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The Third Wheel

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The travel brochures start appearing around Josh during the final leg of the Emotional Roadshow.

In January, he wades against the biting cold wind in Chicago, starts to strip himself down in the lounge of his tour bus and spots one posted up on the mini-fridge in the kitchenette. The magnet used is tourist bait: the Chicago skyline, a slogan proclaiming it the windy city. He imagines Tyler in a gift shop buying it, his baseball hat pulled low over his forehead, and even though his cheeks still feel frozen, his chest glows with warmth like a firefly lighting up a jar.

The brochure is for Yellowstone National Park with a picture of watercolor-vibrant hot springs on the front. It feels crisp and new.

Did you know that Yellowstone is the world’s first national park? Tyler texts him the next morning, when they’re in Moline getting ready for the next show. Josh hadn’t known, but now he thinks he’ll never forget.

can’t wait to vacay huh? Josh asks. There’s an old song that says everybody is working for the weekend, only Tyler’s weekends never seem to come. When they’re touring, he’s always texting Josh pictures of Jenna, pictures of his family and the things he’s missing back home. When they’re on break, he’s always texting Josh about music: getting back into the studio and back onto the tour bus and the stage. Tyler hardly ever seems comfortable, like there’s an itch that always needs scratching and he can’t ever reach it.

I’ve been talking over the options with Jenna. You’re coming too. Another text, a few minutes later when Josh hasn’t replied. Right??

Josh still doesn’t reply. He holds the feeling that text gave him, holds it right in his chest. It keeps him warm on the tiny walk between the bus and the venue. And under the lights of the arena with Tyler bouncing around the stage, it makes him feel like he’s burning up.

#

They’re in Sacramento at an outdoor café. It’s too cold this time of year to be popular (which is partly why they’ve chosen it), but compared to the weather where they’ve been earlier in the week, it is nice enough. Tyler pushes his phone in front of Josh’s face; Jenna is on the screen, looking sleep-rumpled. She’s wearing a sweatshirt that might be Tyler’s, might be Josh’s. Does she know how many items in Tyler’s wardrobes belong to his bandmate? The idea that she does know—and doesn’t care—makes his heart and hands stutter until he spills his coffee.

Judging by the pillow underneath her head, she is still in bed. He gets caught up in the warmth of her smile, beatific and overjoyed until he can’t stop smiling back. In the top right hand of the screen is a tiny box where he can see what Jenna sees: Josh with his yellow mussed hair and Tyler peaking over his shoulder, head tilted into the drummer, chin resting on his shoulder. Like they’re lovers.

“Hey Jen,” he says with a tight throat. “Good morning.”

“Hiya Josh, how’d you sleep?”

Terribly, he thinks, remembering days when he and Tyler used to sleep in the same bed while on the road. Now the bunk feels so empty, and the new bed he has in LA even emptier. As a child, he looked forward to the day he’d have a full sized bed with room to stretch out and roll around. Now he misses the comfort of enclosed spaces. “Great,” he lies. “How about you?”

“What did you think of the Maui pamphlet?” She asks, skipping the small talk.

Tyler laughs gently, just an exhale of breath that Josh can feel against the side of his neck. “He hasn’t seen it yet. I left it in his bunk.”

“You were in my bunk?” Josh laughs.

“What, you mean that you two aren’t sleeping together?” Jenna teases good-naturedly. Josh’s face burns. He doesn’t understand how she can make those jokes—not when there was a time when Josh and Tyler were sleeping in the same bunk, plastered against each other, waking with their legs tangled up. Now when Josh wakes, he’s only tangled in the sheets. “Oh. Honey. I’ve got to go, mom is calling. Text soon? I love you!”

“I love you too,” Josh says back, thoughtlessly. His voice is in sync with Tyler’s. He clears his throat, like maybe that will somehow cover up his mistake.

 “What’s this about Maui?” Josh asks.

 “Vacation,” Tyler reminds him. “I told you we are thinking over our options. Maui has this place—Haleakala Crater. The sunrises there are supposed to be amazing. Life changing, even. What do you think?” Tyler watches him closely, scanning his face for a reaction, for some sort of verdict. Josh just shrugs.

Doesn’t he know that Josh would go anywhere with him, with him and Jenna, and love every moment?

#

In Louisville, Kentucky, the travel pamphlet is slipped underneath the door of his dressing room. The image of the Grand Canyon on the front is practically a cartoon to him, something so awesome he can’t imagine it’s real. Inside is a post-it note. Jenna suggested this one. Thoughts?

#

“After the show at Schottenstein, me, Tyler, and Jenna are going away for a while. Some sort of vacation, but we aren’t sure where yet,” he tells his mom on the phone. It is March-almost-April in Melbourne. Warm, but getting colder as the Australian summer wanes. Tyler and Josh have spent the afternoon visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens. Tyler takes too many pictures, phone clasped in his hand, pointing out all the things he wishes Jenna was there to see too.

“The three of you?” His mom asks. “Were you invited?”

Josh shifts his phone from one shoulder to another, trying to make sense of the plastic-like Australian currency he’d exchanged his money for. “Of course I was invited.”

His mother hums. “I just thought maybe they’d like alone time. They are married, you know.”

Josh knows. He definitely knows. The thought eats at him, through him, like a little bit of acid on the leather of his shoes until suddenly it hurts, it hurts, it hurts. He mentions the conversation to Tyler when they’re on his bus having cereal together before the Melbourne show that night. Tucked inside Josh’s box of Waffle Crisp cereal like a prize was a brochure for the Seven Mile Bridge in Florida. The water is so blue he thinks of Jenna’s eyes.

“Alone time?” Tyler says, distractedly. His phone is flat on the table as he scrolls through social media on one of their ghost accounts. “Alone time for what?”

#

For Josh, it was love at first sight.

He still remembers the feeling Tyler gave him the first time he watched him perform from the safety and anonymity of the audience. Tyler is like a live wire on stage, setting off sparks everywhere he moves. Love at first sight doesn’t even exist, Josh thinks. It takes knowing someone to love them. But it just so happens that he learned enough about Tyler that night, from so many feet away.

Maybe they danced around it too long. There were so many nights in the van, nights in the bunks on the bus. He remembers the way Tyler’s tanned fingers slotted between his own, fitting better there than Josh’s own other hand. But he’d been afraid, and maybe Tyler had known that. Maybe that’s why they never talked about their relationship, like mentioning it aloud would destroy it.

And then came Jenna, and Josh wanted so badly to take his negative feelings—the hurt, the embarrassment, the general angst and uncertainty of losing an almost-relationship—and he wanted to use them like a weapon against her, but there was no part of her to hate. Whatever mismatched puzzle Tyler and Josh’s relationship made, she fit into it seamlessly. The affection between Tyler and Josh changed then, but it had never disappeared, and Jenna watched on with warm acceptance.

“You’re like my other half, and Jenna respects that,” Tyler said once.

“You said yesterday that she was your other half,” Josh replied, laughing.

“I’ve got two halves Josh. The word half implies that. Like, inherently.”

The math didn’t add up, though. There should have been a half-too-many. And Josh didn’t need anyone to inform him which half was which. Society had a narrow concept of marriage, and growing up middle-class in the Midwest hadn’t done much to broaden his stance. Relationships were between two people. Two people. But for some reason Josh couldn’t deny the rightness of it, the soft way his puzzle piece seemed to fit side by side with Tyler and Jenna’s. How weird is it, he wonders. To love a guy, and to love the guy’s girlfriend.

Very weird, he thinks. Twisted, probably.

 

 

#

Josh is only in LA alone long enough to get his affairs before he is waiting at the gate in LAX. Tyler and Jenna are staying with him at his house in LA before their vacation together, and Josh’s stomach is a strange mixture of excitement and dread. Everything melts away when he sees them exit their plane two hours late, incognito in sunglasses and baseball caps. He hugs Tyler, inhales the sent of his body wash, smiles into the hollow between his neck and shoulder. They’re vibrating with the childlike eagerness that precludes a road-trip, and he can’t help but feel like time has been turned back to a happier, easier era. When they pull away, Jenna is already squeezing herself in to the space between Josh’s arms.

She smells like Tyler’s body wash too. So intimate. The thought of them (them using each other’s products, them together, them in the shower together?) makes him so, so in love.

I’m doomed, he thinks into her hair.

“So when is our flight tomorrow?” Josh asks, pulling Jenna’s suitcase with her travel-on thrown over his shoulder. When they step out of the airport, the sun beats down on them, the humid air stifling. “I updated my passport like you said to.”

“Never,” Tyler says. He reaches out to twist Josh’s snapback until it’s on backwards.

Someone recognizes them on the way to Josh’s SUV, a boy and his father. Jenna takes a picture for them, staring at their image on the iPhone screen, secondhand smiling. She’s lit up by the sun, golden haired and skinned. Behind the family’s back, Tyler’s arm reaches for Josh. They clasp hands, and now it’s Josh who feels golden.

“What do you mean, never?” Josh laughs. “Where are we going?”

He gets the answer the next afternoon. When he wakes, the sun is high and his house is empty. Josh would almost believe that the day before had been nothing but a dream if there weren’t syrupy dishes in the sink and coffee going cold in the pot. There is a note on the refrigerator saying that Jenna has left him vegan pancakes on the top shelf.

On the plate of cold pancakes is a brochure for Niagara Falls.

When they arrive back, Josh’s car is packed to the brim. Tyler micromanages and Jenna is a mom-at-heart, so there are healthy snacks, unhealthy snacks, drinks, games, suitcases. Everything is accounted for. Josh knows because he finds the checklist they made crumpled up in the backseat. The last box to be checked off is a heart instead: <3 Josh! in Jenna’s handwriting. He folds the paper up and tucks it inside his wallet.

Tyler drives first, because he likes the control. His hand instinctually reaches out to rest on the top of Jenna’s thigh, thumb brushing the outside of her knee until Josh’s mouth is dry and he has to look away.

“Are you guys sure you want me to come along?” Josh asks, only half joking. Okay, maybe not joking at all. This whole trip screams intimacy, and Josh can’t help but to see it from an outsider’s perspective. This is a trip for a married couple, not a married couple and their friend. Josh is like the family dog tagging along in the backseat. Roll down the window so he can stick his head out—maybe he’ll let himself get hit by a car.

“Do you not want to come?” Jenna asks. She’s frowning, watching him in the side mirror. Her hand comes down on Tyler’s where it rests on her leg and she squeezes firmly. “I thought Ty told you that you were wanted.”

“He did,” says Josh. “I just—wanted to make sure. I guess.”

But Jenna’s hand rests, unsettled, on Tyler’s for the next fifty miles.

#

They knock down a handful of states one by one. A late lunch is eaten in Las Vegas. They refuel at a gas station in Arizona, and Jenna convinces Tyler to make a detour to the Grand Canyon. (“This is like two vacations for one,” Josh says, nose pressed to the glass in the backseat.) The view is nothing like the pamphlets, everything like the pamphlets. The sunset there is breathtaking, and it’s surreal to stand near the fence ledge while the sun sets the sky on fire, feeling like he’s on some alien planet.

The views are better than anything they could have seen at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Australia, but Tyler doesn’t pick up his phone to take a picture once. Jenna makes them put all of their heads together and take a selfie, immediately sets it as her phone background. It’s a good picture. Text it to me, Josh asks her.

The two hotels they stop at to try to get rooms are booked—the breaks of traveling around a tourist attraction during busy vacation months.

“I can make it another hundred miles,” says Tyler. He’s cracking open his second can of Redbull, chilled and sweating from the ice of the cooler in the backseat. “We can find a place to sleep wherever we’re at, or one of you can take over.”

Josh breaks out the travel pillows and he and Jenna try to rest. The radio croons at all times, Tyler restlessly fiddling with the dials as stations come in and out of reception. Sometime around ten, he is awakened by a hand brushing against his knee—Tyler reaching from the front seat for another Redbull. Josh gives it to him and is asleep again before he can hear the tab opening. His dreams are restless, mixed puzzle pieces from the changing of the songs on the radio.

The next time he wakes, it’s to a car door shutting. Way more than one hundred miles have passed. He cracks his eyes open against the bright lights of the gas station and watches Tyler and Jenna standing outside the car, whispering back and forth while they watch the numbers roll upwards on the gas pump. They cut a beautiful figure together, Tyler’s arm tucked around her waist. Jenna leans in to kiss his neck, chaste and sweet. Josh turns his head away and closes his eyes, pretending to be asleep, wishing to be asleep. He wonders if this is how it’s always going to be for him: separate from them, watching them as if through a window, wishing to be beside them—between them.

His eyes burn, so he squeezes them shut tighter. He doesn’t risk opening them again until they’re back on the road with Jenna driving. The clock on the dashboard says it is nearly midnight. They’re somewhere in Utah, along a long stretch of desolate highway. It’s too dark to see much, but Josh has a feeling that there isn’t much to see anyway. He’s been asleep for nearly three restless hours, but he doesn’t feel at all refreshed.

“We’re trying to find a hotel,” Tyler mutters, tapping anxiously at his thigh. “If we don’t stop soon, we’ll be in the mountains. I’d rather do that in the daylight.”

Jenna hums in agreement.

Josh sits awake with them now. There’s a strange tension in the car: the darkness, the late hour, the exhaustion. All any of them want now is a bed, the familiar unfamiliarity of a hotel with the clean, bland sheets and cold, impersonal bathrooms. In the distance, there is lightening where warm air is climbing up the Rocky Mountains.

They stop at the first familiar hotel line they see. Jenna gets the room for them while Josh and Tyler make sense of the bags in the car—what needs to come in and what can stay put. There is a cart that they pile high with luggage and Tyler nearly falls asleep leaning against it while waiting for Jenna to come out. He looks exhausted, as exhausted as he used to look at the end of studio sessions, exacerbated by the last few months of the tour. There are shadows beneath his eyes and along his jaw, and Josh knows what that stubble feels like. He’s brushed his knuckles against it. He can close his eyes and feel it against his lips—

“Coming?” Jenna asks, a hand on his shoulder. Her hair is mussed from trying to sleep in the car.

When they get inside the hotel, they find that the elevators are out of order. Josh is tempted to put all of the luggage back—grab toothbrushes and crash in his shirt and pants and shoes and all, but Tyler is already starting the long trek up five flights of stairs. Jenna pulls her weight, bringing up the rear with her bag and the cooler. The journey is silent except for their labored, tired breathing and the heavy trudging of their steps.

The key card doesn’t work. Josh is the one who loses the rock-paper-scissors game and goes downstairs so the man behind the front desk can rekey it. The lights are so bright in the lobby it hurts, and by the time he’s made it back up to the fifth floor, his thighs burn as much as his eyes do, limbs as heavy as his eyelids.

And when they open the door, there is only one bed. 

Josh blinks. For a moment there are two beds, but then they swim back into one; he is just that tired. “We’ve got the wrong room,” he says even as Jenna and Tyler worm their way by him to start a pile of suitcases in the corner of the room.

“I call the shower,” Jenna says, already tugging her hair loose from its tie.

Tyler toes off his shoes and collapses on top of the bed—and Josh recognizes that from when they’d stay at hotels while touring. The most important aspect of the room for the singer is the bed, and judging by the long, heaving sigh he gives (his arms akimbo and legs spread eagle), the bed passes inspection. But there’s only one.

Bed, guys,” Josh says, unable to eloquently relay the growing, numbing dread in his stomach. Jenna passes him by on the way to the bathroom and pats his cheek, smiling sweetly in her exhaustion. He reaches out for her hand to stop her but she is already slipping away, the bathroom door closing with a quiet snick. He hears the shower begin to roar. “Am I real?” Josh asks. “Am I talking out loud? Can anybody hear me?”

“I hear you,” Tyler mumbles, eyes closed.

“Some acknowledgement would be nice,” snaps Josh, frustration and fatigue wearing his good humor thin. He can’t go any further into the room, can’t let himself relax in this place yet. They’ve made a mistake. There isn’t even a pullout—the only couch in the room is a loveseat. Do they expect Josh to sleep on the floor? “I thought Jenna got two queen beds.”

“She probably didn’t think it would be a big deal,” begins Tyler, “If we all just slept together.”

“Jenna,” says Josh.

Tyler hums.

“Your wife.”

“Yeah?”

“She thought we could all just—sleep together.”

“We’ve slept together before,” says Tyler. Something about the drummer’s tone alarms him (as it should! Josh thinks). He props himself up on one elbow. The dip of his waist is exaggerated and feminine, and Josh knows how it feels to have his hand there. He thinks about it all the time.

We’ve slept together,” Josh emphasizes.

“What, you don’t want to sleep with Jenna?”

Josh sputters. “Are we having the same conversation right now?”

“I don’t know,” says Tyler. His eyes are half-lidded. Or maybe he’s just tired. “Are we?”

“I don’t know if I’m comfortable with this,” says Josh. He tentatively comes into the room, sits down his suitcase since his arms are aching. The coverlet of the bed is soft under his hands, and he runs the flat of his palm against it appreciatively. Tyler leans up so they’re sitting side by side. “I already feel like a third wheel tagging along with you guys on this vacation.”

“Josh. Tricycles? They need a third wheel.”

“Are you doing that thing again where you don’t take me seriously,” Josh asks. “Or am I doing that thing again where I don’t express myself properly? Because right now, I can’t tell.”

Tyler’s face falls. When he takes Josh’s hand, his palm is soft and warm, the pads of his fingers rough from playing the ukulele and bass guitar. “Jenna and I wouldn’t have invited you if we didn’t want you here. Neither of us meant to make you feel this way—I’ll go down and get a second room if it would make you feel more comfortable. I’m sure that Jenna just wanted you close to us. We want you here.”

It can’t get much closer than this, Josh thinks, staring at the King sized bed. “You want me,” Josh repeats, words a little flat.

“I don’t know how much clearer I can make it,” says Tyler.

“It’s clear as mud, Tyler,” he says, rubbing a weary fist at his matted yellow curls. He should have shaved his head before they left for the vacation, but he’d been busy. Caught up. Distracted. Before he can stop himself, his mouth opens and his mother’s words come out: “This is weird. You two are married. You’re supposed to sleep with each other—and I’m supposed to sleep alone.”

“Then I’ll go down and another room.” Tyler makes to put his shoes back on.

“Don’t—you know what, don’t bother.” There is a closet by the entry, and it has extra blankets and pillows in it. He makes two angry trips, tossing them into a pile on the floor between the foot of the bed and the television. The whole time he can feel Tyler’s eyes on him, and the gaze just makes him feel hotter and angrier. Why can’t they make this easy for him?

“I don’t understand why you’re so upset,” Tyler says. His voice is quiet and fragile. Something in Josh’s chest flares up—he hates when the singer sounds so uncertain, so sad. He has to push down the instinct to sooth things over.

“Maybe if you spent a moment trying to see things from my perspective, you would,” Josh offers. Let Tyler have that advice. Free of charge. Merry Christmas.

The bathroom door opens just as Josh has finished making his pallet on the floor and thrown himself down onto it, fully dressed. Jenna is standing in the doorway, the steam fogged mirror behind her. Her hair is dark with water, braided down her back and dripping onto the floor. The sweatshirt she’s wearing (the only thing she’s wearing, he suspects) is Josh’s. It’s definitely Josh’s. He gets one glimpse of her long, tanned legs before pressing his palms against his eyes, doing his best not to groan.

When he looks again, her face has fallen so tragically it’s almost cartoonish. She reads the energy in the room and her shoulders rise up towards her ears, pruned fingers toying with the sleeve of the sweatshirt that droops down past her wrist. Her eyes drift from Tyler on the bed, shoes in hand, to Josh on the floor. He rolls onto his side, hipbone digging uncomfortable into the thinly carpeted floor. He can’t look at her anymore.

“What’s wrong?” She asks gently.

“Josh wants his own room.”

“I’m right here,” he says. He’s becoming too tired to be angry. Too sad. “Don’t talk about me when I’m right here. Please.”

Jenna tip toes around him to get to her side of the bed. “Josh,” she says. “Honey. Why don’t you come to bed?”

“Because we’re married,” Tyler says, bitterly. His shoes hit the floor from where he drops them apathetically. “Did you know that? We’re married?”

“I’m going to sleep,” Josh says, loudly. “You can put the TV on but please stop talking. Thanks.”

Turned to the entertainment stand, he can’t see either of them, but his ears feel explicitly attuned to listening for their every movement. He hears the rustle of clothes—Tyler undressing. The bathroom door closes and the shower starting up again. The television turns on above his head and the channels flicker by aimlessly. It stops on a Star Wars movie: A New Hope from the sound of it. Save me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Josh thinks.

He drifts in and out of sleep, the voices of Luke and Leia and Yoda narrating. When he wakes, the bathroom door is cracked open but the room inside is dark. The television is so low it’s nearly muted, but The Empire Strikes Back plays now. Tyler is sitting on the floor next to Josh’s head, back against the foot of the bed and legs outstretched in front of him. His head is craned back, eyes closed. Josh has no idea how long he has been there.

“I’m in love with you,” Josh mumbles to him, sleep drunk, thoughtless. “With both of you, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Tyler’s eyes crack open and he looks at Josh with his face washed white from the television flickering above them. “Love us, then,” he says. Like it’s the only solution, like it’s so obvious.

“Did you hear me?” Josh says, leaning up on his elbow. “I’m in love with your wife. While on tour, I spent as much time beating off to thoughts of her as I did thoughts of you.”

“Ditto,” Tyler says. “You’re being really—what’s that word? Jenna?”

“Obtuse?” She offers helpfully from her place up on the bed. Josh jumps, startled.

“That’s the one. Josh. We are all in love with each other. We all want to fuck each other. You know how many times I tell Jenna the details of our old sex-capades to get her off?”

“It’s a lot,” Jenna says sleepily.

“Spoiler alert,” Tyler says.

“What the fuck is going on?” Josh asks. He’s still in his shirt and jeans, his joints creaking as he shifts to sit up, cross-legged next to Tyler. In the dark, Tyler reaches up and cups Josh’s cheek, fingers rasping over the day’s stubble. Their faces are pulled together and it’s firm but slow, slow enough that Josh could lean away, definitely slow enough to give him the time to think that he should lean away. But kissing Tyler is like coming home, and Josh has been away for so long.

Tyler is unlike anyone Josh has ever kissed before (not that there have been many). He is fixated, his attention absolute, his magnetism consuming. Tyler’s hand shifts down to Josh’s chin to grasp it gently and keep him close. It’s been so long that they are a little rusty, but then their heads tilt and Tyler’s lips part to breathe life into Josh’s own. Tyler tastes like Redbull and Josh can’t get enough of it, hand clenching into a fist onto his own thigh where the other man’s name rests. They softly lick into each other’s mouths, and there is no battle for dominance or submission, just appreciation, adoration.

“There are no third wheels—not like how you’re thinking,” Tyler says. “Will you come to bed with us?”

Josh ends up in the middle. The bed is not as comfortable with three occupants, but Josh wouldn’t trade it for anything. He can feel the heat of both of them, and by the time Han Solo has been betrayed by Lando Calrissian, Jenna and Tyler have both shifted, rolling onto their sides to curl into Josh. He becomes a warm, living bridge between them. Jenna’s thumb traces her husband’s name on Josh’s thigh, her cheek pressed against his chest.

“You’re killing me,” he mutters into her damp hair, his eyes wet, dick hard beneath the sheets. She laughs a little and moves her hand up, lets her fingers brush up the underside of his cock so gently that it might just be in his head. Can wishful thinking do such a thing?

“You’ve been killing me since 2013,” she says, pressing her palm flat against him until he breathes out all at once, shuddering.

“I told him it’s dangerous when he drums without a shirt on,” mumbles Tyler, halfway asleep. One of his thumbs brushes against Josh’s nipple and it’s too much. Being the center of attention, feeling the lazy devotion of both of the people he loves most—he isn’t sure if he’s going to laugh or cry or come.

I love you, Princess Leia says on the television.

I know, Han Solo says.

Josh knows. He knows.

They fall asleep with the television still on. In the morning, Josh is the first to awaken. Slipping out of bed, he re-covers his lovers (both of them, two of them, he loves them and they love him all of them in love!), grabs clothes, and ghosts into the bathroom. In the shower, he finds the bottle of Tyler’s bodywash. Tyler and Jenna’s body wash.

And now, Josh’s.