Dunder Mifflin Paper Company Assistant Regional Manager Jim Halpert spent a great deal of time these days wondering where exactly his life had gone so wrong. He wasn't a bad guy; in fact he considered himself one of the good guys, really. He had a decent job, even if it wasn't the most exciting career in the world, he had a new car, loving parents and siblings, good friends to shoot hoops with, and even a beautiful and smart girlfriend. So why was he so unsatisfied with his life? It was a question he asked himself nearly every night, whether he was in bed alone or lying next to Karen. From the outside everything seemed ideal. But from the inside it was a whole different story.
In bed at night, he imagined different options he could pursue to make himself happier. What if he went back to school and studied for a different profession? What if he picked up and moved to another part of the country? What if he took up a new hobby? But no matter what he came up with, the vision of the life he wanted always included that one elusive part: a clever, adorable woman with hair that just as easily frizzed as curled, who could say a thousand things with a single glance of her hazel eyes. Pam. Karen was a wonderful woman in so many ways, but she just wasn't the one he really wanted, no matter how hard he tried.
When he found himself thinking of Pam, he tried to focus on her faults: how passive she could be, how she was incapable of saying how she really felt about personal things unless pushed to the wall. But even doing that didn't help, as he knew he suffered from the same weaknesses. It was one of the reasons they understood each other so well. Had understood each other, he often corrected himself. Now they were practically strangers, and he told himself that they had both changed so much during their time apart that they probably would never fit together so well again. But then something would happen, like their eyes meeting over a comment Michael made, or that trick they played on Andy that pushed him into anger management classes, and he knows he's telling himself yet another lie. Despite everything, they still have the connection. But the static of their fears, their anger, and the other people they've dragged in to hide behind has made it almost impossible to see it. But he knows, deep down, that it's still there. And it's the reason he just can't seem to let her go.
Pam had recently told Roy about what happened on Casino Night. The only good thing to come of it was Pam's complete dismissal of Roy from her life. Jim had been threatened by Roy shortly afterwards, but nothing had really come of it. The hardest part for Jim was Karen's reaction. She was livid that he'd never told her about Pam and Roy's history, or that he'd kissed Pam just weeks before the wedding. Part of him hoped that she would use this as a reason to break up with him, but instead she clung tighter to him. It was an impossible situation, and he knew he had only himself to blame. His saving grace was knowing that the end of his relationship with Karen was near. If she didn't let him go, she was going to suffocate him with her demands and inquisitions. And at some point he was just going to break and tell her to go to hell. But for now he suffered in silence, something he was always good at doing.
Life suddenly got a little more interesting on an early afternoon just before the arrival of Spring. Jim was eating lunch in the break room, Karen firmly stuck to his side, when Pam and Meredith walked in and sat down at the table next to them. Jim raised his eyebrows in greeting as Pam slightly nodded in response. It was as much as he felt he could get away with before Karen would start to scowl. Kelly soon arrived to join Pam and Meredith, and as Jim ate, he put all his attention into eavesdropping on the trio's conversation.
“I tell you, I am getting so tired of not being able to find a decent guy in this town,” Meredith complained as she dug into her macaroni salad. “Bars are definitely out unless you want to bring home a lush or a bum, and I'm not exactly the type to go meet men at a church social function.”
Kelly nodded. “I am so glad I found my boyfriend Ryan right here at work, because where else would I have had to go to find him? It really sucks that we just can't have some sort of designated place to meet attractive singles.”
“You mean like a cattle auction?” Pam asked, taking a sip from her soda. Jim covered his laugh with a cough, but he saw Pam glance over at him.
“Exactly,” Kelly replied, oblivious to Pam's sarcasm. “People could go and check each other out. It would be so convenient.”
Pam took the foil wrapper off the top of her yogurt. She had brought coconut cream pie flavor today, as a stand against anyone who thought she was completely predictable. “Well, I don't know how successful it is at picking up men,” she began, “but I've been having some fun lately chatting to all sorts of people in IRC.”
“What's that?” Meredith asked.
“You know, online chat groups?” Pam replied.
“Really!” Kelly squealed. “I saw a show - I think it was Ricky Lake - that featured a whole bunch of couples who had met on the Internet in chat rooms. That's an awesome way to meet guys!”
“You mean meet freaks or twelve-year-old boys,” Meredith complained. “No, thank you. I'll take my luck at the bars.” She got out of her seat and headed back to her desk.
“Ignore her,” Kelly said dismissively, as she moved closer to Pam. “So tell me, who have you met online?”
Pam shook her head. “I haven't met any boyfriend material, if that's what you mean. I got started because a few friends from my art class use it as a way to stay in touch over the week. So I set it up on my laptop and home, and found all these different chat rooms with people from all over the world talking in them. It's just been fun talking to people.”
“Wait a minute,” Kelly said. She grabbed a napkin and took a pen out of her pocket. “Now tell me how I get on this IRC stuff.”
Pam proceeded to tell her where to get the download to set up an IRC client, and then told her she had to give it an address to go to. “We talk on the IRC server undernet.org, and the chat room I now hang out in is called #love_stinks.” She watched as Kelly wrote the information on the napkin. “No, you need a pound sign, then love, and an underline then stinks. That's right.”
“So if I get in this chat room tonight, will you be there?”
“Oh, yeah, definitely,” Pam answered, “I've been going on for a little bit each night. It does get a bit addictive though, because the people there are so much fun. Plus, you can be completely outrageous, and no one knows who you are.”
“Wow, and how outrageous are you getting, Pam?” Kelly grinned. “Telling them all your wild sex stories?”
“God, no,” Pam said forcefully, aware of the fact that she knew Jim was listening in on their conversation. “We just joke around.”
“So I'll log on and I'll just see you listed in the room?”
“Well, people usually have some sort of user name that's different from their real name when they are in IRC.”
“What name do you use?”
Pam paused a moment, not sure if she wanted anyone from the office to be able to find her online. She finally decided that Kelly probably wasn't going to follow through with coming to the IRC chat anyway, so she confessed. “I was in a weird mood when I joined, so my online user name is WalkingDisaster. Two words, no spaces, each first letter capitalized.”
“Walking disaster?” Kelly laughed. “What kind of name is that?”
“A perfect illustration of my life,” Pam replied sardonically. “And I need to get back to my desk.”
She stood and tossed the yogurt pot into the trash on her way out. She noticed at some point Karen had left the break room, so when she walked past Jim still having lunch she felt comfortable enough to give him a small smile. The smile he gave her back tugged at her heart, and she wished for the millionth time that things were different.
Jim could hardly believe the wealth of information he had been privy to as the women chatted. He hadn't been in an IRC chat room in ages, but the knowledge that Pam had started doing so made him want to run right out and reinstall the software on his computer.
His afternoon was filled with thoughts of Pam spending her evenings talking in a chat room called #love_stinks. What did she talk about? Did she rant about her years with Roy? Did she ever mention what happened between the two of them? Did she flirt with guys there? He thought he would love to be a fly on the wall in that chat room.
Then the idea hit him - he could be a fly on the wall. All he'd have to do is invent a persona and a user name that couldn't easily be tied to him, and he could join in on the conversations. He knew what her user name was, so he could just sit back and read what she wrote. It was probably not the politest thing to do, and he was sure she'd be very angry if she found out he was, in truth, spying on her, but the idea was too potent to ignore. He wanted so much to know what was going on in her life these days that he was willing to do something that he otherwise would consider rather pathetic.
He emailed Karen at four o'clock to tell her he wasn't feeling well and broke their dinner date for the evening. She looked over at him with a frown when she read the email, and frowned even more when he turned down her suggestion that she could come over and take care of him. Jim told her he'd make it up to her, but he knew his apology didn't sound very genuine. He was already too wrapped up in the idea of infiltrating the #love_stinks chat room.
He reached for his coat at exactly five o'clock. He glanced over at Pam as he put it on, and they exchanged quiet smiles. He thought she looked sad and tired, and he wished he could go over and ask what was wrong and what he could do to make things better. But Karen was still at her desk, and he didn't even need to look back at her to know she was watching him. He was really getting tired of the whole prison guard routine she'd mastered, he thought irritably. He stepped over to Pam's desk, feeling rebellious.
“Have fun in your chat rooms tonight,” he told her with a grin.
He was rewarded with smile, and a slight flush of embarrassment. “Oh, yeah,” she replied.
“You doing okay?” He asked.
“Sure,” she replied, this time not meeting his eyes. “Why wouldn't I be?”
“Just checking,” he shrugged. He could see she was anything but okay. He wished more than anything that she could just be honest with him. But he could hardly beat it out of her with a room full of witnesses, though the idea did amuse him. “Have a good night, Beesly.”
Once home, Jim threw his bag, suit jacket and tie on the chair in the living room as he grabbed a beer and headed upstairs. He booted up his laptop while he changed into jeans and a t-shirt, and not long after installed an IRC client. He had spent the drive home thinking up a username and a background for his new online identity. He hesitated to log in immediately as it seemed unlikely that Pam would already be online. He forced himself to go downstairs and make himself some dinner. He ate a few sandwiches, leafed through some bills and junk mail, then grabbed a few more beers to bring upstairs with him.
It was just about seven o'clock when he joined the #love_stinks chat.
Leikha> and then he said didn't think his wife would appreciate the call.
MairzyDoats> OMG. I wouldn't think so!
TooMuchTrouble> Hey, Squirrel
Jim did a quick check of who was in the room, and did not see Pam's username. He wasn't really expecting her to be there already, he just hoped he didn't have too long to wait.
MairzyDoats> Are you new here, Squirrel?
MairzyDoats> Welcome! Do you know someone who already chats here, or did you just find us?
Squirrel_McPants> Oh - I heard the name mentioned once a while back - I don't remember where exactly.
Leikha> So you're hear to commiserate over the suckiness of love? :)
Lokien as entered the room.
Squirrel_McPants> Something like that. :)
MairzyDoats> hey Lokien
Leikha> Hi Loki!!
TooMuchTrouble> hey Loki
MairzyDoats> I need to get to class - later guys.
Jim kept an eye on the chat room as he sat back and opened up another beer. If first impressions were anything to go by, they seemed like a relatively normal group of people. He was able to guess with reasonable certainty who were men and who were women, and despite the name of the channel they talked about a wide range of ordinary things, including the pitfalls of current and past romances. Jim had just commented on a question by Vexin when Lokien jumped in.
Lokien> So, McPants - what's your story? Why do you think love stinks?
WalkingDisaster has entered the room.
WalkingDisaster> Hey, everyone :)
Leikha> Hi Walking!
Vexin> I was wondering when you were going to get here! What did Mr. Wonderful do today?
WalkingDisaster> LOL - Don't even get me started on him just yet. What's going on with you guys today?
Lokien> The new guy was about to tell us his reasons for joining.
WalkingDisaster> The new guy? Oh - Squirrel_McPants?? OMG, what an incredibly cool name! I think I love you already. :-D What brings you here?
Jim didn't have a clue what to type next.