It's not like she planned this. Not really, anyway.
The light that shimmered off the chandeliers was blinding and her dress dipped low and exposing; faintly reminiscent of the nightmare where she was on stage and naked in front of empty faces, their judgment hidden from her by the hot spotlight glare.
She wordlessly handed the doorman the polished cream card stock invitation, her other hand clutching her gathered dress, lifting the un-tailored billowing layers of chiffon slightly above the surface of the floor to keep her from tripping. Her sister was taller and more sophisticated, and as always, she was left gathering the ends.
"We were expecting a Mr. Scott, Miss..." The host questioned as though dealing with a petulant child.
"He sends his regrets and asked that I come in his place." She missed the man's regard of speculation as she looked past him, her eyes scanning the marble floors; glimmering dresses and black tuxes washed before her like an iridescent ocean of luxury. "I am the representative from the Scranton branch."
The man cleared his throat impatiently, "Name?"
It was now or never. She stood on the precipice, holding onto the winding thread of decisions that had led her here, her fingers slowly releasing her grip when she saw him across the room. She knew the brush of that hair against the top of a collar, the way those fingers wrapped around a glass he held, and the set of those shoulders when he laughed, anywhere. Like something from a damn Hallmark movie, he turned and saw her. And she let go.
"Beesly. Pam Beesly."
Karen flipped her hair up as she pulled on her jeans, reminding him of a flushed, slightly sweaty mermaid with her deep blue, lacy bra standing out against her tan skin.
"I'm going to go take a shower in my room. Claire is coming by with her assistant to do my hair and makeup."
He pushed back against the plush fabric headboard, pulling the expensive, high thread count sheets up over his waist as he watched her. Not one for lingering after-coitus conversations, she always made him feel vaguely like a carnival ride; she would enjoy the trip, but once it ended, she quickly moved on to the next bright distraction. Sex was one thing, intimacy another, and they had never quite crossed into the latter.
"This could be big for us, Jim. We really need to impress some people tonight if we ever want to get the hell out of Scranton."
"Yeah," he replied distractedly as he glanced out the giant window of the room that revealed the city from thirty floors above the ground. Get away from Scranton. Far away from Scranton. That was the objective he refocused on even as countless memories blurred the edges. He had escaped only to be pulled back in. Once an albatross necklace, always an albatross necklace.
He still wasn't sure how she managed to swing two invites to the cooperate New Year's Eve party but all the out of town guests were given fully paid rooms at the West 57th Hilton so he wasn't going to look a gift horse with questions. What she saw as an opportunity to network and work an angle on the new openings she heard were coming available, he saw as a free night in the City. She pushed him, and while he hated to admit it, he needed a push now and then.
She leaned over for a quick kiss, "See you in a few hours. Room 3011. Text me when you are on your way over."
As she pulled open the heavy hotel door, she turned back to him with a squint, "You should have gotten a haircut."
He heard the brush of the bottom of the door on the thick carpet and the hard click as it shut. All that remained was the soft hum of the electronics and his thoughts.
She could have never imagined this idea would blindside her on an idle Friday.
The mail had sat unsorted on her desk for over an hour as she mindlessly scrolled through apartments in Chicago, becoming more discouraged the longer she went down the list. The glossy, vibrant pictures her mind had imagined of life there had slowly faded dull as the cold reality of rent prices in a big city came over her. It had only been two hours since lunch when her sister had unexpectedly offered to change the trajectory of her life.
"Pam, can you imagine? You and I taking the Windy City by storm. This job is going to be huge for me and we can save more by splitting rent." Penny grabbed her hand across the small round table at the cafe in rapt excitement, and it was contagious. Her perfect blonde hair curved flawlessly around the edge of her face, framing her expertly done makeup. Pam loved her sister but she was sometimes nauseatingly put together.
"Well, it would be nice to see Chicago but I can't leave..." She stopped short with a rueful shake of her head.
"Why? Because of him?" Penny shifted in her chair, taking a rather angry sip of her mimosa before continuing, "Listen Pam, that ship has sailed. You tried." She stretched out the final two words like a plea, "It just isn't meant to be." She studied her face, and Pam watched as her sapphire eyes glided around her features, and her expression softened, "He's moved on. You need to move on."
She looked down at her hands that had drifted into her own lap, unconsciously twisting the way they did when she was uncomfortable. There was still the pale ghost of Roy's ring on her left hand, like a brand she had yet to shake loose from.
Her voice felt small as she pulled it from the ruins, "I know."
She shut the browser window with a huff, her rational mind warring with her imagination of a better life a thousand miles away. She flipped open her phone to look at the unanswered text from Penny again. 'Tell mom and dad this weekend?' The dark pixels mocking her indecision.
"Hey, Pam." Karen's voice pulled her abruptly from the swirling storm in her own mind.
She pasted her well-practiced placating smile on as she looked up at the woman standing in front of her desk who unknowingly held everything she wanted. "Hey."
"Can you help me forward my voicemail to my cell phone? I can't seem to get it to work. Jim and I are going to that corporate party and we are going to go ahead and drive up there but I don't want to miss any messages today." She finished with a push of her number across the counter written on a blue slip of paper.
Pam nodded expressionlessly as she picked up the receiver and began punching the numbers.
"Are you doing anything for New Year's?" She asked affably, filling the silence with idle chat.
Pam looked up at her again with a sigh, "Not really. I'll probably stay up and watch the ball drop." She pushed the slip of paper back across the counter at her, "All set."
"Thank you, have a great weekend."
She watched surreptitiously as they gathered their things, talking quietly to each other, and feigned startled surprise when he lifted his voice slightly with a small smile, "Happy New Year's, Pam."
Her fake pleasant expression faded with every step he took towards the elevator and she slumped her shoulders when she finally heard the doors close; the weight of pretending everything was fine leaving her exhausted.
She glanced around the nearly empty bullpen, the remaining Christmas decorations looking as worn and bedraggled as she felt; the sad, leaning tree in the corner missing its star and a string of lights. Pulling the stack of mail in front of her, she began to flip through the supply catalogs, advertisements, and internal company messages in manilla envelopes. One somewhat regular piece of mail stood out from the rest and was addressed to Michael and as she turned it over she notice the corporate office return address stamped formally on the back. She tore it open, the excuse of having to filter and handle Michael's correspondence from the Home office for him, bounced in her mind. Her heart felt unsteady as she read over the fine, press printed words inviting him to the formal New Year's party in New York. She glanced unconsciously at his office as a plan formed in her mind; he was already on vacation, he would never know.
Impulsive would never be a word anyone would ever use to describe her, but the new year meant a fresh start: a Fancy New Beesly. She heard his voice utter those three words in the marrow of her bones, the memory of it holding onto her with frightening intensity, and she flipped open her phone.
"Did you get my text? You never responded," her sister's voice began without preamble.
"Hey, do you still have that formal dress you wore to that military ball last year or did you burn it?"
She heard an incredulous laugh on the other end, "God, Pam, he was a shitty date but not nearly 'burn the dress' worthy."
"I don't know, you can be a bit theatrical. Do you still have it? I have an idea."
He had to admit, it was the largest and most elaborate New Year's party he had ever been to. Crystal chandeliers hung from the high ceilings of the ballroom, the entire western side of the enormous room a bank of windows and glass doors that led to a large open balcony overlooking the city. Champagne flowed and everything seemed to be made with golden glitter. He wasn't one to enjoy big parties but he turned on the charm and worked the room with Karen hoping it would eventually pay off.
"Are you enjoying the party, Jim?" David Wallace appeared next to him, his quiet demeanor welcomed after the raucous group he had just moved on from.
"Hey, David. I am. Do I have you to thank for these invitations?"
He took a long sip of the dark liquor he was drinking, "Actually, that was Karen Filippelli. We had a very lengthy conversation where she suggested you were interested in moving up to the corporate level. How serious are you about that?"
"It is definitely something I'm entertaining. Moving back to Scranton was...not ideal." He swallowed down half the scotch in his glass quickly, enjoying the warm, amber pain.
"I'm sure it felt like a lateral move. We certainly want to keep you around. I'll make some inquiries after the holidays and give you a call."
"That would be great, thank you."
His demeanor visibly relaxed as he crossed into a more casual topic, "In the meantime, keep an eye on Michael for me, will you? How do you handle him on a daily basis? His numbers are always outstanding but each phone call from him is worse than the one before."
"You don't handle Michael. It's more of a redirection strategy."
David laughed heartily with a sharp slap on the shoulder at his joke but he couldn't help think that there was only one person that kept Michael placated and she was brilliant at it.
"Isn't that the receptionist from your branch?"
Jim chuckled at his ironic insight, "She is the one who deals with him the most, masterful really," he smiled into the remains of his drink. "No one maneuvers Michael like--"
"No, I'm serious. I wonder how she managed that."
Jim turned, following his eye line until it landed on her. Her.
The sight of her across the room swam before him like a mirage, a vision of everything he was never meant to have; the fabric of her dress caressing her breasts and hips, the fluid beauty of her almost mocking him. Her black dress dipped low, the 'V' neckline reaching nearly to her navel; he had never seen so much creamy Pam-skin in his life and he tried to memorize every curve and gradient of it before the mirage disappeared.
As she made her way through the crowd towards him, he noticed that she held up her dress because it was too long, she wore a shade of lipstick he had never seen before and her hair looked inches longer in its smooth, long waves, and he loved every fucking bit of it.
His mind gave him whiplash as it pulled him back into the reality that was his life. She wasn't his. She would never be his and his actual girlfriend wrapped her hand around the bend of his elbow, his comfortable denial mechanism.
"Is that Pam?" her voice asked in disbelief, breaking through his mental reprimand.
He never had the opportunity to reply as David excused himself and she appeared before him, an unrelenting, green-eyed spectre that he couldn't escape.
"Hey, Karen. Hey, Jim," she greeted them pleasantly, even as her eyes lingered longer with his.
She had expected to feel out of place. The decadent voluptuousness of parties in New York had her pushing and twisting at the terrifying feeling of being somewhere she didn't belong. Like too tight clothing, she had only wanted to flee to someplace where she could tear it off and breathe again.
What she had not been expecting was how damn good he would look, the dark tuxedo making him longer and leaner than usual; his expensive fitted coat shaping around his wide shoulders far nicer than the off-the-rack versions of suits he bought at the yearly sales at the mall. He blended in perfectly among the executives and lawyers and politicians and she felt like she held a secret knowing the real him; the one who stayed late to set up pranks, liked greasy fast food and still went to have lunch at his mom's on occasional Sundays.
The three of them stood shifting uncomfortably in stilted conversation before Karen was pulled away and she saw her opportunity.
"Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?"
"Yeah, sure," he replied apprehensively and followed her to the edge of the room.
"How did you get in here?" He asked as she turned fully to face him again.
She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth, "I used Michael's invitation."
An appreciative smile lit up his face, "You stole Michael's invite?"
"Stole is a strong word. It's more like his invitation happened to find its way into my bag." She slipped easily into the familiar harmonic subversions of their exchanges.
"I like this Fancy New Beesly."
Her breath caught in her throat at the sound of him calling her that again. His smirk and the warmth in his eyes told her that he had forgotten; a momentary lapse in the facade he held so tightly to. As always, he read her every nuance like a memorized poem, and the change in her visage was mirrored in his as his face fell and the energy around him swirled darkly.
"What's going on?"
"I, uh," she faltered struggling to begin to explain the breadth and depth of the pain she had experienced over those last few months.
He dropped his chin slightly, his eyebrows climbing higher in questioning trepidation.
"I just wanted to tell you that I miss you."
She felt him shift away from her in self-preservation.
"What are you doing?" His voice sounded tight with fear, and she saw a striation flickering in the muscles of his jaw.
"I called off my wedding for you. I know you are with someone else now but it is the truth I need you to hear."
He swallowed hard, his Adam's apple hovering over the fine pressed cotton of his starched collar as he looked away, unconsciously pushing his hands into his pockets before replying, "Why did you never tell me? I had to hear about it."
"Jim, several of the board members want to meet you." Karen appeared out of the faded mist that surrounded them and she was abruptly pulled back into the room where the sounds of the jazz band and nearby conversations whirled around her. In a blur of muttered apologies and pointed glares, she found herself standing alone and she exhaled for what felt like the first time since she left Scranton.
She stared hard at her reflection, the knot in her stomach tightening, the palatial women's bathroom seemed to stretch endlessly in both directions from where she stood. Padded benches and extravagant floral arrangements were scattered amongst the perfectly dressed women, all engaged in various forms of self-absorbed preparation.
"What are you doing?"
It was the second time she had heard that question in the span of an hour except this one was female and terse. Karen stood at her side facing her with fierce tension rolling off her in waves.
"I'm fixing my mascara," she replied flippantly, concealing her heart clocking unnaturally fast at the confrontation.
"You know what I mean. Whatever you said to him has him acting weird."
"Listen," she tapped the smooth granite counter, "he told me that he liked you a long time ago and that you turned him down." Her voice lowered into something softer, and she saw a kinship with the woman for the first time; the complexities and contradictions of navigating loving the same man. "Whatever game you are trying to play, don't. He needs to have his head in the right place right now."
"I'm not playing a game at all," she responded calm and measured with a boldness she didn't know she possessed.
"Did he tell you we are moving to New York?" Her expression shifting to a satisfied confidence with a slight raise of her brow, "He didn't, did he?"
"No," she shook her head slowly, painful cold seeping into the pores of her skin, "He didn't say anything."
There was a pitying tone that set something defiantly ablaze inside her as she watched her retreat back to the ballroom, "Just go home, Pam," echoing off the mirror-lined walls in dismissal.
"Hey." She had scanned the room, seeing Karen deeply engaged in a conversation with her back turned before slipping up next to him again.
"Oh, hey. I'm sorry about earlier. I guess it was important that I meet those people, that I'm sure have already forgotten my name." He added in a self-deprecating intonation.
"Karen told me you are moving here." She started abruptly, the freefall that had begun in the bathroom had her wanting to rip the bandaid off entirely and lay it all out between them.
"Well, possibly. There are some openings--"
"I'm moving to Chicago."
"What? Since when?"
For some reason, there was a satisfying rush at shocking him that she didn't dare examine too closely.
"My sister has a job offer and she wants me to go with her to share expenses."
Painful disbelief washed over his expression before he could rein it in and she could see the wordless question forming on his lips.
"She just asked me yesterday."
He nodded, a resigned countenance rolled in like a storm over him, and she watched as something dimmed inside him.
"Time will take care of everything won't it, Pam?" His melancholy eyes held hers, a thousand stories playing behind them of the life that could have been; pages with the unwritten prose and scribbled notes in the margins slipping from her hands and fluttering to the ground.
Tears burned in the back of her throat and they threatened to choke her. She took a small step backward and away from him, the first of many her heart supplied, "Things worked out exactly as they were supposed to. We will always be friends, right?"
Her echoed 'yeah' sounded a lot like goodbye and she turned away while she still could.
She felt numb and unmoored, drifting through the glass doors and out into the December air like an apparition. The city buzzed electric far below as her hands slid over the cool metal of the railing; all those people moving forward when her world had suddenly stopped. The laughter and festivities around her felt absolving and she pressed into pain hoping that if she could brave it now, it wouldn't linger in her soul forever. The clock ticked down and with each second left behind in the previous year, she felt closer to the truth that she would survive this; that the last words she spoke to him were less of a lie and more of a promise.
As the countdown ended, she watched the explosions of color against the relief of skyscrapers on the ink-black sky. Couples embraced, voices filled the air in practiced, repeated expression, the jazz band began Auld Lang Syne in a comforting, familiar way and the planet collectively reveled at the witnessing of yet another ending and beginning.
She felt his warm fingers first as he grabbed her hand from behind, spinning her around to face him and a fragile, empyrean moment stretched between them like an unspoken truth. Silently, slowly, he moved his mouth to hers, blending lips and then tongues, the celebration around them fading into ambient noise. Effortless and instinctive, her soul sighed in relief and something akin to separation anxiety subsided as her body relaxed into his. He pulled her farther and farther under the surface like the quicksand that he was; into the fathomless depths where there were no missteps or regrets or hollow emptiness.
He drifted over her face, kissing her forehead, letting his lips linger against the cool skin, then he leaned down and rested his cheek against hers. "I don't want you to leave. I know I have no right to ask you to stay, but I miss you too." The last words were drawn out like a pent up confession.
"But what about New York?" she whispered, the last vestiges of her resolve falling away.
He pulled back enough to meet her eyes with an adamant shake of his head, "I won't go if you tell me to stay. I won't."
His hand moved up to her cheek, a soft caress of his thumb tracing the rim of her lower lip caused her to exhale a shaky breath and shiver in the cold air.
"You're trembling, you have to be freezing," he said, mistaking her reaction to him with the temperature. Without waiting for permission, he smoothly shrugged off his coat and draped it across her shoulders. His essence swam around her now and when she closed her eyes she saw the homeland of him in the iridescent sage behind her eyelids.
"Did you talk to her?"
The hotel lobby was awash in activity for nearly two in the morning. Drunken laughter and girls carrying long-abandoned shoes mingled with after-party arrangements and cabs being hailed as the high of midnight had begun to fade.
"She saw us," his voice sounded quiet and conflicted. "She came looking for me and she saw us on the deck. She was pretty upset but she kept it under wraps. Too many eyes and ears around here to make a scene. She is the consummate professional even though that was a pretty shitty thing I did to her."
She nodded solemnly, her fingers wrapping around the edge of the sleeves of the coat she had yet to return.
"Are you ready to get out of here? Where are you staying?"
"I don't have a room anywhere. I parked my car in a garage a few blocks from here. That will be expensive enough."
He chuckled bemusedly down at her, "With no place to stay, what were you planning to do?"
She pushed through the heavy rotating door, the surrounding sounds hushing several seconds before returning with the blast of the cold air of the street, "I don't know, drive home afterward I guess? I didn't really plan that part out."
"We can go back to my room. I have it for one more night." Suddenly realizing what he was unintentionally implying, he quickly backpedaled with wide eyes, "I don't...I..."
She smiled at his embarrassment as she raised her arm for a cab, and he did the same. "Relax, Halpert. Just stop on the way to let me get my bag from my car."
He dropped his arm and turned to her speculatively, "Wait, you didn't plan on getting a room but you thought ahead enough to pack an overnight bag? What did you think was going to happen?"
She just shrugged enigmatically, holding his darkened eyes locked with hers; the bold new her wondering who was trembling now.
The life of the city blurred around them through the taxi windows; bright bands of technicolor light rushed by as the faint sounds of nineties rock filtered back from the driver's radio and patched asphalt disappeared beneath them.
He looked over at her, a miracle he didn't feel he deserved, the silhouette of her face a patchwork of reflected colors. Wanting to reassure himself she was real, he reached over for her hand resting on the bench seat, wrapping it up in his and pressing around the cool delicateness of hers.
At the third squeeze of her fingers, she pulled her gaze away from the window, her eyes flickering over his features as she read his innermost thoughts easily. She slid closer to him, pulling their joined hands into her lap and resting her head against his shoulder.
He felt the warmth of her breath reach his skin through the cotton of his shirt as she spoke, "We're going to be okay...and I have you back."
His lips rested on her hair and he inhaled deeply, closing his eyes as the familiar scent of her filled him.
"You never lost me."
He muttered a thanks under his breath as he pushed the door to his room open, seeing that housekeeping had indeed come after he left as he had hoped. All evidence of what had transpired there earlier that morning wiped away and removed, much the way it had in his mind, meer hours feeling like another life entirely.
He set her bag down on the floor as she walked over to the large window, the bokeh of the distant lights flickering like starlight beyond her shape.
"Great view. Is that the Empire State Building?" He heard her ask as he flipped on the lamp and moved up behind her and hummed affirmatively. She silently slipped off his coat and laid it neatly at the end of the bed, and he mourned the loss of it.
"I've always wanted to go there and reenact Sleepless in Seattle," she added seriously and he couldn't stop the chuckle that escaped him.
She turned to him with mock offense, "Don't laugh at me!"
"I'm not," he murmured as he pulled her to him, his lips brushing hers, asking permission before feeling her answer as she opened beneath him, pulling him inside. He felt her skin growing hot, her breath coming faster and her fingers in the hair he was thankful he didn't cut.
"Jim," she whispered, caressing his name.
"Was that not the right movie?" he sighed amused against the soft skin of her neck, kissing his way down it.
He felt her cheeks pull up in a small smile before she answered, "No, I just need a minute, okay?"
He pulled back, his heart beat twice, reading her expression for doubts and hesitations and finding none, relaxing.
"Five minutes okay," she reassured him as she made her way to the bathroom and shut the door. He sat back on the edge of the bed wondering when he was going to wake up from this fevered dream. Pulling off his tie, he decided that if it was a dream, he was going to make it a damn good one and he picked up the bedside phone and called down to the front desk to order a bottle of champagne and a couple of glasses.
When she finally emerged from the mysterious activities of the bathroom, he was pushing the small loveseat in front of the large window like they were preparing to watch a movie instead of the endless cityscape.
"I don't think you are supposed to move the furniture in a hotel, Jim," she spoke leisurely as she crossed the room.
He froze at the sight of her in his purple University of Scranton hoodie pulled over her dress and her bare feet slipping out from beneath the layers of material as she stepped.
"This was in there, I hope you don't mind." She gestured at the deep purple cotton that nearly swallowed her with a bemused smile at his expression.
"Never." He stopped breathing, waiting for the other proverbial shoe to drop at the vision of her in his space, wearing his clothes, looking at him the way she was. "Although I'm sensing a pattern forming. You're using me for my clothes, aren't you?"
She stepped into him, her arms wrapping around his neck and the intoxicating mixture of her and him together surrounded him.
"Mmm, it's definitely more than just your clothes," she whispered against his mouth.
His every neuron was alive, eager with desire and insecure fear that she might stop them at any second, walk out the door, and leave him forever. He pressed into her, urging her lips apart and mapping her body with his hands; the previously forbidden borderland of soft slopes and peaks she promised him, waiting.
"What is happening?" he uttered in disbelief and he felt her laugh softly.
"I don't know but it feels right."
He pulled back to look into her heavy-lidded eyes, dark and depthless, "It does feel right."
A faint knock at the door and the announcement of room service pulled them apart again. They watched the sprinkling of fireworks occasionally break free from the forest of buildings as they drank the hotel champagne and talked, pressed together on the small loveseat. Hours passed in minutes and the predawn gray skies found her head in his lap as she curled alongside him on the plush furniture. He silently stroked the edge where her hair met her temple in quiet contemplation as the humanity outside the window slumbered with her.
"I love you," came whispered from his lips into the stillness of the room.
"I know," was returned quiet and small from below him and he looked down at her, realizing she was awake.
She rolled her body so that she now faced up at him, her nearest arm snaking between them to stroke the hair above his collar.
"No, you don't," he whispered to her. "You can't even imagine."
She turned her face back towards the window, a small glisten of moisture from her eyes smearing her makeup and a small smile pulling the corner of her mouth.
"Happy New Year."