We were bound but not gagged; the wife wanted us to talk. Her assistant had done the dirty work—jumped us in the street, knocked us out, transported us to wherever the hell we were, tied us tight to wooden chairs. It was my day off. I had been walking the Highline. I heard footsteps behind me, turned, and everything went black.
Stop staring, the assistant barked. She was big and butch, safe for the wife to have around, I thought. She slapped her whip in my direction. The wife reached into her cardigan pocket and pulled out some pills. She shoved them in her mouth and gulped them down without water.
He had never described the wife correctly and now I hated him for it. When we were together he had tried to say that he had never been in love with her, that they married because he was the proper age to start a family and she had the right attributes.
That sounds so cold, I told him.
Does it? he asked, even though he knew it did.
She was pretty in a classic way, an Upper East Side way—that much was predictable. She had perfect bone structure, and those big brown eyes. They looked beautifully misplaced, like they should appear on a little girl. If I hadn’t been her prisoner I might have liked her.
I heard some of the other women straining, struggling with their ropes. Why wasn’t I fighting? My head was throbbing and I could feel swelling on my face. Tied up with two black eyes—while coming to I must have decided I deserved it.
Do things make more or less sense when you are tied up? I looked at the wife. Or when you commissioned the tying?
The room was slightly dark; all cement, grey and dusk-like. Wooden crates created walls on each side of us. God only knew what was in them.
It was easy to imagine him falling in love with the wife, impossible to imagine that she would not have had a life without him, which was one of the things he always said. To the contrary, she may have felt cheated with him, even before his cheating.
He said he had misbehaved even when they were dating, engaged. Back then he was the kind of schmuck who hadn’t really known how to be happy, he said. It was a statement that meant little to me at the time because I didn’t believe in happiness. Not in a dark way, but in a practical way. What can happiness possibly mean when it is supposed to support so many different things for so many people?
So yes, like the other women tied up in that room, I hadn’t backed off when I learned he was married. In my defenses to my friends, I used to point out that he was separated, or so he said. At the time I denied how married separated people actually are. Separated people are trying to hold it together, which takes a certain effort and dedication—ironically, a kind of loyalty.
I had spent quite a bit of time in therapy wondering how I could have been such a shit. Tied to that chair I wondered how he could have been such a shit; how he risked never seeing her eyes again. If this had happened when we were together, I would have told him, Your biggest problem right now is that I sort of like her. Certainly undertaking a group abduction required more verve than I had imagined from any wife. If she had been my friend and not my abductor, I might have cheered her on.
He had lied incessantly, but petals from the endless array of flower bouquets he sent never failed at the straight-up truth. He loved me not.
Taking the whip from the assistant, the wife studied each one of us. I wiggled in my chair as she stared, felt guilty that she was failing to scare me. Her whip looked less like a weapon to me than a prop from a fetish party. This was the sort of thing I could have never said to him—he was more conservative, and likely had never even heard of a fetish party.
He had laughed once at a nightclub invitation he saw on top of my mail. MIDNIGHT SPANKING HOUR; FOAM FEST TO FOLLOW. I never went to those things, but he thought my life must be somewhat ridiculous for my name to appear on the mailing list in the first place.
The wife’s assistant followed behind her trying to keep the long handled ax steady on her shoulder. I heard static in the distance, like voices from an old radio.
Fighting the ropes started to seem like a good idea. Clearly the butch assistant could go rogue at any moment. When I first came to, the assistant had checked the tightness of my ropes and said, Cute notes, Fantasy You. And of course, I cringed. I would have liked to have forgotten that part; to not have known what she meant.
When we were together, he had called from a business trip late one night. We were about to say naughty things on the phone when my roommate burst in, crying and needing to talk. There was no acceptable excuse to send her away and stay on the phone, so I whispered, Why don’t you continue with Fantasy Me tonight, and I’ll catch up with Fantasy You in the morning. I thought it was cute at the time, along with the string of now regrettable Fantasy You and Fantasy Me emails. The wife had seen them. Of course she had.
I looked around the room for the hundredth time. There were probably twenty of us, maybe less than one would have expected considering his energy level and determination—or was that sexual addiction? I’d never expected to be in the same room with any of them, but he was a talker, so I felt like I knew them. I looked for the bruised versions of the dermatologist, the florist, the music producer, the waitress. That was only a fifth of them. Whoever they were around me, they were pissed off, thin, and gently pretty—not a huge surprise. It would have been better for the wife if we looked like seductresses. He did the seducing.
I had no idea where we were, but I could still hear radio static. It may have been my imagination, but I thought I could make out NPR on the other side of the crate wall. There was something comforting about being close to NPR
We might be safe for a moment, I reasoned, until she accepted the tragedy of it. That holding us there, whatever information we might share, would not change a thing.
I looked for the girlfriend after me, the Israeli dancer, the one he thought he might marry, or so he confessed one gloomy day during a chance post-relationship Starbucks run-in—ignoring for a moment the fact that actually he was married.
She was supposed to have puffed out, over-done lips. If the wife knew about the rest of us, surely she knew about Lips. Lips must be sitting behind me, out of view. My friend Duff, a bartender at the Shoreham, had seen them together at the hotel and promised me she was a troll. As if that helped. Actually, I informed him, I preferred to be replaced by a goddess. Presumably Lips and I were both here, two years later, knocked down and tied up by the wife.
The ropes burned hard into my wrists and ankles. I tried to tell myself it hurt slightly less than laser hair removal until there was no denying that it hurt more.
I remembered how he would hold my hands to his face and say, Look baby, I shaved for you. I would say, Whatever, my bikini line has endured expensive and excruciating laser procedures for you.
It was pathetic, but looking at his other women made me miss him. Not the thrill of the secret, or even the sex. As drippy as it sounds, I missed the way he kissed me, like we had been kissing for a hundred years. I craved the way he laughed, the idea that I could make him laugh. And this was probably one for my therapist—I missed the impossibility of pleasing him for the long term.
Now that the wife had taken her time inspecting our faces, she no longer knew what to do. The color left her cheeks. She turned away. Her ax-yielding assistant paced in front of us for a few moments, then you could almost see the idea light go on. She had a captive audience. Literally. She would treat this like a poetry reading. That’s when it became really unbearable.
Her voice accelerated as she told how the wife would chop at the legs of our chairs; tear down the walls around us. The wife needed to see us all lopsided, exposed to the elements, foundations destroyed.
The youngest looking one in the corner with rings in her eyebrows grunted out loud.
You’re right, I wanted to tell her. He liked reasonably smart chicks, so there was no need to simplify for us. We held some capacity for metaphor.
The ropes must burn, she said, burn, burn, burn!
As she went on, she seemed to grow bored with us. What a clusterfuck, she mumbled, between poetic declarations. She placed the ax by the door and kept talking. Likewise the wife dropped the whip and dug into her pocket for new pills.
I could no longer hear NPR. The things we take for granted. I actually missed NPR.
Quiet! the wife screamed from the corner, suddenly aware of us again, back at it with the whip, a crack at no one in particular. She intended to be tough, but looked more like someone who needed to sob. I thought how exhausted she must be, how even in a short time he could exhaust a woman, leave her unsure of everyone around her.
She isn’t going to hurt us because he isn’t worth the trouble, someone behind me said. True, our crimes against her, and her abduction of us—both gave him more power than he ever deserved. But for a long time I imagined he was worth the trouble. I would have never admitted it at the time, but I wanted both of us to screw up our current worlds and build a new and better one together. I had worked hard to get over him, to move onto new, healthier boyfriends. And it was hard to accept that I was still there, with him somehow, his past and present, stuck in the center of them all.
Finally, ax-woman stopped with the poems. Back in the day, I had told my best friend Victoria that if I could talk to the wife I would tell her to get him an expensive Midtown haircut and a respectable black sports coat. Certainly I didn’t mean to let him or his tarts off the hook, but it was easier to believe in his alleged bachelorhood with that Supercuts mop and an ill-fitting blue Brooks Brothers coat that had belonged to his dad. He was a gorgeous man but one of those Panasonic nose hair trimmers would not have been a frivolous gift.
I thought he sucked in the sack, the kinky-haired girl sighed.
The wife dropped the whip harder this time and sat down again, yoga style this time, on the cement floor. She closed her eyes.
Wrong, I almost said. He was just older than he looked. He simply could not do what men our age could do—the balls could not keep up. That was the moment he seemed most human, when his dick was not working as quickly as he wanted it too; the moment we both became our frantic, imperfect selves. Sometimes he was brilliant in bed but first he had to calm down and find his groove.
Another one sneered: We’re not exactly gathered to reminisce.
Or maybe we were. In my head I was still defending him—what the fuck?
Victoria always said, When men are amazing in bed, the odds are far greater they’re gigantic assholes. I was tempted to disagree but didn’t have the right argument exactly.
At first he tried too hard; sex was more a marathon than an encounter. And he would sweat so much—maybe the others liked that—which made an immediate shower a necessity. I hated shower duets. When you shower together, someone is always left in the cold.
I tried to keep my mind off how much the ropes hurt.
The first and only two interrogations took place on the other side of the crates. The producer and the dermatologist, the kinky-haired girl told me later. The ax-poet stayed with the rest of us and blasted Aerosmith from a boom box so that we could not hear a thing. Dream On.
I suppose it was predictable. In the end, the wife broke down before she could finish interrogating everyone. So many things she only thought she wanted to know. The assistant-turned-ax-poet untied us and shoved us out onto the cold downtown street. She bitched that this whole scene was worse than Law & Order writers going on strike in the middle of the season. It wasn’t an accurate depiction but accessible on an otherwise confusing day.
It seems important to note that none of us imagined him—upon learning we were bound in a room with his wife; his wife breaking down—racing in for the rescue. None of us had seen him that way, ever, and knew better than to hope he had changed. He would not be there for us and he would fail her again.
Only the young one thought of pressing charges against the wife and the ax-poet when it was over. We all went back to our lives, now reminded of him by the sight of axes or whips, frayed ropes or wooden crates. In that way the wife had won. She had replaced any lingering thought of him with the memory of her eyes staring into ours.
The ax-poet wrote a book. The wife stayed married.
It was over, really.
Let me say it again: No one looked toward the door for him; not even for a second.
Adapted from A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends by Stacy Bierlein. Copyright © 2012 by Stacy Bierlein. With the permission of the publisher, Elephant Rock Productions, inc.