By Charles Tan
Matthew 19: 30. But many who are first will be last...
This restaurant must be more Christian than I thought. Because my order hasn't arrived yet even though I was the first one at the counter. Mike yawns, taco shell bits on his plate. Marie had a bunch of leftovers, mostly tomatoes and strips of lettuce from her salad. Not much to say about Vincent and his empty bowl. The chili must have been very good.
The waiter finally arrives with my dinner plate. He smiles at me, as if his grin would turn back time and undo the twenty minutes I've been waiting for my beef burrito. The waiter reminds me of the ushers at church, a little bit too enthusiastic. I want to smack him in the face, and demand a refund.
Matthew 5: 22. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment…
Instead, I take the plate calmly and smile back at the waiter. Thank you, I say. It seems I've been doing a lot of acting lately.
I steal a glance at Marie before I start munching on my food. She's facing Mike, telling him how it's been a month since they last saw each other face to face. I concur. It's just been the three of us: Vincent, Marie, and I that have been together, especially since we all go to the same college. It was I who stayed with Marie, holding her hand and comforting her as she failed her first Math exam, who went with her to the play they were required to attend for English class, who drove her back home during weekdays.
Exodus 20: 14. You shall not commit adultery.
Was I committing adultery? It's not like Mike and Marie were married. They're just boyfriend and girlfriend. One that'll be ending soon at that. Marie's been the one approaching me. It's not like I was courting her or anything. I can't deny my feelings forever can I? When she mentions how Oasis is the coolest band around, I agree. When she takes out an Anne Rice novel to reread, I remember my own copy at home. We simply get along, and share a lot of common interests. Is that so bad?
Luke 6: 31. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
It's so easy to be like other guys, stealing the girlfriends of other people. But I'm not like that. Mike's a friend after all. That's why I'm waiting for Marie to break up with Mike. That's when I'll court her. Besides, it's Mike who told me I should be selfish from time to time. I'm just following his advice. And to a certain extent, I'm tired of always being the good guy, the person everyone depends on. If what I'm going to do is a sin, hopefully God will forgive me. Because I can't imagine life without Marie. And if Mike's a true friend, he'll understand.
Before I start eating my dinner, I try to catch another glimpse of Marie. I spot Mike's eyes instead.
Matthew 26: 50. …Friend, do what you came for.
I look down, say a quick prayer, and focus on my food.
The burrito's spicier than normal. It burns, but it's so damn good. I take in a second bite, and another. The meal was worth the wait.
Nothing's happening. Paul's just there, immersing himself with the food that just arrived. Marie, sexy Marie in her green tube top, talking to Mike in low whispers. At least there was no physical contact this time, although Mike did try. His hand reached out to hers, but Marie's fingers remained stiff. He withdrew it soon afterwards.
Most people think I don't notice. Heck, they probably don't notice me. I'm not just a third wheel, I'm a wraith, ignored and taken for granted. I test my theory by standing up and getting out of the table. I murmur that I'm heading for the bathroom. Paul's ears twitch, but no one looks in my direction. Mike's attention seems to be directed only at Marie. As for Marie, I really don't know what's going around in her head.
The restaurant's bathroom is dirty. The faucets are rusting, and the hexagonal tiles are wet with what I presume was piss. I‘m alone, unlike the superficial companionship I had when I was with Marie. This was truth, this was reality.
Marie was Mike's girlfriend. Before Marie graduated from high school, she was already going out with Mike. M&M we called them, Mike and Marie. Mike and Paul, on the other hand, were my friends from high school. Mike used to be my classmate, until he failed Science during our junior year. He was retained, while Paul and I moved on to our senior year.
I was never close to Paul, at least not as close as he and Mike were. During weekends, Paul and Mike would go out to the local arcade and play video games. Or sometimes, Mike would sleep over at Paul's place, browse through each other's comic collection, and top it off with sleepless nights of playing board games and poker. Occasionally, me and some of Paul's classmates would be invited. But it was mostly Mike and Paul. It felt awkward, intruding on their boyish intimacy, but they were the only guys in class who actually invited me to hang out with them. Mike and Paul did most of the talking when I was around, and I'd make the occasional quip or two. Or whenever they needed a different opponent with the video games they played, I'd join in and give them a run for their money.
And then Paul and I graduated from high school, while Mike remained. Marie happened to be attending the same university Paul and I were going to. Mike introduced Marie to Paul earlier, and then Paul introduced me to Marie when we saw her at the college campus.
We pursued different courses, yet we were always together. We were a triumvirate, the Three Musketeers, but the truth of the matter was, it was Paul and Marie, with me being an afterthought. Again.
I'd carpool with Paul to school, and once we parked the car, we'd meet up with Marie. I was usually in front, and the first one to spot her every morning. I'd wave to her and greet her good morning. But the first person she always greeted was Paul. And then they'd hug each other, or sometimes, kiss each other's cheeks, only after which they'd turn their attention to me. Did I get a hug or a kiss? Just a simple wave and hello.
There were times when Paul and I would be together, or Paul and Marie would be alone. But there was never a moment longer than a few seconds when it would just be me and Marie. Whenever I'd talk to Marie, the only real conversation pieces we talked about were our assignments, our unjust professors, and how the next day would be a holiday. I tried talking about the Anne Rice novels which Marie loved to read, but she simply dismissed me as a poseur, and gave me a reading list. End of conversation.
Last month, I suspected there was something going on between Paul and Marie. There were moments when I'd catch them holding each other's hands, or their bodies itching to be closer to each other. There were never any overt signs, no sudden gifts to each other, no kisses, no prolonged body contact, no over-protective or jealous attitudes. But I felt that something was going on.
I was tempted to tell Mike about it, but what would be the result? What if I was wrong? Or worse, if I was right, I'd be labeled as a rat. Besides, I owe Mike nothing. He didn't introduce me to Marie, Paul did. He didn't entrust Marie to me, he entrusted her to Paul, his best friend.
When I came out of the washroom, no one was at the table. There was just the bill, along with the receipt and some change.
Mike was handsome, with his hawk-like nose and gentle eyes that always looked at me. No one paid me as much attention as he did, not even Paul. A year ago, I loved that about him. Now, it's just tiring. I don't want a guy constantly watching over my back. I'm not his property.
-I'm sorry, I'll try to make it work.-
Mike's first mistake. You'll try to make it work? What am I, chopped liver? You always thought of this relationship as yours, not ours. It was always you, you, you.
-Just give me one more chance. I know I can fix it.-
That's what you said the last time. The reason I didn't break up with you back then was because of pity. Your grades plummeted, you even crashed your car into a tree. But I've changed, I've grown… I've discovered someone else.
I wanted to divert my eyes to Paul, to draw strength from him. But I didn't want to give him away either. Instead, I looked down at my hands, and I see the silver bracelet Mike gave me during our first month anniversary. The day he gave it to me, I remember it being shiny and bright, especially the engraving with my name on it. Now, it's dull and lackluster. But it's proof of how long our relationship had endured.
I gaze into Mike's brown eyes, and see what seems to be tears. Not in public! The reason I asked Mike to invite Paul and Vincent along was so that we could avoid making a scene in public. That didn't stop Mike however. And where the hell was Vincent? He was pretty much like Mike nowadays, there when you don't want to see him, but absent when you need him.
At least Paul was still here. My steady rock. The guy who waited for me as I took my three-hour midterm exam in Math. And failed. Paul offered me a smoke, and we talked until we couldn't see the pale moonlight. And when I got two tickets to Mistress of the Inn, a play we were required to watch for English, it was Paul who drove me to the theater, and there we watched the amateur actors act out their roles.
I wrote a letter to Paul when I got home from watching the play, which had moved me to tears. I could imagine myself as the protagonist, searching for love in faraway places, when the man who loved me was nearby. Mike was a suitor, nothing more and nothing less. He made me realize though what I wanted in life, what I really sought. He introduced me to Paul, and for that, I would be eternally grateful. But I couldn't give him my love. The farce needed to stop.
Mike's hand tries to clasp mine once more. I brush it away, and tell him flatly it's over. For some moments, he looks fuzzy. Something seems to have been caught in my eye. Paul suddenly stops eating his food, and turns to look at me. It seems as if everyone's eyes, from the patrons to the waiters to the cook, were on me. I get up, grab my purse, and run.
It was Paul who ran after me. I was surprised that Mike didn't give chase. Did he know?
I'm finally free, but why do I feel doubt?
M&M. The best couple ever. We even have the same birthday.
Yet here I am, picking up the pieces. I get the largest bill I could find in my wallet and give it to the waiter. That pays for tonight's dinner. As for the tickets for tonight's movie, I might as well burn them.
I don't understand what happened. What did I do wrong? Was it something I said?
I wanted to chase after her, but Paul ran first. He gave me a quick glance and hesitated. My eyes probably told him to go, that I didn't want her to see me like this. I fought to hold back my tears. Paul might know how to solve this. There's no one else I trust who'll take care of my girlfriend. He's my best friend, after all, honest and loyal to the bone.
I remember when we were in grade school, and Paul was failing Science. Leo, the smartest kid in class, offered to give Paul the answers to the next exam. I would have taken it just like that. Instead, Paul declined, and told him that he couldn't. It would be cheating. So what, Leo asked. Paul just smiled, and told him he was being a good Christian.
It can be annoying at times, I must admit, but that was a part of Paul you could always depend on. I couldn't invite him to go out for several rounds in a bar, but I could depend on Paul's honesty. Perhaps that's why I chose him to be my best friend. You can't buy trust and sincerity, and Paul had them in spades.
I wonder where Vincent went? He simply disappeared. Vincent's a nice guy as well, but there's just something about him that turns people off. I also dislike his eyes. They're always staring, observing. The looks he gives Marie, it's as if a predator was staring, although Vincent was never threatening.
Marie… my dear Marie. I dial her number, but she didn't answer her mobile phone.
I could always write her a letter, much like the love notes I sent her when she was still studying in high school. This is only a temporary setback, I can fix this.
I have to be stronger, more determined. I was a wreck the last time. I have to prove to Marie that I'm whole, that I can take care of her and our future family.
I'm just grateful that I have friends like Paul to count on.
If you can't depend on your friends, who else can you trust?