Christina Neuwirth was born in Austria and now lives in Scotland. She has produced and written short films, performed at the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, and dabbled in music production and zine making. Her short fiction has been published in Gutter and 404 Ink, and she is a contributor to the forthcoming non-fiction collection Nasty Women. Her novella Amphibian was shortlisted for the 2016 Novella Award. She is currently writing her first novel.
Let me tell you about the time I first committed that cardinal sin: daring to strike up a platonic friendship with a man while being a woman. I know. Witch, they’re crying now. How dare she?
I was on my Erasmus exchange term in Denmark. I’d been living there for a few months already, and I thought it would be nice to make friends and also money by working at a bar. It was small, only there for a weekend festival. I wasn’t handling any cash, my job was to find bottles of cider and hand them over, and pour pints into plastic cups. It was by the harbour. Fun, but busy. Sticky floors, the smell of roasting sausage, twinkly lights, pop songs on repeat.
While working there, I met a guy. Let’s call him Daniel. We got along well. We talked about our favourite Avengers. I said Iron Man, because I grew up with Ally McBeal and thought young Robert Downey Jr was so dreamy. He then asked if I’d seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which I had not. He said I absolutely had to see it, and that he had it on DVD and we could watch it together.
Maybe it’s important to mention that I was in a long-distance relationship, so was trying to make friends in Denmark without making out with them. I’d already successfully made friends – male and female – and many of those friendships had involved film nights. They, along with potluck dinners, were a lovely way of sharing cultural references and cosy evenings with people from different backgrounds.
With all this in mind, I agreed. It did not occur to me that, by agreeing to watch a film together, I’d also signed a contract allowing him access to my body. We agreed to meet a few days later, exchanged numbers, finished up our shift, went home. The next day I texted him and asked what time I should be round. He told me, and said that he was looking forward to our date.
Wait, were we dating?
Was I going to politely date this guy now because he’d made an assumption?
Did I lead him on?
I texted back, with shaky fingers. Date? I thought we were watching a film!
He quickly responded. Yeah, watching a film! Like a date!
Oh. I thought we were watching a film as friends.
This was my mistake. Officer, I did it. I said the word. The unforgivable explosive f-word.
Not enough for me. Sorry. Nice to meet you anyway!
I couldn’t believe it. He was passing up the opportunity of a Robert Downey Jr film? Giving up a delightful evening in my company because I’d said it wasn’t a date? I at first couldn’t tell what my feelings were, but it turned out I was furious. We’d had a rapport at the bar, I’d been looking forward to making a new friend, but he clearly felt that wasn’t enough to merit spending another second in my presence.
This would’ve been a fun anecdote if it was the only time. But it happened again, in a similar way, not that long after. I was at one of the aforementioned potluck lunches, and a guy showed up late. Let’s call him Robert Downey Jr. Picture the picnic table, the sunshine, the barbecue, the cheap beer, the tupperware full of salad. RDJ arrived with a delicious dish, but everyone was already full. I felt for him – this was a very sad thing to happen to anyone. I tasted some of the food, it was pretty nice. Later that day I texted him asking if he needed help finishing off the tub of food. Note this was not due to my need to make out, but just greed and skintness and love for free food. Plus, he seemed nice.
He said yes, and asked me to come round the next evening. I brought The Life Aquatic, I thought we could watch it while we ate. What else were we supposed to do with our eyes?
He had alternative plans.
After eating in his dorm’s communal kitchen, I found that the only place for us to watch the film was his bedroom, and the only place for us to sit was his bed. I wasn’t worried, as I had watched films with friends before, in their bedrooms, sitting on their beds.
The Life Aquatic isn’t exactly a short film. Turns out it’s quite long when you’re sitting next to a man who has decided it’s time for his big move. RDJ put his arm around my shoulder during the first ten minutes. I didn’t know what to do, so I froze up and shifted to the edge of the bed. His arm stayed behind me. Around the middle of the film, when everyone realises that Anjelica Houston is the best bit – bearing in mind that I still had not moved in his direction, actually the opposite – he started nuzzling my neck. I stayed perfectly still.
For a second I considered whether I was obliged to kiss him by the rules of politeness. After all, I’d asked to eat his leftovers. Was that a move? Do other people do that?
After what felt like a billion years, The Life Aquatic ended. I bolted. I texted him from home, saying that I’d prefer it if we stayed friends. He responded he wanted that too, and was sorry if I misunderstood him. Um, you nuzzled my neck, mate? Had I called his bluff and he was mad about that?
A few months later, I related this to a male friend, who said I should go easier on RDJ and Daniel because I’d hurt their feelings. You see, they thought you were going to go the distance and you shattered that dream. You led them on, whether you wanted to or not. While explaining what exactly I’d done wrong, he referred to the fact that I’d sat on RDJ’s bed and that – gasp – both interactions had included a film. Watching a film, apparently, is code. I’d watched quite a lot of films in my young life by this point – did all my friends think I wanted to sleep with them?
My pal was implying that I had unwittingly violated the rules, that I’d agreed to something written in the rulebook and couldn’t be surprised if the other party expected me to uphold my end of the bargain. If you know me, you’ll know I love guidelines and rules. I was shocked to find out I’m a Dangerous Rule-Flaunting Breaker of Hearts! Me, Femme Fatale, lead-er-on-er lady, daring to watch a film with – whisper it – a man!
I doubt that Daniel or RDJ were really all that in love with me. I suspect what’s closer to the truth is that I maybe bruised their egos slightly. The hours – hours! – invested in texting me, thinking about me, were gone now. Wasted. Never to return. I suppose I really am a bitch.
Both of them had an expectation, and I didn’t fulfill it. Daniel made it clear that he wasn’t interested in a friendship. He was only interested in my company if we framed our meeting as a date. What sort of thing is that? Do other people do that? I mean, if he’d actually wanted to date me, would getting to know me as a person have been such a horrible thing?
Something I remember clearly about my friend’s reaction when I told him about these events was his eye-rolling exasperation. It made me feel naive for daring to think that I could have had friendships with Daniel and RDJ. I didn’t even wonder twice about why he felt that way. I grew up in the nineties and naughties, where Men Want One Thing was a clear cautionary tale, but also part of the bumbling-fool aw shucks look at the men only wanting one thing narrative. It reminds me of a song I grew up with, singing along loudly at parties with my friends:
Men are pigs
Don’t trust them, sweet child
They all just want the One Thing
Because that’s just how men are
Wasn’t it hilarious? Men, am I right? And I was an emancipated woman, I knew these things about men, so it was all a good laugh!
Men Just Want One Thing is a damaging, even dangerous, narrative for all involved. But it feels like it’s part of the Friend Zone explanation: because surely an interaction between a man and a woman can only have one outcome. If the woman denies the possibility of that outcome she’s withholding something, which he deserves, especially if (are you keeping up?) he is also a Nice Guy. But my affection, my attention, my body are not a currency with which I repay you for being a decent person. You can’t swap a film for a kiss.
In popular culture, these terms are so widespread they have even made it to Wikipedia: there are separate entries for Friend Zone and Nice Guy – bearing in mind that a minuscule proportion of Wikipedia editors are women, this is quite an astounding feat.
I’m glad to say none of this has successfully deterred me. I am so dangerous. I can’t be stopped. If I like you, I will try to be your friend, even if you’re a man.