The future looks good..
Wednesday, November 8, 2006
Jim was back in Scranton.
He was sitting on a barstool at Poor Richard’s, a barely touched beer in front of him. Next to him was Michael Scott, which should have been his first clue. He knew something had to be up because, well, who goes for a drink alone with Michael if they can avoid it.
But this version of Michael seemed somewhat different.
It wasn’t that he looked unlike himself. He had on the same professional attire. His hair was neatly groomed in the usual style and his face was closely shaved. He was, however, drinking his beer from his World’s Best Boss mug. But that wasn’t the weird thing. In fact, with Michael, that he brought his own mug to the bar with him was well within the realm of normal.
No, the thing that made the whole exchange not quite right was the conversation.
It was well thought-out and intelligent. It was reasonable and didn’t contain cliches and wrongly used words. This Michael addressed Jim like a skillful attorney, rattling off evidence in a case as to why Scranton should be the branch to remain open and why he was the better choice to head up what would be known as Dunder Mifflin Northeast. Like an impassioned Perry Mason, his voice thundered when he got to his biggest argument, his loyalty to the company and commitment to his employees. Employees he thought of as more than just staff, but as people and people he thought of as his family.
The points he delivered were cogent and valid. He testified that a fun office was the kind of place where the workforce was happy and how these contented employees worked harder, worked together and brought in more sales.
He made the point that customers who were greeted by cheerful customer service reps were more likely to forget their grievances and repeat their orders, despite a hiccup that might otherwise send them running off to Osprey or Staples. He stated suppliers that dealt with happy agents cut better deals and the end result was higher profits for Dunder Mifflin.
Worked into his argument was the theory that employees were analogous to elementary school students; they needed a recess to blow off steam every once in a while. Without it they were drones, easily bored, frustrated with the repetitive tasks of cold calls, taking paper orders, answering phones and balancing the books. To succeed in their jobs, they needed the chance to mix some fun into their day and that arrived by way of joke emails, office parties, movie days and field trips.
To the corporate office it might appear in Scranton far too many hours were spent goofing off and in time-wasting meetings that were more often than not just as easily handled by email. Jan had more than once cut off his funds due to the large sums of money he’d misspent on parties and frequent unnecessary outings. But these, Michael said, were the magic ingredients that made his office the top producer of all the northeast region.
Jim wasn’t sure about all of the things he expounded on but he was right about one thing. The Scranton office did outsell Jim’s current office, even though Stamford should have been the higher volume market with its vast concentration of corporations within it and proximity to New York City and the more affluent clients that existed there.
Taking a sip from the mug that boasted his final argument beforehand, Michael leaned in closer to Jim and whispered to him that he was the secret weapon. Scranton did so well because he was the boss, the world’s best boss. He said the secret to Scranton’s success was his managerial style and that he ran the office not with an iron fist but with a velvet heart.
Central to this, he crowed, was love. Love for the people that worked for him, love for the company he worked for, love for the paper they sold. Love, he said, was the most powerful element to everything in life. And love was going to save them both.
Jim wasn’t sure he could disagree, at least to part of what he said. Love had been the most influential force on his life so far, being what dictated where he now worked, where he now lived and the thoughts that dominated his thoughts most days. But how could it save him, if it was one-sided?
As Jim sat thinking about the power of love over him, Michael began to wax poetic about his employees, sharing observations and his exhaustive knowledge about all Jim’s former co-workers, knowledge that was uncharacteristically insightful, at least for Michael it was.
He even mentioned affection for Toby, further alerting Jim to something being off with the man he was drinking with.
But Jim ignored the nagging feeling. His interest in what Michael had to say outweighed his apprehension, so strangely fascinated by the insights Michael had about each one of the employees he once shared his office with, he ignored the warning signs and stayed transfixed on his old boss as he rambled on.
Jim had always felt Meredith was a little bit crazy but he never knew that seeking a better understanding of her own quirkiness had prompted her to enroll in night school to obtain a degree in psychology.
He’d known Phyllis enjoyed knitting, but he found it hard to believe among her other pastimes were burlesque dancing and writing evocative poetry.
And he’d mistakenly thought he knew Pam better than anyone but learned even more about her as Michael shared her fear of ghosts, how she only liked peaches in their fruit form, never in desserts and how her dream house was one with a terrace off the bedroom she could adorn with flowers.
Curiosity once again overshadowed rational thought when Jim asked Michael to share what insights and secrets he had about him. Michael was all too happy to comply with his request and inched his bar stool closer to Jim. With outstretched arms and both his hands placed upon Jim’s shoulders, he once more called him grasshopper, evoking a strange déjà vu sensation as he enlightened him on what he first saw in Jim when he first interviewed for the job.
It was Jim’s wit and jocularity that got him the position, outweighing his lack of experience and the absence of any demonstrated interest for the job. Michael said he hired him to add a little zing to his humorless workforce and to place a buffer between himself and Dwight, who was getting a little too clingy.
The history lesson continued as Michael detailed how clueless about paper Jim was in his early days, but how under his tutelage Jim learned to peddle 20lb letter bond and triple-bonded cardstock as well as the best of them. But even before he was able to describe the difference between gloss text and 24# uncoated to his customers, it was all his other qualities that made him valuable to their team. Talents like his cheerful demeanor and delightful pranks, that even though drove Dwight to near insanity sometimes, were ultimately the impetus that pushed him to outsell Jim and in turn everyone else. Michael shared how as the months passed with Jim gone, Dwight’s need to best him was declining along with his sales.
When he got around to Jim’s history with Pam and how their joyful friendship created a lively atmosphere in the office that in its absence was now sometimes bordering on depressing, Jim took a long swig of the beer he had been nursing up until now. Hearing Michael talk about their friendship hurt, his lovelorn condition even harder to bear now than when he first ran away 6 months ago to escape the pain of her unrequited love.
Piercing was the sting, especially in the aftermath of recent events. Events that had led him to foolishly believe there was still hope, that her broken engagement and their hours-long conversation meant they might still have a chance at a happy future. But now that he knew she was out in the dating arena, the illusion was shattered along with his heart.
He’d recently, by way of her technological shortcomings and a trip to the bar of her own, learned she had a type–suave and sophisticated, handsome and smooth-talking, the anti-Roy, but also a far cry from who Jim thought himself to be. It was knowing she was now dating this brand of man, the breed she was obviously attracted to, that clued him into why she hadn’t called him when she called off her wedding. It wasn’t about him. At least not about wanting him. He imagined his confession served to make her realize something she never had before, that she was desirable and worthy of a much better man than she had settled for. But now that she knew it, she was going for what she wanted, and what she wanted wasn’t Jim.
That harsh reality was crushing. Their accidental phone call, that occurred back some weeks ago because he’d forgotten to get in his picks, and also forgot the three digit phone extension of the man who acted as commissioner of the fantasy league, had him buoyant again. He’d never expected her to be there but she answered the phone and after just moments of hearing her voice, all the pain of the past months was forgotten. By the time they hung up, he was a kid on a swing, adrenaline pulsing, so high up the chains rattled, hands gripped tight to keep himself airborne. But the high was short-lived and soon he was grounded again, this time plummeting from a height he foolishly pumped himself up to. This time the impact upon landing was near catastrophic.
Jim drank hard to numb himself while Michael went on talking about how strongly Jim felt about Pam, bringing up things that he shouldn’t have known, couldn’t have known even if he were surveilling the office emails for years and not just for a week last year before corporate got a call from Oscar hinting at a lawsuit and shut it down.
The things Michael talked about were Jim’s private feelings.
How the feeling of her head on his shoulder caused a stirring in his body and a flutter in his belly and evoked a feeling of giddiness in him where he’d be happy to have his body be her pillow for the rest of their lives.
How the fit of full body giggles that came over her watching him prank Dwight was more uplifting than watching his favorite comedy and the vision of laughter flitting around her eyes was now a permanent recording in the collection of footage that played on repeat in his head.
How the sadness he felt watching Roy shoot down her dreams over and over again gnawed at his insides and how the anger directed at him when he pushed her to pursue them in spite of Roy’s opinion caused him more distress than if he had eaten every expired item breeding mold in the depths of the kitchen fridge.
How in simple things like sharing an air high five, a communicative glance, or a mock bow complete with an introductory hand roll, and knowing these silent signals were like a covert language only they spoke, he always felt there was an unspoken bond between them. He’d been sure all he needed was to summon the courage to tell her how he felt.
But he’d done that already and all it got him was a job transfer to a new city with a new boss, one who didn’t seem to have the interest and investment in his employees or company that his old one did.
After spitting back the good and bad of Jim’s history loving Pam, Michael went back to talking about the dilemma he was facing, now that corporate was definitively planning to consolidate and close a branch.
“I’ll keep fighting for my family and do everything I can until there’s nothing more I can do. You know my motto. It works on so many levels – in business, in sales and in love.”
Jim once again turned to him, with a broken set of eyes, dark and forlorn but deep below the black haze a little glimmer remained, just enough that they may one day display the magnetic, personality-filled gleam that once lived in them.
And that’s when Michael jumped up on the bar and started to dance the ridiculous moves that he did the night when he first gave the very same advice to Jim that he spouted again now.
Slapping each thigh as he spoke, Michael said it again, the words that set off this whole train wreck.
“Never ever, ever give up.”
And that’s when Jim woke up.
As Jim came to, he realized he’d fallen asleep, right there in the conference room. While the rest of the office went about business, he was catching up on sleep that eluded him at night. He hadn’t been in Scranton, instead the visualization was just another in a series of strange dreams that started about two weeks ago, the unwelcome companion to bouts of insomnia and restless anxiety that came along for the ride. If he thought about it, all his sleep issues had begun six months ago, revealing themselves along with the true feelings he finally let out. Back when he misinterpreted their friendship but then kissed her anyway, and in doing so, lost her for good.
He could blame his daytime fatigue on restless nights brought on by a new bed or the different ambient noise outside his window or stress about the new position. But he knew it wasn’t that that kept him up at night and tired all the time.
Relocation wasn’t the problem nor was it the solution he hoped it would be. The distance hadn’t made him feel better—it didn’t make him stop thinking about her smile, her mischievous laugh, or the way she made him look forward to coming to work.
But mostly it hadn’t cleansed him of the taste of her lips, lips that he should never have sampled because as they say, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
The harm of that small taste was like a poison that entered his body and set up camp, refusing to leave even so many months later.
His plan had failed. Removing himself from Scranton wasn’t removing the toxin of knowing what he could never have.
But somehow while functioning on limited sleep he managed to get through work days. So while Stamford hadn’t been a remedy for his disease, being in a new place did at least help to keep him focused on something besides her. Funny how once she was the reason he looked forward to work and now work was what he threw himself into to escape thoughts of her.
With the newfound dedication to selling paper, he found himself doing quite well in his new branch, making a good impression on his new boss and pulling in some decent sales.
So at least the move was good for his career, even if it was a career that gave him little joy.
Joy would have to come from somewhere else. It no longer was something he felt when he walked through the doors of Dunder Mifflin.
After months of convalescing, there were baby steps, a modicum of progress in his rebirth, as Jim slowly adjusted to his new reality. He would sometimes grab after hour drinks with Matthew the documentary cameraman that came over from Scranton to film his transition. Matt was his partner in exile, though his was not self-inflicted. When Jim requested the move, he too was uprooted from the home he’d made in Scranton and sent to Stamford to capture the aftermath of Jim’s evolution.
Jim sometimes wondered why he was still here. Why PBS felt the need to follow him months later was quite unclear to Jim. He was no longer part of the Scranton office. Surely the everyday activities of a displaced paper salesman couldn’t be all that interesting.
But at least he had a familiar face around, a friend with whom he could dish on the people in Connecticut and compare them to the ones they knew back home, even if they never spoke aloud about the one particular person Jim missed.
Just as in Scranton, talk of what the film crew so clearly knew from their through-the-lens observations was verboten. For the most part Jim was relieved for that. With that topic off limits, he could simply enjoy a beer at the bar with a companion from his old place without thinking of her.
As more time passed, he found he was able to open himself up to new friendships as one began to develop with Karen, the attractive saleswoman that sat behind him. Plus, despite the universe’s practical joke of granting him an office neighbor that had issues with boundaries and anger and gave Dwight a run for his money in his ability to exasperate Jim, he nonetheless found himself reluctantly becoming friends with the guy who dubbed him “Big Tuna” on his first day.
And with three friends to speak of, he could consider his social circle increased. Enough so that after a few more weeks, so too were the hours at night he was able to sleep.
As more time passed, Jim found himself finding small reasons to smile and was laughing a little more each day. Playing pranks helped. So did the games of Call of Duty, the one strange, unprofessional thing they engaged in here. Even though he sucked, and Karen, Andy and even Josh let him know regularly just how much he sucked, playing did help him to further assimilate to the office culture and strengthened the bond forming with the fun brunette that liked to blitz attack him.
At this point the insomnia had almost gone away. The dreams, well, she still popped into his nighttime reveries from time to time, but he preferred it that way. He wasn’t ready to give her up entirely, even if the only way she could be in his life was in his dreams.
And then the phone call happened.
It still imprinted in his mind, Thursday, October 19, 2006, the date he thought would replace and erase June 10th as fate of his happiness.
“Oh my God…”
And just like that, every bit of self-preservation Jim had worked towards in the last months slipped away The quiver in her voice reached his ears and he once again fell under the spell that was Pam, never in his life so happy to be cursed with bad timing.
Within the conversation was confirmation that things were really over between her and Roy. It wasn’t a complete surprise since he’d heard about it from both Michael and Kevin, but with those two you never could be sure they had all their facts straight.
She told him the when, four days before the wedding, but never the why.
She didn’t go into many details but being she had moved out and was living in her own fancy new apartment he pretty much gathered it was truly over with her former fiancé and this wasn’t just another postponement of the marriage that she had committed to years ago.
They spoke for hours. It felt like old times and he wasn’t quite sure what to make of that since in the past all they’d ever been was good friends, she’d made that clear—even if it felt like so much more than that to him.
But that was when Roy was in the way, crowding the landscape, blocking the vista. Now with him out of the picture could something more possibly be on the horizon for them?
No, he rebuked himself for even letting himself think of it again. It wasn’t much but he’d made some headway in getting over her. He couldn’t let himself be swept under once more. She hadn’t reached out to let him know of her situation, not in 5 months. If she had wanted something to happen, why wouldn’t she have called instead of letting a random but happy accident be how they finally reconnected?
Maybe, he rationalized to himself, it was the same thing that kept him quiet for years despite feeling something so deep for her that it sometimes hurt to breathe when he thought of her marrying Roy.
But no, he backtracked again, if it hadn’t happened for them when they were in the same office how could it when living in different cities.
She’d said it herself, it felt far.
And he agreed.
But back after that devastating night, the night when he lost everything to her, first at the poker table and then in the gamble with his heart, what he wanted, no, needed was distance. It was like he told the documentarian when asked why he requested the transfer, he had no future in Scranton. His future was marrying someone else and he couldn’t bear to be anywhere near as they began theirs.
But five plus months eclipsed from her light, well, that felt unnatural, too. So, when he heard her voice, it was like feeling the sun through a window, there was warmth and there was brightness but not quite enough and he wanted to throw up the pane and feel the glowing rays on his skin again.
He wanted nothing more than to reach through the receiver to touch her hands. How much he needed to soak up her smile, to drink in her laughter but when for some inexplicable reason, the call had its abrupt end, he was back to his window but now the sun had moved, its angle no longer positioned to let light in.
Once again it felt like there were oceans separating them instead of only two mere state lines. The distance felt too much, where before it felt not enough.
Even if there was the chance they could try at some long-distance thing, he felt he wasn’t ready to open himself up to the pain again if it didn’t work out. No, better not to get his hopes up. Best to draw the shades and not be tempted to open that window again.
But then the dream he had that night said different.
The recurring nightmare of that whole year was something he’d come to expect, almost welcome of late because at least he got to see her. Pam was always a vision, even more than he remembered, ethereal and stunning in a silky white gown. Her beautiful face remained hidden behind a delicate veil as she walked to the altar to meet her groom. And like clockwork, every single time Jim would burst into the church just moments after the officiant uttered “forever hold their peace” only to watch her and Roy seal their union with a kiss.
But this time he somehow arrived ahead of the speak now part of the sermon. He threw open the doors and raced to the altar just in time to voice his objection only when he got there it wasn’t Roy standing next to Pam. When the groom looked back at him with confusion, sorrow and anger all competing for dominance on his face, it was Jim's own face staring back at him. As freaked out as he was, Pam was even more so and ran off crying, and Jim was left there with his doppelganger, who had begun throwing punches at him until Dwight of all people jumped in and pepper sprayed them both.
Waking up in tears and a cold sweat, Jim tried to interpret his dream. He wasn’t usually one to take stock in the meanings of nighttime visions, but this one was hauntingly vivid. It had to mean something. He spent most of the next day looking at dream websites and congregating what he found online with what his own mind told him made sense. But no website was better at telling him what his own brain had already self-analyzed. He was getting in his own way, acting as his own worst enemy, letting pride or fear or simple stupidity obstruct what could be a beautiful future with the woman he still loved.
But still he felt paralyzed to act and at the same time was terrified of what he might be missing by not calling her again. The door may have reopened but still he was unsure what was behind it.
After a full day of deliberation, he made his decision, which was not to decide, not right away anyway. Maybe he would call her again in a few days. In that time maybe she’d make the next move and call him. For now, he’d put a pin in the situation and try to take a break from thinking about her and what he should do.
But not thinking about her wasn’t easy.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
He thought about her all that week, every single day.
The day he heard the news from Josh and Jan began no different from the rest, with thoughts of her. It was one of those days where he couldn’t get her out of his mind for no reason other than he’d run out of fabric softener while doing laundry the night before. It was as good a reason as any to get over himself and give her a call, and he almost did until he got in his own head.
He talked himself out of it saying she probably wouldn’t even remember the conversation they’d had the day they spent shopping for Kevin. And once again he’d be the fool who saved hot sauce packets and who played free cell all night just to hear the ts-ts-tch-tch-tch that made his heart skip a beat, remembering little things she did or said because to him they meant everything.
It was also one of those days where he was sure being at Stamford was going to slowly drive him insane. It began with another encounter where he, who had little reason to smile, forced one to his face when his neighbor joined him in the elevator of his building only to have him roll his eyes and smirk as if Jim was making a pass at him instead of merely comporting himself with baseline friendliness. He kept forgetting where he was, in the straight-faced, keep your eyes down land of the reticent.
However, it seemed there were those whose reserve wasn’t quite so rigid. After months being in the office with him, Andy had become anything but reticent. He told him strange secrets about his love life, or at least the one he wanted to have, and shared every opinion he had on Jim’s hairstyle, lunch choice and even the tone of his speaking voice.
This particular day he spent singing. The same song all day. The song that was bad enough when Bobby McFerrin sang it, but was even more annoying when it was Andy crooning it on repeat, as if trying to get Jim to heed the advice, don’t worry, be happy.
But Jim couldn’t stop worrying. Worrying about whether he should call her, worrying about what the meeting scheduled for later with Josh and Jan was about, worrying about whether he’d be able to get the annoying diddy out of his head that night or whether he’d have another crazy dream that night with Andy trying to hook him on an imaginary fishing line while serenading him with Who Let the Dogs Out or Mmmbop.
By the time Jan arrived and Jim was called in to Josh’s office for their meeting, he was hoping to hear news that had it come days before would have been devastating. News that his new branch was closing and he was being sent back to Scranton.
To hear that now would be almost a blessing. It would get him away from Andy and his annoying singing which on his best day was worse than Dwight’s lectures on martial arts and fire safety.
It would get him back to his family and friends and strangers who were cordial and even convivial as they went about their daily lives.
But most of all he wouldn’t have to decide about calling her or even thinking about what their call meant. He would have a chance to see what could happen without having to make any decision. Fate would make it for him and he would get to go home and see what the future had in store.
But the news Jan gave Josh and him was actually the opposite.
“As of right now your office is the front-runner to stay open. David won’t make a final recommendation to the board until the full six-month period is up but unless something drastic happens it looks like Scranton will close and this office will become the headquarters for DM Northeast.”
Jim knew this was good news but hearing it felt like someone had reached into his chest and pushed his heart down into his stomach where it was pulverized by the swirling bile that rose up in it.
“Jim, we want to thank you for all the hard work you’ve put in this last half year since you’ve been here. When this all becomes official, your role will become even more substantial as we’re going to want Josh handling big picture stuff, major clients and new deals. He’ll be out of the office even more now so you’ll be our man on the ground dealing with the day to day.”
Again, Jim knew he should be happy. He’d only asked for the transfer so he didn’t have to be where he felt had no future and now that he was here, his future was looking really good. So why didn’t he feel happy?
“Jim, we know you have a lot of friends in Scranton and will be sorry for them but we’re asking you to keep quiet about this until the official notice is given. We are still deciding who, if any of the staff will be offered a spot here and we may come to you for your input.”
Jim of course agreed even though all he could think about his friends losing their jobs, one friend more than the rest, and worried about how he would be able to stay silent about the news if and when they talked again. Right then he decided he couldn’t call her now because of what he might let slip if he did. If she called him, well, then Dunder Mifflin be damned, she would learn of everything, as she resumed her sovereign position in his priorities and loyalty.
The meeting continued as they went over sales figures and projections. Surprisingly, Stamford was still lagging behind Scranton in sales but that must not have been David’s only consideration in deciding.
Earlier in the meeting while Jim’s mind was off in Scranton imagining the devastation on her face when she got the bad news, Jan had been listing the qualities that she saw in both Josh and Jim. The qualities that were integral to the future success of the branch and the whole company.
Leadership, knowledge, integrity, reliability, respect for employees and that pesky loyalty.