Fiction

The Mustached Woman. A novel. Ch. 1

“Yeah,” Marguerite said as she led Louisa and Lixin into her loft.

“Men.”

“Doesn’t it sometimes just make you wanna, like, wash your hands of them all?”

“And I heard she had memory problems after that. Amnesia.”

“From what?”

“Being punched in the face. He kept beating her, right in the café. Totally lost it.”

“Wow, you have such big place. So many rugs.”

“You guys have a seat down here on the bed.”

“Okeydokey,” said Louisa as she lowered herself on the futon.

“These rugs you sell?” Lixin was examining several pieces hanging on a wall and more stacked on the floor. “So beautiful. What’s that? Oh, you make rug?”

“Yep.”

“Really,” said Louisa. The three of them crowded over the loom. “So that’s how rugs are made. I’ve always wanted to know. How long does it take you to make one of these?”

“About a year. This is a small one. All the others are from dealers. This is for my own amusement.”

“It takes you a whole year to make that?”

“It could get done faster if that’s all I did the whole day.”

“Oh, I see. That’s the portion you’ve already done below.”

“Yeah, recently started it.”

“What this material, wool?” asked Lixin.

“Yeah.”

“Where did you learn how to make them?”

“Oh, it’s been years.”

“When you lived in Iran?”

“And Turkey. I was kidnapped once and enslaved in a rug factory.”

What?”

“Long story. Tell you about that later. Anyway, I miss it and need to keep doing it. It’s very meditative and relaxing.”

“You were enslaved? And you miss it?”

“I don’t miss being enslaved. But I miss the work.”

“Can we watch you?”

“Some other time. I need to get into the ‘zone.’ Once I start, I don’t want to stop.”

“I thought it was in Iran that you had some problems.”

“Yeah, I was jailed there for three years.”

“Why?”

“Holding an orgy in my apartment.”

“They do that there?”

”You bet.”

”While wearing the hijab?”

”No, they don’t wear the hijab when having sex.”

“What’s this?” said Lixin.

“I was also going to ask you about this,” said Louisa. “You don’t really…”

“Oh, my god. And that?” said Lixin, mouth agape. “Everyone use that?”

Marguerite lit a bong and passed it to Louisa. “Yep.”

“I’m afraid I’m too shy!” said Lixin, covering her face with her hand.

“Yeah, I could use some of this. I haven’t been able to find any in a while here. Lixin?”

“Oh, what’s that? Dama?”

“Yeah.”

“I want to try. I never tried.”

“You don’t really, Marguerite…in front of guests?”

“So tell me more about this guy who beat up his girlfriend in the café. You said he’s in Shanghai?”

“It happened here. But nobody knows what happened to him.”

“What was his name? Just in case I may have heard of him.”

“I don’t know. He was an author. I think she was his translator.”

“And he did that to her?”

“Yeah, after making her nude photos public on the internet.”

“He did that to her because he made her nude photos public on the internet? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”

“After she confronted him.”

“Oh, yeah. Trying to shut her up. Was it one of those amateur porn sites where perverts post up-skirt videos?”

“Probably. I wish I could remember what his name was. He published some kind of book on massage, I recall.”

“Massage? Oh, one of those white male trash travelogues from the Philippines or Thailand?”

“Take it all the way into your lungs and hold it in for as long as you can,” said Louise.

Lixin coughed out the toke she took in. She tried again.

“If it’s your first time you may not feel anything,” said Marguerite.

“Why not?”

“You sort of have to learn how to get high.”

“So do you ever actually have guests over and they use this?” said Louisa.

“Many times.”

“And that?”

Marguerite walked over to the exposed toilet and pulled a hanging rug around her.

“Oh, I see. I didn’t notice that track thing above. A little more civilized now!” Louisa laughed. “But you don’t have the same for this.”

“Nah. Why hide it if the whole point is to be open?”

“I’d have to be with the right people — after a few drinks. Wait. How many can fit into it?”

“Two. Or three. Three, if you don’t mind getting a bit intimate,” said Marguerite, stealing a glance at Lixin.

“It’s cool. The whole atmosphere here. And your clothes. That’s quite a retro dress you’ve got on.”

“1930s Shanghai.”

“It’s genuine?”

“Absolutely.”

“Can I ask you a personal question? Your…” Louisa pinched the air above her lips. “You must get a lot of comments. Or stares.”

“I’d get a lot of stares even if I didn’t have it.”

The three of them laughed.

“It does go with you.”

“I was on the subway the other day when this deaf couple were signing about me and joking about it. I signed back, inviting them over to have a bath with me. You should have seen their jaws drop.”

“You asked them that?”

“So you can sign Chinese too?” said Lixin.

“Yeah. I picked it up. I’ve picked up quite a few sign languages over the years.”

“Was it hard?”

“Not that hard. Of course, I have a strong accent. They can recognize ASL.”

“ASL?”

“American Sign Language.”

“How deaf are you, if I may ask?”

“Ninety percent.”

“You seem to have no problem talking with us.”

“As long as I can see your lips,” she said and pointed to one of her ears.

“Oh, I didn’t notice that.”

“And as long as you can understand my slurred speech.”

“I can make you out easily. What about you, Lixin, do you have any trouble understanding Marguerite?”

“I can understand her.”

“Have you always been deaf?”

“Since I was two. Meningitis. Are you feeling anything?” Marguerite asked Lixin, who was staring in front of her.

“Hmm, not sure. So on subway they were talking about your….” She covered her mouth again as she laughed.

“The Frida Kahlo?”

“Frida? What’s that?”

“Frida Kahlo. The female Mexican painter.”

“Oh, yeah! I know. With the….” Lixin drew a line across her eyebrows.

“Unibrow. But she also had a mustache.”

“No, I have to say it really does suit you,” said Louisa.

“I have seen Chinese women with mustaches as dark as mine. I’ve always wondered why they don’t shave it off. But it doesn’t seem to be a matter of pride with them. They have blank, sad faces. Like they’ve given up and don’t care anymore what people think. Or they’ve persuaded themselves that no one really notices.”

“Have you ever shaved yours off?”

“Yes. In order to make it grow back darker.”

“Oh, I feel something,” said Lixin.

“You’re getting off?”

“What do you feel?” said Louisa.

“Did I just say ‘I feel something’?”

“Yeah.”

“What was I talking about?”

“You said you felt something.”

“Oh, my god,” she laughed. “Did I just say ‘Oh, my god’?”

The three burst out laughing.

“You’re learning fast,” said Marguerite, who then went over to the clear glass bathtub, which sat dead center in the loft on a large Persian carpet, and turned on the tap.

“Did you have the pipes specially made for it?” asked Louisa.

“In fact this was the bathroom of the previous tenants and I took out the walls. The toilet over there was another bathroom.”

“Your landlord let you do that?”

“Oh, they love my place. A young couple. They joined me in the tub once. They’re interested in my rug and antique clothes business.”

“They’re interested in your shocking life,” said Lixin. “What did I just say?”

“My shocking life.”

“I don’t mean you are shocking person.”

“Wait till I tell you about family,” she grinned.

“What about your family?”

“No, better not. Some other time. I don’t want to freak you guys out.”

“You already are freaking us out,” said Louisa.

Lixin laughed. Steam rose from the tub as the water level rose. The tub was illuminated underneath by LED lights. “It’s so beautiful.”

Marguerite pointed to the tall candelabra set on the four corners of the carpet. “At night time I light those as well.”

“No, come on. Do tell us,” said Louisa.

“Well, I was orphaned when I was eight. To make a long story short, my mom caught my dad sexually abusing me and he shot her to shut her up, and then shot himself in the head.”

“I’m sorry!” Louisa and Lixin exclaimed in one breath.

“No need to be. It’s ancient history. Strangely, the hardest thing to deal with at the time was it was all over the news. My grandmother took me in. She was a pretty level-headed woman and did a fair job at shielding me from the media and patching up my life.”

“You seem so well adjusted. I think most people would have a hard time surviving that.”

“You have no choice.”

“Do you have problems relating to men?”

“No. I take each person as they come. The problem with a lot of women is they’re afraid of men. I’m not afraid of men. And I’ve never had a problem, even when I worked as a masseuse. Chinese men don’t have the violent tendencies you see in so many American men.”

“You did what?”

“The massage shop I worked in. Here in Shanghai when I first arrived a few years back.”

“Why?”

“I needed some money till I got my rug business underway. And I wanted to see what it was like.”

“What was it like?”

“I lived in a dorm room with about ten other girls. We worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week.”

“No days off?”

“It was better than the rug factory. In fact we had a pretty decent madam and she knew how to run the place and treat us well. If you needed to take a day off you just took it.”

“You were on a working visa?”

“I was on all kinds of visas back then — business visas, tourists visas — until the Government started tightening up. It’s a lot harder to find jobs where they hire you under the table these days.”

“How did you find that job?”

“I tried out a few places, to check out the girls and the quality of the service — the more upscale, New Agey places, not the shabby joints. Most masseuses here do breast massage and I only inquired while having my boobs done so they knew I knew what I was getting into. They still laughed it off like I was crazy. But one place, the girl came back into the room with the madam and she grilled me. My Chinese wasn’t very good then but I think she found me odd enough to be useful to her.”

“Did you already have experience?”

“I had picked up some basic techniques over the years. You meet guys who want it and they teach you how to do it.”

“Was it safe?”

“Yeah. There was the occasional drunken asshole who started grabbing me but I knew how to control them. You learn how to give them just the right amount of noncooperation. What they really want is attention. When I had male customers, that is.”

“Unbelievable,” said Lixin.

“You massaged both men and women?”

“About half and half. Most of the Western customers were young couples, actually, getting massaged in the same room together. Daring to try a massage for their very first time, and usually so nervous they were shaking. A lot of single Asian males too — Chinese, Japanese and Korean. A lot of Japanese females.”

“Japanese females?”

“Oh, yeah, they can get it much cheaper here than in Japan. But the Chinese females are the ones who go for boob massage most often.”

“Why?”

“Why not? It’s a health thing here, considered good for the breasts. Nobody thinks there’s anything strange about it. It is also kind of erotic for them, a release, being pampered like that in the guise of therapy. Most female customers prefer to be massaged by a male, though.”

“Sounds like things could quickly get out of hand.”

“The masseurs aren’t allowed to do breast massage. But I can tell you it secretly goes on with some. They would never initiate it; that’s the fast track to losing their job. But if a female customer demands it and he refuses, he’ll lose her as a customer.”

Lixin had a smile wrapped on her face.

“Could you go for breast massage, Lixin?” said Louisa.

“I have done it. No problem.”

“Wow. That’s illegal in the States.”

Marguerite snickered at the mention of their country.

“How much money did you make?”

“Twenty, thirty thousand kuai a month. I had to quit after six months. The big problem is it takes a toll on your hands. It started affecting my ability to weave. If you often go for massage you’ll notice a lot of masseuses use only one hand, or their fist or elbow to massage you. It’s not that they’re lazy, but their hands are gone. I got out before I ruined them. That’s the biggest hazard of the job.”

“Interesting. Can’t weaving also do the same?”

“It’s easier on the hands. Weaving doesn’t require any strength, just technique. And I had acquired good technique from the start.”

Most of the tub was filled with water by now. Marguerite stood up and pulled her dress up off her head. “Would you guys like to join me?”

Lixin turned to Louisa.

“No, you two go ahead. I already showered this morning,” said Louisa.

“Same with me. I can try next time,” said Lixin.

“Come on and join me, Lixin.”

“I’m embarrassed.”

“You keep looking at the tub. I know you’re dying to get in it.”

“You sure this is okay?”

Marguerite opened up a bottle of red and brought out three wine glasses. She poured a glass for Louisa and placed the other two on the floor next to the tub. Slowly, Lixin removed her shirt and bra. But she continued to sit on the futon, arms crossed over her breasts.

“C’mon darling,” urged Marguerite, as she led Lixin by the hand to the tub.

Lixin pulled off the rest of her clothes and dipped her foot in the water. “Ow! So hot.”

“Wow, I can’t compete with you guys. You both have such great bodies,” said Louisa.

“It’s not a beauty contest, girls. Everyone is welcome.”

“Your tattoos are incredible,” said Louisa.

“Scythian designs.”

“Why does it go all the way up only one side of your body?”

“Asymmetry suits the body better.”

“Ahh!” said Lixin as she sank back into the tub. “So luxury!”

They sat in the tub facing each other, wine glasses in hand.

“Next is massage, dear. So I can do those fabulous tits of yours.”

The steam obscured Lixin’s reaction.

“Can I take a photo of you guys? It’s so striking, seeing you lit up in the tub like that,” said Louisa. “Don’t worry, I won’t post them on Moments or anything. I just want to show some girlfriends of mine.”

“I’m fine with that. Lixin?”

“I can turn my face away?”

“As you like.”

“Yeah, you have to be careful these days. It’s so easy for compromising photos to get into the wrong hands,” said Marguerite.

“Everybody sending sex pics on WeChat years ago. But recently people stop,” said Lixin. “Because of scandal.”

“I’m really curious about this guy who beat up his girlfriend in the café,” Marguerite said to Louisa. “Why would a writer, of all people, who hired a translator, or was in an intimate relationship with her, do that to her? I mean, aren’t writers a step above soccer hooligans? To write a book requires a detached and patient mind, doesn’t it? A minimally civilized person.”

“Alpha male rage knows no bounds,” said Louisa.

“I hope she wasn’t permanently injured. That must have been one helluva beating.”

Marguerite and Lixin sat in silence for several minutes, their legs entwined, as Louisa squatted around the bathtub snapping photos with her Nikon D850.

”Oh, my god,” Lixin said to Marguerite. “Every time I see your glass the wine is less. It tells the time, like a clock. This marijuana is crazy. You know, I have some rugs like these in my house. I don’t know if they good quality.”

“Where did you buy them?”

“My American boyfriend left them when he left China.”

“He’s not coming back?”

“No. I don’t know where he get them. Can you tell good quality by looking?”

“Sure.”

Tai haole. I invite you to my place.”

“Can you tell where a rug comes from, from the design? I’ve always been curious about that,” said Louisa.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, whether it’s Persian or Turkish, for instance.”

“That has nothing to do with the design.”

“It doesn’t?”

“You mean the provenance of the patterns and motifs?”

“Yeah, don’t the designs tell you where the rugs come from?”

“No. Oriental rug designs are a shared vocabulary. They have been so for hundreds of years. There are subtle signs of the locale but it has nothing to do with the design.”

“Where do the designs come from then? I’m actually really ignorant about this.”

“Let me give you an example. You know paisley?”

“The pattern on shirts and scarves?”

“Yeah. Where does it come from?”

“I have no idea. I know it’s a traditional pattern, but it took off in the sixties, didn’t it?”

“It originally comes from Persian rugs. The main design element is the boteh, you know?” She drew the shape of a teardrop with a curled tip in the air. “You see that a lot in Oriental rugs. It’s one of the oldest design motifs. But it’s no longer relevant where it comes from. Rug makers, no matter where they are in the Middle East or Central Asia, don’t give a damn about where their designs come from. The only thing that matters are the latest fashions, which are dictated by customers and dealers in the US and Europe. That’s been the case for the past two centuries, since Oriental rugs became fashionable in the West. Actually before that, since the Renaissance. We know a lot about early Persian and Turkish rug design from European Renaissance painters, because they put them into their paintings.”

“But where did the original rug makers get their ideas for these amazing designs?” said Louisa, sweeping her hand across the loft.

“That’s a good question. There’s some speculation the basic Persian rug design goes back to the Scythians in Central Asia thousands of years ago, which covered the same territory as Persia. They were inspired by hallucinogenic drug trances in shamanic ceremonies.”

“Oh, so that’s the Scythian connection. What drugs?”

“It was known as soma. One theory is that it was cannabis. The other theory is the fly agaric mushroom.”

“Yeah, I remember reading about soma in Huxley’s Brave New World.”

“I have book on massage, very weird one. I can give it to you when you visit me. But it’s in Chinese,” said Lixin.

“She has such gorgeous eyes, doesn’t she?” Marguerite said to Louisa.

“You have gorgeous mustache,” said Lixin.

“I’ve been waiting for that. You’re the first woman who’s actually complimented me on it! Ever.”

“We used to not shave under arms. Then everybody suddenly stop doing that. I don’t know why.”

“I’ve had men compliment me, though. There are actually men who are into it.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yeah. Some are totally obsessed with it. But it’s very hard for a man to innocently compliment a woman on her mustache. There’s no way he can come off as sincere without sounding like he’s mocking her.”

Louisa and Lixin laughed.

“‘Oh,'” Marguerite mimed as she leaned toward Lixin, “‘I just want to let you know that I’m into mustached women and I really, really love your mustache. Please don’t misunderstand me. I truly admire your mustache. I really do.’ Or, the type who’s afraid to make things worse by giving excuses and just gets to the point: ‘I like your mustache,'” she deadpanned.

More laughing.

“Or, because he doesn’t want to sound fake, he…he…” — Marguerite was in convulsions too now — “he says with a knowing grin, ‘That’s a helluva mustache you got there, babe. More power to ya!'”

Lixin sprayed out the wine she had just gulped onto Marguerite. They guffawed for a minute before catching their breath.

“I’m so sorry!” she said.

“I haven’t had a good laugh like that in a while,” said Louisa. “Getting back to — ” they laughed some more. “Oh, my goodness. Getting back to your rugs, what design did you choose for the rug you’re making?”

“One of my own. I don’t do traditional designs. See that scrapbook over there? Have a look.”

Louisa went over to the work table and paged through the book. “These so are amazing. Wherever did you get the ideas for these?”

Marguerite and Lixin got out of the tub and dried off. While Lixin got dressed, Marguerite walked naked over to a bookshelf and retrieved something from it. “I’m carrying on the tradition of the Scythians, using this,” she said as her swaying body ambled up to them carrying the votive offering.

“What is it?”

“Deems.”

“What’s that?”

“A psychedelic medicine.”

“I’ve never heard of it before,” said Louisa.

In her jeans and still topless, Lixin grabbed the bowl from Marguerite. “What this?”

“Have you done acid or shrooms?”

“Sure,” said Louisa.

This is to acid, as acid is to cannabis. You can communicate with aliens after smoking it.”

“Sounds scary. It’s not dangerous?”

“Can I try?” said Lixin.

“Do I look like I have problems? Lixin, how do you feel?”

“I feel good. It’s very interesting and funny feeling, but a kind of ‘struggle’ in my head.”

“You’re not ready for deems, dear.”

“I got really fucked up on acid once. I don’t see how anything can be stronger than acid,” said Louisa.

“The advantage of deems is it’s really strong only for a few minutes, and wears off after half an hour.”

“What’s it like?”

“Actually the brain produces it naturally when you dream. And the lungs, too. You know why certain types of yoga that use breathing techniques, like Kundalini yoga, are so popular? When you do sustained and heavy breathing, you start to hallucinate. That’s from the deems that’s released in your lungs. This is the concentrated form.”

“Oh, is this DMT?”

“Yes. Think of it as the ultimate soma.”

“Where did you get it?”

“I made it myself.”

“You made it yourself? How?”

“I extracted it. Every one of these designs,” Marguerite said as she fanned the pages of her scrapbook, “were given to me by aliens.”

“Extraterrestrials?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No.”

“Well, I have to say I’ve never seen anything like this. What are these things in this one? DNA strands?”

“Yes. The universal language. The code. You know, advanced forms of intelligence use DNA to communicate with each other across the universe. It’s not just the chemical building blocks of life, but an actual language used for communication. They seeded DNA on earth and all biological life is based on a communication system and doesn’t realize it.”

“And you’re going to turn all of these designs into rugs?”

“If I ran a rug factory and had a bunch of slaves, I could! No, I have to choose.”

“You have these ideas when you smoke this drug?” said Lixin.

“Medicine, dear.”

“So which one of these is the rug you’re working on? This one with the liquid shapes? It looks like a traditional Persian rug as if Salvador Dali had designed it,” said Louisa.

“Yeah, that one.”

“Really psychedelic. You know what it reminds me of? Australian Aborigine art.”

“Sure. That art is also inspired by hallucinogenic medicines, you know.”

“These drawings are works of art. You could exhibit them. And this one, with the repeated patterns. It looks more like a traditional rug pattern, but trippier, with a 3D effect.”

“Psychedelic lozenges. They move and shift as you look at them.”

“Can I take photos of them?” said Louisa.

“No.”

“Oh, yeah, sorry. You probably want to protect them.”

“The designs are safe and sound.”

“But no one can know about this work you’re doing, Marguerite. You have to do something with these images. You can’t just let them sit there!” she yelled, slapping the scrapbook down on the table.

Lixin set the bong down on the table. “I want to try it.”

“This is really heavy stuff, honey. You have to respect it. You had three hits of my weed. You know what’s going to happen if you have just one hit of this?”

“What?”

“You will have a hard time finding this table to set the bong back down on. If you have two hits, you won’t know where you are. That’s called ‘the waiting room.’ If you have three hits, you won’t return the same person. That’s called ‘breaking through’ — to meet the aliens.”

“You think we should be giving this stuff to her?” said Louisa.

“Will I become addicted?”

“No, not at all. It doesn’t work like that. For some people, once is enough for the rest of their life.”

“I want to try a little now.”

“You don’t give up easily. Okay, I can give you one small hit today, and then if you take to it, we can graduate to the waiting room next time, and maybe break through after that. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Sit down on the chair. In fact we have to use this.” Marguerite pulled out a small glass pipe and placed a pinch of the yellow powder in its bowl.

“Maybe you shouldn’t, Marguerite. She can’t possibly know what she’s getting into.”

“Have you ever done deems, Louisa?”

“No, but everything you’re saying confirms what I’ve heard. Aren’t you worried about having all this stuff on you, in this country?”

“I don’t arrange my life around fear. I’ll get you started, Lixin. Just before I give you the pipe, exhale deeply. When I give you the pipe, take it all in and hold it in as long as you can.”

“Lixin, don’t. You’re not ready for this now.”

“Why not?”

Marguerite pulled out a torch lighter.

“Marguerite, don’t give it to her!” she shouted.

“Louisa, I’m not a child,” said Lixin.

“No!” Louisa grabbed Lixin and yanked her away.

“Louisa, I’m only giving her a tiny amount,” said Marguerite. “Do you really want to try it?”

“Yes, I want to try it.” Lixin sluffed off Louisa.

“Now, remember to exhale and then take it in as soon as I hand you the pipe.”

Marguerite proceeded to hold the flame over the bowl and drew in the white vapor until it filled the chamber, and quickly expelled the vapor in her mouth. Lixin took the pipe and sucked the vapor out of the chamber. After a few moments she coughed it out, her face wrinkled in disgust. “Horrible taste — oh, I feel it already.” She looked around her with a dazed expression. “Oh….Oh….”

They watched her intently. A minute later, she started to sob.

“Are you okay, Lixin?” said Louisa.

“Shhh! She’s fine. Don’t bother her.”

“She’s crying.”

“She’s fine. She really is.”

“Lixin?” Louisa went up to her behind the chair and wrapped her arms around her.

“Let her be,” said Marguerite, gently removing Louise’s arms from Lixin.

Several minutes later, Lixin stood up and walked over to the futon. She lay down in fetal position and closed her eyes.

“I hope she’s okay.”

“She’s fine. If you try some as well, you will be able to understand what she’s experiencing.”

“Why did you give it to her, knowing she’s so vulnerable?”

“Why do you assume she’s vulnerable? Why would she be any more vulnerable than you? She wanted to do it. She has intense curiosity. The urge to attain altered states of consciousness is universal and must be respected. Moreover, if I had refused to give it to her, she’d only start harassing me to get her hands on it. I would know no end to it. She’s also in love with me.”

“In love with you!”

“You can’t tell?”

“I think,” a smiling Lixin said as she turned face up, “that was the most beautiful experience I ever have in my life.”

“Glad to hear it, honey,” said Marguerite.

“What did you feel?” said Louis.

“Everything vibrating. And then everything turn into shapes like we studied in geometry class. Too difficult to describe. I still see the shapes.”

“I was so worried, Lixin,” said Louisa.

“Why worried?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I overreacted.” She wiped a tear away. “I guess I’m just over-sensitive about how women can be abused. I can’t get that thing out of my head about the guy who beat up his girlfriend in the café.”

“It sounds awful, of course. But why be upset about it?” said Marguerite. “Maybe if you knew one of them. Or saw the photos he uploaded onto the web for yourself. I can’t get upset over something like that if I have no personal connection to the people involved. In an abstract way it’s upsetting, but not emotionally. If anything, I’m moved by positive things more than negative things. An Afghani friend of mine recently, not only was she incredibly physically attractive but her personality was just the most elegant, graceful, personification of sunshine. The way she would glide in to work every morning at the café bringing that friendliness with her. Then they moved to Canada. I cried when we met for the last time, and I’m still recovering from it.”

“Café?”

“Where I worked after the massage place.”

“What café was that?”

“It’s long gone. Saint Cecilia Café in Xujiahui.”

“Anyway, the person who told me knew someone who knew her. One weird thing I now recall her saying is that the book the guy was writing on massage was printed in Renaissance style, of all things.”

“Now that’s interesting,” said Marguerite. “One of my favorite topics, the Renaissance.”

“But I don’t know what she meant by that.”

“They printed text in the margins in Renaissance books, a sort of metacommentary on the main text. It was a holdover from Medieval manuscripts, you know, with the margins ornamented in gold leaf and the most exquisite drawings.”

“The massage book I have, it has words on the margins,” said Lixin.

“Really. You said it’s in Chinese, though?”

“I haven’t read it yet. Didn’t notice if author is Chinese or foreign. But doesn’t seem like Chinese could write that book.”

“From what I know about amnesia,” said Marguerite, “people who have it have always had it. I mean they have the tendency, a condition like epilepsy. It’s psychological. It’s hard to suddenly get amnesia for the first time out of the blue, unless from a head trauma. What did he do to her? Was he trying to kill her?”

“That’s why I can’t get it out of my head. The viciousness of it.”

“Strange that I never heard anything about it. Extreme incidents like that usually get into the news. Especially when a foreigner is involved. You remember that story a few years ago, the British guy who boasted about seducing all those Chinese women in his blog? He got run out of the country by the ‘human flesh finders.’ That’s all he did — was brag. And that Russian guy on the train, the cellist, who put his feet on top of the seat in front of him and photographed it? Also run out of the country. Bam, out! Never knew what hit him.”

“I know worse than that,” said Lixin. “You hear about French guy recently, his Chinese wife stab him to death when she caught him with another woman? She from countryside and he found another more educated girl. I saw pictures in the news. He was so handsome. Sad.”

“Yeah, I heard about that one. That was in Shanghai too,” said Louisa. “Still, the idea of uploading someone’s nude pics on the internet without their knowledge, isn’t it just the most disgusting thing imaginable? It’s almost as bad as pedophilia.”

“That’s why he beat her so badly, because he couldn’t face himself,” said Marguerite.

“And he obviously had no feelings for her.”

“Do you know what café it was?”

“No.”

“The staff there must have called the police. It must have been a real scene. If you could find that out from your friend, they would know. Just go back there and ask. We could figure out the story. Do you think it was hushed up for some reason?”

“The problem is that friend of mine and I recently had a falling out and we’re not on speaking terms anymore. So I can’t ask.”

“Oh, well. Anyway you’ve gotten me curious about this case. You’re sure it wasn’t in the news?”

“I want some more of that drug,” said Lixin.

“No, not today. Wait a couple days before trying it again. I’ll do some with you.”

“I do recall the café had a French name.”

“That’s not very helpful, with so may cafés and restaurants in Shanghai with French names. Not to mention all those faux French café chains that are actually Korean operations. But why would a litterateur, a writer if that’s really what he was, do something so tacky and banal, and dangerous, as to upload someone’s nude photos on the internet?”

“He was broke? Lots of writers are.”

“But he couldn’t have gotten a lot of money out of it. Not unless she was famous. It wouldn’t be worth the risk.”

“Maybe she was pretty well known, by enough people that someone recognized her on that site.”

“The thing is, who actually follows those sites? If it’s a famous person, there are sites devoted just to them. She wouldn’t be on those. It would only be one of countless amateur sites. I think the chances of anyone she knows regularly surfing all of these sites and just happening to encounter her pics is pretty miniscule. Plus they’re all blocked in China.”

“Lots of Chinese use VPNs.”

“Not that many, actually. It’s too much trouble. I know a lot of Chinese, including many educated ones. They have more than enough to keep themselves busy with here in China. They don’t need the international web. And there are many other ways to get porn, if that’s what they want. In fact I bet you ninety percent of porn consumption in China today is simple sexting among friends on WeChat. That’s the best porn there is, because it’s people you know. What probably happened was she sexted him some pics of herself and he passed them on to more people than she expected. As men tend to do. Which caused things to get ugly. Sexting is happening right now, millions of times a day, around the world. Everyone who participates in this activity is to blame. I don’t know, I just have a different take on it. You send someone a shot of your boobs and then blame them when they break their promise not to show them to anyone else? What hypocrisy. If you really don’t want anyone to share your pics, then don’t give them to anyone in the first place.”

“Unless he took nude photos of her secretly, without her knowledge.”

“Anyway, we don’t know what took place. Something doesn’t sound right about this story, and I’m sort of curious to know what really happened. Perhaps he had a good reason to beat her. Of course, I don’t mean beating someone can ever be justified, but there might be a more logical explanation of what led up to it.”

“Sounds logical enough to me.”

“Or maybe he didn’t even beat her. Maybe it’s all blown up out of proportion. And that’s why it never got in the news. It was just a petty incident, and we got a one-sided view of it from the injured party.”

“But Marguerite, he beat her severely enough to give her amnesia. I’d rather presume the worst until evidence to the contrary.”

“She didn’t necessarily get amnesia from being hit. It could have been just a big fight they had, and she was so upset or so angry that it was she who lost it. She may have given herself amnesia.”

“Why are you saying this?”

“I’m just expressing my opinion.”

“Why are you defending him?”

“I’m hardly defending him, Louisa. I’m just speculating based on the scanty evidence.”

“Well, I’ve got to go. Thanks for the wine and the weed. I’ll see you later, Lixin.”

Louisa grabbed her things and opened the door.

“Louisa, wait!” Lixin threw her bra and shirt on. “Sorry, I better go with her.”

“Looks like I got her in a huff,” said Marguerite.

Louisa was waiting outside the door.

“I’ll contact you,” said Lixin, giving Marguerite a quick hug.

*     *     *

More fiction by Isham Cook:

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel
The Exact Unknown and Other Tales of Modern China
Lust & Philosophy, a novel

Categories: Fiction

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