“I’m thinking about trying the Div,” announces Lenora.
“Oh, really?” I offer, non-committedly. Lenora is prone to outbursts like these.
Her face has been cut in half by the cubicle between us and I can’t see her mouth. Like this, we’re meeting through a kink in the shutters.
“They’re offering a one-month subscription discount if you sign up between now and December,” her eyes continue. “Two lives for the price of half, hey?”
I nod and widen my eyes, trying to convey as much enthusiasm as possible within the limited real estate available.
Lenora turns away for a moment, then back to me.
“Emile is on it,” she says, in a lowered voice. “Does he seem…” she hesitates, searching. “Happier, to you?”
I glance over. Emile’s a big guy – sort of lumberjack build – hunched over his desk. A few years younger than me, though he already looks older. Ostensibly, he’s plugging numbers into a spreadsheet, but even from here, I notice a familiar kind of dreaminess spilling across his features, filling the indents between his brows like grout.
On the train home, I receive a message from
Fuck. Eyes forward. Steady breaths.
I force myself to remain still, tensing every muscle, and try not to collapse in relief as a thin veil of glass descends, settling into the valleys of my cheekbones and onto the flat bridge of my nose, encasing me like ice.
The train resumes. My eyes are pressed to the window, roving back and forth in their socketed prison, watching a sea of black leather brogues step inside the carriage. Next stop.
Five silhouettes in an old apartment block, three television screens, two cats. Next stop.
A native tree – the name of which I still don’t know – flowering violet against a sky the colour of bruised peaches. Next stop.
A white-haired woman hovers beside me. I get up. She gives me a wide berth, then shuffles into the warm seat. Next stop.
A young man stumbles towards the opening doors. He frowns, fumbling for something. But they’re already closing, and he is already dissolving. Fat raindrops tear through his image, warping his features like stretch marks as the train plunges forward.
Sebastian is in the living room when I arrive, gazing out at the chrysanthemums on the balcony. We planted them last year – his favourite.
I walk towards him, extending my hand to his shoulder.
“Hey.” My voice sounds tinny, wrong, as though I’ve entered off-cue.
He turns and smiles: a salve. “Hey. How was work?”
I shrug. “Nothing crazy.” And that should be the end of it. We’ve moved on; I see the outlines of new words forming on his lips.
“Actually, Lenora’s thinking of trying the Div.” I blurt out.
I watch him carefully. He’s frowning.
“Good for her,” he says, finally. “She’s too young to be cooped up in that office all day.”
“But I’m not?”
“Of course not,” Sebastian laughs, shaking his head. “But we’ve already had our turn.” He looks up at me, deep sea eyes flecked with sunlight-filtered gold, and loops his fingers through mine. Inside, my own stare back – sharkish, narrow, black.
There had been others, sure, but no one to whom I could affix that elusive title, love. Perhaps it was because I wanted so badly to leave Penang, that I couldn’t conceive of loving someone within the wreckage of that beloved place. That my daylight and night-time selves; the irreconcilable binaries of woman and man; anyone who emerged through an auntie’s inviting smile, or from the dark recesses of some illicit club, could never be both.
But perhaps in Berlin. Though I hadn’t prepared for snow, nor the wind that numbed my ears and cheeks; a permanent condition of menthol-mint haze that felt as though I’d doused myself in the ice water fruit vendors stored in buckets to keep their offerings cool. I was used to the humidity – not exactly welcomed, but always expected – sewn into my skin like an invisible coat that, for the first time, melted and trickled down my cheek as I collected my bags from the carousel.
As I rode the train to der Mitte, an elegant dome of glass and steel rose from clean-cut sandstone – later described, by the tinny audio guide, as a feat of engineering. There was nothing back home that could be described as such, only the old colonial facades of George Town, or perhaps the precarious sculptural arrangement of four family members, balancing on a single motorbike.
I wandered beside the canal, marvelling at the puffy red and black coats that ambled along its frozen surface. Eventually, I checked into a hostel filled with English, American, Australian: a garbled pidgin song played too loud, and settled myself on the bottom bunk. I had a name; a woman that had moved a few months ago, the daughter of a friend of a friend.
Hi Jia, this is Jun. Siew gave me your WhatsApp🙂
She’s online. Typing.
Hi Jun! Nice to meet you (sort of). How long have you been in Berlin? 😊
Arrived this morning.
Wow, how was the flight?
Not terrible – though the plane food was🤢
Hopefully it’s better in Berlin?
How do you feel about potatoes, pickles and cheese?🙃
“You look different from your profile.”
“I think it’s the cold.” I grinned. “It gives a sort of brightening effect.”
Jia giggled, a sound like running water. “I know! The aunties keep wanting to know which whitening cream I use.”
We spoke in Hokkien, some English, a little German (we were both still learning). Our voices increased in volume and pitch, drifting through the urban jungle of der Tiergarten, earning strange looks from passers-by who wondered whether they’d stumbled on these siblings/friends/cousins/couple in a moment of impassioned anger or excitement.
The sky went from grey to purplish-grey. “I’m having a gathering at mine. Tomorrow night.” said Jia as we parted. “You should come. It’s mostly Berliners, some English people. I haven’t met too many other Malaysians, and not a single Penangite.”
“So, I’m the diversity hire?”
She laughed, shaking her head in farewell. As I watched her retreating form against the falling snow, I didn’t even try to shake the slow, stupid smile plastered across my face.
That night, two things happened: Jia greeted me at the door, her arm around another man. I spent the first half of the evening sulking; the second speaking to a man with hair the colour of silk-spun wheat.
I’d never kissed someone like Sebastian before. He was so tall I had to stand on tip-toe just to reach him. I leaned into him and his arms were firm, like the mortar and pestle in my mother’s kitchen. I kissed him like I really meant it, because of the way he looked at me: like I might fall apart, like he knew that this was the first time I had ever kissed another man.
We pulled apart, and I couldn’t look at him because my ears were burning. I saw Jia, watching from the corner, and something inside me withered. Because the fear was still there. Because Jia knew from where I’d come, and who I was meant to be, and the lifeline she once was became a tendril wrapped around my throat, dragging me to the depths of the ocean.
“Is this your first Division?” asked the man at the front desk.
“I’ll get you to fill out our waiver over there,” he said, perfunctorily, passing me the clipboard and pointing to the waiting room. “I’ll call you when we’re ready.”
I sat down in one of the identical teal-green seats. The was only one other person here: a woman, elder. Silvery hair, brown skin. She was absorbed in the form before her, scribbling details in hurried strokes, a ring of burnished gold around her finger.
Rest assured that our medical practitioners maintain strict doctor-patient confidentiality. Your responses will never be shared with any third-parties, and are recorded only to ensure that our patients are sound of mind, and understand the outcomes and possible side-effects of the Division they plan to undertake.
They laid me on my back and told me it shouldn’t hurt too much, just breathe through the pain the needle pierced layers of skin something rippled, electric, chemical, shivering base so deep it seized my whole body. Everything was green and purple, a colour-shifting sliding hue, fast and slow, searing white strobe light and black darkness, movement bleeding into the next frame.
And then it stopped. And it was like being torn in two, but slowly, in a good way; a sort of lazy, euphoric feeling that pooled through my body like warm syrup. Like falling asleep on a plane but my neck wasn’t there to jolt me back and I kept falling, spiralling through revolving doors and shifting crystalline structures made of iridescent white light, building towards some higher destination devoid of colour, devoid of sound, devoid of feeling, of everything.
When I woke again, the nurse ushered me into a separate waiting room, exactly the same as before, except now the seats were fuchsia pink. I sat for twenty minutes under observation, then strode through the doorway of the building, walked a hundred metres, and stopped. There was something to the air…a feeling, a density different than before. I glanced around, but the rectangular white buildings, the spacious streets either side, appeared unchanged. Only my head felt heavy, my neck spindly and weak, and my shadow seemed fainter, half of what it once was.
Given an infinite set of possibilities within a secondary world that shouldn’t exist but somehow does, I have all the choice I ever wanted. But I ran from Penang only to retreat back to her, plunging into the unknown just to reach again for familiar shapes.
The key slotted smoothly into the lock, rotating with a satisfying click.
“Are you coming?” she murmured, without turning back to look at me.
I could already see the shape of the question in the twilight, like pinpricks of light and possibility and destruction and decay: a swirling nebula a thousand years beyond the doorway. She wasn’t really asking, because she already knew, she knew it all, and still she knew that I would come.
I drifted past her and into the hallway. It didn’t hurt as much as I thought. Just a dull ache somewhere in the recesses of my brain.
She switched off the light. The blinds were open, but they wouldn’t see from up here. Her eyes were on me, her pupils soft and dark and velvet. I kissed her and something dislodged inside my chest, blood flowing freely from the wound like molten silver. I bit her lip to keep from crying out. She sighed deeply, and the space between our bodies dissolved.
The sheets were cool, our mouths agape in wordless chorus. For a moment his face his flaxen hair sharp eyes his shoulders god I love his shoulders o h and I remembered that he was home. The first time we met he choked on red wine spilled I reached out to wipe it with my thumb pushed her hard onto the mattress she unfolded onto her back like paper but we were late for our booking it’s a Wednesday Jun it’ll be empty he was right-
She looked up at me, and I at her. Our gazes collided, crashing like waves, as though her dusty shoebox apartment was the epicentre of it all.
My subscription ends on May fourteenth. After that, my shadow returns in full opacity, and the headaches stop, and so does my relationship with Jia.
Sebastian and I sit on the sofa. He puts his arm around me and I feel small, but safe, though the lump inside my chest compacts further, threatening to surrender to the night. I glance over at the chrysanthemums, their ghostly petals illuminated by moonlight.
Mourning flowers. But for what, exactly?
This piece was an entry in the 2022 Honi Soit Writing Competition.