Even smoke reflects the color of debauchery here, in this den. It is neither white nor grey. Nor black like the hearts of its patrons. It is red, as are the walls. The beaded curtains around the booths hide none of the ugliness, but the smoke tries its best, ensuing from each addicted mouth, rolling around limbs braided with other limbs.
There are fragrances in combat with this smoke – oudh, frankincense, rose musk. Heady perfumes adding to the haze – in the den and in our minds – but losing the battle with that which owns this place – opium. In a corner of newbies, even cannabis raises its head like a snake without venom. A child that no one pays attention to. A child frightened, but holding its own, adding its scent to the vulgar mix of luxury bought cheap.
And in a corner, next to a window painted black, on a mattress that was once white, but now dirty with all it’s seen, lay I, in another man’s embrace, his calloused toes tracing my ankle, his hand with its deeply grooved lines pawing at my breast, his stained, burnt mouth nuzzling the skin just below my ear.
My eyes have been dry for so many years, as has been the rest of me. This he doesn’t know yet, for my head is turned away. Not in the unfocused way of the rest, nor in the frigid stance of one unbothered. Nor is it a seductive tilt of my jawline. My head is turned away because beyond the beads, three booths away, I see ghosts. Ghosts so real, of you and I, from a time that’s perished.
Our gazes are so chaste, our smiles like water through glass. I am unable to look away from what I see of myself – my lips unpainted, my innocence untainted. I wish to shatter every pipe in this godforsaken place to preserve the ghosts I see. I believe, so strongly, like religion, that three booths away, you and I still breathe.
I push the man away, as I leap up to part the beaded curtain, each bead carrying within it an inverted flame, a speck of smoke. But with the parting, the illusion breaks, a ripple in still water, and I see nothing three booths away. I see nothing and my eyes remain dry.
I turn back to the man, pull him close, even as his eyes roll around dazedly, and place my mouth on his. The poison of the den hits me yet again. There is only one taste in my mouth. Ashes, ashes, ashes.