With the towel wrapped tight around his waist, and his wet head still randomly transferring copious droplets from his mane of hair onto his shoulders and chest and sometimes the floor, Jim stepped from the steam-filled cavern of the still stuck-in-the-seventies bathroom into their vacant, but slightly, emphasis on the slightly, more modern bedroom. The quiet in the space was in a way jarring, and he wasn’t sure how long it would last, this solitude he hadn’t asked for yet was granted. With the freedom of the empty room, he let the towel fall after the tight wrap loosened and finally gave way after the last few steps to the dresser. He still wasn’t sure how Pam had always managed to keep hers firmly around her while she tended to the kids; even though stretching for cereal bowls from the second shelf of the cabinet, she stayed firmly swathed as she went about preparing their breakfast.
Pulling out his boxers and a tee, he took them back to the bed where he swiftly slipped them on, his head emerging through the shirt’s head hole just seconds before the door swung open and his posse came barreling back in, arriving like Robin Hood and his merry men, each holding armfuls of their loot, dropping the excess of toys in the middle of the carpet, except for Pam, whose bounty of munchkin-sized garments, wipes and a pull-up diaper, she dropped next to him.
Cece was already exuberant, spinning and jumping and clearly excited for her day.
“Hi Daddy,” she sang out, as she twirled back to the bed, climbing up to wrap her arms around his middle. Jim had to surreptitiously twist his body so she wouldn’t notice his movement but also so her face would smoosh against his hip instead of where it would otherwise land. To her, it was not a big deal, but the one time it happened, during one of her customary bed hugs, it freaked him out and he jumped away, startling her and making her cry for thinking she hurt him because her hug was too tight.
It was thanks to his letting her win their who-can-hug-hardest contest, and his exaggerated, ow, ow, ow, while she gave it her all during the bout. It was quite the adorable video Pam captured on her phone, she never missed another video op again, and they loved playing it back to see Cece’s little face so serious and squinched as she squeezed, and hear the guttural grunt she let out as she threw her little head back in a last burst of energy and then in glory when she declared herself the winner to which he conceded.
But ever since then she was under the impression her strength was powerful enough that she might harm him. Of course, it was the opposite. It was the absence of her hugs, and Phillip’s and Pam’s on the nights he stayed in Philadelphia, that were what caused him pain during the Athlead days.
Soon Phillip toddled over too, his energy level not nearly the level of his sister’s. Clearly, he had still been asleep when Pam retrieved him. Upon arrival he clasped his arms around Jim’s bare leg, his greeting silent but his grip firm with adoration for his dad.
“You’ll get them dressed?”
Pam, wore the same tired look as her son, sleepy yet consigned to being up. She stepped to the dresser, where she fully closed the top drawer he’d left ajar and opened the one beneath it, grabbing her own undergarments before retreating to the bathroom.
Cece was already back to her dancing under the new crystal chandelier, which Pam had insisted they needed, along with a coat of paint, to freshen up the look of the bedroom. Cece, in her imaginative way when she saw it, had likened it to a disco ball, and loved to chase the beams the glass accents cast off onto the carpet in her own game of Dance Dance Revolution.
Jim reached down to bring Phillip, still clinging to his leg, up on the bed. He pulled off the saggy pull-up, trying to hide his disappointment it was full and still warm.
“I think you almost made it kiddo. How about tomorrow you try and hold it in until mom or I come to get you and you can go in the potty like you do during the day?”
“Okay, I try Daddy.”
Guilt washed over Jim as he watched his son’s face scrunch up in the same way Pam’s did when she got emotional. He hated it on her, especially since he’d been the reason for its multiple manifestations in the not too distant past while they worked on repairing them, just as he felt terrible seeing in on his son as he feared his words came across as a reprimand instead of encouragement.
Quickly giving him a once over with the wipe, “Let’s get a dry one on my big boy and then you can go play.”
The little face returned to its normal happy countenance as he stepped into the pull-up, tugging it up himself with a little of Jim’s help to get it sitting right on his tiny bottom. Setting him back on the carpet, Jim gave a little tap to his freshly covered butt and he toddled off to the pile of toys.
Jim waited until he plopped down to play and also heard the shower turn on before he stepped around to the nightstand where his phone sat.
As he pulled it from the charger and punched in the password to bring up the home screen, he lost himself in thoughts of their many visits there from the very first, up to and including the last one, which ended abruptly and on a bit of a sour note. It was only little more than a year ago and yet it felt like ages since the date he planned in hopes of getting them back in sync. Instead, in the weeks that followed, the tension only grew, the resentment multiplied, the chasm dividing their expectations almost swallowing them up into a hole too deep to crawl out of. He knew it had started long before he pulled the dress from the depths of her closet, where it hung next to one of blue satin, also never to be worn again but also never to be discarded, not with all the meaning weaved into its fabric. Now too, the coral sheath had a double-edged past, having been what she wore on their life-changing, first date at Christopher’s but also what set the negative tone for the ill-fated last one, though he knew it was really his joining Athlead in secret, that had been the true catalyst of that time bomb.
At least this time he knew enough to let Pam pick out the outfit for the date.
They were late, of course, that morning but not so late that Dwight, the friend, would notice. It was too bad, Dwight, the stickler, was running the shop that morning, standing in the doorway of his office, tapping his watch, as Pam and Jim walked in. But before Jim could say a word in his defense, he noticed a change come over the face of his nemesis-turned-friend and when he followed his boss's eyes over to the accounting nook, he recognized exactly what was happening. He knew it from personal experience, how much was being said between the petite accountant and the softening manager while neither said a word. He’d had so many of these silent conversations himself, right here in the same place, only with a kind of inverse effusion; Pam and Jim flashed complete plots to prank Dwight through their tacit communications, while Angela directed him to take it easy on their friends through her muted allocution. And so, Dwight retreated to his office where the mounted boar's head received the lecture about punctuality originally meant for the latecomers.
“Eating light, I hope,” Angela remarked as she joined Pam and Jim at a table in the breakroom for lunch. Jim looked curiously over at her, then to his wife.
“Pam told me about your big date this afternoon,” she explained. “Dwight and I were just there the other night. Their portions are huge.”
He still forgot sometimes how they were true friends now, she and Pam, that talked about the things in their lives as if they’d been besties for years. But Angela had changed so much since her divorce and subsequent engagement to Dwight, becoming a kinder version of herself, happier, no longer so judgmental and uptight. In many ways she had become a completely different person.
She lifted the lid of her small salad and mixed in a splash of dressing before looking over to the large portion of their leftover dinner, the pasta and meat sauce that Pam and Jim each had in front of them.
“Although I guess not for an eater like you,” she added.
In many ways she had not.
“I,” she stammered to correct herself, “...mean only because you are eating dinner so early...never mind, none of my business.”
She stopped herself from saying anything more, something the old Angela would never do.
Pam filled the silence her friend had left with her abrupt holding of the tongue.
“Hey, thanks for settling Dwight down this morning when we were late. It was another of one of those nights.”
Again, it was a little surprising that the women had grown so close in just a few months that there was little they didn’t speak about. He only hoped Pam wasn’t as chatty about what occurred in their bedroom, as she was about the nights they spent in Phillip’s getting him back to sleep as he cut his two-year molars. He knew bffs, as they seemed to be growing to be, liked to share girltalk but the thought of Angela knowing anything about their sex life, even this new Angela, was not something he was comfortable about, at all.
“No problem. And I’ve got you covered so you don’t need to sneak out of here early later.”
She winked at Jim and promptly shifted her attention back to Pam and the conversation about their Phillips.
“I’m lucky I guess, my Phillip barely woke at all when his came in and when he did, well Dwight was the one to get up with him. You know how good he is at soothing crying babies.”
“You don’t know how lucky you are with that. My Phillip's been waking every night. Jim and I take turns with it. Last night was my turn.”
Technically, it was, but Jim had intended to get up with him anyway, except when Phil began crying, Jim was already in Cece’s room, dealing with a very excited little girl who had also woken up in the middle of the night. The bumps, squeaks and squeals, they heard coming from her room, he discovered was her releasing her energy by bouncing on her fragile toddler bed. He knew he got the easier job. It took him only a few minutes to get Cece back under the covers and at least quiet, if not back to sleep. Pam, he suspected, was with Phillip for an hour; at least that’s how long it always felt like it took to settle him when it was Jim’s turn. Sometimes longer.
Pam let out a huge yawn, the reminder of her night and lack of sleep, prompting the bodily reaction.
“You poor thing,” Angela cooed with not a touch of sarcasm, which still felt a bit odd to witness. “And with the plans tonight. Are you nervous you’ll be too tired for tonight? It can be quite a madhouse there when it's busy.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got two kids, so I know how to rally. And it’s not like I haven’t been there before.”
Thanks to Angela, getting out of the office before the old-fashioned bell that rang at the end of their workday —which had been removed and transferred over from the ‘Schrute School of Learning and Rule Following,’ aka the small red barn on his property which once served as schoolhouse to prior generations of Schrutes—was not an issue. She’d booked him to make fundraising calls for Oscar from 3:30 to 5:30 that day, a job he took so seriously he instructed Erin to hold all other calls while he shut all the blinds and locked the door, intent on outraising the team of six professionals that were on the job for her ex-husband.
Despite having been awake for the spill in the night, she was quite chatty in the car, sharing the same stories she had many times before with him. When her favorite song came on the radio, she belted out the lyrics she knew, filling in the rest with nonsense words that made him laugh aloud, in turn causing her to giggle even more. Overtired, he suspected, and he worried if that meant her mood might turn sour at some point, her voice becoming pitchy and shrill, his least favorite trait of the Beesly women, technically the Purl women, as it passed down through the maternal side. The past Christmas night, spent with Helene, was especially taxing on his ears, with three exhausted and cranky females present, one who refused to go to sleep at bedtime.
Her singing stopped before the song ended and it was Jim’s turn to chatter on, sharing his own previously told story about a magical first date, describing all the charm of the location and the server met there, and going on about traditions and how they shape your life. When he finished his outpouring, he asked what she thought, but got no answer.
He took his eyes off the road for a brief moment and looked to see she had fallen asleep, just as she often did during longer car rides, not that Christopher’s was so far away but it wasn’t close either, not when he didn’t quite beat the traffic which he hadn’t expected to be as bad as it was considering it wasn’t yet five PM.
Lowering the radio a touch to let her sleep, though he knew she could sleep through Armageddon if she were tired enough, he wondered if he should call to let them know he’d be late. He couldn’t risk getting moved to another section. Beth needed to be their server tonight. Nobody else would try as hard to make this date the special event he intended it to be. Nobody else would know to bring over a specially-prepared, Mixed Berry drink or a grilled cheese at the start. But he decided, after noting the traffic ahead was much lighter, not to bother with the call. The number was not on speed dial and he had no one to assist him in scrolling to it on the phone. He would never tell Pam, but alone in the car he sometimes looked briefly to his phone to find a number or an address when he was out on a client sales call, but he would never take the chance of looking away that long when he had precious cargo in the car as he did now.
Even the quick glance at her, he might have held a moment too long, but she was so cute in slumber. Her head had slumped to the side and her arm was draped over her head, flattening the curls that lay beneath it. In sleep, her hand gripped tight around an imaginary trinket, at least that’s how it looked to Jim as she clenched her fingers around nothing but her thumb, holding fast to the digit secured within her delicate pink fist.
Arriving in the less than half-full parking lot only a few minutes past his reservation, he assumed there would be no issue regarding the table and so he took his time pulling into the spot, allowing her to wake her up slowly. Her alter ego, Crankypants, sometimes made a cameo when she woke abruptly, and she had not been invited on this date. He heard her stirring as he turned off the car, and by the time he stepped out and got to her door, her eyes were open, although she was maybe not fully awake. Still, she smiled up at him and let him help her out.
They walked through the parking lot hand in hand, Jim clinging tightly to hers which was clammy from sleep. It was apparent from her slow gait as they walked across the asphalt she was still coming around after the short nap.
He caught her eyes turn to the bridge flooded by the gleam of the low afternoon sun that also had her squinting and holding her free hand over her forehead. It seemed to revive her a bit more seeing it. She bounced her next few steps in place until Jim reminded her of the reservation they were already late for. But he would bring her for a walk on the bridge later, after the meal, when the moon swapped places with the sun and its delicate glow onto the inky waters below it was enhanced by the refraction of the lights dancing upon delicate rippling in the small pond.
Inside, the hostess greeted them warmly and took them through restaurant to their seats. At the early hour, most of the other patrons were much older. She grasped his hand tighter as they walked among the tables where wrinkled faces smiled at them. He wondered if she felt their stares and could sense how much they envied her youth.
At the table he helped her into her seat, settling a kiss on the crown of her curls before he walked around to take his own.
Once seated he repeated the narrative she slept thorough in the car, this time getting the reaction he expected, coy smiles and tender giggles that became louder as she completely woke up, to the point he had to shush her, though he doubted the septuagenarians at the next table could hear her anyway.
But Beth must have, or somehow sensed the arrival of her special guests and came rushing over, the beam spread across her face enormous as she made her way to where they sat at the very same table where she first served the adorable couple that had their long-awaited first date in her section here at Christopher’s.
A second call later in the day, placed to Beth personally on her cell, detailed the other long-awaited date that she would be there to witness. He knew she would be more than happy to be included, but he hadn’t quite expected this level of excitement, especially considering what he learned about the points game when they spoke. After Pete, the other longtime server left a few months back, the new crop of servers weren’t as keen on playing the game and so it was no more. A shame too; he wasn’t sure how many points tonight’s date would have amounted to, but it should have been some and possibly a lot. It was part birthday celebration even if it wasn’t the exact date, and it was a first date, although with their relationship he wasn’t sure if it would have counted.
But he could guess why she was thrilled. As one who had seen him and Pam begin their life as a couple, and, in her very small way, was there through so many of the big celebrations and events of their lives, it was no wonder she would be chomping on the bit to get to their table. After all, she’d only seen pictures before now.
Jim beamed back at her as she arrived tableside.
“I was just telling my date about the amazing grilled cheeses here and the delicious, but diluted,” he winked, “Mixed Berry drinks, and how there’s no better place for a first date than here at Christopher’s.”
Beth barely looked at him before she spun her head around, bending at the knees to greet the guest across from him at the table, adorable in a frilly pink dress and matching cardigan sweater.
“Hello, I’m Beth. And you must be Cece.”