By Kawika Guillermo

Everything about Xia was bulging, with nothing hidden or sunken enough to feel pity for. Even moving to Love Lane did not break her spirits. Like many of us ah-ku, she had escaped an arranged marriage in her home country, only to find that her passage to Panang was no charity. Rather, she would spend the next five years in the brothels of Georgetown, paying back her passage debt.

Her desire for life could not be measured. “Ya know,” she told me on that first night, after she had brazenly risked the Madame’s ire by drinking the reserve rice wine and sneaking into my bunk. “I tend to be a bit nomadic. Those coins Madame found on me? I ripped’em off some poor guy trying to get a feel off me. And well a few drunk pirates as well. Played tendress to them and got a good bit. Drunken pirates. Then I just disappear like well forgive me for the analogy I’m about to use, but—I disappear like a fart in the wind.” She laughed slightly.

Married is perhaps not the proper term for what Xia and I had, but we were united. By the sense of our debts.

I never minded Xia’s truncated sessions with the Chinese boozers. She pleased her clients with a fakeness so exaggerated that it seemed derisive—a gallant laugh, her finger pointing in their direction, at their naked bodies. Our Madame, Mui Fae, punished her frequently with brutal, public beatings with a stick. Xia was caught for all sorts of things—kicking clients out of her bed only seconds past satisfaction, mocking the mistresses who dreamed of escaping with their rich clients, badgering the clients for more money (that was Madame’s job), and of course, for sneaking into my bed when the sunlight had faded from the gaudy, striped awning that made us all feel like prisoners.

“I’m not afraid of sinking,” Xia told me once. “Just follow your heart. Right? Or not?”

I was no coquette. Older than she, a matronly age, in fact. My face, as Madame told me when I failed to satisfy a client, I was all crudded up. My bottom lip was unable to pout, and my wrinkles showed not age, but wear. I was worn. Every day since I had escaped my father, I tasted the mustiness of my cell, as well as the soused men flowing in and out of it—rickshaw drivers, errand boys, builders, sailors, old men faded by opium. I was the merchandise they sifted their hands over.

But when Xia and I made love it was not the ritualistic, cluttered panics that we felt with our clients. Our lips slipped against each other’s in defiance; I felt my freedom in her embrace. The busier our beds were throughout the day, the more we gave ourselves during the night. A dark, sweaty cleansing. I held her tighter, obstructed by her massive breasts. I pressed beneath them, to her soul.

After her third year she was allowed to run errands about Panang, to barter with her own clients and sleep at the apartments the babas bought her. She purchased pork dumplings for the brothel, so our cells felt less like prisons. She was always moving up and down Love Lane, wearing chintzy see-through garments, walking a palliative walk, and leaving trails of money. She still came to me, now and again, in the private temple of our love making.

At the same time, I felt centuries old. That’s what we called girls who had fallen to disease. I busied myself about the old Peranakan mansion, dusting and scorching up Sichuan soup, experimenting with those incensed Tamil spices from the migrants who moved only two blocks from our little Chinese section of Georgetown. The Tamils seemed in a similar place as us, homeless and hopelessly encumbered with the weight of debt. Whenever I went to the Tamil market, I watched their elders and wondered about being born among them. They seemed content and healthy, despite having nothing.

After months with her baba, Xia came back to my cell. As soon as she entered, down she went to relax, legs splaying as she leaned forward, propping her elbows against the dip just before her knees.

“This is boring,” she told me.

“What is?” I asked.

She looked up at the awning, where the sun exposed levitating white dust in small splices of light. As she stood up, the movement of her full breasts, uncrushed by her thin cheongsam, sent a dispersive wind.

My anger came out muffled: “You’re safe here. Things are finally stable.” I turned away from her, to weep alone. “What did we escape for, if not for each other?”

She sat on the bed, running her hands gently through my straw-like hair. “Sometimes I wish I were so naïve,” she told me. “Truly.”

When the Madame discovered Xia’s escape, she assaulted me in the kitchen, bashing scalding soup onto my legs. Our scramble went into the dining hall, where she tossed me down.

“You think I did not know about you two?” she screamed. “You were the only thing keeping her here—and you failed!”

The ginger soup stung my legs. “I did nothing,” I told her. And after a beat of silence, added: “she just said she was bored.”

“Bored!” The Madame lurched back, as if to smack me, but retched at my crudded-up face. “Look how ugly you have become. Get out. What good are you here without her?”

The brothel’s bar had gone quiet. The mistresses and Ah-ku motioned me toward the door. The Madame blocked my way to my own cell. Nothing I owned was my own.

In the streets of Georgetown I heard the slow drumbeat of the Tamil migrants, and went to them. I sat at one of their cafes, listened to their language, sensed their spiced incense, felt the thump of their drumbeats. I tried to crack smiles at the men.

separatorKawika Guillermo is currently finishing his doctorate in Seattle, where he also teaches literature. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Medulla Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Annalemma, The Monarch Review and Mobius: Journal of Social Change. He is currently the Assistant Prose Editor at decomP.