(MMS From: Leslie To: Ann!! - “You and your beautiful face have to know what I should wear to meet a state auditor right?”)
(MMS From: Ann!! To: Leslie - “A nice shirt?”)
(MMS From: Leslie To: Ann!! - “This is a fancy dinner meeting! Not an ordinary work day Ann I can’t just look like I usually do!”)
(MMS From: Ann!! To: Leslie - “I don’t know, throw on some jewelry. I have to go meet up with everybody now sorry you can’t come we’ll talk tomorrow”)
Ann is right. Ann is totally right. Ann is always right. Also, Leslie is definitely not jealous of her for getting to go to Andy’s concert, and Leslie is definitely not overthinking this meeting. Nope. Not one bit.
She runs her hand through her closet again, letting out a quiet whine. A nice shirt? What even does nice mean? Black. Black is always nice, no matter what the occasion, right? Yes. Perfect. And jewelry! She’s going to look so great!
Leslie runs to the mirror, holding a necklace in each hand. She holds up the simple silver chain first, and shakes her head. Ew, no. That reminds her too much of her mother. She tries the blue-green pendant instead, and smiles. There it is. The perfect look. Ann is a genius, and Leslie will be sure to tell her tomorrow.
Sighing, she smoothes out her pants with two hands. Is she taking this too seriously? She has to wonder to herself.
“No. No, I’m not. This is a wonderful opportunity to pick a brilliant brain on the cost of making the park at Lot 48 a reality and I will not let this opportunity slide!” Leslie says to herself firmly.
She’s ready. The woman in the mirror is strong, and confident, and willing to take as many names as needed in order to get this pit filled in and this park made real. And she’s going to blow this auditor out of the water with her determination, and she’s got the style to match.
…But maybe she should apply a little more make-up first, just in case?
(MMS From: Leslie To: Ann!! – “Thanks you’re amazing and have fun at the party!”)
(MMS To: Ann!! From: Leslie – “yeah you too”)
The first surprise is that he’s around her age.
The second surprise is that he’s actually kind of cute.
Leslie puts on a smile, struck by completely unexpected nerves, and holds out a hand to shake. “Ben Wyatt?”
“Uh, yeah. The one and only. Unless there’s another random guy named Ben Wyatt out there, I guess.” He smiles a bit nervously back. “And you must be Leslie Knope. You, um, it’s nice to meet you. You look... lovely. Really.”
The unexpected compliment makes her smile widen into something a bit more real. There’s a niggling sense of familiarity, too, but she can’t put her finger on it. “Thanks. You don’t look half bad yourself. So, shall we?”
Ben nods and sits down quickly. Leslie swears she has never in her life seen somebody so strangely, almost adorably shy about a business meeting before. Well, she just hopes he can do his job. Of course he can, though. Her mother wouldn’t arrange a meeting with somebody who could be blown over by a bit of governmental fuss. Not the Iron [redacted] of Pawnee.
She sets her bag down by her chair and quickly takes her seat, smiling at him. Trying to put him at ease.
Ben clears his throat. “I’ve been told you work in… what was it, the Parks department of the next town over, right? Pawnee?”
“That’s right. Deputy Director of the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee, Indiana, the best town in all of America, maybe even the world,” she says with a blinding smile.
“I take it you like your job,” he remarks.
“Love it,” she corrects. “You’re a state auditor, right?”
“Yeah. I’ve got a knack for it, I guess. It pays well and I like the numbers.” Ben smiles a bit wryly. “It usually doesn’t leave much free time, but I get by.”
“Do you have enough time to watch 60 minutes after work?”
“Well, it’s not necessarily my first choice, but most days, sure.”
“Then I think you should be fine,” Leslie decides. “But I wouldn’t really know. I spend half of my free time working, anyway.”
“What’s the other half?”
Leslie thinks, for a moment, that it’s strange to leave the subject of work, a little. But, the conversation is natural, they have plenty of time, and Ben still really needs to relax a bit, so she barrels on with a smile. “I don’t know. Watch documentaries, debates, or sometimes the news. Read historical biographies. Sometimes go out with friends.”
“Well, political ones. Sometimes they’re historical. A lot of them are women. I admire the women of our past.”
Ben smiles, but doesn’t say anything for a moment. Leslie shifts uncomfortably.
“What?” she asks, finally.
“Oh – I, it’s nothing. I’m just kind of impressed. You seem very passionate. You want to run for office, right?”
Leslie’s surprised. “How did you know?”
“I don’t know, you sound like the kind of person who would want your biography to be up on a bookshelf with theirs, someday.”
Feeling transparent, Leslie kind of ducks her head. Is she that obvious? It feels like a compliment and like seeing right through her all at once. “You’re not wrong.” She adds, “But for now, I think I’d just like to build a park,” and immediately after the words tumble out of her mouth she reaches for a sip of water and tries to pull herself back into balance, wonders how she got off-balance in the first place.
“What kind of park?”
“An awesome one,” says Leslie. “The kind of park parents won’t be able to pull their kids away from. Not that they’d want to anyway, because it’s just such an awesome park that they want to stay there for the entire day and also maybe the rest of their lives. That’s the park I want. We’re talking roller coasters and a shark tank here.A shark tank.”
Ben is smiling, the kind of smile that’s covering a laugh and not just the polite one, which she takes as a sign that she isn’t completely boring him. “I have to say, I’ve never been to a park with a shark tank before.”
“Exactly!” Leslie shrugs. “Yeah, okay, the shark tank is far-fetched. But it’s my dream. I’m probably going to have to settle for less, but not much less if I can help it.”
“Fish tank?” suggests Ben. There’s a slightly wicked tilt to one of his eyebrows that has her suddenly realize he’s trying to flirt with her. Oh, that’s – that’s flattering.
“For a start,” she says. When in doubt: deflect, deflect, deflect. “And I guess this is the part of our meeting where I should get the actual plans out, huh?”
“Uh – what?” He looks bewildered. Poor thing.
Deciding to move ahead, Leslie reaches into her bag, quickly finding her first folder and setting it out. “I’m working on a project to build it Lot 48, where we currently have a pit. The pit is actually a huge safety hazard, so the first step is getting it filled in, especially since one of our residents fell into it and broke his legs not too long ago. I’ve been trying to cut through some of the zoning codes, and I’m still working our own City Manager on that, but I thought I could at least pitch the first general outline our subcommittee has formed for the initial park design and budget -”
“Um, Les – Ms. Knope?”
She finally looks up, and Ben’s face is slightly pale. Uh-oh. Did she say something wrong? Maybe she said City Manager too bitterly, she told herself she wasn’t going to do that even if Mark really was being a bit of a jerkface lately and –
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding here,” Ben says slowly.
“…What kind of misunderstanding?”
“Well, the impression I got from your mother’s associate, speaking on Marlene Griggs-Knope’s behalf, was that she was going to, uh, set me up on a date. With you, her daughter.”
The S.S. Leslie is going down. Abort. Abort. Women and children first. Geronimo.
“Your mother told you this was a government meeting, didn’t she?” Ben says. He sighs and puts his face in his hands, while Leslie is too busy being utterly dumbstruck to say anything else, so she repeats herself.
“Right.” Leslie kind of watches with a slight horror and Ben pushes his chair away from the table. “I – I can go if you want. I mean, I’m sure you’re nice, but I wouldn’t want to force you to be on a date you weren’t prepared for, or anything. Heck, I’ll even look over those numbers for you later this week. I’m really sorry about this. I should just -”
It’s the apology that snaps her back into action. “What? No, don’t go.”
He stops halfway through getting up. “Okay?”
“It’s not your fault my mother is trying to mess with my personal life. No, you’re going to stay and we’re going to have a nice dinner. You just keep yourself seated right there because you did nothing wrong.”
Ben kind of stares at her for a moment with raised eyebrows. “Well, if you insist.”
She has no idea what he’s thinking, but right now she’s just too angry to care, so she’ll deal with that in a moment. “I’ll be right back. I have to go call my mom and yell at her.”
Leslie swears she sees a hint of a smile as she heads outside, already pressing the button for speed-dial. She’ll deal with that in a moment too.
“Well, honey, I was thinking that you’re not getting any younger.”
“Well, you were thinking wrong. Mom, maybe I will find somebody, but it’ll be on my own time, with somebody Iwant, and most importantly, when we sit down to a date, one of us won’t be thinking that it’s actually a business meeting!”
“Would you have gone if I had told you it was going to be a date?”
“Well, there’s your answer. Besides, you got off lucky. He just happens to be going through Eagleton’s budget at the moment, so he’s in town for a while. If he hadn’t shown up, I was going to set you up with the City Manager.”
“…Eagleton’s City Manager? George Gernway? Isn’t he, like, eighty?”
“He’s sixty-two and –“
“Ew, mom. Stop. Just – stop. Look, I’m going to go back and sit down and have a nice dinner with the man you suckered into this, and you are never setting me up on a blind date again. Got it? Love you, bye.”
Leslie hangs up with a scowl, and nearly stomps her way back inside. Slowly letting her frustration go as she walks, Leslie almost isn’t frowning on by the time she got back to their table. Almost.
Ben Wyatt is still there, tapping his fingers. Obviously, he’s really uncomfortable. Just looking at him makes her feel uncomfortable. His shoulders are all stiff and tense, and he’s gazing at some point off to the side with tight, thin lips. If he could, she thinks he’d be tearing his hair out right now.
She lets out a deep breath, trying to calm herself down. Really, this was unfair to her, but it was even more unfair to Ben Wyatt. So she’s going to be nice and happy and enjoy this surprise sort-of-a-date. Or else. What could it hurt? He seems nice and he’s cute. And his nervousness makes a lot more sense if she looks at it like a date instead of a business meeting. Also, she is resolutely not going to think of this as a first date, because it isn’t. First dates never go well, but this will because it’s not a first date. It’s – it’s a set-up. This is a set-up, Leslie Knope thinks to herself firmly, and I’m going to make the best of it. Make a friend. Something like that.
“Sorry about this, again,” says Leslie, sliding quickly back into her seat. She begins shoving papers back into her folder and putting them away. “Did I miss anything?”
“Not really. The wait staff is hoping we’re going to order soon, but I didn’t want to try and order for you when I wasn’t certain you’d be coming back, so…” Ben shrugged. “How did your phone call go?”
“I don’t know. It went. Turns out, if you hadn’t agreed to come out on this date, she would have set me up with the City Manager of Eagleton instead.”
Ben’s eyebrows arch up in a manner she’s soon going to be very, very familiar with. “I don’t remember his name just now, but wasn’t he in his seventies?”
“Sixties. And yes.”
Ben winces in sympathy.
“Yeah,” agrees Leslie, “this is much better.”
“Better? This is a disaster.”
“Only if you make it one. Come on, loosen up! We might as well get to know each other.”
“Leslie, it’s only fair to tell you...” Ben crosses his arms. “I’m probably leaving Eagleton in a week. I normally travel from town to town, evaluating each for between a few weeks and a few months, depending on the current financial state. We were expecting to be in Eagleton – I mean, my partner Chris and I – for about a month and a half, but things here are much tighter than expected. They don’t really need us when they’ve got – I’m not boring you, am I?”
Surprised, Leslie blinks at him for a moment. “What? No! Go on. I’m curious about what they’ve got up there.”
“If you say so. Well, Eagleton already has several consulting accountants who check over everything fairly regularly. It’s…kind of impressive, except that it means there’s almost nothing for us to do here. I’ve just been reviewing the numbers here and there instead of actually trying to do the tough work, like digging in and rearranging drains and revenue resources. So, long story short, we’re leaving in just under a week.” He frowned. “If I didn’t know better, I’d almost say they dragged us down here to boast about the fact that they’re so on top of things.”
“Eagleton,” Leslie mutters darkly. “Sounds like them.”
“Yeah, I’ve kind of gathered that Pawnee and Eagleton aren’t exactly on friendly terms.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve kind of gathered that everybody in Eagleton is a selfish rich know-it-all underneath their sickly sweet veneer, so that could be why.”
Ben coughs and smiles slightly. “I wouldn’t really know.” Leslie figures he probably agrees, but doesn’t want to say anything about it while he’s still working there. She respects that. After all, she isn’t very fond of Dexhart, but she’d never say that she thinks he’s a slimy scandal-causing cheat to anybody’s face.
“All I’m saying is that Pawnee does just as many events for its people with a fraction of the funding.”
“I’m not disagreeing.”
At that point the waitress decides to come by and ask for their order. Leslie fumbles for a moment, realizing she hasn’t even glanced at the menu, but Ben saves her. He quickly orders a simple steak that sounds pretty good. Leslie quickly orders the same meal with a relieved smile. She thinks about getting some alcohol, but decides to stick to water. Just in case. (In case of what?)
“So were you born in Pawnee, then? I’m getting that sense.”
“You know it. Pawnee born and raised,” says Leslie. “And you? Where are you from?”
“Uh, small town. Partridge, Minnesota.”
“Why does that sounds so familiar?” Leslie wonders out loud.
Then it hits her.
“Oh my God. You’re Benji Wyatt! I thought I knew you from somewhere!”
Ben puts his head in his hands with a quiet groan.
Leslie can hardly believe it. She’s having fun.
After they cover Ben’s long and illustrious career in elected government, the topic strays to how Leslie knew of him, and it isn’t long before they’re trading their shared interests in history back and forth. At some point food comes, not that Leslie consciously notices. They eat while they talk. Leslie brings up her list of her favorite women in politics, Ben doesn’t even laugh at her. Instead, he talks with her plainly about what he thinks of each of them, though admits that he doesn’t know as much as he’d like to. She mentions she could make some recommendations. Eventually he lets it slip that he’s a bit of a nerd. A lot of a nerd, actually. Leslie doesn’t mind. She’s kind of a government nerd. (Only kind of?) At one point, they end up involved in a discussion about what Teddy Roosevelt have been like as a Jedi master, which is probably the weirdest thing she’s ever discussed with anyone, but she likes it.
They have a lot in common. A lot more than Leslie was expecting, and the more she sees his face the more she likes it – all his smiles, from the big ones to the shy ones, or the way his eyebrows are in constant motion while he’s talking, and the way he looks when he’s listening to her. And she likes his hair. If she’s not mistaken, he likes the way she looks too. Sometimes his eyes seem to dart unwillingly to her lips, and once or twice a bit lower than that. She admits she’s probably doing the same thing.
Leslie Knope can’t help but think that she likes just about everything she’s seen so far about Ben Wyatt. Everything on this set-up is going just about perfectly.
So naturally, it’s interrupted partway through when Leslie receives not one, not two, but three texts. The first two she ignores, but on the third one, she looks apologetically at Ben, who is already waving her on. “Go ahead,” he says. “It could be important.”
Leslie smiles in another silent apology and picks her phone up.
(MMS From: Ann!! To: Leslie - “Hey can you pick me up im a bit drunk”)
(MMS From: Ann!! To: Leslie - “Shit youre at a buisness meeting sorry”)
(MMS From: Ann!! To: Leslie - “Well is it over yet cuz marks hitting on me in front of andy and i dont think i can be around andy without punching him and this night sucks ok it really scks and im not sure i can walk”)
“Shit,” Leslie hears herself say.
“I – well, it’s my best friend. She’s drunk and needs a ride home. Also, I think she’s breaking up with her boyfriend and being hit on by… another friend. She doesn’t sound good.”
Ben grimaces. “And she doesn’t have anybody else who can help her? No, that’s not what I meant. I mean, no, obviously it’s okay. You should go get your friend, of course you should. I just mean that if you’re the only friend she can really ask for help right now, it sounds like she’s having a really bad night. Ouch.”
“I – I guess I’ll go get her. I mean, I don’t want to leave. I don’t – I don’t want this night to end,” Leslie says.
It seems like it was the right thing to say, because Ben smiles a bit. “How about – what if we both go pick up your friend, and then once she’s settled, we get dessert somewhere a bit more casual?”
“I don’t want this night to end just yet either,” Ben says. Not even the slightest bit nervous, completely unlike earlier in the night. Completely certain. Assertive, even. Like a switch has been flipped.
Leslie’s not sure she’s ever had this smile on her face before, this small, happy one, but she thinks she likes it. A lot.
By the end of the night, she thinks. Before this night ends, I am going to kiss Ben Wyatt on his face.
It’s a great idea, one of her best, but settling the bill and helping Ann come first. Ben tries to offer to pay for her meal, but Leslie wins that argument in the end, and they each pay their part. Leslie sends Ann a quick text, they jump into Leslie’s car, and then they’re on their way.
(MMS From: Leslie To: Ann!! - “We’re on our way”)
(MMS From: Ann!! To: Leslie - “We?”)
The car ride is uneventful, full of driving and Leslie briefly explaining Ann, Andy, and the pit. Ben seems to understand what’s going on, which Leslie’s thankful for. He seems honestly interested, too.
“Ann’s been taking care of him?” he asks, thoughtful.
“Yeah. ‘Hand and foot,’ her own words,” says Leslie. “But it should be fine now, with his cast off. I can’t imagine what he did to make her yell at him. Everything was – wait.”
“I was going to say Ann was fine earlier, but, I just realized she wasn’t at all.” Leslie ran her mind over the texts from earlier. All of them boring and short and, oh God, had she really been so self-centered? ‘yeah you too’ was not an Ann text. That was an Ann is distracted and upset text. Put your hands together for Leslie Knope, most oblivious friend of the century. “Oh, God.”
She doesn’t even realize how scattered her mind has gotten until Ben puts a hand down on her shoulder. The touch is grounding, and she exhales quietly.
“Thanks,” she says, shooting him a quick smile at the stop sign.
“No problem. Don’t beat yourself up about missing it, though. It’s not like she told you something was going on.”
“I still feel bad.”
“And you’re making it up to her by interrupting your ‘business meeting’ for her now. That says good friend to me.”
How does he do it? One moment he’s a walking disaster, nervous all over. The next, he’s cool as a cucumber and taking everything in stride. And cucumbers, Leslie knows from startling, unpleasant experience, are extremely cool. Ben can also be very calming, and her shoulder still feels funny and warm, even though his hand left it a while ago. She doesn’t know what to make of this man who can say exactly the right thing in the most sincere way. He’s nothing like – he’s nothing like anybody she knows.
She doesn’t realize she’s lost in thought until he starts talking again, slowly, like he’s solving a sliding puzzle bit by bit.
“I wonder – I don’t know Andy, of course, and I could be way off base, but if Ann’s been taking care of him while he hasn’t been able to walk, I wonder if he took advantage of that. Like, maybe he kept his casts on for a little longer than he needed to, just because he was enjoying it, and she found out.”
Leslie doesn’t reply, which is probably because her heart is sinking into her stomach.
“I’m fine,” says Leslie. “I’m just worried that you might be right. If she found out earlier, that would account for why she was upset, too.”
Leslie makes a brave effort and says, “But you could still be wrong! Maybe it’s something else!”
“For your friend’s sake, I hope so.”
She pulls into the lot in silence. They get out of the car. To her surprise, Ben takes Leslie’s hand and gives it a tiny squeeze in support. It’s more helpful than she feels like it rightly should be.
Ann’s not hard to find when they enter. She’s sitting alone at a table, looking utterly, completely miserable.
“Oh, no, Ann!” Leslie says. She slips out of Ben’s hand and runs forward to give Ann a massive hug. “Ann, I’m sorry. What happened?”
“Men are assholes,” she mutters. “I’m never dating anyone again. I hate Andy. I hate Mark. I don’t hate Andy. Ugh, God, I shouldn’t have yelled at him and I hate everything.”
“Ann, you are amazing and I’m sure you had every reason to yell at Andy. Is that why he went home without you?”
“Fuck. He did go home, didn’t he? Didn’t think about that. Which means he’s at our home. Leslie, please tell me I can stay with you tonight. I can’t go back there. I – who’s this?” Ann says. She frowns in confusion. “You said ‘we’ in the text you sent.”
“Hi. I’m Ben.” Ben gives Ann an awkward little wave. “I’m Leslie’s – date, I guess.”
“Long story. Tomorrow, Ann. Come on, let’s get you out of here, okay? I don’t have room to let you stay at my house, but I can try Donna. Or my mom if it comes to that. She owes me big time.”
“Come on, I’ve haven’t even seen your house yet! Is it secret? Do you have a secret house, Leslie? No, that’s drunk. Dumb. I’m drunk. Damn.” Ann looks at Ben again, and then her eyes go wide. Oh, no. “Oh, wait, I get it. I see how it is. Never mind. I’ll let you two bump your uglies, Mr. Ben the Date, whatever.”
Leslie is speechless and mortified and she is never ever going to think of the phrase bumping uglies without being mortified ever again.
“Yeah, well, Mr. Ben the Date would rather Ms. Ann the Drunk got to spend the night somewhere safely instead of worrying about other people’s love lives,” says Ben, frowning. “Although now you’ve got me curious about Leslie’s house.”
“I never realized until just now that Leslie’s only ever been to my house,” Ann says as thoughtfully as she can manage, her brow furrowed. “I mean, we live by the pit, so that kind of makes sense, but no it doesn’t.”
“It’s – it’s a little cluttered and there’s no room to put anyone up, okay?” Leslie stammers. “Hold on, I’m gonna go call Donna.”
Leslie is already way out the door. She kind of feels bad for abandoning Ben with Ann for a moment, but then she remembers how embarrassed she is. She’ll make it up to him, she thinks.
(MMS From: Leslie To: Donna - “Can Ann stay with you for a night? She’s drunk and broke up with her boyfriend. I’ll drive her over.”)
Yeah, she feels bad. Great. This is the worst night. She has this niggling sense telling her that she should have been here. Ann’s feeling terrible. She could have done something! Maybe if she had been here, Mark wouldn’t have tried hitting on her (and how rude could you get!). Or she wouldn’t have yelled at Andy. And instead, she was talking, okay, flirting away with her cute… her cute date. And doesn’t that just bring on another round of emotions that she doesn’t even slightly want to deal with at the moment?
No, that’s not the point. She looks at her phone again and glances back through Ann’s texts of the day. Each of them seems too short and too unenthusiastic. Ann was upset earlier and she didn’t even see it. Because the point is Ann is miserable and she’s been incredibly happy all evening. And that’s just completely unfair of her.
(MMS From: Donna To: Leslie – “Sure thing. Good night for man-hating - the one I tried to pick me up thought he could just go handsy all over my benz. Drop her off at your leisure xxx”)
Good. If Donna’s free, that means no more mother interactions for the night.
Now to face two people she owes a hundred apologies again. Leslie sighs, gives herself a tiny hug of encouragement, and heads back inside.
“Good news, Donna’s free,” she says, smiling. She seems to have interrupted a conversation of some sort, but doesn’t really care at the moment. “And happy to discuss the male species with you, too.”
“That’s great,” says Ann. She pushes herself to her feet. “I just want to leave.”
Leslie tucks her arm under Ann’s while Ben watches them both carefully, like’s ready for either of them to fall over at a moment’s notice. “Then we’ll leave,” says Leslie, and she marches the two of them out the door, Ben trailing behind just a bit to Leslie’s side, back in awkward mode.
Ann takes the passenger seat, Ben takes the back seat, Leslie takes the driver’s seat, but all three of them take the uncomfortable silence seat.
Worst night ever. Worst night ever.
But just before Ann leaves, she kisses Leslie’s cheek and tells her quietly, “I like him, he’s nice,” and then she’s out the door and going to go stay with Donna before Leslie has the chance to tell her that her whisper was kind of loud.
“Still want to get dessert?” Ben asks.
“…Not really,” Leslie mumbles.
“Okay,” he says, because he hasn’t known her long enough to understand that Leslie Knope without dessert means Leslie Knope is on the brink of having a nuclear-sized emotional breakdown.
It makes her sad.
“I guess we should head back to the restaurant, then. My car’s still…”
“Yeah,” Leslie replies, already putting the car in reverse again.
Pulling into the parking lot of the restaurant feels kind of like a death sentence. Leslie parks the car on autopilot. Ben exits the car, and Leslie figures there’s probably some kind of politeness requirement for a, for a date, and maybe she should get out too, so she does.
And then she’s facing Ben Wyatt for the first proper time since she looked at her damn phone and she says the first thing that comes to mind because the silence when he’s looking at her without any expression at all is just too much.
“I’m sorry and I’m sorry about everything and if this is the part where you tell me you hate me that’s okay because I kind of can’t stand me too right now.”
“What? No. No,” he says again, more firmly. “I wasn’t going to – why would you think that?”
“I don’t know. One time a boyfriend broke up with me when I got into the shower with him. My dad and my mom argued when I was little and then split up and then my dad died. I think I probably have trust issues. And first date issues. I think I survived tonight by telling myself this wasn’t a date, just a set-up. I’m worried my park’s never going to happen and I’m the only one who thinks it will. I think I’m coming to terms with the fact that I don’t want to date or sleep with Mark Brandanawicz and it’s really hard because I’ve been hung up on the idea for half a decade. I think I like you too much for having only met you tonight and you’re leaving soon and that makes things complicated. I think I ruined tonight for everybody. First Ann, then you, but mainly everybody.”
“I don’t think any of those things make me want to hate you,” says Ben, shaking his head. “Although, some of them are kinda weird. Or wrong. You didn’t ruin tonight for me, at least. I mean, yeah, it was a bit weird to go pick up your friend Ann, and it was embarrassing, but all it proved to me about you was that you’re a great friend.”
“I’m not, though. I should have realized something was wrong.”
“From what, a couple of texts?”
“Yes!” Leslie yells.
“No. You can’t be expected to know for sure unless you’re explicitly told something is wrong, especially if you’re dealing with your own problems.”
“I, I am so mad that I don’t have a comeback for that.”
“I don’t! And I want to have one because if I don’t then I have to accept the fact that you’re being so nice to me when I don’t feel like I deserve it!”
“This date is the nicest date I’ve had in years and years, no matter how strangely it started or how badly it got off track, and I’m feeling stubborn right now so you’re not going to change my mind about that.” He’s doing it again. The assertive thing. There’s got to be some way to describe the way he’s gazing at her right now, intensely focused on her, but she can’t think of it in English. Maybe it only exists in French or Tagalog or something.
Leslie groans, for several reasons. “I don’t know what I should say to that.”
“Well, what do you want to say?”
Leslie takes a deep breath. What does she want to say? Hasn’t she already said everything? She knows there isn’t much else to cover and she knows that Ben seems determined to shoot all of her arguments down. Logically, no less. She also knows that Ben is leaving not long from now and she kind of wants somebody to look at her the way he’s looking at her right now forever.
Somehow, that translates into the fact that she’s grabbing him by his shoulders and smashing their lips together. It’s a very pleasant feeling, made even more pleasant when he throws his arms around her waist and starts returning it.
Oh, God, that’s really, really good.
Leslie feels like she’s going to float off the ground, because she can feel it all across her skin like goosebumps but warmer, and if she’s ever been kissed this passionately she can’t remember it at the moment. One of his hands comes up to cup her head right where it meets her neck, and she moves her hands too, she’s not entirely sure where but she can so why not? Probably one of them ends on his butt and probably that’s when he makes some kind of desperate, muffled sound that she thinks is going to keep her up at night, and then a tiny graze of teeth on her lip elicits a similar sound from her throat out of nowhere. God.
She catches herself thinking about unbuttoning his coat and ends the kiss very suddenly, panting, staring at him as the world slowly slips back into focus.
“I… I don’t want to have sex with you,” Leslie says.
“I mean – I do. But.” She decides if she hugs him, she can both stay in contact with him and not look him in the eyes. Yes. Hugging now. “Look, the last time I jumped into sex with somebody, I ended up thinking I was going to marry him. For years. Without seeing that he was the kind of guy who would hit on my best friend at the worst possible time. I don’t want to be that person right now. I don’t want to be that person, with you.”
Ben relaxes slightly into her embrace. “I think I get it.”
“I really, really like you,” says Leslie, heartbroken, crackling over the words.
“I like you a lot too,” says Ben. He sounds about as thrilled with this as she is, which is reassuring in its own painful way.
“Good. Because I really want to keep in touch with you. Is that alright? We can text or email or talk on the phone or whatever. And… maybe eventually…” Leslie slowly lets go of him, so she can smile at his face. His very, very good face.
“Maybe eventually we could try it for real?” he says. Cautious. Hopeful.
Leslie swallows. “I’d like that.”
“So would I,” says Ben. “Here, give me your phone.”
She nearly drops it, but he manages to grab it from her and start finding her contacts. Leslie takes advantage of the moment to completely catch her breath and calm herself down. It’s a good pause. After a moment, he hands her phone back, contact information complete.
“Too much?” he asks. “I saw how you had Ann in there with the exclamation points, and I figured…”
“No, it’s perfect,” replies Leslie. She smiles at her phone. “Thank you for… tonight, Ben. Really.”
She looks up, meets his eyes again. Cements the details into her brain, because she knows this is it. This is going to be her last chance for a while to remember this great face. She doesn’t want to forget.
He holds out his hand, probably thinking along the same lines as she is with the whole avoiding-potentially-sexual-contact thing. “Until next time, Leslie.”
She smiles. It’s that smile again, that weird one she’s never smiled before. Maybe it’s a happy smile. Maybe it’s a Ben smile. Maybe that smile on his face is a Leslie smile, too. Maybe. “Bye, Ben.”
They share a firm, good handshake.
And he leaves.
Leslie immediately feels like she missed something. She doesn’t know what it is. She’s full of hope and sadness and more hope all at once, and she should probably sleep and try to rewire her brain and sort out Andy and Ann in the morning. Slowly, she gets in her car. Her hands are on the ignition when there’s a knock at her window.
“I still wasn’t kidding when I said I’d look at your park,” Ben shouts through the glass. He points at her bag.
Yeah, she knew she was missing something.
(MMS From: Leslie To: Ben :) – “Ann still won’t tell me what you talked with her about! She just keeps telling me she thought you were nice! What on earth did you say to her? What does nice even mean???”)
(MMS From: Ben :) To: Leslie – “:)”)