Santa Monica Boulevard by ThePinkButterfly
Summary:

There’s something unnerving about the sun still being out, something that makes it all seem a little more serious. Something about seeing the dust in the corner, the sources of shadows, the scuffs on the floor all illumined by the warm light streaming through the windows.

It’s less like magic.

It’s more like real life.


Categories: Alternate Universe, Jim and Pam Characters: Creed, Jim, Pam
Genres: Drama, Drunk Pam/Jim, Fluff, Romance
Warnings: No Warnings Apply
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 3 Completed: No Word count: 5890 Read: 931 Published: March 28, 2021 Updated: April 11, 2021
Story Notes:

I’m having writer’s block with my current California Jam story, and apparently that’s all I know how to write because a Los Angeles story will not leave my brain.


Standard disclaimer applies: I don’t own these characters, I don’t own The Office, and I don’t own any of Sheryl Crow’s songs. Just her greatest hits CD.

1. Apropos of Nothing by ThePinkButterfly

2. Noon on Tuesday by ThePinkButterfly

3. The Only One by ThePinkButterfly

Apropos of Nothing by ThePinkButterfly

This ain’t no disco

Ain’t no country club either

 

“This is LA.” My interviewer sits down at her desk and hands my portfolio back to me. “I’m sorry, Ms. Beesly,” she adds when she sees the crestfallen look on my face.

I stifle a heavy sigh and just take the folder from her, my life’s work feeling unusually heavy in my hands.

The interviewer purses her lips and thinks for a moment, as though she’s deciding how much to tell me. “I’m not saying this is all bad,” she says, gesturing to my portfolio. “But it’s not what we’re looking for.”

I thank her and leave as quickly as I can. There are tears stinging my eyes and the roof of my mouth is hurting from trying to hold it in. I don’t need strangers in an elevator watching me cry.

The first interview I had today for a small advertising agency was almost worse than this. The guy interviewing me was on the phone for the first ten minutes while I waited on the other side of the desk, and then he opened my portfolio, took one glance, and said, “Sorry, babe, that ain’t gonna cut it.”

It hurt, but truth be told, I wasn’t really interested in the job, and I took it as a sign that I could do something more creative and more soulful than commercial work. So I went to this second interview feeling hopeful, thinking a mural in inner city LA would be right up my alley. I guess I was wrong.

I took the day off from my job waitressing at a Chili’s near my apartment so I could focus on my two interviews, but now it’s mid-morning and I’m aimless, restless, the hot California sun reminding me just how much empty day I have left.

The logical thing to do would be drive back to my studio apartment, have a good cry, and work on something new. But instead, (after having a good cry in the parking lot) I drive a few miles west to this hole-in-the-wall bar I discovered when I first moved here. It’s close enough to the beach that you could walk to the ocean if you really wanted to, but it’s not so close that the prices go up unnecessarily. I come here because it makes me feel like a local, although I leave my apartment infrequently enough that I’m basically still a tourist. But at least the bartender knows me by now. That makes me a local, right?

“How’s it goin’, kid?” he drawls as I walk in the door.

“Hey, Creed,” I say. I plunk myself down at one of the shorter ends of the area surrounding the bartending station. “It’s… well, it’s going.”

“What’ll it be?” he asks.

“Just a Bud Lite.”

I take a swig and immediately start picking at the label, my gaze falling to the window across the room. The bar is directly across the street from a giant car wash, but there’s enough of a gap between buildings that I can see the ocean if I look in the right place. The car wash looks nice enough that I can tell it’s not very old, and I wonder what my view would be if it were gone, and there was nothing but air and sky between here and the shore. I’ve dreamt of views like that.

My dreams started with a house overlooking the ocean, something clean and modern yet still cozy and old-fashioned in its layout, something with a balcony where I could work and wave to neighbors or families taking their kids to play in the sand. I now know that houses like that are so expensive that they’re rarely owned by individual people, instead being passed down from generation to generation or immortalized as a hub for fancy business meetings. So I let that dream go.

These days, I’m in a dinky studio apartment with popcorn ceiling and a microwave and toaster oven that can’t both be on at the same time. I can look out the window and see graffiti-adorned bus stops and a 7-Eleven proudly displaying a Camel cigarettes advertisement.

And at this point, I don’t know what I’m working towards anymore.

I’m so tired of not knowing what I’m doing. Making a living as an artist is one of the riskiest things I can imagine, and lately I’ve been wondering if I’m even passionate enough about art to pursue it as a career. Maybe I’m better off just moving back home, going back to school. At least my parents would approve.

 

“Just one day, you know?”

A man’s voice from somewhere else in the bar pulls me back to reality, back to the poorly air-conditioned bar and the shady beach town and the Bud Lite label shredded in my hand.

I look up over to the long part of the bar, and I find the source of the sound immediately. I mean, there’s only one other person here. Well, besides Creed. The man tosses his lit-up pager on the counter and runs his fingers through his hair, the sleeve on his jacket riding up as he bends his elbow. He’s wearing a nice gray suit with a white shirt and a royal blue tie, and I’m feeling unnecessarily self-conscious about my own thrift-store blazer and floral dress combo, even though there’s absolutely no reason for that.

“I’m James,” he says as we make eye contact, holding up his hand in a brief wave.

My eyebrows go up before I can reign them in. James? No way that’s his name. I’m sure it’s Jim or Jimmy or Junior or something like that. Some casual J name like that. But I just give him a little smile and reply, “Hi, I’m Pam.”

“How’s it going, Pam?” he says, with that upward nod that guys do. His smile doesn’t reach his eyes, though.

“Rough day?” I ask.

“Did the eleven o’clock beer or the look of despair on my face give you that impression?”

I let out a chuckle before I can take a sip of my own bottle. “Uh, the beer, I guess. But hey, it takes one to know one.”

He cranes his head to look at the label on my bottle. “C’mon, lite beer? That’s not real alcohol.” He turns to Creed. “Can I get two Americanos over here?”

“Sure thing, Skip,” Creed says.

“Thanks,” I say to James, smiling sheepishly. I still don’t know how to act when someone buys me a drink, especially when it’s a stranger, and especially when it’s a cute stranger like this one. Okay, a really cute stranger.

“Don’t mention it,” he replies.

Creed sets down our drinks, and then it’s silent for a long moment. Normally I like the quiet, but right now I’m feeling like any gap in conversation is time my brain wants to linger on my botched interviews.

“So what happened?” I finally ask James.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I know why I’m at a bar in the middle of the morning; what brings you here? You look like you have better places to be.”

He chuckles humorlessly. “Yeah, you would think.” He takes another sip of his drink and swirls it lightly in the glass, the ice clinking against the sides. “Uh, I just blew a sale. Kind of a big one. And it was the main reason for the trip out here, so….” He finishes with a shrug. “It was either this or stay in my hotel room and beat myself up until my flight home.”

“I mean, it’s not like there’s a shortage of things to do here. You could go to Disneyland,” I offer with a playful smile.

He chuckles again and this time I see his eyes light up, just a little bit. “A thirty-year-old guy at Disneyland by himself would be a little weird.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I reply.

“What about you?”

“Oh, I failed two interviews.”

“Nice. Both this morning?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s rough. I’m sorry,” he says sincerely. I offer a shrug and a half-smile. “What do you do?”

I hesitate briefly before answering. “I’m an artist.”

“Oh, that’s awesome!”

“Well, right now it isn’t,” I say, making us both laugh. “But thank you.”

“What kind of art?”

“Mostly painting and mostly watercolor, but I worked on one mural a few months ago. That’s been literally the only professional job that I’ve gotten out here, and it’s actually how I found this bar, but that’s another story.”

“Well, you’re not getting out of that one so easily because I love a good bar story." His pager buzzes abruptly against the counter, and James sighs and slides off his barstool. “You got a phone I can borrow?” he asks Creed.

“In the bathroom,” Creed says, pointing to the hallway with his thumb.

James looks at me and raises his eyebrows before disappearing down the hall. I take the last sip of my drink and note that his glass is empty too. Well, I guess that’s the end of that, I think.

While he’s gone, a rather loud group of construction workers ambles in, and they take up almost every seat at the bar, leaving only the one next to me. Yup, that’s definitely the end of that.

I’m starting to think about getting out of here, give myself a little time for the effects of the alcohol to settle down first, when James finally reappears from the hallway. He’s ditched his jacket and is now carrying it in his arms with his shirt sleeves rolled up, and even though the bar was warm to begin with, I’m blushing. He takes one look at his now filled seat, and sits down next to me as though that’s where he’s been sitting this whole time.

“Hey,” he says casually. “Looks like the place got popular all of a sudden.” He scoots the seat over slightly, not to distance himself, but to make room for me. Which I need because the construction worker on my right is looking a little too friendly.

James reaches over and takes a few pretzels from the bowl in front of him, delicately holding them between two long fingers. I don’t think he touched any of the ones still in the bowl. Anyway.

“My dad always said that pretzels were invented by a bartender so people would get thirsty and want to drink more.”

I cringe at my lame story, but James just smiles through his mouthful. “I mean, I’m sure they were.”

I make a mental note to let him initiate the conversation from this point forward, even though I know I won’t stick to that resolve. Silence is just making me anxious, and I’m liking not being alone right now. It’s not like I have anywhere else to be.

The first surge of lunchtime carwashes is happening across the street. We get a show of all the nine-to-five workers hosing off their four-doors in suits and pumps and loafers, before driving back to the furniture stores or phone companies or wherever they work.

They chat and pick at their lunches while they wait their turn, occasionally getting a little too close to the spray of the hose. They let out a brief exclamation that turns into an apology and a joke about the situation. They check their reflection in the car windows to fix their hair and adjust their collars, then settle back into conversation, probably griping about the workday or their commute or their boss.

These are good people.

But they’re nothing like Jimmy and me.

End Notes:
I have to take a moment to wish a very happy early birthday to my first friend on MTT: emxgoldstars!! Love you, girlie!!
Noon on Tuesday by ThePinkButterfly

“So, are you going to tell me what you do now?”

We’ve been chatting off and on for the past few minutes about nothing in particular: traffic, the weather, how much we hate LAX. He finally mentions having to travel a lot for his job, and I take the opportunity to ask him about it.

James shrugs modestly. “It’s not that cool. I work for this company called Athlead.”

“As in ‘athlete?’”

He nods. “Yeah, it’s a sports marketing agency.”

“That sounds pretty cool to me,” I say.

“Well, it is,” he admits with a smile, “But it’s not like I just talk sports all day, you know?” He pauses for a minute. “You heard of the Lakers?”

I pretend to think. “Yeah, I think they’ve made the news once or twice.”

“The local news,” he adds, playing along with a brief smile. “Um, I had a meeting with them earlier this morning. And it was going well at first; we had this deal in the works with some of the players, and we were just going to tie up some loose ends, answer some questions for the managers. But, um, I kind of misinterpreted their concerns and made things worse, and before I knew it, I was on the phone with my supervisor telling him I had blown it. He was on the phone with the team owner for the rest of the morning. And then I called him just now and he told me he couldn’t fix things.” He lets out a heavy but not totally unpleasant sigh and cranes his neck into the kitchen area of the bar. “Does this place have mozzarella sticks?”

I smile at his diversion, relating all too well. I’m also quite surprised that he shared this much with me, and I don’t want to press him any further. “Yeah, but the wings are better.” He gives me an amused look. “I come here a lot.”

“I guess you do,” he says. “You want anything?”

Why did he ask me that?

“Um… I can get it,” I reply. I can feel my cheeks growing warm.

His brow furrows, and then his eyes widen in understanding. “Oh, I didn’t mean… I know you can,” he mumbles, looking embarrassed.

Oh gosh, he was honestly just being nice.

“Sorry,” I say quickly, shaking my head as though to undo my defensive words. “I wasn’t trying to… I’ll take some wings,” I say, giving him a smile that I hope is reassuring.

It must be because he smiles back and asks Creed for a double order of wings. I take the opportunity to duck into the restroom and take a few deep breaths. And, okay, make use of the mirrors in there.

When I come back, our food has already arrived. “Why is there a drumstick with our wings?” James asks suspiciously.

I slide back onto the barstool and grab one of the paper napkins. “Oh, yeah, Creed just runs across the street to KFC and resells the wings. Sometimes a different piece of chicken makes its way in.”

“And yet you suggested the wings?”

“Hey, I don’t know how Creed makes any of the other things on his menu. Do you want to order the artichoke dip and find out?”

“Okay, fair point,” he says, evidently having caught on to the eccentricity of our bartender.

We slip back into easy conversation as we nibble on eleven herbs and spices and sip on more beer, talking about our time in college, where we’ve traveled, our favorite movies. Music comes up at one point, and James gushes about Duran Duran and Bon Jovi like he’s been waiting all day for this opportunity. I just nod along (because it’s not like I haven’t heard of these artists) until he asks me what I like and I have to tell him the truth.

“I’m actually not that into music,” I admit. “The only time I really listen to music on purpose is when I work out. And I usually just pick a station and go with it.”

“You’re kidding.”

I shake my head. “Nope.”

“Wow. Okay,” he says, tossing a wing bone onto his plate for dramatic effect. “Here I was, thinking that we could be friends—”

I burst into giggles, hoping that he’ll think it’s because he’s funny and I’m buzzed, and not because he said “we” and “friends” in the same sentence.

James grins amusedly and continues. “But if you’re not into music, I don’t know what we’re going to talk about.”

“We seem to be doing okay, though.” The sentence slips out of my mouth before I can think twice. I try to play it off with a confident little smirk even though that is probably the opposite of what I should be doing.

There’s a beat of hesitancy, just enough for me to second-guess myself, before he says, “I guess,” and rolls his eyes dramatically.

We look at each other and let out soft, almost identical chuckles. I try to think of a response, but he talks again before I can say anything.

“There was this really old-timey bar in Philly that I used to go to a lot,” he muses thoughtfully. “It was one of those places where you went to get a drink, but you stayed for the music, you know? They had a live piano and jazz singers, and they seemed to have an endless supply of new bands. I don’t know how they did it.”

“That sounds really cool,” I say honestly.

His lips quirk up in a reminiscent smile. “They even had a working jukebox, which I always thought was funny. More bars should have one of those.”

“I’m actually surprised that Creed doesn’t have one, now that you mention it.”

“Have what?” Creed says, having made his way to our side of the bar as he cleans the countertop.

“A jukebox.”

“Oh, no I have one. It’s old, but it works.” Creed gestures behind us and, sure enough, there’s a little jukebox set up against the back wall. I’m not sure why I’ve never noticed it, but I guess I’ve never ventured to that part of the bar before.

I turn around in my seat and James is already browsing through songs. “Is there a reason you only have Grass Roots songs on here?” he asks Creed with an incredulous grin.

“I was a member,” Creed says as though he’s telling us that it’s sunny outside today.

James raises his eyebrows briefly, and then his eyes widen in realization. “Oh my God. You’re Creed Bratton?”

“The one and only.”

You know him? I mouth to James.

“Well, I know the Grass Roots,” he whispers, as if that’s any less impressive because Creed is not exactly a young guy.

James finally settles on a song, and he plunks a coin in the machine. The sound of applause pours out of the speakers and segues into the twang of guitars. Very Greg Brady.

Creed nods approvingly from behind the counter. “Good choice.”

James turns to me and offers his hand in a cheesy, exaggerated bow, and I have to laugh before turning him down. “No, I’m not drunk enough to dance.”

“Well we don’t have to dance. We can just sort of… sway.” He slowly moves his shoulders to the rhythm of the guitars, laughing at himself a little as he does so.

Okay, I guess I can’t really turn him down.

I slide off the barstool and join him in the middle of the empty floor. “You’re hard to say no to,” I tell him, extending my hand as a peace offering.

He smiles and takes it in his own, pulling me near but not close, and I’m instantly blown away by how well we complement each other. I’m finally noticing just how tall he is, even compared to me in heels, and the few parts of his body that I’m actually touching feel solid, strong. I put my other hand on his shoulder and let him lead.

 

One, two, three, four

Shah-la, la-la-la-la live for today

Shah-la, la-la-la-la live for today

And don't worry 'bout tomorrow hey, hey, hey

Shah-la, la-la-la-la live for today

Live for today

 

The bar seems to be moving rather than us as we go in circles on the floor. I steal little glances at the bar over James’s shoulder. Creed nods along to the music, but the remaining construction workers and the other patrons that have wandered in pay us no attention at all. For all I know, they are the ones that are moving.

There’s something unnerving about the sun still being out, something that makes it all seem a little more serious. Something about seeing the dust in the corner, the sources of shadows, the scuffs on the floor all illumined by the warm light streaming through the windows.

It’s less like magic.

It’s more like real life.

We make eye contact and suddenly it’s a little too much for me. A little too uncertain. I let my head fall against his shoulder as the last few lines of the song ring out. I’m feeling warm and flushed and I’m thinking I might want to ditch my blazer if this keeps going.

But it doesn’t. We gently pull apart, and somehow I’m not prepared for it, even though our separation is about as slow and predictable and cliché as you could make it.

He quickly runs his thumb over my knuckles before finally letting go of my hand, gravity getting the message before I do, and my hand falls to my side.

I look over at the bar again. No one seems to really care about the music. They’re all busy talking to each other and yelling at a baseball game happening on the TV.

I swallow my nerves and let them mingle with the butterflies in my stomach. “Do you want to… pick another?”

His smile is happiness and relief as he replies, “Why don’t you pick this one?”

Oh gosh. I was not ready to melt today.

“Um, because I’m not going to know any of those songs?” I offer, presenting my own nervous grin.

And with that we break into laughter, that kind of spell-breaking laughter that happens in the middle of a study session or a late-night road trip and totally distracts you from the situation at hand. We’re laughing so hard that we don’t even notice that Creed announces the bar is closing until the people at the bar start to protest.

“You need to close the bar to take a smoke break?” someone asks suspiciously.

A cloud of worry passes over Creed’s face. “Everyone out!” he says urgently. “We’ll be open later tonight.”

The other customers sigh and toss down a few bills before leaving. James tells me he’ll pay the tab, and I step outside to wait for him.

I figure it’s just as well. It was getting a little loud in there.

The Only One by ThePinkButterfly

The sun is warm on my shoulders as I take off my blazer. I want to run to my car and grab my sunglasses, but I don’t want James to think I left, and I overheard some of the other customers say they were going to walk to this other bar down the street. I figure we might as well keep the party going.

He walks out after a couple minutes, squinting into the sunlight. “This a normal thing for him?” he asks, tilting his head in the direction of the bar.

“Well, I’m not surprised, I’ll tell you that much.”

James just shakes his head and smiles. “And I thought my usual bartender was weird.”

He doesn’t make a move in any direction, and I suppose that means it’s my turn.

“I’m probably going to head over to Barnhart’s down the street, so…” I shrug one shoulder, hoping he’ll fill in the other half of that sentence.

He kind of stares at me for a second before responding. “No, yeah, I should… get going.”

Oh.

He looks genuinely regretful as he runs his fingers through his hair. “It was really nice to meet you.”

So much for that, then.

I manage a smile and a nod. “Yeah, you too.” I pause, biting my lip as I formulate some kind of mildly witty response. “I appreciated the dance lesson.”

“Thanks for not stepping on my feet,” he replies with a low, warm chuckle that brings all the butterflies back to my stomach.

I shift onto my other foot, thinking of something else to say. “Um, well, have a good trip home.”

“Oh, thanks,” he says, as though he’s surprised I mentioned that. “Yeah I am not looking forward to Thursday morning.”  He steps into the street with one foot, then turns around. “Hey. Good luck with your art.”

And with that, he turns and jogs across the street even though he’s nowhere near the crosswalk, and I have to smile at that. East Coasters, I think.

With a heavy exhale, I decide I might as well head home.

It’s blazing hot in the parking lot under the direct sun. I gingerly open the door on my tin can of a car, which I complain about fairly frequently considering how close I am to living in it. I turn on the radio as I start heading home, and this time I flick through a few stations before choosing something I might dance to if I weren’t driving.

 

xxxxxxxxxxxx

 

I wasn’t even home for five minutes before my phone rang and I got called into work.

I had been hoping to take a nap and maybe break out my sketchbook and try to figure out this hodgepodge of emotions that has accumulated in the last eight hours. But I could really use the extra money.

We make it through the big dinner rush, which isn’t all that bad since it’s a weekday, and just as things are winding down, one of my coworkers flies past me on my way to the kitchen.

“Can you get table nine for me? I messed up on an order.”

“Sure. How bad is it?”

She grits her teeth and scoops up two platters. “Uh, I’ll be fine if I keep moving.”

I chuckle sympathetically. “Fair enough. I’ll get table nine.”

After taking care of another table, I start making my way across the restaurant, digging in my pocket for a pen. I look up after poking myself with the point, and I almost stop in my tracks.

There’s only one person at table nine, and it’s James.

He’s swapped the jacket-and-tie combo for a dark blue polo with an open collar, and his hair is kind of matted down at the sides in a way that makes me think he was wearing a hat earlier. As handsome as the suit was, I’m seriously taken with this version of him.

I don’t know what the heck he’s doing here because the restaurant really isn’t that close to the bar where I saw him earlier, but it doesn’t matter right now because I’ve already caught his eye.

His jaw drops into an open-mouthed smile that turns my nervous smiling into full-on giggling. “No. Way.”

I hold up my hands as if to say ta-da. “My name is Pam, and I’ll be your waitress this evening,” I say, preparing to take his order as if he were any other customer. That I’ve danced with in the middle of the day. “What can I get you?”

He pauses for a moment, eyes lit up, clearly still surprised. But he smiles and asks, “Well, what do you recommend?”

“I’d probably get a burger.”

“Yeah?” he says with a thoughtful raise of his eyebrows. “Alright then, I’ll take a burger.”

“Which one?”

He smiles somewhat cryptically and hands his menu to me. “Surprise me.”

I’m secretly pleased but I roll my eyes a little before writing Santa Fe burger on the top line.

 

I don’t even get a chance to set his plate down all the way before he asks me out. “Hey, um… when are you done working?”

My heart flutters once against my chest, though mainly out of relief if I’m honest because I was this close to asking him out myself. “I get off at ten.”

“Would you maybe want to get a coffee or something when you’re done?”

“Yeah, definitely.” I worry that I replied too quickly, but he seems equally relieved that I said yes as I was that he asked me. “Bold move to ask out the waitress this early, no?”

“Well, I waited until I had my food, at least,” he replies smoothly, turning his attention to the plate. “What is this, by the way?”

“That’s our Santa Fe burger.”

“Oh, good choice. That’s the one I was leaning towards.”

I smile for the entire last hour that I’m working, thrilled when I remember that I have the clothes I was wearing earlier in the trunk of my car.

 

We meet up in the parking lot at 10:08, James in his polo and gray golfing pants, and me in my dress from this morning and my white sneakers because I don’t feel like putting my heels back on.

“Nice sneaks.”

I toss my jacket into the trunk of my car. “Shut up, they’re part of the uniform.”

“It’s cute, I like it,” he says, and suddenly I feel weird responding the way I did.

But I close the trunk and turn to face him, and he offers me his hand like it was the most natural thing in the world to him. There’s none of the cheesy, overcompensating humor that there was in the same gesture a few hours ago, and we’re not dancing this time around, we’re walking, but it feels about the same.

Same warm air, same rhythm, same purpose.

Except maybe it is a little different because it really does feel magical this time.

“Where are you staying?” I ask, breaking the silence anyway. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Oh, not at all. I’m staying at the Marriott up the hill from the bar.”

Okay, so his hotel is near there. “What were you doing over here?”

“I have a friend who lives around here and he invited me to play golf with him. And then I decided to walk over and get some dinner.” He grins to himself. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Los Angeles is that it is not a walking city.”

That’s for sure. What tipped you off?”

“When there was no crosswalk by the freeway exit.”

“You tried to cross the 405?” I exclaim.

“Now, I didn’t say that,” he replies quickly. “I was about a block away before I realized that would be a dangerous undertaking and I turned around.” His voice deepens a little as he continues. “Which was actually a good thing because I wouldn’t have run into you if I had kept going.”

Wow, okay, so he’s a sappy one. I should say thanks, right?

“Yeah, you probably would have run into a car instead.”

He chuckles, exhaling softly through his nose. “Good one.”

“Thank you,” I say, hoping he knows it’s not just a thanks for the compliment.

 

It’s a short walk from the restaurant to the coffee shop—no crossing freeways for us tonight. There’s no one else in the coffee shop, which makes sense because it’s late on a weekday. I’m actually surprised they’re still open.

“Can I get a chai tea?” I ask the disinterested, platinum blond-haired barista.

“You want room for milk?” she asks, scrawling on the cup.

“Yes, please.”

“And then can I just get a decaf coffee?” Jim says.

“Sure. Can I get a name for those?”

“It’s for Jim.”

THERE it is.

I gnaw on the inside of my cheek to keep from smiling as he pays for our drinks (which is the third time today that he’s bought something for me, so I should really do something about that), but I have to bring it up once we’ve sat down.

“Jim, huh?”

His cheeks puff up as he smiles into his coffee. “Yeah, I go by James at work, and sometimes I forget to switch over.”

“What’s wrong with Jim?”

He shrugs. “Nothing, I guess. I just want to be professional, you know?”

I nod even though I kind of get the sense there’s a little more to it than that. Like he’s trying to put on this air of professionalism and he feels like it doesn’t go with who he is. I know that too, because that’s exactly what I do.

But I just give him a little smirk and ask, “What’s your middle name?”

“Uh, my middle name is not first date conversation.”

First date? Should I clarify that we’re on a date? Does that look dumb? I mean, we’re never going to see each other again, so I guess we can call this whatever we want.

“I’ll tell you my middle name,” I say instead. “It’s Morgan. And, um, I probably should have mentioned this earlier, but my last name is Beesly. I don’t know when you tell someone your last name when you’re on a date with them but you just met that day.”

Jim smiles a little and raises his eyebrows. “Yeah, I definitely don’t know that either.” He clears his throat before continuing. “My last name is Halpert.”

I already knew that because I looked at his credit card back at the restaurant, so I just smile and nod and pretty soon we’re both laughing. It’s kind of awkward, but I actually don’t mind that much. It’s not making it any less enjoyable for me.

 

“So, just so I know how low the bar is,” Jim finally says, “What was your worst first date?”

His set-up makes me smile because I know he’s not being serious at all when he asks it like that. “You have nothing to worry about,” I tell him.

“That bad?”

“I mean, he didn’t throw up in the car while driving or anything, but it was pretty bad. Um, it was a minor league hockey game. He brought his brother, and when I went to the bathroom, the game ended and they forgot about me.”

His jaw drops a little. “You’re kidding.”

“No, they had to come back for me.”

“Don’t forget Pam,” he says aloud, as if he were writing himself a reminder. “Got it.” His grin is as charming as if he had just winked at me, and his eyes are as kind as if he were asking to somehow undo the idiocy of the guy who left me at the hockey game. It’s a combination that sends a warm current from my feet to my fingertips, even through the warmth of the evening and the heat from my tea. He seems to have a knack for doing things like that.

Before I can say anything back, the barista comes over to our table. “Hey, sorry guys, but we’re closing.” She looks over at the homeless man in the corner who must have snuck in while we were there. “Everyone out.”

I get a flash of déjà vu as Jim and I are interrupted by another closing. It’s like we keep being tested to see how we’ll hold up without structure to give us direction.

Last time I was cryptic. Coy. And it backfired.

So I grab his hand as we’re walking out together because I’m not going to make the same mistake again. Jim looks down at our hands and then at me, and when he smiles, I know I didn’t mess up this time.

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