The Birth of the Dragon Lady: A Story in Six Panels

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{Panel One}

 The salon stands in the middle of the block, between a liquor store and a pawn shop. It’s a block that is never clean: the trashcans are always overflowing, the clumps of paper and leaves scatter, rats lurk, dogshit decorates the tree boxes, cigarette butts smolder and half empty soda bottles spin. It’s a block where grown men will lie anywhere, the bus stop bench, in the middle of the sidewalk. In summer the pavement cracks are filled with stubborn snatches of crab grass, and in the winter with ice. It’s a block that has two houses that were victims of long ago fires, board up and abandoned. There is a bodega on one corner that sells last week’s milk at a 50 percent market, and Twinkies from 1970. The bodega’s owner is a muscular, hairless man—even no eyebrows—who looks like Mr. Clean’s brother. He has a tattoo of a scarlet dragon crawling up his neck, and he always has bottle of beer next to his place at the register. The lizard-green bottle is always half-full. Maybe it’s the same bottle. At the other end, there’s a Chinese restaurant called The Hungry Dragon, that has one bright orange table that sells the Happy Family, General Tso’s Chicken, a fleet of submarine sandwiches and hot wings in mambo sauce. It’s a block that has seen drug deals, prowling prostitutes, and police corruption. It’s a block where people speak some alternatively accented version of English, liberally seasoned with native tongues.

 The salon, which has no official name, is housed in the basement apartment of a former townhouse. The sign, painted on the glass door, is flaking. It reads: AILS, MAN CURES, PEDIC. The door opens and an electronic bell sounds. After pushing through a curtain made of cherry red tinsel, you must step down, into a sunken floor. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust. A riot of color flames before you. The floor is specklessly white tile, upon which chairs with overstuffed blood orange cushion rest on bases made of shiny surgical steel. Women, with skin the color of golden peaches and hair the black of squid ink hide their mouths and noses behind facemasks. You only see their eyes, feline and inscrutable. The women hover over other women’s hands and feet, and basins full of mysterious liquids. From the ceiling hang scarves and banners in hues of garnet, cobalt, teal, crimson, and lemon. Flute music wafts from a hidden boombox. And everywhere, there are dragons. On the kimonos of the attendants. On the monogrammed towels. Prowling and swirling in pictures adorning the walls.

 On of the masked women stands and wordlessly leads you to her workstation. She installs you on one of the thrones, after you remove your quarter inch heels that have been killing you all day. She puts your aching feet in a cool, soothing footbath that smells of mint. It’s almost immediate, the way you drift off to the flute music.

 {Panel Two}

 I swim beneath the street, in a river far below. I swirl and spin, like a current. I am the only thing that lives in this stream, this spurt of water, unsullied by the debris of above. Sometimes, I wriggle up the pipes and through the latticework and unfurl like steam. I go straight to the sky, where I swoop and soar among the clouds, the pigeons, the airplanes. I am invisible, but for those who have the eyes to see. I am a ghost, even to myself.

 Once, I swam in lakes and rivers, and breached them, and all who saw me bowed in wonder and terror. They sang songs to me. They called me forth, on zithers and gongs and flutes. Maidens danced on the shores, heroes sought my blessing.

Now, my image is printed on cheap menus, on energy drink bottles, and my name worn like a discarded skin on DVD covers. But I live in, in some form. Some half-life. I hover, ancient and forgotten. My 81 scales glitter in the sunlight, in waves of iridescence. But what’s the use, when no-one can see it? Even my shadow on the ground slinks by, unseen.

 I was carried here, somehow, to this new world, where lakes swirl with chemicals and the sky seethes with poison. A dream, a seed, and idea. I was an image burned on the retina of a woman who immigrated here. But, she forgot me and I faded from view, became a story, an emblem for her grand-daughter’s nail salon. I, who was once queen now live underground, buried beneath waste.

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