g r a c e    s h u y i    l i e w

Halfway, Berlin


Arrangement is luck. I wake up one morning in Berlin to a swollen top lip. Each day I stare in the mirror at a face formed and reformed by disparity. Probably a combination of bad sleep, lack of fruit in my diet, and inertia. Or an infection of a two-month-old philtrum piercing.

Berliners apologize to me, a voyeur, for the gray December skies. We are three days away from the longest night of the year. By 4pm it's pitch dark. The right conditions can split wide open what's self-evident. My top lip, puffy as a baby's red-tinged cheek, marks me as transitory, and I am free to appear safe to others. Embedded under that lip is an assurance of evaporation. The white pus is wet and persistent.

Google tells me to check for heat at the affected site. Saltwater or another kind of purge. I order milchkaffees at cafes and flirt with women and forget to check for pain or redness. I become newly private as the proprietor of diminishing smiles.

An ex emails me about under-bridge parties with marginalia reminders of the ways this city gestures at despair that amount to universal hospitality. If I am a girl dispersing into invisible mental fragments, then I didn't attend the bridge party, didn't kiss a perfect-skinned German girl.

In spite of my disappearing face, in spite of my swollen top lip, I let my white-loving splinter bury itself further under my skin.

I angle for perfect eyebrows. White women wish me a happy morning that day I slept only three hours. On the U-Bahn my eyes well up. Observation originated from cities, and I only want to listen. To see is to approximate the source of lack, and teary eyes become fully functional to recreate perception.

In another way I have been displaced before the time of the city.

I used to travel well. Now I wear my body as infiltration. The exchange of spaces occupies me up to the last unvetted thought. People unwilling to remain in sadness wear their bodies as readily charged, ready to flex violence against the other bodies entering their spheres.

I cross when it's red and yell in Chinese at a car screeching to a halt. I know how language flattens lives. Not knowing Go back to your country! in German aerates me into dimensions.

I make myself enter every one of them even though the English bookstores haunt me. The roof of the building is misshapen under the white weight of expatriates hungry for the Beats, the Lost Generation, the Brat Pack. Exile does not discriminate privacy. I add some color and gender variance to the window displays to recentralize exclusion. The feminine mystique takes pride in chewing with sealed lips.

A British-accented owner asks about my lip, directs a customer toward Bret Easton Ellis.

I sneak a book of poetry under my parka into the hail and rain.

A market crowds the Berlin wall. What do you see when you see me, I want to grab a person by the elbow and back them into a wall.

Anger can froth some mobility into sadness, even if not all sadness is static. With some lag I group all my fears into a tall white wall I forget about and repeatedly knock into. The spiders in a dream scuttle toward the wall and scale it with ease.

A New Yorker critic of Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe invites his reader to envision this: Germany affecting sincerity through individual citizens, each carving one of six million names onto the cement blocks. When I visited at night the children were still skipping in penitence. Why should it have been left unmarked? Why prize the pristine gray of a blank slate over candor?

There is a naiveté in isolation. What does it mean to share a birth country? Your fingers curl outward instead of inward. This is how my mother valorizes with guilt my unflinching strut exiting the familial circle.

I have no desire to infantilize the trope of the mother. Here are my movements flinted with forgottenness, disallowed any intervention. I become attached to the swell in my lip. On the day I left I did fix my gaze on a stranger: Tell me about the last time you were unhappy with me.



GRACE SHUYI LIEW's work can be found in West Branch, cream city review, Twelfth House, Puerto del Sol, Madison Review, H_ngm_n, TYPO, Winter Tangerine Review, PANK, and others. She is from Malaysia.

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