“So wait, wait, wait,” said Leslie, popping a French fry into her mouth. “You’re telling me that the guy who became the mayor of Partridge right after you is still the mayor?”
Ben nodded grimly, shifting uncomfortably in his side of the booth.
“But what about term limits?”
“They actually amended the city charter to extend the term limit for elected officials from eight years to sixteen, just because they liked him so much.”
“Guess he looked that much better by comparison?” she ventured, then winced when Ben didn’t laugh. “Hey, hey, sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
“It’s true, though,” he said miserably, taking a long sip of his ice water. “Anyone who didn’t run the town into the ground would look better in comparison.”
“In the past, Ben. So he’s coming to Pawnee? Why?”
Ben shrugged. “He’s going to be in Indianapolis for some event, and he said he wanted to ‘pop over to Pawnee’ to ‘catch up with his old buddy,’” Ben said derisively, with liberal use of finger quotes.
“How’d he even know you were here?”
“Oh, Chris is really into checking us into places on Facebook.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket and scrolled through his timeline, reading the first entry aloud. “Chris Traeger is with Ben Wyatt at Pawnee City Hall-- ‘Another great day at work!’ Smiley face emoji. Smiley face emoji. Smiley face emoji.”
“Yeah, so long story short, I don’t think I can get out of it.” He frowned, fiddling with the paper wrapper from his straw. “Sorry. I know we had plans to work late and go over those budget spreadsheets.”
Leslie’s shoulders slumped. “I know-- my favorite thing plus your favorite thing!”
Ben sighed. “I just wish I didn’t have to go to dinner with this guy and listen to him talk all about his cool life, you know? Unimpeached mayor of his hometown-- he’s already got a leg up on me there. Plus, from what I’ve heard, he’s got a really great wife, and a couple kids, and is like, freakishly good at bowling.” He ducked his head, almost pouting. “I wish I was freakishly good at bowling.”
“You could be if you just practiced, Ben,” Leslie said mindlessly. She tapped the fingers of one hand on the table, and with the other, scraped a spoonful of whipped cream from her nearly-empty plate. As she sucked the whipped cream from the spoon, an idea began to form.
“You know, Ben,” she said, gesturing at him with the utensil. “What if you could show up that moldy old bowler, and be done with dinner in time for spreadsheets?”
He perked up. “But how?”
Leslie grinned her patented ‘I have an idea’ grin. This was definitely going to work.
“Are you sure this is going to work?” Ben asked as Leslie parked her car in front of the restaurant.
She scoffed. “Who do you think you’re talking to?”
“Alright, true,” he said, getting out of the car after her and following her to the restaurant’s doors. “So we just… pretend we’re married.”
“With three kids at home. I even had April Photoshop a few family pictures,” she said, pulling a small photo album out of her purse and flipping through the pages for him. “See? There’s us and the kiddos at Disney. There’s all three of them riding Lil’ Sebastian. And-- aww-- there’s us on our wedding day! Look how beautiful I looked, Ben!”
“Wow,” he said softly, staring at the photo with wide eyes. Leslie looked at it again-- she had to admit, they looked good together. April had done an excellent job.
“So, yeah. Married six years, three kids under five. Oh, and you have a boat.”
Ben frowned, his hand stilling on the door handle. “I have a boat?” She nodded. “But I don’t know how to drive a boat.”
“Ah, but Married Ben knows how to drive a boat.”
He looked a little sick to his stomach. “Are you sure I’m going to be able to pull this off?”
She rolled her eyes at him. Had he so little faith in a certified Leslie Knope Plan? “Just trust me. We sit down, we have appetizers and drinks, we talk up your life, then -- oh no! Little Annabelle has a tummyache! The babysitter calls, and we have to go home. Then we just head back to the office and have an all night budget party! Sound good? Good.”
While he still seemed a bit green, Ben nodded, pulling open the door and gesturing for her to go in ahead of him. She smiled.
“See? You’re a great husband so far.”
“Ben! Ben Wyatt!”
Leslie looked over at where the voice was coming from-- a booth in the restaurant’s lounge area-- to see a tall red-headed man waving them over. When she glanced at Ben, he looked like he was steeling himself for something terrible, so she reached down and grasped his hand, pulling him with her toward the man’s table.
“Nice to see you after all this time!” The taller man slid out of the booth and embraced Ben, who didn’t seem to be expecting it. He managed to pat the other man awkwardly on the back a few times before pulling away.
“Good to see you, too, Al.”
A moment passed silently before Leslie jumped in, holding her hand out for Al to shake. “So nice to meet you, Al, I’ve heard so much about you over the years,” she said in her best ‘supportive wife’ voice. “I’m Leslie Knope. Ben’s wife.”
Al raised his eyebrows as he shook her hand, glancing between her and Ben a few times. “I’ll be damned. Little Benji got himself married!”
“He’s not so little anymore,” Leslie said, reaching out to scratch her fingers through the hair at the back of Ben’s neck. Had she really just said that? She noticed Ben’s surprise, and shrugged helplessly at him as Al sat back down.
She slid into the booth beside Ben-- the very small booth, she noted. There didn’t seem to be a way for her to sit without her thigh touching his, but she supposed that’s just how a married couple would sit. In fact, was that close enough for a married couple? She reached over and settled her hand on Ben’s knee. He jolted at the contact, his knee jumping high enough to nearly smash her hand against the underside of the table, but he covered the nervous movement with a cough.
“So, Al, how’s… Rebecca?”
Al gestured for the waiter, who came over and took their drink orders. Imminent budget spreadsheets or not, Leslie decided it was definitely the right time for wine.
“She’s terrific! Really just great.” He drummed his fingers on the edge of the table. “We, ah. Started taking a painting class together.”
“Oh, that’s so nice!” said Leslie. “Are you both artists?”
Al’s smile faltered. “No, not-- well, it’s just, the couple’s counseling brochure suggested that painting was… you know, a very relaxing activity to do together.”
Leslie’s eyes widened, and she felt Ben stiffen where her hand still rested on his leg.
“Oh, that’s… well, that’s good that you’re… doing that,” said Ben lamely. “What about your kids? I’m sorry, I don’t remember their names-- aren’t they in middle school now?”
“Al Jr. and Samantha.” Al ran a hand along his face and huffed. “One of ‘em won’t speak to me, and the other’s dabbling in the occult, but other than that-- they’re great! Really, everything’s fine.”
The waiter chose that moment to drop off Leslie and Ben’s glasses of wine, and they took huge twin sips as Al continued.
“Really, did you know that it’s ‘perfectly normal’ for a 12-year-old girl to take up an interest in the paranormal? Because apparently it is, according to Sam’s school psychologist.” He threw up a hand and shook his head. “Apparently it’s ‘perfectly normal’ for her to have a Wiccan name and go around saying ‘Blessed be’ at everything.”
Leslie decided she better not mention the three months in 8th grade when she’d asked everyone to start calling her ‘Sage.’
“But enough about my family. What about you two?” Al asked, seeming to cheer up a bit. “How long have you been married?”
“Six years,” said Ben, eyeing Leslie out of the corner of his eye, presumably to make sure he was keeping his facts straight. She gave him a little nod, and he continued. “We met, ah--” Uh oh. Leslie hadn’t filled him in on the backstory she’d come up with for their first meeting, whirlwind courtship and subsequent engagement. She held her breath as Ben paused. “At our bowling league.”
“Bowling! That’s great, that’s just great,” said Al. “Let me guess-- you nailed strike after strike and she just couldn’t resist?”
A little smile played at Ben’s lips, and he looked over at Leslie for a moment before moving his arm to rest on the booth behind her, just brushing her shoulders. He was clearly getting more comfortable in the role, she thought, as she leaned back, just a bit, against his arm.
“No, actually Al-- I’m pretty mediocre at bowling. At best. Leslie’s the real champion.” He smiled at her, then turned his attention back to Al. “You know, she always tells me I’d be great at it if I just practiced, but…”
“Well that’s really something,” said Al. “You know, it’s probably for the best that you aren’t both champs down at the lanes. Bowling’s like, my only escape from Rebecca.”
“Ah, she’s not a bowler?” Ben asked, his tone light.
“She might be. I don’t know. I don’t tell her that’s where I’m going. I just…” Al rubbed his temple. “Don’t you ever just feel like you gotta get away from your life for eight or nine hours? Or a weekend?”
“Um,” Ben started, glancing at Leslie. “Not really?”
The waiter dropped off a round of appetizers, and for a few moments, they all busied themselves with eating. Leslie and Ben kept sneaking glances at each other, both of them unsure how to react to Al’s oddly inappropriate over-sharing.
“So, we have kids, too, Al,” Leslie began, hoping if she got the subject back on Ben and their “family,” the conversation might be a bit less uncomfortable.
“Oh yeah? How many?”
“Three,” said Ben.
Leslie nodded. “Annabelle, David, and Mitchell.”
“Cute names,” said Ben under his breath, and Leslie quietly snort-laughed before giving his shin a light kick beneath the table. Either way, Al didn’t seem to notice.
“They nightmares yet?”
“It’ll come.” Al ordered another drink as the waiter passed by. “I mean, they’re born, and you think, wow, this kid is great. Wow, I couldn’t love anything more. Wow, I might be able to love my wife again since she’s the one who gave me something this perfect. And then bam!” He smacked the surface of the table, and both Leslie and Ben jumped in their seats. “It all goes to hell.”
“Oh. I’m… sorry?” said Ben. “But, uh. Hey, at least work’s going well? Everybody still loves you in Partridge.”
Al smiled, the first genuine smile Leslie thought she’d seen from him since he’d first greeted Ben. “Yep. They love me.”
“That’s so great, to have such a respected role in town government,” said Leslie, and Ben nodded.
“Yeah, yeah, it is,” said Al. “Or, was.” He took a big bite of a slider and talked around the food in his mouth. “For the first eight or so years. Then they change the laws to rope you into eight more.” He swallowed and ran a hand through his hair-- which, Leslie noticed for the first time, was clearly thinning. “But it’s great, it’s great. I’m just gonna… riiiide it out ‘til I can retire. Spend all my money sending the kids to state school… Get a condo on Lake Michigan… get Rebecca a separate condo on some other Great Lake so I don’t have to spend my golden years with her voice in my ear... “ Al looked off into the distance, his eyes unfocused. “It’s going to be… just great.”
After a moment, he returned his attention to Ben and Leslie, straightening up a bit and taking another huge bite of slider. “So, Ben, what do you plan to do when you retire?”
“Whoa,” said Leslie, buckling her seatbelt once they'd finally made their excuses and escaped.
“Yeah,” replied Ben. “Whoa.”
“That was the guy you were so worried about your life measuring up to?”
Ben shrugged, letting out a surprised laugh. “And I didn’t even have to tell him about my fake boat. I guess appearances aren’t always what they seem.”
After a beat, he turned to look at her in the passenger seat, an eager expression on his face. “So-- are you ready for an all night budget rager?” He gesticulated wildly with his hands and Leslie giggled, putting the car in reverse and pulling out of the parking lot to head toward City Hall.
As they drove down Main Street, Leslie idly thought to herself that she hoped if she did end up married one day, her marriage was more like the fake Leslie and Ben’s than the real Al and Rebecca’s.