“Shanghai Afternoon”

“Shanghai Afternoon”

In honor of every woman stripped and shamed at the hands of women

The day hung somewhere between an icy pop and a cool glass of milk. Mother dressed me in white tights, my favorite shirt and my lavender jacket that covered the top of my skirt. We were going downtown, the afternoon an adventure, one of those special days Mother and I spent together each month. No cousins. No aunties. Not even Mother’s Mister, who always seemed to make his way to our house when the day slid into shadows and Mother kissed my cheeks and whispered that she was going to her room now, where soft music would drift through the wink in her jarred bedroom door, two doors down from mine. She would leave my door open just enough to permit a sliver of the hall night light to enter so that I would know that she was nearby, but more than the comfort of the white light, my nose waited to fill with the reassuring scent of the sweet agarwood oil wafting down the hall to me from Mother’s oil burner on the wall outside her bedroom. “Mou chan, where are we going first?” I wanted to know, grabbing her soft hand, peering into her pretty face, the lips red, like I dreamed of mine being the same color red each morning when I rose from my big-girl’s bed and sat before my mirror looking camera-ready, as her Mister said she looked each night and morning. “It is a surprise, Guan-yin. You must do only one thing besides enjoy. Take everything in: the sights, sounds, crowds, voices, foods, traffic, sun, birds. All of it. Same as always, okay?” I caressed her with my eyes and bobbed my dark pigtails up and down. The car pulled up before our front door, in its usual spot, and a man with admiring eyes bowed and opened the door for my mou chan and me. On the back seat beside her, in air that smelled of new luggage, I stared out of the window, excited by the passing colors and noisy traffic, while Mother stared straight ahead, as if she were preparing herself to bow before her Mister on a Sunday the meal decorated the long dining room table just for him. On Nanjing Road, a street that must have been the center of the Universe, the car stopped and the man with adoring eyes bowed to us as we stepped out of the big shiny car and he and Mou chan spoke softly and then we walked into the pressing crowd. There were one thousand things inviting my attention, too many for me to focus on only one. Mother’s perfumed hand tightened on mine as she pushed toward a huge glass window filled with giant ladies posing in beautiful clothes. Behind her, staring at her bright red jacket, I was yanked backward. Suddenly. My heart jumped, my breath left my mouth. I stiffened and gripped my mother’s hand so tight I could see specks and tiny dark blurry shapes dance in front of me.

Under a bright sun, other big people, girls, like my mother, some young, some old like my Mother’s mou chan, came out of the crowd. Loud screeching voices scratched at my ears. My screams for Mou chan got swallowed in their anger. I struggled to stay on my feet, in my black patent leather shoes, but everyone was pushing, shoving. Around my Mother, the big girls made a circle. They were not smiling. I knew this was not a big-girl game. Like the white-bellied green pigeons that silenced the music of the day whenever Mother and I tossed handfuls of feed into the grass, the shouting girls squawked and screeched, drowning the day’s happy music. Screaming, too, I yelled at them to stop. Hands pulled at my Mother’s clothes. I stumbled from the bumping, but I could still see the big girls peeling my mother’s coat and dress and underclothes and shoes away, until she was leaning over and struggling on the sidewalk with another girl. Eventually, Mou chan got her red coat from the girl and covered her body. My tears made it hard for me to keep Mother in front of me. Again, I hurled my small body toward her. Again, another roaring girl jerked me backward. That day I did not live up to my name, Guan-yin. I knew, watching as nobody tried to help my Mother. I was five-years-old, yet I had been given the wrong name. I was not a goddess of mercy, as my Mou chan claimed I was. With no fu chan to help Mother and me, I, in my head, hurt all of the big girls stripping my Mother. I erased them from the ugly sheet of paper the day became, took my scissors and clipped then into slivers and scattered them into traffic, like trash. While I paced and cried, a word, “concubine,” boxed my ears, but I kept kicking and scratching a path to my Mother over the big girls’ smudged faces.

(c) Claudia Moss 4/30/2015


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