Johnathan Lingard knew what he had to do, but now that the moment was upon him, he questioned if he could go through with it. He watched his son back out of the driveway and turn at the corner, soon out of the neighborhood and off to college. He was a good kid with a bright future. It’s what Johnathan didn’t know about his own future that currently flooded his mind.
He turned to his wife who was fighting back tears despite wearing a smile on her face. “Okay,” she said, as she quickly wiped her eyes. “I have to meet my sister.” Johnathan kissed her tenderly, said goodbye and watched her drive off as well. He took the time to acknowledge he would never kiss her again.
Alone in his driveway, he exhaled loudly. He then went inside and began to pack his things. For a little over a decade, Johnathan knew this day would come. If asked, he wouldn’t lie and say it felt like it flew by. It felt like what it was: a decade. Retrieving his duffel bags from the hallway closet, he remembered the night he committed to this acutely abnormal plan. What’s more, he remembered why.
The day prior had been not unlike many in those days: up at five a.m. working for an unappreciative boss at a midsize law firm. Office hours were stated as nine to five, but rare was the day he left before seven p.m. It was a painfully banal Wednesday that toppled the first domino. In an attempt to unwind after work, he had accepted an offer to grab a drink with a couple of co-workers whose company he found pleasant enough. An apparent offense to his wife, as evidenced by Johnathan’s reception upon returning home–greeted with relentless questions, accusations, passive aggressive comments and plain rudeness until she paused long enough for him to pretend to fall asleep.
He realized as he lay there with his eyes closed wishing a train would derail and hit his bedroom that this was the eighth or ninth day in a row that he had fallen asleep just to avoid an argument. Johnathan didn’t know when this had become his norm, but it had. His daily routine when he got home consisted of walking on eggshells until he finally stepped on something, anything really, that would set her off arguing until he was asleep. The night that solidified Johnathan’s plan, he decided he would get to the root of these seemingly pointless arguments. All he wanted was to be happy in his life. Was it that she was insecure in the relationship? Did she not feel loved? Was she unhappy? Was there someone else? Johnathan needed an answer, and so one night he charged in after work willing to accept nothing less.
The argument that ensued unveiled layer after layer of resentment accumulated over years. Things done in passing unnoticed by him were collected, filed and layered into their own perverse assembly of martial rot. It became painfully obvious that this cancer had metastasized so deep into their marriage there was no hope of operating, no chance of survival. He opened his mouth to fire the final salvo and say goodbye when something–someone–caught his eye. Neither of them had noticed that Christopher, their seven-year-old son, had walked into the room until now.
Christopher stared at them, blank-faced and quiet. The look he held when he was confused and frightened. Seeing the hatred on their faces, his son scurried off into his room. Johnathan ran after him to comfort him. Chris was already in tears when Johnathan got there. Johnathan, having grown up in a house with incessant arguing, was nauseous thinking his son, if even for a night, felt the same way. He hugged him until he stopped crying and dozed off. Johnathan would never argue again, with anyone. Whether Chris was around or not, he didn’t have the stomach for it.
He left the house without a word and soon found himself at his sister’s abode. His only confidante after his parents’ divorce.
“I can’t live like this,” he said after she calmed him down and walked him to the kitchen.
“You’re upset, John,” she understated.
“Will change nothing,” Johnathan snapped. “This is not a life.”
“Think of Christopher,” she coaxed. “Your family. You must get this right with him. You are the only chance for us Lingards… what with Mark’s slow swimmers and all,” she concluded with a light-hearted tone, her way of dealing with the unwanted hand she’d been dealt. “Hey, after you raise him, if you still want to go… I’ll help you pack,” she joked. They both laughed.
Johnathan took his leave and reluctantly drove back to his dreaded life. His sister meant well, but there was no way he could survive this. On the ride back, he considered his situation and reconfirmed what he knew already. He had only one truly unbreakable rule governing his conscience and, furthermore, his soul: to be a good father. Everything else was secondary. He and he alone was responsible for molding a man, the greatest task that would ever be entrusted to the likes of him. He did not intend to fail Christopher as his father had failed him. As far as his marriage was concerned, divorce was the obvious choice, but that was a problem for Johnathan to deal with later.
He’d developed the need to wake up and see his son sleeping; the need to tuck him in at night and protect him. Certainly, he could still do that half of the time if he was separated from his wife, but he would miss so much. Decisions would be made without him, and he didn’t have much faith in his wife’s judgement lately. In any event, she would not stay unattached for long, as she proclaimed many times to him during one fight or another. How could he then ensure that the next guy would be a positive influence? How did he know that they wouldn’t argue in front of his son, leaving him even more confused and afraid? Would the new guy attempt to discipline his son? No, he concluded. For him to leave would be equal to him putting his own happiness in front of his son’s. What kind of man would do that? What kind of father? Not to mention the financial security he could provide his son without having to pay alimony and child support. He could be saving for college instead of paying a woman because she was too unbearable to live with.
Johnathan pulled into his driveway. The light was still on in his bedroom. He sighed loudly in his car, feeling as though he was turning himself in at the penitentiary. Volunteering to do time for a crime he did not commit. Johnathan had two distinct dreams as an adult: one dream was to wake up next to a beautiful woman he was in love with. They would have stimulating conversation over coffee when the sun rose and breathtaking sex with champagne as it set. She would inspire him, encourage him. They would discuss art and philosophy, and be greater because of each other. His second dream was to raise his son properly. Much better than his sister and he were raised. To be there, ever-present. Guide the growth of a man that would go out into the world and impact it. One of those dreams had to die, right there in that driveway. As a parent, John knew your dream had to perish before you let your child’s. That was the job.
Johnathan entered his home. The slam of the door closing behind him sounded eerily like reinforced steel. He poured himself a couple fingers of scotch. Drank it slowly, savoring it, and then poured the rest of the bottle down the sink drain. The next morning, he awakened to Karen sitting on the edge of the bed.
“What’s this?” she asked, holding his laptop so that he could see.
Johnathan swallowed the natural question of why she was on his laptop to begin with. “My LinkedIn account?”
“What do you have it for?” she demanded, her voice slightly raising.
“It’s a networking platform–”
“I know what it is, Johnathan! Why do you have it?!”
The answer seemed obvious to John, but he replied anyway. “To network with other firms and colleagues. Like everyone else.”
“Networking my ass,” she scoffed, throwing the laptop on the floor and storming out.
Johnathan shot up in bed at the sight of his laptop bouncing off the hardwood floor, but, with great difficulty, managed to hold in any response. He sat breathing deeply with his eyes closed, then rose and went about his day. The first few weeks of his incarceration were difficult; he imagined this was true of all incarcerations. Daily, Karen attempted to start a new argument. Johnathan adapted. A joke he told could be interpreted the wrong way, so he stopped telling them. A comment misconstrued, so he made less. He was beyond trying to find out the root of the problem. When she began to bait him, Johnathan would simply stay silent or go play with Christopher.
It was the day of Chris’ eighth birthday party that put a fine point on Johnathan’s concept. He realized that, as of this moment, he had ten years left on his sentence. He would fulfill his duties and then he could once again taste freedom. The set timeframe made that great weight on his shoulders shift to a more comfortable position. In the far, far distance there was a tiny light where once there was just black.
Ten years wasn’t too bad, Johnathan thought. The judge could have given him fifteen. He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t argue and never raised his voice. He avoided particular topics of conversation. The first two years of this were particularly unbearable. The only time he was his normal, laughing self was during his vacation with his closest guy friends that he managed to squeeze in every year. Other than his son, that was the only thing that kept him from breaking. Though he wouldn’t just survive he told himself. He would thrive during his incarceration.
He started his first year as most prisoners do, in the gym. He converted the garage into a fully functioning fitness center. “Who are you trying to impress?” Karen would say, attempting to provoke him. “You, babe,” he would quickly deescalate. She would huff and puff while walking away. Cardio in the morning, weight training in the evening; by his thirty-second birthday, he was in the greatest shape of his life. During year two of his sentence, he added a focus on saving and lowering his spending. Canceling his guy trip would have added a substantial amount to his savings, but at the steep cost of his sanity. He needed the reprieve, the taste of freedom. So instead he kept the guy trip simple.
Johnathan grabbed his large duffel bag from the hallway closet, emptied it and headed for the dresser. It had been a long time coming. Seven years ago, or year three of his captivity, had taken a turn when he noticed his wife nagging him less and less. He initially took this as a positive thing until her phone activity drastically increased, her wardrobe switched and the frequency of her “girls’ nights” multiplied by an astonishing factor. It was evident that she was having an affair. He couldn’t blame her really. They hardly had sex and when they did it wasn’t exactly mind-blowing. Johnathan readily admitted to a lack of desire after Chris’ birth, and that urge dropped even lower for someone who verbally berated him daily.
In any event, Johnathan quickly realized that if she left him, it would lead to the same scenario he sought to avoid. As such, year three became the Year of Romance. He cut his evening training sessions shorter to spend a little more time with her. He randomly bought wine, flowers, chocolate–but, more importantly, he purchased every erectile dysfunction pill on the market. He had boxes upon boxes; in the garage, at his office. He chemically recreated the desire he didn’t feel. Soon they were having sex three or four times a week.
The text messages and “girls’ nights” returned to their normal frequency. He discovered that good sex bought him at least sixteen hours of nag-free life. So he paid more attention to his technique. He sought to constantly improve his prowess as a lover in order to quell her mouth. During year four, his frugality from the previous two paid off. Johnathan bought a multi-family house, and with the rental income exceeding the mortgage, he was able to put even more money aside every month. That year, he treated himself to a trip to Saint Tropez with the guys. Lying on the beach, he decided that he would want to start his new life somewhere like this, by the sand and ocean.
He chose to use his friend getaways from then on to disguise his research for the perfect place where he would eventually be released. The nagging had all but halted by now. She had nothing left to nag about. Her friends–and even some of his–looked at him as a beaten and broken man, a trained dog. He jumped when she commanded and sat when she commanded. She had broken him in she felt; they felt. At times you could almost see how her friends looked up to her as a glowing example of how you can change a man. Johnathan shook his head slightly as he grabbed his toiletry bag and headed to the bathroom. The truth is that there is no changing a man. Behavior can be learned, that behavior then turned into habit, but the spirit of a man will survive long after the body has quit and returned to the dirt.
Johnathan’s bag of toiletries was half full when he received the text. “We did it,” it read.
“We did,” he said out loud to the room with a smile. Despite it all, Christopher had succeeded beyond his expectations. 3.8 GPA, partial scholarship for tennis, but most importantly to Johnathan, he was a good man. He never lied, never took advantage. He looked you in your eyes and shook your hand firmly. His “yes” meant “yes” and his “no” meant “no.” Johnathan smiled again, basking in the joy that his son was much better than him. He glimpsed himself in the mirror. His full beard obstructing his striking jawline beneath. This was by design.
Year five of his confinement, he switched firms for a very significant bump in pay. Between his rental income and his new wages, cash was coming in faster than he could hide it from Karen; women, by some God-given intuition, began to smell it on him. He’d never received so much attention, wedding ring or not. Johnathan was thirty-six at the time, body carved out of granite, the jawline of a comic book hero with enough money to not work for a year. The temptation began to mount rapidly. His new firm employed three times as many women as did his old. Young, brilliant and unfairly beautiful women. The long work days brought the happy hour invites, the subtle suggestions, followed by the not-so-subtle ones. Johnathan was not above cheating, especially since he was convinced that Karen had. He was, however, above getting caught almost halfway through his sentence.
He started wearing looser clothes to hide the body and began growing the beard he now saw in the mirror. He pondered if he had time to shave, it having served its purpose. Year six of his imprisonment, the beard was fully grown. The only women still into him were the ones with a little bad girl in them, which was easier for Johnathan to resist. He had married one of those; didn’t want another. Midway through the year with only his ED medication as an excessive expense, he closed on his second property. Rent had gone up, but his interest stayed the same. Chris was only fourteen and more than half of his tuition was saved. Johnathan increased his guy trips.
He fell in love with France, where his maternal grandmother was from. It suited him. He began learning French in his car and on his lunch break. Around the same time, in one of karma’s private collections of depraved witticisms, Karen, now thirty, began to experience the downfall of her metabolism. Unable to handle the increased dietary demands required by a decreased metabolism, she gained twenty pounds easily. John didn’t mind. Year seven of lockdown saw his wife add another ten pounds and ushered in the return of the nagging and overbearing attitude. This time, the source was more apparent, stemming from her being self-conscious about her weight.
Johnathan was developing a high tolerance for Viagra; he had to get more creative if he wanted to keep their sex life going. Year eight: another five pounds for her; another property for him. This year, at least, did move fast with the constant sporting events for Chris–baseball, tennis, basketball. Between his training regimen, job and Chris’ practices, Johnathan was constantly exhausted. During his furlough that year in Cannes he met an interesting and remarkably stubborn woman named Sophie Andja. She would deny that there was ever an attraction between them right up until the moment she took him home.
She was a sip from an oasis in a desert of no end. Smart, funny and unhindered by American conservative values and self-righteous propaganda. The type of woman Nixon attempted to eradicate along with Black people. The penultimate year of his internment, Chris got a license and Johnathan fell over himself to get him a car. He was now practically fluent in French, and working on resurrecting his Spanish. Chris was a great player in all of his sports, but in tennis he was the most remarkable. He earned the number six ranking in the country for his age. No less than a dozen universities sent recruiters to the house. John would listen to them without saying a word while Karen would fall all over herself.
In the end, he chose UCLA on a partial, even though others offered him a full. When Johnathan asked him why he said, “Two of the five players ranked above him went there. Anywhere else I’m the big fish in the little pond. At UCLA, I can dethrone the king.” Johnathan couldn’t remember being prouder. They spent the whole summer together in the garage. Working on his legs, his shoulders and core. They trained twice a day, sometimes five or six times a week. It was the single greatest summer of Johnathan’s existence. They spoke of life and politics and women. They spoke as father and son, but mostly as friends and as men.
He had countless doubts during his self-inflicted imprisonment. Moments he wanted to give up; moments he thought he couldn’t see it through. That summer made it all worth it. Every sacrificed happiness, every sleepless night, every soul-wrenching decision he would have paid double for a summer like that one. At the end of it he surprised Chris by leaving two tickets to the U.S. Open on his bed with a note that “he had earned it, take a friend and enjoy your hard work.”
That night, as Johnathan went to bed, he noticed one of the tickets on his nightstand with a note that read: “See you there.” He fumbled his way to the bathroom and cried mightily. Year ten. This year. Johnathan looked at his full bags still open. Glancing around the bedroom, he had the familiar feeling that he was forgetting something, although this time he couldn’t trust it. Oddly enough, when the year off his parole finally arrived it wasn’t met with rejoicing on his part. Instead he felt a pulling on his conscience. A gnawing sensation chewing at his soul.
He’d soldiered on as he had done so many times before, but now, as he zipped his bags, it was practically a physical pain. He tried to ignore it. He recalled the old Spanish axiom, Costumbres es mas fuerte que amor. He learned that, roughly translated, it meant your customs or what you are comfortable with bears a stronger hold over you than love. John placed his two duffel bags and rolling suitcase by the door. The bell made him jump. His sister. He opened it and she came in with a bottle of wine to celebrate.
“Jesus, you shaved your beard!”
“Yes,” he answered quietly, avoiding eye contact.
“You look very young! I almost didn’t recog…” Catherine trailed off looking at the bags behind him.
“You going on a trip? You didn’t tell me.”
“I did,” John corrected.
“Ten years ago.”
Cat was confused to say the least, and her brother’s tone was upsetting her slightly more than the words for some reason. She finally put it together. “You’re leaving Karen?”
John didn’t respond. Catherine laughed a high-pitched, full-throated laugh. Her cackles sent a chill up his spine.
“My big brother having a midlife crisis like the rest of the rabble–”
“I expect more from you than writing it off as that midlife crisis bullshit! When a woman goes off to India to find herself, she’s celebrated. But when a man does it, he’s a scumbag–and heaven forbid he ends up with a younger woman after he’s crucified!”
“What younger woman?”
“You’re missing the point.”
“The French girl? You’ve seen her once.”
“What?!” she exclaimed.
John shrugged. He could see that explaining it to her was pointless. What was worse, he didn’t think he would need to explain it to her at all.
“So you’re leaving for her?” Cat pressed.
“I’m leaving for me, dammit! You know what I’ve been through, are you fucking kidding me?”
“And you just want this younger woman?”
“Jesus, why do you insist on talking about her age?! Why not talk about how we’re compatible or something of that nature? Of course not, just age.”
“Well I can guarantee you that’s all your precious Christopher will hear.” She knew the idea of being bad-mouthed to his son would needle him more than any ad hominem comments she made.
“I trust his upbringing. I trust he won’t be influenced by what he hears and make his own determination.”
“Trust? You trust? What about Karen? Does she trust? Trust that you will be home when she returns? Does she trust that you guys will continue to build on the life that she thought she was building with you? You have some gall using a word like trust.”
“Listen, I would gladly sacrifice my happiness for Christopher’s. It’s the job of a man to take care of his family, put their needs before his own and I did that for eighteen years, did I not? Christopher is gone now. Isn’t it my turn to be happy?”
“But you always knew you would be here right? This was the end game?”
The look of disappointment in his sisters’ eyes was unlike any he’d seen from her before. “Then that makes you one of the biggest pieces of shit I’ve ever known. For the first time in my life, I am ashamed to call you my big brother.”
Johnathan just stared. Confused and hurt. Why was the idea of him being happy, not a welcome prospect to his own blood?
“Oh my god. You don’t even get why do you?”
“You lied to her for ten years, John! Talk about wasting her time. You manipulated her to keep the lie together for a decade and in the process you stole her youth, her chance to have a meaningful family, maybe another kid with a man who would truly love her, in a long-lasting marriage.”
“She can still have true love with the next person if that’s her wish.”
“Wake the fuck up, will you?! She’s an overweight, forty-year-old divorcée, you think she’s going to remarry? And if she does, you think it will be the same quality as if she would have done it in her prime ten years ago?”
“Now you’re assigning responsibility for her not taking care of herself to me?”
Cat scoffed and shook her head. “You know we used to make fun of the midlife crisis guys.”
Johnathan had heard that phase one too many times. “You know what, sister? I have been a doormat and punching bag to an insecure, overbearing witch of a creature for the better part of my adult life. And I did that because my son wasn’t going to remember me how we remember Dad. I did that to raise a man; to be here when he needed it. That was my duty, my commitment as a man.”
“You made a commitment to her as well, Johnathan. You might have done it for Chris, but the commitment that you made, the family that you preserved, included her. I know she’s a bitch, I’ll give you that. But is that reason enough to ruin her life? Because make no mistake what you do right now will change her life forever. And this decision, more than any in the decade you spent planning this, will ultimately be what Christopher remembers you for.”
His sister left, leaving him alone in his thoughts. He stared at the pictures on the kitchen refrigerator. The whole family, happy and laughing, was that all fake? He pulled out the letter he had prepared. It was a complete fabrication, naturally. He could have told her the truth about the last ten years. About who she was, what she was, then walked away guilt-free. But then he would force her to carry that information around the rest of her life. Baggage that was sure to negatively affect her already bleak future prospective relationships. So instead he crafted a letter putting all the blame on himself, painting himself as unbalanced, undeserving and unhinged. Everything she would need to keep her confidence high and move on. It was all bullshit, but he could at least leave her with her pride.
John hesitated. Fear hit him for the first time. He saw a man in his late fifties sitting a bar drunkenly hitting on women half his age while getting laughed at by the girls, mocked by the staff. Spending nights alone and lonely. Sure there was Sophie, but that was a couple of years ago. Besides, a woman like that can’t be relied on to do anything but be free. He turned back to his house. Maybe it wasn’t his end game? He could take a stand now and put Karen in her place. He was comfortable here. Perhaps this was his lot in life. Johnathan set his bags down, his sister’s words echoing in his head he sat deflated at the table.
He lounged in his linen shorts and loafers on the bow of the Jeanneau schooner. The spray from the ocean gently splashed against his bare chest in the breeze that filled the sails. It was far too hot for a shirt today. Sophie lay on her stomach to his right freshening up her tan in nothing but a string bikini bottom. This was her standard uniform. John often wondered why she even bothered to buy the tops.
“Lunch before your flight?” she asked from her prostrate position.
“Sure, plenty of time,” John said looking at his watch. He stood at the helm and guided the forty-five foot vessel back to shore of Porquerolles. John looked out at the sea from his table at L’Orangeraie. Across from him, Sophie had managed to find a sheer shirt to cover herself, though her breasts were clearly visible when the sun hit it. John still couldn’t get over how perky they were for a woman in her mid-thirties. After lunch, she dropped him at the airport with a single carry-on bag. He slept the whole way.
The arena was beginning to fill up as Johnathan found his seat. He saw Karen already in her chair, laughing at something David was saying. Karen caught a glimpse of him approaching and waved as he made his way toward his place next to her.
“Dave how are you?”
“I’m great. You John?”
“Ah par for the course,” John said, slightly dejected. He shook David’s hand and hugged his ex-wife. They were all friendly at this point. The three of them had been to at least a dozen of Chris’ matches in this manner. David was a pleasant man, he seemed to treat Karen well. A doctor, too. Karen had done well for herself after losing the weight and, what’s more, she seemed happier each time he saw them together. He watched them as they held hands and leaned over to kiss each other. David saw John watching and pulled back and apologized.
“No, No please!” John said. “I’m glad to see you two happy.” He genuinely was.
“How about you?” Dave asked, changing the subject. “Dating back in France?” David did a terrible job of hiding the pity in his voice.
“I’m still trying to figure ‘me’ out David,” John faux lamented. He performed this part of the play to perfection, complete with looking down at the ground out of shame. It was an art. “Don’t want to bring anyone else into this chaos. I’m surprised Karen lasted as long as she did.” John added the flourish of patting her on her shoulder. Karen held her head a little higher. Deep down she suspected there was more to the reason he left, but her ego preferred his explanation. So she took it. Between his letter and how miserable he seemed each time they saw each other, she convinced herself whatever the issue was rested with him alone.
John allowed the usual platitudes and empathy to wash over him. David even hinted that perhaps therapy was needed. John nodded along. Sophie had mentioned wanting to meet his son and come to one of these competitions, but there was no telling what effect it would have on Karen seeing how truly happy he had become or how incredible a woman Sophie was. Would it start to eat at the foundation of this revitalized, beautiful woman she had become after the divorce? No John, he concluded.
He allowed them to look down on him as he pretended to not hear the condescension and pity in their tones at these matches and holidays. John simply piled it all on his shoulders and trudged along for the sake of his family’s happiness. After all, he was a father; and that was the job.