It’s hard not to chuckle at the near-ubiquity of essays citing the horrors of being trapped in the Friend Zone. The stories I’ve seen are, with few exceptions, penned by men — as if it is impossible to believe women can be turned down for sex, too. Either this sort of thing only happens to me, or this is one topic women aren’t writing about. Because, as a woman, the option to have sex is always on the table, right? Allow me to toss my hat in the ring with the bold assertion that this most definitely is not the case.
I met Jesse in line for a sold-out show, chatting with him and his friends before convincing them to sell me their spare ticket. I spent the entire show alongside their motley crew, appreciating their accents as much as the Red Bulls they kept buying for me. When they suggested I accompany them to a loft party where the singer from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was supposedly hanging out, I couldn’t think of a good reason not to go. Karen O. never made an appearance, and I decided that four quirky South African boys were a bit much for me at 4 a.m. I ducked out of the stranger’s apartment without saying goodbye or exchanging phone numbers. I wrote the experience off as the kind of thing that “could only happen in New York,” committing only enough details about the boys to memory to write an effective review of the bands we’d seen and the narrative of how I’d gotten a ticket to the show. I didn’t anticipate that they would Google the show and, upon reading my review, track me down on Facebook.
Jesse and I saw a lot of each other after that, exploring New York with equal parts wonder and disgust at the splendor and the filth; the way only new residents can. There were a lot of adventures to be had that winter; bar crawls that ended with us tromping through piles of snow in Tompkins Square Park, bags of sour plums and dried apricots devoured on midnight strolls through the frozen streets of Chinatown, sweating to the loud “wub-wub-wub” of speakers at parties held in unventilated Bushwick warehouses.
Our friendship didn’t feel dependent on exploits and all-nighters — a lot of time (and money) was spent on downtempo dinners, joints and watching movies in his sublet off Second Avenue. We were both emphatic that our friendship remain platonic, but the sexual tension mounted every time I passed out in his bed, too drunk or too lazy to take the train to my far-flung edge of Brooklyn.
One particularly cold night, neither of us could summon the energy to leave the East Village. Instead of searching for adventure, we wandered around the corner from his place and into a wine bar. After the first few glasses we began drinking heavily, engaging in our typical half-friendly, half-heated banter. From the side-eye the bartender was giving Jesse, she clearly found him attractive — but couldn’t gauge how I fit into the equation.
Giddy with the warmth that only one-too-many glasses of red wine can conjure, Jesse settled the tab and we took our play-fighting back to his apartment. The more I pushed back at him, the more aggressive he became. Jesse closed the distance between us, backing me against a wall and grasping both my wrists in one hand. Aware that our fighting was a flimsy cover for flirtation, our mutual hesitation didn’t last very long. We kissed furiously, shucking layers of winter clothing onto the kitchen floor. Shirtless and shoeless, my ass firmly planted on the kitchen counter, Jesse took a step back and looked at me as if he was really seeing me for the first time.
“Huh,” he said, “you’re kinda… fat, huh?”
Even drunk, his use of the dreaded “f-word” flipped the switch of my sexual desire straight to the OFF position. “Wh-what? What did you just say?” I said, mortified.
“N-nothing… nothing,” he replied, but the damage was done. I pushed him out of the way and fled to the bathroom, fumbling to lock the door before I began to bawl. I blubbered loudly, certain that the neighbors could hear me through the thin tenement walls, but unable to keep my wailing under control.
Jesse didn’t give me much time to collect myself before he began knocking at the door. “Are you okay? I think…” he hesitated, “I think you’re overreacting.” My unabashed sobbing continued. “You have to stop crying like that,” he pleaded, his rapping at the door growing increasingly anxious, “or someone’s going to call the cops.”
An ugly red-and-black streaked face stared back at me from the mirror, only upsetting me further. Maybe Jesse was right, maybe I was… I couldn’t even say the word to myself. It felt so ugly, so hateful. “Fuck you!” I screamed. “Just fucking… fucking fuck off!”
“Listen, I’m sorry — really. I didn’t mean it. I mean, I meant it, but—“ The doorknob jiggled and whined as Jesse attempted to pick the lock.
“Just go away!” I howled. The knob went still, and the sound of footsteps indicated Jesse’s retreat.
Once I had my waterworks under control, I did my best to remove the waterproof mascara streaked down my face. I left a lot of black splotches on the hand towels by the sink before I emerged from the bathroom, still very drunk, intent on gathering my clothes and running straight home.
Jesse was sitting on the couch, fully dressed and insistent that I wasn’t going to leave. “It’s fucking three in the morning and you’re wasted — I’m not letting you take the train back to Brooklyn.” Too exhausted to argue and worn out from the good, long cry I had wrapped up only moments before, I agreed to stay on one condition: he would go to bed, and leave me to sleep on the couch. It seemed like a good compromise until Jesse pointed out that the only radiator in the apartment was located in the bedroom. I was out cold the minute my head hit his pillow, saved from further awkward conversation by sleep.
In the morning, I woke with a headache and lingering sense of despondency over the events that had transpired between Jesse and I the night before. Eyeing his sleeping form beside to me, I knew a speedy escape was necessary; not that it would return any of the self-respect I’d lost by sleeping next to him, but the last thing I wanted was another uncomfortable exchange while wearing little more than my underwear. Doc Martens on and laced, coat in hand, I fumbled with the front door for what felt like forever. Still, it refused to budge from its frame, despite my frantic turning and pulling. My heart beat loudly in my ears, convincing me Jesse would wake up at any moment and witness my panic at being trapped in his living room. The idea that another layer of indignity could be added to the experience was anxiety-inducing.
The fight continued as I turned every broken lock on the old apartment door to no avail. The knob continued to rotate, the locks clicked inside the heavy metal behemoth before me, but the latch refused to catch. With each failed attempt, my hysteria mounted. I swore at the door under my breath, too scared the noise would rouse Jesse to adequately vocalize my frustration. Flailing against it, a strange combination of turn-pull-shove cracked the door just wide enough for me to step out into the hallway and shut the door quietly behind me.
Twenty minutes of panic were quickly forgotten once I was on the street, hailing a cab as the rush of endorphins released during my getaway hit me like a ton of bricks.
When Jesse texted hours later to ask if I wanted to meet up and chat, it was almost like the night before hadn’t happened. Over coffee, Jesse apologized for making me cry while people at the tables closest to us pretended not to eavesdrop.
“I didn’t come to America to meet girls,” he insisted, and I believed him. I caught the eyes of a girl at the table next to us; the look on her face spoke volumes when I asked Jesse why he hadn’t apologized for his use of the adjective that pushed me over the edge.
“Fat,” I said. “You told me I was kind of fat.” Jesse’s apologies grew quieter every time I demanded he speak up, his cheeks red with embarrassment. “Do you have to say everything so… loud?” he asked, grabbing my hand over the table.
I did, actually. I wanted to believe this was a friendship worth saving — though it fizzled in the weeks that followed. I could handle being rejected, but not the seed of disgust he planted in my head that night. Even in winter, weeds like that have a tendency to bloom.