Avoid using cameras during the Hungry Ghost Festival. The dead can be trapped there.
Her mouth was a red word of worship. I remember that. Red like she’d lipsticked it with blood. I stared at the petaling of her lips, the way she pursed them, incisors briefly lettering the plush flesh. Unlike the rest of them, she could sing: big operatic notes. A little rough along the higher registers, sure, but her voice when it plunged was smoky as the belly of an old whisky cask.
I stared at her and all I could think is what a fucking shame. So much potential, every drop of it wrung out on a stage for the dead. Roger knew where to find them. Maria, he carved out of a burlesque club on the border of Hell’s Kitchen. This one, he was going to wrench from the getais which, as far as I could tell, was like Mardi Gras for ghosts except with more cover bands and less nudity.
Still, I liked Kuala Lumpur and its rat-warrens of neighborhoods, its roundabouts going nowhere, highways spiralling in figure-eights, as though they were talismans to constrain the damned.
Or to keep them out.
“Look at all the ah peks.” Maria sucked at her teeth, glaring at the old men. She was a proper Brooklynite, accent and everything, the big-shouldered 80’s jacket over a black-sequined corset, jeans torn and painted-on, fingernails jeweled. Gold on black. Always gold on black. Asian-American but only barely, according to how she tells it. “I wonder how many of them won’t be jerking off to her tonight?”
I couldn’t stop staring at the girl on the stage. None of us had the willpower to look away. Maria could sneer as much as she liked, but I knew she was only doing it because she was just as mesmerized. The girl shines despite the smoke lifting from the joss sticks, and the expression carved on her face: it was something for a church, a chapel, a temple rotten with offerings. It was holy, that’s what it was. I shivered in echo of her ecstasy, her eyes enormous and strange and for a moment, salt-white, under the overhead glare.
“May’s perfect.” Roger said. He was five ten and lean as a rod of carved bone. Just as pale too, the transparency of his complexion magnified by all the black he’s wearing. Didn’t matter that we were in Malaysia, or that the weather here dripped like sweat. Roger had to have his Steve Jobs regalia. I guess I understand it. The wardrobe was a costume. It made him singular, visibly the auteur he aspired to be. Anything less and he’d be another white guy, come to commoditize the Hungry Ghost Festival.
The night smoldered orange along the city-line, an unnatural flame eating at the dark. The getai couldn’t have been less impressive: rickety roadside stage, a back wall of dirty canvas, bored hosts, and girls who wore their sequins like someone else’s forgotten shine. But the dead didn’t see cause to complain so who were the living to argue different?
A lone Prius rolled past the performance, its tenants invisible behind smoked windows.
“Sure.” says Maria. “if you like jailbait.”
We tried a few times, but Roger said Maria didn’t have it in her to be a leading lady. Too much grit in her lopsided grin, too much nose to her raw-boned face. Killer as the foil to the sweetheart, sure, but too saw-toothed for a happy ending. He casts her as the femme fatale, the big bad, and it works: Maria’s expressions were a broken heart caulked with bitter pride, vulnerable and crystalline. If you ask me, we didn’t need the girl. Maria could have done it, played the wounded thing come home to a country full of someone else’s ghosts.
Roger shot her a look over a shoulder. “Are you jealous?”
“I’m not jealous.” Maria lit up a spliff, hand cupped over the flame. The light canyoned her cheeks, left her gaunter than she really was. “Jealous implies I give a shit about you.”
“And you don’t?”
“Sure, I do.” A rough-throated laugh. She hacked smog into the air, scowling. “I care about the fact you’re going to make me famous one day. Or at least, get me close to the motherfucker who can do that shit. At this point, I will fuck all of these Ah Peks for a shot to do something with my life.”
Maria said the last half of too loud, the word fuck a gunshot from her mouth, her lips rosy and human. One of the bow-legged old men — every one of them in uniform: wifebeater, loose shorts, sandals, receding hairline– leered at Maria, who fixed him with upraised brows and a don’t-mess-with-me grimace. I winced.
“Then go hang out with the people who make blockbusters. You got their number, right? Their agents talk to you, right? The fuck you doing with an indie filmmaker?”
She exhaled, sharp and silent. Maria wasn’t, isn’t into theatrics. Another woman might have stubbed out her joint in the webbing between Roger’s fingers, called him an asshole, told him to get lost and book it business-class on his dime. But not Maria. Because Daddy’s little hellcats? That’s their damage. They’re into co-dependent salvation. She’d put in too much time to call it quits now.
Instead, Maria thins her mouth, inhales again: deep, deeper, until her eyes water from the fumes but she won’t let it go. Same way she won’t let Roger go, no matter how many times I remind her it’s how the story goes. He won’t change. She won’t either.
On stage, the girl cleared her lungs and belted out a note, perfect as anything — a sound like the world cracked into halves.
But there was nothing strange about her.
The first four years were good.
Roger and me, we were Pygmalion and Galatea, the magic-man and his muse. He said he hadn’t seen anything like me before. I was perfect, Roger told me the first night we fucked, sweat curling his black hair into cow-licks. Under the moonlight, I could see where I’d left a road of bruises along his neck, down to the divot of his collarbone. Roger liked it rough, he said. It helps me remember I can feel.
We made a few movies together. Short things. Artsy. There was nudity and old world visual effect. None of that digitized flash. Plastic, plaster, and old-fashioned paint. Roger killed me for his canvas a hundred times over: skewered me, opened me like an orchid, while I shivered under a wet wreathing of fake blood.
I liked it. I won’t lie. I liked how hands-on he was, every detail of the gore something to be tuned like the dial of an old radio, teased like a nipple or a new idea. Roger’s pillow talk was as avant-garde as the rest of him. It felt like beginnings, like worship.
Then, we made a mistake.
The threesome shouldn’t have happened. We weren’t ready. I remember, though, how we’d applauded our maturity then, legs knotted: mine over the slope of his calf, her knee hooked over my ass. She made us breakfast in my cramped Williamsburg kitchen: Eggs Benedict with Andouille, hollandaise sauce the color of champagne, duck-fat potatoes. I remember the morning sunlight and counting the fine hairs along her ballerina arms.
“This is us.” Roger whispered to me, conspiratorial, his arm thrown over my shoulder. As with everything else, he’s precise with the eggs too: a motion of the spoon, and the yolk bloomed across the china like a small sun. “We got this. I got you.”
The axle of our recent pleasures said nothing. Just smiled. Crossed her legs at the ankles as she sipped coffee in my sundress, and her mouth was red, red, red.
Things rolled downhill from there.
“Does she even fucking speak English?” I stared at the girl as she curled on the edge of the sidewalk where we’d been filming half an hour ago, one of Roger’s glossy black cigarettes pinned between her fingers, her mouth red as worship and glistening. Roger wanted authenticity, wanted his new star to flower in a place she’d become accustomed to. So, there we were: half-awake at four a.m., amid the trash left behind by the getai’s audience, pretending Roger’s latest obsession was a jiangshi, one of those ‘hopping vampires’ from old Hong Kong cinema, and she didn’t remind me of that girl who upturned my world.
Tremors ran from her scalp to the floor of her hips as she raised her arm, teeth clenched against the exertion. Fucking junkies. A starved coil of smoke twitched up into the gloom.
The girl inhaled, those unblinking doll-eyes of hers obscured behind a fake yellow talisman. Sweat gleamed on her ceramic skin, mauve veins like logograms. Under the orange light, the red dome of her hat looked like a flayed skull cupped in a black bowl.
“This is the fifth goddamned time I had to tell her to not grab me.” I said. She was only meant to jump out at me, not lunge, not grope and claw like a fucking zombie.
“You’re supposed to be a professional. Act like one.” Roger’s eyes metronomed over the girl, restless, lingering longest on the spade of her crotch, nearly visible under her cheap black robes. The girl was thin. Chopstick thin without the barest netting of fat. I remember thinking, with some kind of sororal regret, that she’d shrivel in a few years. Just like I had. Not that it mattered. Not that this mattered. When we wrapped up this project, I was gone. Back to New York and its skyscrapers and its smiling, shining, successful, dead-eyed hopefuls. “Use it to motivate your performance, or whatever it is actors are supposed to do.”
“Hell of a director.” I pinched the wad of flesh that the girl had burrowed her nails into when she lunged at me, and winced. It would bruise by tomorrow, I was sure of it, flower black and indigo where the pressure of her hand broke through capillaries. I remember being surprised by how strong she was, how much force she carried in her wireframe body. “You don’t even know how your actors work.”
Roger didn’t even blink. “Jealousy’s ugly on older women, Maria.”
The way he kicked my name from his mouth, it was like I’m someone else’s drunken mistake. I ran my tongue over my teeth. “Fuck you.”
The girl jackknifed her head up, tongue lolled out, the tip touched to the talisman. A wet spot spread across the paper. I’m still amazed to this day at the work Sophia did on the girl. Roger didn’t believe in budgets, wouldn’t buy into the practice of crowdfunding, said it diluted the film to whore out the credits to so many nameless benefactors. Genius shouldn’t be sold for a dollar. So, he made us make-do.
And Sophia, Jesus, now she was a talent. She could come up with miracles for a buck and some change. Despite the fact we had nothing, she made that girl look… unsettling, ghostly in her Qing dynasty regalia.
That’s the word I wanted.
The girl — what the fuck was her name? May, Madeline, Maggie, it all blends together, their names like someone else’s pleasure — made a noise, and I glanced over to her. Smoke bled from her nostrils, the hinge of her parted lips. There was dust floating from her mouth, motes of silver in the filthy air. Her eyes had a rim of frost. Like cataracts. Like she was going blind. She blinked at me once, slow, and soaked in the backwash of Emil’s lighting, she didn’t seem completely real.
They fucked. Like, there was no way they didn’t. When the girl came back into makeup after the first ten takes, she reeked of hours-old semen and someone else’s sweat, a man’s musk under a cover of cheap cologne. Roger’s. I don’t know where they could have gone to do it. There wasn’t anywhere to go. It was my trailer and Maria’s, and I don’t think she would have allowed them privacy. Maybe, he took her into the jungle outside the parking lot.
She blinked at me, amber eyes and a full mouth that wouldn’t entirely close, red as worship, red as a bullet’s kiss. The girl sat down on her appointed bench, hands rested on her lap. The cheap black robe we’d ferried out of Goodwill was water-stained, its hems heavy with mud. There were wet leaves in her hair and white petals. She stared at me.
“I don’t know if you have unions down here, but if Roger did anything you didn’t want, you tell me.”
That was my bargain with the devil. I wouldn’t tell on Roger’s affairs, wouldn’t judge, wouldn’t ask questions, would blot out hickies and dab away evidence of his bacchanals, wouldn’t do anything that’d jeopardize my professional relationship with him. Unless one of his debutantes squealed. And if they did, I’d take their testimony global. I did six months of make-up for a television company in New Jersey. There were folks who still owed me.
But that girl.
I peeled back her collar while she sat there, suddenly frightened for her. I didn’t know what I was going to find. But I know I hadn’t been expecting that. The skin underneath was the same color and texture of petroleum jelly. No blemishes, no bite marks, no discolorations. No veins. Only an off-white creaminess glimmering like she’d bathed herself in oil.
“Did he hurt you?” I was sure. I was so sure. And I think my certainty was scaffolded on guilt. Maria had sat in the same chair once, vacant, body humming with grief. But I had said nothing then.
The girl looked up at those words, like she’d heard me, eyes becoming massive and alive. Her mouth opened as the door did, and Roger came sweeping inside from the green-smelling dark, ushering his star away.
I was with Maria when it happened.
Roger walked the girl out of Sophia’s trailer, one arm draped across the small of her back, the other held out. She placed her hand in the cup of his palm, allowed him to lead her down the rusted steps. He couldn’t look away. I couldn’t blame him. Even in her cadaver make-up, she was striking.
“I’m so done with him.” Maria passed her spliff over. I took a drag and tried to pretend I was one of the hungry dead, and I didn’t need to breathe. “She’s, what, eighteen? Fucking pervert.”
“What are you going to do after this?” I said when I’d stopped coughing, every thought mired in spirals, weighted down by the weed. That Maria could stay so furious all the time, despite all the pot she smoked, was testimony to something but I wasn’t sure what. I still am not. But what I remember was the hungry angles of her face, the moonlight working shadows into the sockets of her eyes. “Are you going to stay in show business?”
Maria said nothing.
“I don’t know.” She whispered, after a while. “Everything about show business reminds me of him.”
There wasn’t any need to say who.
“I have a degree in accounting. I could do that. Go home. Go back to school. See what happens when I apply myself.” Her lips curled at the last half of the sentence, her expression withering, the scorn inward-facing. “I don’t know, I don’t know.”
She shook herself like a dog ridding itself of the rain.
Roger sloped past us, eyes abstract, the pupils blown-out. Beside him, the girl looked even smaller than she was, reduced by the dark-fabriced breadth of him, her face like something hand-molded from a candle. I don’t remember her features. There’d been shapes, sure, but all I can call up now is that mouth of hers, red and wet and glistening like a fresh heart, the color bleeding at the edges.
“Asshole.” Maria said, blowing smoke at them.
Neither of them spoke. Without an opponent to ricochet off, Maria’s fury had no propulsion, no momentum to keep going. She squeezed her blunt into her palm, gasping as the skin cooked in the embers, a sweet smell lifting from her fist. I swore at her and tried to peel her fingers open, while unscrewing a bottle of water at the same time. Cold fluid splattered us. Maria jerked her hand from my grip, cursing.
As I staggered back, I felt a small hand on my spine, curving up my back to take hold of a shoulder. I swiveled at the touch. It was the girl, leaning up on tiptoe and halfway out of Roger’s embrace. She kissed me, tongue crowbarring my teeth apart somehow, a slab of thick muscle reaching in to trace my molars. Long, impossibly long.
“What the — “ I pulled away, drool stretching between our mouths like a payment of silver.
“Fucking asshole. You men are all the same. ” A clatter of heels told me Maria had fled. When I finally orientated, every last one of them were gone, melted into the dark.
Last time I saw any of them, swear to god.
Wherever the asshole is, I hope he’s dead.
I hope she ate his heart.
We waited for a week.
We thought that, maybe, Roger was on a bender. It wouldn’t be the first time. When we shot his last film in Cuba, he vanished for three weeks and came back, hair beaded and skin tanned, complaining about how someone tried to falsify his involvement with a pregnancy. But this time, Roger didn’t return.
Maria went back to Williamsburg and became an accountant like she told Emil she would. She was good at it. At least that’s what I heard. We haven’t talked since.
Emil shot up a convenience store two weeks later in Berkeley, screaming about ghosts.
I went home.
Home to small-town nowhere, working in a salon, away from Hollywood and its dreams of faceless hungry girls with bright red mouths.
That was it.
You have to believe us.
We have nothing else left.