The sky is impossibly dark, vast and starless. It could be emotional projection, he muses, but he pinches himself, and the sky remains impossibly dark, vast and starless. With the wind in his hair, he wishes for a star to wish upon, something to grab onto. At this point, anything will do.
The sound of the music inside the ship is almost cynical, mocking him in a strange, twisted sort of way. The melody is easy and happy, and he doesn’t have to look to know that people are dancing, to know that she’s dancing. Their contentedness seems to belong to another universe, one where he’s doesn’t end up alone, watching as the flashing lights dance across the ripples the ship leaves in its wake.
As the boat nears the shore, he decides that he doesn’t like sailing. The uncertainty of the ground beneath his feet makes his stomach churn. In the movies, a boat adrift on the open sea paints images of liberation and possibility in his mind, but the reality is severely underwhelming. He can feel the boat’s every move, every wave that caresses the underside of the ship, every shift in direction reverberating through his body. No matter which direction the wind pushes their tiny, insignificant boat, they’ll still be on Lake Wallenpaupack in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and it will still be January 2006, which will still be only five months away from June 10 and he feels horribly, horribly trapped.
The impact of the boat hitting the dock causes him to stumble, and he steadies himself against the edge of the ship, hanging back as the crowd of people surge from the cabin into the outside air, filling the night with their mostly drunken laughter. He rubs his face in his hands, unable to remember if he had anything to drink. He can only recall sipping a single beer between Roy’s high school stories and Katy’s easy laughter and Pam’s raised eyebrows, so he deems himself capable of driving as his feet are steadied against the solid dock. His relief is only momentary; he feels hands on his jacket and lifts his eyes from his shoes to find Michael beaming at him, camera in hand.
“Dunder Mifflin family photo!”
With Michael’s coaxing and Dwight’s unwarranted enthusiasm, his coworkers assemble into three messy rows of smiling faces. Brenda counts down, and he can’t conjure up a smile when the camera flashes, but he’s in the back so maybe no one will notice.
The group dissolves into hugs and waves and goodbyes, and he slips away unnoticed. His car is bitterly cold inside, but he sits motionless, letting the night play back against his windshield. It had started off mostly okay and then slowly crumbled in his hands, the jagged edges cutting his palms as they slip through his fingers. He suddenly wishes he had much, much more to drink. He’s fixated on an abstract point in the sky in when he hears the gentle knock on his window and looks up to see her smiling weakly at him with her flushed cheeks and puffy coat.
“Hey.” His voice sounds oddly foreign out loud.
“Um, so Roy’s really drunk and his truck got towed and there’s no more room in Meredith’s van and I was going to get a ride from Angela but I guess she already left and you’re kind of my last resort?”
The irony feels like nausea in his stomach, open water beneath his unsteady feet.
“Then I hope you’ve got a tent, because this parking lot gets rather cold at night.”
He tosses an old sweatshirt and his messenger bag into the backseat, allowing her to slip into the seat beside him. He turns the key in the ignition, and the car comes to life beneath them, filling the space with warm air and ‘The Shins’ newest album. The streets are almost completely empty, so he rolls the windows down and drives slowly. She turns the music up without asking.
He doesn’t ask for directions and she doesn’t offer them; he knows the way and she knows that he knows the way. A lot of things have become unspoken between them: the signal for her to continue a prank he’s begun, the look that tells him to tread lightly around Michael, the agreement for her to revive him when he dies of boredom, the expression she wears when she and Roy have been fighting, the smile he gives her when he’s just thought of a new way to get back at Dwight, and their friendship. They’ll always be friends. The finality of the statement is hidden in the context. He wishes it wasn’t. He wishes he was unsuspecting and unaware that he’ll never be more than that. He wants to hold onto Michael’s words on the ship deck, but “never, ever, ever give up” is almost impossible to believe when his best friend is in the seat beside him, twisting her engagement ring and on her way home to a man that isn’t him.
The song ends, and she turns to look at him. “So I really hate to ask since you’re already taking me home, but I didn’t have dinner, only the two, maybe three drinks, and I’m really hungry. I could just get takeout or something?”
“Chick’s is around the corner. We can just eat in.”
“Are you sure? I mean, you’re going to get home really late and-.”
“It’s really not a problem.”
The instrumental intro to the next song gives way to familiar lyrics, but humming seems burdensome to his tired mind. He’s heard this song hundreds of times, but the melody sounds different when placed in their consensual silence, when her head is moving ever so slightly to match the rhythm. He knows every word to the song and considers asking her if it’s one of her favorites too, but her discreet peering at his display paired with shy glances in his direction tell him that she’s just learning.
Chick’s is a 24-hour diner that’s been a part of Scranton for as long as he can remember, but he doesn’t remember ever eating here. It’s nebulous in his mind, an undefined point in a familiar town. The parking lot is almost completely empty, and the only sound for miles is the distant hum of traffic across town and the sputtering of the neon sign that flickers at the front of the restaurant. He holds the door before following her into the 50’s style diner, complete with a bar, peeling booths in varying shades of faded blue, and the aroma of maple syrup.
“Two?” A woman with a black apron and a pencil stuck through her graying hair holds up two fingers before leading them to a booth at the back of the restaurant.
He waits until she’s seated before sliding in across from her, busying himself with the sticky menu littered with breakfast classics and comfort foods. When he looks up, she’s watching him.
“Something’s weird with you,” she says, her tone resolute.
He searches her face for truth she must know, but finds only confusion.
“Boats aren’t really my thing,” he says finally, and it’s not a complete lie. He’s fairly sure that boats are forever ruined for him. The reason for this is up to her own interpretation.
“I guess you really are a true mountain man, Pennsylvania born and raised.” Her left eyebrow asks for a transition back into their comfortable banter and he teeters on the edge before giving into her warm smile as the waiter returns, informing them that they have regular or decaf or orange juice or apple juice or milk.
“Do you have milkshakes?” she asks
“Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry.”
She glances at him before informing the waiter that they’ll have two chocolate milkshakes, and the decision is made before it was even his to make.
“Do you have a strong opinion on mountain men? he asks, tracing lazy circles on a paper napkin between them.
“Depends on your definition on mountain men.” She licks her lower lip and his stomach flutters.
“You’re the one calling names, so it’s yours to decide.”
She hums lightly, leaning back in the booth and stretching out her legs so that he shoes graze the edge of his side of the booth. “According to the official Pam Beesly dictionary, a mountain man is a man who likes the simpler things in life and has a strong affinity for the location of his origin, which is typically the mountains.”
“Noun, adjective, or verb?”
“All three actually.”
He gives her an amused smile. “Let’s hear the three sentences then.”
The waiter sets two tall milkshakes before them, topped with piles of whipped cream and a single maraschino cherry.
She takes a long sip before answering. “Mountain man, noun. Jim is such a mountain man! He totally freaks out on boats. Mountain man, adjective. Jim’s mountain manly tendencies make him totally freak out on boats. Mountain man, verb. Jim is mountain manning so much that he freaks out on boats.”
“I’m intrigued. Is the official Pam Beesly dictionary for sale in my local Target?”
“No, but I think you already have a copy.”
He looks down, his smile faltering only slightly. His hands pull her menu and his into a neat stack at the edge of the table.
“Have you been here before?” he asks.
“Um, I don’t think so actually. I’m not much of a diner girl, but I can definitely appreciate a good stack of pancakes.”
“Blueberry or chocolate chip?”
She scoffs. “As if that’s even a question.”
“So team chocolate chip?”
He takes a sip of his milkshake, letting his lips linger on the plastic straw as he chooses his words.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been here either,” he confides.
“I drive past it every day, but I think at most I’ve been here once.”
“I really, really wish I brought my sketchbook. I’m kinda itching to draw that jukebox behind you.”
“Well, let’s check it out. A jukebox won’t draw itself.”
The jukebox’s age is evident in the rust at the edges of the metal, the way the right key sticks when he flips through the selections.
“Is it weird that I kinda wish jukeboxes were still a thing? I mean, iPods are cool and all, but jukeboxes are just so… classic?” She watches over his shoulder as the tiny pages of song titles flip from one to another.
“Yeah, they’re pretty cool.”
“I think this one may be just an antique.” She points to the covered coin slot, and he nods.
“It’s a shame. I guess that’s what the radio’s for.”
“People just don’t appreciate vintage stuff anymore. They’re so caught up with the new stuff that they forget that newer isn’t always better, that there’s still something to be said for age… and consistency.”
He bites the inside of his lips until he tastes blood as she runs her hands down the sides of the machine, following the curves of its broad body to the floor. He watches her for a few more moments before averting his eyes, feeling out of place, as though he’s intruding on an intimate moment that isn’t his to witness.
“Have you made up your minds?” Their waitress appears behind them, and she blushes and shuffles awkwardly back to their booth.
She looks at him and then back at the waitress. “I’d like the chocolate chip pancakes, please.”
The waitress scribbles onto her notepad before turning to him. “And for you?”
“Ham and cheese omelette, please.”
The waitress nods and heads toward the kitchen, calling out their order in the general direction of the chef.
She turns to look at him, amusement written across her face. “Ham and cheese for dinner too?”
He smiles lightly. “Technically this isn’t dinner.”
“Technically you’ve still eaten ham and cheese twice in one day.”
“Technically it’s after midnight.”
“But are you really telling me that you won’t have a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch today?”
“Maybe I’m feeling adventurous. Maybe I’ll blow your mind in twelve hours with my turkey and cheese sandwich. Don’t underestimate me.”
They lapse into silence, and he fights the urge to fill it.
She presses her lips together and gives him an odd look. “Something’s weird with you.”
“You already said that.”
“Yeah, but I don’t think you told me the truth.”
He swallows. “It’s nothing, really.”
“You’re not a very good liar.”
“I guess not.”
He picks up the dessert menu at the end of the table and reads the descriptions of each dessert once, twice, three times until the words blur together beneath his tired eyes. He can feel her eyes on him, but it’s easier to pretend that he doesn’t.
The food arrives, and it’s easier to look at her when her face is masked with the steam of three chocolate chip pancakes. He eats his omelette one bite at a time and chews slowly and deliberately, keeping his mouth too full to entertain the notion of conversation. When he reaches for the pepper shaker, his hand grazes hers.
“Sorry,” he murmurs.
“Seriously, Jim. What’s going on?”
He stares into her eyes for a long time, long enough for her to shift uncomfortably beneath his gaze, long enough for her cheeks to flush, long enough for her to be the first to avert her eyes, long enough for her to give up on him saying anything. He doesn’t speak until she resumes cutting her pancakes.
“Katy and I broke up. There it is. My big secret.”
Her face falls, and he immediately regrets the sarcasm in his voice.
“Jim… I’m so sorry.” Her eyes are swimming with concern, and she reaches across the tables to rest her hand over his. His heartbeat quickens.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
He shakes his head, avoiding her eyes like his life depends on it. She turns his hand over, running her fingers across his palm and threading her fingers with his.
“I’m so, so sorry,” she whispers, squeezing his fingers lightly.
He wants to leave it alone, make a joke and see her easy smile and forget about this conversation, but the words come up without his consent. “It’s my fault. I wasn’t… she’s just…,” he takes a deep breath, willing her to understand, “I thought I could and I couldn’t.”
“You couldn’t what?”
“I just… couldn’t.”
Plates clatter at the back of the restaurant, filling the emptiness between them.
“How did she take it?”
“She called me an asshole, which I deserved, and then got wasted.”
“An asshole? I kinda am.”
“You don’t need to apologize.”
“I, um, I feel like I should. Just, you guys seemed really good together and then Roy setting a date and everything… I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for you. I’m not a very good friend.”
“I’m not a very good friend,” she insists. “Your toast was so sweet and you’re, um, you’re always there for me. Anytime I’m bored or having problems with Roy, just… you’re always there for me in a way that he never is.”
“You deserve someone who really makes you happy, and I’m really sorry if that wasn’t Katy or if it was and then…”
She looks up at him with a determined expression, holding his gaze before standing up. She picks up her empty milkshake glass and taps a knife against it, causing the entire restaurant of three other people to pause and stare.
“Hi… um, I’d like to make a toast.”
She turns toward him, meeting his gaze. “I guess I just want to say that Jim is the greatest. My best friend. And he’s awesome, and I’m so, so lucky to have a best friend like him. To you, Jim.”
He looks into her eyes and tries to let it be enough.