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Supposed to Be
This is not the way it was supposed to be. Not the scenario she’d invented, refined and polished a thousand times since that night they’d spoken on the phone. When his voice had been a warm, lush breath of relief. When he’d made her laugh, effortlessly. Just like it was supposed to be.
It hadn’t mattered what they’d spoken about. Kitchens. Typing. That frequency they’d always had between them was still there. She could sense it the way she could identify certain songs on the radio from the first millisecond of the first note. Text messages could be lost. He might not have seen it at all. Regardless.
And if she’d been mistaken, if he hadn’t heard the same chord, she’d make it so now. She’d speak clearly enough, in their language, so he’d remember. She’d make him see how she’d changed, but was still the same too.
She’d show him her new artwork and he’d know. He’d see how confident her drawings had grown. How boldly assured her brush strokes, how vibrant her colors. He’d see her. And he’d be so proud.
‘I always knew you had it in you, Beesly,’ he’d say. He’d grin and kiss her. The way she wanted him too.
She’d show him her apartment. She’d clean it up and put flowers on the table on the day he was coming. He’d take it all in. See her drawings tacked on the walls. Look approvingly over her books on the shelves. Steal a furtive glance at what was obviously the bedroom door, not wanting to appear presumptuous. And she’d smile because all she wanted was for him to know it was okay to be presumptuous. There’d be no misinterpretations.
He’d blush a little, and say, ‘Nice place. If it had a few more kitchens, it would be perfect.’
And they’d laugh. And he’d kiss her then too. And she’d kiss him back. And not be drunk. And not walk away.
She’d tell him how sorry she was. How deluded to ever have thought she was fine with her choices. That she should have called him. That she’d finally let herself see the unknown in what she’d been so sure she knew. That he’d been so right.
‘Sshh,’ he’d tell her. ‘None of that matters now. I’m here.’
That was how it was supposed to be. Not like this.
He walks through the door, greets her with a shy smile, a silly joke and an enveloping hug. Jim. She soars. But then. Out of nowhere, there’s someone else. A stick of gum. A familiar hand touching his back, knowing him. And, just like that, he’s lost to her. She crashes to the ground under the weight of all the months when she could have said something. But didn’t. She opens her mouth, but no sound comes out. Her frequency is suddenly an ancient useless thing.
So she retreats into stunned silence. She’d forfeited her rights, hadn’t she? If she were truly his friend, she’d be happy for him. Karen seems nice. Is clearly into him. He deserves to have someone who gives to him freely. Who reaches out and touches his back like it’s nothing. Like it’s everything.
She wills herself to be glad for him. They’re friends. They’ll always be friends. He can do whatever he wants. She fails yet again. So, she just pretends. Makes pleasantries; affects detachment; says, ‘have a good weekend,’ a little too brightly. She knows she’s not a very convincing actress.
She avoids him as much as possible. It’s not nearly enough. It helps that he keeps her at arm’s length as well. Nothing personal, his polite smile says. She can’t blame him. She’d been an idiot to expect any different. It hurts.
She sees them leave together, buy each other the bottled water he’s evolved into drinking, exchange a look when Dwight is Dwight or Andy attempts to be Michael. The knife is hot and swift and cuts progressively deeper. She’s not even sure she’s entitled to bleed.
Sometimes, as if for penance, she forces herself to secretly watch when he and Karen share a private smile. And, God help her, she just doesn’t see that old ease in him. She’s well aware she could be fooling herself though. That is her specialty, after all.
Yet still. Every once in a while, her eyes meet his and lock for a split second. Sometimes she sees anger. Other times he looks sad. Usually it’s hard to distinguish. Either way, she thinks she sees something fleeting there that’s not quite memory. Then again, maybe not.
The element of surprise had left him defenseless. Her laughter in his ear, elated. The world was set back on its orbit. But as soon as he’d hung up the phone, he’d felt the ground beneath him slipping away. Then, a missed text message. Hung-over, alone, he’d forced himself to let it be. What would he have replied: yuck, yuck that’s so funny, thanks for getting in touch, let’s be best friends?
He’d asked Karen to dinner instead. No mixed messages there. There’d been drinks, coffee, other dinners; but not much more. Not for lack of her trying. He honestly liked her. A lot. He just hadn’t been sure how to fill in the blanks. Or if he even wanted to.
His decision to go back to Scranton is a career choice, he tells himself. And it is…partly. It’s the other, magnetic part that worries him. Karen’s unconditional invitation begins to look like a life preserver. Maybe more. All he has to do is hold on and keep moving ahead.
His first day back, their eyes meet as he walks in the door. Pam seems thrilled to see him. She runs to him, smiling. She’s in his arms. He takes a deep breath and the scent of her hair, her neck, is narcotic. He says something about the place looking good, but all he sees is her.
But the buzz doesn’t last. He can’t let it. It was too fucking hard to climb on the wagon, to fall off this easily. There can be no going for coffee. Michael interrupts, almost says something stupid to give him away. Surprisingly, a desperate glare and mumbled ‘don’t’ stop him in his tracks. She visibly deflates.
He goes back to his desk nauseous, angry, sad, determined. He doesn’t know what to do but avoid her. It’s not much of a plan, but it’s all he’s got. He finds Karen’s eyes and takes a long swig of water. Better for him than grape soda.
That night, he tries to speak to Pam in the parking lot. It hasn’t been a lucky spot for him in the past and it’s no different now. They’ll always be friends. End of discussion. He has a drink with Karen. Then another. When she asks him back to her place, he says yes. Forward motion.
He makes a tacit agreement with Pam to play the roles of old acquaintances. He can never quite figure out the script, but can’t drop character either. The indifference is relentless. She betrays little and he knows too well the price of misreading her.
Karen is a good sport. She may not think of making paper doves or do him one better by inventing Spontaneous Dental Hydroplosion, but she’ll laugh and go along for the ride. To a point. He searches for the place where their points coincide.
In the dark, he almost finds it. Karen’s not shy about making him forget himself. He’s grateful for how her skin and her mouth and her hands fill the void. But afterwards, he always feels hollow again. A sieve. He comes up with excuses not to spend the night. She lets him go without complaint, and he feels like a heel. Her patience only makes it worse. He knows there’d be no question of leaving Pam to sleep alone. He’d sink in and stay. Never go. Just stay.
One day, as he and Karen are leaving for lunch, Phyllis is standing at reception, looking at Pam’s sketches. As he puts his coat on, he cranes his neck, trying to see too. He feels Karen watching him and he quickly looks away. He can almost hear the wheels in her head turning. After a long awkward pause, she breaks the silence, asking if she can bring anyone back a sandwich. Pam just smiles politely and shakes her head no, indicating her lunch bag.
‘We’re fine, thanks!’ Phyllis blurts, with a distinct and uncharacteristic edge. ‘You two just go on and worry about yourselves.’
It’s not so much what she says. It’s the death glare she emits as she says it. Pam looks mortified, as if she’d like to disappear under her desk. He sees Karen wince as if she’s been slapped.
‘What the hell was that about?’ Karen asks, once they’re in the elevator.
‘Oh, probably nothing,’ he replies, chuckling to deflect what just happened. ‘You know what a tough customer Phyllis is. Hard as nails.’
But Karen is far from clueless. In that moment, he knows that she knows; all the things they both wished they didn’t know creep out of the shadows.
It devolves surprisingly quickly. Karen becomes noticeably uncomfortable around Pam, even though he goes out of his way not to interact with her. It’s clear that this is not lost on Karen either. He feels guilty when he’s with Karen. Feels guilty when he’s not. He becomes more remote. It’s not intentional, but he feels powerless to stop it. The points where they intersect become fewer and far between.
Karen increasingly vents her frustrations about the office. In truth, he knew she wouldn’t last there. By the end of the first day, she’d wanted a stiff drink and a lobotomy. She’s never seen beyond the insanity. The comic possibilities. The warmth from unexpected places. That Michael being a buffoon isn’t quite the whole story. Whenever he’s tried to explain, it’s like he’s speaking another language.
When she comes over to his apartment to tell him she’s taken a job at corporate in New York, he’s not surprised. But he is sorry. He truly did not want to hurt her.
He apologizes. ‘I guess I should have warned you more about this place. And about…well, all the emotional baggage.’
‘Everyone has emotional baggage, Jim,’ she retorts. ‘But, it would have been nice to know I’d be dealing with an entire matched set.’
Pam and Jim
It’s an unseasonably warm day. He heads out of the office holding his jacket over his arm, his tie loosened, two days worth of stubble. These last few weeks have been exhausting. Karen’s gone. He’s out there without a net.
He nods at Pam as he passes her and she nods back. As is their habit. Just before he goes through the door, however, he impulsively stops and turns back to look at her. She looks up at him. Says nothing. They just are for a moment.
She stares, transfixed, as he leaves and rings for the elevator, leaning wearily against the wall. A pressure like a wave about to crash begins to build inside of her. Before she knows what she’s doing, she’s on her feet, out the door, standing behind him. He doesn’t move, doesn’t react. Only his shoulders tense, barely perceptibly. She reaches out, puts her hand on his back. It doesn’t feel like nothing.
Just then, the elevator arrives. He remains motionless. She can feel his warm skin through the thin cotton of his shirt, the vibration of his breathing against her fingers. The doors close and she hears the empty elevator descending again. He finally turns around to face her, but he’s still looking down. She does the only thing she can think of. She takes his hand in hers, holds it tight. She wants to tell him. But before she can form the words, any words, he lifts her hand to his mouth and presses it to his lips. He doesn’t quite kiss it, just holds it there for a long moment, his eyes closed.
He lowers her hand, still wrapped around his. Opens his eyes. And just like that, he’s looking at her the way he used to. The way she would pretend not to notice, but always did. This time, she doesn’t hide.
‘This is how it’s supposed to be,’ he says, quietly.
She’s forgotten whatever she meant to say. He hears her anyway. He moves his hands to hold her face, his fingertips pushed into her hair. She can feel him shaking a little. Or maybe that’s her. Then he’s leaning in and kissing her. Really kissing her. It’s tentative, then it’s deep, then it’s everything. He tastes like she remembers. All he thinks is Pam.
He finally pulls away. They both exhale. It’s just the two of them.
‘Go get your things,’ he says. “I’ll wait for you.’