The Great Nude Woman of Chang Chun
The Great Nude Woman of Chang Chun
Now at the third floor of Shi Zhuang Department Store, the woman continued her ascent on the escalator. Her ankle-length, satin dress, all white, turtled up her long neck, on top of which the head tilted, now and then, with Siamese-cat elegance. Paris fashion and not bad, Wei Ming thought as he leaned on the fourth-floor mezzanine railing. After fitting thousands of women over the years, he could judge even a woman’s age. “This one,” he said out loud, “is thirty-eight.” Her forehead, high and slightly rounded, tapered down into a V with high cheekbones, and a jaw line that sloped down slightly from her earlobes into a sharp but gentle chin. A large white comb held an abundance of thick, black hair to the top of her head, which was now craning, right to left—admiring herself? questioning herself?—in the mirrors that lined the wide escalator wells.
Wei Ming admired her all the way up to the fourth floor, where she stopped on the landing, hesitated, and then turned one-hundred-eighty degrees, as if (he purposely humored himself) she was seeking his approval. He knew, of course, she must have been disoriented with the store’s visuals: floor-to-ceiling posters of beautiful male and female models; giant mirrors everywhere; dozens of apparel concessions, each representing a fashion from somewhere in the world. Wei Ming hoped she would come to his concession, which he had been leasing now for the past five years to sell Paris fashions for women: lingerie, blouses, dresses, skirts, pants, and accessories. The woman was now only ten meters away, which made it possible for Wei Ming to see the lines of her bra: also Paris fashion and very expensive.
She looked so familiar, like a woman from his dreams. Could she have attended the same university? Could they have worked together at one time? Wei Ming’s heart began to beat faster. He pushed himself away from the mezzanine railing and hurried to one of his concession’s fitting mirrors. He quickly tucked his slightly wobbly shirt back into his pants and combed his hair—still thick and black, lucky, he knew, for a man of forty-three.
He then hurried back to the railing, but by that time the woman was gone. He glanced across the escalator well to the other side of the fourth floor, he looked to the right toward Italian Fashions, then to the left toward New York Fashions; she was nowhere in sight. He felt an urge to leave his concession in search of her. She had looked so familiar, and he wanted to know why. He hurried out into the aisle, looked right to left, and then turned all the way around several times, attracting the attention of merchants in other concessions. “Lose something?” Tang Jun said from across the aisle in Fashions From Mexico City. Wei Ming did not reply; he threw up his arms and turned around to face his own Paris Fashions, and there she was, the woman in white, leaning over slightly, attentively sliding blouse hangers across the chrome poles. Then standing erect, briefly, she sidestepped to the left of the display and closer to the aisle where Wei Ming was standing. She was taller than she had appeared gliding up the escalator—even in her flat, white sandals, one hundred and seventy five centimeters, he figured, almost his height.
“I’m still taller than you,” Wei Ming mumbled to himself, stumbling back into his concession and closer to the woman, who sighed, glanced at Wei Ming’s stomach, and kept looking through the blouse display.
Wei Ming stepped up to within a meter of her. She was leaning over again as she browsed, which raised her buttocks. He felt himself trembling. Her panty lines pushed out the white satin—thong-cut, lace, Paris fashion. Women of her age usually wore lift-up panties, which she did not need.
“You’re a good buyer,” the woman said, not looking up.
“Paris,” Wei Ming stammered.
“I like Paris fashion.”
Wei Ming felt like asking for her name, but that would be too forward, this soon, anyway.
“I like French literature,” Wei Ming said.
The woman straightened and turned toward Wei Ming.
“Do you sell that, too?” she said with a slight smile, which made Wei Ming recognize her even more.
“No, but I read it.”
“Well, I can’t wear Balzac, anyway,” she said with a slight giggle, “although I might have at one time enjoyed that.”
Wei Ming was delighted with the woman’s wit. Only a few times in his career in ladies’ apparel had he met a woman with knowledge of French literature; those women, quite old, had studied the canon before the Cultural Revolution, during which Chairman Mao’s cronies had hidden or thrown away most great foreign literature. Wei Ming heard laughter, but he could not tell from where; it was a repulsively loud laughter. It roared and roared. He then realized it was coming from his own mouth. But he could not make it stop. The laughter continued, vulgar, with spray, even as he watched the woman scurry away.
The next morning, before Shi Zhuang’s nine o’clock opening, Wei Ming folded sleeveless tee shirts and placed them neatly on shelves made of chrome tubing and glass. He thought about the absurdity of love, how it can appear in one instant and then disappear in the next, unanswered. He knew that he and the woman had met in his life. The whole night before he lay awake in bed trying to think of that time and place, now washed away like a typhoon stealing all the important images from the face of an island. He knew that he had once loved her deeply. The woman must have remembered him too at least in some ethereal way. Why else would she have been so comfortable with her own sense of humor in his presence?
As the day passed, Wei Ming sold many garments, for he was, as the woman had said, a good buyer. He was charming too, handsome and fairly tall, and of course always dressed in Paris fashion, all of which attracted female shoppers—many of whom, through the years, had become the subjects of unsuccessful relationships. “Please help me,” they would say, which often meant more than just, “Help me with your Paris fashions.” Until yesterday when he met the woman in white, he had never really liked women who were interested in fashion—a business he entered only because the literature profession left its practitioners desperately poor. The woman, now most important to him, had not returned. Wei Ming feared that his charm had failed with her. Days and weeks passed and the woman still did not return. She probably had not even entered the department store; if she had, he would have surely sensed her presence.
One day Wei Ming was vacuuming the dust from ankle-length skirts. He slid out one after another, holding each one up with his left hand while running the vacuum nozzle with his right. But there was one blue, cotton skirt whose dust would not lift. He held it up then snapped it; still it was too dusty. So he began snapping with extra vigor. That was when he started to feel coolness along his forearms, which turned into a pleasant rush traveling to his armpits. He lifted the skirt up higher so he could snap with even greater force. Before he could snap, he saw from under the skirt, a woman’s sandaled feet. He knew who it was, but he snapped anyway as if to snap her all the way back into existence.
As he looked at her, his arms and hands became limp, and the skirt fell to the floor.
“You’d better hang that back up,” the woman giggled, “before somebody sees it on the floor.”
“I know you from somewhere,” said Wei Ming, suddenly with a chill in his groin.
This time she was wearing Levis jeans and a tight-red tee shirt. Her hair, no longer on piled on top of her head, fell halfway down her back. And this time she was not wearing a bra, yet her breasts sloped slightly upward like those of a woman much younger. She stepped up close to Wei Ming and held out her right hand. Wei Ming shook it gently. Careful to be a gentleman, he tried to pull his hand away, quickly. But the woman did not let go. Now the two were not shaking hands; they were holding hands. Neither spoke as they gazed into each other’s eyes. The woman, a smile forming at the right corner of her mouth, began a slight, full-body swinging motion. Wei Ming found himself swinging with her. Neither could hold back full smiles. It felt to Wei Ming as though all sense of time and its terrible friend, gravity, had been vacuumed out of the store.
She began to giggle, which made Wei Ming giggle. Then he heard that vulgar laughter again, making him feel as though wet batteries dangled from his ears. As though locked inside somebody else’s head, eyes the lenses of a ruthless cameraman, he could see, peripherally, his laughing-swollen lips spraying saliva all over the woman’s face, and then there was the camera zooming in on the worst possible scene: her face changing from an expression of joy to that of sympathy.
“Stop,” she said.
Wei Ming felt as though a gentle hand had covered his mouth, and there was silence again. A hand, handkerchief pressed between the two long fingers, started wiping the spray from the woman’s face. It is her hand, he thought. The woman glanced at her palm, then slipped her index finger, still wet with saliva, into her mouth and closed her eyes.
Wei Ming now knew who she was. He was sure of it. He threw up his arms, turning toward New York Fashions at the same time. “I know who you are!” he blurted out. “I know! I know!” When he turned back around to face her, she was gone. Wei Ming quickly left his concession to look for her. Taking the stairs, down which he could run faster than on the escalators, he checked sporting goods on the third floor, candies on the second floor, toys, men’s wear, and cosmetics. “Did you see a woman in jeans?” he asked around. He ran out of the front entrance, then up and down the street, glancing into shoe stores, hair salons, electronics shops, and he even covered both floors of McDonald’s. Most frustrating: he could not call out her name, for he did not know her real name. The only name he knew was, “The Great Nude Woman of Chang Chun.” She was gone. She was always gone!
It was early September in 1985 when Wei Ming became one of the city’s first residents to see “The Great Nude Woman of Chang Chun,” as she came to be known. He was twenty-one at the time and was studying literature at Jilin University. When he was not attending lectures, he spent most of his time in the old, Japanese-colonial city library because it housed ten times more titles than the university library. His favorite spot for research was the front common room because, from any of its forty tables, he could hear the heavy front doors opening and closing, which alerted him to turn his head toward the large, arched entrance—for he did not want to miss a chance to visit or study with a classmate.
When the first foreboding shriek rang out, ricocheting off the room’s high marble walls, Wei Ming was leafing through a volume of Albert Camus’s Lyrical Essays. An older woman (a regular patron of the library, with whom he had shared niceties a few times) sat two tables in front of him, and she was clutching her white head with both hands. She shrieked again, making Wei Ming think she was ill, perhaps a heart attack. Then others in the room began to moan and gasp.
Just to the right of the main entrance, a tall young woman stood, arms relaxed at her side. At first, perhaps due to the old ceiling lamps beaming down upon a full body of flesh, the woman did not appear real—not a statue necessarily—but a figure nudged slightly askew from the reality he knew. The figure was not smiling or frowning, large eyes glittering. She was as beautiful as anything he had ever seen—hair, thick and black and parted at the side, flowing to her lower back, which curved outward, gazelle-like into full hips and buttocks. Some of the hair fell over rather large breasts that shone with porcelain whiteness.
The commotion in the library’s main room quickly settled into silence. About eight meters from Wei Ming stood the great nude woman, perfectly still as she gazed straight ahead at the wall just above and in back of Wei Ming’s head. If only I had the courage to stand, he thought, she would have no choice but to look at me. Then without warning, the nude woman took stride—her steps, not quick and nervous but long and sure. As she swerved through the labyrinth of tables, people’s arms twitched, eyes widened, heads craned, and the gasping returned. To Wei Ming, her sudden animation awakened in him something primal that he had never before felt, as if now she had been, not nudged, but shoved into reality.
She was headed in the direction of Wei Ming’s table. Could it be? he thought as he caught her glancing into his eyes. As she neared his table, she slowed her pace, and then passing his table she slowed to a near stop. When she looked at Wei Ming, the corners of her mouth dropped, and her oversized eyes suddenly became smaller and dull. Then, turning away, she sped up. Wei Ming could now see her from the back—buttocks white and shiny, hair shimmering—but also there was something nasty about the back of her: the angelic face no longer there to temper a wildness he had never known existed, for he had never before seen a woman in the nude, not even his mother. She left the building through the main entrance, and before she disappeared, perhaps forever, Wei Ming tried to make his eyes memorize every millimeter of her.
She was gone. People began babbling, and many of them turned to Wei Ming, the men with great envy, and the women as though he were a child molester. Wei Ming shrugged his shoulders and said loudly, “I have never met her in my life.”
The next morning on his way to class, Wei Ming picked up a copy of Chang Chun’s daily newspaper, in which he found a small story about the magnificent woman, the title, “A Nude Woman on the Streets of Chang Chun”:
A young woman was spotted yesterday clad only in a pair of flat sandals. Sightings occurred at the Chang Chun City Library and on the boulevard near Children’s Park and vicinity. One witness said, “She was a woman of great beauty, but of course she was disgusting.” Authorities ask that citizens inform them if they happen to sight this malicious woman.
Many students and professors at Jilin University claimed that they had seen the nude woman. Wei Ming, however, decided not to tell anyone that he had actually seen her. Soon in the minds and articulations of Chang Chun’s citizens, the newspaper headline had somehow changed to “The Great Nude Woman of Chang Chun.” Stories abounded: “I saw her. She was like a fairy creature from a book.” or “I saw the wretched creature. She was attempting carnal knowledge on every street corner.” Wei Ming did not care about any of the stories. He just knew that he loved her and had to find her.
He thought about waiting for her on the front lawn of City Library, but just two days after the initial sightings, the lawn was sprawling with men, ranging in age from about twelve to eighty. Wei Ming did not want to think of himself as one of the panting masses. Waiting for her at Children’s Park was also out of the question: nearly forty times as many men as before were practicing Taiji on the expansive lawns. Along with the wishful came many ice cream and drink vendors. When journalists entered the park and asked some of these men, “Just what are you doing in the park today?” the men replied, “Oh, just here for Taiji and a picnic,” or “Taiji and relaxation.” The park’s new ambience, once famous mainly for children’s activities, had mothers in an uproar. Wei Ming even read a newspaper article about how mothers would take arms, if needed, to frighten the men away.
The mothers did not have to take arms, and none of the men got what they had wished for. After a week, the numbers dwindled to half; after two weeks, the numbers in front of the library and inside Children’s Park fell to normal. Somehow Wei Ming knew that the woman would never parade herself in front of men who were actually waiting for her. In her face at the library, Wei Ming had seen a need to surprise people, a need, perhaps, to condemn them for a life without beauty. To him, her act was no less than heroic.
Four weeks later, the sun was setting on city library, and winter’s chill had begun to forge. Wei Ming, wearing a thick cardigan, was on his way in to find titles that he, as usual, could not find at the university library. A few meters in front of the entrance, he stopped. He stopped because he noticed odd movements behind one of the large bushes to the right of the main entrance and underneath the tall, arched windows, which were lightly illuminating the front lawn. He sensed it was her. He short-stepped a little closer and could just barely see the colors of white and pink. “It is me,” Wei Ming said, at which point the woman darted out from behind the bush and began running off toward Children’s Park. Like before, she was totally naked except for what looked like a pair of sandals. Wei Ming found himself in pursuit.
The woman crossed the large boulevard in front of the library, ran a ways, and then swerved into the trees of Children’s Park. Wei Ming began to panic. Now inside the park, he felt that, if he could not catch her this night, he never would. He stopped somewhere in the middle of the large park, now dark, to catch his breath, which he could see blowing out into the chilly night. It was a grassy clearing and it was lit. Pines and oaks surrounded him. And the nude woman stood at the edge of the trees, the light directly above casting upon her a ghostly light.
Wei Ming stepped closer. The woman, shivering a little with arms crossed, did not move. He closed in to barely a half-meter of her. All he could think to do was touch her. Sadness overcame the woman’s face as it had in the library. Wei Ming stepped up to within a few centimeters and gently placed his hands on her, one on each hipbone. Still, she did not move or speak. In Wei Ming, a great joy was welling, starting from deep in his lungs, and then easing upward. He heard a man’s laughter, which started out slight. Then the laughter grew louder and louder until he realized it was his own laughter. And through his breath, he saw saliva spraying onto the woman’s face. But he could not stop. He had never felt such joy in his life.
“Stop,” the woman said gently.
And Wei Ming did stop. He stopped for no other reason than she told him to. They kept standing. Wei Ming’s hands, now high up her back, cupped her quivering shoulder blades, her breasts raised up onto his chest. The woman raised her hands and took hold of his forearms. In that position they stood for a few minutes, gazing into each other’s eyes. The woman then moved her hands to his chest and gently pushed herself away. She smiled briefly, and then her full lips fell sour again. She raised her right hand to her face and began wiping Wei Ming’s saliva away. After taking a quick glance at the hand, she then wiped it over the top of her right breast. Then she lifted the hand, closed her eyes, and slid her index finger into her mouth. With the finger frozen inside, she hummed what sounded something like a classical piece. After a minute, she slowly pulled the finger out and smiled. “Please,” she said, “can you help me?”
Mei Ming could not speak. He fell to his knees and wrapped his arms around her thighs.
“Please,” she whimpered, “Please, could you help me?”
To Wei Ming, the skirts and blouses from Paris hung like baked cats, faces still contorted with the shock their deaths brought. The “Great Nude Woman of Chang Chun” was always gone, he thought as he clumsily lined up gold-plated necklaces in his accessories display case, its glass top and sides now oily with fingerprints. For what seemed like forever, afraid he might mistakenly wipe a place where she had touched, he had not cleaned anything, not even his carpet—for she had walked upon it. Even his own body had been going without a shower for up to a week at a time. That wonderful night, that terrible night, in Children’s Park haunted him. Images of her followed him, day and night. He saw her everywhere he went. Even at McDonald’s, where he often ate a late dinner, his hands would shake as he held out money to the cashier, whose face would sometimes turn into hers!
His sales had dropped eighty percent due to the dust all over his unvacuumed garments, the greasy countertops, sticky carpet, and his own dirty body. Wei Ming remained unshaven, his shoulders were now covered with dandruff. All he could do was watch potential customers walk by. Oh, they would slow their pace as they passed, but when they saw the wreck Wei Ming had made of his once spotless concession, they kept walking.
Of course other concession owners secretly enjoyed Wei Ming’s recent lack of success, which of course meant that more customers stepped into their concessions. Perhaps enjoying Wei Ming’s misfortune the most was Tang Jun in Fashions From Mexico City, just across the aisle. After glancing at Wei Ming's mess, customers often turned automatically into the concession across the aisle with its gaudy, thickly loomed ponchos, and shirts with papayas and bananas.
“Wei Ming,” Tang Jun said as Wei Ming sat slumped over in his pink vinyl chair. “You okay? Your shirt is wrong side out. I can see the tag.”
A part of Wei Ming wanted to wring Tang Jun’s neck, but he appreciated his old friend’s attempts in the last few weeks to cheer him up. A few times, Tang Jun had even donned a sombrero and pasted-on handlebar mustache and played a few Mexican tunes on his guitar. All Wei Ming could see was the woman he loved performing Mexican dances, which made him even more depressed. Not even a full bottle of wine could make him think about other things.
“Friend,” said Tang Jun, “You are in trouble. Your concession is attracting flies. I cannot remember so many flies. You are my friend, and I care for you, but your flies are laying eggs on my fashions.”
Wei Ming struggled to lift his head. “Really?”
“No, not really.”
“Then why did you say it?”
“I have to say something. I have bad news. The store’s leasing office is thinking about canceling your next lease. It’s coming up soon, you know?”
“They can do what they want. I do not care.”
All the great woman had needed was his help, Wei Ming thought as Tan Jun slinked back into his own concession. All she wanted was help. All these years he had spent saying “yes” to women who needed him, but all he could do was run away from the love of his life. In the cold he left her standing, exposed, in the middle of that awful park. What would have happened had he stayed with her? Would they be married right now? Possibly even with children? What had she been doing all of these years? Wei Ming was dying to know. He was dying to say that he was sorry. I am so sorry I left you that night, he would tell her. If only she would give him the chance.
Wei Ming forced himself up from the chair and then stepped over to the mezzanine railing. He leaned on it and gazed down into the escalator well. Just what would he do if he saw her, “The Great Nude Woman of Chang Chun,” gliding up, so sassy and fashionable? A new feeling was welling up in him, and the feeling was good. He needed a way to feel good. It was a feeling he had never before felt in his life.
A large fly settled on the tip of Wei Ming’s nose, and he crossed his eyes and stared at its black-blue-green body. A fly, he thought, with smug confidence? Wei Ming finger-flicked the fly into the escalator well and watched it fall and then land, surely dead, on one of the steel steps. He then took serious pause at the condition of his concession. If he didn’t clean things up, the store would cancel his lease. Where would the great woman go if he was no longer there? There would be no question: if he ever saw her again drifting up the escalator, he would have, at the very least, the cleanest concession in the store. Surely, there could be no other place for her. Maybe she didn’t know it yet, but she was stuck with him.