Pam dances the points of her Rice Krispies star across Karen’s cheeks and nose as she laughs a little. Two, three, maybe four margaritas after she realizes Jim hasn’t gotten her anything for Christmas and also wouldn’t accept what she got him after she spent all those months and months planning it mostly because she missed him so much when he was gone.
Roy got her something, something he put actual thought into.
It doesn’t mean this was the wrong choice, she tells herself as she gulps her margarita faster than she should.
Karen laughs too as the sticky star touches her skin, because Pam’s nose crinkles when she giggles and it’s like she can’t help but be happy with her. Pam’s drunker than she is and she watches her teeter back and forth on her heels until she almost falls over, laughing still.
Pam holds out the star to Karen, letting her bite off one of the points. She watches her jaw move as she chews and wonder if Jim’s kissed her there. She’s pretty sure he has, he seems like he would kiss a girl there, taking his time to get to her mouth. She wants to ask if he does, if the skin on his shoulders is covered in freckles, if kissing him is at all like she remembers in her head or if she made it up.
Her glass is empty and she holds it out, wobbling a little. Karen’s eyes slide over her face and she says, “I’m pretty sure you’ve had enough for tonight.”
She shakes her head, “Nope. One more. Please?”
Pam smiles and Karen thinks she looks sweet so she mixes another margarita for her, careful to put a little less liquor into it. She hands it back to Pam who downs the entire thing almost immediately.
Then, Karen’s talking about her holiday plans. She’s going back to Connecticut to see her family. Something about “ham” and “seven cousins” and at the end, “…I was kind of hoping to spend some of the holiday with Jim though…”
Pam stops herself from saying, “Yeah, me too,” and just nods along.
Pam isn’t sober enough to drive home and Karen isn’t drunk enough to go home alone after Jim left without a word and just smiled brightly at Pam like they have some shared secret.
At least Pam looked guilty as she smiled back at him, still all teeth and shining eyes though.
They’re in the back seat of Pam’s car. Pam has her knees drawn up to her chest and Karen tilts her head back to stare at the upholstered ceiling. It’s late, maybe after eleven. The parking lot’s dark and empty and they haven’t bothered to turn the heat on so there’s frost layering the windows.
They’ve been talking about the sort of things new friends talk about. Histories and families and common interests. Past relationships caused Pam to grow quiet so Karen changed the subject to colors and fabrics because she almost wanted to be a fashion designer when she was in school. Pam likes talking about colors, tells Karen about art school and how she thinks there’s always time to turn things around.
Karen likes watching Pam talk about these things. She likes how her eyes widen just a little and there’s this sound in her voice like a smile without the visual evidence. Even her skin starts to glow a little more in the darkness of the car when she laughs not because something’s funny, just because she’s happy.
Karen wants to say that it’s been a while since she’s really felt happiness the way she thinks you’re supposed to feel it. But now there’s Jim and sometimes she feels like she’s almost there even though she’s only been dating him for less than a month and they still haven’t slept together. Still, when he smiles at her she can sometimes see years rolling out in front of her.
She doesn’t tell Pam these things though, because their friendship is still new and she’s feeling unsure.
But Pam’s been quiet for a while now. She’s just staring out the window, hugging her knees closer to her chest with her cheek resting on them. She rocks back and forth almost imperceptibly and Karen finally realizes that she’s crying and that’s why she hasn’t looked over at her in the past three or four minutes.
So she reaches out her hand, rests it on her shoulder and says really quietly, “Whoa, hey, what’s wrong?”
Pam lifts her head from her knees and wipes at the tears in her right eye with her fist, shaking her head, saying, “Nothing.” Which is an obvious lie when you’re drunk during the holidays and crying in the backseat of your car.
She turns to look at Karen and smiles weakly, “I’m fine,” before her face collapses again and she’s crying hard now, not as quiet as she’d been before.
Karen puts an arm around Pam’s shoulder, pulls her face into the crook of her neck, feels hot tears start to fall against her skin. “Tell me what’s wrong,” she says, channeling her childhood and trying to imitate the voice her mother would use to get her to calm down.
Pam’s head shakes against her shoulders, Karen feels her eyelashes tickling her collar bone. Pam pulls her head up, “I can’t,” and the phrase makes Pam’s face twist again but this time she doesn’t start to cry.
So Karen drives Pam back to her apartment, because when she offered to take her home, Pam just mumbled something about not wanting to be alone anymore.
She’s embarrassed a little because half of her stuff is still in cardboard boxes littered throughout the apartment. She’s only really unpacked the essentials. The few times Jim’s offered to help her unpack, she’d gotten caught up in the way his arms and shoulders moved as he lifted things out of boxes and they’d wound up making out until she went for the buttons on his shirt and he stopped her, made up some excuse to leave then. So she stopped taking him up on the offers and three weeks later, her stuff is still in boxes.
Since that moment in the car, Pam hasn’t said much of anything. Now, she stands in Karen’s doorway with her hands clutching her coat, leaning against the doorjamb. She looks tentative and afraid so Karen smiles warmly at her and extends her arm, welcoming her.
When Pam smiles, it’s small and only for a split second because it looks like it hurts a little. Like her lips are cracked and she can’t move them without pain. She wants to tell Pam that she thinks she’s beautiful, but she thinks maybe that would be a strange thing to tell a new friend, especially one who’s standing awkwardly in the middle of your living room with red rimmed eyes and smudges of mascara on her face.
It’s just that Pam looks like she hasn’t been told that in a long time. And she is, she really is.
Instead, she looks at Pam for a second and then asks, “Is this about Jim?”
Pam looks like she’s just been woken up, she jumps a little and her eyes open wide. But then something changes and she looks down at her shoes, her toes pointing in at each other. “I’m in love with him,” she says without looking up.
Karen feels her mouth try to form words, but nothing comes out. But she gets it. She finally understands all those strange things about Jim. They weren’t quirks or insecurities at all.
Pam clears her throat and says, “I can call a cab.”
But Karen watches tears drop down onto Pam’s open cell phone and says, “You don’t have to do that.”
Pam changes in the bathroom, into pajamas of Karen’s. They’re soft and gray and the camisole shows more skin than Pam’s comfortable with and she looks at her reflection in the mirror, blushing and trying not to wonder if Jim’s seen Karen in these.
When she comes back out, Karen’s in the kitchen standing over her tea kettle, waiting for the whistling. Pam shivers a little at the feel of cold air against her exposed shoulders and arms and Karen looks over, “Are you cold? If you look in my room, there should be a sweatshirt in there.”
Pam pads gently across the hardwood floor into Karen’s bedroom. It’s dark and she fumbles to find the light switch on the wall. Karen’s room is messier than she’d expected it to be. Her bed is unmade and there are clothes strewn everywhere.
Hanging on the door is a gray sweatshirt. She grabs it, but when she sees that it’s a University of Scranton sweatshirt, she falters for a second. Because she’s seen it before. She’s seen Jim wear it in the mid afternoon on a cool October Sunday when she ran into him at the grocery store.
She puts it on anyway, but tries not to breathe in too deep as she does.
She comes back out and when Karen sees her in the sweatshirt she frowns and says, “Oh, sorry. I forgot that-”
“It’s fine,” Pam says quickly, joining Karen by the stove right as the kettle starts to whistle.
Karen puts her hand over the cloud of steam coming from the spout for just a second, smiling to herself a little. Pam watches her hands guide the kettle over to their mugs, pouring the water in.
Karen’s dipping her teabag in and out of the hot water as she leans back against the kitchen counter. The clock tells Pam that it’s after one in the morning and it makes her feel even lonelier. Then Karen’s hip bumps into hers and she’s alright for a second.
She’s asking her, “So how come- I mean, do you want to talk about it?”
Pam turns her head slowly, the bells in her Christmas earrings jingle quietly. “Um. I don’t- Wouldn’t that be weird for you?”
Karen laughs, “Yeah, maybe a little. But if you wanted to talk, I’d listen.” She pauses and smiles sadly at Pam, “Just so you know.”
Then, Karen brings her hand up and is pushing back a piece of Pam’s hair, tucking it carefully behind her ear. Pam feels her skin heat up where Karen’s fingertip had been as she smiles at her, “Thanks. I don’t really have any friends anymore. Jim was- God, ‘was’ that sounds so crazy to me. To say that he was my best friend. Like he isn’t anymore. He still is, but it’s like- It’s just all so screwed up now.”
Karen just nods, blowing on her tea and then taking a careful sip.
Pam’s staring at the tiles on the floor when she asks, “Is kissing him incredible or am I just remembering it that way?”
Karen sets her mug down on the counter. “It can be pretty incredible.”
Pam shifts against the counter, feeling it dig into her back. Eventually, she slides down to the floor and Karen joins her. “How did he do it the first time? Was it really, really soft like he was afraid?”
Karen shakes her head, crossing her legs. “I actually kissed him first.”
“Yeah, he was really hesitant about the whole thing and, uh, I guess now I know why,” her laugh is self deprecating and she reaches out to toy with the hem of Pam’s pajama pants. “But the second time we kissed, he was the one to initiate it and he did this thing where he just let me control it and-” She stops and looks up at Pam who’s staring back at her with glazed over eyes.
“When he kissed me, the one time that he did, it felt like- I don’t even know. It was like the most honest experience of my life.”
Karen’s hand has found Pam’s and her fingertips are running back and forth along her palm. She looks down and back up and Karen’s eyes are sad. She says, “I’m sorry,” almost inaudibly as she draws circles on her skin with her index finger.
Pam sleeps on the couch while Karen lies awake in her bed.
She thinks there must be a trick in the corners of his mouth or in the shine of his teeth or hidden beneath the skin of his forearm. Maybe it tumbles out of him when he laughs and you just barely notice that it’s worked itself into your ribcage or behind your eyes or wherever it goes that makes you move to a new state just to be near him.
She rolls over, turning away from the wall that separates her and a girl who’s so sad and happy all at once that it’s like beautiful abstract art. She stares instead at the sky outside the window where the sun is already starting to rise, turning everything pink.
She doesn’t think about the night Jim slept next to her because they’d been up late watching a movie and he’d fallen asleep. Doesn’t think about his limbs sprawled across her bed, still clad in jeans and a t-shirt. Doesn’t think about the drool he left on her pillow or how he’d snored sometimes during the night or how she’d moved a little closer to him and he’d wrapped an arm around her waist without waking up, pulling her against his chest.
Instead, she thinks about new friends with soft pale skin and curls that fall perfectly around shoulders. She thinks about being that in love with someone, wonders if she’ll ever get to experience it.
Her eyes are still open when her alarm goes off at 7:30.
Karen’s clothes don’t fit Pam right, but they’ll be late to work if they stop at her place so she makes do. Karen doesn’t have any work appropriate skirts so Pam just wears the one she wore yesterday even though it’s wrinkled in the back and there’s a little bit of chocolate on the side of it. She wears one of Karen’s shirts though and it’s a size too small so the buttons strain in places she’d rather not have attention drawn to.
Karen digs through one of her boxes to find a cardigan like the ones Pam wears. She stands behind her as she puts it on in front of the mirror. When it fits perfectly and covers up the right places, she smiles at Pam’s reflection, putting her hands on her shoulders and squeezing a little. Pam smiles back at her, feeling her hands slide back down her arms as Karen walks back into the bathroom to check her makeup again.
It’s odd that being in love with the same person seems to have brought them even closer together.
“Ready?” Karen asks when she walks back into the bedroom.
Pam nods, “Ready.”
When Karen pulls her car into the parking lot, she sees Jim still sitting in his car. She parks in the empty spot next to Pam’s car and turns off the car.
Neither one of them moves to get out though. They just sit and stare straight ahead at the hedge. The radio is playing softly and there’s a backup on 83 this morning because of a minor accident that’s already been cleared from the road.
Pam’s first to unbuckle her seatbelt, but as she does Karen’s hand reaches out to stop her.
“Just wait for a second?”
In the rearview mirror, Jim’s slinging his bag over his shoulder as he walks into the building.
Karen leans her head against the steering wheel and mutters, “Fuck,” under her breath because it shouldn’t hurt this much just because he didn’t come over and wait for her to get out of her car.
Pam’s caught on and she just says, “Oh,” and pulls at the hem of her skirt.
Karen shakes her head and unbuckles her seatbelt, “It’s alright.” And she says it again, more to herself the second time, as she reaches over for her purse.
They walk towards the building and before they get to the door, Pam bumps her shoulder against Karen’s and smiles at her.
Title from Australia by the Shins
unfold is the author of 102 other stories.
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