"The market feels sort of like an ex ... the thrill is gone, you think you're stopped out. Or are you?"

So wrote one institutional options firm in its client note this morning. Pity the options investors: They simply couldn't get a metaphorical date in the markets Friday and were struggling to find an offer for their bid. "Things aren't moving, spreads are wide and no one wants to trade," said Kyle Rosen of

Rosen Capital Management

in Los Angeles. "And what do you buy here? There's no news at all."

Generally, trading in puts seemed to be heavier than normal,

if

indeed this were to be the first leg of a bear market. Let's face it: "People can't get more exposed to stocks, and no interest-rate cuts are on the horizon to bail us out. We're right back to 1997 but with no prospect of rates breathing life back in" to the stock market, Rosen said.

The

Chicago Board Options Exchange's Volatility Index

, or VIX, inched up steadily from about 18 last week to 25.52 by Thursday, an intraday high for the week that likely came around the time of

Alan Greenspan's

testimony in front of

Congress

. The intraday high so far Friday was 24.19, showing that institutions were willing to cough up extra capital for puts to hedge their overall market positions.

The fear didn't stop there. It extended well into the tech sector as those expecting a rebound didn't get their delivery yet. And there were few brave souls ready to get long. One glaring example could be found in

America Online

(AOL)

puts, which topped the most actives on the CBOE at midday Friday, with several thousand contracts in the August 110, 115 and 120 strikes changing hands by midafternoon. Meanwhile, the stock price sagged 3 7/16 to 107 1/16.

The August 110 puts in the Internet bellwether rose 1 1/2 ($150) to 7 3/4 ($775) on volume of more than 2,000 contracts. The August 115s added 1 3/4 ($175) to 10 7/8 ($1,087.50).

And the action in AOL's out-of-the-money puts was picking up as well. Volume in the August 105 contract traded more than 1,500 contracts, volume that carried the price up 1/2 ($50) to 5 ($500).

Specialty retailer

Nordstrom

(JWN) - Get Report

puts edged up in price, with the August 35 puts up 1/8 ($12.50) to 3 1/2 ($350) and the October 30 puts up 3/8 ($37.50) to 2 ($200).

Stride Rite

(SRR)

also logged some unusual activity, with the August 10 calls down a teenie ($6.25) to 7/16 ($43.75) and the September 12 1/2s down 1/8 ($12.50) to 1/4 ($25). Nordstrom stock slipped 9/16 to 32 9/16, and Stride Rite was down 1/8 to 9 1/16.