A Lopsided Affair: Are Romantic Relationships Ever Really Mutual?


But she was more than that. If our fantasy lives are just as much a part of us as our lived realities, then I loved her as truly as I've loved anyone in my real life. And I'm still awed by the strange pleasure in the pain of longing for her: maybe it has something to do with the perverse thrill of psychological sadism, or something akin to the chase being greater than the catch, where longing ensures a marathon without a finish line. But the pleasure of pining for women I'd no chance of being with began to wane in the winter of 2004.

On February 6, my father, at 56, unexpectedly died. He suffered a brain-stem stroke. After the funeral, I flew back to New York from California and booked my social schedule solid. I was afraid to be alone with the thought of his absence, but it constantly crept up on me anyway. On one particular afternoon, I was at brunch with friends and bit into a peach -- the most luscious peach ever. In that moment, the stark reality of his flesh and blood absence set in. My dad, a connoisseur of the finest fruits who deliberated over every purchase at a maddening pace and ate all things fruity with rabid enthusiasm, was never again going to experience the pleasure of a perfect peach. That thought slowly turned into thoughts of my own mortality and soon a strange urgency to live my life in a material sense (as opposed to an internal one) shook me into a new consciousness. For several months, I went certifiably nuts, asking women out whom I knew were straight, until I eventually met Meg, my first long-term girlfriend.

A fiery Irish girl, Meg had lots of freckles and an ancestral knack for wit and words. Ten years my senior, with a cushy job on Wall Street, she was a woman in all the ways that I, at 28, was still a girl. In her, I found an immediate sense of home and safety, a soothing antidote to the pain and instability of losing my father. We had a lot in common -- a love of ideas, movies, magazines, wine, walks -- and most of our four years together, despite the inevitable bumps, were content. But our relationship lacked the ineffable magic of romantic love, which left both of us wanting something neither of us could provide the other. Gradually, the comforts of domesticity and routine devolved into stasis, and neither of us wanted the steady train and half-aliveness of contentment. In the winter of 2008 I moved out, and by the summer we went our separate ways.

That summer, I was a on a date with a no nonsense Italian girl from Long Island. We were on the roof-deck of a lesbian bar in Brooklyn. While sitting on a bench, talking about past loves, and trying to drink our way toward some semblance of desire, I looked up and saw a girl with the sweetest, saddest eyes I'd ever seen. She smiled at me and shyly complimented my glasses. Her name was Sabrina like "the teenage witch," she reminded us. Moments later, she was sitting between me and my date, making us laugh with her witty one-liners and raunchy humor. As the conversation progressed, I found out that she'd gone to Brown, studied art history, grew up in Manhattan, practiced social work and loved children, all of which piqued my interest. But as the night wore on and the stories we swapped grew more sordid, I learned about the wilder side of her history: innumerable alcohol-fueled sexual dalliances, clandestine affairs, drug abuse, all of which made her seem more like a fun tryst than a potential girlfriend.

In her drunkenness, Sabrina suggested we all kiss each other to gauge the level of chemistry between us. When it was my turn to kiss her, I felt a wild sense of exhilaration and danger like I was teetering on the edge of the tallest skyscraper. Because the kiss lingered long, my date huffed: "OK, OK. We get it" and then ran upstairs to the bathroom, just long enough for Sabrina to ask for my number.

As the weeks turned into months, the crude notion that she'd be nothing more than a post-break-up fling gave way to the first inkling of love. I'll never forget the moment that feeling spread through me like heroin, levitating me into an unfamiliar universe, where all that I wanted most was within reach.

She was wearing a tattered orange Mets shirt as a nightgown and was sitting on the edge of her bed, sharing all sorts of personal treasures with me -- a photograph of her three-year-old self, an '80s Polaroid of her family on vacation, her prized Simpsons' figurines, and a favorite comic book. It was like we were in kindergarten and it was her turn to show-and-tell. While her back was turned to me, she leaned down to pick up another trinket of some kind and in that moment, staring at the sweet silhouette of her beautiful back, I felt, for the first time ever, the most exquisite adoration for a person I could touch.

Three and a half years in, my love for Sabrina has replaced all the others. But a new longing lingers -- one rooted, ironically, in having the woman I've always wanted and not believing our passion is sustainable or mutual.

My self-protective instincts tell me not to lean on the ephemeral nature of romantic love and to prepare for its perfect happiness to end. But the tension between not wanting it to end and believing it inevitably will leaves me in a limbo of longing that electrifies each moment with the bittersweet awareness that it may be the last. In a funny way it works in the service of maintaining the excitement of new love. So, too, oddly, does my belief that romance is always a lopsided affair.

I'm convinced that romantic relationships are never mutual. One person is always pining after the other, and that person, of course, is me. No matter how often or loudly or sincerely Sabrina expresses her desire and devotion, I can't quite believe that she loves me as much as I love her. While that translates into pangs of jealousy and imagined threats -- does she still yearn for her first love? Is her love swayable under someone else's gaze? -- it also sustains the flush of adrenaline that comes in the competitive chase for her affection. Her love feeds me just enough to feel nourished, but always leaves me hungry for more.

A month after my dad died, my mother got a call from Adel. A mutual friend told him of my father's passing. In the four lengthy conversations that ensued, my mom learned that Adel had taken up with some Hare Krishnas. He told my mom that his priest divined that it was God's will that he and my mom should wed when she, 54 at the time, turned 62 and that they should wait one year following my dad's death to see each other. But my mom, who'd waited 35 years for this moment, was done with waiting. She let him go for the second and final time, but she still longs for what might have been.

Image: echo3005/Shutterstock.

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

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