We’re taught to believe that romantic and sexual love are the highest forms of human connection, that friendship is somehow second best, but in truth, a friend—even a friend that you used to want to bone—can be a greater blessing than any other.
On the first day of my freshman year of college, I sat down in my English composition class next to a petite girl with long dark-blond hair. I’ll call her Amy, and her warm, friendly demeanor won me over immediately. By the time my birthday rolled around, three weeks into the semester, I was already pretty sure we were going to be friends.
That day, before class started, she leaned over to my desk and offered me an Altoid.
“Thanks, but I’m good,” I answered.
“No, really, take one,” she insisted, and I turned scarlet—did I have terrible breath and not know it?
“OK,” I tried to say without opening my mouth at all, taking the tin from her. Inside was a gorgeous necklace, a silver and rhinestone pendant on a dark blue ribbon.
“Happy birthday!” she exclaimed, with the enormous, totally infectious smile I would come to know and love so well.
Once we started hanging out outside of class, we basically never stopped. She brought me flowers when I was in The Importance of Being Earnest; I returned the favor when she was in The Vagina Monologues. We watched movies in each other’s dorm rooms until ridiculous hours. On a group trip to San Diego over spring break, we slept in the same bed. She started to jokingly refer to me as her “girlfriend,” and I started to realize that I kind of wanted to be.
There were just a couple of tiny problems. I was openly bisexual, but she wasn’t. Also, we both had boyfriends.
I never asked Amy if she wanted to date me, because I knew the answer was no. Instead of coming clean about my feelings, risking devastating rejection and the end of our friendship, I tried to sublimate my crush. I conceived an immense dislike of her boyfriend for no reason I could fully articulate, even to myself, and simmered with jealousy every time she hung out with him instead of me. For her part, she fluctuated between being exasperated by my behavior and trying to reassure me that our friendship was important to her—since, when I wasn’t being totally weird, we had an awesome time together.
In the parlance of our times, I had been friend zoned. I did my best to come to terms with the fact that I wanted “more” and she didn’t, but since I had a hard time even admitting it to myself, it was impossible to work through in a healthy and constructive way. So I fumed in silence and picked fights over irrelevant things.
The tempestuous nature of our relationship went on for years. Every time she started dating a new guy, I was either ostentatiously rude to him, or I decided in the face of all evidence to the contrary that I had liked him first—either of which served as a perfectly good excuse to start another argument. There was a period of several months when Amy and I didn’t even speak to each other, and much longer stretches when our friendship felt desperately volatile, likely to be damaged by one misplaced word or gesture. I was like Regina-George-obsessed Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls. Amy drove me crazy, yet I desperately wanted her to pay attention to me.
I don’t necessarily think this experience is unique to queer girls with crushes on their BFFs; I know lots of other women whose teenage and young adult years were defined by some kind of borderline possessive, all-consuming friendship. Sometimes investing that much emotional energy in one person ends disastrously, much like the vast majority of romantic and sexual relationships during that period; sometimes, these intense friendships just don’t survive the transition to a more stable, adult stage of life.
But other times, the friendship ages with you, going from a source of strife to something that grounds and nurtures you. Even while I tormented Amy and myself with my unreciprocated crush, we were spending tons of time together, borrowing each other’s books, going on road trips, having dance parties, and inventing cocktails. For several years I was the only person allowed to cut her hair. She once told me I made the best scrambled eggs she’d ever tasted, a compliment I still keep close to my heart. She introduced me to my spouse. (And, OK, yes, one time we did make out, but that was long after my ardor waned. Queer chicks have to make out with all our queer chick friends at least once or we lose our accreditation.)
As we left our teen years behind and started dealing with serious Life Stuff, I watched Amy handle adversity and come out stronger. Once, I had to take her to the emergency room for reasons too complicated to go into, but suffice it to say that Amy was having A Bad Fucking Day. As we waited for a doctor’s attention, she noticed that a teenage girl in the waiting room was shivering and quietly crying. Putting her own stress and fear aside, Amy went and found a nurse and harangued her into bringing the crying girl several extra blankets. Looking back on this, and so many other instances of Amy being selfless, loving, and brave, it’s easy to see why my feelings for her developed from infatuation and resentment to real respect and admiration.
The longer you live in the “friend zone,” the more you realize it’s actually a pretty great place—a place of three-hour phone calls, group Halloween costumes, and reality TV marathons. Just because there’s no sex there doesn’t mean it can’t be the birthplace of a meaningful and amazing relationship.
Amy and I would have made a disastrous couple. In college, I would have (and did) make a disastrous couple with pretty much anyone. I was needy and prickly, unable to sort out what I wanted from a relationship, and like most people that age, Amy was not so different. We each went through a string of dramatic breakups, regrettable hookups, and all the rest of the standard early-adulthood romantic tribulations. If we had slept together back then, we probably would have had a falling out on par with spontaneous combustion and never spoken to each other again.
Instead, Amy and I have been friends for a decade this year. She’s one of the first people I turn to when things are rough, one of the first I reach out to when I need to celebrate good news. I moved away from Tucson five years ago, but we’ve still managed to talk on the phone incessantly and remain a huge part of each other’s lives.
The fact that Amy didn’t want to date me is one of the greatest things that’s ever happened in my life, because instead of a short-lived relationship, I got a friendship I cherish to this day. We’re taught to believe that romantic and sexual love are the highest forms of human connection, that friendship is somehow second best, but in truth, a friend—even a friend that you used to want to bone—can be a greater blessing than any other. Amy friend zoned me, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer writer who lives in Denver with her partner, an ever-growing collection of books, and a very spoiled cat. Her first book will be published by Plume in early 2016.