Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Author's Chapter Notes:
This was originally posted on LJ over a month ago, but I decided to bring it over here since it is Jim/Pam, and I received an email today suggesting I post it here. :) Thanks go to DinkinFlicka for beta, and 69con for encouragement. Dedicated to jam4eva07.
I haven't heard anything, but I bet Jim got the job. I mean, why wouldn't he? He's totally qualified, and smart, everyone loves him... and, if he never comes back again... that's OK. We're friends. And I'm sure we'll stay friends. We just, we never got the timing right. You know? I shot him down, and then he did the same to me, and... But you know what? It's OK. I'm totally fine.
She sits at her desk and stares at the back of his head for a couple minutes before she remembers herself and moves, placing one foot in front of the other until she's standing over his desk.
"So what are the plans?"
He blinks up at her, and she knows that she's taken him by surprise. She thinks that maybe he should get used to that.
"Oh. I was thinking...dinner."
She smiles. "Yeah, you mentioned that."
He shifts, and his eyes narrow a little when he grins up at her. "Cuginos? Unless you wanted somewhere else-?"
"No, that sounds good. Want to just leave from here?" She nods her head toward the door and his gaze follows; she wonders if he's expecting someone.
But then he meets her eyes again. "No. That sounds great. I'll pick you up at your desk at five." He grabs a pen from his desk and writes Pam, Desk, 5, URGENT on a post-it, sticking it to his monitor. "In case I forget."
She insists on driving, because she feels like it and she's always wondered if he would fit in her car. His knees push against the dashboard, but he still manages to settle in for the most part.
He reaches behind and under the seat, searching for the lever. "If I could just push it back-" He finds it and the seat lurches back, and he winces at the hollow clang of metal underneath the upholstery. "Pam, are you sure you don't want me to just drive?"
She watches him until he closes the door and buckles his belt, and then starts the car. "Yes," she says, adjusting the mirror and smiling at herself, "I'm sure."
They're silent on the short drive, and he changes all of her presets, the tip of his finger turning white when he presses down on each button, waiting for the music to reappear.
She lets him.
It's awkward, and she wonders if she had more experience with first dates she would be used to it. Maybe if she didn't feel like they had more than a year to catch up on, or more than one apology to get through. Her giddiness dissipates by the time the drinks come, and she sips her iced tea and watches as he takes a long pull from his beer before speaking.
"So, how did the interview go?"
He looks flustered for a moment, and she wonders what else she was supposed to say. "Well, I'm here, aren't I? That should be one indication of how it went."
He takes another drink, clearing his throat before answering her again. "Truthfully? It did go well, but...I don't think it's the right fit for me. And it's not like they offered me anything."
"Yeah. I wanted to thank you, by the way," he says, leaning forward, "for the little note you left."
She can feel herself blushing, and hopes that in the dim lighting of the restaurant he won't notice. "You're welcome, it was just...something I wanted to do." She had cleaned out her desk the week before, and when she found the discarded medal she had carefully removed the paper clip chain, smoothing over the hole and setting it aside. She had hoped she would be able to use it again, find a place where it would fit.
"It meant a lot."
She looks across the table, meeting his eyes. "I know."
He smiles, looking down, and his foot bumps hers under the table, shaking slightly. She places her foot over his for a moment, stilling it, and she imagines how her shoe must have left a mark on the top of his, and how it will still be there when he goes home that night. She wonders if he'll wear those shoes tomorrow, or the next day, and if that mark will still be there. When she meets his eyes again, he's looking at her. She stops thinking about shoes.
"I'm so glad we're here."
"Me too." She has to ask. "Jim?"
He looks away, just like she knew he would, but she also knew she had to bring her up.
"Karen and I are...we aren't." He shrugs.
"I don't know, after my interview I went to see her and...it's over. I needed to come back to Scranton. To you." The last part makes her uncomfortable, and she knows that that isn't the right reaction; she knows that she should melt, reach for his hand, cry, anything.
But she doesn't. "Jim, I'm happy we're here, too."
"Good." He's the one reaching for her hand. His is warm, comforting. She can't stop.
"But-" he runs his thumb across her index finger, "I said what I did on the beach because I needed to. It wasn't...it wasn't something I said for you." His thumb stops. "I mean, I meant it, and...I just wanted to let you know that." She finishes, lamely, and she thinks that maybe it would be better if she had a bed of coals to run across every time she needs to say something important, because she feels as ineffective as she did before that ever happened.
Under the table, she presses her foot down on the floor, and the blister on the ball of her foot aches for a moment; she looks at Jim and continues before he can say anything.
"And I want to say I'm sorry about what happened with Roy. I know that I already said that once, but...I think I need to say it again. I wish that hadn't happened."
Jim smiles, and she thinks it might be okay. "I know, and I'm sorry about what I said."
She bites her lip. "That wasn't a good day for us, was it?"
He moves his hand from hers and leans back as the waitress sets down their food. Once she's gone, he meets her eyes again. "I was...upset. But I get it, you felt bad about being with him again."
She picks up her fork and sets it right back down again. "No."
He looks at her, startled. "No?"
"I was sorry about how he tried to attack you, that was something I could have stopped, maybe. I at least could have told you about it, warned you that it might be coming."
He nods. "Right."
"But I think that getting back with Roy was a good thing."
He stares at her. "A good thing?"
She pauses, collecting herself before continuing. "When I ended things with Roy last summer, it was...a mess. I was a mess. It was hard, Jim. And you were gone, and I had a freezer full of wedding food, and I had to get a new place..."
"Oh." He sounds subdued, and she wishes she could make everything clear, make him understand.
"It just...wasn't a clean break, you know? And then Roy got a DUI..." she trails off, remembering the summer, the fall, winter, everything.
"I didn't know that."
"Well, after ten years, he was...but that's not the point, Jim. I got back with Roy for the wrong reasons, but in the end it was what I needed. I needed to go back to where I was to realize what I had become."
She can feel him watching her as she folds and refolds the napkin in her lap. "I understand."
"You know, actually, I think Roy attacking you was a good thing, too." She looks up at his surprised expression. "I'm still sorry it happened, though."
"Too bad I didn't get a black eye or a bloody nose, you would be having the time of your life right now. I bet a broken jaw would have made your year." He smiles, and she laughs because he's trying.
"After...that, Roy and I had a good talk, and I really felt good with where we left things. He was in my life for so long, you know?"
He glances down. "Yeah, I know."
She's the one reaching for his hand this time. "I just wanted to say that now, because...we've spent a year hurting each other, Jim. I wanted to get it...out there."
"Good." She shouldn't expect him to say anything.
"So Jan and Jan's new attributes were fired today."
And then he's telling her about the day and she's laughing, and maybe it doesn't matter that he doesn't mention Karen and they don't talk about the past again.
She drives him back to his car with his hand on her knee. Out of habit she presses three on the radio, which is a soft rock station that she likes to listen to late at night because sometimes she knows the words enough to sing along. Something she doesn't recognize comes on instead, and she remembers the drive over and wishes he would move his hand, and she feels a little guilty for that.
But then he's humming along and reaching for her hand, so she drives the rest of the way with his fingers tangled with hers, and none of it really matters. She pulls alongside his car and parks.
"I like your new car, by the way."
"What? Oh yeah," he glances out the window, "I forget that it's still new."
"Well, does it still have new car smell?"
He laughs. "Actually, it kind of smells like Andy's cologne. I gave him a ride home last week."
"A fatal error."
"Yeah, he ruined the new car illusion with Abercrombie and Fitch."
She shrugs. "Hey, if I was a fifteen year old girl, that would totally work for me."
"Yeah, it worked for him, too."
"What?" She pulls her hand from his and looks at him as he leans his head back and grins at her.
"Yeah, he was accidentally dating a high schooler."
She laughs. "I miss so much when you aren't talking to me." It's the wrong thing to say, but she can't unsay it and he looks at her for a moment before leaning forward and kissing her. Her back is twisted weird but his hands are on her face, her neck, in her hair.
She walks him to his car and he presses her against the driver's side door, kissing her again. She runs his tie through her fingers when she says goodnight, and he waits until she pulls away before getting in his own car, moving slowly in her rear view mirror.
She likes that.
Her cell phone rings the next morning at ten. She knows it's him, because when she got home last night she couldn't sleep so she changed all of her ring tones; for some reason she thought that the can-can was a really good one for him at two in the morning. She's laughing a little when she answers.
There's a pause. "...hey. Something funny?"
"Oh, no. It's nothing."
"Okay. So, hi. It's me. Uh, Jim?"
"Are you sure? You sound a little confused." She sits down on the overstuffed chair in her sitting room that she got at the Goodwill when she first moved in and runs her fingers over the rip hidden on the side of the cushion while she waits for him to answer.
He finally laughs, and she relaxes. "I'm sure. I'm Jim."
"And I'm Pam."
"Okay, you can stop now."
"What? I'm just clarifying."
"So now that we both know who we are, can I...?"
"Sure. What's up?"
"Nothing. I just wanted to talk to you."
She's surprised when her stomach flips at his words, but maybe she shouldn't be, because he hasn't wanted to talk to her in so long and his voice sounds so sure. "Oh."
"Unless you're busy-"
"No, no. I'm just sitting here enjoying my Saturday."
"Are you busy today?" He says it casually, but she still sits up straight.
She wonders if he's so used to boundaries between them that he doesn't know how to ask something straight out. "Want to hang out?"
"Sure. What do you want to-"
"There's a park by my apartment." She wants to go somewhere open; she wants to do something new and old with him.
"Yeah, are you too old for playgrounds and fun?"
"This sounds like a challenge."
"Maybe it is."
"Fine. I'll meet you there in an hour?"
"I'll be there."
She hangs up the phone and sits for a moment, hugging her knees to her chest and taking a deep breath before standing up to get ready.
She gets to the park early, pleased that it's deserted for a Saturday morning. Pulling her hoodie tighter around herself against the slight late spring breeze, she sits on the end of the slide and waits. After five minutes she leans back, pulling her feet underneath herself, and tries to slide upward toward the top. It's easier since she's taller than the last time she tried it, decades ago, but she still slides back down just the same and decides to sit on a swing instead.
She's still there, idly swaying and digging a hole in the gravel with her shoe when someone pushes her from behind. Jim. She glances over her shoulder and smiles at him, pumping her legs as he pushes her again. She keeps going higher and higher until the set starts to creak in protest, and she drags her feet underneath herself to stop.
He kisses her while she's still slowing down, holding the chains in his hands and bending down to meet her mouth. She runs her fingers along the neckline of his t-shirt before pulling away and looking up at him.
"Hey." He sits down on the swing next to her, wrapping his fingers around the chains. "So what are the plans now that I'm here? Merry-Go-Round? A serious game of tag?"
"There's a basketball court, too."
"Are you challenging me to a game?"
"Nope. I don't want you to be embarrassed."
"Well, what'll it be then?" He smiles, rubbing his palms flat against the tops of his thighs.
She pushes herself off, moving again. "I don't know, it just seemed like a good place to talk."
He frowns, twisting in a circle and releasing himself, spinning slowly. "What did you want to talk about?"
She's not annoyed. It's a beautiful day and she's there, she's with him. "I don't know. Anything. Everything."
"That's a deep subject," she interrupts him, slowing herself up again when she feels like she's going too fast, the wind turning her cheeks pink.
"Ha. You're so witty."
"I mean," he rubs the back of his neck, adjusting his hat, "did you want to talk about last night?"
She bumps his toe with her own. "Maybe. It was nice."
"Just nice?" He laughs and she presses her foot against his again. "It was, though." He exhales loudly. "I'm really here."
She looks up to meet his eyes. "You're here?"
"Yeah." His fingers tap on her knee, and she wants to ask him if he knows Morse Code, to make him laugh. She just wants to say it's okay it's okay it's okay until he kisses her again.
He smiles, looking down at his hand on her knee. "Are you?"
"Yes," she says simply, and it's not really true because when he pulls her into his lap he holds on too tightly and it's him and it isn't.
He kisses her.
When she walks in on Monday, she half expects that everyone will know, somehow; that maybe she'll say something, or he'll meet her at the door with a kiss just because. Instead, she walks in and Karen's there, packing up her desk and not meeting anyone's eyes. Jim's at his desk, facing away from her. She thinks about emailing him, calling him, coming up behind him and tapping on his shoulder, but it's not the time so she sits and organizes her faxes so she has something to stare at until Michael appears, calling her into his office. Jim's staring at his computer when she looks his way before walking in.
"Pam. Sit down."
She settles in the chair. "What's up, Michael?" He looks horrible; his hair's everywhere and dark circles are under his eyes.
He rubs the side of his face before he answers. "My life is a mess."
"Jan spent all weekend moving into my condo."
"Oh. But that's good, right?"
"Noooo. No no no no no. She's not-"
Karen knocks and pokes her head in the door. "Michael? I'm done, so is everything all set?"
He looks up. "Yep. Have a good life in the big granny smith."
Karen nods. "The Big Apple. Right."
Pam speaks up. "Bye, Karen." She knows that she doesn't have anything to apologize for, but she finds that she tries her hardest to make bye sound like I'm so sorry.
Karen pauses, staring at her. "...bye." She leaves and Pam doesn't look back.
Michael continues. "And the thing with Jan isn't even the worst...they replaced her already."
Pam looks at him. "Karen?"
He shakes his head, and he's starting to cry. Great. "Ryan," he whispers.
"Ryaaaaan." He wipes his eyes on his sleeve.
"Okay, okay. So he's taking...Jan's job?"
"He is going to be directly over me. That's what she said. This is the worst day. He's leaving!"
"Well, you'll still see him..."
"Yeah, except he'll be...not Ryan."
"Oh. I see. Um, how will he be not Ryan?"
Michael puts his head on his desk. "Why does everything have to change?"
"Well, sometimes change is for the better. Maybe this will be a good thing."
He sobs. She stands up, handing him a tissue from the box on his desk. After he blows his nose loudly she clears her throat.
"Do you want me to get you some juice?"
His voice is small. "Apple, please."
She's getting Michael his third juice box when Jim walks into the kitchen.
He leans against the fridge. "Crazy about Ryan, huh?"
She pulls the straw off of the side, tapping it against the counter and pulling it out. "Yeah."
"Michael still upset?"
"You could say that." She jabs the straw into the top of the box, tossing the wrapper in the trash. "I just feel so bad for him, you know? Between this and Jan..."
He nods, looking tired. "Yep."
She looks at him. "So..."
"Did you say good-bye to-"
"Karen? Yeah. I don't want to talk about it."
She nods. "Right."
"Hey, do you think you'll be busy all day?"
"Yeah. He wants to make a new video to send to Ryan."
"Have fun with that."
"Oh, I will. Talk to you later?"
He squeezes her arm as she walks past him.
Things at work finally calm down a week later, and Jim kisses her in the break room as she buys a Twix. Those two things are related, somehow, and she smiles up at him as he pulls away. Holding Michael's hand (which happened once and lasted for an hour, sitting on the floor next to his desk) and answering the influx of calls from Jan and corporate while Michael tells her in a stage whisper whether or not he's there have left her tired, and she hasn't seen Jim outside of work since the park. She even fell asleep on the phone with him one night, waking up to a dial tone and a robotic voice. He didn't call her back the next night. But. He's here now, and he's kissing her one more time before she has a chance to speak.
"What was that for?"
He shrugs, smiling back at her. "I wanted to."
She sits down at one of the tables, and he sits across from her, passing his bottle of water back and forth between his hands. "Admit it, you just wanted me to give you one of these." She opens up the candy and hands him a bar, taking a bite of hers.
"I'm so transparent, I know."
"I can always see right through you."
"A blessing and a curse." Maybe she imagines it, but she thinks that he looks uncomfortable for a moment.
"Let's do something tonight." It slips out of her mouth, and she likes the feeling, likes that she's the one speaking up, making things happen.
"What do you want to do?"
She looks him right in the eye. "Be with you."
He spills his water.
She's taking steps forward while still looking back, because aside from going to a movie, she's got nothing. Not that he minds. He shrugs when she tells him he's allowed to drive this time and buys her popcorn without asking, and something inside her flips over when he reaches for her hand halfway through the movie. She invites him over afterwards and her voice only shakes a little, and his slow smile when she does is enough for her.
They end up making out on her couch until she has to pull away, catch her breath. She stumbles a little when she gets up to get them something to drink, and when he laughs she almost stumbles again. Getting a couple of mismatched glasses of water, she walks back into the room to find him looking around, running his finger over the poster of Starry Night she still hasn't framed, tacked up on the wall with that stuff that feels like gum and reminds her of her locker in seventh grade.
"I hope water's okay."
"Water's fine." He looks up at her. "Nice decor, very arty. Very...you."
She finds she has to force her smile. "Yeah, my Mom got that for me when I moved in here, I loved that painting in High School."
"And now you just feel lukewarm about it?"
"Yeah, Van Gogh's so five years ago."
"That's what I thought. Who's in now? Manet or Monet?"
She tilts her head, pretending to be lost in thought. "Raphael. Vintage is in."
He grins. "Huh. Good thing I have you around to keep me up on what's important in the art world."
"It's true, you'd be lost without me."
"What's over here? Is it some of your work?" He's walking toward her table now, with its mismatched chairs. On the corner is her discarded stack of Impressions. She brought them home one day and meant to put them away, maybe frame a few or put them in her portfolio. Instead, a few days turned into a few weeks and she decided that she can't move them until she figures out how to recreate the coloring left by the thin layer of dust, because she likes the effect. The day she decided that was a good one, as she sat at the table reading a magazine and eating a Lean Pocket; it made her feel like she was having a breakthrough because she was finally seeing art in everyday moments. Then she thought it might just be a new lazy way to get out of dusting (although she did draw a Swiffer and add it to the stack).
He's reaching for the pile now, and she feels something like panic rise within herself. "No! I mean, yeah, it's my stuff, but don't touch it...I'm working on something."
His hand freezes and he looks back at her with an eyebrow raised. "Okay." He shrugs, setting his glass on the opposite side of the table, then taking hers and doing the same.
"What are you sorry about? It's your work, I can't force you to show it to me." He reaches for her hands and she jumps a little before stepping closer and kissing him. She doesn't have shoes on, and she stands on tiptoe until he bends, leaning over her and sliding his hand around to the small of her back. She places her palm flat against his chest to feel how fast his heart is beating, but he moves back, back like she's pushing him away. His bottom lip is sticking out a little, and when he licks it she takes a step forward, until he's backed up against the table. Resting her hand on his chest again, she looks up at him, staring into his eyes until he blinks.
"I'll show it to you some other time."
He skims his hand across her hip, his fingers catching on her belt loops. "Yeah. We have a lot of time now, huh?"
She presses her forehead into his chest, nodding.
"So." His thumb slips under the hem of her shirt, running along the skin just above the waistband of her jeans at her hip, and she closes her eyes, feeling her eyelashes brush against the fabric of his shirt. "I don't think you gave me the grand tour."
She opens her eyes again, pulling away to look up at his face, laughing. "The grand tour? That's the best you've got?"
He rubs his eyes with his free hand. "Yeah, I can't believe I just said that."
She giggles. "Let's see, is this the point where I make you wait while I 'slip into something more comfortable' and then yell for you to meet me in the bedroom, since you haven't seen it yet?"
He thinks for a moment. "Actually, yeah. That sounds good. Should I just sit right here?"
She flicks his shoulder. "Yeah, you'll be waiting a long time."
"Wait, did you just flick me?"
"You committed a flickable offense."
He laughs, and his hand moves all the way under her shirt, his palm warm as it presses into her back. She wonders if he notices that she pushes back into it, just a little bit; when his fingers curl a little, dragging across her skin, she thinks that maybe he does.
"You'll have to let me know what exactly constitutes as a flickable offense."
His pinky's dipping under the waistband of her jeans now. "Oh, um, there are a lot of things..."
"Like what?" His other thumb is hooked in the belt loop of her other hip, the weight of his hand pulling down.
"Stop what?" He leans forward and kisses her neck, and his evening stubble grazes her ear.
She looks over his shoulder at the glasses of water, condensation dripping down the sides. They'll leave a ring there if she doesn't move them. His lips are at her ear now. His hands-
She makes a decision. "Jim?"
"Do you want the grand tour?"
He laughs as she leads him into her bedroom. But then his fingers grip hers a little and she knows he's nervous.
She is, too.
The next morning he sits at her table while she hands him a bowl of cereal.
"Are you sure that you don't want to go out somewhere?"
"Yeah." His morning voice is a few notches deeper than usual - when she first woke up to his mumbled 'morning' in her ear, she half wondered if she had sex with someone she didn't know and only dreamt it was Jim. But then his hands were on her again and she was awake, and she kissed him even though she usually worried about things like morning breath, or how her hair looked. But he didn't seem to care. So she didn't either.
"Sorry I only have the one kind."
"Really, it's okay." He smiles at her as he pours milk over the flakes in his bowl. "So...these are supposed to be strawberries?"
"They ARE strawberries." She takes the box of Special K Red Berries from him and pours her own bowl.
He chews for a moment. "Yeah, they almost taste like them, too."
"They're just...dried. You have to let the milk wake them up a little."
He puts down his spoon. "Wake them up? Pam, just tell me - are these live strawberries?"
"Yeah, you're committing murder with every bite."
"Well, now I feel guilty."
"Just shut up and eat." She should have just gotten the chocolate kind.
"Whatever you say." She watches him as he eats, how he takes huge spoonfuls and then eats them carefully, licking his lip to catch any milk. She wonders if he'll drink his milk at the end like she does, or if he'll just tilt the bowl and use the spoon. He looks up and catches her staring. "Yours is going to get soggy." He smiles, and she tries not to look at his knee under the table, bare as he sits in his boxers. She starts to think about the night before, how it was nice, and then how the second time everything seemed to gel and it was suddenly good, really good. How he pressed that knee next to hers when he-
"What? Oh." She finishes her bowl.
"What are you thinking about?"
"Hmm? Nothing." She's not going to blush, but then he moves a little closer to her and she gets a chill.
He shrugs. "Whatever you say."
She stands, picking up the bowls and tossing them in the sink. "I think I'm gonna take a shower."
"Oh?" He raises an eyebrow.
"Oh, stop it." She walks back toward her bedroom, looking over her shoulder. "You coming?"
He laughs as he gets up. "That one was too easy, so I'll just say yes."
She starts the shower, bending over, and when she straightens up he's right behind her.
"You have to give it a minute, it takes a bit to warm up."
He's looking in her eyes. "All right."
"You can just use my shampoo..."
She glances around nervously, at him as he stands there, at herself in the mirror. Her hair is a mess. He meets her eyes in the mirror, and then his gaze turns to himself.
"Do you think I should grow my hair back out?" He runs his fingers through it, messy from sleep.
"Do you want to?"
"I don't know...I really only cut it for the interview, and..."
He looks away and she gets it. "Oh. Well, I kind of like how it looks, actually."
He turns to her. "Really?"
"Really. It looks...different, but more...something." She almost says mature, but that's not it, really.
"But it's up to you."
"Right." He looks in the mirror again. "I guess I'll see how it goes."
The mirror is starting to steam up slightly. "It's ready."
She washes his hair, reaching up and lathering it until her arms ache a little bit. She really does like it shorter.
"Maybe I'll just take the one class."
"Hmmm?" Jim doesn't look at her as he sits and watches a baseball game. They're sitting on the loveseat in his apartment, her legs resting on his lap as she looks over the summer course catalog.
"Instead of taking both of the ones I wanted to take, maybe I'll just take the one." She stares at the tip of the highlighter she's using to mark classes, the yellow covered with a smudge of black. She hates when that happens. Running the end along her finger, she looks at the yellow streak and back to the end, wishing that she could make it go away.
"Why not take both?"
She shrugs. "I don't know."
He's still not looking at her. "That's not a good enough reason. When would they start again?"
She reaches over to brush his hair out of his face; in the month since the interview, his hair's gotten longer, messy. Back to before. She's trying to like it again. "The first week of July."
He catches her wrist, kissing the top of her hand before releasing it. "In a couple of weeks? Can you even get in them?"
"I checked online earlier, and there were a few spots left. I don't think many people take night classes in the summer semester."
He laughs, looking over at her. "You're dedicated."
"Well, I think you should just sign up. What classes are they?"
She draws a star next to each one. "One is art history, and the other is painting."
The game's come back from commercial, and he's gone again. "Great. How many nights a week?"
She frowns. "It would be four, actually, because the one class is Mondays and Wednesdays, and the other is Tuesdays and Thursdays."
"Four nights a week."
"Well, we'll still have weekends, right? And some late nights..." He looks her way again, winking.
"We'll have to see about that one." She glances down at the catalog again. "Mind if I use your laptop to register?"
"What's mine is yours." She gets up, swinging her legs down and kissing him. She knows that he's still watching the game behind her, but then he takes a minute, running his hand down her arm when she finally gets up.
As she settles behind his laptop, turning it on, she can hear him turn up the volume.
He's driving in silence, his back tense. She touches her fingers to his knee but he pulls away, and when she clears her throat he finally glances in her direction.
"Sorry, I just don't want you to distract me." He smiles, but it doesn't look right.
"We don't have to go."
"Oh, I thought that we did."
"Jim." She sighs. "I thought it was okay that I told Mark we would go."
Mark had called the night before, Friday, a night she was free to see Jim. After two weeks she thought that she liked it, liked how it was like a reward when they saw each other. Jim was cooking "something special" for her, and yelled for her to get his phone when it started ringing.
"Hey, is this...Pam?"
"Yeah. This is...?"
"Mark? Of course. Is Jim around?"
"He's cooking something."
"Ah. Well, I can just talk to you then."
"I'm having a party tomorrow at our old place, and Halpert hasn't been around in forever, and I think he's screening me."
"I'm sure he isn't..."
"He is, he's a girl like that. Anyway, why don't you both come? I'm BBQing and he won't have to do the dishes this time."
"Great! See you both around 8."
She'd hung up the phone and went to tell Jim about it, and he seemed fine, maybe a little quiet. It wasn't until the morning when he started saying how maybe they shouldn't go, but she'd already said yes, and they were wasting their alone time, and she kept apologizing without really knowing what she'd done wrong. It made her feel uncomfortable to do that, but here she is, still doing it on the way over.
"Nothing to be sorry about." But it sounds like he's saying it through clenched teeth.
She thinks that maybe if she explained to him why, maybe. It would be okay. "I just never really get to go to parties...I feel like maybe I've missed out. Besides, I want to know your friends."
He's pulling into the driveway, and when he parks and turns off the engine he turns to her, rests his hand on her knee. "I'm sorry...I don't know what's gotten into me." He kisses her, but he doesn't come around and open her door. Which is a first. When she follows him to the door, she realizes. Of course. He used to live here. He moved...maybe because of her. She hasn't wanted to ruin anything by asking him about that - there's always something else to talk about. Maybe he hasn't even been back since. She catches up to him, threading her fingers through his.
"I love you." It's the first time she's said it, and it somehow seems right to say it here, on his old doorstep.
He looks down at her. "I love you too." He kisses her forehead and squeezes her hand, and she reaches in his pocket, pulling out his keys and spinning them around.
"You have fun tonight, I'll drive."
He looks at her. "Are you sure? You're the one in desperate need of party experience."
She laughs. "I'll just be an observer tonight. You have fun with your friends."
They walk in, and he pulls her through the crowd, saying hellos and introducing her around. She doesn't even try to remember names. In the kitchen, they run into Mark and his girlfriend.
"Hey, you're late." Mark hands Jim a beer. "Glad to meet you again, Pam."
"Oh, no thanks, I'll just have a soda." She reaches for a Coke.
Mark laughs. "Jim! You didn't tell me you're going to be a father!"
Jim shrugs and Pam punches him on the shoulder. "I'm just Jim's designated driver tonight."
Mark's girlfriend laughs. "Jim, always lucking out with the girls that don't drink." Mark elbows her and Jim looks down.
Pam looks around. "Um..."
Mark's girlfriend blushes. "I just meant that Karen...she always..."
Jim takes a long drink from his beer, draining it. "Mark? Another?" He walks off with Mark and Pam stands in the middle of the kitchen, with Mark's girlfriend still staring at her and she wishes she knew what to say. She always. She feels like an idiot. Of course Jim's been to his old place in the past year. She wants to talk to him, but he's not there. It's not the time.
He's in and out all evening, and whenever she sees him it seems like he has a new bottle in his hand. She gets along with his friends, at least, playing Mario Kart and beating everyone because she's the only one sober. By the time she takes him home he's stumbling, and she pulls off his clothes and puts him in bed. She sits next to him, pushing the hair off of his face.
He looks up at her, and his voice is low, slightly slurred. "I love you."
She doesn't answer, and when his eyes close she watches him sleep.
She's finishing up filling out a fax cover sheet for a deal Michael's working on when he leans over her desk.
"Yeah, I want to see you."
She shakes her head. "It's Thursday."
"So? Blow off your class, I haven't seen you in forever."
"We had lunch today."
He sighs. "Not good enough."
"Jim, I only have three more weeks to go, you know that I can't."
"Right. Well, I thought I'd check. I guess I'll see you in a few days, then."
She knows she has an edge to her voice, and she's trying to keep it in check, because there's a camera just around the corner. "Tomorrow's Friday, what about our plans?"
"Maybe I'll be busy, I just don't know. I can't always sit around waiting for you." He looks down, like he knows what he's saying, and what it's doing.
"I have to get back to work." He walks over, and she's glad that his back still faces her, because she doesn't know what she'll do if she has to look at his face right now.
She's not sure exactly when it started to go weird, but he started making comments under his breath about how busy she was three weeks ago. She feels like when they do have time together, she's always making up, spending time having fun when she knows that they really should talk. It's been over two months and they haven't gotten much further than the conversation on their first date.
But he's Jim. And he looks at her and she feels that way she can never quite define.
After her classes are done. After after after. Then. Then they can figure things out. Because they have time. Time to finally talk. Time to work. For now, she drives to his place after her class, a smudge of paint still on her face, and when she lets herself in he looks up from where he's sitting.
"Hey." She sits next to him.
"Hey yourself." He leans over and kisses her, and she's searching for words that she'll never find, so she holds his hand.
He smiles at her. "Have you eaten yet?" She shakes her head. "I'll make you something."
She watches him as he moves around the kitchen. He's humming.
She's having another art show, small, at the community center her painting professor rented for the night. She's excited, getting ready in her bedroom while Jim sits on her bed, watching her.
"Do you like my dress?"
"I do." He rubs the side of his face. "So how many of your paintings will be on display?"
She reaches for her earrings. "Four. Everything I've done in class."
"I can't wait to see them."
"You'll be so glad that I made you wait, Jim, because this way I can get your first impression."
"I know I'll love them."
She hands him her necklace and sits on the edge of the bed, pulling her hair out of the way while he fastens it, kissing her neck and holding her shoulders. "Hey, let me up."
"Maybe you could be late..." He kisses her neck again, and she leans back into him for a moment.
"No, I can't be late, come on. We can revisit this later."
He releases her. "We better."
She grins at him as she pulls her shoes out of her closet. "This is going to be so much better than my first show, I really feel different. Plus," she says, leaning forward to kiss him, "you'll be there."
He pulls away from her. "What does that mean?"
He's looking at her, hurt, and she doesn't want this. Not now. "It means...that you'll be there, and I kind of like having you around." She laughs, but she knows that it sounds hollow.
"I'm sorry that I didn't go to your art show, okay?"
"Jim, I wasn't-" She puts her hand on his arm, but he moves away, standing up.
"Ever since you found out you were going to have this show, you've been dropping hints, making me feel like shit for not going back then."
She stands there, staring at him. "Jim. That is not at all what I meant, I-"
"What did you mean, then?"
"I was excited about my show, and until now, I thought that you were excited too."
"You were back with Roy, we weren't talking, why the hell would I want to go?"
She looks at him, and he's so angry. He's looking back at her like a challenge, leaning against her dresser, palms flat on the wood, breathing heavily. She speaks carefully. "I was with Roy, yes. I invited everyone...I didn't expect you to come."
She takes a deep breath. "I hoped you would."
"You were with Karen..."
He stands up straight. "So, that gives you the right, a good excuse, to get back together with someone you knew was wrong for you?"
She's not going to yell. "I have the right to do anything I want, Jim. I made a mistake. I got back together with him when I was vulnerable, I mean, I was with him for ten years. And then I realized what I had done, and I ended it."
He snorts. "It took you long enough."
She stares at him. "You can't do this."
"This. Now. We can't do this now, Jim. My show starts-"
"Is that more important than this?" He steps closer to her before stepping back, across the room, far away from everything.
"No. But if we've waited this long to talk about it..."
"Yeah, let's put it off some more."
"Jim. You never want to talk about it. Every time I try to bring something up..." She feels like she can't finish her sentences anymore.
He shoves his hands in his pockets. "Well, I'm ready now."
She reaches for her necklace, twisting it around her finger. "It doesn't work like that..."
"We have to go. Can we please talk about this later?"
He walks past her, through the doorway, and she follows him, grabbing her purse. When they get outside, he walks to his own car.
"I thought I was driving."
He opens his car door. "You are."
She realizes, her heart climbing into her throat. "Jim? You're going to meet me there?"
"You have to go." He starts the car.
She can't find her voice. "Don't," she whispers.
He pulls away.
She hadn't bothered inviting anyone else from work, because she knew he'd be there. The way her display is positioned, she faces the door; every time it opens she finds herself looking. People are milling around, stopping to compliment her. Her professor comes by and pats her shoulder, tells her what promise she shows, tells her that whatever she leaves on the wall he can use for good examples next semester. Her eyes hurt from blinking and her throat is raw from swallowing. She doesn't take anything with her when she leaves, fifteen minutes after everyone else.
He's in the parking lot with his car parked next to hers, leaning on her door with his hands in his pockets. She stops in front of him, waits for him to speak.
She takes a deep breath before saying anything. "How long have you been out here?"
He shrugs. "A couple of hours."
"And you didn't come in?" She doesn't want to, but she starts to cry.
"I wanted to..."
"Me too." She pushes him to the side, getting in her car.
He follows her in his car, watches her as she lets herself in. He sits under the streetlight until she calls him on his phone, saying only "Come in" when he answers. He kisses her when she opens the door.
Later, as she watches him sleep next to her, she wonders if there will ever be a right time for them. If this is enough.
It's after. She's done with classes, and it's time. He's been Jim lately, bringing her dinner one night during finals, giving her a back rub. Leaving a flower on her keyboard in the morning. Mailing her a card that said "Get Well After Your Prostate Surgery" and signing it "All my love". But.
It's Saturday morning, and she makes pancakes, sprinkling chocolate chips across the top, flipping them. He smiles at her as she sets down the plate.
"You're welcome." She picks at her own pancakes, watching him eat out of the corner of her eye.
"So what do you want to do today?"
She sets down her fork. "Jim."
He looks up at her. "What?"
"I think we need to...talk."
"Oh." He takes a drink of water. "Right."
"We can't keep ignoring it."
He stands up, bowing his head and pacing across the small room. "Yeah."
"Where do we even begin?"
She crosses her arms, watching him pace. "I called off my wedding."
"Okay. We can start there. You never told me you called off your wedding. Kevin did."
She wants to throw up. "I couldn't call you."
"Oh, right, my fault then." He runs a hand through his hair.
"I never said that. But look at it from my perspective."
"You told me you loved me."
His voice is quiet. "I still do."
She pauses before she can continue. "You told me that, and then when I didn't...couldn't...tell you what you wanted, you left."
"I had to."
She meets his eyes. "Jim?"
"Did you already have the transfer in place when you told me?"
He looks away. "Yes."
"So...was that like, a safety net?"
"No. Maybe. I was in love with you, and you were marrying Roy...I couldn't work there anymore."
"But when I," he rubs his neck with one hand, "told you what I did...that wasn't planned."
"I'm sorry I didn't call you."
"I shouldn't have expected you to."
They look at each other, and she wishes that was it, that was how they could solve everything. She stands up, stepping closer to him.
"When you came back-"
"I only started dating her that night."
"Karen." He says her name quietly, like he's almost afraid to.
"So when I asked you to coffee-"
"I wasn't dating her yet."
"It was after...after the parking lot."
"It was never really...right with Karen. I did care for her, but..."
"Why did you stay with her then?"
He shrugs. "I needed to."
Now she knows she's going to throw up. "Did you...because of me?"
"I just...wanted it to work."
"When I helped you that one time..."
"Yeah, that was fun."
"That was something I wish I hadn't done."
She's suddenly wondering if any of this really matters, it's all going so well. "This isn't so bad."
He smiles at her. "Maybe we'll be okay."
"We should have done this sooner."
"Yeah, we made such a big deal out of it all."
"Well, it is a big deal, though."
"We just need to get back to where we were, where we used to be."
"Where is that? We've never really-"
"Remember when we would have fun?"
"When I was with Roy?"
He stares at her. "Well, you were, but..."
"Jim. Things are different."
"That's not really what I meant..."
"I know, but..."
His voice is suddenly louder, and she flinches a little. "Why can't you just let everything be the way it is? We're together, isn't that all that matters?"
"No, that's just the beginning, we have to work at it."
"Yeah, so you don't want to live in the past, but you want to talk about it all the time."
"How can we get anywhere if you're always going to be holding in everything that's happened?"
"Oh, and you're a saint."
"I never said that!" She feels like everything is going in circles.
"You know, on the beach, you said you wanted to have fun, you said you missed me."
"And you didn't expect anything from that."
She can feel herself starting to cry, but she swallows it, and her voice shakes a little when she answers. "I worked on myself for a year. I made mistakes, and I lost you, got you back, and lost you again. I meant every word I said, and no, I didn't expect anything. That was for me."
"So I was just there."
She wishes it would all end. "Yeah, that's it. You were just there."
He puts up his hands. "You know what? I've gotta go."
"What?" She watches as he picks up his keys and puts on his shoes. "We're in the middle of-"
"I can't do this anymore, Pam. I just can't."
"Can't do what?"
"This. Why does everything have to be so hard? Why do you make it that way?"
He opens the door, and she balls her fist in frustration. "You can't always run away when it gets hard."
He pauses, his shoulders slumping. "I just need some air." He closes the door.
She runs the cold water, splashing it on her face before dialing his number. When his voice mail picks up, she looks out the window and notices that his car is still there. He's not in it.
She walks around the corner, and when the park comes into view she can see him, bouncing a basketball on the court, tossing it toward the basket.
It's ninety degrees out, and when she nears the asphalt she can feel the heat seeping through her cheap black flip-flops. She looks at the grass surrounding it, but walks across the black top anyway, walking a little faster as the bottom of her feet start to burn. She stops, standing in the shadow left by the net. He doesn't look at her.
He stops, holding the basketball at his hip. "Hey." He tosses the ball and it misses, landing in the grass. She looks over at the swing set, at the kids swinging. There's a boy crawling back up the slide, wrapping the bottom of his shirt around his hands against the hot metal, sliding back down before he gets halfway. She looks back at Jim. He's facing away from her.
"Maybe we have...too much."
He turns to her. "Are you ending this?"
"Did you think-"
"I don't know what to think."
She squints in the sun, shifting. "I wish I could say that we could work through this, make it work."
His voice is low, broken. "Then say it."
"I love you."
"I love you, too."
"Then why not?"
"How can we make it work if you don't want to? Jim, you can't run away like this."
"I was just down the block, Pam."
"I'm not talking about that."
He nods. "Right."
She finally starts to cry. "I just...need it to be this way right now."
He steps forward, wrapping his arms around her and resting his chin on her head. "Is this it? Are we out of chances?"
"I don't know."
She stares at his chest, wiping her eyes, and he releases her. "I will."
"You will what?"
"I'll work on it."
"Pam, please." His adam's apple is moving up and down, and she stares at it, because she can't look at his face.
She walks away, and her feet ache with every step.
It's late, and she can't sleep. He's not there. She walks by her window. His car is under the streetlight. She walks by the window twice, three times, again. He doesn't move. She dials his number, watches him scramble for the phone. His hair looks so dark in the shadows. He answers.
"Pam," he says, "please."
She doesn't say anything. She looks at him, looks through her window, looks at how there's a halo around the streetlight. She wishes she could sleep.
She can't say anything.
Bennie is the author of 28 other stories.
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