Fiction · 05/13/2009

Things I Know About Fairy Tales

When I was very young, my mother told me that she didn’t believe in fairy tales. They were, she liked to say, lessons dressed in fancy clothes. She preferred to excise the princesses and villains and instead concerned herself with the moral of the story.

Once upon a time, not long ago, I was kidnapped and held captive for thirteen days. Shortly after I was freed, my mother told me there was nothing to be learned from what had happened to me. She told me to forget the entire incident because there was no moral to the story.

Little Red Riding Hood didn’t see the danger she was facing until it was too late. She thought she was safe. She trusted. And then, she wasn’t safe at all.

My husband Michael and I, while visiting my parents in Port-au-Prince, decided to take our son to the beach for the afternoon. As we backed out of their long, narrow driveway, three black Land Cruisers surrounded us. In the end, the details of the incident were largely irrelevant. What was done could not be undone.

On that day, Michael and I looked at each other. We knew what was happening. Kidnapping is all anyone with any kind of money talks about in Haiti, everyone in a fragile frenzied state wondering when it will be their time. It was a relief, in a sense, to know that my time was up – to know that this day was the day I would be taken.

Two men with dark, angry faces broke the car windows with the butts of their rifles. The man on my side reached through the broken glass, unlocked my door and pulled me out of our car. He sneered at me, called me diaspora with the resentment that those Haitians who cannot leave hold for those of us who did. His skin was slick with sweat. There was no place for traction. When I tried to grab onto the car door, he slammed the butt of his gun against my fingers. The man on Michael’s side hit him in the face and he slumped forward, his forehead pressed against the horn. They put a burlap sack over my head and shoved me into the backseat of one of the waiting cars. They told me, in broken English, to do as they said and I would be back with my family soon. I sat very still. The air was stifling. All I heard was their cruel laughter, my son crying and the fading wail of the car horn.

My father is fond of saying that a woman’s greatest asset is her beauty. Snow White had her beauty, and her beauty was her curse until it became her greatest asset.

Before the incident my mother and I often had very frank conversations about being kidnapped. She was always very concerned with the logistics of the thing because she’s a woman of manners and grace. It’s the kind of quotidian conversation you have in a place where nothing makes sense and there is no respect for life. She told me that she wouldn’t be able to survive the indignity. I told her she would have to do whatever was necessary to get through it because we needed her. As I sat between two angry men, being jostled as we sped over the broken streets of Port-au-Prince, I remembered that conversation. I realized my arrogance.

Sleeping Beauty was cursed by her birthright, by her very name. Her fate was sealed by Maleficent before she ever had a chance. Even hidden away, she could not escape the curse placed upon her. There was nowhere for her to run.

I couldn’t take it personally, being kidnapped. That is what I told myself. It was a business transaction, one that would require intense negotiation and eventually, compromise. One of the accountants who worked for my father, Gilbèrt, was kidnapped the previous year. His kidnappers originally asked for $125,000, but everyone knew it was simply a starting number, an initial conversation. Eventually, with professional assistance and proof of life, his family paid $53,850 for Gilbèrt. My negotiations would be somewhat more complex and far more costly. A good family name comes at a high price.

After the first stifling days of my abduction, when negotiations began in earnest, I understood that the money my family would pay for my safe return was not for me. It was for the daughter, wife, mother they had last seen. I had become a different person entirely. It seemed, somehow, unfair for them to not get what they were paying for.

After the incident, when Michael and I returned to the States, a gaggle of reporters greeted us, waiting just past the crowded, suffocating customs area in the Miami airport. Reporters lined the street where we lived. They followed us for weeks until a white woman went missing and then my story no longer mattered.

The thing about Rapunzel was that she had the means to her own salvation all along. If she had only known that, she would have never been cast out by the enchantress and been forced to wait to enjoy her ever after with her prince.

My family hired an American firm that specializes in negotiating for U.S. citizens who have been abducted abroad. They were efficient. Within 24 hours, they had demanded proof of life. I was able to call my husband from a disposable cell phone. I said hello. At first, it was a relief to hear his voice, to remember his smile, the softness of his lower lip, the way he always wanted to hold my hand. But then, he started blathering about how I was going to be okay and that he was going to do everything in his power to get me back. I hung up because he was lying and he didn’t know it.

Although my kidnapping was a business transaction, my captors enjoyed mixing in pleasure at my expense. I fought, but I also begged them to use condoms. I did what I had to do. Worse things could have happened. I was not broken. That’s what I tell myself now, when I close my eyes and see their gleaming white teeth leering at me. It’s what I tell myself when I smell their stink and their sweat or remember the weight of their thin, sinewy bodies on top of mine, taking things that weren’t theirs to take. It’s what I tell my husband when he thinks he wants to know what really happened. It is mostly true.

My parents’ friend, Corinne LeBlanche, was kidnapped not long before I was taken. She and her husband and four children lived in Haiti year round. She always swore, to anyone who would listen, that if she were ever kidnapped, her husband Simon best meet her at the airport with her passport and children once she was returned because she would never spend another night in the country. Simon was a fat, happy, prominent businessman who owned a chain of restaurants and gas stations that did quite well. He laughed when Corinne made such declarations. He didn’t yet understand that these things went differently for women. She and the children now live in Miami. She called me when Michael and I returned to the States. Even though we said very little, we spoke for a long time.

My kidnappers took me to a small, two-story house without air-conditioning in a cramped neighborhood on the outskirts of Cite de Soleil. They kept me in a back room furnished with a small cot and a green paint bucket filled with brackish water. Throughout the day, I could hear children playing on the street below, music from a house near by, a car now and again, the occasional gunshot. I didn’t scream or try to escape. There would be no point. Anyone I might run to would just as soon take me for themselves rather than rescue me because compassion wasn’t as valuable as une diaspora.

Two years ago, the matriarch of the Gilles family was kidnapped. She was 81. The kidnappers knew the family had more money than God. They failed to realize that she was frail and diabetic. She died soon after she was abducted. Everyone who knew her was thankful that her suffering was abbreviated, until the kidnappers, having learned the lesson that the elderly are bad for business, kidnapped her grandson, who at 37 promised to be a far more lucrative investment.

At least Cinderella had her work to keep her busy – the familiarity of sweeping floors and washing windows and cooking the daily bread. If nothing else, because she had truly suffered she could truly appreciate her ever after.

What you cannot possibly know about kidnapping until it happens to you is the sheer boredom of being kept mostly alone, in a small, stifling room. You start to welcome the occasional interruption that comes with a meal or a bottle of water or a drunken captor climbing atop you to transact some pleasure against your will. You hate yourself for it, but you crave the stranger’s unwanted touch because the fight left in you is a reminder that you haven’t been broken. You haven’t been broken.

Beauty learned to love the Beast. She forced herself to see past the horror of his appearance, past his behavior, past the circumstance of how they came to know one another.

On the tenth night, Ti Pierre lies next to me, staring at the ceiling. He tells me his name, after he’s had his pleasure and I’ve had my fight. His skin is caked beneath my fingernails and my body is stiff. A bruise is forming along my jaw. I cling to the edge of the bed, trying to create as much distance as possible between our bodies until I regain the energy to fight, to remind myself that I am not broken. Ti Pierre talks to me about his life, his young son, how he wants to be a nightclub deejay because he loves American hip hop music. “We could be friends, maybe,” he says, “We are close in age.” I roll onto my side and bite my knuckles. He rests a tender hand on my back and I cringe, repulsed. It is the closest I will come to crying. These are the things I will never tell anyone.

At a dinner party once, with some of my colleagues and some of Michael’s and lots of wine and music and excellent food and pretentious but engaging conversation, talk turned to Haiti. Everyone leaned forward in their seats, earnest in their desire to be genuine in their understanding of the world. One of my colleagues mentioned a magazine article he read about how Haiti had surpassed Colombia as the kidnapping capital of the world. Another colleague told us about a recent feature in a national magazine. Soon everyone was offering up their own desperate piece of information, conjuring a place that does not exist.

On the fourth day of my captivity, I thought about that silly evening, and the new bits and pieces my friends were adding to their portrait. Three years later, I would overhear one of these colleagues, trying to be charming at a cocktail party, telling a precocious graduate student that he knew someone who had been kidnapped in one of those Third World countries. When I walked by, he wouldn’t have a strong enough sense of shame to look away. Instead, he would tip his wine glass in my direction before taking a long sip and continuing to regale his audience with the few lurid details he knew.

My kidnappers and my family’s negotiators finally came to an agreement on the thirteenth day. My kidnappers shared the news gleefully. I could hear them in the next room, talking about all the things they were going to do with their money. Their plans were modest, really, which made it all so much worse. They wielded cartel-like precision, and for a long while the only sound I could hear was the bills sliding against each other as they were counted into $1,000 stacks. This is what my worth sounds like, I thought. How lucky I am.

A Cuban friend once told me of a popular lullaby from her country, about a mother with thirteen children. The mother kills one child to feed twelve, so on and forth, until she is left with one child, whom she also slaughters. Finally, she returns to the middle of a cornfield where she slaughtered the other children, and slits her own throat because she cannot bear the burden of having done what needed to be done. After telling me this story, my Cuban friend said, “A West Indian woman always faces such choices.”

When my kidnappers were satisfied that I had been properly bought and paid for I was cleaned up, shoved into the back of the Land Cruiser, and dropped off in the center of an open market in Pètionville. I stood there in what remained of my shirt and my filthy jeans, my feet bare, my hair a mess. My hands were in my pockets, my fingers clenched into tight fists. I stood there and waited. I tried to breathe. I was not broken. I remember these details more than any others. Around me, men and women haggled over chicken and vegetables and water and Cornflakes and radios. I was invisible, until I wasn’t – until I heard my husband shout my name and run toward me with a group of men I didn’t recognize. As Michael moved to embrace me, I stepped back. His expression, in that moment, I also remember. “You’re safe now,” he told me as if he understood the meaning of the word.

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.

I didn’t speak for hours, not when I saw my parents or my child, who patted my cheeks with his chubby, wide-open hands. I took a long shower. I washed my hair and tried to scrub away the stink and sweat that comes with being trapped in a dark, hot place with strange angry men. Michael came into the bathroom to check on me, and when he saw the bruises, the weight I had lost, the bowed frame of my body, he gasped. I wrapped my arms around my body. “Get out,” I hissed. “I’m not broken.”

Afterward, I took my soiled clothes to the fire pit behind my parent’s house and smoked cigarette after cigarette while I watched the clothes burn. For years, I had hidden my smoking from my parents, told them I’d quit, but that lie no longer seemed necessary. We ate dinner together that night, as a family, acid burning my throat with each bite. Everyone watched me intently. I smiled politely, tried to give them what they needed.

In bed that night, Michael lay on his side, watching me as I sat on the edge of the bed. “When you’re ready to talk, I’m ready to listen,” he said. His tone was so kind it made me nauseous. I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t the woman he married, that I knew things now. Instead, I nodded and kissed his shoulder. After he fell asleep, I slipped next door into the room where Christophe slept. I picked him up, inhaled the scent of soft skin, and sat on the floor, watching as his lower lip quivered and his tiny chest rose and fell with his rapid baby breaths.

My husband found me the next morning, asleep on the floor holding our son. “You don’t have to be so strong. You can cry if you want to,” he said over breakfast, as if I were waiting for his permission. I didn’t know how to tell him that I felt nothing at all. I held myself together until three days later, after we said goodbye to my parents under the watchful eye of their new security detail and boarded our flight to Miami. The plane took off. My chest tightened because I knew I would never really get away from that place. “Are you okay?” Michael asked, brushing his fingers across my cheek. I shook my head, got up, and locked myself in the first class bathroom. After I threw up, I stared at the stranger in the mirror. I imagined going down, down the rabbit hole of my own happily ever after.

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Roxane Gay’s work appears or is forthcoming in Word Riot, decomP, The Northville Review, DOGZPLOT, and many others. She is the Associate Editor of PANK.