5 Short Tales of Unrequited Love

by Sara Rauch, author of XO

I’ll share a defining moment in my life—an embarrassing one. At age seventeen, at the height of Titanic’s fame, I asked my first (and only) high-school boyfriend to dance with me one afternoon while Celine Dion’s hit “My Heart Will Go On” played over the radio. He reluctantly obliged and when our dance was over, he held me at arm’s length and said, “You’re such a romantic.” I could tell, from his tone, that this was no compliment. He broke up with me not long after, and one of the things I took from our relationship was that my “romantic nature” was something disdainful, something I should try to avoid exhibiting. But try as I might, I’ve never been able to quit my passion for unrequited love stories. I’m drawn to star-crossed lovers in particular, but I’ll take unfulfilled longing of any variety. As fate would have it, I ended up writing my own of version of a forbidden love affair as nonfiction, but fiction—especially short fiction—remained a fertile resource for the process. Something else I’ve discovered: unrequited love doesn’t exist exclusively between humans—sometimes the love we cannot fulfill is for a time or a place or a sense of meaning. These five stories are fine examples of longing, quiet heartbreak, and ultimately, the capacity for the human heart to “go on.”

“L. Debard and Aliette” from Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds: This imaginative re-telling of Heloise and Abelard—a real life pair of twelfth-century French star-crossed lovers—is set during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic in New York City. L. DeBard is a starving poet and Aliette is a wealthy young woman whose legs have been changed into “small, wrinkled sticks” by polio. Her scheme to employ L. DeBard as her swim teacher leads to an incredible romance, which is put to an end after Aliette defies her powerful father and bears a child out of wedlock. Who suffers more in the end? Following L. DeBard’s castration at the hands of her father’s henchmen, Aliette chooses to leave her lover and her son to return to a life of propriety. Though both appear to adjust to living out the remainder of their lives apart, we know from the final line that even one glimpse of a long-lost beloved can fortify the soul.

“Sisters” from Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina: This remarkably layered story features several kinds of unrequited love: first, and centrally, the protagonist’s—Dolores “Doty” Lucero’s—longing for the eyesight she will lose in a horrific assault partway through the story (this isn’t a spoiler, we know from the first line she’ll go blind soon) and Fajardo-Anstine builds transcendent visual detail into the story from the start: “sunlight pressed through lace curtains… their familiar kitchen with iron skillets drying on the rack and cracked eggshells in the wastebasket.” Secondly, there’s Doty’s unrequited desire for the local missing girl, Lucia (who, it’s hinted at, is a stand-in for Doty’s longing for other women, socially unsanctioned in 1955 Colorado). And, thirdly, there’s Doty’s never-to-be fulfilled longing for a true connection with her sister, Tina, who refuses to fully see or understand Doty, choosing instead to conform to society’s expectations. This story leaves me aching and, in a beautiful sleight of hand, hopeful.

“Flotsam” from Cate Kennedy’s Dark Roots: The narrator in this gorgeously spare story has returned to the sea town where she grew up, and reveals in carefully measured prose what it means to find the place transformed from the “shacks” of her youth to an expensive tourist destination. The choices this narrator has made have fulfilled her on some levels—she successfully raised a daughter as a single mother—and left her unrequited on others; she may have “bettered” her life at her own mother’s sacrifice, but as she nears death, all the narrator can see is the place she left behind. It is perhaps a truism that we can never go home again, and here Kennedy shows us how unrequited love for a place and time might lead us into the past, only to force us to confront the inevitable future.

“The Doctor and the Rabbi” from Aimee Bender’s The Color Master: This is perhaps my favorite story of unrequited love for God. Not that one of the titular characters would deign to believe in such a thing as God, given that he is a man of scientific training. But it is God that the doctor is after, as indicated from his carefully guarded inquiry to the other titular character—“Tell me, rabbi, please,… about God.” What the rabbi tells the doctor fails to fully satisfy the vaguely irritating itch that compels him to seek the divine. Where do we find God? this story wants to know. Is God in the feelings that arise in the doctor toward the rabbi, who comes to him on separate occasions for blood transfusions, needed to cure her illness? Is God in the contentious conversations that continue to unfold between the two characters? Is God in our blood? Is God stuck in traffic? Is God in the moon? The doctor is desperate for an answer, but it is—counterintuitively—this longing for proof that keeps him from quite understanding.

“The Littoral Zone” from Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever: It’s somewhat rare to find a thoughtful story about an extramarital affair that works out, and Andrea Barrett navigates this one with her trademark empathy and attention to detail, without ever tipping into the dangerous waters of sentimentality or glamorization. In a somewhat subversive twist, the main characters here can’t help but wonder what their lives would have been like if they hadn’t upended their comfortable lives for each other: “[T]hey remind themselves that they were young then and are middle-aged now, and that their fierce attention would naturally ebb with time. …Jonathan, who often wakes very early, sometimes stares at Ruby’s sleeping face and thinks how much more gracefully his ex-wife is aging.” What happens when you slake the unrequited? Barrett shows us there’s no simple answer to such a question. Instead, the longing might simply switch places.   

Sara Rauchis the author of What Shines from It: Stories, which won the Electric Book Award. Her prose has appeared in Paranoid ree, Autofocus, Paper Darts, Hobart, Split Lip, So to Speak, and elsewhere. She lives in Massachusetts with her family.

Sara Rauch is in a long-term, committed relationship with another woman when she begins a low-residency MFA in fiction. Though it goes against the promises she’s made, she finds herself pulled into an intense affair with a married man, a well-known writer in the program. More than an essay about bisexual infidelity and the resulting heartbreaks, XO unfolds Rauch’s story like a map of psychic terrain, allowing the author to explore her longstanding obsessions with romantic love, personal faith and belief systems, and the stories we tell ourselves to get through our ever changing lives.

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