Despite having craved an L.J’s Diner slinger since moving home, Amanda steered clear of the place and drove in the opposite direction. L.J’s was a place to be seen, where people went to show off fresh blowouts and go public with new relationships. It was where the town convened to eat and make small talk before separating into cliques and gossiping in hushed voices over greasy food.
For that reason, Amanda opted to go to her usual safe spot, The Donut Basket. Since middle school, she’d known and loved Gail, the shop owner. Not only that, people only went to The Donut Basket between 7AM and 10AM, which made it an ideal place for Amanda to quietly visit and fill her quota of going out once a week. Not only would Gail throw in a few free vanilla Long Johns, she would also tell the town the next morning that Amanda Nathan had been by and was doing just fine. No one would believe her, of course, but it made Amanda feel like she wasn’t a complete hermit.
Gail had been partial to Amanda since she’d been in eighth grade, walking over to the shop with Megan a few days a week after school. It was all for Jake Pearson, a then-sophomore at Merit High School who stopped by the place on Mondays and Wednesdays before football practice. He was Megan’s first big crush, similarly jet-haired and blue-eyed. She liked to think that she could always get what she wanted, so despite having no interest in doughnuts, she made herself a regular at The Donut Basket. Amanda’s role was always to join and keep her company for the days when Jake and his teammates brought high school girls with them, ruling out the chances of flirting or even being looked at.
But on the days that the older girls didn’t come along, Megan had the ability to make Jake late for practice. They’d flirt as if two days ago, he hadn’t ignored her for being a thirteen-year-old who still attended middle school. While they giggled and arm-wrestled and teased each other, Amanda sat on a stool at the counter, allowing herself to be either ignored or heckled by Jake’s two ruddy teammates.
“What’s up, Third Wheel?” the redheaded one would ask, holding his hand up for a jeering high five. Amanda did her best to ignore them, especially as they went into their routine of lamenting and wondering where Megan’s “hot friends” were. Like the rest of Merit, they couldn’t understand why a pretty girl would continue to stick with the average best friend she’d chosen on a whim in fifth grade.
“Five more minutes, Mandy, please? You can’t leave without me!” Megan would plead whenever Amanda flashed a look that said, Get me out of here. “Five more minutes, I promise.”
Though five minutes always became fifteen or twenty, Amanda could never bring herself to leave. Megan needed her moral support. Her crushes on boys never lasted more than two weeks, but her obsession with Jake was on its third month, so Amanda knew it was important. And as a friend, it was her job to weather the storm of insults from Jake’s teammates and just be there for Megan. That included sticking around till the boys left for practice, listening to Megan’s stories during their walk home, and helping her analyze all the cute things that Jake had said and done. One day when a boy liked her, Amanda would need Megan for the same thing. That was just how friendship worked.
So as the high school boys taunted her, Amanda would flip through a People Magazine and politely decline Gail’s pep talks. Running to an adult for sympathy would just make her look like a dork – though she couldn’t help liking Gail when one day, she taunted the two boys right back. Since they’d dubbed Amanda “Third Wheel,” Gail dubbed them “Training Wheels” – the two sidekicks who would get left behind once Jake grew out of them.
The nickname proved prophetic by the next year at MHS. Jake and Megan became a couple and the Training Wheels were cut from the varsity football team. Amanda remained Megan’s best friend and stayed up on the phone with her past 12AM every night, listening to all the stories and romantic details of her first relationship.
“I can’t wait till you have a real boyfriend!” Megan would gush.
“If or when that happens,” Amanda always said. Her five-week “relationship” with Jake’s quiet cousin, Phil, was supposed to be her chance. But the set-up was mismatched from the start – forced for the sole purpose of double dates – and Phil was always too mesmerized by Megan to say a single word anyway.
“You will find a boy one day, Mandy,” Megan promised. “And when you do, we’ll have so much fun together.”
She was right about that, Amanda realized as she chomped down on a doughnut, sitting at the same counter she’d always sat at in middle school. I did find a boy. And she had a lot of fun with him.