Sometimes weird things happen. You’re thinking of something, like a word or a movie and then – BAM! – almost miraculously you’ll hear the word or see a billboard for the movie and it’s like you summoned it somehow. Like your brain has that kind of eerie and unexpected power.
Pam had been thinking about Jim while she wandered the aisles of the drug store, looking for a specific “curl tamer” hair serum she had seen on TV. It promised to eliminate frizz and came in a purple bottle, but she couldn’t find it anywhere. So she stood and stared at the shelves anyway, tugging at one of her fuzzy curls, wondering if Jim used any hair product these days, if he had changed at all in the almost five months since she had seen him. Maybe he was wearing his hair shorter, less floppy, in some kind of style that needed gel or pomade or … mousse. But she couldn’t imagine him with different hair. She didn’t want to imagine him different at all.
She thought of him again – or rather, still – when she passed the greeting cards. His birthday was in a couple days and she toyed with the idea of getting him a card. She even started to browse the rack, but she didn’t know how to choose one for him anymore. Back when they were friends she could have picked the perfect birthday card for him in seconds flat, one with some goofy joke that only the two of them would get. But now … she knew she’d never find the card that said what she needed to say: “Hope you have a happy birthday, and by the way, I’m a freaking idiot.”
No, the time for a greeting card was long past. That time would have been in July or maybe even August, after the furor of her called-off wedding had died down and she might have been able to find something that expressed a tiny fraction of her regret. Back then he might still have been open to hearing from her, even by mail. She might have been able to write a note, trying to explain to him, to herself, why she had been so deeply in denial. But she hadn’t done it because back then she had been embarrassed and even hurt by him leaving. Looking back, she realized her anger at him for moving away so suddenly had been a sort of defense mechanism to keep her from realizing the depth of her mistake and by the time she let herself understand his side of it, understand why he couldn’t stick around and watch her marry Roy, the time for a note in a greeting card had passed. And now it was October, surely much too late. Too little, too late. That was her.
She thought of him again as she stopped by the refrigerated coolers to pick up a cheap bottle of white wine and saw cans of grape soda lined up neatly, taunting her like a row of little bullies on the playground. Three times, three distinct thoughts of Jim must have been the charm because when she let the glass door close with a bang and stuck the wine in her basket, she looked up and there he was. Summoned.
She didn’t have time to think about what she was wearing or how her hair looked. She barely had time to register that she wasn’t dreaming. The second she saw him, his lean, lanky body standing uncharacteristically stiffly in the middle of the aisle, her heart started thumping in her chest and she thought she might throw up. He had already seen her and was just standing there, his long arms hanging at his sides. He looked the same and yet … not quite the same. His hair was still floppy, but it was a little tidier, a little shorter in back. He wore old, faded jeans she had never seen before, but then again she hadn’t seen him in jeans very often. His t-shirt was clearly old as well – a faded red that was now borderline pink, like a deep blush or a sunburn – but she hadn’t seen it before, either. She hadn’t even seen him in short sleeves very often. She realized that there was so much of him she hadn’t known or seen in the years they had been friends. So much that she hadn’t let herself see.
“Hey, Pam,” he said. His voice was friendly enough. Surprised, but not cold.
“Hey!” she said back, probably too enthusiastically. She sounded desperate, falsely cheerful. Trying too hard to make him forget the seriousness of their last encounter. What she wanted to do was run to him, wrap her arms around his torso, press her face into that red-pink t-shirt and never let go. But instead she said ‘hey’ and tucked her hair behind her ear. “What are you doing here?”
He gestured towards the cooler. “Oh. Just buying some beer.”
“No, I mean, what are you doing HERE. In Scranton.” This wasn’t at all the reunion she had pictured in her fantasies – small talk at the drug store. In her fantasies, she spoke clearly and boldly, apologizing eloquently for her foolishness before he interrupted her with a warm, heavy kiss, his hands in her frizz-free curls. In her fantasies, Jim was still most definitely Jim but she was always someone else entirely. Someone brave and articulate with smooth, shiny hair.
“Oh. Just home for the weekend.”
“For your birthday,” she said without really meaning to. But it clicked in her mind and slipped out before she had time to self-sensor.
He nodded and looked a little surprised that she had remembered.
“Happy birthday,” she said. “Almost, I mean.”
“Thanks.” He tucked his hands self-consciously in his pockets.
“I was just … thinking of you,” she said, trying to be brave.
“Yeah?” His eyebrows went up and he looked almost hopeful. Or maybe that was just her own hope reflecting back.
“Yeah.” She gestured at the cooler. “The grape soda...” Her voice trailed off and she realized how lame it sounded. Not I think about you every day, every minute. Not I’ve missed you so much. Just The grape soda made me think of you. Lame. And typical.
His expressive eyebrows dropped again, speaking volumes. Disappointment, now. Something about her explanation wasn’t what he had hoped for. Maybe he had expected something bolder and she had once again let him down. But she couldn’t tell him how much she missed him. Not yet. Not here.
His cell phone rang and he ignored it for a second, maybe waiting to see if she was going to say anything else, but she was grateful for the interruption and nodded at the phone, indicating that he should answer.
He did, turning away from her just slightly.
“Hey.” He listened for a second. “Yeah, I’m there now. What kind do you want?”
He listened again and she soaked him in while he perused the beer in the cooler. He looked a little thinner, she thought. Just a little bit, but still even better than she remembered. She wondered if she’d been trying to remember him as less attractive, more goofy, so that she’d miss him less. So that she’d not feel like she’d made the hugest mistake of her life last spring. But the truth was, he was still beautiful Jim. Tall, lean, with that shiny, floppy brown hair and those green eyes and the forearms sprinkled with surprisingly light, soft hair. He stood with one hand still in his pocket, so that one side of his jeans drooped a bit. She imagined that, underneath his t-shirt, whatever type of underwear he wore – she certainly didn’t know that, either – might be peeking up from behind the edge of the denim.
She’d been thinking things like that a lot over the past five months. About things that she had never let herself think before. The way he had kissed her had opened her eyes to all the glorious maleness of Jim that she had been trying so hard not to notice. She now imagined what the hair on his chest might feel like under her fingers. She imagined what his face might feel like, against hers, after a few days of not shaving. She imagined his hands on her skin, his breath on her neck, the sounds he might make if she…
“Just tell me what you want.” His stern voice startled her and for a moment she thought he was talking to her. What did she want? Oh, God, what didn’t she want? But then she realized he was still speaking into the phone while she stood there blushing the shade of his shirt. “Okay,” he said shortly, and hung up.
He looked at Pam again and shrugged apologetically. “My brother. Being difficult. As always.”
She smiled and nodded, as if she knew what his brother was like. But Jim’s brother was just another piece of Jim she had never had the chance to get acquainted with.
“So, what’re you going with?” she asked, nodding toward the cooler.
“Well, if it were up to me, I’d get Fat Tire. But my brother wants Old Style Light, if you can believe it.”
Pam smiled. “Ah,” she said lamely.
He opened the cooler and she couldn’t help but stare at his hand as he pulled the door. He reached inside and grabbed a case.
“So I’m getting Budweiser. Just to piss him off.”
Jim smiled a little, and she recognized the mischievousness in his eyes. God, she missed him.
The door banged closed and they stood there, looking at each other again. Pam opened her mouth to say something, but this wasn’t the right place or time – in the drug store, her basket full of wine and unneeded hair products and, thankfully on the very bottom, tampons. All the eloquent fantasy speeches had fled her mind and so she closed her mouth again. Jim waited another moment before looking down at his feet.
“Well, I should probably get back.”
“Oh, yeah. Sure. Me too.”
Although, get back to what? She had planned to go home with her wine and watch Sweet Home Alabama and, maybe later, try to find a little sweet home something for herself while thinking about what might have been with Jim. Get back to her fantasies.
She thought he’d say ‘good seeing you’ or ‘keep in touch’, but instead he just nodded and raised his eyebrows. “Bye Pam.”
“Bye Jim,” she croaked out. And after he had turned and walked away, she added quietly, “Happy birthday.”
Too little, too late.
Pam stood in that aisle of the drug store long enough for a clerk to come over and ask if she needed help finding anything.
Yeah, Pam thought. Some balls.
But again, she didn’t say what she was thinking. She just smiled and said “no thanks” and forced her feet to move towards the cash register where Jim had just paid for his beer. She stood in line, staring at the requisite rack of candy in a state of shock.
Jim was here. In Scranton. She had just seen him, spoken to him, and yet she hadn’t said any of the things that she had promised herself she would say if she ever saw him again. Instead, she had bumbled around, let her fear control her, and she had blown it. Again.
Milky Way. Snickers. Peppermint Patty. Pay Day. Her fingers trailed down the candy bars mindlessly. Normally she might pick one up and save it for later, but her appetite was completely gone, now. Even candy didn’t sound good. She started down the next row: Three Musketeers, Reese’s, 100 Grand. She smiled and paused at the 100 Grand bar. She and Jim had made a bet about that candy bar one time. Jim had insisted that it had once been called a $100,000 Bar and Pam hadn’t believed him. So they had placed one of their friendly little wagers, and looked it up on Wikipedia. Sure enough, Jim had been right and she had to buy him a 100 Grand bar every day for a week, which he always split with her.
She picked up the candy bar and put it in her basket, just for old time’s sake. She had so many little memories like that … tiny things that would remind her of him constantly. She thought of the teapot he had given her, how he had loaded it up with those little mementos. She remembered how that teapot had made her feel slightly uncomfortable, realizing how much thought he had put into filling it. She had been flattered and excited, of course, but also nervous. The teapot had triggered another glint of realization of how Jim felt about her, another clue that she pushed down and tried to ignore because there was always Roy and that ring on her finger. She could never let herself admit that she felt the same way, she could never show him. She had all the same memories, all the same little saved mementos, but they had been put away in a drawer that Roy never looked in, and that Jim would never see.
But now, there was no Roy, no ring on her finger.
“Miss? Are you ready?” The sales clerk was looking at her expectantly
“I’m sorry?” Pam was confused for a minute and stared at the woman blankly.
“Are you ready?”
And Pam realized she was. She was definitely ready.
“You know what? I forgot a few things. I’ll be back.”
Pam turned and instead of checking out, went back to the cooler and selected a six pack of Fat Tire, and then worked her way around the store until she had everything that she needed.
She drove home with a new sense of purpose. She ditched her Sweet Home Alabama plans and instead went home and assembled her gift for Jim and then spent too much time showering, shaving, getting ready – just in case. She drove over to Jim’s parents’ house – knew exactly where it was because she’d driven by it more times than she cared to admit, just to feel some connection to him while was in Stamford. She parked a few houses away and then, when she was confident none of the Halpert family were outside or looking out the window, she snuck up to the door, set the neatly wrapped gift on the step, rang the doorbell, and then booked it back to her car.
She watched in her rear view mirror as the door opened and a tall, dark-haired man, older than Jim, stepped out and looked around. She willed him to look down, which he did, and he picked up the gift. He looked up and down the street while Pam sunk lower in her car seat. Then he went back inside.
Pam knew she was being a coward, that she should deliver her gift face-to-face. But the truth was Jim’s family probably hated her. She was sure they had heard all about her mistake in the parking lot back in May, and she doubted she’d be comfortable giving Jim her gift in the hostile environment of his parents’ living room. So she hoped maybe her gift could say all the things she struggled to get out. She hoped Jim would understand her, as he always had.
She hoped, she hoped, she hoped.
He showed up more quickly than she ever would have expected. In fact, she had barely gotten home and settled on the couch with a glass of wine when the doorbell rang. She had written her new address and phone number under her signed name in the card, hoping that he would come see her or call her or something. And he had come. He had actually come! Quickly, even! The idea that maybe he was as eager as she was to set things straight made her feel happier than she had in ages. Maybe all hope was not lost just yet.
She took a deep breath before opening the door. Commence fantasy, she thought.
She didn’t fake surprise to find him on her doorstep – she just smiled up at him, said “Hey,” in a soft voice, hoping she sounded sorry and sexy and like the future mother of his children.
In her fantasies, Jim would have smiled back at her, that bright, sexy smile. He would have pulled her close, held her face as he kissed her breathless. But this Jim – real life Jim – stood there unsmiling, the six-pack of beer she had left for him dangling from one hand.
He didn’t look eager. He didn’t look happy. He looked … pissed. He looked downright pissed.
She suddenly felt embarrassed, silly. She hadn’t thought beyond the gift, beyond what she was trying to say with it. She had felt so confident that he would get it, that he would understand her as he always had, just as she had always understood him. But the look on his face told her that he had gotten a completely different message. Another interpretation entirely.
He didn’t say anything right away, so she opened the door wider, trying.
“You want to come in?” she asked. He hesitated for a moment but then stepped just inside the door, barely enough for her to close it behind him, and stopped.
He still hadn’t said anything and Pam could feel her embarrassment growing, her face burning.
“You got my gift,” she tried, forcing a smile again, willing him to melt, to soften, to warm up to her.
When he spoke, his voice was curt, clipped. She couldn’t remember him ever using this kind of tone with her. They’d snipped at each other a few times during their friendship, but not with this much hostility.
“I don’t get you, Pam,” he said, practically spitting the words out.
Pam felt her breath catch in her chest. The one thing she had always been able to count on was Jim “getting” her.
She swallowed, looked down at her feet. “It was just … stuff that reminded me of you. For your birthday…”
“No, I get that.” He sounded impatient, now, so Pam pressed her lips together and let him talk. He set the six pack on the small table next to her door and started pulling out the items that were tucked around the bottles of beer.
“Yogurt lid medal and paper dove from the office Olympics.” He let them fall to the floor and reached again.
“Your high school picture.” He glanced at it for a second before letting it drop.
“A coaster from Chili’s, poker chips, fabric softener sample…” His voice trailed off and after a moment he turned back to her and ran his hand through his hair.
Pam swallowed, cleared her throat. “A lot of things … remind me of you.”
Jim looked at her for a moment, but his eyes were still cool, unyielding. Hard to read.
“I told you how I felt about you and you said—“ he took a breath, as if to gather courage, “you said you didn’t feel the same way.”
Oh, God, she wasn’t ready for this confrontation after all. In her fantasies she always got the first word in, always charmed him with humor and laid out her apology before they ever had to get into what had happened that night in the parking lot … and after. She tried to change the course of the conversation to something she could control. “Jim—“
Jim held up his hand, cutting her off. “Just let me….”
Pam clamped her mouth closed again and felt her throat tighten, tears threatening.
“You said you didn’t feel the same way. And that’s fine. It is what it is.” He paused and looked down at his feet, and then plowed on. “But you called off your wedding.”
Pam looked up at a slight change in his voice – something different. Something … hopeful. But it was gone when he spoke again.
“And you didn’t call me.”
“I wanted to—“
“But you didn’t.”
Pam nodded, not sure what to say. She hadn’t called. She had been too scared that she was too late, and she had figured that not knowing was better than the finality of him rejecting her. She had been so very stupid.
Jim sighed and ran his hand over his jaw in exasperation. “You can’t keep doing this to me, Pam.”
His voice was definitely different, now. Not angry anymore, but just … defeated. Sad.
“You can’t keep sending me mixed messages. Trying to be my friend. I can’t be friends with you.”
Pam saw her chance, she saw her window and she knew it was now or never. She stepped closer to him.
“I’m not trying to be your friend. That’s not what I want.”
He stared at her for a moment and she could see him trying to read her, trying to be sure that what she was saying was what he thought she was saying.
“Then what do you want, Pam?” His voice was low, quiet, gravelly. It vibrated through the air and penetrated her skin and she felt it all the way down to her toes.
Pam took one more step and grabbed a handful of his faded t-shirt in her fist. She leaned her forehead against his chest for just a moment before looking up and sliding her other hand around his neck and pulling his face towards hers. She hesitated for just a second, for a quick gulp of air, a swallow of courage, and then she stood on her toes and pressed her mouth against his.
He froze for a moment, and Pam was sure that if she opened her eyes she’d find him staring back at her in shock. But she didn’t let that stop her. She opened her mouth slightly and caught his bottom lip between hers. God, he smelled good. Tasted good. Felt good. She pulled away just a millimeter, just enough so she could whisper, “I want this” against his mouth. And boy, did she want this.
She waited there for what seemed like forever, an eternity with her lips just a breath from his. Maybe she had already made a complete ass of herself. Maybe he was already dating and sleeping with Stamford women with the silky hair and sassy confidence she lacked. But she was all in, now. It was now or never.
Finally, Jim leaned his forehead against hers and closed his eyes, and she felt his breath ease out of his mouth against hers. Pam slid her hands onto his chest and felt emboldened by the fact that he wasn’t pushing her away.
“I’ve always wanted this,” she whispered. “I’m so … sorry.”
She felt her voice catch in her throat and she bit her lip to ward off the tears. Then she felt Jim’s hands on her neck, cradling her face, and she had to bite her lip harder to make sure this was real, like a pinch to confirm she wasn’t dreaming.
Jim kissed her, then, softly at first, and then harder and warmer and deeper. She clung to his shirt, afraid to let go, afraid she’d wake up.
When he did pull away and gave her a chance to breathe again, it was only to relocate his mouth to her neck, just below her ear. That didn’t help her ragged breathing one bit. But now that it was clear that he still felt something for her, it was as if the dams were open and there was no stopping the flow of her confession.
“I miss you,” she gasped, letting her hands slide around and up his back. “So much.”
His mouth paused on her skin, and then he pulled away and she wondered if she had said too much. But when she forced herself to make eye contact with him, he wore a small smile.
“Do you, now?” His thumb brushed against her cheek and she leaned into his hand without even meaning to. She nodded quickly and looked away, but he turned her face to look at him again.
“I miss you, too.”
Hearing him say it, hearing the words come out of his mouth just unhinged her and she felt tears pool in her eyes, slide down her cheeks. He brushed them away with his thumbs and kissed her again, softly, so sweetly.
And it seemed like he would kiss her like that forever, if she let him. But she felt an urgency and a hunger and a deep, carnal desire that required more than his soft, warm lips against hers. She tentatively slid one hand under the bottom of his t-shirt and touched his skin, amazed by the smooth heat of it, the silky skin over muscle. She wasn’t even sure Jim noticed at first, so little reaction he gave her bold move. Maybe Stamford girls were always running their hands up his shirt.
She slipped her other hand under and this time she swore his breath caught just a little, and she smiled against his mouth.
“What?” he murmured quietly. “This is funny to you, Beesly?”
At the sound of her nickname in his gravelly, warm voice, she fought to resist the urge to rip off his shirt completely. Instead she slid her hands out from beneath his shirt and hooked her fingers through his belt loops. She shook her head once and bit her lip again, wondering how she might lead him to the couch so they could sit down, lay down, press their bodies against each other.
Instead, he lowered himself so that he was half sitting against the table by the door and pulled her to stand between his legs. They were almost eye-to-eye, now. His hands rested lightly on her hips.
His voice was more serious when he spoke again. “Why didn’t you call me?”
Pam shook her head and looked down. She had no good reason other than her own fear and insecurity, which seemed so stupid, now. If she hadn’t run into Jim at Walgreen’s, she might never have seen him again, all because she was a coward and a fool.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “I just felt so … stupid. So …” Unfortunately, she had too many ways to complete that sentence: ridiculous, foolish, embarrassed, afraid, horrible, angry, ashamed. Instead of trying to pick just one inadequate adjective, she pressed closer to him and ran her hands into his hair. She kissed him, amazed that just hours ago, just minutes ago, he was as far away as he’d ever been and now she was standing between his straddled legs, kissing him.
He didn’t try to talk any more. Instead his hands slipped up the back of her shirt and pressed into her skin. She craved more of his hands everywhere, more of him everywhere. They kissed until her lips felt swollen and her chin a little raw from his stubble. He pulled her against him so that she felt him, hard, through his jeans. It all was so surreal. This was Jim. That was Jim!
Finally she couldn’t stand it any longer. She felt like they were playing a game of chicken, and neither was going to make a move away from the door, a move towards anything more serious. So she gathered her courage once again and pushed herself away from him, brushed her hair back, and grabbed his hand. She tugged him until he lifted himself off the table and followed her to the couch.
And then somehow they were lying down, pressed against each other, hands seeking and finding, breath hot and ragged against skin. Pam had already pulled Jim’s shirt over his head, already been struck speechless by the sight of his surprising body, already run her hands over every inch of his torso. But Jim showed more restraint. His hands had slipped up under her shirt, but only pressed against the safe skin of her back, her rib cage. Strangely, Pam felt more comfortable removing Jim’s clothes than she did removing her own, so she tentatively reached for the button of his jeans. But when she went to undo it, Jim’s hand stopped hers.
“Wait, Pam.” His breath was ragged, but his voice was firm.
Pam froze. She’d obviously gotten carried away.
“Sorry. I’m … God, I’m sorry.” She sat up and ran her hands over her disheveled hair. What the hell was she doing? Who the hell did she think she was, Jenna Jameson?
“No, hey.” Jim sat up next to her and she tried to ignore the fact that his bare shoulder was touching hers. “Don’t be sorry. Believe me. Nothing to be sorry about.”
Pam rested her head in her hands to hide her burning face.
“It’s just … this is kind of crazy, right?” he asked rhetorically.
Pam nodded against her palms. Crazy was an understatement.
“I mean, we haven’t spoken in 5 months and … well, it just feels like we skipped a few steps.”
Pam laughed and dropped her hands. “Yeah. I guess…” Her voice trailed off, but Jim waited for her to continue. “It’s just that … I mean, I don’t want to make the mistake of being afraid again.”
Jim laughed, then. “Definitely fearless, now.”
Pam felt her blush grow a deeper shade of red. “Can we just forget that I turned into a crazy slut there for a minute?”
Jim shook his head seriously. “No. We are definitely not going to forget that. Sorry.”
Pam leaned back against the couch and covered her face again. Jim turned towards her and pried her hands off and then held her hands in his.
“I’m not saying that we can’t … or shouldn’t … do whatever it was you had in mind. I just want you to be sure. That you won’t … regret it.”
Pam laced her fingers through Jim’s. She cleared her throat. “I have a lot of regrets, Jim. But this would not be one of them.”
Jim smiled, shook his head at her surprising honestly. And when he kissed her again, she knew this was it. After years and years of timid, hesitant flirtation, their actual romance would start like this – passionate, impulsive, uncontrollable. She couldn’t imagine him leaving her apartment. She couldn’t imagine separating from him long enough for him to go to the bathroom. She wanted to hold him hostage, if that’s what it took, to keep him from ever leaving her again.
Eventually they made it to her bedroom and, just like in her fantasies, he stripped off her clothes carefully, tenderly, looked at her naked body with open admiration. He laid her back on the bed and kissed and touched every inch of her until she was writhing and nearly insane with desire. Just like in her fantasies, he moaned quietly when she touched him, his breath catching, his head pressing into her pillows. They moved together, their bodies hot and damp, soft against hard.
But it was better than her fantasies because this Jim – the Jim touching her and kissing her and telling her she was beautiful – this Jim was real. When she opened her eyes, he was still there. When his tongue traced a path down her body, when he was inside her, when she was gloriously satisfied and exhausted, she could still feel his breath on her skin. She could curl up next to him, her head on his chest, and tell him again she was sorry and he could hear her, forgive her, tell her they had all the time in the world to make up for their mistakes.
Jim sighed and kissed her forehead lightly. When his breathing slowed and steadied, she lifted her head and looked at his face, his full lips, his eyelashes making long shadows on his cheeks.
She watched him sleep for a moment, amazed where a trip to the drug store had taken her tonight. She sighed happily and whispered “Happy birthday” as she wrapped her body around his so he couldn’t leave the bed without waking her, and she fell into a dreamless sleep. No need for fantasies anymore.