing you and says she’s never met you. I think she’s lying.”

“What you know, you know.”

Sang Di’s duplicity would not do. I needed to have a word with her. I invited her to my classical music soirée, when Chinese friends gathered at my apartment every month to be introduced to Western classical music on my high-end audio system. This month’s party was the next day; the theme, how to tell the difference between Mozart and Haydn (instead of playing representative works I mischievously chose pieces in which these most famous of best friends imitated each other).

One of my regular attendees happened to be a sexually corrupt female university professor with the primitive name of Yi, meaning number “one” in Chinese, who I suspected might be able to help. I had them both come early and introduced them. I handed Yi a belt of mine.

She arched her brows at Sang Di and remarked as she led her into the bedroom, “Yes, I know all about taking care of bad students. I am a teacher after all.”

“Whip some truth into her.”

A fuller house than expected showed up for the soirée. Yi was evidently adept with the whip, and the music swelled with the sounds of Sang Di’s wails. It was very embarrassing, pathos and all. The evening was somewhat redeemed when a beaming Yi emerged with a tear-stained but angelic Sang Di in tow, and whatever it was that transpired in the bedroom had achieved sanctioned if unexplained closure.

Sang Di knew she had to level with Du Ji. Though it wouldn’t be pretty, she now had the fortitude to do it. The showdown was arranged at a hotel near campus the following evening. Why at a hotel I had no idea, but that was the way they do things here, with formality and ceremony. I was a little panicky, recalling a story in the news recently about a lesbian from our very school who had killed a fellow female student in a hotel room under mysterious circumstances.

I never did find out what happened at the hotel. Neither of them thereafter returned my text messages or emails. Du Ji continued to attend class as if nothing had happened, finished the semester and graduated.

Months later she showed up to my classical soirée for the first time, with a strapping boyfriend in tow. She had undergone a transformation, into a woman so seductive it took the wind out of me, her formerly beguiling eyes become cruel stripes of rarefied splendor. I despaired at what I had let slip through my fingers.

And out of the blue a few years later, I received an email from Sang Di. Now an assistant professor of English literature in the UK, she was living as a house slave to a senior male faculty of her university. She said she was happy but warned me her master screened her email correspondence and controlled her movements. As she doubted he’d ever allow her back to China, she invited me to visit them in England.

 *     *     *

exact

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The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China

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