the short story project


Shi Zhecun | from:chinese

At the Paris Cinema

Translated by : Paul White

Image: cultofdang

What, is she actually going to buy the tickets herself? This puts me to shame. Isn’t this guy looking at me, this bald-headed Russian, I mean? And this woman has her eyes fixed squarely on my face, too! Yes, and this guy puffing on a cigar, he’s looking at me now as well. They’re all looking at me. Well, all right, I know what they’re thinking. They’re a little bit contemptuous of me. No, more than that, I think they are actually sneering at me.

I don’t know why on earth she had to insist on buying the tickets… surely she must know what an awkward spot this puts me in? I am a man, a gentleman — and whoever saw a man escort a lady (a “lady” of whatever degree) to a cinema, and the lady going up to buy the tickets? Never; at any rate I’ve never seen such a thing.

My face feels hot. I’ve probably gone as red as a beetroot. Isn’t there a mirror around here? If there is one, I’ll look at myself in it. Oh! This guy is actually laughing openly at me! How dare you mock me, sir? Surely you must have seen her suddenly lunge toward the ticket window. I couldn’t stop her, how could I? Who would have expected a thing like this to happen ? Oh! I don’t think I can stand this any longer. I have an urge to turn and run out of the door. Oh, let me just stand outside on the steps for a while…

What, she still hasn’t managed to buy the tickets? It’s so crowded in here! And that’s another thing; why in Heaven’s name would she want to fight her way through such a crush to buy the tickets, when that should have been my job? Perhaps she didn’t want me to be the one who was doing the inviting?… But, in that case why did she in fact agree yesterday evening to come to the cinema with me? Yes, why did she, yesterday evening when I escorted her to her door, consent to my taking her out tonight? Surely she didn’t think that today would be her turn to take me out, did she? Humph, well, if that’s what she was thinking, the best thing for us to do is break it off completely, and have none of this “you invite me, and then I invite you” nonsense, in my opinion. Did she think I had invited her to come and see a film so that I could get a return invitation from her? Well, maybe she thought that it would be awkward for me if she let me do all the treating? So she decided that, she should buy the tickets today? To save face, perhaps? Yes, that was probably it! Women are always getting such ideas into their heads. They also get rather haughty ideas from time to time…

Now what’s going on? She still hasn’t bought the tickets. Why don’t I fight my way through this crush and buy them for her? How can I be expected to just stand here and put up with the mocking stares of all these people? I’d better go up there. She probably hasn’t managed to buy the tickets yet. What do they cost here, anyway?… Down- stairs, 6 jiao, and upstairs? I wish this idiot would get his head out of the way. I can’t see the price. It looks like 8 jiao. Oh, here she comes! She’s got the tickets at last. Strange! How come I didn’t see her buy them? Where did she buy these tickets?

Well, never mind. Let’s go in. But why is she giving me both tickets? Oh, these are circle tickets! Why did she splash out on such expensive tickets ?… I think I understand; she is showing her displeasure at my buying seats in the stalls the last time. This is even more of a slap in the face! Oh, no! I’m not standing for that. I’d rather break off our friendship. I certainly can’t accept these tickets. No, I never want to take her to the cinema again. Not only that, no more strolls, no more ice cream. Never again!… Ah, now what’s she saying?

“All the upstairs and downstairs tickets were sold out, so I had to buy fancy seats.’’

Oh, pardon me. I almost made a blunder there. Why was it that I couldn’t see that the window where they sell the ordinary seats has a sign saying “Sold out”? The crowd is dispersing, isn’t it? They must be disappointed, though I can’t imagine why this film has so much appeal. Oh, that’s right, today’s Sunday… Well, we have to go upstairs. But… she gave me both tickets. What was the meaning of that? What a narrow staircase! Not like that big wide one at the Grand Theatre. Hardly wide enough for two people to walk up side by side. Has the film started already? I can hear music. Here is the usherette. Oh, now I understand. She wanted me to be the one to hand over the tickets, to make it look as though I had bought them. That’s right! She didn’t want me to lose face in front of the usherette. Let me have a look behind, to see if any of those people who saw her buy the tickets are following us…. No, it looks like we’re the last in. What about that bald-headed Russian who was mocking me downstairs? And the woman in the skimpy qipaol? And that cocky fellow smoking the cigar? They must have failed to get hold of tickets and gone home, I suppose. Serves them right for sneering at me, doesn’t it? Now, what are our seat numbers? Seventy-four and seventy- five. I can’t tell what kind of seats those are.

Good, now we’re in, and the show hasn’t started yet. In fact, the lights are still on. Just a minute, where’s this flunky taking us? We bought circle tickets. Good Heavens! We’re in the third row. The back row of the circle! Why do we keep going round the side? Are these two seats ours? This is no good; we’re right at the very end. We’ll be squinting sideways at the screen all the time. Well, I suppose I’ll have to let her sit on the inside.

God, it’s stuffy in here! Packed out with people, too. Where did that German guy get that foul-smelling cigar? I’ve never smelled a worse cigar in my life… Now what’s she giving me?… Oh, it’s a programme. Of course. Why do I have to be so muddle-headed all the time? Why didn’t I pick one up in the foyer? But that’s funny! I don’t remember seeing her pick up a programme. Oh, it was probably when I was looking at the seat numbers…. UFA (Universum-Film AG). Of course. I knew that this film was made by UFA. The Paris Cinema often shows their films. They’re not bad, either. I wonder if she noticed? I should tell her.

“ This is another UFA films. ”

What’s the matter now? She’s just staring at me. Perhaps she doesn’t know UFA. I should explain, but I ’ d better keep my voice down.

“UFA is a leading German film maker. They turn out some excellent films. They’re my favourites. I think they’re better than anything that comes out of Hollywood.”

No reply. Just nods her head. I wonder if she thought my explanation was a bit impertinent? She probably thinks I’m implying that she’s ignorant of the cinema world and she’s nettled at that. Now she’s bent her head and is engrossed in reading the programme. What should I say to her now?…

Let me see if there’s anybody I know here. If anyone saw the two of us come in and spread the story around it would be embarrassing to say the least. But, on the other hand… embarrassing? Did I use to think like that? There’s nothing secret about what we are doing, surely? Can’t I take a girlfriend to the cinema? Am I still afraid to do that, even now? The lights have all gone out, and the film is about to start. Good, nobody will be able to see us now! Did she finish reading the programme? She was not that last; she probably read only half of it. We were a bit late getting here. Well, that was her fault. She refused to take a bus and would insist on walking along that tree-shaded path — God knows why.

These seats are too small. They ’re really uncomfortable. Has she put her arm on the armrest, on this side? Yes, she has. So I’ve only got this side to lean on. Oh, well, I’ll just have to sit sideways and relax a little. Good Lord, that’s a nice perfumy smell! It must be coming from her. I detected it on her the other day when we were sitting in the park, only not so strong. Now I remember… just after dinner she spent an awful long time upstairs, and I almost fumed with impatience, didn’t I? She must have been dressing up, and making up, or whatever. I guess she must have changed her outfit completely. Right down to her underwear. That’s enough of that… don’t be cheeky. What’s she laughing at? Oh, everybody’s laughing! Surely they didn’t all realize what I was just thinking about in my wild imagination!.. No, of course not. They were laughing at that elephant getting his trunk stuck in a crack. Not a bad cartoon!

Why did she nudge my arm with her elbow? It did feel like some kind of a nudge. Was it deliberate or accidental? If I could only see the expression on her face I’d know. Unfortunately the screen’s too dark right now and I can’t see clearly…. She doesn’t look as though anything had happened. Her eyes are fixed on the screen and she has a perfectly solemn expression on her lace. In fact she looks completely oblivious of the fact that she is sitting next to me in a cinema. Well if she had not forgotten all about me what would she have been doing? Flashing glances at me all the time. Ha! Don’t be ridiculous! What was I thinking? Oh, I found out this time! She’s really smart; without moving her head at all she swivelled her eyes and gave me a glance.

What does this mean? Clearly she was secretly thinking about me and felt that I was looking at her. She is lightly pressing her lips together, obviously trying to suppress a smile. How is she really feeling, deep down? I just can’t guess. What really is our relationship now? Have I fallen in love with her? I can’t fathom myself why I should be so happy going out with her. These past three days my mind’s been in a whirl, as we’ve been gallivanting all over Shanghai, just about. I certainly never felt so warm even towards my wife. I really feel sorry for her, but it can’t be helped; I can’t control myself. She lives in the country-side. She’s a gentle and rather pitiable creature. Right now, she’ll probably be already asleep. I wonder if she’s dreaming about me and a woman watching a film together!…

Phew, it’s hot in here! I can feel beads of sweat on my forehead. Where’s my handkerchief?… That’s strange! It’s not in my back pocket. Oh, now I remember; I spread it on a bench for her to sit on in Hongkou Park, and when we left I forgot all about it. Well. That, I’m afraid, is destined to become just a secret, faint memory. What was it she had said, sitting there on that bench and holding a willow leaf that had dropped onto her shoulder? “If only I could have known you earlier!” Didn’t she say that?… That’s right. I had said that to her once; “If only I could have known you earlier!” I don’t know why I said that then. What did it mean? Surely it wasn’t some kind of hint, was it? Ah, it’s lovely in Hongkou Park on a summer’s evening! I can almost see it now — the golden moon reflected in the pond. It really was attractive. But anyway, perhaps her meaning was that if she had known me earlier, then … earlier, meaning when? Obviously meaning before I was married…. Is that what I was hinting? How strange! The truth is probably that I was just mumbling some vague thought. I shouldn’t say such ambiguous things to an emotional young woman. Now, I’m sure she’s got the wrong impression. She must think I’m in love with her. And she’s not entirely wrong, either. I really am a little bit in love with her as a matter of fact. I really don’t understand how all this came about, and I don’t know whether I ought to come right out with it and tell her or not. For example, when we were sitting in Hongkou Park a little while ago if I had told her I loved her how would she have reacted? Burst into tears, perhaps?

…Yes, I know that when women find themselves in such situations their only response is either to sob or hang their heads in mute tragedy, as if there is nothing else they can do. Then, what ought I to have done? Comfort her? Would she have let me kiss her then, like those passionate heroines on the cinema screen? I’m afraid not… no, definitely not! The circumstances are different; for, of course, she knows that I’m married…. What’s she doing now? Seems she’s not very settled in her seat. She’s pushing her arm further along the armrest. I can even feel the warmth of her skin…. Now, she’s turning her head. Is she going to speak to me?

“What’s his name?”

Who ? Who ’ s she talking about? Someone on the screen? She probably means the fellow playing the adjutant? Who is he? I just can’t think of his name. It’s on everybody’s lips; how is it that I can’t recall it all of a sudden?… He’s a leading Russian film star, I know that much. Well.

“Do you mean the chap playing the adjutant? That’s Ivan Morodin. He’s a famous Russian film star.”

“Oh, that’s right! Ivan Morodin. I remember now. I’ve seen lots of his films. I really like him.”

What? She really likes him?… How can a Chinese woman like someone as stem and cold as Morodin? No, I don’t believe it. If it were someone like Vrontino, then perhaps! Women go for anyone who plays the part of a handsome young hero. That’s true enough? But there’s no danger from a celluloid rival. And anyway, if it’s a foreign film you can forget such a thing completely. So, you like him, do you? But how would he ever know that you like him? Look, he’s kissing another woman. Aren’t you jealous? Ha, ha…. Quelle folle!

I can feel her looking at me, but not in that sideways manner she was using just now. She has turned her head round towards me. Now what does this mean? Shall I swivel my eyes to meet her gaze?… Perhaps not. That might embarrass her. But she’s obviously smiling. Oh, yes! I can definitely feel her smiling at me. What is there about me to smile at? I wonder if she can read the funny thoughts running through my mind…. That would be quite a joke. Why don’t I just turn my head quickly and look her full in the lace? I could catch her looking at me before she has time to avert her gaze, then I could ask her what she finds so funny about me….

“What are you smiling at?”

Aha! I’ve caught her! She looks embarrassed, doesn’t she? Let’s see what she says.

“I’m smiling at you.”

What? Is that all? She’s smiling at me. I know that already — you don’t have to tell me that. What I want to know is why you are smiling at me. What is it about me that you find so funny? So I’m going to ask her another question.

“Why are you smiling at me?”

“I’m smiling at the way you’re watching the film — staring blankly at the screen with your mouth open.’’

What a strange thing to say! Staring blankly with my mouth open, indeed! I never do that, and I certainly was not doing that just now! Definitely not. Not a bit of it. Lies, all lies! Women are accomplished liars, of course. It was a clever retort, but that was definitely not the reason she was smiling at me. No, I think the real reason was that she thought it was a bit pointless just sitting there gazing at the film. For people in our situation it would be unutterably dull just to sit glued to the screen all the way through. Anyway, the reason for coming here in the first place was to take advantage of the dark, that’s all. There are lots of actions and words that require darkness. Look, she’s leaning nearer me. Now she’s let the cat out of the bag! If the seat is too far to one side to see the screen properly she should be leaning the other way, to her right. She is definitely snuggling up against my shoulder. I’ 11 lean my body up against her a little bit and see if she pulls away…. Heavens, she hasn’t budged! Did she feel me move up against her? Is she in love with me too? I suppose so; these past couple of days she hasn’t resisted any of my advances. Why don’t I dare go any further? I’m too timid now. I love her! I’ve fallen in love with her! But, how can I tell her? Can she love a man who’s already married? I’m afraid that if I told her, even hinted at it, she would run away from me. She would never see me again, not even a flicker of ordinary friendship would remain.

“Intermission”. The intermission already? That means the film’s half over. Well, that was quick! I haven’t seen any of it yet. What about some ice-cream? Yes, that would be nice; I’m really hot. But I wonder what she would like? Ice-cream? A soft drink? I’d better ask her.

“Would you like some ice-cream or a soft drink, or something?”

“No, nothing, thanks.”

Why does she have to be so polite today? The last couple of days she hasn’t been like this. Why doesn’t she want anything? Doesn’t she feel hot? Yesterday evening at the Carlton she ate two cartons of ice-cream, didn’t she? Why is she so adamant about refusing today? I find that a bit annoying.

“Two chocolate ice-creams, please.”

Surely she’s not going to refuse, now that I’ve bought them.

“No, honestly. I really don’t feel like eating ice-cream today.”

…Oh, I see. Well, if that’s the case…. She’s blushing slightly, isn’t she? I suppose I shouldn’t insist; it will only make her feel more embarrassed. Normally, she wouldn’t have refused me like this. Never. Didn’t she say that she didn’t feel like eating ice-cream today? All right, I’ll eat them. Ooh, that’s cold! I don’t think I can eat two cartons all by myself. I hope I wouldn’t upset my stomach. She’s turning round to look at something; what is it? Is she looking for someone? Or is she afraid that someone has seen us? As a matter of fact, now I hope that someone actually has seen us. It might be a good thing if they spread the story around. I’ve got chocolate all over my fingers and they’re all sticky. It’s such a nuisance not having my handkerchief. How about wiping them on my programme? Yes, and where is my programme? It was on my knee just now. It must have fallen on the floor. It’s probably got a lot of muck on it. Damn! What am I supposed to clean my hands on?

She’s passed me a handkerchief. She must have been watching me the whole time. It’s a little handkerchief, warm and moist. She must have mopped her brow with it. Well, there! I’ve wiped my fingers clean.

Hold on! I want to know what it smells like. I can pretend to be wiping my mouth; that way no one will see that I’m taking a sniff. Mmm? Very nice. This is her fragrance right enough. Perfume mixed with her perspiration. I feel an urge to lick it, to find out what it tastes like. It must be a very interesting taste, I think. I can wipe the handkerchief across my mouth from the left to the right, and as I do so I can stick my tongue out and lick it. I could even suck at it and no one would know. Wouldn’t that be nice? Ah, good! The lights have all been dimmed, and the film’s continuing. This is just the right time for me to give it a really good suck. It’s really salty here. Must be sweat, I suppose. What’s this here, the part with the pungent smell? That must be mucus and saliva. No wonder it’s so sticky. This really is a new delight. I can feel a delicious tingling sensation on the tip of my tongue. Strange, it feels as though I’m holding her naked body! I couldn’t keep this handkerchief, could I? What would she say if I suddenly put it in my pocket? Even if she didn’t say anything she would still think it was a bit improper. I couldn’t do such a base thing. I must hand it back to her. And I’d better hand it back right now.

She didn’t hold it in her hand, but stuffed it straight in her pocket. She probably sensed what I had done, because the handkerchief was wet through from my sucking it — as if I’d mopped my clothes after a summer shower. Ah, what a beautiful fragrance! A beautiful fragrance for sure! If only I could suck on her tender lips and behind her ears my whole body would start trembling. Oh, Heaven! I want to know right now how she would react if I were to reveal my secret love for her…. It would be enough if she would let me know that she would not spurn me. I don’t understand why I am so helpless in this situation. Shaoyan has had lots of love affairs, but I bet he has a different technique from mine. I wonder how he handles it when he tells a woman about his love for her and she turns him down…. If I only knew that, I would be all right. But, there again, would any woman turn him down? He is so handsome, so socially poised. In fact, he’s a real Flash Harry.

Perhaps women are unwilling to hurt people’s feelings… but however she handles the situation, even the slightest hint of a refusal will devastate me, I’m sure.

Anyway, let me think this over in more detail. What reason could she possibly have for turning me down? Isn’t she happy every time she goes out with me? Doesn’t she always strenuously oppose it every time some third person wants to go with us? Doesn’t she always disappear whenever she hears that my wife is coming to Shanghai? And when we go out to dinner, doesn’t she always insist on sitting in a private booth? Whenever I’m careless, doesn’t she just hang her head patiently? Oh, and there’s something else, too     that enigmatic gaze she fixes me with from time to time. Sometimes it can last as long as one or two minutes. What does all this add up to?… So, it seems that, apart from the feet that I’m already married, she can have no reason at all to refuse me.

But, there again, it is not absolutely out of the question for a woman to fall in love with a married man. On the contrary, it happens often enough. And to look at it from another angle, if she wanted to turn me down she would have drifted away from me a long time ago. Surely she can’t be serenely unaware of the inevitability of my bothering her with such a matter! No, it’s impossible. She’s the sort of person who’s looking for a love affair, and if she were prepared to turn me down she would have been wasting her time seeking me out as a companion, now wouldn’t she? Ah, it’s a puzzle, after all. At least it’s a puzzle I can’t solve.

Now what’s happening on the screen? He’s taken his former wife’s ring off and thrown it away in front of that woman, hasn’t he? Morodin’s got a fine expression on his face. Look how anguished he looks! It must be very difficult to manage an expression like that. But, what was the story before now? I can’t really make it out. I’ve never watched a film so absent-mindedly before… Isn’t this my wedding ring? If I should throw away the ring my wife gave me right now, what would be her reaction? Would she, in fact, see me do it? And if she did, would she say anything? Right, I’ll give it a try. It’s coming off now. And now I’m holding it between my finger and thumb…. She must have seen me by now, I’m sure. What was that, a sigh? Who breathed a sigh? Is the whole of the audience sighing? Ah, they’re embracing. The heroine has finally thrown herself into the adjutant’s arms. Why isn’t she watching the screen? She’s still paying attention to me. Let me just turn and have a look at her. She’s looking at the ring I’m holding in my hand, isn’t she? What did she say?

“What are you doing?”

What am I doing? Did she really ask me that? What a barefaced question! How does she expect me to answer? Ha, ha, what does she mean? Did she mean my taking the ring off or did she mean my turning round and looking at her? Well, I’ll just give her an equivocal reply, like this:

“I’m not doing anything.”

Now she’s embarrassed, clearly uneasy. Why has she turned her lace away and hung her head? Now what are her feelings? Bight, I really have to find that out. But, if she does not tell me I will have no way of finding out. Women can keep their own secrets for ever, right until they die. But, sometimes they feel remorse.

Everybody is standing up. Oh, the film’s over. The lights have been turned on and they’re dazzling my eyes. What a crush of people! We have to go down by that staircase over there. What did she say? I didn’t catch it.

“I said, how do you feel?”

How do I feel? What does that mean? Oh, she must mean, what did I think of the film.

“Oh, very good. Yes, not bad.”

That’s a joke. I hardly even glanced at it! Oops, be careful!… Mind how you walk. How could she miss her footing on a perfectly ordinary set of stairs. She must have done it on purpose… deliberately… so she could lean on my arm, I bet. My arm is completely round her now. Should I withdraw it? No need, we haven’t got to the bottom of the stairs yet, and she might miss her footing again.

Oh, it’s chilly outside! It’s only when you come out of the Nanjing Theatre that you feel a warm breeze. That’s an air-conditioned theatre. Now I should remove my arm from her. What time is it? Eleven-forty. But my watch is ten minutes fast, so it’s only about 11:30. Still early! I should ask her to go for a snack.

Why is she standing so much on ceremony today? Why did she so steadfastly refuse to go for a snack? She wouldn’t even let me see her home, but instead flagged down a taxi and went off by herself. I was ready to take her all the way home. Did she suddenly go off me? Probably so. Today she must have finally grown tired of me. But… but then why did she get me to promise to fetch her tomorrow afternoon at two o’clock to go to Fanwangdu Park? I don’t understand.














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