9.6 Editor's Pick
November 15, 2020

What it’s Like to Be the One Who Walked Away.

 

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At first, there was the dawning terror of inevitable change knocking at my door.

Those five days—between sitting you down at the kitchen table to drop the bomb on our marriage and telling you that what I’d been warning you of for eight years had finally happened, that I had exhausted my efforts of saving us—are a blur now. 

In reality, they were seven months ago; in lived experience, they were a decade.

Once I answered the door, there was not only grief waiting on the doorstep but a less frequent visitor: joy. 

I remember blasting Katy Perry’s “Roar,” one of those early nights of my liberation, dancing and belting out the words and crying with this newfound joy

I had come near the edge of my life several times in this marriage. It had cost me greatly to stay. But I had stayed for love—and also, for fear. The Unknown seemed like a cavernous mouth that would devour me in one gulp, compared to the Known, which only gradually consumed me. 

Until I finally decided I could make the leap and figure out how to fly on the way down.

There was a month-and-a-half of adrenaline-fueled sleep deprivation. A burgeoning new love that buffered the grief, so that I didn’t actually see it there, still hanging out in the corner. I thought grief had overstayed its welcome and decided it was time to leave me with joy awhile. I was relieved.

I said goodbye to you in a blur of tears, confusion, and something I couldn’t place in the moment: anger. In our parting, you treated me like I was your most cherished love, and I couldn’t stop thinking afterward, How dare you.”

You waved goodbye to me as you drove away with your own tears, but you never fought for me to stay. Not once, in all our years. And here I was, the one who was forced to leave you or lose myself.

I picked myself up and looked toward the future with hope.

I’ve done most of my grieving these past eight years, I said. And I believed this. 

I told you I needed space and would contact you again when I was ready to communicate.

I moved 3,000 miles away and into another person’s life, and not long after I unpacked my boxes, grief came knocking again—this time with trauma. Flashbacks of trauma, and me sitting in a graveyard untangling myself from all that bound me to you so I could bury it all and walk away.

I couldn’t say your name for a while without dissolving in tears. I forced myself to reread things I had journaled during our years together and never shared, in order to remind myself why I left.

It wasn’t until things in my new life were falling apart, and you and I needed to talk business, that you heard in my voice what I was trying so hard not to tell you: I wasn’t okay. You just knew, because after 10 years with someone, there are these intimacies that don’t disappear overnight. 

I cracked. And you held me, from a distance. Not as a lover, but as a friend. You didn’t rub anything in my face. There was no resentment or pettiness. You simply wanted me to feel safe and happy because that’s what people who still love each other want for the other. 

I couldn’t help but love you more for this, even as I knew this wouldn’t change anything in our story.

In an ironic twist, you supported me through a breakup, a job search, and another big move. And now, I find myself finally living the fantasy of being single I had guiltily dreamed of for years. Well, a version of the fantasy that involves a pandemic, social distancing, and living remotely on the other side of the country. 

I find myself hunkering down, yet again, with my roommate—grief. 

I wasn’t prepared for this measure of aloneness. I find the walls closing in on me some nights and want to bang on them with my fists, angry that all my efforts weren’t enough to save us. Angry because this was not the story I wanted to write; but when there are two writers, we don’t control the whole plot. 

I wonder when I’ll be able to listen to salsa music and not see your face, your infamous 1,000-watt smile, and smooth hips, feeling the sharp pang of memory that first night we met and hearing your laugh in my dreams. 

I wonder when I won’t want to call you every time I have a hard day and need to vent, or when I just want to talk with one of the few people who really get me. 

I wonder when I will stop missing the feel of your hand in mine, the way our hands would always find each other’s in the car or on the bus or in the store, and at least this one thing felt right in a world that often felt so wrong.

I wonder when I’ll actually be able to envision a future in which you’re not one of my main characters. 

People often write songs or stories about what it’s like to be the one who was left behind, but the truth is, it’s no less awful to be the one who has to walk away from someone they still love. 

~

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