Seventeen weeks after they moved to the city, Sofia stole her boyfriend’s mouth. She’d been toying with the idea, on and off, for months. She knew it was the lazy way out. She didn’t want things to just be handed to her – she wanted to work, to grow. She had been to the Volkshochschule and sat on a hard chair for three hours waiting to be given a number to be given a lesson. Around her the glow of green walls with no windows and a queue that made no sense, peeling posters that she deciphered, word by word, guess by guess. The classes were booked for the next three months: that was fine. She waited patiently, downloaded apps on her phone and practiced phrases with waiters and supermarket employees. Ich hatte gerne, she said. Tut mir leid, she said. Einmal Glas Rotwein, she said, and gracefully accepted the correction and the drink. She started her classes and tried to take joy in the swift rush of nouns, of simple constructions. Floundered out on the street again. Turned her failures into funny stories, good jokes. She tried her best. She really thought she was doing her best. But in the end it was so much easier to just take what she wanted.
She woke late with the first dregs of daylight. Their mattress lay under the window, heaped white quilts like snowfall around them, and her boyfriend drowsy in the narrow gap of sun. His nose straight, eyelashes dark against his skin. She’d liked his mouth from the beginning. Now she tapped her finger lightly against it.
‘Sweetheart,’ she said. ‘You awake?’
Ben mumbled something under his breath, turned his face into the pillow.
‘Ben,’ she said. ‘You don’t mind, do you? I really need it.’
He was so sweet, asleep: quiescent, gentle. She looked at him and could imagine how he’d been as a boy. She’d broken the cardinal couple rule, don’t go to sleep angry, a hundred times, but in the morning she always woke up calm and sure, her anger washed away, his sleeping kindness penitence enough.
‘Ben,’ she said. ‘Can I?’
Ben groaned like a teenager, never good at waking up. His alarm went off four times on weekdays before he dragged himself out of bed. Sofia let her fingers graze down his jawline, dipped her thumb against his chin. Ben, sleepy and agreeable, said, ‘Yeah, baby, whatever,’ and she plucked his mouth like an apple from a tree and slid it onto her own.
Then she let him sleep. Got up and went to the bathroom mirror and touched it, admiring. Still a very good mouth. It was buzzing a little, swollen like they’d spent a long time kissing. She washed her face and then put on her eyeliner and, after a moment’s thought, added lipstick, blue-red and deep. It suited her boyfriend’s mouth, as she had always suspected it would.
Outside the city unfolded bright with promise, the way it had been when she first arrived. She swung round the corner cheerful, keys jangling in her pocket, collar turned up. A little way ahead of her a boy wandered like he was confused, loping along as though expecting to be turned around at any moment. His hair was swept up into a quiff, drooping over his forehead, and he wore a golden suede jacket and grey sweatpants rolled up to reveal bony ankles, dipping at his trim waist. A hipbone bared. It was too cold for that and Sofia wondered if he was drunk, then got ahead of him and saw he was peering at his phone, tapping at it. In his other hand he held an untethered leash, limp. A very small dog pattered along behind him on tiny tan legs.
‘Don’t lose your friend, kid,’ she said to him with her boyfriend’s mouth and her boyfriend’s German. He glanced up at her, startled and furious, and then looked back at his dog and smiled reluctantly. It was a good smile all the same. A city of strangers suddenly accessible. Sofia licked her lips and ducked down into the U-Bahn.
She went to the Ausländerbehörde. She didn’t have an appointment but talked her way through the visa issues with the guy in the receptionist’s chair anyway, eloquent and apologetic with her boyfriend’s mouth, and he was surprised and helpful. She worked out a lot of paperwork, and left with clear, concise instructions of what to do next. She thought, this is a fantasy, and laughed with delight, and went to a bookshop. She browsed and spoke with her boyfriend’s mouth to the woman behind the counter, who was thoughtful and funny and who gave her a good list of recommendations, though she bought only one book. She did not have her boyfriend’s eyes, but she thought that maybe if she read aloud she could avoid the need for them.
She went to Kaisers and bought flowers and bread and wine and chatted with the woman at the checkout. The woman was displeased with her and her cheer, but not with her boyfriend’s mouth. When she left, Sofia leapt down the concrete steps and screamed aloud with joy.
She went home to drop off the flowers. Her boyfriend was gone, but he’d left her a piece of paper on the kitchen table with wonky capitals printed on it in Sharpie: REAL DICK MOVE, SOFIA.
Sofia spent more time outdoors and Ben more time indoors. It was a change, for them. They’d met at a picnic in a Brooklyn backyard: Ben bright-eyed and tanned, denim jacket rolled up to his elbows, Sofia hungover and sulking, her hair dark and ragged down her back, nursing a headache and some Xanax. He’d talked to her about hiking, climbing, his holidays: a couple of weeks on the Pacific Crest Trail, last summer bouldering in the forests of Fontainebleau with his brother. She’d been drawn to his vitality, the eager, youthful way he talked about things, though he was three years older than her. He touched her continually and assuredly, a hand on her elbow, her leg, her shoulder. Swift, warm pressure, and that smile flashing out again.
He’d travelled more than her, done more than her. He knew their city better, had tracked out New York street by street, block by block, over a host of mornings that Sofia had slept through, hunched down in her dirty linen with her make-up smearing on the pillow. A trail of blackheads across her forehead and her roommate telling her to wash her fucking face already. But he seemed impressed and delighted by Sofia all the same. After the picnic he came to see her read poetry at a shitty bar, and later that night he touched her like she was new territory to explore. It was easy to get obsessed with him: his happy life, his apartment that was messy without the mildew of depression that surrounded her, his jocular, cheerful friends. She visited his parents and their beautiful home in New England: art on the walls, shelves lined with books, and a mournful hound who fell in love with Sofia and followed her around. Sofia thought Ben was perfect. She wanted to peel his skin open and slide inside him, wear him like a glove. She wanted to tap on his jaw and open his mouth and force herself down his throat, elbowing at his oesophagus, his ribcage, until he made room in his interior for her. She imagined herself sitting snug and happy in the warm, red-dark gap she had made for herself between his lungs and liver.
It was in his family home, too, that she noticed his parents’ accents: a slight hesitation between occasional words, a drawl that ended on different notes than she expected. Ben blinked at her when she mentioned it and said, ‘Oh, yeah, they’re German. Their English is pretty good now.’
‘That’s so cool,’ Sofia said, and then Ben told her that he spoke German too, fluently, that he’d spent four years in Munich as a child and another two as a teenager, that when they didn’t have visitors he spoke it at home. It was as though there was a new Ben that she’d never met. She deliberately stayed in rooms alone so she could hear Ben talk to his mum next door, the new Ben, a Ben with a deeper, kinder voice, a Ben whose words could not be distinguished and whose sentences ran sure and certain as mountain streams. She wanted to seduce him, wanted to own him as well, but he was impossible to catch, shifted apologetically away the moment she appeared in the doorway, was always turning his back on her. So they moved to Berlin, and she met the new Ben in visa offices and supermarkets and bank appointments, and grew to love him, and want him. And stole his mouth.
Now Ben lurked inside their apartment, gloomy, gaping and gapless. He worked from home most days, glaring at her over his laptop screen as she made eggs and avocado toast for breakfast. If he resented her, he couldn’t complain about it.
Sofia brought home trophies of the city, idly apologetic. She came in with bundles of branches crowned with cherry blossoms, with new liqueurs and crates of beer that she hefted up the four flights of stairs herself, her biceps taut. She brought him magazines in English and German and ran her fingers over his eyelids like a promise while he sulked and scuffled from room to room. Occasionally he would go outside, usually only with her, and she watched him and recognised in his careful hunch the way she’d moved about the city before the theft. He looked at everyone warily, nervously, frightened of being questioned. She’d been kind, though. She’d left him his ears and eyes, so he was mute but capable. Even so, he shrank behind her. Sofia didn’t mind. She was growing to fill the space he left. She’d shot up two inches in six weeks.
There were downsides to her boyfriend’s mouth. A new curve in the corner that she kept accidentally smudging her lipstick on. It was slightly drier than her own – she woke up thirsty now. She was hungrier; it probably helped with the growth spurt, but she was spending more money than before on kebabs and pastries. She stopped at the fluorescent bakeries in U-Bahn stations and rattled out a long list of things she wanted: Spritzkuchen, Buchteln, Mohnkuchen. She ate them walking down the street, sucking thoughtfully at her thumb and coughing crumbs.
She couldn’t understand much beyond her own basic German, of course, but it didn’t seem to matter as much. People appreciated her forthrightness, the surety of her own steady voice filtered via her boyfriend’s mouth. Sometimes she would answer someone without understanding what they’d said, and if she was certain enough it would do. Once at the supermarket a woman asked her for something and she said Nein firmly, then parsed the sentence in her head as she paid for her vodka and left. It was only when she got outside that she realised the woman had asked her for ID.
She was alone, but everyone in this city was alone. She went back early in the afternoons to sit in the kitchen with her boyfriend and watch it get dark. They’d fuck without turning any of the lights on, because seeing his mouth being used like that upset him. She didn’t speak much anyway, remembered a friend’s German roommates who’d had sex in heavily accented English. Instead she crawled down the bed grinning. In the shadowy dark she could just see the glow of their sheets, and Ben putting his hand helplessly over his eyes.
Afterwards she’d get up and sit in the bath, quietly paddling her long pale feet. Sometimes he’d come in and watch her, sad-eyed, perched on the closed toilet lid. Sofia sang to him as she washed her hair, chattered brightly. He’d wanted her to be happy, she knew, but he hadn’t expected it at this price. She was conciliatory, she felt bad, but she wasn’t going to give it back.
Instead she kissed his forehead and left the apartment again, hair wet under her beanie, and went to find secret cinemas and house parties and bars.
The snow started falling again, late in the year for it. Ben stayed inside while Sofia wore thick socks and borrowed his hiking boots, grip sure on icy ground. She wandered further afield, took the train to places she hadn’t been before. Her understanding was improving in leaps and bounds now; sometimes she murmured a stranger’s phrases back to them, echoed them with her boyfriend’s mouth before she could respond. The second’s delay pleased her. She wanted things to last longer now. She was no longer counting down until she could escape conversations, meetings, months. She was realising the value of time: the visa that stretched on, the uninterrupted course.
Sofia took the train out to Wannsee, spent a day tracking over crisp white grit trying to find the gateway to Pfaueninsel. Instead she ended up in an ugly bar, a tourist trap but still unremittingly unfriendly, drinking thick Weissbier and grimacing at the sour skin that licked round her tongue. She flicked through a newspaper, practiced reading quietly to herself. The words sank into knowledge the moment lips shaped them. She pressed two fingertips to her boyfriend’s mouth, caressing, pleased.
When she ordered another drink, a woman said something in German. Sofia looked up. A heavy Berlin accent. The woman’s hair was short, curling over her forehead. There were rings up and down her fingers, silver round her thumbs, and her joints looked slightly crooked as they beckoned, welcoming. Sofia’s mouth, remembering itself, ran dry.
The woman repeated herself, a little clearer. This time Sofia groped her way to an understanding: You have a beautiful accent.
Her cheeks flamed. ‘Thank you,’ she said with her boyfriend’s mouth. ‘I’ve been in America most of my life.’
‘I couldn’t tell. Your German is very good,’ the woman said, simple and clear enough that Sofia could understand it.
‘I speak better than I can follow,’ Sofia said truthfully.
The woman grinned, sharp and wolfish. ‘That’s all you need.’
They sat close in a booth together, knees knocking. Her name was Leni. She’d lived in Berlin all her life and she spoke English pretty well, but they stuck to German, slow and steady. Leni’s palm lay open on the table, and she looked quietly pleased when Sofia touched it, traced her fingers over palm lines and hidden secrets, tapped at the calluses on Leni’s thumb, twisted at her rings.
Leni didn’t mind speaking slowly, but for the first time in months Sofia was impatient. She liked to talk about herself, but she was curious, wanted to plunder. She added Leni on Facebook while they sat in the bar, took down her phone number too, texted her on the way home. Do you mind that I can’t spell, whispering the words aloud to the drunken U-Bahn, sounding her way into the syllables. Leni wrote back near immediately: I mind everything about you. Sofia’s boyfriend’s mouth on its own wasn’t good enough for wordplay. She twitched, anxious. She wanted to get home.
It was late but her boyfriend was awake, sitting up waiting for her in the gloom. She didn’t say anything, but maybe Ben could read her face better now that he didn’t have her voice; or maybe he had been expecting this. He shuffled backwards on the bed, back up against the wall, shaking his head. He looked like a cornered animal. His legs trembled under the sheets.
Sofia kicked off her boots and shrugged off her coat and came towards him.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, and Ben’s eyes filled with tears. He shook his head, again and again. ‘Baby, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. You know I wouldn’t do this if there was any other way.’
They were both crying now, soft and self-indulgent, Sofia revelling in the drama of it. She crawled onto the bed, crawled forward until she was straddling his lap. He put his hands on her hips, hid his face against her throat, and Sofia stroked his hair, feeling maternal, sure she knew best. She kissed the top of his head, then pushed him back a little so she could kiss his face, his cheeks, the solid line of his jaw, his damp eyelashes.
He was shaking his head again, half-heartedly trying to get out from underneath her, but he was small and thin and weak from weeks spent inside and Sofia had grown taller and would grow taller still. She smoothed her hands over his shoulders, his thin chest, the wasted muscle of his arms, and then she let her hands trail up over his bony shoulders and his neck until they were cupped over his ears.
‘Tut mir leid,’ she said, while Ben went still and desperate under her, chest rising and falling so fast she thought he might hyperventilate. She kept on her course all the same, curled her fingers around soft skin and cartilage and the sweet little hairs. Nothing to worry about. She would break out the trimmer she’d bought him last Christmas that he’d never used. ‘Oh, Ben, I’m so sorry. I need them. I need them,’ and she took them.
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