Brothers and sisters, I wish to tell you a story. Please, listen carefully. This story is about the Friend Zone, that special place where a guy who is romantically eyeing a babe or vice versa is relegated, like low-ranking football club. When referring to persons in this zone, the objects of their affection would often say things like, “you’re like one of my guy or you’re like a male girlfriend or someday, you’ll make some woman a good husband.”
My name is Edima Akpan, and once upon a time, I lived in the friend zone.
My journey to that place began a few months after my thirteenth birthday. It was the day we had new neighbours moved in next door. As with every new arrival to our part of Garden Estate, nearly everyone was curious about the newcomers. Some of the neighbours went to help them move in; the children, like myself, watched from behind the low fences that demarcated each plot. I watched on as four children came down from the back of the moving truck which held various household furniture. They looked so happy, laughing and shoving each other. Later, I would find out their names. Eric, Ubong, Ama and Ikanke. Their parents were Mr and Mrs Barasuene.
“Why are you the only one in your family with an English name?” This was the first question I asked Eric when we became friends two weeks later.
“I was born in the UK and my parents christened me Edikan,” he said. “I guess whoever was filling out my birth certificate made wasn’t listening, because instead of Edikan, she wrote Erica on my birth certificate. My parents found it funny, and had it changed, but chose to keep on Eric as my first name.”
Unlike some of our neighbours who rented their homes, and moved away after a few years, the Barasuenes’ had bought theirs and would stay on for a long time.
It wasn’t long before Eric and I became inseparable. At first, our parents worried about our closeness, and Mama would often call me into her room and give me many lectures on the harmful effects of raging hormones and the honour in keeping one’s virginity. Papa wasn’t so subtle; he teased me endlessly and often remarked that he would prefer an in-law who lived close by. As the last child, my siblings were protective, but never intrusive. His family, had no fears at all.
Our teenage years soon gave way to young adulthood. We went off to different universities, but remained closer than ever. Then one day, after the second semester exams which heralded the end of my third year, I went home for the long vacation. As was our practice, Eric and I met under one of the mango trees that lined both sides of the avenue leading to the estate. When I saw him, something funny happened in my stomach. It felt like a bird was flying inside, up my chest, obstructing my breath. There was something different about him, something manlier.
“You now have some meat on your bones,” he teased, pinching my arm.
“And I can see that your eyebrows have come down for a drink,” I replied, pointing at the thin line of hair that circled his full lips and chin. We spent the next five minutes throwing verbal jabs back and forth. I marvelled at his voice, which had deepened into a smooth, silky baritone, just like his father’s.
“Do you remember Sifon Nathaniel? She was in your class in Marek Secondary school.”
“Of course I do,” I replied, surprised at the question. Who could forget Sifon? She’d been the most beautiful girl in our class. Womanly curves had found her body while most of the girls were still fasting and praying for the semblance of a bosom. It came as no surprise when she snagged the attention of all the boys; it came as no surprise that girls hated her.
“Why did you ask?”
“Well,” he said, taking a deep breath. “She’s in my school and we’re seeing each other.”
I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. This feeling was immediately followed by confusion. I couldn’t understand the sudden surge of anger and jealousy. The bird was gone from my tummy and in its place, was a heave ball of misery.
“Are you alright?” he asked, staring at me with worry.
“Of…of…course I am. Why shouldn’t I be? I’m happy for you o. But why didn’t you tell me?” On and on I babbled, trying hard to cover the mixed emotions and my trembling hands.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that it was so new and I wanted to keep it to myself for a little while.”
I was miserable during that vacation, for Sifon became a part of nearly all our weekly activities. Sometimes, they even hung out without me! I’d never felt so betrayed.
“I’m so happy my two best girls get along,” Eric remarked one day.
Sifon was such a nice person, which made things worse, for I had no reason to hate her. I tried to be happy for them, I really did. But whenever I saw them together, my face became like sour egusi soup, one that hadn’t been warmed for forty days and forty nights. If they remembered to look my way, I would smile until the sun bleached my teeth.
In all this, I had no one to turn to, except my friend Margaret.
“I need to do something about them,” I told her one day, towards the end of the vacation. We were in her room, watching a rerun of Law and Order.
“What do you want to do and why?” she asked, carefully applying blue nail polish to her big toe.
“It’s Eric. I love him. I love him and I can’t stand to see her with him.”
“Ehen! Now you’re talking. Shebi I asked you this before and you denied it,” she crowed.
“That’s not important now. What do you think I should do?”
She said I should tell him how I felt. I balked at that suggestion, for I was afraid. What if he didn’t like me too? Wouldn’t that make things awkward? I couldn’t risk ruining our friendship.
“Then you’ll never know. See, just tell him the truth—let’s see what he has to say. Even if he doesn’t like you back, we’ll come up with another plan. We’ll call it ‘Operation Take Back Your Boo,’” she said, laughing.
Filled up with Margaret’s motivational speech and a strong desire to win his heart, I set out next door to claim my man. But he’d gone out. So I called him and said could we hang out at the beach? He said yes. I got to our spot first. He showed up an hour later.
“Someone is looking extra pretty today,” he said, plunking down beside me. “What’s the occasion?”
I blushed. I can’t remember what we talked about going back to school. Before I could lose my nerves, I looked up at his handsome, angular face and said, “Eric, I like you.”
“I like you too. In fact, I like you pass my Mama,” he joked.
“Don’t be such a clown,” I said. “What I meant was, I like you, like you. Like a girl likes a boy.”
Seconds ticked by, the sounds of crickets chirping. He said nothing. I stared at the sand.
Then, in a gentle, quiet voice, he said, “Thank you, Edima. But you know….you know you’re like my sister.”
My brothers and sisters, in that moment, I learned a valuable lesson, a universal truth. That it is better for someone to say to you, “You’re like one of my guys, or you’re like one of my girls.” Because, the moment “you’re like my sister, or I see you as my brother, you can never, and I repeat, never, escape from the friendzone.