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There’s a ‘Welcome Back, Pam!’ party the first Monday in September, after she gets back, after she spends a week off transitioning back to life in Scranton, after.

Michael wears a beret the whole day and carries around one of those painter’s pallets without any paint on it. It’s plastic and cheap and he bought one for everyone in the office, but he’s the only one actually carrying his around. I lean mine up against the side of my monitor and try to pretend that I forgot about it.

But really I keep thinking about the one like it that’s somewhere in my apartment because she’d come over one day before she left and she’d been finishing up this painting and she said the light that came in through my living room window in the afternoon was perfect. But that one’s wood and all paint splattered so I try to tell myself it’s really not the same thing at all, but I still can’t keep from imaging how her thumb would curl through that hole while she frowned in concentration.

At the party, Michaels wants everyone to play Pictionary. There’s a cake with a frosted Mona Lisa. Michael bought cheap poster prints of famous paintings to hang all over the conference room walls. He’s showering her with attention and it’s clear how much he truly missed her while she was gone.

I stand in the corner and watch her. She’s different in ways I can’t put my finger on. Outwardly, she looks the same. Except her hair is maybe a little shorter and a little straighter. But she’s wearing the same work clothes and smiling the same smile, but it’s somehow painfully obvious that she is not the same person she was back in June, before she left, before.

But I haven’t spoken to her in three weeks, haven’t actually seen in a month until today. Not since that last weekend in Brooklyn with her when she’d quietly told me that maybe things were moving too fast and she still had this huge part of her life to figure out and maybe she needed to do it on her own. We were in bed when she’d told me this, the sweat on our skin drying slowly. I was angry with her for picking the worst possible time to bring this up. It was three in the morning and I had nowhere really to go. We talked it out until she fell asleep. I couldn’t close my eyes.

Five hours later, I hadn’t slept and I was pulling myself into my car to drive home. She didn’t kiss me goodbye. She didn’t walk me to where my car was parked. We said goodbye at her door, her hand on the doorknob as I stood out in the hall. She smiled sadly at me and I told her, “Good luck,” trying not to sound bitter, because I really did mean it.

And then I was in the car, driving back to Scranton with the windows all the way down like the wind would help drown out anything.

That night, I almost called her on instinct but stopped myself when I heard that first ring. We couldn’t go back to being friends. We were never really friends to begin with. There was always something else beneath that veneer.  And I knew it was all or nothing for us.

I was in bed and the moon was bright in the window and it hit me hard in a familiar way that I had no one without her.

And now I’m watching her from the far right corner of the conference room. She laughs at something Oscar says and the plastic cup of punch in my hand makes a crinkling sound as my fingers tighten around it. I notice her eyes dart up towards me and then quickly back to Oscar. She tilts her head to the side and I can’t pretend not to know what her jaw feels like under my fingers so I leave the room.

She was back and somehow there was even more distance between us than before.

I’m sitting in the stairwell. My cup is empty except for the few drops of pinkish orange punch at the bottom. I turn the cup to watch them do circles around it. I try to turn my mind off, not think about anything. I try to be one of those little drops of sugar water, just circling around that plastic cup.

The door at the top of the stairs opens and I don’t bother to look and see who it is. Then I see her shoes on the stairs in front of me. Her presence is startling, jolting. It sends my bones humming under my skin. She slides down the wall to sit next to me. I don’t look at her.

“This is weirder than I thought it would be,” she says after a few moments.

I don’t say anything to this because, really, I think it’s a stupid thing to say. Did she think it would be easy? Did she think we’d just go back to laughing together at her desk?

“Jim,” she says, almost pleading but not really. Not enough for me to turn my eyes to her.

So she just sits there and we don’t say anything. The warmth coming off of her hits me in waves and my hands are shaking a little because I haven’t touched her in so long and for the last year I‘ve done almost nothing but touch her.

Finally she says, “Please just talk to me.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“Anything.”

“I miss you.”

“Not that.”

“I think this whole thing is stupid. We can do this together, you know? I’ll do whatever you want. Go wherever you want. It doesn’t matter to me. Whatever needs to happen for you to accomplish what you want, I’ll do it.”

“It’s not- I was engaged to Roy for a long time. I was with him for nearly a third of my life. I have almost no idea of what I’m like on my own. And I just need some time.”

Selfishly I ask, “How much time?”

“That’s not fair, Jim.”

“Yeah,” I say, collapsing the plastic cup between my two hands. The sound of it is too loud in the empty, echoing stairwell. It sends her heart beating too fast. I’ve learned to read her body too well over the last year and I can hear her quickened pulse in her breathing. I can read it in the way her hands start to fidget a little, the way her shoulders straighten out just a bit.

And then she asks her own selfish question, “Will you wait for me?”

I bite my lip and look down at the carpet, because I don’t have an answer to that. I want to say that of course I’ll wait, but I also want to say that I’ve waited enough already and it’s not that I don’t want to wait, but I don’t know if I can wait. So I don’t say anything.

She sighs and I close my eyes at the sound. Her lips press faintly against my cheek. When I open my eyes again, I’m alone in the stairwell.

The next week, she’s gone. She gets a new job with a design firm in the area. Michael doesn’t throw a party this time, just shuts himself up in his office.   

It should never have been a question in the first place is the problem. That’s why I couldn’t answer her then. I send her an email while Phyllis tries to teach the new receptionist the phone system: Okay. I’ll wait.


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