The Friend Zone
That photograph of me and Kate on the pier.
I stared at it and let the memories flood over me, bringing with them every emotion: happiness, longing, excitement, fear, remorse, and pain because I didn't want this to end. I hadn't been without her since middle school, and now I would have to be.
That photo was the last thing that remained in my empty room; everything else was already packed in the car ready for when I was leaving bright and early the next morning. This framed photo of me and Kate that she had given me to "remember her when I went to school" was one of my most prized
possessions, the one thing that I was not going to let out of my sight. She didn't know that of course. I always teased her and said I hated that picture of me.
She also didn't know that this was the hardest thing I have ever had to do-say goodbye to her. I had a lump in my throat the size of a grapefruit, and I didn't have butterflies in my stomach- I think they were more like bats. I was scared too-not knowing when I was going to see her again, or
if things would be the same between us when I did. But she would never know that.
The sharp alarm of the doorbell interrupted my thoughts.
That would be her now. I took a deep breath, placed my picture back on my bedside table, and headed downstairs to say good bye to my best friend.
When I got to the bottom of the stairs, I could see that she was already sitting on my living room couch with her hands folded neatly in her lap, her spine perfectly erect, head staring straight forward-like she was being held up by a marionette's strings. Usually she just walked right in
and made herself at home, sprawled out on the couch, TV already on, but today I had asked her to warm me when she arrived.
I was hoping to have a little bit of time to admire her unnoticed, but she must have heard me enter the room because she turned around just as I stepped off the last stair, jumped off the couch, and ran over to hug me. Even though I saw it coming, sort of, it still almost knocked me off
balance when she threw her full weight into my arms (which couldn't be more that 110 pounds). I caught her in mid-jump and spun her around, like I always do, but when I set her down she didn't let go.
"Michael, why do you have to go?" she whispered into my ear, her breath tickling my skin and sending shivers down my spine as she pulled me closer to her in one of our final embraces.
"Kate, everything is going to be fine." I hoped the words coming out of my mouth sounded convincing because I didn't even believe myself. I took one of my hands and started running in through her shoulder length brown hair that still had flecks of blonde in it from when she had tried
highlighting it at the beginning of the summer, "We will still be best friends. Nothing will change." But I wanted things to change… for us to get closer… but I didn't tell her that.
"I'm going to miss you so much." She finally released her me from the hug and settled for gripping my hands instead, as if when we lost physical contact she would lose me completely.
"I'm going to miss you, too, but we will make it through this. I promise." When I said this the tears welled up in her eyes, and I ran my fingers across her soft, sun kissed cheeks, with my well-practiced hand, to wipe them away.
"But what am I going to do without you at school this year?" she pleaded as we moved across the room and sat on the couch. I draped my arm over her tiny shoulders that were visible under her blue (she would tell me it was actually teal) tank top and pulled her close to me. This couch held so
many fond memories of me and Kate, but I tried not to think about them now because I didn't know if I would be able to stay strong for her if they started flooding into my mind.
"You will do amazing," I assured her. "You have so many friends, and you are one of the most intelligent people I know. Your senior year is going to be your best year yet." I planted a gentle kiss on her forehead, making sure to stay in the friend zone.
"How could it be the best year if you aren't here? You are my best friend- the one person I can tell anything, and I won't even be able to talk to you very often. Seriously Michael, why couldn't you just have decided to go to college locally like everyone else."
I know that Kate only meant that last sentence as a joking stab at me, but it kind of felt like guilt punched me in the stomach.
"Kate, I promise you, we will talk as often as I can. I know you think I'm not hurting over this, but I am. You are one of the most important people in my life and that will never change."
"I feel the same way," she answered as one final tear escaped and made a trail down her right cheek.
We both stood then and hugged for the last time in who-knows-when. I walked her to the door and stood waving goodbye until her red Eagle Talon turned the corner, regretting that I didn't tell her about my true feelings for her and not knowing that her feelings for me would change in a
drastic way after I left.
I searched until I found the nearest window seat: row 12. I sat down with my small carry-on placed in my lap. I pulled the picture of me and Kate out of my drawstring bag and just stared at it. I remembered exactly when this picture was taken; it was the first weekend of summer vacation and
we had gone to spend the weekend at Kate's grandfather's house up at Deep Creek Lake. He had taken the picture of us in our bathing suits, one arm around each other, the other gesturing thumbs up, right before we were about to jump into the lake for the first time that season. We both had huge cheesy grins on our
faces, but Kate still looked beautiful.
I was interrupted from my reminiscing when I was asked, "Is this seat taken?"
"No, go ahead" was my automatic response without even glancing up at my soon-to-be flight mate for the next couple hours.
But when I did look up I think my jaw must have dropped (but I hope to God that it didn't) because I was looking at the most gorgeous girl that I had ever seen in my life. I mean, Kate is beautiful but this girl was "WOW" gorgeous, stunning even: the kind of girl who would turn heads at a
fashion show. She had straight blonde hair that fell to the middle of her back and the deepest blue eyes that I could imagine.
She took a seat, then turned to me with a natural, flawless smile and said, "Hey, I'm Emma."
"I'm Michael." I tried to come off as cooler than I was feeling, but that was all I could get out because my mouth felt like it was stuffed with a dozen cotton balls. We shook hands; hers were soft and warm, and I thought I smelled a hint of vanilla.
As I released her hand, holding on for a few seconds longer than necessary, I realized that the picture of Kate and me was still sitting on my lap. I hastily tried to put it away, but in doing so I probably drew too much attention to myself. Halfway through the process of opening my bag and
sliding my picture back inside, Emma leaned toward me and said, "Awww, is that you and your girlfriend? That's so sweet!"
"No, Kate's just my best friend," I replied (a little too quickly). I tried to shrug it off and nonchalantly slide the picture the rest of the way into the bag, but I proved that subtlety is not my strong suit.
Emma touched my hand, applying a soft pressure, and asked, "Can I see?" Her blue eyes shone so bright, and she showed all the innocence of a five year old asking her mommy why she couldn't have cookies for dinner.
"Umm, sure." I couldn't say no to that cute little pleading face she was giving me, so I slid the picture back out as she released her hand from mine.
"Awww, that's such a cute picture!" she said, taking it into her hands. Then she turned to face me and asked, "Are you going to visit her?"
"Attention all passengers! This is your captain. Please find your seats and fasten your safety belts. Our flight from Baltimore to New York is about to take off. The flight attendants will be coming around to check that you are securely fastened before we take off. Thank you for your
cooperation. Let's have a great flight!"
I placed my picture back into my bag where it belonged (along with my thoughts about Kate-at least for now). "I was saying- no, I'm not going to visit her. I'm actually going to start my freshman year at NYU."
"No way!" Emma exclaimed, causing me to jump slightly, "I'm going to be a freshman at NYU too! That's insane!"
"Seriously? That is crazy!" I couldn't believe my luck. Maybe going away to school, away from Kate, could have its benefits after all.
"This is so great!" Emma said, "I was so nervous to go to school so far away from my family and friends. It was also hard saying goodbye to my boyfriend Greg; we've been dating for six months and my going away to school scared both of us. But I'm a little less scared now that I've met you.
Hopefully we will become good friends!" She gave me a heart-melting smile.
"Yea," I mumbled, "friends."
I managed to fake a smile, and not a good one at that. How could I be so stupid? A girl like that was bound to have a boyfriend! I was batting two for two in the past two days.
Just then I began to feel the plane start moving, and after muttering something to Emma about having to listen to music to calm me down when a plane takes off, I reached into my bag and grabbed my I-pod. My thoughts slowly began to wander back to Kate as I drifted off to sleep accompanied by
the loud rock music.
Surprisingly by the time I was mostly moved into my dorm room, on the third floor of Heritage Hall, I had almost forgotten about the awkward ending with Emma, my sleeping through the whole plane ride, and the even more awkward (at least for me) "I hope I'll see you around campus" Emma and I
exchanged when my roommate, Ronnie, picked me up. Ronnie and I had an instant connection. It was like we had known each other for years; we both played guitar, loved going paintballing, and were huge rugby fans. We had only talked a few times online before meeting for the first time at the airport, but we talked
the whole car ride to school as he pointed our landmarks and cool places to hang out (he's from New York).
Ronnie had set up most of the room by the time I got there-since he had arrived a week early for pre-season rugby practices-so then he helped me unpack. I let him help me with most things except for the picture of me and Kate. I made sure to put that on my desk so I could keep my promise to
her (and always be able to see her); Ronnie gave me a hard time about being whipped by a girl who I wasn't even dating, but I chose to ignore it. So I also chose to ignore my phone when it went off five times that evening- all calls from her- to avoid getting any more grief.
As the weeks went by at NYU, I got adjusted to college life: classes, homework, eating in the dining hall, making friends, and surprisingly becoming close friends with Emma. I was always running into her, considering she lived on the bottom floor of my building and I had my business
management and American history classes with her; so we would walk to classes together, sit next to each other, do homework and study together, and sometimes we would even eat lunch together. Some people, if they didn't know any better, might think that we were dating, but no; we were just friends.
I got asked all the time if she was my girlfriend, and I wanted to say yes so badly, but that would break the code of the friend zone. I had to live my life by this code daily, treading the fine line between friendship and wishing it was more: it was like walking on a tightrope suspended
forty feet in the air.
This line was tested one evening when we just happened to be at the same party together. Ronnie had finally convinced me to go out with him one Saturday, and I was hoping for a change of scenery and to get away from my girl confusions.
I had always pictured what a college party would be like…but my aspirations-as well as my hopes for the evening- were shot dead as soon as I walked in the door of Apartment C24.
I didn't see a single person I knew, and since Ronnie had just abandoned me, I was about to return to my empty room upstairs when I heard some girl behind me ask, "Hey aren't you Michael, Emma's boyfriend?"
My heart skipped a beat, causing my breath to get caught in the back of my throat for a couple seconds, rendering me speechless. My brain kicked into cruise control and the only intelligible word that I could form was, "What?"
Her brain was running at full-speed though (probably aided by the alcohol that was most likely pulsing through her blood stream) because I swear she rattled this answer off without taking one breath. "I heard from Casey's best friend's boyfriend's cousin Megan that she heard from Kevin's
sister's boyfriend Brain that there was possibly a rumor that you and Emma were possibly dating. But I could be wrong. But I don't think so because you two are always together and always look so happy together and it's just SO CUTE!"
I stood there speechless, trying to process her rapid-fire explanation, so she took this opportunity to stop, take a breath, and say (in a voice that resembled a concerned friend rather than a bleached blonde cheerleader) "Besides, don't you see the way she looks at you, and the way you make
her eyes light up when she smiles at you."
I felt as if the wind had just been knocked out of me- that feeling like when a 250 pound player on the opposing rugby team shoulders you right below the ribcage and decides not to move after he flattens you on the ground. You don't have enough air in your lungs to breathe, let alone scream
at him to get the heck off of you. This feeling was slightly different, definitely better, but infinitely as helpless.
I tired to make myself form words, as a gesture of politeness, but my mouth felt as if it was lined with sandpaper, and my brain had nothing to offer me but cobwebs that had formed around the outsides of my actual thoughts. I think after a few mute seconds I was able to produce the word
"drink," after probably making a complete fool of myself, and squeezed my way across the room.
Just as I was about to reach the drink table, which had as much beer spilled over the table itself as was in the actual cups, I felt my cell phone start to vibrate in my back pocket. I pulled it out to answer it (as if I could hear the person on the other line anyway) and saw it was Kate
I decided this was a good excuse to leave so I started winding my way back toward the door to talk to Kate. But as I approached the door, I saw Emma standing in the corner, talking to a few people- including the girl who accused us of dating. I tried to sneak out without her seeing me, but
she ended up spotting me and waved me over with a huge smile on her perfectly made up face.
"Hey Michael!" she called over the pumping stereo behind us, and pulled me into a warm hug, as the eyes of the brunette who had talked to me earlier locked onto us. "How are you?"
"I'm good… kind of deaf though." I half-laughed.
She genuinely laughed back. "Yea, I know the feeling! Do you want to go somewhere quieter?"
"Sure." I practically screamed into her ear just to be heard. But then I realized, as I followed her out the door and outside the building: we were going to her room…alone. If I didn't know she had a boyfriend I would have been really excited and nervous, thinking my girl luck would finally
be turning around- but even knowing the current situation I still was feeling a little of both!
But as soon as we got outside of the apartment building and a little way across campus, far enough to hear each other if we talked in normal voices, I started to hear "The Great Escape" and Emma reached into her purse, and said "Sorry, that's my phone…"
She pulled it out and smiled as she flipped it open. "Hey Baby!"
My heart felt like it had been stepped on… again. I shouldn't have even gotten my hopes up that Emma would really want to spend time alone with me in her room; she was taken- I had to get this through my head. That other girl didn't know what she was talking about.
I touched her on the shoulder, and she motioned to give her a second. "Can you give me one minute, Babe?" She put her hand over the phone's speaker and turned to face me, with a look of apology in her eyes.
"I'm just going to go back to my room. I'll talk to you later." I turned to head toward my building.
"Michael," she grabbed my shoulder in slight protest. "I'm so sorry. I did want to hang out with you. I didn't know that Greg was going to call…"
"You don't have to apologize for your boyfriend calling. Don't worry about me; I'm fine. Have a good night Emma."
"Thanks Michael, you too." And she gave me a gentle kiss on my cheek, nothing romantic.
I walked away, without looking back, thinking about the irony of the past couple weeks: the two most important girls in my life only wanted to be friends with me, but I wanted relationships with both of them. What did I ever do to permanently land myself in the friend zone?
One evening we were having one of our normal study sessions (never study dates) for history, sitting in my room going over the Bill of Rights (I had made sure to put the picture of me and Kate in my desk before Emma arrived). About twenty minutes into our studying, her cell phone went off,
screaming "The Great Escape." I immediately thought it was her boyfriend (as my luck would have it), so I pretended to be completely immersed in the Third Amendment- though for the life of me, if asked, I couldn't begin to say what it consisted of.
But after I happened to overhear the normal exchange of greetings between Emma and whoever she was talking to, something changed in her tone of voice. She didn't have the usual added hint of happiness she always put on when she talked on the phone (although whenever I would point out to her
that she was using her "phone voice" again she thought I was making fun of her-which I never was. I always told her it was cute). And when I looked at her closer, I could see tears welling up in her eyes. It seemed like she couldn't even form real words because the only response that she was giving was "Uh huh."
Then finally, after what seemed like an eternity of having to watch her choke back her pain and not being able to do anything for her, she finally said "Ok. Bye" in the most robotic voice I had ever heard anyone use and closed her cell phone. Instantly she burst into tears that bordered on hyperventilation.
I had no idea what to do to comfort her, but apparently my instincts took over because I don't even know what prompted me to take her immediately into a hug, start stroking her back and keep repeatedly whispering in her ear "Everything is going to be okay." For some reason this felt like the
right thing to do for one of your friends when her boyfriend breaks up with her. But I was wrong.
When Emma had finally calmed down a few minutes later, she told me "No, nothing will ever be the same again! My grandmother had a heart attack! And she… she…d…di…" but she couldn't finish her sentence because the tears came rushing out of the floodgates of her eyelids again, and she really
was hyperventilating now.
So I continued to hold her and rub her back, and I kept telling her "I'm so sorry Emma…. She's in Heaven now… She's watching over you…" I even took a chance and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead, which is allowed in situations like this according to the rules of the friend zone.
Right after this she looked up into my eyes, with tears still falling, leaving mascara trails down her face and said, "But I didn't get to say goodbye."
"When's the funeral?" I asked.
"Saturday. But I can't go because I don't have a car up here." And the tears started to flow again as she buried her head in my chest.
"What if I told you I could drive you home for your funeral…?" I don't even know where that came from; I didn't even have a car on campus!
"Really?" She looked up at me again with hope in her beautiful blue eyes. "You would do that for me?"
"Of course, what are friends for?" As I said this I forced a smile, since I knew it would keep me in the friend zone forever.
"Oh my gosh! Thank you Michael! You are the best!" And she leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek that could have bordered on more than friends if the circumstances had been different.
And right as I was pulling her into a hug, at the exact worst moment possible, my phone went off. And who was it? None other than Kate…
"Go ahead, you can answer it," Emma assured me, so now I had to.
"Hey Michael! I haven't talked to you in so long! How are you?"
"I'm good, and I have some news for you -I'll be home this weekend."
"Oh my gosh that's the best news ever! I miss you so much!"
"Me too Kate, but I have to go. One of my friends needs me right now."
"Oh… okay. But I can't wait to see you this weekend!"
"Same here. Bye Kate."
When I hung up the phone it seemed like Emma had clamed down a little bit, probably because the reality of being able to go home and say goodbye to her grandmother was in the immediate future. I gave her one more hug after we agreed to meet up after classes on Friday. She gave me a final
kiss on the cheek as we were releasing from the hug and said, "I love you Michael; you're seriously my best friend!"
I couldn't even find words to respond to what anyone else would consider a compliment, but what I could only see as a rejection. That, and I was distracted with the thought of having to figure out a way to commandeer a car in the next two days…
"So let me get this straight… you want to borrow my car to drive this ridiculously hot girl home for her grandmother's funeral, in hopes that you she'll go out with you? Dude, I didn't think you had it in you!" My roommate punched me playfully in the shoulder and handed over his keys.
"Yea, Ronnie, something like that," I figured I would agree since nothing else I said had worked. I had already tried to explain my real reasoning, but all that got out of him was laughter, so him actually handing over his keys was a much appreciated improvement.
I grabbed my overnight bag and hurried out of the room calling, "Cya later man" over my shoulder so that he wouldn't have the opportunity to change his mind .
Emma was waiting for me down at my car (well… Ronnie's car) like we had planned, all packed and looking eager to get started on our four hour drive. We threw our stuff in the trunk, but just as I was heading around to get in the driver's side door, Emma gently grabbed my arm to stop me.
She stared into my eyes as if searching my soul and said, "Thank you again for doing this. You have no idea what it means to me. My grandmother was the person who took care of me for most of my childhood while my parents were going through an ugly divorce. She didn't want me to grow up in a
broken home, so she took me in." She told me all of this in a voice barely above a whisper, as a few tears slipped down her slightly pink cheeks. "You are one of two people who know this. Greg is the other."
"Wow, Emma. I feel special that you trust me with such personal information. And you know it's no problem."
I pulled her into a hug and kissed the top of her head. As I started to pull out of the hug about a minute later she squeezed me a little tighter and held on for a few seconds more than I thought were allowed by the friendship rules, I didn't dare pull away until she did. And even when she
did release me from the hug, she continued to hold onto my arms and gave me a look that I could have sworn was an I-really-wish-I could-kiss-you look. I think she even leaned slightly closer than necessary, and just as I got up the nerve to actually go through with what I thought she wanted, she let go of my arms
and slid into the passenger seat of the car, keeping her eyes averted from mine, as if that would make the feelings go away.
Neither one of us said much after that for the first couple of hours of the ride; we just let the music of Cartel drift out of the speakers and consume the slight unease in the air of the borrowed green Saturn.
One of the times that I glanced over at Emma, out of concern that she hadn't said anything in possibly two and a half hours, I saw that her head was resting between the window and the back of the seat, her eyes closed, breathing gently.
Emma woke up as we were pulling onto my street: after I had listened to CDs the rest of the four hour drive to keep myself company.
"Well, hey there. Thanks for joining me," I joked with her.
"Hi," she said and kind of half laughed through her just-waking-up state.
But when I got to my house, I couldn't pull into the driveway like I normally did; there were two other cars there: one that I recognized and one that I didn't. As soon as I stepped out of the car, Kate came flying out of the car that I did recognize and was already in my arms before I
hardly had a chance to shut my door.
"Michael! I missed you!"
I didn't know how to react: it felt great to have her in my arms again, but then there was Emma and the thought that she had been so close to kissing me before we had left school…
But my feelings changed slightly when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, (around Kate still in my arms) who got out of the next car. It was a tall, dark haired guy, wearing torn jeans and an Abercrombie shirt; he probably modeled for the company. I had never seen him before, but I was
certain this was Greg- the guy who was keeping me and Emma from dating. He saw Emma get out of the car and ran over to her and pulled her into a tight hug, kissing her hair like I had done just four hours earlier. But as he did this, her eyes locked with mine, (and it might have just been me and what I was feeling)
but there was a pleading there that made it seem like she would rather be in my arms than his…
But as soon as he released Emma and looked in my direction, I grabbed Kate even closer and told her (a little louder than necessary) "I missed you too, Kate," and kissed her forehead. If only I had known that doing this to my best friend had the same effect as Emma's hug in New York had on
me, I would have thought twice about it.
I released her a moment later when I realized that Greg and Emma had joined us on our side of the car. Emma and Greg were loosely holding hands, so I grabbed Kate's hand to show that I could play that game too (and I was so consumed in proving something-though I'm not sure what-to Greg that
I didn't even hear the sharp intake of breath from my best friend and the added pressure that she gave to my hand. And if I would have cared enough to look at Kate's face I would see the biggest smile humanly possible).
Emma was the one who decided to break the tension that I thought diamonds couldn't even pierce. "Michael, this is Greg, my boyfriend. And Greg, this is Michael, the boy I've been telling you about."
I guess I had to say something then, too. "And Emma this is Kate, my best friend. Kate, this is Emma, the girl I was helping the other night."
Each of us let go of the hand we held, and extended it to the person we were introduced to, locking eyes, daring the other to look away.
Brittany Morris is a senior at Mt. St. Mary's majoring in English. In addition to perusing her passion for creative writing, Brittany is a student teacher at Tuscarora High School & Editor of the Mount's Lighted Corners Literary Magazine.
Read other articles by Brittany Morris