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The Third Wheel Quandary
We hadn’t been friends since forever, but most of the time it seemed that way.
Cara and I had been friends since first grade, when she had traded her chocolate milk carton for my pack of Gummichews. Her passion for chewy food and my fetish for chocolate was enough to spark an immoveable friendship. We were inseparable to the point that people referred to us as sisters (despite the fact that with her crazy red hair and my asian heritage we looked nothing alike).
Rhett joined our little duo in fourth grade when he moved into the house across the street from mine. It was strange at first, having another person-- a boy, no less-- joining in on our adventures. But Rhett was funny and had an even bigger imagination than both of us combined, so we made the transition from “twins” to “three musketeers” fairly easily.
The following years were great, with sleepovers and week-long trips to Cara’s beach house and hanging out almost everyday after school. High school started out just as great. In my mind, nothing had changed. We were the same friends we had always been, and we would remain as such until all of us were stuck as neighbors in the same nursing home.
It wasn’t until the summer before our Junior year that I realized things had changed more than I had originally thought. I had just gotten back from a three week vacation visiting my great aunt in China. I wasn’t quite sure what had happened in those three weeks, but what I did know was that Rhett and Cara were holding hands when I returned, looking quite comfortable with each other.
It was a foreign concept for me to piece together. My two best friends dating? How did I miss those secretive glances they had been giving each other when the other one wasn’t looking? Why didn’t I sense the tension between them after I had left the room? Why hadn’t either of them told me?
They were nervous for my reaction, that much was obvious. Cara kept biting her lip and tugging at her curly hair and Rhett seemed to be looking everywhere but at me. I wasn’t really sure how I should feel, but dating or not, they were still my friends. So I forced a delighted smile onto my face and exclaimed “,That’s awesome! I’m so happy for you two!”
All nervousness I was feeling vanished when I saw the relieved expressions on both of their faces. “See, Rhett?” Cara had said, grabbing his arm. “I told you Emery would understand!”
Rhett laughed and placed his arm around her. “Oh, please. You were the one who wouldn’t stop texting me last night because you were so nervous that you couldn’t sleep.” They chuckled and stared in each others eyes so intensely that felt like I was intruding on something intimate.
“Don’t worry,” Cara had assured, seeing the look on my face. “We’re still the three musketeers.”
“Of course,” I had agreed, satisfied. We were all still friends. Why did it matter that two of us were closer than before?
Things weren’t that bad at first. I was genuinely happy for my friends. I laughed dutifully at their playful banter and helped them come up with date ideas. Once school started, however, I couldn’t help but feel that our three musketeers was turning into the lovebirds plus one. All for one, one for all became two plus one, one plus two. There were only so many inside jokes between them that I could pretend to understand before I started to grow irritated, so many couple pictures I could look at before I closed the laptop in disgust, so many times I could watch Rhett leave to pick Cara up for their friday date until I started to feel excluded. Fridays used to be our movie marathon nights.
I continued to grin and bear it. School lunch was starting to turn into a cuddle session that I had to awkwardly sit in on, so most the time I would give an excuse before escaping to the safety of the school library. Our study group was so full of flirting that I usually ended up going into another room and asking Cara’s older sister for help. Any hanging out that took place outside of school could easily turn into a date, and I always made sure to have my phone on hand in case that happened.
They didn’t do it on purpose-- after all, they still invited me most things. It wasn’t like they were purposefully excluding me. It was just something that… happened. They were still in their “honeymoon” phase, I reasoned, once the novelty of being in love wore off, everything would go back to normal. I just had to stick it through until then.
It wasn’t until Halloween that I drew the line. My optimism had officially dried up.
“You look ticked,” Marcelle, my chemistry partner, commented when I slammed my books on the table next to her. “What’s up?”
I forced myself to take a few deep breaths before I replied. “My friends just bailed out on our plans for tonight,” I sighed. I closed my eyes and rubbed my forehead, trying to barricade the tears that were threatening to surface.
We had the same Halloween tradition ever since the fifth grade. Every Halloween night we would spend a few hours trick or treating (even after we started high school, to the chagrin of our neighbors) before piling on my couch to watch cheesy horror movies and binge eat our candy stash. All gummy candy would go to Cara, I would hoard the chocolate, and Rhett was happy with almost anything. It was the perfect arrangement.
I’d assumed that today was be the same story, but when I had asked my friends about it this morning, they had simply exchanged uncertain glances.
“Oh Emery, I’m so sorry,” Cara had lamented. “But Rhett and I were planning to go to that new action film tonight.”
“I totally spaced telling you,” Rhett had joined in. “But, uh, you could come. If you want.”
Despite his offer, I could tell that neither was comfortable with this idea. Frankly, I wasn’t comfortable with it either. I had already tried the movie thing with them, and I wasn’t in the mood to sit uneasily by while they leaned against each other and fed one another popcorn.
“No, that’s fine,” I said while trying to keep my voice from cracking. “I’ll just hang out with Cohen or something.” My stomach twisted at the lie. Everything was not fine, and I couldn’t think of anything more lame than having to take my six year old brother trick or treating.
Marcelle’s voice carried me back into the present. “Oh, I’m sorry. That sucks.” We were silent for a minute, before she turned to me with an excited smile. “Hey, you could come chill with me and my friends tonight. We were going to play night games and then watch some old horror movies my dad has.”
I thought about it. Marcelle and I had become pretty good friends, especially since my own friends had started drifting away from me. Still, her invitation surprised me, and I felt a little uneasy about it. I hadn’t really done anything without Rhett or Cara. “No, that’s fine. I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
Marcelle snorted and waved her hand dismissively in the air. “Intrude? I was going to invite you anyway. Come on, it will be fun! My mom is making Halloween cookies-- trust me, once you start eating them you won’t want to stop.”
It was tempting, but I felt like I would be betraying my friends by hanging out with other people. I started to reject her offer a second time, but something stopped me. What was my alternative, sit home feeling sorry for myself?
I had trailed along with my friends because I hadn’t wanted anything to change, but the harsh truth was that it already had. And even if Rhett and Cara stopped dating, things wouldn’t be the same. There would just be an different kind of awkwardness in our group. The three musketeers had ceased to be such the minute they had decided to pursue a relationship.
A part of me was still wanting to live in denial-- to keep forcing a smile and pretend that everything was alright just for the sake of old times. But was it worth it? Was making myself miserable worth clinging stubbornly to old memories?
No, I decided, it wasn’t.
I had some great times with my friends, but it was time to move one. I would still be friends with Rhett and Cara, I would still be there for them, but finding other friends who I could have fun with was okay too.
“Everyone, this is Emery.”
As Marcelle introduced me to her friends, I couldn’t get rid of the nervous knot in my stomach. But as they greeted me with accepting smiles and we laughed over a plate of Marecelle’s mother’s heavenly cookies, my anxiety melted away. For the first time in months, I felt included.
It was liberating.