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.


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.

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