In an office full of salespeople, one might expect that there would be a great deal of practiced charm. One might expect glossiness, from people whose livelihoods depended on their ability to convince others. One might think that it would take particularly talented people to spend their lives selling something as uninspiring as paper, but as it turned out, the employees of Dunder-Mifflin, Scranton, were noteworthy for their profound lack of gloss, all the talented people having been hired by companies that were successful enough to pay a decent salary.
Although the hiring couldn't have possibly been by design, each of the sales staff had their own niche. Michael had his nearly painful sincerity and enthusiasm, Phyllis was empathetic, Stanley was earnest, and Dwight was… persistent. Todd Packer had catered to the good ol' boys, before he took his show on the road. Jim ended up, by default, being the most natural salesman in the office, with his easygoing manner and boyish charm. He probably would have been successful at a very young age, if he had ever put any effort into it.
Even though he didn't spend endless hours polishing his spiel, everything Jim said all day long was for effect: to make Pam smile; to rile Dwight (to make Pam smile); to placate Michael (to make Pam smile); and very, very rarely to make the maximum sales numbers with the minimum amount of actual work (to have more time to make Pam smile).
Entertaining Pam posed a challenge that was infinitely more interesting than a 2 percent increase in cardstock sales. It wasn't that he was insincere, or posing, but talking to her was like learning a new game. There was a strategy to it, which evolved with his knowledge of the rules, tactics, and opponents.
From the beginning, he had always been the more daring one, and each successful push into new conversational territory was rewarded not only by her laughter, but by her following him into it. Pam had had her share of awkward-moment-causing, but it was more likely that her sincerity would wound him than her wit. She hadn't had anything to overcompensate for or cover up, at the beginning. When she said that Jim was like a brother to her, there was no trace of the twist that would slide across Jim's features when he said the same thing.
Some days it was more of a dance than others, the thrill of seeing how close to the line he could get without crossing it, because as much as he felt like he knew Pam inside and out, and no matter how long the days at work seemed, she still lived more than half her life away from him. Some days it was less like chess, and more like minesweeper. There was always the chance of an engagement-shaped landmine waiting to be stumbled across if he got on a roll and jumped too far ahead.
* * * * *
"At least I didn't leave you at a high school hockey game"
"…I have some faxes to get out"
"Oh, C'mon, Pam, I…"
* * * * *
In the days after the booze cruise, Jim felt like more of a third wheel than usual in conversation with Pam, even when it was just the two of them in a room. After months of a slow fading into the background of their daily lives, Roy was suddenly in the forefront again, courtesy of one drunken date-setting. Sometimes it hurt Jim's heart to see her so happy again, planning to move forward with her life with a man who wasn't him, but the sparkle in her eyes drew him to her more strongly than his self-preservation told him to back away. So Jim kept up his end of their everyday banter, and lived for the rare moments when he and Pam had something special all to themselves.
Attending office parties at the Scranton office was always rolling the dice. It could be hours of painful forced socialization, or frightening displays of...well, just ickiness. Angela usually kept a close eye on the refreshments to prevent tampering, but sometimes even her punctiliousness wavered in the face of the ridiculous number of things Michael chose to celebrate. On a particularly slow day, when he decided that he couldn't wait until his birthday for the next party, and that they needed to commemorate National Procrastination Week, she rolled her eyes, bought some Kool-Aid mix and a bag of off-brand corn chips and rescheduled the next vet's appointment for Sprinkles to that afternoon. Soon after, Dwight disappeared on a mysterious sales call.
The unguarded punch bowl proved to be too tempting a target, and an hour into the party, it seemed that Jim and Pam were the only people in the office who had noticed the burn in the punch and decided that a second, or fifth, cup wasn't a good idea. They were perched on his desk, a safe distance from the conference room but not so far that they were likely to be summoned back.
While wedding-planning outranked most of her normal at-work time-killers, tipsy coworkers were comedy gold just waiting to happen. It was too good for Pam to pass up, and Jim was reveling in having her full attention for once. The partiers seemed to be regressing in step with the punch bowl emptying, and Jim was keeping Pam in stitches with running commentary as their coworkers moved on to ever sillier games
There wasn't much chance of anyone hearing their conversation, but Jim tipped his head down closer to Pam's, and stage-whispered, "I wonder how long it'll be before they're crowded up around the phone, crank calling their crushes. Who do you think they'd call?"
"Well Phyllis is obvious: Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration. And I think Creed and Madge are due for a love connection. And then Meredith can call Phillip, and…"
Jim went for the easy target before his brain fully engaged, "Oh come on now, even Meredith has standards. Those warehouse workers are…" and as he felt her stiffen beside him, he realized he'd waltzed right over one of those landmines.
"They're what, Jim? 'Those warehouse workers' are what?"
"They're…Pam…I…you know I didn't…" but the twinkle was gone from her eye and the moment they had been sharing was gone as well, as she moved to set the phones to voicemail and pick up her things.
She had left the office by the time he recovered, but Jim wasn't sure what he would have said anyway. I didn't mean to imply that you had no standards? No really, I think your fiancé is super?
So, Jim watched her leave, and started to build up a wall of words between his heart and his life, and a demilitarized zone of harmless third-party banter. Sometimes his heart beat like it was going to fly out of his chest, hammering against that wall. The reality of what happened when his heart broke though was about as much fun as the image implied.
* * * * *
"I'm in love with you"
* * * * *
They didn't talk like they used to, and it was probably "his fault" but it's not like he was doing anything wrong. Focusing on work and trying to have a healthy, reciprocated relationship should not have been wrong.
When his cell phone rang, self-preservation led Jim to move to the noisier break room to talk to his mother, rather than stay in the relative quiet of the office. The last thing Jim wanted was a Michael-ism ringing through the air to his mother's ears.
In an office as small as Scranton, everyone knew pretty much where everyone was at all times, but Jim had put so much effort, during the month since the merger, into paying attention to Karen and avoiding Pam, that he managed to develop a blind spot, blocking her out with smoke and mirrors and white noise. So that's how it was that he didn't notice her sitting with the group in the corner of the break room while he and his mother talked about holiday plans.
He was standing with his back to the room, looking out into the office, towards Karen's desk. "No, Mom, I don't think she's going to be getting anyone presents. No, Mom, I don't think you need to get her anything." He didn't notice Pam's sharp glance up when he said, "No Mom, that was... Karen doesn't draw. I don't know. Give it to Sherrie?"
But when he said, "Yeah, she's really looking forward to meeting everyone. Yeah, she's great. Everyone's going to love her," he did notice her gasp. He did notice her hasty and slightly unsteady exit from the room.
Jim watched her go, torn. He didn't think that he had the right or the power to comfort her any more, even if he had been sure that he wanted to.
* * * * *
"Um...are you free for dinner tonight?"
"All right. Then… it's a date."
* * * * *
It's a date. It's a date? Had he meant that? Maybe she really did just miss her best friend. He was out of practice, reading her, but then this was territory untouched by the old Jim and Pam. The geography had changed and his sonar didn't work anymore.
Every conversation they'd had, before this, had been from behind a safety net of relationships. Things that Jim could have said before, ridiculous suggestions that were safe and therefore funny when they both knew who they'd be going home with, or without, were suddenly fraught with maybes.
There'd been some awkward debate, after he had picked her up for dinner¸ as to whether this was their first date or not. Then it took a turn for the worse as that veered off into a discussion of whether Pam was the type of girl who put out after the first date, or the third, because there was no point in arguing about it if he wasn't going to get any either way. And then he froze, and cleared his throat, and her eyes flicked nervously away. Yeah, nice going there, Halpert.
After an agonizingly long pause, she asked how the drive back from New York had been, and when he managed to answer, and get past the explaining why Karen hadn't come back with him (because really, that needed to be said) without further dampening the conversation, they started to ease back into their old banter. By the time they got to their table at the restaurant, Pam had just looked so happy, really happy for the first time in a long time, and Jim could feel her smile reflected on his face, and he wanted to keep it there more than he'd wanted anything in a long time.
It would henceforth be known as The Great Unfunny Date.
Pam probably spent more time laughing at him than with him, but when Pam caught his hand outside the restaurant, still giggling, and said, "Oh, you poor baby… c'mere," as she pulled him over to the car, he was ready to be unfunny for the rest of his life, if he could just keep her.
* * * * *
"So tell me again why I can't be a part of your club?"
"Because some people think you try to monopolize the conversation by trying to be funny."
* * * * *
Jim had played it off at first, saying that all this togetherness was cutting into his worshipping from afar time anyway. It hadn't really bothered him that she had a club that he couldn't be a member of. He didn't really want to sit around and discuss fine literature, and the same way that he supported her art without necessarily needing to participate or understand it, he was fine with her having this separate interest too. It was one more thing to dance around, and tease her about, another excuse to make wild conjectures, something that he really did miss sometimes, now that they shared so much of their lives. A little tension was healthy.
Of course, when she offered him entry to the club, he accepted. He would have accepted even if it hadn't been a great opportunity to piss Andy off, but after his Lucky-inspired commentary on the novel, it seemed for the best that Jim Halpert and the Finer Things Club would part ways.
After dinner that night, curled up on her couch, Jim tried to apologize again. "I'm sorry my stupid mouth and I messed up your meeting."
"Shh…" she said, crawling up onto his lap. "I love your stupid mouth."