Each blink of a stoplight against the inky Scranton sky flashed a different memory in his brain.
How are your feet?
Medium rare. Thanks.
The real reason that I went to Stamford was because I wanted to be...not here. And even though I came back, I just...feel like I’ve never really...come back.
Left on Madison. Stuck at a red.
Turn green, damnit.
I wish you would.
He took a long look both ways at the light and plowed right through the red. At one in the morning, there were no cars coming anyway. What did it matter if he took a left at a four-way stop with no plausible threats? Let the traffic cam catch him. He could handle a hundred dollar ticket. He couldn’t handle letting her get away again.
With the windows rolled down, the warm breeze was thick, but his thoughts were more suffocating than May Pennsylvania humidity. Because for every I wish you would, there were also the lingering pieces of the late night talks he’d recently been subjected.
So, baby, what’s going to happen if one of us gets this job?
Red on Mulberry.
I’d move to New York with you.
Green. Straight ahead. One more light.
We don’t have a future in Scranton. You know that.
No one gives a shit if I blow a stop sign in a residential area, right?
There’s...Jim there’s one too many people here and you know that.
Two more blocks, two more blocks.
We can’t stay here.
But all of a sudden, sitting outside the darkened apartment complex where she presumably only had one kitchen but definitely had at least one bathroom and one bedroom and one closet, his entire body was a restless bundle of nerves waiting to pop.
He put the car in park, killed the engine, but remained rooted in his spot.
It was one thing to tell Karen that he couldn’t sleep over tonight because he was exhausted. To stop pacing the floor of his own brand new apartment on the opposite side of town--because he’d looked up her address in the company directory before he went apartment hunting, back when it was all still fresh and his wounds weren’t anywhere near healed and the thought of living anywhere near her was a cross between being lethal and too tempting. To put the keys into the ignition, and actually back down the driveway. To break no less than six traffic laws to get here.
But getting out of the car, walking the seventeen steps to her front door, and ringing the bell to unit 214 was on an entirely different planet than making the decision to finally get in the car.
The darkness enveloped him, covering his brand new, undeserved Saab upgrade that he’d purchased with his new big boy paycheck, the one that really, when it came down to all that it entailed, he wanted to spit on rather than face the connotations that came with this promotion. He gripped the steering wheel, his white knuckles the only bright contrast to the rest of the still world around him. His left knee bounced wildly, his fingers tapping along to a muted radio. If he was going to march up to her door with all of the pieces laid out, demanding that they finish this thousand piece impossible puzzle before he really did go clinically insane, he had to stop the tropical storm that was tormenting his insides.
Because for every Jim, she’s no good for you; you’re too wrapped up in your past to move on and have a plausible future with her around, there was the contrast of beach waves and Pam’s arms wrapped around him and sand between his toes as he told her I’m glad we did this. I needed this closure, and her sad little broken Me too that her eyes betrayed when she looked into his with tears and instability and misinterpretations of her own. It was like her own version of casino night, when he trudged up the beach with sand in his sneakers and a new weight on his heart that, when he thought about leaving her behind him on that beach with tears in her eyes, made him want to throw up.
He closed his eyes, wincing in pain as he willed the madness to cease and settle for just a goddamn second. Because what he hadn’t told her, when they had their weird little heart to heart and she found out about all of the late night chats and the relationship drama that he was having with Karen, was that on those nights, after Karen fell asleep with a content little smile on her thin lips, he stayed awake. Trapped by his own thoughts. The torture unbearable sometimes, plaguing him with all of the foul things that Karen had said:
I followed you here, Jim. She let you run.
She’s holding you back, Jim. You’ve gotta let yourself grow up and move on at some point.
Jim, you deserve someone better.
And he let those thoughts harbor, let his heart fill with twisted manifestations of every reason that Karen was still wrong. Coming back to Scranton, he picked up right where he had left off, filling his own teapot inside of his head with new memories and stolen moments and hidden glances from the second she’d jumped right back into his arms and exclaimed Oh my god, it’s really you.
Because for every Jim, she let you run, his subconscious spat back I didn’t really give her a choice, did I?
For every She’s holding you back, his mind was screaming She’s the only one who’s ever seen me for who I truly am.
And for every You deserve someone better, he very clearly and calmly stated, “You’re right, Karen. I do.”
So, in one right, he had told Karen that he wasn’t sleeping over tonight because he was exhausted. But that was on the tail end of screaming and crying, a couple of threats, a few items thrown in his direction, and an ultimatum that left with her door slamming in his face. He was exhausted.
Exhausted of the lie that they’d been living ever since he saw an opportunity for a facade and took advantage of a woman who truly didn’t deserve it.
But it was done. That chapter was now closed, and he had to find out the ending to the one unfinished on a trail of ellipses that dotted the word closure…?
Shaking his head, the cobwebs cleared a bit. The Karen pieces were shoved to the side--for right now anyway. There would be hell to pay, as there always was at the end of a messy relationship, especially when he had never gone about it for the right reasons in the first place. But right now he had the capacity to sort through only one maze. And that maze was a sidewalk that he’d yet to cross when he knew she was at home.
He kept that to himself, of course. It was a weekend right after he’d moved back to Scranton, when Karen was still trudging back and forth to Connecticut on the weekends to grab a few more boxes and say goodbye to friends. When Pam’s sister’s new boyfriend was in town, so she spent the weekend at her parent’s place. She’d been talking to Phyllis about it in the break room, but he had a sneaking suspicion that she wanted him to know too. Obviously not so that he could stalk her place while she was away, but he’d noticed her voice getting louder as she laid out her plans for the weekend while he filled up his coffee on the other side of the room.
And it’s not like he had gone inside. He’d only walked up to the door. Traced the brand new sticker on the mailbox that said BEESLY in big block lettering. And then he left, memorizing how many steps it would take him if, one day, he had the chance to visit her here on a regular basis.
It was seventeen from the curb. Less from the visitor’s parking spot. But he knew better.
With all of his Pam chips at least settled, their shaking dulled to a persistent throb instead of a stabbing pain, he gathered all of the oxygen in the cabin of his little car and pushed open the driver’s side door. He was expecting to be greeted by a wall of humid air. Expected to breathe through his nose in order to calm his senses as he counted to seventeen and pushed his fingerprint into her buzzer until she opened the door. What he had not expected was to run right into her.
Pam. Wearing an oversized pink fuzzy robe that hung down to her ankles, well past her fingertips; she was pushing the sleeves up nonsensically as he tried to catch his breath. Her wide eyes spoke shock and sadness and a terror that he wanted to gather in his arms and erase before he even opened his mouth and began his monologue of demanding closure. But all of that was shoved to the side when they were tripping on each other’s words.
What are you--
I...couldn’t sleep. Saw you out my window--
Sorry about that--
Why are you…
In his mind, he knocked on the door, and they went inside and sat on her hand-me-down couch, the one with the paint splatters on it because this apartment didn't have an extra bedroom that she could use as a studio, so she was painting in the living room because it had the best light. In his mind, she asked if he’d like something to drink, and he said that yes, a water would be nice, but mostly just so that he had something to do with his hands. In his mind, he laid it all out. The broken pieces that just continued to shatter with each and every day that he’d been back. That no, he hadn’t found closure. If anything, her little walk of fire left him more confused, and did she still feel this too? Because if not, he really did have to leave this time, maybe to Colorado or Texas or California, where she wasn’t a couple of hours away, or even in the same time zone. But here, in the stillness of the night, with a chorus of cicadas wondering why two humans were disturbing their daytime, he breathed out a long sigh, and dropped to the curb until his head was resting in his hands.
She followed him silently. There was bright pink in his periphery, and every few moments he noticed her fidgeting.
It all went down the drain. His speech. His proclamation. The confidence he’d had when he ended things with Karen. Apparently, that’s where it had been wasted. If he’d know that going in, he would have been less dramatic about the break up.
“It’s like, two in the morning, Jim.”
Her voice was barely above a whisper, but it echoed so loudly in the dead of night that he flinched.
“Yeah,” he chuckled darkly. “I uh...couldn’t sleep.”
And he wondered then, in the passing moments of silence, why it was that she couldn’t sleep. He wondered instead of asking, because it was still safe inside of his mind where he pretended that her truth was missing him, and wanting him back to her and not just back in Scranton. Once it hit the air that those things were all in his head though, he’d break down at her feet again. And he couldn’t do that for a third time.
“I…” She kicked the gravel that had collected in the curb with her flip flop. When his eyes followed the sound, he noticed that she had soft blue polish on her toes. “This is hard for me, Jim.”
He wrestled with every single reason that his return could be hard for her, from having to see him with someone else to feeling the distance that best friends shouldn't have.
“It’s hard for me to know that...you moved on when I had finally caught up.”
The world, for a moment, stopped spinning. If there was ever a time for him to catch up to her, he was being graced with the opportunity when the entire world around him paused. He could sense her turning her head--they’d both been looking at the ground, but now her eyes were boring into him, willing him to look up and just see. He moved slow, tentatively, because once he saw the truth in her big green eyes, there was no going back. He could not, would not make it out of this alive again.
Her bottom lip was tucked, like she was willing herself not to cry. But the longer he looked, the longer he realized that this wasn’t new, and he wondered just how much his disappearance had wrecked her in the past couple of months. Her eyes were pools with so much depth, he wondered if he’d be offered a life preserver. She’d aged ten years and he’d only been gone for the summer. She was sad, hurt, and longed for what had once been. But there, in the slightest cock of her brow, he wondered if she was now longing for what could be.
“Why are you here, Jim?”
The answer to that question was written in the puzzle he had yet to complete; parting his lips and willing words to form was no simple task. But eventually, he strung something together that made a moderate amount of sense.
“You said that you wished I would come all the way back. I guess...this is me trying.”
Her eyes softened, relief shimmering in a way that made him catch his breath. She quirked a little smile. “At two in the morning?”
A breath of a laugh escaped him. “Yeah, I guess I…”
But just as quickly, all humor was lost. He eyed her seriously, his hands clasped between his tented knees as he admitted, “Pam, what we said tonight out on that beach? To hell with closure. I don’t know about you but I’m feeling a lot more lost than I was when we started here.”
She didn’t seem as shocked as he’d expected. Actually, she seemed relieved, Her lips curled up and her eyebrows relaxed and her shoulders fell as if the tension was slipping away.
“Do you...do you want to come inside? It’s kind of gross out here,” she chuckled nervously, hitching her thumb over her shoulder towards the front door. He smiled smally and nodded, following her as he counted to seventeen in his head. She keyed into the building and he followed her up rickety stairs, taking in the musty smells and all of the security issues that he’d be reporting to her landlord.
When the door to 214 swung open, he really only focused on the living room. On the tabletop lamp that illuminated one corner of her hand-me-down couch. The one with the red, blue, and beige paint splatters on the dust ruffle. He couldn’t tell if there was more than one kitchen, or see the doors that would lead to her bedroom and bathroom and this closet that he for some reason needed to know about. For now, there was only one small halo of light in his entire universe.
She asked him if he’d like anything to drink, and he said that yes, a water would be great. She returned with two, and he downed half of it before using it as a fidget.
She left it as open ended as it felt in his brain, and he realized that he was in charge of this rodeo. He cleared his throat, willing the still lingering cobwebs to vacate his body, to be replaced with some superhuman strength that made him seem like less of a dimwit and more of someone who was here to fight for her.
“Yeah...about that…” He rolled the water glass back and forth in his palms, letting the condensation cool his core temperature.
“Jim, if its closure you want...I mean, if you...if you need me to just...step aside and accept you and Karen in order to move on--”
“Wait, what?” He eyed her incredulously, his head tilted as she very calmly tried to cut him loose. “Pam that’s...that’s the opposite of what I’m here for.”
She pinched her eyebrows in the middle, tilted her head. The sleeve of her giant pink robe fell and she didn’t even move to scoop it back up to the crook of her elbow.
“Pam when I said I wanted closure, it was because I haven’t felt right since I left you sitting at my desk saying that you were still going to marry Roy.”
His eyes spoke straight into his soul, the floodgates finally opened as he took a deep breath and let the rest loose.
“I came back to Scranton, but I left my heart with you after that kiss, and I never really got it back.” He shrugged, realizing now how simple this was, that he had up-played his nerves a little bit. “That’s what I meant when I said I haven’t really come back. I’m not whole, Pam. I don’t know how to be when the other half of me said that she couldn’t love me back. But now, now you’re sending me all of these mixed signals, and I’m trying my best to move on but I feel like I’m getting pulled in twenty-seven different directions and I just...I want it to stop. I want to stop feeling like my life has been shucked into a blender. I did my best to try not thinking about you but I just can’t stop. I need to know. For my own closure. So that once and for all I can set myself down some path that doesn’t lead me to the lion’s den, ya know?”
He took a breath, downed the rest of his water, and tried to read her.
He was so good at reading her. The only book that he’d ever truly lost himself in. But now, her eyes were set in this straight, emotionless stare, one that reminded him that he was going to have to work for what he wanted.
“You said...you said that I moved on and you ‘finally caught up?’”
It was a question that he didn’t necessarily want to know the answer to, but one that he needed in order to finally move forward in one sense or the other. He closed his eyes, bracing for impact. All of his other senses heightened. He could feel the scratchy material of her couch on his bare shins. Smelled her coconut shampoo that hadn’t changed since the first day he met her. Heard the sharp intake of breath, the quick pop of her lips before she spoke, so that when, “I finally caught up to loving you when you decided you were moving on,” rolled off her lips, there was no denying the words that fell right into his little mental teapot.
When his eyes snapped open, hers were filled to the brim with tears, her lip quivering with fear, and his heart broke for an entirely different reason.
He wouldn’t let her break. Could not let his actions take her insides and shatter her into the pain he’d once known. It was a pain that he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemies, but with her, he would lay down his life to protect her from it.
“Hey.” His voice was thick, his emotions warring as he reached out to pull her across the couch so that her bent thighs were flush with his and her wrists were caught in one of his hands as the other caught her tears before they fell. “I left to get away, Pam. From the pain and the bullshit. I couldn’t move on if I tried.”
He tried to smile, and her laugh was choked with tears when she asked, “So Karen is--”
Her heartbeat was audible in the silence between them.
“And do you...do you still…”
She leaned her forehead against his, willing the words to come out.
“I never stopped loving you, Pam.”
He said it with a clear heart and with fire in his eyes so that this time, when she heard him, there would be no misinterpretations. No Roys. No Karens. No going back.
It wasn’t clear whose lips touched whose first, but it was clear that it was pure intensity from the beginning. There wasn’t the gentle hesitation he’d had in May up in the dim lights of the office. There were no moments in between when he waited for her to catch up before he tightened his grip around the small of her back. This time, there was her and there was him, and the only certainty was that there was no beginning or end to the fervor of the want they had for each other.
While she tangled their tongues together, wound her arms up into his hair in a grip that said he’d have to pry her away, he wrapped her legs around his back and stood, carrying her effortlessly down the one hallway in the place. He tried the three doors blindly, swallowing her breathy Closet when he backed her into a shelf on accident. Pushing on his chest, she directed him to the bedroom door. Standing in her bedroom, he had zero time or interest in taking in any of her knick knacks, her art, or the photos on the wall. All he cared about was that when the backs of his knees hit the bed, she tumbled down with him.
He let his feet stay planted on the floor while she pinned him flat on his back, grinding her body against his as he tangled one hand in her curls and let the other span her back, holding her to him in an effort to not let her go ever again.
He was already unabashedly hard, and it took no time for him to flip them onto their sides and scoot up the bed where he could push his hands beneath her robe and find her in nothing but shorts and a tank top. Undressing was a race of exploring hands and desperate lips that ended in a tie because at this point, they were both chasing the high.
Hovering above her bare body was an out of body experience. He wanted to savor this moment, wanted to remember each and every detail of her skin, wanted to catalogue the way she moaned and thrusted into his touch when two fingers slipped inside. But at the same time, he needed to just be, to stop focusing on stockpiling moments because sooner or later he was going to miss being a part of them.
He leaned his forehead against hers, stilling his movements as he willed her to open her eyes. When she did, he was overwhelmed with the love that his heart had been missing, the half of himself that he’d left in Scranton back on that warm May day. He cupped her cheek, brushing his thumb along her soft skin before he touched his lips to hers, letting themselves get caught up in lips and wandering hands for a little while longer. But when her eyes pinched shut, when her body caved into his, the sounds she made begged more need than want, he wrapped his arm around her back, holding them together as he pushed inside of her.
Her fingernails dug into his skin, her sharp intake of breath stealing the air from his lungs as she held onto him, pressed her face into his chest, and rocked against his body, begging him for more. He tilted her chin, begging her to look into his eyes as he picked up the pace. Eventually, when her body was hugging him in all the right places, when he couldn’t take it anymore, he rolled her onto her back, caging his arms around her head as he whispered his I love you’s to every inch of bare skin while she held on for the ride.
She fell apart with his name and love drenching her words, and he followed shortly after, with both arms wrapped around her back in a suffocating hug that later, she’d claim still wasn’t tight enough.
He tried to roll off of her, once their breathing had slowed a little and the room had stopped spinning. But for some reason, she needed his weight on top of her like a security blanket. When she held him in place, he nuzzled her neck and wrapped his arms around her a little tighter.
Eventually though, he rolled onto his back, taking her with him so that they were still wrapped around each other. He pulled her sheet up over them, though at this point, neither of them was really all that cold.
He traced shapes onto her skin because he could. She kissed above his heart because it was hers now.
In the dark stillness of the room, they whispered I love you enough times to lose count, eventually surrendering communication for the night to their hands, their lips.
“You said that Karen is...gone?”
It had been nagging at her since their lips had first collided. In the moment, only the two of them existed. But now, in the aftermath, she really didn’t want to be seen as a homewrecker.
He hummed Mhm, not wanting to say any more on the subject.
“What, did you kill her or something? You didn’t come over here initially to get me to help you hide the body, did you?”
His laughter hummed, vibrating against every inch of her skin.
“No. We’re through. I ended it. And she is…”
He sighed, his warm breath making her curls tuft away from her face before settling back down.
“I don’t want to talk about her anymore. Not now.”
She understood. His Not now. Please. Just let us have this written in the silence. She pressed her lips against his bare chest, an affirmation that the conversation had no place here tonight.
“That robe is obnoxious.” He grinned as his fingers mapped her bare skin with no rhyme or reason other than to feel her, to learn her every goosebump. His eyes followed the curve of her body as it wrapped around him, memorizing her shape under the thin violet sheet that covered her only from chest to thigh.
“Be nice,” she chuckled. “That was a gift from Michael.”
For the first time, he disrupted their stillness to cock his head and let out a sharp What?
She giggled, waking up every single nerve ending in his body that was just now starting to relax.
“Do you remember when he bought us each something from Victoria’s Secret?”
Lime green visions flashed momentarily before he shook them out of this sacred place. He nodded, watching her lips quirk up.
“I didn’t feel comfortable with him buying me underwear. It was the next best option.”
She shrugged. In this position, it made her shoulders brush against him, and he squeezed her more tightly, kissing the top of her head as he tried to wrap his wired mind around being here.
“Hey.” She propped her chin on his chest and followed the soothing sounds of his voice. “Why couldn’t you sleep tonight?”
He’d been wondering all night but hadn’t had the courage to ask until now, until she was locked safely in his arms with no chance of running.
“Oh. Right. Golden Girls marathon.” It rolled off of her tongue like he’d just asked her what color the sky was and she’d responded blue.
For the first time all night, every cobweb in his head, every torrent of confusion was washed away with the joyful belly laugh that started in him and ended in her.
“You’re a real piece of work, you know that?” he whispered against her temple before he sealed it with a kiss. She nuzzled his neck, kissed the damp skin there, and wrapped her arms around him tighter.
“I was thinking about you,” she admitted finally as the greyness of dawn flirted through the windows, dancing along the carpet. “About the way it seemed like you were holding back on the beach. Like I was trying to meet you halfway and you wouldn’t even give me half. I don’t know. Even the way you hugged me seemed like you were holding back.”
She was right. He had been holding back. Afraid to open up too much of himself to her again for fear of the pain she could cause with just a look in her eye.
“Honestly, I was still awake because I was worried about you. I didn’t...I didn’t care if you were upset about me or not, Jim, I just...something was wrong. Somewhere across town, you were hurting. It could have been about Karen, or work, or your nerves about this interview and I....it didn’t matter. Thinking about you suffering kept me awake.”
He sank more deeply into her mattress, weighted down with an empathy that reminded him of the countless nights that Roy upset her at work and he spent the rest of the night wondering if she was okay, prepared the next morning to do anything in his power to make her smile again. He lifted her chin towards him, touched his forehead to hers, and breathed her in.
“I’m not suffering anymore, Beesly,” he whispered only for her as he cradled her head. “Sleep.”
And as light danced in twinkling shadows across her carpet, as Michael Scott was waking up in his condo, and Dwight was out somewhere tending to his beet farm, and Karen was trying in vain to mask the dark shadows under eyes, they closed their eyes and slept.