It started my sophomore year of high school with Danny Bonfiglio*. I saw him on the bus wearing Doc Martins and a Sonic Youth T-shirt. He pushed his shoulder length, brown hair out of his eyes long enough to speak to me. “Nice shoes,” he said quietly and continued on to the back of the bus.
I was wearing a pair of bowling shoes that I had lifted from the local alley and the best looking boy I had ever seen had just complimented me on them? No way! My heart exploded. I made it my mission to make Danny my boyfriend. I stalked him at school and at Domino’s Pizza, where he worked. I learned his class schedule, his locker location, and ordered lots of pepperoni pies. I pined and longed until one day after his third period art class, I worked up the nerve to slip him a note.
“Danny. I think you’re swell.”
My love note scored me one date with Danny at the local coffee shop. I was soaring until he broke the news.
“I’m getting back together with my ex,” he said.
She was also conveniently named Amy. I crashed back down to Earth. I didn’t betray my utter despair. I just wrote about it in my journal and listened to a lot of Morrissey. If I couldn’t have Danny as a boyfriend, I would have him as a friend. Whatever little crumb I could get would just have to be satisfying enough. I am not worthy of him, I thought. For the next three years of high school we were best friends. Well, he was my best friend and I was starving for more.
After my “relationship” with Danny, unrequited love became my relationship of choice. I would date a guy for a little while, he would break up with me, and then I would love him quietly from afar while we remained friends. If I picked a boyfriend who didn’t want to be my boyfriend, I could love him secretly in my journal, and never have to worry about the pain of him rejecting me. It was nobler that way.
In college, it was Jack*, the tattooed bad boy, that I wrote tortured poems about. While Jack did occasionally “like me back,” most Monday nights to be exact, he explicitly told me he didn’t want a girlfriend. That didn’t deter me. I was committed to our imaginary relationship for another three years. It was far more heartbreaking than I could have predicted. I fell in love with him. More accurately, I fell in love with the feeling of wanting him to fall in love with me. It was an unparalleled romantic thrill, those moments when he reciprocated. I lived for them. It was a never-ending, dramatic cycle of pining, hope, and heartbreak.
There were more unrequited crushes throughout my 20s and (hard to admit it) even into my 30s. The guy with a girlfriend, the work-a-holic, the angry poet. I was the best unrequited lover out there. I had become a pro at it. I told myself that love is painful and I must endure that pain. Even if that meant never betraying my true feelings, always keeping them to myself, loving cautiously from afar, keeping careful records in private places, or denying myself. Although I had real boyfriends, from time to time, the unrequited ones were better. They were perfect in my mind. They never hurt me, I only hurt myself and I liked it better that way.
When I fell into my final unrequited love affair, it felt like a dirty secret. I had always been able to compartmentalize my amorous inclinations, but things were different this time. I was way over writing about him in my journal or thinking about him only at bed time. I wanted him to, gasp, love me back. That’s when I cut off contact with him. He wanted to be friends, but I declined. I don’t need that kind of friend.
I realized that unrequited love was my favorite form of self-punishment, one that I had grown familiar with. When I finally felt I deserved to love and be loved in return, the childish habit had lost its dramatic cache. While it’s masochistic to long for something I think I’ll never have, it’s awfully safe. It’s scary to put myself in a situation where real love is possible with someone and in turn, real heartbreak, but I’ve decided the risk is worth it for the chance to let him love me back.
*Names have been changed.