This might just go down as the worst Halloween ever, and she’s had some bad ones: the year her so-called best friend stole her idea to dress up like a bag of groceries and she won the Best Costume award while Pam got a stern lecture from her fourth grade teacher about not being a copycat. The year she went as a bunch of grapes, then spent three hours in the bathroom later that night trying to wash the green dye out of her hair before realizing that, short of shaving her head, she would have to go to school the next morning looking like broccoli. The year Roy dragged her to a party at the University of Scranton where he’d ignored her all night to do keg stands with some assholes he didn’t even know and then puked all over the side of her car when she’d finally wrestled him outside to drive him home.
But this one somehow seems worse. She’s knocked over her coffee, jammed the fax machine twice, tripped over her own shoes. Just five minutes ago she sent an email complaining about Angela to Angela by accident, and now she’s just waiting for the fallout. And she’d care about that if Michael hadn’t just called Jim into his office on the day he has to fire someone.
Michael had flipped the blinds shut just before he called Jim in there and she’s not sure if that’s better or worse. She wants to know what’s happening, but she wouldn’t want to see the look on Jim’s face if he got fired. The thought occurs to her that this is some weirdo Gift of the Magi scenario, or the Monkey’s Paw, or whatever that story was they read in middle school to learn about irony, where she tells him to apply for another job before realizing that she doesn’t want him to go and then he gets fired anyway.
When he comes out she grabs him, wanting to know what happened and he just shrugs her off, telling her it wasn’t him. He pulls away from her grasp and she’s left to stand there awkwardly, wondering how she screwed everything up in such a short amount of time. She’d just wanted him to have a better life, a life he deserves, and it’s all backfired on her.
He won’t look at her all afternoon. She knows he’s not busy, but he won’t look over, no matter what she does to get his attention. He doesn’t even respond when she forwards him the email she got from a headhunter who felt, after reading Dwight’s resume, that he would be ideally suited for a career in corrections. It makes her feel sick. He’s never been mad at her before. She’s not even sure if he is mad, but she knows she doesn’t like it, whatever it is. And she doesn’t know how to make it stop.
When he goes to follow Devon out the door she makes one last ditch attempt. She isn’t sure what she’s going to say until she says it. Blowing her brains out seems a little dramatic, but it seems to work, because he snorts and he’s Jim again and they’re Jim and Pam again and maybe it’s okay. She’s sure she’s been more relieved than this at some point in her life, but she can’t remember when.
“Come on,” he says and she hurries to grab her things in case he changes his mind. She practically skips out the door, like a kid on her way to the carnival, like she’s a helium balloon and at any second she’s going to float up into the sky unless someone holds her down.
Poor Richard’s is crowded when they get there. She’d worried she’d feel silly in her cat outfit, but most people are dressed up and Ryan stands out more than she does. She bounces on her feet, feeling giddy and anxious. It had seemed destined to be a horrible Halloween but Jim’s smiling at her and his hand is just barely touching the spot on her back right between her shoulder blades and the knot in her stomach has disappeared and now it doesn’t seem so bad at all.
“Pam, we’re gonna snag a pool table. Pitchers?” Jim hands her his credit card for the tab and she nods and heads to the bar with Phyllis. By the time she returns with three pitchers of beer on a tray, they’ve gotten a table. Ryan picks a cue from the wall and rolls it along the felt to check if it’s straight while Jim takes the tray from her hands. Oscar and Devon pour beers and pass them out.
“To Devon!” Oscar calls out and they all raise their glasses.
“The best hobo Dunder-Mifflin ever employed,” Jim seconds, and she’s so giddy with sheer relief that everything’s back to normal that she laughs too hard and drinks too fast. Jim drains half his glass in one pull before setting it down and turning to the pool table.
“All right Howard, prepare to be annihilated. I’m gonna put on a clinic.”
“Just shut up and rack ‘em, man.” Pam can see that Ryan is smiling, just a little bit. It makes her feel silly and fuzzy and happy when Ryan and Jim get along. They’re such boys. She beams at them. Jim pauses in front of her, smiling in return.
“What?” she asks, leaning forward on her barstool like a kid. She’s a little dizzy; she’d been too nervous to eat more than a few bites of her sandwich at lunch, so the beers are going straight to her head, which buzzes pleasantly.
“You. You’re such a dope.” He’s grinning as he says it and she’s so glad they’re them still that she could pop.
She watches them play for a while. They grin and joke and talk in that language that boys have, all last names and no sympathy. It makes her feel young, like she’s in high school again, sitting on the hood of Roy’s Trans Am while he plays basketball with his buddies. It makes her feel like she’s not 26 and a receptionist and going on her third year of engagement. Her chest tightens and she knows if she doesn’t think of something else she’ll get all weepy, so she hops off the barstool. Immediately the ground dips under her feet and she has to take a moment to steady herself. When Jim looks over to ask if she’s okay, she motions him over.
“Give me all your quarters.” She holds her hand out expectantly, palm up.
“Shouldn’t you at least carry a gun when you hold someone up?” he asks, but he steadies his pool cue in the crook of his elbow and dutifully searches his pockets, depositing the coins in her outstretched hand.
“I don’t believe in guns. My ancestors were Quakers.” He makes a face and she blows him a kiss before heading to the jukebox. When she bounces back to the table with another drink, he and Ryan have given up on pool. Everyone else from the office has headed home; the crowd in the bar is starting to thin out.
“What songs did you pick?” Ryan asks as he shreds his damp coaster into a grid of tiny squares. She just grins in response.
“Ohhh, you didn’t. Tell me you didn’t. I knew I shouldn’t have given you those quarters.” Jim shakes his head at her, but she can see a smile at the corner of his mouth; he loves it when she’s wicked, she can tell.
“Every time she does this.” Ryan doesn’t think it’s quite as funny as Jim does, but what does Ryan know?
“What’s the line-up tonight, then?”
“Boybands. Started off with Backstreet, then ‘NSync, some Enrique. The usual.” She chews on her straw and grins at them.
“Not tonight, no.”
“Nice. What’s the over under on them unplugging the jukebox when it hits the Enrique Iglesias song? Five bucks says they do before he even sings a word.” Jim pretends to reach for his wallet, leaning back in his chair like he owns it, like he owns the whole world.
“Dude, sucker bet. Oh wait, here we go,” Ryan cocks his head to listen as “I Want It That Way” starts up. Some guy in the back of the bar makes a disgusted noise, yelling what IS this?
“Right on time,” Ryan declares, then pushes back his chair and grabs his jacket. “Okay, I’m out, kids. Flick your bics when it gets to Enrique for me, wouldja?”
“Sure thing.” Jim gives him that head nod thing that boys do. Pam tries to do the same but ends up making herself dizzy and she has to grab the edge of the table to keep from sliding off her chair.
“You’d think they’d have taken those CDs out of the jukebox the first fifteen times you did this,” Jim points out.
She laughs in response, and tries to clear her head. If she could get her eyes to focus it’d be okay, so she looks at Jim’s shirt, at the black construction paper circles still taped there. The edges are a little bent now, curled from the moisture in the air. Three-hole-punch Jim. The idea makes her smile and she reaches out and touches the edge of the paper with her fingertip. When she looks up he’s not smiling, not even a little, and his eyes look almost black in the dim lighting. His mouth opens just a little, and she can see the straight edges of his teeth and the pink of his tongue and the look on his face makes her feel hot and cold all over.
“I meant it, you know.” She hadn’t intended to say anything, so the words are as much of a surprise to her as they are to him.
“What I said earlier. About blowing my brains out. I mean, I wouldn’t actually blow my brains out…”
“No,” he says. “You wouldn’t even have a gun. Quaker ancestors and everything.”
“Right. Right! But I didn’t want you to go. I don’t want you to go. It’d be…I just wouldn’t, okay? Right? You know that, right?” All sorts of words are piling up on her tongue so she stops before she says something she can’t take back or explain away.
“I know that,” he agrees quietly, smiling just a little in a way that feels almost like it belongs to her, like there’s no one else he’d smile at quite like that. She feels her cheeks flush and she looks away, distracting herself by fishing the cherry out of her drink. She pulls it from its stem with her teeth.
His smile fades, and the way he looks at her then, at her mouth, makes it hard for her to breathe. She wants him to keep looking at her like that. Knowing she shouldn’t, knowing it makes her the worst kind of person, she dips her fingers into her drink again for an ice cube and brings it to her lips. Watered-down rum drips down her fingers and she feels like she’s in one of those idiotic ads for some expensive liquor and she’d feel like a moron if his eyes weren’t fixed on her mouth like it’s a canteen and he’s in the Sahara.
But then the ice slips from her fingers and into her lap and she’s suddenly Pam again, fumbling for a napkin and knocking her drink over in the process. Jim jumps from his chair but she’s too slow and swimmy; she can only watch as the remnants of her drink splash onto her shirt, ice cubes skittering across the table.
His hand is on her elbow, helping her stand. She’s about to tell him she’s fine, but then she lurches into him and finds her chin pressed against one of those black paper circles, her fingers curled into his belt.
He’s so tall. So tall and big and Jim. She stares up at him, liking the way the light makes a halo around his head. Warmth radiates through his thin shirt and she can feel it on her knuckles. She flexes her fingers around his belt and she feels his muscles tighten, sees his throat work. His boxers are right there, right under her fingertips, and her mind starts to wander. If they weren’t in the middle of a bar, her fingers might start to wander too.
He clears his throat, then, and sets her away from him, his hands circling her upper arms. “You should dry that off.” She looks down. There’s a butterfly-shaped splotch on his side where her damp shirt was pressed against him.
“Sorry.” She pokes it experimentally with her finger, his muscles jumping interestingly at her touch. “It’s like a Rorschach test. Do you see a kitten or a horrible bloody skull, Jim? Tell me about your father.”
“Go dry off, Freud.” He turns her towards the bathroom and gives her a shove.
He’s there in the hall when she comes out, leaned up against the wall like a teenager, hands in his pockets. It’s like she hasn’t seen him in hours, instead of in minutes, she’s so pleased he’s there. There’s only a faint dark place on his shirt, so she couldn’t have gotten him very wet.
“Hel-lo,” she informs him carefully, enunciating the syllables like a pageant contestant.
“Hello yourself. You dry?” She nods, holding the hem of her shirt out for inspection. He’s too tall, so she hops up a little, tugging the shirt towards his face.
“Stood in front of the hand dryer for a while,” she tells him. “Like in Suddenly Seeking Susan.”
He laughs and it sounds so nice she wants him to do it again. She feels ridiculously proud of being able to make him laugh. He’s a funny guy so making him laugh means she’s a funny girl and she likes that. They’re funny people.
“Unless Brooke Shields made some career moves I was unaware of, I think you mean Desperately Seeking Susan.” He’s smiling at her again, with that smile; with her smile.
“That’s what I said," she insists, smacking his chest with her palm. She forgets to pull her hand away, though, and she can feel his heart beating. It’s like a snare drum under his skin. She’s sure can almost hear it. His hands have come up to rest on her hips, to steady her probably, but she can feel one of his thumbs against the skin just above the waistband of her skirt, moving in distracting little circles.
“So, uh. What now?” he asks her, his voice sounding like it’s been rubbed with sandpaper. Flutters start up in her stomach, as if she's swallowed a moth. “Another round of pool? You hungry? What do you want to do?”
She looks at him, trying to think. But all that’s in her head is that his lips look so soft and she wonders what he tastes like and then she’s kissing him because she just wants to know, she wants to know what it’s like to kiss someone who looks at you like that and smiles at you like that. Just once. But then it’s so nice that she doesn’t want to stop. Not ever.
He doesn’t respond right away; his fingers still on her hips and he doesn’t quite kiss her back and for a second she’s sure she’s made a horrible, horrible mistake, that he’ll push her away and he won’t look at her like that ever again, but then his arms slide around her waist and his tongue pushes between her lips and it’s okay. Everything’s okay, at least for now. Everything’s okay as long he doesn’t stop kissing her, touching her, pulling her hips against his in that way that makes her whole body tighten.
He flips them around, then, pushing her back against the wall. It’s lined with license plates and she can feel them cold and square against her back. Can feel his hands, hot and real on her skin. It’s like he’s trying to swallow her all at once
Her head bumps back against the wall and he apologizes, breathlessly, but it’s okay. She likes it, she wants it, she wants it to hurt and be a little uncomfortable. His mouth is on the skin just below her ear, sucking hard, hard enough to leave a bruise, maybe deliberately, and she tilts her head to give him better access.
Something hard and plastic slips down over her eyes then and she shakes her head reflexively to get it off, sending it sliding down onto Jim’s face. He pulls back, confused, and takes it in his hands, his hips still pinning her to the wall. She wants to grab it, to throw it away so he can keep going, but then she sees what it is. It’s her cat-ear headband, the one she wears to give out candy to trick-or-treaters every year. The one she’d fished out of a box last night only to find one ear dangling from the headband by a few threads. The one Roy had taken from her, the one he’d held in his solid hands, so different from Jim’s, the one he’d carefully glued back together with some crazy stuff in a tube he’d dug out from the bottom of his tool drawer that said “Caution: do not touch with bare skin” on the label. She sees that headband between Jim’s long, precise fingers and she knows she can’t do this.
He must be able to tell by the look on her face, by the sudden tension in her body, because he stiffens and pulls away slightly. If he’d pushed, if he’d pressed the issue she might have given in, but he’s Jim; he wouldn’t do that.
“I better go.” She pushes her arms down between them and he steps back, head low, eyes fixed on hers. The headband is in her hand as she hurries out to the bar and grabs her jacket from where she’d abandoned it on a back of a chair ages ago. Her cell phone bounces hard against her thigh in one of the pockets and she digs it out, calling information for a cab company.
He doesn’t follow her outside. It’s probably better that way. She needs to get home to Roy.
Mark is sitting in the living room when Jim gets home, throwing his keys forcefully onto the hall table. He’s got Sports Center on. Candy wrappers litter the surface of the coffee table, mounding over his sock-clad feet. Jim leans over and snags the big plastic bowl that had been full of mini candy bars when he left this morning. A thin layer of Three Musketeers lines the bottom, the only candy both of them hate. He makes a face as he flops down on to the couch and grabs the remote.
“How were the trick-or-treaters?”
“Not too many this year. Mostly young ones. And a few teenagers who were too old to be begging for free candy, but I didn’t want them to slash our tires so I let them take as much as they wanted.” Mark attempts to regain control of the remote but Jim holds it up and away, fighting Mark off with his other arm.
“Hey, hey. You ate all the good candy so I get the remote.” Mark relents, so Jim flips through the channels. Maybe something good is on Cinemax. He needs a distraction right now so he doesn’t drive over to her house and make an idiot of himself.
“What’s that on your face?”
“On your face. Black smudges.” Mark reaches out and swipes at Jim’s cheek, holding his blackened fingers in front of Jim’s eyes for proof. Suddenly he remembers: Pam’s cat make-up. He’d forgotten she even had it on.
“Oh, nothing. That’s nothing.” Mark raises his eyebrows. “Seriously, dude, it’s nothing. Just, I don’t know, some grease or something.”
“You work on your car before you come home?” Mark asks, all fake innocence, and Jim puts him in a headlock and noogies him just to make the questions stop.
“Man, my hair! There’s product in there, leave it alone!”
“You are so high maintenance.” Jim forces himself to sit for another few minutes, through a commercial for golf clubs and another for car insurance, before he pushes off the couch and heads into the bathroom. His cheek is decorated with streaks and smudges of black. He thinks he can even make out her whiskers in one place. He stares at them a long time before he wets a washcloth and rubs his face clean.