Jim watched the white lights in his rearview mirror as the little blue car backed out of its parking spot then drove out of view. His hand traveled up to his forehead and he let out a disgusted sigh. What the hell was that, he thought. Sort of started seeing someone, he cursed the words the second they slipped out of his mouth. He couldn’t even remember what he was going to say to Pam, but that definitely wasn’t it. He reached for his phone and pulled up Karen's number.
“Hey, Filippeli,” he said as enthusiastically as he could manage. “Sorry about that, saw someone I needed to talk to real quick.”
“That’s fine,” Karen said unassumingly. “So, Cooper’s at about 7?”
“Yeah, you remember how to get there?” A couple days ago Jim took Karen, Martin, and Tony to Cooper’s as a kind of welcome to Scranton. Apparently Karen liked it, which was fine by Jim; he had never seen anyone from work there.
“I do, I’ll call you if anything comes up.”
“Okay, later,” Jim said flatly. He pressed the “end” button on his phone, set it down on the passenger seat, and started his car.
We're friends, We’ll always be friends, her unconvincing voice said over and over in his head.
* * * * *
Jim sat towards the end of the bar at Cooper's, fiddling with a coaster, when he felt a light touch on his shoulder. He looked up to Karen’s smiling face. “Hey,” he said.
“Hey, have you ordered yet?” Karen asked, pulling up a stool next to Jim.
Karen motioned to the bartender to come over. “Hi there, I’ll have a pint of whatever your best draught beer is, and the gentleman will have…” she smiled over to Jim.
“Um, the same,” Jim said, still spinning the coaster between his fingers. The bartender nodded and walked away.
“That ‘gentleman’ remark was a bit of a stretch, by the way,” Karen said. Her voice was low and serious, but the corners of her lips curled slightly.
Jim laughed, “Wow, what did I do to deserve this hostility?”
“Well, let’s start with you not properly warning me about Michael.”
“Why, what’s wrong with Michael?” Jim said innocently.
“Oh please, do you know what the very first thing he said to me was?”
“What?” Jim said, trying not to smile.
Karen’s eyes widened, “He told me I was exotic looking and asked if my dad was a GI.”
Jim nodded, then started laughing. Karen lightly slapped him on the shoulder.
“It’s not funny!” she said, though she was laughing herself.
“Sounds like he likes you,” Jim said.
“Ugh,” she pretended to shiver. “I now understand why you transferred in the first place.”
Jim felt his smile completely fade, but the bartender brought their drinks right then and Karen had turned her head to thank him. Jim could have kissed him for his perfect timing.
“It kind of baffles me how he’s the regional manager,” Karen said between sips of her beer.
Jim shrugged, “I think he was nervous today. He’s quite the charmer when he has to be.”
Karen’s face shifted to worry. “Okay, if he ever turns the ‘charm’ on, please tell me so I can get out of the building.” She took another big drink. “Oh, and you know what else happened? I was at my desk and this smell just started to sting my nose, then I made the mistake of saying something to Phyllis. She came over to my desk and she smelled like she was wearing 50 of those car air fresheners.”
Jim chuckled, “So what did you say?”
Karen shook her head, “I completely panicked, said something about being allergic to her perfume.”
“Wow, way to make friends, Filipelli,” Jim said.
Karen covered her eyes like she was still embarrassed, then leaned against the bar and laughed an exhausted laugh. “I think the only normal exchange I had all day was with the receptionist.”
Jim's grip on his frosted mug tightened a little. Of course it was, he thought.
“Her name is Pam, right?”
Jim nodded, “Yeah, Pam.”
Karen’s hand motions were becoming more exaggerated, as if she was already buzzed. “We didn’t talk very long, but she acted so friendly when I walked in. I know it’s her job to be like that, she just seems really nice.”
Jim stared at his mug. He could sense Karen was looking at him, waiting for him to speak.
“Should I take your lack of a response as a sign that you don’t agree?” Karen asked with an inquisitive look.
Jim raised his eyebrows, “Oh no, no, she is really nice.”
“I guess after meeting everybody she seems to be the only one I even see myself genuinely getting along with,” she said.
Jim nodded as his eyes moved back to his hands. He wanted to laugh at what Karen just said, because on his first day he thought the exact same thing about Pam.
That’s totally cool, you can do what you want. She said that so quickly, her voice was so high. Jim remembered her sounding the same way when Roy would cancel their plans in order to go drinking with his friends.
“Hey,” Karen said in a soft way that Jim had never heard before.
Jim sat up straighter and turned his head to Karen.
Jim shrugged and tried to give her his best “what are you talking about” look. “I’m fine,” he said with a smile.
Jim found himself thinking that if this were Pam, she would be satisfied, or at least act satisfied with that reaction, and would try to move the conversation on. He could tell by Karen’s narrowed eyes she wouldn’t let him off so easy.
“You just seem, I don’t know, preoccupied.”
Jim figured Karen wasn’t going to buy another reassurance that he was fine. “I, um, I won’t lie, this whole transferring back thing has been harder than I expected.”
Karen raised her eyebrows, as if to tell him to continue.
“I mean, I left quietly, didn’t really bother to keep in touch with anyone because I figured save a company-wide retreat I wasn’t going to see any of them again.” He stared at his mug, lightly rubbing off the condensation with his left thumb. “Working with all of them again, I don’t know, it’s just bizarre.”
He felt a small squeeze on his right hand, and looked to see that at some point Karen had put her hand on his. His eyes met hers and he smiled slightly. “What about you, are you doing okay?”
Karen chuckled lightly, “What do you mean?”
“You are the one in a new town where you only know half-a-dozen people.” Jim paused, “and one of them is Andy Bernard.”
Karen laughed, “Yeah, that’s not very promising, is it?”
“Not many would say so, no,” Jim said.
Karen looked down to her half-full mug, “But I also know you.” She looked back up at Jim and she smiled a full, honest smile that Jim struggled to match. Karen had said something earlier about a self-performed lobotomy and Jim was starting to think it wasn’t a bad idea. Maybe then he would be able to look at Karen and not think about anyone else.
* * * * *
Another hour of solid conversation past before Jim and Karen left Cooper’s. Jim opened the door for Karen, and his warm and slightly fuzzy feeling immediately disappeared when the chilly Pennsylvania air hit his face. He walked Karen to her car, talking about nothing in particular. When they reached the SUV she turned to Jim.
“Thanks for the drink.”
Jim shrugged, “Least I could do after not warning you about Michael.”
“Oh, you think that makes it even now?” Karen said in a sarcastic-serious voice. “One drink isn’t going to cut it, Halpert.”
“Oh no? Well then, maybe dinner on Friday will get me back in your good graces.”
Karen smiled flirtatiously, “Maybe.”
Jim watched Karen take a step towards him and he took a deep breath. The urge to put his arms around her and pull her close was equally matched by the urge to step backwards. But his arms stayed static at his sides, and his feet wouldn’t move, so he just watched her. She played a little with his scarf before looking up at him. Let this happen, he told himself as his closed his eyes. The kiss was soft, sweet, and short.
They looked at each other for a second before Karen let out a light laugh and turned her head to the side, and Jim did the same. They said goodnight, and she turned to unlocked her SUV. Jim stepped up to the sidewalk and watched as the large vehicle backed out and drove away.
As he walked to his car, thinking about their conversation tonight, Jim found he couldn't quite remember what the name of the company Karen worked at before Dunder-Mifflin was, or whether her sister was older or younger. He couldn't even remember if he said "Friday" or "Saturday" when he just asked her to dinner. Whatever day it was, Jim could only hope that by then he wouldn't be as preoccupied.