Annie never meant to fall in love with all of the men in her Spanish study group. Well, not Pierce--she ends up loving Pierce, but not that way, because Pierce is not so much a man but a Weird Grandpa, which is a kind of man, she supposes, but not sexually interesting. Not to… the average woman. And certainly not to an above-average woman, which Annie is.
She didn't mean to date all the men in Spanish study group either; but at least she tried to keep the edges clean--ragged but clean, like paper that you tear along a fold. You can tell it wasn't done with scissors (or better, a paper cutter), but the line is straight, and the paper stays square, and that's what she told herself when there were precisely two weeks between dating Troy and Jeff, and then four months after that... well, her papers weren't even square anymore, let alone clean-edged.
It began with Troy. And oh, poor Troy. He asked her out after spring break, before she had really come to grips with Greendale, before she had really accepted the fact that she was really doing this, really going to a 4-year community college, instead of even freaking Colorado State or University of Wyoming or something more respectable than Greendale.
Poor Troy. He was the one who had borne the brunt of her realization that she'd screwed her life up something awful. He'd been so sweet when they started dating, and far too sweet to know how to handle the rise of Annie Awful, who was practically a Stephen King character, caught somewhere between Carrie and the nurse from Misery--who was also named Annie.
But Jeff who was the one who, during an intervention disguised as a Stephen King movie marathon, pulled the weeping Annie onto his lap, and risked the possibility that she had developed psychic powers during her bout of depression. Troy, after Annie had slapped him across the face for sympathizing a little too much with James Caan, had been ushered from the room by Britta (Britta muttering, "Bitches, man"), leaving Annie to the healing power of Jeff's lap, and Shirley's cooing and backrubbing, and Pierce's Pierceness. Abed finally turned the movie off and went with Shirley to pull her car up to the door of the library, and Pierce went to report back to Troy's contingent. And just like that, she was alone with Jeff.
Jeff tilted her chin up with his index finger and gave her that smile, the one that was always at least half a smirk at himself. For a moment, she thought he might kiss her--wanted him to kiss her, because it would have allowed her to feel outrage toward someone's behavior besides her own--but instead he just looked into her eyes, still smiling. "It was lonely in 'Fucked Up My Life But I Acknowledge It' Club. Welcome. With two members, we'll be able to hold regular meetings and collect dues for our spring break ski trip."
She sniffled a little. "I thought that was you and Britta's club," she said.
"Britta, along with the rest of our study group, does not yet accept that their fucking-up is really their own fault. Except for Abed--as weird as he is, he lives an honest life."
She sniffled again, folding her hands together and tucking her head under Jeff's chin. "You're. Much nicer than I second thought."
"Well, I thought you were nice at first. But it quickly seemed to be just superficial charm. But you're… nice."
"I wonder if you can hear me rolling my eyes," he said, but his fingers were stroking her hair, and neither of them said anything more until it was time to load her into Shirley's car.
The next day she apologized to Troy, and they broke it off--ripped like the paper at the fold, and Annie had to live with this ragged edge in the relationship scrapbook in her mind. Her high school boyfriend had neater, paper-cutter edges: college was the sharp blade that cut between them. College and profound disinterest. But as ragged as the edge was with Troy, there was something bearably clean about admitting to Troy that she was depressed and no good for him and quite horrible.
She went back to therapy, and Julia, her therapist, was very proud of her for not resorting to pills of any sort, and told her that she'd done the best she could.
Annie began to be desperately afraid that this was true, and she started to guard herself, and all her interactions. Is this the best I can do? she'd ask herself before saying something sharp or bossy or aggressive.
It was the end of second semester, and she and Shirley were the only ones who were going to take summer classes. Shirley was struggling with her mortgage payment, and Annie couldn't bear living at home with her parents any longer, so she agreed to rent Shirley's guest bedroom.
This made things stupidly hard for when she started dating Jeff, because Shirley was not a tremendously big fan of, say, the premarital sex, or the having men sleep over, or the sleeping over with men. In some ways, it was worse than staying at her parents' house. But in the end, having to sneak around and avoid Shirley made the whole thing more exciting, and that is probably what made the summer romance with Jeff work, because when he broke up with her in the first week of the first semester of sophomore year, it was because she wasn't awful enough.
"What happened to you, Annie?" he asked in the corner of the library devoted to accounting books. It seemed like the obvious place to break up, since none of the study group were studying accounting this semester. "You used to be a force. You used to dominate. Now, you're afraid of your own shadow."
She was staring at the laugh-lines around his eyes, thinking how much she was going to miss them. "Isn't it better than resurrecting Annie Awful?"
He wore a twist of a half-smile, and touched her cheek. "I loved Annie Awful, too. But who I really miss is my debate partner."
She almost promised to change. She thought she could make it back to Annie Awful, Troy-Slapper. But--in fact--that wasn't who Jeff wanted, and it wasn't who Annie wanted, either. And she didn't know how to get back to the girl she was before she realized she was stuck at Greendale.
She and Troy had rediscovered friendship pretty quickly. It helped that he never really was in love with her, and it helped that she felt so bad for how she treated him. So when Abed proposed the three youngest of the study group get an apartment together for sophomore year, she said yes.
It was, seriously, the best time of her life.
Abed and Troy and Annie. The Wonder Triplets. Abed even bought them matching rings--big, purple, plastic rings. When she forced them all to sit down with the chore list at the beginning of every week, at the end of every meeting, Abed made them tap the rings together and say things like "Form of--a toilet scrub brush!" and "Form of--a clean kitchen!"
Abed was good for Troy and better for Annie. He kept them from having too many petty arguments, he kept things absurd, and he followed Annie's lead in almost everything that mattered. He bought the right kind of dish soap, left the toilet seat down, and thought even Annie's most off-hand kindnesses were signs of deep friendship. When she gave him Cheers on DVD for Hanukkah /Not Christmas/Winter Festive Gift-Giving Time, he got tears in his eyes. Later, while Abed watched the director's commentary for the Woody-got-left-in-charge-of-the-bar-and-pretends-Sam's-cleaning-lady-is-his-girlfriend episode (apparently, Abed's favorite), and Troy and Annie were pouring glasses of Mexican Coke and popping popcorn in anticipation of the rest of the group coming over, Troy said, "He's got a crush on you."
She wrinkled her forehead. "No, he doesn't. If anything, he's got a crush on you."
Troy laughed like he thought this was funny, though he clearly did not. "No, he doesn't. He's got a crush on you, and you need to decide what you're going to do about it."
"What's there to do about it?" she asked, wrenching open the microwave door. "We're roommates. He's your best friend, and you and I used to date. There's absolutely nothing to do about it."
"Whoa!" Troy stared at her. "I meant, you gotta nip it in the bud or let him down easy--but I didn't think you were crushing back."
"What?" She ripped open the bag of popcorn and shook it furiously into a plastic bowl. "I don't--" She laughed a little, not looking at Troy. "I'm not crushing back on Abed."
"Yeah, you are. If you didn't like him, you would've said, 'Oh, that's too bad,' or 'Poor Abed, I only like him as a friend,' or 'He'll find someone someday.' But you came up with a list of reasons you shouldn't date, which means--you like him." He wore a sort of angry look on his face, though maybe angry wasn't the right word. Jealous?
"You're frustrating," was all she said, brushing past him out of the kitchen. Which was the truth: Troy was frustrating. Anything else she'd have said, though, would have been a lie.
The group came over, and that was good distraction. They played Trivial Pursuit as a drinking game, which was Pierce's not-quite-genius plan. (Get a question right: take a drink. Get a pie: chug. It was supposed to equalize the intelligence pool, but it mostly just got Annie and Britta a lot drunker than everyone else.) Pierce, ridiculously, owned the original edition of the game, which was full of puzzling questions like "What sea marks Yugoslavia's western border?" And the answer to all the sports questions was "Vince Lombardi."
When the game was over, Abed begged them all to watch Cheers, and Annie found herself sitting on the floor in front of the coffee table, squished in between her roomies. It was a long, warm, and kind of horrible evening, because she still had sparks with Troy, and… her thigh was pressed alongside Abed's, in a friendly but kind of not-friendly way. When she shivered because there was just too much going on, Jeff pulled the chenille throw off the back of the couch and tossed it over her lap. And at some point, underneath the chenille throw, her right hand found Abed's left hand… and her left hand found Troy's right hand. And neither of them pulled away or expressed distaste or otherwise changed their expressions at all. But they also didn't know she was holding both of their hands.
She sat staring straight forward at the TV as though there was nothing so fascinating as a 1980s sitcom laugh track, while Troy's thumb played with the webbing between her own thumb and index finger, and Abed's hand (strangely warm and dry, not clammy like she would have expected) occasionally twitched in hers.
All the while, she wondered what sort of synonym for "slut" one could come up with that started with an A, so she could have another nickname to go with Annie Adderall and Annie Awful. Couldn't be Annie Adulteress. She wasn't married. She closed her eyes, and tried not to think at all.
Eventually, she extracted both of her hands and stood up and went to make more popcorn, though every step reminded her of how quickly she'd won Trivial Pursuit.
When she came back, Shirley was saying, "I don't believe I've ever had the opportunity to play beer pong before," and before Annie quite knew what was happening, the dining table had been converted into a beer pong table, and that's how the Trivial Pursuit losers caught up with her and Britta. And then there was another episode of Cheers, and someone wanted to play quarters, and then, Abed found an episode of Perfect Strangers, and everyone sang the theme song and talked about falling off of turnip trucks--
She didn't remember exactly what happened next, only suddenly Shirley was calling cabs for everyone, and Annie was lying on the floor in front of the coffee table with her head in Abed's lap, staring up at Kirk Cameron's youthful face and 80s hair. "Is this Growing Pains?" she mumbled.
"This is the one where Matthew Perry plays Sandy, and dies from injuries he incurs in a drunk driving accident. I'm glad Shirley called cabs."
"Oh," she said, and noticed her feet were warmer than usual. She looked down to find Troy cuddled around them. He was snoring.
She closed her eyes.
Several hours later, she woke to be stared down by the blue and silent TV screen, wonderfully aware that Abed and Troy and she were in a rather uncomfortable puppy pile together. She could turn her head just a few degrees and her lips would be lined up with Abed's, so it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world to try a kiss, even though the evenness of his breathing indicated he was asleep. His lips were cool and dry, and he didn't kiss her back right away, but she nibbled at his lower lip until his jaw moved, and then he was kissing her back--inexpertly but passionately.
She pulled deliberately away, and then moved in again slow, showing him how she wanted to kiss, and he slowed down and followed her lead. It was strange. He didn't reach for her. When she felt arms come around her eventually, they were Troy's; when hands touched her breasts at last, they were also Troy's. She whimpered in her throat, but if it was a protest, it was merely the vestige of some morality she wasn't even sure why she should cling to. But she didn't think it was a protest at all, but a pleading: Let this last. I want this to last.
And it did. It lasted through the night, and not one of them stopped it. In the morning, when they woke up together in Annie's bed (it was the biggest), no one said anything. Abed got up, and she heard the shower run. Troy gave her a quick kiss on the shoulder, and went into the kitchen. Annie heard the refrigerator door open and close, the sound of pouring juice. She lay in bed and stretched and dreamed, and wondered who would be the first to say anything about it.
But no one said anything that day. They just baked Hanukkah/Not Hanukkah/Winter Festive Gift-Giving Time cookies and held the weekly chore meeting, and then after a late lunch of microwave pizza, they absolutely did not talk about it--they just all went to bed together again.
When they got up at midnight to eat scrambled egg sandwiches, Abed said, "I don't have a frame of reference for any of this, exactly. Except for maybe the movie Threesome with Lara Flynn Boyle, Stephen Baldwin, and Josh Charles."
And Annie said, "One of us is going to freak out soon. I suspect it will be me."
And Troy said, "Can't do this if we talk about it. Can't talk about it if we do this."
Abed said, "I didn't like the ending of the movie, and also, neither Troy nor I are gay. I think."
Troy shook his head firmly. "Not gay. Also, not talking about this."
Annie said, "What's to talk about, until someone actually freaks out?"
Abed said, "This might be my freak-out."
Troy and Annie looked at Abed. He looked like he needed a hug. So they hugged him.
He spoke, muffled, into their shoulders. "How does this end?'
No one knew the answer that day.
They made a pact to end it when it stopped working for one of them. But it didn't stop working for anyone even after the study group found out. (Pierce thought that they were indulging in a good old-fashioned social experiment, and reminisced about the 70s. Britta considered it a good blow against the patriarchy. Jeff got a strangely unhappy look, but said that if it made them happy, he was happy. Shirley, of course, after saying she wasn't going to talk about it, talked about it constantly, but the rest of the group usually kept her pretty quiet about it.)
When Annie got her acceptance letter to Smith, things came to an abrupt end.
"You're leaving us?" Pierce asked, and everyone else gave her a devastated look.
"It was always my plan to transfer to a real college after two years." No one said anything in defense of Greendale to that. She looked at them. "Seriously, that wasn't anyone else's plan?"
Britta shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "Yeah. I got into Berkeley. I just… didn't want to tell anyone about it." She looked around. "I wasn't admitting to myself that I was going to go. I'm gonna miss you guys."
Troy was looking at the table, not at anyone else. "I'm going to Boulder."
Abed said, "My plan was to stay here, all along; I don't need anything else to manage the falafel business."
Shirley looked about to cry. "I'm--I'm… I'm going to miss you all. I'm going to miss my new family," she said.
"You'll still have me," Pierce said. "And Abed, and Jeff."
Shirley nodded through her tears. Jeff looked constipated.
They all passed Spanish 202 with flying colors, and the study group still met--though their hearts didn't quite seem into it. Likewise, back at the apartment, the spark had gone out. One night, they just didn't all go to bed together. Abed said, "There's no point, and it's too sad."
And that was it.
The day Annie finished law school, there was a card from Jeff on her front porch. "Congrats on graduating from Columbia. (I never did.)"
She moved back to Colorado a week later, to spend the summer at her parents' house studying for the bar. The first week, she visited all the old haunts. One Monday she biked to Greendale to visit Señor Chang, Professor Dobson, and Dr. Duncan, who had written her the recommendations that got her into Smith. On Tuesday, she dropped by Abed's to have a falafel and talk over old times, and admire the duo of overly-verbose toddlers he had produced with his ridiculously hot wife, Lilah. Thursday, she drove her dad's car to her favorite used bookstore and stocked up on romance novels for the first time in five years.
When she went to have an omelet at Kellerman's one morning, she ran into Jeff. His smile was still too many watts, and his right eyebrow still had its evil quirk.
"Fancy running into you here! How's little Annie Attorney?" he asked, sliding into the booth seat across from her. "Getting ready to sell out for the big bucks?"
"What are you doing here?"
"I love Denver omelets," he said.
"And you couldn't get one—in Denver?"
"Never come between a man and the nostalgia he has for the greasy spoon he loved in college."
"You drove all the way here just to have an omelet—and it's just a coincidence that I'm here, too?"
A waitress came by. "Coffee, Jeff?" She eyed Annie. "Is this her?"
"Is who me!?" Annie stared at Jeff, astonished. He wasn't looking at her. He looked—sheepish. Annie smiled, and told the waitress, "Two coffees, two Denver omelets." She tried to hand the waitress the menu, then remembered, and tucked it back behind the ketchup.
"So," Annie said when they were alone again. "How's your love life?"
He looked up, all innocent blue eyes. "Fine. Nothing spectacular. You?"
She bit her lip to hide a smile. She always knew when Jeff was lying—they'd all figured it out sometime during Spanish 101, just out of self-preservation.
But she forgot they'd learned her secrets, too. Jeff said, "You're hiding something."
"I'm not hiding anything. I just figured something out." She took a deep breath. "You missed me," she told him. "You've been here every morning since my graduation. Admit it."
"What's to admit? I like Denver omelets. We've been over this." He was back to studying the menu, even though the food was on the way.
She leaned forward, staring at his forehead. "Jeff Winger, you've been waiting for me!"
He glanced up. His mouth twitched. "Yeah," he said. "But not chastely."
She laughed. "Good. Me, neither." She gave him a knowing grin that threatened to crack her face in half.
Jeff gave her a vaguely affronted look. "What? Why are you giving me a knowing smile? You know I hate knowing smiles. Unless I'm giving them."
"I sooooo own you! I do. I so own you!"
"So what? You've been in love with me since you went all Carrie on Troy!"
"You would bring that up during our tender reunion!"
He wrinkled his forehead in that way he had. "This is a tender reunion?"
"I haven't pointed out you are way too old for me, so yes, tender."
"Anyway, I was in love with you before Annie Awful, so you're just all kinds of incorrect."
The coffee came. Annie handed Jeff two packets of sugar. He ripped the packets open, and she thought about scrapbooks and ragged paper for the first time in years. She could no longer remember the edges, which ones were torn, which ones were cut.
"A little bit," he said at last.
"A little bit what?"
"A little bit, you own me."
She smiled into her coffee. "I know." She crumpled the sugar packet papers into a ball, edges and all, and flicked them across the table into Jeff's chest. "I'm the one who told you, remember?"