In college, there was a guy I was crazy about. He worked at the computer café, and I would go in day after day to print out poems and type up papers. It was the first I had ever heard of an “internet” or a “cappuccino,” and while I wasn’t brave enough to go onto the “World Wide Web,” I was brave enough to sit around making whole meals out of lattes and muffins, all in hope that this man would notice me.
Nothing. Not a smile or a hello—or, if I was lucky, maybe a half-smile and a quarter-hello—but still I’d rip up pink packets to pour into the latte or bite on the end of my pencil or wrap my hair in a bun only to have him turn away from me as quickly as he had turned towards me. I mention this because I truly ached for his affection. I wanted it. Badly. It was such unrequited love, and though it pained me, I found myself time and time again, going back for more.
After college, I did my best to forget about him, but I was reminded of him several years later when I walked into a classroom to teach poetry to children with autism. Suddenly, I was in a room whose very walls seemed made of unrequited love. I felt lost and useless, and I’d sip my deli coffee and hand out pencils, all the while longing for the affection—or even just the attention—of the children.
Around that time, I read a heartbreaking story by a mother of a child with autism. The family had taken the boy to the beach, and the boy, who was four, was searching for sand dollars. So intent was the boy on finding those sand dollars that he walked away from his family and though his mother quietly followed him, she let him wander as far and as long as he wanted. The boy searched for over an hour and, the sky darkened with dusk, and in all that time, the boy never looked back. Not once. He never looked to see if his family was still there.
Yesterday was Autism Awareness Day, and for the tenth year in a row, I found myself in a classroom of students with autism. This year, instead of feeling hopeless, I felt delighted and intrigued, lucky even. (Life without dreams, one of them wrote, is like a pencil without wheels!) In all these years, I’ve learned a little about unrequited love, and I’ve realized so much of it is just a shift of focus. Some of those loves (ahem, “computer guy”) are barely worth the paper they’re printed on, but it’s the other loves—the ones that aren’t simply reciprocal but are, in fact, far deeper, far more complicated—that clench my heart.
I think of the mother who followed her son; how she finally went to him; how she strapped him into the car, brushed his salty hair out of his eyes, and took the long road home; but even more than that I think of the boy and his love for the sand dollars. I imagine a whole canvas bag filled with the ocean’s currency and how—even though a sand dollar could never love a boy back—the boy must have reached inside the bag as the stars flashed by the car window, and for the whole trip home, he must have run his finger along the ridge of one of those sand dollars, over and over again, letting its sharpness make an indent in his skin as he told it stories that not even his mother could hear.