Mrs. Ling’s Laundromat

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“Hey, Mrs. Ching-Chang, have you ever taken an American man’s cock before?”

The ruddy white face leered over Ling Tao, making its lewd query in rough, flat English. Tao pursed her lips and did not answer the question. Instead, she went to the corner of the storefront, found the bag of laundry with the name “Jackson” on it, and handed it to him. “Fifty cents,” she said tersely.

Jackson looked unfazed, as he always did when she brushed him off. He blew her a kiss and made a crude gesture with his hand. Then he handed her the fifty cent piece, heaved the bag over his shoulder, and left the shop, whistling as he went.

“Asshole,” muttered Tao under her breath in Cantonese. She sat down behind the desk and took out the notepad she used to keep track of payments. She wrote “50 cent” in neat handwriting in today’s column, then flipped to the back of the notebook, where she began sketching a very rude drawing of Jackson hanging upside down from the ceiling by his feet. His face contorted with pain and his flabby body was exposed in a way that was most undignified.

It was a coping mechanism. Her notepad was filled with drawings like these: men who had been rude to her, on whom Tao exacted her own private, imaginary revenge. San Francisco was filled with such men. Even nowadays, as more American families were beginning to move west, there were far too many men and far too few women to go around. These were thirsty men, desperate men, and Tao had learned quickly that a woman must harden herself against them if she were to survive.

She flipped through her book. There was Artie Smith from the cannery, who gave her his sickly smile and gifted her copious cans of herring. She had drawn him with his hands tied to a ceiling beam, his skin pinched by clothes pins all up and down his chest. Then there was Xiao Peng from the railroad crew, who never tired of asking her when Mr. Ling was coming home, even though he knew the answer. She had drawn him bent over her desk with his trousers down, exposed and powerless. And, of course, she’d drawn Mr. Ling himself, her good-for-nothing husband who’d left her ten years ago after they’d first made the journey across the Pacific. She had been especially savage with this drawing, depicting him tied to her bed frame with slash marks from a whip across his chest and legs.

It was a long day at the laundry shop, as days so often were. Customers came in and out, some polite, others not. Tao made her rounds from the storefront to the laundry room and back again, collecting the clean clothes the laborers had laundered and offering dirty ones. When the mailman stopped by, she eagerly looked through the envelopes he had given her in hopes that a letter from the state board of supervisors would be there. A new law had just been passed requiring all laundromat owners to register with the city for licenses; it had been three weeks since Tao had applied, and she still had not received her license.

At three o’clock, a stranger strode into the laundromat. With supreme confidence, he took a seat on top of the front desk, and rang the bell, looking down at Tao expectantly. Tao narrowed her eyes, unsure what to make of the stranger. He looked Chinese, but he was smartly dressed in western clothing, wearing a three-piece suit and a stiff bowler hat. He was pretty, Tao noticed reluctantly. He had a smooth, symmetrical face and long eyelashes-a far cry from most men she saw around town, whose faces and bodies seemed hardened by life in the west.

“I keep a pistol underneath my dress,” she told him.

He smiled and replied, “Well, I was going to say, ‘Is that a pistol in your dress or are you just happy to see me?’ But you’ve cleared that up for me.”

Against her better judgment, Tao was charmed by the crassness of the joke and the self-deprecating good humor with which he said it. “What do you want?” She asked.

“My name is James Yi,” he told her. “I assume I’m speaking to Mrs. Ling?”


“I’m here on behalf of the Chinese Workers’ Association. I want to talk to you about a discriminatory ordinance that the city of San Francisco has just passed, and about what you can do to stop it.” He spoke as if he’d rehearsed the words a hundred times.

Tao had never heard of the Chinese Workers’ Association, and she did not trust it. “Is this a new organization?” She asked with trepidation.

“Yes. And we already have over two hundred members signed on. How would you like to be a part of an organization that speaks out for your rights?” Something about the rehearsed quality of his words unsettled Tao. He sounded like a walking advertisement. Did he want money from her?

“Why should I trust you?” acıbadem escort

The stranger laughed. “You don’t have to. Take this pamphlet. If you decide you’d like to join, you can find me at this address.” He set a paper pamphlet on her desk, then he took a pen and wrote the words, “Yi Wen’s Laundry Services, by the pier,” on the back of it. With a genial wink and a theatrical tip of his hat, James Yi stood up and left the store, whistling as he went.

Tao examined the pamphlet. The words, “DENIED YOUR LAUNDRY PERMIT?” were written in sprawling characters across the top. Below them, the words, “YOU ARE NOT ALONE” stood out in even thicker font. Tao read further down the pamphlet. What she learned unsettled her. Since the passing of the new city ordinance requiring licenses for hand laundry facilities, there had apparently not been a single Chinese person who had received a license. Tao thought of the weeks she had spent waiting for her license in the mail: was it never coming? She felt a rush of anxiety stir her insides. “The white man is trying to drive us out,” the pamphlet decreed. “What will you do to stop him?”

Tao shook herself off, folded the pamphlet in half, and tucked it inside her ledger book, out of sight. She tried to continue with her day as if nothing had happened. When at last the last bags of laundry had been exchanged, Tao locked up the till, locked the shop door, and went upstairs to her room. She lived in the small room above her laundromat; the men she hired to wash the clothes lived in the large room behind her. She locked the door to her room as well, for good measure, then let out a sigh and began to cook herself a simple dinner of bean curd and rice. Her license was coming in the mail. It must be. She was sure of it.


The next day, Tao’s license was denied. The mailman delivered a curt note from the city informing her in very polite terms that they were sorry to say that she had not met the city’s standards of cleanliness. Tao held back her tears until the mailman left, then she tore the paper in half, buried her face in her hands, and allowed herself two deep, heartfelt sobs. Then she sniffed, swallowed her tears, and dried her eyes. Two sobs was more than enough emotion for one day.

She took up her notebook and examined the pamphlet she had tucked away inside of it. The words “YOU ARE NOT ALONE” stared up at her. She flipped to the backside of the pamphlet, where James Yi had written his address, and examined his handwriting, written in neat script across the bottom of the page. She remembered his hands-those nimble, beautiful fingers that were just beginning to show the wear and tear of hand laundry work around the edges. And his demeanor had been so pleasant, so refreshingly different from the other men who frequented the shop. Tao decided to put her trust in him.

She folded the pamphlet, tucked it inside the book once more, and put it inside her purse. Then she took her keys, locked the till, put a sign on the door to say that she had gone out, and locked the door of the shop. She kept her head down as she made her way through the labyrinth of the muddy San Francisco streets toward the pier, trying to gain as little attention as possible from the unfamiliar men around her. When she reached the pier, she found a small wooden doorway over which a sign with the words, “Yi Wen’s Laundry Services,” had been hand-painted in flaking red paint. Drawing up her courage, she knocked.

James Yi answered the door and beamed at her. Immediately, Tao felt reassured. His smile was warm and contagious; it made Tao feel taken care of. He wore the exact same clothing as he had the day before-the same immaculate suit and waistcoat, the same crisp bowler hat. Tao began to suspect that this was the only suit he owned. “I didn’t think you’d come!” He told her, welcoming her into the cramped storefront.

“My license was denied,” was Tao’s terse, brief explanation.

“As you can see, so was ours,” he said. Tao looked around. The storefront was empty: no bags of laundry littered the corner, and no coins filled the till. Only a large stack of pamphlets identical to the one James had given Tao littered the table. It was an eerie sight, and Tao could not help but think of it as an omen predicting the fate of her own laundromat. She felt the sudden need to sit down. She reached for the chair that stood in the corner of the room and sat on it, surveying the miniature tragedy of the gutted room. James sensed her dismay, and without asking, he seemed to understand its origin. He reached his hand toward her and laid it on top of her shoulder. His touch was light akbatı escort but steady, and Tao found with surprise that she experienced no impulse to slap his hand away. She liked it, having his hand there; it steadied her, helped her breathe in and out.

“We’re converting it into a headquarters, of sorts, my father and I,” James continued, gesturing toward the room. “We didn’t know what else to do with the space.”

Tao was silent for a moment. “What the fuck am I supposed to do?” She asked finally. A listlessness began to overtake her, and she looked up at James in desperation, searching for answers in his smooth, empathic face.

“You want to know what I think?” He told her.

“Yes, tell me! Please!”

“I think we have two options. We either all stop working, or we all keep on working. But we have to do it together. All the Chinese laundrymen in the city. Coordinated action.”

His hand was still on Tao’s shoulder. She did not want him to let go. Two options was good. It made Tao feel less helpless to believe that she had options, and to know that she was not alone in choosing them. And James certainly seemed to believe it. She could feel the conviction emanating through his hand.

Tao drew in a deep breath and looked straight up into James’s eyes. “How can I help?”

“You could help me pass out fliers tomorrow, if you wanted to.”

“I’d like that.” Tao offered him a shy smile. Suddenly, impulsively, she took his hand in hers and kissed it. It was a fervent, feverish kiss. Tao touched the smoothness of his young skin with her lips and felt the callouses that were beginning to develop on his knuckles. She took in the feel of him as if to store away the remnants of his tenderness in the deep recesses of her mind.

“Oh!” James reacted. “I…I didn’t realize…” He took his other hand and ran it across the line between Tao’s hair and her face. “You don’t have to, you know…”

“I want to,” Tao said. And it was the truth. She did not want Jackson or Artie Smith or Xiao Peng or any of the other men who leered at her like hungry wolves. She wanted this man, who seemed to understand her, to see her. She wanted him to see all of her.

“Okay,” James grinned. He leaned down and kissed her on the lips. It was a precise kiss, almost coy; his lips pressed into Tao’s with just the right amount of pressure to set her insides tingling and make her crave more. He offered her his hand and led her into the back room of the shop, where large tables and empty washtubs abounded. Then he lifted her onto one of the tables, took hold of her head with both hands, and kissed her properly, deeply and fully. Tao moaned, letting herself be swept up in the sensation. “Tell me how you like it,” said James.

“What?” Tao did not know what he meant.

“Do you like it gentle? Or rough?”

Tao was taken aback. “I…no one’s ever asked me that before.”

James smiled. “Let me try this, then. I am going to kiss you in two different ways, and you tell me which way you like.” He took hold of her chin and tilted her head up. He kissed her, his lips caressing hers. As he did so, he ran a tender finger through her hair with one hand and held the back of her neck steady with the other. “That was the first way. Now for the second.” His hand tightened around her hair, pulling her head back. His other hand moved from the back of her neck to the front, squeezing her throat and inhibiting her breath. Again, his lips met hers, but this time there was a consumptive energy pulsing through them, a possessive curl around the edges. Tao’s heart fluttered. Her limbs tingled, and she felt a flush of moisture begin to gather between her legs.

“I like the second one!” She exclaimed.

“I can tell!” James held her hair in his grasp and kissed her again. “You like it rough, don’t you?” He began unbuttoning her dress.

“I guess so.”

“Do you like it when I do this?” He slipped his hand inside her dress, squeezed her breast, and pinched her nipple. It was a rousing pain that sent flickers of arousal pulsating through Tao’s whole body.

“Yes!” She gasped. “Yes.”

He tore her dress open, revealing her breasts, and slapped them hard with both hands. “How about this?” In response, Tao let out a low, guttural moan through gritted teeth and grinned at him. “Oh Mrs. Ling, I didn’t know you’d be this much fun!”

“Call me Tao. That’s my given name.”

“Oh Tao…” James held one of her breasts in each hand, and he was squeezing them possessively. He pushed her down so that she was lying on her back and held her legs apart. Then he paused, taking the sight aksaray escort of her most intimate regions. He ran a finger through her pubic hair, damp and warm with moisture, then spread the hair apart to reveal the shining pink entrance within. Tao felt him staring at it, consuming the forbidden sight with his eyes. She could feel his gaze upon her as if it were a substance.

Just as Tao began to be comfortable with James’s gaze, she felt a sharp pain across her genitals as he slapped her. She gave a start and a gasp and instinctively tried to close her legs, but James held them opened and slapped her again in her most sensitive of areas. “Take it for me,” he told her. “Three more slaps and then I’ll give you some pleasure.”

“Okay,” she told him. She took on a determined expression and stared into James’s eyes as he delivered the next blow, harder now, with his open palm. “Ow,” she whimpered, biting her lip. Another blow came, then another in quick succession, making Tao cry out in pain and clutch her fists. But she maintained eye contact with James the entire time.

As he had promised, James now began to caress Tao’s nether regions with his fingers. He inserted one finger, then two, then three, methodically stretching Tao’s entrance. “How do you like to get yourself off?” He asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Come on, we all do it. How do you make yourself come? Show me.”

Tao had never shown anyone that secret thing that she did alone at night behind the locked door of her tiny room. It was embarrassing, and far too indulgent a pleasure to share with anyone. But James’s entreaty had been so sincere, his desire so unwavering, that Tao found she could not refuse. She reached down and rubbed her fingers up and down the sides of her clitoris, showing James how she had learned to give herself an orgasm.

James breathed a reverent sigh. “Yes,” he said, almost to himself, “very good. Keep going.” She felt him position his member at her entrance. As she rubbed and moaned and gasped, he slowly lowered himself into her, stretching her tight hole as he entered it. Tao remembered how it had been ten years ago the last time someone had penetrated her. It had been pleasurable when her husband had done it, but nothing like this: each second was drawn out into an eternity, every tiny movement James made in and out sent waves of pleasure emanating throughout Tao’s body from her core to the tips of her fingers. Her breath was deep and labored. She felt as if each breath drew in more than air: she inhaled pasts, futures, and the tingling ecstasy of the present.

James timed his own orgasm to Tao’s. As she shuddered and tensed in preparation for the orgasm to escape her, his penetration increased in tempo and fervor. She cried her ascension, caught up in the moment of ecstasy, and he cried out in tune with her. He ejaculated onto her stomach. As he held onto her hand with one of his hands, Tao felt him shudder with exertion. He retreated to fetch a piece of loose cloth from one of the laundry tubs and returned a second later to wipe Tao’s body clean with the cloth.

It was this last gesture more than anything else, so humble, so caring, that made Tao feel as if she and James had fallen into the warm depths of intimacy with each other. She sat up and clutched his thin body fervently, as if trying to convince herself that he was really there. In a sudden burst of inspiration, she looked up at him. “Thank you,” she told him. “You have no idea how long it’s been…”

“Thank you!” He laughed.

“No really, you have no idea how many men hit on me on a daily basis, how many horrible men… You make me want you. You make me want to do things for you.” Tao hesitated, then continued. “Did you like…did you like hurting me?”

James looked taken aback. “I…I mean…I don’t want to really hurt you. But I did like giving you a little pain.

“Let me show you something.” Tao got down from the table and fetched her purse, inside of which was her ledger book. She flipped to back, where she kept her sketches of all those powerless men, and handed the book to James.

He let out a sharp dolphin-like laugh. “You have a twisted mind, my dear!”

“It’s a little hobby of mine. Something to pass the time. Choose a picture, any one you like. And I’ll let you do it to me.”

“Really?” James’s eyes gleamed. He studied Tao’s face, searching for a hint of hesitation or fear, but Tao gazed back at him with calm determination. James flipped through the pages of the book, running his fingers over the pencil drawings. “You have a real knack for this, you know? The pencil work, the shading…these could be in a museum.”

“Thank you,” she blushed.

James shut the book with a definitive flourish. “I’ve decided what I want to do.”

“And what’s that?”

“All of it. Every page of this book, from front to back.”

Tao felt her heart flutter. She grinned at James. “That’s quite a lot of positions,” she countered.

James grinned back. “Then we’d better get started.”

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