“Mornin’ Jimmy,” Henry drawled from the security desk as Jim stepped through the doors.
He paused, dropping his hand on the desk. “Henry,” he nods in greeting. He taps his hand and takes another step.
“The new receptionist is here,” Henry adds.
Jim freezes. It’s stupid. His heart catches and stutters a beat. Stupid, he berates himself. Stupid, stupid. It’s not her. He’s taking ten years off his lifespan over nothing.
“Real pretty thing,” he continues, oblivious to Jim’s internal breakdown. “Real nice too.” He raises a takeaway coffee cup. “She bought this for me.”
Jim clears throat and winces at the desperate keen behind his words. “Did you get her name?”
Henry furrows his brow. “Uh. She said it all one big breath, like she was real nervous. She was all, hi-I’m-somethun-somethun and smiled her pretty smile at me.” He shrugged. “Hey, when you find out, come and tell me so I can say good mornin’ proper when she rolls in tomorrow.”
“Yeah, sure. Yeah,” Jim nodded, still too distracted by his spiralling thoughts. Pam was nice? Pam was pretty? The prettiest. Ugh, he was pathetic.
“Did she have curly hair?”
Jim could hear everything he wasn’t saying, like that’s a weirdly specific question to ask about a new colleague, James...
Despite the deepening frown etching his face, Henry decided on answering. “Umm, kind of, big loose waves I guess.”
Jim felt the knot in his chest begin to loosen. That wasn’t Pam. Her curls were frizzy and tight and so damn perfect it ached to think of them.
He laughed, an awkward, heady and relived thing. Henry continued to eye him speculatively.
“Have a good day, Henry,” he grinned and meant it. The morning instantly felt all the brighter with the weight lifted from his chest. He’d almost let the sinkhole open up and swallow him whole over nothing. The internal storm swelling in his gut calmed and there were only blue skies ahead.
“Uh-huh. You too, Jimmy.” It appeared Henry would be questioning his sanity for the near future. That was fair. Still, he had to count his victories where he could.
He settled against the wall of the elevator as it rose and caught his breath. Somewhere in the wave of relief washing over him, there was sting that reeked suspiciously of disappointment. He stomped it down deep and congratulated himself on his good fortune.
All would be well. The pit of despair in his chest would finally start to fill. He’d throw another brick of denial onto each day and wait for it to sink. One day soon, one would stick and the ache would lessen.
The elevator door opening plunged his newfound goodish mood into darkness.
That was Pam’s bag on the reception desk.
He would recognize that aged brown fabric anywhere.
It wasn’t just the same bag, it was the bag. It had only caught his eye for a split second, but there was that tiny blue stain in the corner from the day her pen exploded and... and...
Clearly, he was losing it. Completely. Because beside the reception desk, stood a well-dressed middle-aged woman. Andy was next to her making polite conversation and gesturing around the office.
Obviously, this was the new receptionist.
Her tried to get past the bag. Surely, someone could have the same bag as Pam? It wasn’t limited edition. Roy had bought it for her like 3 years ago, so it probably retailed for about seven dollars.
The stain was just a coincidence. He was looking for things that weren’t there. All this worrying for nothing had his mind playing tricks on him.
Besides, the new receptionist had sort of wavy shoulder length blonde hair which fit Henry’s description. He supposed she was kind of pretty if you were into moms and Henry definitely had a good few years on Jim, so it made sense that this was his idea of attractive.
With the world righted on its axis, he stepped into the office. Andy grabbed at him as he walked past.
“Tuna,” he crooned. “This is Ellen.”
“Hi Ellen,” he outstretched his hand, all manners.
“Hello...” she turned her nose at him.
“Jim,” he supplied.
“Jim,” she added curtly. It seemed he and Henry had a different idea as to what constituted nice.
He bit back the sigh and tried to get used to the idea of, Dunder Mifflin this is Ellen, playing in the background all day. It just didn’t have the right ring to it.
“Welcome to Stamford,” he finally managed.
Ellen raised her brows at him in response. She was very prim and proper for a receptionist. Now that Jim was close, he could tell her clothing was all expensive brand name stuff. She was gazing around the office with steady disinterest.
“Andr—“ she turned on Andy, but was cut off by the quiet,
“Jim,” that was breathed behind him. He could barely hear it over the sound of the wind being knocked out from under him. He turned slowly and couldn’t keep his jaw from dropping.
There she was.
With her hair styled in big soft curls, wrapped in a warm grey cardigan he’d never seen before.
Instinct took over. Before he thought it through, his arms were opening and she was grinning and stepping into him.
Her arms wrapped around him and all thoughts he’d had about moving on and making progress laughed mockingly.
He reluctantly released his hold when he realised it was bordering on far too long for your average office greeting and stepped back.
“Hi, I’m Pam. I’m new here,” she whispered with a gentle grin, her eyes bright with something that he couldn’t quite name. There was a spark he’d never seen reflecting in her steady gaze. He blinked slowly, but it was still there when his eyes opened.
He answered her with a wide smile. “It’s really you,” he murmured.
The wisps of hope tugged on his tear ducts and he bit down on the inside of his cheek to get himself back under control.
“Hi Pam,” Andy boomed. “This is Ellen, my step ma.” He thrust his hand between them.
Oh. Jim had forgotten about Ellen. Mystery solved.
“Hi,” Pam smiled sweetly, her gaze flickering to land on Andy momentarily, before returning to rest on Jim.
“So, you know our Big Tuna here?” Andy clapped him on the shoulder.
“Oh yeah,” she gazed openly at him again and he felt the tips of his ears pinken. She raised her brows at the Big Tuna and he knew there would be follow up questions. “He’s one of my best friends,” she added wistfully and Jim felt the shutters close on the flickering hope – no, wilful ignorance the pragmatic side of his brain screeched - that had somehow crept back in.
Friend. Friend. Right.
He hardened his heart, gave his best politely disinterested smile, and murmured, “Yep. Old friends.” Somewhere in the depths of his soul he managed to add, “have a nice day, Pam,” before he stumbled to his desk and planted himself in his seat.
Somewhere between reception and his chair his hurt reverted to anger.
He sat and he stewed.
Why had she come here just to rub salt in his open wounds?
He was grateful for the distraction, when Josh summoned the sales team into the conference room. Josh had this weird, very un-Michael-like, habit where he actually managed his employees.
“What’s going on with Fairfield County schools? Karen, did you generate that price list?”
Jim didn’t see Karen’s frown. He was too busy glaring through the slit in the blinds at the blurred figure, holding a phone to her ear at reception. “Um, shoot. Uh, I will. Sorry,” Karen’s tone was heavy with annoyance – directed at herself.
“Okay, just get it done. Jim, will you make sure?”
He startled slightly at his name and it took him a few seconds to focus up and replay Josh’s request in his mind. “Oh yeah, definitely.”
Karen quietly glowered. “Suck. Up.” Andy coughed in a move that was very fourth grade. “Josh, did you hear what I said?”
Jim was unintentionally the Dwight of this office, but Andy wanted to be the Dwight of this office. It did very little to endear him in Jim’s opinion.
“Thank you, everyone,” Josh sighed, bringing the meeting to a close.
Jim returned to his desk. He spent his morning alternating between trying not to watch Pam because he didn’t know what she was doing here and he didn’t want to, and trying to watch Pam because he didn’t know what she was doing here and all he wanted to know was why.
For the first time since arriving in Stamford, he didn’t make a sale. The storm was back and it was bigger than ever, he felt the line holding him steady creak and wane under the pressure.
Pam closed her eyes and pictured the tide turn. She’d had a clear sight to the shore when Jim had opened his arms to her. Somehow, in a matter of minutes a rip had rolled in and was tossing her about.
One moment she’d clearly been swimming in one direction, back to Jim and then something had changed. He was distancing himself from her, she wasn’t an idiot. The rip tugged at her and set her spinning in the wrong direction.
Pam knew how to extract herself from a rip. She could still hear the lifeguard, from her Bethany Beach vacation in the fifth grade, “if you get caught in a rip, don’t panic. Don’t try to swim for shore. You’ll tire and likely drown. Instead, swim at an angle to the shore, you’ll meet less resistance and you’ll be able to break free of the rip.”
The lifeguard had also instructed them on how to avoid a rip in the first place, but it was too late for that. She’d missed the warning signs. The lack of breaking waves had lulled her into a false sense of security. She really wasn’t sure what to look out for in this instance.
The hug? That had been all Jim, her Jim. She wracked her brain, coming up short on the moment he slipped from her Jim to this distant stranger.
She waited for her chance to swim parallel to the shore. She didn’t approach Jim at his desk, it was too direct.
At noon, he pushed back his chair, stretched him arms above his head and took a deep breath. Her eyes traced the movement. He was dressed differently. There was more of a professional aura around him. He wore a blazer.
She found herself missing his forearms and kind of got why the Edwardians had been so big on long sleeves. It turned out there was an appeal to literally any piece of uncovered skin.
His arms drifted back down, he caught her eye as she continued to stare. She felt herself begin to blush. He snapped his gaze away, standing from his chair in one sharp movement. He strode to the breakroom.
She pulled her teapot from the depths of her purse and followed him. Parallel to the shore, she reminded herself. Honesty. Courage. So many mantras.
“Hey,” she exclaimed far too brightly. She winced a little and attempted to dial down on the courage. It was too much.
“Hey,” Jim echoed, his tone far duller.
She watched in uncomfortable silence as he pressed buttons indicating his selection on the vending machine.
“What happened to grape soda?” she murmured, sounding far more like herself.
He shrugged. “Oh yeah. I’m trying to move away from that. Getting into more of a bottled water phase.”
Pam tried to ignore the double meaning. I’m trying to move away from that. Like he’d moved away from her? Literally upped and moved in a matter of moments with no damn warning. “Oh, you’ve changed so much,” the sorrow leaked into her voice.
“Well, I’m evolving, Pam.”
She wanted to say so was she, and it was for the best and she was ready, but it was too direct. Besides, it sounded like Jim’s version of evolving wasn’t the same as hers. His words rang hollow.
Still, she had to try… something. “I’d love to hear everything about Stamford. Are you busy tonight, or… you want to grab a coffee or something after work?”
Please toss me a life preserver and pull me from this rip her mind pleaded with him as she waited him out.
“Oh! Umm… tonight, actually? No, I’m uh, I have plans,” his hand rose to rub the back of his neck in that patented Jim way that usually filled her with warm affection. Today, it twisted her stomach in knots.
The sting of rejection was fierce and she bit back a wave of embarrassment at the tears that pricked her eyes so suddenly. Given the rest of the conversation, she’d known her chances of a yes were slim and yet her reaction was still so visceral.
“Oh, yeah, no. You know. Whenever,” disjointed phrases were the best she could do.
She sunk to a chair and watched Jim open the fridge with stiff shoulders. He eyed his sandwich, but shut the fridge without pulling it out. Bottled water in hand, he stepped back through the door.
“I’ll ask again tomorrow,” she managed to croak. She wasn’t sure if he heard her, but the slope of his shoulders twitched and she swore he paused for a second before continuing his retreat to his desk.
She wondered if it was worth congratulating herself for her courage if it was all in vain?
No matter the outcome, she was saving herself. It was the reminder she needed. She rose and finished making her tea. She thought back to her Titanic comparison and dammit, Rose had made it and lived the rest of her life without Jack. She would fight for Jim, but leaving Roy had been for her and her alone.