Trigger warning: Drug use, gun violence, metaphorical reference to loss of a baby.
Your fingers brush on my clean skin, dirtying it like dust on a canvas. The blood is so starkly red; I will believe it if you tell me it’s not blood at all, rather your red lip rouge. The one you carry on you in that little gold tin.
You apply it to your lips with your pointer finger and that hand mirror a man dressed in black had given you on your first night at the Red Lotus. The man told you that he liked your phoenix eyes and thought the silver mirror matched the stitching on your qipao.
The men always flocked their way to you, treating you like something ornate – an exquisite porcelain doll just out of its packaging. They revelled in peeling back the oily wax paper, and rubbing their fingers all over you until they had left a roadmap of their prints on the skin that only held one word on their tongue.
Fair. The fairest of them all.
Young, beautiful. Fine.
Now your make-up is smeared, but I can’t say you aren’t beautiful anymore to make myself feel better. It doesn’t make me feel better.
The men don’t care about preserving me. They see my skin as tough leather and my newly-bought qipao like rags they can freely tear. I encourage them to be rough with me, because that is how they get their pleasure from the ugly women.
The ones they throw their money at and slam the door on.
No one can ever bear to slam the door on you. Not even me. The one who is supposed to be envious of everything you have. Your beauty. Your kindly nature. Your belongings gifted to you by men.
It doesn’t matter to me, because in the end, we will both die under the same name. 娼妓，妓女. Chang’ji, ji’nu. Prostitute. Toys for men to play with, and discard like a spoilt child when they are sick of it.
Tears are in your eyes, but not on your cheeks. Your cheeks still tinged with blush. You reach your hand up to wipe them away, but I stop you. Your red nails have blood on them, droplets come off the sharpened edge.
It pools under you onto the rug. I kneel in it.
It’s still warm.
I was sixteen when I came to the Red Lotus. My mum left me there and never returned. At least here, in a tea house perched on the edge of multiple alleyways in eastern Shanghai, I wouldn’t need to worry about food in my stomach or a roof over my head.
I was stunned by all the ladies in their colourful qipaos and wavy updos. The dresses hugged their slender figure, the tightly-fitted collars with frog buttons at the neckline. Slits down the sides revealed long, thin legs. They served tea to the conversing gentlemen and performed songs on a small stage under a branch of pink flowers.
“What’s your name?” the owner’s wife asked. She was significantly older than the women here, with wrinkles weighing the skin on her forehead, and around her mouth. Yet, there wasn’t a strand of white in her ebony hair.
“Luo Fengli,” I replied. 凤, feng for a phoenix, and 梨, li for a pear flower.
I was shown the other side of the Red Lotus when I turned eighteen. The one with enclosed rooms and dim candlelight, where men dressed in black drank alcohol, played mahjong, and desired certain pleasures.
“They’re dangerous men, Fengli,” the owner’s wife said. “So always greet them with a smile and do as they say, or they’ll…” she made a gun with her fingers and pressed it to my forehead; sandpaper skin rubbing on my skull.
An expulsion of air from her mouth, and she pulled the finger gun upwards.
She was a woman with a gun made from muscle and bone. Inside were men with guns made from metal and loaded with bullets.
You came when I was nineteen, and had already moved on from alcohol to opium. The drug that roamed the streets of Shanghai, most commonly found in dens where people lay sprawled in their own fantasies.
I never visited those dens. I always had people procure them for me. A reward for good behaviour.
That was how you found me; long opium pipe over an oil lamp, waiting for the drug to vaporise. I couldn’t care less about a new pretty face around the joint. I wanted nothing to do with you.
“What’s your name?” you asked, voice timid, hands gripping to your dress.
I took a drag from the pipe, my vision of you fuzzing. “Who do you care?”
“I’m new here,” you said.
“I know,” I said. “And?”
“I just thought I’d learn everyone’s names, that’s all.”
There was a spot of dust on your cheekbone that I wiped away with my thumb. I didn’t know why. “Don’t bother.”
“I’m Qiuju,” you said. “Lao’ban’niang told me your name is Fengli.” Lao’ban’niang was what we called the owner’s wife. Her real name has only been told to me once, and the recollection is vague. “You’re older than me, can I call you Jie’jie?” You paraded that title on your tongue as if that was your name for strangers.
“I’m not your sister,” I said. “If you must, call me Fengli.”
Somehow you found a loophole in calling me Fengli Jie.
“凤梨姐, Fengli Jie,” you whisper. “Did you hate me when we first met?” you ask, your phoenix eyes more resembling those of a puppy. That’s why no one can ever say no to you.
“傻丫头, sha’ya’tou,” I say. Foolish girl. I took to calling you that after our first meeting. Somehow, it became a term of endearment, though I never admitted it to be.
“I was scared of you, you know?” you say. “You’re very intimidating.”
“Next time when a man hits you, you don’t cry,” I said. “Grit your teeth, and take it.”
The first and last time you had been hit wasn’t your fault. The man had been drunk out of his mind, and taken a drag of opium; hallucinated you to be the ghost of his dead wife. I heard you crying, so I came to drag the man off of you.
I was one of the oldest, which meant I had to clean up the messes. I gripped the man by his shoulders, then slipped my arm around his waist, politely escorting him out. No matter what they do, they couldn’t be mistreated.
“No one has ever hit me before,” you said. Your cardigan had dislodged from your shoulder, slipping down your thin bicep. Your hand was at your collar, grappling with the soft buttons to try and protect your dignity.
That was how people would know that you were new and young. You still had a sense of dignity.
You are dying in my arms, a bloody hole low on your stomach, where your womb would be. You hold your hand to it with tears in your eyes, as though your unborn baby has been torn from you barely kicking.
That has happened to a lot of us. It comes with the job.
Men don’t want to sleep with pregnant women unless they’re into it. Most of them aren’t into it.
The bullet perforated your imaginary baby and made it so that you will never have a child again. Maybe that’s a good thing.
If only you weren’t dying.
That gold tin of red lip rouge is clenched in your palm – the faux gold metal stained copper. I take your cold fingers into mine. “Fengli Jie, promise me you won’t smoke opium anymore.”
“Who are you to tell me what to do?” I once said in reply. It wasn’t the right of others to control my actions. They are saying it for your good. The thing is, someone has got to have perspective to think that way.
The opium spiralled into me, coiling in my limbs like snakes, but I made it out to be the arms of a mother that had never loved me. I came back to it again and again. It could have melted my organs; I was the frog in the pot of gradually boiling water.
I didn’t know what could have killed me.
“Fengli Jie, let me help you,” you said.
You had been wearing a blue qipao that day, little cloud embroidery on the hem. Baby blue. You matched it with the same-coloured ribbon threaded through your bun – silky ebony hair down to your waist. “Don’t keep it out,” I told you. “People will cut it as you walk down the street, sell it on the black market.”
“Stop making up stories to scare her,” one of the other girls said.
“I’m not making it up.”
I set the pipe on the redwood table, smoke wisping from the edge like the mist of warm water after a hot bath. “How will you help me, Qiuju?” I said.
“I’ll take the pipe off you,” you said. “Have you ever been inside an opium den?”
You took me by the wrist, nails digging into my veins, dragged me down an alleyway and shoved me through a purple curtain. Inside were people laying on dirt-stained sheets, eyes rolled all the way back, nonsensical mumblings at their lips.
“This is where they spend their days,” you said. “High in this temporary pleasure until it wears off, then they come back for more. Is this where you want to end up?” You took my hand, jade bangle catching the moonlight. “I know the teahouse isn’t much, but at least we have each other.”
“Why, Qiuju?” I say, your dead weight cast entirely in my arms. Pins and needles prickle at my flesh. “What am I worth?”
There was a time when you wouldn’t have said that.
“He is worth everything to me, Fengli,” you said. I wanted to slap you across the face for your naivety. Hit the blush right off so you couldn’t hide behind the make-up which covered the dark circles under your eyes.
“No one should be worth everything to you,” I said. “Nobody is worth it, Qiuju.”
“I love him,” you said. There were only three years between us, but most days, those three years felt like three decades. You who had managed to stop the currents of time. And me, who had been washed down the river like a piece of driftwood.
“Love? There can be no love between you,” I said. “He is a dangerous gang leader. They treat women like designer handbags on their shoulder. He pours everything he has into you now because you’re young and fresh. But what happens when he gets sick of you? Sees another prettier woman? He will throw you aside like rubbish, because you have no worth to him.”
Tears were pouring down your cheeks. Your blush ran. “Luo Fengli,” you said, my name a sliver of air between your clenched teeth.
“Chai Qiuju,” I replied.
“I hate you,” you said. “I hate you.”
“Good,” I said, slamming my hand on your vanity. “It’s high time you realised I am someone to be hated.” I also said those things for your good. But I had no opium den to take you to.
We didn’t talk to each other for months afterwards. Every time he took you out, I followed. You always left deliriously drunk, blacked out before you could see that it was me who carried you all the way back to the Red Lotus.
I didn’t want you to know it was me either.
Because I was right in my judgements. Months later, he shoved you away – wanted nothing to do with you. You cried the whole night and stayed in bed for days after.
I didn’t have the heart to say, ‘I told you so’, only left you tea and congee in the mornings. Xiaolongbao in the afternoon.
Eventually, you left him behind.
Yet that son of a whore did not leave you behind. He came slinking back into the Red Lotus with a cigar in his mouth and a gun by his hip. I told you to stay in your room, so I could greet him personally.
“Qiuju is unavailable at the moment,” I said, his beady eyes were like black marbles.
He was drunk; I could smell it on him, alcohol mixed with the pungent cigar smoke. He had come to beg for you back after the other woman stole all his money and ran. Now he was left with nothing.
“Tell her to come out,” he said, staggering towards me like a lumbering bear. I scowled in distaste. “I’m sorry, Qiuju!” he hollered.
“You’re disturbing the customers,” I said. “She won’t be coming out to see you.” It was rude to chase away a customer, but I didn’t want to see his face around the teahouse anytime soon. “I’m asking very nicely right now for you to leave.”
“Not until I see her,” he said, the gun came flying out of his holster.
It wasn’t the first time I stared down the barrel of a gun. My heart palpated sickeningly. “Put the gun away.” You didn’t tell dangerous gang leaders to put their gun away.
“I’ll shoot you if you don’t move,” he said.
He had the ability to actually shoot. But for some reason, I didn’t move. If he had to step over my dead body to get to you, I wasn’t going to let him.
“Fuck. Off.” Talking to a customer that way was most unladylike, but I would have done anything to get him to leave. So that you never had to look into those marble eyes and have your heart broken again.
I told you. Love wasn’t worth it.
The sound of the gunfire temporarily deafened me. There is still a buzzing in my ears. I’m covered in blood. None of it mine. One second later and it would have been.
I want to call you stupid and naïve. Tell you that guns are not made for jumping in front of. That it is better off to let someone else die than get blood on yourself. That sacrifice is never worth it.
Because you are dying, and what am I supposed to do?
I will never be able to repay you. How do you repay someone their life?
“Fengli Jie,” you say, a gentle stir as though you are an infant wrapped in a bundle. How many times tonight have you repeated that title? The title you gave me. “It’s going to be a beautiful day tomorrow. The pattern of the clouds will be splendid. Sunshine will streak on the pavement and the birds will sing. Go outside tomorrow.”
A tear drops from my cheek to yours.
The truth is, I have never loved someone or needed someone as much as I love and need you.
I don’t need beautiful days. I need your hand around mine.
Because one day when I’m old and men don’t want me anymore, I want to leave Shanghai. Go to a place with mountains and trees.
And I want you there with me.
By then, you will be ashes, and me a sack of wrinkly skin and shambled bones. What a pair we will make.