He watches the man and woman reach for each other’s hands as their favorite song lures them to the dance floor. She, whispering in the man’s ear as his hand slides down her back. He, head thrown back, laughing as the woman spins him awkwardly.
They’re terrible dancers. Even he, standing in the dark corner of the club with his hand in a deathlike grip around his vodka soda, can hardly bear to watch them, their arms and legs and hips moving to a private beat no one can hear. But he also can’t look away. He gives them a thumbs up and a grin when they look over for approval. No, he does not want to join them. Yes, really.
He knows his role. He is the third wheel. His job description is simple—he must simply be there when they want him to be.
After they leave the club, the woman marches ahead, tottering in her too high heels. The man tries to help her, but even he can barely walk straight. They wind up sitting on someone’s doorstep, laughing so hard they fold into each other.
He watches. He lights a cigarette. They are oblivious to him, only when they need him, only when they are bored of each other. He doesn’t know why he came tonight, but he never has anything better to do. No—that isn’t it. He knows he is living in some form of self-denial. He knows that when they call, he will come.
Part of him doesn’t know what life would be like without them, without him fulfilling their expectations of being available. Being there. Being useful. Like a sticky note. A bottle opener. A nail clipper. He listens. He nods. He offers his opinion when asked.
“Tell us what it’s like to be a single person.” That’s how they see him; an outsider. A loner. Forging through an alien, wild wasteland, from a periphery they cannot see or understand.
But even he feeds off their company, craves it, even. Why else would he invent stories for their benefit? Let them imagine he wanders the night like an audacious lover, collecting phone numbers on cocktail napkins, climbing fire escapes into bedrooms, bumping into beautiful strangers on the subway.
“You’re crazy,” the woman tells him affectionately.
“So crazy,” the man shakes his head in half admiration.
But then they forget he is there at all and lean into each other. Next they are kissing, hands roving, sloppy and hungry. Inspired by his tall tales of a wilder life.
Then he walks home. Alone.
It is their wedding.
The woman feeds the man cake. Cream smears his beard. He licks her fingers. The man picks her up and carries her in his arms to the dance floor. Again they are dancing. They never ended up going to the weekly Waltz lessons he got them as an engagement gift. A snide joke, a hint, but still they brushed it off with a cackle. Amused, polite applause rings the circle of friends even as the couple step on each other’s toes.
He stands in the corner, clutching a champagne flute. He gives them the thumbs up when they glance his way. He is happy for them. But inside, he can’t bear to look. They carry their happiness like an umbrella, inviting people in. But he knows more than anyone that there is only space for the two of them.
He watches. Like the third wheel he is and will always be.
Their first child is born.
Pink-cheeked and shrieking, tiny fists clenched, the woman cradles him in her arms.
“Doesn’t he look just like his dad?”
He tells her yes, even though he thinks all babies look exactly the same. Needy lumps of soft flesh. Strange miniature clones of humans.
“Do you want to hold him?”
He does not. But he holds the baby anyway, like he is expected to, awkward and careful like a cup too full of water. They cry as they watch him. The baby cries louder. He gives the squirming bundle back to his mother. His sweater sleeves will forever smell like baby powder.
They hold their son and whisper meaningless words of comfort.
He watches. Invisible once again. He wonders if he will ever be visible again.
He meets a woman. She has blue fire hair and wears boots in summer and plays piano at the local watering hole. He thinks she might be the one. But he has been single so long, he can’t tell. He calls up his friends. The man answers, he can hear the baby screaming in the background. The woman telling the man to turn off the stove.
“I want you to meet her,” he tells his friend.
But the man can’t hear him, he has to run and turn off the stove. “Bring her over anytime.”
He already knows he never will. He hangs up the phone.
He dates the woman for a year and a half before proposing. She accepts. She wants a winter wedding surrounded by fir trees dusted in snow so that everyone can wear boots.
“What did you say her name was?” his friend asks when he calls her up. He can hear the baby crying from another room. “He’s teething,” she apologizes.
He tries to sound sympathetic, as though he has any idea what teething is.
He tries to hide his frustration as he mails out the wedding invitations. He almost doesn’t send one to the man and woman, his fingers tapping on the envelope. Maybe they will misplace it somewhere between the supermarket coupons and the gas bill. Maybe the baby will chew it up.
It is his wedding day. His friends arrive forty minutes late, their two children in tow.
“You know how it is with kids,” they apologize, as though he knows what life is like with a family.
“Are you sure?” the woman asks him before he walks into the forest clearing to meet his bride. “Do you really even know her?”
He wants to tell her how they met. How they fell for each other. How he loves everything about her, even her boots in bed.
He wants to tell her everything, but too much time has passed since the days they spent together with just the three of them. He wouldn’t even know where to begin. They wouldn’t understand. The woman is a mother now, with yogurt on her blouse and a toddler attached to her hip.
“You’d have to have been there,” is all he can tell her. She looks confused. She doesn’t get the joke. Maybe she never will.
After all, she will never be a third wheel.
“I’m happy for you,” the woman’s husband, his best man, tells him. But there’s something else there. A tightness to his smile. Maybe it’s just the winter clouds, creeping over the sun. Or maybe, secretly, they never thought he would find anyone else. Maybe they thought he would always be there, in the background, watching.
He stands by the trees and watches his bride walk to him in the snowy, petal strewn pathway in knee high boots.
She is more beautiful than they had imagined. It takes them by surprise. A cloud of cold breath on the blue air. Just then, it begins to snow. It is perfect.
With a jolt, he realizes everyone is looking at him. Looking at them. He wonders how long he has lived in the shadows, on the fringe of the bigger and bolder, on the outskirts of the loved and the loud. He glances at the man and woman. They are watching him. For the first time, they are his audience. For the first time, he is no longer the bystander.
He kisses his bride.
He will never be forgotten again.
“What was it you wanted to tell me?” the woman’s voice says on the other end of the line.
He can hear the baby crying. The television blaring a happy tune. The smoke alarm beeping incessantly.
“It’s nothing,” he shakes his head, “Nothing at all.”
She sounds relieved and dismissive at the same time when she replies, “Are we still on for dinner on Tuesday?”
“Great. See you then.”
He hangs up the phone. He lights a cigarette in his silent kitchen and sits down on the one chair at the round table. He’s never needed a second chair. No one ever visits him.
He is alone.
They know that when they call, he will come.
He always does.