It's supposed to be a phone call that changes her life. It’s dumb, but that’s how it feels as she stands there in the backyard, listening to the sound of the crickets, waiting for Jim to pick up. Her hand is sweaty on the phone. She holds it awkwardly against her ear with her right hand while she wipes her left on her sweatshirt. It rings so long that she’s expecting it to go to voicemail, so when he picks up she almost drops the phone.
“Oh,” she says in surprise, switching her hands back. “Hi. You picked up.”
“That’s the usual protocol with phone calls, yes,” he says dryly.
The conversation doesn’t go much better from there. There certainly aren’t any impassioned, eleventh hour declarations of love, which is probably what she was hoping for when she called. There aren’t even any declarations of like. It’s mostly her talking. He doesn’t do much more than grunt, or offer one-sentence responses, his words clipped and perfunctory. Like she’s someone he barely knows.
“So…” she trails off after she’s talked about work, the weather, and everything she has to do this weekend. She hasn’t said what she actually wants to say, which is…well, she’s not sure. “Please don’t let me get married to someone else,” maybe. Or, “You’re not just using me for sex, are you?” Or, “How do you feel about Hawaii, because I have two tickets and a honeymoon suite all booked, if you’re interested.” They both lapse into silence. She can hear his television on in the background, the SportsCenter announcers recounting the night’s top plays. She wonders if he’s even paying attention to her. It’s the first time he’s seemed at all like Roy.
“Can we…um…” If he would help her out a little this would be easier, dammit. “This is weird, isn’t it?” she says in desperation. He laughs a little.
“I’d say ‘weird’ about covers it.”
“Why is it so weird?” she asks him. There’s a pleading edge to her voice and she doesn’t like it at all. She presses her fingers over her lips as if that will stop her from sounding so plaintive, so lost.
“I don’t know, Pam,” he says honestly. Some of the warmth is back in his voice. “I really don’t. I don’t know what we should do here.”
“Well, we could…I mean, do you…” Be brave, Pam, she thinks. Say it, say what you really want for once in your life.
“Do you want some free food?” she blurts. Ugh. So much for brave.
"Do I what?"
"Do you want some free food?” she repeats. “I have to pick a menu for the reception and Roy doesn't want to go, so…do you want to come?" He's silent for a while on the other end of the phone. It’s stupid, but she feels like if he turns her down, they won’t even be friends anymore. She realizes she's holding her breath and mentally chides herself for being so dramatic.
"Sure," he says finally in a strange voice. "Why the hell not?"
"Great!" she gushes with relief. "Great, I said I'd go Friday afternoon. Is that okay with you?"
"Wild horses and all that," he says.
"Great!" Why is that the only word she seems to know?
“Yeah, great,” he answers. She can’t tell if he sounds distracted or bored. Her energy seems to leave her all at once and she sinks to sit heavily on to the back stoop. Asking him to come with her suddenly seems like an incredibly bad idea.
“Jim, you don’t-" she starts, but he interrupts her, talks over her.
“Hey, I gotta go, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Before she can answer, the phone clicks and he’s hung up. She keeps it pressed to her ear for much longer than is necessary.
“Bye,” she finally says to the backyard and gently snaps the phone shut.
She’s half an hour late on Monday. Then again on Tuesday and Wednesday. For some reason, the idea of going in to the office seems unbearable when the alarm goes off and doesn’t get much better no matter how many times she hits the snooze button. Jim’s acting just as distracted and disinterested as he had on the phone, only now it’s worse, since she can see him ignoring her in addition to hearing it.
“You look like hell,” Kelly informs her when she comes up to Pam’s desk just before lunch on Wednesday.
“You’re not even married yet and you’re already letting yourself go.” Kelly grabs Pam’s hand and looks critically at her cuticles. Pam snatches it back, fighting the urge to hide it beneath her desk. “We should go get manicures at lunch.”
“Can’t,” Pam says. “I have to go try wedding cakes.”
“Ooh, Pam, I want to come!” Kelly squeals so loudly that dogs three blocks away can probably hear her.
“I don’t know, Kelly, I think-” Pam starts.
“Come on, Pam, pleeeeease!” Kelly hops up and down, her hands clasped beneath her chin like she’s praying. “I love wedding stuff, you know that! Besides, I have to practice. This is something I'm going to be doing someday. I feel like Ryan and I are really ready to take it to the next level and you never know, weddings are in the air!"
Pam doesn’t have the heart to tell her she doesn’t think Ryan shares her optimism. And it would be nice to have someone to help out for once.
“Okay,” she tells Kelly. “You talked me into it. Let’s go.”
"Mmm, it smells delicious in here," Kelly breathes when she and Pam walk through the door of The Community Bakeshop. "It's like being inside a churro."
"So," she says when they're sitting at a table with plates of wedding cake arrayed in front of them. "How's all the planning going? Do you have everything taken care of?"
"Not even close," Pam sighs. "I've still got to register, we haven't worked the seating chart out yet, there's no band. I'm kind of panicking, honestly."
"I thought Roy was supposed to pick the band," Kelly says as she helps herself to a huge bite of white chocolate liqueur cake.
"Me too," Pam answers. "He doesn't seem to want to help at all, though. So far all he's done is…" She pauses and glances around, then leans in and lowers her voice. "So far all he's done is bring home wedding porn."
"Wedding porn?" Kelly whispers back. "What the hell is that?"
"Exactly what it sounds like. Wedding-themed porn films. "
"Oh my god, you're kidding!" Kelly gasps. Pam laughs ruefully.
"I'm afraid not. His cousin has quite a collection, it seems. He borrowed," she looks around and lowers her voice again, "he borrowed something called ‘Bachelor Party Fuckfest’."
"‘Bachelor Party Fuckfest’, are you serious?!" Kelly squeaks way too loudly. The girl next to them looks disgusted. The matronly woman at the counter looks appalled. The tattooed guy boxing up the tiers of a cake looks like he's trying not to laugh. Pam hisses at her to pipe down while smiling apologetically around the room.
"Totally serious," Pam says after everyone stops staring.
"Whoa. Did you watch it? Was it any good?" Kelly's completely forgotten the cake, she's so interested in the porn.
"What?" she says, remembering the cake and taking another bite. "I have a healthy sexuality. It's empowering."
"Trust me," Pam says with a grimace at her cake. "This wasn't empowering anyone. Besides, I was mostly just wondering where they’d registered."
“So what, you’re going to do everything yourself?” Kelly asks.
“I guess,” Pam shrugs. She pushes her plate of cake away. She’s kind of lost her appetite. “Jim’s going to come with me to decide on the reception food.” As soon as she says it, she knows it was a mistake. Kelly’s face suddenly looks like someone just told her a particularly juicy piece of gossip.
“Jim, huh?” Kelly arches one eyebrow and smiles knowingly. “Interesting.”
“He likes food, I need help, that’s all,” Pam snaps. It’s supposed to be the truth. How comes it feels like a lie?
“Oh, sure, it’s toooootally innocent,” Kelly says with patent disbelief, her voice climbing an octave. Pam scowls. She kind of wishes they were still talking about porn.
“So a little bird told me yesterday that you’ve been having some porn-related shenanigans.” Pam winces and looks up at Jim. He innocently pokes through the candy bowl, eyebrows raised appraisingly. She can almost forget that he’s been distant with her all week. She glances around the office. Luckily it’s a slow hour with most everyone still straggling in from lunch, so there’s no one around to hear. Assuming, of course, Kelly didn’t send out a memo already.
“Let me guess,” she says. “A little bird of the genus Kellyus Big-Mouthus?”
“Bright plumage, shrill vocalizations, fixation on small, dark paper sellers?” he offers.
“That’s the one. I could kill her.”
“I’m impressed, Pam. I didn’t know you had it in you.”
“You’re enjoying this too much,” she tells him, giving him a withering look. It doesn’t discourage him. It never does.
“I think I’m enjoying it juuuust the right amount,” he counters. “And you’ll be happy to know that I took the liberty of bookmarking some websites for you, things that might suit your, shall we say…progressive, liberated tastes.”
“You didn’t,” she warns. She has got to start locking her computer.
“Oh, but I did. Allow me to demonstrate.” His eyes snap with delight as he steps around to her side of the desk and commandeers the mouse, hovering over her. A couple of clicks and the screen is suddenly filled with tanned flesh and fake nails and bored expressions.
“‘To Have and to Hold’,” she reads off the screen. “Very droll.”
“A classic,” Jim says, then clicks on another site.
“‘Bride Bang’,” she reads. “‘These brides-to-be get on their knees’.”
“A personal favorite.”
“Oh, gross, ‘Here Cums the Bride’?!”
“Speaks for itself.”
“Did anyone ever tell you you’re funny?” she asks, craning her neck to look up at the underside of his chin. “Because they were lying.” She can see a patch of stubble that he missed when he shaved this morning. She kind of wants to touch it. The sound of a throat clearing alerts them to Toby’s lurking presence.
“Um, Pam?” Toby says. His cheeks are scarlet and he won’t meet her eyes. “I need to talk to you about…well, I’ve been getting notifications about you setting off the adult content filter. It’s, er. Against company policy.” She turns to glare at Jim.
“Pamela, I am shocked!” he says in mock surprise, clucking his tongue against his teeth. “Kids today,” he tells a still-blushing Toby.
Toby shuffles off, mumbling to himself and running a hand across his forehead. Jim turns to her with an innocent smile. She will not laugh, she’ll force herself not to even if it kills her.
“You really should keep your baser habits at home, Pam,” he tells her.
“I hate you,” she tells him. “I’m tempted to un-invite you for tomorrow.”
“Right, the big eat,” he says. “What time?”
“Four o’clock,” she says. “Eat a light lunch.”
"I am never eating again," Jim groans. His stomach is full to bursting. He might have to loosen his belt or undo a button. Even Pam's pushed her chair away from the table a bit, her hand resting lightly on her stomach. One of her fingers slips into a gap between buttons and he gets distracted, knowing exactly how soft the skin under that fingertip would feel, how sliding that finger a few inches to the right would hit one of her ticklish spots.
"I'm sorry, what?" he says with a shake of his head when he realizes she'd asked a question.
"I said I thought we should go with the salmon and the chicken," she repeats. "What do you think?" I think that Roy would hate the salmon and the chicken, a little voice says in his head. Roy doesn’t like those things but you do, and she knows it. He firmly tells the voice to shut up. The last thing he needs is encouragement in his delusions.
"Sure, that sounds good," he tells her. "Actually, any of them would be good. You may have noticed that I cleaned all my plates."
"Yes, you're a very good boy," she tells him patiently as she marks up a sample menu. A waiter comes to clear the plates away. Jim stretches and looks out onto the green lawn behind the dining room. It's a pretty place. Just the sort of place he'd pick for a wedding. A surge of bitterness fills his throat, but he shoves it down, focuses on Pam. She’s marrying Roy, not you, so get over it, he tells himself. He’s been telling himself a lot that lately, especially when he finds himself snapping at her or avoiding her or thinking about kidnapping her and taking her to some island with no phones or internet access. It’s becoming sort of a mantra.
"No dessert?" he asks.
"I thought you said you were never eating again," she reminds him absently, handing the menu to the coordinator.
"My dinner stomach is full, not my dessert stomach." She smiles as they stand.
"Sorry, Kelly beat you to the cake tasting. Your services are no longer needed."
"Dammit!" he says. "I was holding out for the cake." He holds out her jacket as she shrugs into it. They walk towards the front doors, but Pam hesitates.
"Actually," she says in a tone of voice that makes him very suspicious. "There's something else you can help me with." They stare at each other for a moment. Then he heaves a sigh.
"Why do I feel like I'm going to regret this?"
"So here's your clipboard," says the registry consultant as she hands Pam a clipboard. She’s an authoritative older woman named Mrs. Pennington who seems like she might have been either a drill sergeant or a royal nanny in a previous lifetime. She certainly doesn’t look like she’d hesitate to box your ears for impertinence. "This lists everything we have in dishes, flatware, linens, electronics. Remember, it's your big day. People want to spend money on you. Don't be afraid to register for the high-ticket items."
"Okay." Pam meekly accepts the clipboard. Mrs. Pennington is clearly not for the faint of heart. Or wallet.
"And you get the gun," she says to Jim, thrusting a handheld scanner at him. He reaches for it immediately, pulling the trigger a few times. It’s kind of like Duck Hunt, except more consumer oriented.
“Cool,” he decides.
"I'll just leave you to it," Mrs. Pennington says as she steers them into the china section, then abandons them there in all the Wedgwood and Lennox. “Remember, high-ticket!” she calls as she steams away.
“She’s a handful,” Pam mutters.
“Nah,” Jim says. “She’s a pussycat. A little of the ol’ Halpert charm, she’d be eating out of my hand in no time.”
“Knowing what I do about the ‘ol’ Halpert charm,’ I’m sure Mr. Pennington would rather you didn’t.”
“Pam! My intentions were honorable!”
“Mmm,” she mutters noncommittally and looks around her at the seemingly endless shelves of dishes and crystal glasses. “I guess we should get started. We’ve got a lot of things to pick out. We don’t want to be stuck with crap gifts.” The way she’s talking, he can almost pretend the gifts are for the two of them instead of her and…Roy, Roy, she’s marrying Roy!
Jim brandishes the gun. "Armed and ready," he tells Pam. "Point the way."
They wander in the aisles, looking at dishes, at serving trays and gravy boats. Jim picks up one large platter with a gold rim and inspects the price tag. The number makes him blanch and put it back down with extreme care. He'd never realized how expensive real dishes could be. Everything he owns comes from IKEA or Goodwill. Some of the stuff here costs more than his rent.
"This pattern is pretty," she says from the silverware section, holding up a fork.
"Who cares if it's pretty?" he asks. "How much food does it hold?" He picks up a fork of decidedly sturdier design, examines it closely. She blinks at him.
"I guess that is more logical selection criteria," she admits. They move through the shelves, debating the finer points of chafing dishes, arguing over whether food really needs to be chafed and what, exactly, chafing entails.
“What are we going to do with another decorative olive oil bottle?” he asks after they’ve scanned a few things. “We’ve already scanned two of them.” He suddenly realizes he’d said “we” like he’s playing some sort of pathetic game of Let’s Pretend and he freezes.
“Oh, but we need two sets of Ginsu knives?” she retorts, not seeming to notice. He forces himself to relax as she picks up a vase and inspects it. Then her eye is caught by a shelf of delicately fluted serving bowls, swirling patterns of air bubbles trapped in the thin glass. She sets the vase back and moves towards the bowls, looking downright enchanted. He's never understood how girls can get so worked up about stuff like bowls.
"Oh, this is beautiful," she says, pulling the largest bowl carefully from its shelf. She holds it in her hands, runs a gentle fingertip along the rim. “Now this is a bowl for fancy dinner parties.”
“Posh,” he agrees.
"I'd have to replace everything else I own,” she says quietly, as if to herself. “The chipped plates, the plastic cups. All of it.”
"Um, okay?" he says, confused. She blinks and focuses on him. It’s like she forgot he was there.
"Oh. You know," she tells him. "Like how you need to replace your whole wardrobe when you get a more sophisticated haircut?"
"Is this one of those weird girl things?" he asks.
"Probably. God, it's pretty."
"So let's zap it," Jim says. He holds up the gun, curls his finger around the trigger. She frowns, though, and places the bowl back.
"It's too fragile," she says. "Roy's not good with anything delicate."
"You don't say," he mutters. He wants to pick a fight, to poke the bruise. But she's crossing her arms over her stomach like she just got gut-punched and he can't do it. Instead he forces a smile, pretends to holster the scanner. She wanders away, absently running her fingertip along vases and candlesticks, but leaving them all on the shelves. He waits until she's out of earshot before picking up the bowl she'd admired. The price tag reads $350. He points the scanner at the bottom of the bowl and firmly pulls the trigger. It makes a satisfying beep.
"Mazel tov, Roy," he mutters.
"You coming?" she calls from linens.
She comes home to a disaster area. Boxes and tools are strewn around the driveway. The concrete is streaked with water and dirt, running under her car and out to the gutter. "Hello?" she calls as she picks through the mess. "Roy?"
"Hey, babe," he calls from the back of the garage. It takes a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Roy's wearing his hip waders, the ones he uses when he's fishing, as he wrestles two sets of skis out from behind a stack of boxes. A box shifts and water gushes from behind it, cascading over his waders onto the floor.
"What's going on?" she asks. Water and oil and dirt have mixed on the garage floor into a soup, staining the bottoms of all the boxes and sticking to the soles of her shoes.
"Busted pipe," Roy grunts. He pulls the skis free, sets them on top of his workbench. "Flooded the garage and the laundry room."
"Geez, what a mess," she says. She scans the room. Most everything that got soaked seems waterproof: old cans of paint, sports equipment, a couple of empty tackle boxes she's been meaning to start using for art supplies containers. Then she spots a wide, flat box on the bottom of the tallest stack. It's slightly flattened under the weight and almost black with dirt and oil halfway up the sides. Her heart shudders to a stop before resuming double-time.
"Roy," she starts, a dangerous wobble in her voice. "Tell me that's not my dress at the bottom of that stack sitting on that filthy floor."
"What dress?" he asks, looking around in confusion.
"My wedding dress," she says through clenched teeth.
"What?" he says, coming to a stop. "Why the hell would your wedding dress be in the garage?"
"Because I didn't want you to see it before the wedding," she says, forcing herself to speak evenly, calmly.
"Well hell, Pam, I didn't know it was the damned dress." He sighs and scrubs his dirty hand across his forehead, leaving dark smudges at his hairline. "I was a little more worried about keeping the water out of the house, where the important things are supposed to be stored."
"You couldn't have checked before you dropped it on the dirty, greasy floor?" she demands, her voice rising despite her best efforts.
"In case you haven't noticed, you weren't here to help during all of this," he shouts in return. "I kind of had my hands full!"
"I had to register!" she tells him hotly. "Which we could have done last week except you wanted to catch the game and then you came up with a million excuses why you didn't have time to go, remember that?"
His nostrils flare and his jaw clenches, but he doesn't answer. Instead he begins pulling boxes off the stack until the white box is freed. She accepts it from him wordlessly. It drips slightly as she sets it on the workbench and pulls off the lid.
"The top still looks okay," he says quietly from behind her. "Maybe the box got the worst of it." She just shakes her head. When she pulls it from the box, the skirt is streaked with black, dotted with grime and sediment.
"It's ruined," she says.
"Why don't you want to do any of this?" She turns to face him, the ruined dress clutched in her hands. "You wouldn't come with me to try the food for the reception. I asked you to pick a band weeks ago and you still haven't done it. You haven't done one thing for the wedding, not one thing, and when I ask you to do something I think you'd enjoy, like picking out new things for the house, you drag your feet and whine and-"
"Because I already like my life, Pam!" He blurts it out and then looks apologetic, like he didn't mean to say what he'd actually been thinking. "I like things they way they are," he continues more quietly. "I'm happy with our beat-up couch. I'm happy with our dishes and our stereo and our pots and pans."
She doesn't know what to say. She feels like a fish flopping around out of water, her mouth working silently as she clutches the dress like a security blanket.
"You used to be happy with them too," he reminds her. "I don't understand why everything has to be different." Then he wipes his hands on his pants and walks out to his truck in the driveway. She hears the door close, hears the engine turn over. Hears him drive down the street as she stares at the dress in her hands.
Her only excuse is panic. She never expected to be without a band three weeks before the wedding, let alone without a dress. She shouldn't have brought her cell phone. It's a crutch. A psychological crutch. This should be something she can get through on her own like an adult. It's like doing her taxes, or changing a tire. With more sequins. It’s certainly something she should be able to get through without Jim.
It's just that she hadn't expected to feel so pathetic and miserable doing it. The nearest place she could find with ready-made dresses is some place called Wedding Warehouse halfway to Wilkes-Barre. The name isn't an exaggeration, either; the building looks like it might have been an airplane hangar at one point. The only employees present had been sitting in a break room in the back when she arrived, chain-smoking and chatting and filling out crossword puzzles. Not one of them had seemed at all interested in helping her. She certainly hasn’t seen them since. Though that’s probably for the best. In her desperation, she’s been trying on more and more outlandish dresses, hoping just one will be okay, and this would be a lot harder if she had to deal with them laughing at her.
The worst part of it is that she'd tried to think of girlfriends she could call and she'd come up empty. Kelly's a work friend, not a girlfriend. Amber, who'd lived next door, might have been a candidate, but she'd moved to Chicago for grad school just when she and Pam had started being friends instead of neighbors. No sisters, no cousins, no best friends from college. Now that Pam thinks about it, she realizes she's never really had girlfriends. She always had Roy. She's wondered if she was a failure before for a lot of reasons – a receptionist in a dead-end job, a fiancé who won't set the date, a lying and cheating tramp – but her lack of girlfriends has never occurred to her before this.
One would sure come in handy now, considering that she's good and stuck inside a dress that Joan Collins would dismiss as too over-the-top. The phone is too tempting. She flips it open and starts to type.
It’s the perfect apartment. Close to the Stamford office, affordable, covered parking space. Near a park with jogging paths. Within walking distances of the bars. He’d be a fool not to snap it up immediately. At least that’s what the email from the landlord tells him. And he’s right, it’s exactly what Jim needs. He doesn't need a self-destructive relationship with an about-to-be-married woman. He doesn't need a boss who's insane and a career that's going nowhere. Of course, he hasn't actually accepted the Stamford job yet. Every time he's convinced himself he should take it, something makes him hesitate.
Today began with the best of intentions: he would tell the guy he wants the apartment, he would email Jan and tell her he wants the job, he would get the fuck on with his life. He even wrote the check for the deposit, addressed and stamped the envelope. It’s sitting next to the keyboard, just waiting to be sent as soon as he mails the landlord. For the tenth time in an hour, he opens the email, reads it, closes it. With a sound of disgust, he pushes his chair back and heads into the kitchen for a beer. It’s only two o’clock. Seems like his threshold for when he’s allowed to start drinking keeps getting pushed earlier and earlier.
The email is still there, taunting him, when he sits back down at his computer. He ignores it and browses around on Craigslist. He should be looking for one bedrooms. Instead he’s drawn to the three bedrooms, the townhouses, perfect for a young couple just starting out. There’d be a room where Pam could paint. Maybe they could get a dog.
“Are you moping again?” Mark asks when he comes in from the garage to find Jim slouched down in the chair, nursing his beer.
“How can I qualify for the Nationals if I don’t practice?” Jim asks. Mark shakes his head and rifles through the papers on the desk.
“I thought I put those bills here,” he’s saying when Jim’s phone buzzes. Mark grabs it and peers at the screen. “Dude, why the fuck is Gino’s Pizzeria texting you?”
Jim sits bolt upright. “Give me that,” he snaps, snatching the phone from Mark’s hand.
“Ooh, touchy,” Mark singsongs. Jim ignores him. He’s not about to tell Mark that it’s Pam, that’s why he gave her a code name in the first place. His clever little method of subterfuge. Sometimes he really hates himself. He swivels away so Mark can’t read over his shoulder and opens the message.
Wedding dress ruined, he reads. Looking for a new one & I have no girlfriends to help, what have I been doing with my life that I have no girlfriends, please come help me, I'm desperate.
Jim stares at the screen. Help her find a new wedding dress? Well, this would certainly be a new high in terms of masochism. He should refuse. He should just ignore it. Instead he starts to type.
I'll be right there, where are you? he writes.
He's always had a thing for bridesmaids. The first girl he kissed was a bridesmaid. Jim was thirteen ("Almost sixteen," he lied when she asked, "should be getting my license soon") and had never even touched a girl before. She was the youngest bridesmaid, a smaller replica of her older counterparts, awkwardly shifting her weight on her heels and blowing crossly at a stray hair throughout the ceremony. At the reception, she showed him how she could tie a cherry stem into a knot with her tongue. They made out in a gazebo by the lake and slow-danced to Air Supply. She promised she would write.
She didn't, of course. But the experience hardwired him somehow, and started a pleasant relationship with weddings in general and bridesmaids in specific. He loved dancing with them, watching them fight over the bouquet, imagining getting under all of those maddening, tempting layers of lace and silk, and – on one memorable occasion – actually managing to do just that: stealing off to an unused ballroom with the maid of honor, boosting her onto a stack of chairs, pushing her skirt up, feeling the sharp points of her high heels dig into the backs of his thighs while he tried to remember if her name was Stephanie or Tiffany. So yeah, he has fond feelings towards bridesmaids.
But bridesmaid dresses, lifeless on hangers and on faceless mannequins, lined up to eternity in an empty warehouse instead of arrayed on softly perfumed, slightly drunk, and usually willing female bodies? Well, they're a lot less appealing and a lot more creepy that way. He pulls out his phone.
"I'm lost in a sea of crinoline out here," he says when she picks up. "And I think all the white is giving me snow blindness. Where are you?"
"In a dressing room all the way in the back. Just follow the weeping and the sounds of despair."
"Oh, come on, it can't be that bad." He moves through the rows and rows of shiny dresses, through veils arrayed on foam heads, covered with enough baby's breath to circle the globe. "Though this place is pretty creepy."
"No, it's cheap," she corrects, "which is exactly what I need. And they don't make you try on sample sizes."
"Do I want to know what that means?" He's reached the dressing rooms, but there's got to be at least twenty of them. "Make some despair sounds so I can find you."
"I'll just come out," she says. He hears a door swing open behind him and he turns to see her there, looking miserable in massive sleeves, a straight skirt, and shoulder pads the size of a Buick. He thinks he remembers his sister having a Barbie with that exact dress in 1984.
"Oh," he says. It's the only thing that seems diplomatic. He realizes he said it into the phone still pressed against his ear.
"Shut up," she tells him, snapping her phone shut as he does the same.
"Don't even start."
"Like a vision," he finishes.
"I look like a meringue," she counters unhappily. He can't exactly argue.
"Those are interesting sleeves," he offers. They puff out from her shoulders to her elbows, before going back to a normal size and ending in points on the backs of her hands.
"They're leg o' mutton," she says, giving her left arm a half-hearted wiggle.
"Huh," he nods thoughtfully. "I would have called them leg o' rhino, but maybe that's just me." She glares at him.
"I hate you," she says. "I'm up to my eyeballs in butt-bows and you're mocking me."
"I'm not mocking you, I'm mocking the dress," he points out. “Why, might I ask, did you try that dress on in the first place?”
“Because I’m desperate and I’ll try anything at this point.” She sighs in defeat, her mouth twisting unhappily. "I give up. I'm going to wear jeans and flip-flops and anyone who doesn't like it can bite me.” She scrabbles at the back of the dress in frustration. “Except I can't get it undone, so I'm stuck wearing this dress forever and I'm going to die in it like Miss Havisham."
"Whoa, okay," Jim says, taking her by the shoulders. "Let's not get crazy. Take off the dress, and then we'll find something that isn't straight out of Dynasty." He turns her around and works at the hooks at the back of the neck. The collar tightens around her throat and she makes a choked sound before he finally gets it undone. She gives him a watery smile over her shoulder.
"Thanks for coming, Jim," she says. He just nods. Thanks for being a sucker, Jim, he thinks to himself.
"What about this one?" Pam asks, pulling a dress from the rack and holding it up.
"Yeah, maybe," he says. Pam tosses the dress over Jim's arm – which she can barely see anymore under all the fabric – and turns back to the rack. She tends towards straight silhouettes: long, skinny skirts and high necks. They’re kind of the formal equivalent of her work clothes, now that she thinks about it. The traditional dresses with pouffy skirts seem too doll-like for her, too much like little girls playing dress-up. Too Mariah Carey. But the ones she keeps picking out never seem right. She looks at herself in the fitting room mirror and just feels sad and pathetic. Nothing at all like a goddess, which is what all the bridal magazines say she's supposed to feel like. Her old dress didn't either, really, but at least she felt comfortable in it. Before it got covered in septic overflow, that is. Suddenly it all just seems overwhelming. She has a ridiculous urge to burst into tears right in the middle of Wedding Warehouse. Her eyes fill and she blinks really fast, hoping to stave tears off.
"Hey, hey," Jim says, juggling the dresses in his arms so he can squeeze her shoulder. "What's wrong?"
"This is stupid, these won't be any better," she tells him. "I should just pick one and be done with it." She looks at the pile of dresses on his arm and suddenly wants to throw every single one in the trash. She grabs them and throws them over the back of the closest chair, resisting the urge to kick them for good measure.
“I'll just take the last one I tried on. Then I can go home and do something more fun like plucking my eyebrows or vacuuming."
"Okay, come on. Let's try something different. How about this?" He moves to a different rack and pulls out a floaty looking dress. "Try it on." She looks at him doubtfully.
"Jim," she starts, but he cuts her off.
"Come on, try one more." He holds out the dress, wiggles it enticingly at her.
"Fine," she says, snatching it from his hand. "But if this one doesn't look good, I'm giving up and getting married in a burlap sack."
She’s never had a dress like this before. It’s the kind of dress the other girls wear, the ones who haven’t had a steady boyfriend from the time they were in high school. The ones who go out on weekends and make out with strangers and totter to the bathroom on their high heels in a pack of giggling girlfriends, having the time of their lives. Kind of weird to see herself looking a little like those girls. Even weirder that she kind of likes it. She decides to show this one to Jim. Just to get an impartial opinion, that’s all.
He likes it, she can tell. She turns in a slow circle for him, watching his eyes follow her every move. She's definitely feeling a bit more like a goddess, even with her hair in a straggly ponytail and no make-up on.
"Better?" she asks, with a little smile. She knows the answer before she asks, but she wants to hear him say it anyway.
"Not bad," he says after clearing his throat. She turns away before he notices her grin.
She grabs another armload of dresses while Jim hunts down a coffee machine and comes back with a Styrofoam cup with a plastic lid. He sits with the dresses draped over chairs on either side of him, sipping his coffee and flipping through a copy of Modern Bride while she goes back and forth to the dressing room. It looks a little like he’s having a very strange, very formal tea party for his imaginary friends.
She models the rest of the dresses for him. By the time she’s showing him the third dress, he's shifting in his chair and his voice sounds funny, and when she comes out to model the fourth, he's crossing his legs and looking at her in a way that makes her stomach do flips. She even finds herself walking differently on the way back to the fitting room, distinctly aware of his eyes on her.
"Here," he says from the other side of the door as she's changing. "This is the last one."
The dress flops over the top of the door, his hand holding the mass of it still so she can grab it before it slithers to the floor. For the umpteenth time, she wonders how wedding dresses can look so light and fluffy but weigh as much as an elephant.
The dress is formidable. Beautiful, belled skirt, layers of tulle beneath. Sweetheart neckline, lace-capped sleeves. It's lush and romantic and exactly the sort of dress Roy would find silly and over-the-top. She’s kind of fallen in love with it.
She wriggles out of her current dress and does her best to get herself into the new one. It's a contortionist's nightmare, all layers and hard-to-reach buttons. She grunts as she strains to reach the buttons up the back, her shoulder giving a dull throb as she practically wrenches it out of its socket.
"Pam?" his voice floats over the door. "You okay?"
"I need a little help, I think," she tells him. His feet appear beneath the door. She grabs the handle, but hesitates before opening the door. Why she feels more naked and vulnerable right now than she usually feels when she's actually naked in front of him, she has no idea. She pulls the rubber band out of her hair and fluffs it a bit with her fingers before opening the door. As Jim shuts the door behind him, she turns and presents him with her back.
"I can't get the buttons done up."
She can see him in the mirror over her shoulder. He's staring at the back of her neck like it's something he has to memorize. His hands open, flex, close, open again. Pam's stomach is loose and jittery; it's how she always feels when she's on a roller coaster, just before it takes off. Like her body knows something scary and exciting is about to happen.
"Jim?" she prompts, catching her hair with one hand and pulling it forward. His throat works in the mirror; she hears him gulp behind her, the sound closer than she'd thought it would be. His hand drifts towards the small of her back. It seems like there are a million buttons. He fastens them slowly, one by one, his fingertips brushing her back and making her jerk and quiver. She wants to stay cool, to be goddess-like, but her body betrays her, swaying towards his fingers.
She feels feverish, overheated, despite the overactive air-conditioning. He's watching his hands work with unwavering concentration. She keeps hoping he'll look up, see her watching in the mirror. But then the skirt rustles as he steps closer, his breath sounds erratically in her ear, and she has to close her eyes. It's all she can do not to swoon like some ridiculous heroine in a period film. He's touched her before, kissed her before. Why does this tiny thing, this barest touch of his fingertips to her skin, feel so different, so thrilling and dangerous?
"Done," he says, a hitch in his voice. He retreats towards the door, clearing his throat awkwardly. It's a moment before she trusts herself to move. She smoothes the skirt down before she turns to face him.
"Well," she asks. "What do you think?" Her voice dries up at the look on his face. She has to swallow a couple times just to wet her throat. He's staring in a way that makes her nervous. She'd almost be frightened if it weren't Jim. He takes one step towards her, then two, his advance almost predatory. It makes her want to run away and climb inside him in equal measure. He crowds her, presses her back against the mirror as he opens his mouth over hers like he means to swallow her whole.
It's different. Desperate. She can't think, can't breathe, everything is Jim, his teeth on her neck, his hands on her ribs, his thigh between hers. Jim's smell, Jim's heat, Jim, Jim, Jim. She doesn't realize she's been saying it aloud until he laughs – a sharp exhale – and chants, Pam, Pam, Pam, in her ear.
She snakes her hand between them to grapple with his belt. He places his fingers over hers, helps her slide the buckle free, then braces his hands against the mirror over her shoulders with a groan as her hand slips under his boxers to wrap around his erection. She watches his face in fascination as she squeezes gently, twisting her hand as she drags it upwards. His eyes are half-closed, his breath hisses through his bared teeth. He looks like he’s holding on to his control by the tiniest thread imaginable. She wants to make him lose it. She rubs her thumb along the notch under the head, grinning wickedly when his face contorts and his forehead drops against hers. Before she can do anything else, he catches her hand and drags it away, shaking his head at her sound of protest.
“Too close,” he rasps. “The dress…” She looks at him curiously as he kisses her palm. He doesn’t offer any explanation, just settles her arm around his neck and reaches down to fumble at her skirt.
"How many damn layers are there to this thing?" he demands, his hands working through a cloud of tulle. "It's like trying to get to third base with Scarlett O'Hara."
"Fiddle-dee-dee," she answers, making him grin. Then his clever fingers find their mark, slipping under the elastic at the apex of her thighs, and she shudders. He hitches her up against the mirror, the movement making his fingers press further, deeper. She comes out of her shoe, one loaner white satin pump dangling from her pointed toe as he pins her to the mirror with his body.
He keeps a hand on her stomach when he sinks to his knees. It's the only thing keeping her upright. She helpfully gathers her skirts, clutches them against his hand. When she'd dressed that morning, she hadn't thought she'd be in this position. Her underwear is plain cotton, white with sprigs of lavender, dulled by repeated washings. She probably had a pair just like it in fourth grade. She cringes, thinking of all the other underwear she could have worn instead. He doesn't seem to notice or care, though.
His breath is hot on her thighs. His mouth opens over her; she can feel it, wet and warm, through the thin fabric of her underwear. It feels ridiculously dirty, for some reason, that damp layer of fabric between his tongue and her clit. It also feels a bit late in the game for blushing, but she does that anyway.
"Beautiful girl," he breathes against her, "beautiful, filthy, lovely girl.” The words almost make her cry. She wants him to say that to her every day. Forever. He tugs the fabric down her legs with both hands, over her feet, and pockets it. Tugs his own shirt over his head and tosses it aside. Then he stands and boosts her up, helps her hitch her legs around his waist. Their eyes meet and it’s like her life is going in the right direction for the first time.
Jim could swear he's gone out of his mind. Somewhere, in the annals of the mental health profession, it's been shown that what he's feeling right now is a mild, extremely pleasurable form of insanity. Of course, now is the perfect time to realize he doesn't have a condom, that he's been meaning to put a couple in his wallet. He could cry.
"I have some," she answers, breathing hard, her hands clenching and unclenching on his shoulders. "In my purse."
"Hoping to meet someone at Wedding Warehouse?" He laughs, but it doesn't really feel funny. Her purse is dangling from a hook next to them and he fishes around inside it until he feels a foil packet.
"I've kept a few in there since we…since Valentine's Day." Now it's really not funny. "I figured, you know. Better safe..."
"…than sorry," he finishes after she trails off. She smiles at him, touches his face carefully with her fingertips. Soon she’ll belong to someone else and she won’t touch him at all. He has to close his eyes, to shut her out of his head.
It's too hard, too rough. They're trying to be quiet but the tiny room is filled with sounds: his ragged breathing, the small noises she makes, the rhythmic squeak of her bare shoulder against the mirror of the glass, the rip of fabric under his hands. He can't pull her close enough, can't taste enough of her skin, can't get nearly enough of her.
His breath fogs the glass of the mirror over her shoulder. It's strange; mirrors have never really come into his sex life before and he wonders momentarily if he always looks this manic, this possessed. This completely unhinged. She's come twice by the time he stiffens and buries his mouth against her neck, her nails digging into his shoulders, tiny crescents branding him as hers.
"So I guess I'm definitely buying this one, huh?"
She's back in her regular clothes. Jim's pulling his t-shirt over his head, shoving his feet into his shoes. His head clears the fabric and he sees her poking her fingers through a hole that gapes at the seam between the bodice and the skirt. There are tears in the lace at the sleeves. There are probably stains on the inside of the skirt.
He inspects it, touches his fingertips to hers through the hole. "Guess so," he says.
"The dress of my dreams," she says. Then she hugs the dress to her and laughs, the sound of it bright and loud in the tiny room. He'd expected her to be sad or angry or bitter. She's not, though. She's practically glowing. He can't make heads or tails of it.
She's really going through with this, he thinks suddenly. It settles on him heavily, pressing on his skin like the weight of an ocean. It shouldn't be a surprise. He shouldn't be this stupid anymore.
Jim can't meet the cashier's eyes knowing what they just did in that same dress she's holding right now in her hands. Her nametag reads Constance and she hums tunelessly as she corrals the endless yards of fabric. Pam rummages in her purse and sets her credit card down on the counter with a click.
“Oh!” she says suddenly. “The shoes.” Jim glances down. She’s still wearing the loaned high heels, her own flip-flops back in the fitting room. She touches his arm gently. She’s still glowing, still giddy. If he were even more of a fool than he is, he’d think that giddy glow was because of him. “I’ll be right back,” she says, then hurries towards the back of the store.
"This is a lovely one," Constance says after Pam’s gone, tucking the skirt into the bottom of a garment bag. "Very flattering on her, I'm sure." She delivers the last to Jim with a wink and a grin.
"Very flattering," he agrees. He remembers how she looked in the dress, how beautiful. How beautiful she would look walking down the aisle. "It's really…it really is something on her." He must look like a moony, lovesick idiot, because Constance mists up behind her bifocals and presses one hand over her heart.
"Well, if that isn’t the sweetest thing,” she says. “We don't get many grooms in here to help choose the dress." She swipes Pam's credit card and hands it to Jim.
"Actually, I'm the flowergirl," Jim deadpans, his face completely serious despite the sick swoop of his stomach at her words. Oh right, the groom. Constance looks up at him, unsure. The receipt chatters up out of the printer just as Pam returns wearing her flip-flops. She signs the receipt and hands it back, looking curiously from Jim to Constance in the awkward silence.
"Well," Constance says finally. "Won't that be lovely."
"This was great," Jim decides. His words are remarkably clear for someone who lost count of the shots at his fifth. Mark barely even has to hold him up at all as they stagger through the front door of the apartment together. "We should do this more often."
"Yeah, roommate drinks were a great idea," Mark grunts. His shoulder hits the door frame with a thud. "So glad I thought of it."
"I doubt your sincerity, my friend, but that's okay because I'm drunk and so are you."
They maneuver to the couch and collapse in a tangle of arms and legs, scattering cushions and magazines everywhere. The house is a mess. It seems like neither of them is ever home anymore.
"We never hang out anymore, Mark," Jim says. He tips his head back and watches the ceiling dip and spin. "How come we never hang out?"
"Because you're always off doing secretive things and spending the night at undisclosed locations," Mark informs him. "And because I still work the night shift, just like I did the last time we went out for drinks and you asked me that question."
"Ahh," Jim says. "Right. It's all coming back to me now."
"I had a feeling it would. Besides, we were both home today."
"I fucked Pam in her wedding dress today." Jim didn't even realize he was going to say it and now it's out there, hanging in the air between them. It sounds horrible. Horrible and stupid. He wants to take it back. To wrap it up in duct tape and stuff it in an envelope and mail it to Abu Dhabi.
"I'm sorry, you're gonna have to back up the bus," Mark tells him. "You did what now?"
"Pam. I've been sleeping with Pam for months. She's been cheating on her fiancé and today she was trying on wedding dresses and I had sex with her in a fitting room." It's getting worse and worse the longer he talks. Especially when Mark’s expression changes from confused to horrified.
"Are you serious?" Jim just nods. "Dude," Mark says, aghast. "Dude. That's ridiculous."
"I know," Jim says. He doesn’t feel nearly so drunk anymore. He wishes he still did. Passing out wouldn’t be bad right about now.
"It's more than ridiculous, it's idiotic," Mark says firmly.
"I know." He does know. But having it confirmed by an outside source makes it even worse.
"It's ridiciotic, Jim," Mark says.
"You made that word up."
"Can you deny its accuracy?" Mark challenges, and Jim has to admit he can't. "I rest my case." Mark turns towards him more fully, punches him in the arm to get his attention. “Jim, you have to stop this."
"You keep saying you know, but I don't think you know," Mark tells him.
"Mark, you don't understand, she's-"
"No, man, you have got to stop this. You need to get the fuck out of here. Take the Stamford job, save your own life." His voice is urgent, his face is serious.
"Have you been watching Lifetime again?" Jim jokes, but Mark's face stays stony.
"I mean it, Jim," he says. "Don't do this to yourself."
"I can't leave her," Jim whispers. "But I can't stop her from getting married." He wants to make it a joke, but he can't. It's too real. His eyes swim. A lump forms in his throat.
"Please don't cry," Mark begs. "I'm too drunk for you to cry."
"Sorry," Jim mumbles. He rubs his palms into his eyes, hard enough that he sees swirling patterns of green under his eyelids.
"You can't make this work, Jim." Mark grabs his shoulder and squeezes it hard.
"I know," Jim says so quietly he can barely hear his own voice. "I know.”
“We should get to bed,” Mark says. There’s an apology in his voice. He lets go of Jim’s shoulder and pushes to his feet. “Come on, man, get some sleep. It’ll seem better tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I just need to do something first,” Jim tells him. He waits until Mark’s footsteps move up the stairs and fade down the hallway. Then he gets stiffly to his feet, unsteadily moves to his desk.
The email is still there, waiting. He opens it and types carefully, pecking out the words with his index fingers with exaggerated care. I’ll take the apartment. The deposit check is in the mail. Hits send. Then he takes the envelope in his hand and stands. The air outside is cold when he opens the front door. He’d toed his shoes off when he and Mark got home and now the cold of the pavement seeps through his socks. The mailbox down the street is rusty, it protests when pulls the handle. He holds the check poised over the opening, swaying slightly on his feet. This is probably not the best decision to be making when he’s had just about a whole bottle of tequila. Then again, without the tequila he might never have made it at all.
“Here goes nothing,” he says, and drops the check inside. Then he turns and makes his way back to the house.