The first time I thought to myself “I should be looking at girls” and the first time I unabashedly practiced such came in reverse for me. I remember her. It would be a devilish crime to reveal her name but to me she was beautiful and I doubt I’ll forget her. I’ll call her Helena. Not to be confused with the corpse bride in that one abominable song, Helena was void of melodrama and quite alive. I remember Helena. Her curves, tones, frame; her colors, hairs, and styles; her lascivious habits and mannerisms, like setting her body in a sultry pose when no one was looking. Well, I was looking. I don’t remember these things, but I remember remembering them.
I remember in science class I would make unnecessary ambulations between the fore and the rear of the classroom for the sole purpose of having more time to see her because, in addition to being my friend once upon a time, I was experiencing my first bout of child-like infatuation. I adored her. I wrote her letters, meditated on our futures and restructured my habits and schedules so that our lives would intersect even slightly more.
We were eleven. Well, she was twelve. I was a prepubescent and perennially awkward boy with no inkling of what my mind or body was tending toward, and she was a very early bloomer, the first to develop of all my class. And I want to focus on that: I had no inkling.
I didn’t know why I liked the way she looked, and I didn’t understand why I wanted to watch her. I didn’t understand why I wanted to talk to her or ingratiate myself. It was totally mindless. Biological. Empathic. Inertial. I was thrust along by body and emotions and the propulsion thereof had, frankly, no pilot.
We weren’t always eleven (or twelve, as fate would have it): once upon a time we were ten.
I remember it vividly because it wasn’t characterized by visual splotches of vague infatuation. It was characterized by heartwarming affection. I remember sitting in the corner underneath a round table (we could do this then, now we’re too big). We would play chess during our discretionary hours at school and talk idly. We shared experiences and I enjoyed her company. I knew things about her, then. We were, above and beyond all other considerations, friends. When I recount my friends as a ten year old, she numbers among them. When I recount my friends as an eleven year old, she, somehow, fails to appear. Why?
When I was 10, my body had no primal urge. It had no sexual drive. It did not see girls as particularly distinct from boys, although they were obviously smarter, quieter, curiouser and wielded greater social power. Further, my mind tended toward only bugs, and comics, and trees, and flowers, and, of course, mom (my guiding and lone example of what a woman is.) And so when Helena and I connected, we connected as children do. We ran and played, babbled and created. We drew pictures and laughed, a lot.
When I was eleven (and she was twelve), biology took over. I am, after all, a creature with creature wants and creature impulses. And the impetus of biology exceeded the impetus of our friendship. I increasingly failed to connect with her at the same time as my ignorant body increasingly desired hers. This pattern continued for five years until, finally, an entire year went by without even interacting with her. But in my private mind, I thought about her constantly. I still wrote her letters and read the ones she had sent me when we were younger. I still pored over our shared memories and occasionally walked by her house for no good reason. She was a ghost in my shell, and a pernicious specter I could in no wise strike from myself.
I haven’t talked to this girl in six years. About six years ago I briefly added her on Facebook to discover she’d married, chosen a surprising career path, and divorce. Among numerous other bits of information I was momentarily lost, before realizing I did not even know this person and unfriended her. Before that I explained to her I had also married, but the conversation never went further than that. Prior to that, three years elapsed. I remember that—it was one of the hardest days of my life up to that point, because I was telling her I was leaving state and not returning. She was very displeased with my choice but did not begrudge me it. We hugged and that was that.
When I think about her, which I do at least once a month (without even meaning to or choosing to, I’m sure you understand), I miss her and I wonder if she’s okay. Has she surmounted the abuses of her past? Has she healed from her divorce? Has she found fulfillment?
When she flits into my mind, I see her eleven-year-old form.
I see her in her velvet dress. It’s maroon and she has a black ribbon. She has a cheap trinket around her neck but to us it is lavish jewelry. She is smiling at me wanly, and I know that she is suffering from home. I don’t hold people’s hands yet, and I don’t know how to hug because it’s scary, so I go sit with her. We don’t touch. I talk to her about a comic strip I’m inventing and she laughs at my main character, a messianic bovid clad in the regalia reserved to superheroes. Her skin is pale, her freckles are deep and contrast violently against her pallid complexion. I am shy because I don’t know how to be someone’s friend, but I sit with her because I am determined to figure out how to.
I don’t remember what she looked like when she was twelve. I don’t remember what her voice sounded like when she hit puberty. I don’t remember our conversations as teens. What did we do together? I don’t recall the subject of our letters. Did she even exist? I have vague, sexualized notions of this time, but the memory is phantasmically indistinct.
I remember when she hugged me on my last day at our high school. What did she say? I don’t remember, I only remember her eyes and the story they were telling me.
“You just got friend zoned,” exposits the local authority on male social dynamics, my boisterous acquaintance, as we regard a group of women I’ve been recently buffeted by. He flashes a mischievous grin and his facial lines and predatorial eyes suggest he is not my friend. The intonation of his voice suggests to me that he is not even on my side. The jeering agreement of our company suggests to me that his words are an insult. I appraise, briefly.
Friend zoned? I’ve found myself in the hotseat of a thousand thousand men.
A cursory search of Google, “friend zone,” brings up a panoply of information. 2,570,000 hits in 0.79 seconds. Impressive if only for volume. ‘Define friendzone’ only netted 640,000 results and in 1.09 seconds. The top result is from Wikipedia which has devoted an entire page to the term. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it thusly: “the state of being friends with someone when you would prefer a romantic or sexual relationship with them:”1 It then goes on to provide an example: “You know you’re in the friendzone when she asks you for relationship advice.” The Oxford Dictionary offers this: “A situation in which a friendship exists between two people, one of whom has an unreciprocated romantic or sexual interest in the other.”2 It provides these examples, among others: “I’m a nice caring guy, so can often get trapped in the friend zone,” “‘No hope of escape once they put you in the friend zone,’ he said,” “‘I’ve been shunted into the friend zone,’ he continued, nodding in Stella’s direction,” and the dubious “People send themselves to the Friend Zone so they can feel okay about being rejected.”
The longer you research this term, the more you will discover that, like anything else, it is not without critics. But if you dig even just a little bit deeper you will realize that the primary, perhaps the only, criticism mounted against this term has a feminist origin. In “The Dangerous Discourse of the Friend Zone,” by Amanda Marcotte, we are immediately greeted with these words (accompanying an animated woman and a disinterested man sitting at a posh table): “This is the first image I got when I did a stock image search for ‘friend zone’. The implication is clear: Women have nothing of value to say besides, ‘I get to suck your cock now?’”3 The article rails against misogyny and men, generally. In “Avoiding the Friend Zone: Becoming a Girlfriend or Boyfriend” by Jeremy Nicholson, apparently MSW, Ph.D. & ‘Attraction Doctor,’ of Psychology Today, we are faced with these words: “How to stop falling into ‘let’s just be friends’ and the ‘friend zone’.”4 In this article, the so-called friend zone is treated like a disease which falls somewhere in between leukemia and diabetes in significance.
Jezebel author Tracy Moore writes:
…the dreaded friendzone, the terribly sexist trope of male whining and entitlement that suggests that being friends with women is a game you play that waits on a payoff of sex, one you expect to get because you’ve been so nice and available and sweet and attentive for sooooo long. This is not how romance works — slowly wearing someone down over time…5
The Western world is redefining human relationship through a subtle persuasion of suggestion and these excerpts are only one evidence of this. To be a friend or not to be, that is no longer a question. The answer is already implicit—immutable—and to challenge it puts one in peril. We must avoid friendship with the opposite sex, you see. That is, women—men being friends with men is a whole other can of worms I’ll open later. Because this is a male term, you see. It’s obvious that a negative connotation, replete with judgment and hostility, has been rolled up into the term. In fact, the term is worse than leukemia and diabetes alike if you compare the magnitude of militancy mounted to destroy them.
To be a friend is a sexist trope, a helpless and scorned plea for sexual reciprocity, a condition to avoid at all costs, a harmful social contract through which one extracts favors from another. To be a friend is to be trapped, without escape; a place to be shunted, perhaps never to return; strategic tactic to establish failure as normative, like a relational chess-game decided by impotency.
If the internet is to be believed—and in my personal experience, the real-life opinions concerning this term are even more savage, acerbic and unbalanced than these above examples illustrate—to be a friend is the ultimate failure of human relationship. It embodies weakness, stupidity, primordial nonviability, and contempt. It relegates the friend to the status of pariah and impugns his every action.
Why, then, when I remember my childhood friend Helena, do I recall nothing but fond friendship? Why, when I think about all the people I have known, the tender human connections of friendship are all that remain? Why, when I think of my estranged wife, I can remember only our formative years, and nothing after our friendship broke irreparably? Why is it that, if friendship is so ill, I have spent my whole life in pursuit of it?
I propose something radical: to elevate friendship above every other relational stratum, and to pursue it as a guiding purpose. Abiding, affectionate friendship cannot be anathematized. It should be elevated far above sex, social capital and power-exchange. It should be elevated above the petty trajectory of the pick-up line. Friendship is a sacred and powerful thing and should not be taken lightly. Friendships are few and far between and the most important bond gluing together society—the only bond, in fact, capable of connecting me to society. When we wonder why we are cold and dead inside, and void of purpose, and why our relationships aren’t working, why our wives have left us and our husbands are more interested in their media than us, why our children are operating seemingly as a different, disconnected tribe, we should consider seriously whether we have marginalized friendship into an abstract, personal non-existence. We should consider seriously whether the glue which can connect us is missing.
I once read a Calvin & Hobbes comic as a child about purpose. Bill Waterson was always a favorite artist of mine. Here is one of his great comics6, copied below in its original form:
It got me thinking about the meaning of life. I asked everyone I knew what the meaning of life is, for all of mankind, and many informed me they did not know. Some professed to know. They said things like “happiness,” or “health,” or “life is what you make of it.” There were as many answers as there were people and I noticed that few of them were happy. Except, I noted, those with families and friends. And the families were friends. The interconnected web of friendship acted like a life force or a ward, sustaining, strengthening and enriching those people.
And one day I realized I wanted to be one of those people. Now, I am. I have a best friend. I feel richer than anyone because my friendships make me rich. They make me strong. They are good enough purpose for me, for now, while I stare at the crack in the sidewalk.
I am glad to be in the friend zone and I hope to find myself there all my days.
During the composition of this post I listened to [Watershed] by [Opeth]. While I try to listen to new music as a practice, this one has become time-tested and a mainstay of my listening sessions. There are few albums I would recommend, and fewer I would call ‘perfect’ albums, but this one achieves both.
Progressive metal, death metal, and soft rock meet to magnificent and tender effect, stirring up melancholic sensations spanning from the recognition of one’s own mortality and doom to gentle, quiet respite.