In the zone

Ever had the feeling that the bus you were hoping to catch just drove by without even stopping and opening its doors? I mean in a metaphorical sense, not when the damn bus is too full for any more passengers (which used to be a regular Saturday night occurrence many moons ago).

I first heard the phrase ‘friend zone’ in an early episode of ‘Friends’ when Ross just fancied Rachel, before they got together. It popped up again in the Ryan Reynolds film ‘Just Friends’ about a former overweight nerd who returns to his home town, now slim and hot, to try and woo the girl he had a crush on at high school. But this girl only sees him as a friend.

The concept is that you can have a fantastic platonic friendship with someone of the opposite sex, but if you secretly wish to cross the line into ‘more than friends’ you face possible rejection, deep anxiety of how to broach the subject, risk of your signals being misread/not even noticed or a good chance that (relationship or no relationship) your friendship could be lost forever. In short, if it doesn’t go your way, it could end very, very badly. But, your motivation for acting on your feelings is that you do not, no way, want to be stuck in the ‘friend zone’.

I think I have just been at the ‘overweight nerd’ end of this with Mr Eight or Nine, who I neglected to mention in earlier posts bore a passing resemblance to Johnny Depp. So, yes, why would he waste his time with a flabby, saggy middle-aged single mum? Well, somehow, he managed to waste two visits to a nearby city which we could both get to easily by train. When I am sure he had better ways to while away a Saturday afternoon and evening. I suppose in my head I had him down as someone very intelligent who could look beyond superficial appearances.

We had a couple of great get-togethers, chatting, giggling and there were smiles and eye contact. He didn’t shuffle his chair as far away as possible, but nor was there any physical contact. By date two we were chatting a lot, but his eyes kept wandering around the room. And by this point one would expect a little flirtation, a brush of the hand, a playful nudge or even an arm around the waist, if nothing else. When it ended with a cold ‘I’ll text you’, without even a handshake, I knew I was on a hiding to nothing. Well and truly in the friend zone with no way out, the dull, middle-aged mum to his handsome, intellectual, PhD, late 30s man, unburdened by life’s mill stones.

Aah well, more time to clean the kitchen, hem curtains and scrub skid marks out of pants.

But this episode was nowhere near as perplexing as one from over 20 years ago. I am even hesitant to give him a false name as I still wish for an answer to the question. But I will call him Sean, to save him from embarrassment of being linked to me.

Sean was in the year below me at school, but only three months younger. He was good-looking, popular, sporty, academic, but while many like him would be arrogant and downright annoying, he was kind, caring and never took himself too seriously. We got chatting when his year were allowed to join some of our A-level art classes, if they wished to do a bit of extra work.

I have to add here that at 17, I was an oddball – dressed a bit like a hippy-goth, floaty skirts, Doc Martin boots, but I never quite got it right and was always messing up in some way or other – tripping over in front of large audiences, misunderstanding questions I was asked, and in social situations, nervous, shy and awkward. So, I was worlds away from Sean in the school ‘street cred’ hierarchy.

Sean started by teasing me, but not in a cutting or hurtful way, more in a gentle, cheeky fashion. We then chatted a little in class until the teacher told us to shut up. He happened to live near me so we began sitting together on the bus home. I imagine now that this friendship attracted a degree of ribbing from his mates, but at the time, I just enjoyed chatting to someone who seemed so genuine, fun and exciting, compared to the usual misfits I hung out with.

The friendship continued after we left school. When I was home from uni in the holidays he’d ring and say “let’s go out for a drink” and within ten minutes, infuriatingly leaving me very little time to get ready, he’d have pulled up outside my house in his silver car. It was usually just the two of us, but sometimes one of his friends would come along.

I have lost count of the number of times I snuck lingering glances, when he wasn’t looking, of his slim athletic frame, his curly brown hair, green-blue eyes and perfect white teeth. He never tried to hold my hand or kiss me. There were a few playful nudges when we were having a laugh.

The most that happened – and it has lingered in my mind for over 20 years – was a night when we trudged back to his house in the snow one Christmas, with one of his friends. It was freezing cold but I had no gloves. He noticed me shivering and rubbing my hands together. “Here, put your hand in my pocket to warm it up.” I slipped my hand into his jacket and his hand went in too, next to mine, but we didn’t even hold hands, just had our hands sitting there in this inadequate space, awkwardly next to each other. I still don’t know whether I should have held his hand or not. I was too scared to make any move that would destroy our friendship and result in not seeing him at all, but he never suggested anything else happened, either. It was the great unspoken moment in our non-relationship.

As the years passed, boyfriends came and went, and I’m sure he had girlfriends but he never mentioned them to me, and I never told him about the men in my life. I moved into a flat, he got a house and the last time we had a proper conversation was when he came to see me just after I moved in – I didn’t even have a phone number for him; he had tried to contact me via my parents’ number.

For some reason there was a little awkwardness between us and we were both less relaxed than before. The conversation was stilted. I somehow felt a little embarrassed. We went out for a drink, which was also more tense than usual, then went our separate ways, not arranging to meet again. With hindsight, this was probably the moment when the drapes were fully drawn on any way out of the ‘friendship zone’. We were utterly stuck in our little ruts with no way up the slippery walls.

We had fleeting contact a few years ago via a social media site – but it was mostly a ‘hi, how are you and congratulations for being married and having kids’ conversation, which went nowhere and he clearly had no intention of taking it further. I wanted to scream: “WELL, ACTUALLY, MY MARRIAGE IS PRETTY MUCH FINISHED, SO ARE YOU SINGLE AND DID YOU EVER FANCY ME? DID I MISS THE VITAL SIGNS AND IF SO, LET’S START SOMETHING NOW BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!”

Probably best I didn’t – the pain of rejection after all these years of an unanswered question would be like an extremely hard kick in the stomach with steel toe-capped boots. And why would I be so arrogant as to assume that the popular, funny, good-looking guy from school wouldn’t have settled down with a stunning, intelligent, faultless superwoman?

Maybe the ‘zone’ is the safest place to be.


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