Jeff Winger is ten years old when he stops believing in marriage. He stands on the steps of the courthouse in a suit that's too tight and creates an uncomfortable indentation on his belly. His mother had combed his hair that morning in their too-small bathroom, topping it off with a little bit of her AquaNet. It makes behind his ears itch.
Jeff doesn't understand most of the words that the lawyers and the judge said inside the courtroom. But it's okay, because he was too busy looking around at the polished wood. The floor was shiny and his shoes made a satisfying clicking noise when he walked. He sat on a bench that was kind of like the pews he sat on when his mom made him to go to church on Christmas Eve. In front of him, his parents sat behind two different tables with their lawyers, in big chairs that scraped against the floor loudly when anyone stood up. It echoed. The ceiling seemed to go on forever.
His mother's lawyer is a woman and his father's lawyer is a man. Jeff thinks that must be how it works. A little ways away from Jeff, his mom and her lawyer stand together. The lawyer is an older woman with a stern face and Jeff is kind of afraid of her. But his dad's lawyer-that's the man Jeff wants to be.
William Winger bounds down the courthouse steps, right past his now ex-wife and his son, without giving either of them a second glance. Jeff has seen his parents kiss exactly three times in his entire life. That's not how the husbands and wives on TV act with each other and Jeff brought this up to his mom one day before she sighed and said, "Oh honey, TV isn't real. Far from it."
Jeff's dad shakes his lawyer's hand and gets into his car. He drives away and doesn't look back at his son, who is squinting in the too-bright sun, pulling at his suit jacket. No, ten year-old Jeff thinks, TV isn't real at all. People don't get divorced on TV, and when they do, it's never like this.
Shirley doesn't get back to the study room on time.
Jeff and Britta have just been pronounced husband and wife. The reverend gives Jeff his blessing to kiss the bride, which Britta scoffs at. They both lean in, bump heads, and press their mouths together. It's almost as disgusting as the day they kissed in Anthropology class.
There's a polite smattering of applause throughout the room but Troy's and Abed's cheers and whoops rise above the crowd. Annie looks like she's about to cry or vomit or both. Shirley looks to Andre in horror.
"This can't be legal, can it?" she asks.
The reverend tries to smile but can't and covers up his grimace with a cough.
"I'm somebody's wife! I win!" Britta slurs loudly.
Oh sweet baby Jesus, Shirley prays. This is a disaster.
Shirley shoves them into a cab and slams the door. She doesn't look very happy.
"We stole her thunder," Britta says sagely. Jeff just stares at her and she shrugs. "There's been a lot of Friends marathons on lately."
She gives the cab driver her address. "Take us both there," she says. "After all, you own all of my property now. That's the law in this patriarchal society we live in."
"Okay, first of all, the only property you own is a litter box and a Radiohead poster. And second of all, that is not a law. My bachelor's degree might be fake, but I did take the Bar Exam." Their thighs are touching and Jeff moves over a little bit, away from Britta. Her dress is riding up and those shoes do something to her legs and they've ended up making out in backseats too many times before.
Although this time it would be different, sanctified under the eyes of God and Shirley, because Britta is now his wife.
"It's probably a hassle to change your name, isn't it?" Britta rambles. "I mean, there's my driver's license and my credit cards and my bank account. I'll probably have to fill out a bunch of paperwork at school, too. And Britta Perry had such a nice ring to it. Oh well, such is the life of a woman."
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Jeff's head swirls and pounds. He's been drinking since the early afternoon. The cab driver takes every right-hand turn way too sharply.
"Nothing," Britta bites out. "Nothing at all."
"We're married," Jeff says to the ceiling of Britta's bedroom.
"Yeah," Britta replies.
They're sprawled out on her bed, strategically not touching. Jeff's head throbs and the smell of whatever environmentally-friendly fabric softener Britta uses is making him nauseous.
"Shirley's getting married today," Britta says.
It's fuzzy, but Jeff remembers most of the pre-wedding mental breakdown he had in front of Shirley and Andre's friends and family. He's a little embarrassed about facing them all again, but more than anything he dreads what the study group is going to say on Monday morning. He dreads having to have the conversation with Britta about what the fuck they're going to do now. He dreads facing the fact that he's really not okay and hasn't been for some time now.
"We should probably get dressed," Britta says. "There's a bus that leaves in two hours for Greendale. We'll make it we hurry." She slides out of bed and begins rummaging through her dresser.
"Bus?" Jeff asks.
Britta holds up a pair of black panties as if inspecting them. "We took a cab here, remember? Our cars are still at school." She puts the underwear back in the drawer and pulls out another pair. Blue. With lace. "I think your emergency dress shirt and tie are still in the closet. You'll have to wear your pants from last night, though. There might be some underwear in here."
She throws the blue panties on the bed and roots through the drawer again. "Oh! Here." She tosses them over her shoulder and they land next to hers. "I washed them and everything."
Jeff doesn't move as she goes over to the closet and sifts through, hangers clanging and leather creaking. With a triumphant hmm she pulls out one of Jeff's dress shirts, a tie draped over the shoulder. "I knew it was here." She lays it on the bed. "I'm going to shower, I'll be right back."
It's not until he hears the bathroom door click closed does Jeff allow himself to contemplate the implications of being able to pull together an entire outfit of his clothes from Britta Perry's (Britta Winger's) bedroom.
In the end he doesn't allow them to ride the bus but calls a cab. Britta protests, says the bus is just as good as a cab and better for the ozone layer, but relents when Jeff offers to pay.
"Not that it matters," he tries to joke as they slide into the cab, "since what's mine is yours now."
She makes a face at him and they don't talk for the entire ride. Her dress is the same color blue as his tie.
When they pull up to the library, he pays the driver but doesn't walk toward the doors. Britta's halfway up the steps when she notices he isn't next to her. "Where are you going? We're going to be late."
He gestures with his thumb toward the parking lot. "I just want to check on my car. I don't trust it being out in the parking lot all night. I'll be right there. Save me a seat."
She gives him a suspicious look but shrugs and disappears into the library. His car is in the same place he left it and without any noticeable damage. He unlocks it and slides into the driver's seat. The keys jingle in his hands and he thinks about what it would be like if he just drove away. Avoiding his problems seems much preferable to facing them head-on. He wouldn't have to deal with Britta's blue dress and annulling their marriage and the inevitable Disney face Annie's going to throw at him.
His phone beeps and a text from Britta glows on the screen. Where are you? It's about to start.
Be right there. Had to stop in the bathroom.
He puts the keys back in his pocket and climbs out of the car. This isn't about him, for once. He loves Shirley too much to ruin her wedding day. He already destroyed her rehearsal.
Neither Jeff nor Britta drink during the reception. The rest of the study group has left them at the table to go off dancing to something Abed calls The Limburgh Lean. Britta smiles as she watches Jordan dance with one of his girl cousins and Jeff knocks back Cokes as if they were scotches. He pretends they are and it almost works, but that's only because his hangover is still wreaking havoc on his head.
"How are you not freaking out about this?" he asks quietly.
Britta doesn't take her eyes off the dance floor. "Because this is Shirley's day. I'm saving my freaking out for tomorrow."
Jeff stares at her and she shoots him a dirty look. "Come on, I'm not a complete monster. And besides, you used to be a lawyer. You'll figure out how to get us out of this."
"But you don't think there's something more to this? Something more to the fact that you and I are husband and wife?"
She smooths nonexistent wrinkles out of her dress. "No. We were drunk and stupid. Not the first time, not the last." She sounds like she's trying to convince herself more than she's trying to convince him. "You and I don't work, Jeff. We never have."
She says this last part so quietly that at first he doesn't know if he imagined it or not. It doesn't make sense to him, not really, because while they make have slept together more times than he's cared to count (although, okay, he did count and it was sixty-two) they never entertained the idea-out loud, anyway-of what it would be like to actually have a real relationship.
They've had a lot of false starts and stops, if you could call them that. He's almost forty years old and she's the longest and most meaningful relationship he's ever had. He turns around and she's always there, stealing him faucets or saving him from crazy Spanish teachers or picking him up off the side of the road. He'd never use the words but she's his best friend, really.
Shirley comes up to the table where they're not talking and appraises them with her disapproving eye. Ben is perched on her hip, looking adorably handsome in his little baby suit. "And how are we doing over here?" she asks. Her voice is sweet but they both know her well enough to hear what's really underneath.
"Fine," Jeff and Britta mutter in unison.
"Well that's nice. Could you do me a favor and watch Ben for a few minutes, while you're just sitting here not dancing at my wedding?" She passes her son over to Jeff, who is closest, and smiles brightly before turning on her heel and walking away. "Thank you!" she calls over her shoulder.
Jeff holds Ben the way uncomfortable men hold babies on TV: by the hips. Carefully, he settles Ben to sit on his lap and looks over and gives Britta a sheepish smile. "Shirley really does use guilt as a weapon."
Britta purses her lips and reaches down to tickle Ben's tummy. Her fingers brush against him gently, as if she's afraid she could somehow tickle him too hard. Britta Perry is anything but gentle; she stomps around in boots with too much heel and flops down with all of her weight when she sits. But Jeff's never really noticed how tiny she is. Her hands are maybe half the size of his, if that, and he could probably lift her up with one arm.
"Will you stop looking at me like you just realized that I am biologically capable of bearing children?" she says through smiling, clenched teeth.
"I recall last night you told me to pick a number," Jeff whispers back. "I pick twelve. You're not getting any younger so we should probably get started now."
She discretely gives him the finger and he exhales quietly in relief. She's going to be a surprisingly good therapist.
Shirley and Andre, who are spending the rest of the weekend at a hotel in Denver, come around to each table to say goodbye to everyone before they leave. Jeff gives Shirley a hug and whispers apologies and congratulations in her ear.
"Jeffrey, I know you don't believe in marriage, but it's not something to be taken lightly," she says lowly. He glances over her shoulder but Britta is talking to Andre and not paying him and Shirley any attention.
"It's not real, Shirley. We were drunk and made a mistake and we're going to fix it."
Shirley refused to wear a white gown but instead Annie helped her pick out an ivory dress that Jeff has to admit she looks really beautiful in. She had been worried about a remarriage, worried that people would judge her for divorce and having a child out of wedlock. But she walked down the aisle with her head held high and Jeff was proud of her; they all were.
"I'm just saying," she says. She pats him on the arm and moves over to hug Britta.
Andre shakes Jeff's hand and gives him a look, nods toward Britta, and then raises his eyebrows. "We'll see you later, Jeff. Thanks for coming."
"Yeah, sure," Jeff mutters. "It was my pleasure."
Troy, Abed, and Annie-the former two having shed their borderline-creepy normal personas now that the wedding is over-shout that they're having a post-wedding reception bash at their apartment. It looks like the entire student body of Greendale gets in their cars to head over there and the last thing Jeff feels like doing is partying with Garrett and Starburns.
He watches from the library steps as Shirley's sister herds Elijah, Jordan, and Ben into her SUV. His phone buzzes with texts from Troy, Annie, Abed, and Pierce, asking if he'll be at the party and could he maybe pick up some pizzas on his way? He doesn't respond and shoves the phone back in his pocket when Britta walks through the doors and stands next to him.
"It was a nice wedding," she says after a moment of quiet.
"Yeah," Jeff agrees. "Kind of boring though. I think ours was better."
Britta laughs, but it sounds hollow. "So what do we do? Annulment? Do you know someone who can do it for us?"
She speaks so matter-of-factly and it throws Jeff off. He's been freaking out for the last twenty-four hours over this and Britta's talking about it like it's a spider in the bedroom they have to kill. She'd said she was saving her freaking out for tomorrow but Shirley's gone and her face is still completely neutral.
"Uh, yeah. I can make some phone calls," he says.
"Okay," she says. She takes her phone out of her purse and taps a few buttons. "Are you going to the party?"
Across the parking lot, Magnitude is leading a cheering crowd to a sketchy-looking white minivan. Jeff doesn't remember him even being invited to the wedding. "No, I don't think so. I'm just going to head home."
Britta shrugs. "Okay. See you Monday."
He stays on the steps and watches her get into her car and drive away. She doesn't look back.
It's barely ten o'clock and Jeff can't sleep. He stares at the ceiling the same way he did that morning in Britta's bedroom and if he turns his head just the right way, he can count the strokes from the paintbrush. According to Twitter the 303 Bash, as it is hashtagged, is the place to be tonight and Leonard almost died while doing a keg stand but he's totally fine now. Jeff wonders if everyone is still dressed in wedding clothes, if Britta is still wearing that blue dress. He wonders if he put his shirt and tie back on if they would still match.
With a sigh, he rolls out of bed and throws on a pair of jeans. His building is quiet, as if all of his neighbors are at the 303 Bash, too. He gets in his car and drives over there, but stays idling in the parking lot.
He dials Britta's number and when she picks up there's so much background noise he can barely hear her. "Jeff? It's too loud in here, hang on, I'm going to the hallway." He hears music and shouts and cheers before the sound is suddenly muffled. "Okay. What's up?"
"I'm uh, I'm downstairs. Could you come outside for a minute?" He cringes at how high school this whole thing is. Abed would be able to compare it to at least five bad romantic comedies but that's never been Jeff's genre.
"Troy put the brick in the door so you should be able to get up. Did someone take it out?"
"No, I'm not coming up I just... can you come down here and talk to me for a minute?"
She doesn't say anything and Jeff listens to the thump of the bass.
"I'll be right down."
He fidgets with the radio and the heat while he waits, trying to occupy his hands. He's flipping radio stations when she slides into the passenger seat and closes the door behind her. "What are you doing? Why don't you just come upstairs to the party where all your friends are like a normal person?"
"Because you and I got married last night and I want to talk about it but you're completely fine and watching Leonard do keg stands. You're not freaking out even though this is a huge deal. And I don't get it. Explain it to me."
"I don't believe in marriage. It's like if I got drunk and enlisted in the Army to go to war. It doesn't mean anything. You're reading too much into this." She crosses her arms and toes the floormat with her boot. She's changed out of her dress into her regular clothes, complete with leather jacket. Jeff's glad he didn't go through the trouble of tying his tie again.
"You seemed to believe in it last night," he mutters.
She twists in the seat so she's facing him. Her knee hits the center console. "What are you saying? Are you saying you want to stay married? You want to go buy a house somewhere with a nice white fence and get his and hers towels and pop out a couple kids? You want me to change my last name and learn how to make pot roast? Please tell me why you're putting so much stock into something dumb we did while we were drunk!"
He presses his body into the seat as if it could somehow swallow him whole. "I don't know," he says finally.
"I'm going back upstairs. Call your friend and get the annulment. I'll see you in study group." She slams the door behind her but he drives away before he can watch her walk away again. It's getting old.
The next morning Jeff's entire Twitter feed is #303Bash. There's pictures of Troy and Abed dominating at beer pong and Pierce shotgunning a can of Bud Light. Magnitude brought his entire posse and Starburns claimed to make out with seven different girls, including Annie and Britta. At the same time.
Jeff scrolls through and finds that even though it's six in the morning and he's up and dressed for a run, people are still awake at the apartment, wondering if someone would come over with donuts.
Without thinking of how long it will take to clean up after that mess, Jeff does two miles while listening to some stupid hipster playlist he's embarrassed to have on his iPod. He circles his neighborhood over and over until he ends up back at his apartment and finds Britta sitting on the front stoop.
She's dressed in the same clothes as last night and for a crazy minute, Jeff wonders if she really did make out with Starburns. The thought makes him want to throw up and he makes a mental note not to kiss her again until he finds out for sure. Then he makes a mental note to forget his previous mental note because he's not planning on kissing Britta Perry again anytime soon.
"I'm sorry I yelled at you," she says quietly, staring at the ground.
He nods and holds up his keys. "Want some coffee?"
He leads her upstairs and neither of them says anything as he measures and brews and fixes her coffee just the way she likes it in the mug with the kittens on it she bought him as a joke. She smiles a little when he hands it to her.
"This is just weird for me. And pretending I don't care about it and I'm not thinking that it means anything or whatever is easier, you know?"
Jeff thinks that being friends with Britta Perry, for him at least, is like watching a movie you've seen before, but not in a long time. You have a vague idea of how it goes, and some things you don't remember surprise you, but when you stop and think about it everything clicks together and you realize you probably should have remembered all along.
"Do you remember when we pretended to be in a relationship and we almost got married then? There was about five seconds, right after you proposed to me, that I thought we were going to have to go through with it. I thought, okay we're going to get married to prove a point. And I like Britta, this won't be so bad. I could probably put up with her for the rest of eternity. And don't get me wrong, I was relieved that everything kind of blew over, but that was the first time in my life that I thought about getting married and not feeling an actual pain in my stomach."
"Are you saying-"
"No," Jeff interrupts quickly. "I'm saying that you're Britta so I can't just say 'oops time for an annulment!' I need you to know that I don't think of you that way."
"Like you're the kind of girl I would get drunk and marry and then forget about. You're more than that."
Britta sets her mug on the coffee table. "I thought the same thing, you know. Before Annie punched you in the face."
Jeff laughs to cover up his panic or terror or whatever's making his heart do that stupid fast beating thing. "Yeah, that one hurt."
She gives him a look like she can see right through him (she usually can) and he notices that her eye makeup is a little smudged and her hair is a little frizzy. Her shoulders are slumped and she seems so tired; it's seven-thirty in the morning and if she slept at all last night it was probably on the couch or the floor or maybe on the bunk beds. He hopes Starburns was far, far away.
"You do it, too, though," she says. "You pretend not to care or feel or freak out when big things happen. You've been doing it since the day we met."
Jeff shrugs. "So?"
"So nothing. I'm just saying." She picks her coffee back up and takes a large gulp. "I should probably go. I know you're jonesing for your post-run shower and I smell like a state school frat boy so..."
"Yeah. Here, I'll walk you out." Jeff stands up and follows her to the front door.
"We're cool, right?" she asks, her hand on the doorknob.
"Did you make out with Starburns last night?" he blurts out.
She shakes her head, confused, and opens her mouth to say something but the words are swallowed by Jeff's kiss.
"You smell disgusting. I can't believe I had sex with you."
"I could say the same thing, you know," Jeff says to the ceiling. "You smell like-what was it? 'State school frat boy' I think."
Britta smacks him on the stomach before shifting to laying on her side, facing him. "Hey, does this mean our marriage is consummated? Can't we like, not get an annulment now? Don't we have to get divorced?"
"You need to take a law class there, Ally McBeal. We weren't mentally competent when we signed those papers." He pauses. "Did we sign any papers?"
"Yes," Britta says dryly, "because you made fun of my signature and the reverend told me I wasn't allowed to sign it 'Eternal Domestic Slave Britta Winger.'"
Jeff laughs. "Good lord, you are such a drama queen."
She waves her hand dismissively. "I'm going to use your shower, okay? Because I know for an absolute fact that you still have that fancy conditioner I like and I remember the combination to your stupid toiletries safe."
He rolls his eyes but doesn't say anything as she makes her way to the bathroom. The door clicks and Jeff gets up and opens his underwear drawer, which contains three pairs of Britta's underwear and a sports bra. The second drawer of the dresser holds her Chacata Panecos t-shirt and a pair of worn-out flannel pajama pants. And in the bottom drawer are her "fat jeans" and a pair of tights with a hole in them. He thinks about taking all of these things out and laying them on the bed and having Britta take them home. But he closes the drawers and gets back into bed.
Britta's standing on the steps of the library when Jeff gets out of his car Monday afternoon. She gives him a small smile when she sees him and when he catches up to her, she holds out a stack of papers. "I woke up extra early and had these drawn up."
Jeff takes them from her and his tongue seems to be stuck to the roof of his mouth. He flips through the papers and swallows and finds his voice. "Impressive." His voice is small to his own ears.
"Okay so we have an appointment to meet with him tomorrow after Biology and then we just have to sign them and it's all done."
He tucks the papers into his Biology textbook and nods. He follows her into the study room. "Thanks for uh, thanks for taking care of this."
"No problem. Now we just have to deal with what these goons are going to say."
"Jeff, we get to throw you a belated bachelor party, right?" Troy asks as Jeff and Britta round into the room. "Because I think we've proven that our apartment is pretty dope for parties."
"No!" Annie objects. "One party per year is enough. And ew, you are not throwing a bachelor party in our apartment. That's gross."
"It doesn't matter because we're signing annulment papers tomorrow," Britta says as she sits down. "That party was outrageous, by the way. I saw Vicki punch Quendra in the face."
"Is anyone going to ask about the rest of my weekend?" Shirley asks.
Amid varying degrees of "no way", Jeff stares at the papers sticking out of his textbook. He tunes out the group's conversation and pulls his phone out of his pocket. What if I don't want an annulment? he texts Britta and hits send before he can talk himself out of it.
Her phone buzzes on the table and she's laughing at something Abed said as she picks it up and reads. The smile slips off her face and she turns to Jeff with an expression he can't define. She stares at him for a moment before turning back to her phone.
Parking lot after study group.
He spends the rest of the hour staring at his phone and ignoring everyone, which happens often enough to go overlooked. When everyone stands up and says goodbye, he slips out the back door and takes the long way around to the parking lot. Britta's already there, leaning against his car, her arms crossed.
"Took you long enough," she says. "What the hell is going on now? I thought we were good. You can't possibly want to actually marry me."
Jeff shoves his hands in his pockets and shrugs. He feels like a little kid. "Tax benefits?"
"Okay, okay," he relents. "I... I can create an entire outfit of your clothes out of my dresser. And you can do the same for me. You knew that I was going to be out on a run yesterday morning, right? And I know how you take your coffee, that you like it with a tiny pinch of cinnamon."
She just stares at him and he's pretty sure he can see pity on her face but he ignores it with everything he has. "Because we're friends, Jeff. That's what happens when you're friends with someone."
"No, because, see, I can't do that with Abed or Troy or Annie or Shirley or Pierce. You said... Britta, you said that we don't work but we've never even tried. I wouldn't have gotten drunk and married anyone but you and you know it. What if I only want to marry you once, huh? What if-"
"Stop. Please, don't, okay?"
He feels like he can't catch his breath. They're both silent for a minute and without taking his eyes off of her, he pulls the annulment papers out of his textbook and rips them in half. "I'm not saying that you move in with me and change your name and we get a joint checking account. And I'm not saying that I would even be good at this. I'm new to this, to all of this. But I'm saying that I want to try. I want to watch bad late-night TV and complain about your cats and listen to you snore."
"So you want last year?"
"I want last year but better," he says.
She bites her lip and stares up at the sky. She doesn't say anything for at least two minutes and Jeff's ready to bolt and never look back. "I'm never going to change my name," she says, her eyes still upward.
He freezes. "What?"
"My name," she repeats, looking him in the eye. "I'm going to be Britta Perry for the rest of my life so if that's a problem for you, tell me now."
"No, no, not a problem, no," he stammers.
"And we're going to have to tell people we got an annulment. Because this is really insane. But I think we can make it work."
Jeff swallows. "Okay."
Britta smiles. "Okay."
When they walk into study group the next day everyone looks at them expectantly. "How did your meeting with the lawyer go?" Shirley asks.
"Fine," they say simultaneously.
"They're still married," Abed says. "This happened to Ross and Rachel."
The room explodes in protest and Jeff pulls out his phone and Britta slips her headphones over her ears. The group yells on.