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 their bodies 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. I was not broken.
This is what I tell myself.
It was hot, nearly a hundred degrees, the air so thick it felt like warm rain. I dressed my son, Christophe, in a pair of miniature red board shorts and a light blue T-shirt with a sailboat across the front. I covered his smooth brown arms and his beaming face with sunscreen. I kissed his nose and brushed his thick, dirty-blond curls away from his face as he pressed his palms against my cheeks and shouted, “Mama! Mama! Mama!” My husband, Michael, the baby, and I said goodbye to my parents, told them we would be back in time for dinner.
Michael and I were taking Christophe to the ocean for the first time. We were going to hold him in the warm salt water as he wiggled his toes and kicked his chubby legs. We were going to throw him toward the sun and catch him safely in our arms. My mother smiled from the balcony where she watered her plants, wearing a crisp linen outfit and high heels. She blew a kiss to her grandson. She reminded us to be safe.
We put our son into his car seat. We handed him his favorite stuffed animal, a little bulldog named Baba. He clenched his beloved toy tightly in his little fist, still smiling. He has his father’s temperament. He is usually happy. That is important to me. Before getting into the car, Michael double-checked that Christophe was strapped securely in his car seat. He put our beach bags into the trunk.
Michael held my door open. When he closed it, he pressed his face against the window, and blew air until his cheeks filled. I laughed and pressed my hand against his face through the glass. “I love you,” I mouthed. I don’t say those words often, but he knows. Michael ran around to his side of the car. After he slid behind the steering wheel and adjusted the rearview mirror so he could see the baby, he leaned into me and we kissed. He rested an arm on the armrest between us and I idly brushed the golden wisps of hair on his arms. I smiled and rested my head on his shoulder. We drove down the long steep hill of my parents’ driveway and waited quietly for the heavy steel gates, the gates keeping us safe, to open.
In the backseat, Christophe cooed softly, still smiling. As the gates closed behind us, three black Land Cruisers surrounded our car. The air filled with a high-pitched squealing and the smell of burning rubber. Michael’s tanned knuckles turned white as he gripped the steering wheel and looked frantically for a way out. His body shook. The doors of all three trucks opened at the same time and men we did not know spilled out, all limbs and gunmetal. There was silence, the air thin, still hot. My breath caught painfully in my rib cage. There was shouting.
Two men stood behind our car, machine guns raised. Michael pressed his foot against the gas pedal to move forward but a tall man with a red bandana across the lower half of his face, a man holding a machine gun, pounded his fist on the hood of the car. He left a small dent in the shape of his closed hand. He glared at us, then raised his gun, pointed it directly at Michael’s chest. I threw my arm across Michael’s body. It was a silly, impotent gesture. Michael’s eyes were bright, and arcs of tears trembled along his lower eyelids. He grabbed my hand between both of his, held me so fiercely it felt like all those slender bones would be crushed.
Two men slammed the butts of their rifles against the car windows. Their bodies glowed with anger. The glass cracked, fractures spreading. Michael and I pulled apart, waited tensely, and then the windshield broke, the sound loud and echoing. We covered our faces as shards of glass shattered around us, refract- ing sharp prisms of light. Michael and I reached for Christophe at the same time. The baby was still smiling but his lips quivered, his eyes wide. My hands could not quite reach him. My child was so close my fingers thrummed. If I touched my child, we would all be fine; this terrible thing would not happen. A man reached into the window and unlocked my door. He started to pull me out of the car roughly, growling as the seat belt held me inside. After he slapped my face, he ordered me to unlock my seat belt. My hands shook as I depressed the button. I was lifted up and out of our car and thrown onto the street. The skin covering my face stung.
My body deflated. My body was just skin stretched too tightly over bone, nothing more, no air. The man sneered at me, called me dyaspora with the resentment those Haitians who cannot leave hold for those of us who can. His skin was slick. I couldn’t hold on to him. I tried to scratch, but my fingers only collected a thick layer of sweat. I tried to grab on to the car door. He slammed his gun against my fingers. I yelled, “My baby. Don’t hurt my baby.” One of the men grabbed me by my hair, threw me to the ground, kicked me in my stomach. I gasped as I wrapped my arms around myself. A small crowd gathered. I begged them to help. They did not. They stood and watched me screaming and fighting with all the muscle in my heart. I saw their faces and the indifference in their eyes, the relief that it was not yet their time; the wolves had not yet come for them.
I was pulled to my feet and again I tried to break free, I tried to run, to reach for my son, to feel his skin against mine just one last time. I shouted at him through the broken window. I shouted, “Christophe!” banging my fist against his window so he would look at me. I said the things any mother would say to her child in that moment even though he was too young to understand any of it. My voice was stripped raw. He stared, reaching for me. He kicked his legs. I studied the dimples over each of his knuckles. I broke free and pulled the rear door open, wrapped the seat belt around my hand as a strange pair of hands tried to pull me loose. The man on Michael’s side hit him in the face with a closed fist again and again. Michael slumped forward, his forehead pressed against the horn. The horn wailed, the whine of it filling the air. A thick, dark stream of blood slowly slid from my husband’s forehead, down between his eyes, along his nose and over his lips. In the backseat, Christophe started crying, his face burning a bright red.
The cold steel of a gun barrel dug into my skin. I froze. A voice said, “Go easy or we kill your family. We kill everything you’ve ever loved.” I did not move. The gun dug deeper and deeper. I unclenched my fingers and stood. I stared at my family. I do not love easy. I raised my hands over my head. My thighs trembled uncontrollably. I could not move. A hand grabbed my neck, pushing me toward a waiting vehicle. I turned to look back, a sudden calm filling me. Michael slowly raised his head. I looked at him hard, wanted him to know this was not how our story would end. He shouted my name. The desperation in his voice made me nauseous. I mouthed I love you and he nodded. He shouted, “I love you.” I heard him. I felt him. I watched as he tried to open his door but passed out again, his body slumping.
My captors put a burlap sack over my head and shoved me into the backseat. The delicate construction of bone in my cheeks throbbed angrily. My skin hurt. My captors told me, in broken English, to do as they said and I would be back with my family soon. I needed to hold the fragile hope that I could find my way back to my happily ever after. I didn’t know any better. That was the before.
I sat very still as two men flanked me. Their muscular legs pressed against mine. Each man held one of my wrists, so tightly they would leave dark red circles. The air was filled with the stench of sweaty young bodies and my blood and the sunscreen I had rubbed into my child’s skin. Before I passed out I heard cold laughter, my son crying and the desperate wail of the car horn.
ROXANE GAY’s writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, Oxford American,American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, The New York Times Book Review, The Rumpus, Salon, and many others. Her first book, Ayiti, was a collection of poetry and short stories. AN UNTAMED STATE is her debut novel, and her essay collection BAD FEMINIST is due in August. She is the coeditor of PANK and she teaches writing at Eastern Illinois University.
AN UNTAMED STATE © 2014 by Roxane Gay; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.