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Paying attention


Roy was sitting in the last booth at the back of the local Chili's. He'd met his date here, not because it was a decent place or anything, but because it was centrally located between his house and Carrie's office. The date had gone well, he thought, but the petite blonde had an early meeting for work the next day and had gone home right after dessert. Not wanting to face the empty house quite yet, he sat nursing a tall draft beer.

Eventually, his bench seat jiggled slightly as another patron slid into the booth behind him. He had no intention of eavesdropping, but he was stunned to hear the painfully familiar giggle issuing from the next table. Pam. His gut sank. He was stuck- if he left, she would see him, and he just couldn't handle it. Peering into his drink, he heard every word.

"Why do you always insist on bringing me here?" There was laughter in her voice. He could imagine her smile.

"Excuse me, 'always'? This is only the second time we've been here since 'the incident'. And, the last time was a year ago!" Fake indignation mixed with unmistakeable affection colored the response of her male companion. Halpert, of course.

"A whole year, already?"

"Exactly one year. Did you forget?"

"No." The laughter again. "I just can't believe you remembered."

"Beesly, I'm hurt. Did you really think I could forget our first real date?"

"No, I just mean...it's just really sweet that you remembered, that's all." Her tone had changed, become more serious. With a pang, Roy realized the comparison she was making.

"What can I say, I'm a sweet guy." They both laughed. "I'm just glad I could invite you this time."

"I don't know. I mean, the flowers at work were a nice touch, but I still don't think this invitation had the same dramatic flair as a midnight phone call to Australia."

"Granted. But for the record, you called me at four o'clock in the morning, not 'midnight'".

"Yes, yes. Poor you. I wasn't exactly thinking straight. You know I only vaguely remember the conversation? I was just so desperate to talk to you, and so relieved when you answered..." her voice trailed off and Roy heard the waitress taking their drink orders. Two glasses of wine. When did Pam start drinking wine? After the waitress walked away, there were a few seconds of silence.

"I remember it."

"What?"

"I remember it. The conversation we had when you called Australia." The mocking note was gone from Jim's voice. "I remember exactly. First, you asked me not to interrupt until you were done. Then you said that you didn't get married. You couldn't go though with it. You couldn't marry Roy because you loved me," Jim paused. "You were in love with me, and that you were so, so sorry that you weren't brave enough to tell me before." Jim paused again and inhaled deeply enough that Roy could hear it from a booth away. "Then you said that you understood if it was too late, and you were sure you had ruined everything, but if there was a chance...would I like to go out for dinner sometime when I got back." Roy didn't know when he'd started holding his breath, but he released it now, slowly. He gripped his half-empty beer like a lifeline.

"And you said, "OK." I remember that part."

"Yeah. I said OK." Silence fell for a few seconds. Roy wondered if they were smiling at each other, or even holding hands across the table. Roy also wondered if this was what torture felt like.

"Don't order the cobb salad."

"What?"

"Don't order the cobb salad. I know that's what you're looking at, but you never like it as much as you expect to."

"How do you do that?"

"Do what?"

"Know what I'm going to order. Remember what I ordered last time. How do you do that?" Roy wondered the same thing.

"I pay attention, Pam." He said it simply, and another pang of guilt stabbed at Roy. It should have been simple to pay attention to her, as much as he loved her. Why hadn't he?

"I guess that's why I love you." Roy finally had the answer he'd sought through too many nights of too many beers.

"I guess so. Oh, and you should get the mushroom jack fajitas. You ate half of mine last time."

"You don't have to pay that much attention." They laughed again. They seemed to laugh a lot.

"Jim?"

"Hm?"

"I don't know what I'd have done if you would have said 'no'." Roy imagined Pam's gaze dropping down along with her tone.

"Hey. Hey, look at me." Roy felt a wry triumph. At least he knew her that well. "I could never tell you 'no.' Not really. I love you. I loved you then, and after everything we've gone through over the last year, I love you even more now. I always will."

"I love you, too."

"Good."

"Still, it's a little bit lame that you brought me to Chili's for our first date and to celebrate our anniversary." She was teasing him again, her joy evident in every word despite her matter-of-fact tone. Roy couldn't remember her ever really teasing him like that.

"I only do it because I know how much it embarrasses you. By the way, if you fall off your chair drunk this time, I'm leaving you here."

"Nice."

"Hey, fair warning."

"I'll try to keep that in mind."

"Oh, and another thing, I didn't."

"'Didn't' what?" She sighed in feigned exasperation.

"I didn't bring you here to celebrate our anniversary."

"Excuse me?"

"Yeah, I, uh...I actually brought you here to ask you to marry me."



Roy waved at the waitress to bring him another beer.



nqllisi is the author of 85 other stories.
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