He isn’t sure if it’s her that’s different, or him. Maybe both of them. He’s official now, after all: better pay, better desk, better sense of how it feels to be a semi-valued employee at a middling paper distributor in Nowheresville, Pennsylvania, population: you. And she doesn’t seem like the same mousy receptionist he barely remembers meeting on his first day. It’s nothing concrete. Her hair’s a little softer looking, maybe. Or else her eyes are what are softer, and a little smudgy-looking, like those girls in his business classes who always went out for drinks afterwards with the professor.
Whatever it is, it’s not the same Pam. This Pam seems cleverer than he’d remembered, more impish. She’s flushed and giggling as they peek through the blinds towards the parking lot. He has to squint to see clearly; the last few rays of sunlight filter out from behind trees and houses, making the parking lot look rosy and flat. Her grin widens and she elbows him sharply, almost painfully – ow he complains, but he shuts up when she slants him a sideways glance and mutters pussy, a word he’s surprised to find she uses – when Dwight approaches his car. They watch him come to an abrupt halt a few feet from the door, before whirling to scan the parking lot. When he finds no one he sighs visibly and squares his shoulders before wrenching open the door. An avalanche of ping pong balls surges out of the open door and mounds around his feet, a few bouncing across the parking lot in merry arcs.
Pam controls her giggles and solemnly offers him her fist. Her face is technically straight, but there’s more life in her eyes than he’s used to. It’s disconcerting, in a way. He’s not used to thinking of his coworkers as people.
“Mission accomplished,” she says. “Nice work, Mr. Howard, thank you for your assistance.” He bumps his knuckles with hers, feeling a little foolish. Mostly because he knows she’s making the gesture to be silly, but his friends still do it without any irony. His eyes drop to her lips. They’re pink, curved; she’s mostly chewed off any lipstick she might have been wearing. They’re nice lips. He forces his gaze back to Dwight, who is now using a Big Gulp cup fished from the gutter to bail out his car.
“That’ll teach him not to crack his windows,” Ryan comments. He wonders if her lips taste like the candy in the bowl on her desk. Peppermint this week. When his eyes flick back to her lips and then to her eyes, she’s looking at him like he’s just as much of a discovery as she was to him.
She gives him plenty of time to avoid the kiss, but it’s still a surprise somehow when he feels her lips on his, when he flicks his tongue and finds they taste not like peppermint, but faintly like lip gloss, waxy and a tiny bit sweet. Then her tongue is on his and that’s sweet, too; everything about her is sweet except for her mean streak. But he likes that anyway, so he doesn’t really care.
The copier clicks and hums behind them in one of its inscrutable nightly rituals and they jump apart as if spring-loaded. She looks nervous now. He can see the old Pam in the shape of her mouth and the twist of her hands against each other.
He wants the other Pam to come back, so he says, “We should put ping pong balls in Dwight’s car more often.”
“Nice apartment,” he offers when he walks in. They’ve been going out after work and on weekends for a little while, but their dates mostly ended with groping and fumbling in the cramped backseat of his car. This is the first time someone’s house has been involved and he’s almost convinced himself he’s not nervous about that.
It looks like her, somehow. Vintage postcards held to the fridge with magnets, flowers in a vase on top of the television, lamps with actual shades (unlike the bare bulbs that lurk in his house), an afghan draped over the back of the couch. It’s always the girl details that make him feel simultaneously comfortable and out of place.
“Thanks.” She smiles a little shyly, busying herself with a bottle of wine. “Do you want some?” she asks, pulling two glasses from a cabinet when he nods. The window next to him creaks and suddenly a furry lump jumps neatly into the nearest chair.
“I didn’t realize you were a cat lady,” he says. The mangy-looking cat regards him warily but makes no move to vacate the seat he was about to help himself to. Pam looks up.
“I’m not,” she says. “I inherited her. She just loiters around the back door and jumps in the windows if I leave them open.” Ryan makes a noncommittal noise in response and cautiously extends his hand for the cat’s inspection. She sniffs at his outstretched fingers, eyeing him suspiciously, but she doesn’t move away when his fingers unerringly find just the right spot on the back of her neck and scratch. She immediately starts purring, dipping her head low and slouching into his touch.
“How’d you do that?” asks Pam. “When I try to pet her she swipes at me. I’ve had to buy stock in Neosporin.” She holds up her hand and wiggles her fingers as proof. A band-aid is wrapped around her thumb.
“She’s prickly,” Ryan says. “I’m good with prickly.” The cat’s eyes are the merest slits in her furry face. Her paws work mechanically at the wicker seat of the chair. “Does she have a name?”
“Dunno,” Pam shrugs. “Cat.”
When he uses her bathroom, he gives in to the temptation to snoop through her medicine cabinet and drawers. She has a drawer full of lipsticks and eye shadow containers that look barely touched. He recognizes a plastic compact as birth control pills and he decides not to open it. He doesn’t want to know if she’s taking them or not. Instead he wanders over towards the shower, noting the slightly mismatched towels hanging neatly on the rack.
Shampoo and conditioner bottles are arranged chromatically on the window ledge in the shower. He picks up on bottle and opens the cap, sniffing experimentally. It smells chemically and sweet and he sneezes.
“Gesundheit!” she calls from the living room.
“Since when are you German?” he calls back as he places the bottle back on the ledge and carefully slides the shower curtain back into place as quietly as possible.
She’s standing in the living room when he comes out. He moves to sit on the edge of the couch next to her. She allows him to catch her wrist, to pull her between his knees. His eyes settle on her mouth, the mouth that never sees those lipsticks in that drawer. He tells himself he’s going to slide his hands up under her skirt, that he’s going to pull her down onto his lap and work his hands under her bra. Instead he drops his forehead against the soft bell of her abdomen. After a moment, her hands twine in his hair. He turns his head, presses his cheek to flesh that gives only slightly at the pressure. His hands fall to rest against the backs of her thighs. The skin is soft there, right at the crease behind her knees. When he circles his fingers on that skin he can feel her shiver.
His phone buzzes on his coffee table in the middle of the movie. Wednesday night is movie night now. He was surprised and pleased to find her taste in movies slightly sophomoric and they’ve been working their way through every summer camp comedy they can find on Netflix and the collected works of Will Ferrell. His couch is comfortable, a little beaten up and just the right size for him to stretch out with her half on top of him while they watch television. They both lean forward at the same time, him to grab his phone, her to reach for the remote.
“You want me to pause it?” she asks. He shakes his head, so she just turns the volume down. He looks at the face of his phone. Jim Halpert. He flips it open.
“Hey. Yeah, I got your email. Saturday sounds good. Look, can I call you back?” He pauses then, listening. Laughs. “No, nothing like that. Pam’s over. Yeah. I didn’t? I’ll tell you about it this weekend. Okay, talk to you tomorrow.” He flips the phone shut and chucks it gently onto the table. Pam rearranges herself more comfortably. He takes the remote from her and turns the television up, flipping back a little to see what he missed.
“Who was that?” she asks.
“Hm? Oh. Jim. He’s going to be up here this weekend.” She stiffens beside him and he’s suddenly not too concerned with the movie or the remote. The DVD keeps skipping backwards, unnoticed.
“Oh,” she says. Then again, “oh.”
“What?” he asks.
“Nothing,” she insists. “I’m just…I’m kind of tired. I spent the whole day trying to keep Michael from hiring a skywriter to beg Carol for a second chance.”
Now he’s the one saying, “oh.” She sits up slightly.
“I think- maybe I’m just going to head home, go to bed early.” His hands slither to his lap uselessly. “Is that okay?” Her face is pleading when she looks at him.
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s fine. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He should probably see her to the door, kiss her goodnight, make her try to stay. He should say, he’s seeing someone. Say, her name is Karen and he doesn’t talk about her in that way you don’t talk about girls you really like. He should make her forget about Jim. But he doesn’t move from the couch when she gets up. Or when she softly calls bye as she shuts the door behind her.
The DVD reaches the beginning and starts to play all over again. He watches 10 minutes before he remembers he’s seen this part already.
He’s lying in bed reading when she comes in. The book is propped on his stomach. He has to squint a bit to see the words clearly. It’s probably time to break down and get some reading glasses like an adult, but he’s already got a real job where he wears a tie and extols the virtues of pre-punched paper. Even though he’s still pounding shots with his buddies on Thursdays and playing videogames in a pot-induced haze on Sundays, his illusion of youth would be irrevocably shattered by reading glasses.
She’s wearing the boy shorts he likes. She knows just how much he likes them, judging by the ate-the-canary look on her face when his eyes linger. Her bra is almost sheer and he can just barely see her nipples, only a fraction darker than the blush-colored fabric. She knows he likes that too, probably. It annoys him that he’s so predictable, so easily manipulated even when no one’s trying to manipulate. He looks back down at his book and doesn’t look up when she reaches the side of the bed.
The mattress dips with her weight. His hips slide a little, bumping up against the inside of her knee as she straddles him. The book is at an interesting part. He wants to keep reading – she wasn’t receptive just last night when he slid his hands under her loose pajama pants, after all, and he’s not her puppet – but he can feel the heat of her through the thin material of those boy shorts and his crotch isn’t as interested in Freakonomics as his brain is.
When her fingers curl around the edge of the book and pull, he tightens his grip and tugs it from her, folding it closed on his chest and making his place with an index finger. Her body stiffens with irritation.
“What’s with you?” she asks flatly.
“You’ve been weird all afternoon.”
“No I haven’t.” His denial is both automatic and false, which would really bother him if he let himself think about it.
“Yes you have,” she persists, shifting impatiently and narrowing her eyes when she feels him grow hard beneath her in response. “You got wiggy right after we sent Dwight the secret admirer note on Vance Refrigeration stationery.”
“Wiggy?” He starts to smile a little but stops at her cold look.
“What’s the deal?”
“I just don’t see why we have to give Dwight such a hard time.” His voice is flat, detached. He stares at his finger pressed between the pages of his book. It hurts a little, but he doesn’t move to put the book aside. When he looks up, the annoyance in Pam’s face has been replaced by astonishment.
“Because he’s Dwight,” she says slowly, as if he’s a child or a little slow. “Dwight. Remember? The same Dwight who issued you a citation handwritten on a post-it for having illegally downloaded ringtones? The Dwight who tackles in touch football and complains to Toby that Creed swallows too loudly? That Dwight?”
“Well maybe he wouldn’t be such a douche if people didn’t fuck with him all the time,” he says. What he means is, maybe he wouldn’t if Jim hadn’t fucked with him all the time. He hates how petulant he sounds. She stares at him in patent disbelief. Her eyes drop to his stomach and she seems to remember the position they’re in.
“Do you want to?” she asks, defiant and almost sullen. Like a teenager.
“No,” he answers, but when she raises up on her knees to move his hand is on her leg anyway, pulling her back to settle on him. His other hand pushes underneath those boy shorts. His fingers tapping against her clit in the way that he knows makes her crazy, the way he knows will make her rock her hips against him in just the way he likes.
The book is still sitting on his chest by the time she comes and he’s dipping his hand into the nightstand for a condom.