Everyone talked about the West as if it were a secret. They leaned in to share stories of its grocery stores that carried fresh oranges, its cars with built-in radios. Covered their mouths to mention a Düsseldorf boulevard that catered to movie stars and dictators, whole Eastern month’s salaries spent on face cream. There were entire, whispered conversations about its large houses and overstuffed stores, its borders crossed with a smile and a flick of one’s passport. Some talked about it as if it were the most boring thing. Others like it was an uppity friend. But everyone talked about it, also pretended it never crossed their minds. Whenever Beate heard these stories, she felt frightened. Because its freedoms seemed vast, because each story said something different. The West a puzzle she couldn’t begin to solve. Now Beate’s mother stood in her doorway—coat on, pulled-back hair turning her face peevish and alert, like a nun’s—and told her they were going there.
“West West?” Beate asked.
“Saying it once will do,” Mutti answered.
Beate tried to decide if this was information or a joke, though her mother rarely joked. She finally settled on, “We never go anywhere.”
A sigh lifted her mother’s chest. You’re just an old woman, Beate thought. At twelve Beate was already taller than her, close to the height of her father, who when she stood next to him often said, “I used to be tall, too,” as if height were something—like keys—to lose track of.
Mutti fussed with her coat’s buttons.
“I should pack something,” Beate said.
“I’ve packed for you already,” her mother answered. “We’re leaving in five minutes. Wear something warm.”
On their one trip to Berlin, Beate had glimpsed the wall guarded by soldiers and barbed wire. At home in Kritzhagen, radio stations sometimes came in from Lübeck, talking about the same weather but advertising brands she’d never heard of. She rifled through her closet. “Three minutes,” Mutti called, then, “One.” Beate’s stomach ached. She put on her favorite shoes, though they were a size too small.
In the bus to the station, Beate sat wedged between her parents. She felt sick from its diesel smell and from the cobbles jostling her body. As their city smeared past, as her nausea rose and receded, Beate conjured the West—streets with identically shaped trees, wares shimmering in shops. Its alleys boys at school talked about, filled with blow jobs and people so drunk they had no pupils. Beate wore a hand-me-down jacket, a fake broach for its top button. She lifted the broach to her mouth; it tasted bitter. Neither of her parents noticed what she was doing.
Soldiers gathered in the train station where Beate and her parents sat. A pigeon strutted across the floor, pecking at crumbs and garbage. Beate’s father looked even older that day, his thinning hair a dazzle of pomade, his stomach a spongy ornament. Her parents were professors, always dressed as if they were off to teach a class. That day Vati wore a tie and cardigan, Mutti a mud-colored dress that seemed both disappointing and right.
“I will sit with the luggage,” Vati said.
“I’ll take the girl to the toilet,” Mutti answered.
“I don’t need to use the toilet,” Beate said.
She moved her hands through her hair, making sure her ears were covered. Beate had ears like the leaves of a houseplant, thin and large and loath to hide from the sun.
“The toilets on the train will be terrible,” Mutti said, and slid a hand under Beate’s arm.
Inside the bathroom, Mutti crouched to look under the stalls. Her tights bunched at her ankles.
“Mutti,” Beate said.
“You need to learn to be quiet,” her mother answered.
Water plinked into a sink’s basin.
Taking Beate’s arm again, her mother brought her into the last stall. Its toilet was old. A tank crowded the wall behind it. Beate stared at the pores on Mutti’s neck, the lipstick clumped at her mouth’s corners. Her mother lifted something from her pocket and handed it over, then pulled on the toilet’s chain. It was a passport. The tank burst into action.
“We live in Cologne, thirty-four Wevelinghovenerstraße,” she whispered. “You attend the Ursulinenschule. We were here visiting a cousin who is sick.”
“We don’t have any sick cousins,” Beate answered.
“We don’t have any sick cousins,” she whispered.
Mutti answered that she did, that his name was Peter Bergmann.
“Is he young or old?” Beate asked.
Her mother flushed again. “Of course he’s old. We’re visiting an old cousin. Your father’s.”
“Is it because Vati’s old?”
“Your father isn’t that old.”
“Child. When they ask, your father and I will talk. Unless they ask you in particular.”
Beate had no memory of the passport’s picture being taken, the name on it so fake-sounding they’d surely see through its disguise and arrest them. Arrest was everywhere in Kritzhagen, like traffic or rain. Mutti pushed her lips together and Beate felt a sadness for her that she couldn’t explain. The two of them were rarely this close, though they’d been very close once. Beate had just learned about reproduction in science class and felt embarrassed for her former tenancy inside Mutti, like a kidney.
“We live in Cologne. Thirty-four Wevelinghovenerstraße,” her mother repeated. “You attend the Ursulinenschule. We were visiting a sick cousin. Please repeat.”
“We live in Cologne.”
“We live in Cologne, thirty-four Wevel—”
“Wevelinghovenerstraße. I attend Ursulinenschule and I love art.”
“Don’t add,” Mutti said. “You don’t even love art.”
The bathroom door opened and Mutti grabbed her daughter’s cheeks. Beate wanted to laugh but did not. Though not a relic like her father, her mother was old, too. People regularly mistook her for a grandmother or spinster aunt, in part because of the stiff discomfort that spread across Mutti’s face when Beate cried in public or made up dumb songs. Or when Beate adjusted her skirt and Mutti growled that she looked like she was fiddling with her private places.
“Open the door,” her mother said, flushing for a third time.
The woman who’d come in reminded Beate of a painting she’d seen once, one in a room of long-faced portraits. It had been warm that day and the museum had opened its windows. Stray leaves crackled over the floor that Mutti had stopped to pick up over and over.
“She gets nervous with traveling,” Mutti said to the woman. “Beate, wash your hands.”
Beate turned the water on. It was freezing. She wanted the woman to say something about how nice it was for a grandmother and granddaughter to travel together, though she did not.
“I’m not nervous,” Beate mumbled. “I didn’t even have to go to the bathroom.”
The women exchanged looks, as if they knew everything and she knew nothing, though the opposite felt true. Beate could tell the station’s soldiers that she and her family lived in Kritzhagen, that these passports were fake, West not home but a mystery. There was no cousin or street she couldn’t remember; she liked art despite what Mutti had decided was true. Her mother turned off the faucet and ushered Beate outside, where her father sagged next to the luggage.
“They called our train,” he said.
“Wevelinghovenerstraße,” Beate whispered, and picked up the suitcase her mother had packed for her.
Her father shuffled more than usual. Perhaps this—along with the new, reedy quality in his voice—was part of their scheme. It hit Beate then that this was dangerous, that they hadn’t told her about the trip or the passports as a protection. Love for her parents rose with the surprise of a sneeze. Beate walked close to them. She talked loudly about going home, in case anyone was listening.
* * *
When soldiers examined and reexamined their passports, when at the border crossing outside Lübeck they were taken into a room and asked questions, all of them directed at her father, Beate itched. She wondered what the GDR would steal from her suitcase. Felt sure her mother had packed sweaters Beate no longer fit into and left behind the pants she’d had to finagle for five months to get. Beate’s hands itched, also her arms. Vati touched her shoulder. This display felt as fake as the opera they’d once gone to, where everyone sang with faces of extreme constipation. They weren’t going back home, Beate realized. Both soldiers had acne.
“Your cousin,” the first soldier said, his chin a suggestion. “Quite sick, you say.”
“I almost didn’t recognize him,” Vati answered.
“So close you all came to see him?”
“I wanted him to meet our girl,” he said, squeezing Beate’s shoulder. Beate smiled. She touched the back of her teeth with her tongue and worked to blink slowly.
“And she was happy to meet him?” the soldier asked.
“I believe she was,” her father answered.
Beate’s itching grew, as it did after coming in from the cold.
The room had no windows. In Kritzhagen, Beate’s cousin Liesl had talked about her fear of small spaces so exuberantly that Beate assumed she was making it up. She understood it now. The walls leaned. Smells of coffee and ashtrays left little room for the rest of them.
“But seeing someone so close to death? Was that not hard for her?”
“Life is sometimes hard,” her father answered.
Beate had never heard anyone question him, let alone someone the age of his students. Though her father didn’t yell, though he was hunched and slow, he was always in charge. A cluster of stubble sat below his ear. He held letters filled with their fake last name, which had something to do with the sea. The itching spread to Beate’s knees.
Beate wanted nothing more than to run outside and rub against something as a cat might.
“But it was important,” her father went on. “To see him.”
Beate moved her hands to the back of her knees, but Mutti stilled her. Her fingers were so close. Her mother’s cruelty felt exceptional. She tried to grab on to anything outside of her body—the stink from nearby traffic, the soldier’s blackened thumbnail—unsure if she wanted to go West at all. The officer closed their passports, which perhaps meant they’d been caught or were cleared to go. Beate placed one foot on top of the other, slid it back and forth and back again. She needed to get out of this room, which was warm and smelled of old sandwiches.
“I was happy,” Beate blurted. “To meet my cousin. Though he was dying, I was happy to know him.”
The soldier wrote down: She was happy. Beate thought to say more, but the room’s size, the plague of itching, turned thinking into a steep mountain. A soldier’s foot shifted, touching hers. Perhaps he’d mistaken it for a table leg; perhaps he and the other soldier communicated in a language of taps and pressures. Beate pressed back and watched the soldier write something down and couldn’t remember if she’d brushed her teeth that morning. When he told them they could go, Beate felt as she imagined her friend Astrid Münster did when she’d come to sudden, happy conclusions about Jesus.
Copyright © 2021 by Thomas Grattan