The man (boy?) I love does not love me back. I finally let the words come out of my blabbing, hesitant mouth too little too late. He says he felt love at some point, but it’s not there anymore. Even the physical desire is gone. Now I’m left with the worst feeling — the kind that burns the back of your throat and makes your breath heavy when you linger on it too long. It makes me cry at the end of every poem, every song, every movie. I feel alone in this because he does not have said feeling. But I’m not actually alone, because we still see each other (as friends). He still wants my company and I his. I just have the short end of the stick.
How could someone not love you and know you love them but still want to spend time with you? How do I let myself give that time?
– In need of a nudge
Yes, poems, songs and movies can sometimes flood your tear ducts with idealized romance in Hollywood or sickly sweet love lyrics on Spotify. Yet the right ones can provide a cathartic reflecting pool and even hold your hand through lost, unrequited love.
The ancient Greek poet Theognis of Megara (your “man/boy?” distinction…that had its own significance in Ancient Greece, but that’s beside the point) had a lyric that may resonate: “My heart’s in pain because of my love of you, / For I can’t either hate or love, / Knowing it’s hard when a man’s your friend / To hate him, and hard to love him if he doesn’t want.” In the ancient Greek tradition it was common for one person to play hard to get to another, creating clear lover and beloved categories in a relationship (at least in terms of public appearance.) Although this one-sided relationship was commonplace, Theognis was still trying to reconcile in his elegiac poetry an unrequited love, the object of which you would usually want cast away to the depths of Hades, with a friendship. It’s a tough struggle you’re engaged in, one that’s been eating away at hearts since the 6th century BCE.
Your feeling of loneliness, Nudge, even in his company, is only to be expected. Many of American artist Edward Hopper’s realist paintings in the early and mid-20th century portray a solitary figure in the modern world. In “Room in New York” (1932), his study of loneliness is magnified with two individuals occupying the same space, but who could not be further apart from one another. The viewer of the painting plays voyeur as he or she gazes in through a window framing a sharply dressed man and woman sitting around a small wooden table in their living room interior. They are together at the table, but draw away from one another: the man bent over reading a newspaper; the woman twisting over her shoulder to play a note on the piano behind her. You may be just as lonely in his company spending time as friends and not as lovers as you would be on your own. His presence may magnify what is lacking in your relationship. Maybe confront the loneliness instead of masking it so you can move on.
On the other hand, lost love or love-just-out-of-reach can be the most powerful artistic force in the universe. Unrequited love is ennobling, coaxing tours-de-force and magni opi from artists and authors since the dawn of time. But its effects are exponentially more powerful if your muse is right there, only just barely out of reach. That special kind of unrequited love — love requited only with friendship — is the perhaps the most hopeful (and tortuous) kind.
This is not Apollo and Daphne nor Goethe’s Werther, unrequited love made hopeless by Eros’s vengeance and Charlotte’s marriage. This isn’t Hans Christian Anderson’s “Little Mermaid” — she sold her soul to get legs with which to chase her man, who then didn’t even recognize her as his rescuer. This is not Cervantes’ “Quixote,” whose Dulcinea didn’t even exist. This is access to your unrequited lover with each phase of the moon and, ergo, the chance to reignite his/her love for you. Sufferers of impossible unrequited love do great things in stoic acceptance of their suffering, but lovers requited with friendship do great things and, sometimes, win their friends’ hearts in the process. Affection doesn’t function in fixed states but is ever evolving.
Love can be re-attained, but I hesitate to suggest you try to win your guy back if you’ve already laid your thoughts and feelings bare. There are two paths out of the friend zone, the patient pursuit and the decisive door slam. The former is not for everyone, but it works for some.
Check out the 1990 Whit Stillman film “Metropolitan,” which won an Academy Award for its screenplay. In it, a rat pack of debutante ball-going, Park-to-Fifth-Avenue-roaming Ivy League undergrads take in Tom, a barely middle-class kid from the wrong side of Central Park who studies left-leaning political science at Princeton on scholarship. As a group of friends, they bring him along to their crowd’s Christmas season parties. Audrey falls in love with Tom, but he rejects her at first, a rejection made all the more painful by the near-constant time the group spends together. Yet it’s that friend time that brings Tom around to regretting the rejection and when Audrey agrees to accompany the high-society bad-boy character to the Hamptons, Tom realizes his feelings for her and heads out there to win her over.
Maybe you saw the recent piece in the New York Times by the poet and author Elinor Lipman called “Taking a Break for Friendship.” Lipman dates, is rejected, remains friendly and writes an essay for publication about the situation, which becomes the catalyst for attracting him back. The takeaway is that the friendship is the chance to showcase your talents and charm to pave your person’s road of return.
But Nudge, please don’t let this prospect torture you. Your man-boy cannot have it both ways and expect everything he wants. That is not fair to you. Keep doing things that make you happy both within and beyond boyman’s earshot. If he has an epiphany, he knows where to find you, but I wouldn’t settle for friendship if you find it too upsetting. But do keep your eyes open for something unexpected.
I’ll leave you with some more modern lyric poetry (Theognis is so 58th Olympiad … ) by the singer/songwriter/rapper Lauryn Hill from “When it Hurts So Bad” on her 1998 album, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill.
I loved real, real hard once
But the love wasn’t returned
Found out the man I’d die for
He wasn’t even concerned
I tried, and I tried, and I tried
To keep him in my life
I cried and I cried, and I cried
But I couldn’t make it right
But I, I loved the young man
And if you’ve ever been in love
Then you’d understand
What you want might make you cry
What you need might pass you by.
Send an email to DearGillian@michigandaily.com or anonymously here describing a quandary about love, relationships, existence or their opposites. Gillian will attempt to summon the wisdom of the arts (literary, visual, performing) to soothe your troubled soul. We may publish your letter in the biweekly column with your first name (or penname). Submissions should be 250 words or fewer and may be edited prior to publication.