Immoral Woman

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I felt, for some reason, that I must speak to her before the house lights came up, and, as the Chinese characters denoting the end of the film appeared on the screen, I turned to the woman and placed my hand lightly on her forearm and said, “Gossips are frightening.”

She tore her arm away and her face contorted with pain. “Bie mo wo!” she whispered sharply, almost savagely. “Do not touch me.”

“It is you, isn’t it?” I asked.

The woman pulled back the sleeve of her dress. A strange mark glowered in the pale skin, now breathing orange like hot embers, breathing bright; now cooling to red, now gray, finally fading. It was the imprint of a human hand. My hand.

She regarded the mark on her flesh, and then, as if the fact that I had made it compelled some response to me, asked, “What is it you want?”

I need make no apology for what I said next other than that I am a journalist. “An interview.”

Ruan Lingyu — now I may call her by her name — threw her head back and laughed, laughed boisterously for a long time, though none of the patrons filing out of the theatre paid her the slightest notice. When the room was empty, she said, “Very well. Go to the corner of 8th Street and 6th Avenue at seven o’clock tomorrow morning. Carry a newspaper. A taxicab will stop there. Tell the driver you want to go Uptown.”

“Where will he take me?”

“To the entrance of heaven.”

She did not disappear, but simply began to walk away. Beneath the Exit sign she turned and said, “You’ll have to pay him.” She went into the lobby and was gone.




Of Pericles and Gray’s Papaya



At ten minutes before seven the next morning I was at the corner of 8th Street and 6th Avenue with two hundred dollars in my pocket and the early edition of the New York Times under my arm. Ruan Lingyu had not told me to hail the taxi, merely to be there. There I stayed for twenty-five minutes, at which point I stepped off the curb and raised my hand. But all the cabs were occupied. At 7:30 I gave up and went into Gray’s Papaya and had two ninety-cent hot dogs.

I stepped out, wiping my lips and reading the newspaper, when a yellow cab cut across three lanes of traffic and bounced to a sudden stop in front of me. The cabbie, a broad swarthy fellow with sparse gray whiskers, leaned over and rolled down the window and said, “Which way?”

I got in and said, “Uptown.”

The cabbie squealed through a light that was just turning red. “Sorry I’m late,” he said, poking the button to start the meter. “Traffic’s a bitch.”

He seemed in every way to be nothing but an average New York taxi driver, which is to say that he was not a very good one: as he wove and lurched across the avenue, muttering and swearing as necessary, I could feel every seam and pothole in the pavement. Soon I was glad that I had put something in my stomach, and soon after, not so glad that it had been hot dogs.

I leaned forward. “Do you know the way?”

“Speak up!” yelled the driver. He kept the scratchy, fogged plexiglas partition closed behind him.

I repeated my question.

“Mister,” he said. “I’ve been driving this cab for” — a cough in lieu of a
number — “years now.” He took a left turn on
34th Street. “Highway OK?”



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