Editor’s Note: Read an interview with Sara Freeman about her writing process.
Everything overheard in those days. German on the streets, my mother and my father on the phone. They’re only children. My mother, Philip, and I: three bodies stuck inside the bright-yellow cage of a phone booth. He was in Bosnia on assignment. Assigned to what? We didn’t know. We were only children. We knew far away; we knew war-torn; we knew 10 days, maybe two weeks, maybe more. We knew we had moved to Berlin earlier that summer and turned a page we could no longer turn back.
The flight home to Toronto was a year away, a lifetime in our little lives. By August I’d stopped wishing for the rec center and its too-chlorinated pool, for the park near our house and the counselors who brought us there, those miraculously stoned 14-year-olds, letting us climb on the monkey bars and making us necklaces out of marigolds and calling it “camp.” I missed my best friend Eva, but not as much as I’d thought. And even when I missed her, I liked it, my missing, this nothing the same anymore, this everything suddenly in the past tense. I had been made for the habit of missing, living out of a single suitcase with the same four T-shirts and two pairs of soccer shorts, the one jean dress, which I wore only because it made my mother smile, the same way she smiled when she looked at herself in the mirror, a smile equal measures modesty and conceit. The smile of a discerning woman. I lived for those smiles, the rare exception of them; we all did.
It was my brother, Philip, 18 months older, who had a hard time of it. He would turn 13 that summer but had started wetting his bed like a much younger boy. Not every night, no, but once and then again and then again. Back at home, I might have let myself enjoy it, even gloat a little. He who could do nothing wrong, he who had been everyone’s favorite, my mother’s particular pet. But here, instead, I sat on the foldout chair in the kitchen of the cavernous short-term-rental apartment and watched as my mother stuffed the soiled single sheet into the too-small washing machine and turned to me with her index finger to her lips, lifting her coal-dark eyebrows, and I thought about how I was being asked to keep a secret all the time now.
One evening, waking up uneasy, aware of something happening just outside my reach—moving out of bed with the inevitability of a dream. My mother on the patio, cigarette in her mouth, like the movie star she was not. I let out a little yelp. Her words, their sound escaping my mouth, How could you? She looked surprised, although less alert than I would have thought; stubbed the cigarette out on the balcony railing, and came over to me, smelling of a stranger, cigarettes and something else, a new smell blossoming from somewhere deep. When she tucked me back in, she pointed to the other sliver of bed where my brother slept, his face contorted and red; Stumm, she whispered, our favorite German word. Our second secret. My brother’s bad habit and hers. She was training me, I was beginning to understand, to store them away.
In the daytime, walking in the Tiergarten. My brother’s mouth pressed to the spout of a water fountain, my mother not even saying don’t. The junkies sitting around the entrance of the Zoologischer Garten, girls not much older than me, with their agitated German shepherds barking at their own tails. I asked my mother why the dogs were like that, and she told me fleas reflexively, and I thought about the tiniest facts and how adults accrued them, how many there were that I had yet to encounter. How would I ever catch up?
Every evening, sharing an ice-cream cone from the Häagen-Dazs on Kurfürstendamm, my mother not even complaining about the tourist prices. With my father away, bills were dispensed from the neat stack in my mother’s wallet like a magic trick, ta-da, not a perpetual rummaging in deep pockets, coins jangling, my father’s nervous habit. You’re in Europe now, he’d warned us when we’d arrived at Tegel Airport. We needed to keep an eye on prices and remember the exchange rate, which could sneak up on us at any moment. My brother perked up then, literal-minded as he was, terrified of those calculations, the exponential dangers of being abroad. My father, before leaving on assignment, had even loaned him his cheap Casio calculator. No matter where we went, Philip set to converting the price of each purchase from deutsche marks into Canadian dollars, even though the currencies were nearly on par.
How many phone conversations inside those yellow phone booths, with the playing-card-size ads for call girls papering every side? My mother calling Realtors in German that sounded like her native French—a language she had always kept from us—those guttural sounds made pert and pinched in her mouth. Breasts everywhere. In ads on the U-Bahn and plastered to buildings and construction fencing. The Beate Uhse Erotik Museum taking up an entire city block, with its displays of tasseled and G-stringed mannequins. One night, on our way back from ice cream, two women—girls, really—waiting in their miniskirts and go-go boots by a lamppost, their eyes surveying the road. I stopped and looked: a car slowing down, a beat-up shoebox with a man inside it with an ugly mustache, the woman looking to one side and then the other, and then her head dropping down to meet the mustache. A strangely elegant dance. My mother telling me, Don’t stare. I couldn’t tell if she disapproved of the scene, or if she didn’t want to make its actors feel uncomfortable. She didn’t seem to mind about anything in those days, or her minding was different, a kind of loose minding I’d always envied in other mothers.
And then, not a secret anymore. She smoked continually, inside the house and in the café under the arches of Savignyplatz, where she drank not one, but two cappuccinos in a row, always identical in their stout white ceramic cup and saucer and delivered by a waiter in a tux. We must have made a funny trio: my mother and I, our hair dark as ink; my brother, a redhead like our father, with his little calculator, waving my mother’s smoke away. Hot chocolate mit Sahne in a glass mug for me, with its dollop of whipped cream floating luxuriously at the top. Philip ordered strictly Coca-Colas, refusing orange Fanta, which I knew he liked. He boycotted everything German, with his Canadian flag sewn onto his backpack.
This was West Berlin. 1996. My mother not yet 35, the age I am now. We never went to the east in those days. Only my father went on assignment. Berlin had been reunified, but you couldn’t have guessed it from the way we lived. The few expats we’d been put in touch with all lived in the West. The John F. Kennedy Schule, where we would be attending fifth and sixth grade in September, was in the West, in leafy Zehlendorf.
My father had explained to us before we moved: He had been posted by his newspaper to track Berlin’s reconstruction, the country’s reunification. But I didn’t think the city needed rebuilding. It was beautiful, broken as it was. We had gone to see the Wall during our first week. Our father had briefed us before the visit, given us a loose chronology of the Cold War, shown us pictures from the fall: Berliners from the west and east dancing on the Wall’s thick lip. Fall seemed a passive word when it came to all those people wanting the same thing at the exact same time.
Back at home, when we were alone together, my father spoke to me almost continuously. He spoke and I listened. On the way to dance class and soccer practice, on the way to the supermarket, and to sleepovers at Eva’s. He never seemed to mind that I was a child. He spoke to me the same way he spoke to his few adult friends, to the people he interviewed over the phone. I don’t think he knew how else to speak to me. He was the kind of parent who seemed perplexed by the lives of the young, as though he had never had a childhood. He retained facts with exquisite precision.
It was odd, then, that he should love my mother, who appeared in her very nature like the opposite of a fact one might retain. Or maybe it was this—her counterfactuality—that had drawn him to her in the first place. When my father was with her, he spoke quietly, in a choppy and informational way. They did not argue, or if they did, did not allow us to overhear. But it was impossible not to notice the way her mood might shift irretrievably in his presence, the skin around her jaw tightening, the divot between her eyes deepening, her body becoming more rigid and upright—all of the physical cues she gave my father to keep his distance, his hushed compliance. I wished, in those moments, for my father to be a different kind of husband, one who might tease her, might take her out of herself, but I think he had a great respect for a person’s inborn right to her inborn seriousness. And there was complicity between them; I saw that too. The distance she demanded and his careful maintenance of it created a world unto itself, just large enough to house the two of them.
We were waiting for our furniture and the rest of our clothes. We had packed light, hoping the shipping container would arrive in a few weeks. But it had been six now; the first apartment we’d planned to move into had fallen through. Fallen through what?
And so we visited dozens of apartments. At first, the three of us: my mother, my brother, and I. When my brother said he’d had enough of snooping around other people’s stuff—It’s weird, he told us accusingly, as though we were enjoying it too much—my mother and I went alone. There were those apartments so emptied of life, so generic, that it was impossible to imagine reviving them with our presence. But there were also apartments so palatial, so bohemian, with their open-planned kitchens and proliferations of glass jars—delicate strands of black tea, swirls of pasta—so nakedly not ours.
We spent a few days in Charlottenburg, seeing apartments there, but I knew that they were beyond the budget the newspaper had set. My mother, under the spell of the stately apartments, the ornate moldings, the high ceilings, acted as though money was of little concern, agreeing on the spot to move into a quiet apartment with a marble-counter-topped kitchen. But that evening, a rare fight erupted between my parents over the telephone, and the next day we had to bow out of the lease. Mein mann, my mother gave, in her rudimentary German, as an excuse. Mann meant “man” and “husband” at the same time. I found this strange, that one should imply the other. I had no intention, even then, of ever being anyone’s frau.
Later, my mother picking clothes out for us at the C&A department store with her version of exuberance, moving easily through the aisles, plucking items off the rack. I loved my mother best in these moments, when I coasted on the wake of her decisiveness, her confident tastes. Cute, my mother said, when I came out of the changing room wearing a tight ribbed polo with white jean shorts. She arranged my collar, tucked a strand of hair behind my ear, very cute. Philip told me I looked weird, but when I asked him why, he said, You just do. Like a weirdo. He had always been sweet before, shielding me as best he could from the bullying I had endured in our middle school in Toronto. But he brooded all the time now.
I could tell from the Turkish families and sturdy German grandmothers wearing floral housecoats that the store was not fancy. My mother loved to shop, but she only bought refined pieces for herself, keeping the habit of luxury her own. In our first week without my father, she had bought a pair of sunglasses for 175 Deutschmarks, followed by a silk blouse for 250. The boutique’s attendant, a young giraffe of a woman with a liar’s gap, had said, Sehr, sehr schön, commenting on my mother’s silhouette. My mother had looked in the full-length mirror in the way she did in those days, with a coy self-satisfaction that seemed like a secret she kept stored up only for herself.
From time to time, after the purchase of the blouse, I would go to her room, find the stiff bag hanging behind the door, visit the crinkly paper, touch the shirt’s almost impossible weightlessness. I didn’t care about clothes; I cared about her, how she would look in them, how she would feel in them. She had told me, on the way back to the apartment, where my brother sat plastered to the couch watching a recorded episode of Melrose Place, not to tell him or my father about what she’d bought.
Rainy days spent on the low couch watching the TV shows Eva had recorded for me onto VHS as a parting gift. Philip watching alongside, not even complaining that they were mostly soap operas. Mom reading and smoking on the balcony, not minding what we did. In the early afternoons, she went out and came back with groceries: supermarket potato salad and cold cuts for lunch and frozen pizzas and a salad for dinner, as if she had forgotten how to cook. At home, she had cooked every meal for us, garlic-stewed lamb sprinkled with immaculately chopped parsley, effortless salads bright with lemon and olive oil, nut cakes soaked in orange-blossom syrup, miraculously light, all recipes she’d learned from her Sephardic mother, my grandmother, whom my brother and I had met only twice—both visits so short, it had been impossible to glean more than the fact that she was opposite to my mother: loud, and thickset, and so aggressively affectionate that Philip had burst into tears when she’d squeezed him goodbye.
When the apartment in Charlottenburg fell through, we stopped looking for a place to live. We’ll let your dad do the digging when he gets back, my mother said, with a wry lilt. I knew that our sublet was ending in just a couple of weeks, but I said nothing, following her lead, as I always did. My father had been gone for three weeks, nearly four, and we no longer counted down the days. At night, I heard my brother crying, and instead of asking him what was wrong, I let him. We were each, it seemed, in our new confinement, in our new closeness, entirely on our own.
After the rain, a period of surprising heat. We peeled ourselves from the couch, took the U-Bahn to the Olympic swimming pool in Spandau. The place was packed with families. Bodies young and old on display. Philip grew red, chin down, eyes at his feet. We found a rare spot of unoccupied grass, where we lay our brittle bath towels. My mother on her belly, back to the sun. I bent down and undid the straps; I didn’t need to be asked. I found her handbag and took out the suntan lotion and squeezed the cream into my hands. Gross, Philip said, in his perpetual embarrassment, looking down at his Game Boy. The cream was cold against my hot hands; I massaged until the sunscreen disappeared into her back, hoping it might last longer, giving me something to do while I was here, letting me stay with my mother’s familiar body, rather than the dozens of others calling my attention nearby.
Old men with their enormous, globular bellies. Girls in their teens smoking nearby, no adult intervening. I never wanted to leave. When our father had told us that we would be moving to Berlin, he had said four years, and that had seemed like an eternity. I had cradled the telephone for hours in my room, crying to Eva, planning ways I might stay with her family in Toronto. But four years now seemed too few. I would be 15 then, just as old as those girls over there. We had been inseparable, Eva and I, but I no longer missed her. It seemed that I had been carrying on with her because I hadn’t yet known about the world, all the other people in it.
Then, Sabine. Not the first day at the pool but the second. At first, just a stranger on a towel a few meters away from mine, topless, me trying not to stare. Oblong nipples, dark and distended like stretched-out full moons. My mother, with one eye open, only half-listening to what Sabine was saying—she had started talking without a greeting, a stranger on a towel next to mine, our sudden intimacy, no introduction necessary. Philip, playing Tetris, pretending, successfully, not to care. Sabine was tan with an unevenly cut bob, no doubt something she’d fashioned on her own. She had hairy armpits; I tried not to look at those either. I’d never seen hair there on a woman before, but it had the same illicit urgency as the dark triangles in the pornos passed around at school. Sabine wanted to know where we were from; she had heard us speaking English. She had spent, she told me, a year in Wisconsin as a teenager on exchange and it was the most beautiful place in the world. Have you been? she asked, as if I were not an 11-year-old child. I told her I hadn’t, but that it seemed like one of those places that had more livestock than people in it, the kind of comment I’d heard my father make in the past. Laughter, hers, deep and from the belly, You’re funny. It’s good to have a sense of humor in your age, which made me blush. I wanted, from then on, above all else, to make Sabine smile, to make her laugh. Sabine spoke English well, save for her prepositions, which made the whole world, in her mouth, a little askew.
My mother and Sabine spoke for a while and I could sense that my mother was glad to finally be speaking English again, to be having a conversation with someone other than me. Back home, my mother had always been entirely self-reliant, the kind of mother who didn’t easily make friends with the other mothers or the neighbors or her colleagues at work. But she and Sabine got along immediately. Or Sabine spoke and my mother listened.
We spent the afternoon together. Sabine, we learned quickly, was a student at the university, and still, at age 29, working on her undergraduate degree in sociology. Looking back on it now, my mother must have envied Sabine this freedom, to study at the university for so many years without financial pressure. My mother had completed only the first two years of a degree in business administration before leaving Montreal for a summer job in the offices of an insurance company in Toronto. She’d met my father and stayed on, closed the door on her life before him.
Sabine had an ease about her, so that when we got up from our towels to walk back to the U-Bahn, so did she, and instead of taking it in the direction of her apartment, she jumped onto our line, and spoke to us until we’d arrived at our stop, and then, as if it were the most natural thing, walked us all the way to the door of our apartment building. I could tell Philip found this infuriating, as he always did when other people tried to burst our sacred family bubble. My mother and I watched her with rapt attention, and for the first time since we had arrived in the strange city, we both felt taken care of. We made plans to see one another again the next day, or Sabine suggested it and my mother agreed. And just like that, Sabine was in our lives. Sabine, of the loose-fitting skirts and tops, breasts—untethered, outlined by a silk camisole—that I couldn’t help but track, shifting beneath her shirt as she moved, as she talked. Her smell like baby powder, and something botanical, the smell of all drugstores here, a scent that I would later come to think of simply as Germany.
Trips to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and the Fernsehturm and the Pergamon Museum were swiftly deemed boring by Sabine. Instead, a walking tour of all of the apartments she’d either lived in or thought of living in, and the ones her boyfriends and close friends had lived in too. This is where I lost my virginity, she informed us, pointing to a white-and-pink facade on a sunny street in Moabit. He was sleeping inside a bed, you know, that is close with the ceiling, so it was not a very good idea, she explained. A mezzanine, my mother providing the English word whenever Sabine couldn’t find it. How old were you? My mother asked. Thirteen, Sabine said tonelessly. My mother must have found this very young, but she said nothing. Instead, she smiled, Sabine looping her arm in hers and continuing the tour. And that is where we broke up, she said, pointing to the intersection of two broad boulevards nearby. Sabine had a way of making it seem like a life, for being one’s own, was worthy of commemoration.
My mother never spoke about her own life this way, even though I knew hers had been an interesting one, full of rupture and self-definition. The fact of her, her past, always just beyond our reach, a living mystery. Why, I’d asked my father earlier that year, did we only rarely visit our grandparents in Montreal, or did our mother ignore calls from her sisters, who seemed, from the photographs at least, lively and sweet? My father had simply said, Your mother is a very complicated woman, as if we were two men sharing in our private language, in our incomprehension.
We must have met Frank soon after that. Frank was, Sabine explained, her partner, a word I had only ever heard used in the context of business or crime. Frank—with his tight jeans and stringy, greasy dirty-blond hair, eyes blue and nearly cruel, a tiny gold hoop in his left ear—looked more like a criminal than a businessman. He smoked constantly, a brown stain where the filter hit the front tooth. He smelled too, of stale cigarettes and body odor, and something else, pine maybe, which was meant to mask it. On warm days, it only intensified the smell of his sweat.
Frank, we pieced together from his digressive, elliptical storytelling, was from a town in the former East, a cow farm, where he’d grown up a strict Catholic. I grew up in the Scheisse, he liked to say, laughing, always looking at me when he made the joke, even though it was my mother’s response that he tracked afterward. And I wasn’t one of these guys who wanted to come to the West: America, Bruce Springsteen, that kind of thing. I miss it every day. And then Sabine would say something in German, just to him, something that sounded to me unspeakably technical, that I could not associate with love or romance. Yet Frank would respond, in English now, But of course, I would not know Sabine, and they would kiss—open and lingering and a little bit wet. Philip looking at his feet, my mother unfazed, as though the woman who’d spent our childhoods placing her hands over our eyes whenever an intimate scene came onto our small television screen had been suddenly replaced.
Philip disliked Frank right away. I don’t know why we’re spending time with that trash, he said one morning, when my mother had made plans for us to spend the whole day with Sabine and Frank. I didn’t know you to be such a snob, my mother said, slapping him lightly across the face. She seemed as taken aback as we were by the gesture; she and Philip had been inseparable back home. In Toronto, it was in my brother’s presence that my mother had been happiest, most at ease. But there was no question of canceling our plans. The day trip to Treptower Park had been Frank’s idea; he was appalled, although not especially surprised, he let us know, by how conservative we’d been in our explorations of the city’s former East.
That afternoon, Frank, as though aware of Philip’s objections to his personality, seemed set on taunting him with it. On the walk to the S-Bahn station from our apartment, he teased Philip about his near-empty backpack. Each time we passed a phone booth or a vending machine, he made a show of sticking two fingers into the coin dispenser to check for stray change. Frank finally found a deutsche mark coin in a cigarette machine and, unbeknownst to Philip, stuck it in the front pocket of his backpack, winking at me as he did. Frank must have been feeling lucky, because when my mother took our tickets out from her wallet so that Philip could validate them—one of Philip’s few remaining pleasures—Frank grabbed her gently by the arm, intercepting the exchange. We were tourists, Americans, he explained. Canadians, Philip mumbled. Certainly, Frank continued, we could get away with saying we didn’t understand German if a ticket inspector came onto the train. And if you get the fine, I pay it, Frank said. And if you don’t get inspected, you give me the tickets. Sabine rolled her eyes; Philip glared at Frank. Of course, there was nothing fair about the offer, but my mother looked at Frank and smiled, satisfied with the terms. It’s a deal, she said, a girlish glint in her eye. It was a long journey—11 stops—my stomach tight the entire time, picturing the moment we’d get caught, what would come afterward. We would have to tell my father, explain to him what we’d done: We had not paid the fare, on a dare. Why would you do such a thing? he would ask us, with the tone of moral incredulity he used whenever questions of civic responsibility, of personal integrity—however minor—were at stake.
Inspections were frequent, but we got lucky that day. At the Treptower Park Station, my mother deposited the unused tickets into Frank’s expectant palm; he slipped them into the back pocket of his jeans and said, Schönen Dank! My mother did not look dejected. She appeared light, celebratory, even, as though she had gotten away with something too. From then on, Philip called Frank and Sabine “The Scheissters,” and to show my solidarity, I called them that too, even though I didn’t think it was fair that Sabine should be absorbed into the insult.
Frank called me Frank, even though my name was Frances, Frankie to my family and to Eva. But Frank thought it was too much of a coincidence that our names should be so similar, and so he shortened my name and made it into his own. I didn’t mind having a new name in this new place and so I didn’t complain. I neither liked nor disliked Frank. I merely saw him for what he was: a man, not my father, who was suddenly always there.
I had never seen a man’s body so close up, not even my father’s. Frank invited us to look at his in a way I understood women usually did, his T-shirts tight and worn so that we could make out his chest, lean and muscular, the veins pulsing down his arms as he moved, his limbs long and articulated. He had a strangely narcotic effect on my mother, so that when he spoke, she watched, impassive, until a languid smile emerged, which seemed to connect her to some internal circuit board.
Frank was a journalist too, he explained, but not the kind your father is, he told me, putting his arm around my shoulders and squeezing. I write about politics and ideas in newspapers you or your father probably haven’t heard of. I wanted to tell him that my father had ideas too. He was the smartest man I knew. In these moments, I forced myself to remember my father—the sprinkling of freckles on his fair arms, his hair a funny russet mop that puffed up when it got too long—as though doing so would help my mother remember him fondly too.
They liked me, Sabine and Frank, immediately, and treated me, it strikes me now, like my mother’s Mann. Do you two eat wurst? The two of them asked us one afternoon, as if my mother and I had the same taste in everything, excluding Philip from their questions, their attention, as they had learned to do. We both nodded, yes, which surprised me; I had never seen my mother eat pork before. Although she had disavowed nearly every part of her upbringing, she had always drawn the line at eating pork.
And so, one afternoon at the Imbiss in the hot August light, my mother eating an entire bratwurst, drinking not one but two cans of beer. Frank offering his own freshly opened Schultheiss to Philip, whom he insisted on speaking to in German, Musst du es probieren—You have to try it. My brother looking up at my mother: a nod, or even just a lack of one. A sip, lips pursed, and then another slug, and then another. You like it? Frank asked. My brother shrugged but took another gulp and burped loudly. Everyone, including my mother, laughed. Frank was the one to say, Ja, enough, before grabbing the half-finished beer with his thick fingers and drinking the rest of it himself. Did I see it then? Philip’s particular pleasure? Some special unlocking of genetic proclivity? Or maybe Frank, like any good con artist, simply knew exactly what each of us wanted before we ourselves had figured it out.
Sabine was our self-appointed teacher, our cultural liaison. Children in Berlin, we learned, took the U-Bahn alone to get to school, often before they could even read, and so they would count the stops on their fingers. It’s normal, she’d say of anything that seemed strange to us. What Sabine found abnormal was that we had never visited Wisconsin. How could we have missed the most beautiful place in the world? One afternoon at Wannsee, while my mother and brother were off swimming, Sabine asked me if I’d ever smoked a cigarette, and when I told her no, she looked at me as though that was not normal either and then said: You should try everything once; then you can take your decision. Otherwise, you’ll always be like everyone else, letting them decide for you. I hated, above all else, disappointing Sabine, and so I vowed, privately, to take her advice seriously.
That evening, at the apartment, my brother and I sunburned and tired, my mother unpacking our beach bag immediately, as she always did. Philip sent to the kitchen to turn the oven on for our frozen pizza, our mother looking around frantically in her beach bag. I don’t believe it. I had them all afternoon, she said, looking at me, as though I would know exactly what she meant. I was certain I packed them up. Do you remember, Frankie? she asked me. My sunglasses, she clarified, impatiently. I tried to piece the day together in my mind. But I couldn’t picture the sunglasses or their leather case, just the faded spray roses of Sabine’s old bedsheet; Sabine cross-legged, quizzing us from my mother’s German-word book, the tanned, chubby look of her toes, painted a surprising pink; Sabine’s sunscreen, her open pack of paprika chips; Philip nearby, on his own towel, reading a comic book; Sabine stuffing the sheet into her Kaiser’s supermarket tote bag, smiling at me. Maybe Sabine put them in her bag when she was packing up? I offered. Maybe, my mother said, but I could tell this was not a version of the story that she liked, the answer she wanted. She furrowed her brow, moved away from me. Maybe someone took them on the U-Bahn, she said, not looking at me. We won’t tell your brother they’re missing, okay? But she didn’t have to worry about that.
The next afternoon, at the Hackescher Hof with Sabine, white tablecloths and gold-stenciled columns, spaetzle for lunch, little worms wriggling around in a butter sauce. I waited for my mother to bring up the missing sunglasses. Instead, when the sun became too bright, she shielded her eyes with her hand. Want to switch seats? Sabine asked. Oh no, I’m fine, my mother answered. I forgot my sunglasses, she offered up, a lie uttered so effortlessly, I wondered how many others she’d told in her life. I never wear sunglasses, Sabine offered up. It’s too much of a, how do you call it, a curtain, with me and the world.
When the check came, my mother was still in the bathroom, and I watched as Sabine moved it toward my mother’s side of the table, not even trying to hide the gesture from me. I nearly asked about the sunglasses, but then I remembered: I was only a child. When my mother returned, Sabine rose and went to the restroom as my mother placed the cash down for the meal, as she nearly always did with Frank and Sabine. I knew that they believed us to be rich, and my mother had done nothing to disabuse them of that impression; no doubt, she enjoyed the fantasy too. I had the thought, not for the first time since we’d moved, that if adults knew just what children really saw and understood, they would not act as though they were alone when children were around.
Back at the apartment that afternoon, my mother took me aside and told me, I think I know what happened to the sunglasses. I remember feeling a little tug at my shoulder on the U-Bahn. But I remembered it differently: On our journey back to the apartment, she had been standing with Sabine, gripping the pole, and had placed the beach bag with its large opening on Philip’s lap. He’d attended to it with his usual vigilance; there was no way anything could have been stolen under his watchful eye. But when I tried to say as much, my mother changed the subject.
Our sublet expired, and we moved into the Holiday Inn near the Gedächtniskirche. My father had been gone for five weeks by then, and his voice had started to sound, over the telephone, like a recording of itself. Soon, Frankie. They need me here. I love you. Take care of your mom. Philip had stopped speaking to him altogether. You’re going to hurt your father, my mother told him, but Philip just shrugged, not looking up from his Game Boy. Under regular circumstances, my mother would have complained about the hotel—the cheap floral bed covering, the bathroom with its bleach smell—but she took the unexpected move in her stride. On our first day there, she let us mope around in our pajamas all day watching NBC, the only English-speaking channel on the hotel TV, eating Haribo Smurfs and drinking Fanta straight from the bottle. She came in and out, running errands, smelling of cigarettes and her new perfume. We didn’t have many traveler’s checks left. My mother hid her trips to the exchange bureau from Philip and often asked me to stay behind with him while she went out to get more cash. When she returned, she put me in charge of placing the money pouch back into the bedside drawer when Philip wasn’t looking. I wondered what would happen when my father returned and found out that his cost-of-living allowance was being spent on dinners and drinks with Sabine and Frank, as well as other luxuries my mother had permitted herself in his absence. There was the bottle of perfume purchased at the Parfümerie Douglas while Philip and I waited outside; the pair of trousers to match the blouse at the small boutique; linen placemats and a delicate ceramic bowl she’d bought at a craft fair, first for herself, and then, when Sabine had suggested that she too liked the pairing, for her as well. My mother, I knew, had always kept a separate bank account, her own, where she saved half of her monthly paycheck from the insurance company, but this was not the money she was spending in Berlin. She had told me once, in a rare moment of maternal advice: Remember, Frankie, a woman always needs her own money. You never know what might happen between two people. It was true, I didn’t know, and yet I suspected it; with my mother, talk of relationships had always thrummed with a certain threat.
As a treat for Philip’s birthday, we bought a large jar of Skippy peanut butter, Kraft Dinner, and individual-size boxes of Corn Pops and Frosted Flakes, all priced as luxury goods in the KaDeWe food department. I was put in charge, before we went on this shopping spree, while Philip brushed his teeth and my mother smoked a cigarette outside, of removing the calculator from Philip’s bag. I found them then: my mother’s sunglasses, wedged in the inside pocket of Philip’s weightless backpack, not missing at all. I moved swiftly, still focused on my original mission. I placed the calculator in the bedside table, next to the laminated room-service menu and the money belt, and zipped closed the knapsack, laying it on its side, as it had been before I’d picked it up. I left the sunglasses exactly where I’d found them; I could be decisive, hide the truth as well as any adult.
Later, watching Philip in the imported-foods aisle, I was glad I had not told my mother. Philip seemed so at ease among the garish packaging, the familiar brands—his birthday homecoming—ignoring the prices, not even reaching for the calculator in his backpack. Although he was officially a year older, 13 now, his age seemed incidental. He was so much younger than me, in need of my protection, my secrecy. A few days later, feeling around for the sunglasses while Philip was still asleep—my mother gone to the bakery—I was surprised to find that the pocket where the sunglasses had been was now empty. I looked around in his suitcase, under his bed, in the pocket of his fleece, his windbreaker, but I couldn’t find them anywhere.
One evening, Frank and Sabine visiting our hotel room, their singularity at odds with the drab interior. Sabine sitting cross-legged, at home wherever there was a floor. Frank messing with the remote control. My mother wearing a pretty dress, mixing drinks on the varnished hotel-issued desk, as though she were hosting a cocktail party. A strange scene: this North-American family, father missing, with a 20-something German couple in the Holiday Inn Berlin Kudamm, 99 Deutschmarks a night, with a discount for a week, which my mother had negotiated by speaking to not two but three different employees. I had been relieved to watch her do it, to find that perhaps she had not, in fact, entirely forgotten about our father, about us. I wondered where our father would have settled if he’d been there that evening, but I couldn’t picture his body in the scene. The only person in the room tethering us back to him was Philip; I could tell Philip thought we were fickle, that our loyalties were cheap.
Ice, my mother indicated to Philip and me, passing me the plastic bucket. Philip took a while to snap to attention, but then my mother raised an eyebrow and we slinked out of bed into the hallway. We raced to the elevator in our flip-flops, tripping a little as we did. We fought to press the button. I won, as I always did, and then we fought, too, to press down on the lever of the ice machine. But I let Philip do the honors, knowing he needed the win more than I did, the sense of temporary power: the ice clattering, the loud whoosh, the release.
On the way back to the room, we didn’t race but walked slowly instead. Philip looked so sad, I wanted to shove him, or to slap him, as my mother had just a few weeks before, so he could come back to us, be my older brother again. I knew that he hated Frank and Sabine, hated their presence in our room, hated the way they acted upon our mother, and upon me. He missed our father and the normalcy his presence would have necessarily restored. He missed our beat-up minivan. He missed baseball practice. He missed our neighbor’s dog, a dachshund who always slunk right up to him, licking his open palm. I knew all of this without him saying a word. Why didn’t I miss these things too? I put my hand on his shoulder, just as Frank was in the habit of doing with me. Philip let me keep it there longer than expected before pushing it away. Don’t be a weirdo, he said. I could see, from the side, that his cheeks were gleaming pink; he was crying.
We had forgotten the key and so when we got back to the locked door, we knocked and waited, wondering, after some time, if we’d gotten the room number wrong. My mother finally arrived, slightly flushed, her hair down. She smiled at us; Willkommen, she said, as though we were late arrivals to her party. She was a little bit drunk, her eyes darker than usual. She looked young, like the photographs I’d seen of her from the period when she and my father had first met; she’d been only 19 then. Frank lying on his back, using a paper clip to clean his fingernails. Sabine, armed with my mother’s comb, returning to the activity we’d interrupted: braiding my mother’s dark mass of wavy hair. My mother was very proud and protective of her hair, and I had never once seen another person, not even my father, touch it. In Toronto, she had cut her own bangs and trimmed her own split ends. Sabine wet her comb in the glass and glided it through my mother’s long hair. My mother sighed with pleasure, and I had the urge to turn the volume up on the television. When Sabine was halfway done, she brought my mother to the mirror, and I heard Sabine say, You have such nice eyebrows. My mother demurred, said something about missing the woman who waxed them back home. That’s normal? Sabine asked.
For my 11th birthday, earlier that year, my mother had taken me to that very aesthetician; she had waxed my legs and the three lone hairs under my armpits, the small shadow above my lip, the hair between my eyebrows. My mother had made the appointment for me; driven me to the small salon, in a strip mall in a part of town I’d never been to; sat on a chair beside me as I squirmed in my underwear beneath the stranger’s tender efficiency. When I had started to cry, my mother had grabbed for my hand, but I’d refused it, finding her touch unbearable. I had the thought for the first time: I am separate; I belong to myself. And aside from thinking that my mother was the most beautiful, the most interesting woman in the world, I hated her a little bit too. I had immediately swallowed these thoughts down. I was a good-natured, loyal child, and it had frightened me, what these thoughts might do, what they might set in motion between us. My mother had said, in the car on the way home, as a kind of apology perhaps, You’ll thank me later, because you’ll never have to shave. She had always been, before this moment, so careful with me. Whatever her mother had been to her—overbearing, intense—she had handled me with an opposite energy. It was as though she were worried that any explicit assertion of her power—to love or to punish—might affirm some similarity between them.
Philip seemed not to take in the scene in the hotel room. He crawled into the nearest bed, tucked himself in with his jeans still on, returned to Super Mario Brothers. Frank propped himself up on his elbows and snapped his fingers at Philip, and said, Hey, man, I think there’s a beer in there, pointing to the mini-fridge. Philip perked up at the mention of the beer, even putting his Game Boy down. Yeah? he said, with his practiced shrug. Ja, Frank said, and set about getting him one. He crawled around my mother and Sabine; I waited for my mother to say something, anything. Surely, she should be the one to say no. But it was Sabine who grabbed Frank by the belt loop as he made his way past her, and I watched as some electric current moved between them, and then a few words spoken in German very quickly—too quickly for me to even hear the words individually—Frank crawling backwards, as if on rewind, head down, looking up at Philip and saying, Sorry, man. When Sabine speaks, you listen; that is the rule. Philip did not say anything or even look at Frank, just back at the tiny screen of his gray console, but I could see the redness that had erupted across his throat. The invitation to have something he might want, and then its retraction, was the exact kind of inconsistency that drove Philip crazy.
I spent the rest of the evening lying in bed with Philip, pretending to watch the German-culture program that was playing on TV. The men were debating something important about the future of the country, but I couldn’t understand what positions each was taking. Just two old men frowning, gesticulating; Frank snorting, swearing on the second bed. My mother sat silently on the floor, back to me and to Sabine, who continued to twist her hair into a braid that looped around the front of her head like a crown. My queen, I had heard my father call my mother on a few occasions, and the idea had embarrassed me, his deference to her, this power she had accrued how, exactly? She sat that evening nearly silently, an emanation, head rocking gently back and forth with the current of Sabine’s hand weaving. It seemed more and more dangerous—her power, her sovereignty—a glass teetering on a table’s edge.
Done with her coiffure, Sabine rose and tapped my hip to indicate that I should move over and settled onto the bed between Philip and me. Philip groaned, but Sabine laid her arms around both of our shoulders and declared: It’s like camp, isn’t it? And we’re like s’mores. I’m the marshmallow. She laughed. I had them once in Wisconsin. So disgusting, right? But, you know, good too, she said to Philip. But he ignored her, so she looked at me, and I said, Yeah, not knowing what else to say. My mother was in the bathroom, and for a moment, I had the thought that if she left us, as I knew some parents did, maybe Sabine could step in and be my mother instead. Yet if my mother left, wouldn’t it be to be with Frank? In which case, Sabine probably wouldn’t want to stick around us, to be reminded of her heartbreak. Or maybe my mom would want to live with both of them like on Melrose Place, where young and attractive people lived near one another, a revolving door of attachments and betrayals—only in this case it would be in Berlin, and there wouldn’t be a pool but an interior courtyard with decrepit bikes and an elaborate system of trash and recycling. The image of my mother, living another life without us in it, was not a new one. How long had I held it? Not a fear exactly, but a queasy interior tug, a thought to avoid just in case thinking it might make it come true. I had always been comforted by a certain attendant superstitious belief: My mother loved Philip far too much to leave our family. He was too precious to her, too dear. But that had been before; now I wasn’t so sure.
When my mother finally came out from the bathroom, she looked taken aback by the arrangement of our bodies. She gestured to the spot on the bed next to Frank, and said to Sabine in a gentle but firm tone, You’ll be more comfortable there, no? Sabine squeezed my shoulder, rose and jumped into the bed next to ours, curling up to Frank like an overgrown cat. He lay his hand instinctively on her soft waist; she made a sound like purring. I missed Sabine, her warmth, her heavy breathing, her thick presence next to mine, so foreign and pleasurable. Instead, Philip’s clammy feet, my mother’s rigid body, kept at a distance from mine. I wanted to grab my mother’s hand, to tell her not to leave us; we were a family. Philip needed her; he wasn’t doing well at all. But I couldn’t get my hand to move over to hers. My arms stayed stuck to my sides, unwilling to cooperate.
Frank asked if they could order room service, and my mother said, Of course, leaning over and opening the side-table drawer, just long enough, I noticed, for Sabine to see, above the laminated menu, the thick money belt—beige and somehow as illicit as a pair of underwear or some exposed part of the body. My mother and I had gone together to cash 1,000 deutsche marks only that afternoon. My mother lay back down, turned over to face us; she put her arm around my waist and tried to reach for Philip too, but he shimmied his body away from ours in revolt. My mother settled on hugging just me. A relief. I could breathe again. Get some sleep, Frankie, she spoke sweetly into my hair, kissed my cheek. You look nice, I said, touching the thick silken plait poised above her forehead.
I must have fallen asleep, because when I opened my eyes, it was morning, and my mother was already dressed, Philip snoring next to me, still wearing his jeans, his face ruddy, his upper lip slick with night sweat; the bed next to ours already made. I bought us some breakfast, my mother said, passing me a brötchen mit Käse right in bed. She looked fresh and concerned, Sabine’s braid still crowning her head but loosened and uneven, a little sad-looking in the light of day. I didn’t have to wait, as I usually did, to piece together what was wrong with her. She whispered to me, It’s gone, pointing to the bedside drawer. They took it, she said. I can’t believe it.
I watched my mother pace the room; I ate my brötchen quietly, letting the seeds fall between the sheets, not even catching them in my cupped hand, as I usually did. Then she sat on the ground at my feet, and I knew what she wanted me to do. I started unplaiting. I worked gently but efficiently, trying not to hurt her tender scalp. As I undid the braid, my mother’s thick hair fell into my hands and I felt it in her, the switch, the split: before and after. I might have said something then, about Philip, the sunglasses, the backpack. But I didn’t. It was her skill, but I could have it too; I already did. To decide: That’s it. To close the door on those people, that phase. To turn the page. I let her do it; I did not intervene. She got up and kissed me on the forehead. You’re a good girl, she said, but I didn’t exactly feel like one.
When the phone rang while she was out—Sabine, no doubt—I didn’t pick up, just as my mother had instructed me. And when Philip asked me what was wrong—had Mom broken up with the Scheissters?—I told him I knew what he’d done. The sunglasses. The money. He didn’t deny it. Give it to me, I said. No, he replied, and so I went into his backpack myself. I was not angry; I was satisfied. What I thought I knew was true. I counted it out loud: 780 Deutschmarks. I didn’t even ask him why. I understood. I thought for a moment, considered the different outcomes. We’ll give it back to her 20 Deutschemarks at a time, I said, as though I really was a Frank after all. I wished Sabine could see me this way, one last time: suave and certain. Making my own decisions. Taking things into my own hands.
How easy it was, just a single phone call. Our father back within two days. I pictured what my mother must have said: We need you. Come home. The kids. He had a concerned, harried look when we first saw him, an uncanny guest in the lobby of our Holiday Inn. He smelled oddly unlike himself, like the airplane and the soap from foreign hotels. The conversation between my parents, when it finally took place, happened in the bathroom of the hotel room. Philip turned the volume up on Jay Leno, but I pressed my ear to the door. She had been robbed, I heard her explain. Robbed? Where? Why hadn’t she told him over the phone? His voice like a branch snapped off in a gust of wind. You’re being very confusing; tell me exactly what happened, Sophie, he said, and I pictured him in there with one of his black-and-white reporter’s notebooks with the coil at the top, just a few words per page in his indecipherable scrawl. And then she told him everything, from the beginning. From the time at the swimming pool, to the Imbiss, to the many walks around Sabine’s neighborhood, to the trip to Treptower Park and the Hackescher Hof. She spoke the facts, the kind my father would be interested in. The exact number of times we had met up with them, the name of the village where Frank had said he was from, the name of the publication he wrote for, the exact amount of money stolen, 780 Deutschmarks. It won’t take me long to find them, he said. It might even make a good story. My mother let out a little inchoate cry. No, Joel. I didn’t hear the rest. The taps were turned on. But I imagine the particular quieting down, the thing that I had never understood—would never understand—between them, a pitch unreachable to anyone else, their quiet acquiescence; in other words, their love, or maybe simply their marriage.
We moved the next day to a cheaper hotel in the Western suburbs and found an apartment more affordable than any of the others we’d looked at. It had a brutalist charmlessness, but a room for each of us, and was walking distance from our school. School was not as different from Toronto as we expected. Every effort was made to shorten the distance between this place and North America, the school’s ethos like sliced bread: comforting but not especially nutritious. Philip made friends quickly there, and I found two boys—the son of a Nigerian diplomat and the son of a Bostonian violinist at the Berlin Philharmonic—who didn’t mind spending time with me. My mother stayed mostly in the apartment, doing penance, although for what, exactly, I wasn’t sure. Philip and I returned the money one 20-deutsche-mark bill at a time, and there was a certain pleasure in watching my mother’s little flash of joy at finding more than she’d thought was hers. When we did venture into Berlin for the odd concert or for an exhibit or to visit some expat my father had been put in touch with, she always wore her prettiest clothes, the silk blouse and trousers from the boutique in Charlottenburg. In them, she had that expectant sense about her, as though at any point she might be recognized.
Our stay in Berlin lasted only one year. My father was called back to Toronto before his posting was over. Budget cuts, the newspaper gave as an explanation. He would make editor within the year. I was not wrong about my mother. She was, I must have sensed it even then, with my child’s prescience, destined for rupture, scorched-earth cycles. Within two years of our return, my parents would be divorced, my mother gone to live in Vancouver with her second husband, an insurance salesman with a face as smooth and supple as a child’s. My brother and I saw her, after that, only during holidays, which merely solidified what she’d always felt like to me: a scarce resource, on loan from another life. I hated her for six months, maybe a year, as any teenager would, but it was a feeling that was impossible, constitutionally speaking, for me to sustain for very long. My father reacted to his heartbreak with a similar composure: He was sad and forlorn until he couldn’t stand to be that way anymore. It was Philip who took the divorce most to heart. He pointed the finger at my father: He had been the one to upend our lives, had been the real absence all along. He pointed the finger at me: I had no character, followed others around like a dog. Philip punished us by disappearing for days at a time, showing up drunk at our high school, getting into fistfights at the smallest slight. It would take him nearly a decade to recover from the bomb my mother’s departure detonated in his fragile life. But that was all much later. That year in Berlin, at least as I remember it now, had the pleasant, suspended quality in our family’s history of an entre-guerre, a détente.