She knew she’d find him up on the roof.
He was sitting in one of the two rickety old lawn chairs, his long legs stretched out in front of him, his head tilted back, his eyes closed.
She hadn’t been up here since some time late in August, almost three months after the last time she’d seen his face…when he’d let go of her hands and walked out of the room, his head bowed.
Never would she have even dreamed that he’d take such a drastic step as to come back later that night and clean out his desk; she couldn’t have fathomed that things had gotten so agonizing for him that he had no choice than but to put distance between them. The shock of it all had been so overwhelming that she hadn’t allowed herself to really think about him after that night. She didn’t conjure what it felt like to have his lips on hers; she couldn’t handle recalling even for a second what it had been like to see his face every single day.
When she’d been six years old, she and her older brother had wandered out onto a lake that had long since dried up, leaving only a vast bed of dark mud that looked much more solid than it actually was. They’d tested a few paces close to the edge, tentatively touching it with their sneakers before deciding it was safe to venture out.
“How cool would it be to walk where water used to be?” Her brother had said, gesturing with his head for her to follow him.
She’d been eager to do so, loving it when he involved her in his adventures.
Midway through, she’d taken a step and ended up sinking to her mid-thigh in the thick mud, panicking, letting out a shriek when she couldn’t pull her leg back out. Eventually her brother had made his way back to her, hauling her up by her armpits, leaving her brand new Nike tennis shoes embedded within the mud.
Getting up and leaving for work every day – going through the motions – in the weeks after Casino Night had felt startlingly similar to what it had been like to try to trudge through that heavy mud. Just to think of him was enough to bring on that sinking feeling, the panic.
And then in the third week in August, a female bookseller had visited their office, hauling volumes of encyclopedias with her. Michael set her up in the conference room, fawning over her as Dwight and Kevin watched jealously. She was tall and thin with long, dark hair and exotic eyes.
Pam hadn’t thought anything about it until Michael had made the offhand comment to Kevin, “Yeah, she’s as hot as the purse girl was – you know, the one that Jim ended up dating. What was her name…?”
Why that simple comment had been enough to send her over the edge, she couldn’t have said; she just felt like she couldn’t breathe, struggling to stand up and blindly make her way from behind her desk.
She’d ended up on the roof, staring at those two empty chairs that she’d tried not to think of for months. This had been their retreat from the office, the place that they came to escape the gaze of the camera. They’d had a tacit agreement that there would be no outward displays of affection while the cameras were rolling; it just seemed to make sense to be careful, vigilant.
But the cameraman rarely followed them to the roof.
Up here, he’d held her more than once when she’d cried in frustration over some bone-headed thing Roy had done; up here they’d sat blowing bubbles with one of those plastic wands – Jim had brought the bottles to work that morning because it was the day all the purchase orders had to be in, and he knew it’d be a long day for Pam. He’d also brought a split of champagne, setting it between their two chairs, cooling in a trashcan lined with clean plastic and filled with ice.
His gift had been to make of every day something magical, something to remember. Only she’d never considered that one day those memories would sting, because he wouldn’t be there anymore.
The afternoon that the encyclopedia saleswoman had visited, Pam had stayed on the roof until dark, sitting in the chair that had been his, staring out at the sky, comforted somehow at the vastness of the stars…the knowledge that somewhere, he might well be looking up at the same constellations.
This had been his first day back. For two weeks she’d waited anxiously, spending her days envisioning what it would be like to see him walk through that door now. So much had changed; it would be so different than when they’d worked together before. It was all out in the open now – he’d told her how he felt; she’d given in to the headiness of his lips on hers, his tongue just barely touching her lips for a split second.
It’s all changed now; it’s a new beginning.
She’d spent her evenings practicing with her hair and make up, having torn pages out of fashion magazines she’d bought the weekend before, working to emulate what she saw on those pages. She was sure that it had been years – years – since the last time she’d really put forth any effort to look her best. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time.
She’d realized then that it hadn’t been so long ago. Because that night, she’d taken pains to ensure that her make up was perfect; she’d gone through the tedious process of blow drying her hair straight, then curling it carefully with a curling iron. She’d even dusted her shoulders and cleavage with a powder that left a subtle sheen on her skin.
All of it for Jim, no question. It was his reaction she’d anticipated as she’d gotten ready, not Roy’s.
And he hadn’t disappointed her, stopping short and staring, his mouth slightly agape, hands clenched at his sides as she approached him, smiling up at him. She herself had struggled not to stare at him, because he’d looked amazing in the collared shirt and sweater, his shoulders inexplicably broad, hair curling at his collar.
The image he presented wasn’t that of the best friend she’d worked with for years, but rather, was the guy that women would stare at on the street, that her girlfriends would pine over to no avail.
But even before he’d said it, she’d known that he was hers.
------She’d gotten to work at 7:15 on his first day back, just in case he got there early. Maybe he’ll show up before everyone else, and he’ll want to talk. He probably will; there’s a lot for us to catch up on.
She knew now that she was in love with him; she’d realized it fully as soon as she’d heard his voice so unexpectedly that night several weeks before. The realization was cemented in the next two hours that she spent chatting and laughing with him as if no time had passed.
….As if the whole world hadn’t shifted with his confession, his kiss; as if she hadn’t been in hell for months without him, the course of her life altered completely.
Whether or not she’d tell him how she felt, she hadn’t decided. She knew she should, but truth be told, she was terrified; he’d been gone a long time, and for all she knew, he might well have gotten over her. Or maybe he’d get angry if she were to tell him that she understood now, that she wasn’t running anymore.
She had decided she’d gauge how much to say on his response to seeing her again.
Even though she’d watched the door obsessively all morning, as luck would have it, she was distracted when he actually did walk in. He strode up to her desk, saying teasingly, “Hi, I’m Jim,” before she even knew what hit her.
Without thinking, she leapt to her feet and ran to him, throwing her arms around his neck, her eyes closing as she felt his arms around her waist, his body warm, scent familiar.
Oh my god…I missed you. I want you; I’m in love with you. This is it.
Instead, she exclaimed in his ear, “It’s really you…”
For a second, she worried she might cry.
But they weren’t alone; in addition to the people from the Scranton branch who hovered, waiting to welcome Jim back, there were strangers from Stamford – among them a beautiful girl whom Jim introduced as Karen.
Pam shook her hand with a smile, ignoring the twinge of jealousy.
But things hadn’t just gone back to normal; he’d been distracted, had spent time explaining things to the new girl…laughing with her, even whispering to her a few times. Pam wasn’t sure what it was he felt for the girl, but she was fairly certain of what the girl felt for him.
Her blue eyes never left his face as he talked to her, her lips – gleaming with a berry-colored gloss – curved into a smile. Twice her hand had closed over his arm, and he hadn’t even blinked.
Pam sat back in her chair, realizing with a swelling in her throat and a throb in her head that it was too late.
The worst of it was that she knew she deserved this.
“I can’t.” “You’re really going to marry him?”
She gingerly stepped out onto the roof, closing the door behind her quietly. He didn’t hear her at first, just kept sitting there with his head tilted toward the sky, his jaw sturdy, dark with the day’s end stubble. Lips full, familiar…she knew what it felt like to kiss him now, the knowledge changing everything.
He opened his eyes when she sank into the chair next to him, raising his head in surprise to glance over at her. She thought she saw a wariness cloud his eyes, pinch his smile.
“Hey.” His voice was hoarse.
You have no idea how long I have wanted to do that.
“Hey.” She smiled shyly at him. An awkward silence fell, then, “So…how does it feel to be back?”
He chuckled, tilting his head to the side slightly as if he didn’t know what to say. Then he took in a deep breath and answered, “Honestly? It’s a little weird.”
“Yeah?” She forced herself to laugh just a little, but she didn’t really feel it; instead, she felt shaky, nervous, trying to work up the courage to just say it: Jim, we need to talk…
“Yeah.” He nodded, glancing over at her before quickly turning his eyes away, as if looking at her took something valuable from him. “It’s just… I don’t know; Stamford was really…different.”
“I guess so.” She smiled, wishing he’d meet her eyes the way that he used to.
Another awkward pause fell, during which she struggled to find the nerve to say what she was thinking. The words ran through her head, settled on the tip of her tongue…stuck somewhere deep in her throat.
“Andy’s really weird.”
Nice, Pam. Just what you wanted to talk about.
Jim laughed, nodding slowly. “Oh yeah – you don’t know the half of it. It turns out that Dwight has a pretty good sense of humor.”
“Really?” She smiled, tilting her head, taking in his profile. Had he lost weight? His face looked leaner somehow, his jaw a little more defined.
He didn’t answer her, only chuckled, but it was dry, something bitter lingering beneath.
She wondered just how much hell he’d gone through in his first few weeks up there, wondered if he’d shed any more tears over her. The image of him with tears standing out in his eyes, his jaw tense, had haunted her mercilessly for weeks after Casino Night.
I’ve seen you cry now; it’s just… It’s all over; it’s out in the open. And I want you. Please, we’ve got to figure out a way.
Another silence fell. She stared at him, willing him to look up at her, refusing to turn her eyes away until he did.
…And eventually he did, turning his eyes to hers with such a wariness that she swallowed hard. His expression said it all, just as it always had, only the message was far different now:
Don’t do this; don’t pull me back into this. I’ve moved on; don’t drag me back.
“Jim – “
“Listen, it’s late.” He stood suddenly, smoothing his hands over the front of his pants, then running a hand through his hair.
She, too, stood, desperation taking over. She knew it – and she let it.
“There’s something I need to say.” Her voice trembled; his jaw bulged again, eyes on hers for a split second before he looked away.
“Pam, it’s really late, and I need to get going; I’m still getting settled in – “
“Don’t do that.” She whispered without thinking.
He froze, staring at her in dread, as if he fully expected her to devastate him somehow. His chest rose and fell with his breath; jaw tensed, eyes narrowed.
Again she swallowed hard, then: “I’m so sorry.”
He didn’t speak for a long moment, and she knew instinctively that it was because he couldn’t; his eyes never left hers, and she watched that jaw muscle tense in and out, just as it had when he’d told her he was in love with her.
She wanted so much with him that she felt anxious, impatient, acutely aware that they were wasting so much time.
When he spoke, his voice was gruff: “You don’t have to apologize to me.”
“Don’t I?” She asked, tilting her head, eyes huge as she took in his face.
“Pam – “
“No, don’t – just don’t…don’t act like it’s all okay.” The words tumbled out of her. “I mean, Jim…my god, this is a big deal.”
He was looking at her steadily, not blinking. “It doesn’t have to be anymore.”
She almost gasped at what he’d said; instead, her hand fluttered up to toy absently with her necklace as she choked back the urge to cry.
Finally, she asked, “So it’s just that easy?”
Again, the muscle in his jaw bulged. Her hands twitched with the urge to touch it.
Then he shook his head, saying in a hoarse voice tinged with bitterness, “Nothing about this has ever been easy.”
“I know.” Again, the words seemed to spring out of her; she wasn’t even sorry or shocked or embarrassed…just felt driven by the need to speak what was in her head, her gut. After so many years of shoving things down deep, the taste of honesty was nothing short of intoxicating.
His head jerked at what she’d said; she could tell he wanted to ask her something, but his lips were in a firm line. She realized fully for the first time that he didn’t trust her anymore – worse than that, he was wary of her, regarded her as a threat.
Why shouldn’t he? “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that.”
“Jim – “
“No, seriously, I need to get out of – “
“I made a huge mistake, and I’m so sorry.”
He froze again, his head bowed, eyes on the rough concrete.
She went on. “I really didn’t know. I mean, I kind of knew, but…you just have to believe me that I had no idea that it was…that things had gotten so…”
She couldn’t finish, swallowing hard. He wouldn’t look at her.
“I really didn’t know, Jim.” It was a hoarse whisper. “And when you told me, I was so scared – no, I was fucking terrified, because I realized it was such a – such a…huge deal.”
Her eyes roved his profile, willing him to raise his head, to just look at her. He didn’t.
“And I just…” She stopped abruptly.
I can’t do this; I can’t just tell him what I feel. He’s moved on, obviously; we’re friends now, at least, and I shouldn’t push it. Why wouldn’t he hate me if I told him I love him now? I can’t do this.
And then it occurred to her rather randomly that the last time she’d said, “I can’t,” she’d made the biggest mistake of her life so far – which was saying quite a bit, given the fact that she’d spent almost four years of her life hiding from feelings she wasn’t brave enough to face, stuck in a job that had long since become intellectual purgatory.
She saw him in her mind’s eye, street lights behind him, hair curling at his collar, shoulders so broad in that dark sweater.
“I’m in love with you.” He’d shaken his head, flinched a little as if acknowledging that his feelings had been burning a hole in him for some time.
All she’d ever wanted in a man – in a partner, a lover – standing there in front of her, his hands clutching his keys, head tilted with the vehemence of what he was feeling.
“My god.” She whispered aloud, as if he’d said it all over again.
He was startled, glanced up to find her staring at him in wonder.
It’s worth it; it doesn’t matter if he tells me to go to hell. This is the truth, and that’s what matters.
“Jim….” Her eyebrows suddenly raised a bit, eyes on his. “I’m in love with you.”
He blinked, stunned; she saw him take in a deep breath, his lips twitching.
He was fighting it; she recognized the signs easily, as she’d spent so much time herself doing the same thing.
So she took a step toward him, slowly raising a hand to touch his cheek, giving him time to step back, to refuse her.
His eyes closed, jaw tensing again, Adam’s apple shifting as he swallowed.
“Is it too late?” She forced herself to whisper, steeling herself for the answer.
I deserve it if he says that it is; if he gets angry and walks off, he’s totally justified. Oh my god, he’s probably dating that Karen girl…
At her question, his eyes opened, tears hovering on his lower lashes just as they had that night. Despite her will to give him space, her hand shifted, caressing his cheek again, her head tilting at the tears.
It occurred to her then that there was nothing she wouldn’t do to be the one to just be there for him for the rest of his life – to laugh with him, to wipe the tears away, to sit in silence on Sunday nights, to taste the salt of his sweat in the dark of night.
When he didn’t speak, she said softly, “I keep thinking about how amazing it could be…with you and me. Because we’re just – I can’t explain it, but I know I don’t have to because you just – “
His lips silenced her, his hands on her waist, pulling her close as his mouth moved against hers. She felt as if the sky were circling them, as if maybe they were spinning around, not just standing still on the roof.