The Third Wheel Syndrome
“Oh! Hey, think this one’s any good?”
I looked up from the book in my hands when my only response was silence. There was nobody around me, except for a middle-aged woman in the aisle. She was giving me suspicious looks out of the corner of her eye, as if I was stark-raving mad and would, at any moment, rip off all my clothes and attack her while foaming at the mouth.
I could have sworn that my friends were behind me, joining me in my perusal of the New Releases selection on a lazy July afternoon. I was also fairly certain that I was not, in fact, stark-raving mad, and that my friends were actual flesh-and-blood beings, not simply projections of my (albeit, vivid) imagination.
So where had they gone? I put the book back on its shelf and began to retrace my steps, thinking that maybe the two of them had been waylaid by something interesting and I had failed to notice.
No, they weren’t. They weren’t in any of the aisles we normally frequented when we ventured into the Borders at our local mall. A vaguely ominous feeling came over me, but I ignored it – there had to be a reasonable explanation for my friends’ sudden disappearance.
As I passed one of the sections, I heard a giggle. Years of being best friends with her had allowed me to become familiar with her laugh. I backtracked and there she was: locked in a passionate embrace with her new boyfriend in the test-prep section.
It made sense, suddenly, why she had asked me to hang out with them. The realization hit me and I wondered how I could be so stupid. Her mother remained blissfully ignorant of this new relationship, still under the impression that the two were “just friends.” The problem with this was that my friend’s mother was not going to let her be “alone” with the boy, because that would be a date.
I realized I had been asked to come along as their cover story, their “look-mom-we’re-still-just-friends” excuse. And it sucked. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like they were going to surface for awhile, so I left the store without telling them where I was going.
Perhaps it was childish and vindictive, but a part of me wanted to know just how long it would be before they realized that I was no longer in the store.
I wandered through the mall, irritated and out-of-sorts, thinking that if this was how it felt to be the third wheel, I wanted out. I wasn’t going to be the cover story or the excuse and I certainly wasn’t going to be the idiot walking through a bookstore talking to herself while her friends made out in the corner.
Over an hour later, my friend called me and demanded to know where I was. I told her and they came to meet me. He was sheepish but she was angry. She became livid when I told her I wasn’t interested in participating in this charade of “just friends” she had created; if they wanted to be alone, they could be alone without dragging me in the mix.
This was probably one of the worst experiences with being a third wheel that I’ve ever had. It is one that admittedly still rankles a bit when I think about it. Now, I’m by no means a Bitter Betty who glares at happy couples and moans about being single (though, let’s be honest, who hasn’t done that?). I just don’t feel very comfortable being the only person with a couple, for fear of intruding on their intimate moments.
I’ve not been put in a similar situation for a long time, which may just be a product of maturation, and I’m thankful for that.
As someone who has been in highly uncomfortable situations, I appreciate those friends who include me in their conversations and keep the loving gazes to a minimum. I appreciate that I no longer have to worry about losing a friend to “couple-dom.”
I have also come to realize that there’s a difference in being the third wheel and feeling like the third wheel. I can be the third wheel with a couple and still not feel as left out as I did that summer afternoon. And that’s good enough for me.