At the station, I see my binary on the other train, arriving in a squall of blinding wind. Me—I’m on the opposite train, the one about to depart, doors already wheezing shut, sealing me in with the rest of the rush-hour crowd.
For a moment, we’re both wonderfully parallel, my binary and I, the compartments of our trains aligned. The phosphorescent oblong of the window frame makes a portrait of my binary’s outline: arm raised to hook xir wrist around one of the suspended handles. Limp-fingered. Head snug against the raised post of xir arm. Xir entire weight strung up by that wrist. Almost exactly how I’m standing right now.
We look nothing alike any longer, but my body recognizes xir. The tingling that starts in my forehead radiates across my eyes, down my neck, torso, the length of my spine, all the way to my groin. The train starts to move, throwing my balance, and then I’m pressed against the window, handprinting on the glass. As though I’m trying to reach across the gap between the tracks, through the glass and aluminium casings of the compartments that insulate us against each other.
I don’t have an explanation for what happened. All I know is I’d been feeling off for weeks.
I broke up with my girlfriend Mai for no reason and then the next day I ran to her office, begging her to have dinner with me. At dinner, I ate an entire plate of boiled squid pieces without offering her any before saying to her face, “This is not what I want to say, but honestly, nothing’s working. At all. That includes us.”
Mai pinched a cylinder of ice from her glass of tea and threw it at me. Then she left but not without telling me to make up my fucking mind.
That was it: I couldn’t make up my mind. About anything. I went out walking all through the city searching for nothing, coming home, and then going out again. Forgetting to eat, then buying food and being sick before ever consuming it.
The split happened while I was walking past the train station. It started from the top of my head. My skull chimed again and again with tiny bell-hammer notes that rolled up the whites of my eyeballs. Beneath my scalp, my nerves opened fire. The pain dulled quickly as my body released some kind of self-anaesthetizing enzyme, turning me numb all over.
The nearest toilet was inside the station. I locked myself in a cubicle even as the centre of my body turned spongy. I prodded the flesh on my neck, leaving fingertip-shaped dents in my skin. My scalp began to tear, from the top down. Another point of fission began right above my navel. Skin and bone and muscle softened, sludged, and breached as my body diverged along the invisible axis that determined my bilateral symmetry. My clothes were straining at the seams so I pulled them off.
Then I was halved like an apple, pressing one-handed against the wall for balance. My binary was the half that stepped away. The consciousness that opened in my binary’s one staring eye was new, too far away from me to be mine. I looked at xir. Xe studied me in return. One-armed, one-legged, with unfinished bones, half-slurry, garbled blood vessels, plasticine tendons that even then were lengthening, restructuring.
My face grew back. So did xirs. We regenerated the replacement halves of our separate bodies. Xe was a perfect copy of me.
I snap a selfie and study it before uploading it to the local community lookup. I haven’t changed. I’m sure of it. There are a few extra creases around my eyes, pulling my lids into a slight droop. I still don’t smile in selfies. But I look the same. It’s my binary who has changed over the years.
Xe must have surgically altered xir facial structure. I remember the glimpse of xir cheekbones, slanting in a way mine can’t. Xir forehead accentuating the rest of xir features instead of drawing attention to itself. Xir nose cut into a slim triangle.
Still, the lookup network’s AI recognizes some root of xir origin from my own uploaded selfie and hauls up a cache of data on my binary.
I skim through everything. The name hasn’t changed; it’s still mine, still Ellis Teoh. The date of birth is the same as well.
But the pronouns. My binary’s pronouns are listed as she/her. It feels like I’ve been punched in the soft mass beneath my ribs. I’d assumed my binary’s pronouns would be the same as mine. I’d fought for those pronouns all those years ago, wrote them along my lifelines, in the clefts between my knuckles, in bangles of ink around my wrists.
Her name is Ellis. She gets on the train. She is herself. She gets off the train. She sells seashells on the fucking seashore. Not me. She. I sing the sentences in my head, whisper her pronouns over and over, listening to the way they hiss between my teeth.
That’s not the only difference between us: she’s also married. When I stalk some of her many profiles, I see photos of her wife. It’s Mai. She went and married Mai. I haven’t been in touch with Mai, not since I fled ten years ago and moved to a new town. I never thought of Mai as someone I’d want to stick around with for long, but apparently this other Ellis does.
How could we have veered so starkly away from each other? Wasn’t she once part of me? If I go to her, if we see eye to eye, maybe the whole process will be reversed. Maybe half of me and half of her will detach and disintegrate, and the remnants of us, struggling for coherence, will somehow reconcile.
My binary arrives home in a rideshare. I watch her from the playground across the road like I’ve been doing every day for nearly a week.
She swipes across a console in the transport, paying off her tab before getting out. Her hair creeps past her shoulders, striped with ugly pale highlights.
Her gait is still mine, slightly pigeon-toed and slump-shouldered. Some traces of me in her are indelible.
The door slides open and Mai appears. They kiss, flick laughter at each other. Mai and I were never like that. We were always so tense and elaborate about everything, trying to saturate every small movement, every word we said to each other with arcane meaning, trying to read clues about each other’s psyche and mistrusting each other’s replies. (“Oh, I’m good. You don’t have to worry. What does it mean for you if you’re worrying about me?”)
It got to a point where we couldn’t reach across the table for chilli sauce without eyeing each other, intrigued and suspicious, saying, “You could just ask me to pass it? Did something go wrong? Are we on speaking terms today?”
Mai and this other Ellis seem happy in a way that’s almost embarrassing.
The playground I’m in looks like it hasn’t seen a child in decades. There’s a heavy log seesaw and a bouncy caterpillar mounted on springs. A dried-up paddling pool full of dirt, the bottom covered by a sheet of dead leaves. My palms, gripping the chains of the swing I’ve been rocking on, smell like I’ve sweated rust.
After an hour of stalling, I finally cross the road and approach the house. I’ve pulled my cap low over my larger-than-life forehead and put on an oversized pair of shades. The speech is weaving itself in my head—all the things I’ll say to my binary. I might shed tears. I might press accusations on her. Is it so bad being me? I want to ask her. Do you really have to be so different?
The door slides open when I ring. It’s not my binary standing before me; it’s Mai.
I stare at her for a long time and she stares back. The speech peters out in my mouth. Nothing. Mai doesn’t say anything at first, but the frown lines dredge deeper into her face, and then I see that she doesn’t recognize me at all.
“You just going to ring and stand there?” Mai says. She’s wearing big silver-rimmed glasses and a lot of black stone jewellery around her neck.
I swallow and try to distort my voice into a fake-sounding rasp. “Is Ellis there?”
“You know my wife?”
“In a way.”
Mai squints at the melon-wedge swath of my forehead, at the lump of my nose, my cropped hair. “Do I know you?”
“Probably not,” I lie. The way she looks at me—it’s like she’s on the cusp of a memory, a snapshot of someone from a different timeline.
“So, I don’t know you, and yet you know my wife?”
“You keep tabs on everybody your wife knows?”
Her eyes turn into crevices. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
There’s no resemblance between Mai and the laughing wife I’d seen not too long ago, greeting my binary at the door. I’m starting to recognize this Mai, and maybe even like her a little more. By the looks of the screwed-up corners of her eyes, still netted in that frown, she’s getting closer and closer to calling me by name. Maybe she hasn’t changed that much after all.
“I’m sure I know you. From somewhere.”
“No, don’t think so.” Then I decide to play with her. I can’t resist—she brings out the worst kinds of play in me. I shift my stance, so I’m standing the way I used to around her, hip leaning to the side of the wall, one hand in my hair, head to one side. Giving her a sliver of a glance, a slice of my expression. That “slice of judgement” look that Mai once said was what attracted her to me in the first place. It was the only pose she could imagine me in when we weren’t together, when she missed me.
The shift must really unnerve her in the wrong way because her gaze snaps straight to mine. “Who the fuck are you and what do you want with Ellis?”
I start to back away. I’m not prepared for this at all. “Hey, sorry, didn’t mean to disturb you, okay? This is a mistake. I’ll go.”
“A mistake? You and Ellis—what’s between you two? Oh, of course. It’s so obvious. Of course. Fucking of course.”
I start laughing. I can’t help it. It’s fucking hilarious that this is the first thing she can think of. Me, some shady figure from her wife’s past who has sunk xir claws into their charming domestic arrangement. Me, her ex. The ex of myself. The interloper.
Mai turns and calls over her shoulder. “Ellis! Someone here for you. Another one of your dirty little secrets. Ellis!”
I turn and break into a fast stride, trying not to run. It’s like she’s calling both of us, me and that shadow surfacing from the weird domestic depths of the house.
Ten years is plenty of time to get shit done. You can score a handful of qualifications and get a job that doles out a decent salary. You can find yourself a nice place to live, and if you’re successful enough, actually own it, buy it off the phantom real estate corporations that own so many of these housing estates. You can find yourself, fit yourself into a body you’re comfortable with, get married and carve out your share of a happy ending.
Or you can do absolutely nothing and live in transit all the time. You can slip through jobs. Adapt to a new city, learn to change trains and then how to miss them because you no longer want to get on them. Meet people and then leave them before their names wrap around your lips and tongue like clingfilm. Spend all your time wondering if what happened to you was a fucking hallucination or not, pinching your arms, pulling your hair, trying to do splits while holding on tightly to the edge of the table. And yet you don’t dare look back. Ten years can hollow you out if you don’t use them.
After the fission process cut me in two, while my binary and I were both in the midst of regenerating our missing halves, I lifted my right hand and she raised her left. I touched her cheek; she stroked mine. We studied each other’s shoulders, breasts, stomach, rounded hips and thighs and body hair. I trailed my hand across her half-face to the growing, feathering, writhing mass of her body and felt her own fingers brush against the rawness of my exposed windpipe.
I recoiled from her, from the disgust on her face, which must have been reflected on mine. We were a mirrored phenomenon. But when our bodies were whole again, two separate entities standing awkwardly in the cubicle of a public toilet, she broke away from my stare and examined her own hand at eye level, fingers flexing, fist clenching and unclenching like the first trace of a rebellion.
My mind was clear that day. My heartbeat slowed right down and I nearly forgot to breathe as a miracle of thought dawned on me. Very calmly, I put on my jeans and shirt.
“Where are you going?” my binary asked, a note of panic in her voice. My voice. “You can’t leave me here like this.”
I picked my jacket up off the floor and pushed it to her chest, careful not to touch her skin. “I need to get you some clothes. You stay here.”
“What happened to us?”
“I don’t know. Stay right here and wait for me. We’ll talk when I get back.”
“How long will you be?”
“I’ll run back as fast as I can.”
I left the toilet and stood outside the door. I thought I heard a sudden, sharp intake of air from inside. Perhaps a sob. I laid two fingers on my pulse. The rhythm was so slow, so beautifully languid that I could hardly feel it. My limbs were loose. They flowed like air. Someone walked past me, music blaring from their headphones, and I recognized the song. I sang a few lines as I got on the first train that pulled into the station and forgot about my binary, about Mai, about the train itself.
The other Ellis and Mai are having a fight. I followed them both when they left home together to go out for dinner. From outside the restaurant, they look like a pair of statues, hardly moving at the table, their eyes locked onto each other.
They leave dinner, both stony, and call separate rideshares. But they both end up back at their house.
The sound of their amplified conversation leaks outside, graduating into screaming, crying, laughing, and finally, the sound of something shattering. The door opens again and out comes my binary, striding down the road.
It’s my chance to talk to the other Ellis without Mai getting in the way. I start after her, but she’s angry, and the anger pumps through her walk so she’s verging on a run.
I know this walk all too well; when I’m engulfed by this kind of anger I can barely even keep up with myself, with my thoughts. I go barrelling into passers-by. I skip across busy streets, go through doorways of buildings, trespassing on private property just so I can take shortcuts I’ve never been consciously aware of. This kind of rage makes me light-footed and impossible.
The other Ellis takes her phone out of her pocket and switches it off. She tilts her head upward, giving that slanted look toward the night sky. That slice-of-judgement look. Exhales so loudly like she’s spitting at the clouds.
“Fuck all of this,” she says, and I can’t tell if she’s laughing. She doesn’t see me.
I don’t want to follow her after all. She ebbs away from me, the curve of the street ushering her beyond my line of sight. I’ve never felt more benign toward her, even though we’ve never actually had a proper conversation.
She must be feeling how I felt that day, ten years ago, practically running out of that toilet, onto the train, never sparing a thought for who or what stayed behind.
I start walking away, but I’ve not gone ten steps before I get light-headed. My sight doubles, and for a moment, the street before me is replicated; there are two sets of streetlamps, houses, playgrounds, two arrangements before me that swerve and weave into each other.
Almost like a choice: Can I choose this reality with this street and this set of houses, or that other one? What is at the end of this street, and how is it different to the ending of that other street? Opportunity or yet another loss.
My skin bristles. I feel it distantly, as though I’ve been elevated out of my flesh and connected to my body only by a vague cat’s cradle of senses. The muscles in my body tighten and numbness blossoms in my torso, radiating outward.
It’s happening again.
There’s nowhere else to go except to the house I’d been watching, so I stumble back, retracing my steps calm as I can, even as everything becomes dizzying and unstable. Even as I’m about to tear apart yet again.
Ellis is not there, but still I slam my palms against the door, my body straining with the onset of fission, my eyes seared by tears and my splitting vision. Opportunity or loss. Someone moves inside the house. Maybe it’s Mai. Maybe someone only the other Ellis knows. The footsteps become louder and I bang at the door harder than ever, begging to be let in, to be let back in.
Fission was first published by Anathema: Spec from the Margins, a tri-annual speculative fiction magazine featuring work by Queer/Two-Spirit People of Colour/Indigenous creators. Read more about the author in this in-depth interview.