It starts slow, like the gradual change of winter into spring: delicate, inexorable, and immovable. It comes so gently that he barely even notices it, until one day he spins around and it’s like February transformed into April and everything is covered with a soft spray of green and flowers are blossoming everywhere, soft and lovely and beautiful- and oh- he’s in love. It wasn’t meant to happen like this, in a coffee shop where he barely knows her last name (it’s Beesly) and he only sees her for thirty to forty minutes each weekday. There were supposed to be dates, long walks hand in hand as the lights of the city sparkle like fireflies, chasing each other through Central Park, crisp air biting at their cheeks and laughter warming their hearts. That’s not what happened. Instead, there’s the harsh grind of coffee beans that fades into the background with the jangle of coins and the hustle of the 8 o’clock morning traffic to work, the sweet smell of pastries on counters. It’s greyer than it should be, more drab, boring, not the crisp technicolor images he’s always wanted. There’s body odor, grumbling, shoving through lines, heavy eyes that long for a nap and a pillow. It doesn’t happen like a movie.
It happens like this:
Coffee drips down his neat white dress shirt, consuming anything in its path, coloring the fabric a sickly tan. Sucking in a quick breath, he plucks the shirt away from his body before the scalding liquid can burn marks into his skin. His brow furrows and he glares down at the shirt reproachfully. Great, just great, he was already running later than normal, had an important sale to close and now he had to run back to his apartment to change clothes and-
“I’m so sorry!”
Hands fluttering around his stomach like anxious butterflies catch his attention and he looks up.
A woman with curly brown hair twisted sensibly back into a clip is rummaging through her purse, pulling out a haphazard fistfull of napkins that she shoves towards his stained shirt, before looking up at him, eyes catching the light.
They’re an unidentifiable color, somewhere between gray and green, but clear and warm, something that reminds him of cloudy beaches, soothing, and just like that, any rising ire is washed away in the depth of her gaze on him.
“I’m so sorry,” she says again, wringing her hands together. “I’ll buy you a coffee! And pay for a drycleaning! It’s all my fault, I wasn’t looking where I was going, and I was in a rush this morning, please let me make it up to you.”
He offers her a lopsided smile, dabbing gratefully at the soaked fabric with the bundle of tissues.
“It’s alright,” he says cheerfully, doing his best to rub carefully at the liquid. “This shirt was practically looking for an excuse to commit suicide, it’ll let me buy a new one with no guilty conscience, so no big deal.”
Shy like a tentative cat, her smile creeps across her face. “Well in that case, I wouldn’t want to postpone the funeral. At least let me buy you a coffee.”
Catching a glimpse at his watch, he curses lowly. In order to get back to his apartment and change and get to work in time, he would have had to leave five minutes ago. “Actually, I have to run to make it to the wake for my newly deceased shirt, but I wouldn’t say no to a coffee tomorrow morning?”
Her eyes glimmer like a good idea and she sticks out her hand for him to shake. “Eight here tomorrow?”
He grasps her hand, and it’s like lightning that strikes him to the floor, nailing down his feet, sticking him in the moment. And he knows. He wants to learn more about her, to know her. He hopes his voice doesn’t betray him when he agrees.
“It’s Jim, by the way,” he says as he moves towards the exit.
“Pam,” she says, then her face lifts into a teasing smile. “Give my deepest condolences to the grieving ties of course.”
He smiles at her, eyes crinkling, slipping out into the faceless, droning crowds.
That’s how it starts.
They meet for coffee the next day, and chat briefly before heading to their respective jobs. He likes her, likes her a lot, with her sense of humor and twinkling eyes and pretty hair. But he figures they’ll never see each other again, and so he moves on with his life. Except he does see her again, and again, and again.
At first, he runs into her maybe once a week, in the coffee shop he visits on a sporadic basis. She’s not there all the time, but after two weeks he decides to make a conscious effort to try and see her.
So he alters his trajectory, forces his eyes open earlier, wipes the gritty sand from his eyes in order to see the oceans in hers. He starts showing up more regularly, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, even as the spending cash in his bank account cries for mercy. Ignoring their plaintive wails, his work pays off, and Pam is often there, and they can talk for a few peaceful minutes before their workday begins. They share little tidbits of information about themselves, the puzzle pieces of their lives that make up the bigger picture. He’s a salesman at a soap company, and she’s a secretary for a dentist’s office. She secretly hates her job and wishes she could quit, while he’s not sure if there’s anything else for him to do in life. His favorite color is blue, and hers is yellow. They become sort of tentative friends, and by unspoken agreement, a few months into it, he starts showing up on Tuesdays and Thursdays as well. Sometimes they buy each other pastries and laugh in a booth in the window. Then, like the coffee he drinks, he becomes addicted.
They’re orbiting planets, swinging just close enough to feel the other’s gravity, pulling them closer, before they’re torn apart again, thrust back into the swirling, turbulent cosmos of their daily lives. Their little meetings are barely enough for him, caffeine and Pam addict that he is, and he starts showing up to the shop earlier, just so he doesn’t have to miss one moment with her.
She does the same, and their meetings start to stretch for longer, thirty minutes instead of fifteen, and the booth in the window is practically reserved for them at this point, where they can watch the sad swarm of the office workers of New York, pretending they aren’t a part of them.
He turns their meetings into the spun-sugar sweetness of a fantasy romance, dreaming of the day he’ll finally build up the guts to ask her on a real date, when the satisfaction of being her friend pales in comparison to the urge to be more .
That day never comes.
Instead, a few months into meeting with her, she arrives late one day, harried and flushed, blowing her bangs out of her eyes impatiently.
“Sorry I’m late,” she says. “Roy was trying to be nice and let me sleep longer, but he let me go a little bit too long.” Pam’s eyes roll to the ceiling for a moment, but there’s still a little smile on her lips.
“Roy?” he asks, ignoring the slow, sinking feeling in his chest that is telling him this conversation could be titled: ‘Moments Before Disaster’.
“My boyfriend,” she says, shaking her head fondly. “We’ve been dating for six years. I can’t believe I never talked about him before!”
Jim’s heart plummets rapidly, leaving a sort of sick feeling in his stomach. She’s dating someone already. Of course she is. Someone as great as Pam would have someone, and it was foolish to even hope for a moment. But she is his friend, first and foremost, and her happiness means more to him than whatever delusions he harbored about their relationship.
And though it aches like an aggravated cut, growing more and more tender the longer he pokes at it with their continued friendship, he just can’t help it. He wants to be in her life, no matter that capacity.
He longs for the radiance of her smile, the calm in the depths of her eyes, and the sweetness in the curve of her cheek. They laugh together, encapsulating themselves in a little bubble of brilliance, filled with stories of mischievous pranks on coworkers, debates on movies, and one month, they start a book club, just the two of them. Jim and Pam becomes JimandPam, and the coffee shop workers rarely see one without the other. And even though he wishes they could be more, he lets himself become content with what they have, friends, best friends.
“God, Beesly, aren’t you just a sight for sore teeth.”
“I swear to God, Jim, every time? Just because I work in a dentist’s office-”
“What the hell? Pam, that’s not a prank, that’s switching my very delicious mocha latte for a coffee that’s as black as your heart!”
“Oh, well you always talk about how much you hate being a secretary, so I thought maybe you’d want to check out this internship? It’s paid.”
“That’s really nice of you, but- I’m not sure my art is good enough for that.”
“Come on, Pam, of course you’re good enough.”
“So every time he got up, I moved his desk to the right, just a centimeter, but by the end of the day, he was almost a full foot and a half from where he started!”
“My god, you’re evil! Did he ever notice?”
“What, my coworker, noticing anything besides soap sales? You’ve got to be kidding me. Now spill, Beesly, I know you had some sneaky prank of your own planned on your coworkers.”
“Mmm, well you see-”
The months pass by, and on the one year anniversary of their meeting, Pam slides a small box across the table to him, eyes sparking with suppressed mirth.
“For our anniversary,” she says, and those words send his brain into dizzying overdrive, imagining her saying them under different circumstances. He very well knows what day it is, has it marked down on the calendar hanging in his kitchen. He just wasn’t sure if she would remember.
So he opens the sleek black box to find a plain white candle. Curious, he lifts it up and shoots her an inquiring glance.
“To light in memorial of your dead shirt,” she says solemnly, closing her eyes and tilting her face up to the ceiling, hands pressed together in semblance of a prayer. “May it rest in peace.”
She holds the pose for a remarkable five seconds before the corner of her mouth twitches and she bursts into glorious laughter. He thinks he would be able to survive on the sweet sound of her laughter alone, but he drinks in the sight of her bright eyes, her flushed cheeks, the perfect joy in her expression that causes his heart to skip three beats, and then pound twice as hard to catch up.
He smiles at her for just a moment, infinitely fond, and affectionate, and all too aware of the fact that his feelings are written all over his face. Then he’s playfully gasping, one hand over his chest in mock outrage.
“Pam Beesly,” he drawls out her name lazily, savoring the taste of the syllables on his tongue. “Bold of you to offer condolences, you murderer!”
And she’s giggling, light, and happy, and uncontrollable, all because of him.
Butterflies don’t even begin to describe the backflip his stomach does in response to her, with the gorgeous steely sea glass eyes and freckles that bridge across her nose, birthing stars like nebulae, forming constellations he would love to trace with the tips of his fingers. He wants to wrap the curl falling in her face around his index finger, tethering her to him, to never let her go. It’s then, when he realizes. When he turns around and the gardens are in full bloom around him, and the world has somehow shifted underneath his feet without moving an inch, everything slotting into place. He’s in trouble. He’s in love with her. He’s so in love with her.
He loves the way she smiles, the way she has memorized his drink order and teases him relentlessly over his love of pumpkin spice. He loves how much she enjoys mixed berry yogurt, her joy in the little things in life, and the way her eyes sparkle. He loves her hair, how it shines golden bright in the summer sun, but remains a pretty chestnut inside, and how it curls, framing her face and tumbles down her back. He loves her exuberance for art, and her dreams to go to an art school, how she doodles on the napkins and sometimes gives them to him to keep. He treasures every single one he gets, keeps them tucked into his nightstand. He’s not sure if there’s anything she could do that he wouldn’t at least find endearing.
But he can’t love her.
Not like this. She’s his best friend. His very platonic best friend. And she’s dating another man, but he just can’t seem to help himself. He remains stuck inside her gravity, becoming a moon to her planet, constantly orbiting, thinking about her, but never gaining enough momentum to crash outside of his trajectory, to change. Then one day, a year and a half into knowing her, Pam doesn’t show.
She texts him later, something vague about an impromptu trip with Roy, about something exciting she wants to tell him when she gets back. Suddenly, it’s all too much for him. This is the longest they’ve gone without seeing each other, and his feelings are roiling, bubbling over like an impatient pot. Pam needs to know. He simply cannot go on living like this if she doesn’t know how much he loves her. Maybe it’s stupid that her absence has quite literally made his heart grow fonder, but he’s set in steel. This is it.
A week and a day since he saw her last, Jim gets a text: back today, can’t wait! His heart practically pounds doubletime, and he spends extra long fiddling with his tie, cuffing his sleeves carefully, palms sweating. Walking into the coffee shop to see her feels like coming home, as her familiar features lift with physical joy as she sees him walk in, practically throwing herself into a hug. He’s barely able to get his arms up around her to hug her back before she’s already bouncing away, grin bubbling to the surface.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t give you any warning, but I got engaged! Roy wanted to take a spontaneous trip, and it was so romantic, I couldn’t say no.” She’s glowing, her smile as radiant as he’s ever seen it, and it’s not because of him.
And oh- he never had a chance did he, because she’s telling him about how Roy proposed, and her joy, her brilliance, what he thought could only ever make him smile, it shatters him. He’s broken into pieces, lying on the floor, and she doesn’t know, she couldn’t tell, and he’s just so tired, but she sounds so happy, maybe happier than he ever made her, so he tries to glue his heart back together using ‘ I’m-so-excited-for-you’s and ‘ you-deserve- to-be-happy’ . But his soul is dying with each glint of gold and diamond on her left hand, the garden he built for her in his mind withering away to dead leaves and crushed petals. And he loves her, he loves her so much.
In a daze, he escapes the conversation, mind reeling and hands trembling. He feels sick, and the beauty of the world that she sees, her heart blooming in her eyes; they blur in front of him. She doesn’t love him. She never will.
The next day, he stands outside the shop, bitter wind whipping around his ankles. Pam is already inside, at their booth, smiling at nothing, hands curled around a coffee mug. But the wink of gold on her ring finger is taunting him, and he loves her so much, but he’s not sure he can take this. Maybe he should tell her, but it wouldn’t change anything. She’s happy without him, and he thought he could take her friendship and be satisfied, but he’s broken to sharp edges and shattered dreams that cut and wound every time he takes a breath, sending cascades of slick sorrowful blood to drench his clothes and stain his hands with crimson regret, as he staggers weak and hazy through his day. And he knows, he just can’t live like this. So he decides.
Wrenching himself from her orbit, Jim walks away into the morning crowds. Her moon is leaving, though she doesn’t know it yet.
It ends like this.