As translated by Edith Grossman, Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera begins:
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
An unhealthy longing. Unidirectional affection is often based on an illusion, with the besotted failing to see the whole complex, contradictory, living person in front of them.
Infatuation can feel overwhelming: the scent of bitter almonds, which about 40% of us can’t detect (early in my research career, a lab director counseled that “You should find some and check, you’ll be safer if you know whether or not you can smell it”) is cyanide, an agent of suicide. A release from the emotions that a person momentarily believes they cannot live with.
Throughout high school and college – bumbling through social situations as an undiagnosed, awkward, empathetic autistic person – I was prone to unrequited love. I could recognize when a classmate was intelligent, friendly, and fun; I understood less about the scaffolding of mutual care that might allow for reciprocal love to grow.
And so I grew adept at expressing unrequited affection: heartfelt handwritten letters; delivering home-cooked meals; offering compassion and care when a person I liked was sick; making fumbling offers to hold hands during an evening we spent jaunting about together.
It wasn’t love, exactly, which between adults needs both trust and the accumulation of shared memories to grow, but it was something. An imagined swirl of possibility that helped me feel hopeful about the future. In Love and the Time of Cholera, a character maintains his unrequited love for fifty-three years before finally building a reciprocal relationship:
Then [the captain] looked at Florentino Ariza, his invincible power, his intrepid love, and he was overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits.
Unrequited love is unhealthy, and it surrounds us. The world depends on our desire to care, our willingness to occasionally sacrifice our own interests for the benefit of others.
In “The Bear’s Kiss,” Leslie Jamison writes that:
Every consciousness, whether human or animal, loves differently. When we love animals, we love creatures whose conception of love we’ll never fully understand. We love creatures whose love for us will always be different from our love for them.
But isn’t this, you might wonder, the state of loving other people as well? Aren’t we always flinging our desire at the opacity of another person, and receiving care we cannot fully comprehend?
A friend recently contacted me in the middle of the night: he and his spouse just had their first child, and – surprise, surprise! – they weren’t sleeping.
“Right now,” my friend told me, “he’s quiet if he’s nursing, or if we’re walking around with him in the carrier, but other than that, he’ll wake up and yell.”
I tried to think of what cheerful advice I could possibly give. “Sometimes I’d put my kids in the carrier,” I said, “then bounce on an exercise ball while I watched TV, to trick them into thinking we were walking.”
“Hey!” shouted my six-year-old, who was drawing cartoon monsters at my feet. “You tricked us!”
“Yup,” I told her, “and you’ll be glad to know how I did it, in case you’re ever trying to soothe a baby.”
For most of human evolution, most people’s lives were intimately entwined with their whole community. New parents would have watched other people raise children. But in recent years, upper and middle class Americans have segregated themselves by age. After leaving college, many rarely spend time around babies until having their own. And then, wham! After only a few months preparation, there’s a hungry, helpless, needy being who needs care.
Those first few weeks – which hazily become the first few months – are particularly punishing because very young babies can express contentment or angst, but not appreciation. New parents upend everything about their lives to provide for these tiny creatures, and they’re given so little back. In the beginning there are no smiles, no giggles or coos – just a few moments’ absence of yelling.
Upon reflection – thinking about the handwritten letters that my spouse and I have penned in journals for our children, interspersed with bits of their art that we’ve taped to the pages; all the excessively bland meals I’ve cooked; the doting cuddles and care when their stuffy noses made it hard for them to breathe; my continued insistence that we hold hands when crossing busy streets – I realized that unrequited love was perhaps my major preparation.
“I guess it was nice,” I told my friend, “that after all those years, I finally had a relationship where unrequited love was considered healthy.”
Luckily for me, my friend was sleep deprived enough to laugh.