It's like this big, gaping hole in my chest. A sucking wound that surely must be oozing fluids like emotion. I'm getting better, I think, but I really can't stand it at all. It's a scab I'm constantly picking away at, whether I’m tucked behind my desk or hidden in my tiny apartment. How is it that I manage to hit my alarm clock and crawl out of bed and slip on my stockings and clip my hair like I really care, to find all the effort to function during the day… It's astounding to me, sometimes, what the human body and heart can go through. It's really all kind of fascinating when you think about it.
This pressure, everywhere, between my heart and my ears, when he's near me - why do I even bother to settle in my uncomfortable chair, click away at FreeCell, and go on like it's no big deal? Like less than a year ago, he didn't declare his love for me in the parking lot just outside the window, mere feet away from where I park my new fuel-efficient, Single Girl car.
Is that just what we're made of? Acceptance and denial, everything trivialized just so we can save face? Because we have to. Or because we should?
It makes me think that he once lived like this. Didn't he? Every day I was with Roy, was this how he felt? Was this that agonizing, exhausting pull on his heart? The same one I feel every time I see him and her together, laughing like they've been best friends for more years than we were, smiling in ways that we shared. It all seems so "once upon a time" - I hate thinking like that, having to remember that it wasn't all that long ago that he would wander up to my desk and pick at jelly beans and pretend not to look at me like that.
I try to tell myself his smile doesn't meet his eyes when he laughs with her, but I really never get a good enough look at his face to tell anymore. And frankly, it doesn't matter if he's smiling at her or in general; it doesn't look the same to me anymore, regardless.
But if he could do it, I could do it, right? Sometimes I feel this little nudge of guilt, because he faces away from me. My longing settles between his shoulders and at that place on his neck where his hair starts to curl in that unruly, unforgivably adorable way. When it was on the other foot, he had to have it worse off; he faced me. And that's really kind of poetic, in a terrible sort of way. The literal interpretation of it, I mean. Here I am, willing enough to gaze idly from afar, like some kind of impersonal spectator, but not outwardly acknowledge what's always been there between us – I mean, what used to be there. He, however, accepted it and openly welcomed it, faced it every day and told me, upfront and personal, in innumerable ways.
Yeah, there are days when I sit there, content to just share the same space with him. On those rare occasions where he chooses to remember I exist, I feel thankful typically. Sometimes I feel flustered, or worried that it won’t last (it usually doesn’t.) Then there's the fleeting anger that makes me purse my lips and turn back to my computer, as though digging up that Ace of Spades tucked between the Nine of Hearts and King of Spades is really worth spiting him so unkindly. Not that I don't find my own olive branches spurned, mind you. I offer a grape soda; he waggles a bottle of water, like he's so new and shiny.
Then there's days like today. I don't like to bring this into work, but sometimes it chases my heels right through the doors and dances fitfully in my stomach until I have to remove myself from his presence. I'm sitting in the farthest corner of the break room, a tissue torn between my fingertips, a sniffle caught up in my nose. It hurts too much to find the necessity to conceal it today. It’s painful, but I actually find myself praying that he doesn’t care enough to notice. He had snuck up behind her and goosed her, and she shrieked on a giggle that made my cheeks and ears burn. It was an intimate sound that, for whatever reason, was just too much to take today. I think it might have to do with that (tacky) lime-green lingerie set that’s probably thrown across his bedroom floor.
So, I'm sitting in the back, away from the blatantness of them, secure in my misery alone.
The door opens, and I start with a hiccup. When Andy hollers an off-putting "Heyyo!" I rethink myself and figure that perhaps I should've reconsidered the depth of my pain to expose it so publicly. I glance away from his attempt at a charming grin, down at the shards of thin paper that have fallen in my lap. I hope desperately that he pushes those buttons on the microwave quickly, that it only hums for five seconds and dings! and that he turns right back through that door with a jaunty whistle that makes my skin crawl.
Of course, this is reality. Nothing ever goes my way, just because I want it, and he utters something worrisome and I hear his mug clink on the table in front of me. I shut my eyes tight enough to feel the bridge of my nose wrinkle and the familiar tingle of tears inches into senses. Not now, not now, it's not important... I repeat this to myself as the legs of his chair scratch along the floor. I glance up and blearily make out his concerned face, and for a minute, his warm hand on my shoulder feels like Jim's should be there.
"Pam, hey, now," Andy hushes in a tone that suggests he's some friend comforting another friend. I’d laugh if I wasn’t so wound up in the wretchedness of me and them already.
"I'm sorry, I should go--" I stutter, my hand barely gesturing toward the door as I begin to scoot away.
He scoffs and plants a firm pat to the curve of my shoulder once more. "Naw, it's aaall good! The 'Nard Dog's dealt with plenty of weepy women in the workplace." He juts his chin out proudly and rights himself in a ridiculously rigid way that makes me half-chuckle. "Lay it on me, my lady fair. Let’s get this issue resolved."
"No, no," I sniff, trying to flash him an apologetic smile. He’s trying to be nice and I’m not in the mood to shun him (how does Dwight even keep that up?) "I'm just being, uhm--"
Thankfully, there is some sense under that illogical exterior he usually displays, and he conjures it up for this moment. Andy gives one quick nod of affirmation and twists his mouth to the side. "Say no more. I shall leave you to your woes alone, if that is what you wish." He makes to rise then pauses, turning back to me with an afterthought. "Oh, but, uh ... look, while I get the chance?" I barely glance up, enough to catch his furrowed brow and loose lower jaw. "I just wanted to, uh, apologize."
"For what?" My voice sounds cracked; I hate that damsel-y catch to it. How embarrassing.
"Well, that whole ... banjo serenade thang a while back, around when I first started?" He jerks his thumb backward, in the direction of the main room. “Kelly K and I were havin’ a chat, and she told me all about your break-up with that dude from the warehouse, your ex-fiancé?” I blanch and look away. “I swear, Tuna did not tell me anything about that and it was kind of rude of me." He pauses, “Kind of rude of Tuna, actually.”
Maybe it's the ridiculous nickname Andy has bestowed upon him that I still don't know the meaning behind (and that hurts so much that he hasn't told me yet), or maybe it's the memory of the comfort I felt when I caught Jim's eye that day, his gaze wide with mischief that suggested some semblance of normalcy, or maybe it’s the mention of the break-up and how the new people (the two of them) probably know almost everything now. But I think it's when I see the grape soda button on the vending machine that I crumple and duck my head, a new rush of hot tears spilling up.
"Oh, god, Pam, I'm sorry--" He's actually sincere, grimacing over his misstep as he hovers next to me. "I so didn't know! This is why I-- God, I'm so sorry! I shouldn't have even brought it up." Andy sighs heartily and shakes his head, looking for a second that he almost might dissolve like I have.
There's heavy silence that follows, except my sniffling and the heavy puffs of his breath from what I assume to be anxiety as he observes me recollecting myself. The weight of it; I already know what's coming. Even if I wish it wouldn't. But it has to. Before it gets here, I wonder momentarily if Jim ever treaded this ground --
And then it's here. "Have you ever hurt so much from someone, that you just don't know if you can make it one more day?" My voice is quiet. I feel like I'm the room, looking down at me sitting there with Andy, and it feels kind of sticky to think about. He doesn't move, but I think I hear him whisper ‘Jamie’ as I shake my head, I can't believe that I keep talking, "That if you see them again, your heart's just going to-- to fall out of your chest, or you're going to get sick right there in front of them, or ... do this," a self-deprecating laugh catches in my throat as I wave my shorn napkin just above the table's edge. His gaze follows my hands back down to my lap.
"I hate that it got so messed up and that I have to, like, admit it now. I mean, not out loud," except for now, I roll my eyes at myself, "but, like ... here." I glance up and out, toward the door, scaring myself suddenly when I wish for him to come in and hallucinate briefly that he does. I quickly look back down at my pinched napkin. "I mean, between us."
The finished quiet remains hanging in the air, and I retrace my sentiments and blush as I realize that Andy actually looks kind of pensive. "I'm sorry," I rush on a breath when the moment has drawn on too long, jerking my chair back to make it squeal against the floor. "I shouldn't have even--"
"No, hey," his head snaps up, his palm gesturing for me to slow down. "I get it, Pam, seriously. Sometimes you gotta, y'know, unload." I remember he's been to anger management courses, that maybe he knows what he's talking about. After all, anger and sadness aren't too far off from one another, right? "I mean, that's, whew," he exhales a shaky chuckle, eyeing me like he's got this great new level of insight on me. It makes me blush harder and stare at my bitten nails. Wondering why I even told him any of this – anything. "That's pretty heavy stuff right there."
"But, y'know," his voice catches a high lilt, as though he has wisdom to impart, "You should kind of look at it like it's empowering. Like, 'hey, yeah, I screwed up, but I'm better for it.' A learning process or something." Andy tries to meet my gaze, but I won't let him in so far. "Y'know, growth. I mean, it's better than running away or hiding from him, right?" He chuckles the last part of his statement as he rises to his feet, collecting his mug from the far end of the table.
I feel bad for him, suddenly. If not for simply detracting him from warming his coffee, then at least for choosing to ‘unload’ on him when he is, for all intents and purposes, a complete stranger. I look up at him as he shuffles awkwardly, like he's waiting for me to come along. I offer a tiny smile and nod slowly. His advice isn't entirely wrong, and I'm temporarily amazed that he could salvage my vague, melancholy confession enough to draw up an equally vague, yet overall satisfying response. Andy genuinely smiles, it’s warm and honest, and he turns away from me with a half-bow of his torso. I don’t get up, but I follow him out of the room with my eyes.
In my head, I repeat his words, and that chuckle echoes in my head comfortingly. Soothed somewhat at least, I push up from the table, but a sickness strikes me at my core when I think – ‘Him.’ My blood runs cold.
I dash between the tables and chairs, my heels clacking unnecessarily in my rush to cut him off – God help me, if Kelly stops me - before he makes his way through the kitchen hall. I breathe out "Oh god" in a panicky sort of way that actually undermines the horror that's bubbling into very real nausea. Andy stops and turns when he hears me, a perplexed look on his face as I catch my breath with my hand thrown to my racing heart.
"Andy, Andy--" I pant, shaking my head, frizzy curls making the back of my neck sweat. I approach him, face him, so that the kitchen window is just in my peripheral. "I just, uhm, I need to know that that conversation--"
His face morphs at once into a smile that promises and he taps the middle of his lips with his index finger. "All confidentiale, Pamalama," he affects a poor Italian accent temporarily. "What happens in the break room stays in the break room."
I am unnerved by the despicable way he sounds at that second, and the suggestive dip of his brow, but even more so by something that shifts abruptly in his features.
I can actually feel my skin paling into some color like wintergreen as he opens his mouth. "But inquiring minds do want to know, Ms. Beesly," this time, it's a British accent. Does he think he's Sherlock Holmes, unraveling some mystery? He looks at me seriously now, both eyebrows arching as he wonders in his normal, if not flat, voice, "We are talking about Tuna, right?"
There are so many connotations and versions of answers to that question that it makes me dizzy. I can only dumbly move my mouth and look askance, dismayed to find Jim double-taking from his desk. When Andy seems to notice, his once true smile slides into something a little more knowing and more resembling of a taunting grin. "Knew it," he says in that weird way he often says things, like in some kind of half-grunt. My stomach churns. “I so didn't even believe it when Kelly was telling me! But now, oh man, I can totally see--"
"Andy," I begin warily, shaking.
"Oh, hey! Hey," he shakes his head and gestures to himself. "I am a steel trap when it comes to secrets, okay? And this key?" He pantomimes lifting an invisible key for me, and then pitches it over his shoulder nonchalantly. "Gone. This is the Andrew Bernard guarantee, Pam."
I know I shouldn’t believe him, but I don't really have many options. I clear my throat and don't know how I manage a smile, but I do. He grins that toothy grin and flourishes out of the kitchen, the door swinging in his wake. I stare at the cabinets ahead of me, riveted by the shiver that drills down my spine. Like the last tails of a hurricane, leaving debris and litter on the shore, I feel it all rushing up my throat. Immediately, I dive for the restroom door.
Later on, when I've gargled water and I am sure that illness won't creep up on me again, I thread my way back to my desk behind reception, careful to avoid any specific eye contact or acknowledge any curious glances. I feel empty inside, with all my contents - physical and otherwise - dumped somewhere between the break room and Ladies' restroom.
That familiar padding on the carpet sounds to my left not long after I’ve restationed myself, and the hair on the back of my arm prickles when I see his fingernails out of the corner of my eye.
"What's up?" I try to sound casual, double-clicking on a Three of Clubs. Two cards leap into their places on the right corner of my monitor.
"I was actually gonna ask you the same thing," he chuckles and points innocently toward the Four of Clubs that is easily accessible if I move the Seven of Spades over the Eight of Diamonds at the far left. "I see you’re sharing your fifteens with Andy, now?" He clicks his tongue, mock reprimanding. "You are slipping, Beesly."
There's something in his teasing that plucks at my nerves. I steel myself and double-click. "Well, it's not like my choices are exactly plentiful." I sound defiant and uninviting, and I can feel the hurt radiating off of him in that instant. Regretting it at once, I turn to pacify him with a swift half-smile. "Besides," I draw up a resolute breath, "he's not an entirely bad guy, right? He's actually kind of funny."
"Funny Ha-Ha or Funny Dwight?" He baits me.
I hear the scrape of jelly beans in the tray and I grin at my half-finished suits. "Somewhere 'round the middle? Funny enough to tolerate for thirty minutes or so." I roll my eyes briefly in his direction and am rewarded by a short, crooked grin. I think he gets what I'm implying, but it's not clear if he appreciates the indirect joke.
He waits a moment, then exhales slowly. "Weeell, I really hope, then, that your burgeoning friendship won't interfere with the absolutely appalling prank I have prepared against him," he tells me in a clipped, practical voice, lacing his fingers together over the edge of my counter. I'm relieved. He gets it.
I sigh and shrug indifferently, finding our rhythm familiar and easy, despite the turbulence building inside me. The prospect of this entices me, makes my fingers slip shakily over my mouse. I try to play like I’m disinterested, which is increasingly difficult to do. "Only if you need me to help or something--"
"Oh, of course."
"Ugh! Fiiiiine," I drawl, as though put-upon, belying the giddy song that rises to full fanfare inside my head. As I swivel in my chair to face him, something catches my attention to the right. Andy's behind his desk across the room, smirking and winking at me in a none too subtle fashion. It causes my blood pressure to rise dangerously. His nerve puts me on edge suddenly, like it's a dare.
I look sharply back up into Jim's stubble and bright eyes. "So, what exactly did you have planned?" I hesitate, then drop my voice as conspiratorially as possible. "I really wanna get this in by lunch."
When I see the crinkles at his eyes and the creases at the corners of his wide smile, my heart leaps over a few beats.