Today's Reading

The staff disappear to fetch sample fabrics, and Peng Ayi sets aside her glass of champagne. "Lulu, ah." Her unwrinkled face, which her mother claims must suck up thousands of yuan worth of skin products, is serious. "I want my son to have the best. He is determined to have you as his wife, so I will make sure the entire world knows you're worthy of the title. You wouldn't want us to do anything that makes us lose face, ah?"

Her tone is light, but the warning is clear. Peng Ayi might consider herself worlds apart from Lulu's mom, but on this matter, they sound the exact same. Always whispering warnings in Lulu's ear, like only her actions bring embarrassment and disrespect.

"Besides," Peng Ayi continues, "you aren't working anymore. Thinking about this wedding should be your sole priority." She smiles benevolently. "You are going to be my daughter, and that means you will never work again."

She should thank Peng Ayi for freeing her from the drudgery of labor, but she can't bring herself to fake it. Right now, Lulu would give anything to be back at her old hostess job, welcoming guests and secretly smoking cigarettes with the fellow staff.

"I'm going to use the restroom."

In the candlelit restroom with lace toilet covers and expensive-smelling soap, she calls her dad. He always has a way of calming her, even from hundreds of miles away.

Instead, her brother's hawkish face appears on the screen. He's chewing on a chicken leg, unkempt hair brushing his shoulders.

"Ge," Lulu greets him in their village dialect, hiding her disappointment. "Where's Ba?"

"He's out." Lulu's about to hang up when he says, "I hear you're getting married. Ma keeps telling everyone it's a rich guy and we're set for life. How'd you manage that?" He looks utterly unimpressed.

"Ah Tang!" His wife chastises him from off-screen. "That's rude. Lulu, don't listen to him. We're all so proud of you. What an achievement!"

Her brother shrugs. "I could help the family too, if there was any good work out here."

"I sent you some job listings in Shanghai," Lulu reminds him.

Although she doesn't want to be in the same city as her brother, it would be worth it if he could help with their family's finances. "Those places just want to use me for my body!" He flexes a scrawny arm. "You think now that you live in the city and hang out with rich people, you know better?"

"Of course not." This is why Lulu avoids going home. Because any time she talks to her brother or her mom, they mock her supposedly lavish city life, even as she sends all her money to them, keeping enough only for rent, her phone bill, and a weekly hotpot dinner with her best friends. Shanghai has shown Lulu a world of luxuries she could never afford. But living here, she's found her Shanghai: a place of streetside skewer carts, run-down bookstores, and
glittering lights. This city has given her friends, independence, the space to escape her family and breathe—

Her brother scoffs. "Unlike you, I won't settle for any old job, even if I'd get hired in a heartbeat." To punctuate this, he spits out a shard of chicken bone and begins picking at his teeth.

Lulu's heard enough. Even Peng Ayi's demands are preferable to this conversation. "Someone's calling for me," she claims, edging toward the bathroom door.

"You're shriveling up like a shrimp again!" Her brother cackles. "Seriously, what does anyone see in you?"

She hangs up before she has to listen to any more.

Back in the lounge, Peng Ayi gives Lulu's wrist an experimental pinch, her fingers doubling as calipers. "We'll keep track of your weight these next few months. These wedding photos will be the only ones you have, and you want to make sure you're happy with how you look in them."

Yes. Life as a cockroach would be infinitely better.
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