To be a third wheel

The holidays are almost upon us.  Cards by the dozen will flood mailboxes.  Festive invites to Friendsgivings and Christmas parties.  I cherish the closeness.  But I’m also single as hell, and that truth blares like an air horn through the holidays.

There is thing moment.  The scene is relatively similar regardless of year or address: a cozy common space adorned in festive garb.   The room’s perimeter is lined with snacks and libations, and perhaps Mariah Carey’s sensational 1994 Christmas album is playing (if you say it’s overplayed, Imma need you to check yourself). In this moment, I’m encircled by love.  Positivity blooms throughout the joint.  But I stand there, fingers laced around my beer, and notice how all my friends subtly touch their significant other’s lower back or shoot their person this look of familiarity and affection.  I don’t have that.  I’ve never had that.  I’m so thrilled for my friends. This moment is the answer to every question mark my friends once raised in past relationships. I’ve listened to their laments about past partners, a trail of incompatible people, and how, I revel in how effortlessly this all fits.  That unequivocal joy coexists with the realization that I am as unattached as ever.

I am hyper-competitive.  I always compared myself to my peers, but I don’t see their experiences mirroring mine.  In the era of matrimony, I don’t feel compelled to be in a committed relationship.  It’s not that I don’t want a relationship, but I want so many other things too.  I want to travel.  I want to continue my education.  I crave family and friends.  So, while those emotional desires for closeness and physical intimacy always swirl (because I am a person and that’s normal), they aren’t my only desires.

A small part of me ponders if I will never be picked.  What does the geography of my life look like if conventional milestones don’t happen for me? Female fertility carries a finite timetable.  “What if I miss my boat?” I ask myself when staring down the barrel of 3am insomnia.  “What if I am entirely unwantable?”  sleeplessness has always been my panic’s welcome mat.  When daybreak comes, I inhale, “then you want yourself and make this life one hell of an adventure”.

The adventure is called a full Aniston.  In the wake of her divorce from Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston dated every hot guy in Tinseltown.  While her ex-husband went onto grow a brood of six with Angelina Jolie, Rachel from Friends was out there living her best life.  The press framed her as a tragic figure.  How utterly disastrous that this beautiful woman is unwed and childless in her forties!  Yes, how truly tragic it is that an ageless multi-millionairess movie star/ America’s sweetheart is being courted by every bangable dude in showbiz.  What a sad life with her real life/ TV BFF Courteney Cox and yoga and dogs and chatting with Oprah!!  Say some prayers for our dear girl, Jen! Now, Aniston claps back at those who shroud her image in tragedy.  She doesn’t want your pity.  She didn’t need Twitter ablaze when Pitt and Jolie split.

Unwed and childless women find themselves knotted as tragic objects in their own narratives.  Jane Austen, Mary Cassatt, even Queen Elizabeth I is painted as envious of Mary Queen of Scots for neither marry nor having children (Mary did both and Elizabeth pretty much imprisoned and killed her).  Joan of Arc didn’t need a significant other to ride into battle with her.  To quote the film Princess Cyd, “It is not a handicap to have one thing but not another”.  Humans can do anything but cannot have everything.  The lack of children or a ring is not a subtraction symbol.  It’s wide open space to populate however she sees fit.  These women are legends, heroines.  We cannot weaken their stories through some patriarchal narrative where it’s lesser because her purpose was something other than a caregiver.  I cannot weaken my own story and life because one thing isn’t there.

Am I getting carried away?  Yes.  Because I want these things.  But I want these things on my terms.  I don’t want to be with someone in avoidance of loneliness.  I don’t want some falsified, performative intimacy to distract me from addressing things about myself I don’t want to talk about.  I can do better than a warm body, and I refuse to feel bad about that.

When third wheeling, the thought never fails to surface, “what if I’m always single?”  But there isn’t an answer to that.  Moreover, I’m pining for an answer that I don’t necessarily want to arrive right now.  I long for the insurance of partnership in the future but revel in my current liberation.  These things are not mutually exclusive.   I am like most twenty-somethings:  Unmotivated to commit to anything and yet constantly seeking certainty.  Certainty is a myth.  Life ebbs, flows.  There is no formula or cadence or rationale.

There is a privilege in being a third wheel, Reader.  Once I surmount the loneliness and awkwardness, it has always been there.  The third wheel bears witness to the intimacies and intricacies not everyone else sees between two people.  The third wheel is unnecessary but trusted.  I see, over and over again, how imperfect those bonds are.  I see how imperfection is not an absence of love but inherent to humanity.  To be a third wheel is to be present for two people who happen to be together and not ask anything from either one of them but friendship.  I’ve written on radical platonic love before, how essential it is.  Third wheels demonstrate that to people in relationships.  I show that to my couple friends when I rejoice in their partnerships and mourn with them when they end.  To be a third wheel is to be both peripheral and essential.   Romantic love cannot feed us alone.

In the coming weeks, I will round one of those living rooms.  Beer in one hand, the other completely free.  My friends will tease with their significant others. They are a pair of giggles and playful handholding. That will be lonely for a moment– some premature grief will wash over me, but I know it isn’t jealousy.  It’s uncertainty.  In the coming weeks, I will tell myself what I’ve told the friends I loyally third wheel for now on their way to this cozy, unremarkable moment.  I will soothe myself like I did for them when they brought their past relationship perils to my ears, “This isn’t forever, or even all of it.  There’s a lot of love out there.  The romantic kind hasn’t caught up to you yet, but don’t settle.  Please, don’t settle”.  And then I will exhale.  I will smile, knowing that if the worst-case scenario is Jennifer Anniston, I will be ok.

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