Chapter 1: Lifted Paint
Lambasted wrinkles pleated into the familiar frames of her brow, as imaginary red X's and tightly looped critiques overlaid the faded edges of each work in her mind. Flowers at full bloom, fruit sparkling without defect, cups of unchipped porcelain... Her brush had blended out the imperfections to offer rosy images that held no place in any reality. Certainly not her own, the pebble of truth dropping harshly into the pit of her stomach.
"Real art takes courage...and honesty..."
Pam glared at the illustrated mug, her eyes searing past the translucent layers of dried pigment to the initial wash coats. An underpainted crack appeared along the smooth lip as her mind swirled to that morning last May before life muddled into a watercolor and she was forced to blink back tears.
— -- —
Plunging the kettle beneath the tap, her mind mimicked the water that ran endlessly into the dark vat, as she stared into the sink. Pam needed caffeine. Well, truthfully, she needed something quite a bit stronger. But sleep had evaded her since chocolate curls had slipped through her fingers and sage glances disappeared down a dark hallway.
Where was he...?
Pam walked into the office that morning with a plan, or at least a semblance of one. She was going to make Jim talk to her, knowing he wouldn't want to. Knowing she had devastated him a mere three days prior. But she would get him to listen. She would apologize for the hurt she knew she'd caused him; for her reaction, dazed and cold as it was to the warm truth of his proclamation. She was going to explain that she had been caught off-guard, that she hadn't understood the depth of his feelings for her, and she was only starting to reconcile with the depths of her own.
Her breath caught at that thought; the thief that had denied her the dreamless sleep she so desperately needed. The memory of soft lips tattooing urgent kisses of I'm in love with yous upon her skin naturally captivated Pam's conscience most waking hours since Friday night. But when her mind melded into a foggy, languid landscape and Roy's gentle snores played a familiar lullaby, it was this realization that galloped in on a jolt of anxiety, stripping the bedsheets from her quaking body and propelling her out of the room. Night after night, she would sink onto the landing, gasping for air as the ever-growing comprehension that she too wanted more than that dawned on her. She just needed time...
Metallic reverberations blended in sardonic harmony with Dwight's tinny voice, as the inundated kettle crashed into the basin of the sink. "Sorry, Dwight!"
Quickly twisting the knob and pouring out the excess, Pam retreated from the sink to a far corner of the counter space. She shoved the plug into a nearby outlet, fumbling several times, before peering into drawers in search of her tea stash. Her movements disconnected and angular, Pam could hardly blame her colleagues for the pinpricks of eyes that traced the nape of her neck. If she could just find the damn tea box and get her mug, she might be able to calm her nerves. Gather her thoughts. Maybe have a passing chance at convincing her colleagues that she was, in fact, not a deranged lunatic? Probably too late for that...
"Looking for these?" Toby's voice broke her reverie. Glancing up, she saw him holding a small, wooden cigar box, that Pam had repurposed into a storage container for her tea collection. "I think you must have left it out on Friday...it was by the fridge." He meekly continued while handing her the box, sensing the question written in her pointed look.
Realization softened the features of her face as Pam nodded a silent apology. Of course, she'd left it out. She and Jim had been far too consumed in their playful banter over who would owe who more by the end of Casino Night. Banter she had long convinced herself was categorically friendly, and not the obvious flirtation that it was.
Well, Halpert, I definitely am the one in debt to you now...
"Thanks, Toby." Pam gave a weak smile and turned back to the counter to open the box, breathing in the miasma of bitter roots and notes of cedar as she did so. Her fingers tread lightly across the paper envelopes, thumbing their way past Earl Greys and Oolongs until they landed on the desired Scottish Breakfast. Somewhere between basking in the comforting smells and opening the cabinets in search of her mug, Pam became vaguely aware that the room had continued with the morning routine following her chaotic interruption. Kelly resumed her gossip session with Ryan, while Dwight and Toby meandered about the kitchen, eyes occasionally darting towards the receptionist in mild concern.
"But Kelly," Ryan countered in an argument Pam had not held the brain capacity to follow until now. "Why would he choose to move to Stanford? He doesn't even own the necessary quota of polo shirts and boat shoes to live in Connecticut."
Pam, finally spotting her mug on the uppermost shelf, raised her arm to its highest length; her fingers grazing the porcelain rim. Had she not been so determined to retrieve the cup, she may have noticed Kelly's uncharacteristic hesitation or knowing glance. But she was already lost in the memory of handing her clean mug to Jim, who had effortlessly placed it atop the high shelves. She'd never considered the possibility that there would come a morning where he wouldn't be there to retrieve it from its lofty home.
"No, Ryan...Kelly is right," Toby interjected softly. "It was a small promotion with a viable path for upward mobility either there or at the corporate branch. He said he didn't have much going for him here in Scranton, said it was a bit of a no-brainer, so Jim took the job."
They assumed she'd lost her balance, falling over the toes she was perched upon. But Pam knew. As the world washed away to enveloping darkness and she was gripped with the sensation of falling, she knew her brain and heart had composed a momentary caesura in response to Toby's cadenza.
Jim was gone.
It was the one thing that penetrated the empty chasm of her mind as her eyes fluttered open. Blinking away the fluorescent beams that oversaturated the world around her, Pam reluctantly came to. She was greeted by a sharp pain that radiated from the side of her head, leaving her vaguely aware of the shadowy figures hovering above her.
"Dwight, you idiot...get off her! We already lost Jim to corporate sabotage; we can't afford to lose Pam too. Our 'Office Hotness Meter' would be down by like forty percent. So, shut up and call 911!" Michael's panicked voice filtered into her conscience like a distant call through water.
"No...no, you don't have to..." Pam heard the words slip from her lips in a saccharine slur that likely didn't do much to help her case. "I'm fine, really...I...ouch!"
She'd raised her hand to her head, still too aloof to recognize that the cup was still grasped between her fingers.
"No, Pam... you already hit your head plenty on your way down, and you went down hard, no need to keep beating yourself..." Michael chortled.
"That's what she said...?"
She had, thankfully, been fine. Angela had reluctantly driven her to the Emergency Room where they performed a thorough inspection, complete with an MRI to rule out any concussion. Pam left the hospital with three tiny stitches along her hairline and a badly bruised ego, largely thanks to Angela's passive-aggressive chiding.
Miraculously, the mug faired only slightly worse; staying mostly intact save for a chip along the rim. In doing so though, it also rendered it useless in the office as Pam didn't want to risk slicing the delicate skin of her lips on the broken edge. She'd mulled over the thought of throwing the thing away, it wasn't after all a sentimental piece in its origin. Yet, much to Roy's annoyance, Pam couldn't bring herself to part with the porcelain.
For two weeks it sat atop their kitchen table until it joined all her possessions, encased in tissue and moving boxes. When she came across it again in her new studio apartment, she placed it alongside her easel, deciding that it would make an appropriate water cup. Pam could not explain why then, on a humid day in August, she was enticed to paint the damaged pottery.
Her brush had danced across the paper leaving trails of shadow and structure in its wake. Creamy yellows blended into moss-tinged greys, as her fingers held the sable fibers to a desaturated blue in her palette. The dusky hue traced delicate cracks along the painted rim before Pam blotted the excess paint from the absorbent paper. She lifted the mug, bringing it closer to her eye line as her teeth bit gently on the stick of the brush.
Pam was never quite sure how long she sat like that, staring at the mug, studying its defects. But at some point amidst that long wait, she had lost her courage; her hands rushing to lift the paint and smooth the cracked edges with glazed washes. Her brush distorting the truth with a passive illusion of contentment.
— -- —
Just as she'd always done with everything in her life. "Courage…Honesty…Well, those aren't Pam's strong points."
Pam's eyes, muted by the words and memories swirling behind them, drew a path of disgust along the soft shapes and gentle lines of architecture before her. Oscar was right. Even in something as inconsequential as a still-life, Pam had painted a censored reality, glossing over the pain of cracked porcelain and missing vehicles.
Stepping closer to her artwork, her shoulder lightly brushed the white panel, and she felt the unstable vibrations of the temporary structure ripple up her arm and crash chaotically through her core; noting a kind of kindred sentiment to the façade. Her shoulders skimmed her cheeks as she made to block the dewy rectangles of pastel palettes and shadows from view.
Gliding over the diluted phthalo blue fibers it held, Pam gripped the plastic tack, pulling as the sharp corners cut into her fingertips; a distraction from the molten stone burning the inside of her gut. She had half a mind to grab the cotton paper and rip each from the pins that secured them to the panel, but she feared that would attract more attention to the work she was beginning to qualify as garbage. She needed to get out of there...
Pam spun around; the pin nearly flung sideways with the sharp action.
"Sorry I'm late, I had to race across town." Michael shrugged as he approached her display, beaming with the thrill of having just arrived barely in time.
"Oh, Michael…" Pam stumbled over the simple words, both shocked and lacking the motivating energy to exert anything more. Of all the people to show up... She thought, wordlessly praying he would say uncharacteristically little, perhaps even quietly, and leave quickly.
"Wow!" Michael turned his attention to the watercolors. "You did these… freehand?"
Pam nodded gently before giving a soft "Yep." She twisted the joints of her fingers as if the anxiety could be wrung out onto the concrete floor, before pulling on the violet sleeves to calm the tick.
"My God..." He gasped, approaching the painting of the cup, "...These could be tracings!"
She felt the subtle blush prick her cheeks as she held her breath. "Oh! Look at this one." Michael gestured to their shared workplace. "Wow! You nailed it..."
Pam looked on as Michael gazed in adoration at the rendering, leveled by the genuineness with which the man spoke.
"How much?" Michael breathed.
Pam shook her head. "What do you mean?"
"I don't see a price."
"Um…you wanna buy it?" She asked, her face scrunched in a skeptical grin.
"Well, yeah," Michael replied as if the prospect of not purchasing it was so inconceivably ridiculous. "Yeah, we have to have it for the office. I mean, there's my window...and there's my car!" He exclaimed seeing his pride and joy. "That's your car?"
"Uh-huh." Pam nodded with a weak laugh, hoping she hid how touched she was by his notice of the simple details. Grateful he wasn't too observant.
"That is our building...and we sell paper." He stated with the gravity of something far more profound, and Pam wasn't sure how to respond to the factuality of it. They stood in comfortable silence as he gazed at the painting, awe and delight awash upon his face before turning to Pam. "...I am really proud of you."
Pam stared at him for a beat, the words flooding over her like sunlight onto a withered plant, offering nourishment she didn't know she needed. Tears threatening to break, and words lost to her lips, she raised her arms, wrapping them gently around Michael's neck. "Thank you."
It was a simple irony that at the moment she felt most like a fraud, Michael would be the one offering some comfort and dignity to her.
— -- —
The zipper whirled as it skimmed the perimeter of the oversized portfolio, Pam keeping careful watch along its track, ensuring that paper edges and broken threads stayed out of reach of the plastic teeth. Michael had departed moments earlier, following some light small talk and a horrifically awkward misunderstanding involving a candy bar that Pam was determined to block from memory. She had promised to bring in the office illustration as soon as she had a proper frame, before bidding him and the camera crew goodnight. Standing from her crouched position, she glanced around; the gallery was quickly emptying of people and color as her fellow artists mimicked her recent movements, removing and stowing their work into stiff black bags and archival boxes. Releasing a sigh on the shallow gust of the overhead fan, Pam collected her things and walked towards the exit.
Her fingers had barely brushed the cool stainless door handle when her ears pricked at the sound of her name, sharp against the indistinct murmurings surrounding her. Pam turned to locate the source, eyes scanning the collection of cliques and individuals crowding the small lobby, before landing on a raven-haired woman who waved lightly at her, beckoning her retreat. Pam smiled in acknowledgment before withdrawing to the back of the room.
The woman, petite only in physical presence, was surrounded by a beaming crowd comprised mainly, Pam recognized, of her fellow classmates. Nudging her way gently towards the center of the group, she sensed the buzz of energy that echoed from each artist, as they chatted excitedly with those around them.
"My dear, gifted students..." a commanding yet tender voice broke the agitated stir as Pam found herself center stage to her instructor, Madeleine Shay. The asymmetric hem of Madeleine's dress lilted gently from side to side across her calves as she glanced about the room, a kind smile caressing her rouge lips. Pam gazed upon the young woman, who couldn't have been much older than herself, with admiration; her eyes crawling over the creamy, chiffon pleats of her dress juxtaposed with harsh, black, brush strokes, abstract and dazzling in its design. Her dark hair was brought up in a simple, low hanging knot, and Pam couldn't get over how put-together she always seemed to look; such a contrast from her own present state. Looking down at her black jumper and knit turtleneck, a costume she wore to look the part, she wondered if she would ever have the courage or elegance to pull off a garment that demanded such confident authenticity.
"Congratulations on an exceptional gallery opening! I'm so very proud of every one of you. The improvement you have each made over this last semester is astounding and speaks to the painstaking time, diligence, and heart you've dedicated to your craft. I know it's not typical of an art exhibition, but I welcome you to applaud each other now in honor of your combined achievement."
Pam meekly joined in the echoing clatter of applause; her eyes downcast as a venomous thought that these words were not intended for her crept up her spine along a shiver of self-doubt. She was in the process of fighting back the poison when Pam was lightly jostled by the elbow of the man next to her, who was clapping a bit too enthusiastically. "Sorry..." she heard the unnecessary apology fall from her own lips, and she took a step back, easing away from the front row and embarrassment.
"I know you will continue that same diligent and heartfelt work over the summer. I was delighted to see nearly all of you were enrolled in our summer masterclass festival in July. Remember there is still time to register! We've invited some incredible guest artists to workshop with students individually and in groups. It should be a treat! In any case, if I don't see you before then, have a wonderful and well-deserved break and lovely rest of your evening!"
The room erupted again in a mixture of hearty whoops and applause, the assemblage of artists pushing their way towards their ethereal teacher. Pam found herself haphazardly shifted back to the exit. It was just as well, she thought chewing lightly on the nail of her thumb. While she had wanted to thank Ms. Shay for her invaluable guidance and instruction, the night had left her depleted. I'll write her a card, something more heartfelt than anything I could express now...
Turning to go, a momentary déjà vu lapsed over her as Pam's name, again, carried over the busy chatter. She glanced back only to find herself face to face with Madeleine, who must have pulled herself from the throng of students.
"Pam, I'm so glad I caught you..."
"Ms. Shay, thank you so much for..." Pam and Madeline began simultaneously.
The art instructor raised her hands as she lightly shook her head. "Please, Pam. Call me Madeleine."
"Oh...sorry, Madeleine...thank you. I've so enjoyed your class and have been so appreciative of your patience with me."
"Patience?" Madeleine contemplated the word choice. "Whatever do you mean, Pam? You're a joy to teach and always prompt with your assignments, which I imagine can be challenging, what with juggling a full-time job."
Pam bit her lip, trying to determine how to proceed. She hadn't meant to say patience, not exactly. But the Freudian slip had slid off her tongue before her brain had had a chance to catch up; so very much like several other conversations she could think of. "Oh...I just meant...I'm so far behind everyone else in the class. They all have years of training and ridiculous talent. Just look at what Leo has done..."
"Oh hush." Madeleine gave a dry laugh before glancing around, ensuring they were out of range from eavesdroppers before continuing in a low voice. "I have many things I could say about Leo and his overextended ego, but I probably should reserve them for a more appropriate time." A light smile played on Pam's lips at her words.
"In any case..." Madeleine continued, mirroring her smile. "Pam, I was actually coming over to say just how impressed I am with your work. You've really expanded your technique and I can see your thoughtful prose coming through, especially in some of your current, in progress, works."
For a third time this evening, tears threatened to break from her watery gaze, forcing Pam to look away as she blinked back the pain. "Um...thank you. I know I don't always depict much in my work, I've been trying to be braver though..." And failing…
Madeleine studied the woman before her, seeing the inner toil wrecked upon her features. "Pam, I noticed you weren't signed up for masterclasses this summer. I think you could really benefit from hearing from some other artists; seeing their journeys and methods. Also learning how they decide to approach their topics. It's very difficult..."
"I would really love to, Madeleine..." Her stomach dropped at the sound of her own voice, knowing the explanation would be a humiliating one, as the bills she'd piled on the kitchen table attacked her gut with tiny paper cuts from afar. "Truly it seems like an amazing opportunity. It's just...a receptionist's salary, well, money is really tight right now."
The understatement of the century, Pam cringed at her admission. Since calling off her wedding and the subsequent move into her own studio apartment, Pam had been thrown into a new reality of living paycheck to paycheck, a prospect not completely foreign to her, but uncomfortable in its consistency. Slowly, she'd become a bit more financially stable, recovering from the down payment she had made on her used Yaris and settling into a strict budget. She'd cut costs whenever possible, including at Christmas, when she opted to give illustrations and homemade pranks rather than purchased gifts. But even after all of that, the costs of paints, paper, and especially classes had started to cut into her more prudent grocery budget, which her stomach routinely reminded her was not sustainable.
"Oh, sweetheart." Madeleine breathed, reaching to gently rub Pam's arm. "I'm so sorry. That was terribly presumptuous of me. You know, Marywood does offer work-study and scholarship options. I know they can be more difficult for part-time students to receive but I'd be happy to make some calls, see what I can come up with?"
Pam released a shaky breath, followed by a grateful smile, nodding. "That would be amazing. Thank you."
"It's no trouble, I'm happy to do it. Worst case, you would always be welcome to audit the seminars. And actually…" Madeleine paused, her index finger tapping lightly on her bottom lip, thought plaguing her face. "…This may be a long shot, and feel free to say no, of course, but I might have a gig you could be well suited for. It's Friday nights and every other Saturday afternoon at my studio. Unfortunately, artists and art teacher salaries aren't terribly profitable either, but I've been holding these 'wine and watercolor date night' events over the past year and it's been going quite well. Apparently, there isn't a ton to do on weekends in Scranton." She joked and the pair chuckled for a beat before she continued. "I could really use an assistant though, just making sure everyone has the supplies they need throughout the class, walking the room, helping them with techniques, pouring a glass of wine on occasion…but I promise you wouldn't just be a bartender."
Pam laughed, "No, that sounds just fine. Wonderful really."
"I'm so glad to hear you say that." Madeleine beamed. "I'd also occasionally need you to cover the class on your own when I have a gallery opening or university event, if you are available. I know that might seem a bit daunting, but I think you would be really good at it. You have a lovely sense of humor and the disposition for this sort of work. And while I don't think there is a soul alive who could claim that teaching will universally boost your confidence, I think you may really benefit from the experience."
Pam nodded again, unsure of how to respond to this last statement. Privately, she thought Madeleine was right, it could indeed be an enormously positive opportunity for her. Yet the thought of teaching a large group of strangers drowned her nerves in anxiety.
Madeleine at once picked up on the sense of dread written clearly in Pam's mannerisms. "Why don't you think about it and I'll email you the details. There's no pressure either way. On that same note, even if you do take it don't feel obligated to enroll in the festival. I know what it's like to be tight on cash. Although I should mention, we certainly aren't 'making it rain' by any means. But I hope it will help and allow you to pursue your passions. Because you are talented, Pam. Don't let anyone make you feel otherwise."
It took every ounce of strength Pam had to restrain the emotions that threatened to break her resolve. Smiling back through a shaky breath, she nodded and gave a quiet, "Thank you."
Madeleine smiled, giving her arm a quick, comforting squeeze. "Absolutely. I should let you go; I've got to say goodbye to the rest of this lot anyhow. But look for an email from me in the next day or so, and we'll go from there."
"Okay. Good night." Pam gave a genuine smile as she watched Madeleine turn and walk towards the thinning group of students, who greeted her return with glowing faces. She looked down at her hands which were trembling slightly despite the weight of the portfolio and purse they still held. The tremor, she knew, was no longer so much the result of anxiety, as it was from excitement, optimism for the future, and the earth-shattering kindness and comfort that she had received from both Madeleine and Michael. It shook her to the bone, not dissimilar to the shock a hypothermic patient experiences after stepping into safety. Their actions were a blanket of warmth after nearly a year of the bitter frost she had otherwise experienced from one-time friends and colleagues. Closing her eyes and releasing a calming sigh, Pam made her way again to the door, pushing it open and exiting more confidently from the gallery than she had entered.