I was a little distracted from the cute kid stuff by Nathaniel’s braid bobbing down the length of his body as he walked beside and a little ahead of Matthew. With sunlight on both of them, their hair color was even more similar, and I realized that Matthews’s shirt and Nathaniel’s tank top were almost the same shade of blue. I wondered if that had been accidental. Matthew looked up to Nathaniel and copied him sometimes, but my boyfriend also liked having Matthew around a lot. Nathaniel had even started hinting that he wanted a rug rat of our very own. I was okay if the kid wanted to dress like Uncle Natty, but less okay with Nathaniel wanting them to match. It would feel like just one more bit of pressure from my most domestic of partners.
“You’re frowning,” Micah said, leaning in so no one else would hear.
“Sorry, just thinking too hard, I guess.”
But Katie Zerbrowski opened the door and we had to hurry to catch up. I’d worry later about Nathaniel trying to punch my biological clock.
Katie was barely five feet tall, maybe an inch below. She made even Micah and me seem not so delicate, not so tiny. She had long wavy brown hair that was nearly to her waist, and had had it that long since college. Zerbrowski had told me that with a happy smile and a sparkle in his eye. They’d been married for close to twenty years and were still crazy for each other. They gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, love could last.
I was three years and counting with Micah and Nathaniel, and six of dating Jean-Claude, but that six had included a hell of a lot of breakups in our togetherness, and then Micah and Nathaniel had come into my life and something about them helped stabilize things. Funny how the right mix of people can change everything, but there was still a part of me that kept waiting for it all to go to hell. At least I’d stopped poking at it and trying to break it myself, that was a step up. Let’s hear it for therapy and smart friends who intervened when I fell back into old destructive habits.
Katie had put barrettes in her hair that held it neatly behind each ear, showing off the diamond earrings that Zerbrowski had bought her for their last anniversary. Her summer dress was a soft blue, and she looked as beautiful and fresh as the flowers by their door.
Zerbrowski called out behind her and walked toward us over the new hardwood floor they’d laid this year. The floor gleamed with polish, and looked as fresh and neat as the rest of the living room. Katie matched the airy spaciousness of the room. Zerbrowski was wearing a pair of khaki shorts and a band T-shirt, much loved and faded. Katie tried to dress him neatly during the week for work, but on the weekends their bargain was that he could be comfortable. Her efforts to get him into nice suits and ties was really pretty wasted since he seemed to attract stains and have his freshly pressed shirts wrinkle as if by magic. Zerbrowski was like a more polite grownup version of Pigpen and Charlie Brown all mixed up together, and Katie was the unattainable little redheaded girl, except that this beautiful woman had seen past the wire-framed glasses and messy hair to find the love of her life, of their lives. Like I said, they made me believe in the whole true love thing.
They kissed each other automatically before Katie led the way toward the kitchen, and Zerbrowski asked, “There anything else that needs carrying in?”
“Nope, this is it,” I said.
We all set the food down on the big island in the neat-as-a-pin kitchen, except for Matthew, who had to go up on tiptoe to try and push the veggie tray onto the countertop. I gave it the little nudge it needed, and it was safe.
“All the food looks amazing, Nathaniel,” Katie said.
“Thanks, I appreciated the chance to help out, and I had help.” He put his hands on Matthew’s small shoulders.
Katie smiled down at the little boy. “Did you help fix all this?”
He nodded. “Uncle Natty’s teaching me to cook so I’ll be able to help my girlfriend when I grow up.”
“I like the sound of that; maybe you can tell my son that women like a man who can cook.”
“I will,” Matthew said.
Zerbrowski laughed. “Well, thank you, Matthew and Nathaniel, for helping Katie out.”
“You know, Zerbrowski, you could have helped her cook stuff,” I said.
Katie laughed, and it matched the rest of her, airy and pretty, if a laugh could be pretty. “Oh, no, Anita, the only person less likely to be helpful in the kitchen than you is my husband. I swear, if there was a way to do it, he’d burn water.”
Zerbrowski pushed his glasses more firmly up his nose and grinned at her. “But you love me anyway.”
“If you hadn’t been a terrible cook we might never have dated,” she said.
“I don’t cook and it’s never helped me date—how’d it help you?” I asked.
They looked at each other, faces alight with a shared secret. He made a little gesture at her.
She said, “We met at college. Anita probably already knows that.”
I nodded that I did. He’d actually told me he had to get her drunk for her to agree to a date, but I was pretty sure he was kidding, though sometimes it was hard to tell with him.
Katie continued, “Zerbrowski says he knew who I was, because he used to sit behind me in American History and stare at my hair.”
“It’s really pretty hair,” he said, and went around the island so he could put his arm across her shoulders.
“Thank you, dear, but I didn’t know who he was until the night of the fire.”
“What fire?” I asked.
She snuggled in against him, tucked under his arm, hers around his waist, and said, “He set his dorm room on fire trying to make soup.”
I grinned at them. “How bad a fire?”
“Soup from scratch is hard,” Nathaniel said.
Zerbrowski shook his head. “Nope, I opened a can of Campbell’s tomato soup and the next thing I knew the fire alarm was going off, there was smoke everywhere, and flames. The dorm monitor was yelling for us all to get out. I grabbed the hall fire extinguisher and put out the fire I could see, but we still had to evacuate the dorm.”
All the grownups laughed, even Zerbrowski, but Matthew didn’t get the joke. He looked up at us, clearly puzzled. I didn’t try to explain the humor, I’d learned that humor is a skill set like a lot of socialization, and Matthew just had to learn it as he went. Explained jokes lose their funniness.
Katie said, “I was coming back from a movie with friends, and we went to see what was happening. I saw my future husband for the first time covered in black soot, hair every which way, his dorm monitor screaming at him, and him waving the fire extinguisher back at him.”
“Love at first sight?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No, but he was totally calm in the middle of it all. Everyone else was angry, or scared, or just confused, but he wasn’t.” She looked up at him with that shining look she saved just for him.
“She thought I was brave,” Zerbrowski said.
“You were and are,” she said.
He shrugged, but looked pleased. “She recognized my hair and glasses in class the next day, and started talking to me. I’d spent almost an entire semester trying to get the nerve up to talk to her, and she just comes up and does it for me. It was totally worth destroying the dorm’s kitchen and nearly getting expelled.”
She kissed him again, and then asked, “How did you guys meet?”
We all looked at each other, because our stories weren’t cute. Nathaniel said, “I was in the hospital after being attacked by someone who wanted to see how much damage a wereanimal could heal. Anita came to visit another mutual friend. The friend introduced us, and I spent a couple of years trying to persuade her to sleep with me.”
I stared at him, because it was all true, but so sanitized for the Zerbrowskis’ benefit that I wouldn’t have recognized it. The person who had attacked him had been a paying client, because Nathaniel had still been a high-priced and very specialized male escort when we first met. He’d also done a few pornographic movies, which he’d given me as a gift, thinking it was seductive. Sometimes I thought nothing short of deity intervention had gotten Nathaniel and me together, because when you just listed events, it seemed improbable. Yet here we were.
“Why wouldn’t you date him?” Katie asked.
“I don’t remember him asking to date me, at first,” I said.
“I was just aiming at being her lover, I never dreamed she’d date me for real, let alone be my queen.”
I moved in so I could go up on tiptoe and kiss him, while Matthew held his hand and the Zerbrowskis beamed at us. Happily married people like seeing happy couples.
“Oh, that’s so sweet, your queen, and are you her king?” Katie asked.
Nathaniel smiled at me, but said, “No, Micah is our king.” He looked past me to Micah, who was still standing by himself. I didn’t look behind us at my other sweetie; I watched Katie’s face flinch just a little. She was a good sport about it, but she didn’t really understand how I could be in love with more than one person, and there was that whole male/female/male dynamic, too. Zerbrowski just grinned at us all. If he had a problem with us, I didn’t know about it.