If you haven’t yet, you’ll want to read Part I of this serialized story first.
Our house does not have an open floor plan, so the living room, kitchen, and dining room are chopped up into separate rooms, which I happen to like.
Jocelyn took a quick look around, saw that we were sort of secluded, and then grabbed my arm and leaned in close.
“Ok, so you’re going to tell me the ingredients of the chili, and I’m going to confide in you, all right?” she said in a low, urgent voice. It wasn’t really a question.
In a much louder voice she said, “Elise, you have to tell me what’s in this amazing-smelling chili.”
I started getting out the bowls, and in an equally loud voice, I said, “Well, you start with black beans, white onion, garlic, and brown sugar.”
Jocelyn whispered: “So, Dean and I are not married. At least not yet. I called him my husband because, I don’t know, because it sounded better, I guess.”
Dean! Two names down.
“Um, then we use ground turkey and bacon. But you don’t have to include them if you don’t eat meat.”
“The kids are his. We were picking them up at his ex’s place around here somewhere. We’ve never been out here. She usually meets him halfway.”
“Then you’ve got chopped green and red bell pepper, jalapeños, and sweet onion.”
“We were picking up the kids for the week. I don’t know them very well, so this was supposed to be a chance for us to bond.”
“The spices are chili powder, cumin, oregano, and crushed red pepper.”
We were moving around the kitchen, assembling the spoons, bread plates, and serving utensils. Every couple seconds, we would freeze and look at the doorway. We could hear voices coming from the living room.
“Ever since I started showing, it’s been weird. His ex doesn’t know I’m pregnant. I didn’t go in the house when he got the kids. It’s gotten tense.”
I asked, “Is everything ok? Do you need help?”
Jocelyn did that rolling thing with her hand that means go on…
“And, uh, a jar of salsa, some tomato paste, and some broth,” I practically shouted.
I removed the cornbread from the oven, and Jocelyn’s eyes widened.
“Holy crap, that looks really good. What’s in that?!”
Under her breath and at breakneck speed, she added, “We’re fine, he just has to get used to the fact that he’s having another kid, and he needs to tell his ex about it before too long.”
“It’s the usual cornbread ingredients, and then on top are caramelized apple slices and onions.”
And then I did something I can’t explain.
I said: “Well, Jack has been having an ’emotional affair’ with a woman at work. He says it’s over, and I’m trying to get past it. But…” I stopped myself.
What the hell was I doing? I hadn’t even told my closest friends about this yet because I was worried they would think I was crazy for going forward with buying this house. Why had I disclosed this to a perfect stranger?
It was too late to judge Jocelyn’s reaction because Jack, Dean, and the kids had arrived in the kitchen.
“Are we ready?” Jack asked as he grabbed some glasses from the cabinet.
Talk about an awkward dinner. The kids were still mostly silent. Had Jocelyn and Dean been arguing in the car and the kids got freaked out? Was their home life stressful? At least they weren’t picky eaters, as we discovered. In fact, they were demolishing the cornbread.
Dean kept looking at his phone. He ate maybe two bites of chili.
Jack was drinking one of his fancy craft beers. I was slowly sipping red wine. I was going to skip the wine, but after my confession, I started feeling anxious and wanted to calm down. I promised myself I would not drink too much while these people were still in the house. Our guests had opted for sparkling water.
“This food is delicious,” Jocelyn said. “You guys should open up a restaurant. Seriously.”
This is the point where we might normally start talking about what we all did for work. But I wasn’t sure what direction to go—treat this like two couples getting to know each other or just wait out the discomfort, because how long could it last, honestly?
Through the window I could see the snow was coming down. Jack and I exchanged glances.
Dean’s phone played some tune I recognized but could not place. He jumped up and left the room. I wasn’t thrilled about him wandering through our house, but I couldn’t very well follow him.
“How do you like the food?” I looked at the kids who were sitting side-by-side to my right. “Do you want some more cornbread?”
“No, thank you,” said the older kid.
“Yes, please,” said the younger kid.
As I put another piece of cornbread on the smaller one’s plate, I asked, “Can you tell me your names and how old you are?”
“You don’t have to tell her that,” Jocelyn snapped.
“She’s right,” I said, feeling like I had been slapped.
And then, again, I don’t know what struck me, but I said, “Names are meaningless anyway. Wouldn’t it be so much more fun if people just called us by our favorite animal? I would be named Dolphin. Jack what would you be?”
My husband looked at me like I had sprouted another head. “What the heck are you talking about?”
But the kids loved it.
“I’m Penguin!” said the older one.
“I’m Puppy” said the younger one.
“Jocelyn,” I said, putting emphasis on her name, seeing as how she had never given it to me in the first place, “who would you be?”
She grinned. Was it fake, or had I won her over? I couldn’t tell.
“Well, Elise, I mean Dolphin, I would have to be Snake.”
Touché, dear Jocelyn!
“I’m getting anther beer,” said Jack, and he got up from the table.
Dean returned and reported that a mechanic was on his way. He said he was going to wait at the car. I walked with him to the hall closet to get his coat, and he practically spit at me, “Can you just mind your own damn business until we get out of here?”
How much had he heard earlier?
“Absolutely,” I said, with an implied, Yes, Sir!
Dean rolled his eyes and stomped out the front door. I looked through the window in the top part of the door—the snow was starting to stick. I could not see which direction Dean went when he got to the top of the stairs. The street was barely visible.
Jack appeared next to me. “Maybe you could slow down on the wine for now,” he said, and I noticed that I had carried my glass of wine with me. How many glasses had I had? No more than two, but he was right. I could feel that sense of not giving a shit bubbling up.
Back in the dining room, Jocelyn was clearing the table.
“Hey there, Puppy and Penguin!” I said, and the kids smiled.
I grabbed some bowls and joined Jocelyn in the kitchen.
“Look, I’m sorry I said anything.” She exhaled and shook her head slowly, “You don’t need to be involved in this.”
Jack was now standing beside me, but she kept talking.
“This is between me and Jack—I mean me and Dean. This is between me and Dean.”
My head could not have swiveled fast enough to glare at Jack. What the…?
Coming Up: Part III, The Waiting