How I Found Meaning after You Left

I am someone, with or without you

woman standing alone in a field

I plucked the candle that smelled like wood smoke from the shelf of my local bookstore, not because I’m particularly fond of that scent, but because it called to mind with unexpected clarity the weekends eight years ago, when I would take exit 4 onto Route 16 and travel the hundred-plus miles to meet him. It’s been five months since he left me, and I’m still sentimental like that.

Twelve years ago when we first met, we pressed against the white concrete walls of a 1960s dorm perched high on a hill in central Maine. Our lips met in a tipsy haze of bashful, yet brazen, freshman antics. I found myself in his room many times that fall sharing drinks and stories, curled up in his over-sized navy blue sweatshirt.

We dated and laughed at raucous parties themed with green body paint. We cooked spaghetti on quiet weeknights and snuggled into each other on his narrow, college-issued mattress. We graduated and stayed a couple but he had sex with another girl in a tent in New York State. He moved halfway across the country to “find himself,” but really I think it was partly because of her. There were six excruciating months of lying when he returned; he insisted it had meant nothing, but she told me otherwise. I stayed because we were the closest thing to perfect that I believed in, and he finally unraveled at the thought of having acted so callously, hurting me so completely. (Years later after we married, I too cheated on him.)

We traveled the world together for months on end, from the isolated sun-drunk beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula to the lilting bike paths that connected Den Haag to Enschede. We paused under the water colored glass of towering empty churches and traipsed through the bustling din of Rabat’s souks to find something resembling a meal we could cook on the one burner in our studio apartment that only sometimes offered hot water. We spent twelve hours in rusty, smoke-laden trains to watch the sun rise at four in the morning on the border of Sudan and climbed ancient ruins in Siem Reap and held hands on the cobbled side streets of Paris at dusk.

When he fell sick upon our return and lost thirty pounds, I curled into the hard plastic chair under the maddening lights of the emergency room in the middle of the night. I stood silently over the stove stirring oatmeal, because it was one of the few foods he could stomach as he lay listlessly on the dark green couch waiting for me. I cared for him and my best friend asked me why I would bother wasting my days at the age of twenty-four when I should be out having fun. It bothers me to this day that she dared suggest that I leave.

We talked at each other rather than to each other, and I grew to loathe his passive-aggressive interactions, his manipulative conversations that relentlessly baited me, and his condescending hypocrisy. He criticized my impatience and my petulant selfishness and my constant need for control. In deep frustration he tore my beloved memories from their glass frames on the wall and I ripped through his sheet music of childhood performances, and bruises patterned down my spine from the doorframe where I had been recklessly shoved.

When I jokingly told him I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, he told me I could be anything I dreamed and he adoringly, charmingly, believed that. He was the smartest person I knew and after seven years with my best friend, I wanted no one but him. The evening before we wed, we lay curled in my bed at my parents’ house, distracting ourselves with a documentary on grizzly bears of all things. He turned to me and said the most earnest words I had heard in our seven years together: you’re my favorite person in the world and I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with you. To my disappointment, he would repeatedly disparage and retract his words when I brought them up later on, but I clung to them for they were one of the rare times when he let me see his vulnerability.

From the age of twenty, I never saw the rest of my life any other way than with him. Late last year when he told me he’d likely be leaving, I still believed we would be together. Earlier this year when he told me he was done, I still believed we would stay together. In June when he moved across the continent for the grandeur of work with Mars and Jupiter, I still believed we would get back together. Up until recently I still believed that somehow, some way, we would end up together. But no longer.

After nine years of being with someone, what are we left with once they’re gone? A few hollow phone calls and Snapchats scraped together now form the dwindling remnants of what used to be. It’s difficult to imagine what my future will look like when for so long it was only with him. And when I am unable to conceive of what’s next, I feel like I am spinning my wheels in the present. When you find meaning in life through loving someone and they leave, what follows? I can no longer let my imagination drift to four years from now and the carefree pattering of tiny feet on the hardwood floor of our eventual home, or the rhythmic rocking of a porch swing where I pictured us sitting quietly looking at the lake when we could no longer walk together for miles on end.

It’s been three months since the divorce. As we slowly disentangled our lives, I intermittently found myself with someone else. A close friendship turned complicated as he and I both experienced heartbreak and sought solace in the warmth of heartbeats shared and hands held. I lay in his bed on Monday, legs languidly entwined like our lips had been six weeks before. And with the dark stubble on his tanned chin inches from my eyes, his breath less than perfect from eight hours of restless sleep, his strangely spherical toes pressing casually into the arch of my feet, my head nestled into the familiar crook of his left shoulder, my fingers instinctively finding the strip of scarred skin above his right hip bone that leaves one of several lasting reminders of his crash last year, I realized that I could be with someone else.

It may not be him because he’s too broken right now, and some may say that I am, too. But in that moment and in several others we’ve shared, I could see myself in something other than the past nine years. And that is reassuring.

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  • Loran

    OH my god, THIS. Just this. So much this. I’m gonna need time to de-tangle the mess of emotions, but some standouts are the certainty one can feel when you’re in that kind of reality and you can’t see beyond it, and the clarity one feels in that moment when you do see beyond it. Super brave. Super vulnerable. Thank you for sharing.

  • lnf

    I’m in the middle of ending an eight-year relationship, over three of which were spent married. I’m the one leaving, but the feelings of insecurity remain the same. Sometimes, a voice in my head says, “But what are you going to do without him?” or “But who can you be without him?” I have to confess that I still don’t know the answers to those questions, but it’s so reassuring and hopeful to read your story and know that there is something on the other side of this.

    • Sarah Goldstein

      Author here. To be honest, I still ask myself the same questions you’re asking. What I have realized, however, is that it’s a fluid process and it’s HARD. As I’ve been forced to evolve as an individual rather than as half of a pair for the first time in my adult life, it’s been both terrifying to fall into the unknown of being alone, and strangely exhilarating to be untethered. That rush of possibility – of making decisions only for yourself – is freeing if (and that’s a big “if” that I still struggle with at times) you can embrace it.

      • Kara

        This reminds me of some of the threads with Oy Vey. Like you said it’s terrifying, but also exhilarating. You get a chance to reinvent yourself–can you reframe this period of time as an opportunity to grow as an individual? As adults, we don’t often get these opportunities. Even if they’re wrapped up in suckiness (i.e. dealing with ending relationships), there’s still a silver lining.

        *I say this as not having gone through a divorce, so if I’m off base, I’m truly sorry.

      • Laurel

        I agree! Having gone through the divorce process earlier this year, it’s certainly fluid. Some days, I feel powerful and excited and hopeful. And other days, I feel like…well…like FUCKKKK THIS SHIT! But I think, at the end of the day, it’s true that the growth that can happen when you confront your deepest fears and insecurities and sorrows is monumental. I wouldn’t wish the sadness and soul crushing hurt on anyone, but you can come out a different person, for sure. And there is something to be said for that.

        • Sarah

          This is a spot-on description of my inner monologue some days – that movement from confident and free to questioning and uncertain. It’s encouraging to hear a similarity of experience.

      • AP

        I love that you use the word ‘fluid.’ After my divorce (college sweetheart, almost 10 years together) I got a wave tattooed on my foot to remind me of just this.

  • lady brett

    i just want to say that this is amazing, in both writing and knowledge.

  • Jen

    This was extremely powerful. Thank you for sharing it.

  • As someone also divorced from my college sweetheart this year after 12 years together, this really resonated with me. The memories, the loss of being able to imagine the future, the refinding yourself . Then figuring out how to be with someone new and realizing how much happier you can be then what your marriage had turned into. Very beautifully put.