Pam breezed in through her tiny apartment’s door, filled with an uncharacteristic lightness.
“In here, babe!” her boyfriend said pleasantly.
Hanging up her purse on the hook next to the door, she bounced cheerily into their little combined kitchen-living room, where her boyfriend was sprawled in an armchair in front of the TV, limbs artlessly arranged.
“How was your day?” he asked.
Pam collapsed on the worn two-seater couch, hands flying through the air like so many little worker bees.
“I think I made a new friend today!”
Turning his head to look at her, Roy smiled fondly, turning down the basketball game by a few notches.
“That’s good babe, you could always use some more girls to talk to,” he said, eyes crinkling slightly at the corners.
“Well, actually, his name is Jim. I met him at that coffee shop I like to go to.”
He waved a hand casually, turning back to the TV. “That’s still good, just as long as he doesn’t hit on you.”
Wrinkling her nose in distaste, Pam gave her boyfriend a sidelong look. “Is that all you think about?”
“Pammy, babe, I know how guys work, okay?”
Pushing down the annoyance at being called such a childish nickname, she reminded herself that it was sort of sweet that she had a name that only her boyfriend called her, and truthfully, he was only looking out for her, so she wouldn’t get taken advantage of.
“Well, I’ve run into him like five times, so I think if he wanted to hit on me, he would have done it by now,” she said, leaning back into the slippery faux-leather of the couch.
“Then that’s great.”
“Yeah,” she said quietly, remembering the way Jim had smiled at her.
It was broad and delighted and a little disbelieving as she delivered some sarcastic little comment about the average New Yorker that she would never normally make, but something about Jim drew her in. Maybe it was the crooked slant of his smirk, or the way his eyes flashed as he gave her a witty remark, but when she talked to him, she felt the filter that was carefully maintained between her brain and mouth being lifted. She hoped that they were friends; she wanted to run into him again. Nobody ever really smiled so genuinely at her on a daily basis, besides Roy of course. Her job as a receptionist at a dentist’s office didn’t give her a whole lot of friendly human interaction, mostly just answering phone calls, scheduling appointments, and checking patients in, who gave her the flash of a false smile, or even no smile at all. Nothing like the laughter that danced in Jim’s eyes, his joy warming her stomach.
Yes, she wanted to run into him again.
Emerging into the brilliant July sunshine, Pam clutched a strawberry rhubarb muffin close to her chest as she weaved through the maze of people crowding the sidewalks, a smile practically bursting across her face.
Maybe it was stupid that she was so inordinately pleased by such a small gesture, but he remembered.
He remembered that her favorite summer muffin was strawberry rhubarb, something she had mentioned in passing two weeks ago, when she saw the display case of bakery items. He remembered and bought her a muffin when she was running late to their daily coffee shop meeting. He knew when she was running late.
Roy couldn’t even remember what her favorite fruit was, but Jim had brandished the muffin in her direction like a shiny new toy as she rushed through the coffee shop with a whirl of apologies and harried expressions.
“Strawberry rhubarb, right?”
“Wha- yes! You remembered?”
He had given her a sunny smile, pushing the treat towards her. “Of course! It’s the best summer flavor, while blueberry is for spring, chocolate chip is for fall, and banana walnut for winter.”
Accepting the muffin had felt momentous somehow, like bursting into full sun after traveling through the shade of the trees. She hoped that if her eyes looked shiny that he wouldn’t mention it.
“Thank you, that’s-” Pam had blinked hard for a moment, giving him a small smile. “Really sweet of you to think of me.”
“It’s nothing, really, I just thought you might have forgotten to eat if you were running this late.”
“I did, actually.”
Jim had smiled and playfully nudged her side. “Well there you go then. You better hurry up and get to work. I’m sure all those patients are anxiously awaiting to get checked in so they can get their teeth looked over by their favorite person, the dentist.”
And that was it. She had said her goodbyes and then hurried out the door, sneaking little bites of the muffin as she made her way through the sticky July morning that promised oppressive heat that could spread over the city like a wet blanket.
It was a little moment, something thoughtful and kind, but it spread warmth and happiness throughout her entire chest. He had remembered, and that meant more to her than he knew. She headed off to work with a smile on her face.
She couldn’t stop smiling.
It was a Monday morning and she couldn’t stop smiling.
It crept across her face every time she was least expecting it, shy and contagious, brilliant and giddy. She tried to contain it, cage it within her by biting her lip, but inevitably it burst through the cracks, wild and untamable. Pam shook her head. It was silly to get so worked up over a little compliment, but she couldn’t seem to help herself, even if it was causing her coworkers to smirk at her knowingly.
One in particular, Andy, a dentistry technician, leaned over her desk, leering at her.
“Got some good lovin’ this morning, huh?”
Pam let out a little huff and looked away. “No, Andy,” she said quietly.
“Well then why are you smiling like that on a Monday morning? I’ve seen your boyfriend, and I see what you hide under those boring old button ups.”
“It’s not that,” she said, glancing quickly up at him and then down.
“Ah! I know, you listened to my covers of the popular musical ‘Waitress’ that I emailed out to the entire office on Sunday! And of course you liked them so much that you can’t stop humming them inside your head, and that’s why you’re smiling so much.”
Vaguely amused, her lips twitched up into a smile as she navigated through the schedule for today.
“Sure, Andy,” she acquiesced. “That’s it.”
He slapped the desk vigorously. “Hell yeah! Now if I need anyone to listen to my musicals, I’ll be sure to go to you first, Pam!”
A shot of panic blazed through her. “Umm.”
“Great! You’re the best!” Unable to be deterred, Andy gave her a huge grin, and sauntered off to the x-ray room, humming something that vaguely sounded like a butchered version of ‘Phantom of the Opera’.
Lifting her eyes to the heavens briefly, as if help would be written in the ceiling tiles, Pam shook her head ruefully, trying to get back into scheduling appointments.
Andy was so wrong about why she was smiling. Maybe it was pathetic of her to be so happy over something so small, but she couldn’t help replaying it in her head, over and over again.
“Your laugh is funny, you know? I can’t help but smile at it.”
“But seriously Pam, your laugh is contagious, and I kind of love it.”
Practically buzzing with excitement, Pam burst through her apartment door on Friday evening, flying into the living room to find her boyfriend lazily dangling a beer bottle by the neck as he watched football highlights. There were two of the bottle’s brethren leaning up despondent against the armchair as he took a swig from the third, large fingers encircling the glass. She paid them no mind, even as a twinge of annoyance kicked up. She’d told him to cut down on the glass bottles that he liked in order to save some money, but Roy had insisted “It doesn’t taste the same otherwise.”.
He swung his head muzzily around to face her. “Oh, hey babe. You got home kinda late, everything okay?”
She flapped her hands dismissively at him. “Yeah, there was a scheduling disaster at the clinic, I accidentally overbooked people, but that’s no big deal, look!” Pulling out a thick edged pamphlet, she flourished it, parading it around as if it held the answers to life and the universe. “Jim gave me this today! He thought that I should apply for it after he saw some of my drawings.”
“Stop waving it around, what is it?”
Pam beamed, holding the paper close to her chest, as if she could become one with it.
“It’s an art internship! A paid one too, and the applications close at the end of October, so I have a month to work on my portfolio. It’s perfect!”
Still fluttering around the room happily, she deposited the leaflet in her boyfriend’s lap, and stood back, hands clasped together as if in prayer as she waited for him to read it.
Picking up the pamphlet with two fingers, Roy eyed it warily, almost like he was afraid it would jump out and bite him. He gave it a cursory look over and then heaved a deep sigh.
“Babe, art? Really?”
“I like art, and I’m good at it, or at least Jim thinks so. He thinks I could do it!”
Her boyfriend gave a little disbelieving scoff. “What, is Jim an art expert now?”
Deflating slightly, Pam wrung her hands together, limp with drowning dreams. “Well, no. He’s a salesman at a soap company.”
“Then how would he know what’s good or not?”
He said it so matter-of-factly that Pam felt her heart roll over and sink in her chest, lead weights full of doubts and broken hopes pulling it down.
“I guess he wouldn’t,” she said quietly, staring down at her fingers.
“Aw, c’mon Pammy, don’t be like that,” Roy said as he handed her back the untouched leaflet. “I’m just trying to protect you, you know that.”
Her fingers gripped the paper, turning white as the edges dug into her skin, trying desperately to hold onto the last vestiges of a wish long harbored and not often realized.
“Yeah, I know,” she said, voice tiny. “It was just a little fantasy, I guess. I know I’m not good enough to get in there. Plus the money isn’t as much as I would get working as a receptionist.”
“See,” he said, smiling at her. “You get it. Being a receptionist has its perks. It’s nice and stable, and you get good money. Don’t rock the boat babe. Changing now? That would be ridiculous.”
“Ridiculous,” she agreed, biting her lip savagely.
The faint droning of the Sunday morning news infiltrated her awareness as she stretched out over the bed, running her feet along the worn sheets. For once, she felt incredibly well rested, lax and warm like a cat curled in her bed on the blustery February morning. Turning her head, she glanced over at the side of the bed that Roy usually occupied. It was neatly made, smooth and undisturbed. So he must not have spent the night then, she mused. Explained why she slept so well. When Roy was here, he snored louder than the ever present traffic outside their window. She loved her boyfriend, really, but there was only so much she could take. Lazily, Pam pulled on her favorite robe and padded out into the kitchen. The smell of coffee permeated the air and she tucked her curls behind her ears as she emerged into the living room-kitchen.
Her boyfriend was in his ever-present place in front of the TV, watching the news with a cup of coffee in one hand. As she entered, he turned his head and his eyes crinkled sweetly, looking warm and deep, coffee and chocolate.
“Hey,” he said, tone rounding out softer than normal, padding against a sharp corner. “Sorry I didn’t come home last night, but I was wasted, so I just crashed at Darryl’s place.”
Butterflies brushed her skin with their delicate wings as a thrill went through her at his voice.
“It’s okay,” she said, warmth suffusing her cheeks and chest. “I slept really well.”
“That’s good,” he said, getting up and placing one gentle hand on her elbow as he leaned down and kissed her gently on the forehead, smelling of skin and shampoo. “Love you, Pammy.”
Pam’s smile became a delicate bird, fluttering and precious. She placed one hand on his jawline, feeling the smoothness of his just shaved skin, tracing his face, committing the familiar features to a drawing in her mind. Pulling him down for a soft kiss, she smiled against his lips.
“I love you too.”
As he pulled away, his eyes glimmered like the reflection of the sun off lapping waves.
“I made you coffee,” he said as he paced the few steps to the kitchen and back to retrieve a mug full of the dark liquid. “Thought you might enjoy some when you woke up, made just the way you like it.”
Accepting the cup gracefully, she cupped her hands around the comfortable warmth of the ceramic and let the smell of coffee dance across her senses. Truthfully, she only really enjoyed coffee on the days when she didn’t get enough sleep and needed the extra boost to get through the day, but it was so kind of him, she couldn’t bring herself to tell Roy.
Taking a sip, she fought not to let her nose wrinkle in disgust. Roy must’ve forgotten that she took her coffee with a large amount of sugar and more milk than he had added. But that was besides the point. He had made her this, gone out of his way to give it to her. Disregarding the fact that it was made the way Roy liked it, and that when she wasn’t exhausted, she preferred different types of teas instead, it was a very sweet gesture.
Forcing herself to take another tiny sip of the drink, she smiled up at her boyfriend before leaning forward and setting down the almost full mug on the coffee table.
Giving him an impish look, she snagged his hand. “You wanna come back to bed with me?”
“As if that was even a question.”
Pam led them both back to the bedroom, pleased with how caring Roy was able to be when he put his mind to it. But something itched the back of her brain, and she wasn’t able to stop from remembering how a few weeks ago, she had mentioned to Jim in passing how tired she had been the past week, overwhelmed with a lack of sleep and a pushy boss, and the next day, she had shown up to their daily meeting before work to a gently steaming cup pushed across the table towards her, along with a chocolate chip muffin.
She had looked at him in askance, but Jim had just smiled like dawn breaking over the horizon.
“You’ve been tired,” he’d said, as if that explained everything.
She’d taken a sip of the coffee and then recoiled in surprise, looking at her friend with wide eyes. “You got it just the way I like it!”
Something inscrutable had passed across his expression then, like a cloud passing in front of the sun, before he had shrugged and quirked his lips in a semblance of a smile.
“How could I forget the coffee order of my best friend?”
Pam had glowed at his words and the moment for the rest of the week, smiling at everyone and everything.
Looking back as she tugged her boyfriend to bed now, she couldn’t help but think that Jim never would have forgotten how she took her coffee. Smiling, she pulled Roy in behind her and shut the door.
New paint brushes
Huddled into her coat, Pam thought that it was rather fitting that the sky felt close to the ground, hazy and cold, some undefinable misty grey. A breeze twirled through Central Park, with the potential to wind around her chest and lift a few stray curls into the air, but all it did was bite into her cheeks and cause her to sink down further into her coat, like a turtle afraid of the world.
Heaving a deep sigh, she closed her eyes and felt the wind whip around her, howling around her ears like the mournful cry of a lonesome wolf. She didn’t think it was going to be a good birthday, but somehow this was still worse.
Roy hadn’t done much for her birthday, not that she’d expected a lot, but after the dinner that she’d cooked for both of them, he’d kissed her on the cheek and smiled, slipping a poorly wrapped gift into her hands.
“Happy birthday,” he’d murmured quietly, giving her shoulder a squeeze, stepping back to observe her reaction.
Giving her boyfriend a small smile, she’d carefully opened up her gift to find a sweater folded up neatly. Holding it up to the light, she felt her smile start to tumble off of her face, a slippery slide to an ugly cry. It was hot pink, garishly so, the fabric knitted out of a yarn with sparkles intertwined, turning it into a circus freak, with a daringly low neckline. It was nothing she would ever wear.
Hitching her smile back onto her face with a vicious twist of her lips, Pam’s fists had crushed the sweater like a discarded paper, before deliberately smoothing them out and giving Roy a hug.
“Thank you, I love it.”
He had grinned bright, lit up by her praise, kissing her on the head once before drifting back into the living room to watch Friday night specials on TV, leaving her with the dishes.
Pam had sat there, struck numb by the entire exchange, then abruptly got up and headed to bed, leaving a mess of plates behind her.
She had slept terribly, facing the darkened window that looked out onto New York City and stared out into the abyss of glittering lights, wondering if this was how it was always going to be.
The next day, as grey pre-dawn light began to filter through the blinds, she sat up, suddenly intent on leaving the apartment, sweeping her arms into coat sleeves and making her way past Roy, snoring with his head tilted back in front of the still flickering screen.
That’s how she had ended up on the bench in Central Park in late March, huddled into herself and wishing desperately that it wasn’t a Saturday so she could see Jim. Shoving her hands roughly into her pockets, Pam realized she had forgotten to take out Jim’s gift from yesterday.
Pulling it out, she opened it carefully, treasure-like, to reveal the contents to the windy morning. Laying innocuously on the bed of the little tin, were four exquisitely perfect paint brushes.
Once again, she wondered how her best friend knew her better than her boyfriend, to get her something that she wanted. She picked one up, positioning it gracefully between her fingers as a smile began carving itself across her face. Practicing a few air strokes, she imagined splashing the world with watercolors, filling this dreary life with technicolor, beautiful and lovely and something-
something she didn’t have.
Dismayed, Pam shrunk in her seat, shoulders folding like origami inwards. She might not have everything, but she had enough. A stable job, a boyfriend who loved her, and a best friend. What more could she ask for?
Humming slightly, she idly swirled the tip of the paintbrush over her chilled hand, feeling the softness of the hairs as they caressed her skin. Tipping her head back, Pam closed her eyes as the brush traversed her sensitive palm, and with a hitch in her breath, she wondered if this was what it would be like to kiss Jim.
Sweeping into the lobby of her work building, the cool air flooded over her skin as she sunk into the delicious crispness of the AC. Lingering heat from the sun warmed her hair as she escaped from the beginnings of the oppressive summer day. Tapping her fingers delightedly against the box she held in her arms, Pam greeted the doorman cheerfully and waited for the elevator, humming a tune as she bit her lip to try and contain a grin.
Christmas in July.
How did he even come up with that idea?
Pam stepped into the elevator, pressed the button for her floor and watched as the numbers counted up rapidly. Allowing herself one huge grin that practically split her face open, she ducked her head, hiding her joy from the world as if it was something to be punished. Bashfully tucking her hair behind her ears, she traced the outline of the box and felt her heart skip and threaten to pound out of her chest.
He was perfect. There were no other explanations.
But that wasn’t quite right either.
He lacked any serious work ethic, his pranks could sometimes border on cruel, and he liked to laugh at his coworker’s misfortune.
But he also knew her favorite drinks, her muffin order, her hopes and dreams, and was endlessly kind.
He just knew her.
And that’s how Jim knew to get her a teapot. One so she could make multiple cups of tea at her desk, instead of braving the wilds of the dentistry breakroom and her coworkers to get a refill. His friendship was written in the graceful curve of the teal spout, and memories encased in the ceramic body.
So thoughtful and sweet, Pam knew that he would make someone very happy one day.
Why did that make her feel so horrible?
“Why can’t I?”
Her voice slammed around the apartment, and it cowered away from the harsh tone, as her anger wormed its way into crevices and reverberated into the walls, the ceiling, the floor.
“God, Pammy, give it up, we don’t have the money.”
“That’s not true, and you know it. Besides, if it was? Who’s fault is that?” Her accusation was thrown into the air, gauntlet dropped squarely at his feet.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I think you know exactly what I mean,” she said, venom dripping acidly from her tone, eating away at the floor between them.
“No, I don’t.”
“Come on , Roy. The beer bottles instead of cans? The stupid baseball tickets? The new TV I told you we didn’t need? Where did that money come from?”
“You said it was okay that we bought all that!”
“No, you bought all of that and I just held my tongue!”
“Why didn’t you fucking say anything then?”
“Why?” Her voice oozed with incredulity. “Maybe because every time I do, you act exactly like this.”
His voice was defensive, bristling with shields and spears as he lashed out in retaliation.
“Well at least I had a reason to buy those things, you just want to buy art supplies for an dumb art contest you can’t even win!”
Silence blanketed the room.
When she spoke again, her voice trembled like a leaf. “That wasn’t fair.”
“Whatever,” he ground out. “I’m going to Darryl’s.”
After the door slammed shut behind him, Pam sank to the floor, one hand covering her mouth, trying to stifle the sobs that burst through her and sent tremors through her entire body. Her other hand clutched her sketchbook close to her chest, cradling it to her like a child carrying a security blanket.
Tears spilled over the rims of her eyes and rained down onto the paper, dimpling the pages. Why was it so wrong to want some new watercolors and pens for the art contest? Maybe they were more expensive than usual, but nothing they couldn’t handle. She rifled through the sketchbook, staring at the landscapes and still lifes that before had looked brilliant and worthy, and now suddenly felt dull and uninspired.
Maybe Roy was right.
He was probably right.
How could she ever believe she could enter an art contest and even have a chance at winning it?
As she flipped through the pages, shoulders sinking with each mundane piece of art, something dropped out of the sketchbook, fluttering gently to the floor. Picking it up and turning it over, Pam found a tiny sketch of what was clearly a mini Jim, hastily drawn and labeled sloppily.
You’re amazing! Don’t give up!
She stopped breathing, staring at the paper as if she had found something rare and indescribable, before her eyes filled back up with tears, and she choked back a sob, holding the notecard against her heart as she broke down to pieces on the living room floor, the paper holding her together.
Jim thought she could do it.
Maybe that was enough.
Pam watched the TV blankly, letting the images flash across her eyes, never registering a thing, as her mind raced. It had been two weeks since she had last seen Jim, since she had shared the news of her engagement with him. She had been so thrilled to tell him, and so excited to start planning the wedding, and she wanted to share the experience with him.
She thought it had gone well, she was upset she couldn’t tell him as soon as it happened, but Roy had whisked her away, and she didn’t want to tell him over the phone. But he had hugged her and smiled and expressed how happy he was, and then they had to leave for work.
That was the last she had seen of him.
At first, she thought nothing of it, maybe there was something wrong at home, or he got sick. But when four days had passed, and she didn’t hear from him, she texted him.
Hey, are you okay?
A few more days passed, and her worry began to turn to panic. She called, and called, and called. It all rang to voicemail. She filled his inbox, frantic talking and choppy messages, calling everyday, multiple times a day.
Still unnerving silence.
It was the longest they had gone without seeing or talking to each other since they first met, about a year and a half ago, and it was driving her out of her mind with worry.
Sitting there with her new fiance on the other side of her, Pam felt out of focus, disconnected with the world, adrift in a sea of confusion and panic. They had both taken the Friday off to catch up on housework and taxes, but Roy had insisted they take an hour or so after lunch to watch some TV to relax. Pam had let him turn the channel to whatever he wanted, and sat silently next to him on the couch, fiddling with her new ring nervously. Around and around her finger she twisted it, wearing a path into her skin, endless and unfaltering.
When her phone buzzed, violent and insistent against her leg, she jumped, startled like a cat, eyes wide as she turned away from the screen to snatch up her phone, heart leaping to nestle uncomfortably in her throat as she saw the ID: Jim
When her hands stopped shaking long enough to unlock her phone, she saw one new text message from him.
Pam’s heart sunk into her chest, drowning rapidly in the wave of disappointment and confusion that crashed over her, sweeping her into a turbulent riptide of roiling emotions. She waited longer, for any explanation, elaboration, anything.
Was it something she said? Something she did? Why didn’t he want to talk to her anymore?
Distraught, she hardly noticed when her swirling emotions coalesced into a bright-hot ball of rage. So when she sat bold upright on the couch, back stiffened and fists curled into themselves, it was almost a surprise to herself.
How dare he.
Feeling eerily calm, a sheet of ice over a whirlpool, she felt herself get up off the couch, and head towards the door, grabbing her coat and purse.
“I’m heading out,” she said vaguely, already reaching for the door.
Snapping into clarity as she arrived at the entrance to Jim’s work building, everything fell in utter crispness and bold technicolor, where sounds seemed louder, and things felt more real. Hesitating for only a second, Pam squared her shoulders determinedly and swept into the building.
Rising towards her best friend’s floor for the first time, she felt her insecurities and worries rise, but her beast of rage crushed it quickly. Jim had a lot to answer for, and she was going to find out what the hell was going through his mind, and what she did to deserve that.
As if moving through a dream, Pam walked sweetly up to the receptionist’s desk. After politely inquiring where she might find Jim, she was promptly told to turn around.
And there he was.
Standing right behind her, talking to another salesman. There he was, in his white shirt rolled up to his elbows, messenger bag slung over what she assumed was his desk. His eyes looked tired, and haunted somehow, as if he had seen something that couldn’t be undone.
Storming over to him, she rested her hands on her hips.
“Why have you been avoiding me?”
She watched with some satisfaction as his head snapped up in alarm, a wide-eyed panicked look on his face, reminiscent of a mouse caught with the light on. His eyes scanned her form almost desperately, and he immediately abandoned what he was doing, tilting his body towards hers unconsciously.
“W-what are you doing here?”
Pam’s voice hardened dangerously, her fingers clenching and relaxing in a rhythmic motion by her side. “I asked first,” she said, taking a deliberate step towards him. “Why have you been avoiding me?”
Guiltily looking away, Jim’s eyes darted around the room, alighting on a few of his coworkers who looked curiously on as he shifted further back from her.
“Can we discuss this somewhere else please?”
“Fine,” she said, sharp. “Let’s go.”
He extended an arm to grab her hand, but she purposefully stepped out of his reach, ignoring the look that flashed across his face. Following him to a relatively secluded conference room, Pam glared at his back, and tried not to think about how good it was to see him again. Once sequestered alone, he turned back to her, looking away as his neck hunched, causing him to look five inches shorter than he was.
“I was just busy at work, and I didn’t have the extra time to get coffee with you in the mornings. Sorry I didn’t let you know.”
“That’s bullshit,” she spat. “And you know it. I called you everyday for a week, twice a day, left you voice messages, and texts, and I was considering calling your work just to make sure you were alive, and all you can say is: sorry I didn’t let you know ?”
She gained momentum as she went, a ball rolling down the hill, bulldozing everything in its path, as she got louder and louder, almost certainly echoing through the hall outside.
“I was worried sick, did you know that?” She asked him, taking another step towards him, beginning to corner him against the conference table so he couldn’t run away. “I thought something horrible had happened to you. I could barely sleep, I didn’t eat, I-”
Breaking off suddenly, she struggled to force the emotion that clogged her voice down, and hold on fast to the anger. Anger was easy.
She cleared her throat. “And now you have the guts to tell me that you’re sorry you didn’t let me know? Grow up, Jim. This is bigger than any little temper tantrum you had.”
Her best friend was staring at the ground, curled in on himself, studying his shoes with an intensity that could rival entomologists. Pam could see guilt and regret written into every fiber of his being, but she wasn’t done. He had put her through enough.
“You know what makes it worse?” she asked him, coming so close that she could smell his aftershave. “You had the gall to text me, two weeks after I saw you last, just to say you’re fine ? I can’t believe you and I don’t understand you, because God, that was such a dick move.”
They stood there, tension layering the room thickly, Pam panting heavily as she glared up at him, before she shook her head, taking one deep breath as she searched his eyes, thinking maybe if she looked long enough she would find a reason.
“Why?” she asked softly, peering up at him. “Why did you do that? I thought we were best friends.”
To her disappointment, he remained stubbornly silent, avoiding her gaze.
“Okay,” she said quietly, tucking her hair behind her ears, and turning to leave, the floor drawing her gaze like magnets.
Startling at the abruptness of his voice, Pam spun around instantly, hope a fragile creature that began to poke its way out the burrow of her heart.
Finally lifting his head, Jim stared at her with an expression she had never seen before. His eyes were tortured, broken and despairing, as his mouth opened and closed, as if he was choking on his words.
“I couldn’t,” he forced out.
Pam’s breath caught. “What?”
“I couldn’t stay around,” he said roughly, gesturing vaguely at her left hand. “Not after that. ”
She had never felt so aware of the new ring that encircled her finger, a siren call and trap all in one. Automatically, she began to fiddle with it, twirling it round and round her finger, entranced by the golden swirl, and wishing it didn’t feel so rough and tight against her skin.
Daring to dart a quick glance up at him, she took a shaky inhale. “I don’t understand,” she said faintly. “What do you mean?”
Jim took a step towards, still looking at her, drinking her in as if she was the only thing he ever wanted to see. “Come on,” he said quietly, shaking his head slightly. “You have to have some idea.”
Heart threatening to pound out of her chest, Pam felt herself teetering on the edge of a precipice as she twisted the ring faster around her finger. “N-no, I-I, I don’t,” she stammered. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He stepped closer, and she could smell his aftershave again, wreathing around her, familiar and warm, and safe. This time, his eyes caught her, ensnared her, as they softened imperceptibly, growing deep and fond, and somehow more. Suddenly struck speechless, Pam realized that this was Jim.
“I’m in love with you.”
It was so soft that the words took a moment to sink into her skin, but when they did, her whole body exploded into panic.
The single word wavered into the air, lonesome and terrified, hesitant and nervous.
Jim tilted his head, one side of his mouth quirking up sadly as he shrugged a shoulder nonchalantly. “I just wanted you to know,” he said, keeping his eyes trained on her, something devastatingly hopeful and painful hiding behind his expression.
“Where is this coming from?” She asked desperately, searching for any hint, something to hold onto.
All he did was look at her meaningfully, still all gentle and soft. “You saw this coming,” he said evenly.
It wasn’t a question.
“But- I, I don’t know.”
He drew ever closer to her, until she could feel the warmth of his body radiating into her own. “I couldn’t stay to watch you get married to him,” he said, his breath fanning out over her face. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, I’m so sorry.” One of his hands raised and slowly twined a single curl around a long finger. Pam’s heart stopped, her skin prickling with awareness.
His face began drifting closer to her own as he released her hair, brushing his knuckles lightly against her cheek. Scanning his face, she struggled to take any air into her lungs at the look in his eyes.
“Jim,” she breathed. “Listen,”
Understanding dawned across his face, a sad smile playing around the corners of his mouth, but his fingers still tilted her chin up to his, branding her skin with his.
“Pam,” he said roughly, begging. “Please.”
A gasp caught in her throat, and her eyes fluttered shut as his lips grazed against her own. Jim, this was Jim , drew back for only a second before wrapping his arms around her, kissing her ardently.
And she couldn’t think, could only feel the softness of his hair between her fingers as she wound her hands around his neck, the presence of his body against her own, the heat of his mouth that was slowly worshiping her own, the iron press of his arms around her, his hand splayed out against her waist, yearning, the taste of his despair, wet eyelashes clumped and caressing her cheeks, begging her to stay. Her brain was broken, only able to come up with one word on repeat.
She was kissing him back, she knew she was, but she was drugged by his body, by the fact that she was kissing her best friend, and no part of her could bring itself to care. It’s only when her right hand was crushed against her left that she felt it.
Her engagement ring.
A bucketful of shock, doubt and worries dumped on her then, and she gasped, pressing her hands against Jim’s chest as she pushed back from him. He followed her for a moment, loadstone to metal, but drew back, hands finding their way to her elbows.
They were both winded, staring at the other, but Pam felt like her whole world had somehow both fallen out from beneath her feet and simultaneously had everything slot perfectly into place. Jim was still looking at her like she had all the answers in the world, but also like she had the one answer he didn’t want to hear. Searching her face, his eyes grew dim and wet, and he nodded like she confirmed something for him. He leaned forward and she stiffened, but all he did was press a lingering kiss against her forehead.
“I just wanted you to know,” he said, voice rumbling through her, and he choked on the end of his sentence.
Pulling away, he looked hard at her, as if committing her form to memory, brushing a tear roughly off of his cheek, before he slid past her into the hallway, leaving a swirl of air in his wake.
Taking her first breath of non-Jim tainted air in a while, Pam raised her hand to her lips wonderingly as she released a shaky breath. Was it written on her face, that she had just kissed her best friend? How could he- How could she-
Pam bit her lip harshly, eyes beginning to well up dangerously. Rushing out of his office, she waited until she was alone in the stairwell to let the tears pour from her eyes, sobs echoing into the empty air.
She realized that of all the things Jim had given her, the one she never wanted was his heart.