“Sweet on the Tongue”

Read a New Story from Roxane Gay's Collection, Ayiti

By  Roxane Gay

My grandmother, eighty-seven, has changed the name of the nurse’s aide who tends to her. She didn’t like the woman’s real name, said it tasted strange in her mouth. She calls the aide Maria so now we all call the nurse’s aide Maria, too. Maria tells me this story when I meet her while visiting my grandmother, who lives with my aunt, next door to another aunt and down the street from more aunts and a few uncles. When we meet, I tell her I already know everything there is to know about her. Information travels at alarming speed through the intricate gossip network of our family. She says, “I could say the same.” The way she looks at me makes me uncomfortable. She looks at me the way a man might.

I’m visiting because my grandmother told my mother she didn’t want to die without seeing her youngest granddaughter one last time. She makes such pronouncements with regularity. She has been dying for nearly twenty years but no one lives forever.

Maria has a big ass. My grandmother tells Maria this regularly. She has reached that age where she lacks tact. Despite my grandmother’s concern about the size of Maria’s ass and her unwillingness to call Maria by her given name, they get along quite well. Maria treats my grandmother like her own. She brushes my grandmother’s thin, silver hair each night before bed. They love to argue about the shows they watch. They talk about the islands where they were born, the warmth of suns they once knew.

On the first night, my grandmother falls asleep watching the evening news. News of war exhausts her. Maria and I smoke in the small backyard, leaning against a brick wall. My grandmother was not incorrect in her evaluation of Maria’s ass but Maria is attractive, not much older than me, dark brown skin, white teeth, soft sweet-smelling skin.

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I ask for her real name and she waves a hand limply. “Just call me Maria.”

Her accent is familiar. The evening is cold, a cold to which our island skin is not accustomed; it hurts to breathe too deeply. When Maria exhales, I inhale.

“Do you like this kind of work?” I ask.

Maria shrugs, ashes her cigarette. I can no longer see the edges of her face. She steps closer, leans in until I can feel her breasts against mine. “Do you like your kind of work?”

My cheeks warm.

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We fall into a routine over the next several days. When Maria is ready to smoke, she taps my shoulder, lets her fingers rest too long, and I follow her outside. She asks about my life. I can see my family’s fingers on her questions. I am vague in my replies.

On Friday, Maria gathers her things while the night nurse, a far less congenial woman, settles in front of the television next to my aunt who is half asleep, her lower lip hanging wetly. Maria nods toward the front door and I follow. On the stoop she says, “I cook,” and I say, “I eat.” She presses a tightly folded piece of paper into the palm of my hand.

Maria’s address is written in block letters and numbers, even her sixes and nines. When I arrive, my fingertips are numb. Maria has changed from scrubs into a denim skirt and a red silk camisole. I stand awkwardly in the hallway, my hands tucked into my armpits.

“You don’t have to feed me. This isn’t part of your job.”

Maria cocks her head. She walks away and I follow dumbly. The apartment is small but clean. The walls are heavy with pictures, many of them black-and-white. We walk down a long hallway to the kitchen, where the air is thick and hot. My pores open hungrily. “Can I do anything to help?” Maria arches an eyebrow but shakes her head. She points to an empty chair and I sit, shrugging out of my jacket.

I do not visit my family often. Already I am exhausted—so many of them, so demanding, pulling me into meaty embraces and age-old, petty squabbles. I live in Los Angeles in a large loft apartment with a man, Campbell, who works a great deal. He is an agent. He takes care of a select group of clients, all of them stupidly famous. He makes them a stupid amount of money, so he makes a stupid amount of money. We are married and our marriage is complicated but good, better than good. When he proposed he said he understood me. He said all he would ever ask of me is to love him. I do. I don’t do anything in the way of compensated work even though I have several degrees that make my lifestyle seem ridiculous at best. Five days a week, I volunteer at a clinic where the people think me far better than I am. Sometimes, Campbell comes home late and I hand him a gin and tonic. We talk about his day. I ask him if he wants a break, if he wants me to help him shoulder the burden of our life together. He squeezes my shoulder and kisses me and takes a long sip of his drink and kisses me again. He says he wants to take care of me.

*

I met Campbell in the emergency room. He was harried, typing furiously on his phone while standing next to one of his clients, a tabloid bad boy actor who lay on his side, moaning softly. When the actor rolled onto his back, I could see the large bump on his forehead, and next to it, a deep laceration. He reeked of booze. It had been a long shift, full of crazy. The last thing I wanted to deal with was a drunken actor. You’ve treated one, you’ve treated them all. I snapped on a pair of gloves and began examining my patient. He made a lewd comment and I slapped his wrist. Three nurses hovered, tittering nervously. I looked up, glaring, but they couldn’t help themselves. I finally had to tell them I didn’t need their help and closed the curtain. Campbell looked up. He had gray eyes. I thought, I’ve never seen a black man with gray eyes before, but then he opened his mouth.

“Look, Doc,” he said. “If possible, I’d like you to just patch him up, get some fluids in him, and we’ll be on our way. No records, no charts.”

My eyes narrowed. “Doc? That’s not how hospitals work.”

Campbell came around to my side of the bed. He was very tall. He looked down. I held his gaze. He squeezed my arm. “Just play ball, sister. You know how it works in this town.”

I pulled my arm free. “I’m not your sister. I’m not from this town. I’m afraid I have no idea how it works.”

The actor started braying.

Hours later, I was at the nurses’ station, paperwork, always so much paperwork. I was tired and ready to go home, ready to change out of my scrubs, ready for a long, hot shower. I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up, and saw Campbell staring at me. I stood, ready with sharp words.

He held his hands up. “I come in peace. I offer truce.” I put my hands on my hips. “Your client will be here overnight, at least, but he’s off my service. Visiting hours start at ten.” I turned to return to my paperwork.

Campbell leaned against the desk, crossing his ankles. “So,” he said. “What will it take to see you out of scrubs?”

I didn’t look up. “Nothing you could possibly offer.”

He exhaled loudly, and started walking away but he muttered something under his breath. It wasn’t nice.

“I heard that,” I shouted after him.

Weeks later, I was on an overnight shift, two in the morning, quiet, sitting in the residents’ lounge. I had forgotten about the bad boy actor and his agent. I studied the container of yogurt in my hand, long expired. I ate it anyway, knowing the worst of what could happen. Campbell entered and I looked up, spoon in my mouth.

“You can’t be in here,” I said, after I swallowed. 

“If I can’t see you out of scrubs, I will console myself by seeing you in scrubs.”

I tried not to appear flustered. “Your client has long been released. I can’t imagine what more I can do for you.”

Campbell handed me his card. “You can go out with me.”

I held the card up to the light. “Is this supposed to be an incentive?” I tossed the card back toward his chest and he caught it, laughing.

“What is with you?”

“I am a humorless resident who works ninety hours a week.”

“What do you do during the other seventy-eight hours of the week?”

“I sleep, alone.”

Campbell nodded, rubbing his chin, then sat down on the couch, crossing his long legs. “This presents a challenge. If you work ninety hours a week and sleep for the other seventy-eight, that doesn’t leave room for much.”

He told me I was adorable. I said he was a condescending asshole. He agreed, genially.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not sure what you want. Am I supposed to throw myself at you now?”

He patted the empty space next to him. “That would be a start.”

I moved to a chair on the other side of the room. “Let’s say I went out with you. You’d wine and dine me, maybe take me to a fancy movie premiere, introduce me to shiny people in magazines. We’d sleep together. I’d be deeply unsatisfied. We might go at it a few times more, and then you’d grow bored because I have a brain. We’d be right back where we started. Let’s don’t and say we did.”

Campbell was leaning forward now, his elbows on his knees. “Your anger is fascinating.”

“Why do men always assume women are angry when they are honest? I’m not angry.”

He stood. “You’ve given me a lot to think about.” He disappeared.

His visits became so frequent they grew into a source of amusement in the ER. My coworkers took bets on how long it would take for me to agree to go out with Campbell. I called him a stalker. He told me I was adorable. I said he was a condescending asshole. He agreed, genially. A month passed. For two days, he didn’t show up. I spent my entire shift snapping at the nurses, unable to soothe the line of frustration running through me. The next day, when Campbell did show up, I gave him a colder shoulder than usual.

“You missed me, didn’t you?” he asked.

I was in the lounge studying an X-ray, a broken leg I would set shortly. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

He took the X-ray from me. “The nurses tell me you’ve been very short-tempered since we last saw each other.”

“Only a man with your arrogance could think that had anything to do with you.”

His smile widened. “So it’s true.”

I grabbed my X-ray back, and accidentally cut myself on the edge. I winced, jumping around as I sucked on the cut.

“Let me see that, you big baby,” Campbell said.

I extended my arm, reluctantly. He held my wrist gently, twisting it from side to side to study my finger. He disappeared for a moment and when he returned, he had a Band-Aid, which he applied. He kissed my fingertip and said, “I was out of town on business, film festival, Utah.”

As I studied his handiwork, he said, “You should see me for a follow-up. Dinner. Away from here.”

I nodded absently. “Sure.”

He pumped his fist over his head and I realized what I had just done. The chief resident won the pool at forty-seven days.

On our first date, we sat in a bistro in downtown LA. I studied Campbell’s hairline, graying in that terribly appealing way men enjoy. He is older than me by a decade, was married and divorced by the time we met. He started talking about his marriage. I leaned across the table and pressed two fingers against his lips. “Let’s not do that. Let’s not sit here and tell each other everything there is to know about who we once loved. I am tired of listening to men talk about their regrets.”

Campbell’s eyes widened and he burst out laughing. “What the fuck?”

“Do you really want to know about the last man or three I slept with or loved?”

He leaned back, lacing his fingers behind his head. “No,” he finally said. “I really don’t.”

“The night just got way better, didn’t it?”

Before he could answer, the waiter interrupted, pen at the ready for our order, and Campbell didn’t stop staring at me as he told the waiter he wanted the clams. After a lazy meal and a movie, he walked me to my door and stood real close. “I must admit you’ve thrown me off my game.”

“Good,” I said. I leaned in and bit his lower lip then let myself into my house. I had not realized we were holding hands.

On our second date Campbell told me he had someone he wanted me to meet. We pulled up to The Palm and the valet greeted Campbell by name, said his usual table was ready. As Campbell held the door for me, he brushed his hand against the small of my back. We were escorted to a table at the center of the room—a room filled with the thin, beautiful people who typically populate Los Angeles. Some were more recognizable than others. Many of the women shared the same face. At our table, a gorgeous woman was already seated. As I sank into my chair, I recognized her as a movie star having a very good year or at least that’s what People told me. During lulls in the hospital, I often sat in the waiting room reading the magazines abandoned there. It was the only way I knew anything about anything. She extended a long, willowy arm.

“Your hands are ridiculously soft,” I said.

She grinned. “The blood of virgins is the best moisturizer.”

I pretended to make a note on the tablecloth. “I will keep that in mind.”

Campbell cleared his throat. “Therese, this is Melinda, a dear friend and client. Melinda, Therese. A new friend but not a client.”

We nodded and I buried my head in the menu, a large, leather affair. Campbell looked at me over the top of his menu. “Everything is good here.”

“If I ate meat, I’m sure it would be.”

He looked so uncomfortable, I almost felt sorry for him.

“Dear God. You’re a vegetarian.”

“If you had been paying attention, you might know that.”

His voice lowered. “I am paying attention.”

Suddenly his phone rang. He raised a finger in the air, and stepped away from the table to answer the call.

Melinda set her menu down. “He wasn’t kidding. You are different.”

“Some say.”

“You know he invited me here to impress you.”

I nodded.

“Is it working?”

“Not even a little.”

A waiter delivered a bottle of chilled champagne to the table. After he poured, Melinda and I raised our glasses and smiled.

*

Maria says everyone is so proud to have a doctor in the family as she sets a plate in front of me—chicken in sauce, rice and peas. I don’t tell her I’m a vegetarian.

The skin of the meat glistens. I swallow my nausea and pull my hair into a ponytail.

We are silent as we eat. The meat is salty and tender, breaking apart against my teeth. When we finish, I take the plates to the sink, wash them.

“I volunteer instead of working at a practice or hospital,” I say.

Maria laughs. “A doctor is a doctor is a doctor.”

We take a bottle of Merlot into the living room. The more wine we drink, the more her accent thickens. Mine does, too.

“Why did you become a doctor?” she asks.

When you’re willing to give over so much of your life to a single, impossible pursuit, the questions are inevitable. I tell Maria the truth.

We sit so close our thighs touch. I am dizzy, my mouth empty but full.

“Your grandmother says you haven’t been home since . . .”

I shake my head. “Don’t.”

Maria sighs. “It must have been horrible.”

I twist my wedding rings back and forth and think about my husband, how when we’re sitting together, he doesn’t force me to talk. I worry I am too quiet for him. He says I speak when I need. I speak when it matters.

“Your family wishes you would talk,” Maria says.

I pour myself another glass of wine, drink it quickly, and refill my glass again. “I’m sure they talk enough without me. Is this why you asked me here?”

Maria shakes her head, her lips turning down slightly, but I am not convinced.

“I do not mean to upset you. I just wanted you to know I know.”

I laugh coarsely, and tip my wineglass toward her. “What do you think you know?”

*

Home is an island in the Caribbean. Some call it a jewel. Everyone who leaves the place calls it home though few of us actually want to be there, not the way it is now. I used to return regularly, often with my mother, holding her hand as the plane descended from the clouds so fast it felt like we would fall into the blue salt of the water. A narrow curve of land would suddenly appear, and the plane would reach for the ground as everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

He surprised me by saying his vows in my mother tongue, his mouth trying so hard to make those words right. Though I swore I wouldn’t, I cried, and smiled so hard my face ached for days.”

My father never left the island. He says it is too much to ask a man to leave the only home he has ever known. My parents see each other when they want. They are still married though my father also has a young girlfriend, Roseline, with whom he has two young boys who call my mother and their mother mama. Somehow, it works. My mother has a boyfriend too, but he is age appropriate. My father owns a small architecture firm, does reasonably well for himself. As a father, he does reasonably well by his children. We are close.

*

Maria opens another bottle of wine.

“Why did you leave your island?” I ask. People who leave islands always bring a complex mythology.

She smiles. “Why does anyone leave such places?”

Her manner is infuriating. I look at the clock on the cable box, the green numbers blinking steadily. “I should go.”

Maria touches my thigh. “You should stay.”

*

My husband and I married beneath a gauzy canopy on the beach in my country. He wore a tan linen suit with a pink tie. His face was flushed, sweat trembling along his hairline as he tried to adjust to the island heat. The bride wore white, a long, sleeveless dress.

My feet were bare, much to my mother’s chagrin. The air was thick with salt and the sand burned beneath our feet. We held hands and stared at each other as we exchanged our vows. He surprised me by saying his vows in my mother tongue, his mouth trying so hard to make those words right. Though I swore I wouldn’t, I cried, and smiled so hard my face ached for days. That night, I would carefully massage Caladryl into the skin of his face and whisper sweetly to him. Melinda sat in the front row with her costar from the movie she was filming. Thickly muscled men in dark suits quietly patrolled the beach to keep the paparazzi away. At the reception, his family sat quietly at our table until my father pulled his mother onto the dance floor, and soon all of his relations were drinking rum and waving their hands in the air as they rocked their hips.

Melinda and I stole away for a private moment. We sat near the water’s edge, waves lapping our toes. We shared a cigarette.

“I can’t believe he won you over.” She leaned into me, bumping me with her shoulder.

“He’s quite bearable once he stops being Mr. Hollywood.”

Melinda sighed. “How did you manage that?” She waved tiredly toward the reception. “I keep dating men who can never turn that off.”

I took a long drag. “I made it quite clear from the start that I wasn’t remotely interested in where he could take me or who he knows. Once that was settled, he was very easy to love.”

She began to move damp sand into a small pile. When she was done, she pulled her knees to her chest, resting her cheek against her legs. “Don’t let each other go,” she said.

We honeymooned on a private island off the coast. There were no televisions, few tourists, lots of time for stretching our bodies in the sun and getting browner and drinking too much and eating too much. I told him if I found his cell phone, which is one of his vital organs, I would jump up and down on it. He believed me. I’m small but I have big feet. He made me a small boat out of palm fronds and a pointed hat I wore to dinner. We sucked on sugarcane until the insides of our mouths shriveled. I buried him in the hot sand and teased him by lying atop the mound of his body, flicking my tongue against his ear.

Fabien, one of the boys who worked at the resort, took a fancy to me. Campbell pretended to be jealous as Fabien followed me around. When my husband looked away, Fabien flirted aggressively, leaning into me with his shoulders, dancing his fingertips along my arm. He seemed harmless. He had bright, shining eyes. Campbell and I laughed about it when I told him.

One night, Campbell lay across the bed, his lips slick with rum. We wanted to cool our drinks and our skin so I grabbed the ice bucket and walked to the main building. My body hummed with joy. On my way back, Fabien grabbed me by the waist, tried to dance with me. Ice cubes spilled onto the warm pavement. “What are you doing with the American?” he asked. His hand slid down to my ass and he squeezed, pressing himself against me. His chest was a flat, hard stretch of muscle. I smiled, and twisted away. I tried to laugh. I said, “No, no, no, I’m a married woman but you are very kind.” He tried to kiss me; his lips were salty and thin. I shrieked and bit his lower lip, hard. He cursed, scooping a fallen ice cube from the ground and holding it to his bloody lip. I ran back to our cottage, clutching the ice bucket to my chest. Campbell looked up as I came into the room and slammed the door behind me. My hands shook as I locked the door and set the ice on the dresser and crawled into bed next to him. He asked what took me so long. I stared up at the ceiling fan.

*

“You’re a beautiful woman,” says Maria.

Her words are slower now. My mind is slower now. My aunt must be wondering where I am. In the morning, she will nag me incessantly about where I was, what I was doing.

Maria traces my shoulder with one finger. I don’t pull away. “You are a mystery to your family,” she says. “I feel like I know you.”

She presses her lips to the bone of my chin.

This time I pull away. “I am a married woman.”

Maria takes a long sip of wine, her teeth clinking against the glass. “I have a husband back home. I hardly remember his face.” She sighs. “It is lonely here.”

I ignore the tightening in my chest. “It is lonely everywhere.”

Maria kisses a gentle line from my forehead to my ear. I stand and go to the window, smeared with a thin layer of grease and fingerprints. I have no idea what is happening. I don’t understand my role in it. Down on the street, a young couple argues, the man pacing back and forth along the length of a bus bench while the woman sits on the back of the bench, her feet tapping against the seat.

I press two fingers against the windowpane. “I suppose we both think we know each other,” I say.

*

For the rest of our honeymoon, Fabien lurked. His smile was colder, his eyes not so bright. Campbell and I went back to the mainland and rejoined my parents. We sat in the courtyard of my father’s house and told them we had a lovely honeymoon. Heat rose up my neck and through my face as I thought of how night after night, our naked bodies pressed together frantically beneath the mosquito netting, how my husband made me wild for him. Sitting with my parents, Campbell reached for my hand. I laced my fingers through his.

There was a popular market at the center of the capital. On our last day, my husband wanted to see this market. He wanted to be among my new people. I rolled my eyes but indulged him. The sun was high, the air so thick we had to push it out of the way to take a step forward. We walked slowly, sweat beading along the edges of our faces, our clothes clinging damply. My husband bought me an ice flavored with grenadine and oranges. I threw bits of ice at his neck. When we came upon a stall of pirated DVDs, he became absorbed. I grew bored. I pressed my hand into the small of his back and said I was going to keep walking. Every few minutes, I turned back to find him and he waved his arm high above his head, grinning. The last time I turned back, he held a stack of movies in his hand, gave me a thumbs-up.

A new swarm of people started milling between us, their bodies making the distance seem impossible. I continued walking, idly touching woven rugs and boxes of Corn Flakes and Levi’s jeans. I did not see the man who grabbed me, but at the end of the row of stalls I saw Fabien standing square, staring right at me, his lips curled into a small smile. Before I could make a sound, the man covered my mouth with a hand so large, it practically covered the whole of my face. I had no idea what was happening. I did not understand my place in that moment. I kicked, tried to scratch my way free, but there was little I could do. People saw me being taken. Some shook their heads, offered their pity. Most looked away. I did not see my husband until three days later.

*

We decided to have the wedding on my island because a reporter on CNN said the country was safer now, said the beaches were once again full of pale American tourists, Canadians, too. The troubles, the reporter said, would soon be a distant memory. We believed him because I thought it would be wonderful to marry the man I loved on the soil of the country I loved before I learned how to love anything else.

I did not know who I was looking at. The woman in the mirror, her face swelled with dark bruises. The corner of her lip was split and angry.”

I was returned to my family in the early morning, when the air was almost cool and the sky was dark gray like Campbell’s eyes. I sat in the back of a pickup truck, holding on to the rusted edge as the broken roads tossed me from side to side. My kidnappers didn’t say a word as they lifted me out of the truck bed and set me on the ground. With a light shove, they pushed me toward my father’s house and drove off, gravel spitting from their tires. I shivered as I knocked softly. I waited. In the distance, a rooster crowed mournfully. When no one answered, I knocked harder, wincing because my knuckles were tender. Finally, my husband answered, his eyes widening. He spread his arms open as he said, “Oh my God.” I planted my hand against his chest and pushed him away. I refused to look in his face and slid past him, locked myself in our room. I leaned against the door as he knocked. He was soon joined by my parents, the three of them pounding their fists against the door, trying to break it down to reach me, pleading for me to let them in.

“Please be quiet,” I said. “I need to think. Please let me think.” When I was ready, I took a deep breath and opened the door.

They spoke fast. I couldn’t hold on to their words. “Nothing happened. A group of men grabbed me from the market and took me to a sugar warehouse on the edge of the city. They left me alone.” I looked at Campbell. “When you paid the ransom, they brought me here.”

My husband shook his head, slowly. “Baby,” he said. “Baby.” He clasped my shoulder gently and turned me toward a full-length mirror on the wall.

I did not know who I was looking at. The woman in the mirror, her face swelled with dark bruises. The corner of her lip was split and angry. Her tank top was torn along the waist in several places. Her jeans were soiled.

I shook my head. “Nothing happened.”

*

Maria joins me at the window. “It is so strange,” she says, “living in a place with so much steel and concrete. All these buildings, they don’t even seem real.”

I shrug. “Do you have children?” I ask, turning around.

Maria shakes her head and returns to the couch, the cushion beneath her sighing. “Not yet.”

I hold my hand against my chest and swallow. “I have a son. He is three.”

Maria coughs. “Your family did not mention you have a child.”

“Haven’t you learned, Maria? My family doesn’t know anything about me.”

*

The captain of the local precinct came to the house immediately. I told him I had no information to help him find my kidnappers. He appeared grateful but spoke of an investigation that would be ongoing, how justice would be served. He drank my father’s coffee and ate sweet cake, his shoulders slumped. There was nothing he could do no matter what I told him, no matter what he said. I excused myself as my parents and husband and the captain spoke and made empty statements about the cruelty of the world. I locked myself in the bathroom, filled the tub with hot water, and sank into it, watching as the water turned pink, the dried blood on my body dissolving slowly. I closed my eyes and sank beneath the surface. The rush of heavy silence overwhelmed me until it comforted me. When Campbell found me, I was sitting on our bed, drying my hair with a towel.

“You need to see a doctor,” he said, sitting next to me.

I slid away but I didn’t mean to. I said, “I am a doctor.”

Later that afternoon, we were on a charter flight to Manhattan where a friend of mine from medical school had privileges at Beth Israel. The plane was well appointed—leather seats, lacquered surfaces, and alcohol I drank, liberally. My skin and muscle and bone hurt. We were silent for a long while. I did not look out the window.

Finally, I cleared my throat. “It shouldn’t be too difficult to get an annulment.”

Campbell’s face rearranged into a hard line. “What the hell are you talking about?” He slammed his fist against the wall. “What the hell are you talking about?”

It was the first and only time he has raised his voice to me. His anger filled the cabin until there was no air. A loud ringing made my ears ache. I started shaking. He covered my hand with his. “You are my wife,” he said. “You are safe with me.”

I closed my eyes and opened them again.

When I was working crazy shifts during my residency, Campbell brought me coffee, hot food, his smile. We went up to the roof and sat on a pair of lawn chairs. We’d hold hands. Many times, he pushed me to the ground, pulling my scrubs down around my ankles, taking me as I stared into the starry night sky and held on to him as tightly as I could. He whispered, “I love you so much” into the skin of my neck as I rose to meet him.

On the plane that day, I said, “I can’t breathe. I can’t do anything.” I leaned against him, pressing my forehead against the strength of his arm. I held his wrists so he wouldn’t wrap his arms around me. He whispered into the skin of my neck.

*

Maria and I open yet another bottle of wine. I don’t remember the last time I drank this much. Or I do. My body feels loose, like every part of me is falling away.

“My son is very smart,” I say. “Only three years old and he knows so much. I saw it in his eyes from the day he was born that he would know lots of important things.” I cross my legs, bouncing my foot. “He has a sweet tooth, just like my grandmother. If you give him candy, he will love you all his life. He is perfect.”

Maria nods and smiles. “Why didn’t you bring him?” She is skeptical.

I study the painting on the wall above the television—geometric shapes in metallic colors surrounding a woman carrying a woven basket on her head. “That isn’t possible. Is it hard to be away from your husband?”

Maria slides a hand between my thighs. She kisses my shoulder and my neck and my cheek and brushes her lips across mine. “I find ways to keep from being terribly lonely.”

I sit perfectly still.

*

When we arrived at the hospital, my friend Natalya was waiting at the entrance. I held on to my husband’s arm and walked slowly. She ushered us into an examination room. I stood in the corner. Campbell tried to sit down. I looked at Natalya and shook my head.

She smiled, told him he should go to the waiting room.

“I’m not leaving you,” he said.

I held on to the wall to steady myself. “I don’t want you to see me differently.”

He closed his fingers into tight fists. “That could never happen.” My knees were on the verge of buckling. He reached for me. “You’re shaking,” Campbell said.

I tried to back away. “Don’t touch me.” I was hysterical, barely coherent.

My husband paled. “You’re afraid of me.”

Natalya gently took hold of his elbow and pulled him out of the room. I wanted to call out to him but my throat locked. I was mute.

Later he would tell me he waited just outside the door the entire time. I would have known even if he hadn’t told me.

Natalya returned. “Alone at last,” she said. She’s the amiable sort, the one everyone got along with, even the med students with claws. “You came to the right person. You’re going to get through this.”

I half laughed then covered my mouth to catch an ugly sob. My face was wet, my lips salty. Natalya wrapped her arms around me and smoothed my hair over and over. She said, “Shhh.” I allowed myself to fall into her.

Later, after the examination; after the revolting terror of my body revealing the truth of what happened; after needles in my arm taking my blood from me; after large pills I struggled to swallow down my raw, aching throat; after stitches on my face, my chest, in places I did not know could be stitched; after my wrist, X-rays of which revealed fractures in sharp relief, was splinted and wrapped in a cast, Natalya said, “I am not going to say anything but I’m sorry this happened to you and you can talk to me if you want, need, anything you need.”

I wanted to tell her, to tell anyone, but the words thickened on my tongue and stayed there, rotting slowly.

*

Maria slides her hand beneath my shirt, pressing the palm of her hand against my navel. Her hand is surprisingly cool. I exhale slowly. She slides her hand higher. Just before she cups my breast, I grab her wrist and push her hand away. “I am happily married,” I say.

Maria nips the fleshy part of my earlobe. “As am I.”

I didn’t make sense of it at first. I couldn’t keep food down. I assumed my body was trying to recover.”

This time I push her away roughly, stand, and look for my jacket. “You have no right.”

“I would have thought you might appreciate the touch of a woman after everything.”

“You don’t know anything about me. Nothing happened.”

“I understand why that version of the truth suits you.”

A hot rush of anger suddenly fills my mouth. I pull Maria up from the couch, and force her hand to my crotch. “Is this what you want?”

“You’re family is right. You are a very cold woman,” Maria says.

“Only to people who don’t know me.”

*

We did not stay in New York long. I wanted to go home. Melinda was waiting in our loft. I hadn’t spoken since the hospital. Campbell was out of his mind, trying to fix me.

Melinda gasped when she saw me, stood, and held her hands open. “I do not know what to say.”

My face was frozen, muscles locked. I couldn’t look her in the eye.

“She hasn’t spoken in two days,” Campbell said.

I walked past them to the balcony and stood alone, in the waning light.

When Melinda joined me, I refused to turn around. I studied the scenery below and took long drags on my cigarette.

When our eyes finally met, all she could say was, “Oh honey.”

*

I didn’t make sense of it at first. I couldn’t keep food down. I assumed my body was trying to recover. Four months after our honeymoon, the last of the bruises finally faded, I was back at work. Campbell made me pancakes on a Saturday morning while I sat quietly on the kitchen counter. I asked for one and he handed it to me on the spatula. I grinned as I pulled the warm pancake apart. He smiled back. I reached for him with my feet and pulled him between my legs. I fed him bits of pancake. I let him hold me for the first time since our honeymoon. “Look at you,” Campbell whispered into my neck. I kissed his stubbled chin, his lips, shyly at first and then not so shyly. My mouth and my body remembered him. He groaned, pulling at my clothes and I let him but then my stomach rolled uncomfortably. I had to push him away.

I ran to the bathroom and as I heaved into the toilet, I knew and it was the worst kind of knowing. I had taken the pills. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I pounded my fists against the toilet seat.

Campbell stood over me, worried. I couldn’t look at him. “I need a pregnancy test.”

I looked up and saw how his features brightened, a wide smile stretching across his face. And then his smile became something else. I went to our room and changed. I left. I ignored my phone until the battery died. When it grew dark, I pulled into a Walmart parking lot and made sure my doors were locked. I tried to sleep. I wanted to quiet the screaming in my head.

In the morning, the screaming was louder, sharper, more singular. My head throbbed. I walked into the Walmart, bought a test, and went into the bathroom, where it was humid and dirty. I squatted in the last stall and held the stick between my thighs. I gritted my teeth and pissed. I didn’t need to look at the readout to know it would read Yes.

*

I find my coat and thank Maria for the dinner. It has been a long, strange evening. She is nervous as she unlocks her front door. “Please don’t tell your family about this.”

I brush my fingers across her knuckles. “I don’t tell my family anything.”

It is much colder outside but I walk slowly. The streets are empty which scares me. In the four years since our honeymoon, I have always been scared. I have felt a spiraling terror lodged in my throat. I have tried to cut that terror out.

*

I found my husband sitting in the hall entrance of our loft. He hadn’t shaved. His eyes were wild with anger and something else. He looked up at me and when he spoke his voice was uncomfortably calm. “After what happened, I would think you would be considerate enough to call if you aren’t coming home.”

I stepped toward him then stopped. “I didn’t realize,” I said. “I didn’t think.”

“Your pancakes are cold.”

I handed him the pregnancy test. “It could be yours.”

He patted the floor next to him and I slowly lowered myself to the floor. “Tell me what happened. If I know, I can help you. I can try.”

“Do you want to know or do you need to know?”

Campbell cracked his knuckles. “I want. Because it’s what’s best for you.”

Once again, my throat locked. I shook my head.

*

I sit on the cold concrete steps of my aunt’s stoop and call Campbell. I am very drunk.

“Can you come out here?” I ask, my words slurring.

“What’s wrong?” His voice is dry and hoarse.

“I have a son, Campbell.” It feels good to release those words from my chest again.

“Yes, we do.”

“That is the perfect thing to say.”

“It’s the truth.”

“I had too much to drink and a woman hit on me and tried to kiss me. It was weird.”

“And I didn’t get to watch?” His voice is clearer now.

I laugh. “You’re a pig.”

“Are you okay? Did you kiss her back?”

“Yes. A little, no tongue. I really drank a lot.”

“You are so LA now.”

“I miss our son every time I breathe. I miss you.” I can hear Campbell moving now.

“I’m ready to make another baby.”

I close my eyes. The phone grows warmer against my cheek.

“Are you there? I didn’t mean anything by that.”

“I’m ready, too,” I say, softly.

*

The paternity test confirmed my worst fears. I couldn’t get rid of it, old country ways, and knew I couldn’t keep it. It was easy to find a family looking for a baby. I started to show so I quit my job at the hospital even though I had just finished my residency. It would have been too much to explain why Campbell and I, who did want children, couldn’t keep this child, to answer questions, to pretend to be joyful, to talk about a life I would never know. I hid in our loft. Campbell brought me screeners. I realized movies had gotten much worse since I started medical school.

When she was in town, Melinda spent hours with me, trying to get me to talk, regaling me with stories of this or that event, the latest gossip from the set of her film and how things were going with her costar, a man she described as violently committed to dullness. My stomach swelled. The baby was active, always swimming around, kicking me, tearing my heart apart. Early on I told Campbell I would move out until the baby was born. He did not appreciate the gesture, refused. He tried to reach me but I kept him out. We were living together but we weren’t. I refused to look at myself in mirrors. My body was the worst kind of prison, utterly inescapable. One day, toward the end, Campbell found me in the study, holding my belly, talking softly. It was the first time I really touched the baby.

“Look at you,” he said. “You’re beautiful.”

I quickly let my arms fall to the side. “This doesn’t mean anything.” I shuffled out of the room as quickly as I could, leaving him stammering in my wake.

When you give birth, you willingly break yourself. You allow your body to come apart.”

Melinda is the only person I allowed in the delivery room. Campbell was furious but I told him I wanted him in the delivery room when I gave birth to our child. I wanted to save that moment for him. My best friend held my hand and pressed cold cloths to my forehead. She didn’t fill the air with useless chatter.

There are no words to describe how it feels to push a baby out of your body. Before the kidnapping, I would have thought it was the most inconceivable pain a woman can experience but I knew better. When you give birth, you willingly break yourself. You allow your body to come apart. Each time I pushed, even though I was so miserable and exhausted, I held on to the promise of soon being free. I needed to rid myself of the terrible thing inside me.

The nurse who laid the slick, squealing child on my chest didn’t realize I had written in my birth plan that I didn’t want to look upon him. I forced myself to look at him. His head was covered with a sticky matte of dark hair. His arms were so skinny but his hands were what splintered the hard shell around me, so tiny, fingers splayed as he reached for my face. I cupped his tiny head and kissed his forehead. He quieted, his lips quivering. I wanted to pull him into my rib cage and hold him inside my body once more. I was staggered by him, my beautiful boy.

“I need time with him,” I whispered, to no one in particular. I prayed they would grant me this one wish.

Everyone in the room exchanged looks, but after the baby was cleaned and swaddled, he was placed in my arms once more. He stared at me with wide eyes. I kissed his cheeks, soft and the warmest shade of brown with a hint of red. “I didn’t know,” I said, holding him as tightly as I dared. “I didn’t know I would love you.” I saw nothing of his father in the boy, not one single thing. It was a mercy.

Melinda slipped out of the room. When the door opened again, it was Campbell, who ran to my side. He looked at the baby, his eyes watery and wide open. He covered my hand with his.

“I don’t think I can let him go,” I said, my voice cracking. “I’m sorry. I did not expect this. I didn’t know. I don’t know what to do.” I started to cry and then I was sobbing from somewhere deep, sobbing for the woman who had spent the past nine months on a sticky floor in a hot sugar warehouse with strange, violent men.

Campbell pushed the railing down and climbed into bed with me. His shoes fell loudly to the floor as he kicked them off. He wiped my tears as quickly as they fell. “You don’t have to let him go,” he said.

I brushed my fingers across the baby’s forehead. “I didn’t know.”

The baby yawned and closed his eyes. I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

It was dark outside when I awoke. I was alone in my hospital room. I remembered the soft, warm weight of the baby against my chest. The absence was unbearable. I panicked, shot up, then winced. I pressed the call button and a few minutes later, a tired-looking nurse padded into my room. “My baby,” I croaked. “Did they take him? Is it too late?”

The nurse smiled. “He’s in the nursery. His father is with him—wanted you to get some rest. They’ll be back soon. New mothers can sleep with their babies if they want.”

The tight pain in my chest slowly began to unravel. “I want,” I said.

I sat up and stared at the door, the waiting interminable. When he returned, Campbell was pushing a bassinet, the baby swaddled in a blue blanket, wearing a little blue hat, fast asleep.

“He was fussy,” Campbell said, “We went to the nursery to hang out.” He waved his wrist, showing off a hospital bracelet matching the baby’s and mine. “They gave me one of these. I got to feed him with a tiny bottle the size of two of my fingers.” My husband looked different, softer. His face couldn’t contain his smile. He was giddy.

“What about . . . ?”

“I notified the lawyer. They’re disappointed, of course, but this was always a possibility. People in their situation know that.”

“I have done a terrible thing.”

“No, you haven’t. I explained what I could.” He pressed his fingers against the baby’s forehead. “I know people,” he said. “I’m going to do everything in my power to help them.”

The baby shifted slightly and made an adorable, wet sound.

“We’re not ready for this. We have no idea what we’re doing. We don’t even have a car seat. We drive ridiculous cars. I’m sorry. You didn’t sign up for this.”

“Stop apologizing. This is exactly what I signed up for.”

I began fiddling with my hospital bracelet. “You don’t know.”

“I want you to tell me.”

I pointed to the baby. “He can never know, Campbell. Never. Do you understand?”

My husband nodded.

I carefully got out of bed and went to the window.

A dull ache throbbed between my thighs. “Don’t look away,” Campbell said.

I ignored him. “I thought I would never be able to love him right. I thought he would always be a reminder. I will never know who made him. I don’t want to.”

*

I was taken to a sugar warehouse and thrown into a room with no furniture, the floor sticky with sweet grime. I couldn’t think. I was terrified. It was unspeakably hot. I could hardly breathe. Hours later, a fat man with a shiny, bald, head appeared. He said the wife of a rich American was worth a lot of money. He told me to undress. I didn’t know what to do. The man backhanded me. I looked into his eyes to try and make sense of the kind of man he was. I took too long. He backhanded me again and drove his fist into my stomach. My gut wrenched. I told him my husband would pay for me. He tore my clothes from my body and dragged me by my hair into a large room filled with a mountain of raw sugar that reached to the ceiling. He threw me down and the sugar scratched my bare skin. He unbuckled his pants. I begged. There was nowhere to run, men everywhere.

He climbed on top of me, so heavy. I have never stopped feeling his wet skin against mine. Our bodies sank into that mountain of sugar. Grains of sugar floated in the air as he thrust. In the shafts of sunlight filling the warehouse, the sugar looked beautiful so that’s what I looked at. I couldn’t close my eyes no matter how hard I tried. Grains of sugar fell on my tongue as I screamed. The sugar beneath me hardened with my blood. And then there was another man and another and another, each crueler. When it was over, I balled myself into a corner to wait. By the end, I was wild and vicious, scratching and clawing at anything that came near me. After, they drove me to my father’s house. Fabien sat in the back of the truck with me. He said, “If only you had given me a little kiss,” smiling like a spurned child. He tried to kiss me, fumbling at my body with his foolish hands. I snapped, screaming hoarsely as I clawed at his face, felt his skin come away. They had to stop the truck to pull us apart. As he got into the cab, he cursed me. I looked at my hands, red and raw, holding a piece of his skin. I slapped it against the cab window. He held his face as he turned around to stare at me. I never looked away.

When I finished speaking, I turned back to Campbell. “I did not want to look at my child and be forced to remember that. I did not want to love him less than he deserved. I did not want to hate him, which he did not deserve.”

Campbell knelt by the side of the bed. He took my hands, kissing them over and over. He didn’t say anything useless. He didn’t try to change what could not be changed.

*

Campbell flies out to meet me. I wait on the sidewalk as a town car pulls up. Campbell Jr., C.J., bounds out of the car first, his arms thrust high in the air. I still don’t see the men who forced their way into me when I look at my son. I hope I never will. C.J. jumps into my arms and I clasp the back of his head. The curved bone fits perfectly in my palm. I can breathe again. I cover his face in kisses and he giggles. He says, “Mommy, mommy, mommy.” Campbell tips the driver. I grab his shirt and pull him in. When he kisses me, I am home. “I never thought this day would come,” Campbell says.

I slide my hand into the pocket of his jeans, pulling him closer still. “I am ready.”

Maria is startled when we walk into my aunt’s house. “You have a son,” she says, stuttering.

Campbell is holding him now, our son drowsy from the long flight, his arms hanging limply at his sides.

“I told you I did.”

She clears her throat. I don’t know what she wants from me, who she wants me to be. She studies Campbell. In my mother tongue, she says, “You married an old man.” I want to claw her eyes out. I hold Campbell’s arm possessively. Finally, she says, “I must attend to your grandmother.”

As she walks away, Campbell elbows me. “I’m not that old. She has a big ass.”

That evening, I sit with my grandmother, holding C.J. in my lap, surrounded by the smell and joy of him. “Such a beautiful boy,” she says. Her eyes are milky.

I hold her hand, can feel the fragility of that network of bones.

“I wanted you to know him.”

C.J. claps his hands and sings a song I don’t recognize. He loves to sing. Sometimes, Campbell and I hear him on the baby monitor, singing in his room. We laugh and laugh and laugh.

“Do you want to give your great-grandmother a kiss?” I whisper into C.J.’s ear.

He nods politely, and leans in, leaving a loud, wet kiss on her cheek. He squirms out of my arms and runs away.

“Campbell,” I say, loudly. “He’s on his way to you.” I hold my breath until I hear Campbell growl and C.J. growls back—it’s this thing they do I don’t pretend to understand. I can still feel my son in the room. Some part of him is always with me.

My grandmother leans in to me, says my aunt is stealing her money. I listen carefully. I take her seriously. She’s not allowed to have money. She’ll use it to bribe Maria to bring her cakes and other confections. She has always had a sweet tooth and Maria is corruptible. My grandmother’s tongue, like my son’s, is awfully fond of sugar.

__________________________________

From AyitiUsed with permission of Grove Press. Copyright © 2018 by Roxane Gay.

Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, West Branch, Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Time, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Rumpus, Salon, and many others. She is the author of the novel An Untamed State, which was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction; the essay collection Bad Feminist; Ayiti, a multi-genre collection; the memoir Hunger; and a comic book in Marvel’s Black Panther series.





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