It is almost midnight. She waits facing the entrance of the Warschauer Straße S-Bahn station, on a temporary footbridge linking two platforms: one for trains towards Mitte, the other towards Ostkreuz and Lichtenberg. She is alone.
On the opposite bank of the Spree is a hotel room with a baby, a babysitter, and a bottle of milk. Somewhere, lost in the city, is a husband.
But this night is not for them. Tonight is for her.
Coming along on his business trip to Berlin seemed like a good idea. It is June, almost summer. She spends sunny days pushing a stroller around Kreuzberg, her nights cloistered in the dark scrolling on her laptop and listening to the baby breathe while he drinks beer and socializes with colleagues.
He persuades her to take an evening for herself. She agrees. A babysitter is found.
At first she is at a loss for what to do. She knows no one in Berlin and considers spending the evening in the hotel bar, which seems like a waste of rare and hard-won liberty.
She finds herself drifting to Craigslist, a habit she picked up while disposing of furniture for a move. She likes to browse the personals, like a 50s housewife reading a salacious tabloid, nurturing her nascent fascination with the unfathomable depths of human need from behind the safety of a screen. Most of what she reads shocks her: pleas for used panties and nylon stockings, piss and humiliation. Sometimes, what she reads stirs a faint and familiar yearning.
Tonight, scrolling through the secret desires of Berlin, she clicks on the headline: “Very handsome man looking for big belly.” She skims the ad, both unable to comprehend the desire but also strangely compelled by it. She skips past letters that mean nothing to her then: BBW, SSBBW. Later she will look up their meaning: big beautiful woman, super-sized big beautiful woman.
Barely two months post-partum, her body is a mess. But if there’s one thing she’s got, it’s a big belly. She clicks reply and attaches her photo. Withholding her real name, she signs her email Kali: the many-armed Hindu goddess of death and violence, she who destroys the universe even as she births it. Kali the mother, the destroyer.
His name is Tobi. He replies, saying it’s a bit too late and last-minute, but what the heck. Should they meet at the Warschauer Straße S-Bahn station, at midnight?
She has no idea what he looks like. But as she waits, clutching a diaper bag that is too large to pass for a purse, she realizes she doesn’t care.
Light blue eyes, a square jaw, blond curls backlit by the cold blue fluorescent signs of the late-night snack bars outside the station.
She has read his ad multiple times, beginning with the words “very handsome man.” She had expected this to be a lie. It is not. Her first thought is: “I’m not prepared for this.”
“Yes,” she says. “Tobi?
He looks relieved. They shake hands, and together they cross the Spree into Friedrichshain.
She follows him to a grimy student bar with taped-over windows and dim yellow lighting. They choose the corner closest to the front door and sit on threadbare chairs with wobbly legs. She feels as though she’s slipped through a crack in time into an East German living room before the fall of the Wall, where the spectre of nuclear annihilation lurks behind the pretense of homespun comfort.
He orders two beers while she fumbles for change. He has a quiet confidence that is appealing, but also makes her feel clumsy and nervous. As he speaks, she finds herself unable to believe where she is: in a bar in Berlin with this stranger sitting so close to her as if it was the most normal thing in the world. She feels light-headed, teetering on the edge of euphoria.
It can’t have been more than fifteen minutes since they first walked into the bar. She’s only taken one sip of her beer before he starts kissing her.
The sliver of warm air between their two chairs becomes an unbearable distance. Is it he who pulls her onto his knee, or she who slides into his lap? Does he guide her body into his, or does she turn her back away from the bar to hide from the eyes she’s certain must all be on them? She can’t quite recall; too much happens all at once.
Perhaps she might have been able to let it go, to bury the night in the crevices of her memory, if he had not done what he did next.
If only he hadn’t not pulled down the front of her blouse as if it was nothing at all, and put his lips to her breast. Shocking her to shame, then to desire, and finally, to life.
If only he hadn’t looked up at her with eyes that were the only pools of reflected light in the darkness, lips parted in surprise and glistening with her baby's milk, and said, “You taste sweet.”
If only he hadn’t done that. And if only she hadn’t liked it.
Then she might have saved herself the secrecy and lies, spared her husband the pain and heartbreak, and spared her marriage from the irreversible damage. She might have stood up and run back to safety.
She might have. But she doesn’t.
Instead she urges him to leave—for he can’t keep doing what he is doing in plain sight—and follows him into the night.
She lets him lead her down wide dark streets towards a sprawl of warehouses with eyes of broken glass and gaping mouths of concrete, empty tonight but for two bodies finding refuge among featureless shadows.
Instead she lets him turn her around and look at her all over, as if it was the first time a man was really looking at her, as if her body hadn’t just been laid to waste by childbirth, as if she might actually be beautiful.
Instead of resisting, she gives in.
Perhaps she could have ended it there, after pulling her dress back down and wiping her lipstick off his lips. She could have returned to the hotel alone. Turned every detail over in her head exactly once before shutting the door on the night and sealing it off forever. Said to herself, that was fun, but that was that, and slipped without incident back into her life as a mother and wife.
If only he hadn’t offered to walk her back to the station, or asked her what she was doing the next day.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she replies. She should have said it more firmly, mustered up some backbone. Perhaps she should have said it twice, made it sound like she meant it.
When he asks, “Why not?” she should have answered, “I have a husband,” instead of “I have a baby.”
Then he wouldn’t have asked how old the baby was, and after she told him two months, smiled at her and said, “Well, your baby won’t judge.”
If only he hadn’t made it sound so easy, or look so good.
She might have been able to walk away. Let it end there, never see him again.
She might have. But she doesn’t.
Deepa Paul is a Filipina-Indian freelance writer living in Amsterdam, Netherlands with her husband, daughter, and cranky black cat. Find her on Twitter or Instagram as @storiesbydeepa.