Jennifer Steil "Captive"

It is the first cool autumn day in Amman when you hear that your ex-boyfriend is missing. You are standing in the frosted air of the produce department of Cozmo supermarket, arguing with your four-year-old over asparagus. While you hate to thwart enthusiasm for a vegetable, one small bunch costs $20. Nothing is cheap here, except dates. You eat a lot of dates. As you pry the stalks from Lily’s warm fingers, your phone rings. You glance down. International call. That couldn’t be good. 

“Is this Celia?” says the female voice on the other end of the line. 

“I’m sorry, who’s calling?” Your husband has told you to be careful. As if you need reminding. 

“Zoe. Sorry, Zoe Fournier. I’m a cousin of Leo’s.” 

Reflexively, you drop the asparagus into your cart and Lily quiets. 

“A cousin of Leo’s?” You keep your eyes on Lily’s dark curls as she weaves through the pyramids of lemons and tomatoes. 

“Is this a good time? I can call back.” The voice is anxious. 

“No, it’s fine. I mean, I’m in a grocery store but we’re not in a hurry.” Lily has disappeared. You push the cart with one hand toward the stacked fruit, where you find her pressing her fingernails into the tight skins of grapes, releasing rivulets of juice. “Sweetheart, no.” You catch her hand in your fist. 

“He’s missing.” 

“Leo?” Lily looks up at you briefly, shaking off your grip before dropping a branch of mauled purple grapes into the cart. 

“He disappeared inside P— about a month ago.” When people talk about P— they use the word “inside,” as if the whole country is a prison. Which you suppose at this point it is. 

“No.” Your response is genuine. You wouldn’t wish P—’s violence on anyone, not even Leo. “God. I am so sorry. What ha—” 

“Yes. Well. So we were just wondering—the whole family is working on trying to find him—if you had heard anything from him. In the past month.” 

“No.” You hesitate. How much is it helpful for her to know? “Not in the past month.” 

Zoe tells you that Leo changed his name after his last book came out and that he was in P— on a tourist visa (the country still issued tourist visas?). That his mother last heard from him in May. That his phone had been disconnected and emails had gone unanswered. 

“Would you tell us if you hear anything? Or if you can think of anyone who might help?” 

“Of course. I’ll do anything I can to help. But just so you know, we weren’t actually on speaking terms. Not since—” You count the years. “2010? I didn’t know he was in P—. I didn’t even know he was back in the Middle East.” 

She rushes to reassure you. “Please don’t worry. I understand. I’ve known Leo since he was born and he’s always pushed away anyone who ever got close to him. We know that. But we thought that you might know someone who might be in touch with him? You’re the only one we know who was with him over there.” She doesn’t mean P—, she means the Middle East. 

“Probably. Yes, I’m sure I do. Give me your email?” Tucking your phone into your shoulder you scrabble in your purse for a scrap of paper and write down the address. Your hands are shaking. 


At home you leave the groceries on the kitchen table and open your computer. You don’t feel you should waste any time. While Lily builds a farm from oatmeal boxes around your ankles, you write to the US ambassador to the UAE. You met him once in Abu Dhabi and he mentioned he used to play squash with Leo in P—. Surely he has contacts in the P—n government. You write to all of the journalists you know in the Middle East. You contact friends at NGOs working to free prisoners. You write to every P—n refugee you have met since you came to Jordan. You are still scrolling through your address book, looking for more, when Hannes comes home. 

“What news?” he says, leaning over to kiss the back of your neck. You need only the faintest scent of him, of the cinnamon and clovey fragrance of his aftershave, for the muscles of your shoulders to unclench. You stand to tell him. Hannes is horrified. He knows even better than you do what it means. Though he has no reason to feel any affection for Leo, he is a kind man. You have come to appreciate the value of kindness. He offers to write to his contacts in the region and in the U.S. State Department. You email an update to Zoe. 

After that you are in touch about once a month, often by Skype. Together you draft letters, debate who can be trusted. You want to be of use. You have known Leo’s mother since you were fifteen and have always liked her. She should not suffer. Hell, even if you didn’t like her she shouldn’t suffer. You are a mother now and fear this specific suffering more than anything. Your personal feelings about Leo are irrelevant. He is a human being who deserves to live and be free from pain and captivity. That is all. 

One day, your daughter and a friend burst into your bedroom while you are talking with Zoe. Lily wears a bear costume and her friend has squeezed into her raccoon outfit from a ballet recital. You apologize for their giggling intrusion, but Zoe smiles. “No, it’s good,” she says. “To see life going on.” 

You come to like Zoe and appreciate her warmth and perspicacity. In other circumstances, you would choose her for a friend. She never asks why you and Leo stopped speaking and you never tell her. Isn’t she enduring enough? Isn’t Leo’s mother enduring enough? There are things they do not need to know. 

Like what he wrote in that last email, five years ago when you still lived in K—. Celly, I gotta warn you, you are going to, like, despise me in a few months. You shouldn't be friendly with me. You should be saying, That Leo! That dirtbag! I hate him! he had written in that unhinged missive. Missile. You stared at those lines uncomprehendingly. Why would you despise him in a few months? What was he planning to do to you? Look I read your book and I gotta say it’s phony. Thems the facts Jack. It’s an insult to the whole Middle East. Phony? Who was he, Holden Caulfield? You were more confused than ever. If anything, your first book—a memoir about your friendship with one of your students—was a love letter to the Middle East and to K— in particular. And it wasn’t possible he could have read it; it wouldn’t go on sale for more than a year. Only your agent and editor had seen it. I kinda feel a moral obligation to take you down, Cel. I gotta protect my people. His people? Last you checked he was born in New Hampshire. 

That wasn’t all. I’ve been hearing about you Cel. People talk. Especially about diplomats. You know the game. Hannes doesn’t know who you really are, and when he finds out you don’t think he’ll stick around, do you? Nah, I don’t think so. Have you ever kept anyone around? Don’t forget I know about you. All about you. 

All about you. Did he? Impossible. Yet you sat stunned and trembling at your keyboard until your husband placed a gentle hand on your shoulder. 

That email targeted everything that mattered. Its absurdity made it all the more unnerving. It was not the kind of email to which you could respond and expect to be heard. There was nothing you could do. 

“Was he drunk?” Hannes asked, reading over your shoulder. Cruelty baffled him. 

“No. He doesn’t really get drunk. That’s kind of how he usually sounds, but more so.” Leo’s tone was often patronizing and dismissive, though not normally outright sadistic. You looked up at Hannes. “It isn’t true that he knows me better than you do.” 

“I know that.” Hannes was blessed with constitutional security. 

“He’s known me since I was fifteen, so he thinks that makes him an authority. But since then I’ve seen him what, a dozen times? It’s not like we’ve spent more than an evening or two together every other year. We never lived in the same place or had the same friends. Not until he brought me here.” 

Hannes spun your chair around to face him. “Celia. You know this is crazy.” You looked up at him. At the uncustomary fury in his dark eyes, the deep furrows of his forehead. His hair going white at his temples. “No sane person, no kind person, would write this. I promise you Celia, this is crazy.” He gripped the arms of your chair, his head so close to yours you could smell milky coffee on his breath. He needed something from you, some acknowledgment that this was, indeed, madness. You’d never seen his face in quite this way. 

You nodded, slowly. “I know.” 


At the time of The Email, you and Hannes had been married five years. You never felt the need to conceal your past. Anything he didn’t know about you was something you yourself had forgotten. He had always known about Leo and had met him when you were all in K—. At a diplomatic event at the InterContinental, Leo made a point of introducing himself. “You need to hire better squash players at your embassy,” he told Hannes. “So I have someone to play with as good as I am.” His clowning had embarrassed you. Though they were the same age, somehow Leo remained an adolescent, giggling and awkward, while Hannes had become an adult. 

The only trait the two men shared was bibliophilia. Yet even there they differed. Hannes hoarded every book he had ever purchased, including schoolbooks, reading so gently he never cracked a spine. Each was then filed carefully away in his bookshelves, organized by genre and alphabetized by author. 

Like him, Leo rarely left home without a novel. Yet he was careless with books, leaving them spread facedown on the floor, letting their spines wrinkle and their covers fall off. He underlined and folded. You wouldn’t have been surprised to catch him eating a book, page by torn page. 

As a reader, you are more like Leo. You are afraid to read Hannes’ books, afraid you will accidentally smear a page with chocolate or fold over a corner. You still don’t feel you deserve Hannes’ books. 

The first time Hannes invited you to a dinner for journalists in K— you had been impressed with his command of the room. With no apparent effort, he steered conversation straight through political squalls, somehow making everyone feel that they had, finally, been heard. He never interrupted, yet never lost control of where you were heading. You saw him as a ship’s captain, someone you could trust to take you all safely to a better place. 

At the Swedish embassy Christmas party you had watched Hannes play Musical Statues with a throng of pink-cheeked Swedish children and the gaunt, stunted children of K—. He did not dance brilliantly. Each time he switched on the music, he flung his long limbs about like a marionette. The children adored him, wrapping their arms around his legs and pulling him to the ground to somersault with them. When you saw him loping across the ambassadorial lawn wearing a blond wig, purple skirt, and heels as part of the dress-up relay, you thought, I could marry that man. When his deputy’s wife came up to you and said, “Where did you find the clown? He’s perfect. I’d love to hire him for our daughter’s birthday,” you thought, I could have a child with this man. 

Wait. There was the one thing you had almost forgotten. The thing you had told Leo one night, late, after a neat gin in his apartment in K—. This was in the midst of your reignited romance and you were in giddy confessional mode. 

You were testing each other. Do you trust me? How much do you trust me? He asked you for one story no one else knew. And there was only one. 

“You first,” you said. 

He confessed that he had stayed in passionless relationships—sometimes even for years—out of sheer laziness. That he was beginning to worry he chose women who didn’t challenge him on purpose. That this bothered him. You thought this was the most self-aware thing he had ever said. So you told him. 


Leo had lured you to K— with a job you couldn’t turn down and become furious when you thrived in it. He did not want to relinquish his role as pet foreigner. He became even angrier a year later when you sold your first book. His girlfriend at the time, a friend of yours to whom you had willingly turned him over, told you that he fell into a three-week funk when he heard about the deal. It should have been his. No one else deserved to write about K—. His first book had not sold well and he was scrambling to find a publisher for his second. When you tried to borrow a copy of his first book he hid it from you, saying it embarrassed him. You didn’t believe him and took it anyway. But he was right. It was not a good book. There was nothing wrong with his intellect or his language, but people who lack self-awareness should not attempt memoir. 

You shrugged off his rage. Competition between authors was wasted energy. You and Leo did not have similar stories or voices. There was no reason you could not both be published, no reason you could not both be heard. When he left the country with his new girlfriend you set thoughts of him aside. You could not create generosity in another person’s soul. And then you received The Email. 


Leo had been one of your first loves, but not your first lover. By the time you got together senior year you had mastered the art of inserting your diaphragm before picking your way across the fields of ice-crusted snow to his warm dorm room. You had a roommate and he did not, so you were always the one to risk the journey across campus, dodging the night watchman. It was easiest when there was no moon. 

In the autumn you sneaked out together and walked down from your mountaintop school to the nearby orchard in the dark, easily scaling the fences meant to keep you from the tart Macouns. You filled your pockets and sweatshirt hood with the fruit until Leo tumbled you back onto the damp leaves and crushed cores. The musty smell of apples and cider still reminds you of him, of his mouth on yours. In his dorm room you drank Rolling Rock and listened to Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty. You wanted sex more than he did. You could hardly think of anything else. When you lay naked in his sheets wearing only your cotton underpants, he kneeled back and gazed down at you in the pale moonlight. “You look like a bikini model,” he said wonderingly. “How did you get into my bed?” 

He loaned you books, tearing paperbacks in half so you could start reading them before he finished, taught you how to ski, and cheered you on in races. In public, he never held your hand. 

The last night of high school, he slept with an ex-girlfriend while you spent the night of your graduation party with his best friend. Were you trying to find a way to make the parting easier? He was staying on the East coast for college while you were heading west. You had not taken each other into account. You had been taught not to base serious decisions on boys. 

He came to visit you nearly once a year, to see if he could still get you into bed. He usually could. First loves are difficult to dislodge. You visited him as well, with the same objective. You felt no shame. 

Then it was a few years, a few relationships, in between visits. You no longer assumed you would end up in bed. You often did not. 


You were nearly 37 by the time he wrote to invite you to K—. He was alone in the country, trying to write a book, and had done some substitute teaching at a local university. They needed a journalism teacher, he told you. Could you come? 

He called you because you were the only journalist he knew and because he himself was not a journalist. There may have been another, more personal reason that it was you he called. But you did not allow yourself to think about this. 

You gave up your life and you went. You traveled 7,893 miles to take over the barely existent journalism program. It was the hardest job you had ever done but also the most worthwhile. You learned local and tribal politics and how to get your students to work on a schedule. You studied Arabic. In the evenings, you had Leo. He wanted you with him most of the time, taking you to hidden bars and expat parties. When you spent too long on your laptop after dinner, he sulked. At first it was hard to know if he offered friendship or something more. He cooked for you, tangy aubergine curries and chickpea stews, and lighted candles in the dark. He told you how impressed he was with your work. One of your students had asked Leo if he could take you as his third wife. “He adores you,” Leo said one night as you sat eating in his mafraj. “They all do. You’re like a rock star to them. I’m kind of in awe of what you’ve done, to be honest.” He looked away from you, toward a stained glass Star of David. “You can’t leave them now. What would they do without you? What would I do without you?” 

What would I do without you. Before you went to K— Leo had never expressed admiration for anything you had ever done. The trip felt worth it for that overdue validation alone. Still, you hung back, assuming nothing, until he kissed you. 


When Leo shaved off his beard, your students grew curious. “You know they all think I did it for you,” he said. “They think I shaved because you’re here. In fact, they think everything I do is because of you. They keep telling me how much I’ve changed since you came here.” 

“Have you?” 

“That’s what they say! They all think I’m in love with you.” 

You looked at him. “Funny,” you said. 

Sometimes you wondered if you wanted to impress Leo because you once loved him, or because you loved him now. 


As lovers you were not ideally suited, something you hadn’t realized in your youth. “I get the feeling you might be a little more rock and roll,” he said one of your first nights, trying to slow you down. This was probably true. A year later, when his next girlfriend complained to you that he didn’t have a strong sex drive, you smiled. “I think his primary sexual relationship is with his bicycle.” He rode it everywhere, in the worst traffic you have ever seen. The girlfriend had laughed. “That’s it!” she said, clapping her hands in recognition. “That’s exactly it. That is his primary relationship.” 

At work you hectored and mentored your students. They left cards covered with hearts and flowers your desk, fetched you cups of tooth-achingly sweet tea, and stood in front of your desk earnestly confessing eternal gratitude. You had never met such openly emotional people. You were, after all, from New England. 

Several months into your new job, Leo’s admiration transformed into resentment. You didn’t understand why he wasn’t happier about your commitment to the work. He had brought you here. He had made all of this happen. You told him that if he couldn’t cheer up a little you would rather not see him. 

Before you arrived, your students had adored him. Leo was good at beginnings. He could be charming, endearingly eccentric, funny. But he wasn’t good with follow-through. Even before you came, his relationships with your fledgling reporters had begun to sour. Students resented the tone he used with them, his mocking critiques. “You know,” you told him one night after he cooked you dinner. “They’re not stupid. They know when you’re patronizing them. And it hurts them.” He had looked at you in wounded surprise. Which in turn had surprised you. How could he not see his own condescension? 

It was too late for him to win them back and he knew it. He finished his research and left the country. “What are you going to do now?” you asked him when he talked you into one last drink. He leaned back on the cushions and grinned. “I guess I’m going to be a rich and famous writer.” You could see that he believed it. 

Ten months later, you met Hannes. 


A couple years later Leo returned to K— for a visit. You were not sure why. He called to ask if he could see you. He was happy for your success, he said. For your book contract and your engagement to a Swedish diplomat. To Hannes. You wanted to believe him. His naked schadenfreude had surprised and unsettled you. You preferred not to be estranged from anyone ever, but least of all from him. You agreed to have dinner. 

You felt like it went well. He talked about his work and his most recent relationship with your friend, a relationship he had ended. You didn’t understand why. She was a journalist, bright and vivacious. “Do you seriously think you can do better?” you said. You were half-joking, but he didn’t smile. 

“Yes,” he said, meeting your eyes. 

“Well, so what was it? What went wrong?” 

“We couldn’t talk about books,” he said, stirring a chopstick through his rice noodles. “She couldn’t understand Lolita. It wasn’t just that she didn’t like it, but that she couldn’t understand why I did. Or even why it is considered a great book.” This, you understood. 

You discussed your classes and, in vague terms, your book. He asked you a lot of questions about it but you didn’t want to give too much away. You were still wary. 

“Why did you come back?” you ask. It still isn’t clear. 

“I just wanted to be sure,” he said, eyes fixed on his unfinished beer. “That you were happy.” 

“Well, I am.” 

“So it seems.” He smiled at you and raised his glass. “To your happiness.” 

Two weeks later he was gone again. And then you got The Email. 


Months pass and nothing changes. Then one day Zoe tells you that they know who has Leo. A man who was held by the same group has escaped and contacted her family. “It’s not the worst group it could be,” she said. “But these are not nice people. If we get him back he will not be the same man.” 

You dwell on what this means. That surely he has been tortured, in ways you cannot imagine. That he will continue to be tortured until he is released. Yet once you know he is alive, you are suddenly certain of his survival. He is fluent in Arabic. He knows the Quran inside and out. He understands more about the men holding him than most captives do. That must be of some help. You have to believe it is of some help. 

After Zoe sends you a particularly despairing email you write, “If anyone could survive this, it is Leo. And when he does, he’s going to have a hell of a book.” 

You think about Zoe and his mother and rage overtakes you. How could he have been so careless with his life? Did he ever stop to think that someone else would be affected by his captivity or death? 

You do not know the circumstances of his kidnap, but you know how careless he has always been with his own safety. In K— he once went around the capital city with a friend tearing down posters of the president just before an election, getting himself arrested. He would probably still be in prison there if your boss hadn’t intervened with the president. 

He was also careless in smaller, more everyday ways. He sneered at anyone who expressed reasonable trepidation about coming to K— and thought getting the recommended vaccines was a sign of personal weakness. During his two years in K— he was hit by a car while cycling three times. Each time, he was back on the roads the second his bike was repaired. You simultaneously admired this and disapproved of it. 

You think about your daughter. She is the reason you take fewer risks now. Isn’t that what love is? Putting someone else’s needs before your need for adventure? You think it entirely possible that Leo has never loved anyone at all enough to contemplate how eviscerating his disappearance could be. 

You cannot say any of this, not even to Hannes. A captive’s suffering grants automatic immunity. Once you are a hostage, all past crimes melt away and are replaced with a soft halo of martyrdom. Hannes would find your thoughts uncharitable, and you don’t want to be found uncharitable. Not by Hannes. 

It is because of Leo’s mother—and Zoe—that you stay up later at night, trying to think of more people who may have heard something. More people who might help. You write email after email after email. 

No one could accuse you of being spiritual, but in yoga class when your teacher tells you to dedicate your practice to a person with whom you have a difficult relationship, you pick Leo. You pick him every day, at the beginning of every practice. You imagine him in a dark place and you surround him with light. 

Ultimately, nothing you do makes any difference. 


Hannes tells you a story about his previous posting, to Y—. One day a young man came to see him at the embassy. He wanted to go to the north, he said, to report on the civil war. This young man had never studied journalism, nor had he ever worked as a journalist. He spoke no Arabic and knew nothing of the country’s politics or history. But he wanted to be a media star. The Middle East is now full of young men like him, men pumped up with testosteronic bravado who think that all it takes to be a brilliant war correspondent is a willingness to parachute into dangerous areas. 

The line between bravery and stupidity is thin. 

“Do not go to the north,” Hannes told this young man. “It is too dangerous at the moment for a foreigner. You will almost certainly be kidnapped and your fixer/ translator will almost certainly be killed. If you are kidnapped, I will then have to divert all the resources of the embassy, of your home country—all the energy and time and money that I should be devoting to improving the lives of people here— and spend it on finding you.” 

The young man went to the north. He was kidnapped. Hannes diverted embassy resources to find him and negotiate his release. His translator/fixer was killed. A wife and seven children were left without support. 

You wonder what Leo has cost your country. 


It is the U.S. State Department and its allies in the Middle East who secure Leo’s release. No one is clear on the details of the negotiations. The Qataris were involved. Which is funny, given the country’s generous support for terrorist groups. 

Leo’s family had managed to keep Leo’s name out of the press for the entire length of his captivity. This was smart. It makes negotiations and rescue more difficult if captors believe they hold someone valuable. There are other risks if the captive happens to, say, have a Jewish last name. Or has promoted gay rights on social media. 

Two years have passed since Zoe’s first call when she emails you on a Sunday night. “I can hardly believe I am writing these words,” she says. “But Leo is free.” 

Gooseflesh rises in waves down your arms. Free. Alive. Whole. At least physically. You try to untangle the strands of your emotions. Relief. Euphoria. Anxiety. Fury. 

An hour later the phone starts ringing. It’s a reporter from the Boston Globe who had found Leo’s name in your first book. You hang up and ring Zoe. “Do I talk?” 

“Yes!” she says. “Please talk. We trust you.” 

Quickly, you make a rule: Nothing that his mother would not want to hear. Just as quickly you make a second rule: No lies. You are still a journalist after all. 

You tell the Boston Globe that he is a skillful linguist. That he speaks Arabic, Croatian, and Berber fluently. That you are overwhelmed with relief for his family. Basically, you say nothing interesting enough for them to use. The phone keeps ringing. 

“Is it true you went to school with the journalist Henri Fournier?” they ask, one after another. You are momentarily confused by the use of his assumed name. 

“I was unaware he had become a journalist,” you say carefully. “For whom was he working?” 

“Uh, we don’t know. Apparently he was a freelancer?” 

“Oh. Where did he publish?” 

“We don’t know.” 

Yet you feel comfortable calling him a journalist, you think but do not say. 

You have this same conversation with seven other reporters. Why does the media assume that every adventurer who gets himself captured in the Middle East is a journalist? The media themselves are draining the word journalist of all meaning. Why does a captive have to be a journalist to deserve media attention anyway? Are their lives more valuable? And why doesn’t anyone fact-check? Why did the papers not simply call Leo an author, which he indisputably was? That was the more honest description of his career to date. He had written only a handful of newspaper pieces, all reviews or opinion. Only in the most generous definition of the term was he a journalist. Now is not the time to quibble, but the unquestioning use of the term journalist in every single periodical grates. When did the press become so credulous? 


You are not allowed to have the feelings you are having. It is unseemly, ungenerous. You redouble your efforts to be kind. You sing his praises on BBC radio, al Jazeera, and NPR. You wonder if he is listening. He will know all that you are omitting. He will judge. You are trapped in a cage of your own kindness. 

Slowly, another feeling mingles with your relief and joy for everyone who loves him. It is fear. 


The morning after he arrives home you wake up to find a Facebook friend request from him. You stare at it for a few moments before stepping into the bathroom to vomit. Only then do you realize how safe his captivity had kept you. Locked away in a hole in P— he was unable to carry out any of his threats, unable to tarnish your newfound happiness. 

It is possible he has changed. How could a person not change after years of daily torture? Still. Change does not necessarily mean improve. 

You close your computer and go to the gym. 

For several hours you contemplate the meaning of his friend request. That he is back. That he wants to be in touch. That perhaps he wants to express appreciation for the (unproductive) help you offered his family. In the end you decide it would be churlish to turn down a friend request from someone who has been held hostage for two years. You accept. It doesn’t feel like enough. You write a brief private note expressing your relief at his survival and inviting him to contact you. 

He does not reply. 


The only time you look at his Facebook page you see a post bragging about flying first class around the world to give media interviews. “Is that appropriate?” you ask Hannes. “To be boasting about first-class travel when friends of yours are still captive?” 

Hannes looks thoughtful. “When you have been imprisoned and tortured for more than two years,” he says, “anything is appropriate.” 

You can’t let it go. “So,” you continue, following Hannes into his study. “You make one idiotic decision and you get a free pass for life?” 

He turns and studies you as if he has never seen you before. “That’s unworthy of you.” 

Shame burns in your sternum. “If I can’t say these things to you, who can I say them to?” Tears spring to your eyes. You want life to be fair. 

“I think your remarkable passions are perhaps better spent on other things.” But he reaches for your hand. “I understand a little,” he says. “But the fact remains that even assholes have human rights.” 

“I want him to have rights. It’s not that I want him to suffer,” you say. “Not any more. I promise. I just don’t want him not suffering anywhere near my life.” 


You go on. There are not many spaces between swimming and baking raspberry-apple crumble with your daughter and writing and attending diplomatic events with Hannes. It is rare you have time to dwell on Leo. 

When you develop spasms in your lower back that won’t go away your physical therapist says they could be the result of clinging to negative thoughts or feelings. You laugh. You don’t cling to thoughts of Leo; you are trying to escape them—at least to escape the shapeless fear his name provokes. 

“Do you really think he’s going to come after you now?” says Hannes. “Do you really think that is likely to be a priority?” 

No. You don’t think that. You realize that your concerns sound absurd when spoken aloud. 

Yet in a way, you do think he will come after you. That he is biding his time, but that some year, some month, he will follow through on his threats. That one day you will come home and find him sitting in the parlor with Hannes, telling him that one night eleven years ago a friend rang you up. He was only a friend, but a close enough friend that he knew your more twisted desires. He had a proposal, he said. One that would simultaneously help you out of a financial hole and allow you to fulfill a longheld fantasy. You were wet before you hung up the phone. An hour later you were at his door, in a red miniskirt and fishnets. You couldn’t pretend you didn’t enjoy it. You couldn’t pretend that it didn’t fill you with euphoria to stumble out of his apartment at 3 a.m. with a fist full of hundred dollar bills. Your wicked heart delighted in using that money to take your unsuspecting boyfriend out to breakfast at the Four Seasons. 

Leo never apologized for his threats, after all. A Facebook friend request is not an apology. It is not really anything. He has never commented on your Facebook page. Or on anyone else’s, as far as you can see. He stays on his own page and waits for the world to come to him. You feel that were you ever held captive and then freed, you would want to right all the wrongs you had ever done. You would be so grateful for your continued existence that you would apologize for every bit of harm you had ever caused another being. But you are not Leo. You didn’t understand him before captivity; you have no hope of understanding him now. 

He is always in the news now. You see online that a Belgian radio station plans to interview him about “the future of journalism.” You laugh. What would Leo know about the future of journalism? He wouldn’t even know about its past. Or present. 

You’ve never had a television so you miss the broadcasts, and the Internet signal in your Amman residence isn’t strong enough to stream anything. You do, however, read his magazine account of his captivity. It is articulate, interesting, and frightening. It is a wonderful piece. Yet something in it unsettles you. It’s the same kind of unsettling you felt after reading his first memoir. It is the absence of an emotional journey. He must have had plenty of time for personal reflections, but you wouldn’t know it from the story. It’s possible that there simply wasn’t room. Or that the editors cut anything personal. But as written it sounds just like him. How he used to be. You had expected him to sound different. 

You might ask Zoe about how he is really doing. But you haven’t spoken since the day after his release. At first you assumed she was busy spending time with him and fielding calls. And then you realized that she no longer had a use for you. But that is too harsh. She simply no longer has an excuse to write you. You think often of writing to her. You would like to. But you cannot think of what to say. She has him back now. Her efforts were rewarded. She can rest. You don’t feel like you should disturb her. 


Hannes says that if it bothers you that much, if you are so afraid of him contaminating your life, you could just unfriend him. 

“But that would seem so uncharitable,” you protest. 

Hannes just looks at you and raises one eyebrow. 

You go upstairs, open your laptop, and think about it. It has been seven months. Nothing is likely to change. If he wanted you back as a friend, he would have written by now. But apparently he wanted you back merely as an audience. And this, you decide, is not a role that interests you. You no longer owe him your attention. He is free. He does not need you. 

You click unfriend. 


This is what you imagine: One day, you are doing a reading in New York or Seattle and you look up and there he is, in the back row. He wears a snug woolen hat and is smiling in a friendly way, not in his old smug condescending way. Throughout your reading he is quiet and attentive. His legs are crossed and his hands are still in his lap. You have never seen him so still. To your relief, he does not raise his hand to ask a question. 

When your readers have all dispersed and you have finished signing your name in new books fifty-seven times and capped your favorite felt-tip pen, you look up to find him still there. Waiting for you. 

It’s cold, nearly Christmas. You slip on your wool coat, pick up your bag, and together you walk out into the snow. “I’m sorry,” he says as you walk 

heads down into the wind. You look over at him but cannot see his face. 

“You are?” you say doubtfully, pressing mittened hands into your pockets. Then, “For what, in particular?” 

“For, you know, being me.” He looks up at you then, smiling his old impish smile. “For not wanting you to be you.” 

You nod. “Okay,” you say. “Thanks.” 

In a dark Irish bar nearby you stop for a beer or hot whiskey. You sit in a wooden booth in the corner and look at each other. His hair is nearly gone. Yours is nearly white. He pulls off a thick, handknitted sweater. Underneath he wears only a long-sleeved white cotton shirt. Unselfconsciously he pushes up his sleeves as he reaches for his pint glass, revealing deep purple grooves that extend up toward his biceps. 

You take a sip of your whiskey. You reach across the table and rest your fingertips on his forearms. They are warm, pulsing with life. 

“I’m sorry too,” you say. 


But this does not happen. 

Instead, a year later he publishes a novel that is a thinly veiled account of your relationship. You do not read it, but your best friend from high school does, and emails you a few select passages. It isn’t a kind portrait, but it isn’t unforgiving. You are surprised that it no longer matters. Hannes reads it and shrugs. “Not bad,” he said. “Yet not memorable. I don’t quite understand what is so provocative about acting out a prostitute fantasy. You Americans are so prudish.” After creating a brief stir, the book sinks from view. 

You go on. You read your book to strangers in thirteen states and seven countries. You set words down, rearrange them, try to forge meaning. You visit the dentist. You read to your daughter. You go to the grocery store. 

Now, as you pick up grapes and broccoli and bananas your phone does not ring. Lily asks for asparagus and you toss it in your cart. You can afford, now, to be generous. 

Sometimes you cannot neatly tie up the past in twine before discarding it. Sometimes you just have to leave it where it lies. Let the earth reabsorb it. 

When you get home, Hannes is sitting in an armchair in the living room, the first fourteen pages of your new book in his hands. He looks up at you and smiles. “It’s better,” he says. 

You climb onto his lap, knocking the pages to the floor. “It is,” you agree.