A Lopsided Affair: Are Romantic Relationships Ever Really Mutual?

One person always seems to be pining after the other, resulting in imagined threats and pangs of jealousy. But maybe that makes things better.


On one very ironic Valentine's Day in 1971, my father married my mother, knowing she was in love with another. Growing up, I watched him long for her, while she longed for a Lebanese man named Adel. My grandmother, a feisty Greek woman from a small village on the island of Evia, forbade my mother from marrying Adel because she thought he was too poor, too uneducated, and too good-looking to be faithful. In his youthful naiveté, my father believed that time would erase the memory of Adel, and that his love and desire for my mother were enough to sustain them both.

But Adel was a ghost-like fifth presence in our four-person household, hovering over all of us. His love letters, addressed to my mother by first name only, as if to say she wasn't my father's rightful bride, would regularly pour through our front door's mail slot. She'd scoop them up, rush to her bedroom and tear them open with an addict's urgency. My father, a geeky civil engineer from Buenos Aires, endured her rebuffs and extramarital desires with the patience of a puppy, content with the more maternal affection she had for him. But seeing her come alive in the presence of another man's words made me promise myself I would never -- like my father -- love someone who didn't love me in equal measure.

My mom's emotional infidelity never upset me as much my dad's willingness to stay with someone who didn't love him. In my mind, Adel and my mom were Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights, or Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan -- the impossible love that should have been. Though I told myself I'd never end up like my father, the eternal spurned lover, the romance of my mother's longing -- and my father's longing for her -- was the prism through which I recognized and understood love; and, almost inevitably, I did become him.

In my adolescent and teen years, the burgeoning nature of my desires set me on my own path of longing: In 1986, when I was 10 years old, I hit puberty (freakishly early) and realized that I was gay. In the mid to late '80s, when AIDS and gay were synonymous, it was a scary time to realize your same-sex attractions. In my child's mind, much like conservative America's, homosexuality was the road to disease, God's wrath against those who didn't conform to heterosexuality. Fearing all the stigmas associated with my lusts, I kept my sexuality a secret, retreating deeper and deeper into an alternate reality, where I'd stage elaborate courtships and conquests of girls who didn't even know my name.

As such, my first loves were people who were perfectly unattainable (and perfectly safe): When I was 11, I developed a crush on an eighth grader named Maria. A Mexican girl with a quiet strength, Maria had big bangs and a permanent smirk ... and a high school boyfriend. I attempted to call her once via a middle school directory, but hung up as soon as she answered the phone and never called again. Then there was Charlotte, our middle school class president whose severe Germanic features -- angular jaw-line, sharp nose, blond hair, and blue eyes -- were softened by her sweet spirit and spazzy laugh. The only spit I swapped with her was on a pencil I lent her that she embedded with teeth marks. It wasn't until high school that I encountered my most enduring teen crush.

For all of high school, I pined for Chelsea, a lettered basketball and soccer star with a perfect academic record. Because we were only acquaintances and she never had a boyfriend, I could let the hope of our mutual love linger all four years -- until our final conversation. Just before she was off to UCLA, we had a three-way telephone talk with our mutual friend, Ashley. Amid rumors of my lesbianism, Ashley asked if I'd ever been attracted to women. The answer got caught in my throat seconds before Chelsea half-yelled: "Ashley! You don't have to answer that." To fill the awkward silence that followed, Chelsea offered: "I've thought about it actually, but I can't seem to get excited by the thought of women." With all hope obliterated, I was ready to move on. Then, in the spring of 1998, came the crush that crushed all other crushes.

I was a 22-year-old junior in Berkeley's English department. With pepperoni-sized zits, slouched-shoulders, and beat-up boots, I clomped up the steps of Wheeler Hall to my junior seminar. I entered a small room and quietly slid into the first seat I could find, where a dozen undergrads in various states of consciousness sat around a weathered wooden table. Just before the clock approached class-time, our professor briskly entered.

With an uncanny resemblance to John Singer Sargent's "Madame X," she possessed an alluring mix of subtle sexual provocation and haughty aloofness. She stood at 5'2", had porcelain white skin, black hair made of ruler-straight strands, and big brown eyes that both expressed a poet's sensitivity and a critic's cruelty. In Berkeley, California, where flip flops, t-shirts, and tans are the fashion, our young professor stood out for her runway-chic wardrobe (Edwardian blouses and arm-length black gloves), her ballerina-like poise, and Old Hollywood curves.

As an out lesbian who seemed to delight in the way queer people and ideas upset the social order, Prof. X taught me to relish the ways I failed social expectations; the perverse pleasure she seemed to derive when met with social contempt helped liberate me from the judgment in other people's eyes and the childish need to be universally liked; she empowered me with the knowledge that all ideas are born of our capacity for language and as such can be re-conceived for the betterment of those of us on the fringe; her academic excellence and daring encouraged me to take bold creative risks, read widely and think deeply; and by her example, I straightened my slouch.

Our interactions were rare and brief -- I probably didn't share more than a dozen sentences with her -- but she sat at the throne of my imagination for the next several years, spurring my creativity and growth. Cultural critics from Laura Kipnis to Terry Castle have written about the eroticization of the student-teacher relationship and how it can facilitate the learning process. In my attempt to narrow the very wide gap between myself and Prof. X -- she, an academic superstar who earned tenure at 32 at a prestigious university, and me, a high school flunky who failed multiple classes, including freshman P.E. three times -- I began reading all the books I knew she'd read, traveling to all the cities I knew she'd visited, and walking through all the museums I knew she'd patronized. As much as this quest was an effort to be close to her and make myself a worthy (if unlikely) romantic prospect, I now realize, 13 years later, that it was also an attempt to find myself through my affection for her.

In Eros and Pathos: Shades of Love and Suffering, renowned Jungian psychoanalysts Aldo Carotenuto writes: "the beloved always symbolizes the potential of the lover." Prof. X, as both my role model and object of desire, was the screen upon which I projected all my hoped-for promise.

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Stephanie Fairyington is the co-founder and editor of The Slant.

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