Jeff muttered to himself as he scanned the label of the mac ‘n cheese box, attempting to discern the endless list of difficult to pronounce ingredients which, coupled with the neon glow of the so-called cheese, always disturbed him. Despite his assumptions about what so many chemicals would do to the human body, his almost three-year-old seemed to thrive on the stuff. He always tried to limit it for her, but she had a spark these days and would actually mouth off to him.
He was more than a little proud.
“So, I think we should go with this one instead this time,” he remarked nonchalantly as he put down the alarming blue box and reached to the left in the grocery store aisle for the green one which, while probably almost equally as horrible, at least contained real cheese (powder).
“No, Daddy! Not dat one! Da bwue one!”
“Now munchkin, you know that sometimes we have to try new things. This one looks delicious.”
“No. Where Mama? Mama get bwue.”
He let out a long sigh and then hunched forward on the grocery cart and locked eyes with Sadie. With a squint, he said in a low and even voice, “This is not up for negotiation. We’re going to try something different. It’s still mac ‘n cheese. I think you’ll like it.”
He didn’t have to wait for the flash of determination in her face, as her blue Disney eyes briefly narrowed before they morphed into orbs of adorableness.
She tilted her head and her lip quivered just so as she said, “Daddy, I lub my mac ‘n cheese. I lub the bwue one. Und I lub you.”
“Well, crap. Well-argued.” With a smirk, he replaced the green box and tossed the blue one in the cart.
“Yay!” Sadie clapped her hands and glanced backward at the box before resuming her adoring gaze up at him.
He leaned down and gave her a kiss on the forehead, taking a moment to sniff her sandy brown and slightly unruly hair. He made a mental note to break out the comb once they got back home. Running his hand through it, he also considered there might very well be the need for gel. It was a constant issue, figuring out when to introduce her to grooming products. But he figured Annie was wrong about all of that. It was never too early to teach their eldest that impressions were important. She had wit to be sure, but she also needed to have class.
He glanced down at her mismatched pink and orange socks and shuddered a little.
He whispered, “I love you too, Sadie.”
He then lifted his head and smiled at her, giving her another kiss and patting her teddy bear on its head before he resumed standing fully.
He cocked his head and quickly swiveled around, recognizing the voice but not being able to place it. His eyes widened as he identified the source.
Michelle Slater was walking toward him while carrying a small grocery basket. She was as impeccably dressed as always, her hair down in gentle waves. She looked amazing, and he felt a pang of guilt at seeing her again, for the last time he saw her, he had been about to sneak out like a coward from the Tranny Dance.
While she had been the bigger jerk in coldly dumping him with no warning mere weeks before, he always knew she had her own commitment issues and had been pretty into him. It had probably taken Britta’s competitiveness to force her own, and by that time any constructive conversation of them getting back together had been hopeless. But part of him always felt a little bad about not talking to her directly about it, at least after the dance.
He was reminded that he had found other things to do after the dance. His cheeks burned as he briefly recalled those things.
The tongue and other things. There had been more handsy stuff than he and Annie had really let on to anyone. They may have also moved the makeout to a more private location before again he had let his cowardice overtake him, buttoned up his shirt, and literally fled.
Those were good times.
He gulped and then affected a bemused smile, making sure to take an unobtrusive and calming breath as she neared.
She stopped a few feet away and appeared to take a moment to collect herself, brushing back a stray hair from her face. With a slight smirk, she regarded him for a few seconds before she said, “Wow. I haven’t seen you in a very long time.”
He found himself slightly shifting his weight back and forth and it annoyed him. He cleared his throat and steadied his body, doing his best friendly gaze.
“It has been awhile.”
She looked up at him with an assuredness he had always admired.
“Yes, I think the last time I saw you, you were staring at me speechless as I declared my love for you.”
Okay, that got him in the gut. No matter what she had done to him, he was an ass. He was still trying to make it up to Britta, even if she didn’t seem to realize it.
He tightened his expression and said, “Yeah, about that. I suck.”
She rolled her eyes. “I just felt I had to acknowledge it. It’s been years though. Please.”
They both laughed awkwardly for a few moments before saying in unison, “Duh Doi.”
“Jinx.” She waived her hand in the air before she suddenly stilled.
Her eyes darted to his side, and he realized that she must have spotted Sadie. This was probably going to be even more awkward.
Michelle’s eyes widened with incredulity as she stared at Sadie. With a low gasp, she said, “Oh my god, is she yours?”
Jeff tightened his smile even further and nodded. “Yup.” He then turned toward his daughter, who was staring back at Michelle with a huge grin on her face. There was also a long string of drool running from the side of her mouth to her teddy bear’s ear.
He grunted and quickly grabbed a wet wipe from a small black bag to Sadie’s left and exclaimed, “Oh, for crying out loud.” He dabbed at her face, and she swatted him but then giggled.
Michelle turned her head slowly to make eye contact with him, and he smiled sheepishly as he put away the wet wipe. She asked, “You have a child?”
“Um, Michelle, this is my daughter, Sadie. Sadie, this is Daddy’s friend, Michelle. Can you say hi?”
More giggles with Sadie half curling herself into her teddy bear in a bashful pose. She tended to get that way at first with strangers, but he knew she’d soon warm up.
Michelle smiled and hunched down a little, placing her basket on the floor, clearly planning to make this more than a quick meet and greet. She said with a surprising gentleness, “Hi Sadie. It’s so good to meet you. I like your socks.”
“Those? Look, she’s been dressing herself lately, and I…”
“Dank you. I lub my socks. You wan mac ‘n cheese? Daddy got dah bwue one cause I lub it. I lub it so much.”
Michelle chuckled at this and reached out to gently pat Sadie’s head, which elicited another giggle. She remarked, “You are so darn cute. Jeff, you make an adorable kid.”
“Um, thanks.” He was still a little flummoxed at her presence, and at the fact that she seemed to have readily softened at meeting his kid. He supposed she really had moved on from him. He also had no idea she could be so warm with children. When they were dating, she hadn’t shown much interest in kids.
Yet again, neither had he.
She turned to regard him with curiosity. “I can’t believe you have a child. That’s crazy.”
He shrugged. “Well, yeah, things kinda changed.”
“I’ll say. The Jeff Winger I knew had enough difficulty with Chubby Hubby ice cream.” Her eyes narrowed on his wedding ring.
He cringed as he said, “Okay, I was kind of a jerk. Look, back then I wasn’t really ready for any of that, but as I got older, well…” He shrugged again before leaning over and giving Sadie a kiss on her head.
She let out a huge sigh and then said, “No, I get it. And I wasn’t the best with commitment back then, either. I recall dumping you rather abruptly in the school corridor. My bad.”
“I guess we were both kinda immature.”
They softly laughed for a few moments, and Jeff felt himself relaxing. She didn’t appear to be mad at him, and she even apologized for breaking up with him. Perhaps they could both be adults about this whole thing after all. The realization gave him a sense of peace that he hadn’t realized that he needed.
“So what are you up to these days? Still teaching?”
She nodded. “At City College.”
With an arch of the brow, he said, “I did seem to hear a rumor about that. You know, I taught at Greendale for a couple years after I graduated.”
“I seem to have heard something about that too.”
“Oh, I kept in touch with some faculty for awhile.”
He cracked a wry smile. “I bet it was Craig. He was always slipping away to go see Spreck about some so-called competition. They should get a room already.”
Her shoulders tensed slightly, and he couldn’t figure out why.
She said, “I actually requested that I not hear anything more about you.” She shifted her weight and added, “I didn’t think it was productive.”
He inwardly fumbled as he waited for the unidentifiably strange moment to pass.
Appearing to make a decision to change the subject, she cleared her throat and then asked, “So, what are you doing these days? Besides being daddy?”
He replied, “I joined a small firm in Denver, but I’m only part time. I spend most of my days with Sadie so her mother can work.”
He gulped as he did his best to keep a neutral expression. It had occurred to him that Michelle had no clue that he had ever been interested in Annie. Back in the day, she had been fixated on his friendship with Britta. Things were going so well at present that he didn’t really want to get into it. She would probably move on in a few minutes, and they could both coast on this pleasant little exchange and go on with their respective lives.
Okay, he was still a little bit of a coward.
Michelle gasped, “Wow.”
“Daddy, I hungwy.”
He smiled apologetically at Michelle and then got to work on opening the bag and producing a small ziplock of gold fish crackers. He handed them to Sadie and she eagerly began munching on them.
Michelle watched the interplay and said with a wistful expression, “She really is so darn cute. She reminds me of someone….” Her eyes suddenly widened as she snapped her head to look at him and said, “Wait, no… Did you marry Britta?”
“Oh thank god.”
After that surprisingly rapid-fire exchange, he added, “We’re um, still friends though, so we’re not going to trash talk her, if you don’t mind.”
Michelle pursed her lips for a moment and then said, “Fine.” She then regarded Sadie once again as she said, “But she does remind me of someone. It’s those eyes.”
He willed himself to keep it together. There was no point in starting a conversation about Annie, as it would just muddy things with Michelle. He silently prayed she would leave.
She then sighed and said, “Right. Well, I should go.”
“Oh, um okay.”
She picked up her basket and said, “It was good to see you, and it was good to meet you Sadie.”
She smiled and then turned, but stopped as Annie came zooming around the corner, the baby strapped to her chest in her carrier.
Despite his best efforts, it had kind of ended up a bit of a mess. In retrospect, he should have just told Michelle about Annie right away, but alas.
He grinned almost manically at Annie, who was staring wide-eyed at Michelle.
She squeaked, “Professor Slater!”
Her mouth now forming a perfect O, Michelle darted her eyes back and forth between Jeff, Annie, and Sadie. She then exclaimed, “Oh my god. The eyes. Those are your eyes!” She turned and faced Annie fully.
Annie stepped over to Sadie and placed a hand on her back. As she began lightly rubbing it, she said with a nervous tremble, “It’s been so long since we’ve seen you.”
Michelle nodded and then took a moment to stare at Jeff with an intensity he hadn’t experienced since Annie yelled at him that morning about his hiding the Pop Tarts on her. She then addressed Annie, “I um, I’m so sorry. I forgot your name. You were in Jeff’s study group, right?”
Annie smiled. “Yes. I’m Annie.”
“Right. Now I remember. The debate….” Something indiscernible flashed across her face before she appeared to make some decision and smiled slightly. She said, “I’m sorry. We never really had the chance to talk. Please call me Michelle.”
“Oh, I know. I never took your statistics class. I think the only time we ever really interacted was when Jeff brought you to meet us all when he told us you were dating.”
“So, you two…?”
“Yes, we’re married.”
“I see.” Michelle gulped and then smiled. “I met your daughter Sadie, but my my, who is this?” She gestured toward the baby.
Annie briefly cast Jeff a suspicious look before she replied, “This is Ariel.”
“Oh my. How sweet.” Noticing the pink bow on the baby’s head, she asked, “How old is she?”
“I lub baby.”
Jeff patted Sadie on the head.
Michelle remarked to Annie, “She has the same eyes as you and Sadie.”
“Yeah, it’s almost like she cloned herself.”
They both snapped their attentions back to him. Crap. He should have kept his mouth shut.
Michelle squinted at him and then asked, “Why didn’t you mention your baby?”
He shrugged. “Oh, well, you know. I thought we were just chatting for a minute.”
“And the fact that you’re with Annie.”
“Again, I just thought it might be a little unnecessary.” At Annie’s scoff, he quickly added, “I thought it might be awkward, okay? You mentioned Britta, and well I didn’t know how you’d react if I told you I was with Annie.”
Annie lightly swatted him and gasped, “Jeff!”
Michelle rolled her eyes. She then said to Annie, “This has been a surprising few minutes.” She looked back and forth between them and said, “I had no idea you two would get together. So no Britta, but Annie?”
Jeff nodded as he stuffed his hands in his pockets.
“When did this happen?”
Jeff was slightly horrified as Annie began to laugh a little too forcefully. As she reached some unnerving pitches, he placed his arm around her shoulders and pulled her into his side.
He decided to tell the technical truth and replied calmly, “About five years after we broke up.”
Michelle nodded thoughtfully. “Well I suppose. I mean, Annie, you were a teenager when I met you. God, weren’t you like nineteen?”
Annie continued to laugh, and Jeff tightened his grip on her shoulder.
Michelle scrunched up her face and regarded them for a moment before asking, “Wait, what am I missing?”
Annie squeaked but then stopped.
Again deciding to go with a version of the truth that wouldn’t unnecessarily upset her, Jeff said, “Nothing. We just had an awkward courtship. It took us awhile to really admit we had feelings for each other.”
“Sorry. I’m still kind of shocked.”
“Yeah, well sometimes you’re around someone for a long time and you grow to love them, and then getting together and committing doesn’t seem so scary.” He leaned over and kissed the side of Annie’s head and then added, “We realized we brought out the best in each other. So, I know the age difference might seem large, but it really isn’t.”
Michelle said with a slight tremble in her voice, “Oh, I’m not one to judge the age difference.”
Jeff cocked a brow as he noticed she had reddened slightly. He asked, “Wait, what am I missing?”
At that moment, Eustice Whitman came zooming around the corner, pushing a grocery cart, which contained a small child around Sadie’s age. Said child was wearing jean overalls with a tiny baseball cap and shrieking, “Go Daddy, go!”
He coasted to a stop at the sight of them.
Jeff and Annie exchanged incredulous glances before both exclaiming, “Professor Whitman!”
Jeff felt his eyes almost bulge out of his head as he witnessed Michelle shuffle over and give the kid a big kiss on his cheek. She then looked up at Professor Whitman with an almost guilty expression before taking his hand and turning to face them.
With a half-shrug, she explained, “Eustice and I are married, and this is our son, Jamie.”
With a big grin, Professor Whitman extended his free hand toward them. “Why it’s Annie and Jeff! My gold star debaters! I’ve missed you guys!”
Annie uttered some Annie awwws as she accepted his handshake, and then Jeff stepped forward and did the same, minus the awwws. Still a bit stunned, he realized in that moment that he actually missed the weirdo. Abed would have referred to all of this as nostalgic season one, but he knew better. He felt himself gaining a sense of closure.
Michelle was with Professor Whitman, the guy who had stayed at Greendale for a while but then unexpectedly left to work at City College a few years ago right before Jeff left his own teaching position. Now it all made sense.
He managed, “Wow. You guys. When did this happen?”
As Professor Whitman began chatting animatedly with Annie and introducing their children, Michelle motioned Jeff off to the side.
She looked up at him and said with a smirk, “We kept in touch, and well, we got lunch. And that turned into dinner, and well a wise person recently explained to me that sometimes you’re around someone for a long time and you grow to love them, and then getting together and committing doesn’t seem so scary.”
He chuckled at this, and she continued, “We realized we brought out the best in each other. So, I know the age difference might seem large, but it really isn’t.”
“You have a really wise friend.”
“What is he, like fifteen years older than you?”
She narrowed her eyes and made a mock scoff before gesturing over toward Annie. Jeff turned his head slightly to take in the sight of Annie grinning and laughing with Professor Whitman and their respective toddlers engaged in some sort of intense exchange.
He remarked, “Good point. I guess we both have moved on.”
She sighed as she reached over and interlocked her arm with his. “Everyone else seems to be getting along. I think we should do dinner. You guys free?”