My Male Friend ‘Girlfriend Zoned’ Me

But I really just wanted a friend

Photo by Brandi Redd/Unsplash

We met in a sophomore algebra class.

For the sake of privacy, we’ll call him Robert. Not that he will ever read this.

Robert sat behind me. A habitual mute, I didn’t speak unless forced and although I knew everyone in the class on a basic level, they weren’t my friends.

On a half-day at school due to some holiday, the school would shut down at noon. Although we didn’t know each other well at all, Robert struck up a conversation with me. We chatted for a bit and then he invited me out to ice cream. While I was hesitant at first, he reassured me it was a friends-only event. He just wanted to get to know me.

A friend! I thought. I’ve made a new friend — and a guy one at that.

We bonded fast. With similar interests in books, movies, and music, it really wasn’t all that surprising.

His friends and my friends got along for the most part. We formed one big outcast group. We went to movies and bowling and bonfires. Pizza nights were often and Xbox zombie game sessions had become our normal.

I loved it. We were regular teenagers. Life felt fun again. I had friends, real friends who cared about me.

Then a short time into our friendship Robert sat me down alone one night on my front porch. He had a confession to make, he said.

“I like you more than a friend.”

I froze up.

I didn’t know what to say. The feelings weren’t mutual. A part of me knew I liked girls but I felt too much shame to admit it, even to my friends. Fear convinced me I’d be rejected by everyone. My conflicting religious beliefs told me it was a sin. I couldn’t let myself like girls. That didn’t mean I could force myself to like guys.

But still, I had no choice but to admit his feelings weren’t reciprocated. I apologized. We were only friends, I said. Please don’t let this change anything.

He reassured me it wouldn’t.

Soon enough, our other male friend, David, grew feelings for me too. At one point, I felt like a young adult novel heroine being torn between two guys — when all I wanted to do was save the world, dammit.

I again let it be known clearly: I am not looking for a relationship. We’re friends. Let’s stay friends.

David got the message. Robert didn’t.

He Thought He Owned Me

My dream has always been to travel. When a teacher sponsored an educational trip to Italy and Greece, I immediately jumped aboard.

To my surprise, Robert joined on too. We were a small group of only four students and three adults. Having a friend to go with sounded like a dream come true. Instead, it became a nightmare.

Our group combined with a larger group out of Canada. I loved it. Meeting new people? Making new friends? Members of the other group wanted to know me. They were so curious about this little Oklahoman teenager who grew up in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere.

The attention is something I never experienced before.

The attention is something Robert grew jealous over.

When others wanted to talk to me, he invited himself into our conversations. He demanded to sit with me on the bus. He followed beside me at every stop we made across the country. He’s my friend, I thought, so of course he wanted to be beside me. But I needed some space.

I didn’t pick up on his possessive ways until I saw him around the other boys. When I spoke to any boy or a boy spoke to me, Robert would sit or stand right at my side with daggers in his eyes. His aura radiated anger. Kids in the other group avoided talking to me specifically because of him.

They feared him.

One night we had an overnight cruise on a boat across the waters into Greece.

We bunked in rooms of four, girls with girls and boys with boys. I told Robert goodnight and said I planned to stay in my room and read. It wasn’t a lie. That had been the plan. But the girls wanted to dress up. Tonight would be perfect to socialize, they said.

After all, we were trapped on a boat until tomorrow. We might as well have some fun while we’re at it.

I didn’t own any nice clothes, know how to do makeup, or did anything special with my hair but brush it. They took me under their wing. I became their fun project. They did my hair and makeup. One girl put me in her form-fitting jeans and a stylish shirt like nothing I had ever worn before.

In the end, the face staring back at the mirror startled me. I’m pretty, I thought. They made me pretty like them.

Excitement buzzed in me. We quickly left our bunker and joined the others in a foyer-like space on our floor of the giant cruise liner. It was mostly us girls and a few of the guys, Canadian hockey players.

We sat and chatted and laughed. I forgot about how self-conscious I had always been about my body. Among the easy and real conversations, I felt happy and accepted.

Then Robert saw us.

Robert appeared in the hallway and stared into the foyer.

I froze. My eyes snapped up. I was sitting too close to one of the boys and instinctively scooted away from him, even if my intentions had not been romantic.

Robert gave me the nastiness, angriest look I had seen in a long time. I hunkered in on myself. My arms folded over my chest to hide. He walked over and sat close beside me. If I thought I felt his anger before, now I could really feel it — like heat radiating off the body.

“I thought you were going to bed,” he said.

I shrank in. Why did I fear him? Weren’t we friends?

One of the girls came to my defense and said, “We made her come out here with us.”

Thank you.

“I’m sorry,” I told him.

It would be a lie to say I remember what happened next. I know his anger increased. He didn’t believe them. An awkward tension held over the room. No one knew what to say or do.

His anger eventually boiled over and he stormed back to his room. I know he came back once or twice, passing by in the hallway to keep an eye on me.

We were not dating. We had never dated. I made it clear we wouldn’t date.

Maybe he thought we were going to be a real-life “The Lizzie McGuire Movie.” I could be his Lizzie and he would be my Gordo.

That wasn’t the case and wouldn’t be the case.

Yet shame consumed me. Did I lead him on? Did I do something to cause this?

Thinking back now, I didn’t. I told him more than once we would not date. If those feelings changed, I would quickly let him know but they hadn’t. This trip, which we were already three days in on, hadn’t changed anything.

Maybe we couldn’t be friends.

Once alone again, one of the guys asked me about Robert. They noticed his possessive attitude. They wanted to know if we were dating. I said no.

They pressed me to talk and I explained our situation. Robert liked me romantically and I didn’t feel the same.

The group expressed its concern. I deserved to enjoy this trip like everyone else and couldn’t let him ruin it, they said. We needed to talk to our teacher.

But to my surprise, Robert was one step ahead of us.

Photo by David Köhler/Unsplash

My classmate and I went to our teacher’s room. I lifted my hand to knock when the door opened and Robert walked out.

His eyes were red as if from crying. Those eyes focused on me.

Mrs. Wilson looked between us and said, “We need to talk about this.”

I expected to be in trouble. Wasn’t this my fault? Women often blame themselves for how a man feels, for how a man reacts. I was no different.

“Robert,” Mrs. Wilson said, turning to him. “You have to leave her alone.”

My eyes widened. He what?

“You have to understand, she doesn’t belong to you,” she continued. “I think it’s best you two take some time apart. OK?”

He begrudgingly agreed and left for his room.

When he left, I hugged Mrs. Wilson tight. I thanked her. I let her in one what had been happening and she understood. I wonder if something similar ever happened to her.

But He Still Wanted Me

For the rest of the trip, we kept our distance. I socialized. I made friends. I sat with boys and girls alike without fear of what Robert might do.

Eventually, Robert apologized and asked to remain friends. I agreed. I didn’t want to ruin the years we had spent together.

He meant it this time, right? Just friends?

When we returned back to the states, things were seemingly normal again. I tried to block out the bad parts of our trip and focused on the good.

One night, Robert invited me to a birthday party with some of his other friends. It became clear early on it wasn’t a normal birthday party. We were teenagers, there were drinks. Robert had a whiskey or vodka bottle to himself.

I didn’t expect anything good.

He pressured me to drink. I said no. Everyone else wanted me to join in, but I declined again. They said I could ask my mom to spend the night. I’d be safe, they reassured me. I had never been drunk before. Wasn’t it now time to try?

I debated on it. The pressure consumed me. I called and asked Mom. She didn’t know why I wanted to stay but I had always been a good kid so she said yes.

But I didn’t drink. I didn’t want to. I watched TV as Robert and a few other teenagers grew drunker and drunker as the night went on.

Then at one point in the night, Robert demanded silence in the room. He could barely stand. His words were slurred. Robert pointed his nearly-empty bottle of alcohol at me. Everyone looked between us.

Robert proudly declared, “You see that girl? I love her.”

Not again.

I grew visibly uncomfortable. Others in the room already knew our complicated relationship. John, a mutual friend, suggested I go sit in his room at the house as he tried to sober Robert up. He would have a serious talk with him, he said. I agreed and retreated to the bedroom.

Should I go home? I thought. I didn’t want to be a party-pooper. They were my friends. What if they thought I was “lame” for leaving now?

After several minutes of self-reflection, I heard a stumble down the hallway. My head lifted. It grew louder and Robert appeared in the doorway.

I threw myself on the floor beside the bed and crouched low to hide. A lot bigger than I was, and very, very drunk, I feared what Robert could do to me.

John, a guitarist, had several instruments in his room. I grabbed a guitar and told Robert to leave me alone and not touch me, or else. Mom’s bad past experiences with men fueled my fear. I knew what men were capable of.

He apologized. He slurred through some speech about caring and loving me. I wanted to think it was sweet — isn’t this what sweet men did? Profess their love?

I felt sorry for him. I shamed myself again for not loving him back, but I didn’t owe him my love. I didn’t exist to fulfill his wants or needs. I couldn’t force myself to love him.

Robert stumbled toward me. I don’t know what he was trying — if anything — but I knew if he got ahold of me, I wasn’t strong enough to push him off.

I dropped the guitar and ran. I took off down the hall and through the living room. Everyone asked what happened but my legs drove me out the front door without a word.

It had been storming. I got into my SUV, snapped back in reverse, and drove home faster than I ever had before.

I went home and cried. If I didn’t love Robert back, would any of the friends I made through him still be my friend?

All of this must have been, in the end, my fault, I thought. What kind of person was I to not be able to love him back?

A normal person, I realize now. Normal.

Photo by Callie Gibson/Unsplash

I Blocked Out So Much

For so long, I felt bad about what happened between us. I blamed myself.

I must have done something wrong. I egged him on. I “friend-zoned” him.

But people should be allowed to be friends. I did not force him to feel how he felt about me, and I could not conjure feelings in myself that didn’t exist.

Those shameful feelings again stirred in me as I began to write this. Then the more I wrote, the more I remembered. Things I had blocked out over the years. Maybe I wanted to remember him as a better person than he was.

Robert had done much more than profess drunken love or illustrate a possessive attitude overseas. I remember now why I feared him.

Robert had anger issues.

When things didn’t go his way, he liked to punch things. Walls, his truck, anything nearby. I feared the day I angered him to the point the next thing he’d hit would be me.

I refused to let him drive us anywhere because I couldn’t trust him.

If I said something wrong, Robert used his truck as a threat.

I remember a time I said something wrong and he didn’t like it. We were in his truck as he drove me home. He began to accelerate the truck. Slow at first, then steadily climbing to unsafe speeds.

His eyes zoned out onto the road. He wouldn’t look at me or speak to me. I begged him to stop. He wouldn’t.

The truck speed hiked up. His driving grew erratic. I tried to be patient and let him let out his anger, but the longer it went on the more dangerous his driving became.

He’s going to kill me, I decided.

Robert finally slowed when we made it to town and he pulled up in front of my house. In a bout of fear and anger, I slapped him on the face. My feet couldn’t carry me faster inside the house.

He crashed two of his trucks in high school. If by anger or accident, I do not know. I imagined myself in those trucks. At times I felt like I belonged there beside him. Wasn’t his anger always my fault? Would he calm down if I agreed and just dated him already?

I later apologized for slapping him. I felt bad for how I reacted. Now I don’t.

He could have killed us.

His intentions were to scare me, and he did. Yet here I was forgiving him again. I always forgave him.

Teachers pressured me to forgive him when they sensed tension between us. He was well-liked. They didn’t know what we argued about but settled it down to petty teenage drama.

Other classmates joked that Robert and I were “meant to be together.” We weren’t. I made it clear. The jokes continued.

They didn’t see the dark side of him I had seen far too often. It isn’t a woman’s job to accept that darkness. It isn’t their job to make a man a better person.

He needed help — professional help. It’s clear he had plenty of emotions he needed to work through. Robert needed to find a healthy way to express himself instead of constantly turning to anger, anger often directed at me.

I was a teenage girl, not a therapist.

It took me too long to realize that.

I Still Hope The Best For Him

We remained friends for a short time after high school. I kept giving him chances to be just that — a friend.

I started college and he visited my dorm regularly. He liked to show up unannounced. I began to regret giving him my dorm number at all.

He still wanted to date. I still didn’t.

I figured we were adults now. We could get over what happened in high school. If he wanted to be friends, then be my friend. Don’t keep trying to force what isn’t there.

Yet when he would come to my dorm, he sat too close to me on my dorm bed. Timid, I wasn’t vocal enough to tell him how uncomfortable he made me when he put his arm around my shoulders. But the tenseness in my body made it clear. I had to forcibly move away from him often.

It became clearer the older I became that he would never respect how I felt.

He would always push for what wasn’t there because it’s what he wanted. What he wanted would always matter more than what I wanted.

I didn’t lead him on with false hope. He knew my intentions from the first time we met. I repeated them year after year. It isn’t my fault he ignored me.

After I moved back home for the rest of my schooling, we talked less and less. I got a job. Work and school took over my free time.

He eventually moved to a new city. Years later, he’s now married to his middle school crush and they have two young children together.

I’m glad Robert found someone. I hope they’re in love and happy. After all, even in the end, I considered him my friend. Of course I want happiness for him. But the type of happiness he wanted I couldn’t give him.

Guilt twisted my gut for years on what happened between us. I kept thinking in “if onlys.” If only I had given him a chance. If only I had said this or done that.

I had my own issues to work through, things I ignored for years. Things I’m still working through to this day. I focused too long on how to help him that I forgot to help myself. I know better now.

I wanted a friend in Robert. I accepted his anger. I accepted the way he made me afraid because I thought I had to. I felt obligated to maintain a friendship with him out of concern of what he would do to himself — or me — if I didn’t.

I didn’t owe him that obligation. He needed to take ownership of himself. I hope he has now.

My feelings were valid then and what I wanted mattered. And what I want still matters.

I’m working to take ownership of my own life. After all, it is my life. Mine.

I’m still figuring out what that means every day.

Cassius Corbin is a poet, fiction writer, photographer, and full-time journalist from rural Oklahoma. Follow him on Twitter @cassiuscorbin, Instagram @sixfeetrooted or email him at news.corbin@gmail.com.

Writer, poet, and photographer from Oklahoma. IG: @sixfeetrooted. Twitter: @cassiuscorbin.

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