The Man with the Knife

He lay back on the sofa, tipsy. She had invited him out for a meal and now they were back at her flat.

He was a renowned poetry critic with a successful career. She was just an aspiring poet. He had agreed to help her be “successful”—that was the word they used in China nowadays. It was not easy to be a successful poet. She would have to work hard.

She offered him tea to sober him up. Then they could go on talking about poetry—Rilke and Yeats, even Foucault and modernism. Fredric Jameson had said that modernity is forever a story with narrative content, the philosophy of the “now.” But the most pressing thing for him now was his need to pee.

He went to the bathroom. She heard the tinkling. She felt nothing. It just sounded like a tap running. Her three-year-old made the same sound when he peed. Sometimes he missed and peed outside the toilet. For an instant, she was worried this man might do the same. She liked cleanliness—but he was, after all, her guest today.

When he came out, his belt hung loose. He sat down, and she realized he hadn’t zipped himself up either. She had seated herself opposite him, but now she hurriedly moved to the other sofa so that he was side-on to her.

Oranges sobered you up. She peeled one for him, but he did not take it. She put it into his unresisting hand, then went to pop a segment into his mouth. Suddenly, she found herself off balance, falling on top of him. A bit of the orange squashed in her hand and the rest flew across the room, taking the peel with it. His pants seemed to be coming off.

She jumped up and went to retrieve the peel. She said nothing. What on earth had happened? Just a moment before, he had been the poet whom she respectfully called “teacher.” Maybe it was an accident, or he was just drunk.

He was not drunk. He was happy that she was resisting. It was boring when they submitted straightaway. He was a famous poet, so they almost all submitted. He liked a bit of resistance, however feeble, a bit of naughtiness and giggling, before they gave in. Or a few cries of: “No! Don’t do that!” which actually meant “yes.” There was that girl in Suzhou who turned out to have a condom all ready. That had really put him off.

It excited him, the way this woman tried to get out of his clutches. She was crouching on the floor, her back to him, and he grabbed her from behind.

Now it was obvious what he was doing and what kind of man he was. But she was not that kind of a woman. She just wanted to write poems. She loved poetry. Of course she wanted to be famous, too, and successful. So, worried about offending him, she kept still. Moving showed resistance. Suddenly she knew what to do and, hauling herself up, she dragged him to the sofa. But when she turned and helped him down, he pulled her down with him. Now she was lying on her back, on top of him, and he had his arms around her.

She wriggled free but he still had hold of her wrist. She struggled, but it was no good. They were face-to-face, her pulling away, him pulling her toward him. With her free hand she smoothed her messy hair. “I’ll go and get you some tea,” she said.

He shook his head. “I don’t want tea. I want you.”

She smiled witlessly, the way she might if a man started telling dirty jokes at a work dinner, pretending not to understand.

“Come on!” he urged.

She shook her head. Still afraid of offending him, she rubbed her neck, giggled, and said coyly: “I don’t want to.”

“You do!”

“I don’t!”

“You do!” he pressed her, jerking her arm back and forth. The jerks at first had the effect of dulling her embarrassment, then quickly reawakened it. Regardless, he gave a forceful tug so that she landed on top of him. Then he flipped over so she was underneath. He stared at her. There was no avoiding his gaze. This was cruel! She just had to keep smiling.

She felt something sharp, like a knife, prodding her soft flesh. Where on earth did he got a knife from? she wondered.

She wanted to get away from the knife, but he was pressing down on her. She looked around wildly, then her eyes fell on her husband’s photograph on the low table.

“I’m married . . .” she said.

“He’s not here, is he?” It was quite clear from the way he said it that he was not drunk. He reached out and turned the frame facedown on the table. “Gone,” he said.

It was true. The only other person in the flat was her son, asleep in his bedroom. When she brought the professor back, the housekeeper had left. She caught herself wondering what the woman had thought, and then whether she was only afraid people would find out. If no one found out, would that make it OK? She didn’t know. The worst of it was—he wasn’t drunk. If he had been, even if she did let him, she could just say it was the drink.

She realized he was pulling down her pants, and held onto them firmly. The more she resisted, the harder he pulled. Pulling the pants off a “decent” woman like her, he thought, created so much more “tension” than when it was one of those girls who were always ready to drop them. “Tension” was a concept he particularly liked using in his poetry reviews. The magic of poetry was all about “tension.”

The floor lamp next to the sofa fell over and woke the child, who started bawling. He hesitated a moment and she was able to pull free. The boy came out of his bedroom and she took him in her arms, embarrassed.

Seeing the child was a bit of a turn–off.

But it gave her an idea: “This is Uncle!” she told the child. It was a way of reminding the man of his status.

“Hello, Uncle!” said the boy.

He gave a half-hearted grunt. The child pulled free of his mother’s embrace and began to play.

Get him back to bed,” he told her.

“Let him play a bit!” It would give her some breathing space, she thought.

Trying to be patient, he turned to the child. “Go back to bed, little boy!”

“No!” the child responded. He would just have to wait.

Time passed slowly. “Go on, be a good boy, go back to bed,” he tried again.

“Don’t want to go to bed.”

Furious, he grabbed the child and headed for the bedroom. The child struggled. He put him down inside. The child ran out again. This kid was a nuisance! He carried him back in and plopped him down on the floor. The child sent up a wail.

She rushed in, shrieking: “What are you doing?” She had dropped the respectful form of “you” for the first time, he noticed to his surprise.

She took her child in her arms and soothed him back into bed. Why was the professor being like this? Was it worth the bother? She really wanted to get rid of him but did not dare. She wanted something from him. She wanted to use him, and of course, he wanted to use her too. He was a man, and wanted what men want. You’re a woman, she said to herself, you’re doing what women do to get what you want. Nothing wrong with that.

The child slept again. The man was standing in the living room, leering at her.

He pounced on her again. “You really want this?” she asked.

“Yes!”

“You’re not worried I’ll talk?”

“Talk away!”

“What about your reputation? You’re famous.”

“You’re a woman.”

That silenced her. She let him take her into the bedroom and push her down on the bed. She felt him peeling off her pants. She put up only a small struggle. Then he was down to her underwear.

Which ones have I got on today? she suddenly wondered. The embroidered lace ones. Well, that was a good thing.

By the time they were off, she had stopped struggling.

When she heard him scrabbling with his clothing, she jumped up to grab a condom. She absolutely mustn’t get pregnant. She remembered she’d left a spare one in a drawer the last time her husband was home.

The way she hastily pulled on her underwear to walk across the room gave him a vague feeling of disappointment.

She was back on the bed, waiting for him to overpower her. He saw the condom in her hand and was surprised. Was this her way of saying yes? He was reminded of the girl in Suzhou. What the hell, he was going to screw her anyway, he thought, and threw himself on her. She shut her eyes and waited for it to be over. But he didn’t push himself into her. She couldn’t even feel that knifelike erection. Had he lost it?

She opened her eyes. He had not put the condom on. His fingers were pumping up and down but, in spite of his efforts, the thing remained obstinately flaccid.

She sat up. If he’d lost his erection, it wasn’t her fault. But he pushed her back, touching her with the hand that had been rubbing his penis. This was too much.

“You can’t get it up . . .” she muttered.

“Who said I can’t?” he shouted. But he was surprised at himself all the same. It had never happened before. Maybe he’d just got too excited at the thought of forcing himself into her …There he was, tearing her shame from her—and it turned out she had no shame. She’d just given in. He felt extraordinarily empty.

He rubbed himself, hard, but it was no good. This was going nowhere. He turned his attention to her breasts, cheeks, neck, slobbering kisses all over them. He rubbed himself against her, turned her over, then back again. She was getting tired of this. Finally, he stopped and she thought that meant he was ready. When he pointed that knife at her, she would obediently open her legs. She raised her buttocks so she could turn and face him, and the folds of skin on her belly looked like a Sharpei’s neck. He went soft again.

She knew what she had to do to end the ordeal. She had to sharpen his knife for him. She raised herself. “Lie down!”

He looked startled and confused, but obeyed. She grabbed hold of his penis. Her husband had one, all men did. Once a man was just a penis, everything was simple.

Now it was he who was embarrassed and tried to twist away from her. “Keep still!” she commanded.

He let her lay him out flat. His skin was as white as boiled pork, and she was the butcher.

Her hand was icy cold but, strangely, he began to feel a thrill of pleasure, though that too was icy cold. He felt as if he was observing himself—another self—from a great distance. He distinctly felt the thrills of pleasure and saw himself enjoying it. But what about her? She was getting no pleasure out of it, only a sense of achievement. That was not a good feeling at all.

“Is that good for you?” he asked her.

She was startled. “Of course!”

“You’re lying!”

“I’m not!”

She was disgusted. I’m doing this for you, she thought, and you want me to enjoy it as well? “It’s . . . really . . . nice!” she said deliberately, but her tone of voice did not convince him. They were both faking, just going through the motions.

“You’re lying,” he said.

“Oh, shut up!” she cried. The thing in her hand was less and less responsive. She pumped up and down but it felt like pulling on an elephant’s trunk—his foreskin grew long and then retracted again. It began to feel sore and he gave a cry of pain.

Suddenly she bent over him and took it in her mouth. Treat it like chewing pork, she thought.

He was shocked. Ordinarily he liked putting the dirtiest part of him into the cleanest part of a woman’s body, her mouth, and lifting the woman’s hair, so he could watch her mouth pleasuring him. But just now, it was not what he wanted.

If he didn’t let her, he wouldn’t get hard again! she thought and pressed him firmly down. She was on top, she could control him. Finally, she felt his penis fill her mouth. When she withdrew, he could see it standing up stiff as a snake. It felt strange, as if it was not part of his body.

Now she could get it over with! But, to her alarm, he did not move. If he went soft again, what would she do? She got on top of him, not bothering now with the condom, and pushed him in. It did not feel quite right…but she adjusted her position slightly… now it was OK. She was astonished at herself. She had never imagined it would feel right with a man who was not her husband. Well, people were very adaptable.

He did not seem happy. “Don’t move!” she cried. “It’ll feel good in a minute!”

“No . . .”

What did he mean? Wasn’t this what he wanted? Maybe he wanted more foreplay, so he wouldn’t come too soon. Well, tough! She’d make him ejaculate quickly. Once a man ejaculated, he behaved himself again.

“I want it!” she said.

“Really?” he asked.

“Yes!”

“Really?”

“Really!” She moved faster. Just let him come.

“Then cry out!” he commanded.

Cry out? How absurd!

“Go on, cry out!” he urged her. “You want it, and it feels good, so cry out.”

She gave a cry.

“Properly!” he demanded.

She did it again.

“Not good enough!” he said, trying to throw her off him.

She grew frantic. “How do you want me to cry out?”

He knew she was faking it. Her cry didn’t come from her feelings, just mechanically through her vocal cords and out of her mouth. She was a whore. But then, hadn’t he become a whore too, a “literary whore”? He had sold his soul, he was just flesh. When had that happened?

A long time ago, when he’d first had sex with a girl, she hadn’t cried out, she had bitten down hard on his shoulder. That girl was his wife now. Back then, he was living on steamed buns so that he could devote himself to his writing. He had spent hours polishing and revising his pieces, and courted editors fearfully, begging them to publish him. The idealism of those days was long gone, and his feelings had coarsened. He felt at one remove from everything, from this. . . . He wanted out.

She became frantic. If he got up now, how long would this drag on for? “I’m telling the truth!” she insisted.

“Well, truth and fiction are like yin and yang, aren’t they? They merge into one other . . . ” Then he went on: “All right, I’ll tell the truth too. You really want to know what I think of your poems?”

Yes, she really did.

“Your writing’s terrible. Lousy, in fact!”

She’d long suspected his compliments were not wholly truthful. Still, his words came like a slap in the face.

“You haven’t a scrap of talent!” He piled on the insults.

She felt as if she was being pushed beneath the waves and held under. She wanted to get away, but what then? He was already inside her, it had already happened. She was furious. Damn him! How dare he talk about poetry now? Some poet! Well of course he was a poet, and so successful that he dominated the whole poetry scene.

Suddenly, she felt herself coming up for air. “All right then, abuse me, why don’t you!”

Abuse was a turn-on too, wasn’t it? She started moving on top of him again. Once she let him do it to her, he’d owe her something, and then she could be successful too! Harder, faster, her body rocked shamelessly. Now that she was relaxed, she was surprised to find she was enjoying it.

It was his turn to be agitated. She’d turned the tables on him and he was cornered. She’d got hold of the knife and was turning his own weapon on him.

She was jerking up and down on him like a pressure pump. He felt no pleasure, none at all. But even so, she could still make him ejaculate. There was nothing he could do to stop it. It would just be like water spurting out of a pipe.

He came.

She jumped off him and ran to the bathroom. A trickle of semen ran over his belly.

What am I doing here? he wondered. The room was empty and still. The semen was cold, like a runny nose on a winter’s day.

When she emerged, she was fully dressed. She smiled at him. He quivered, and a few more drops of semen squirted out.

“Go on, abuse me!” she said.

Abuse? He thought he had misunderstood. “I wasn’t abusing you…”

“Write a really stinking review of my work!” she said again.

He understood. “I’m going home . . .”

“You think you can go home? You’ve had your pleasure, so you can pull up your pants and just go?”

“I didn’t get any pleasure,” he objected. It felt like clutching at straws. Childishly, he muttered: “I didn’t…”

She sighed. “OK, I’ll do it again for you, so you enjoy it.”

He watched, appalled, as she began to strip. “No!” he shouted.

She flashed a smile and carried on. Her body was flabby, like a sow’s. The worst thing was he felt himself become aroused again. He was still naked and, to his chagrin, his penis reared up greedily. He frantically pulled his pants over it but it poked up anyway. A law unto itself. He was a mere man after all, and all men were like that, all carrying those ugly things around with them. It was what made a man a man, and dominant. But now that was just what he felt ashamed of.

She went up to him. What was he to do? He recoiled.

This was odd. What she was asking for wasn’t difficult. He did it all the time, didn’t he? Flattery here, backstabbing there, wherever it gained him an advantage. “Your pen’s your ‘knife’, isn’t it?” she asked. “That’s what your job’s about! And you’ve certainly got a sharp knife!”

Knife! He thought. He leaped up and made a dive for the kitchen. There’d be a knife there.

She was puzzled and went after him. She saw him grab a knife.

“Don’t kill me!” she shouted. “It’s all right, I won’t make you write anything about me!”

He was still holding the knife. “Whatever you want, I’ll give it to you, whatever it is…” she insisted.

He held the knife up.

She let out a shriek. The child awoke and began to wail in terror. Instantly, she rushed to shield him from danger. Would the man come after her? But he did not. She held her child in her arms and looked out.

The man was standing there, the knife dangling at his crotch. It was covered in blood. Something looked odd about his body. Something was missing.

It hung from the knife.

© Chen Xiwo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Nicky Harman. All rights reserved.