Once upon a time, in a far off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside them it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones. They held me captive for thirteen days. They wanted to break me. It was not personal. They did not break me. It was not personal. This is what I tell myself.
Most of the city was asleep or laying low. I ran down a dark, unfamiliar street, my bare feet slapping against the pavement. I ran to find my way back to my happily ever after. It was dark and hot and still. I ran over shards of broken glass, felt my skin come neatly apart. I bled. My feet were slickly wet. I did not stop running. The Commander told me to run until I could not run anymore so that is what I did. My thighs burned. It felt strange to be able to move so freely, to breathe fresher air. I wanted someone to find me. I wanted to stop. I kept running. When I passed people standing in their doorways or ambling down the street, I stiffened, knew they could not be trusted, so still, I ran. I saw a cross rising into the sky, reaching up. A church would be a safe place. I hoped.
I was so tired. I was filthy. I was not a person. I was no one. I was nothing. Sweat dripped down my face, burning my eyes, rolling uncomfortably into my ears. I took the stairs into the church two at a time, leaving bloody footprints. It was dark and quiet inside the chapel where it smelled faintly of incense. In the far corner, there was a thin line of light and the silhouette of a door. I paused, leaning over, panting heavily. I swallowed hard. I followed the edges of the room toward that sliver of light. I wanted to find something perfect behind that door. I wondered if I might find someone masquerading as God. My stomach was hollow. I was so hungry. I thought about the sensation of a dry disc of communion wafer on my tongue. When I reached the door, it was warm to the touch. Music was playing, Barry Manilow, singing about the Copacabana. My mother loves Barry Manilow. When I was a little girl, she had his records, and sometimes I caught her staring at them, tracing Barry’s face with her finger. I knocked on the door three times. I knocked so hard it made my knuckles ache. I drew blood. I marveled I could still bleed.
An older man finally answered. I tried to concentrate on who I had been before I became no one. There was a name and the memory of it lingered on my tongue. I could not remember that name but I knew one thing. “Help me”, I said. The man looked at me carefully, reached for me but I stepped away and bumped into a wall. I hissed. There was a name of a woman I had once been. I rubbed my forehead, wanted so desperately to remember the name so someone who knew who I had been might come for me. I moaned softly.
“Please say something,” the stranger said, staring at me curiously.
I made a string of harsh, guttural sounds.
The stranger shook his head. He said, “I don’t understand you.”
I made the sounds again, certain I was speaking words he simply could not understand. My chest tightened. I looked back toward the church doors, wanted to barricade myself in the sanctuary.
“What is your name?”
I grunted, pulled what remained of my shirt tightly around my body, what remained of my body. “Kidnapped.”
He approached me again and a wide thread of fear knotted around my throat. “Don’t hurt me.”
The stranger smiled kindly. He was a small man, his white hair trimmed neatly. He wore a pair of dark slacks, a dress shirt and a tan cardigan with thick wooden buttons. “You have nothing to fear from me. Please tell me your name.”
There was a man who said the name that had once been mine, a man with an easy smile and blond hair he wore too long, blond hair that curled in his face in the morning. When this man said that name, the sound came from deep in his chest. The sound of my name in his mouth spread easily, was full of joy. I remembered a little boy who also had curly hair, both brown and blond. His cheeks and thighs were chubby. I leaned against the wall behind me and sank into a tight crouch. I could see their faces, hear that blond man with the easy smile calling out to the woman I had been, calling out to me before I became no one. “M m m m…,” I said. I took a deep breath. “Michael.” The name came out awkwardly, sounded like three different names rather than one as I said it. I knew it was not my name but it was a name that mattered.
The stranger removed his glasses and looked at me closely. “My goodness. I think I know you.”
I tried to remember my name, tried to give him some way of making sense of who I was.
He nodded eagerly. “Yes, yes. I met your father at the HaitiCel gala. He is a good man.”
“Please call Michael,” I said.
The stranger was a preacher at the church, was up late writing his sermon, he said. He excused himself and quickly returned. “I have called your father and he is on his way. God brought you to safety.”
I did not look up. “There is no God.” I stood, my legs stiff and sore, moved away from the preacher. I did not want to be alone with this man I did not know in a small room. I did not want him to hurt me. I did not want to have to do something terrible to keep him from hurting me. The preacher called for his wife and she sat with me as we waited. It hurt to sit against the curved hardwood of the pew, in such a false place. The preacher’s wife clasped her hands in her lap, asked if I needed anything. She tried to see to my wounds but I refused. I wanted no part of a stranger’s skin against mine. I needed everything. I said, “I am fine, thank you.” I wanted to be polite. It was important to be a good reflection of my family. Somehow, I remembered that too, that I was supposed to be a good Haitian daughter.
Some time passed. I wanted to close my eyes, relax, but I was not safe. I was not safe. It was best to stay awake. I gripped the pew in front of me. I tried to breathe. Suddenly, I heard a desperate voice shouting a name and pounding footsteps. I stood and turned slowly. A man who seemed familiar ran through the church doors, followed by my father and a man I did not recognize. I choked and made a small, strangled sound. These men knew me or the me I had been.
I stood and stared. “Michael?”
“Yes, baby, it’s me.”
I made the harsh, guttural sounds again. I thought I was saying, “I need help. I am not safe.”
Michael looked stricken. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Take a deep breath,” he said.
“What’s her name?”
He shook his head. “Whose name?”
I tried harder to make sense, to abandon the delicate balance I negotiated in my cage. I tried to remember I had once been someone else. I saw the wedding ring on Michael’s left hand. “You are married. What is your wife’s name?”
A shadow darkened his face. “Mireille, you are my wife, and your name is Mireille. Mireille Duval Jameson.”
I whispered the name several times, tried to find a way to fit myself into that name, tried to hide the truth. I was no one, a woman with no name, no family.
Michael tried to pull me in his arms but I backed away. I wanted to run again. I was terrified. I could not trust these men. My husband’s face wrinkled. He held his hands up. “It’s me, baby. We’re here to take you home. You’re safe now,” he said as if he understood the meaning of the word. He saw the fear in my eyes. He could see. He smelled the rot of me. He closed his hands into tight fists, and said, “My God, what happened to you?” his voice echoing through the chapel.
I pointed to the two men behind him. “Who is the man with my father?” I needed a precise accounting of everyone who could hurt me.
Michael rubbed his jaw, covered in stubble. “The hostage negotiator we hired to get you back.”
A loud ringing made my head ache. I covered my ears but the sound grew louder and louder. Just as quickly the sound disappeared. I looked at Michael again. He seemed more familiar. The man who used to be my father was familiar as well.
“How many days?”
Michael looked down, said nothing.
“How many days has it been?”
I held my stomach and faltered. Michael caught me, steadied me. “Let go of me,” I said, shrieking.
The three of them started speaking at once. My husband told me how good it was to have me back. My father told me how strong I was as if I needed his appreciation of my strength. I had a calculation for my strength he would never understand. The stranger was silent. They were all liars. My father could barely look at me. Later he would tell me the bruises made him sick to his stomach and I would respond, “I don’t know what to say to that.” He shook hands with the preacher, holding both of the man’s hands between his, promising a donation to the church, an additional ransom.
I wanted to be alone with Michael, alone like we were on our wedding night in an empty hallway waiting for our lives to begin, alone like we were when Christophe was born. The best moments of our lives have been shared alone. It was difficult to remember much but I remembered those moments. I wanted to be away from my father and his money and his decisions that had brought us all to this empty church in the middle of the night.
The men surrounding me didn’t know what to do with me. I could see that.
My legs trembled and I sat again in a pew across the aisle. Michael sat next to me; he was too close. I needed something from him. I needed him to know what to do for me. I tried to think of another name. I knew it well. It was a good name but I couldn’t find a way to say it.
“Picture,” I said.
Michael shook his head. He looked so helpless. “Picture? Mireille, you’re still not making much sense but I want to understand you, I do.”
I took a deep breath, tried to start again, tried to find a way to speak the same language as the man beside me. “You have a child.”
He nodded. “We have a son, yes, baby, we do.”
I shifted uncomfortably, wanting so much to say the right thing. “What is the boy’s name?”
Michael slid closer. “Look at me,” he said.
I turned to face him but couldn’t hold his gaze, looked down at my hands.
“We have a son and his name is Christophe. He misses you very much. We miss you very much.”
“Christophe,” I said, softly. In my head I said the name over and over.
My father cleared his throat. Michael waved his arm, ignored him.
“Is he okay? Was he hurt? Do you have a picture of your son? Tell me he wasn’t hurt.”
“He’s very okay and with your mother.” Michael reached for his wallet and pulled out two pictures of a small boy, a smiling boy. My hands trembled as I took one of the pictures and stared at it and said the name Christophe once more.
“May I have this?”
“What? Of course.”
I was so tired. My eyelids were heavy. I clutched the picture tightly, rubbing my thumb over the child’s face. I knew him even though I erased as many memories of him as I could, tried to strip my heart of his face and smile and the warmth of his breath. I wanted to tear the picture into tiny pieces and eat each one so the child would always be with me.
Finally, Michael said, “We should get you out of here.” He slipped out of his shoes, knelt, and held my cut foot in his hands, wrapped a handkerchief around each foot and helped me slide my feet into his shoes. The shoes were too big but it felt good to be afforded some small protection.
The three men ushered me into the car, hulking around me. Once again, I sat in the back seat squeezed between two men. I shook. As we pulled away from the church, I said, “Please take me home so I can shower.”
Michael said, “We should get you to a hospital.”
“I need to shower. It cannot wait.”
“I don’t think that’s wise.”
“Now, Michael,” I said. I was on the verge of hysteria. “Right now, I need this one thing. I cannot handle a hospital.”
My father drove quickly over the broken Port au Prince streets using his horn liberally. I stared at his hands, or the outlines of his hands, all I could see in the darkness.
When I was a little girl, I thought my father had the biggest, strongest hands in the world. When I was a little girl, I followed my father everywhere, always wearing little dresses with matching hair bows because he liked little girls who looked like little girls. As the youngest, I was the child my father knew best because by that point in his career, there was less travel, more time at home. I asked questions, so many questions, even started walking like him, mimicking his mannerisms. My father called me ma petite ombre, his little shadow. I always smiled when I was with my father. He was good to me when I was very young, kind and gentle. He had always worked hard. He woke every morning at five, ran four miles, then dressed and went to work. He spent his entire life having to prove over and over again that he was the best, the brightest, the kind of man who could build a tunnel through the center of the earth or a tower up into the heavens. Though he would never admit it, my father’s life had been exhausting. In America, he worked six days a week, arrived early, left late. Only once did he get sick, a flu so terrible he only made it to his car in the garage before he realized he could hardly stand. He called for my mother in the kitchen making breakfast for me. Mona and Michel were already at school. My father had to lean on my mother as she helped him back into the house, back into bed. For four days, he was sick and feverish, vomiting until his body had emptied itself completely. I stayed by his side the entire time. I was only four. I sat with him and brought cool compresses and drew pictures and sang him songs. I napped with my father, my head on his chest, my small hand in his. Years later, my father told me that during those days when he was so sick, he caught me staring at him with a frown, my eyes filled with worry, like a tiny adult. When my mother tried to shoo me from my father’s side, I refused. I did not rest until my father was able to get out of bed, bathe himself, stand outside for a few minutes to take in some fresh air. “It is an amazing thing,” my father once told me after Christophe was born, “how much a child loves a parent. That kind of love terrifie sme. Such naked, wild emotion is more than I can bear.”
On the thirteenth day, in the dark empty night of my salvation, I saw the hands of a weak, stubborn man. I saw the hands of a man who could not bear to love his daughter enough to save her.
I still held the picture of the boy who was known to be my son. It was hard to focus but it still felt important to be awake, alert, ready for what might happen next. I crossed my legs and leaned forward, resting my forehead against my knee. I was still in my cage. I was still beneath the sweaty bodies of men who were not my husband. I was still torn apart and cut open. Michael started rubbing my back. He was tearing what remainedof my skin from my body. I didn’t recognize his touch. I said, “Don’t,” more sharply than I meant to. His hand stilled but he didn’t pull away, refused to pull away. The warm pressure made my bones ache. I tried to hold myself together until I could wash myself clean. I would never get clean. I started counting. “We will get home before I reach 100, 200, 500.” I counted for so long.
As we pulled past the gates of my parents’ home, my father’s castle in the sky, and drove up the long steep drive, I sat up. Their decadence disgusted me. Armed guards stood near the gates, holding their rifles across their bodies. Another set of guards stood watch near the front door. When we stopped, Michael got out and held his hand out to me. I leaned into the seat and sighed.
Michael ducked his head into the car. “Do you need a minute?”
“I just want to sit here.”
Michael stood near the open door. “I just want to sit here,” I said to myself. “I just want to sit here.”
My father and the negotiator went into the house. I listened to the sounds of the city—cars passing on the street below, crickets, music playing on a radio, a woman yelling angrily. I could sit in the back seat of that car as long as I wanted. I could sit in the back of that car until my skin fused to the leather.
Michael ducked back into the car. “It’s getting cold, Miri. You’re shivering.”
I looked at him. “I am?”
He removed his shirt, a white button down, and handed it to me. He was wearing a wife beater underneath, revealing his pretty shoulders. “Put this on,” he said.
I clenched my teeth as I pulled Michael’s shirt on. My arms were so sore, the muscles stretched, shredded really. The shirt was warm and smelled familiar. I lay on my side, holding the cuffs of Michael’s shirt between my fingers, trying to begin to find my way back to the woman I had once been.
“I don’t want to rush you but we should go inside. I think we’ll all feel better with you in the house.” He paused. “I will feel better with you in the house, near me. I am never letting you out of my sight again.”
I sat up again and blood rushed. Michael held his hand out to me. I took a deep breath and slid my hand into his. He squeezed, hard, and I squeezed back. I wanted to run my fingers through his hair, but I was afraid to touch him like that.
As we walked up the stairs leading into my parents’ house, I said, “Wait.” I stood on the step above his. “Put your hands in your pockets.”
“Please, Michael, do as I ask.”
He slid his hands into his pockets, looked at me expectantly. I held his face in my hands, trying to memorize his features, trying to believe he was real, that I was safe. Michael’s heart was beating fast. I could hear the steady bass of it, the thump thump thump. He started crying and I tried to wipe his tears away but there were too many. I said, “I don’t know much right now but I love you.” I said, “I know you were taken too.” I said, “Don’t move your arms,” and he didn’t. He cried harder, said he was so sorry so so sorry. I said, “Hush, baby.” I leaned into my husband’s body and wrapped my arms around him, fitting into him the way I always do. He was my one true thing. I held on to him as tight as my arms would allow. He stopped crying and we stood, alone. He did not rush me. We did not speak. We did not need to. I thought it might be possible to be whole again. I did not know how long it would take to get there. Michael and I are a lock and key. We are nothing without each other.
© Roxane Gay 2011
This story may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.
The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization