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.


Encore une fois

Ever make a decision, then ask yourself whether you were too hasty and should have thought it through a little more first? Ever think that aspects of your life seem to have progressed like merry-go-rounds, with you just returning to the same thing again and again?

Does this intro sound like the start of a self-help book?

I cannot be the only one to be guilty of cyclic/’Oops! I did it again’ relationships – the ones where you split up, get back together, split up and get back together again.

There are a number of celebrity relationships where it has happened – Elizabeth Taylor married and divorced Richard Burton twice, as did Melanie Griffiths with Don Johnson – so clearly it’s not an outlandish thing.

But, I have only been married once, so luckily not all my cyclic relationships have had the expense of a wedding or divorce – imagine the cost of all the dresses!

No, this has largely been strictly boyfriend/girlfriend or ambiguous sexual relationship situations.

The first was in fact my cherry picker – referred to here. He was my first boyfriend at uni as well as the first to go where no man had gone before.  He was 26 and I was 18, so while I was idealistic and waiting every day for him to show some emotion or commitment, he was very cynical and probably just hoping to get into my knickers, and then bed a few more girls on my course to show off to his friends the benefits of being a (slightly) mature student.

Tired of his non-committal ways and cynicism, I realised there were plenty more willing fish and cast him aside. He actually got very drunk, tearful and begged me to take him back shortly afterwards, but I didn’t.

We did, however, remain friends and a year or so after I left uni, took a trip to Prague together. We travelled as friends, but after a few cheap beers on the first night, the inevitable occurred. It occurred several times – and he observed that I had picked up ‘some new moves’ since the last time. For me, though, the only thing that stuck in my mind was him accompanying me to the hotel toilet after we returned from a night out and wanting to wipe my ‘front bottom’ like a small child…

My next cycle was rather a torrid one. Another from uni was D, with whom I had shared a rather tempestuous relationship. There were lots of rows, door slamming and shouting, but also good times when we could block out the world, alone together.

Things eventually came to a head and we split after about a year, but continued to live in the same house, which was painful at times. He started seeing other people, as did I. But I still found him irresistibly attractive and he must have still felt something for me. So after ‘talks’, we gave it another try. It lasted a few months, but was never quite the same again. The magic had died. I was glad when it was time to go home for summer and I could finally get away from him.

It was years before the yo-yo effect struck again.  I got through various relationships and added a few notches to my bedpost for around five or six years. This had all left me rather world-weary and sceptical about ever meeting ‘the one’. Then I ran into a very cute younger guy at a work event. One thing led to another and we ended up getting married.

But after a few years, things were not so happily ever after. We seemed to rub each other up the wrong way – both physically and metaphorically. We didn’t seem to be able to get through an evening without having a row at some point. So, we parted. Having a child meant we could never make a clean break and we remained friends.

All the stress and pressure of our relationship dissipated after several months. I tried out a few other men, fell in love with one, but it didn’t work out, while he remained single. So, one evening I invited him over for wine and a takeaway ‘as friends’.  But the drink, the familiarity and ease with which we could sit together on the sofa led to a small kiss, then a mad dash upstairs.

And somehow we ended up in the bizarre situation of being married, separated and dating. Not very easy to explain to concerned/curious friends.

So we tried living together again. But it seemed we were programmed to repel like two north or two south poles on a magnet. The same arguments began, the same stresses emerged. He announced that I was ‘doing his head in’ and he was going to move out – which was funny in a not-so-funny way because the first time we split up I had told him he was doing my head in…

The only positive from this sorry saga was that we could both say we were 100 per cent, totally, utterly certain that we could not be together because we had tried it twice. It was not a seven-year itch it was a ten-year burning, painful, weeping wound.

So, do ‘oops! I did it again’ relationships teach us anything? Could it be that really good books or films have to be experienced more than once so that you can pick up more minute details the next time around? That sometimes one chocolate isn’t enough? You have to eat the whole damn box before you are satisfied or feeling rather nauseous?

We are constantly evolving and learning, no matter how old we are. Sometimes ending a relationship is a hasty, rash decision, and something you thought was right at the time, but later regret. If you are a bit annoyed with your partner, sometimes it needs to be talked about, before it pushes you apart. But obviously 80 per cent of the time, if it’s not working, life is too short to be unhappy, and you need to walk away.

Of course, your plans are scuppered if the other person won’t go back. I will always feel a pang of hurt about a gorgeous barman I was seeing and stupidly cheated on. We broke up on these grounds. I tried to get him back by calling him to arrange to meet up and he spoke to me like I was a nuisance caller/something nasty and brown he had accidentally trod in.

So, why this topic? I am just pondering something at the moment and feel I may have made a hasty and incorrect decision. The trouble is that I know that taking me back would be the equivalent of betting on a three-legged horse.