Unrequited love doesn't have to be unfulfilling

[801 Magazine, May 2005]



I’m not sure whether or not I have HIV, which is why Dave is with me at the free clinic in Harlem.

No. Scratch that. Not the HIV part. But the truth is, I’m not sure why Dave is with me. We stand in front of the clinic, a drab cinder-block box where linoleum passes for interior design and infomercials about STD awareness pass as waiting-room entertainment.

He puts his hand on my shoulder and starts rubbing my back. He’s always very deliberate about touching me. “We’re going to be fine, whatever happens,” he says. I start crying, staring straight ahead, and he stares straight ahead, too, his hand still on my shoulder. I look at his face. His eyelids flinch.

It is January of this year, the snowy morning of Dave’s 25th birthday, and almost a year since we met each other, improbably, at a Super Bowl party. But there is much improbability in our relationship. The Cliffs Notes: Dave is straight and I am gay. And I’ve fallen in love with him—ah, but there’s the rub: in love, just not with him. We are still great friends, despite the weirdness of our (read: my) feelings. We spent Christmas morning together, alone in the city, listening to the radio. He got sick on New Year’s and I brought him soup, felt his forehead pseudo-authoritatively, and we went through the newspaper together. We have fought, him trembling, me crying. I’ve stayed at his place until dawn, and he at my place until just as late, talking about how we feel about each other. It’s very explicit and very confusing, foreign territory for us both—for most people. Unrequited love is usually dropped, not handled cooperatively.

Our relationship, like most, is built on shared interests, mutual respect, all of that vanilla bullshit that makes friendships sound like Venn diagrams drawn by Dr. Phil. We have survived each other’s lies and hurtful attacks and many of the worst parts of our personalities. So it’s odd that the greatest threat has been perhaps the best part of the human experience: love.

How do friendships survive a subtle infusion of love? And what’s to become of a friendship hampered by one-way romance? In every relationship, I think, one loves the other “more,” but the gestalt wonderland of togetherness seems always to overwhelm any discrepancies. A starry night made better by a full moon.

But when there’s no reciprocation, when there’s such a gnawing, abject incompleteness, nobody could advise me. There’s a difference between unrequited love and impossible love. It is impossible for Dave to love me because I am a man. That impossibility is not a factor in most relationships. So, looking for answers and finding none among friends, daytime talk shows or late-night Web sites, bookworm that I am, I thumbed through the library. Surely someone sometime somewhere was fool enough to get into a situation similar to my own—and then exhibitionist enough to write about it in some cathartic act of roman à clef vanity.

What I found hit a bit too close to home. Not only was my situation not a stranger to the world, it was not a stranger to the college campus I was on. During the late 1940s at Columbia University, Allen Ginsberg was a star English student. He hung out with his buddy Jack Kerouac, who was furiously writing “The Town and The City” in a local bar. Jack introduced Allen to Neal Cassady. Allen instantly fell in love. Neal, a horny, charming grifter from Denver, was enchanted with Ivy intellectualism, and with a group of people for whom manual labor meant poring over character development or poetic syntax while clinking pints of beer with pals.

Neal would leave New York frequently but was devout in his correspondence with Allen. It’s a collection of these letters, published after his death by Neal’s wife, that I stumbled upon.

The correspondence starts in 1947, largely with Neal asking Allen for a lot of favors: send clothes, send money, hook me up with publishers. Neal longed for Allen, but also felt a conflicted love. “I am above feeling envy of you, and don’t fall into a sort of loving admiration, rather, I have a sort of confused sense of loss when I think of you,” wrote Neal, whom Allen had nicknamed L’Enfant. “But, By God, L’enfant or no, whether you think its mad or not, whether ‘its not as we feel or I want to feel’ to quote you. I still love (what a weak word) you.” Now, some of this robust emotion is the con man greasing the wheels. After all, it’s followed by “P.S. Speaking of overcoats, don’t try and sell them, we’ll wait until this fall and get more out of them then.”

Part of the problem, as with Dave and me, is the excessive explication. “I, almost unconsciously, think of a picture in which everything is just slightly overdone,” Neal wrote to Allen. “The lines are a little thick, the paint is a little heavy, everything is distorted and yet the distortion is so slight that one must really look to know that it is exaggerated.” Though Neal would indulge in imagery and bloviating rants about Big Ideas, he also would be tenderly stern: “In reality, Allen, I’m a simple, straight guy, and in thinking of what I want for the next year I know that without you I’d be lost. I feel a normal brotherly need emotionally for you, just as with Jack or Hal or my own brothers, in fact, my emotional needs are not too strong.” Indeed, Neal hardly spent any time with Hal Chase, another Columbia buddy who was his best friend in Denver. “I’m pretty independent that way,” Neal went on in the same letter. “On one hand it bothers me to think I’m unable to be affected emotionally as much as other people seem to be, on the other hand, this objectivity of emotionality, has, in my life, enabled me to move freely in each groove as it came.” Neal and Allen had a fundamental difference not in how much they cared for each other, but how they showed it—Allen being far more obvious (and far more pained) with his affection.

It made my skin crawl. The serifs of the text like barbs. It was all too familiar: the inability to understand each other, the end-nowhere go-nowhere discussion, the deception—the inherent deception in leading each other on, tricking each other into thinking this was normal and workable. And, most painfully, Allen’s submission, his desperation, his hopelessness as my own.

“I do not know how I can hope for any love for you because my own love is one compounded of hostility & submission,” he wrote to Neal. “I don’t understand and can’t, your own emotions, even when explained only because my drive is so blind that I cannot comprehend even intellectually the possible realism of your statements.” He goes on, desperately offering Neal money, academic lessons, anything and everything. It strikes me, because I am similarly eager to make Dave happy, that these hyperbolic attempts are really a reaction to the incompleteness at work. If unrequited love is doomed to a limbo of 50 percent full, then by God, what an amazing 50 percent it will be. But all along, despite this optimism and eagerness, there is the ghost of what Allen describes as his own “self-pity that is not self pity but knowledge of tragedy.”

The limbo became too tortured, and Allen fell into a clumsy, clinical tone. “I think, I guess, probably, surely, I have enough ‘nonsexual’ human rapport, or love, with you for us still to address & communicate, if not, as I hope, with ‘straightness of will,’ at least with sincerest impulses of mutual respect.”

Neal responded sharply: “Let us stop corresponding—I’m not the N.C. you knew I’m not N.C. anymore.”

Allen received that letter in his student apartment in the spring of 1948, two floors above a student apartment I used to have. By his own recount, he had just finished masturbating and was trying to bury himself in reading “St. John of the Cross.” He was alone and, worse, he was lonely. William Burroughs was in Mexico. Kerouac had become a Long Island hermit.

“We’d had a big tender lovers’ understanding,” Allen said of Neal in a 1966 interview with The Paris Review. “But I guess it got too much for him ... I got a letter from him saying, Now, Allen, we gotta move on to new territory. So I felt this is like a great mortal blow to all of my tenderest hopes. And I figured I’d never find any sort of psycho-spiritual sexo-cock jewel fulfillment in my existence! So I went into—like I felt cut off from what I’d idealized romantically. And I was also graduating from school and had nowhere to go and the difficulty of getting a job. So finally there was nothing for me to do except to eat vegetables and live in Harlem. In an apartment I’d rented from someone. Sublet.”

I read that in the Harlem studio I sublet, eating ramen noodles, which perhaps involved pulverized vegetables in the flavor packet. I threw the book across the room: “Fuck Ginsberg.” I read on, though, and watched the relationship decay, eroded by decades-long onslaughts of corrosive LSD and peyote. But still, after Neal was locked up for possessing two marijuana joints, when he’d scrawl letters in the pitch-black darkness of his San Quentin cell, he wrote to Allen.

Neal married, had children, moved on. Even after Neal’s drunken death in 1968, his wife Carolyn remained cordial with Allen until his death in 1997. In an interview Carolyn conducted with American Legends, she was asked if Neal ever felt obliged to try to be gay for Allen’s sake. Indeed, Neal did allow some sexual dimension to creep into his intimacy with Allen. But, replied Carolyn, “It wasn’t that Neal felt obliged. What a funny idea. It was his great compassion; he felt so sorry for Allen’s suffering, he hoped he could alleviate it somewhat… Neal told him that he didn’t like ‘penises,’ and I am sure he was never the aggressor. Next question.”

Exactly. I realized that part of my problem in going to Allen for advice was that he was kind of a letch. He wanted to own Neal, conquer him, have him—not be with him, not love him. I needed an exemplary role model who was a little less horny.

I needed Brits.

Fifty years before the Beats of New York and San Francisco, there was the Bloomsbury Group of London, Victorians who lived entire lives without any sexo-cock jewel fulfillment whatsoever.

Dora Carrington—who went by “Carrington”—was a painter. Lytton Strachey was a writer. Carrington was straight and Lytton (rhymes with “kitten”) was gay—and older, 35 to her 22 when they met. She was wholly devoted to him, to the point that she dropped all suitors and eventually married only because Lytton himself had fallen in love with the same man. Depending on the biographer, they eked out a largely sexless existence in either a ménage à trois, ménage à quatre, or more, in reclusive cottages outside of towns with names such as Pangborne and Hungerford.

They were unquestionably the loves of each other’s lives, living together for 15 years. They would hunt down Voltaire in second-hand bookstores. She would nurse him through shingles or the flu. When he was away, he would send her short letters to soothe the nightmares she’d suffer. One read: “This is only to give you a kiss. No time for anything more.” They maintained so frenzied a correspondence as to rival e-mail addiction. She’d rip leaves from children’s writing-exercise books and scribble her unpunctuated, misspelled letters on foolscap paper.

There was tension, of course, but unlike Neal and Allen, who at times became too self-conscious for their own good, Lytton and Carrington had a Victorian sense of emotional discipline. When her chief suitor, upon being dumped, threw in her face that Lytton loved him in a way that Lytton would never love her, she replied flatly: “One always has to put up with something, pain or discomfort, to get anything from any human being.”

But Lytton was comfortable in Carrington’s gamble on love. When Virginia Woolf, who had attempted a marriage with Lytton, asked about Carrington, he said he’d never marry her.

“But if she’s in love with you?” Woolf asked.

“Well, then she must take her chance,” replied Lytton. “Ah, but the future is dark,” he added in later correspondence with Woolf. “I must be free. I shall want to go off.”

And if Carrington leaves you? Woolf countered. Lytton had no answer. The truth was that he and Carrington relied on each other. Not with neediness, but in comfort of being free with each other, enabling a kind of want that was intimate without being too evident. This was incomplete love executed properly, rigorously. Perhaps too rigorously.

Their love for each other, unlike with Neal and Allen, was no secret. Routinely, their relationship found itself recast in varying degrees of transparency by Bloomsbury writers. In D.H. Lawrence’s “Women In Love,” for example, Lytton becomes the dandy Julius Halliday. Lawrence’s pseudonym for Carrington is less imaginative: Minette Darrington.

When Carrington finally married a man named Ralph (whom Lytton promptly and dutifully renamed “Rex”), she wrote a letter to Lytton. He replied immediately. These two letters are seen by many biographers as near-pure distillations of their relationship.

“I have known all along that my life with you was limited,” Carrington wrote. “I could never hope for it to become permanent. After all Lytton, you are the only person who I have ever had an absorbing passion for. I shall never have another. I couldn’t now. I had one of the most self abasing loves that a person can have. You could throw me into transports of happiness and dash me into deluges of tears and despair, all by a few words. But these aren’t reproaches—these years when we were quite alone will always be the happiest I ever spent. And I’ve such a store of good things which I’ve saved up, that I feel I could never be lonely again now… I cried last night Lytton, whilst Ralph slept by my side sleeping happily—I cried to think of a savage cynical fate which had made it impossible for my love ever to be used by you.

“You never knew, or never will know the very big and devastating love I had for you… Say you will remember it, that it wasn’t all lost and that you’ll forgive me for this outburst, and always be my friend… You gave me a much longer life than I ever deserved or hoped for and I love you for it terribly. I only cried last night at realizing that I never could have my Moon, that sometimes I must pain you, and often bore you. You who I would have given the world to have made happier than any person could be... But I keep on crying, if I stop and think about you. Outside the sun is baking and they all chatter and laugh. It’s cynical, this world in its opposites. Once you said to me, that Wednesday afternoon in the sitting room, you loved me as a friend. Could you tell it to me again?”

The letter took six days to reach Lytton. He wrote back immediately:

“I hope that in any case you never doubted my love for you. Do you know how difficult I find it to express my feelings either in letters or talk? It is sometimes terrible—and I don’t understand why it should be so; and sometimes it seems to me that you underrate what I feel. You realize that I have varying moods, but my fundamental feelings you perhaps don’t realize so well. Probably it is my fault. It is perhaps much easier to show one’s peevishness than one’s affection and admiration! Oh my dear, do you really want me to tell you that I ‘love you as a friend’!—But of course that is absurd, and you do know very well that I love you as something more than a friend, you angelic creature, whose goodness to me has made me happy for years, and whose presence in my life has been and always will be, one of the most important things in it. Your letter made me cry... Remember that I too have never had my moon! We are all helpless in these things—dreadfully helpless... You seemed in your letter to suggest that my love for you has diminished as time has gone on; that is not so. I am sure it has increased. It is true that the first excitement, which I always (and I suppose most people) have at the beginning of an affair, has gone off; but something much deeper has grown up instead.”

This “androgynous enlargement of experience,” as it is called by Lytton’s chief biographer, Michael Holroyd, sustained them. “She knew that there must always be limits to their relationship,” says Holroyd. “But it was a satisfaction simply to be with him whenever that was possible; and when it was not, to receive and memorize his marvelous letters. She believed that she understood him, inexplicable as he was, better than anyone.”

In Harlem, in the clinic, I look at Dave in the uncomfortable stiff black plastic chair next to mine. I look at him and feel like I don’t understand him at all. We’re so alien to each other. I in my jeans and hooded college sweatshirt and he in his purple dress shirt and sleek black tie. I get lost in odd minutia, noticing, for example, that our hands are the same size despite the fact that he’s six inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than I am. I look at him and I don’t know him. Don’t know why he’s here, why he says painfully sweet things like, “I want to go in with you when they call you.” And, truth be told, I don’t know who I am either—except that, this morning on his 25th birthday, I’m “Patient B.” Dave pipes up, recounting a story he’s reading in The Week about a 48-year-old Frenchman who lived in caves for 35 days, subsisting off a diet of underground water, clay and rotting wood. I laugh—well, I smile. I wish I knew what we had between us.

Sometimes, though, maybe you don’t need to know. Some of life’s best moments are unknown. How do we know when to look at each other during a movie? How do we know from a simple “hey” when the other has had a bad day, or is in a bad mood? We just do. And who are we to say that such ignorance is incomplete or inadequate or unsatisfying? It is intimacy and friendship and devotion and kindness and gentleness and patience and joy. So what if it’s not love. If it’s not called that. Thinking of it as “enough” means adopting a quantitative measure that just doesn’t work. What would be enough love? Enough care? Enough intimacy? Fuck “enough.”

Dave isn’t allowed in with me when I see the doctor, but he stays right outside the door. Not in the waiting room, but by some idle chair in the hallway outside the doctor’s office. I don’t know him. And can’t imagine what went through his mind when I disappeared behind the old wooden door with its cobbled frosted glass. It’s one thing for friends to share a life. Quite something else to share a death sentence.

I step out and he looks up at me. God, such eyes. Such a liquid look—reassuring but wide and wondering at the same time. I hope I never see that look again. “They’re 97 percent sure I’m clean.” That’s as good as it gets: 97 percent security.

We hug, half-holding each other. But half has never felt so full.