Until her sophomore year in college, Elise had thought the term was unrequieted love. Love that would not be quiet, that would not shut up, though it should, because what was the use of shouting at a deaf person? Then an English professor circled the offending word in her paper on Proust. Mortified by writing mistakes—a writer shouldn’t make them—Elise looked up the etymology of the word. Un—not, requite—to pay up. Yes, that was right. Unrequited love did not pay up. You spent everything you had (metaphorically speaking)—bat-mitzvah gifts, the babysitting stash, the work study money, the savings from buying used textbooks instead of new—and the most you could hope for was a nickel plucked from the dirty-clothes-strewn carpet of the guy’s dorm room, to which find he responded with a heartbreaking grin and a keep it. And yet, Elise had to agree with Nietzsche, whom she’d read in the existentialism class where she and Sam had met, first semester of their junior year. “Indispensable . . . to the lover is his unrequited love, which he would at no price relinquish for a state of indifference.” They’d also studied Sartre, who noted gloomily, “to love is to wish to be loved, hence to wish that the Other wish that I love him . . . hence the lover’s perpetual dissatisfaction.” For his part, Kierkegaard wrote about two knights in love with an unattainable princess. The Knight of Infinite Resignation is forever resigned to his inability to realize his one great love. The Knight of Faith believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he will win her in the end.
Elise spent the last two years of college in kinship with Nietzsche, Sartre, and Kierkegaard, and then, the summer after graduation, she wrote Sam a letter, filled with extravagant metaphors and wild hope. A month later, he sent a two-sentence reply scrawled on a torn-out sheet from a yellow legal pad. I value your friendship, but I cannot return your feelings. I respect and admire you, but I’m not in love with you. The coldness of the thing was a kind of cure. Elise clipped it to the last page of a diary filled with swoons and laments, as punishment for all of the sentimental writing she’d allowed herself to do. Every time she started to long for Sam, she pictured the words in that letter, black on yellow. They hadn’t been in touch since.
Thirteen summers later, she had a husband, a sizeable bump due to be born in three months, and a newly published book of poetry containing no poems about Sam. From her occasional Google tracking, she knew that he taught music at a public high school in a small town in the Berkshires, close to a bookstore where she was scheduled to give a reading. She e-mailed him, in the casual spirit [End Page 137] of old college buddies, to mention that she was coming his way. Sam e-mailed back the same day, congratulating her on the book and offering his house if she needed a place to stay. She accepted the offer. Unknown poets like her weren’t paid to do book tours; they weren’t compensated for travel and expenses, put up in hotels, showered with admirers. They had to hold on to their money and their friends. They couldn’t afford to be proud.
Elise lived in Pennsylvania, where her husband Jackson was an assistant professor of chemistry at a small college. She taught poetry and English composition there as an adjunct. They’d met four years ago in San Francisco, when Elise was getting her MFA and Jackson was doing a post-doc. It was the first time a relationship felt equal to her, not one person wishing or angling for more than the other, not the pining nor the pulling back, but the strangely kinetic feeling of moving forward together, like two people rowing a two-person boat. They got married, moved east for Jackson’s job, bought a house in their new college town, discussed how many children to have...