“So, you do remember,” he finally manages to breathe. “I’ve always wondered.”
Her cheeks are painted pink. “Yes, but Jim. I think I was aiming for your cheek and I just somehow kind of missed.”
He schools his expression, but she sees the disappointment rolling off of him in waves. He mumbles, “I figured as much,” which is clearly a lie.
“I didn’t mind that I missed,” she clarifies carefully. “It was… nice.”
He brightens somewhat. “It was?”
“Yeah, it was.” Her face is in her hands again. Can she ever have a conversation with Jim without sinking into a pit of embarrassment? Apparently not.
“I was doing this whole speech acceptance bit.”
“Thanking God for your award?” he chuckles hesitantly.
“Exactly,” she grins, pulling her face level with his once more. “It got me thinking though, the kiss… not my show-stopping speech,” she clarifies.
“What were you going to ask me?” falls from his lips and the tips of his ears turn a delightful shade of blush-red.
“In the carpark?”
“I don’t know exactly the words, but everything.”
He furrows a brow.
She wrings her hands together. “My mind was spiralling, with just… everything.” He’s still looking confused which is understandable given how poorly she’s clarified. “I think the crux of it was that I wanted to ask if you liked me? Or if you thought I should break up with Roy? Just everything,” she finishes lamely.
“Yes and yes,” he answers solemnly.
“Me too, I think. Deep down, even then.”
She can tell he wants to ask, but why not on casino night, but he doesn’t. He just contends himself with smiling softly at her.
There’s a steady heave, persistent and forceful and the anchor holding his heart at the bottom dislodges. He bobs towards the surface, still putting in puffs of resistance, jerking downwards. But for one step backwards, it’s two steps forwards. The darkness around him recedes a little, he can see the glow of sunshine at the surface. The storm is easing.
“So, what should we do to Andy?” he asks after a comfortable silence. She hears everything that he isn’t saying. She takes it for what it is, a tentative olive branch. He may not be okay with how it all went down last May, but maybe just maybe he’s starting to see that all hope is not lost. The lifeboat may just turn around and come back for her yet.
She shrugs. “You’re full of great ideas today. What do you think?”
“Honestly, I was just teasing earlier. You can’t go wrong with a classic office supply in Jell-O.”
She grins. “It’s nice to ease into these things.”
“Test the waters a little,” he agrees and they’re not talking about Andy at all. “Oh Pam,” he beams at her. “You’re going to love the treat Andy has organised for you this afternoon.”
A grimace curls her cheeks. “You’re not supposed to be pranking me,” she grumbles.
“I’m not. I’m pranking Andy.”
“Sure thing, Big Tuna?”
He groans. “I ate a tuna sandwich on my first day here, which was clearly a mistake of epic proportions.”
“I’ll say,” Pam shakes her head far too condescendingly. “You should’ve eaten something more reflective of your true self.”
“Like another man named Jim,” he deadpans.
“Yes,” there’s a twinkle in her eyes. “Or,” she clicks her fingers, “an assistant to the regional manager?”
“Cannibalism, Pam? Really that’s the best you’ve got?” He says, despite it being essentially the bit he had done moments before.
He gets an exaggerated sigh in return. “Oh,” her smile stretches widely across her face and his heart stutters in his chest and all the work he’s done to distance himself from her is moot. “A Slim-Jim,” she breathes, bright and buoyant and just for him.
“Yes,” he concedes. “That’s it. That’s exactly what I should have eaten.”
She tilts her head gently, eyes suddenly serious. “Ah, it’s too bad. What’s done is done. You shall only be known as Big Tuna from this day forth.”
“I will curse this day forevermore,” he answers her, equally stoic.
He knows she’s kidding, but the laugh that bubbles from her, joyous and pure, is enough that he would live with the terrible misnomer for the rest of his days.
He’s in danger of falling back into all his worst patterns from the past few years of his life. He can’t cope with another bout of hopeless pining.
Pam glances at her watch and audibly groans. “I should probably get back,” she gestures over her shoulder in the general direction of reception.
“Me too,” he sighs.
There’s a pause. She makes no attempt to move. Instead she chews her bottom lip and stares straight into his eyes. “This was nice,” she murmurs. “I’ve got, uh, plans tonight.”
“Not a date,” he grins.
“Yeah. But would you like to, umm, have lunch again tomorrow?” She punctuates her words by laying her tiny hand over his.
He clears his throat, there’s a lump of possibility rising that he struggles to speak around. “I like to have lunch everyday, Pam,” he deflects with humor, falling back on familiar coping mechanisms.
She rolls her eyes ever so delicately as her cheeks pinken. “With me?”
What was he saying about hopeless pining? It seems there’s a little less emphasis on the hopeless for the first time in ever.
It’s barely there, but she traces a delicate pattern over the back of his hand as she withdraws hers. He bites the shiver that threatens to course through his body in response. His hand is branded with the shape of hers. Her fingertips have ignited tiny pinpricks of heat, each a fire burning, sparking the torch he carries for her to flare to life bigger and brighter than before.
When he pulls himself together, no easy feat, she’s still staring at him, anxiously awaiting a response.
“Yes,” he breathes. “Lunch. Tomorrow.” And he’s lost the ability to form full sentences which is just brilliant and will definitely make it easier to do his job.
Her answering smile stretches from cheek to cheek. He’s momentarily blinded by it, her face glows with steady happiness.
“Good. That’s good.”
She returns to her post at reception. He returns to his desk. He spends the afternoon staring unabashedly at her. Some habits die very hard, particularly when the fire has been stoked within him once again.
It’s not until she heads to the kitchen to refill her tea that he manages to bring his gaze to his desk and attempt any semblance of work.
It’s short lived.
Moments after he’s running his eyes over the paperwork on his desk, a figure appears in the edge of his vision.
“What’s the deal with you and Pam?”
“You like her.” It’s a statement.
“It’s none of your business.”
Karen folds her hands over her chest. “I may not like you very much, but Pam seems cool.”
He shrugs again.
“I don’t get it. She clearly likes you. I just can’t seem to figure out why…”
Despite himself, his lips stretch in a wide grin. Pam clearly likes him?
Karen’s glare softens somewhat. “You didn’t know that she likes you… Huh.”
He clears his throat and tries to drop the facade he’s been clinging to for months. “Pam is cool. It’s just, complicated.”
“It doesn’t seem that complicated. She’s into you. I’m pretty sure you’re into her. I think earlier was the first time I’ve seen you crack a smile since you started here. Just ask her out,” Karen shrugs like it’s that simple.
And it’s the culmination of many things, but at Karen’s easy assessment, he feels the anchor complete its final ascent and rise from the water. Just like that, he’s free in the current. It swells around him and for the first time in months he lets it carry him.
At 4.55pm, Andy materializes at her desk. He’s clutching a ukulele and grinning widely. She locks frantic eyes with Jim.
There’s no preamble. He strums the ukulele and she’s forced to endure the worst secondhand embarrassment of her life. He serenades her with a pig Latin version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It’s truly horrific. She wills the floor to open up and swallow her whole.
Josh emerges from his office at the noise and glares at Andy like he’s grown a second head. She blushes fiercely. Two minutes have never felt so long.
She politely shoots Andy down. After he retreats with his tail between his legs, she stalks over to Jim’s desk.
“I’m not pranking you, I’m pranking Andy,” she hisses making dramatic air quotations with her fingers.
“Yes,” he grins.
“Jim,” she shakes her head. “That was terrifying.”
“It was magical. I think it could be a real love connection.”
“I did not come here to have a love connection with Andy,” she mutters.
Maybe she’s said too much. Or maybe she’s said just enough. Jim is looking at her, really looking at her, just like he used to when she pretended not to see. She blushes fiercely.
“What did you come here for?” His tone is light and carefree, but his gaze has an intensity that tells her how she answers this questions matters.
“I -” she starts, only to be cut off by Josh’s commanding,
“Jim, can I see you in my office.”
“Duty calls,” he sighs theatrically, but the disappointment behind his gaze is palpable.
“I came for you,” she murmurs to his retreating back and wonders if she would have found the courage to say it to his face.
Karen pulls her from spiraling too deep into her thoughts, with a gentle, “Pam?”
“Hmm?” she manages and Karen waves her over to her desk.
“Meet you here?” There’s a website for a nearby bar on her screen. “It’s only a couple of blocks away. I have a to run a quick errand, is 5.30 okay?”
“Sounds great.” And it does. It also gives her time to maybe talk to Jim. The thought bolsters her spirits.
Karen pulls her purse from her bottom drawer and rises from her desk. “See you soon, Pam.”
“I’ve still got a few things to finish up here,” Pam smiles, heading back to her desk.
“Uh-huh,” Karen jerks her head in Jim’s direction and apparently she hasn’t missed much. With one final grin, she steps into the elevator.
She’s just started a new game of Solitaire when Jim emerges from Josh’s office. He shoots her a very apologetic smile before picking up his phone.
She decides to hell with it, because she’s trying to be a bolder and braver person and she heads to his desk to wait out his phone call.
“Oh hey man,” Jim is saying as she settles against the edge of his desk. “How’s things?”
After a moment his eyes bulge and he chuckles. He presses the speaker button and Ryan’s voice comes to life. “it’s creepy. How Pam hasn’t quit yet is beyond me.”
She raises her brows questioningly at Jim. “Michael’s been staring at Ryan,” he mouths. “Why don’t we ask,” he answers loudly.
“Hi Ryan,” she takes her opening. “Uh. Michael doesn’t stare at me.”
He curses. “When are you coming back?”
“Not yet. Whenever the receptionist here is cleared to work.” Whenever she sorts things out with Jim she mentally adds.
“Seriously, your staring was nothing compared to this,” Ryan sighs. “I need to quit this job…”
“Pam’s staring?” Jim is laughing at her. “Why are you staring at Ryan?”
“I haven’t been,” she huffs. “I was staring at the...desk.”
“I sit in your old desk now,” Ryan explains and it dawns on Jim.
“Oh,” he gasps. There’s a pause as they stare at each other. Pam fiddles nervously with her necklace.
“I, uh,” she starts to say as Ryan says -
“Look man, is there a reason you called, or just to catch up on my fresh hell?”
“Can you just leave a message for Michael to call me back in the morning?”
“Sure. Hurry back, Pa—” and Jim hangs up on him.
Jim is looking at her with these wide open eyes that scream second chances and missed opportunities.
She fumbles over her words, too lost in way she can see all his defenses crumbling. All their interactions have been slightly muted since she had decided that following him to Stamford was the best way to fix things. There’s been a wall between them, built purely from Jim’s hurt and her own hesitation to dive straight into outright declarations. The shutters are lifting in Jim’s gaze. The eyes staring back at her are no longer clouded with fear and confusion. He looks like he’s free of the storm.
She sees the shore clearly now. It’s no longer on the horizon, it no longer has her questioning if it’s a mirage or if she’s actually bound for dry land. She can almost reach out to touch it. It’s only going to take one final push. She plunges forward.
Gone is the careful, the veiled attempts at letting Jim know what he means to her. She’s close enough that it’s beyond stupid to swim in circles. She’s direct. She’s bold. She’s brave. She’s everything she wants to be. “I called off my wedding for you.”
Jim gasps, but waits for her to elaborate. She wonders if he’s drifting closer to her consciously or if it’s muscle memory. Or maybe it’s just this thing between them that’s always been tugging them towards each other. It’s magnetic.
“You didn’t give me time. That sucked, Jim,” her voice quivers, she takes a moment to clear her throat. “It was like I was drowning, Roy was a weight around my ankle tugging me down. You threw me a life preserver. I needed time to untie my life with Roy before I could reach out and grab on. By the time I got free, you were gone.”
“I, uh, didn’t think you wanted to be free of Roy,” he mumbles. “That’s what you said,” he winces sharply at the memory.
Her heart aches for him, for them, for that whole mess that was the casino night. “I didn’t realize how close the ship was to sinking. Once it went down, I panicked. I thrashed about in the water for a moment. I lied to you, Jim. I think I knew that even then. I was a captain content to go down with my ship. I didn’t know I could be rescued.”
She’s talking in convoluted metaphors, but she’s been comparing the whole thing to Titanic in her mind for far too long now, so that’s what spills out of her. Jim seems to get it, he’s nodding slowly.
“You swept in to rescue me, and for a moment, I clung to wreckage. I was supposed to sink with the ship. It was expected.”
She darts a glance up from under her lashes and receives another steady nod from Jim.
“Pam,” he rasps and she’s suddenly struck with the image that he’s been drowning too. “Where does that leave us now?”
She didn’t know the answer, but now she does. It strikes her right at the moment her feet hit the sand. She can stand. She can wade her way to the shore. So, she does.
“We swim for the shore. We stand on our own on dry land. We find each other again, but no one’s sinking, no one needs saving.”
He’s looking a little lost now, and maybe her metaphors aren’t the clearest she can be.
“I think,” she starts slowly. “I need to figure out who I am without Roy… and once I figure that out, I’d like to explore who I am with you.”
He’s silent. She can see the cogs turning in his mind, as he processes what she’s asking of him. Standing here, bathed in silence that’s heavy with uncertainty, she knows something of what he felt last May.
It’s hard. She gets it. She gets why he didn’t give her much time. She gets why he turned tail and ran away. Mostly because she rejected him, sure. But more than that, the vulnerability that comes with declaring your feelings is akin to wearing your heart on the outside of your body. It’s exposed, it’s far more susceptible to damage.
She’s barely declared anything in comparison to his I’m in love with you. She’d essentially implied that she’d like to date him after she gets her shit together. He had torn his heart from his body and handed it to her on a platter, only to have her send it back to the kitchen.
She understands now, far better than she did in the aftermath of casino night. It’s harder to hold it against him.
The more she considers it, the more she reconciles with it. The part of her that’s been holding on to a shred of anger falls away. It’s forgiven. He had his reasons for running and she understands them now.
She stands her ground. She waits him out.
“I’d like that,” he finally murmurs. “What… how?”
“We find our way as friends again, and then,” she kind of gestures between them.
“Then I ask you out,” a grin breaks free, splitting his face from cheek to cheek and he’s her Jim again, larger than life.
“Yeah,” she breathes. And then she’s sending all sorts of mixed messages because she’s canting forward and wrapping her arms around him.
She feels more than hears a nervous laugh huff from him and he’s returning her hug, his lanky arms gripping her tightly to him.
There’s a pulsing behind her ears and she’s not sure if it’s the blood rushing through her veins or the pounding of Jim’s heart. Either way, she breathes in time with it and feels more content than she has in months.
Jim’s hands start to move, rubbing a soothing pattern along her shoulders and down to the small of her back. Her arms flare with goosebumps. A shiver courses through her. Her body reacts without her conscious permission. One second it’s a hug between old friends and the next she’s nuzzling Jim’s neck and her lips are pressing into his collarbone. He shudders and she feels it in every inch of her body.
“Pam,” his voice is strained. “How long do I have to wait before I ask you out?”
“Not long,” she promises, her words washing across the bare skin of his throat. She delights in the blush rising on his skin where her breath hits him.
“Good, that’s good,” he murmurs and his lips brush her temple and she wants to change her answer to now.
She wants to kiss him. The wave of want that crashes over her is overwhelming. Gone is any semblance of thought. It’s the time to act.
She starts to lean back in his embrace, just enough that she can look him in the eye, just enough that she can press her hips to his. She meets his gaze and then drops her eyes to his lips. He gulps, his eyes grow darker. Her tongue darts out to wet her lips. She leans forward. The music swells around them.
Oh. That’s her cell.
God dammit. She groans in frustration and then giggles at the echoing groan emitting from Jim. She extricates herself with a pout answering her phone on a sigh.
“Oh, hey Karen,” she bites her lip. “Yup, I’m on my way.” She offers Jim an apologetic smile. “I’m late for meeting Karen.”
He nods. “Lunch tomorrow?”
He walks her out. The elevator ride is poles apart from yesterday. They stand as close as possible, shoulders pressed together. Her pinky brushes against the back of Jim’s hand. She’s buzzing with what she tells herself is excitement about being back on the same page, but really it’s just an awareness of him. She can touch him now, even just platonically and it’s not loaded with a guilt she can’t quite put her finger on. The knowledge thrills her.
She’s on dry land. All that’s left to do is walk along the water’s edge and take his hand.