We hang up our clothes and headdresses the moment we enter. Pull the screen around us. Lie on our mats listening to the murmur of women’s voices outside the door. Above us, the ceiling creaks steadily. Tomorrow I will be twenty, but my skin is already my grandmother’s cracked leather. She still strokes it as though it were beancurd. In bed, we retell the folktales we have always been told. If Yingtai had continued with her studies, would she have died? Such a waste, you always cluck your tongue. I have seen the mildewed books you keep under your pillow, the way you squint at the characters marching up and down each page, willing yourself to understand. I try to tell you other stories instead. Wonder aloud if Hou Yi had smelled. Perhaps refused to help with the washing and the moon was the furthest Chang E could go to avoid his smelly socks. You taste of sweat and dust and something sour no matter how many times you bathe yourself with your flower water, pulling the strange blossoms from the gardens of the white ghosts. I imagine this is how a man would taste. Our bodies have long lost their softness, our breasts shrinking and hardening. You still bury your head between them. As your mouth latches between my legs I stop thinking of deep grunts and a baby’s wail. It is enough.
My breath caught when the painted golden goddess moved and turned from statue to flesh. I wanted to know what magic was this. At what age would I flower into this golden feral creature.
I was not the only one looking. He went so still, you would think she’d had snakes bound up in her hair, not arms. I watched him look at her and for once, instead of closing my eyes and squirming away, I wanted to lean close. It was the way his hands shook as he reached for her. The pause before he laid his palms down and pulled her close, smearing the paint on her skin, the perfect lines that must have taken hours to lay down and in that moment she was transformed from divine to woman but still he worshiped her. I went from wanting to be her to wanting someone to look at me like he did. Eight years old, and for the first time I felt desire pool under my belly. I pressed my legs close.
More than once the silence the naked boy on rumpled sheets who looks at me with wide rabbit eyes while I continue stroking skin pretending not to notice his sudden stiffness wondering how is it that those easy words weigh heavier than lost sleep and borrowed books and handwritten letters and twisting tongues why is love where the line is always drawn and when will I hear it back in return.
When you lie on your back, eyes closed and I snake my fingers and tongue into your flesh, I always think of you calling me by the wrong name. It never happens, but my own name remains a small shaking animal in your mouth, afraid of those who might hear it squeak. Alone, I sit in the dark and look at your photos on a screen. Imagine what it must have been like to run fingers through long hair and soft skin. Something inside of me clenches, then blooms as I imagine sighs in another voice, one softer, sweeter. When I think of love I can only see you holding her in your arms.
I wonder what you were thinking the night you kissed me. What you were looking for. If my lips were as inviting as another cold can of beer. If I was wine, something you wanted to suck between clenched teeth, held on just a little longer in your mouth so you could tell yourself you cared for what you tasted. If I was just a quiet pool you could drown yourself in.
I am too afraid to ask. All I know is that when your lips meant mine, I thought it like standing in the heart of a dying star. How very bright and warm it all is. And after the flames had burnt themselves out, how very lonely.