It is six weeks after I first searched his hand for a missing wedding ring. He is wearing it now, and I am at his house. His wife is out of town, and the small house is full of six of his freshmen students, there for dinner, his two dogs, and me. He gives the kids root beer and pops open a microbrew, for me. I feel strange drinking in front of the kids when they can’t, but I don’t want to bring more attention to it by saying something, so I sip quietly and try to hide the label. “This is Rachel,” he introduced me when they came in. “She teaches French,” but they seem confused, and I can see them trying to figure us out. Is she the wife? I ask questions and bumble around his kitchen, making it clear that I am a visitor here, as well, and I can feel everyone relax slightly, now that everyone’s role is clear. One student arrives late and it starts all over again. “Where do you guys keep your trash can?” she asks, and instead of saying that it’s not my trash can, I just point. He talks, dropping “my wife” this and “my wife” thats, and the new arrival looks back and forth between us in confusion. I keep my face neutral, and I can see the wheels turning. A few more seconds, and her face registers the exact moment she realizes that he is talking about someone else.
A simple dinner of pizza and salad turns into an arduous process; these kids don’t know what they’re doing in the kitchen, and everything takes three times longer than it should. But we sit back and let them at it. He reaches out and touches my arm as he walks by. “Come sit with me in the living room,” he says, “it’s too hot in here.” And we do, drinking our beer on the couch, and they are the kids, and we are the grown-ups.
Finally we eat, and they all go stand in the drizzle outside over a fire making s’mores. I stay inside and clean up. He comes in to hand me a s’more. “Where do you guys keep your plastic wrap?” I ask him. Homemade pizza, salad picked from the garden, s’mores over a fire, root beer. He gets two guitars out. It is all so wholesome.
And finally, they are gone, piling into cars and backing down the long, windy, country drive, waving goodbye. “Can you stay and talk a few minutes?” he asks.
I sit down on the couch, and he flops safely on the floor. I don’t want to be disappointed, but I am. The dogs are cute and in our faces, and they’re dachshunds. Of course they’re dachshunds. Because I have always said that one day I would have a dog, and that dog would be a dachshund. Maybe I would even get two dachshunds, I have always said. His are black and brown, male and female, small and smaller. They are named after two tempestuous Mexican artists and lovers. “Here Frieda,” I say. “Here Diego.” They love me and jump on me, give me kisses. “If I get two dogs, maybe I’ll call them Ted and Sylvia,” I say.
“Didn’t she put her head in an oven?” he says.
“Dogs can't open ovens,” I say. "I think it will be fine."
His name is James. Because of course it is. Of course.
The phone rings and he ignores it. He cuddles with the dogs and gives them treats. The phone rings again. “Do you need to get that?” I ask.
“It’s probably my wife,” he says, getting up.
“Hi, honey,” I hear him say. He comes back in and sits down, gives me a look that says, “This will just be a minute.” It also says, "shhh." “If I tell you something, will you promise not to get mad at me?” he says. “I had some of my students over for dinner. Yeah, Nick came over to help me, but he just left. I’m just hanging out with the dogs now.” He looks at me, mouthes “I’m sorry.” I raise my eyebrows and look away. She doesn’t seem happy that he had people over without telling her, and he gets up and takes the phone into the bedroom. He’s in there for a while.
“Sorry if that made you feel awkward,” he says, joining me again.
“Well, yeah,” I say.
“It’s just that she would freak out,” he says. “But it’s only because she doesn’t know you. If she had met you she would be fine.” Somehow I don’t think this is true. I haven’t met her because she never comes out with all of us to the bar, to happy hour, to trivia. “She doesn’t like to go out,” he says. “She prefers to stay home.” He tells me about how they met. They got married at twenty-three, and had been together since they were nineteen. “I just figured it was time,” he says. "Do you want to get married one day?" he asks, and I feel like punching something.
Now he is yawning, and I take the hint, saying I should go. It is barely 11:00. “I’m so tired,” he says. “I’m not usually up this late,” and I know he is telling the truth. He stands, pulls me in for a hug. It is lovely and excruciating.
“Thanks so much for helping out tonight,” he says. “I owe you, big.”
“It’s nothing,” I say.
I get in my car, drive down his long, windy, country driveway, and wonder how it is that someone else ended up with my perfect life.