She II

It’s a semi-basement near Bayard street with no visible storefront. She takes a moment and lets several pedestrians pass her before stepping down the stairs. It reminds her of entering a well even though she’s never entered a well. Too steep, she’s forced to look down parallel to her belly, feeling dizzy. She reaches the bottom and continues to walk down a long, narrow gateway. Dozens of mailboxes on bare concrete walls, each of them the size of a cereal box, as thick as a palm. Her eyes get used to the dark, she can see better and better. 

The hallway widens at the end, the room is as big as a basketball court, no pillars, the ceiling is low. Like the aftermath of an atrocity, the floor is broken, smashed tiles pile up at the corners, exposing deep, giant pits on the ground. She feels chilly. 

A Fujianese woman in her 40s enters from one of the side chambers, points her to a desk. A fluorescent lamp turns on. She takes off her backpack.

The woman grabs her hands so tight as if they are two slippery fish. She can smell her hairspray. “Cindy,” the name tag on the left chest says. Holding her hands hostage, Cindy massages them in an orthopedic manner, then wraps them with a warm towel. Cindy’s hands are warm and coarse with half-shedding dead skin and swollen knuckles from working too much with chemicals. Her wrists, now looking tiny, are placed on a foam pillow, as if they are no longer hers. 
Not sure where to look, her eyes wander in space. She sees rectangular windows with security bars. Water occasionally drips down and disappears into the darkness of the pits. No furniture, no appliances other than a few red utility buckets. On one of the windowsills, she notices a glass jar with liquid, perhaps it’s medicinal wine. 

Again, Cindy clamps her two hands into one palm, the other hand rummages in the drawers. She takes out and puts away various utensils. She is now attaching acrylic extensions to her nails. A massive amount of builder gel drips on her cuticles, creating a cooling sensation through the fingertips and a strong chemical smell. A sense of gratitude arises, since Cindy doesn’t ask a word about the mud stuck in her nails. The night before, she had hidden in the shared restroom of the youth hotel and brushed them with steel wool for 4 hours, but still couldn't remove all of them. At least they no longer look like drumsticks. 

The sun starts coming in, more becomes visible to the eye. She sees the mud and bricks in the pits. The glass jar on the windowsill is filled with urine-colored liquid. A piece of apricot is soaked in the liquid, bubbles gather around it. Once in a while, the bubbles ascend to the surface. 

Cindy adeptly fills the small aquarium she builds on top of each nail with tiny decorative particles and seals it. The particles are of ambivalent shapes of tropical sea creatures, like starfish and conch. The blue ocean themed extensions conceal the filthy, grimy edges of her nail beds perfectly. She wonders if funerary objects or bone remains are buried in the pits. This whole place looks like an excavation site, eventful yet somber. She’s been sitting here for about an hour now but has already started to imagine a lifetime. Cindy’s semi-permanent brows are shining. Her pinkish medical suit is too tight around the chest.

Painted in an intense royal blue, her nails are like ten mini coffins with invertebrate aquatic species sealed inside. As she puts them under the blue LED lamp to congeal, Cindy gets up to retrieve her lunch from the microwave. She waits for the “ding” sound and imagines Cindy eating in the dark. Her forehead starts to itch, a slim beam of sunlight creeps onto the glass jar, the liquid glows as if it’s burning. But she doesn’t hear a sound. 

She wants to find Cindy, who might have fallen asleep on a saggy leather sofa in one of those side chambers. There’s only a three-legged fishing stool. Cindy’s phone screen keeps flashing in the dark, already crowded with banners and notifications. She believes she sees a tiny spherical metal bead on the stool, could be mercury. 

It’s time to drink your 4th cup of water. Cindy Yujuan Wu, don’t miss any deal - COSMETIC COSMO.

She dismisses all the notifications, revealing the screensaver, a slightly pixelated photo of herself and two boys that show signs of precocious puberty. Slightly overexposed, the faces look like white sheets with black holes. 

She kneels down, a thin layer of red powder is spread on the ground. Stalactites hang off the ceiling, like thousands of breasts pointing downward, dripping water like a sporadic rain. 

She lets her eyes adjust and walk deeper into the darkness. Stalactites start to come down on her and obstruct her path. Some stalactites form clusters like a chorus, as tall as an 8-years old hunchback covered in lumpy protrusions. She realizes what she's been hearing is the sound of the underground waterway. Another ten feet in, the temperature plunges, the stalactites become less figural, but more colossal, heavily glazed and slippery. Some have turned extremely thin, some dangerously slim. Her toes are soaked. The path becomes soapy, hard to walk on or stand still. 

A crack in the ground widens, wind is blowing, she hears hundreds of whistles. She believes underground water is right underneath her, she can feel moisture on her skin. What she has been standing on is a thin crust of earth. A magnificent milky white stalactite curtain blocks her way, like a crying nun in an ornamental veil. Detailed with uncountable silver thaws, the curtain is crystal clear, she can almost breathe through it. She crouches down to pass. Behind the blockade, the ceiling drapes even lower, the air is icy fresh. 

On a stone bed lies Cindy, whose back is turned against her. Cindy’s scrub skirt is flipped up, exposing her butt cheeks, which seem strikingly round. Her head is covered in a gimp mask.  

The microwave still hasn’t dinged, she knows it’s somewhere. Cindy looks warm, her skin is iridescent. A rusty, weighty chain hangs between bare thighs, one end dropping down from her crotch. 
The correlation between the body and the outside means the inner rhythm of the body has to be in sync with the four seasons, meteorological concurrences, and the cosmological order. The body is perceived as a body with orifices that are undifferentiated, non-gendered, both entrance and outlet. 

She fumbles to grab the chain, it’s planted deep inside her. As she pulls, discharges flush out liquid glaze over the stalactites. Cindy inhales, parts of her body start to sink in as if she is boneless, perhaps made of wax. 

Before the wind gets louder, she wants to call her: Yujuan Wu. But lips are dry with dead skin.

 

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