“A clear night,” Li Mei Ling texts in Mandarin, leaving the transit station. “Weird, but a good sign.”
She turns a corner, her attention fixed on her mobile as she passes a mix of modern and traditional Chinese architecture. Neon colors splatter and stretch across the city street where throngs of young people loiter near vibrant, trendy bars and restaurants. A thrumming bass echoes, and Mei Ling smells the aromas of sizzling noodles, skewers, and dumplings offered by mobile food carts.
A pair of pink over-the-ear headphones play The Only One by Li Yuchun in Mei Ling’s ears, yet only one thing is on her mind. “Madang Road.”
“You’re crazy,” Wei responds alongside a silly-face emoji. “The pandemic’s not over, no matter what the government says.”
Without lifting her eyes, Mei Ling pushes a smiling young man blocking her path by his shoulder. He stumbles, and she leaves him bereft in the street to be chided by his friends.
“Do you even know Xin?”
Wei sends an animation of a scowling cat.
“Tantan. Does it matter? Don’t be judgy.”
Mei Ling smiles and returns a cupcake emoji.
“Birthday’s no excuse,” Wei writes.
Mei Ling snickers and writes, “It’s every excuse.”
“When will you be back?”
Wei sends an angry face emoji with, “And where will you be at 4am?”
Stepping into a crosswalk, Mei Ling sighs and rolls her eyes. “Don’t know.”
“Where you meeting?”
“Mei Ling, why? Just come home.”
“Lockdown. Need to dance. I’m nervous. Lonely. I can’t bang my nagging cis het roommate. Any more questions?”
Wei sends a teary-eyed emoji.
Mei Ling impatiently thumbs her phone. “You know what I mean. Wei, I need out!”
“Is your phone charged?”
Mei Ling gives a thumbs-up and queues behind a couple at Lumina’s entrance. The rave’s been going for an hour, and the club exudes loud, thumpy music.
“4am,” Wei warns.
Mei Ling sends a dead-face, tongue-out emoji then takes off her headphones to rest them on her shoulders. Flipping to another chat, she texts, “I’m here.”
“Bar,” Xin replies.
A bouncer waves her forward to run a metal detector down the outside of her thighs and up her torso while another inspects her purse.
Mei Ling wears form-fitting blue leggings with polka dots, a racy sports top, and pink sneakers. Her eyes are lined with heavy masquera; her lipstick’s a fleshy shade of rose; a stretchy rainbow bracelet encircles her wrist.
She presents her Resident Identity Card to the guard, and, after glancing at it, he gestures for her to enter.
Lumina’s entrance is adorned with sleek futuristic accents over red brick. Mei Ling is greeted by a mesmerizing display of flashing lights, glowing neon, and a tactile wall of pulsating electronic music. Lumina is jammed-packed. Mei Ling pushes through the mingling crowd to edge around the dance floor.
A mounted array of flat-screen televisions play monochrome Chinese “knight-errant,” martial arts films against the west wall. To the east, a private VIP balcony overlooks an eclectic mix of local and international ravers gyrating, stepping, and bouncing in time to the music. Elevated on a circular dais in the center of the room, the DJ commands attention from every corner of the club. Multi-colored lasers shoot beams under a ceiling of artificial smoke, firing to the beat.
Making her way, Mei Ling ignores the curious stares of men and women. Underneath her, she feels the glossy floor jouncing to the crowd’s rhythm. It’s warm and humid, and the place smells like wet sweat, perfume, and spilled alcohol. It’s like heaven.
Nodding along in time, feeling the pounding sensation of the music, Mei Ling approaches the bar under the balcony.
Taller than Mei Ling, Jia Xin faces the bar. Their black hair is cropped short, shaved closely in the back, and styled spiky up top. Xin wears buckled, ankle-high black boots, stylishly-frayed Metersbonwe jeans, and a tucked-in t-shirt. A heavy brass keychain dangles from their black leather belt. They glance at Mei Ling as she approaches.
Chasing down their drink, Xin rests the empty glass on the bar before saying, “Nǐ hǎo, Mei Ling.”
“Hi,” Mei Ling smiles, coyly pursing her full lips at Xin’s charming formality. At the sound of their voice, Mei Ling feels butterflies explode in her belly. Xin is as beautiful as their photos posted on Tantan - such a rarity. Xin’s makeup is daring and eye-catching with bold, vibrant purple eyeshadow; their lips are colored a rich metallic to match their electric violet eyes.
“Drink?” Xin asks, gesturing to the barman to grab their attention.
“Baijiu Sunrise,” Mei Ling shouts to the bartender in English while rhythmically bouncing her head and shoulders, and as she reaches into her purse to pay with her phone, Jia Xin interrupts her hand.
“Birthday,” Xin says, signaling the bartender to cover her drink. The barman bows their neck in polite acknowledgment.
Liking the feel of their touch, Mei Ling leans into Xin and says, “Xièxiè.”
“No need, my pleasure,” Xin replies with a tightlipped grin while tipping their chin up. Their eyes crawl down Mei Ling’s body. “Your outfit’s beautiful. Great choice.”
Mei Ling simply smiles at Xin before sending her eyes to scan the bouncing, dancing crowd behind them.
“You’ve been at home? Since the city closure?”
Mei Ling grips the air like she wants to tear it apart and shouts, “I’m so over it! I need to stretch! I need to dance!”
Xin shoves their hands into their jeans pockets and nods in understanding. “Got it.”
The bartender slaps the counter to get Mei Ling’s attention and slides the Sunrise to her. Lifting the chilled cocktail glass, Mei Ling wraps her lips around the tip of the straw and sucks.
Xin shouts, “You live here? In Shanghai?”
Clearing her throat, Mei Ling nods and asks, “You?”
“Hong Kong,” Xin says, leaning against the bar. “Business. Here for a few days.”
“You come to Shanghai often?”
“Frequently,” Xin confirms, visibly anxious over where the conversation was heading.
“What do you do for work?”
Xin side-eyes Mei Ling and cautiously shakes their head.
Shrugging, Mei Ling takes another sip from the drink before taking Xin’s hand to lead them into the crowd. To Mei Ling, entering the dance floor feels like wading into a hot pool. Surrounded by people, crammed close, they start to move. Raising her arms above her head with one hand holding her Sunrise, Mei Ling sways her hips, barely moving her legs. Meanwhile, Xin’s more masculine movements match Mei Ling’s rhythm but are more gritty with wider steps and clenched fists.
Mei Ling lets the music wash over her as the hour rolls on. She feels a release - a euphoria - that she hasn’t felt in a very long time. Yellow, red, and blue lasers shoot across the rave, and patterns of strobe lights flash, and when she closes her eyes, Mei Ling feels a long-lost freedom.
As she dances, Mei Ling breathes in the musky air; her breath comes faster; her skin glistens down her arms and neck; she tastes sweat on her lips. The thumpy, exhilarating music, alcohol, and endorphins create a heady sensation.
Closing on her, Xin moves their body in unison to hers and reaches out to hold the top of her hips. “Is this alright?”
“Yes,” Mei Ling agrees. She smiles and takes a deep breath, enjoying being touched. Xin allows Mei Ling’s hips to roll between their palms and respectfully keeps them there to proudly demonstrate how sexy and beautiful she is to others without owning her.
Moving in unison, Mei Ling feels increasingly comfortable with Xin. In her experience, it’s not often someone listens to exactly what she wants from an evening and is genuinely willing to share it. Appreciating that about Xin, Mei Ling opts for a little more sexy in her dance, accentuating her curves and rotating her hips. And Xin follows her and brushes their face behind her ear; she feels their breath, and tingles run down her back.
Mei Ling’s drink sloshes over the rim of the glass and runs a cold trail down her hand, and gently taking her hand in theirs, Xin licks the excess liquid from her wrist, just as the tempo shifts to a faster beat, and, in response, the crowd changes their rhythm to match.
Flipping around his baseball cap to face the bill behind his neck, the DJ dons another set of black sunglasses and cues another playlist on his Macbook.
The crowd roars while the lasers re-level to shoot a dazzling spiral effect across the ceiling and bend down the walls; clouds of artificial smoke waft across the floor; the building rumbles with stomping feet.
Enthralled by the continuous beat, the crowd jumps, spins, and bounces, and Mei Ling feels their radiating, sweaty heat. She feels carried on the surface of a turbulent sea as Xin dances so close their bodies brush and caress. Her heart pounds, her breath races, and Mei Ling places her hands over Xin’s to urge them to pull her close.
Mei Ling’s soul aches; she misses this so much, this feeling of detachment, this sense of letting go.
Taking a tiny square of paper from their jean coin pocket, Xin slips the paper in their mouth. Xin tips their head back and reels before licking their finger to remove another. They extend it to Mei Ling.
“Birthday?” Xin shouts.
Overjoyed, Mei Ling rushes from the clamor to set the nearly-empty Sunrise on the bar.
“Yes! Birthday!” Mei Ling responds as she returns, happily taking Xin’s finger into her mouth to place the tab under her tongue. Quickly, Xin closes on Mei Ling to support her neck as she takes the hit. Feeling her body fall limp for a few seconds, Xin holds Mei Ling steady until she’s ready to stand alone.
Laughing at the acid’s sudden effects on her, Mei Ling embraces Xin; they felt so good, safe, and free, and they soon start dancing again.
Their bodies rock and sway, and as the next hour slips by, serenity envelops Mei Ling. She finds herself deeply attuned to the present moment. Time slows, noise and sound fuse with light with energy, and she slips into a state of deep meditation, in touch with the entirety of the world around her.
Afloat in a sea of light and sensation, Mei Ling turns from Xin to arch her back and throw her backside into Xin, matching their grind.
And then Mei Ling’s third eye opens.
She feels four additional arms peel away from her shoulders as they’d always been there. Having six arms in total, two of Mei Ling’s hands present a Chin mudra as another pair of hands runs through Xin’s smooth, spiky hair, while the last pair of arms reach behind her to pull Xin’s body into hers.
Grinding her ass into Xin, Mei Ling transforms into a three-faced Ushnishavijaya, each of the goddess’ three faces depicting expressions of fearlessness, calm, sanctity, and peace.
All around Mei Ling, the crowd changes into demon-like warriors wearing ancient Chinese masks. Dancing, they flail wildly, warring amongst themselves in a smokey battlefield, jabbing swords and pikes into the air.
And there, in the center of the writhing, rocking mass of dancers, perched atop a lonely mountain peak rising from the haze of battle, a gold and copper-colored Chinese dragon with enormous teeth takes to the sky, digging its claws into the ceiling of the nightclub. Its long, scaled body chasing itself around the room, the dragon roars as if commanding the soldiers to fight.
Up on the balcony, Mei Ling sees streaming, vibrant red ribbons unfurl from the VIP’s clothes, flutter in circles out over the dancers, and wrap around their bodies. They appear as traditional ribbon dancers, moving in time with the music, and the ribbons wind around them as they dance as if driven on their own by the wind.
On the dance floor, behind Mei Ling, Xin has transformed into a beautiful, majestic Chinese phoenix. Their head is of a golden pheasant with the beak of a parrot, a snake's neck, a crane's wings, and a peacock's tail. Xin’s adorned with vibrant and colorful feathers, shimmering with radiant light gold, green, purple, and violet. Unleashing a piercing shriek behind Mei Ling’s three heads, she shivers.
Embraced by their safe, comforting feathered wings, Mei Ling transcends, feeling at once interconnected with everything. She feels the music as her own pulse; the wistful sway of the red ribbons blowing overhead; the rage of the battling Chinese demons; the divinity of the mighty dragon. Her dawning awareness fills her with a deep sense of empathy, compassion, and love.
Growling, steam blowing out of its nostrils, the dragon commands the beat to shift, and the dancing demon soldiers cry out, stomp their feet, and change up their rhythm.
Feeling the essence of all things move around her like a flowing river, all of these things are meaningful and interconnected. Mei Ling straightens her posture to wave her arms in time to the music while her middle pair of arms assume an Anjali mudra, placing her palms together prayer-like as two other hands caress Xin’s feathered head behind her.
The gold dragon, racing overhead, runs circles around the club’s ceiling, and roars at the raging battle below as Mei Ling and Xin rock back and forth, drowning in an ocean of feeling and sensation.
A remix of Shots by LMFAO blares across the speakers.
Patron's on the rocks and I'm ready for some
The women come around every time I'm pourin'
Their panties hit the ground every time I give 'em
So cups in the air, everybody let's take shots …
Turning, Xin extends their wings as Mei Ling embraces Xin with four of her arms from behind them. She feels the warmth of their body, smells their scent, and feels the shock of new, strange touch. She rolls her hips into Xin as the Chinese demon warriors dance around them. And dancing within her embrace, the phoenix waves its wings and brushes its purple tailfeathers into Mei Ling’s pelvis.
Then, releasing Xin, Mei Ling backs away, and her hips sway to the right and left while her arms reorient into three expressions: the center set displays Anjali mudra, the top set Jjana mudra, and the bottom rests in Chin mudra. Her pink headphones lay still on her shoulders, her curves move in sync with the music, and all three of her faces depict a calm expression of enlightenment.
Above, the dragon roars as it runs by, blowing through the curled ribbons rolling above the raging demon battle below as the world slows, and the goddess transcends.
Within, Mei Ling experiences clarity of thought. Insights and profound wisdom flow effortlessly into her consciousness. She feels a deep understanding; her body wells with gratitude, and a profound sense of inner strength and resilience.
Freedom. Life. Youth. Possibility.
The oppressive, tight feeling of confinement, the trauma she’d experienced over the pandemic, melts away, replaced by a sense of transformation.
Mei Ling now understands she could not have become this without experiencing the pandemic, she could not have shared this moment, and now she was prepared to let it go.
All experiences have a purpose.
Xin’s wings open, and, dancing along with her, the phoenix shrieks to protect the goddess from the masked demon combatants as she loses herself in ecstasy.
Leaping away from the ceiling, the dragon throws itself back to its mountain in the center of the building and runs around its snow-capped peak. Exposing its teeth through catfish-like whiskers, it snaps its jaws at its Macbook to change up the rhythm and beat of the music, causing the masked warriors to shout and throw themselves in a different direction. Dancing, their swords and pikes fade to become flailing arms, and their feet kick out in a bouncing, stomping dance.
Overhead, the ribbons flutter out of existence, and the VIP dancers soften to appear as they are.
Mei Ling’s third eye closes.
Her spare arms and faces retract, and Mei Ling’s real eyes flutter open to see the spiring laser light spin down the side of the brick walls. In front of her, Xin rocks back and forth to the music, giving Mei Ling space to feel what she needed to feel in that moment. Xin pulls forward to hold her, and they hug. Exhausted, leaning on each other to keep their balance, they continue dancing for hours.
Later that morning, in the relative quiet of Lumina’s bathroom, Xin embraces Mei Ling. Their intimate nuzzle against Mei Ling’s ear feels calming to her. She texts Wei on her phone, “It’s been a good night. I’m coming home.”
Putting her mobile away, Mei Ling leans her back into Xin to enjoy their warm embrace. “Thank you. For listening. For being. This is exactly what I wanted, what I needed.”
“Happy Birthday,” Xin smiles, smoothing her black hair.