“I think we need a safe word.”
Jim nearly chokes on his grape soda, hacking and sputtering his surprise.
“Excuse me?” he asks, beating his chest with his fist. He lowers his voice, his watering eyes darting around, as she hands him a napkin. He clears his throat. “Don’t you think there’s a better time and place to have this conversation?”
She instantly realizes her mistake, and even though she loves it when he gets frazzled like this, clarifying feels somewhat necessary.
“Oh… oh. That’s not what I meant,” she says, and sees him visibly relax. “I just mean here at work, like… when one of us is in trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“You know, like if Michael is asking me to help come up with his personalized license plate or something.”
“Oh, you mean a code word.”
She shrugs. “Yeah, a code word.”
“Well, it’s an important distinction to make, Beesly,” he grins, leaning in. She can feel her cheeks getting warm. They’ve only been dating for a month. The “safe word” conversation should probably still be somewhere in the distance, and certainly not on a random Monday afternoon at work.
She wonders what sorts of images are going through his mind right now. If they’re anything like the ones she’s imagining, he’s absolutely correct.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to confuse you.”
“Don’t be sorry. Just wasn’t sure if there was a side of you I haven’t seen yet,” he winks.
“I think you know pretty much all of my sides at this point.”
“And beautiful sides they are, each and every one.”
“Shut up,” she smiles, blushing. She knows he really means it, though. It’s one of her favorite things about him.
Jim leans back in his chair, wiping crumbs from his ham and cheese sandwich off his shirt with the napkin. “So what brought this on? We’ve always sort of known when we need to rescue each other. It’s like… animal instinct.”
“Not always,” she says. “This morning when Kevin was going on and on about how my new haircut reminded him of his mom, where were you?”
“I have no recollection of this.”
“Because you were on the phone.”
“I was probably on a sales call!” he exclaims, holding his arms out.
“I’m your girlfriend now. Doesn’t matter.”
Girlfriend. It’s the first time she’s officially used the word.
They haven’t had an actual conversation about exclusivity since they started dating. Maybe it’s because that very first night something intangible – yet powerful – had passed between them, like an unspoken vow: they belonged to each other and they both knew it. A verbal designation seemed superfluous.
In any event, her word choice does the trick. He folds his arms and leans back in his chair, glancing toward the door. They’re still all alone.
“You are. You are my girlfriend,” he smiles. His eyes get sort of dreamy in that way they always used to do, that way she’d so often ignored.
“Okay, so what should it be?” she asks. “Our code word.”
“It has to be something we’d never say otherwise.”
“But not so odd that it really sticks out.”
They smile at each other for a few seconds, and like she does every day lately – every hour, even – she thanks her lucky stars that he came back from New York for her, that they are finally, finally together. That she’s never been more in love than she is right now, sharing a bag of pretzels with her best friend Jim in their boring break room.
She wants to shout it from the rooftops, but she can’t; it’s a secret for reasons they’d both agreed upon. But some days her resolve weakens and she doesn’t really care who finds out. Some days, she forgets herself for a moment and reaches out to cover his hand with hers.
Some days, like today, he turns his hand over and intertwines their fingers, staring at her lips like he wants nothing more in the world than to kiss her.
God, she just wants to kiss him.
Their moment is interrupted when the break room door suddenly swings open and in walks Michael, looking a bit… well, Michael. Pam jerks her hand away and Jim clears his throat.
“Pam-bo!” he barks at her. “Did you return my Netflixes on Friday?”
Pam opens her mouth, then closes it, eyeing Jim. “Yeah, I did,” she lies, picturing the tiny stack of sleeved discs still sitting on Jim’s coffee table. Over the summer, she’d offered to “return” Michael’s Netflix DVDs for him, but not before she and Jim enjoyed movie nights on his dime. She’d earned it, she figured, after suffering his constant reenactments every day. Typically she’d drop them in her apartment complex’s mailbox in the morning before work, but she’d slept at Jim’s place over the weekend and must have forgotten.
“Well, they haven’t shown up,” he says, annoyed. “I can’t get the next ones in my queue until they do.”
“Maybe they got lost in the mail?” she suggests. “Give it a couple days.” Michael groans and looks at the ceiling in frustration.
“What movie are you waiting for?” Jim asks curiously.
Michael glares at him. “It’s none of your business, Jim. I forgot.”
Jim looks confused. “It’s none of my business, or you forgot?”
Michael sighs in aggravation, turns and leaves the break room. Jim turns to Pam.
“It must be a good one,” he deduces.
“I have an idea. How about the next Michael movie that shows up will be our code word,” she says. “Deal?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Pam sips her iced tea and grins. The one thing she’s been able to count on with Michael’s movie choices is to expect the unexpected. His last batch included both American Psycho and Happy Feet. She can’t even remember how either of them ended, though; she and Jim have had a pretty bad habit of not making it all the way through an entire movie without ending up naked.
Jim must be thinking about the same thing now, because he leans back into his chair again and folds his hands across his chest, gazing at her. It’s not unusual, he’s always looked at her that way. Only now she’s a little self-conscious and isn’t really sure why. Maybe it was that little Freudian slip earlier.
“What?” she asks.
He shakes his head, smiling. “Nothing.”
“No, tell me. What is it?”
“I just really want to kiss you right now.”
“Because of this?”
“Because of everything.”
Her cheeks flush, she feels warm all over. All over.
“I really want to kiss you too.”
They have rules, and while they’ve been hard not to break, they’ve stuck to them for the most part. No PDA in the office, particularly kissing.
She looks at her watch. Two more hours. That was pretty good news a month ago, but now that she has something to look forward to afterwards, it’s absolute torture.
“Two more hours,” she says quietly.
His smile curves up at the corner in that cute little Jim way.
“Halfway down the block, your car. I’m already counting the minutes.”
“The Birdcage?” she says with incredulity, pulling the DVD out of its sleeve. They’re back in the break room, alone again, on Friday morning.
“You’re surprised?” Jim asks.
“Well no, not that Michael rented it. Just weird that I haven’t been subjected to Nathan Lane impressions all week.”
“Hmm. That is weird.”
“Usually I can figure out what he’s been watching before I take the DVDs home. It’s one of my special skills.” She tosses her hair, a little proud of herself.
“Yours, or Michael’s?”
“It’s a team effort, I guess,” she grins.
“Well, ‘birdcage’ it is, then. Our code word.”
“Well, yeah. We made a deal, remember? The Netflix gods hath decreed it.”
She shakes her head. “But that’s never going to work.”
“It’s way too obvious. You really don’t think anyone will figure it out, when we start randomly saying ‘birdcage’ to each other?”
Jim laughs. “I think that’s kind of the fun of it, don’t you?” She must look skeptical, because he continues. “Do you really think anyone here cares what we say? Or even pays any attention to us at all?”
He’s right. There’s a reason Jim is the only one in the office who hasn’t made her feel invisible all these years.
“Okay, let’s do it. But if someone catches us, I get to say ‘I told you so.”
He chuckles and bites into a carrot stick. “That’s fair.”
She watches him for a moment, then looks over her shoulder out the window. Toby is working quietly at his desk, none the wiser, but it still sort of sucks that she feels the need to check at all.
“Do you ever get tired of sneaking around like this?” she asks quietly. “I mean, I know why we have to do it, but…”
Jim smiles tightly. “Yes. Every day.”
“What if we just… told everyone? You know, ripped off the band aid.”
“Pam, I want that too,” he says gently. “Are you kidding? To sit here with you and not worry about what people are thinking? To stare at you when I’m bored instead of at Minesweeper?”
“You always did that anyway,” she points out with a grin.
“True,” he chuckles. “But even then it felt like a secret.”
She sighs. “I get it, I do. I guess I just wish things were different.”
“Me too. But for right now I really think this way is… safer.”
Safer. It’s the best way she can think to describe it, too: safe from Michael jokes, others’ inappropriate glances. Safe from judgment after the whole Karen debacle. But she does wonder sometimes if it’s really better to be safe than to be free.
The day continues normally, and neither of them use their code word for a couple of hours. Pam isn’t sure if their coworkers are being less irritating than usual, or if they’re both just nervous to try it out. But eventually, Meredith approaches Pam at reception.
“Hey Pam, you babysit, right?”
Pam does not babysit. She’s actually pretty nervous around kids, and wonders why Meredith is asking her at all.
“Well, you can keep a kid alive for a few hours, right?”
“Um.” She eyes Jim, hoping he’ll clue in without the code word, but he seems busy at his desk.
“It’s just… this guy asked me out, and it's the only night his parole officer will let him drive. And honestly, it’s an easy gig. Jakey just hides in his room with his Grand Theft Auto and only comes out to piss or eat.”
Pam can’t stop her jaw from dropping. “Wow, I…”
“I’m really desperate, Pam,” Meredith begs. “I haven’t gotten laid in like four months.”
Pam is desperate, too. Perhaps too much so. “It’s just… my bird… cage…” she says loudly and nonsensically, fully expecting Meredith to look at her like she’s grown an extra head.
“You have birds?” she asks, but before Pam has to come up with something else, Jim does what he’s supposed to and intervenes.
“Excuse me, Pam, but I have a sales call in a few minutes and need a dozen copies of this purchase order. Could you do that for me, please?”
“Right away,” she says, and gives Meredith an apologetic wave. She departs with a frustrated sigh as Jim gives Pam a shit-eating grin.
“Told you it’d work,” he says under his breath, leaning on the counter.
“Barely. And you really needed a code word to come rescue me from that?”
Jim shrugs. “I don’t know. You and Jake got along pretty well the last time he was here.”
“You’re right. I guess I could babysit. I was planning on coming to your place tonight and not finishing The Birdcage, but…” she raises an eyebrow and lowers her voice even more, “I guess you’ll just have to finish on your own.”
“Ouch.” He pretends to be disappointed, but he knows she’s only teasing. Pam holds her hand out for the purchase order to complete their ruse, but he hesitates. “I actually do need the copies, but I can do it.”
“It’s fine, give them to me.”
Jim leans in and whispers. “It’s just– I feel kind of weird asking you to do this stuff. Now that you’re my girlfriend and all.”
It honestly doesn’t bother her, but the fact that it bothers him makes her love him even more. She puts her hand down at her side and backs away before she does something in the middle of the office she’ll regret, and throws him a grateful smile as he walks over to the machine.
That night, as predicted, by the time Robin Williams is telling Nathan Lane to put his damn pinky away, the television is off and so are their clothes.
The next week, it’s Jim’s turn to be rescued. Pam finds him in the kitchen with Kelly having a one-sided conversation about whether or not Taylor Swift is going to have staying power. Pam can tell it’s been a while since Jim has been able to get a word in edgewise, but he takes advantage of her arrival and interjects loudly.
“I'll bet she could write a song about a birdcage and her fans would eat it up,” he says, and rather than find this observation odd, Kelly enthusiastically agrees, and proceeds to give all of the possible ways such a song could be written. Jim is smiling and nodding at Kelly but his eyes say get me the fuck out of here and Pam obeys, feigning a Very Important Work Call that Jim absolutely has to take right now.
‘Birdcage’ gets them through the summer, both of them wondering why they hadn’t been doing this all along. (They know the answer, of course, but it’s not the only thing they wish they’d been doing all along.) Keeping their relationship a secret has been difficult enough without the added element of some of their particularly annoying coworkers.
As summer turns into that sort of unbearable fever pitch it always reaches before turning into fall, keeping their hands off each other becomes nearly impossible. The only thing keeping them somewhat sane is the absence of the camera crew, who always seem to be in the right place at the right time and surely would have caught them by now. But they’re due back to start filming in a few days, and if the pressure weren’t already on, she can feel it building even more.
One Thursday afternoon, Pam is setting up for the monthly Finer Things Club meeting in the break room when Jim enters for a snack. All it takes is one quick grin for her to set down her copy of Maya Angelou poetry and come up behind him as he looks into the vending machine with one arm gripping its side. He’s just so cute, she can’t help herself.
“I miss you,” she says, and wraps her arms around his middle, laying her cheek against his back between his shoulder blades.
“You just saw me five minutes ago, Beesly.”
He doesn’t turn around, but moves his free hand to cover hers across his chest, rubbing her fingers with his own. “We’re at work, you know.”
“I know. I don’t care.”
“Hmm. Kit Kat or Snickers?”
She can’t take it anymore and moves around between him and the machine, rises onto her tiptoes, and grabs him by the face, pulling him in for a kiss. And it’s not a quick peck, either. Her mouth opens, her hands make their way into his hair, messing it up (although with Jim, no one would notice anyway). She can feel him resist for a second, but only for a second, because soon enough he’s kissing her back, pushing her against the vending machine, hard.
They’ve had a lot of practice kissing, of course, but most of it over the past several weeks has been horizontal. She’s not used to reaching him at this height. So she moves her kisses down his neck, pulling at his hair, tugging at his tie. She knows someone could walk in and catch them at any second – knows they should stop – but she’s a woman possessed. She’s never felt so out of control of her own body, her own urges, and for a brief moment seriously considers just having her way with him on the disgusting break room floor.
“Pam, we really shouldn’t…” Jim mumbles, but her kiss shuts him up and he makes no attempt to actually stop.
“I don’t know how much longer I can take hiding like this,” she says between kisses. “It’s just getting really hard.”
“That’s what she said,” Jim grins, snaking his hands down around her hips and pulling her into him. Well. His action bumps the machine, causing one of the snacks to fall down.
At this very moment, she hears the door to the break room start to open and with cat-like reflexes, shoves Jim off her so fast and hard he crashes into the carefully decorated Finer Things table, sending two plates to the floor.
“Jim! Be careful!” she snaps at him, just in time to see Oscar entering the room.
Pam turns and crouches down to pick up the (thankfully plastic) plates, wiping her mouth and adjusting her skirt. Jim attempts to straighten the tablecloth. When she stands back up she notices Oscar is holding – of all things – a tiny birdcage.
“Oh! Hey!” she says in a loud voice, higher pitched than normal. “It’s Oscar!”
Jim stands there like a deer in headlights. “Hey, man!”
Oscar looks at them curiously. “Hello.”
“And he brought a birdcage!” Pam says, unable to help herself from pointing out the odd coincidence. “Look Jim, it’s a birdcage!”
“How about that,” Jim says, his eyes wide.
Oscar places it in the center of the table, eyeing them both. “Yeah, it’s for Finer Things.” Pam can’t keep any of her thoughts straight, and must look flummoxed, because he adds helpfully, “...I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?”
“Ohhhhhh,” she says. “Yes. Nice touch.”
“What are you doing in here, Jim?” Oscar asks. Jim usually steers well clear of the Finer Things Club meetings.
“Just getting a snack,” he says. He turns around to reach into the vending machine and pulls out the snack their little tryst had produced: sunflower seeds. “And, now I’m leaving. See you later.”
Jim makes his way towards the door, but Oscar slides in front of it, blocking his exit.
“Okay, enough is enough, you guys.”
Jim stops. The hairs on the back of Pam’s neck tingle.
“What do you mean?” Jim asks.
“I mean, the jig is up. I’m not sure why you’re keeping the fact that you’re dating a secret, but I’ve known for a couple of weeks now.”
Jim turns around and looks at Pam, then back at Oscar. Pam is stunned silent, not knowing what to say.
“I… um. Have no idea what you’re talking about,” Jim says weakly, scratching the back of his head.
Oscar is unamused. “You can cut the act, Jim. There’s lipstick on your neck.”
Jim’s hand moves immediately to the offending area, rubbing off the evidence. He lets out a heavy sigh of concession. “How did you find out?”
“I’ve had my suspicions ever since Karen quit, but the other day sealed it.”
Pam furrows her brow. “What happened the other day?”
Oscar raises an eyebrow. “Birdcage?” he challenges.
What the hell? She’s always known Oscar was the smartest one in the office, but is he some kind of evil genius? They say nothing, and Oscar continues.
“One time was weird. The second time I heard you say it was suspicious. By the time Jim brought up the movie around Michael for no apparent reason, I knew you guys had some sort of game going on. No one would give him that opening on purpose.”
Pam closes her eyes, remembering. Michael had been giving her way too much information about his sex life with Jan, and Jim had been forced to pull out the big guns. Once Michael knew they’d seen The Birdcage, he’d been easily distractible into doing impressions. Not much better, but a definite step up from the sex talk. It wasn’t a perfect system, after all.
“Okay, so we have a little game. We always play games like that.”
“I also saw you in the Cugino’s parking lot last week making out in Jim’s car.”
Pam bites her lip. Oops.
She gestures at the birdcage sitting innocently on the table. “So… what, you picked Maya Angelou this week to observe us? Make me uncomfortable? Force me to admit something?”
“No, that was a total coincidence.”
Pam blinks, looking over her shoulder at Jim. “Huh.”
“That’s pretty wild,” he replies.
“Now, are you both gonna come clean, or what?” Oscar asks, crossing his arms in a sort of paternal way.
Pam sighs. “Fine, okay? It’s true. But please, can you just not tell anyone else? We aren’t ready for the entire office to know.”
Oscar looks displeased. “The last place I want to be is back inside some closet,” he says. “But if that's what you want, I won’t tell anyone.”
She lets out a sigh of relief. “We really appreciate it.”
“Thanks, man,” Jim says.
Oscar nods tightly, then turns to go, but before he reaches the door he looks back. “Can I give you guys some advice?”
“Sure,” Pam says.
“I understand all the reasons you don’t want people to know, but they’re little reasons. There are big reasons to live openly. Freely. Think about it.”
He leaves, and they look at each other, saying nothing. As if in silent judgment, the birdcage sits on the table between them.
As they expect, the documentary crew figures them out on their first day back. What they don’t expect is that it’s easier than they thought it would be to fess up. Maybe Oscar was right; it feels good to be honest, to be themselves. And by the end of the following week, thanks to Toby’s ridiculous PDA memo, they’re finally completely outed.
Michael is more overjoyed than anyone, which is precisely what they’d both expected, and in his exuberance he goes to hug Jim. Just as he turns to do the same to Pam, her phone rings – saved by the bell – and she escapes Michael to answer it.
“Dunder Mifflin, this is Pam,” she says quietly into the receiver as her boss carries on. And the voice on the other end is, to her surprise, Oscar’s.
“Birdcage,” he says, and Pam glances over towards accounting to see him smiling at her. “And congratulations,” he adds.
“Thanks,” she says, and hopes he knows her gratitude is for both the Michael rescue and the advice. They didn’t exactly plan it to happen this way, but admitting the truth feels really, really good. She feels an unexpected sense of relief, and not even Ryan’s nonstop douchebag talk about living in New York (which she and Jim both ‘birdcage’ their way out of) can spoil her mood.
A huge weight has been lifted. She hadn’t even realized how bottled-up she’d been feeling all these weeks; even in her happy haze of new love, their romance has been somewhat stifled. Now, she can shout it from the rooftops.
Now, they’re free.
“Eyes Wide Shut?”
Jim slips the DVD out of its sleeve and raises an eyebrow, the remnants of their takeout Thai food on the coffee table.
“Oh God, Michael rented that?” she says. “Actually, it all makes sense now. When he came in this morning I asked him what he did last night and all he did for twenty minutes was giggle.”
“Bingo,” Jim grins, then looks down at the DVD again. “Are you sure we’re ready for this one? I mean, our relationship is still pretty much in its infancy.”
“I think we can handle it,” she smirks. “And toddlerhood at least, surely.”
He grins, popping the movie into his DVD player, settling down onto the couch next to her.
“So how does it feel, us going public and everything?” she asks him.
He sighs contentedly. “It feels good. And it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be, anyway.”
“I did like it just the two of us, you know? In our little bubble. It was nice and cozy. But I guess Oscar was right. It’s much better this way.”
“Speaking of Oscar,” she says, “I think we need a new code word. Something a little less obvious this time.”
“I agree,” he nods sagely. He lifts his beer and clinks it against hers. “To the retirement of ‘birdcage.’ It served us well.”
“That it did.”
“Anyway,” he sets down his drink and pulls her in close. “I’m glad that everyone knows you’re mine.”
“So possessive and domineering,” she says. “I like this Jim.”
“So am I.”
“Domineering, huh?” he asks, raising an eyebrow. “Something you want to tell me?”
“I don’t know. Maybe,” she shrugs. Ever since she confused ‘code word’ for ‘safe word’ it had gotten her thinking.
He pauses, tilting his head to look down at her. “Really? What exactly are we talking about here, Beesly? Whips and chains?”
“God, no,” she laughs. Then, “Maybe. Someday.”
He shakes his head. “You are just full of surprises, aren’t you?”
“Good ones, I hope?”
He moves to kiss her, a smile tugging on his lips. “I have no complaints,” he murmurs against her mouth.
She pulls him down on top of her as the movie starts without them, and just as she’d desired, he does his best to give her a taste of something new and surprising when he grips her by the wrists and pins them down to the couch behind her head.
“Is this what you had in mind?” he asks.
“Definitely a start.”
“I have no idea what to do,” he says with a nervous chuckle. It’s cute, which isn’t exactly what she’s going for, but they’ll get the hang of it eventually.
“Me neither,” she admits. “But I do know we’re supposed to have a safe word.”
He grins and she looks up into his eyes, her favorite eyes in the world. His hands are tight around her wrists, but she feels safe. She feels free.
“How about ‘birdcage?’” she suggests.