the signs

In an earlier letter, I said that he walked out of our marriage without warning, and that’s not entirely true.

I should’ve said there were no warning signs he would abandon me as he did — though there was precedence (a topic for a different letter).

I should’ve added that he wasn’t the only one who misunderstood, who misinterpreted, who thought they knew who they married and was wrong.

But that was my last letter. Here is this one:

There was no doubt our relationship had deteriorated. There were plenty of signs of that.

We used to spend every minute together after work and on weekends — going out to eat, grocery shopping, walking the mall, visiting family, or staying in to watch TV, play video games, work silently at our separate computers, or simply talk.

We were thick as thieves, so much so my mother would chuckle about it and comment on it.

And then his work got in the way.

He started climbing the network engineer’s career ladder, thanks to my support — I was our sole income while he got his degree, and I always did every bit of housekeeping, from cleaning to cooking to paying bills, even when I was working full-time.

Don’t get me wrong, he put in the hours.

It was “only” a 2-year degree — he didn’t have the tuition for a 4-year university degree — but he worked hard for a strong GPA and a stack of specialty certificates, and they served him well when he was job hunting.

And he was really good at his work.

Still, he wasn’t an ambitious career guy like my stepfather. If he had been, I would never have been involved with him.

But ambition was a latent trait, apparently.

Once he realized that he could have more — more money, more status, more autonomy — a top spot became his focus.

From the start, we had a house rule that he wouldn’t take a job with a pager, as that kind of tether meant the job would take precedence over our life.

When he broke that promise, that he was even willing to, was a sign that I — We — had been sidelined in his mind.

He sat me down to talk about it first, and I agreed to it grudgingly with noted concerns. I wouldn’t hold him back from something he wanted so badly.

But in truth, as I’d later learn, even if I’d said, “Don’t take the job,” he would’ve said, “Okay, I won’t,” to my face, and then go off and do what he wanted, regardless.

But at the time, I only saw that he cared enough about himself to get a better job and cared enough about me and to discuss it first.

I didn’t see the beginning of the end of Us.

The nail in our relationship’s coffin was, in fact, getting married.

We were married in October on National Cupcake Day, and it was either that Christmas holiday or the next when we decided to carve out a staycation between Christmas and New Years to hang out together and with family like in the great ol’ days.

I was self-employed by then, and I hustled all of December to clear that week on my schedule.

He put in for the time off and had enough tenure at the company to get it.

There was much celebration in my heart that he was putting us first, for a change.

We had 10 days just for us.

It lasted 36 hours.

Dan’s boss called with a technical emergency that only Dan could handle, and he hopped at the chance to, yet again, prove himself the star employee.

Proving his commitment to me — for our sake and to set boundaries with his boss — never even came to his mind.

I was livid.

And I put up a helluva fight.

I made the point that if we’d traveled for our vacation, he wouldn’t be able to pop in; they’d have to find someone else, and that’s exactly what they should do.

He made the point that we hadn’t, and he was needed, so he was going.

I made the point that he was needed here at home, too, so he shouldn’t go.

I noted that it was past time that I — that We — come before his job.

I emphasized that I’d doubled up on work the week before, put clients on hold, shut my wee new biz down entirely to hold the week sacred.

Well. The time wasn’t sacred to him.

It was important enough to put in a request for vacation but not important enough to put off his boss — or put in extra effort to make it okay with me.

He didn’t feel it was something he needed to apologize for or make up for.

In fact, as I recall, that was the night he told me I’d be in second place, at best.

And as the t-shirt says: Second place is the first loser.

We were lying in bed, as we had for literally thousands of nights before, but instead of cuddling and talking about anything and nothing, he stared at the ceiling with his hands on his chest and said the words that ruined everything:

“From now on, my job is always going to come first.”

I feel sure he said more, but that’s all that I recall, and likely all I heard at the time.

It wasn’t a conversation. It was a declaration. A proclamation.

I had no voice in this, no choice in this. I didn’t factor into his calculations at all, that was clear.

Because after saying his work would come first, he didn’t offer me a consolation prize for being booted off the winner’s podium of his life.

He didn’t offer me anything. Maybe a now-forgotten explanation, but not even a single idea of what I might do without Us at the center of my life.

Over the burning hum in my brain, I heard myself say some version of, “Okay,” before rolling over and not sleeping.

That may have been when I realized that, yet again, I’d married a man who saw our wedding as a checked box on a life-sized list of To Dos.

College? Check. Good job? Check. Married? Check. Then off to his next achievement.

I talked to a trusted friend about it, and she voted to “keep your family together at all costs,” and I agreed with that.

Then while he was at work — because, yes, he went to work during our failed staycation — I thought about how to deal with my permanent demotion.

When my first husband benched me for his career, I left him.

I didn’t mean to leave him, but we’d relocated for his work — again — and my old job offered me good money to come back. I went with my then-husband’s full support.

I set up a little apartment two states away, made that good money, and I enjoyed life without him so much that, in the end, I never went back. I barely even looked back.

But my relationship with Dan wasn’t something I’d easily, or accidentally, let go of.

For one thing, we’d had a lot of great years. We’d already been together twice as long as my first marriage — from its first date to the divorce.

And also, I loved him, and in those early years, loved being with him.

And that love made me blind. And, perhaps, stupid.

For us to bring forward the fun and closeness of our early years, he’d have to want that too. And it never even occurred to me that he didn’t. 

Why didn’t he want that? is one of my many unasked and unanswerable questions that didn’t come to mind until years after he was gone.

Anyway, I wasn’t going anywhere. Even if I’d had the cash to bail myself out — which I certainly didn’t — I was determined to do better with this marriage.

And so, I got the bright idea that if he was going to put his work first, then I’d put my work first.

That’s only fair, right?

It sounded fair when I told him, and while surprised my suggestion, he admitted that it was.

Heh. Lemme tell you somethin’…

Dan did not like being bumped to second place. At all.

As the months and years went on with us on separate paths, I still fought him on his broken promises, bitched about his not calling when he’d be late for work, but for the most part, I was busy with my own stuff.

I nagged not at all and commented less and less. By the end, I’d released all claims on his time because I had better things to do.

I learned to make dinners that would keep until he got home, then stopped cooking altogether. I dug into my work, embarked on crazy projects, earned some money, found a fanbase, and was having a truly great time paying him little mind.

And he didn’t like that one bit.

He could’ve been happy for me as I’d been for him, but he went with resentment and spite instead.

I would’ve made room in my life for him if he’d asked, but he didn’t. And of course, he wasn’t going to dial back his career to make space for me.

The distance between us widened for 4 years or so, until we became strangers in a way we’d never been. We were fast friends when we met, as if we’d always known each other. Feeling like strangers was entirely new.

He stopped coming to bed, choosing instead to work into the wee hours and fall asleep stretched out on our office floor.

The sex became infrequent and unsatisfying, whereas in the great ol’ days, we’d delight in it often and either laugh and whoop through it or both be brought to tears by its tender intimacy.

He came home from work later and later, and when he finally did make it home, he’d be at his computer or in the bathroom for an hour or more, hiding from me in the tub or on the toilet.

I didn’t not notice these things, but I didn’t see them for the warnings they were.

We were 45 years old, ripe for midlife, and I thought he was going through a phase. If he needed patience and understanding, I had plenty. If he needed space, I was happy to give it to him. I had other things to do.

And my tentative attempts to get his attention or get time together were utter failures on the rare times I got either.

He didn’t want to be around me, and I didn’t know why. And to be honest, I didn’t really care. It would pass; we had plenty of time.

I loved him, and he loved me, and we’d sort it out.

When he finally voiced his frustrations about our life together, that’s what I told him—

“I’m so glad you spoke up! I feel it, too. I’ve never been this long in a relationship, either, but we’ll figure it out.”

And I squeezed his shoulder and kissed his forehead, then went on with whatever I was doing that brought me past his desk, when he’d said almost as an aside, “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know how to do this.”

In my relief that he was finally acknowledging that something was wrong, I misread everything about that moment.

I saw it as the beginning of a conversation, but looking back, it was the end of one.

His hands bouncing on the armrests of his chair, gripping hard before slowly coming up then falling hard to grip again…

I should’ve seen that for what it was. But I didn’t.

Ya see, he wasn’t the only one adept at misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

We see what we expect to see, what we want to see and hope to see.

And, also, what other people want us to see.

In the last few weeks before he walked out, Dan was a busy little bee around our apartment.

I thought he was leaning in when he was actually wrapping up.

Every little honey-do task that was on his mental list got done without a word from me. Or from him.

He simply got stuff done, and — miracle of miracles — he invited me to go places and do things on the weekends and after work.

For the first time in years, we were a couple again.

That’s why I was out shopping with no clue that, in the many hours of my absence, he was packing all his belongings into his SUV.

That’s why when he called to see when I’d be home, I thought he was calling with concern and not with impatience to get his goodbye over with so he could get gone.

And yet, when I parked my car, I wasn’t surprised by what he’d been doing, by what he said, by why he was waiting at the curb.

I didn’t cry, I didn’t yell, I didn’t argue. I asked questions, established terms, and even took him back to the apartment to make sure he had everything. I found a little box and added things he missed.

Back at his SUV, I hugged him tight and whispered the wee story of our beginning, a few lines that I’d started reciting to him now and then…

It starts, “The first time I saw you, I thought, ‘Is that for me?’…”

Then I let him go.

I watched him drive away, then calmly walked back into our apartment, sat at the dining room table and wailed.

The first two weeks were hard but bearable, because I thought he’d be back. He never said he wouldn’t.

He stood at the curb and said he needed “a break,” and I’d known couples who took quite long breaks and got back together, even kept separate homes and stayed together.

I wanted him to be at ease again, to be happy again, and if that meant letting him go on his way for a time, I could do that. I could handle that.

I thought he’d be back.

He called me “Love” up until the day he left — Do we have more toothpaste, Love? and I’m on my way, Love and The stores are closing, Love, are you on your way home yet?

Does that sound like a man who wasn’t coming back?

I conveniently forgot how we stood at the curb, a car’s width and a world apart, and I asked, “Why would you leave now? The past 2 weeks have been so good. The best in a really long time.”

And he answered, “I was faking it. I thought I could make things like they were, but it’s exhausting.  I can’t keep it up.”

I heard it. Then I filed it in my brain and forgot it. Months later, after he broke all the terms we’d agreed to, I unearthed it and played it again. And again. Ever after, for years, it played on repeat whether I wanted to hear it or not.

But that was later.

That was after he’d stop visiting, stopped emailing or returning emails … and then calls … and then texts.

After he ghosted me as if walking away from a bad third date instead of 14 years together, 6 of them married.

He never once said he wasn’t coming back, even when I asked. But he knew he wouldn’t.

Years after he was gone, it came to me out of the blue that he’d left on a warm late September day but taken his warmest winter coat.

And the first time he came to visit after he’d left, he was wearing a shirt that I’d never seen before. A gesture to his new life before his old one was even buried.

On one of his few visits, I was fishing through my cluttered purse for who-knows-what, and he said with a soft wistfulness for someone long gone, “Your purse always was a mess…”

Yes, he spoke of me in the past tense. While I was standing there.

There were plenty of signs that he’d long been done with me, that he’d left long before he walked out, and that after he’d left, he was more gone than he would ever admit.

He never once said he wouldn’t come back, and, notably, I never once asked him to.

After he’d been gone a week or two, I asked him when he thought he might come back. He said he didn’t know, and I never asked again.

More than I knew, I was done, too.

But I would have stayed with him out of love and loyalty, whereas he walked out carrying neither. 

He broke every curbside agreement about contact and communication within 2 months, allowed access to only half the spousal support he promised, and when, after 10 months of money struggles, I dared to withdraw the full amount, he stopped offering any money at all.

A bank clerk inadvertently tipped me off to new bank accounts I didn’t have access to which were packed with cash while our shared accounts didn’t hold enough to pay for a pizza.

He cut me off despite his promise and without a word, even though he knew I was unemployed and, at the time, so sick that I was unemployable.

He was so very done with me.

And I was so damned done with him that when divorce papers could be filed 8 weeks later, I was standing in line at the courthouse with bells on and papers in hand. 

But in the end, he silently won our contest of Done.

I filed for a divorce without asking for any money, though he had plenty, I had none, and my friends + family said I should.

I wouldn’t get alimony by default — we hadn’t been married long enough. Even if the court required it, and there was no guarantee it would, I’d have to apply and plead, and then surely return every month when he didn’t pay it. And he was now a contractor, rather than an employee, so there was no paycheck to dock.

I thought it all through, and decided that I just wanted it to be over, and anything that would add delay or drama was a personal health hazard.

I was literally sick of him and wanted nothing more than to be done.

The only other thing I’d wanted as badly was a life with him, and what a clusterfuck that turned out to be.

Now all I wanted was a divorce, so I might get to Montana and the second chance The Mister I deserved … but maybe I couldn’t have that, either.

I learned early and often to desire little, ask for even less, and expect nothing at all. I already knew that some people got what they wanted, and I wasn’t one of them.

But then I met Dan, and I went from a person happy to be alone to someone who spent years being admired, appreciated, and adored just as I am — just as I wanted.

That went to shit, yes, but once I knew what love looked like, I didn’t want to live without it. And like a complete idiot, as if I didn’t know better and also wary AF, I dared to want something. Again.

And so, up to and throughout the final hearing and beyond, I was terrified that Dan would toss some random wrench into the well-oiled legal machine, keeping me from the only thing I ever wanted more than a life with him — which was, oddly enough, to get the hell away from him.

Until the moment I held the official divorce decree in my hand, my body and mind thrummed with terror that he would pop in like some Jackass-in-a-box, waving his arms with typical last-minute bullshit and bluster, just because he could.

Welp. Those were 5 months of wasted worry.

Dan won The Contest of Done by not responding to the decree. At all. Ever.

He maintained his yearlong silence and didn’t respond to a single court letter, send in a single piece of paperwork, show up at the hearing, or contact me to explain. Or complain. Or anything.

The judge said without interest or tact that perhaps my husband didn’t participate because he didn’t care. And maybe that’s true.

I wouldn’t know and couldn’t say; I mean, I hardly knew the guy.

The man who left me wasn’t the Dan I met or the man I married.

That sweet fellow had become someone I didn’t much like … but ya know? I still loved him, I was loyal, and I believed his uptick in gaslighting, ambition, and assholery was merely a man’s midlife madness that would surely fade with time.

I believed that funny, thoughtful, adoring, and attentive man I met and married would be back someday.

I believed that despite the signs to the contrary.

I chose to believe it because I wanted to, because I had to, because what would I do if We were never again as good as we’d once been?

It was unimaginable that I’d spend the rest of my life with the over-ambitious jackhole he’d become, and so I didn’t allow myself to see it.

To be fair, I knew how distressed he was about others he’d abandoned, so there was no reason for me to think he’d do the same to me. There was one big reason to believe he wouldn’t.

He carried so much shame and guilt around what he’d done; he would never add me — add Us — to that pile.


And there you have it. The many mental filters that helped me misread and ignore all the signs. 

Signs that are a goddamned bouquet of red flags when I look at them now, but back then, they were a scatter of puzzle pieces with no photo on the box.

Individually, they were meaningless. Collectively, they were unclear. It was only after he left, only after I had the full picture, that they fell into place.

Which isn’t to say I have the complete picture. I’ll never have that.

Even if he knocked at my door today with the remaining missing pieces, there’s nothing I’d believe, even if they were a perfect fit.

I don’t trust him, and I can’t trust myself.

There was so much I didn’t see,  so much I saw and misread, so much I saw and (unconsciously) chose to misunderstand.

I filed those things so deeply in my mind that memories and moments would bubble to the surface for years after he was gone — out of nowhere, apropos of nothing, another missing piece would appear to complete the puzzle.

They were never welcome, but they only knew they’d once been desperately wanted.

So I’d be washing dishes or stirring a pot or driving to town, and then suddenly I was displaced, dumbstruck, gasping from the unheralded mental click when a subconscious non sequitur snaps into place, my past invading my present and once again stealing my calm.

Which is just as Mister Montana said it would be.

Long ago and far away, through my first winter alone, Mister Montana and I talked from 2,000 miles apart for thousands of minutes each month. He kept me alive and on this earth despite my relentless itch for the alternative.

He told me the years after the divorce would be like that, though he didn’t have words for why.

I’d voiced a few of my lingering questions about what went wrong with Dan & me. I held dozens of questions about how and why and when he left, but I only shared a few.

Mister M said with the surety of someone 12 years older and 100 years wiser, “Let it go. You don’t have to look for answers. They’ll come to you, likely when they no longer matter.”

And today — nearing the 7-year anniversary of my divorce, a divorce that I claim as mine alone because I was the only one with the courage to show up for it —

Today I can say with my own surety, with my own wisdom born of loss and pain and poverty and nearly unbearable grief, that what he said is true.

All the questions I asked have answers; I know all that I can know.

And none of it matters anymore.


By Crys Wood

Crys Wood lives in Montana with an old guy, a huge cat, and lots of unread books.