I feel worse about Nathan and Judy than I do about anyone else, even my son. They weren’t the only ones responsible for this, of course, but they were always the closest agents to me. They’ll be the ones to take the blame, Judy especially. I wish I could do something about that. I was their responsibility, and I know how much trouble they’re going to be in. Judy has two young children. Nathan takes care of his elderly parents. They’re sure to lose their jobs, if they haven’t already. I worry about them all the time.
I’m aware that makes me look like a terrible mother. Uncaring. Selfish. But my son could hardly be safer than he is right now—especially now. Everyone will be on high alert.
But Nathan and Judy—I gave them the slip, and they weren’t expecting it. I’m sorry, because they’ve been kind to me. Of course, they looked the other way when the president did the things he did, but they didn’t have much choice. Ultimately, he’s their boss, and he’s a dangerous man to cross. No one knows that better than I do.
It’s weird to watch the story grow on the television programs. They keep showing my picture from Inauguration Day, talking on and on and on, guessing, speculating, sometimes pretending they know what happened. It feels strange to be the object of all that chatter. Usually it’s my husband they rattle on about, criticizing or praising or ridiculing.
I have to keep the sound off, but I watch the chyrons rolling beneath the faces of those familiar television reporters with their coifed hair and glistening lips. When I first got here, the chyrons spoke to everyone’s curiosity: Where is she? Where’s the First Lady?
There were some imaginative ones: Is the First Lady on a secret mission for the president?
And there were critical ones: The First Lady continues to shirk her duties.
I knew that would come. The people who say such things don’t know what it’s like to have to hide your bruised face, or your broken finger, or the cut on your forehead where he threw the tv remote and, for once, hit his target. I can’t go out to visit a hospital or speak to a ladies’ luncheon when my eye is so swollen I can’t put mascara on it, or when the outfit I was supposed to wear won’t fit over the bandage on my knee from where he pushed me in the bathroom.
Nathan and Judy ran interference for me with my social secretary. They knew—probably the whole detail did—but what could they do? If they went to the head of the Secret Service, he’d have to speak to the president. Knowing my husband, he would probably fire the whole detail. No one outside the White House would believe them. No one would believe me. He would lie, and he’s the president.
My husband is a very, very good liar. Maybe one of the best liars in the world. I figured that out, far too late. I don’t think the rest of the country is ever going to understand just how adept he is at convincing people of untruths. It’s a blessing, really, that he spends no time with our son. He would lie to him, too. He’d rather lie than not. It comes naturally to him. It’s his nature, repellent though it is. I wish I had understood that sooner.
But now I huddle, alone, in the elegant salon of my old friend’s anchored yacht, Sea Secret. I watch the television news with no sound and all the blinds drawn tight, so no one will walk along the dock and suspect someone is in here.
Everything is battened down on the boat. The big galley is closed down, though the refrigerator is stocked so I have food. Everything on the decks is covered with tarps, and the crew has all been let go—for the duration, Tony said. I feel bad about them losing their jobs, but I was desperate, and I had literally one friend in the world I could trust.
At least, I hope I can trust him. My husband has a talent for making people betray the ones who trust them. As I said, he may be the best liar in the world.
As the days pass, the chyrons grow more and more intense. Most other news is being buried beneath the weight of the nation’s—indeed, the world’s—curiosity. The White House staff finally noticed my absence, my bed not slept in, my bathroom not used, the books and magazines in my sitting room undisturbed. People have started to ask questions.
The chyrons scream: In a break with protocol, the First Lady is not at the president’s side for a state dinner. And The First Lady cancels all appearances. Is she ill? And, in an attempt to be jocular, Call in if you’ve seen the First Lady!
They would expect someone to recognize me if they saw me on the street, or in a car, or on a train. What they don’t understand is how a designer dress, a designer hairdo, even a designer cosmetics job, can make a woman look utterly different from the way she looks every day. I don’t look anything like that Inauguration Day image now. It’s unlikely anyone would recognize me. No makeup. Sweatshirt, jeans, sneakers. My hair cut (badly, since I did it myself) and now the gray roots are showing. I can see how I look in the stateroom mirror, a tired, too tall, too thin middle-aged woman.
And now, finally, the chyron I’ve been expecting. He will hate this one, because it means he can’t ignore the situation any more. The press secretary will get questions. The secret service will show up in the Oval. The newspapers will go crazy. My parents will call, and insist on talking to him, and go to the television people when he refuses.
It’s this one, the right one at last: The First Lady is missing.
And now that they’ve gotten there, the real questions start. Was she kidnapped? Has she been poisoned, and is being kept in a secret hospital? Or Is the First Lady dead, and no one will admit it to the public?
And, of course, How could she escape the Secret Service? How could she get out of the White House with no one knowing?
This is a good question. The White House is a fortress, despite its lovely old architecture and graceful interiors. The windows are impenetrable, the gardens are walled and guarded, every door is monitored. The Secret Service is an army, armed, dangerous, omnipresent. It’s all designed to keep the president and staff safe, to keep dangers out.
And, as it turns out, to keep the First Lady in.
The ‘how’ of it all was worthy of a thriller. My friend—let’s call him Tony—was a special friend of mine, of us both, really, from before the nightmare days, when a botched election landed me in a role I never wanted. I hadn’t seen him for months, but Tony was a guest at one of the endless white-tie dinners we have to host at the White House. When I saw his name on the list, I managed to persuade one of the butlers—who are very sweet, and really do everything they can to make the first lady happy—to switch the place tags, so Tony was seated beside me, on my left. On my right was an ambassador from some African country, whose language I don’t speak and who speaks very little English. I was free to chat with Tony.
At first we talked about little things, his children, my son, their schools. We drank two glasses of wine apiece, and by dessert we were sharing more personal confidences. I was careful. I checked under my plate, and under the table, and felt around the bottom of my chair to be sure there were none of the listening devices my husband loves to plant. Tony’s marriage was coming to an end, he said. Infidelity, hers, not his. I took his word for it.
My marriage was off limits for our conversation, but I did admit I hated D.C., I hated the job I had to do, and I especially hated living in the fishbowl of the White House. Tony knows my husband well, no doubt better than I do. He has known him for years. Did business with him, which means got cheated by him. Tony had no illusions about what my marriage was like.
Months went by before I saw Tony again.
He was visiting with the president in the Oval, something about trade imbalances, which Tony is an expert in and which my husband misunderstands, as he misunderstands so many things. After the meeting, Tony asked one of the staff if he could say hello to me, his friend from the old days. The staff member escorted him to my office, and the two of us—with Nathan following at a discreet distance, sunshine glinting off his oversized sunglasses—went out to walk in the Rose Garden.
It was one of the first bits of luck I’d had in a long time. Nathan’s second language is German. Tony speaks fluent French. Judy speaks French, too, but it wasn’t her shift, so Tony and I could murmur to each other in French without worrying about being understood.
He said, “I have a crazy idea. You can laugh it off if you want.”
“What is it?” Qu’est-que c’est?
“You can leave him. You should leave him.”
“Leave him? As in, walk out?”
“Yes, walk out. Now. In the middle of his term. Say goodbye.” Au revoir.
“He’d kill me.”
“Only if he could find you. And I have an idea about that.” He grinned down at me. He’s tall enough to do that, and he looked good, clear skin, a full head of dark hair, naturally white teeth. I felt almost normal, walking with him, his hand under my arm, Nathan keeping a respectful distance because we were safe, there in the garden.
I said, “How, Tony? They watch me all the time!”
“Have you been down to the tunnels?”
We rounded the corner, into a shady spot where there was a bench to sit on. With a nod to Nathan, inviting him to join us if he liked, Tony and I sat down. Nathan stood a few steps away, his sunglasses flashing as he scanned the path and the lawn.
“Tunnels?” The word is the same in French, although pronounced differently from the English word. Tony’s French is much better than mine, and I wasn’t sure I had heard right.
“Yes. Beneath the house. There are dozens of them.”
“There are. Sometimes you can see them on the tours.”
“They don’t let me take tours.”
Tony kept his hands in his pockets, but his shoulder deliberately brushed against mine, and it felt good. I couldn’t remember the last time someone touched me just because they wanted to. Even my son, with the cameras constantly flashing at us, won’t hold my hand, or let me put my arm around his shoulders, or stand still for a hug.
“I’ll get you a map,” Tony said, his mouth so close to my ear I felt the warmth of his breath. Tony has sweet breath, smelling like citrus, or peppermint. My husband’s is sour from all the junk he eats.
I thought the whole conversation was in jest, of course. Tony was fantasizing to make me feel better. I was sure it wasn’t possible for me to really escape. And there was my son to think about. Of course, he’s old enough now to make some decisions for himself, and he would certainly be safe . . .
I wouldn’t have given Tony’s wild suggestion another thought, except that night my husband knocked out one of my teeth and I had to be rushed—in secret—to a dentist to have it replaced. Judy went with me. I was so ashamed of the whole thing I couldn’t meet her eyes. We didn’t say a word, either on the way to the emergency dentist or on the ride back. I sensed her wish to reach out to me, possibly even touch my hand, but of course that wasn’t in her job description. The other members of the detail kept their eyes averted from my swollen face. I don’t know what Judy and Nathan told them, but none of them ever asked me a direct question, nor acknowledged my condition.
My husband is a violent man. His first wives both said so, but he said they were lying. I was younger then, more naive, and I believed him. He is a very, very good liar.
He is also a very unhappy man, a miserable man. In public, he shouts and preens and postures. In private, the frustrations of his life boil over. The constant fear of his inadequacy rises to the surface, and he lashes out. He breaks things—a vase, a glass, a chair. When I’m the closest thing, he breaks me.
Even full of pain medication, I couldn’t sleep that night. I listened to the constant traffic noises, the comings and goings inside the White House, the drone of the television in my husband’s bedroom.
I couldn’t stop thinking about what awaited me in the coming days. They wanted me to give a speech, which terrified me. They wanted me to make a television appearance, which terrified me even more. They wanted me to fly overseas with the president on Air Force One, for the optics, they said. I wouldn’t be able to get out of his sight for days on end.
My thoughts spun endlessly, and my eyes burned with sleeplessness.
In the small hours, I surrendered. In a bottom drawer I had hidden a little burner phone, a silly thing I had bought before moving here, impelled by some instinct, I suppose. I got out of bed, opened the drawer, and found the phone.
I texted one word to my old friend Tony: Oui.
Tony was right about the tunnels. There are so many of them! They lead to all kinds of places, meeting rooms and bunkers and bomb shelters. The entrances are disguised, and some of them are accessed through a door that looks like it opens onto a broom closet. There’s a passage in the Oval Office, where you push on a panel and a wall opens, and you can descend into the tunnel system.
I did that. I told poor Judy I was going into the Oval to speak to my husband, and she didn’t realize he had already gone to the residence. She should have known, of course, it was her job to know, but why should she doubt me? Me, who never has a word of her own to say, creeps around like a frightened kitten, cowers in corners and hides in her bedroom for hours on end. I’m sure they think of me as they might a pretty doll, one everyone likes dressing and playing with and taking pictures of, but one that gets put on a shelf at the end of the day. One that has no mind of her own, no will, no power.
So I went into the Oval, pressed the panel to open the door, closed it carefully behind me, and descended into the tunnels. I found the right one, with the help of the diagram Tony had mailed to me, tucked into a book. I walked for three hours, and emerged in a nondescript building designated for emergency evacuations. Tony was waiting for me, and drove me here, to his yacht.
That was seven days ago, and it seems we’ve been successful. No one but Tony knows where I am. When I cut off my hair, I wrapped it in a bag with rocks in it so it sank to the bottom of the Potomac. I found the jeans and sweatshirt and sneakers in one of the staterooms, along with some toiletries, which have come in handy. I watch the television because I don’t have a computer or a smartphone, and I wouldn’t dare log on to them even if I did. There are some battered paperbacks, and I read those. Mostly, I watch the silent news programs, and assess the building storm around my disappearance.
I slipped out once to go to the convenience store beside the moorage to buy juice and tea and newspapers, and no one noticed me. I felt triumphant about that. When I was safely closed into the salon again, I wondered if that was how it felt to be an ordinary woman, to go out and do something without anyone paying attention, to wander freely without having to explain, or dress for the cameras, or follow instructions.
The newspapers were cautious. The New York Times said almost nothing at first about my absence. The Washington Post let it go for three days before they reported a rumor that the First Lady was missing.
When I had been gone five days, when the chyrons on cable news began to get excited. The Post delved more deeply into the story, but of course, they don’t have anything to go on. I’m not there. I’m gone. I’m missing, and no one knows why or how or if I’m coming back.
And the president? He hasn’t said anything yet. Not a word.
He doesn’t do press conferences, of course. He hates answering questions. He likes to call in to his favorite cable television channel, but he’s careful which host to talk to, for the same reason. Even at Fox there are some actual journalists. He never does interviews unless he is promised in advance that they’ll be friendly.
But now? He’s trapped. He’s going to have to say something, try to explain my absence. He’ll try to feign worry, perhaps, though he’s lousy at anything approaching empathy for another human being. What he’s really feeling, I feel certain, is rage. Helpless fury. He’s going to be humiliated, and I’m the cause.
Am I going back? Never.
Will he kill me if he knows where I am? Absolutely. I would not be the first.
Of course, he wouldn’t do it with his own hands. But he has ways. He has people.
I make a cup of tea, and huddle on the low sofa in front of the yacht’s big screen television. With the remote in hand, I click from one channel to the next. There are other stories in the news, of course, but I seem to be the predominant one. That is, my absence is the predominant one. I doubt very much anyone beyond my parents and one or two girlfriends actually care about me. I see shots from my wedding, pictures from when my son was small, a few posed fashion photos, but there’s nothing personal. None of it is about me. It’s all about the president’s wife not being in her proper place.
It’s the chyrons that tell the story, and they grow more and more frantic.
Secret Service desperately searching for the First Lady.
President mum on whereabouts of the First Lady.
FBI, CIA, and Interpol search for the First Lady of the United States.
First Lady sightings reported from a dozen countries.
Is the First Lady being held hostage?
Exclusive: First Lady being held in secret Russian gulag.
Did aliens steal the First Lady?
I couldn’t have made my escape without Tony, of course, and I know that. Tony is a rich man, much richer in real terms than my husband is. Women like me, by which I mean women who look like me, tend to be surrounded by rich men, men who can buy who and what they want. My husband didn’t buy me, exactly, but I was inexperienced enough to be dazzled by the gilded surroundings and the sparkling accessories of his life. I wasn’t exactly in love with the man, but I was head-over-heels in love with the life I thought he was offering.
Now Tony is offering me a new life, and I want to take it. I’m not in love with him, either, but I like him very much, and I believe he likes me. That seems much more important to me now. And his wealth is essential to our plan. Wealth has always surrounded me, though it has never been my own wealth. It can be a cruel master.
So, the plan: I will wait here for another three weeks, until such an expensive boat being out of commission might command notice. Tony will hire a new crew, which I think will mean a captain, a cook, and a couple of other people, carefully selected and generously paid for their ability to be discreet. They’re not to know who I am. The story will be that the yacht is being loaned to friends in France, and off we’ll go. I won’t have to worry about a passport or that sort of thing, because no one will know I’m here until we’re in international waters. No one will know, again, that I’m here until we’re safely docked in a tiny French port.
Obviously, this is a huge violation of my pre-nup. It also violates the post-nup I signed after the dreadful results of the election, but I no longer care. Once he’s out of office, and people aren’t looking for me any longer, Tony promises to bring my son to my French hideaway. Until then, we’ll let the mystery stand.
The Washington Post tells me my parents took my son home with them. My press secretary announced it was a planned vacation for him, but I know it was simply that my husband couldn’t be bothered to deal with him. That was always my job, and it was the only job I cared about—until recently.
Fox News continues to claim that I’m on a secret mission for the president, and that he’s keeping quiet about it until it’s accomplished. MSNBC speculates that the First Lady committed suicide, but the president is too embarrassed to admit it. CNN takes the position that the First Lady has been kidnapped by some foreign agency, and that she’ll be killed if anyone talks about it.
NBC, CBS, ABC all limit themselves to counting the days since I was last seen in public.
It’s a testament to how dangerous my husband is that neither my emergency dentist or any of the emergency physicians who treated my various injuries have spoken up. I don’t blame them. They have careers and families to worry about. And though it’s shockingly lonely, being completely isolated this way, I take comfort in knowing that I took control of my own life, for better or worse. I’m not that doll on the shelf anymore. I’m a graying middle-aged mother who still has half her life ahead of her and longs to spend it in freedom.
We planned carefully, Tony and I. It was hard, because we couldn’t often even sit next to each other, much less be alone. Gifts and mail that come into the White House are closely vetted, but Tony and I share a love of reading, and he sent me books. They contained coded messages, disguised as dedications on the flyleaves: Hope to see you in February. Hoping you and your family can join us on Sea Secret soon. Here’s looking forward to that French holiday.
I sent him books back, similarly inscribed. February is perfect. We can’t wait to see Sea Secret. Thank you for the map.
I read the books he sent, too. He chose literary novels, mysteries, sometimes thrillers. My husband, who doesn’t read at all, paid no attention to any of these exchanges.
We used the burner phone selectively, and only for the final details. When I left, I had it with me in my pocket. I threw it as far out into the river as I could, the moment I got out of Tony’s car. I had another phone, of course, a better and more recent official one, but I left that in the residence. I double-checked all my old text messages on it, but there was nothing there either from or to Tony. In fact, there was little there at all. The tweets from me that people love to share are all written by staff, and they use their computers to do that.
Yet, despite all our care, I was afraid. When people trooped by on their way to another boat, or there were raucous parties on nearby yachts, I turned off the television so its light wouldn’t penetrate the blinds. I hid in my stateroom in the darkness like an injured cat going to ground. It’s a strange, distorted life, a reverse image of the one I had been living. No one sees me. No one speaks to me. I wear the same clothes every day, and I don’t style what’s left of my hair or put on makeup. I am invisible.
We thought, after a month had passed, that the story of the First Lady going missing would begin to die down. We were mistaken.
If the chyrons were anything to go by, the furor has only intensified. The four weeks are nearly up, but each week the story seems to get bigger. Wild stories are circulating, the president is under daily pressure to say something, and heads are rolling at the FBI and CIA and in the Secret Service. Even Congress is threatening to summon the president to speak to them about the First Lady’s whereabouts. He has tweeted that it’s none of their business, but it seems for once his tweets are having no effect.
I knew it would be bad. I didn’t know it would precipitate a national crisis.
Now, and only now, are those who treated my injuries beginning to speak out. They start by telling reporters details off the record. Then, as their numbers grow, they gain confidence. Now the dentist, two emergency physicians, and my personal aesthetician, who has had to disguise my bruises many times, have been interviewed on television. My husband has plenty of enemies, and they’re making the most of the scandal. It has become an international sensation.
Some are saying it could bring down the presidency, an outcome neither Tony nor I anticipated. I fear the whole thing has grown much too big for Tony to tolerate.
And now, as I stare at CNN in horror, I see that Tony has been called to the White House.
Everyone knows Tony’s face, of course. Ostensibly, he is being called in as the president’s old friend and confidante, to comfort a grieving husband whose wife has disappeared—or to provide cover if the husband has done something to his abused wife. But as I watch the silent pictures shown over and over on CNN and then the other cable channels, and finally on the mainstream news shows, it’s clear that Tony has some sort of Secret Service escort—or FBI or whatever, I never can keep straight which department does which.
I turn off the television, and huddle on the couch in the salon, fearing the worst. Tony and my husband know a great deal about each other. They have had many business dealings over the decades. I’m afraid Tony is as vulnerable to blackmail as my husband is, and if my husband threatens him, he may have no choice but to give me up.
It occurs to me, too, for the first time, that Tony may have done all of this to hurt my husband rather than to help me. Their history is a complicated one. My husband is capable of any dirty trick he can think of. I wonder what he may have done to Tony. I wonder if I’ll ever know.
Tomorrow is the day we’re supposed to leave. The new crew will arrive. I will shut myself in the smallest stateroom, ready to fold myself up into a cargo compartment if necessary, until we know we’re safe. At least, that was the plan. I have no way of knowing if it still is.
I don’t sleep. I shower, and then stare at myself in the mirror. I don’t even recognize my own face. I am pale, terribly thin, big-eyed and hollow-cheeked. Even my bust, once so important to my husband, looks shrunken. I look every single one of my years. He wouldn’t have me now, I think. I am no longer a trophy wife. I’m a refugee.
I lock the stateroom door, as I’m supposed to. I lie on the bed, and watch the morning light begin to rise beyond the drawn blinds. Helpless in my ignorance of what’s happening beyond my luxurious prison, I wait.
They arrive early, whoever they are. I hear someone in the galley. I hear several pairs of feet on the decks. I hear the rustle and bang and rush as the tarps are taken in and the blinds are lifted. My stateroom has no windows, only the single locked door, which I don’t dare open. I cower on the bed, clutching a pillow to my middle.
Who is out there? I don’t know. Is everything happening according to our plan? I don’t know that, either.
The engine starts with a great thrumming vibration that I feel in my bones. There are calls back and forth, laughter, orders, shouts of farewell. The yacht begins to move, a gentle motion at first, as it glides out of its moorage, then a sense of gathering speed as it gets underway.
I lie back, and close my burning eyes. The rocking of the boat soothes my nerves, and a cold acceptance quiets my mind. Either I am making my escape, or I am not. Either I will be allowed to live the rest of my life in peace, or I will not. Someone is guiding this boat to its destination, but it is not me. I have done what I can. I have earned my fate.