What After Looks Like

• February 2012

(Fiction)

Every morning, my parents eat breakfast together. It is the way of their marriage. They have Nadine, one of their maids, prepare them avoine or fruit salad or bagels or scrambled eggs. They drink tea and coffee and talk about what they have planned for the day: meetings, shopping, dinner, a party. The morning after my kidnappers freed me, Michael and I sat with my parents for breakfast. The tension between my father and my husband lingered thickly. I could not bring myself to look at my father. I knew too much about the kind of man he was. I wore layers and layers of clothing so I could hide in plain sight. They could see me but they could not see me. My mother looked me up and down and arched an eyebrow. She spread marmalade over her fresh bread and made a small noise under her breath. She said, “It is good to have you home.” “Damn right it is,” Michael said. My mother did not ask any questions. She knew I wouldn’t say anything to her or my father about what happened. The women in my family are all the same in the stupidest ways.

My mother placed a length of bread on the small plate in front of me. “You are so thin. You must eat.” I was hungry but I could not eat, did not want anything in my mouth. My throat was still raw. When I swallowed I tasted blood. I drank coffee and the heat of it only made my throat hurt more. I was so hungry, the kind of hungry where you feel sharp and unsteady, but there was nothing I could do about it.

My father was quiet. He kept stirring his coffee, the spoon scraping the porcelain over and over until my mother shot him a look. I no longer recognized his features or saw myself in him.

Soon the house would be filled with relatives and family friends and business acquaintances, all wanting to pay their respects, to come look at the freak beneath the circus tent, to revel that once more it wasn’t them taken to a dark terrible place in the slums. I wanted no part of it. I said, “I’d like to go to the beach today.”

My mother took a sip of her tea. She said, “Oh?”

Nadine came into the dining room with Christophe in her arms. When he saw me, his eyes widened. A dull ache spread below my navel. Nadine tried to put him in my arms but I shook my head. Michael stood, said, “I’ll take him.”

I stared at Michael as he held Christophe. They seemed closer than I remembered. Christophe rested his head against his father’s chest. His little lips were bright red. The wild mess of curls on his head had blond highlights. I sat on my hands. “When I was taken, we were on our way to the beach so I want to go to the beach.”

“That is not a good idea,” my father said, the way he says everything, as if there is only one truth, his truth. “And you clearly need medical attention.”

I considered throwing a tantrum. My irritation wove itself into the muscles in my forehead. I wanted to go to the beach. I hate the beach but I wanted to go. I shook my head angrily. Michael inched his chair toward mine. “We’re going to the damn beach,” he said. I reached for him, clasped his neck in my hand, pressed my forehead to his cheek, mouthing the words, “Thank you,” against his skin. He smelled so good and clean. I wanted to climb inside him where he would keep me safe.

As we drove out of the gates at the foot of my parents’ driveway, I held my breath. I held my breath for a very long time and closed my eyes and sat perfectly still. I was nowhere; I was nowhere at all. I could hear the terrible whine of the horn that wouldn’t stop because Michael had fallen, limp, against the steering wheel. I heard that horn for the entire drive. The armed men in the front seats turned their heads in unison every few minutes, scanning the streets for new dangers. I held my breath until we arrived at the beach unharmed, but I was not afraid because I understood the worst of what could happen.

News of a kidnapping always travels fast in Port-au-Prince. People stared as we walked through the club. I know what they all thought. I could smell the stink of their relief. I held my tote bag filled with our towels and toys for Christophe, a change of clothes, tightly against my body. The bruises on my face throbbed. The whispers were loud and vulgar. My sunglasses made me invisible. They could see me but they could not see me.

At Club Indigo, there is a large veranda overlooking the beach and then, down a narrow staircase, the beach itself, lined with canopied outdoor sofas. Most of them were filled with people pretending that this is Haiti, that our gates and high walls can keep us safe. Handsome young men with smooth brown skin, wearing tight white polo shirts and blue shorts, scurried between each little encampment with trays of tall fruity drinks and fresh food. We made our way to an empty space and I sat quietly on the couch, brushing stray grains of sand away from me. The air was hot and thick. The water was quiet. In the near distance, children splashed at the water’s edge. There was music, laughter, so many sounds of the imaginary life. When people walked by us they slowed, and stared, offered half smiles, tried to unravel what had been done to me by the bruising written on my body.

Michael sat Christophe between us. The boy stared at me for a few minutes, then shoved his hand in his mouth and rocked to the side. When he got bored with his hand, he crawled toward me. I shrank away as he planted one of his small hands on my thigh, then the other, and crawled into my lap. He smiled up at me, baring his tiny oddly shaped little teeth. He said, “Mama, hi,” and starting babbling cheerfully. I didn’t know what to do. I looked at Michael with wide eyes but he did nothing. He smiled. He misunderstood the moment completely. It became harder to breathe. Christophe stood in my lap and placed his hands against my cheeks. I winced as he pressed into a fresh bruise. I could hear the whine of the car horn again and the strange hands pulling at me, trying to tear me apart as I tried to memorize my son’s face one last time. My throat closed tightly.

“I can’t breathe, Michael,” I said, forcing the words out, reaching for him, clawing at the seat. I started shaking again. I was so tired. “Please, take, I cannot, please.” I pushed Christophe off my lap and he fell into the empty space beside me. He began to cry. I whispered, “I’m a terrible mother.” I leaned over and vomited into the sand, making hollow, ugly sounds. I was still so hungry. I could see the coffee from earlier slowly spreading outward. My spine shifted uncomfortably. The sheet of muscles across my chest stretched painfully. I stood and started walking, ignoring Michael calling after me. My mouth was still so terrible. I knew I wasn’t alone, knew one of the nameless guards would follow me, knew Michael would follow me. I didn’t look back. I paused, turned, and walked into the ocean. I wanted to walk into the ocean until the warm salt water covered all of me. I heard my name but I did not turn around. The ocean floor felt nice against my feet. I lay on my back, my arms stretched out wide, my body floating away. I squinted as I looked into the sun. It was easier to feel no pain in the water. On land it was all I could do to keep from screaming I hurt so badly. I looked to shore and saw Michael staring at me from behind a pair of dark sunglasses. He looked ready to dive into the water, so I swam back to land.

I ignored him as I walked past him. My clothes hung from my body, wet and heavy. I walked until I came upon a rocky embankment. I wanted to throw myself against those rocks, hit my head, bleed out, pass out, float into the ocean, sink into the warm, sea salt water once again. I sat on a large rock and pulled my knees to my chest, resting my head against my knees. My body had grown to know that position well. Everything hurt so badly. I was so torn inside and out. I could feel it, how wrong everything was.
“Can I sit with you?”

I looked up. Michael smiled at me but it wasn’t his smile. It was the smile of the man he had become. I nodded and moved over a bit.

He cleared his throat. “I don’t know what to do but I’m going to figure it out.”

I scratched at the rock beneath me with what little was left of my fingernails. “I’m hurt pretty bad, Michael.” My voice was unsteady. I hated myself for that weakness.

“I know you are. And you need to see a doctor and we’ll figure out what else you need. We will.”

Michael slid closer to me. I tensed. He said, “I’m not going to touch you.”

I nodded again. I turned to look at him. I thought, if I let him hold me, I will be able to breathe again. I unfolded myself and straddled his lap. I ran my fingers through his hair, trying to memorize each strand. I kissed him, reminded my mouth of his taste. Shyly, he wrapped his arms around me. I said, “Tighter.” I wanted him to hold me so tight, I might break more than I was already broken. He held me closer. I ignored how much it hurt. I couldn’t stop kissing him. He hesitated at first but then he was kissing me just as hard, our lips swelling, our breathing ragged. When I pulled away, he said, “I’m sorry.” I tucked myself beneath his chin. I wanted to go home. I needed him to know I still belonged to him and only him, no one else, not ever.

***

There once was a king who met a miller, a vain man prone to deceit. The miller told the king his daughter could spin straw into gold and so the king locked the daughter in a room full of hay, even though the only thing the daughter could do with hay was hold it in the palms of her hands. She had to make a deal with a devil in order to satisfy the king, make promises she could not keep. No one ever says what happened to the father who was willing to trade a daughter for the favor of a king.

I took a shower, finally, hot water. I allowed myself to burn, made my body hot and tender. In the mirror, I took a new inventory of the bruises. They seemed darker, more terrible. My skin throbbed and swelled and felt tight and then loose.

Downstairs, I found my parents, sitting stiffly on a couch, no warmth between them. My mother wore a linen skirt and a loose white blouse. She fidgeted with the thin, gold bangles around her wrist. My father sat in an impeccably tailored suit, quiet, composed.

“How are you feeling?” my father asked.

Something snapped inside me. Something broke apart completely. I wanted to put as much distance between myself and this man who called himself my father. “How do you think I’m feeling? Honestly, how do you think I am feeling?”

My father rose, slowly. I could see his age in his awkward movements. He approached, took hold of my arm.

My skin crawled. “Don’t touch me.” My voice was strangely high and sharp. It was not my voice.

“We brought you home,” he said. “You are a strong woman. You will move past what happened.”

I couldn’t quite muster a laugh. “You have no idea what happened to me.” My father seemed like a much lesser man. I did not recognize him. I said, “This is not my home.”

He stiffened, held his head higher. There is no one more defiant than a man who believes he is right when he knows he has done something terribly wrong.

Michael entered the room. I went to his side, stood on the tips of my toes, whispered, “I want to go home. Please take me home.” I walked away. My father tried to follow, but Michael threw his arm to the side. He said, “No,” and he pointed a finger at my father. For once, my father did not try to get his way.

***

Alice had choices in Wonderland. Eat me, drink me, enjoy tea with a Mad Hatter, entertain the Queen of Hearts, down, down the rabbit hole.

That night I took my soiled clothes, the ones I wore for thirteen days, the ones covered in piss and tears and semen and blood that I could not wash out even though I tried. I threw those filthy clothes holding those memories of my body into the fire pit behind my parent’s house and smoked cigarette after cigarette while I watched the clothes burn. I had hidden my smoking from my parents for years, told them I quit, but that lie no longer seemed necessary. Michael stood nearby. I could see his silhouette in the light of the fire. He watched over me but left me alone. I thought about throwing myself into that fire. I knew what it meant to burn, how it felt, how the right amount of heat can make your skin rise and how the pain rises with your skin until it spreads through you and when the pain starts to spread, it becomes easier to endure.

When I could see no trace of my clothes, when all that remained was gray ash, I threw more wood into the pit, watched the flames reach high into the night. I held my hand close to the heat. The heat was something now known. If I moved my hand just a little closer, my skin would start to rise again and then blister. I closed my eyes and fell forward. I was ready for the fire and the flame and for the rise of my skin and for everything to end, but before I could have that, Michael grabbed me by my waist.

He pulled me from the fire. He wrapped his arms around me from behind. I tried to fight his embrace but he was stronger. He whispered into my ear. He said, “No, Mireille. No.” He held me as I fought him. He gave me someone to fight who wouldn’t fight me back. He let me fight him until I ran out of energy. I did not cry. We sat on a teak bench next to the pit. I lit another cigarette, offered him one. He accepted.

We sat and stared into the fire. I looked at my left hand. “They took my wedding ring and my engagement ring. I’m so sorry.” My voice sounded strange, not at all like my own. I was strangled.

He tried to reach for me but I pulled my hand away before I had to bear his skin against mine. “They’re just things. I will get you new ones,” he said.

“They mattered to me.”

“And they mattered to me, but you matter more.”

“I fought, especially when he took my rings. I fought.”

“Who is he?” Michael came close, close enough for me to feel the warmth of his body. Sorrow or something else pulsed from his skin. “What did they do to you? Tell me.”

The most honest words to explain what happened locked themselves in my throat. I tried to push out something that might make sense but the harder I tried, the more the words twisted themselves into tiny, stubborn knots. I shook my head, held up my hand.

“When you’re ready, I am here to listen. There’s nothing you can’t tell me, baby.”

“I am never going to be ready, Michael. Not ever.” My spine stiffened.

He shifted uncomfortably. “It might be good for you to talk about what happened—it must have been terrible.”
I turned to look at my husband, wished he could be more careful with the words he used, wished he understood anything at all. “What is it you want to know, Michael? If there’s something on your mind, just ask.”

His features rearranged themselves in new ways. “I want to help you.”

My mother has often told me there are some things you cannot tell a man who loves you, things he cannot handle knowing. She ascribes to the philosophy that it is secrets rather than openness that strengthen a relationship between a woman and a man. She believes this even though she is an honest person. Honesty, she says, is not always about the truth.

I rubbed my forehead and looked away so I could tell him an honest lie. “It was terrible, Michael, but not as terrible as you might think. They certainly did not hesitate to knock me around but other than that, they left me alone in a small, hot room with greasy walls and a narrow bed. They didn’t feed me much, so I was hungry all the time, and I missed you and the baby. That was the worst of it.”

Michael nodded slowly. I waited for him to say something, hoped he would want to believe me enough to believe me so we would never have to discuss what happened. The thought of telling him the truth made my throat lock up again. What he could not understand is that there were no words that would make him understand what had happened or what I had become. The necessary vernacular did not exist.

“You haven’t cried at all,” he said. “You can cry if you need to.”

“I wasn’t waiting for your permission. I don’t need to cry.”

I felt him shrinking away. I reached across the short distance between us and his fingers found mine. I ignored how my skin crawled. I held his hand so damn tight.

Later, as we went inside, he put a heavy hand on my shoulder. I winced. “You didn’t have to lie to me,” he said. “You could have just said you’re not ready to talk.”

I didn’t turn around. “That’s not what you wanted to hear, is it?”

We ate dinner together that night, as a family. We sat at a long, mahogany table that could seat twelve. We ate at a table covered in double damask linen. We ate with heavy silver and drank from fine Christofle crystal goblets. We were served by a quiet woman who shuffles her feet when she walks and always purses her lips; she was a woman with four children and a sometimes-husband who lives in a small house on the edge of a slum where someone like her looks after her children and cooks the meals that feed her family while she feeds my family. I could hardly eat, acid burning my throat with each bite. I soon abandoned the pretense. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep the food down. Everyone watched me intently. I was so very hungry. Something violent ripped through my stomach. I smiled politely, tried to give my husband and mother and father what they needed, who they remembered even though I was a stranger.

 

Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest. She has work forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2012. 

 

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