Based on a true story.
D and G, whomever and wherever you are, I wish I could have been your K. I hope you’re having a wonderful, John-free year.
He folded himself into the middle seat and frowned at the petite woman at the window. She didn’t need all of the luxury that the seat afforded: room to lean, room to gaze out at the scenery, room to take the inevitable selfies those of her generation tended to do.
It hadn’t occurred to him the woman he was dating was about the same age as the blonde in the window seat. Not that Diane was more mature than her 24 years; it could be said she was a little less put-together than her peers. But he’d conveniently forgotten Diane was 20 years his junior because he’d decided she was special; certainly not in the same league as the tracksuit-clad woman to his right.
He reminded himself he wasn’t actually dating Diane at the moment. Diane had called it off a few weeks earlier—right before the holidays—and headed to her home town of Minneapolis. “I can’t do this anymore, John,” she’d texted. “It’s been over two years. I need to move on. You should, too.”
John arranged the frayed nylon seatbelt over his paunch and pulled it tight, snapping the steel clasp into place. He squinted at his phone; he’d left his reading glasses in his carry-on secured in the overhead bin, and he adjusted the phone settings to make the text larger. He reread Diane’s sentiments and scrolled down to review his responses. He’d at first sent logical arguments why they should continue (none of them including a promise to commit), and then sent increasingly embellished pleas for contact. If Diane responded at all, which was infrequent, they were usually of few words and no emotion: “Don’t contact me.”
But her last response gave him a twinge of hope. He’d caught her in a weak moment, possibly tipsy on the Trader Joe’s wine she bought in bulk, and she’d given him a bit more to work with.
“John. I’ve loved you more than anyone I’ve ever loved before, and that’s why this needs to stop. You can’t give me what I need, and it’s unfair of me to ask that of you. Please let me go.”
It was the “Please let me go” that got John’s attention. He was familiar with this plea. It was the subtle shift of power to himself. If she’s begging to be let go, it means he still has influence over her. A different woman would have stopped responding (and John knew there was nothing to work with there). But begging to be let go signified he still had her and could choose to release her—or not. And with cute, feisty, really-good-in-bed Diane, this was worth the effort. He was sure if he could see her, he could get her back. Everything could return to normal.
The window-seat woman was curled up in her parka. She relaxed her feet, and in so doing dipped her fleece-cocooned toes into his foot space. He felt a surge of resentment for her; she got the window seat and she still needs to encroach on his meager allotment? He pressed his Italian loafer-shod foot against the plush atrocity. It worked; the Ugg retreated.
As ugly as they were, he realized those boots were probably more appropriate for a Minnesota December. In his eagerness to get on a plane, he hadn’t checked the weather at his destination. And while the New York streets were, at the moment, kind to his expensive shoes, he doubted Minneapolis would be as forgiving.
He looked over the dozing businessman to his left toward his teenaged son across the aisle. He was forehead-deep in his phone, thumb-typing with the speed only those who have grown up with such devices could do. He was happy to be going to Minneapolis with his dad, and didn’t mind his own middle seat at all. He’d been bribed with a ticket to see one of his favorite bands at First Avenue, a ticket that was impossible to get, a ticket than had cost John a considerable amount of money. There hadn’t been one word of dissent since.
The plane was accelerating for takeoff. He rolled the text on his screen to Diane’s last message, “Please let me go.” She’d sent it on Christmas Day, three days ago, and had gone silent since. He tapped on the keyboard quickly with his forefinger, not as efficiently as his son.
“D. I’m on a plane to Minneapolis right now. I need to see you. Feel you. Touch you. The last few weeks have been a misery for me, as I’m sure they have been for you. You are the most beautiful, loving, caring, woman I’ve ever met, and I’m sorry I haven’t been able to give you want you want and need.”
John paused for a few minutes, phone in hand, while the flight attendants asked for the passengers’ complete attention while they went through the safety procedures. When they finished, he continued.
“I’m ready to talk about our future. Mine and yours, together. I thought I could continue my life in in the same way I always have, but the emptiness I feel has proved me wrong. D, you are my everything. My north, my south, my east, my west. All I need is a few minutes of your time. In person. Let’s have dinner and talk. Just talk. Let’s talk about what you want, what you need for me to make this right.”
The announcement was made; they had reached 10,000 feet. John left the text unsent and pulled out his MacBook Air from under the seat. Writing from a middle seat was tricky, and he took up most of the armrest he shared with window-seat girl. She shot him a look, then turned her attention out the window. He almost hoped she’d say something.
He connected to the airline’s wifi and consulted his email. There was a message from Gaia, as he’d predicted.
“I’d hoped you’d bring T and spend New Year’s Eve with us, as a family, as we’d originally planned. I’m trying to be patient, John. I really am. I’m trying to give you the space you need. But a last-minute trip to Minneapolis, without consulting me, without time to have a discussion, just to show off what a great dad you are isn’t a sign you’re ready to be a family again. Sending your son off to see a show when you should be spending time with him tells me your family isn’t important right now.
It feels like when you were sneaking around. I don’t like that feeling, John. I don’t like being put on the defensive again, like I have to police your movements. You’re the one who had the affair. Shouldn’t you be the one to reassure me? Showing me you’re serious about fixing this? This isn’t a good step in that direction. I’d like you to think about this for our next counseling session.”
John pursed his lips. He hated when she brought up the affair, which she did often. It was her One Thing. Of course, whatever grievances he had about her contributions to their marital problems (and there were many, he thought) didn’t matter, because the One Thing overshadowed all. Whenever there was something she didn’t like, she rolled out the One Thing and put it in front of him, quietly, calmly, like setting the table for dinner. There was no embellishment, no judgment, simply the One Thing staring him in the face.
They had talked about the One Thing repeatedly over the last few months when his relationship with Diane had been discovered. “Yes, Gaia, yes. I did that. It was a mistake. I’ve apologized repeatedly. I’ve said I’m sorry. When do I stop being punished for this?”
“When I believe you,” Gaia had said, and the conversation stopped there.
There was a lurch of turbulence. The woman at the window seat startled awake, John noted with some satisfaction. As he turned back to his email she frowned at his elbow on the armrest. She pulled her Victoria’s Secret canvas bag from under her seat, found her sunglasses after some considerable digging, and placed them on her face. John saw all of this from the corner of his eye. “Who wears sunglasses on a plane?” he thought. Maybe she was hungover. Who knew.
He touched his fingertips to the keyboard.
I know you’ve been through a lot. So have the boys. So have I. How do you think it makes me feel to know I’ve caused all of this pain? To have to live with the fact I created the mess we’re in? You can’t imagine the guilt. It consumes me daily. And to have you bring it up again is like a knife to my gut. How long will it take, G? How long?
I didn’t want to be at New Year’s as a family until I feel like I’m worthy enough to do so. I’m not there yet. The concert for T was a convenient excuse to get away, not a “show off.” I’m sorry it was last minute, but I saw the opportunity and took it.
I need time in the cold to feel the frost I’ve created in this marriage, the warmth I’ve denied you, the ice that’s formed around your heart. I need to feel what you feel, G. I need to be alone shivering in the snow so when I come home to you, it’s with the appreciation of the heat of heart and home I don’t think I have right now.
G, you have always been there for me. You didn’t see this, but when you told me there was a chance for reconciliation I wept. I went behind closed doors and wept for pure joy. I have behaved badly. But you, G, you are pure light and forgiveness. And without forgiveness, there can be no true love.
I’m hoping beyond all hope you can extend that forgiveness toward me when I come home. Home to you.
All my love,
John looked over his email, nodded, and hit “Send.”
The woman at the window seat was taking selfies. John turned at looked at her full in the face, with a look of complete contempt. In response, she stuck out her tongue, flashed the peace sign, and snapped.
John shook his head, marveling at the narcissism of that generation. He tucked the laptop into the seat pocket and pulled out his phone. He continued his message to Diane.
“I’ve sent T to a concert. And you know how much I love him. I’m giving up something precious—time with my boy—to spend a few moments with you. That has to mean something, right? Doesn’t this prove how serious I am? I am willing to sacrifice time and family for you, D, my beautiful girl, full of light and forgiveness.
I made a mistake, D. But you know there can be no true love without forgiveness. You know love has to be fought for and won. I didn’t know that until now. I thought love was something that was given and taken, not earned and bestowed. But you know that. You are the embodiment of all that is good. You are my soulmate.
Please see me. If begging is required, then this is it. Please, D. Let me make our love whole.
All my love,
More selfies were being taken to his right. John ignored her. With relief, he noticed she’d stopped taking pictures and instead turned her attention to texting. She was fast like his boy was.
John settled into his seat, taking over both armrests again and, as he dozed, allowed his right loafer to ease into his seatmate’s area. He made no attempts to readjust.
A sinking in his stomach let him know the plane had begun its descent. John sat up, blinking, and pulled out his phone. Diane had returned his message.
“Come by my mom’s house around 8:00. She’ll be out. We’ll talk then.”
He smiled. He was usually able to get what he wanted; his combination of looks (though admittedly waning), charm, and wit went a long way. And, of course, his salary didn’t hurt. He’d only needed to dial up one of those attributes and all he’d ever wanted was his.
He glanced to his right. He could even have her. But she was too basic; he could get one of those in any Starbucks in any city in the world. John enjoyed a challenge, and he thought all he needed to do was to flash a smile and an American Express card in her direction and she’d be flat on her back in minutes.
The airport doors opened, treating him and his son to a rush of bitterly cold air and a swirl of snow. They checked into their hotel, and, though the music venue was in walking distance, John got his son an Uber to avoid the cold. After he was out of view, John shot a brief text, “I’m on my way,” and got his own Uber.
Diane’s mother, John knew, lived on the outskirts of the city in a nondescript house. They’d spend a clandestine weekend there over a year ago, and the address was still discreetly sequestered in his contacts. The Uber driver pulled up quickly and barely allowed John to exit the car before he sped away, eager to get out of the impending snowstorm.
The house was festooned with garish, twinkling lights; a neon Santa winked at him. He gave Santa a confident thumbs up and rang the doorbell.
It took longer than expected for the door to open, but when it did, there were two faces that greeted him, one a younger version of the other. Neither looked happy to see him.
“Hello, John,” Diane said. Her mother gave him a hard look with narrowed eyes.
“Hi, Diane, and Mrs. Bellows, of course. It’s good to see both of you.”
“You’re an asshole,” Diane’s mother hissed.
“Mom,” Diane said. “Please go in the other room.” Diane’s mother retreated, spitting, “Asshole!” as the house absorbed her.
Diane faced John but said nothing. She looked at him through the ajar door and made no move to invite him in. He noticed her eyes were red-rimmed and her skin pale.
“What’s going on? Can I come in?”
Diane remained silent, and held up her phone, the screen facing John. It showed a picture of himself on a plane, giving the photographer a sneer of contempt.
John frowned, struggling to understand. “What is this? How did you get it?”
Diane scrolled to another view. She read aloud with a trembling voice.
“Dear D and G,
You don’t know me, but I’m sitting next to a man I believe you’re both involved with. I’m very sorry to tell you this, but as something similar has happened to me, I thought you’d both like to know what’s going on. He’s playing you both. He’s hoping to keep both of you in his life. G, he’s still having the affair. D, he’s not planning on leaving G. I managed to take a few pictures of his screen of the messages he sent each of you as proof. They’re a little blurry, but I think they’re enough to give you an idea.
Again, I’m so very sorry. I know how much this hurts. I hope the new year treats you a lot better than John has.
From the back of the house came, “Prick!”
John remembered the window-seat woman and the selfies. He steadied his face toward Diane. “That’s a complete lie,” John said. “That girl was angry with me because—”
“Go away, John.”
The door closed firmly and the deadbolt ka-chunked into place. He knocked, the Santa still winking, until Diane’s mother threatened to call the police. He walked to the end of the driveway and pulled out his phone.
There was a message from Gaia. It said simply: “Don’t come home.”
His hands shook as he launched the Uber app. “I can fix this,” he thought. He’d always been able to fix it. The Uber map glowed on his screen, but it showed no available cars nearby.
As the snow gathered around his feet, he looked down. His shoes were ruined.