Lost in Translation
  Nine Stories by Laura Ruth Loomis
  1  The Sign
2  A Bird and a Picture Window
3  Trying Again
4  Tested
5  The Mermaid
6  Practicing
7  China
8  The Hostage
9  Like Riding a Bike
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  November 2016 Fiction Issue

The Hostage


The ransom note’s lying on the coffee table, a jumble of different-sized words and letters cut and pasted from the Chicago Tribune. I finish cutting the last word from the shredded newspaper (which Roy hasn’t read yet), paste it in, and admire my handiwork.

“Dear Roy: I have kidnapped your dayplanner. If you want it back, you must comply with all my demands. Meet me with the ransom (strawberries & whipped cream) promptly at 8 p.m. tonight in the living room. Synchronize your watch. Do not wear anything except the watch. Do not contact police. Do not try to run your life (and mine) by a damn appointment book. As you can see from the attached photo, your dayplanner has not been harmed. Follow my instructions exactly. Love, Jesse.”

I’m tempted to spell out, “Your boyfriend, not your kid, your employee or your crazy sister who acts like you’re her father,” but that would probably be overkill, and anyway I’m out of room.

I add a Polaroid of Roy’s dayplanner, tied up with a rubber band and looking (I hope) sufficiently frightened.

I picture Roy’s reaction: wondering if he has another appointment tonight at eight, and wanting to check his dayplanner. He’ll just have to tough it out. I turn off my cell phone and head downtown. If I go home, Roy will show up there, so I go out to breakfast with my best friend Gabe. When his cell phone rings, Gabe checks the number and whistles softly. “Roy must really want to find you if he’s calling me.”

“Don’t answer it.”

“Not on your life.”

I drop by the Deaf Club in the afternoon. My parents aren’t there, but some family friends are, so I stick around for a poker game. Playing cards against deaf people is tricky: they’re used to catching every nuance, even if you have a great poker face, which I don’t. I think I’m pretty observant, and I usually clean up against other hearing people, but with this crowd I’m out fifty dollars before quitting.

I get home promptly at eight (on time for once), dressed in black like a proper kidnapper with my curls stuffed into a stocking cap. The dayplanner is tucked under my arm, still tied up. I’m sure I had a great opening line, but when I open the door, Roy is still dressed. All I can think to say is, “You didn’t follow my instructions.”

“Do you have any idea how much trouble you’ve caused?” Roy’s towering over me, with a twitch at the corner of his mouth that I’ve never seen before. “I’ve been calling you all day. I missed a really important meeting because of your stupid prank!”

“Jesus, Roy, I was just trying to inject a little fun here!” Or maybe that’s not what I was trying to do. Maybe I was trying to provoke this exact fight. I toss the book onto the table. “You run your whole life by plans and schedules — can’t you just let go of control for one goddamn second? Or are you afraid you might enjoy it if you did?”

“I’m kidding, idiot,” Roy says, and pops a strawberry into my mouth.


“And so ends my career as a kidnapper, with your dayplanner back safe and sound.” My criminal outfit is scattered on the living room floor. I got Roy to come to bed without even putting the leftover strawberries away.

Roy pulls me tight against him. “I can’t believe you didn’t see the strawberries. They were sitting right there.”

“Well, it was kind of distracting having you yell at me like that.” He knows I hate yelling. Growing up in a house full of deaf people, if it couldn’t be said with an eyebrow, it didn’t need to be said.

“Sorry.” He kisses my forehead. “What was I supposed to synchronize my watch with, anyway?”

“I don’t know. Big Ben? A sun dial?” I give Roy a strawberry-flavored kiss. “How come you don’t have a computerized one?”


“A computerized appointment book. Or do they not have all your alphabets?” Depending on who Roy’s meeting with, his notes might be in Chinese or Russian.

“Just a creature of habit, I guess.”

“Someday I’m going to free you from that evil book, geliebte.”

“It’s geliebter. Geliebte is the feminine form,” he corrects, tapping me on the nose. This is what I get for living with a goyish linguist. “And that evil book keeps us in this nice house.”

“Oh yeah, that thing about making a living.” I nip at his finger. “Speaking of.”


“My airline called. I have to leave first thing in the morning on a six-day run.”

“Where to?”

“Maui.” I’m trying not to grin, but come on, it’s Maui. “I’m not packing anything but my swim trunks.”

“Sounds nice.” Roy pulls away from me and stretches out on his back. “So I’ll see you Friday night?”

“Saturday. I’ll be back early Friday, but I have plans with Gabe that night. We’ll be out late, so I’ll probably just stay at my place. My old place,” I amend hastily, before Roy can remind me that I live here now. “Gabe’s place.”

Roy adjusts the covers.



I wait.

“You’re gone for six days, and you can’t come home the first night because you have plans with Gabe.”

Why the hell does Roy bother being jealous of a straight guy? Gabe and I have been friends since forever, we were roommates for years, of course we’re going to hang out together. I don’t complain when Roy sees his friends.

“If it was a seven-day run, you wouldn’t care, so what’s the difference?”

“It just seems like it’s always Gabe this and Gabe that. You couldn’t be here for Christmas, but you can always be there for Gabe.”

At this point, we could put the fight on a tape recorder, push Play, and go do something else. It’s the same every time. “Hello, planes fly 365 days a year? Every Jewish flight attendant works Christmas. What does that have to do with Gabe?”

“You’re always off somewhere with him. Sometimes I feel like he’s here in bed with us.”

I make a show of looking under the covers. “I don’t see anyone here but you and me. And that big guy under there.” I slide a hand down to where it would be more useful.

Roy grabs my hand. “Not now. I’m tired.”

I turn my back and settle in to sleep.


I wake early the next morning, and pretend not to watch as Roy dresses. Roy keeps his suits in a specific order in the closet, and can find the one he wants without the light. When his tie is straight and his shoes are on, Roy unexpectedly lies back down next to me, curling an arm across my chest. “Don’t leave angry,” he whispers.

“I’m not,” I answer, but I don’t turn. “I just wish you’d give me a little breathing room sometimes.”

Roy pulls his arm away, kisses my shoulder, and leaves for work.

I can’t get back to sleep, so I finally pull on my uniform and go downstairs in search of breakfast. Roy has already tidied up and left last night’s clothes folded in a pile. My mouth’s stuffed full of bagel when the phone rings. I sign a swear word at it. What part of “breathing room” does Roy not understand?

The machine picks up. “Roy, you there?” comes a bright female voice.

I grab the phone, chew twice and swallow. “Hi Angel. Your brother already took off. I was actually about to call you. I can’t go with you to hear your musician friend tonight — my airline’s sending me to Maui.”

“Rough life. I may skip the show anyway. Got to pack.”

“Don’t tell me you’re moving in with that guy,” though I already know the answer. Angel changes boyfriends more often than hairstyles.

“Trust me, you’ll like this one. He’s a great cook and a great dancer. Let me give you the new phone number before I forget.”

I scribble it down. I’d been looking forward to going out with her tonight. If Roy and I don’t make it, I can’t expect Angel to stay friends with me. I try to keep her on the phone. “I’ll be gone until Saturday, so if you need to get bailed out of jail this week, you’re out of luck.”

“Will you shut up about that? If Roy ever finds out, he’ll —”

“— pack you off to a convent or something.”

“I told you, that was all a misunderstanding anyway.”

I wipe bagel crumbs off the counter, something I rarely bothered to do while rooming with Gabe and his many girlfriends. “And you’re not with that guy anymore, and the new one’s squeaky clean. You told me. So how did you meet —”

“Hang on. My friends are here to help me get this mess packed. I’ll catch you next week.”

“Love you, Angel.”

Before I have the kitchen phone back in its cradle, my cell phone blares. The 1812 Overture could only mean one caller.

“You’re up early, Gabe.”

“It is boring as shit over here ever since you went all domestic on me and moved out.”

“I’m not always domestic. Sometimes I get international flights.”

“Ha ha. So hubby didn’t kick you out over that little stunt with his appointment book?”

That seems like ages ago. “Actually, that was fun.”

“Don’t worry, princess. I’ll save you from that guy yet.”


It’s easier to think about Roy with some distance between us, like about 35,000 feet of airspace. Sometimes it feels like the final fight is bearing down like a jet headed for the tarmac. If only Roy wouldn’t pick such inopportune moments to try to work things out.

There are things I adore about Roy, like the way he makes me feel like the most important person in the world. I’ve never had that with anyone else. The first thing he did after we met was learn to sign so that he could talk to my family. He’s a good guy, no matter what Gabe thinks. But Roy belongs with someone who doesn’t mind being held hostage by a dayplanner and having his Yiddish corrected in bed. I belong with, I don’t know, a gay version of Gabe, or something.

The blond boy in 7C gives me a knowing look. He’s cute, and he’s giving my gaydar a definite buzz. I could make a clean break right now. If I cheated with him, I’d have to tell Roy, and there would be no going back.

After we land, I’m the last one off the plane, only to find the guy waiting at the gate. “This is my first time in Hawaii,” he says. “Maybe you know some good places to go?”

I can think of several places I’d like to go, and none of them would require leaving my hotel room. “I’m sorry,” I tell him. “I really need to leave.”

I catch up with the rest of the flight crew, all heading for the hotel van. Socializing with the crew is de rigeur on a layover. We spend the next few hours going to dinner, tossing back umbrella drinks, and splashing in the ocean. Even after the others return to the hotel, I walk down the beach in the dark, avoiding Roy’s inevitable call.

When it’s three a.m. in Roy’s time zone, I go back to my hotel room. The message light is blinking, of course. I’m tempted to ignore it, but I have to check just in case it’s the airline. I can always tell Roy I was out too late to call back.

The only message is from my dispatcher. “Change of plans. You’re on the 8 a.m. flight to Hong Kong, with a 4-day layover.”

“It’s winter in Hong Kong!” I sputter, gesturing angrily to the empty room. I didn’t quite carry out my threat to pack only swim trunks, but there’s nothing in my suitcase warmer than a Hawaiian shirt.

And Roy never called.


“So what does it mean?” I’m on the phone with Gabe, again. There’s nothing else to do in Hong Kong, where it’s too cold to venture out of the hotel room. “Usually he’ll at least call to ask why I left the coffee pot in the laundry room or whatever.”

“Well, either he’s trying to turn into Prince Charming and change his evil controlling ways, or he doesn’t love you any more. Christ, how do I know what it means? Maybe he’s screwing his secretary.”

“He doesn’t have one.” His last one quit after ten days. “Look, will you be serious? I don’t know whether I should call him or not. I mean, I left a message about the Hong Kong thing, but that was it. Maybe he thinks I did this on purpose.”

“Jesse, can I just state the obvious? Do you really want to go through life making me analyze every goddamn call he doesn’t make? Nobody else drives you over the edge like this.”

“Nobody else is this important.”

“Maybe nobody should be. Except me, of course. Look, you don’t need my permission — or his, either. Just dump his ass, if you can get the stick out of it first.”


When I get home, I have a built-in excuse not to call Roy, since I already said I was going clubbing with Gabe. Roy came with us once, said he didn’t care for the noise and smoke, and has let us out alone ever since.

We’re still on the first drink when guy with a shaved head asks Gabe to dance. “As long as it’s okay with my boyfriend,” Gabe says, and gives me a wink as he heads for the dance floor. Some straight guys would be freaked out just by being here, let alone being cruised by horny boys with faulty gaydar. Gabe’s attitude is, what kind of damned fool doesn’t want to be told he’s sexy? He’ll string them along as far as he can, taking their drinks and their flattery before he brushes them off and heads for a straight bar. By then his ego will be nicely pumped up for the women who make him do the work of pursuit.

I’m starting to relax, looking at hot bodies in muscle shirts and tight jeans. I get pulled onto the dance floor by a bleached blond guy with a heavy Spanish accent. When we stop for a drink, he writes his number on a napkin and stuffs it in my jeans pocket.

I say thanks but no, and go find Gabe. “Let’s just go. I’m done.”

On the way home, I think about calling Roy, but I don’t. At home we have another drink, and another. My face feels like I’m still on the beach in Maui.

“So, nobody worth grabbing tonight?” Gabe asks. “That Puerto Rican guy was seriously into you.”

“I’m taken.”

“It’s all right, I won’t be jealous.” Gabe leans in close, his breath reeking of scotch. To me it smells like iodine.

“Yeah right.” I push Gabe away.

“Why don’t you just do it and get it over with?” Gabe asks.

“Do what?” I answer, though I know he means breaking up with Roy. Gabe is a good friend, trying to do right by me, but I’m softening toward Roy. I’m looking forward to seeing him tomorrow and telling him about the ridiculous trip to Hong Kong. Roy’s arms would feel pretty good right now. Maybe he wouldn’t mind a slightly drunken late-night call. I open my mouth to explain all this to Gabe.

The kiss lands without warning.

Gabe bends down, and in the space of tongue meeting lip, I have us married and growing old together, Gabe will move into my room and we’ll turn his into a den, and we’ll never fight over who left the kitchen a mess or who went out clubbing last night because we’d go together, and I’ll learn to love kisses that taste like iodine, and my parents will be thrilled to have my best friend for a son-in-law, and then Gabe’s tongue escapes and he slips away.

“Damn,” he says, “drunker than I thought.”

Gabe saunters to his room and shuts the door behind him without looking back. I stay in the living room for a while, perched on the arm of the couch, hoping he’ll come back for me. Finally I retreat to my old room and strip for bed, leaving the door open. I wake up alone.


In the morning, I go home to Roy without calling first. Roy greets me with an enthusiastic kiss. “How was Hong Kong?”

“I have no idea. It was too damn cold to leave the hotel room.”

Roy rubs my arms as if I still needed warming up. “I missed you.”

This is going to lead to sex soon if I’m not careful. And you can’t just come in, have sex, and then break up with somebody. I pull away and sit down on the couch. A moment later, I realize I should have chosen the easy chair. The couch has room for two. “Gabe and I had a great time out clubbing last night.”

“I know. You have that out-past-your-bedtime look.” The trace of accusation in his voice is slight, but I think that’s just Roy’s phenomenal self-control.

“We’ll probably go out again later this week.”

“Try to pencil me in this weekend.” He smiles belatedly, to let me know he’s joking, but he’s not really. I see the tightening around his eyes. Roy’s poker face is worse than mine.

I want Roy to do the work for me, to make the break or at least make it easy. It’s not going to happen. I have one more attack. “There’s something else. While we were out last night, I sort of, ah, kissed someone else.” Should I say it was Gabe? I’m not sure Gabe would want that mentioned. I don’t know what Gabe wants.

The phone rings. A momentary flinch is the only sign that Roy hears it. He examines my face as if proofreading a document.

“You kiss guys all the time. Was it something more than kissing?”

The answering machine picks up in the kitchen. Hello, you’ve reached Roy and Jesse....

“No,” I answer with a vehemence that surprises me. “I didn’t cheat on you.”

A woman’s voice is leaving a message on the machine, not quite intelligible from here.

“Then why even mention it?”

My nerve is failing me. I don’t want to be the guilty one. “Nothing. Never mind.” Roy’s gaze is still focused on me with searing intensity. “It was nothing. Forget I said anything.”

Roy exhales slowly, then gets up and walks to the kitchen. I hear the message played back, and a moment later, Roy swearing.

I stay in the safety of the living room. “What?”

“That sister of mine. She left a message to call her at her new place, but did she leave the number? And her cell’s not working.”

“Sorry, I forgot to tell you. Angel called right before I left for Maui. I wrote the number down somewhere around here.”

“Did you put it in my dayplanner?”

Shit. “I forgot. It’s there on the counter somewhere.”

“I don’t see it anywhere on the counter.”

My jetlag is hitting, I was on my feet for sixteen hours yesterday, and the last thing I want to do is get up and look where Roy already searched. Still, I get up and squeeze past Roy to sift through the pile of mail on the counter, all organized according to Roy’s filing system. “I’m sure it was here.”

“Well, it’s not here now!”

“I can fucking see that!” I feel like I should still be moving papers around, even though we’ve looked through everything. “She’ll call back.”

“You know how Angel is — she may not call again for a month.”

“Then whatever she wanted can’t have been that important.”

“I just want to know how to reach my sister if I need to. Goddamnit, you’re always doing this!”

“Angel’s a grown woman. She knows how to dial a phone.”

“Then why can’t you act like a grown man and keep track of one stupid phone number? Why didn’t you just put it in the book?”

“I don’t know, there was another call and I got distracted.”

“Yeah, who?”

“What difference does that make?” That answer, of course, is the same as admitting it was Gabe.

“Why don’t you just say it? Gabe called and nothing else mattered.”

My face is burning and I don’t want to look at Roy. My mouth tastes like iodine. “Roy, would you just — ”

“Why do you have to be like this?” he yells.

He won’t even let me finish a damn sentence. I switch to sign language so he can’t interrupt. Again with Gabe! I lost a phone number. It’ll probably show up tomorrow in the fridge or something. Why do you have to make everything about Gabe?

“You make everything about Gabe.” Roy’s volume is still rising. “He’s always here, or you’re always off somewhere with him. He doesn’t like sharing you with me.”

Maybe it’s me that doesn’t like sharing me. I hate the way you act like I’ve done something wrong every time I see Gabe. I don’t want to be with you every minute.

Do you want to be with me at all? Roy’s signing now, which means I can’t look away. I feel transparent as Roy demands, Why do you come in here and tell me about kissing some other man, and then say it’s nothing?

I don’t know! I sign with a vehemence that might as well have been shouting.

Bullshit. You’ve been edging toward the door since the day you moved in. Just give me a straight answer!

I give him the one sign everybody understands.


When I get home — I’m already thinking of it as home again — all I want to do is talk to Gabe. We’ll hammer it out about Roy, and tomorrow while Roy’s at work, Gabe will help me pack and move out.

Maybe Gabe will be too embarrassed to talk about the kiss last night. Somehow I’ll find the guts to bring it up, and show the backbone I didn’t have with Roy.

A woman’s laughter floats out of Gabe’s room, a high-pitched nasal sound. It’s not even noon yet, and somehow Gabe’s managed to get a woman over here. The laughter is followed by rhythmic moaning. Gabe’s not normally this loud.

I dump my travel bag on the bed that used to be mine. My uniform shirt hits the bed, and a slip of paper pokes out of the pocket. Sure enough: Angel’s phone number. I shred it and throw the pieces into the toilet. Then I crack a beer, go back to my room and slam the door.

Untied from Roy, I want to spread out in every direction. I could go out now. Call that guy with the Spanish accent and see what he wants to do. Or hop a plane back to Maui; I can get free flights anywhere my airline goes. I could march over to Gabe’s room and tell his girlfriend to leave.

I curl up on my bed, taking up the smallest possible amount of space.


  First published in On the Premises, Issue 4
© Laura Loomis, 2008


NEXT  >> 

Back to top