Ben Singleton sat idly in his car, only yards away from his home. So far, the only elements of his plan that he had managed to execute were packing a bag, walking out the door and driving away. And yet, Ben couldn’t even bring himself to drive to the end of his street, especially when a torrent broke loose in his mind. Almost as if by instinct, he pulled over and parked just a few houses down.
He didn’t want to leave, but he also felt like if he didn’t he would lose his mind, maybe even take it out on those he loved, all of whom were conveniently out of the house: his wife at work and his daughter and young son at school. In any case the leaving wasn’t meant to be permanent—it was only going to be for a little while; some time away to decompress and think. His parents had a cabin in the mountains about an hour away. It was secluded, out of the way—the perfect place to hide out and let go of a few things that had been mounting on a mental and emotional level.
It was at the thought of hiding that Ben hit the brakes, literally. The idea of hiding implied that he was running away, which Ben wasn’t trying to do, or at least that’s what he told himself. Aside from his slipping away in a clandestine fashion he had every intention of letting his family know where he was and when he would be back, even though he had no real definitive date on the latter. He just needed time—time to himself and time to breathe. Everyone needs that every now and then right? There wasn’t any harm in escaping when things get a little too intense.
There it was again—another word that implied too much in the negative.
“Damn it!” Ben said aloud, cursing the thought as though he had shot himself in the foot. He wasn’t even having a conversation with a real live person wherein he might have to correct, explain or brush over his words. Instead he was having a silent argument with himself, a mental point and counterpoint.
You said escape…
“Yeah, but I didn’t literally mean escape…”
So what did you mean?
Ben had to pause for that one, which he knew was fruitless since the imaginary counterpoint had the same access to his thoughts as he did.
“I just…I just need to get away.”
How is that different from escaping?
Ben swore again, this time using a more unprintable word, and one that he’d never use in front of his kids. Mr. Counterpoint ignored that and continued with his inquiry.
Are things really that bad?
Ben groaned. “Yes…I mean no…I mean…I suppose things aren’t that bad.”
“Because…” Ben began, but then faltered a little. “…because things are just too complicated alright?! I can feel it everywhere, it’s so…”
Alright. So again—why leave?
Ben slammed his hand on the steering wheel, almost honking the horn. “Because! I just need time!”
Time for what?
“To breathe,” Ben sighed. “I feel like I’m suffocating.”
You can’t breathe around your family?
Ben froze once the word family sounded in his brain, resonating in the recesses of his conscience. As he had stated to his imaginary counterpart, things weren’t bad…per say.
However, Ben couldn’t say they were good either.
The atmosphere had been changing over the last few months, slowly becoming thicker in tension, choking the joy and lightness that had once been standard. Ben wasn’t sure what had brought it on, but he supposed it was when finances became tighter than usual. It was something that happens to everyone, but for some reason it became an impossible hurdle for Ben. Amy, his wife, was gracious, understanding and seemingly without worry, which at first came as a relief to Ben. Knowing that Amy wasn’t stressed gave him less reason to feel the pressure, making him feel that he could breathe easier.
Sadly, it didn’t last long.
The financial burdens mounted—if it wasn’t one thing it was another. Amy was content to drive an older car while Ben owned a newer one with possibly one too many unnecessary features. But it wasn’t long before Amy’s vehicle decided to give up on life in one form or another (the first being a leaking radiator, the other being a fried cylinder head). Then it was suddenly discovered after a visit to the dentist that their oldest, Felicity needed braces; costs kept rising, Ben began working longer hours.
First it was just a means to an end, then it became necessity—then it practically became obsession. Even when their financial woes died down, Ben felt the compulsive drive to be at work more in order to “provide” for his family.
The less he was at home, the more it wore on Amy and the kids—that’s when the fighting started.
On the outside it didn’t appear as fighting, but the discussions were heated. The more Ben tried to explain that he needed to work more in order to “get things back on track,” the more irritated Amy got; the more irritated Amy got, the angrier it made Ben. Amy worked full time as well, and she was more than willing to pick up the slack, but the truth was Ben didn’t need to work that much anymore in order to cover bills and other necessities. Weeks of bickering finally brought Ben to this realization and reluctantly, he went back to normal working hours.
Adjusting back to a normal schedule proved to be more of a challenge than Ben anticipated. Although he wouldn’t admit it to himself, working the insane hours had become normal and comfortable; being at home on the evenings and during the weekends became odd and uncomfortable. In twisted flip, Ben began craving the more controlled environment of his workspace, the demands of home giving him anxiety the likes of which he couldn’t remember having. Between the polar opposite sides of the spectrum that were his twelve-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son, Ben found himself wanting to run and hide when his children wanted his attention for anything more than a simple question or request, which was odd. From the day they were born Ben could remember being devoted to his kids to the point of feeling like being away from them too long was a necessary evil he was forced to endure. Now the thought of more than basic interaction made him flush with anxiety and short tempered. Where he had once been long suffering and understanding with his children Ben, at times, found them insufferable and irritating. He was curt with both Felicity and his son Grant, sometimes snapping at them for no reason. Amy took notice and gently confronted her husband to no avail. Ben slowly started to allow himself to work longer hours again in order to avoid being at home. Once Amy realized what he was doing the fighting began again.
The straw that would break Ben’s back was the less than subtle ultimatum issued by Amy one afternoon following a hellish day at work:
“We need to get counseling…”
Whatever else Amy might have said, Ben didn’t hear, if only for the fact that his wife actually had the gall to suggest (or outright insist on) counseling. Ben secretly despised the idea, quite possibly because he always assumed that anyone with the level of problems required for marital or family counseling probably didn’t have what it took to manage their lives to begin with. It was a cruel and audacious judgment, which is why he never voiced it before, but now Ben had half a mind to let every single one of those judgments bubble up to the surface. Amazingly, he managed to keep them from doing so, and instead flatly refused altogether.
“I’ve already made an appointment,” Amy stated. “First for you and me, then us and the kids together.”
Ben’s face turned beet red. He couldn’t keep his reservations back any longer. “Are you kidding me?! Who in the hell do you think you are just setting this crap up without even seeing if I was willing?!”
Amy fought the urge to yell back, her voice shaky but firm, “I’m your wife, that’s who I know I am. And I didn’t run anything by you because I knew you would shut it down before I even got off the blocks. We are doing this Ben—we need this.”
Ben could feel his pulse firing hard, a maddening pressure building in his skull, unable to wrap his mind around what he was being told. His fist shot fast and hard into the wall to his right, the adrenaline surging through him numbing any pain he might have felt. The sizeable concave dent startled Amy, and for a moment she felt afraid. Ben didn’t advance, but his eyes looked threatening.
“I am not going to some crackpot counselor and letting them tell me how to be a husband and father, and damn you for thinking I would need one. I thought you had more faith in me than that.”
Amy could feel the sting of Ben’s words in her blood, their venom rushing straight to her heart. She vacillated between anger and hurt, still unsure of where she stood once she finally spoke. “I do have faith in you Ben, but even the strongest of faith gets shaken sometimes. And the coldness you bring home with you every day now has left us all shaking for a while now.”
Ben’s desire to let his anger smolder some more was derailed by Amy’s words. Coldness? How could she say that? Ben had been called many things, but never even in his worst moments had he been referred to as being cold, especially by his wife and children. His initial anger boiled beneath his now cooling exterior, the rage in his face replaced by confusion with a pang of heartache trailing behind. Ben took a step back, and felt the heat in his blood cool, as if the coldness finally was making itself known. Shaking his head, he turned and walked away, at first slowly, then quickly grabbing his keys and leaving without another word.
That had been yesterday. After a night walking on eggshells and a sleepless night in the guestroom, Ben decided that he needed to be away from everything. For how long, well, he’d figure that out when he was ready to figure that out. Once the house was quiet, he quickly packed a bag and took his wife’s clunky vehicle (at the very least he could leave her a dependable car) and left, hoping that the weight on his shoulders would drop away the further he drove.
And here he was, unmoving, not even half a block away from his own home.
The argument with his own psyche had led Ben back through the last few months, and what had felt like a simple decision—get out of dodge and decompress—had now become a tug of war fraught with indecision. Examining the past had brought him no more clarity than he thought he had, save for one inescapable truth:
All strain upon his family—other than financial—had been brought on by none other than himself.
Much like the revelation of his apparent coldness from Amy, Ben could feel his normally warm exterior cool to a frigid temperature, sending a shiver up his spine and making his breath quiver. His teeth clenched involuntarily, his jawline going rigid as the memory of the past six months replayed, but faster this time, with his every step being highlighted as the original roots of the discord that was to follow: becoming a workaholic, distancing himself, disconnecting, etc. Whatever pressure he felt beyond their initial woes was something he created himself, the means no longer relevant to the need, especially when the need was for Ben to step back into his rightful place at home, as a devoted husband and father; providing their truest needs in the form of love and affection, encouragement and support. The revelation that the last half a year may have been one largely of waste was a stark one, and Ben leaned into the steering wheel of his wife’s car, back hunched in defeat. Tears pooled in his eyes no matter how hard he fought them, determinedly springing from them as if to remind Ben to feel, especially since he had neglected to do so for so long.
Denial threatened to creep in, and Ben was almost willing to let it happen. He had allowed it to devour him for months, but now it hurt too much to let it continue. Inhaling deep, Ben breathed out everything with a shudder, letting it all go, hoping that nothing of that same denial was left once he inhaled again. Shame lingered over the release of his pride, but thankfully didn’t linger for long. While Ben still felt like he’d had enough, it wasn’t the same as when he walked out the door that morning—he’d had enough of the cold, and he was ready to step back into the warm space he’d once occupied with his family.
Ben reached over to the passenger seat and grabbed his phone, at first eager to call his wife and just hear her voice, but then suddenly fearful. They hadn’t spoken since the night before, and Ben wasn’t sure that Amy would want to talk to him. It only took a couple seconds of deliberation for him to be willing to chance it.
The phone barely rang twice. “Ben?” Amy responded.
“I’ll do it Amy,” Ben said.
A pause. “Do what?”
“Go with you,” he replied hoarsely, emotion thick in his throat. “To counseling. I don’t want you all to be shaken on account of me.”
Another pause, but Ben could sense the relief on the other end. “Okay sweetheart. We’ll talk about it more when I get home—I love you.”
Ben smiled, then felt it twist under a crumpling lip. “I…I love you too.”
After hanging up the phone, Ben closed his eyes and breathed deep again. On a whim, he said a brief prayer, something he never did, but couldn’t resist the urge to do.
“God, if You would, help me be the man I was, only better.”
The drive back home was short, just like his absence. And yet Ben was never more glad to be home.