“The truth is like a lion.”—St. Augustine
His grandparents had given their dog a lion cut, shaving the retriever’s tail clean of fur almost down to the tip, where they left a tuft of hair. The dog’s name was Bentley, after his favorite chair, but Leo called him Simba, after the lion in the Disney movie who grew up to become King of the Pride Lands. “Perhaps you’ll grow up to become a king,” his father said. His father also told him he was named for a lion, not the one in the Disney movie, the other one, the one who appeared as a mascot in the MGM production logo. “Leo the Lion,” his father said.
His father said all kinds of stuff, but on one topic, the topic of his mother, the woman who had abandoned Leo and his father when the boy was three or four, he maintained a resolute silence. Whenever Leo asked about her, his father would evade his questions, burying his face deeper into the book he was reading, pretending not to hear, or abruptly changing the subject. If Leo persisted, his father would get up and leave the room in a hush.
Once, after Leo continued to press for details, his father responded angrily, “She loved you and hated me.” That was it, that was all he had to say before re-entering his cone of silence, and he never ventured to say another word on the subject, except perhaps for the time when Leo was reading Hamlet in high school, and his father remarked that The Lion King owed something to Shakespeare’s famous play, which, his father said, was a story about a mother’s betrayal.
Leo didn’t remember much about his mom, but he was sure she was nothing like Gertrude. Gertrude, for one, was blond, or at least was played by blondes in every version of the play he had ever seen, whereas his mother was dark-haired, or so he thought. Leo didn’t have a picture of his mom, so all he had to go on was memory. His memory wasn’t very keen. The only thing he remembered from his childhood, the part of his childhood that included his mom, was a loop that played on the home movie screen of his brain, a reel of the two of them chasing Simba across his grandparents’ lawn. In his memory, which got cloudier each time he tried to recall it, his mother had auburn hair, brown eyes, and a tiny figure, one that grew smaller and smaller with the passage of time. Gertrude, by contrast, was big-boned, or so he imagined.
The other thing he remembered about his mother was how she laughed when she ran, chasing the dog. He remembered the feel of her hand, the way it wrapped around his fist, and the way her fingers splayed when she let go of him to run after the dog.
For the first few years of his life, after his mother left, she reappeared nightly in his dreams. “Hakuna matata,” his mother said, smiling. “No worries, cub.” Later, the dreams stopped, and the woman in them vanished, just like his memory of his mom. By the time he entered high school, he could barely remember who she was or what she looked like. She scarcely crossed his mind at all.
After his mother left, they moved a lot, exchanging residences, crossing state lines, his father leaving jobs and getting new ones, Leo changing schools. Despite the constant movement and the accompanying upheaval, Leo did well in school, earning straight A’s and breaking the curve on nearly every test he took. His father made sure of it. Although his father didn’t help him with his homework—it was Leo’s job to find the answers on his own—he discussed assignments with his son. He posed hypotheticals, testing Leo’s responses with alternate hypotheses. He recommended books to read, encouraging his son to put things in perspective, to enlarge the context and broaden his intellectual horizons.
Because of all the motion, the constant change in his schools, Leo didn’t develop any lasting friendships with his peers. He didn’t hang with the guys. He didn’t have a girlfriend. A couple of young women fawned over him in junior high and high school, but he couldn’t sustain a relationship that lasted very long. One of the girls was flighty and nervous. She reminded him of Ophelia in the play. Another, a horsey girl with long blond hair, reminded him of Gertrude. Leo didn’t need another mother. He just needed his dad. His father was his confidant, his constant companion. His father was his best friend. His only friend.
They were like Venn diagrams: their free time overlapped and they filled each other’s spaces like the intersection of two sets. They did lots of stuff together. They went hiking and camping. They played pitch and catch. They ate together every night, reprising each other’s day. No topic was off-limits, except, of course, his mom.
During one of their talks, his father asked Leo if he’d still love him if he had done something terrible. “Like what?” Leo laughed. Leo thought his father was joking, but his dad was deadly serious. He looked pained, and he insisted on an answer. “Of course, I’d still love you,” Leo said.
Their talk bothered him. It made him feel out of joint (that damn play again), mentally dislocated. Around this time he started applying for colleges, and began to experience separation anxiety, or, more strictly speaking, its precursor, the fear of living apart from his dad. The colleges his father wanted him to attend were mostly out of state and far from home. “No worries,” his father said, a phrase that rang in his ears, reminding him of things he had chosen to forget.
One of the schools on his list of colleges had a problem with his application. He shrugged it off, but then another college, and another, told him the same thing. It had something to do with his social security number. Something about it was wrong. The number didn’t match his name.
Leo approached his high school counselor for help. She doubled-checked the number he had used when he registered for his federal student aid ID against the one he put on his student aid application. Kids sometimes put a parent’s ID on the aid application instead of their own, but Leo had used the right FSA ID. He hadn’t made a mistake. The counselor told him she would investigate the matter further, and she did.
As she told Leo, after she informed the FBI, Leo’s number didn’t match his surname because his father had changed his name after he stole Leo away from his mother. Apparently, Leo’s dad wasn’t practiced enough in the art of deceit to know how to get a social security number for him under the fake name. The number Leo’s mother had obtained for him in the hospital after he was born was a ticking time bomb waiting to go off and expose the fraud his father perpetrated after he abducted him. For nearly fifteen years, Leo and his father had been living a lie.
Now there were consequences. Leo’s father was charged with a crime. As Leo tearfully told the judge, he didn’t want his dad to go to jail. “I forgive him,” Leo said. The terrible thing his father had done hadn’t changed his love for him, but there was a price to pay. Leo wept when his father was taken away in handcuffs.
Later, after his father was imprisoned, Leo went to see his mother. They had a reunification visit—not a party or a celebration so much as a simple get-together—at his maternal grandparents’ home. His grandparents lived in the same house he had visited in the summer months with his mother when he was a child, the same place where he and his mother had played with the dog with the lion cut.
The visit was awkward, owing perhaps to the passage of time and the swell of emotions accompanying it. His grandparents were as ancient as Roman ruins, or so it seemed, and his mother looked nothing like the woman he remembered, nothing at all like the woman who had appeared in his dreams when he was a kid. Her eyes weren’t brown; they were ashen. Her hair wasn’t blond or auburn; it was prematurely gray. Her hands were much too small to encompass his adult fist, and when she extended her arms to embrace him, he noticed the white arcs of hypopigmented scars on her wrists.
His grandfather took him aside and told him the years had taken a heavy toll on her. “She tried to kill herself after your father took you away from her,” his grandfather said. “It was very hard on her. She was in therapy for many years, but she never got over the loss.”
Leo didn’t know what to say, so he tried to change the subject. He asked about Simba. He wondered if they still gave him a lion cut in the summer months like they had when Leo was a child.
“Who?” his grandfather asked.
Uncomprehending, his grandfather raised a brow.
Leo remembered that his grandparents had called their golden retriever by another name, not Simba, something else. Unfortunately, he couldn’t recall what it was.
“The Lion King,” he sputtered finally, speaking of the dog.
“The King of Lies,” his grandfather responded, speaking of Leo’s father. “The Lyin’ King,” he spat.
Michael Zimecki is a writer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Amsterdam Quarterly, Another Chicago Magazine, Cleaver, and Harper’s Magazine, among other publications. He is the author of a novel, Death Sentences, published by Crime Wave Press.