What are memories but a collection of artifacts; an accumulation of seemingly unrelated tangible objects, lingering indications of something in the past that tie us inexplicably to the present. The season of Christmas draws these relics out, the weight of them heavier, their interconnection more significant, the indication of years and their cumulative effect on a love story.
This is theirs.
He missed the snow. Real snow anyway. Texas snow and Pennsylvania snow were not even in the same category. Although it was amusing to see the locals pull out the parkas and have breaking news coverage over a dusting that stuck for half a day.
The soft hiss of the dying fire, the last log giving over inevitably and collapsing into embers, gave the only sound in the expansive high ceilings of the living room. Their large fireplace was only used once a year really but it was the perfect centerpiece for the quintessential holiday tableau that inevitably played out. He was lucky—immeasurably lucky—and the life they had carved out for themselves over the past two years felt redeeming in far more profound ways than just large commissions and a new address.
There were sleeping bodies all around him, the sound of his entire world augmented with every quiet inhale and exhale. The kids had gorged themselves on pastries and Ovaltine and had promptly passed out on the plush Berber carpet beneath the tree; only Phil's flannel-covered lower body visible, the rest of him hidden by bright red wrapped packages and the glittering white lights on evergreen branches.
Her head was in his lap as he mindlessly stroked the place where her hair met the delicate skin of her temple. She was the life giving nucleus, the origin story of his existence as it all began and ended with her; an occasional force of nature he was fortunate enough to witness. She was wearing his gift, a Boston Bruins jersey with Halpert in yellow across the back, that had somehow ended up on her when her gift ended up in a very expensive lacy navy blue pile on their bedroom floor.
As she shifted in her sleep, there was a favorable pull of material revealing the shape of their child beneath the black and yellow bands of jersey and he caressed the new firmness there. She had just started to show, the top button of her pants suddenly not closing and it had been so long since the last, she almost seemed surprised at the new inch of space. Their world was expanding, the ever-changing definition of his family was increasing by one, but that night, in the peaceful stillness of Christmas Eve it was perfect and he was happy.
She shut the refrigerator with a sigh only to come face to face with the defunct mousetrap she had received for being admirable not impish that year hanging from the large magnetic clip on the surface of the door.
He was leaving again, or perhaps he was already gone. There was a time when she felt like the center of his universe, that his light shined only for her. Now it felt like the light was shining elsewhere. It didn't happen all at once but instead, the change came infinitesimal, pieces of him chipping away and before she realized what had happened, his transfixing attention had faded into a dull ache.
She stirred the potatoes slowly as Cece ran through the kitchen underfoot, Phil dangerously quiet and she looked for him to help, annoyed. She knew she was being unreasonable, she knew he was doing this for her, for them. He was always too large for Dunder Mifflin, his potential far outshining the four walls of a mid-sized paper company in a mid-sized town. That didn't stop her from feeling left behind while he chased what he was meant to be, to want to be selfish and keep him to herself, hidden from the world.
The gifts had been opened, the children sufficiently entertained. And even though she had put out the good china, the table shimmering red and green and metallic, Christmas dinner was uneventful, mostly filled with parenting and polite questions with benign answers. She reached for the bottle again, the merlot was smoother by the second glass. There was an unconscious pull at the pendant she wore, willing him to see her, to see that her soul missed his.
She stood at the sink, staring through the frosted glass at the three-day-old dirty snow covering the yard. It all felt ordinary and not at all the Christmas magic she had longed for, hoped for. It was stilted and jaded, like a rehearsed play of roles and movements.
He brushed behind her and she felt the rush of air push the curls off her shoulder.
"I have to go. My bus leaves at nine."
"I know," she nodded the sadness of it all seeping into her pores.
She followed him to the door, the wheels of his luggage making a quiet rattling sound on the foyer tiles when he turned to her, something troubling in the deep lines of concern on his face. The weight of his silent stare was unnerving and it reminded her of nearly half a minute of it once on a freezing boat deck.
Unsure of her ability to read the nuances of him any longer, she looked away, "Let me know when you get there."
He reached up to the pendant resting just below the hollow of her neck, his fingers brushing so delicately it made her shiver, "Did you think I wouldn't notice?"
She met his eyes again, the man she always knew breaking through the layers of career moves and meetings and distance; seeing the secret oath of who they were reflected there.
"The hair down. The sweater from that first Christmas. The necklace I gave you that year."
"I didn't think you would notice. You don't seem to notice much these days other than work," tears threatened as she exhaled, the relief of honest words washing over her.
He tilted his head, a mixture of sad disbelief, "I will always notice you."
Before she could doubt him his hands had captured her face, his mouth covering hers with more than simple desire; it was a reckoning, a desperate plea to hang on, to believe in him—in them—a little longer.
His forehead rested on hers, his thumbs stroking the soft skin near her ears and she began to think that they would survive this and that she might get her Christmas magic after all.
"I mean, I knew maternity jeans were a thing but I didn't realize just how amazing a thing—especially when you can't breathe and sit down at the same time."
He chuckled softly, amused at her stream of consciousness thoughts she sometimes had that felt like she was barreling down a hill with no direction, often shifting at the last minute without warning to an entirely different topic and he was just along for the ride.
He held up her coat and she shrugged into the heavy wool and he did the same. Distracted by her buttons, he reached in the drawer of the hallway dresser grabbing the maroon scarf with the tasseled ends and draped it over her neck from behind without comment.
"What is this?" She turned to him in surprise, fingering the ends as she spoke, "Jim, this is really nice...and expensive. When did you get this? Is this a Christmas gift?"
"So many questions."
She squinted at him suspiciously, "You are being sneaky. What are you up to?"
"Well," he opened the front door over her head and ushered her through it. "It's our first Christmas being married."
"Yes. It is." She drew out the words slowly with continued skepticism as she carefully navigated the slushy sidewalk.
"And I just thought it would be fun to go do something we haven't done in a very long time," he added but she only tilted her head at him.
He shook his bemused, realizing that surprising her was sometimes an impossible feat, "Ice skating. And this time I won't have to pretend not to try and touch you as much as possible."
She smiled as she slid into the seat and looked back up at him mischievously, "And I won't have to pretend not to know how to skate so I have an excuse to let you pretend not to touch me."
"Beesly, you tricky thing..."
"What? You did it too!"
It was a forty-five minute drive to the nearest outdoor rink, a small sparsely populated place with a quaint beverage stand that reminded him of their favorite pie place. It was barely snowing, if it had been ten degrees warmer it would have probably been a drizzle, but it was exactly what he had wanted.
"This all feels very Hallmark channel," she wrapped around his arm to steady herself in the uneven snow of the parking lot. "You aren't about to confess that you've been a rich businessman from Vermont with a broken heart this entire time, are you?"
After lacing her skates a touch looser than last time—much to her lament—they stepped out onto the ice, a small family smiling as they passed and she held onto his arm tightly.
"I thought you said you knew how to skate?"
"I do, I've just never done it pregnant before. I don't want to fall."
He smiled and leaned over, whispering into her hair, "I'm not going to let you fall."
He would spend his days making sure she would never fall.
They made their way around the rink, steadily gaining speed, all while children and teenagers whipped by them with the agility of youth.
"So are you going to tell me about the scarf?" She looked at him, the winter air pushing the curls off her face, her cheeks and nose pink from the chill.
"It's your grandmother's, Sylvia. It was in that box your mom gave us months ago when she was cleaning out your stuff. I asked her about it when you were in the bathroom that night at dinner. I just thought you might like it for ice skating."
"I thought it looked familiar," she added pensively, making a strong push with her skate propelling her forward. "I forgot I even had that. She always has the nicest things."
They continued on in companionable silence for several minutes, a balance of perfect symmetry with each other. She took her free hand and smoothed the maroon scarf over the firm swell of her coat, echoes of family calling forward to the next generation.
"You know, if the baby is a girl, I want to name her Cecelia."
The snow had come back. Not that it had really left; the glistening large wet flakes drifted slowly down until they joined softly with the white blanket covering everything outside of the dark warm space they were in.
There was nothing but him. The way he was moving beneath her, inside her, his large hands sliding down the curve of her waist and settling on her hips, his fingers gripping her soft flesh, and his thumbs stroking luxuriously on small hills of her pelvic bones.
It was their first Christmas together as a couple and it had been nothing short of a miracle to get to where they now were, naked on a flimsy plaid blanket on the floor of his living room, the small electric heater with its cheap fake flames making the room overly warm. A small trickle of sweat slid down between her breasts as she arched against his body, her head tipping back in pleasure, allowing the essence of him to fill her and reach the innermost places she hid from the rest of the world. She had never revealed herself, every single flawed part of herself, to anyone before him. Not even Roy, she realized now. As she met his eyes again, filled with the same wonder and disbelief—that they were here, that they had made it—and she knew those secret places of herself were safe with him.
He had given her a necklace, small and simple but one that went perfectly with the paradigm shift of him, of everything he made right in her world.
She had given him a key to her apartment, the last vestiges of independence from him let go and it somehow felt freeing. She had never had an apartment or a key to give before and the very act of it was both affirming and conclusive; he was the one and he always had been.
There was the weightiness of guilt he had never felt before over a simple Christmas gift for a woman that he wasn't dating. Thankfully Karen hadn't noticed when he had pulled out her gift, there was another one tucked neatly on the other side of his messenger bag.
The act itself felt involuntary. They had always exchanged gifts, a delicate dance of crossing lines and disregarding unwritten rules under the guise of platonic office relationships, even if it was only an origami penguin or a paperclip ornament. It had been enough.
The previous year he had pushed that boundary, daring to give her a piece of himself, to confess that he memorized every moment, tattooed every interaction with her on his soul. That teapot had felt monumental, its contents even more so. Now it rested firmly on the shelf of mistakes, of one-sided misinterpretations, the humiliation of it hidden away forever. It didn't explain why he had stopped at her favorite bookstore, remembering the obscure title she had mentioned over day-old Chinese leftovers they had once been sharing at lunch.
"I saw this book I want to get."
"Oh yeah, what is it?" he had fished in her box of noodles with his chopsticks as he spoke and she had looked up in thought. He remembered how warm and illicit her thigh felt pressed against his on the small bench they shared behind the building.
"It was Surrounded by Idiots"
He nearly choked on the spicy chicken he had just taken a bite of, "What kind of book is that?"
"It's about finding answers inside yourself and not other people. I don't know, it seems like something interesting, something I need to read."
The rather small book felt heavy in his hand, its minimal black letters obscured by unassuming green wrapping paper as he glanced over at Pam opening a gift in the conference room, an animated Roy standing impatiently in front of her.
He slid the wrapped book underneath a stack of manila folders in the bottom of his desk drawer to be forgotten like a teapot. Some answers were not the ones a person wanted to hear.
It wasn't all that surprising the way Michael excitedly sat down at Jim's desk while he was gone that morning for a sales call, digging around in Jim's drawer looking for a pad of paper. He had his frantic energy, the kind reserved for his brilliant ideas or complete disasters, the distinction fairly thin between the two. He feverishly wrote the list of names of everyone in the office, pulling out a nutcracker from a worn box labeled 'Mildred's X-mas', each one with a brief description assigning who it was to be gifted to.
He sat there pondering each one like it truly mattered and in the time it took her to answer two phone calls, he finally stood triumphantly, tearing the sheet from Jim's spiral notebook with a flourish and slapping it on her desk, her instructions clear: wrap them all in time for the Christmas party on Friday.
With a sigh, she pulled the piece of paper down, resigned to the task that would consume the rest of her afternoon but instead on the back it was her name in Jim's familiar handwriting and it caused the sharp intake of breath she wasn't expecting.
There were several beginnings, some crossed out, others with messy words changed, but the one at the bottom was nearly a complete thought. A thought that terrified her.
Christmas is a time for telling people how you really feel
The words stopped at the edge, forever ceasing from the man who wrote them but it was enough; it was more than enough. She looked around worriedly realizing where she was, as if all of the sudden her secrets had been on display for everyone to see, only to find no one even looking in her direction. She read the words again, committing every pressure point of ink and graceful stroke to memory before quietly folding the paper and tucking it behind the picture frame of her sister on her desk.
The wrapping would have to wait.
The Coffee Mug
"Will you come with me?"
He leaned back in his desk chair, a small bounce with the worn springs, and pretended to consider her question carefully. Little did she know that he had decided a long time ago that he would follow her anywhere.
"Where are we going?"
"The mall." He grimaced and she quickly continued with a roll of her eyes, " I know. Michael wants a very specific mall Santa for the party this afternoon."
"I need help convincing this random part-time seasonal worker to come to an office party in costume at 5:30 on a Friday before Christmas. It will be fun." The last four words wobbled slightly as though she was trying to convince herself and failing.
He laughed softly at her misery but grabbed his jacket off the chair anyway.
The Steamtown Mall was everything you would expect on a Friday before Christmas; ordinary storefronts awash in buzzing humanity and old-fashioned carols over the PA system.
She was smiling in spite of herself at the glorious display of nostalgic holiday Americana all around them in swirls of green and red and twinkling lights. They made their way through the bustling crowds of stressed shoppers and overstimulated children until they reached the epicenter of the chaos, an ostentatious display of North Pole splendor.
"Oh, he has to be kidding," she muttered in disbelief and he could barely hear her over the dull roar of the crowd.
The Santa that Michael had so desperately wanted, looked like a cheap dollar store knockoff of the real thing: somewhat thin and short, a real brown beard peaking around the edges of the fake silver one and definitely missing a couple of front teeth.
She flipped open her phone in a huff, dialing his number before waiting until his voicemail message began and flipping it closed again.
She turned back to the disheveled Santa with a distressed look, clearly not wanting to engage the man much less convince him of something and he couldn't resist the overwhelming urge to fix it.
"Listen, why don't we just tell Michael that he said no. We'll walk around the mall for a while before we go back to make it believable."
"What if he comes down here and tries himself? He'll know we lied," she twisted her hand nervously where it gripped her purse strap.
"He won't, and even if he does, good luck with that. Come on, I saw really good looking chocolates on the way that would be criminal to pass up."
Time slowed as they meandered through the commercialized Christmas cheer, stopping occasionally to chuckle at a terrible gift or an overpriced piece of junk and he tried not to count how many times their shoulders accidentally brushed up against each other.
"This," she proclaimed at a particularly cheesy vendor booth in the middle of the crowded hallway. "This is definitely something I should get my MeeMaw, don't you think?" She held up a white and red mug next to her face humorously, the words Grandma is a Great Cook in small black letters across the front. He smiled thoughtfully at her unguarded expression, the carefree way her hair had slipped free of her clip and fell rebellious around her face. Maybe it was Nat King Cole's voice drifting around them singing about chestnuts or the serotonin of the seven chocolates he had just eaten, but he wanted to freeze that moment in time, to file it away in the back of his mind to call upon when he was alone and missing her.
She set the mug back down on the shelf, moving on to the next trinket when he swiped it quickly and headed to the cashier before he changed his mind. It wasn't until the cheap plastic bag was being handed to him did she return to his side.
"What did you get?" she asked warm and curious.
"The perfect coffee mug."
"Thanks," she turned her hand over awkwardly, almost embarrassed. "I didn't think Roy was ever going to get it. It's been what, a year now I think?"
He nodded affably and looked away, trying not to think about how many things were wrong with that statement or what that ring meant or how it caused a gnawing pain in him that he could never quite rid himself of.
"Why is Dwight wearing a tux today with a red bowtie?"
He followed her line of sight at the question, seeing Dwight carefully counting the ornaments on the scraggly tree in the corner of the room, completely overdressed for what undoubtedly would be an uneventful office party.
"I never asked. I'm afraid he might tell me."
He heard her snorted laugh and returned her smile in the addicting way he always did.
She looked down shyly after they held their gaze a second too long, and quickly shifted topics, "Are you getting anything special this year?"
"No, probably some CDs or something. Pete and Tom took the families on a ski trip to Breckenridge and Larissa is...somewhere, so it's just my parents."
She nodded and he pressed forward daringly, "Definitely not fancy jewelry that's for sure."
Her visage changed slightly the way it did when he pushed the boundary a step too far. It was always a careful set of unspoken rules that he had memorized to keep that expression away: never criticize Roy, never discuss the wedding that had yet to happen, never discuss them as a singular entity.
The phone rang and she reached for the handset quickly after the first ring. While she answered some benign question, he leaned against the counter, silently observing the party beginning to take shape, transforming the boring four walls he looked at every day into a somewhat festive atmosphere.
He felt her cool small fingers wrap softly around his hand and he stopped breathing. She pulled a red ribbon off a small package sitting on her desk and tied it silently around his wrist. He studied her concentration in the brief seconds it took to make the tiny bow; the way a piece of hair had fallen in her eyes, the freckles across her nose, the way she bit ever-so-slightly the edge of her lip.
"There," she looked up at him through her eyelashes and something faint but dangerous was there. "Now you have some jewelry too. Not fancy but something."
"No, that's perfect," he shook his head and exhaled shakily. "It's what I've always wanted."
The words hung between them heavily until the spell they were under snapped like a taunt cable with Angela's announcement that the food was ready.
The next hour and a half passed with only minor but predictable disruptions of Meredith drinking too much, Dwight throwing away an entire tray of finger foods that he claimed was poisoned, and Michael spiking the punch bowl.
He went into the kitchen to find the untainted punch in the refrigerator and was pouring himself a glass when she breezed through the propped open door.
He tipped the container of syrupy red juice in the direction of her Solo cup, "I'm pretty sure the Hunch Punch I barely survived through in college turned me off entirely to whatever Michael just poured in there."
They both took a simultaneous sip and grimaced, seeking the counter behind them to set down the offending surgery drinks. There was an increase in volume from the direction of the conference room and they watched as Creed and Meredith started moving around in what might be generously defined as dancing.
"We should count our Christmas miracles that Packer won't be coming this year."
He made a soft affirming noise before adding, "Yeah definitely."
Pulling at his tie to loosen it, the day suddenly feeling long and exhausting, he glanced up and noticed the small green sprig directly over where they stood. A thousand thoughts spread like wildfire through his mind in potential and the one he particularly lingered on was just pulling her into a kiss, to claim innocently that it was just the way it had to be, her engagement, and his gentlemanly mind argued, consent, be damned.
Instead, he sanely went with plausible deniability.
"You should probably not be standing here."
She looked up at him questioningly, "Why?"
He smirked and let his eyes drift slowly northward.
"Oh," she replied, her eyes taking up her entire face and her mouth making a soft shape that wasn't helping matters any.
"Yeah. I'm pretty sure there are some rules to this whole thing," he quipped but there was no humor in his tone as the air suddenly felt thin.
She nodded affirmatively, slow and purposeful. Alarms were sounding at deafening volumes in his head but he didn't hear them. The only sound was her quickening breath, shallow and unsteady, and his, that seemed to match her rhythm instinctively. She leaned nearer, he was sure of it, because her body heat felt more intense as it seemed to wrap around him beckoning him closer.
"We shouldn't break the rules," she murmured, her eyes dropping to his mouth while his stomach dropped with them as he searched her face for a clue, some permission or sign from the stars.
"No," he whispered back like a prayer and a promise. "We can't—"
"Oh my God, you guys! You're under the mistletoe!" Kelly's shrill voice pierced through the air like a thunderclap and their bodies shook and retreated as if they had been physically pushed apart.
Pam looked down embarrassed, spinning her new ring nervously on her finger for an uncomfortable beat before quickly walking towards her desk without another word.
He stood conflicted for a moment, his instincts telling him to go after her, to somehow fix her embarrassment, but then realized he might only make the situation worse. He decided after an intense internal battle, to break his own set of rules and have a drink at an office party.
Kevin was behind the makeshift bar, which was probably a bad idea for a multitude of reasons, but any protest his mind supplied was forcefully drowned out by the need to both forget and overanalyze the last seven minutes of his life.
"Hey Kev. What's the strongest thing you have back there?"
"Uh. This one I think," he held up a half-empty bottle of Tanqueray, the contents sloshing around in the green container.
"Perfect. On the rocks."
As Kevin fished for ice out of the bucket and poured two portions of clear gin, he leaned against the wall trying to appear nonchalant as he scanned the office for a glimpse of her. He exhaled unconsciously as he finally spotted her talking to Oscar and Stanley near reception.
Kevin held up the cheap plastic cups, motioning for a clumsy toast in his deep monotone, "Merry Christmas, man."
He nodded once, taking a long sip, feeling the alcohol burn all the way as he looked down with a rueful smile at the red ribbon still tied around his wrist and the tattoo of her fingertips still fresh on his skin.